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Shock on the Salton Sea

From a distance, it is beautiful. A sparkling blue body of water in the blazing hot California desert. Mountains in the distance. Date palms.


The shoreline is white, but it’s not sand you crunch beneath your hiking boots (this is no beach for flip-flops), but barnacle shells and fish vertebrae, skeletons exo- and endo-. This is a beach that will cut you. Hold your breath; it stinks of history.


Improbably, this salty sea, which is actually a lake saltier than the Pacific Ocean, once teemed with Tilapia, a freshwater fish from Africa. It should not shock, now, all those shriveled white fish skulls littering the bony, deserted, desert shoreline that is, from a distance, beautiful. But it does shock.


The barnacles arrived as stowaways in boats and seaplane ballast tanks, back when war came to the desert, but just pretend. B-29s dropped dummy bombs, full of concrete and a belief in the greater good, aimed for a white dot in a sea of blue. They dropped a Little Boy dummy and practiced fleeing the consequences.


In Hiroshima, the light flashed white, white as bleached barnacles and bones and a white raft floating in salt. White as the absence of light.


Seaplanes and bombs and barnacles do not belong here, but what are invaders to a sea that was never meant to be? An accident of human miscalculation and nature. A rift lake, settled into faults.


Like most living things, the sea will struggle to remain—until, finally, we recoil from the farce, surrender our illusions and regret to the desert, which always has the last word.


From a distance, it will be beautiful.


Susan Rukeyser’s creative nonfiction appears in journals including River Teeth, Mom Egg Review, and Hippocampus Magazine, where she won their inaugural Remember in November contest. Her debut novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying, was published by Twisted Road Publications. A prose chapbook, Swap / Meet, came out from Space Cowboy Books. In 2018, Susan published 35 contributors in Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology. Find her in Joshua Tree, California, where she hosts the monthly Desert Split Open Mic.

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