Danielle Moler CC
She leaves the Shenandoah in a haze of green and fog. The humidity is dense, rich, like chocolate she can barely stand to taste. She craves the dry grit of the desert. There is no explanation for an impulse based on the mention of sage and dust.
7000 feet. The cold air pierces her lungs like a stabbing knife. Three days to drive back from the east coast green, across rolling hills, through the flat middle, to the red canyons and arroyos. She passes rock formations so old that they cry for water to change their shape. The red rock gives way as the elevation rises into Ponderosa pine. In this forest, there is space between trees. Cinder and sand sift together. She breathes in the juniper, the rabbit brush. Dryness so sweet it stings her eyes.
Ragged pot holes jolt her along the road. Route 66 sounds romantic but it is a rarely cared for, one-lane appendage to the interstate. Ahead, is a clearing, where there is single surviving building of the route's pre-interstate heyday. Jack’s motel. She will turn around there. She will not keep going. She will not go to the ranch. She'll choose a new route. A new direction. She promises herself that the motel is where she will stop this journey in reverse.
A long time ago, at the old motel, she’d pounded on the door. "Can I use the phone?" she’d cried. There was no cell service at the ranch and her husband had ripped the land line from the wall. The old Route 66 motel was the closest building within a mile of the ranch. Old Jack had turned on the light. Saw the blood on her face. Let her in.
She knows enough not to return to someone who hits you. What irks her, what catches in her throat a thousand times a day, is that she'd stayed long enough for it to get to that point. All the things that happen before he hits you in the face. The flattering jealousy, the minuscule commands, the daily directions of how to be, how to act, overshadowed by love or something akin to it. It takes time to get to that point.
After Jack held a Ziploc full of ice to the back of her neck, the nosebleed stopped. A late-night run, she’d told him. I fell. It wasn't a matter of protection, but she didn't want the sympathy, the drama of police, of shelters. The knowledge that she must leave rather than her desire to go made her close her eyes and stab her finger on the national map laminated to the motel counter. Her random roulette landed her on the east coast, on a small town nestled in an expanse of green. Her cross-country escape from the ranch. And now, she retraces her steps, to where she began.
She returns because of the man from Las Vegas. He’d mentioned it as she set his coffee in front of him. She was working at a Virginia diner that served park visitors, the random spot she had chosen from Jack's hotel map. Strange, she thought, to drink coffee after a day of hiking in the Shenandoah's humid green. Water, beer, sodas were the usual orders. It was one of those hot September weekends where summer let it be known that her extinction date was still two days away. The man didn't mention the Strip, the casinos. What caught her attention, what he’d said, was, "Red Rock. The dryness, sage, dust, he said. So different than here." He waved his hand toward the window which framed a thickness of poplar, ash, and oak. "And the burros," he’d said as she refilled his coffee. "The burros are cool." Her insides twisted with a longing she’d tried to forget.
The elk strikes before she can react. A heavy thud on the hood. The crash of breaking glass. The hatchback 180's and for a flicker of an instant she recalls the driver's ed. rule of turning into a spin. She just as quickly realizes she has no control. Vertigo. The airbag against her chest. A throaty cry. A massive pop, like a balloon, like her eardrum has exploded. Then all is still. The car passenger side leans against a pine tree trunk. She shifts slightly beneath her seatbelt, the pressure of the airbag gone.
In front of her is the massive head of a young bull elk, necklaced by windshield glass while the rest of its body lay across the hood of her car. This close. The head of a wild animal. Blood drips onto the steering wheel. The antlers are an inch from her chest. The elk pants. She can see its dry tongue. Smell its grassy breath. She presses back against her seat, trying to maximize the space between herself and the antlers, the animal on her dashboard.
All else is silent. Snow falls in light, airy flakes, like feathers. Late September is different at 7000 feet. She slides her hand slowly toward her cell phone, which rests in the console cup holder. Her fingertips touch the smooth screen. Fingerprint done. It glows. The elk huffs. Blinks. Long lashes surround his brown eyes. Cell service is scanty along this part of the National Forest, but she can call emergency. She will not call the ranch.
One day, she'll write a how-to brochure on how to dial a smart phone when pinned by an elk. Step one, move slowly. Step two, bring the phone into your line of vision, just enough to see the numbers. Step three...the elk cries, a bark. It is a terrifying sound. His distress, his pain, is in front of her.
In the wild, elk bugle for mates, a sound like a trumpet. The bugle is a distinctive sound, meant to be heard for miles. They call when they migrate, their seasonal pilgrimage from canyon to forest. They call to the herd when there was food or shade or danger. This bark isn't for mates or communication. It is fear. The phone clatters as she drops it into the cup holder. Too much. The animal swings his head. The antlers, maybe a six-inch span, graze her collarbone like an amber burn.
When she had lived here, at the ranch one mile away, she and her ex-husband collected shed antlers along the perimeter of their south forty. Most often she picked up a single antler. Young elk continued their migratory trail with a lone antler, lopsided, rubbing the uneveness against tree trunks. She saved single ones hoping to one day find its partner, its twin. This elk is young. The antlers, solid bone, may be his first set. He'll shed them in the spring and grow a larger set each successive year.
The windshield cocoons his head like a prize. He breathes a whisper over her face. She breathes it in. He strains against the glass. Tiny shards escape the jagged spider-web around his bloodied neck. They drop to the dashboard with a tink. Light snow, barely a dusting, lands on his body splayed across the hood.
Stay still. Stay still, she tells herself. She, the one who always took flight. She, with the elk, unable to move, even though they both long for nothing more than freedom. When the elk dies, because at some point it must, she will call for help. She will get her car towed. Get it fixed. If it's totaled, she'll buy a train ticket. South. East. West. Away from the ranch. Away from this stretch of old highway that has pulled her back. If she knocked on the door, her ex would take her in, she would forgive him, again; that familiar routine. In the morning, when the rabbit brush blew their seeds like dandelion tuft, they would walk the ranch's border, and search for what was now right in front of her.
The elk thrashes with a raspy, worn cry. She pulls her knees up to protect herself and her ankle becomes tangled in a locking puzzle of antler, deflated airbag, and steering wheel. The elk's tantrum against the windshield deepens the gashes on his neck. Pushes the glass in further. His brown eyes meet hers. His head relaxes on the dash. His eyes stay open. Silence. Random snowflakes gather on the edge of the windshield. There is no need to search the prairie for shed antlers. She knows better than to return. Even with a matched set in her hands.
Sheila R. Lamb received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her writing has appeared in Rappahannock Review, Monkeybicyle, JMWW, and elsewhere. She lives, teaches, and writes in the mountains of Virginia.
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