Whirling Disease

by Kelly Sundberg
(Originally appeared in The Denver Quarterly Vol. 49, No. 3)


We piled into a car, four girl-women in our early twenties, a tent, a cooler full of food, and plastic baggy full of magic mushrooms. The car wound along the tight curves of the river, canyon walls rising sharply on either side, sunlight filtering through the glass.

We stood in the middle of a stream, skirts tucked up around our waists, passing a fly rod between us and casting a line. The line flicked forward, hesitated gracefully in an arc before landing softly on the water. The cold stream funneled around us. We broke the arc of that glassy water. A silver glitter danced by my feet. A trout. It broke the surface, creating a circle on the smooth water, radiating into more circles, then slipping away soundlessly.

We stood on a mountain; the valley stretched below us. More mountains in the distance. The winding stream now just a thin black line. We took photos of each other. Our hair blew in the wind while we leaned forward. Blue Idaho sky stretched endlessly behind us.

We arrived at the hot springs, a large, deep pool shimmering at the base of one of those mountains. We set up our tent. We ate our mushrooms, stuffing down the chalky, earthy harshness. We went for a hike to the place my friend called the “womb of mother earth.” We bushwhacked through greenery—no trail in sight—how had she found this magical place? We stood under a jagged white rock that formed a cave around us. We reached out and touched each other’s faces, the light softening the edges of our fingers.

We found the “womb.” We giggled. My friend told me to press my face to a rock and let the water run over me like the slick back of an otter. I pressed my face to the mossy rock. The warm water formed a pocket around me. I breathed in steam while the water rushed over my head. I opened my eyes. The rock teemed with life. I gasped. Bugs crawled over each other. A white bulbous spider munched on a fly. I wasn’t afraid, but I shivered.

Steam filled my lungs, the heat expanding in the red inside me. I pulled away gasping.

We giggled our way back to the spring, the sky darkening around us. There were other people there: a couple from Vienna and a pilot named Bob from Wisconsin. We shed our clothing on the way to the water, leaving a trail behind us. Even my modest friend timidly took off her shirt. We slipped into the warm water, floating on our arms. The man from Vienna danced around the spring playing his harmonica. He, too, was naked.

Bob said, “Why the hell not?” and off came his suit.

The sky opened up above me, stars stretching into another silvery veil. I floated on my back. “Isn’t it beautiful?” I asked Bob. “It’s like a sequined, black party gown stretched out above us.”

I closed my eyes. The water around me reached up and met the sky. The glittery stars twinkled in the darkness around me. “It’s like we’re floating in space,” I said.

Bob stared at me in wonder. “I want to be where you are,” he said.

At least that’s what I heard. More likely, he said “I want to be on what you’re on.”

In the distance, I heard branches breaking. Men rounded a corner on the trail, silver beer cans in their hands. British tourists who had just gotten off of a river trip.

“Girls!” they shouted, shedding their clothes and running into the water. We smiled and moved over. We made room in that pool.


My first love was a big, beautiful alcoholic who sometimes raged at me when he drank, who sometimes cried in my arms, and who sometimes held me tenderly.

I took him to the hot springs, my special place, a year after that magical night. We spent the entire day there alone, swimming, picnicking, and sunning on towels by the spring. He told me how beautiful my hometown was, how beautiful I was, how much he loved me, how he wanted to spend his life at that pool with me.

He drank too much wine. Or whiskey. I can’t remember. Always one or the other.

On the drive back, he pulled over and parked near the place where my friends and I had cast that beautiful fly line into the clear water. We made love in the back of his truck. He was older than me, more educated than me, wealthier than me. I had so much to learn from him. I was a good pupil.

When he left me, I stopped eating, stopped sleeping, grew smaller. I wanted to be so small that I could disappear. I wanted to hide my head on that slick rock by the hot springs, let the water wrap around me and return to that magical womb.


After the alcoholic, I loved a fish biologist. We hiked into a clean, mountain lake. He cast a fly line into the clear water while I sunned on a rock, reading Edward Abbey. He didn’t catch any fish. I came up behind him, wrapped my arms around his waist. I pointed at the water.

“There’s one,” I said.

He sighed. “That one has whirling disease,” he said. “It can’t stop spinning. It will eventually spin itself to death.”

“That’s so sad,” I said.

I saw it then. The useless spins. The loss of control.

That night, I awoke in my sleeping bag, and my lover was gone. I unzipped the tent and found him outside, sitting on a flat rock, staring into the distance. I wrapped my legs around his waist, laid my head on his shoulder, and we watched that still water together. A fat moon hung above us, the stars stretched into a silvery veil. The fish spun hopelessly below us.



I met my husband in a bar. He danced with my best friend. She pulled down his pants as a joke, and he kept dancing in his boxer shorts. He made me laugh.

I wanted to know him better.

Then, the baby came.

The baby split me in two. I screamed at the final moment, as the yellow line on the monitor reached its peak, then my flesh ripped. Relief. The baby slipped onto the table, slick and red. And crying.

Was I crying? I can’t remember.

I remember my husband crying. And smiling. The nurse brought the baby to my breast, laid his skin against mine. My husband couldn’t stop crying.

My husband later told me that, when he saw the pain I was in, he couldn’t stand it. He knew things about himself that I didn’t know yet. He wanted to tell me. There was so much he wanted to tell me. He was so, so sorry.

But I didn’t know any of this while my baby rooted at my chest. I only knew that feeling. I only knew my husband’s eyes, so full of love and hope, and something that also looked like guilt, but I didn’t yet know what guilt looked like.


