You know of a good spot to watch the sunset. Once it’s dark, it’s only a 10-minute walk back to the tarp.
So you get yourself there. You can see pretty far to the west. The sun is going to go down over a mountain. Another mountain.
It’s not the same as watching it set over a lake — the reflection rippling up like everything’s laughing — but it should be beautiful.
You can also see you have a good 20 minutes before the sky really starts to do its thing. You decide to carve your initials into a tree.
You’ve been carrying around a spoon you found in the bear bag, and you find a nice flat rock.
First you scoop the bark off in chunks. Then you clear the area completely by scraping the spoon over it, again and again. It’s not a bad sound like some scraping.
Now you put the end of the spoon against the trunk, knock the other end with the rock, and you make a small mark.
You make a lot of small marks. You turn around and the sky is bright pink.
You’re glad the sun is going to spend time every day shining on you. This version of you that will outlast your body.
If you knew how to better represent yourself than with two crap carved letters, well Jesus, you would do that.
You’ve seen sunsets. This one was like those. Pink, purple, yellow, orange. Then all of a sudden the sky is dark blue. Then all of a sudden there are stars.
You know they’re far. You think of that distance in terms of time. You can’t help yourself.
You know in one way you will live a number of years. In another way you live the distance the Earth traveled during that time. Which is another number of years.
And if you are emitting any light, as you often hope you are (yes, you know you are a fool), then that light travels out another distance, another length of time.
You are living for centuries. You are living forever.
As you turn to leave, you say, Goodnight. You open your mouth. Close your mouth. You’re constantly eating light.
As you head back to the tarp, you see the bear. You don’t know if she sees you.
If she does, she doesn’t care. She’s walking to where she will sleep for the night.
You hide behind a tree. You can hear her walking. Why hadn’t you heard her before?
You try to calm down. You try to focus. You hold your breath.
You hear other sounds you’ve been ignoring. Coyotes you think. But far away.
What other animals are out there? Bobcats? Let them sleep. You’re so tired.
Shit, where’s the bear? Does this mean you can go back or does this mean you have to stay put?
You don’t know how to make a decision. You’re shaking.
The bird spirit has learned how to make a glimmer in the dark. She’s trying to guide you home.
If you would just look up. If you would just open your eyes.
The bird spirit wonders what’s wrong with you. You’ve been in this much trouble the whole time.
Back under the tarp, you fall asleep. You worry you will dream of being mauled by a bear, but don’t worry.
In the first dream you’re sleeping next to someone. Warm. Soft. Breathing well.
Then that person wakes up and yells, Oh no, but just like something’s been forgotten. Like the night is full of reminders.
Like the night will never let you forget anything.
In the next dream you’re sleeping next to someone you can’t wake.
In the next dream you’re sleeping next to someone whose leg is across yours and it arouses you.
In the next dream you’re sleeping next to someone and you’re about to speak, maybe whisper a name, when the mouse comes to you, chattering away.
But it’s not the mouse. It’s rain, hitting the tarp.
You were ready for this. The tarp is set up as a lean-to, angled with the ground, between two trees.
You have two choices. Try to stay dry all day under the tarp. Or leave your clothes to be dry and spend your day naked in the woods.
Your hunger makes the decision for you. You get undressed.
You wrap your underwear in your shirt, your shirt in your sweater, your sweater in your pants, which should be a little tougher if the wind blows any rain in.
Outside the tarp, the mouse is playing in a puddle. But she stops when she sees you.
She thinks your body looks like a collection of nests. She better understands your clothes now as a way of keeping your body for yourself.
You don’t know how to understand your modesty.
When clouds cover the sky then is it only one cloud? Cloudscape. It’s such a dark gray. Like slate and tar. But all it means is that it’s full of water.
Do all clear things turn dark when piled on top of each other? If you covered yourself in enough rain, would you get dark enough to hide in a fire’s smoke?
