To the Elk
They were hanging it against the barn wall. The head limp to the side. With a snowmobile they had dragged the dead elk from wherever in the mountains the pile lay where it had been gutted. For this bloody spectacle.
“That’s a big fucking animal.”
The porch of the main cabin: Wyatt was there with her, and so was this man Dale from Seattle plus the three highballs in his veins. That’s a big fucking thing, Dale kept saying. This was at the ranch that was in Wyatt’s family. The Smith River was nearby. It was Thanksgiving night.
“They got one last year too,” said Wyatt.
“It’s bigger than a buffalo.”
Savannah was thinking of her father and brother and this same performance. They would return home to the triplex by the refinery, north-side Great Falls, with a carcass in the truck bed and blood dripping from the tailgate. And she was saying to herself, for this….
Up the porch steps came the hunters. They had been out all day and were covered in mud, and Savannah thought they smelled. Wyatt congratulated them and asked about the hunt. An uncle said they’d been lucky to shoot it from fifty yards. It ran a hundred and died, and a young cousin took the killing shot.
Wyatt’s uncles and cousins started applauding. They shook hands all around. Even in daytime she didn’t remember their names, and it was not daytime. The dark was long past gathering; it had mustered.
“Last year they got a bigger one,” Wyatt said.
By now the hunters had gone off to their different cabins to clean up.
“Bigger?” said Dale. “Bigger than that?”
“It’s missing half its rack.”
Savannah looked at the head again and saw only one antler.
“Do they spar?” asked Dale.
“I think they grind them against the trees,” said Wyatt.
“Not as impressive.”
Speaking to her now, Dale said, “Let me ask. As a Western woman, does this arouse you? These men returning from the hunt?”
“I hope not,” said Wyatt. “I’m related to them.”
“I don’t mean the men. I mean the blood. I mean the sight of this big, beautiful dead thing.”
Savannah said, “I’m used to it.”
In fact by now—being from this region and educated in a different one (the opportunity belonging to so few from that refinery neighborhood)—she had a rule for herself: no dead animals or fresh-caught fish, not in real life and not in any photographs in any public medium, app or profile, or anything else. None of that spectacle would be permitted with regard to whatever partner or friend she kept. Wyatt’s pictures were full of other things: the neoclassical façade of the apartment building where he used to live in Missoula, an Old Fashioned in a bar in Chicago where his roommate from college played jazz guitar, a portrait in graduation robes and the sandstone arcade columns flanking him, that one now six years old and his hair (shorter back then) tousled from doffing the cap, the PBK cord helpfully around his neck in the foreground….
“Does it arouse you, Dale?” Wyatt asked.
“No, I’m so boring. No kinks for me. For me it’s all dollars and cents.”
“You’ve seen more blood than any of us.”
Seattle Dale was a political communications consultant. Fundraising was his higher function.
“Violence to me is writing a strongly worded email. But—I mean—you look at this, and you know these men can provide. I mean, this is vacation—it’s fun—for us. But—I mean—it’s something, something more.”
His tumbler was down to the ice melt.
“It doesn’t arouse me,” Savannah said.
A cone of light and warmth and festivity spiraled out like a dust devil when the door opened. A terrier called Sonny with long distinguished whiskers came out and trotted down the steps and went to piss on the snowy lawn. Inside, Wyatt’s aunts and mother, and his father also, were preparing the table. His father specialized in sweet potatoes.
When the little dog came back Dale went in for another drink and called the dog in using baby sounds. At last they were alone.
She watched Wyatt’s face. There was nothing there but anticipation for dinner and for his wine. She had looked at him before and had seen whole worlds where they would go together and more from which he’d come. A lick of dark hair came down out of the front of his cap. He put himself together well and tried to dress of his time, but it did not subsume him. Not too clean with the effort, his good shirt just a little too big. He liked big clothes. To have something fit perfectly—was that another of the things that would make him feel ashamed of his upbringing?
The glass against Wyatt’s lips now. Rare content passed through his eyes as he swallowed, the fire weeping in them. He made his deep voice go high and feminine. “Does it arouse you?”
“Ask me again,” Savannah said.
“As a Western woman?”
She moved to hit him, and his arm was around her.
“I’ll get a fire going in our cabin.”
“That sounds nice.”
“Thank you for doing this,” he said. “I know it’s unbearable.”
“It’s not. It’s really not. I love them.”
There were many people she didn’t know. But at length you would know them. It was not being away from home, that wasn’t the difficult thing. Anyway you only had to get through dinner and then go to the little cabin and go to sleep. The drive had been beautiful, and they hadn’t argued.
She stood on toes to kiss the bottom of his neck.
“Do you really?” he asked.
