Colt said that to make up for it he’d take me on a trip. I chose Savannah because I’d always loved the name; I remember sitting in AP U.S. History (“ey push,” as my American classmates called it) and learning about Sherman’s pyromaniacal March to the Sea. How he’d spared just one city, the one called Savannah.
In my mind Savannah was golden grasslands, arid heat, and hazy turquoise seas, some hybrid between National Geographic footage and biblical resort town. It was all wrong, of course—the fantasy of an immigrant teen stuck in gray northeastern suburbs. By now, because of work, I’d stayed in many a small-town Marriott in the southeast industrial belt, and my understanding of the South had taken on the dripping gloom of True Detective. Still, I’d never made it to Savannah, and held onto it as some kind of metaphor for exceptional salvation. Savannah, too beautiful to burn.
After landing and renting the car, we’d barely gotten on the highway when Colt said he was hungry. We stopped at a three-lane-wide Chick-Fil-A drive-thru. I saw Colt checking out the teenager handing over orders in the rearview mirror. We ate our Chick-Fil-A sandwiches in the parking lot of a nearby gas station, overlooking a Walmart.
“You want the rest of your Polynesian sauce?” Colt asked, mouth full. He’d torn off half his sandwich in one bite.
“I do,” I said.
He gave me a funny look. The sauce was red and sticky around the corners of his mouth. I counted to three—the clenches of his jaw. Then he was up, slamming the car door. “Taking a piss,” I heard through the glass. I threw my half-full packet of Polynesian sauce into the grease-soaked bag.
I stared out the windshield and counted the number of camouflage outfits. People wishing to be one with and undetected in nature, decked out in pixelated brown-green vests and baseball caps, sticking out like eyesores on the sun-baked concrete of the Walmart parking lot. Even an idling Domino’s pizza truck was sheathed in camo print.
I was once a tree in a middle school play, and all I remember from the performance was the gratitude I felt looking at the back of the glossy blond heads of the children who played lead roles. I wasn’t them. I wasn’t needed; I could slip offstage, and nothing would have changed.
Colt said he played Brick in a high school production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “Wrong production. I’d have been a better Stanley Kowalski,” he said. He was right. Colt was tall, dense, always hungry, more Stanley than melancholy Brick. His appetites and moods changed quickly. Not an hour after we’d stopped for food, he was already chugging a plastic pouch of TastyBites from Costco. He clenched the pouch so it was tube-shaped in his fist, and when he squeezed, the brown beany mixtures shot up and the smell of chana masala permeated the car. “Indian gogurt,” he laughed. A dribble of it ran down his knuckles. “Funny, right?”
I squinted at the skinny pines that stood like hair from swampy waters by the highway. The swamp was covered with a thin sheen that, in the slanted light, reflected the swirling iridescence of petroleum.
“Yeah,” I said. “Funny.”
Colt and I lived in New York. We’d met at a recruiting event, when he was an associate and I was a college senior. He later confessed that he’d pulled strings so I’d be hired onto his team, which specialized in automotives, which meant endless business trips together to the South. We always flew into Atlanta, dabbed sweat off our foreheads as we pulled our suitcases across the rental car lot, checked into separate hotel rooms. We never flirted in front of our colleagues.
Those were the happy times. Now I was no longer at the firm, and travel was no longer business class on domestic airlines, secretly thrilling. I had a Van Cleef and Arpels ring, and Colt had been named VP and was “dealing with a lot of stress.” We spent a lot and drank a lot. After the first time it happened, Colt took me to Turks and Caicos. The second time, to Venice. And this time I said why not Savannah, why not the South, why not just go and see if it does us good. The South was special for us.
We checked into a victorian house a block off Forsyth Park, and Colt said he’d take me to a pre-dinner drink. “You’re so tense,” he said, his thumb digging into the hollow of the bone behind my ear. He liked to hold my face when we kissed, a forceful grip cradling the length of my jawline and the base of my skull. I once described this to my girlfriends as sexy, and they’d nodded uncertainly. Colt and I are happy, I’d said defensively, and showed them the ring.
