The Language of Elk

Ben Percy

It is low and sad and frightening, a dark sound rising from a dark place—the deepest corner of lung, nested there like a secret. You’ll hear it in the evenings, when the sky’s gone pink and shadows start to melt together. If your back is turned to the forest from which it pours, you’ll turn around quick and find strength in the tight hand-shake of the walnut stock of your .338 WinMag. Your breathing gets desperate. You aim at everything, push your gun forward like it was the mute button. The sound is gigantic, a low-throated moan, faraway, copied by another, closer by, then another, then another. The sound—it renders you lonely, the loneliest man in the whole world. This is the language of elk.

I listen nightly. I peel off my socks and let my feet dry against the wrinkled porch boards and rock in my rocker and sip my Coors between sucks of pipe and listen to the rumbling sounds of my beasts, my elk. I own them. For twenty years they have chewed on my grass and huckleberry and died and become my soil. They are mine. Somehow this brings reassurance.

Inside, Willow bangs pots together, makes kitchen noises. What was supper still sticks to the air—tortillas wrapped around grilled poblano stuffed with hamburg—soon fading into a piney breeze. If I ask her, she’ll bring me another beer. She is good in this way and many others, but still we’re not right. Way back, we used to be a beautiful piece of marriage—you’d look at us and smile and want to rub our bodies for luck.

Willow and I are still married, but now a daughter bleeds a wound between us.

The Cascade Mountains cut a starless space in the western bowl of night, toothy and patient black, a color I know will lighten toward gray come morning. They have been there forever. They— along with this twilight chorus of elk call—make me feel tender. I stare at those old leviathans and am reminded how beetles and worms will one day tunnel their way through me. I am meat. Probably this is why we are so devoted to shooting things, here at Foder Ranch.
 
When my thumbnail has scraped away the skin of three or four beer labels—which I fold neat and put in my pocket—when the sky is full dark, when my middle parts feel loose and warm, when a yawn stretches my mouth, I know it is time to say goodnight to the elk. I do this with fists lifted above my head, some weird bene-diction in this ceremony of wilderness.

* * *
Welcome to Foder Ranch, I say. I’m Pete Foder. If they are too clean and look like the city—Portland—I’ll liquefy my vowels, heighten my twang for drama. There will be much in the way of handshakes. We will talk of the weather and then look to the sky for confirmation. According to routine, I offer help with baggage. Their guns are new and shiny, just like their cars— engines ticking out near the corrals. We tour the cabins and dining hall, all chocolate-color logs varnished clean, caulked tight to choke away the wind. I will point often—this is where you sleep, this is where you eat, this is where we butcher your kill—finger stabbing the air with an authority that partners ritual: I have done this everyday: I will continue to do this everyday. When there is little left to say, I might spit a slug of mucus and then we will watch, together, as it disappears into the hungry suck of dust. See you at supper, I say and nod and square my hat.
* * *
Ask me about my daughter, Sonora, and I will turn my eyes elsewhere. Ask me why she crouches in her room all day and rocks on her heels—and I won’t take the trouble to even shrug. Ask about why she won’t make words. Ask about drool. Ask about the faraway look to her face...I don’t know. My wife has Mexican blood in her. You can see it in her cheekbones, plus that ink-black hair now salting its way toward dead. We named our daughter Sonora. Sonora is a Spanish word. It means pretty sound. She brings a hiccup to my heart, tugs me in and out of love. A marriage and a daughter and a ranch. Late at night when my cabin sleeps, I’ll stand above their beds and put out a hand to touch my girls and my hand will pause above their faces and feel the heat of their breath. I think about the life pumping below: it belongs to me—either by bloodwork or legal certificate—and I want to touch their lips and stroke their hair and hug them tight, make our closeness real. But my hand—husked with callus and hairy— trembles above the bodies of these female things. My hand stings against their heat like it’s been brought in from the snow. They are a part of my life—but only make me more alone seems like. I hug my pillow on the way to sleep. I have little dreams about how happy we are, nice hugs, holding hands in meadows of Indian paintbrush.
