Fiction: Wild Beasts by Kerry Hill

Kerry Hill is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction at Oregon State University. She was born in Atlanta, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Art History from Agnes Scott College. In her spare time, she enjoys researching animals to write stories about and making art. We are thrilled to have her piece “Wild Beasts” in Anamesa Spring 2014:

 

Wild Beasts

Kerry Hill

 

Magda called it “the coast,” said, “let’s go to the coast,” as if we did it often, as if there were a house and a sailboat waiting there for us. I didn’t bother to tell her that Savannah practically is the coast; clearly she wanted the trip to have drama and glamour, envisioned stretches of white sand and Coronas. In her car, she put on a B-52s CD and let her dark hair whip around her face while she drove. I rode with my knees pulled up to my chest and watched civilization unravel as we traveled east.

Now I know it was a rescue mission, but at the time I was living like I was newly blind. When she called, she skipped the typical questions you ask someone you haven’t seen in months. “Wren,” she said, “while I’m down here visiting my folks, let’s go camping.” Her voice was too bright. “There’s this island out there—feral horses, armadillos, loggerhead turtles. I’ve got it all set up, a camping spot reserved. It’ll be just the two of us—we need it.” And then, when she arrived, she stood in the middle of my mother’s living room, stork-like and looming. Something about her had changed, matured; it had been almost a year since we’d actually been in the same room together. Our contact had dwindled to the occasional email and sporadic text messages.

She’d propped her fists on her hips and let her gaze rove around; she seemed to see everything. She had become, in a sense, enormous, as if she needed more air than anyone else. She commanded, possessed.

A drawing I’d done was lying on the coffee table. It was a sketch in pen of a praying mantis, nothing I cared about, and the lines were wobbly-looking. It looked as though it could have been sculpted in wire.

“Of course you still draw,” Magda said, examining the mantis. When she looked up, she was smiling. “I’m glad.”

Maybe she was relieved. That’s how it seemed, as if she was checking to make sure nothing had changed too much in her absence, even though we both knew that everything had changed. She was looking at my hair, then at my bitten nails and shredded cuticles. “Still a nail-biter,” she said, nodding.

Through the whole drive she talked. She told me all about her life in Boston; she told me about her boyfriend Jake, who was still in Toronto. When a pause lasted too long, I jumped in with another question.

In Boston, she said, she never needed to use her car. She biked, usually, and it had strengthened her legs—she had the quads of a speed skater, she joked. She’d finally gotten used to the winters and the snow. Jake was going to move to Boston as soon as he had the money. Before Christmas, certainly.

“Are you happy?” I asked her.

They were very happy. “We’re never going to be long-distance again,” she said. “Not for more than a month, tops. And when he moves down, we’re going to adopt a dog.”

How complete it sounded, how final. They’d share a bed and a dog and probably get engaged before too long.

“He wants a big wedding,” she admitted. “We could go to the courthouse for all I care.”

So many things had happened to her. Boston, learning Mandarin (“just because”), cooking classes, acupuncture. Nine years. What had I done in that time? I’d moved from Savannah to Los Angeles to Atlanta and back to Savannah, made friends and lost them, gotten up in the middle of the night to go for walks, wondering where I’d be next, forgetting to eat, then deciding not to—developing new habits, new fears. A psychiatrist in Los Angeles prescribed me Lexapro. It made me dizzy and one morning I woke up at the bottom of the stairs of my apartment complex with a split lip and a black eye. I subleased a room in a condo from a man who’d gone to Peru to become a shaman, and when he came back I moved again, closer to the beach. But I wasn’t there long; I wasn’t anywhere long.

At one point I thought maybe I’d go back to school, finish, really become an artist. Maybe I’d go to Maine and live in a yurt in a forest. In Atlanta I moved in with Gene and he taught me how to smoke cigarettes, how to play the drums. There were phases while we lived together, one where all I drank was whiskey, I didn’t wear underwear, I slept through the day and worked at night. The employees at the gas station across the street were constantly kicking drunks out after they’d foul up the bathroom, and strange men walked down the sidewalks, swinging their arms and spitting at invisible enemies. The man who lived next door—in all the time we lived there, I never saw him—screamed all night. I’d hear him when I came home from the bar where I worked, and his voice was like metal, inhuman. I’d press my ear to the wall and hold my breath.