The Savannah guesthouse was one Jackie O. once stayed in. I prided myself on being a good trip researcher, on making informed choices. “Colt, I read about this bar on the rooftop of the Perry Lane Hotel,” I said. “We could go there.”
“Where did you read about it?”
“Condé Nast Traveler.”
“Baby, speak English.”
I knew he was being funny again. His smile in the mirror was huge as he watched me tap the concealer along the bridge of my nose, around the edges of my mouth, and underneath my eyes, two taps underneath the right eye and five taps underneath the left eye, where the bruise was still fading, then smooth it over like a game of connect the dots, only it was my face I was outlining into existence.
From the rooftop bar, dusk was a splendid gradient of burnt orange to dark red, and I tried to notice the lights the way an old painting teacher told me to: the lit-up white of the church steeple, the neon lights spelling out SAVANNAH on the side of a windowless concrete building, the red blinks of cranes and oil refineries, the interior of a brightly lit Pottery Barn. I could take a picture and post it for our New York friends to see, caption it something arty. The trip had been last-minute; they didn’t know we were here. Impromptu, just us, a getaway from the stress that was getting to him, Colt had whispered the morning after that awful night.
I put my phone away. It had gotten chilly, night falling too suddenly over Savannah. It was as if someone had hit a switch and everything suddenly became banal, the string lights, the Latin jazz music from the rooftop speakers, the Corpse Reviver cocktails in our hands.
We ate at a restaurant with starched tablecloths that specialized in exotic meats. Colt ordered antelope steak. The antelopes were raised on a farm in Texas, we were told, so they wouldn’t be gamey, but more like lean red beef. This didn’t deter Colt—if there was antelope, Colt would get antelope. I imagined this farm, a flat grassland amidst oil rigs, the delicate horned creatures imported and bred for slaughter.
Colt had a habit of chatting up waiters about “the good stuff only locals know,” a line of questioning that, in our consulting days, usually yielded recommendations to roadside BBQ joints or seedy strip clubs. I used to smile politely while he did this, as the men around the table belched and grinned. It was on a business trip in St. Louis that Colt and I first got together. He’d stayed after our colleagues left to close out the round with his corporate Amex. As always, after I’d gotten drunk, I’d started crying. Colt had pulled me into his arms in the deserted lobby bar, whispered into my hair: “I know. I know you had to work harder than anybody else.”
I always thought back to that moment. The moment I kissed the man who’d given me my job, the man whose Murray Hill apartment I now lived in, the man who said he’d take care of me, of everything.
The waiter, having delivered Colt’s antelope and my scallops, answered Colt with no hesitation: “Go to Armadillo Island. You’ve gotta take the ferry from Euclid. It’s got all these abandoned mansions and wild horses.”
“Wild horses?” Colt perked up.
“Is it safe?” I asked.
“Oh yes, ma’am,” the waiter said. He was a tall, elderly man with a slight hunch. “Run by the National Park Service as a wildlife refuge. Pack in, pack out.”
“Let’s go tomorrow,” Colt said, turning to me.
“I already booked a tour of the Mercer house for tomorrow,” I said. “We can go Sunday.”
“You know yourself. If we wait there’ll be a reason not to go.” Colt pulled out his phone. “I’ll buy the ferry tickets online right now.”
“It really is worth it, sir.” The waiter said. “Would you like another glass of wine?” The old man turned abruptly toward me.
I massaged the patch of skin underneath my left eye. The vein there was throbbing. “What about the Mercer house?” I asked Colt.
The waiter averted his gaze. “She’ll have another.” Colt told him jovially.
I crossed my arms and said nothing. Colt ate his antelope. The new glass of wine sat there, untouched, until Colt snapped the leather bill-holder shut over a pair of crisp twenties. He was always big-hearted with waiters.
