In the beam of headlights, we found the massive heap on the shoulder of the highway, a half-dead bull elk pawing at the moon, eyes like river stones and a rack that could gouge holes in the porous, starlit sky.
Shoot, Papa said, coming to a stop. He’s still alive, and I left my shotgun at home. Mayberry, stay here while I go back. He rolled down the window as I got out. And keep away from his horns or he’ll impale you.
At twelve, I’d never been left alone before on a call. Usually the smell of death was thick in the air by the time we got there. But the cool morning ripened the juniper and sage, and the grass shone with mist rolling off the mountains, hovering above the trees like ghosts, the stretch of road dripping in the ink of pre-dawn light.
Papa would say it was their time, as if the remote forest highway pulsing with semis, sport utility vehicles and Mack trucks was a liminal threshold determining an animal’s fate. I saw it in their eyes, time taking them by surprise, and I wondered if time allowed them one last look at the infinite blue, the passing of clouds, the tiny moments that become extraordinary through the lens of death.
I buried my hands deep in my coat pockets, fighting off a chill, while the elk began moaning a high-pitched wail across the highway, into the slope of aspens and Rocky Mountain junipers. I tried not thinking about it suffering like Mama had before she died last year, or that maybe it was calling for its own mother in the distance. I took small steps testing his reaction, crouching to my knees with my hands held out, not caring about the trouble I’d be in if he got a burst of energy and whipped his head around. The bull lifted his neck at my approach, rested back on the grass, his eyes growing heavy, his breath calming as I laid my hand on his underside, away from where he’d been hit. The heat of the animal warmed my palms and fingers as I stroked him. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.
I laid my head on his chest, pinched my eyes shut, listened to his heartbeat slow the way I had with Mama, navigating my way around her feeding tubes. I felt the familiar, black-tar pull of death, and a deep sorrow that would age me, leave me tender to the touch. I once heard Papa say death would never get the best of him, but that was before Mama died. After she’d passed, he didn’t leave the house for months, and I realized we had no control over what and who death took, only that it took us by surprise.
The glare of headlights stirred me as Papa approached with his shotgun over his shoulder. Guess we didn’t need this after all, he said. Help me get him on the lift.
Together we rolled the bull’s body onto burlap, then dragged him onto the lift in back of the truck.
Later that week, Papa made a stew—nothing gets wasted— had a taxidermist preserve the bull’s head, then mounted it on the wall; and every night we ate dinner in front of the TV, watching game shows, while the elk stared at us from across the room.
For years, I dreamed about him growing inside me, a skein of horns replacing my bones, my spine, my ribs, cradling the chambers of my heart. Sometimes we’d scan the forest and mountains searching for his mother. Sometimes I’d be the dead animal pick up, lying there, seeing my mother’s face staring down at me, telling me to let go, and I’d feel my fists unclench. I imagined not trembling. I imagined peace. I imagined looking into the bull’s glassy eyes, hearing him say, It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.