* * *
It is Saturday dawn. The air tastes clean and cold and every footstep over pine needle crunches tremendous. Shower water chills in my hair but my jeans fit warm from resting on the stove. I love these morning mountains, bearded with forest and banded with sediment and stained red from the red sky that matches the red bark of lodgepole. Everyday, the Cascades crouch familiar along the corner of my eye, everyday, and will continue to do so. They help me understand my place, no confusion. The gray calm of shadow matches my morning mind, thoughtful me. Here comes a brand-new day and I am in charge. This is my time to be strong. I go through the motions. I go to each cabin and knock soft and say, Wakey. I have a dented tin cup in my right hand and from this I sip sugared coffee and fifteen more minutes will mark 6:30 and at 6:30 we breakfast here at Foder Ranch. Custom demands I rattle the iron triangle while the bleary-eyed hunters herd into the dining hall. This, the iron triangle, makes them feel like real cowboys. I knock soft and hear their grunts and shuffles, men stirring embers and tossing on another log, struggling into wool socks and jeans. I imagine them making their beds and laying their rifles on top of them. Against the rough Pendleton blanket the gun looks so slick and beautiful, its barrel creasing the pillow, maybe bleeding a drop of oil on white. These men, with their soft hands and soft bellies, they crouch down as if in prayer and smile and stretch out fingers to caress the gunmetal slow and delicate like a lover. Still hazy from sleep, they let their eyes half shutter. The pucker of the bore, big enough to stick your pinky inside. They caress the gunmetal and whisper luck into their bullets. They have little dreams, imagining a trophy rack to hang in the den, brag about to neighbors while sipping cocktails next to elk steaks on the barbeque. Little dreams of the bucktoothed and soft-bellied, pathetic. Then it is 6:30 and the sun brings forest smells and I rattle the iron triangle—metal sounds so foreign in the Oregon hush—and they rub from their eyes the blur of little dreams. They step out in the cold and flap their arms and stamp their brand-new pointy-toe boots and slap each other on the back and talk loud because today they plan on killing something. This is exciting. From the collective grin on their lips, breath steams the air like something boiling over.
* * *
Sit a spell and fill your guts. Biscuits drowned in gravy of the deepest gray, fresh huckleberries, scrap of butter on top your muffin, bacon, hot coffee. Willow, a good woman I used to slap on the butt, stands ghostly behind the steam of the buffet line. She halfway flirts with a man who’s black as a blackbird and wears a gold watch. She says, If there’s anything you need, just holler. Flashes her teeth in a smile and he copies the gesture before taking his tray to find a seat. I rub my beard and think about how long it’s been since I’ve kissed that smile. I swallow this down and feel my throat apple move with the secret. Our distance has become ritual. Somewhere along the line, work became a precedent and love got pushed into the closet, food for the moths. My mind chugs through our history and still it’s hard to understand the effect of a wrong child. Our dining hall is something famous. Willow and I, we built it— mostly from log but it’s the skeletons that make it special. Come look at these shaved rods of elk bone, fitted into tables, dead lumber. Their surface is heavy with lacquer, yet ridged and uncertain for the resting of cups, so you be careful now and keep your coffee sturdy on its tray. That white trim braiding the pillars and crossbeams—look closer—witness the fangs and molars of beasts mortared into wood. Antler chandeliers and bonework chairs upholstered with hide and a bear skeleton looming frightful in the corner. I built this. It is mine, ours. I drum a thumbnail along the edge of a table and am reassured: I put this furniture together and could just as easily take it apart. My hands pulled the trigger and forked the meat and reconstructed the skeleton. My hands accomplish great things. My hands, manlike. I walk among my clients with cowboy swagger, thumbs hooked in belt. I wink real friendly and nod and feel their eyes crawling all over me, three businessmen in pristine Stetsons. They love me. They rely on me. They grab me by the wrist and ask questions— How many acres? How many elk? How much for taxidermy? This is routine. I talk a hunter’s bloody talk. I place each word careful, develop a dramatic deepness to my voice. See this coat? I’ll tell you about this coat. Shot and skinned and tanned and chewed soft some ten years before. I storytell, humping its meat from the depths of the Ochoco Valley and they want to reach out and touch the leather. I let them. I am their rustic monarch. I am the local soothsayer, trained in customs unfamiliar. My advice sings prophecy. Tell me about after you shoot, Pete. The cleaning part. You want to know about cleaning? I’ll tell you about cleaning, I say, and unsheath my bowie knife and lay it on the table, silver blade oranged by the sunlight leaking through