Euclid had only a smattering of kitschy seafood cafés that wouldn’t open until lunch, and there was nowhere to get coffee, not even a vending machine. My temples were hurting. We’d driven down the Georgia coast in the dark in order to make the morning ferry, and a boy in a park ranger outfit greeted us outside the NPS visitor center. “The ferry will be leaving from the dock in half an hour.” He addressed Colt but was obviously trying not to stare at me. He really looked so young, like a boy scout. “Make sure not to miss it, there’s only one.”
“Got it,” Colt said. “And there’s no food on the island?”
“No food for retail, sir.” The boy scout blinked. “It’s pack-in, pack-out.”
“We’ve got sandwiches,” I said. We’d stopped by a Kroger the previous night for Boar’s Head gouda and deli meat and some Hawaiian rolls. Colt didn’t like sweet bread, but the store was closing and so that’s what I picked up while he waited in the car.
“Good,” the boy scout said, still not looking at my face. “And remember, don’t feed the wild horses. Best to keep a distance.”
“Sure,” Colt said. He squinted at the marshes. There was a thick cloud layer hanging low over the water, giving the morning a gray glare. “Weather gonna clear up?”
“It’s coastal weather, sir. Could shift easily.”
There was an old couple on the ferry and no other passengers. The captain was a man with dirty blond strands and a plaid shirt. It wasn’t a pretty ride. The mouth of the river split open into marshes and industrial refineries clotted over the horizon. Colt started talking loudly about the time he took the Provincetown Ferry and it hit and killed a great white shark. I’d heard the story before. I think he wanted to impress the captain, but the captain only stared ahead dead-eyed. The woman in the old couple was studying Colt with pursed lips, but when I made eye contact, she looked down.
I took out my phone and tapped the camera icon so it became a mirror. Then I saw. Colt looked away as I discreetly reapplied the foundation that must’ve rubbed off when I was dozing in the car. He hadn’t made any comments. Of course, he couldn’t bring himself to. Ironically, he’d always been the kind of man who claimed he liked his women “natural,” not caked with concealer.
We slowed as we approached a dock jutting out of an enormous landmass of low palms and dense oaks. The old couple didn’t get up. I wondered if they were retired, riding the ferry back-and-forth just to wait out their days in this Georgia town.
“Four p.m.’s the last ferry, right?” I asked the captain as Colt and I stepped off the boat.
“The only one,” he said. “And we don’t wait.”
“But we’re the only passengers getting off,” I said. The captain was already untying the rope from the post. He shrugged. “Are there more people on the island?” I pressed. “Camping?”
“No overnights allowed,” he said. “Everybody who comes needs to go. One in, one out.” And with that he was back into the boat cabin, and I watched as the ferry pulled away, puttering in the gray water until it disappeared into the marshes. So we really were alone.
Colt had gone beyond the dock to inspect a pile of rusty bicycles. The wind by the shore whipped the trees wildly, and a clump of Spanish moss landed on the ground right next to him, nearly hitting his head. He didn’t notice. “Check out these bikes!” He was calling.
“Are there trails?” I asked. Colt had stayed up stalking the internet about this island, his face carved upside-down in the cellphone’s glow. I’d done the same, and I knew there were trails, but Colt liked to think he was in control.
“Sure,” he said. “Here’s a bike with a decent chain; take it.”
I took a step toward the rattling thing he had propped up for me. It had no brake. “You trust it?”
Colt was already astride his own bike, his long legs deploying in slow motion as he pedaled around me in a circle. “I’ll carry you if it breaks down. How about that?”
We set forth on the main path, a bumpy trail of dredged sand and shell bits and shark teeth. The island really did feel primordial, the old growth forests joining branches above the path, draped with gray-green moss strands that swayed lightly in the wind. It was winter and the greenery was faded save for the vibrant palmettos, their leaves like blades of green fanned out over the low canopy. I pumped my pedals hard after Colt, who was speeding ahead with childlike glee. “Let’s go find the wild horses!” he shouted.