You just described drowning. All the smoky bodies at the bottoms of the lakes and seas. Don’t you understand light, light eater?
At least the bear won’t roam around today. She’s in a cave with her snout under her paw.
And the bird spirit is thrilled it’s so dark because she can practice her new skill. Soon she’ll be able to make her outline appear and you won’t be able to question if you see her.
You run your left hand down your right arm. The rain sloughs off.
Your body is so wet that finding dry spots under trees feels like you’ve wandered out of your natural habitat and might die.
You have a new body that’s perfect for the rain.
You’re an alien. You develop a new walk where you can only shuffle to the side. You start saying the beeps of your new language.
You think, I’m home, for the first time in a long time. You translate, I’m home, into beeps and scream it out into the rain.
You have 37 different words for rain. This rain can be described in one word but it translates loosely to:
good smelling hard falling rain that makes you feel like shiny beetles are hiding everywhere and you are keeping two of the shiniest ones in your heart
You find the horse tucked away under a tree thick with branches. Your alien self is less afraid of her half-ton body.
You shuffle over to her and you beep and you laugh and shake water out of your hair.
Her tail whips up from the ground for an instant. She’s got one eye on you but you know that means the other eye is seeing the movements in her belly.
You wonder how her brain presents herself with all she sees — panoramic or split screen or alternating or … Is it maddening?
Does split vision further split the brain? Two personalities develop based on the different images presented across her life? One the quiet horse and one the horse that whinnies at the kite?
You can never know her. She’s impossible to know.
The longer you stand there, the longer you’re paired with the image of her foal in the womb. And the horse becomes uncomfortable with this.
You lie down in the rain. You’ve been rushing through this day as an alien. Time to return to being human, to having a tongue and lips that make hundreds of sounds.
You keep your eyes closed against the rain. You pick an area of your body — the palm of your right hand — and you try to count the rain drops that land there.
You hated reading that book on palm reading. The life line on your left hand curves around to your wrist like everyone else’s. But the life line on your right hand stops halfway down.
What does that mean? Die at 25? At 50? Become ill? Be tested? Get stuck in the woods? Does it mean stop trying? Don’t have a child? Because isn’t your first promise not to die?
What was that? 600. 610 rain drops on your right palm. 620. 621, 22, 23. You’re counting too fast to say anything out loud.
It’s happened. You’re tired of the rain. You’re tired of being wet and naked. You’re tired of the pat down dirt and glistening trees.
The ground is covered in puddles. They take the shapes of animals the same way clouds do.
You snort at the hippopotamus puddle. You spot a dragon and kick the water out like it’s breathing fire. What’s to stop you from being happy here?
You shake a branch and watch the water fall away from it.
Then you see the bird spirit. She’s come back to haunt you. Her disgustingly long tongue. All in silver. She’s flying in circles around you.
You’ve heard some people stay as ghosts because they don’t know what’s happened to them.
You yell, You’re dead, bird! You died!
It comes out sounding cruel.
You can’t outrun a ghost. You’re not even sure if she’d chase you or just reappear back where you sleep.
You’re not sure what you can offer a ghost either. No fruit. No shelter. No soft touch on her wing.
What does she want? You did right by her, burying her. She won’t be picked over for weeks, until her little bones are bare and falling away from each other.
But she’s scaring you. Her inability to receive anything scares you. Even right now you’re watching the rain pass through her.
You go over it again. You can’t run. You can’t hold her. Fight her. Gift her. You start shaking. Like last night. But as far as you know the bird can’t harm you.
You start jumping up and down. You start shaking harder than you’re shaking. You shake your hips. You start dancing.
You bet the bird has never seen dancing. You can teach her. Maybe it will fill her with joy and she’ll go.
Maybe it will fill her with joy and that tiny silver frame can just explode all over these woods and leave you the hell alone.
The bird spirit can tell you’re doing this for her. She does a quick turn in the air.