the window. I bring my face real close. I detail taking apart an animal, the delicate process of deconstruction. First, puncture behind the hamstring and hang it high from a sturdy pine. Now listen while I surgeon with words, sawing from ass to sternum, the incision so neat. Step back and watch as unzipped veins bleed the ground muddy. Okay. Peel back the skin and the skin peels back with a noise you associate with electricity. Spiralized guts rest encased in a foggy gutsack, and you can see the innards colored and bound like wet balls of yarn. Place this aside for the flies and yellow jackets. The hatchets of the bladebones, the rubbery ligature of joints, I dig deeper and deeper through the red strata, detailing the archaeology of gore. I pick up my bowie knife and cut at the air and their eyes get big and spoons hover forgotten before their mouths. This is how you flay the muscle into small red strips that grow blue with the bluebottle blackfly. Stack the meat into pyramids for later, for salting and smoking and now only a loose hide remains, which you’ll clean and tan and oil, make soft through the patient enterprise of chewing. In the end it becomes outfit or drapery. When I finish with my speech, I stab at a huckleberry sitting lonely on a plate. I pop it between my teeth and they nod and look at me sideways as if I’m something naked and dangerous. None of them say a word. The black boy pokes at his biscuit. Outside, the day is bright and wonderful. I say not to worry. I remind them of GPS coordinates, cell phones—you dial my number and I’ll hump it out with the ATV. I remind them that gutting and cleaning is part of the service charge. You men go shoot that trophy. We’ll clean it right and fine, make it pretty for eating and display. They nod again. Now their thousand dollars seems well spent. They appreciate me, cow-eyed with adoration. Go to it, boys. My wilderness awaits.
* * *
I sit on the porch—drinking Coors, sucking pipesmoke—and listen to their shouts. Off toward the cabins my men celebrate around campfire. The flames shoot high, eating the dry wood of October. Flames and sparks dance up into the black and a bottle of dark liquor is passed and suckled. One of them stands up and says, This whiskey’s famous! and the rest laugh and slap each other on the back as though they understand. They have forgotten about make-upped wives, grubless lawns, golf, patio furniture. By way of slaughter, they feel new, something birthed and aborted by the same prick of lead. Shooting stuff, it’s satisfaction of the primitive variety. Just listen to them hoot, laughing their apelike laughs. They curl lips into angry smiles and do battle with gun stories. They had quite a day. I massage my hands—cramped sore from cutting their meat, fingernails rimmed rusty and smelling of mineral. I wash beer down my throat and nod while they talk about me in hushed tones, the way I haul a hundred-pound hindquarter over my shoulder, grinning under the lacquered red as if it were candy. They are impressed. One suburbanite calls me, A True American Man. He tugs at the corner of his mustache when he speaks of my leathery presence. Then Mangold lets out a moan and they fall quiet, their ears and mood disturbed by the language of elk. Mangold’s lowing—so deep and lonesome from his corral, it fills the night and makes your skin pimple, rumbles you into a worthless puddle. Mangold breeds my darlings. He is the granddaddy elk of Foder Ranch, with a rack that branches upward like so many fingers, noble crown bespeaking age and dignity. One by one, I’ll march the cows into his corral and they’ll sniff the air and flutter their ears before bending their necks to chew alfalfa. Mangold wastes no time with pillow talk. For the space of a few seconds, he grunts his triumph on top of their backs. Then the deed is done. Then the cow pulls away and turns to look at him as if curious about what just happened. Mangold has been my stud bull for near ten years. His beard no longer sprouts dark, its shade turned silver—like mine—his coat has lost that golden luster. I’ll have to set him loose soon. His arthritis prevents the slick application of his manhood and his daughters have become his lovers and for sake of quality breeding, I’ll have to set him loose and then he’ll find peace before the stare of some suburbanite’s muzzle. The men, my clients, they take off their Stetsons as if in church. They sit quiet with their eyes rolling around in their heads and Mangold lows something miserable. From the secret cavities of the forest there sounds another elk, then another, then another. That lowing, like some strange vapor released from the earth, it carries with it a body elemental—the noise of which reminds us of our delicacy and newness in the routine of this ancient empire of stone and tree and jaw. The campfire men hold their brand-new hats in their hands. They look over their shoulders. They hear the elk and the whiskey wears away and their smiles have straightened into a thin set of lips. A pitch pocket snaps and the wind rises and a trail of embers blows from the firepit, across the ground, fading into the night along with the call of elk.
