April 5, 2020 by Laird
Been working on this one for a while.
A long time ago, I was up in the mountains of Western Montana walking with my dog and my brother. There’d been a huge fire the previous year. It left behind ankle-deep ash and copses of trees–dead and green mixed.
An elk emerged from the underbrush. My dog, Athena, lost her mind. The elk dismissed our presence. She found a break in the cattle fencing that crisscrosses the wilderness in that part of the world. She took off through the trees. I haven’t forgotten her.
by Laird Barron
As a man and his dog traveled a
Dirt road in the mountains
An elk lurched, flop-eared, from the briars
Among the ponderosa pine.
Muzzle scarred; gray flanks claw-lashed
Mother of many calves
She’d waded creeks and snowdrifts
And kicked free of wolfpacks.
Her elk eyes were black as river stones.
The dog strained against the leash
Primitive blood recalling the drone of horns
A savage chase and then hurled spears.
The elk regarded them.
Fearless and innocent
Her blood recalled nothing of the spear.
She ambled along barbwire, hooves kicking up the soot
Of last summer’s fire
Until she found a gap and darted into the pines.
Fleeting shadow, always west.
Years grind the mountains to the pitted edge of a flint ax.
The man leaves his dog in an alpine field to rest.
He covers his face in ash.
The uncharred half of his wife’s photograph
Reminds him of the inferno
That licked the cliffs of the valley.
Blackness yet curls in its wake, seeking vengeance.
Dust lays upon roots of shelled giants.
Many topple when the wind howls
Out of the north in October.
The dust will remain for generations in the mouth and lungs.
He dreams in a fever
That his lover sings with the voice of water crashing upon rock
The dreadful moan of wind tearing down trees.
She beckons like a torch at the mouth of a cavern.
The endless kind, bottomless as any human heart.
Reunion means crossing scorched earth
The truth of it is, the hell of it
Bitterness is green sap flowing to an open wound
That never heals.
Sometimes he dreams he is the elk.
Thunder outside his tent
Booms the report of an old god’s rifle.
He shambles, then lopes, flying
Euphoric with terror and hope
Past a savage dog and a man struck dumb
Beyond the break in the barbed fence
Pastures and hills and sky keep raveling
Farther than he’ll ever have or know.