Mourning taken to extremes. A work in progress, feedback welcome!
| Rachel and Shane Carson are driving down the main thoroughfare of Rocky Mountain National Park for the fifth year in a row. Rachel always drives for obvious reasons. Shane’s small lap is swamped in opened binders, maps, pictures, tallies trying to escape out the open window. He grabs her shoulder with his long, pale fingers, crowing with delight. She slows down, sees the hawk on the telephone line, half smiles. His disposable camera, held with such enthusiasm, doesn’t hurt the bird’s dignity at all. They both watch him preen quietly, reverently. Rachel softly rubs her husband’s narrow back. She peers down at the emerging dataset with interest. Today they’re surveying the raptors along the main road. It is dusk, when the birds are stirring from their secret perches and coming out in the open. Idly, she wonders where they go when she can’t see them, kisses Shane’s ear. The hawk launches himself from the wire and makes a dark shadow against the sky.
“Never gets old.” Shane grins and leans on Rachel’s shoulder. His blonde hair has grown shaggy, so long that it tickles her cheek. She knows that he means not only the implied power of the animal, but the satisfaction of observing and counting them with her. There is never a time when they aren’t surveying something: animal populations, makes of the cars that pass by, the topics of the conversations of strangers. They do it for the fun of it, but it doesn’t hurt that the market research companies pay them for certain datasets.
“You’d better not get old either,” he warns with a mock glare. “I know we’ve agreed to live forever, but I hear talk of you having some kind of birthday later this month. That just won’t do.” She leans her forehead against his and stares him down. He maintains a look of false threat. As usual, her ghostly grey eyes do all the talking, let him know she’d never leave him behind just because he’s three years younger. His face melts into a smile. They kiss as the growing line of car behind them express their displeasure. They pay no mind, as usual. They need no one else in the world.
Rachel is walking alone.
The shine has entirely left her waterproof leather hiking boots. Her army surplus khakis are rolled halfway up her meaty calves to protect them from a similar fate, the desire for tidiness more compulsory than rational by this point. Her existence is small and must be ordered to stay together. She finds it almost funny that she still notices the unwashed smell emanating from her arm pits. Before, she would spend an hour each morning massaging soap with citrus smells into the soft curves of her body and dreams about walking the face of the earth forever. She rubs the five marks tattooed on her right wrist. The distance between before and after is very real.
The Rockies are a cold bulk in the distance. Underfed horses congregate around the hollow metal trunks of billboard trees. The silence is funereal. The mouth of every creature is closed this evening. Every so often a packed SUV barrels irreverently down the road and whips the oiled copper of Rachel’s hair into her face, its passengers in a hurry to reach the interesting parts of Wyoming. The wind is brash in the absence of trees. She feels parts of her eroding away.
A couple of miles down the road, a canvas wall has been put up to keep cars from being bowled over during windstorms. She decides to take advantage of the protection. With a groan, she wrenches her overstuffed pack off her numb back, massaging the bite marks the straps have left in her shoulders. She windmills her persistently pale arms, but some measure of the tension never leaves them, making her wish she hadn’t dumped that Icy Hot a few states ago. The canvas like a hide stretches tight over the mass of a gust, rearing up and groaning with the need to travel. Thinking of the silk wall she once encountered in Oklahoma (there called “landscape art”), she runs her calloused hands over the wind-beaten material, remembers when her hands were more akin to the silk. By the time she made it to the silk wall, she had run out of food. It had only been a few months since Shane woke up shaking and reciting the names of famous poets, then rolled off the bed and never moved again. Her hands were shaky on the pistol’s trigger. Hunger kept her quiet as she watched the rabbit eating his last dinner. She had skinned him under the shelter of the silk wall, and his blood had marred the immaculate sheet.