* * *
Let me tell you about my daughter—round-faced and pretty like her mother, Sonora, eyes wide with chips of yellow nested into brown pupils. Those eyes, they stare, intense and unblinking, so that you’d think she was making a Polaroid. She doesn’t talk, not ever. But she listens to the radio all day and can sing in a way that tickles you warm. She makes pretty sounds: she lives up to her name. She prefers the sad music of the honky-tonk stations, steel guitars and voices drawling their truck stop sorrow into a microphone. I remember her as a baby—that same dark-eyed stare peeking out under corn-silk hair. She never cried, even when learning her legs, falling on her butt a lot. I held her in my arms and felt like a hero. But then came two years old and at two years old she was humming along with our record player—but wouldn’t even call me daddy. She stared at the wall for hours, still does. Sometimes she’d slap herself and we’d put on Hank Williams to soothe her into hums and song. The doctor said Autistic and he must have liked the word on his tongue because he said it near a thousand times in that fluorescent office. He said it so many times it stuck and stayed true and there was no fixing her, nothing I could do. I love her. But she makes me feel like I need to prove something. What makes me proud, at least, is that she has a gift, like many of her kind, a pitch-perfect gift. She is crippled in the head but brilliant of throat. She is a singing little fool. She could sing all day and sometimes she does. I put an ear to the door and listen to her little-voice songs and just want to make it like it was before, pick her up in the cradle of my arms—but she doesn’t like to be touched and I don’t have the courage to try to convince her otherwise. My love is a thing of distance. Like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I can reach out and feel her skin—but she remains so far away.
* * *
The spice of hay and animal fills up our heads like strange advice. I take them through the holding pens—my clients, a gang of computer folk—and show them the calves stumbling about on awkward stilts. I say, Put out your thumb and they’ll suck on it like a nipple. And the men do. And the men smile in a bedroom sort of way. My Mexicans tip their John Deere caps as they fill up the grain troughs. Good job, amigos, I tell them. I hitch my belt, fit some warm straw along the corner of my mouth. One of my clients, Mr. Computer, sneezes and asks if I’ve got a name for this cute little elk that’s sucking his thumb and I say, Nope. I try to keep distant. I don’t get to know the animals. I breed them. I let them loose and then they’re dead anyway. So why bother? They’re all just meat.
* * *
It’s hard not to feel responsible. It’s hard—when the mere sight of family makes my heart beat nervous—not to feel like it could have been different. Probably it was me that made her wrong. Through eleven years of cold distance, Willow has tried to help me recognize this. That bear skeleton in the corner of the hall, it lost its bloodbeat the day of Sonora’s conception. Outside Vancouver, my buddies and their wives, all drinking away the nights and out hunting serious before daylight even broke. We didn’t use dogs, just bullets. I was straddling timberline when the griz untangled itself from a spill of manzanita, lean and blond with a low rumble pouring up from its chest. The .338 WinMag hung across my back like a second spine and I drew it quick to my shoulder and aimed down its chamber as the bear showed off teeth nested in blue gums and shambled forward, fur trembling. It took three bullets to turn its charge, then an hour of tracking blood, then two more gunshots smudging red into fur and fat and muscle. I made petals of its hide. That night I was wild with gore and liquor, something beastly. In the tent, I found Willow and we made our pact in the dark, fast and hard, and she was a victim beneath my system of limbs—no no no, little fists. Beneath her skin, my bear-kill violence imprinted something wrong. She said it was like a monster, the tearing inside. Then came Sonora and eleven years of not being able to make it better. Probably it was me.
