Terry Lingrey, 2009
In the Trees
Even in the depth of winter, grass can be scented, beneath a foot of snow, encapsulated in ice, we find it. We dig until the ice comes away, and then the brown, dead green pokes up, and it is easily plucked. We survive this way, one shoot at a time. Another step, another dig, another brown shoot hidden beneath a foot of snow, another quick chew, another swallow. We sleep huddled together, close enough that our hairs reach like fingers toward one another. We create a blanket, warmth spinning across those long hairs. Ice hangs on our whiskers, and we wait for spring. We stay quiet through the winter, remaining near the broken stones, an overhang for shelter. When our whiskers roll across the body beside us, we feel its rhythm, we let the beats drift through us. We watch. We know ourselves by watching.
We weave into a stand of trees, their white bark glistening, an occasional fall of snow from bare branches. The muffled way it lands. We are waiting for the steady dripping of melt. We wait for water to flow, but for now we eat the snow after lying on it, or drift down the slope to drink it from the river. From these trees we stand sentinel, we watch the meadows below, the teeming deer, we watch them as they falter, as they fall to the earth. We watch as a man pulls the limp creature along the muddy banks of the river, retrieving the heart, holding it in both hands, blood dripping down his arms. We become restless, stomping our hooves, or rushing deeper into the trees, but those of us who have seen it all, need only stand witness. We see the knife roll under the skin, glide along the muscle, skin coming away like we peel bark from a tree.
Behind us a youngster weaves among the trees, clouds of snow rising as each hoof sinks, long frozen strands of mane flopping against the neck, the breath rhythmic and slow. His neck bends and shifts, his hooves twist in the air before they land, his hips rise and fall in an alternating rhythm. His ribs bend forward and back until he glides across the snow. He brushes against a tree and snow falls in a gauzy wave. He bucks. The snow from his hooves flicks against a white trunk, his tail tucks against the sound. Re-entering the rhythm, he flits easily in and out of trees, his legs crossing as he moves, alone with his gestures, his hooves patting the snow, his tail weaving, nothing but this rhythm of movement.
A low nicker, and he stops. All ears turn toward the river below. The dissonant scent of mutilated deer rushes up the hillside. The man looks up. We have ceased. The young twitch their sides, as if against a fly. From the weaving youngster, steamy breath spirals up into the trees. The man looks down again. We remain still, he watches through the brim of his hat as he continues to slice at the deer, blood melting the ice around him, engulfing snow, drifting into the slow, icy river.
A youngster stomps his foot. The quick turn of a head, ears flattened. He is quiet once more. Still the scent rushes up towards us. When he places the last of the meat in his container, when he moves away into the distance, away from the steep slope, away from the bloodied river, away from the deer infested meadow, most of us will move away from the trees.
We know the man disappears over the next low hill. He trudges slowly with his container of deer. The pelt has been hung across branches to dry, the legs and hooves discarded on the ground below. The head rests against an old trunk, twisted toward the river. The eyes will be gone by morning, pecked by a hungry bird. For now, they look out with a dwindling life, still moist, upon the bloody river, drops falling in ever slower succession from the severed neck.
The man’s trudging ends with voices drifting on an eastern breeze. A smoke rises through the trees, drawn high by a wind that skips across their tops. When the scent reaches us, we turn away, the deer roasting on a flame, his head gazing out toward the rising slope.
Roland squinted through the smoke, grasped the gristly end of venison between his thumb and fingertip, tossing it quickly onto a plate. He rubbed his burning fingertips on his shirt, then grabbed another piece. He left the rest over the fire, doused the flame with water. With one plate in each hand he walked into the little house.
Jocelyn brought silverware to the table. A strand of hair hung over her eyes, and she pushed it away with the back of her hand.
“Burnt,” he said.
She slathered butter over bread, then held the stick up as a question.
She leaned over his plate, cut a slab of butter, spread it across the bread. She lifted the saucepan with mashed potatoes from the stove, the muscles of her forearm bulging. She tossed a white mound onto each plate, then put the pan back on the stove. When she sat down, she looked at her shirt, arranged it evenly over her shoulders, then tossed the strand of hair back once more.