She turns with her wings out. She turns twice in a row. She puts one wing out and then the other and so on.
She likes this. She likes you. She has no idea what she wants.
To be felt. To be seen. Easy enough. But now what? She could go anywhere.
She could travel to Mars, but she’s just a bird. She doesn’t know how stunning her ghost would be on the red planet.
She feels like she needs to be taken care of. She thinks you could be the one to do that for her.
God knows why. Look at you.
You’re holding your nose, waving your arm, bending your knees, and pretending you’re sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
Your fear has receded. So what a ghost. So what a bear. So what inimitable loneliness at the sight of twinflowers. So what.
You stop dancing and set out for the tarp. Your stomach is full and you’ll spend the next few hours before sleep dressed and hidden.
The ghost might be there, sure. It’ll be less dark. Less lonely. Even if she can’t be touched. Even if her tongue sickens you.
Maybe you’ll get used to it. Maybe she needs you and as her needs are met her tongue will shrink. You’ll watch it rise and fall in her beak. A light she’s keeping safe.
Maybe she could go in your chest and figure out what’s wrong with your heart.
How do you ask her to do something like that? How do you describe a healthy heart to a bird?
A sleeping red dove.
If you tell a bird that a heart is like a bird without wings, she will tell you it is broken because it doesn’t have wings.
Back under the tarp you dry off as best you can and get back in your clothes. You feel warm and for a second you mistake that for all the happiness in the world.
The mouse breaks through the dirt near your feet. Maybe she can teach you to be pleased with the small dark space under the tarp.
You sit down and hold your hand out to her. She crawls up, up to your elbow and back down. She looks at you.
How is it every animal understands an invitation?
You start to tell her about your day. You warn her the bird is coming in case something like that would startle her. When you’re done talking, you lower your hand.
Before she scurries off, she nips you hard beneath your thumb. She wants to remind you she is a wild thing.
The blood comes up and hesitates in its dome shape on your skin. You know that’s surface tension at work. You imagine a microscopic water bug moving across your blood droplet.
You roll up your sleeve and stick your hand outside the tarp and let the rain clean you. You bring your arm back in and apply pressure.
It’s not much of a bite. Though it’s your first bite in a very long time.
You were once told a girl bit your cheek in preschool. If that had scarred, would it have shrunk on your growing face? Or would it have expanded, always able to fit around your cheek?
Did you know about blood at that age? You know too much now. Sometimes when you’re falling asleep you trace its path.
Into the top right of your heart. Out of the bottom right and into the lungs. Back to the top left. And out of the bottom left and to the rest of the body.
But you usually just run your fingers up your neck for that part.
You wonder if this is how any human body would live in the woods. You know that some mice build escape tunnels and some do not and that’s located in their genes.
And that’s all you’re asking. Are you the type to not build the tunnel, and is there someone else who would?
A picture showed a tunnel built leaving the nest, away from the entrance, but pausing just before it breaks through. How clever is that?
You imagine a snake slithering into the hole. And there’s no smart snake waiting at the other end because no one but the mouse knows where the other end is.
You’re lying to yourself. You don’t care if someone else would build the tunnel. You care if it’s your fault that you haven’t. If it’s been in your blood for generations.
You tap on a bit of earth and hear the same thick sound as ever.
Then you realize snakes aren’t teaming up on mice.
Why not just two complete tunnels? A flat out getaway. On the chance of two predators attacking at once?
God, you hadn’t considered that. Not for yourself.
What if the bear is to one side of you and a bobcat leaps at you from another? Why not?
Your current escape plan is to run like hell to the bear bag where you can throw food and arm yourself with a frying pan.
That’s the most you want to think about it in case thinking about it makes it happen.
Earlier you thought about the bird and then her ghost appeared.
You thought about worms and they were everywhere.
You thought about a coyote and then you heard one.
If you have so much power, then you should think about what you do want. List them. Think them twice.
