Things Begin to Happen at a Faster Rate | Kara McMullen

Even before it started, the journey felt like a snake: something undulating and coiling and predatory. Later it felt like—nothing.

It began on a humid-thick and warm spring day with a woman sitting on the wagon facing west. She had just left Independence, Kansas, where a man had shouted at her on the street the night before and threatened to rape her. This was perhaps the reason for her nausea, for her sense that people were like cockroaches crawling across the earth, that progress itself was illusory and unreachable. As she watched the oxen pull the Conestoga—one of thirty-two in their train—she considered what brought her to this place. She was unmarried and emigrating to California with her parents, who’d seen an ad and succumbed to the fantasy of cheap land and open space and possibility. She felt no forward momentum, just the wheels spinning and the grass rustling. Mid-morning she went to the river and dipped a bucket into the tea-dark water. Wiping her sweaty forehead with her arm, she put her bonnet back on and walked through the tall grass. A cicada turned its noise on and off.

Beyond the perimeter of the wagon train things begin to happen at a faster rate; time speeds up, constellations whirl through the sky. Oregon becomes a state. Horses are ridden all over the place. Emily Dickinson puts on a white dress and retreats to her bedroom. In New York a woman becomes a doctor and people refuse to ask her advice about chilblains. A president poses for a photograph for the first time. Slavery drives the economy. Beavers die in great numbers to be turned into hats. Shoes shipped from Paris are the height of fashion and Mexico loses a war. The Lehman brothers arrive from Germany and start their business in Alabama. Then another war is over; slavery is illegal and sharecropping begins. In Vermont a child is born whose father survived a Confederate bullet through his bowels. Lincoln rides by in his train, a corpse.

In the wagon, things looked much the same. Clouds and prairie and sky. As they advanced westward, rumbling through Chippewa lands, she understood that they were marching towards certain destruction. The sun shone down as the men hunted and everywhere there was the smell of baking dirt, baking grass, acrid gunpowder, and burnt feathers. There was little for her to do but think. Always in front of them, nothing but empty space. Sometimes it seemed as though the sky was all there was. It changed as they moved through it, the pink of sunrise giving way to the dishware blue of midday and then the dark, the indecency of the stars. Soon her thinking was replaced by a spaciousness in her brain that felt like the sky and the grass but inside. People on the train contracted cholera and there was a hunting accident. The deaths began.

Elsewhere clocks are spinning even faster. There are massacres of Native Americans: Skeleton Cave, Buffalo Gap, Wounded Knee. Edison scribbles equations for something called electricity and the first World Series game is played. Children chase tires made from rubber that is imported from the Congo Free State of Africa. A new century starts. Wealth and oil accumulate differentially. Birds emerge from eggs, some with crooked beaks. McKinley is assassinated and in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, a plane takes flight. A boy in Iowa dies of tetanus. People gather for funerals wearing black and there are more wars to be fought. Books are published that provide women instructions for how to behave, focusing on what they must not do too much of: eat, talk, know.

The wagon train was now traveling through the Hidatsa Nation. The unceasing nature of the sky and the grass unleashed an animal feeling; she was increasingly aware of the intelligence of her body. She began leaving camp to walk alone, ignoring the disapproving glances of the other women. The landscape constructed itself in front of her: grass that rustled and dipped, small hills and slight depressions. Their train merged with another somewhere in Wyoming and she met Karl. There was nothing outstanding about him—he was of medium build and medium height, with medium brown hair—but she was drawn to his dry hands and his kindness, the way he rolled words around in his mouth like they were fresh raspberries. She no longer cared what people thought. One morning she followed him into a little hollow of land that must have sometimes held water. She lifted up her skirts and they had sex, fumbling and searching in the tall grass. After the haze wore off, she decided that this was what she wanted to do with her time.

As they move through their patch of prairie, the world beyond it changes. Women and African Americans can now vote. People like to look at flowers. Dance steps and jazz hands symbolize the frenzy of youth. Maya Angelou and Andy Warhol and Baddiewinkle are born. The Great Depression puts a damper on things for a while. Then water skiing is invented, Penicillin is invented, nylon is invented. The Holocaust sets a new bar for human depravity. Tubas are played in marching bands and cakes with buttercream frosting are decorated to commemorate special events. Dogs are given increasingly complicated names and directions for how to behave. A woman and her husband disappear from a farmhouse, leaving behind the table set for dinner. Plastic packaging is a new and exciting development. Napalm, tear gas, nuclear bombs. A man wonders if a machine could possess intelligence. Martin Luther King, Jr. leads the Montgomery bus boycott. In Denver, a chimpanzee rests a cheek against the cold bars of her cage. Birds fly back and forth across the sky.

The wagon train pressed on. Belongings—china teacups and oil portraits in gilt frames—were abandoned beside the trail to make the load lighter for the oxen. She stayed with the group even after her parents died of dysentery; she was accustomed, now, to this perpetual movement, this retrogression ever and always westward. Sitting next to the campfire, she did not ever think about fresh meat, about gnawing down to the bone, about the slipperiness of the tendons against her teeth. Further on, in Northern Paiute territory, the land was wilder and less hospitable. Buttes stood like tables against the horizon and hills were striped with purple. Strange plants grew here, plants that smelled and had spikes and were difficult for the livestock to eat. She and Karl snuck away from the wagon circle at night and listened to the coyotes as they also listened to their own heavy breathing. She wondered often about the transition between life and death—how a person could be there and then, the next moment, not. She had become more like herself than she ever thought possible.

Beyond the perimeter of the wagon train, mining operations leech heavy chemicals into the Columbia River system. Footsteps appear on the surface of the moon. Temperatures rise and ice melts. Indigenous women and girls go missing and are murdered at high rates. The price of popcorn at the movie theater becomes outrageous and dinosaurs grace the big screen. Border walls get constructed and the civil war in Syria keeps happening and escape rooms that people pay to be locked in are good for corporate retreats. A woman with MS can no longer feed herself but still roller skates through her dreams. People like linen sheets and expensive, handmade ceramic dishes. Meanwhile, children wear bulletproof vests to school and police keep murdering Black people and there is a blob of plastic in the ocean the size of a small state. A toddler becomes famous for going to the dentist. Basketball players have good style. Drugs are popular and illegal and then some of them are legal. Different kinds of animals go extinct. A lot of people get sick and many of them die and the world shuts down for a while. More death, more tear gas.

The wagon kept going. The weather turned cold and the cutoff that was supposed to save them time set them back further. She smelled like dry rot. Each day she still hoped that they would come to a river; every day there was only more land in front of them. One night she cooked beans silently, with nothing but her jutting cheekbones for company. After she ate, she got up and walked into the dark, without Karl. She wanted to be alone. The night was silent, her ears were ringing, and it felt as though the sound of nothing had become the sound of everything. She walked further into the everythingness of it, her body refracting behind. The stars wheeled and quivered and pulsed above her. The beginning felt so long ago.

Kara McMullen is a research scientist and writer currently based in Portland, Oregon. Her work can found in DIAGRAM, Entropy, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming from Frontera Literary Magazine and Quarterly West. More information can be found at