She looked at the empty side of the table, then jerked her head back to her plate, crossed one leg over the other, glanced at Roland, before drinking water from her glass.
“There was something out there today,” he said.
He saw her shiver.
“I don’t know what. Up in the trees.” He sliced his venison slowly, until the knife reached the plate.
She wiped her hands on her skirt.
“We should move,” she said.
She saw him swallow, saw the twinge cross his face.
After dinner, in the frozen dark, they walked together to the garden. Nothing grew in the middle of winter, but Roland dutifully bent down with the lantern as Jocelyn cut some old vines to use as flowers. She tied them with some yellow twine, then walked behind Roland toward the grave of their son, Matthew. Jocelyn discarded the old vine clippings from the few days since their last visit, cleared the snow from the makeshift tombstone, fingered the letters: “Matthew - Age 3 - Gone so soon.” They had searched together for a stone large enough to be a marker, then lugged it on an old seed bag up from the river. Together they chipped away at the letters and numbers. They intended to engrave the words, “Gone too soon,” but Roland had chipped an “s” instead of a “t,” so Jocelyn suggested “so soon,” instead. Roland had cried, his head fallen almost to his chest, but Jocelyn had held his broad shoulders, rocked him and whispered to him that it would be just fine like this, and that it even sounded better.
“You don’t have to,” he said, remembering that time, the lantern shedding an orange glow around them.
“What?” she said, still fingering the letters.
“Stop it,” he said. “Let’s go.”
With the moon bright, we descend toward the river. All the youngsters are strong enough, have enough knowledge of ice and snow, will be able to weave through the darkness. We aim to travel in a vast roundness, with a spreading and a togetherness, the youngest in the midst. We will hope to go quickly, to drink enough, and then to ascend before light. We would not attempt it without the moon light filling shadows, without moon light brightening pathways. We will hit water up river from the man and the deer and the dangers they pose. Those of us that know, raise our necks, receive the scents. It is risky, no breeze hints to us of others. They will be drawn to the carcass, to the bones cast at angles in the sand. At the head whose eyes will be mere cavities.
We watch the darkness, waiting for the moment when all the rhythms are in sync, we look to one another, and we begin. We move forward carefully from the rocks, searching in the trees, weaving into and then out of the lines, stumbling over a root, swishing a tail into hard wood, and then we have come into the open. A clawed creature is near, stealthily creeping in the high country. We move too quickly, and our young are too much in our midst to be in danger.
When the path descends, we focus our movements, our leaps forward are careful. Our hind pasterns break over low to the ground, and we hit our legs on rocks and slide randomly down long sloping edges, until the rhythm alters, and we gain purchase again, and then we rush onward, our manes flapping against our necks, our nostrils growing wider, our breathing quick, and sometimes we think we have lost something behind us, and we might look, but in the front, the lead must keep his ears trained on the downhill, it is only the rear members whose ears tip back, and even if something has become lost we will not stop, we will look only when we reach the river.
The steepest part lies ahead and our concentration heightens. We leap toward the new slope, slide with bent knees, our hind legs flat against the icy rocks, then another leap to the next part, and so we slide forward until we leap and slide again across the icy land, at last leaping into the air a final time, sliding with bent knees until we have come to rest at the bottom.
The river gurgles past, icy sheets in the middle, but here at the edge the land still holds enough warmth to allow cold water to press against the sand. At the edge of the slope, we stop; the youngsters rush in circles around the elders. Their heads twist in the excitement and it is only now that we know what we have lost.
The youngest stands on three legs, his head dipped, one of his forelegs dangling from the shoulder. He has broken a shoulder bone and his useless leg is his ending. He splayed his front legs on the icy slope, until a bone snapped and he is all but dead now. He will be unable to climb to the trees with us after we drink. He stands in the midst, his dangling leg bent so that the front of the hoof rests on the ground. We mill around him, our muzzles tracing his body, reading the leg, knowing what he is to us. We cautiously walk to the water, lower our necks, splash our lips in the cool moisture, and drink.