When the baby came, I didn’t yet know that my husband would go fishing when his rage overcame him. He would never catch any fish. I would make fun of him for bait fishing when fly fishing seemed so much more elegant. I would make fun of him for never catching any fish.

This would become a joke for us.

But also, I would sob while he was gone. I would wonder if he was coming back. I would wonder if he was even fishing. I would know there had been other women.


Desperation clawed at my insides. Desperation sliced me open at the gills.


When the baby came, I didn’t yet know that, years later, I would call my dad from my computer because my husband had broken my phone in a rage. I would cry, “Dad, he beat me up.” My dad wouldn’t know what to say. My dad wouldn’t know what to do. He lived over 3,000 miles away. He didn’t know what to do.

When the baby came, I didn’t yet know that, on the same day I called my dad from my computer, my husband would get so angry that he would hurl his own phone into a river. And because neither of us had a phone, his mother emailed me a few days later to tell me someone had found his phone in the water. It still worked. I was so angry that his phone still worked. But mine was broken.

Mine was still broken.


When the baby came, I didn’t yet know that my husband and I would dance while the baby slept upstairs. I wasn’t a very good dancer, and he was worse. We stumbled over each other’s feet, but we kept trying.

I remembered dancing with another man before I met my husband. That man spun me with such strength and precision that my footwork felt effortless. We spun in circles, glittery lights above us that looked like stars. We whirled underneath a ceiling that looked like the sky.


When the baby came, I didn’t yet know that I would soon be fighting my own impulse to spin. I didn’t yet know what it felt like to be helpless.


The knife slices into the silver gills, exposes the pink meat underneath. Do fish feel pain? Do their shocked eyes look at us and beg us to stop right before the knife pierces their flesh? Or are they simply relieved to have it over with?

I am using the fish as a metaphor because fish are the most useless of animals.


When the baby came, I didn’t yet know that my marriage would end with a 911 call. I had a new phone by then.

I didn’t yet know that I would finally do it. I would dial the final 1 in the sequence of numbers that changed my life.

When the baby came, I didn’t yet know that my husband would leave me in handcuffs, but he would want to come home.

I didn’t yet know that I would stare at our wedding photo for a long time, wondering what to do. In the photo, I was smiling, hopeful. He looked so young. His eyes were so kind. When that photo was taken, I didn’t yet know what his contempt looked like. I only knew his kindness.

I remembered when the fish biologist had given me a framed photo of himself. In the photo, he knelt by a cold, clear river. He held a silver steelhead in his hands. He was smiling. I returned the photo after the relationship ended, but I regretted it. I missed his image.

I remembered another photo of the alcoholic smiling at me from the spring, only his head above the clear water. I kept that photo, tucking it into the back of an old photo album. My husband would not have liked it if he had known.

I knew that the hot spring was gone. A forest fire burnt over it and filled it with ash. It was a different fire from the one that had killed a friend only a few ridgelines away. He was a smokejumper. He had tried to run, but the fire was too swift. When they found his body, his fire blanket—silver and steely—lay uselessly next to him.

When the baby came, I didn’t yet know that my husband would want to come home after the arrest. That I would let him back into my home for two more days. That my husband would not change, but I would.

I would finally say no.


In the summer, after the baby came, we went to Dagger Falls on the Salmon River where the salmon jump. They are called Dagger Falls because of the sharp black rocks that poke out of the frothy white water. I had once found an arrowhead at Dagger Falls, black obsidian carved into a sharp point. I pocketed it, even though I shouldn’t have. I should have left it where I found it. Take only memories. Leave only footprints.

I tried to take part of that wilderness home with me, but I lost it.

I thought of that as I stared at those falls. Maybe it had been karma. Maybe I had lost the arrowhead because I never should have tried to take something that didn’t belong to me.

I didn’t think I deserved to have anything beautiful in my life.

The salmon sprung out of the water. They hit the rocks with loud thwacks It must have been painful. Some of them found the right route—natural steps built into the falls that they could navigate—but some of them did not. One of them kept flopping back into the water, shocked for a moment, then sprung back up and jumped again. Hit the black rock again. Fell again. And again. And again.

It couldn’t help itself. It couldn’t change its nature.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” I asked my husband. “The persistence?”

“But aren’t they just returning to the place of their birth so they can die?” he asked me.

I stared at that fish, fighting for its right to die. “I guess so,” I said. I thought of my former lovers, of how much it had hurt when those lovers had left me, of how I hadn’t let go of that hurt until I met my husband, of how I’d hoped that when we married, it meant I would never have to hurt like that again. I looked at my husband and felt that we wouldn’t be married forever.

I held my chubby baby in my arms. He smiled at me and reached his little hands out to touch my face. The water raged below us, and for a moment, I wanted to jump. I wanted to jump in.

I smiled at my baby, holding him up above the water, so that he too could see the salmon jumping, their silver and red bodies glinting like blades. My baby laughed. I held him tightly. I wouldn’t let him go. I might jump, but I wouldn’t take him. I wouldn’t let him be swept into those waves with me.


Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Guernica, The Rumpus, Mid-American Review, The Los Angeles Review, Slice, and elsewhere. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and her memoir is forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2017. More of Kelly’s writing, both personal and literary, can be found at https://kellysundberg.com/.


Filed under Nonfiction

2 responses to “Whirling Disease

  1. suegranzella

    This writing swept and carried me along in a masterful way.

  2. I’m glad you write.

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