By Antonya Nelson
The 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, all-over 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 more than 30 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 rear view 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 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 10 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, drunk?”
Hung-over, 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 other cars that passed—both local and tourist gawkers—did not stop, slowed only long enough to see if the verbal antics would escalate into something truly entertaining. The man finally convinced himself that he wasn’t at fault and that his truck wasn’t damaged. And he couldn’t much care about an unpretty woman. The drivers left the scene of the accident without reporting it.
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 gear shift, 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 gear shift, 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 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 wider world, which was overwhelming, enormous. 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, backwards 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 wolf-like 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 which 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 eye-browed 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. Across Texas she had been listening to National Public Radio and had been fascinated to hear yet another installment of a story from her old home town, 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 ovation; 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 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 Catherine 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.”
The car in which she 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 her daughter 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, and through New Mexico today, then left the desert and entered Colorado, climbing above 7,000 feet, passing signs announcing the Continental Divide. 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. 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 blond 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 long-ways, 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 snowcapped 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?
“That’s not firewood, that’s a tree,” said the young woman to the young man who’d dragged his prize to their campsite.
“It’ll last all night,” he said. “It’s huge.” He grinned with his bad teeth. He’d dragged the tree by one of its tender speared ends, the heavy broken trunk creating a furrow behind. When he dropped it, he sniffed frowning at his fingers.
“It’s green. See, it just fell, it’s got buds, it still bends.” She illustrated by flexing a branch of the poor juniper back and forth like rubber. She did not say that this was more shrub than tree, that what he smelled on his fingers was the unique odor of its berries, which were edible, and which also, by the way, provided the source of his favorite liquor, gin. “Fires are made of dead wood. Dry dead wood.” Her boyfriend hadn’t wanted to go camping. He preferred bars and live music for weekend entertainment, sex on a queen-sized mattress, in air conditioning. Everything he’d done on their camping trip so far seemed like sabotage. Maybe he meant these efforts to be funny? He had a strange sense of humor, which had originally attracted Lisa to him. He carried his lunch in an iron pail better suited to a factory worker from the forties, Mr. Wannabe Tool and Die. His only shoes were thrift-store Florsheims, his hat a fedora. Now he lit a joint and sat uneasily on his springy tree.
“How’s there ever a forest fire if only old dead trees burn? How’s the whole fucking state of California in flame if only the properly seasoned antique shit will go up? You already told me I couldn’t dismantle the fence.” The historic horse paddock and corral, long-abandoned, rails merely suggesting the creatures they’d once contained.
This former Colorado summer camp had belonged to Lisa’s family and ancestors, sold off over the years one waterfront segment at a time. Officially, she was trespassing here. Yet she felt the heavier privilege of ownership, kinship, and did not worry about arrest. Arrest was the only enticement the current boyfriend had understood. This boyfriend, Lance, was the second one she’d brought here. Now she wished she’d married the first. He, at least, had made a real try at seeing the place as she wished him to: uniquely beautiful, an old horse pen beside a stream, the pen built on an even more ancient deer park, the perfectly circular deer park centered in the cluster of deciduous trees, cottonwoods and aspen and willows, small forest with spongy ground space for tents and hammocks and firepits, the nearby stream from which her family had pulled fish and water, in which they had bathed and laundered and swam and built dams and floated rafts. Near which they’d gathered and laughed for decades. On its other side, the mountain stretched fantastically upward, its green-treed base evolving into a craggy cliff face on which you might reasonably expect to see Dracula’s castle. Its brooding height provided miraculous midafternoon shade; elk stepped from the cool shadows to approach the water. The corral had been the final family parcel to sell; this might be Lisa’s last camping trip here before a trophy log mansion was built, a fence and locking gate, a far more elaborate system of No Trespassing signs, a hired man in a combat-worthy vehicle patrolling day and night. How unfortunate to have to share this bittersweet farewell visit with Lance. Moreover, once they left here, she might be done with Lance for good. She had not conceived of camping as a litmus test. And yet.
This was the second day of their trip. Rain had forced them into Lance’s car, the night before, where they’d eaten corn chips and drunk all of the liquor. The Sentra seats folded back far enough to have been sufficient for passing out. Their entire supply of drinking water had disappeared today to combat hangover. Now they were really camping, preparing to boil stream water over a fire. “I’ll find wood,” said Lisa. She had already erected the tent and unpacked the makings of a camp stew, each act building on an argument in her favor, as if they were engaged in a competition or lawsuit, he more and more clearly the unquestionable loser. He once more fished around in the icy slosh of the cooler box, wishing for another bottle of beer, settling for a tainted chunk of ice.
Lisa carried a canvas tote, collecting twigs and branches first, then sticks and bark, finally logs. The ground was soft with fallen leaves, a muffling cushion of yellow and orange and red. She built the pyramid in stages, Lance now sitting on the thick end of his too-fresh juniper, cup of foul cooler box water in one hand, glowing joint in the other. Lisa lit a paper grocery sack at the bottom of her tidy pile, then headed out one final time for a last load of dense logs, the ones that would be a pulsing silver ruin by morning, when it was time to start all over again.