* * *
I listen in my rocker and suck at the pipestem but the bowl has gone cold. Stars wink down their quartzite shine and tomorrow men will come to scavenge my woods. The aspen and birch have turned with autumn, leaves of goldcoin interrupting the vast wash of evergreen, and a frost varnishes the forest floor come morning. I snuggle in my coat and listen to the elk in a half-trance, sleepy in my beer, lulled by that haunting timbre. Then I hear the blow of something sweet and soprano and foreign, like some enchanted flute. My eyes get wide as I recognize it as the prettiest sound I have ever known, Sonora. I stand from the rocker and cup a palm to my ear. For the space of a minute I listen to trees whisper—then the quiet breaks into a high-pitch moan. Sonora, she’s outside. I make my boots move quick, down the steps, along the gravel path, toward the corrals. She belts out another call, moaning as deep as her cords can manage. This time, the elk answer: the forest erupts in low-throated chorus and I duck my head and shrink a little. At Mangold’s corral, I stab the dark with yellow beam, holding my penlight out like a weapon. I find Mangold, motionless as a waxwork, antlers veining up into the dark. And here lies my daughter, limp across the elk’s back with head resting pillowed by his hump. I see her breath ghosting the air. Her eyes glow, yellow and brown grains snowing through them, lidless in their stare, and tell me nothing. I step forward and she shows her teeth in a little snarl. I know she will bite me. I stand there awhile and don’t know what to do—my hand opens and closes into a fist, helpless. What I want to do is gather her up into my arms and be as big and hero as I can. But nope. We watch each other. Then I get close and tell her to get on down before old Mangold finds annoyance. She sits upright and points at me and makes her mouth into an O—out of which pours the most horrible banshee cry. I shiver. My body feels lost.
* * *
The Cascades, they are loyal. Friendly in my beer, I wag a finger at them and say, You make perfect sense. They are exactly the same, always, and never make me wonder. Even if I turn around in a circle or pull out my dingus for a vinegar piss or swear and shake my fist, they won’t care. Not like wives turned cold, not like daughters grown into Autism, capital goddamn A. The Cascades, they don’t blame or give a flying hell, or hate or love. They’re just good company. Things eat fight screw die, and who cares? Not the Cascades. They are BIG! They are reddish in the mornings—as if capillaried with blood—bluish in the twilight—like smoke ghosting into dark. They happened so long ago. They happened before emotion. They happened before words—though the language of elk seems a fitting voice, old and strong and singing from the cavities of its wood. I listen to mountain air and understand it better than my wife and child. I sigh easy in their agreeable company and the fibers and pipes of my system relax, my bloodstream a cool gray calm I wouldn’t mind pouring in a pitcher to take a sip of. Midnight clouds slide along and the mountains cut right through them and I rock in my rocker with beer labels scattered about my feet, messy, like shavings of whittle.
* * *
Mangold’s finished. He’s done. First, there’s his arthritis and how he can hardly mount a cow. Plus he’s gotten himself into a Sonora situation. They’ve become pals and I won’t have it. It’s dangerous. Last night was beery. In spite of my stumbles, I managed my way to the corral and caught her on top his back, whispering confidential. I leaned against the fencepost and watched awhile in the moonlight. I watched those lips move in concert with her sounds and it wasn’t singing—her lips made words. I shook away the fuzz in my head and she whispered into Mangold’s ear and from deep inside his throat there rose a tubalike shout. They were having a regular conversation. I felt obscene, standing there, as if I had witnessed the X-rated. My face felt purplish and I broke it up. Get off of there, I said and pulled her away and wished to hell for his death, then, my stomach tightening into something like jealousy. I fell victim to her gaze, crawling into me like a surgeon’s knife, unpeeling my skin, boring open my pipework, unpacking enough muscle to fill a wheelbarrow. She tore away my layers and made me naked. From the basket of my rib cage, she tugged a heart—a tiny thing, broken