For miles and miles we cycled. The nature became monotonous along the straight path. At one point we passed by what looked like an abandoned airfield, where the forest had been razed. But there were no horses. Colt stopped to drink some water and pointed to something in the bushes. “There’s a trail there,” he said. “A horse trail, probably. Maybe they don’t like to hang out by the main path. They can smell the human presence.”
The wild grass in the airfield bristled in the wind. The air smelled of something rotten, and it made me light-headed. “Okay,” I said, “but not far.” We tossed our bicycles onto the razed field and followed the trail into the forest. The ground was covered with bristly pine needles and gnarled roots. Colt walked ahead, pushing thorny stems aside with his fingers and holding them until I passed so they wouldn’t snag at me. After a few minutes, I touched his arm. “Let’s turn around,” I said. “There are no horses here. I don’t like being this far off-path.”
“But we’re almost by the water. I can smell it.”
It was true—the soil was looser, moister. The water reached inland with tentacular streams; it was all swamp, no beach. We were standing on a clearing next to a big oak tree and there was nowhere farther to go. “Let’s have lunch,” Colt said. I took the cheese and deli meat and bread out of my backpack and lay them on a flat rock. “Make them fast, before the ants get to them,” Colt said. I started slicing a tomato with the knife I’d taken from the rental. Colt was still staring at the spread.
“You know I don’t like Hawaiian rolls,” he said.
“The ants,” I said. “Hurry.”
“Every goddamn time.”
I ignored him. I assembled a sandwich and handed it to Colt, then made my own. He was like a big child, or rather a sulking teenager, scrolling on his phone as he chewed. But there was no data; I’d just checked.
“Apparently there’s an abandoned church along the path,” I said after a while. “I saw it on the map at the dock. But maybe there won’t be enough time to see it.”
“We have to be back for the ferry at 4:00 p.m. Plenty of time.”
“If you say so,” I said.
Colt was dragging at the ground with the tip of his boot, unearthing an oyster shell. “It’s funny,” he said. “The shells make a big circle around this tree. It’s like someone was here. Shucking and eating oysters. You think it’s one of the island’s secret residents?” He scooted closer to me on the rock, giving me a nudge of the hip. “A ritiual of these horses we can’t see?”
I busied myself with putting the food back into ziplock bags. “They’re probably just a myth made up to lure tourists.”
“You wanna bet?” His fingers were loosening my scarf, his mouth nuzzling my neck. I sighed and let myself go soft, pliable. He pulled me onto his lap, facing him and the old growth forest behind him. He undid our zippers and pulled down my pants. I closed my eyes. He clenched my hips and the pain was sharper than I expected. He’d spit on his hands but it wasn’t enough, it was not like before, a tangle of organs slick with lust. Sweetbread also means thymus and pancreas, I thought. When I opened my eyes again the Spanish moss was swaying overhead like prayer flags, and I had the acute sense that someone was watching us.
“Colt,” I said. “Colt, stop.”
“What?” His breath was short against my ear.
“I heard something.” And indeed there was a louder rustling of leaves, and I jumped off Colt’s lap, pulling my pants up, and he sprung to his feet as well.
“Is that a horse?” he shouted, but we couldn’t see anything. The rustling started up again, and he pointed at a bush. “There!”
It was a very large rat with an insect’s scaly carapace, digging its snout into the fecund soil.
“Armadillo. It doesn’t care about us,” Colt said with amazement. “It’s not even aware that we’re these big scary animals.”
“Or maybe it’s used to it,” I said, strapping my backpack on. “Let’s get back to the bikes.” I wanted to get far away from the armored rat, for us to keep moving.
“I read about them online,” Colt said. “You know why it’s covered with scales? So if a predator attacks, the armadillo can jump into a thornbush, and the predator can’t follow.”
The creature hobbled away, a mutant from the Jurassic era. “Let’s go,” I repeated. This time I ploughed ahead along the horse trail, not caring about thorns. I felt the prickle of tears, but Colt hated it when I cried. I wondered if the old couple would still be on the ferry. It was only when the airfield came back into view that I turned around to see if Colt was following. He was, and he held something misshapen in his hand.