I felt like that a lot, like I was holding my breath and then having to let it out all at once.

I didn’t tell Magda any of this, how it had gotten to the point where something in me popped. It was like a bubble, but so much came gushing out of that little hole, all this stuff inside me I forgot was there. It filled me up and suffocated me from the inside. I didn’t know my own name, didn’t care; I didn’t know words. I slept fitfully, in spurts, like a dog. I lived without eating, looked without seeing, fucked without feeling.

I didn’t tell her how, after Gene and I broke up, I had come slinking back, broke and sick, to my mom’s house in Savannah. My dad had sent me the cash for the ticket, thinking I’d come to him in Raleigh, but I couldn’t stand his wife and she didn’t care for me either. It hurt, tricking him, but I didn’t let myself think too hard about it—I told myself I would make it up to him later, somehow.

My mom wouldn’t watch me too closely. I didn’t think of it like that at the time, but later I realized that was part of what drove me to her. She was still in the little house where we’d lived with Dad, though it was darker, damp with mold. I woke up itchy and sneezing every morning, groggy no matter how much I’d slept.

My mother’s hair was still long and gray, coarse like a horse’s mane. She and my father had always been old. There were rows of African violets on the kitchen windowsill, potatoes hanging in a wire basket, hairy with eyes and tendrils. A stone birdbath was broken and filled with moss in the backyard. There was the same peach-colored carpet throughout the house, the same crack in the living room ceiling, shaped like a whale. I sprawled on the sunken couch and watched the light drag across it. My bedroom was nearly empty, as I’d sold what I could before moving out years before. One of the cats had grown attached to the old armchair by the window, and she looked at me, eyes narrowed, as if it was her room now and not mine.

•   •   

“The island is only accessible by boat,” said Magda. We pulled into a gravel parking lot and she cut the engine, propped her sunglasses up on her head, and turned to look at me.

“Only by boat!” she said again.

I smiled at her. “Sounds remote. Romantic,” I joked.

Her cheeks were flushed and the spray of freckles across her nose and forehead stood out like bits of gold glitter. For a moment she looked like she had in high school, when we first became friends.

She laughed and got out of the car, and we grabbed our bags from the trunk and headed for the ferry ticket office.

We stayed in the car for the first few minutes of the ferry ride. It was the same car she’d had in high school—her grandmother’s old Buick, a luxury sedan with deep, prune-colored leather seats and automatic windows. Besides replacing the cassette deck with a CD player, Magda had kept it the same.

When the island came into view, all the passengers crowded onto the starboard side. The island was not quite twenty miles long. Its interior was dense with maritime forest, bordered by blinding white beaches and what looked to be periodic stretches of mud flats. Magda consulted the brochure she’d picked up at the information desk and read that the island was protected by the National Park Service, which did not interfere or meddle with the local wildlife, and that the Spanish missions, now in ruins, dated from the 16th century. Her voice was a low hum, and I had to strain to hear it over the sound of the water against the boat and the seagulls crying overhead. Looking out to the island, I shaded my eyes with my hand. A wild horse galloped across a stretch of beach, heading for the cover of the forest.

On the island, a park ranger gave us a map that led us to our campsite in the forest. The light was dappled and soft when it peaked through the lacy trellis formed by the live oaks and hickories. Their branches twisted and snarled in all directions, seeming manic and deformed, and between the many trees were bunches of palmettos with their wide green faces and razor-edged leaves.

We found our campsite, number nine, hidden amongst gnarled oak trees at the end of a little path. After putting our food in the lockbox—a birdcage-like structure on a post five feet off the ground to protect it from hungry creatures—we pitched our tent. I spread out on my sleeping bag, feeling drowsy from the ride, but Magda was standing outside the tent with the map in her hand and a kite tucked under her arm.

