Writing Award - Ephemeroptera

3rd place in the 2004 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest in the Adult Article/Essay/Short Memoir

Background information

Mayflies belong to the order, Ephemeroptera.

Lacking mouth parts, adults are unable to feed and the mayfly will emerge from its juvenile state, reproduce and die within a single day.

Copulation occurs in flight. Males fly in undulating swarms that hover 15-20 feet above the ground. Females will fly into the swarm where they are quickly grabbed by a male. Following copulation, the female lays her clutch of eggs within minutes or hours.

Males die shortly after mating. A female normally dies soon after laying her eggs.



Peter Stekel

copyright 2009, all rights reserved


A whirlpool of mayflies spirals into the morning. They shine, back lit by a rising sun. Swirling. Cast about this way and that by competing winds - upcanyon, downcanyon. They are male looking for female, female waiting for male. With no mouth to eat with, mayflies are made for one purpose only.

The sky is an amazing shade of blue today. Michael and I are walking up the Tablelands, a cirque of granite two miles wide. Itís the first time we have seen other since the tenth grade. This trip was my idea and Michael agreed it was a good idea. I believe it is possible for friendships to go around in circles, like a Mandela or a Medicine Wheel.

Granite is white with chunks of black feldspar, shining flecks of mica and translucent quartz. The Tablelands are more reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum than the rest of where we are in the glacial Sierra Nevada. Rings of what could be risers gather and pull us up to the cheap seats. So, up we go, climbing over granite benches and through rivulets of soil clogged by sedge, aster and alpine willow.

We stop, admire the scenery and catch out breath. Weíre doing pretty well. My body still aches from the fall. The muscles work but the bones and spirit complain. Michaelís huffing and puffing attest to the fact that he hasnít hiked in years, if he ever hiked at all. He isnít fat as in high school but neither is he a rail. But heís game. Our backpacks arenít too heavy - weíll be out for three, maybe four days by the time weíre finished. The air is thin at eleven thousand feet but thatís OK too.

The closest trees are a thousand feet below. Foxtail pine or lodgepole pine. I canít say which because I forgot to check when I passed them. In university I learned a game called, "Freeway Botany," where the object is to identify woody plants from sixty-five miles per hour. You get good at it with practice. Iíve had none; and now, stationary or moving, trees all look the same to me unless Iím standing right under them.

Neither of us have spoken since leaving camp at the lake. If Michael is like me, he is thinking about the aluminum jar we carry. Every hour or so, since leaving the trail head, we have exchanged the honor of carrying the burden. At this rest break itís my turn. I take the jar and tenderly stuff it into my pack. It is good of him to share.

The breeze this morning is an autumnal breeze and I let it wash over me. Itís the kind of breeze that lingers, surges forward a bit, retreats until you think itís gone, but then returns for a final embrace - always with a hint of something else. An eddy swirls around my ear and I hallucinate, "Hello."

On cue, we shoulder our packs and walk. A cloud of grasshoppers rises from dried grass and rolls on ahead, their wings crackling and cackling like rattlesnakes. They settle and then rise again when we catch up. We chase them up to our destination - a hard pillar of rock skirted by decomposing granite, little different than a thick, sawed-off flagpole rising out of a sand dune.

The breeze has caught up to us and dances around, in and out. This is Ginger Rogers. I am Fred Astaire. Our last waltz.

We arrive at the place. To the east, Mount Whitney and the Sierra crest. South, the Kaweah Peaks group. North, the Kings-Kern Divide. Below, the Tablelands drop to unnamed lakes. Such a landscape! Country so wild, still, that no road can ever cross it.

Packs on the ground, Michael takes the urn from my hand. He hands me a small brass plaque and a package of epoxy. I mix the two tubes, apply a big glob to the rock pillar and an equal-size glob to the plaque and stick the two together.

I take a step back and quickly straighten the plaque - silently reading, Camilla Barker, 1950 - 1977, and then aloud the inscription, "She will always be in these mountains."

"OK," I say.

"OK," Michael says. He opens his sisterís urn, waiting for the dancing breeze. Here it comes. He turns slowly, then faster -faster, the ash spiraling out. It flies, flies, flies, flies...

"She would like it here," I say.

"I keep thinking of things to say to her," Michael whispers to the breeze.

"Too late," the breeze replies. "Too late."

I pull a quaich and a hip flask of fine, single malt scotch whisky from a pocket in my pack.

Michaelís eyes open a notch or two and he quickly says, "A toast to Camilla? She would like that."

I fill the quaich and offer it to Michael.

Michael raises the friendship cup to the mountains and to the space where his sisterís ashes have flown. "My father said that only sissies cry," he murmurs. He drinks the scotch, tears running down his cheeks.

A mayfly crests the ridge, followed by another. Then another. Flying west to east - east to west with the wind. The wind. The wind. There is freedom and quiet in the wind.

I want to listen to the quiet.

Raising my own moist eyes to track the mayflies, all I can see is sky.


The End


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This page was last updated on 04/07/2009



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