Emily Wortman-Wunder is an essayist and fiction writer, with recent work in the Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, Nimrod, High Country News, and elsewhere. “Not a Thing to Comfort You,” winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, is her first book. She teaches scientific writing at the University of Colorado Denver.
The following is an excerpt from “Not a Thing to Comfort You.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards winner for Short Story Collection
“The Endangered Fish of the Colorado River“
Colorado pikeminnow. Ptychochelius lucius. Slender, cylindrical, with an endless body and a long, pointed snout. Once so abundant it was the poor man’s meat, it was devastated by dams and invasive species. Predicted to go extinct in my son’s lifetime but, as it happened, outlived him.
Once the fish grew big as deer and filled the rivers so thickly you could hear them swimming from shore. So say the old timers, at least, the ones who gave it its first name: the squawfish. Even into college, Max would call it that, to needle me—“You and your mamby pamby PC pikeminnow,” he would say slyly—but also, I think, he just loved that name the best. The way it squawks off the tongue, two brash syllables to the prim mouthful of what we call it now. I secretly agreed, despite its history, despite the misogyny and racism twisted into it like runoff in a river. The squawfish always felt like my fish: the subject of my senior project, my master’s thesis, my early years of fieldwork; I was working on the squawfish when I met the engineer. In the long dry years after Max was born the fish was renamed the Colorado pikeminnow, but that name always felt like it belonged to someone else. Perhaps what Max always accused me of was right: I wanted to turn back the clock.
Max as a baby was gummy, devoted, irresistible. The way his starfish fingers reached out to grab my eyes, the way he grunted as he nursed, the way he crawled into bed with us in the middle of the night, all the way into kindergarten. The way he adored Russian fairy tales and colored pencils and baby birds. The way he would line up all of our shoes, pair after pair, curving over the sill and out the door. All of this, and I still felt the pull of the river like an undercurrent of despair. I thought I would never be able to leave him, until I did.
I was an inappropriate mother from the start. Squawfish, I explained when Max was way too young, means, roughly, cuntfish. Trash fish. Fish as easy to reap as the tribal women; like them, though, it held something of itself in reserve. Given half a sandbar and a bit of flood, the pikeminnow made its comeback as stealthy as a woman slipping back into her old haunts. Like me.
This was the story of my life, the one for which I thought Max would eventually forgive me: left my dream job to marry an engineer, had his baby, lived a sensible decade buried in the suburbs and then, against all odds, clawed my way back to work with the pikeminnow, its resurgence mirroring my own.
Bonytail chub. Gila elegans. A large cyprinid fish of the Colorado river, growing up to two feet long and reproducing rarely, if at all. Like most desert fish, it is dark above and pale beneath, hidden in both directions. Tail so thin and bony that even nine-year-old Max could grab one in his hand and hoist it from the water.
“How come we never find any little ones?” he asked, and long before I finished telling him about dams and age classes and functionally extinct he had wandered off, bored of me already. “I’m still talking,” I yelled after him. He shrugged as he disappeared into the sage.
His boredom was a weapon, a silent protest against how I made him come to Utah every summer as part of the custodial agreement. “The river is the world as it ought to be,” I’d tell him. He would sit shotgun in my pickup and not say a word for 362 miles, as we drove up out of the city, across the mountains, and down into the desert. As soon as we hit camp he would slip away, liquid and alive; he’d chase lizards, pocket arrowheads, and throw rocks endlessly across the water, enjoying it the way I hoped he would. But the instant he caught me watching he’d go sullen.
I spent my off hours straightening his Scooby Doo sleeping bag, rigging the Dutch oven so that we could make pizza on the fire, loading him up with ring pops and firecrackers and s’mores. Still, one mistake and he’d be bitterly against me. “You care about your stupid fish more than me,” he’d say, kicking at the fire. “That’s why I love Dad more than I love you.”
“Did you put him up to this?” I once demanded of my ex, near tears. Through the phone I heard him push his woodworking goggles to the top of his head and sigh before he answered. I could picture the soft sweaty dents beneath his eyes, the sharp smell of cut wood, the way he’d brush the sawdust from his beard before answering, and I had a wave of longing so acute it almost knocked me down.
I could hear him carefully distancing himself from his bitterness. My fault, I knew, but I refused to allow myself regret. The fish had no use for patio projects, soccer games, vegetable gardens or the-game-on-Sunday life, and I had chosen the fish, or what was left of them.
“Max is just a kid,” he said at last. “This is about him being nine.”