“There’s an old cemetery nearby,” she said. Sandy paths had been cleared throughout the thick forest, and several times we saw armadillos scuttle across our path. By standing still, hardly breathing, we were able to spot whitetail deer in the distance. Spanish moss hung down from the tormented branches of the live oaks, creating a sense of spookiness, but the light was still soft, romantic, tinged with the green of the leaves overhead. No one else was around, and the only sound was of an occasional woodpecker or songbird.

“C’mon.” She smiled and prodded my foot with hers. “Let’s take advantage of the daylight.”

She led me down a poorly blazed trail to the cemetery. There was a four-foot-tall stone barrier surrounding about ten headstones of different sizes, some shattered and some lopsided. The names and dates, softened by erosion and moss, looked like fingernail indentations in modeling clay. I enjoy cemeteries, old ones in particular, and the silence that hangs about the crooked headstones, silence that’s more than silence, heavy, laden with voices and names. I hung my arms over the wall and strained to read, but all of a sudden, there was a rumbling in the ground, like a train approaching, and I heard what sounded like many people bursting out of the forest.

Two wild horses stood just to our left, staring with their solemn black eyes. Their robust bodies were covered in scars and blemishes. When I reached to scratch the side of my nose, they bolted. The gray one skipped down the side of the hill in the direction of the beach, and the brown one galloped right past me, so close I could hear his heavy breath and was hit by a breeze in his wake, a sweaty, fusty smell.

“Let’s follow them,” Magda said, and set off through the forest, ducking to avoid the sharp palmettos. Every so often she would pause and squint. “I think they went this way,” she whispered, and we began to head toward the beach.

But the beach was abandoned, not a horse in sight. She didn’t care, just laid the kite down and began to attach the string and tail. She and Jake were into kites, she said. He had several; they were big, colorful things, like exotic birds, and difficult to fly. He built them, too, the way his father had taught him when he was a kid.

The kite was almost triangular and the way its corners curved back into points resembled the wings of a diving hawk. After attaching the string and taking off her sneakers, Magda rose and looked at me. “Ready?” she asked. “Might want to take your shoes off.”

I could feel her watching me when I crouched to untie my laces. My knees were wider than my calves and my arms had withered to sticks. Even after standing up, burying my feet in the sand, I knew she was inspecting my body. I unrolled the sleeves of my overshirt so that they covered my wrists.

In this moment, when we stood facing each other and I wondered if she had the nerve to say what she was thinking, the beach seemed especially wide and cold. I was tired; although for weeks I’d gotten over ten hours of sleep each night, my sleep was constantly interrupted by the intrusion of some vision—some specter—in my room. I hadn’t said anything about it to anyone because I knew they would just think I was crazy. This seemed like a good time to tell Magda something, anything, about what had been going on since we’d last seen each other. She was probably wondering and hadn’t figured out the right way to ask, and there were so many different things to pick from, so many things I could try to say, but I couldn’t open my mouth. When she turned and began to walk toward the water, to where the sand was wet and hard, I followed her, trying not to wince as we crossed a span of tiny broken shells, sharp and delicate like shards of tile.

Our feet soon became red and raw, but we took turns tossing the kite into the air and holding tight to the strings. The wind swept it up in its arms and it dove and sailed and danced, pulling like a dog on a leash. The sky beyond was filled with pale gray clouds. I thought of a trip I’d taken to visit my grandfather’s sister, Jo, who lived on a rocky island off the coast of Washington. Everything seemed gray there, and we’d gone for walks and looked for feathers and eaten chowder. And then I thought of my grandfather, how when I’d stood beside his bed in the nursing home he had looked at me with eyes that seemed like they’d never seen anything.

“I’m tired,” I said. “Let’s go back.”

