A Story of Drift, by Elise Carter


This story is so very old.

In 1915, German scientist Alfred Wegener proposed that the continents once fit together in one supercontinent he named Pangaea, the “universal world.” He said that as millions of years went by, the supercontinent broke apart, and the pieces of it moved away from each other in a rocky kind of wanderlust. Other scientists did not believe him; they thought the earth’s surface was fixed.

Years later, British geologist Arthur Holmes proposed that the interior of the earth is heated unevenly, causing convection cells to form in the layer underneath the earth’s crust. He said these convection cells powered the wanderlust from below by dragging and lifting and pushing the crust as the heat cells cycled beneath it.

Then scientists discovered through magnetization readings of very old rocks that each continent moves independently around the earth. Scattered readings in different locations showed absolutely that the continents wander alone.

And discoveries along the major ocean ridges revealed a constantly spreading sea-floor. New crust wells up at the ridges, and older crust is pushed farther away. The farthest, oldest ocean crust slides underneath the land crust at boundaries between the two. It will melt as it travels down below. It will eventually well up again.

So the theory of plate tectonics emerged in all of its interlocking cycles. The earth is a machine that can’t ever sleep. The Atlantic Ocean is, right this moment, widening, and cannot be stopped. This surface we live on is moving, submerging, renewing, aging, then dying, melting, lifting, colliding. The motion is relentless, grinding, unapologetic, like siblings cabined in a small house with nowhere to go. In another two hundred million years, there may be another Pangaea, and one day it, too, will break apart. The story will repeat, repeat.


When he met her, she was wearing overalls and had a tiny pine tree on her desk named Redwood P. Forest. She was young, skinny-fingered, and ebullient. He was older, with debts and childhood memories of watching German pancakes rise in the oven. He had amber eyes that turned gold in the sun. She had strawberry-brown hair that turned gold in the sun. When she smiled at him too easily during an Olive Garden lunch of salad and minestrone soup, he confessed that in high school, he wore green tights as he sang Christmas madrigals about wassail and holly.

He made her feel safe.

She made him feel seen.

He called her Lady e.

She called him Paisano.

He took her snowshoeing to see a waterfall where they both sipped water from a stream. He came to the piano recital where she furiously played Lecuona’s “Malaguena.” He ran with her in early morning darkness up trails curving into the mountains, and afterwards bought her pancakes and strawberries with cream. She sent him sunflowers when his father died. He sat next to her at her sister’s wedding. When he went to Africa, he brought her back a little glass bottle filled with Kenyan dirt. One Saturday, they drove in his sage-colored Jeep to four different nurseries in search of thyme, rosemary, and horseradish plants to plant in his backyard.

The years aged them. She became a single exposed nerve. She told him too many words. He became a cave system hidden underground. Sometimes he told her the truth.

It was love. It wasn’t love. It was enough. It wasn’t enough. He wanted her. He didn’t want her. He told her she was beautiful. She didn’t believe him. He left. He came back. He found someone else. She stayed. Over and over and over.

Until he married someone else.

He called her, two days before his wedding, to tell her he would always love her. She did not sleep for the next two nights. She also did not cry.

She knew she could not bring him back.

And, as she blinked slowly at the sticker stars glowing on her bedroom ceiling, she realized she did not want to.


“Maddi, honey,” I say, “how about we try that again, this time not at super speeds?”

I perch on the arm of the chair next to the piano as Maddi’s legs sway back and forth under the bench like she’s on a swing.

She grins. “Yes, teacher,” but begins the introduction just as quickly as before.

“Wait.” I hold up my hand. “Remember how we read the words of this song last week?”

She looks at me expectantly with round, blue-green eyes. Her fingers keep playing the notes.

“Scarborough Fair,” I say, drawing out the vowels to make her focus on my voice.

“Fair” becomes “Fah-eer,” and Maddi giggles, and I see her dimples, and I realize I’m thirsty, and then she finally stops playing. “This is a super old song, remember? From very old England. It’s one of those songs you need to know, because it is going to come up again in your life, I promise.”

She blinks once. Twice. She raises her right eyebrow.

“So,” I say, “read the words for me again?”

“Ok, teacher,” and she scoots back a little on the bench. “Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme; Remember me to one who lives there, she was once a true love of mine.”

“What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know. What do you think it means?”

I laugh and glance toward the vaulted ceiling.

“I think it’s about some man who loved some woman a long time ago, a woman who may not remember him, who he may never see again, but a woman he still remembers. I think he’s asking someone else to help her remember him.”

“Because he’s lonely and sad?”

“Maybe.” I tuck my hair behind my ears. “But the Fair—Scarborough Fair—means more to him, because of her. Because it was where they knew each other. And maybe the memories of the Fair are all he has left of her.”

I swallow, and look down at the speckled beige carpet, and pick up my water bottle, and watch as her legs stop swaying under the bench, and then I hear my voice say, softly, “It isn’t easy to have someone go, leave you.”

I look back up, back at her eyes, her eleven-year-old eyes, and my cheeks begin to feel warm.

“One question,” she says, holding up her index finger.


“Will I need to be in England to get this song?”

I smirk, shake my head. “Just try playing it again, kid, ok? Soften your fingers, think about the words, the emotion, what you are trying to say as you play.”