Nine, ten, eleven, twelve: every year I hoped that this would be the one Max learned to love the river, love camping, love me. Instead he perfected the art of the preteen pout. He dropped my gear into the water, my clothes into the fire, my food into the sand. He ran away when I got out the sunscreen and then howled in pain and rage when his back was too raw to sleep. I told myself this was natural; I told myself he would grow out of it. I told myself the nights of sobbing would be worth it in the end.
What Max loved instead was his Gameboy and the bunk bed his dad had built him back in Denver; his TV shows, Domino’s pizza and sushi. He loved telling me about all of the things he did with his dad, and all of the things that I did not do, or was doing wrong, or would never understand. “You just don’t get me, Mom,” he said, in a world-weary imitation of something he’d heard on TV.
“Nor you me,” I snapped back.
The bonytail chub, like all cyprinid fish, has a sensory organ other fish don’t have. In the end, it was like I sensed the river with an organ that Max and my ex did not possess. I loved the sweat, the stink, the river’s algal pull; the slime of the fish, the alkali of the salt flats on either side, the ancient sandstone stained with iron; the ruins, the petroglyphs, the hidden canyons hung with vines. It mystified me that they didn’t love it, too.
Now I sit alone in my camp chair after dusk, my daily notes fallen to one side, the tang of DEET keeping the mosquitoes at bay. The air shifts and a breeze pulls along the canyon, bringing the scent of nylon tent and my dinner, a can of maple baked beans cranked open and eaten cold. I once assumed the river was vast enough to be my everything. Now that it is all I have, I find that it is not.
Humpback chub. Gila cypha. Evolved to swim the fast waters of the desert river and specialized to breed only in water warm to the touch. Possesses a distinctive swollen hump just above the head. Almost entirely scaleless; back is greenish gray, sides silver, belly white.
The Humpback Chub has thrived in the recent drought, even as other species have suffered and declined. My colleagues cheer and roar into my winter office with grins as wide as the beers they buy to celebrate. I go along, I chink beer neck to beer neck; I even, when called upon, make speeches about persistence and science and learning to let natural systems do their work.
I believe all that, but the last conversation I ever had with Max lingers in my ears. “A couple of fish, Mom?” he said to me, tapping salsa from his chip, his carpentry-calloused pinky curved delicately toward me, as if defining the space he was going to need. “Four fish? That’s why you walked out on Dad and me?”
“I never walked out on you,” I said, my own burrito ashes in my mouth. That was two months before his car failed to negotiate a curve and rammed into a tree, and I never had a chance to explain it further.
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I worked for you, I would have said, so you can have a richer world, and he would have rolled his eyes. “Things change,” he might have said. “You can’t stop time, you know.”
For so long, I lived upon my certainty. But now I doubt. When I think of the recovery of the Humpback Chub, all I can remember is how by the end Max and I had almost made it. There were lunches, texts, and phone calls; he talked of making a trip to try the rock climbing spots near my old field camp. But as if on cue I put the fish between us every time. “Aren’t you even a little bit glad you got the chance to grow up in God’s own paradise?” I once asked him, teasingly.
He considered it carefully, the way he did everything, rubbing the bridge of his nose with the knuckle of his thumb. “Utah made me what I am today,” he said at last, “So I give it that. But what I remember was not a paradise.”
Razorback sucker. Xyrauchen texanus. Distinctive flat bottom and humped back; will grow to a meter long and look like it swallowed a boat. Oliveaceous brown above and pale yellow beneath. Smooth.
The Razorback was Max’s favorite fish. Even on the sulkiest days of his teen hegemony, he would pop up in a moment if we had a razorback in the nets and come over from where he was grumping on the shore about not having service for his phone or not having pizza in camp for dinner. He’d crouch, walking on the slick stones in his sandals as if born to it, his gray eyes intent on the prize, his growing shoulder blades blistering beneath the desert sun.
Once in college he came along on a survey day. “I still think you ecofreaks are just afraid of change,” he said, stooping over the net while his breath blew out in frosty clouds, “But if I had to save one thing from 1872, I think I would reach in and rescue this.”
The sudden resurgence of the Razorback in 2014 shocked everyone and made wildlife headlines all around the world; no matter how far the news traveled, though, it would never find its way to Max. I whispered it to the air instead. They found some little ones, Max, I said. In nine of 47 sites. The highest return in years.
I even made a pilgrimage back to the city, visited the gravestone with its strange clean edges. I stood under the puny hybrid maple tree and leaned in close, but when I opened my mouth, other words came out, raging and lost against the wind. “This is change, Max,” I whispered. “This is change.”
The wind whipped my words away.
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