When we turn to ascend, he hobbles among us with his three legs, but it is a long climb, and we soon leave him behind. His nickers quickly become calls, and then before we have gained much ground his pitch heightens, and we know he will question all the rhythms. He knows nothing of life outside of us, he can hear the rhythms in our midst, but has too little experience to live alone. He will not sense the dangers, will have no way to watch, will not know how to see or what it means. Our shoulders pull us up the steepest part of the climb. When the ice surprises us, we stumble backwards, but we keep pushing with our hindquarters, jumping forward and upward, until we reach a plateau, where we rest before leaping again to the next batch of ice and snow and rocks and old tree limbs, and then we wait, milling about with our thick necks, and our dilated nostrils, before leaping again and again through the next icy patch, resting on the next plateau, before leaping forward some more. By the time we reach the trees, we have exhausted ourselves, our shoulders ache and our veins protrude from our muscles, but we enter the stony outcropping, and we rest our limbs.
We can still hear him calling. He is to us as the dismembered deer, alone in the wilderness, his eyes soon to be mere cavities.
Roland jolted upright in bed. He saw Jocelyn asleep beside him, the curve of her bent leg, like a river meandering slowly. The blanket was high to her chin, still tucked in her curved fingers. He felt her woollen socks against his leg. He listened again.
The high-pitched call came from the river, deflected through trees, rushing along the treeless path. He looked at his watch, three-forty-five. He wanted to go look, but feared a cougar. He thought a bear would not be nocturnal, but if it was, he would fear that, too. He was glad to have Jocelyn near him. He felt the same relief he had in the beginning, when they met by the river, both alone in the wilderness in their separate shacks on either side. He had moved from the city because the various noises set him off, made him crazy, made him wish for an end to everything. He moved out to the mountains, and discovered the silence muffled all that craziness.
They both appeared at the river, cast their lines into the warm summer waters. She pretended not to notice him, but he watched her. The expert way she cast a line in that perfect arc, the way it landed light as an insect, and the way she could reel in even a large fish in careful increments, letting him out and then reeling him in, letting the line way out and knowing when to stop, when to hold her ground. He asked her how she learned that and she said it was a gift. He timed his river trips to that same time of day and eventually offered her a drink from his canteen.
She shared her next catch, lugging the camp stove all the way to the river. They talked until it was dark. He told her about Vietnam, and about the way everything slowed out in the wilderness. She got a serious look; her brow creasing, and her eyes looking past him toward the insects hovering over the water. She took a long swig of beer, then tilted her head as she returned to him, and he thought maybe she understood.
Fucking men, she called them. With your wars and whatnot. She said she had come in the spring, and here summer was full on and she liked it more than ever.
That was four years ago, and as he stood by the window, watching the first glimmer of light, he thought of her pregnant with Matthew. He had seen pregnant women before, but he was still amazed that her middle grew so large, and that she could still walk and bend and cook and breathe with all that extra body. He had tried to do things for her, like make the bed, or hang the clothes on the line, but she wanted to do it all herself. When Matthew was born, they thought it might all work out okay. The little boy suckled on her breast, and she made him clothes, and Roland caught wild things to feed them all, and they barely worried about how to educate the boy.
None of it seemed to matter anymore, they just tried to get along from one day to the next. They still cried for no apparent reason, like when they peeled carrots or when they walked past the baby aisle in the grocery store.
The call outside continued, and Roland turned from it to look at Jocelyn. She had turned over onto her back, and the white light from the moon seemed farther from them now. He stripped his sleeping clothes off, and rattled around in the dresser to find something warm and dry to go out in.
“What are you doing?” she said, leaning on her elbows.
He turned to her as he pulled on some pants.
“I’m going out.”
“What?” she said.
The call grew louder, and when she heard it she turned her ear toward the window.
“What the hell is that?” she said.
He sat on the bed beside her, his jeans undone at the top.
“I’m going too,” she said.
“Hurry,” he said, relieved.
She jumped out of bed, dressed quickly.
“It sounds like a cow,” he said.
She crunched through the snow to the shed, emerging with some thick rope. She shivered, still adjusting to the difference between the warm house and cold outdoors, thinking of the possibilities. An injured or mutilated or dead animal. A cow might be glad to see a person, but a wild animal would have to be convinced.
“We need feed,” she said. “No, we don’t have the right stuff.”
“Oatmeal?” he said. “No, that’s stupid.”