and hiccupping a beat. She wasn’t impressed by its efforts so she crushed it beneath her foot and it got dirty. She stared into me and what crossed her face was a smile, greedy with understanding. She knew me in a special way—beyond all my brawn and cowboy bluster—and I tried to stop her. I squeezed her arms so there’d be bruises in the morning and she screamed at me, a nonsense scream, and I screamed back. I smelled the Coors puffing on my breath while I made demands: What are you doing out here, Sonora? How long has this been going on, Sonora? How long? She bites at me and I shake her body until it becomes an empty skin, rag-dolled by my shakes. You don’t talk, Sonora. That’s not your way. Why were you talking? You are the dumbest of animals, remember? What were you telling Mangold? Talk to me. Love me. Why won’t you talk to me? Talk to me. Mangold moved in with the old hoof. It caught me below the knee and charlied the muscle into screaming knots. I stumbled back, dragging both my leg and Sonora. The elk had his crown lowered, its points sharpened white from the daily rub of fencepost. I tried to be the hero. I yelled, get on away from me, goddamned monster. I wished myself strong but only felt jealous of his animal strength. Then Mangold’s ribs grew fat with air, the fuel to a roar. He charged two steps forward and unhinged his jaw—thundering out a scream wreathed in steam, so low and bass that I held up my hands as if to ward the sound away. You would have thought a cannon went off: the concussion echoed into my body and I felt my blood ripple like when a stone’s tossed into pond water. I froze and got small when Mangold stamped his hoof and shook his antlers and seemed ready to poke me good. Smoke tusked from his nostrils. We stared each other down, high noon-style. I tried to hide behind my beard while wishing for a gun to grip and a bullet to chamber—I dreamt punctures into his silver hide. He rose up on his haunches, hoofed the air. Then Willow saved us. Somehow we were on the gravel path and she had Sonora in her arms and I remember, in spite of the Coors, how white that nightgown looked against her nut-brown skin. I think I pawed at her. I think I said something lecherous. I know she slapped me. I woke up later, salt in my joints, eyelashes crusted together with frozen tears. Hungover in the dark, I opened and closed my hands and felt shameful. There are only so many ways to use your hands when you’re used to the rifle.
* * *
God! the man says. This is truly God’s country, ain’t it? His mouth lingers on the word ain’t like it’s unfamiliar in taste. He sighs long and relaxing-like and his breath smells of feet. He has a silver BMW whose engine ticks from the long drive. He has a gold-chain necklace, plus a diamond earring. I have never understood jewelried men. He puts out a hand and it disappears inside of mine. I give this one an extra squeeze along with my howdy. My name’s Francis, he says. Francis is a woman’s name but I keep my quiet and go through the ritual of tour. Thanks, Francis. Thanks, one thousand clams. This weekend, him and four others equals my five-thousand-dollar bank deposit. Thanks and don’t forget to point the gun away from your body. Don’t forget to calibrate your shot with respect to wind and angle. Don’t forget to wipe your ass. Good job, boys. I bleed these pantywaists for all they’re worth—still providing the cowboy treatment so they don’t suspect vampirism. Howdy, backslap, some weather we’re having, bang! Good job, boys. Welcome to Foder Ranch, a place where the letting of blood makes you stronger, more alive.
* * *
I stand in Sonora’s doorway and watch her watching the wall. I don’t speak but try to be the good father. I clear my throat and stand in the doorway as if to say: I’m here for you. The other night, it clings to me. Even if she didn’t say a word, we had ourselves a little conversation by way of eyeball. She stared so hard, as if she saw right inside and found the real me, hello. That flash of intimacy stuck—through the drunkenness and cottonmouth hangover, it’s been barnacled to my mind. I can’t forget it, feeling like I had a real daughter. Mangold is loose somewhere, perhaps struggling through the trees with that giant crown of horn, sipping from a milky run of glacial stream. He’s free. I’ve watched ten years as he dreamed himself back among the forest, gloomy black eyes, chin resting sullen on