Spirit of Leah

2014 Short Fiction Contest - Runner Up

When a relationship ends and the heart is shattered into a million pieces, many turn to alcohol or one-night stands, or even Jesus. In "Spirit of Leah," the main character, named Leah, takes to building a haphazard canoe after her fiancé ditches her. Pushing her physical and spiritual limits, Leah journeys from rock bottom to a stronger sense of self. —LAURA JOHNSON

"Indiana? Wow, what brought you out to Spokane?" the General Store worker asked her.

Leah held back a sigh. It felt like the thousandth time she'd been asked that, and she still didn't have a good answer. She could tell the truth: Well, my fiancé, Jake, and I were supposed to move to Seattle after he kayaked down the Mississippi. Yes, I know, he's much more interesting than I am. But then he decided that kayaking down the Mississippi wasn't enough. No, after that, he wanted to move to Florida and work on a sailboat. Mind you, he doesn't have any sailing experience, but he found help-wanted ads on Craigslist, even for people without experience.

Seriously, Craigslist? She could just imagine the ad: "Mustached captain seeks male sailing hand 18–35 for trip to the Bahamas. No shoes, no shirt, preferred. No salary but free room and board and as much rum as you can drink. No experience necessary, but must be able to lift fifty pounds and have a flexible attitude and body." What could possibly go wrong besides everything?

Of course, I don't think he really even cares about sailing that much; he just needed an excuse to call off the wedding. So once that whole plan went down the shitter, I just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. Moving out of our apartment didn't seem far enough; I wanted to go halfway across the country. But I couldn't go to Seattle anymore.

And why couldn't she have still gone to Seattle? That's where she had really wanted to be. She loved Pike Place Market and the ferry rides and drizzle and all the green. But as soon as she and Jake had made plans to go to Seattle, it was as if she'd blown all the seeds off a white, fluffy dandelion. They were scattered all over the city now, and she could never tell when one would suddenly sprout up and remind her of him, until eventually the noxious weeds covered the entire city, staining her fingers yellow as she tried in vain to yank them out. No, Seattle could never be her city, because it was their city.

And so she'd ended up in Spokane instead. It was a city of transplants, perfect for her. Somehow people who were lost or broken in some way just seemed to find themselves here. For some Spokane became home; for others, it was just an oasis, providing a resting place to heal and grow, until they were strong enough to move on to someplace else.

So here I am now. In short, I thought I'd be able to run away from a broken heart, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. But I've always been a long-distance runner, not a sprinter, so just give me some more time.

This was the problem; she was a hemophiliac when it came to the truth. If she just scratched the surface, it all came pouring out, and it was hard to stop the flow. And just like blood, the truth was messy. Nobody wanted blood on their hands.

So she simply smiled at the kid, he must've still been in high school, and said, "I've always loved the Northwest—mountains and pine trees. Big change from flat cornfields." She actually loved her cornfields, especially in late summer when the stalks had dried to a brittle brown. Just before sunset, the fields would be bathed in a golden glow, as if the light were flowing up from the ground and not coming from above. The golden hour. She didn't know if she believed in God, but if he existed, that's what she imagined his smile would be like. But still, easier to pretend she hated the cornfields than to nick the truth and set off a rush of blood. Of course, there was nothing she could do to prevent the internal bleeding. The truth seeped through her entire being; it was as if everything inside had turned to one bloody, indistinguishable mess, barely held together by her skin.

Wanting to avoid more chitchat and questions, she told the boy that she didn't need any help. It took her twice as long to get everything she needed, but she liked the quiet. Finally she had it all: plywood, table saw, drill, polyester resin, cable ties, fiberglass tape, and varnish — everything she needed to build a canoe.

Before Jake had decided he wanted to go sailing, he had told her he was going to christen his kayak The Spirit of Leah.

She'd told him, "You can't name a boat after a person; they're named after places. You know, like the Spirit of St. Louis."

"That was a plane, not a boat," Jake had said.

"I know that. Lindbergh. But the idea is the same."

"But you are a place to me," he'd said, pulling her in close for a hug. "You're home." Then he'd kissed her, and she'd quickly given up the argument.

It wasn't like she'd really expected him to still name his boat for her after they'd called off the wedding, but when she'd found out he had instead named it Zulu, she'd been pissed. "He doesn't know anything about the Zulu," she'd complained to her mother. "He's a ginger, for God's sake. He gets sunburned when it's raining."

So now she was going to get her boat, even if she had to build the damn thing herself.

In hindsight, this was possibly one of her worst ideas ever, right up there with the time she'd entered a milk-chugging contest with her brother because he'd said boys were better than girls at chugging. But she'd already bought all the supplies, so she was committed. Once she said she was going to do something, she didn't back out.

