Authors: Antonya Nelson
New York • Berlin • London
To Laura Kasischke, in friendship
HE DOG HAD
two impulses. One was to stay with the car, container of civilization, and the other was to climb through the ruined window into the wild. Wait with the woman, or dash toward the distant rushing water?
The woman hung suspended, patiently bleeding, barefoot, allover powdered by deployed airbag dust, one palm open like a forget-me-not in her lap, the other hand raised unnaturally high, as if thrown up to respond to a question, fingertips caught in the teeth of the ripped-open moon roof. A signal chimed, tiredly announcing that a door was not latched, or a passenger was not buckled, or a light had been left on, or that some other minor human infraction had been committed. The machine was made to attend to these. Additionally, the tape player played on, a man reading aloud. In other instances, recorded sound sometimes roused the dog’s interest—animals on television or computer, the doorbell at home in Houston—but not this man’s voice.
This was the car’s third accident today. For nearly thirty years, its driver had not had an accident, not since high school. Then in one day: three. First a bashed bumper at the liquor store parking lot in El Paso, she and another woman backing out directly into one another. From above, it might have looked choreographed, perfect comic symmetry, a gentle jolt, the sudden appearance of a car bumper right where there hadn’t been one in the rearview mirror. Or like film footage, run in reverse, people parking, unparking. This first accident, which had produced no problems, bumpers doing their jobs, had been in Texas, the next one in New Mexico, and the third in Colorado. The second accident, in New Mexico, was clearly the fault of the dog’s owner. Headed north through a tiny town made of trailers, she’d run its only shot-blasted stop sign and been clipped by a westbound pickup. Its driver jumped furious from his cab, shouting and pugnacious before she’d even shifted into park. Her right taillight had been sheared off by his too-big tow bar. The dog would not stop barking at the angry man. For ten minutes the two drivers had had to circle and study their vehicles, the man venting his significant frustration, which took the form of rhetorical questions concerning the whereabouts of her mind, not to mention her driving barefooted.
“What are you,
Hungover, the woman thought, but not drunk. She shook. Her response, often, was to retreat to silence. This had made her a formidable adult, although she’d been mistaken as sullen or dull-witted when she was young. The man finally convinced himself that he wasn’t at fault, nor was his truck damaged. And he couldn’t much care about an unpretty woman. The drivers left the scene of the accident without reporting it. The other cars that passed—both local and tourist gawkers—slowed but did not bother to stop, interested to know if the verbal antics would escalate into something truly entertaining, since clearly there’d been no carnage.
They wanted mayhem.
The dog had not ceased barking until her owner settled behind the wheel, slammed the door, blinked into the setting sun from behind sunglasses she had not removed, and turned over the engine. Then they were restored to their humming, air-conditioned peace. For miles, the woman talked to the dog as if to prove that she could, her hands trembling when she finally put in the first cassette of her borrowed book on tape. “Heart of Darkness,” its narrator intoned, and thus began the story.
Now the dog was busy navigating a nervous figure eight between back seat and front, stepping gently past the gearshift, tightly circling the passenger seat, her tail inadvertently sweeping beneath the driver’s upraised arm, near her hinged, leaking mouth, then squeezing once more over the gearshift, onto the back seat and into her metal kennel, which was intact, although upside down. There she made the motion of settling, albeit on the ceiling rather than the floor of her cage, hopeful that obedience would reinstate known order.
Obeying was her first instinct; she’d been performing these moves, tracing this circumscribed looping path, every minute or so, since the car had gone off the highway and down the cliff. She stepped from the kennel and shook in her abbreviated space, sat suddenly and awkwardly on her tail, like a bear or raccoon, and curled forward to lick at her belly, tempted once more by the sense of the flowing stream beyond the car, yet dutiful to the woman inside. Far above, on the highway from which the car had fallen, a truck downshifted, straining against its own massive weight and force, roaring gradually by. The dog had been whinnying every now and then, an uneasy chatter in her throat, but now squared her front feet on the car console and barked close to the woman’s head, teeth snapping unnaturally near the pink cheek flesh, tail waving with hope, anxiety. She had eyebrows, this dog, which gave her the appearance of intelligence, as if she could read minds or understand complicated speech. The woman was in the habit of talking to her. Certain words—Walk! Treat! Home!—as well as certain tones of voice inspired a reply. The dog barked again, as if to begin their usual exchange, taking the lead, and then again, insistently, demanding a response, even one of anger, then put her nose to the woman’s temple, tasted the blood there, whimpered, her tail now swinging low, pendulum of shame. The man’s voice, steadily reading. The other sound, the one she could more truly heed, that of the stream.