the edge of corral, lowing deep toward the mountains in conversation with the past. Maybe I’m a little jealous when I think of him reunited with family, all his animal friends. Sonora’s back is rigid in her staring. I turn on the Patsy Cline tape. Sonora, she slaps her face and shakes her head and turns it off. Merle Haggard? Nope. I put on Williams and Cash and Tillis and Parton but she won’t listen to a word. Come on, Sonora. She turns off the dial and gets down on all fours and puffs up her chest and bugles—from that thin reed of throat—the language of elk. It’s like a native tongue. What escapes her mouth sounds just right. A pretty sound—though wild and startling—more natural on her lips than if she told me howdy. The windows tremble and threaten to shatter, along with my ears. I step back. Autism means wrong in the head. Autism means withdrawal into fantasy, and Sonora, I’ve figured, works like how my clients work. They come out here, minds all messy with gun-trance. They’ve read my pamphlet and watched the Discovery Channel some. Their heart has pumped a lifeblood of diet cola—and they want whiskey. They’re tired. They’ve been made small and dickless and here they find remedy, through the muzzle of a gun, everything under control and making perfect sense. Bang, I am powerful. Bang, I make a difference—bloody, gory, something done dead, not me. Bang, we’re all just meat in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains. Forget my sports car and 401K, family and civilization, prescription drugs. Here, among the mountains and beasts, the land breathes something raw. For a weekend, they claw up some primal organ from inside and they kill something and this helps them live a different sort of life—as seen through the hunter’s scope, a faraway projection brought close. They’re all autistics. Maybe we’re all a bunch of goddamned autistics. Sonora, she drowns a life of little dreams. She lives in neverland. She used to find projection through the sad soundtrack of the country crooners but now honky-tonk doesn’t seem to suit her. She’s instead found a hankering for the elk and their strange music. It is a terrible hankering. Just as her face is a terrible face, though beautiful—stark and open and obviously wanting nothing to do with you. I wish she’d fall into my hug like a little dove cooing in the cradle of my arms. I’ll wrap them tight. I’d try to be as big and hero. Mangold is gone. He’ll soon be partitioned into cuts of jerk and steak, plus a rack for ornament above the mantle. I don’t have an elk station to turn on and off, but that’s what Sonora wants. Their language paints a picture on her brain and I wonder what she sees. Something better, no doubt, and without it she is lonely empty. She seems desperate for musical accompaniment. It’s the elk she wants, not me, but she’ll just have to wait for twilight. She slaps the floor and shows her teeth and sings in a language I don’t understand. At breakfast—Spanish omelets drowned in salsa—I overhear Francis talking to my wife. He says, What’s your name, honey? And she tells him and he says, I like your name. It makes me think of a creek bed and weeping willows draped over the creek. What a poet. He’s just so happy to be here. He shakes his head and laughs and touches her on the elbow. It’s a real pretty name, Willow, because it paints a pretty picture to go along with your pretty face. I wonder if Francis would like a rifle shoved up his butt, quick-like. After chow, I take my clients to the butcher parlor, try to shark them into frenzy with a little blood scent. They stare at the red curtains of elk meat, pickled brains in jars like some carnival strangeness, hog head on a hook. I say, go ahead and touch, it’s all right. They do just that, talking in museum whispers. It’s graveyard cold in here. It stinks in here like the taste of a bullet on your tongue. One client faints and when I slap him awake he says it’s from the altitude, complains of a headache and gets back in his car, kicking up gravel beneath the wheels, following his shadow back to Portland. He doesn’t ask for his money and I don’t offer. The rest of them set off a little after 7:00 A.M., maps of my thousand-acre wood folded up in their trousers. The forest smells as beautiful as it looks, Francis says, a woman’s lips. I wish he had been the fainter. I slap him on the back, wishing luck. They melt into the darkness of the forest.
