An Excerpt from “Disembodied”

Emily Withnall

An hour before the Mora County Commission meeting, the chair of the commission prepares her notes on the oil and gas regulation she will propose. Her audience will be a room of fragmented activists fighting to keep Shell out of the remote, northern New Mexico valley. In the next town over, I hold my infant to my chest and sob. The bruises around my collarbone form a shadowy necklace. Across the country, in Pennsylvania, a woman ignites tap water with a match for a crowd of journalists wielding cameras. In a magistrate courtroom in Albuquerque, the judge asks a woman if she has photos that reveal the black eyes her boyfriend gave her. Across the city in a federal courtroom, Judge Browning listens as Shell claims they are a disadvantaged and oppressed group suffering from injuries inflicted by Mora County. And in the infinite darkness that precedes time, Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and creation, slams her black feet into the earth until it shatters.


The way in is not always straightforward. Truth appears and disappears under cover. Doorways have to be found—or created. Definitions presented. Still, words do not breach the distance between what is and what can be known. Poetry and science surge from the same source, seeking what cannot be seen or felt, unearthing strata of significance buried within a single observation, or word. Differences between words blur. (Consider “tool” and “weapon.” Does the truth ever not hurt?) Language conceals as much as it reveals, a renewable resource of morphing meaning. Sometimes the only way to understand something is to assemble fragments and hold them up to the light.


hydraulic fracturing (fracking) n the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure, especially to extract oil or gas

force n coercion or compulsion, especially with the use or threat of violence

violence n exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse; undue alteration

domestic violence n violent or aggressive behavior within the home, typically involving the violent abuse of a spouse or partner

home n a place where something flourishes, is most typically found, or from which it originates


If destruction were always ugly, it might be easier to bring it to an end. But it often comes robed in light, singing catchy tunes, promises falling like ripe fruit from its pockets. Destruction can feel good at first, and even after the wreckage has become apparent, the promises might return, it might not be too late (for the earth, for me, for my daughters).\

But maybe I should confess? I’m like everyone else. I own electronics, clothing, appliances, and luggage made from plastics. I am appalled by the destruction wreaked by fracking, and yet, my house is heated with natural gas. I like being warm in the winter. Call it survival instinct. Dual dueling identifications with home and what it takes to survive: earth as home. Earth with its guts ripped out, scavengers salvaging what they can, while they can. And home, the structure turned upside down by cats and children, a home cozy and warm and protective from the snow and storms and summer sun. I like being comfortable. And I equate comfort with safety most times, as if the walls of my house or the surfaces of the earth can keep destruction out.

But what if the destruction is inside?

Usually after he hit me he’d break down crying. He loved me and the demons of his past were responsible. He was sorry. I was his goddess, and I had saved him. Then, there would be an opal set in gold. Or an emerald set in silver. And a spa date. I was worth it, I was worthy, I deserved those things. He’d purge his demons. He promised.


When Shell arrived in Mora County, New Mexico, the company wanted to buy up mineral rights and install their drilling rigs. Controversy ensued. Letters to the editor in the local newspaper ran daily. Some mentioned our decade-long drought. “Fracking is a heavy water-use industry,” one local wrote. “That water has to come from somewhere.” Others saw it as a gamble worth taking. “Personally, I welcome drilling on my property,” wrote one landowner. “I could use the money.” Fracking promised jobs. The jobs would help put food on the table. Survival instinct.


I live in a place where life is a gift, not a promise. In the spring, the wind whips off the Great Plains to scour San Miguel County, New Mexico. It buffets crumpled take-out bags among the spines of the claret cup cacti blooming on the ridges of the Sangre de Cristos. Across the interstate, it scrubs crimson dust from red rock mesas and polishes petroglyphs ancient inhabitants once etched onto the cliff-sides.

Juniper, scrub oak, cholla, yucca, and yarrow scatter the dips and pinnacles of the high mountain desert. Water here is scarce, and some say sacred. Ponderosas serve as guideposts along the trail to Hermit’s Peak, a mountain that soars above ten thousand feet, forty miles from the small town of Las Vegas. In the foothills, piñon needles carpet the forest floor and crackle under the heft of a bull snake’s coil. Its mimicked rattle is like yucca pods shaking in the wind.

Here, the sun blazes from a perpetually deep blue sky. In summer, it draws scents of vanilla and juniper from the trees. The people who emerge from this landscape are fired by the sun, and the wind carves wrinkles like arroyos into their flesh. Like the plants that grow here, the people thrust roots deep into the earth and absorb water in cautious, sparing drops. For a short time in late July, dark thunderclouds swell over flaking arroyo walls. The air almost seems to quiver with anticipation as the cold, pounding drops fill ravines and coax forth tiny, flowering life.

In autumn, wild sunflowers crowd the cracked and faded roadsides, and sweet red raspberries ripen on bushes under gnarled crab apple trees. The robust, earthy aroma of roasting green chile saturates the air and provokes communal longing. Ancient cottonwoods on the valley floor tower above the thread-like Gallinas River, and their leaves flutter in gusts that ease the sun’s heat. Cicadas cling to their branches, rasping requiems as the nights cool toward winter.

If “home” is a place where things flourish, I wonder what passes for flourishing in this landscape. Is survival enough?


It happened the first time at around ten o’clock at night. The hallway was dark, and Amara, nine months old, was sleeping on the bed. Nursing her to sleep had taken almost an hour, and I had crept away slowly, trying not to step on the squeaky floorboards. She was a silent, wide-eyed baby who never wanted to miss anything.

I don’t know how the fight started, whether I said something to upset him, or whether he began to interrogate me. He was jealous of my poetry professor, and he accused me of dressing provocatively and of being flirtatious. In truth, I was growing to like my professor more all the time. Not in the way he feared I did, but because my professor was kind. This man in front of me in the dark hallway—I didn’t know who he was.

I began to cry after a time, at first quietly, then louder and louder. Tears dripped steadily onto my collarbone and spread down my shirt. The more I cried, the angrier he got. His accusations mounted. I was a cheat and a whore. He yelled in my face, his voice hammering like a sudden monsoon across my skin. I babbled and denied, but my words only exasperated him. When he smacked me across the face, my skin had been primed for it, but his hand didn’t sink into my flesh the way his words had. It was a hard physics lesson, the consequence of one solid object hitting another. I heard faraway bells ringing. Bells that rang only for me. The dark hallway became elongated, stretching and stretching toward the distant living room. The streetlights’ faint orange glow outside the window appeared as though at the end of a tunnel. I wondered, with fleeting curiosity, who was screaming. The sound was piercing. It could wake Amara. The bells rang on, and on. He grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “Shut up, shut up!” His voice was the thunder of a retreating storm, his eyes switchblades.

I startled to silence and wrapped his loathing around me like a silk cloak.

. . .

Read the rest of this essay by purchasing a print or digital copy of the Sept/Oct 2017 issue here.

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