“Guess what,” he said.
He shoved the misshapen object closer to my face. It was soiled and scaly, with a wet rat-like snout. A small armadillo, an infant. I shrieked and he dropped the thing, laughing.
“What did you do?” I gasped. “Did you kill it?”
“I did nothing,” he said. “It was there on the trail. You walked right over it.”
“Why did you pick it up?” I couldn’t even look at the carcass. “That thing is dirty. The bacteria. Why did you touch it?”
He stretched out his arms and lumbered toward me, grunting, trying to wipe his fingers on my shirt. “Leprosy!” he grimaced. “Armadillos carry leprosy!”
“Stop!” I said. I didn’t realize I’d actually started crying until I saw that familiar contrite look on his face.
“Come on. It’s funny.”
I tried to steady my breath. “It’s not funny.”
Colt kicked the dead armadillo aside like a deflated soccer ball. “Hey,” he said. “Why did you ask me if I killed it?”
“The air on this island—” I said. “It’s so humid it’s giving me a headache. I know you didn’t kill it. I’m sorry.”
He got back on his bike, not looking at me. “I would never kill a living thing.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“I’m just trying to make you laugh. You never laugh, not anymore.” He was still talking, head-down, to his pedals.
“It’s okay, Colt,” I said. I flung my leg over the bike, and my pelvis felt sore and raw over the seat.
He sighed and plowed forward. “If you say so,” I heard him sing-song.
The white path stretched ahead, potholed with deep puddles from a recent rain. When we rode across them it was like gravity itself was slowing us down, dragging us into the mud. We would never make it to that abandoned church, I thought. But suddenly Colt came to a hard brake ahead of me.
“I saw something,” he said. “It was definitely tall enough to be a horse.” He got off his bike. “Let’s follow it.”
“Colt, no. Let’s just stick to the path.”
But he’d already taken a few steps into the bushes. “There!” he called out with excitement. “I see the steeple! Didn’t you want to see the church? Right over there.”
I followed close after him. The trail opened up to a depressed clearing, like the ground had sunk ever so slightly, and in the middle of it was an enormous white building with wide steps and columns and porches and a tall steeple. Colt ran toward it. The white paint looked unchipped and fresh, so fresh it had a minty tint to it. The live oaks surrounding the church were enormous, their branches low and horizontal. There was an old picnic table underneath one of them, not far from the church entrance, and I sat there while Colt circled the building. “Doesn’t look abandoned at all,” he said. He was pressing his face against one of the windows. “Can’t see inside though. The windows are treated with some kind of black tint.”
“You can’t see them, but they can see you,” I said.
He didn’t hear me. He circled toward the front porch. “There’s an announcement on the door.” He leaned in to read, then shook his head and came back to the picnic table. “Funny. Says there are two services a day. One at three thirty and one at midnight. Maybe the horses come here for midnight mass.”
I checked my watch. It was 3:29 p.m.
Right then the church bell chimed. Colt’s eyes opened wide, and at first I thought it was the eeriness of wondering who was striking the bell, but then I saw he was staring at something beyond my head. “Don’t move,” he said. “Or move slowly. There’s one. There’s one right behind you.”
I froze. My fingers clutched my backpack. “It’s so skinny,” Colt said. “It doesn’t look healthy. Something wrong with its eyes.”
Slowly I turned my head. There was a horse, coming around the church, its coat black and patchy, like it had fought and was barely healing. It was small, so emaciated it looked skeletal. Its eyes were a cloudy white.
“Give me your backpack,” Colt said.
“Colt, no.” My voice was barely above a whisper.
“It’s starving. It wants something.” He wasn’t bothering to be quiet. He ripped the backpack from my hands and turned it upside down, emptying out its contents on the picnic table. His hands were shaking, fumbling around the objects, then he found the Boar’s Head ham and started tearing at the meat. “Bet that’s why they killed the armadillo. Starving to death.”
“Colt, you know it didn’t kill the armadillo.”
The horse slowly turned its head toward us, hearing the noise. But with its cloudy eyes it was impossible to tell whether it was looking at us. Colt flung a shred of meat toward it.
The horse’s nostrils flared. “You’re going to make it angry,” I said. “The ranger told us not to feed them. We’re going to miss the ferry.”
“We’re going to miss the ferry!” He repeated, nasally. The horse was sniffing at the piece of meat on the ground. The horse was eating the meat. It can’t be, I thought. Its jowls clenched, and its eyes stayed open, staring at us or not at all, impossibly white. When it finished chewing it reared its head in our direction.
“My hands are all slimy,” Colt said. He picked up another shred of meat, dangling it. A muscle in the horse’s neck spasmed. It took a small step closer.
“Put it down,” I pleaded, my eyes on the horse. Its tongue was lolling. “We’ve got to go. Something’s wrong with this horse.”
Colt let the shredded meat drop to the floor, then turned slowly to me. There was that glint in his eyes that I knew well. “Something’s wrong? Something’s always wrong.”
“Colt, don’t,” I begged.
“Something’s wrong with you for thinking I fucking killed that armadillo.”
The horse was advancing toward us now. It wanted more meat. Like a reflex my hands shot up to my face.
“The horse!” I screamed, trying to fight out of Colt’s grip. The knife was on the table, next to the half-tomato shaped like a red heart, and Colt screamed too, and the horse was ghostlike behind him, teeth out. It wanted more meat. There was no one around for miles, and this time it would be death, I thought. For a split second Colt loosened his grip and I leapt free, scrambling for the knife. Then survival was the only white hot force pitting me against the ghostly, snarling horse. I stabbed the blade deep into the horse’s flanks, slicing a long gash along its protruding rib, and it let out a terrible noise, so shrill and anguished that it shook the moss and pierced through the canopy of oaks and reverberated around the entire island, so shrill and anguished it sounded almost human. Its cloudy eyes rolled in its skull, thick red blood oozing from the gash, but my arm came down again, and again, slashing into its coat. It was all bones. Its hind legs buckled as it let out another noise, more of a whimper this time, and I kept slashing because I knew it was me or him, I slashed until its entire flank was a mess of lacerated muscle and blood, until it was just a carcass on the ground, fur and bones and ribs. Its eyes never closed, white as the sky.
When I came to Colt was on the grass, next to the knife, his big robust limbs limp yet twitching like jelly. Tears streaked down his cheeks. He was reaching out for me. “He wanted more meat,” I said, my voice hoarse and alien. “We’ve got to go. It’s four.”
I sank down next to Colt, the palmetto and oak forest around us bristling and bending in the wind. His shirt was stained crimson by blood, all the blood that ghostly emaciated horse had shed, but when I looked for the horse I couldn’t find it, and instead, through the oaks and the low afternoon fog that had seeped from the sea, I saw the dock. Somehow we had cycled back to the dock. The ferry was at the dock’s end, engine rumbling, and I could see the two huddled white heads of the old couple through the condensation on the cabin window. The captain was on the deck, rope in one hand, ready to unmoor. He checked his watch, squinted, then waved impatiently. One in, one out, he’d said.
“Go,” I told Colt.
Colt’s eyes were wide and unblinking. I remembered how he always used the hand he’d raised and ran his thumb gently along my left cheekbone, where the concealer had long eroded, and I could tell he was always really sorry.
The ferry blew its horn again. I knew it would take him. Dusk was approaching and the old growth forest stirred with shadows. The horse carcass was gone from its pool of blood. One in, one out. One push, one pull. Like the pulsations of arteries that feed into the million broken pieces of an organ that nonetheless keeps pumping. I picked myself up. I started, arduously at first, back up the path, then broke into a trot, eyes set on the church steeple amidst the darkening foliage. I knew the wild horses were waiting.