Tears were in that question. Tears were good. And her rule was a good rule, a necessary rule to have for men. Education in history and politics had made her question whether it was for the better passage of life not to have relationships with men. That was a resounding theory up until graduation. Anyway, at minimum you had to have a rule you stuck with.
He went to wash his hands before dinner. When he was gone she admired for a while the dark mountain on the horizon above the ranch gate. The cold clean air touching her eyes, inflaming the veins. She didn’t look at the dead elk on the side of the barn. Then she went in for dinner.
The table was so crowded with people that her shoulders never relaxed. Her shirt went too low, she thought.
The food was very good. The green beans were perfectly seasoned. There were two turkeys; one was local and lean and the other was a butterball. They filled their glasses with red wine out of towering decanters. She was at the end of the table beside Wyatt. His father was at the head. She was across from his mother. It was a good meal. Everyone talked to each other.
“How come you didn’t want to hike,” the mother was saying.
“I thought I’d stay around and get something done,” said the father.
“Get what done?”
“Work. Caught up on emails.”
She watched Wyatt. He was drinking fast. She touched his knee under the table. His leg was vibrating under her hand. You could duck under these little breakers of talk like a child playing in the surf, but Wyatt was not possessed of that lightness. Later they would have to talk at length about it—whatever thing was said at the table that stood out to him as particularly abhorrent.
Things got formally quiet as everyone took turns saying gratefuls. The woodstove atmosphere and the gray iron of the gun barrels on the walls and the smell of the old rugs and leather furniture gave the quiet an oppressive quality like overwhelming heat, inescapable intimacy, absorbing silence into it.
From the other head of the table, “To the elk.”
“To the elk.”
“Beautiful. Just beautiful.”
“There are times you’re facing an animal and you’re not ready to take a life. It’s not an easy thing. To the elk. And to Harrison. He took the shot.”
She drank a little faster after the toast. When her turn finally came, she said, “Thank you for welcoming me. It’s a wonderful place.”
“To the ranch.”
They drank. All agreed—the ranch and the dead elk held all that was beautiful and dear. She didn’t look at any particular face; from having run meetings she understood how to look between people when addressing a table. She went on, “It’s been a good year. Better than I expected.”
Wyatt mugged for the crowd, and everyone laughed.
“Really, thank you for having me.”
Later they stood around the long kitchen island and ate the pie she had baked. She explained again to one of the aunts the decision they’d made to move in and what went into it. The uncle who had toasted the elk asked what she was doing for work and followed her answer with, “Do you work together?”
“No,” said Wyatt. “She works for a Dean. I work in Admissions. The worst office to be in right now.”
“It’s a good place to work,” she said. “I can do four tens in the summer when I want. The benefits are good. Campus jobs are nice.”
“When you add your union dues to the premiums you’re losing half a paycheck,” said Wyatt.
“But you can’t have one without the other,” she said.
“It’s beautiful how that works.”
“Can you run this up the flagpole?” the uncle went on. He had not listened. “Why the cuts to English? You can’t cut English. What’s the point of having a public college if you’re going to get rid of English?”
“English isn’t going anywhere,” she promised, wearily. Because she thought there was more than just the appreciation of literature in his concern for the survival of English.
“Well, run it up the pole if you can. It’s terrible what’s happening over there with the cuts. And Will Tunt retiring is a big loss.”
“It’ll get better,” she said.
“Enrollment always goes up when there’s a recession,” said Wyatt. “Folks would rather be in grad school.”
The uncle had taken several big bites of her pie. He told her how delicious it was and asked if she had made it herself, yes. After a long while the grown-ups were too drunk to stay awake and the teenage boy cousins had grown too weary for the world outside their heads and the girl cousins were sleeping in the corners cuddling with the dogs and it was over, she had survived it, and Wyatt was not saying anything else about the college where they worked and how it was a poor school serving poor students who were going to stay poor, and they were on their way out.
“Take Sonny with you,” said his father. Handed the terrier’s leash to his son. “Don’t worry, he’ll be good.”
Together they walked the little dog from the big cabin to the small cabin where they were staying.
While Sonny sniffed around at the base of the cabin steps, they sat on the porch, on top of a bench covered with a buffalo hide, and they looked across the lawn at the barn where the dead elk was hanging. Savannah wondered if it was going to start smelling.
“I wish I’d been out there to see,” said Wyatt.
“I mean to see it when it was alive.”
“I’m glad you weren’t there to see it get killed.”
They were holding each other. The wind moved over their faces, and they squeezed closer.
“Not that I want to hunt,” Wyatt was saying. “But you sort of wish that you knew what it was like.”
“I don’t. I don’t want you to be like,” she raised her voice and imitated Seattle Dale, “Harrison.”
“Me neither. I just wish I knew.”