She ran into the house, came out with an old coffee can with oatmeal in it. The call was quieter now, not so high-pitched, and Roland worried that there were two animals.
“I brought twenty bullets.”
When she looked hard into his eyes, he said, “Under control.”
They heard the scratchy scuffling and then hopping, and Jocelyn thought something hurt was still struggling. The lantern lit the path, the orange light drifting in a circle around them, exposing tree branches and jagged shadows moving around them. Just before they emerged from the trees, Roland turned out the lantern. They stood in the sudden darkness, waiting for shapes to emerge darkly in front of them. The river bubbled past them. The icy rocks let off a frosty scent like a freezer, dry and wet at the same time. They scanned the darkness, made out the tall trees on the other side of the river, the light of sunrise beginning to poke through the distant bend of the river.
On the gravelly river bar, they saw a neck and head raising frantically up and down as something dragged alongside it. When the creature noticed the people, it froze, raising its neck up and down carefully, then ran toward the slope, took a leap, then fell to the ground, sliding back into the gravel.
“Is it a deer?” Jocelyn whispered.
“If it is, it’s hurt,” he said, taking aim.
“Don’t shoot! You don’t know what it is.”
Roland felt stung, his face reddening. He lowered the gun, turned to look at Jocelyn.
She took her binoculars out of her pocket, searched the darkness.
“What do you mean?” he said.
She gave Roland the binoculars, then grabbed the rope. Roland looked across the river.
“Oh, that’s bad.”
“He won’t survive out here,” she said. He squatted down, rolled his finger in the gravel, looked to the sound of the struggling colt. He could see Jocelyn’s legs next to him, her jeans stuffed awkwardly into boots. She stood on both feet evenly, but even from below, she seemed spindly and fragile.
Roland took her hand, led her to the low part of the river.
Once across the river, they approached the frightened colt, who tried the bank again, crumpling into a struggling heap at its base. They helped him onto his feet, watched him hop away on three legs. Jocelyn scooped a few pieces of oatmeal from the can, held her hand out to him. He snorted at her hand, blowing the tiny white pieces to the ground. She scooped some more pieces from the can, offered them again. He carefully took one, chewing it slowly, then dipped his head in hungrily. They used the can to lure the colt into Roland’s old shack; one step at a time, hesitantly.
After Jocelyn left to get some hay and the veterinarian, Roland sat on the porch, pulled his jacket up high, shoved his hands in his pockets. Every so often he stood to look in the window, watched the colt hobble around on the wooden floor. At first he had been startled by the sound of his hooves on the slats of pine, but eventually he got used to it and settled into the farthest corner of the room.
We remain among the trees, our hearing trained on the river. We wait, knowing he has not yet ceased. We wait a while longer. In the trees, we mill about until our breath has returned, until our sides have calmed, our lips instinctively seek the brown tendril beneath snow, our legs want to move until the fatigue has so plagued them they can only lock in place. Our necks linger high for a time, until even the knowledge that we live in darkness, and that one of us is missing is not enough to counter our exhaustion. We stretch and lower our necks, drop our lower lips, our eyes open, silently watching as we sleep. The cries become less, until silence flies up the sloping hillside, surrounds the trees, until silence creeps in among the stones, until we have no other purpose but to rest as morning comes gently upon us.
In the shack, the colt sifted through the hay, searched for the choicest stems, the ones with still green leaves. Jocelyn watched him from the extra room, then took out her pocketknife, cut the carpet from the wall. Once it was cut, she cleared the floor near the colt, then lay the carpet out flat. She swept the straw and hay back onto the carpet. She stood on it beside the colt, who cautiously ate the hay beside her.
That afternoon, Roland trudged slowly down the trail to the river. In the distance, he could hear Jocelyn start up the engine, the wheels spinning in ice, then the rhythmic sputters as the truck made its way toward the bridge. He could see the deer’s head still leaning against the rock.
