Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

SUBMIT: May 1 through June 2, 2024 | READING FEE: $15


Where the River Makes a Noise

TaraShea Nesbit
| Essay


Laura Fermi remembers her husband returning from Chicago to New Jersey with bronchitis. Upon his return, she hosts a party. She spends the day planning the appetizers, the dinner, the drinks, though she forgets to buy cigarettes. As the guests arrive, everyone says congratulations to Enrico as they stomp in with their snowy boots. Laura doesn’t know why he is being congratulated. She asks the only woman scientist close to her husband, Leona. Surely she’ll be nice. Leona says, “He sunk a Japanese boat,” and laughs. Atom, from the Greek atamos, “that which cannot be cut up.”

That evening of the first chain reaction in Chicago, Compton, one of the lead scientists on the project, calls the National Research Search Committee. Compton:  The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.

Conant:  How were the natives?

Compton:  Everyone landed safe and happy.9


General Groves, the newly appointed leader of this bomb project and the man who engineered the making of the Pentagon, visits the scientists in Chicago to discuss who will build the industrial-scale nuclear reactor. The scientists dislike the chosen company and say they can build it on their own. Groves says that while he doesn’t have a PhD, he did have ten years of formal education after entering college, which, he declares, is the equivalent to two PhDs. DuPont is the builder. Now the military can recreate these results on a large scale for the world’s most powerful bombs. But where? Someone suggests near Washington, D.C., for its proximity to the ocean, for how quickly the radiation will be diluted within a larger body of water. To make this military industrial complex, they’ll needs lots of fresh water to cool the reactions. They’ll pump the water back where the water came from: river, lake. They are not yet sure what radioactive drinking water will do to humans. But Marie Curie and other scientists have died from the unharnessed energy of atoms. So might the public. Therefore, D.C.’s close to too many people (and the government officials making the decisions), and Chicago’s too close to one of the world’s largest freshwater  supplies.

General Mathias, who will lead the secret plutonium production plant, and two DuPont men fly to eastern Washington from Manhattan and are barely noticed. The men are looking for a large swathe of cheap, unpopulated land with a powerful water source, but they don’t tell anyone that. They find a powerful water supply in the Columbia River, an electricity source in the Coulee Dam, two villages, White Bluffs and Hanford, and a town, Richland. A few thousand people live here. The river nearby, the Pacific Ocean far away. They agree this place is perfect. News is sent to the president. The president replies, Let’s Build It.



TaraShea Nesbit is the author of The Wives of Los Alamos, which is a Spring 2014 Indies Choice Debut Novel Pick and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. Her writing has been featured in The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, The Collagist, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and is forthcoming on NPR and in Necessary Fiction. She teaches at the University of Denver and is the nonfiction editor of Better: Culture & Lit.

Collage of Headshots of Thirty Dragonfly Species
After Reading an Article on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle