Archive for December, 2012


There are pockets of silence all over town—rather, outside of town, along the river, or in the prairie just behind the shitty subdivisions that crawl ever outward, and that I try to ignore, to not point out disdainfully every time Ryan and I go on a walk, for my sanity and his, but that I hate, nonetheless, because I see no end to them. Let’s not think about it.

So, silence.

Last week, I had three days off from my job as a part-time barista at a corporate store. It was early afternoon and I’d been up writing since six and needed to get out. It was cold, but not windy–a weekday, when most people would be at their jobs. I put on a sweater with a hood, a scarf, a man’s hunting coat with a blood stain on the sleeve that I’d bought at the Montana Rescue Mission for $4, a soft dark green woolen hat that belonged to Ryan, and boots. I filled up a water bottle, gathered granola bars, and left. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but started for the zoo, where I had a membership. The zoo was empty. I went through the gates.

I’d been reading Moby-Dick and something whalelike was in my head as I walked along the snow-covered paths, under the trees. Winter has a slow, undulating quality to it, a mass. I felt a sense of comfort in the cold, an awareness of the tiny vibrations of other things moving under a great weight.

The wolf pair followed me along their fence. A woman—one of the only people I saw that day—cooed at them, and I walked on, not wanting to hear her noises. I was taking a break from voices, like in that Charles Baxter story, “Silent Movie,” in which a woman locks herself in the images of her day, of winter, all the while avoiding male voices, “their volume and implacability,” as she prepares to leave a man—or rather, waits for a man to move out of her house. I don’t know how people live without stories. But I know they do. I’m not like them, I think to myself reassuringly, but the thought does not reassure me, and I quiet my mind again. I must be very careful.

I’m at the tiger cage.

I remember something. Another day, a long time ago, when I’d come home from college for Winter Break.

I’m walking with my mom.

The sun has just slid behind the hills, and though we’re well-bundled, the cold has numbed our faces and made it too uncomfortable to talk. We’ve just struggled down a steep hill, where we could see the lights of my parents’ house, and where the wind had blasted away some of the heavy snow that had fallen a day or so before, revealing shivery clumps of sagebrush and rocks. We’ve entered an ice-blue ocean of drifts that, in dry times, is a rock field—the waves, at their lowest, spliced with stark black boulders like breaching sea creatures, and more sagebrush. Mostly, we’re in a world of snow, finding the rocks with our feet. I can’t remember who’s leading us across this frozen field, but the person who follows is probably placing their feet in the holes left by the other’s boots.

I’d like so much of life to be like walking through drifts that don’t quite support my weight. And sometimes, when the snow does allow me to cross it, I can be grateful but go with care.


The tiger’s pacing his cage, and I focus on his heavy paws, his tired gait. He makes a sound in his throat, which he never does, but doesn’t look at me. I leave him and let him pace alone.

I think about how I might write about this—everything from my perspective, the narrow channel in which I swim, but it doesn’t feel narrow now, like this, in silence, outside. I feel ready for anything, any thought. I feel ready to forgive myself for still thinking I could look back one day and see all my decisions as big, accommodating rocks leading across a stream, literally “stepping stones”–the stupidity of it, to think I could avoid the water or really wanted to or had much of a choice. So, better it is to perish in that howling infinite.


The next day, twenty-six people were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. I’d been writing three hours when I read the first reports online, and stopped, and got in my car, and drove to Riverfront Park, just south of town, along the Yellowstone. I followed the game trails, where the smell of leaves was strong enough to mask the burnt-plastic stench of the sugar beet factory. I didn’t have a destination. When I saw a person, which was rare, I walked deeper into the trees, chose fainter trails, walking fast, all the while looking all around and sometimes stopping to feel the quiet and the cold—the safety I feel in those things, how I love the sense of my impermanence, even as blood fills my muscles and I imagine what it would be like to hunt for food, wonder if I could survive that way, wonder if I could just leave this place. I thought of the suicide forest in Japan, where people are found hanging deep in the woods. I think I know why they go there to die. It’s a returning. Not a homecoming, but a returning to what people were, many years ago, and what we still are, essentially, if we weren’t tied to these machines, and these insane needs, and if there weren’t so many of us, and if we weren’t always so surprised to find out how fucked up we are.

The sound of the interstate grew fainter, but never faded completely. I kept running onto a group of whitetail does without meaning to. Finally I left the trees and walked to the edge of the riverbank. The river was low, and on a sandbar in the middle of it lay the body of a young buck.

I couldn’t see the deer very well, so I walked to higher ground. I stopped when I found the best vantage point, slightly above the body stretched out on the sandbar—not bloated yet, not even skinny or diseased-looking, not entangled in anything. The river wasn’t high enough to have marooned him. I suddenly noticed, at my feet, the remains of a campfire—still warm—and a few bottles, and I realized it was very possible that someone had shot him and left him there. I thought, there’s no escape. There was no one and nothing to yell at—just the cars breezing over the Yellowstone half a mile a way. Cars only look one way, and that’s where they’re going, and something looking only one way, and going so fast, on bridges and easements built for it, doesn’t have a reason to slow down, wouldn’t see a speck of a deer lying shot on a sandbar for no reason at all.


Whenever I think this year might be wrapping up, it shows signs of going on forever. This winter’s going to save me. It already has.


At the zoo, where it’s been snowing for days, I’m the only one making my way slowly down the path. I reach the last exhibit—the tiger. Steep drifts have formed on either side of the tiger’s enclosure, forming two crude ramps, only the tips of the barbed wire poking through the snow. I can’t remember how long I’ve been here, alone, the same cottonwoods stretching, limbs tangled, over my head. The same pale blue sky. Fat squirrels running along their own paths in front of me, fat sparrows huddled together. Locked in this winter with me. The tiger pads across the rocks that, in summer, create the miniature waterfall in the little stream that runs through his compound. He’s heading straight for me. I realize he can probably climb the drift, scale the fence, if he wants to. He stops and a sound curls from his throat, and he does look at me now. Molecules of water buzz in the snowy banks rising between the two of us. I feel ready for anything, any thought. I feel ready to forgive.


Read Full Post »