On the day of Matthew’s death, they had been wandering together down the middle of the same trail. Matthew ahead of Roland, his short legs spread wide to balance among the roots and the little ups and downs of the muddy path. His jeans had tiny back pockets, and Roland’s eye was drawn to them that day, their tiny yellow stitches, and the elastic at the top. He watched the short, fat legs moving wide and awkward. Suddenly Matthew had stopped, gasping, then pointed a chubby finger at the deer standing sideways in the trail. The antlers were long but not fully grown. Roland thought it was a young male, but he hurried forward anyway, squatting down beside Matthew, wrapping his arm gently around his middle. The deer filled the path, the four thin legs like stilts, the long oval ears twitching nervously back and forth. His short tail jumped up and down, and he stomped a hoof once. Matthew’s finger hung frozen in the air, pointing.
“It’s a deer, Matthew,” Roland whispered.
Matthew had remained still, watching the deer until jerked its head around, then suddenly leapt away. Roland scooped Matthew into his arms, and pointed to the deer, bouncing with bent legs through the brush, changing direction in mid-air, his head slightly turned, the bulge of his eye watching behind him. His white tail disappeared, the cracking of old limbs becoming ever fainter.
“Don’t forget this,” he said.
He had carried Matthew the rest of the way to the river. He hadn’t wondered about the deer’s sudden departure, hadn’t thought to look around for tracks, to look up to the trees or along the far bank. He put Matthew down, dropped the diaper bag on the sand, and was just pulling the rifle from his shoulder when he heard a splash, a cry, a growl. He’d had no time to wait, to think. After the shot, that final splash, the cougar charging through the brush, and Matthew’s final breath muffled by water.
He had forgotten about the deer. When he reached the head, still leaning against the rock, with its dismembered bones around it, he stopped. He picked up the deer’s head, pulled it into his lap, rocked it tenderly.
The colt spent the evening backed into the corner, occasionally raising his tail to squirt against the wall. He used the corner as a fifth leg, his one good front leg angled out in front of him, his weight rocked back onto his haunches. His front pastern had swollen, and sometimes he tried to put weight on the dangling limb, before shifting his weight back again. The water buckets stood against the far wall, untouched.
In the long dark, he stood awake, only resting when the fatigue was too great. He called out once, when he heard something walking through the trees, but no nicker returned. He raised his neck to listen, turned his head to peer through the windows, dark with ice. He breathed deeply, searched for a scent, but nothing entered or left the house. Only the constant stench of ammonia, and the fetid scent of diarrhoea against the wall.
Among the trees, we sense no rhythm of death. We see trails of rising dust and we hear human voices and the roar of wheels crossing a bridge. We stand here in the trees, and we watch, but we have no sense that our loss has come to an end. For another night we descend the slope, moving in an oval, filling the empty place. At the river, we drink and we listen to his solitary cry. We charge through the trees, weaving in and out of the dark trunks, drawn to the rising pitch of his wail. We weave among the trees, crash through the brush, jump over fallen logs, searching, searching, searching.
A clearing comes toward us, and then a house, the cry more fervently returns. Encircling the house, we call in reply. There is a clattering, a jerking, an echo among wooden pieces, a falling and a struggling, and a rising, and we are rushing toward the building, but no door can be pushed through, no window is open to our breath. There is only the rising and the falling, and the fog on a window, and the call from within. We know he is here, we have found him and with him, an unfamiliar rhythm. We will wait, we will bide our time here, we will watch from a distant stand of trees. We feel a familiar fear, the need to be invisible, and the urge to come toward that which has been lost.
The next morning, Jocelyn stepped down from the truck, into the churned soil in front of the shack. Hoof prints and horse feces were scattered throughout the clearing. On the porch, several boards were broken, and the single railing surrounding the porch, had been broken at one end. Large divots exposed the frozen ground, chunks of frozen turf were strewn about. Young saplings stood snapped in half. She ran toward the shack, noticed hair hung from some exposed nails, and the bottom of the door bent in. She looked in the window, frightening the colt, who stood by the water buckets licking his lips, large drops falling to the floor. When she walked in the door, she grimaced against the stench of diarrhoea and urine, then walked to the back room, grabbed a flake of hay, and threw it onto the carpeted area.
The colt lowered his neck, forced a cough from his open mouth, spewed saliva across her face. She walked along his body, touched his back carefully, stepped wider around his hind legs, then saw the wall, splattered green and brown. Crusty pieces of hay and feces lie at his feet.
She watched him, noticed the way his nostrils were flared, the breath heavy, his sides heaving in and out, his tail again raised, another juicy splat on the wall, dripping down his legs, onto the floor.