* * *
The scream fills my head like an explosion of light. I turn from mending a fence and it’s jewelry boy, Francis, storming along the path, gun gripped soldierly, face rivered bloody. I put my hands on my hips and try not to look impressed. All that blood gives me some evil pleasure. I take the pipe from my mouth and say, What the hell got you? He says, The biggest elk in the whole world! Mangold. I ask for the story and he’s proud to tell me, excitement on his tongue: in a clearing of meadow, a battle raged between Mangold and some young bull, full of piss and electricity. Poor Mangold, a relic, in spite of his size he didn’t stand a chance. Heads butted and one of his grand antlers went snap and he stumbled back, his head lopsided with weight, awkward to hold steady. The other elk gored him along the side until the fur was shaved off and all that’s left was ribs of ivory scimitars stained pink. Poor Mangold folded his legs and crumpled into submission. The other elk snorted his victory and hoofed away and left poor Mangold lying there, heart pumping the life right out of him. Francis, he figured he ought to go in for the mercy kill. He snuck real close and aimed down the line of his rifle and watched the elk’s chest get big and small according to its lungs. He cracked off his shot and made a rose of Mangold’s neck. This all sounds most piteous. Mangold decided not to die. Rusty and slow, he pulled himself up from the grave, nightmarish creature with blood siphoning fast from all his holes. Francis didn’t know what to do. He stood there and watched like it was the TV. I listen to his story and have visions of his sudden death—ribboned by Mangold’s remaining horn, stomped into hamburg—but nope, he pants before me in all his gesticulation, talking of the branch that cut him across the face as he ran as fast as he could, back to me. So what should we do? He’s red enough to look sunburnt, what with that forehead leaking a wash of gore into his eyes, which blink and make ruby tears staining down his cheeks toward that necklace, now red and looking like some kind of outside tendon. So, he says with his pouty girl mouth, what should we do? First things first, we’ll get you washed up, I say and blow a cloud of tobacco smoke. I think of the wrinkle of scar he’ll wear forever, forever thinking of me in front of the mirror, tracing it with a finger. What happens next makes me snatch Francis’s Remington, tug the bolt, and chamber another round. Branches snap, woofing sounds. Drooling an oyster of blood, Mangold shambles forward from the woods, zombied in his hurt. I aim for the chest, but—when I see how clumsy his hooves stumble—keep the pressure off the trigger and know the rifle won’t shout except for mercy. His head hangs low as if following a trail of scent, hungry him. I watch him through the scope—everything brought so close, the sheen of the pool of the black pigment of eyeball, each spike of hair, that green shoot of vein twisting along the corner of rib cage. Through the looking glass, I feel like I know Mangold—better now than in our ten years of company. I know exactly what he wants: comfort. He’s headed for the corral, toward the assurance of safety and food and love. His ribs bleed like crazy and scabs try to gum up the mess but he’s already dead. He doesn’t seem to know this as he seeks escape from the cannibalism of the forest. About ten steps away, the elk stops and stares at me—right through the tunnel of the scope—and I swallow down a nugget of sadness. I motion with the rifle, toward the corral. I talk around my pipe. Go on, I say, get back in there. Get back where you belong. He raises a hoof and puts it down again. Then he collapses into a bag of bones, silent except for the wet sounds leaking everywhere. As if on cue, a bugle song of elk blooms from the forest like a giant sigh, wailing long and patient. My eyes go everywhere and Francis and I take one step back. The noise finds accompaniment: from the window of my cabin tinkles a wind chime giggle—Sonora and her pretty sounds. I shade my eyes and look past Francis and see her round face framed by curtains. She’s giggling and I know—seeing the joy on her face—that she is not without the capacity for love. She juts her lips and sings along with the animals and I smile, I ache with desire, wishing she’d turn to me to share a smile and giggle. But I know she’s not really mine, never will be—just like these woods, she’s out of my control. That doesn’t stop my love. I want to straighten her hair between my fingers, beautiful. Their collective shout makes me warm, playing across my skin like a Chinook breeze. My pipe has gone dead and I tap out the bowl in my palm and nod at the great ragged corpse and open my hand to scatter the remaining ashes over Mangold, a wake of forest fight. Good-bye, old Mangold, bloody mess of fur nestled up to my boots. I puff up my chest and succumb to the melody. I do my best to mimic their language. Sounds boom between my lips. My voice doesn’t sound right—I’m the rusty violin. My voice is like a stranger’s. But I keep at it. At first I sing just to hear my throat, remind me I’m alive. Then I feel a shifting inside, like some worm turning over in its sleep. My person swells in concert with our funeral song and I start to feel strong—sort of the way shooting makes me feel—and we all sing together and the sound rises up and fills the world and echoes loud and eventually fades. That noise, it had its own dark life. Like some beast. If you came to see me at the ranch, you might be able to hunt it down, flush it from a tangle of huckleberry, drag it howling from deep in some cave maybe, maybe nested up in the rafters of the manlike forest—though I doubt it would respond to the muscle of your guns.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro
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BEN PERCY is an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. He was the runner-up for the 2002 Nelson Algren Award and has work forthcoming in The Florida Review.