Behind her the fire had taken hold, a crackling, pleasing beacon in the moonless night. She was not afraid of the woods. Lance had locked the car doors last night, securing themselves inside while the rain and then hail pelted the hood and windshield; it had been amusing, when they were drunk: what did he expect would try to get them? “Opposable thumbs,” Lisa had tried to teach him. “We’re the only thing out here with opposable thumbs.” Now Lisa felt a tiny flare of embarrassment spark in her. It was embarrassment for him, Lance, who was so far out of his element, so inept at mere basics such as these: wood gathering, tent pitching, any outdoor skills, any entertainment that didn’t involve electronics or drugs or sex, and embarrassment for herself, who had only just learned this about him. Lisa had spent the day setting up camp and reading a book, visiting the stream and trees and old corral, glancing up at Dracula’s peak, reminiscing about her family, the creatures they’d seen, the guests they’d hosted, the storms and accidents and charades games and feasts. Lance had half listened, bored, the way one might suffer through the tedious narrative of somebody else’s dream. He had spent the day smoking weed, twitching and slapping his head to discourage the seasons’ last black flies, alarmed by the lazy clicking crickets whose mating season it seemed to be, snacking on recognizable snacks, wandering like a dowser with his open cell phone seeking reception. Later, napping back in the car, radio set at a murmuring volume to override the noise of flowing water and jeering magpies.
“I grew up in L.A.,” he explained, shrugging: what could he say? If only he’d been awed by the splendor. If only he’d perceived his lapse as a personal flaw, one he wished fervently to correct. Penitential, he would have been bearable. And, last resort, if only he cared enough about Lisa’s opinion of him to at least pretend these things, lacking them in fact.
She’d not found quite enough logs, sap-sticky canvas bag over her shoulder, flashlight in hand. It had grown finally truly dark; she refused to consult her watch, poke its lighted stem. Time, while camping, depended on rhythms other than those dictated by civilized devices. Was there a way to send Lance back to Phoenix, where she’d found him, without having to leave, herself? The car was his; he’d grimaced and clenched over every rock and rut on the dirt road in. His oil pan, his precious oil pan. At the corral, Lisa detoured into the woods, there where the ancient fallen trees lay. Set next to the blaze, they would fizz and sputter, moss and dampness evaporating, and later would put out a rosy radiant heat, mesmerizing. Ants might emerge, rushing from the center. How would Lance react to that? She might move her sleeping bag outside, beside the fire and under the riotous profusion of stars, leave Lance in an anesthetized slumber inside the tent. Would he worry that he could not lock that flapping door?
And then she heard a low animal hum. Her light fell from her hand, and in its weak beam she caught movement in the brush. Play dead? Run? Make eye contact? Scream? Stand (this unlikeliest of all) with arms upraised and roar? Like any stunned being, Lisa froze. The animal stepped from the brush, its eyes the first thing visible, glowing gold with reflected light, demonic. Coyote, she guessed, by its size and the cunning low-to-the-ground slide. But why would a coyote approach a person? Protecting its den, she reasoned. Rabid, she speculated.
She knelt for the flashlight, prepared to use it as a truncheon on the creature’s crazed/maternal/rabid skull. But now the coyote crept closer, not predatory but groveling; not a coyote but a dog, its ears lowered not in menace but in supplication, fear, appeal. Another hapless domesticated beast, like Lance, loose in the woods, lost in the wild.
This one, however, she felt she could pity rather than scorn. Save rather than abandon.
“What the fuck?” Lance said mildly, when she brought the dog back to the fire. The woods, he was discovering, were full of surprises. For its part, the dog slid behind Lisa, as skeptical of the man as the man was of it.
“I found her. She found me. I think we should let her sleep in the car. I’m afraid she’ll run off.” The dog was somebody’s pet. Her coat was glossy and she followed commands, sitting when told, chewing delicately at the beef jerky Lisa handed her, one piece at a time, her teeth sharp and white, her tongue two splotchy colors. Behind her ears, the thick tufted fur was slightly damp. Only the gash on her underside spoke of mishap, a newly scabbed twelve-inch cut, as if somebody had attempted to fillet her. As if she’d escaped that.
Lance said, “And we want her to not run off why?”
“Otherwise she’ll die.” Like you, Lisa was tempted to say. She’s as unprepared as you are, for this.
“Not in my car,” he said.
Lisa had been dating Lance for two years. She was 31 years old; for the last several months, she’d stopped taking birth control pills, ready to push their entanglement further. It had always been she who moved them to the next step, from work acquaintances to lovers, from occasional dates to daily monogamy, from separate dwellings to the shared townhouse (hers). Otherwise, it seemed he would be content to remain in stasis, adhere to a routine, plan no further than a day in advance, perhaps a week if there were a band in town he wanted to hear. He still worked for the temp agency; he had favorite weekly TV shows; his long-term dealer was his cousin, safe as houses, close as kin. He was, in general, sedentary, unadventurous, incurious, steady–maybe that was how Lisa had sold him to herself, once upon a time. Genial. Apparently, however, even his sperm had little in the way of get up and go.
How was it, Lisa wondered as they bickered that night, as the thick-pelted dog lay her chin on Lisa’s thigh and blinked beneath Lisa’s distracted scratching of her head, that she so clearly foresaw that this animal’s unlikely manifestation—tamed wild thing emerging from the black forest, stepping then into the middle of Lisa’s limping relationship—would be its coup de grâce?
And still the voice spoke the words. Still the chime chimed. The headlights would have been lit, safety day-runners, had they not shattered on impact, so that only the inside dome shone. Far above, on the highway that had once upon a time been a rail bed, carved at great mortal risk into the mountainside by men greedy and heedless for gold, a winding two-lane ledge that hugged the geologic formation, a station wagon crept past. The driver clutched the wheel fiercely, attending to the center line. His wife slept oblivious beside him. In the back, his little girl glanced through the window, up at the stars, then down over the fathomless drop. For a second she caught a glimpse of a faintly lighted box, a woman inside. “Snow White,” she said aloud.
“Shhh,” her father warned. “Your mother is asleep.”
Antonya Nelson is the author of four novels, including the forthcoming Bound (Bloomsbury, 2010), from which “Snow White” is excerpted, and six short story collections. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, Redbook, and many other magazines, as well as in anthologies such as Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of the 2003 Rea Award for Short Fiction.
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