She stepped gingerly over the woman, dropped to the damp cool ground outside, stood for a moment with her nose to the air. Without its familiarities, the car evaporated from her attention, sucked into the overwhelming enormity of the rest of the world. She dashed headlong toward the water. Plunging in, she was startled by the current; she flailed and her eyes rolled, panicked and wild. She raised her neck, scrambled, and only occasionally, and only momentarily, found purchase on the rocks beneath. Down the stream she flew, borne on an icy journey, through a slight and shadowy canyon, her body thrown sideways around one bend, backward around another, her chest scraped lengthily over a jutting cluster of boulders in the last rapids, again and again her muzzle submerged and blasted, and then, finally, she was deposited into a still pool, a wide clearing where the water abruptly sprawled, stalled, where its temperature gradually rose, milder. On the banks, grazing deer.
The dog climbed out through tall saturated yellow grass, through dying pussy willows and stagnant silt, and onto a large flat red stone that still held the late-afternoon warmth from the sun. Here she lay panting, quivering. Her feet were tender and there was a new rip on her belly from the rocks. Wet, she showed her wolflike physique, the slender sneaky profile of her face, the alert damp fan of her tail. Her coloring was dark, her thick fur stippled, and her tongue mottled, like a chow’s, but her slender skeletal underpinnings were those of a wild creature, fox or coyote, something nocturnal and sly. Her owner had liked that about her, the grateful and frightened girl whose appearance daunted, her loyalty and love that of something rescued from cruelty. She’d lived on garbage; she’d slept with her eyes open. She was strange looking, skittish, intimidated and intimidating. She answered to Max. On her neck she had worn a collar, but now it was gone, torn from her when the car flew off the mountain and rolled over the talus and into the trees below, or snatched away in the turbulent trip down the stream. In the flesh of her neck she had had a surgical procedure to install a microchip that identified her. Some shelters, some veterinarians, knew to scan lost animals for those. Some didn’t.
She lay on the rock, cleaning her wound, her eyebrowed forehead nudging stubbornly, her teeth briefly bared so as to gently pull, precise as tweezers, at something in her fur. Glass, perhaps; it had left tiny cuts on her tongue before she’d begun nipping it out with her teeth. She paused to glance around, holding absolutely still—water, trees, wind, diving swifts and wary deer, gathering night. She had undomesticated origins; the dark did not worry her.
Upstream at least two miles, a man’s voice continued reading sonorously, as it had for an hour now, a curiously old-fashioned voice, overly dramatic, an actor from the continental school, reciting for the third time the opening chapters of Joseph Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness
. The tape reversed; the story continued, repeated. The car’s driver had been trying to improve her mind. Through New Mexico she had been listening to National Public Radio, and had been fascinated to hear yet another installment of a story from her old hometown, from her own long-ago adolescence, where a serial killer, dormant for decades, had once again been taunting the media, a killer who’d hovered on the periphery of her formative years, his first victims having been neighbors of hers. Strangers, newcomers, but neighbors, nonetheless. Their house, a few doors down from hers, with the precise same floor plan; her uncle, who lived with her then, had been among the many men in the neighborhood initially considered a suspect. Fingerprinted, interrogated, eyed uneasily. Until the killer struck again, elsewhere, they’d all been wary of one another in the vicinity of Edgemoor and Murdock streets. Now the radio said he had made another public overture; he’d been doing it on and off for the last few months. The woman felt a prickling pride in being from the city where he’d killed people, the curious emotion of by-proxy notoriety.