After hours of YouTube tutorials, several bruised fingers and splinters, and what seemed like weeks of work, she had a ... "canoe." The whole thing looked a bit like a Christmas present that a two-year-old had wrapped. Fiberglass tape crisscrossed all over the hull, covering cracks and holes. For good measure, she'd also bought some putty and packed that into the gaps as well. It was far from pretty, but it was recognizable. She carefully carved Spirit of Leah into the bow and then applied a dark cherry varnish to the entirety. With that varnish she felt like a fairy godmother, transforming her sad, pathetic boat into a beautiful princess. Sure, she could still see all the cracks and imperfections, but those just gave the boat more character.

Two days later, she strapped her canoe to the roof of her Subaru and drove out to State Line. She'd originally planned on testing the craft on Lake Coeur d'Alene, but it hadn't rained in weeks, so the Spokane River was moving slower than a snail stuck in molasses, as her grandmother would've said. Since the waters would basically be equally smooth, she'd opted for the place with fewer people.

She untied the canoe and let it drop to the gravel parking lot near the river. She then drug the boat down to the water. Rocks scraped and clattered against the sides, and a group of college kids getting ready to go floating, with a separate tube for their full cooler of beer, paused their conversation to watch as she walked by. She ignored them.

At the water's edge, she waded out several feet, pulling the canoe with her. As soon as she got it past the rocks at the edge of shore and into the unrestricted flow of the river, the thing started taking on water. "No, no, no!" she shouted. She clambered inside, and the water trickled in faster. She cupped her hands together and splashed the water out as quickly as she could. She couldn't go fast enough, and as she grew frantic in her movements, she splashed as much water back into the boat as out. It was a losing battle, and she knew it. Despite the fact that the boat was a third filled with water, it was inching its way slowly down the river with the current. So Leah just sat there and decided to see how far she could get, paddling with her hands every once in a while to ensure she stayed near the shallow shore. Before too long, the boat sank low enough that the river cascaded over the sides in small waterfalls, until the canoe finally scraped against the riverbed and came to a stop. Total, Leah had traveled maybe twenty feet. She sat there and wanted to cry, but she couldn't feel anything except the cold water slipping over her skin.

"Hey, you need some help?" one of the college guys called out from shore.

She stared at him a moment and then shook her head. "Nah, I got it," she yelled. And once she said it, she was committed, so she had to figure out some way to "got it." So she stood up, flipped the canoe over, and, with a good deal of cursing, managed to drag it to shore. The thing was heavy to begin with, and now it was even heavier. This was Cinderella right after the ball, after she'd discovered there was so much more out there in the world—balls and princes and laughter and love. Yes, love. This was the Cinderella who had just realized how shitty her life really was compared to the rest of the world.

After getting the canoe strapped back onto her Subaru, Leah sat in her car, dripping water all over her seats. She hadn't thought to bring a towel. Hell, she hadn't even brought paddles. She hadn't really thought this through. Why did I even want to build that damn thing? she wondered. But she already knew why. Somehow this boat was supposed to stop the internal bleeding so that she could start slapping Band-Aids on. She had her Spirit of Leah, but still the truth was oozing inside of her.

In second grade, she'd cut open a butterfly chrysalis as part of a class project. In her mind, she'd always imagined a little worm inside, slowly growing wings, like a tadpole grew legs. So when she'd cut it open and found nothing but goop, her world had crashed down. She'd been quite the dramatic child. She had initially thought that someone had put the chrysalis in a microwave and nuked it. The truth had seemed even worse: the caterpillar had digested itself. But if Leah hadn't cut the chrysalis open, somehow from that caterpillar soup a butterfly would have pulled itself together. So maybe that's what had happened with her. She'd had to turn herself into a bloody, truth-soaked soup inside, barely held together by her chrysalis of skin, and now she could transform into something new, whatever she wanted. She didn't have to worry about any broken pieces, not even a broken heart, because she was mush; she was starting from scratch.

She wiped the river water from her face and started her car. She took the canoe home and took a hammer to it. She sawed the scrap wood down to twelve-by-eight-inch pieces, reapplied some varnish to the cut edges, and mounted all the pieces except one on her living room wall to create a floating bookcase. That's better, she thought. The one piece that remained was the piece in which she had etched Spirit of Leah. She painstakingly scratched out her name and replaced it with Jake. Then that piece went straight into the garbage. She was a person, not a place, and she didn't want a boat named after her.♦


Kelsey Adams lives in Spokane Valley. She works as a freelance editor and has previously won the Indiana University Ruth Halls Prize for Fiction and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Creative Writing Contest.

Dancing with Life: Mexican Masks @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through April 16
  • or