NONFICTION: A Map for Living by Elizabeth Amon

Bleached bones, picked clean by a lion, are left to bake under the East African sun, says the reedy-voiced British narrator on the nature film I watch from beneath a mound of covers. The abandoned bones stop the elephant matriarch in her tracks. She raises her trunk to trumpet a call of distress across the plain, lamenting the death of one once part of her herd. Elephants can remember more than 200 individual, extended family members and recognize them by smell or call, as well as sight. An elephant never forgets. From my sickbed, I watch the matriarch fondle the remains, picking up and gently placing first one, then another abandoned rib on the cracked earth. And for a moment, I’m there too, shifting under the scorching sun on the parched Savannah, the poisonous mass in my breast forgotten. The matriarch’s retinue of female dependents circle—sisters, daughters, nieces, cousins—watching, waiting for her next move. Her trunk curls and quivers, probing for a lingering scent. Gradually, the other elephants join in her mourning. Some pace and stomp, raising copper dust in a swirl between wilting shrubs. Others stretch their trunks to comfort each other with a stroke or a nudge. Each, in turn, pats and pets the skeleton, sending off the dear one with a last embrace.

When I resurface from a dreamless hole of sleep, the elephants are splashing on a riverbank. Elephants can swim for hours, as far as thirty miles a day, their powerful legs paddling under the water as their trunks rise above the surface like a snorkel, says the British narrator. The babies nudge each other and fall in the mud as the matriarch wades nearby, cooling herself with a spray of water from her trunk. Others graze along the river’s edge, gliding out to the deeper areas to hunt the most tender shoots, swish-swishing their bounty in the water before consuming the gold-green grasses. They remember detailed paths across hundreds of miles of arid plains to return to familiar life-sustaining watering holes, maps that hold the key to their survival. An elephant never forgets. And neither does my body. I crave the water too, but radiation has left my skin red and cracked, like fissures in a desert, vulnerable prey for invisible infections. I’m banned from it all. No lakes, oceans, or pools. When I drift off to sleep again, I dream of floating in the before-world, swimming through the winter of my gestation to emerge as an infant from the soup of my mother’s belly, slick, bones still supple. Bright childhood summers spent riding the salty Atlantic waves, dreams accompanied by their rocking motion. The fluorescent-lit, chlorine-scented pool of my teenage years, where I dove from blocks at the crack of the starter’s gun, the cheers loud in my ears with each breath, then quiet as I sank below the surface with each pull. And, most recently, quiet mornings on the lake before work with my usual crew, eagles above and Mount Rainier as our beacon, as we pace out and back.

Months later, the scar on my breast is one more path across my body, like the one along my abdomen from which my daughter came forth. The radiation burns have faded but aren’t gone; my bones are weakened but still hold my skeleton tall. I am better. And I can finally return to the water. My small family spreads a blanket for a lakeside picnic, our extended relatives quarantined by the pandemic. I braid my daughter’s hair, weaving the strands of gold and brown into a strong bond. My husband serves us sweet summer salads of baby lettuce, radishes, cherry tomatoes, and garden peas. We wade into Lake Washington, teetering and holding each other as we step on rocks half-buried in the shallow waters of the mud-bottom beach. When my husband and daughter propel their donut-shaped floaties into deeper waters, I tie mine onto theirs and push myself away, toward the mountain in the distance, still snowcapped even in July. I skim across the water, avoiding the scratchy reach of the milfoil stretching from the murky bottom toward the sun, never breaking the surface. In the water, I am free from the weight of my body, once made heavy by cancer cells multiplying beneath my skin. My mind unfurls, shedding worries as I glide with speed and pleasure up the tree-lined bank of the lake. Tiny, blurry fish dart among the wobbly green underwater flora. I am the connection between the world above and the one below.

An elephant never forgets. And neither will my kin. Swells sent by a distant motorboat wash over me and lift me across the surge. I relax into them, riding the crests and gullies, before circling back to my family on the shore. When it’s my time, I hope my loved ones will gather ’round my bones too—sisters, nieces, friends, husband, daughter. My ashes falling from their fingers to this water. My memory damp on a cheek, until it slips into the gentle ripples below. Gone, but not forgotten.

Elizabeth Amon is an award-winning journalist and writer based in Seattle, where she loves to swim, walk her dog, and read. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in the literary journals River Teeth, Under the Gum Tree, Watershed Review, and New Millennium Writing, among others. She’s currently a fellow in the BookEnds Novel Program. A journalist for more than a decade, with work published in The New York Times, Bloomberg News, and The Imprint, she currently works as a public health communications professional. Connect with her at, @eliza_amon or @amonwriter or find out more at