She sighs dramatically, but begins to play more slowly, her fingers more gentle on the keys, the wistfulness of the melody seeping out. She sings the words as she plays, her voice a little breathy, but sweet.

I stop myself from singing along.

I don’t tell her the rest of the lyrics. How the man asks the woman to complete impossible tasks he knows she can’t do, like sew a seamless shirt and wash it in a dry well. How completing these tasks is the only way she can be his true love again, which means she never will.

I don’t tell her that memory is fickle, triggered easily by that rosemary and thyme, by amber eyes and bright blue dress shirts and thick pancakes and Fresca bottles (like the one in my fridge I refuse to throw away) and that Chopin nocturne I won’t play, not yet, and a skinny bottle of African dirt I shoved into a corner of my closet.

I don’t tell her that being remembered is a treasure worth fording seas and capturing polar bears and lighting campfires during hurricanes.

I don’t tell her that being remembered will never feel like enough.

I don’t tell her there are a thousand, maybe a thousand-thousand, ways a heart can fracture and crack and sprain and collide and shatter and crumble and gash and rift.

I don’t tell her that in our hearts, there is a wandering Pangaea.

Maddi completes the final measure, speeding up characteristically in the end. I smile at her—at the pleased, hopeful expression in her eyes—but I suddenly feel old, a woman who stopped being a girl around the time she was born.

“Turn the page, honey. We’ve finished the song.”


Tomorrow, she will find a glossy, oversized postcard in her mail. It will be stacked between her mortgage bill and the latest issue of National Geographic. She won’t notice it at first, but then she will see his name printed on the back of it in large, white block letters against a red background. She’ll pull it out and sit on her carpet and hold it with both hands, silent, puzzled. When she turns it over, his eyes—those amber eyes she hasn’t seen in nearly three years—will look back at her from the printed photograph next to the contact information for his new job.

She’ll drop the card on her piano bench. She’ll shop for granola bars and toilet paper. She’ll shower, and put on deodorant that smells like pomegranate and fig. She’ll run. She’ll eat. She’ll drink another Mountain Dew.

And then she’ll type it out quickly, and push “send” before she can talk herself out of it.

“Congrats on the new job,” she’ll write. “Hope you are doing well.”

She’ll shut her laptop. She’ll leave the room. But she’ll lose her breath when, fifteen minutes later, he responds.

“Thank you, e,” he’ll write. “I think of you often and hope you are doing well. I really really do,” he’ll say.

And her fingers will type out a reply without her permission. “Thank you for the good thoughts and the words.”

Six minutes later he’ll respond, “Of course. You are still nothing but beautiful, e.”

And she’ll stare at those words for a minute, or maybe three, and she’ll imagine herself standing on a bluff above the ocean, squinting toward the direction he had drifted, and a long quiet ache will begin to murmur in her heart.


Today, she opens her eyes and sees Ollie’s furry head. A white stripe runs perfectly down the middle of it. He is beautiful. In the mornings, he looks out of her window like he is reading fortunes in leaves. In the evenings, he sleeps with tremor and sigh. He follows her from room to room like a trailing, tinkling remora. His eyes are gold. He is soft. He is the only living thing that is hers.

“Are you looking at me because you want a walk?” she asks, her words muffled by her pillow.

He jumps and stretches himself across her body, his back legs folded like a frog’s. His liver-colored tail wags, and his bottom lip quivers, and his eyebrows move up and down, left one, then right, left one, then right.

She sneaks a scratch behind his ears. He licks her chin, sniffs her cheek.

Ten minutes later, they’re outside, walking.

And at 6:30 am, it is already hot. Lonesome Dove or Grapes of Wrath hot. Her hair sticks to her neck. She can feel her freckles gaining. A girl across the street is running in bright blue tiny shorts, breathing like all the trees have burned. Ollie tries to drink sprinkler puddle water. The asphalt is too black. The sun is almost above the mountains.

Ollie nudges her leg with his long, freckled nose. He looks up at her with dark, enlarged pupils.

“You want a treat, little guy?”

Her fingers reach into her pocket.

She has finally discovered that she can love Ollie without that love completely destroying the barrier between the ventricles of her heart. He eats and drinks and prances and runs and cuddles and snores and looks straight into her eyes, and sometimes she can forget that she’s terrified his bad knee—the one that was broken and pinned back together after his first year—is going to spontaneously twist or he’ll land on it wrong, causing those pins to sheer off or dislodge or disintegrate. Sometimes she can forget that that one day she will be told by some lanky, toe-headed, too-tall veterinarian that there’s nothing more he can do. Sometimes she can forget that one day she will watch Ollie die, and that she will cry enough tears to fill the Panama Canal when it happens. Sometimes she can forget Ollie will leave her. Sometimes she can forget she will have to let him go.

Her story is so very old.


Elise Carter is currently studying law at the J. Reuben Clark Law School where she will graduate with her J.D. in April 2015. She is a Lead Note & Comment Editor of the BYU Law Review. Prior to law school, she taught piano, ran a few marathons, and kept waiting to grow into her cheekbones. This past summer, she was a scholarship recipient to the Norman Mailer Center’s creative nonfiction workshop. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but currently lives in Utah in a skinny house near the mountains. She still misses the fog.



  1. pendergrasts says:

    Very poignant. The plate tectonics backdrop shows the reader how powerful and mutable the relationships are for this narrator.

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