The whole way back I watched her. Something was different; for a little while she didn’t speak, and when we got back to the campsite, her voice was soft. She unpacked some things from the car but her motions were light, her hands seemed to barely touch anything. I helped her, pulling the bag of charcoal out of the trunk, placing the flashlights and the lantern on the wooden picnic table. She floated around, arranging, her hair swaying behind her. For a while we sat at the table and listened to the ecstatic cries of birds we couldn’t see, the shuffling of small creatures moving through the brush. But before too long she was restless again.

We walked back to the beach where, beyond the rolling, silent dunes, the sand was littered with driftwood, porous and contorted into skeletal shapes. We walked side by side, occasionally picking up pieces of wood to take back to the campsite for our fire. The corpses of horseshoe crabs lay belly up on the sand. I knelt beside one of the desiccated bodies and examined its flaking insides, its many legs and its exposed innards.

“Did you know,” murmured Magda, squatting beside me, “that horseshoe crabs are more closely related to spiders than crabs?” She reached out and touched some of the curled, claw-like legs. Her hand slipped underneath the stiff tail with its serrated edge, lingered there, and then gently flipped the crab over.

The crab’s brown carapace reminded me of a battered helmet. Around the edges it was chipped away and some kind of white, crusty oceanic growth had fused itself in the shape of tiny rings onto the smooth brown surface. Even though the crab was dead, had been dead long enough to be tossed around and battered by the ocean, it seemed like it might come alive, swish its blade-like tail back and forth, and then scuttle down the beach.

“They’re considered living fossils,” she said. Then she stood and began collecting the driftwood she’d found, and in a louder voice said, “I think we have enough now.”

At the campsite, Magda served homemade cornbread and canned chili she’d heated in a pot over the fire. We sat at the picnic table, cracked open two beers. Magda’s skin was pale gold in the flickering light from the fire, making her look younger, newer, more like she had in high school. She eyed me, watched me picking at my cornbread. Raising her bottle, she said, “I can’t believe I found this stuff down here. I thought you could only get it up North—it’s brewed with jasmine.”

“It’s good,” I heard myself say.

She was looking into the flames. “Wren,” she began. “Are you all right?”

My stomach cramped. “What do you mean?”

“You know. Are you okay? I don’t—okay, don’t take this the wrong way, but you just seem—” Her voice faded.

I didn’t know what to say. I could never find anything to talk about anymore, it seemed; too much time had passed. I had become unhappy and Magda’s happiness had multiplied, so that she had become a person who was content to sit by a campfire and drink jasmine-brewed beer, and I was surrounded by gray fog, shrinking a bit more each day.

“You can talk to me,” she said. I couldn’t look at her, but she had turned to face me. “It’s been a long time and we haven’t been great at keeping in touch, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tell me anything.”

I shrugged and took a sip of my beer; my throat was lined with sandpaper. “I don’t know.”

She sighed.

Telling her that we could talk about it later, or that I just needed to think would have been enough, and though it was maybe the most obvious thing, I didn’t think of it. There just seemed to be too much. I’m never hungry anymore, I wanted to say. I could have grabbed her shoulders and shaken her. I’m never hungry, I never want anything. I’m full of tiny holes, like a sieve, everything dripping through and out of me all the time. But I couldn’t do anything but stand up, find a cigarette in my purse, and light it.

“I thought you quit smoking,” she said, but it was so quiet that I could pretend not to hear.

I felt as I had at my grandfather’s funeral. I was seven, and I approached the casket briskly, not realizing what was inside—“what” and not “who” because I was startled to see a stiff, waxy replica of my grandfather lying there, thin-lipped and rouged. The lights were too bright, the silence growing.

This was a similar feeling, then, an almost embarrassed feeling, the awareness—we both felt it—that we’d made a mistake. We’d tried too hard, and it would have been much better if we hadn’t tried at all.

That night as we got ready for bed in the campground’s bathhouse, I sat on the toilet and, looking through the open stall door, watched her lean in toward the mirror, dabbing at her eyeliner with a cotton ball.

“Ugh, this stuff is so hard to get off,” she said, glancing at the flecks of black on the cotton.

“It looks nice on you,” I said, though once we were under the fluorescent lights, I’d seen the gap between the liner and her eyelashes and had felt terrible for noticing that she hadn’t applied it well.