Jocelyn sat under the windows, her chin rested in her cupped hand, her elbow against the top of one of the buckets. The smell of the colt’s diarrhoea reminded her of Matthew, the long effort to get him out of diapers. She remembered becoming impatient, placing him on the toilet, walking from the room as he cried. The colt stumbled out of the corner, tried to bend his forelegs, then threw his body to the floor. She thought if she could leave him on the toilet, he might understand. The colt flapped his tail around on the carpet, then lowered his neck to the floor, before rolling onto his back, his legs thrown into the air. She wanted to run to him, to roll him on his back, to wipe him clean, to blow raspberries on his white belly.
He struggled to rise, but then could do nothing but fall again, more feces dripping from beneath his tail. Jocelyn approached him, looked around the room for some rope, chewing on her fingernail when she saw none. She tried to lift him, but he flailed with his long legs, rolled onto his back, threw his legs to the floor before rolling onto his back again. She backed up until she was against the wall, and watched as he threw himself around, the steam rising from his body, a sense of helplessness flooding through her.
She was relieved to hear the roaring engine of the old truck. Roland stood in the doorway with the vet. He was a heavy set man, a worn beige cowboy hat on his head, and a threadbare striped shirt with metal snaps. His gut was divided by the silver buckle on his belt.
The colt turned onto his back again, threw his legs in the air. The vet walked over to him, put his large hand across the long facial bone, rocked him onto his haunches, then lifted him to his feet. He told Roland to hold the colt’s head under his arm. Then he pressed the broken shoulder bone. He looked at the feces stained wall. He took a stethoscope out to listen to the lungs and the heart. He hung his head for a minute, mumbled something under his breath, then pulled a syringe from his pocket, held it above his neck.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“What’s that?” Jocelyn said.
“There’s nothing to be done,” he said. “His shoulder’s broken. It won’t heal.”
“Can’t you splint it?” Roland said, sliding his arm around Jocelyn’s shoulder.
“Not a shoulder,” he said. “Horses don’t have collar bones; the bone hangs in muscle. Even if it healed enough, by the time he puts weight back on the leg, his tendons will have contracted so he’ll be lame for good. He’s also got colic. He can’t digest the foods you’ve been feeding him, he’s used to sparse grass, not this rich hay.”
Jocelyn twisted her fingers, stood wide-eyed beside Roland. She could hear Roland’s fingers rubbing his stubbly cheek. He was nervous.
“You can’t do anything,” Jocelyn said.
“The herd is probably nearby,” the vet said. “They’ll know something’s wrong, they’ll be waiting. They might come around again. It’s a matter of trust really.”
“There’s nothing to be done,” Jocelyn said, turning to Roland. He glanced at her, then nodded to the vet.
“They’re a strange herd,” the vet said. “Most horses avoid the trees. They like the open country. They like to see what’s coming, I guess.”
The vet handed Roland his syringe, then pulled the colt’s head around until he lost his balance, lowering him gently to the floor. He put his knee on the colt’s neck, then outstretched his arm to Roland.
Roland looked at Jocelyn, then at the syringe. The vet looked up at him, his arm still outstretched. Roland carefully placed the syringe in his hand, then watched as the vet found a vein, pushed the needle into it. He stroked the neck slowly, gently. The colt gradually grew quiet, his eyes glazing, before his sides stopped moving.
The vet walked out to the truck, leaned against the hood, scanned the trees. A black horse was visible among the branches, his head carefully turning, gaining a view both behind and in front. He snapped his head back around as Jocelyn came out of the cabin door, followed by Roland. The vet lit a cigarette, held it between his thumb and forefinger, pointing to the horse in the trees. He exhaled blue smoke, then squinted at the horse, who stretched out his nose, curled his lip as he tasted the smoke. He spun on his haunches, called in low tones to the herd. The forest grew suddenly large with blacks and greys and browns and chestnuts, spinning, then weaving among the trees. They leapt over brush, careened to the edge of the forest before ascending the icy slope with large leaps, their manes flapping against their thick necks. Their hindquarters rounded, then extended, then rounded again. The crack of hooves on rock. The gradual disappearing from view.