The rain to stop. The sun to come out. A rainbow even.
A handful of butterflies that come and land on your hands.
The mouse to apologize and take back this stupid red bite.
The horse to come to you wanting to be held.
A person to touch. A baby too. A home.
No, you can’t think about this. This is bad. This makes you cry. You kept these clothes dry all day and now you’re ruining your sleeves on your eyes and nose.
You’re sobbing. You’re doing that strange choking between sobs. This could be an anxiety attack.
It’s not necessarily despair.
You know you will feel better in the morning. And you will fall asleep more easily after all this crying.
You try to relax. You empty your pockets and line up your belongings in front of you in the dim light.
A spoon. A bent playing card (not a face card, just a number). A flat rounded stone you’ve been carrying around from the stream.
Then you pretend to lay out all the things you should have with you.
A pocketknife. A flashlight. A comb. A compass. A whistle. A map. A pen. A wristwatch. Tissues. Matches.
You outline them all with the spoon. Except for the compass’s circle, they’re just a bunch of rectangles in the dirt.
And you lie down to sleep among your riches.
Tonight, in every dream, you are an animal.
First you are a ram. You want to run into everything with your new horns. You start with another ram. You make an enemy to know your strength and you would make more.
Next you are an elk. You like looking down at your hooves from this height. You get dizzy and laugh. You like the tracks you make through the woods.
Next you are the pregnant horse. Why her? The foal kicks you with her unborn legs. You feel like you have to pee. This is a lame dream.
Next you are a fish. That’s better. You let the new parts of your neck comb through the water for oxygen. You open and close your mouth in the same shape over and over.
You can’t keep track anymore. The scenes are changing too quickly. You are a shapeless phenom.
The last dream is overly specific.
You are a baby wolf taken in by a horse who has recently miscarried. She nurses you. She fears you will never love her as much as she loves you.
You have the same fear. You have a wolf’s howl.
You shouldn’t understand abandonment but you do.
Her coat of fur is black and yours is gray. You feel as if she is the night sky and you are a cloud and together you’re obscuring something like the moon. And that’s good.
It feels very good to know what kind of light you can hold between the two of you.
The horse lets you lie beside her and you forget everything you’re supposed to forget.
It feels like the last dream you’ll ever have.
When you wake, the rain has stopped. Everything is wet and still smells of rain, but the sun is so bright. What a relief. What a wonder.
You hurry to the stream. The flooding has stranded some fish in puddles and you catch one. You strike it with a rock.
You probably shouldn’t eat it raw but it tastes good. Better than the old food from the bear bag. Not that you aren’t thankful.
You eat some berries too. You drink some water. You sit at a giant rock and pretend you are at a restaurant.
You snap your fingers at a waiter. You motion for the check. You tip well. This is a life of ease.
Next you want to check on the horse. See if the sun is greeting her as well as it seems to have met you this morning. As it seems to beckon you from one shining piece of this world to the next.
The horse is still under the tree where she was yesterday. She’s pacing and switching her tail. You watch her from a distance, from behind another tree.
As a child you misheard switching as swishing. But looking at her now, switching is a better match. Switching is deliberate action.
Swishing is being caught up in winds that make dried leaves dance. And we’re all so much heavier than leaves.
Watching her like this you realize the horse is more beautiful than you’d like her to be. You’d like her to be plain, approachable.
You’d like to think you could take a picture of her and say, Yes, to be close to her was seeing her just as you see her here.
Finally you go up to her and she lowers her head in your direction and paws at the ground. You would be scared but you know immediately what’s happening.
Today she will give birth to her foal.
She could be like this for hours before anything happens. Before she might need your help. So you leave her.
One of your earliest memories is asking your mother to pick you up and her explaining that she couldn’t over her pregnant belly. You remember her belly. You remember your mother. You were two.
You don’t know this but the horse is four. She got pregnant when she was three.