Her hair is blowing in her face. The next time the highway pierces the heart of some dying town she’ll have it all cut off and start over. That regular sacrificial act always reminds her of the morning after she had the dream. A scraggly red-tailed hawk had circled her everywhere she went. It never left to eat, to tend to its nest. It grew hungry and cried out mournfully all day, finally dropped right out of the sky in exhaustion. She caught it in her arms. The bird, gasping, looked up at her pleadingly. From the softness in its eyes she had known she was holding Shane.
She woke up crying frenziedly. There was no doubt in her mind that she had seen something real, that Shane was alive, if changed, and was in pain. She seized his favorite knife from his nightstand and sheared her hair as short as she safely could, just a little unnerved at how it muted her femininity. She had nothing to leave behind. No one but Shane had ever mattered; no one else had been worthy of love. There was nothing else to do with her life than find him, save him, be with him. In the beginning she was sure he would come to her. After five years, she is wondering if he is beyond help, or has simply forgotten her.
Rachel unzips the sun-bleached pack, throws the tarp on the ground. As the sun begins to sink behind the hills, she thinks of the little prairie fox somewhere along the road, trembling in fear and awe at the approaching headlights. She dams her own frightened tears by hammering the tent stakes with unnecessary force. Setting up camp has become instinctual and takes no time at all. The mindlessness of it also gives her some time to avoid thinking about anything. She wipes her hands fastidiously on her pants, strips down to her skintight base layer, feels her weathered hands and face. What month is it anyway? The numbers have long since fallen off her mental calendar like dead leaves. The canvas billows like a sail on the back of a mountain-eating serpent whose head and tail are nowhere in sight. She wonders if she’ll be able to sleep tonight, having seen not a bird in the sky all day.
The sunset is a bleeding accident that Rachel can’t bring herself to look away from. She pretends to be a wooden woman on the bow of a ship, face worn by wind and salt, drawn inexorably to the ends of the earth. Her shoulders ache for wanting to be wrapped in his arms again. It occurs to her that someday this sun will die forever and become a cold point of light in someone else’s sky. Sensing that this is an image she doesn’t want to forget even for all its bitterness, she fishes the trash bag full of disposable cameras out of the pack, eyes never leaving the spine of the nearest hill. The first fresh camera is housed in cheap, cheery McDonald’s colors meant to bring on hunger attacks in theme parks. Feeling more enlightened than ridiculous, she traps the bleeding, gasping star cushioned by damp velvety darkness with a click.
Arms fall helplessly to her sides. Bitter tears burn veined patterns into her cheeks.
She remembers how she met him when he introduced himself in the high school cafeteria. He said he had dreamed of her for years but had almost lost all hope of finding her. At the time, she had rolled her eyes. But no one had ever tried even the cheesiest lines on her before. She hid behind a curtain of dyed-black hair even when she slept. Knowing him as she does now, she realizes that he was being completely serious. He had shown her binders full of details and she had found herself (for once) interested. His greatest joy was observing, recording, remembering. He was suspended from school for taking transcripts of the conversations of strangers. He would later be paid to do this. Rachel smiles a little at this thought. Shane was the first and only person to make her smile. He told her how he deliberately tested positive for a few learning disorders so that they’d let him take his computer to classes. The tugging of her facial muscles was foreign and terrifying. The way he smiled back, she knew he’d known that that was her first one.
The wind chills her deeply. She owes every happiness she’s ever had to Shane. She hugs herself tightly and lets the tears squeeze out of the corners of her eyes. She can’t let him die again. He was born with a strained vessel in his brain. It waited patiently for over thirty years, until he was so happy with her, planning on having a baby, that it was overwhelmed. His brain fired all the wrong ways. His head was full of fireworks.
Rachel hears the dying breaths of daylight. She can see yellow eyes just out of reach of her lantern. The night is full of footsteps, howling, bleating, hooting. She is surrounded. She becomes aware, now that she has stopped to think, that there are many things still in the world. It is good to know that Shane is out there too.
After hours lying awake, remembering, she finally falls asleep. In her dream, she looks up and doesn’t cry. A familiar dark shape glides across the sun and floats down to her weakly, hopefully. For the first time in five years, Rachel laughs and opens her arms.