Only after the radio signal fizzled completely, somewhere within the Navajo Nation, just after her second accident, had she been reduced to the book on tape. It was an effort to attend to the story, its teller so sinister with foreshadowing gloom, its language archaic, the syntax unnecessarily convoluted. Plus, she kept suffering the surprising sensation of the truck, from nowhere, jarring her when he clipped her car, a recurrent jolt thereafter, a flash of heat in her sternum, her bare foot leaping briefly from the pedal.
Her daughter was reading this book. She attended boarding school in the East, and the driver, the mother, wished to impress the girl, come Christmas. She wanted badly to make up for what she’d not taken seriously, earlier in her life, which was also what she was now, against intense teenage resistance, insisting that her daughter take seriously.
Affording tuition, fifteen-year-old Cattie had let her know after orientation, did not put them in the same class as her classmates. “Give it a shot,” the mother had said. “That’s all I’m asking.”
“Okay,” said Cattie. “But I don’t want to.”
The car in which the woman had been traveling, the car she’d handled so heedlessly today, was an expensive one, its interior designed to protect its passengers no matter the external damage, the vehicle boasting its own protective cage. Two months ago it had delivered her and Cattie to Vermont, to the quaint village that held the esteemed school. The mother had driven back across the country alone, then, alone and lonely; she’d taken this trip out of loneliness, too, but in the opposite direction, and without particular destination. She and the dog had traveled across Texas yesterday, stopping in El Paso for the night. Tempted after a few drinks, she’d refrained from dialing her daughter’s cell phone; she’d made that mistake the last time she called Vermont. Then today, sober, she couldn’t think what she’d say to the girl.
She’d crossed the state of Texas yesterday as if to be done with it; today she appeared to have the same agenda with New Mexico, traveling through and out of the rocky desert,
, and into Colorado, climbing above 7,000 feet, passing signs announcing the Continental Divide, ascending. The temperature had ranged from 95 to 26 degrees in the course of the journey, its decline in direct proportion to the car’s progress north, and up.
Maybe she would make it her mission to drive through every state, say good-bye to each as she exited.
The animal had yipped when she caught the new air circulating in the cabin, wind that had passed over and brought with it glacier and pine, the scent of falling yellow leaves. She’d shoved her snout at the kennel’s clasp, clicking her clever teeth at the latch, and her owner had reached back to free her, simultaneously cracking a back window so that the animal could further enjoy the mountain air, the car steered momentarily by knees. The dog wouldn’t have perceived the Alpine vistas, the purple mountain tops iced with snow, blue spruce and blonde aspen. She might not have even registered the sharper curves, the way she slid on her padded bed inside the cage. Or she wouldn’t have complained. But something in the air had alerted her, alarmed her, and she’d thrust her nose through the bars, madly licking the driver’s hand. Frustrated, the woman had released her seat belt, and the car, always on call for such foolish maneuvers, sounded its nagging chime. The curve was no more dangerous than others, but there was neither shoulder nor railing, and the drop beside it precipitous. The mystery and whim of the highway engineers, who ran miles of sturdy guardrails in just such precarious places, and then without obvious reason, left a section open—opportunity, break, entry, and access to the yawning firmament.
The car had gone over without skid marks, directly into the lapse of barrier, then rolled longways, head to toe, rather than side to side. Its roof had peeled back on one revolution, and on the next, the windshield had landed in the driver’s lap, a sheet of sparkling pebbles like chain mail. Her neck had been broken during the first tumble, her arm flung over her head by centrifugal force, the fingers snared by the sheered metal moon-roof rim. The dog had been saved by the doubleness of her enclosure: inside the kennel, inside the car’s venerated metal egg. At the bottom of the hill, the vehicle landed on its wheels, finally at rest, not hidden from the highway but not in a location where anyone would be looking. After all, it was the peaks in the distance, the wide-shouldered majesty of Mounts Sunshine and Wilson, brilliantly snow-capped against the purple sky, somehow more vibrant than ordinary three-dimensionality, as if accompanied by the tonal shimmer of a clanged bell, there with a vague shrugging of bluing clouds, golden beams radiating as if from a godly crown, simmering red sun sinking behind. To encounter it was to shiver with pleasure and awe, overcome by beauty. Why would anyone glance down?