She could live another 15 years out here. She could see another 5,000 sunrises, another 5,000 sunsets. Be aware of the turning of this Earth another 10,000 times.
It sounds like a lot but you’ve already lived that long and it was nothing. It was rising from bed.
You don’t know what to do with yourself. You want soap. You want clean hands to touch the foal later.
Next to the stream, so the water is in reach, you set up two flat rocks. One larger than the other.
With your spoon, you dig up a dozen small plants and their roots. Some roots are woody, some waxy, some don’t look big enough to sustain the blossoms above.
You smash them between the rocks and throw water on them and smash them again to see if anything lathers.
Okay, maybe you don’t know much about soap. Maybe you just wasted an hour. Maybe your hands are dirtier than when you started.
Maybe you’ll discover that one of the roots burst into stars. One into a hundred white worms.
The bird spirit appears and you tell her about the coming foal. She knows but she likes your excitement.
You tell her how your heart is feeling better. How you’ve been thinking about the foal for hours and usually thinking that much about a child would ruin you, but no, here you are covered in dirt and full of purpose.
She doesn’t understand your heart. How it is you and yet only a partner in the functioning of your living body. How you seem to become uncoupled in moments of urgency. How it betrays you. How it’s begun to silver, still beating in you.
She touches your chest with her tongue and you jump.
When she touches you there again, you’re able to stay still.
Should you be preparing for the worst? Dig a grave the size of the foal? Dig a grave the size of the horse?
Would their ghosts follow you too? Could you stand it?
You shake your head. You kneel at the stream and splash water on your face. Your pants get wet in the mud where your knees fall.
The dark spots call attention to the discreteness of your body. Must everything?
You think of the horse. Even knowing she is two horses right now, she looks more whole than you do.
You remember sitting up with a pregnant rabbit when it was clear she was about to give birth.
All at once she began tearing the fur from her chest and belly. She was noisy and you were scared for her.
She birthed many rabbits that night into that soft nest of herself, and all survived.
Yes, the bunnies did well, but remember the ducklings?
One had trouble getting out of her shell, and as you helped off that last stuck piece, she began to bleed.
And then you had that wet, bleeding duckling in the palm of your hand. You held her under the heat lamp for hours and then she was fine. Clearly the runt, but fine.
Only later you heard the whole group was moved to a farm and she died. Or was killed.
You can just imagine how she stood out in the group. And though all ducks seem easy to kill, more so the weaker one.
You could not bring yourself to think that was the life appropriate to her. Her time matching the shortcomings of the body.
But the horse is not a duck. The foal will never be held. The body will reek of strength. And you should take comfort where you can.
Everything will go well. Today is an amazing day to be born! The spring is amazing! The wind and grass and trees! The animals twittering!
Today the foal will continue this misplaced lineage. Not wild horse but descendant of the feral Spanish horses brought here hundreds of years ago.
And then escaped? Owners killed? Owners sick and died? Owners tricked and stolen from in the night?
Owners feeling bad in the face of so much land? Slapping hindquarters and yelling, Gid-yap! Except in Spanish. Not the slurred cowboy you imagine.
If not dead, someone woke and said, Donde estan los caballos? Or, Donde esta mi caballo?
You have caught yourself in the past hours referring to the horse as your own. My horse this … My horse that …
But she is not yours and you would do well to remember that.
If the horse were still in Spain, she would be in a stable and men and women and children would situate themselves above her, one leg against this side, one leg against the other.
They would measure her and describe her size in metrics. They would watch for her breath in her flank, so far back in the body. They would be there for her when she foals.
She would have heard of bulls, castanets, and flamenco dancing, and maybe she would have been taken to run on beaches of the Atlantic. An ocean you too have run along.
You think you will tell the foal every story you know of her rich Spanish history. Then you change your mind.
You can’t imagine one more animal looking at these woods, full of the glory of the sun, and thinking they do not belong.