She turned and smiled at me. Her eyes were red from being rubbed, making her look as if she’d been crying. “Thanks, Wren. I realized recently—anyone can look like Kim Kardashian if you know the right tricks.” Then she looked back at her reflection and pressed her lips together.

I felt so tired. I thought I could fall asleep there, sitting on the toilet with my shorts around my knees.

The silence continued to grow. Beetles scuttled along the floor. Everything was damp.

When I crawled into the tent behind her, I realized I had forgotten my pillow. If Magda noticed, she didn’t say anything. It was difficult to fall asleep, listening to her faint whistling sleep-breath and the cicadas roaring in the trees, with my denim jacket balled up under my head.

In the tent that night I thought about all the things I could have said, questions I should have asked her: if she still liked Boston, what she was reading, if there was anything or anyone from home she missed. I thought about the fierce tug of the kite as it rose above me, so high that it made my neck ache to watch it, and how determined Magda had looked as she pulled with her right hand and then her left, expertly steering the kite’s movements. I fell asleep, heavy like a sea lion with my belly full of fish. I dreamed about my great-aunt Jo, about living with her on her island, nubby sweaters and chamomile tea and saltwater taffy, heavy black galoshes by the back door. On the pier, gritty men hauled huge cages of lobsters up from the sea, and gray-green foam floated in patches like moss on the water’s surface, the luminous bodies of whales passing silently underneath. There was a sound like the grinding of metal or far-off brakes that pulled the dream away in wisps, and I found myself back in our tent. It was just dawn, and the light filtering in through the canopy of the maritime forest and then through the tent’s nylon screen was hazy. The sound continued.

I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. I got up carefully, afraid I’d wake her. But Magda, curled on her side with her hair half covering her face, only sighed and clenched a fist.

I traipsed into the forest, through curtains of mist ornamented with dragonflies—I thought maybe it was some enormous bird of prey, or a prehistoric monster. I was still waking up as I trudged along in my sneakers and pajamas.

I came to a place where the forest thinned and ended, and the sky was a sheet of gold. There were the mud flats, vast and pale brown, a slick wetland. The surface was lined with the static ripples of bedding planes, and about fifty feet in was a horse, chest deep, tossing its head and swishing its tail.

The crunching of twigs made me look to the left, where the border of shore and forest curved. Two more horses—safe on dry land—were watching the stuck one. They stomped and pawed at the dirt—feeble movements of protest. One turned its head as if waiting for someone to come, then glanced back, raising its head.

The horse in the mud pressed its ears flat and nickered. Its eyes rolled to reveal the whites, and its nostrils flared. It snorted and rocked forward slightly, but it wasn’t able to move, and the sound it made tore at me—it was a sound I’d never heard before. The muscles in its chest worked and pulsed like a tangle of hearts.

Something touched my shoulder and I jumped. Magda stood just behind me, her mouth slightly open. “Sorry,” she whispered, but she wasn’t looking at me. Her hair was frizzed and tangled like a great black cloud, and her bloodshot eyes had little bits of crust in the corners. “Oh my god.”

The horses on the shore were snorting and stomping. “Look,” she whispered again, and pointed at them.

“I know.”

“What happened? Should we do something?”

“I don’t know.” The struggling horse seemed to have sunk a bit lower. It still held its neck high and tense, and its lips were drawn in tight.

Then she put her hand over her mouth. “They say they don’t interfere with the wildlife. Do you think—”

We stood there for about a minute, watching the dialogue between the sinking horse and the other two. She was so close I could feel her breath along the rim of my ear. Then her breath caught.

“Wren.”

I turned to look at her, and her eyes were round and wild. “The tide. When does the tide come in?”

The other horses were picking their way back into the forest, ducking under the low-hanging swaths of moss. Out in the mud, the trapped horse quieted, drawing its tail close to its hindquarters and looking away from the island as if it had heard Magda’s question.

“Let’s go,” I said, and took her hand.

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