“It was fun walking to the cliff,” she said.
The hike they’d done in the afternoon took them across the western expanse of the family’s great tract, past a tipi erected for ambience, to the edge of the river gorge. Fathoms down, you could see the frozen banks. In summertime you could swing from a hammock between two ponderosas with a cocktail in hand, maybe a book in your lap. This was how she imagined him.
Then she thought that the dead elk had moved, swung a little.
“It’s—” he started. “My dad didn’t know how to field dress an animal. His dad never taught him how to hunt. I’m not any better because I don’t do it.”
“It’s not about being better.”
“One feels somehow emasculated,” he said.
“Because you don’t know how to hunt?”
“Not exactly. I don’t think you’d get it. You remember Chuck asking what I do?”
“He didn’t ask you. He asked me.”
“But then he asked if we work together.”
“I always have to prove my worth. That’s what I mean: I don’t think hunting is impressive. But doing something impressive is impressive. Knowing how to do things.”
“I don’t think that’s what Chuck meant.”
“I know my family.”
She didn’t want to argue. She said something about how it would be cold and unpleasant to have to go pee in the middle of the night, since the nearest outhouse was across the lawn, behind the barn with the dead elk. After that they went inside and got changed for bed; or, she did, and he started trying to make the fire.
The plush duvet cover was cold on her bare legs. The hairs stood up, and while she waited for the fire to start she was self-conscious of having prickly legs. Sonny was on the ground, sitting obediently and anxiously, watching her in bed. Wyatt was kneeling and using a hatchet to make kindling. Erratic banging shook the door when he wedged the blade into a crack and slammed a log against the stone base of the fireplace to split off flakes of pine. He built a pyre in the iron woodstove with newspaper and tinder and tried to get the flames started and took a long time to do it and tried opening and closing the flue and could not get it right.
“It’s so cold,” she said.
“Almost got it. I smothered it last time.”
“Maybe you could just get in with me.”
“No, I have to do this.”
She could fall asleep even when she was freezing, especially after enduring something. Enduring did make you tired, but it was alright to be tired because you could sleep easily. Her father had said to her once, do you sleep easy because you’re a princess?
She was almost in a dream and Wyatt was still working on the fire, and she felt Sonny climb up onto the bed and lay down on top of her feet, and her legs got warmer, and then she was all the way in the dream and almost asleep but still heard the newspaper flare up quickly and burn out each time he tried and tried, Wyatt still in the waking world.
Much later in the night she woke up because she had to pee. It was hot in the cabin. The fire was going, she did not know for how long, and the twin bed beside the queen was unmade but empty.
She pulled sweatpants on and went to the door and had to push it very hard till it flew open and slammed against the wall. No other noise out there. She saw the moonlight, bright on the snowy lawn, and the big cabin like an embalmed giant. She saw the elk, its fur matted and dark, and the tongue spilling out of its cracked mouth. Its open eye was black.
And Wyatt was sitting on the bench next to the cabin door. He was all in his winter gear, which he had formerly peeled off when he labored to make the fire, and his elbows were on his knees and his cheeks were in his hands, and he was undoubtedly facing to look at the elk.
“It’s cold,” she said.
“It’s not too bad.”
“Do you want to talk?”
He wasn’t wearing shoes. His bare feet were on the ground, his toes a few inches from the pastry-thin ice. He had taken off his thick wool socks and left them between his feet, inside out.
“What are you doing? Come to bed.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“Come on. Don’t do this.”
“I’ll be in later. I’m sorry.”
Savannah recalled that she had to pee. Without answering the apology she went down the cabin steps. The sudden reminder, the pressure in her stomach returning to the front of her conscience, was as heat coming back into a room after a door is shut against winter.
She walked out over the snow. The dead elk grew larger and larger in sight the closer she came to the barn. The texture of its fur was nauseating, more than the smell of the outhouse.
Sitting down, she hated herself for the lapse. It wasn’t useful to be bitter about anything, but it had gotten to you anyway. The transference: you’d caught it just as it was done.
When she returned he had already gone back in. The socks remained. She picked them up and shook a little ice from them. In the cabin he was lying flat on the twin mattress, with hands folded on his chest. She got on the queen and pushed all the bad air from her lungs.
“Come on up.”
“Just calming down.”
It was the same thing. Civilized men would kill something, civilized men would watch. In his pictures the elk was there. Strung up between the arcade columns, its outline and ghost.
“Get in with me.”
After a minute he said, “Alright.”
There was love too, that was true. He was the product of a rule, an algorithm that had narrowed so many variables to her preference. They resisted the same things. Like the logs and pine flakes and newspaper it would keep the fire going, but also they would be consumed and used up. There was no rule concerning what to feel.