Rebecca convinces herself that she wants a fox skull. From a fox that is already dead, of course. Rebecca is no hunter. She is, instead, a strange curator. A woman who buys cartons of tiny test tubes in which to insert five or six grains of sand, or a stray eyelash, a beetle antennae. On her bookshelves are books and then sand dollars, whatever it is an owl vomits up and you discover when you dissect its pellets, assorted moth wings.
For her job, a soul-sucking position writing ad copy for dental implants and teeth brightening, she drives an hour over roads that wind through the Allegheny Mountains. Drives a beat up Jetta missing hubcaps, a car that thunders through the darkness. Drives too fast because it takes her so long to paint on her eyeliner, to decide which black skirt to wear with which black sweater, to rub one oil or another over her elbows, that she is late. Besides her desire for the fox skull, she has also decided to write poems about roadkill. Well, what other people called roadkill but what she describes as “furless flesh illogical and blue/with bits of bone and fat bright marigold/(How intimate the violet and honeydew.).” She can do the beautiful thing. She sees it everywhere. Sees it, and is distracted by it.
So many dead animals on her way to and from work. Deer, possum, raccoon. In the late summer, snakes that have slithered out onto pavement in the mornings to warm up. Why a fox, I wonder, but in the way I wonder how she manages it: the wildflowers blooming where most people have a front yard, the rowboat she pulls to the shore of her creek trusting in strangers to know it belongs to her, the time she wore one skirt beneath another and didn’t realize it until we were seated in a restaurant and then reached up, removed it, and handed it to me to carry in my purse. So I don’t ask. I just make a note: If only I could find a fox skull for her.
I live six hours northeast of her creek in central Pennsylvania. Well-lit roads. A short commute. No curiosity surrounding entrails. But my family and I vacation on the Sakonnet River in Tiverton, Rhode Island. A salt water strait, technically, subject to tides. The place where we stay does not belong to us. We could never afford its location, its privacy, its unpeopled stretch along that body of water. We swim in it in warmer weather. Even in October once. Even in May. But I also love the desolate winters there. How the wind furls and unfurls the water. The muted light. Our daughters are young and can be amused by repeat viewings of the Swiss Family Robinson VHS tape we discover in a closet, by afternoon trips to the empty playground, by walks along the water in search of unbroken conch shells and sea glass.
On one of these trips, we discover the coyote’s carcass, already decomposed so much that we have only the bushy tail to remind us of what color it had been. A silvery creature, a pewter landscape. What’s the difference, I wonder, between a fox’s skull and a coyote’s? Between vulpes vulpes and canis latrans? This particular head, however, is still attached to its spine and still strung with the leathery remains of the creature’s former face. I’m no scientist. Have none of Rebecca’s resourcefulness in me. Not her brand of curiosity, either. But it is February. The beach will be deserted for months yet. The carcass is far enough up the shore so that the high tide will not reach it, but the salt air will. The salt air, the sharp winds, the rain and snow. It can’t take long for the meat to fall away from those bones.
I am also unlike Rebecca in that nothing will get me out of my car on dark roads, lonely stretches. And I can’t bear the thought of her there, either. Dressed in black, the kind of person unaware of the periphery.
I lie in bed that first night, listening for the pack’s yips. I consider what might be out there on a bitter night like this to scavenge. On the other end of the loft bedroom, my daughters sleep side by side. I sit up in bed, just to make sure.
To keep Rebecca safe, I will watch this collection of bones on a stretch of shore whose only danger is a stinging wind.
I could say something too, about Rebecca’s gifts. Her giving. A chronically, hopelessly, unchangeably late person, she always remembers to offer you something on her arrival. A pinecone, unopened rhododendron blossom, white stone still life on your dresser, a perfume stick—the scent a mix of grass, mandarin orange, ylang ylang—chewable ginger that reminds you of Bit O’Honey, a box of black skirts she thinks would look better on you, a small sterling silver heart on a chain. Oh, and words. She gives me words in groups of four. Poem titles. She loves to share her vodka. She’ll bring enough mustaches for the whole party to tape one on.
And what do I have to offer in return?
In April: progress. The pelvis is clean, the vertebrae countable. But the grimace remains over the animal’s jaw and forehead. Soon, I reason. What the winter hasn’t worked away, the spring sun, its rains, certainly will. Besides the place where we stay, only one other house shares this stretch of beach. That house’s owner has never traversed the one acre meadow between her back door and this resting spot in all the time we’ve been coming here. I sit downshore and try to predict where diving cormorants will surface.
I will never ask Rebecca why she wants what she wants. When I wonder, I think of the way she hands me things. The one silver ring she sometimes wears as her wedding band. She can manipulate an almond, or the end of a hand-rolled cigarette, or one pearl stud she has only just remembered to remove before bed, and it is the way, if you could read one, you would hold up a crystal ball. Everything offered up to the light. Rebecca is prophecy to my certainty. She is questions. I, advice.
June. We have a series of hot days. I am far away from the river and from Rebecca. I am putting in screens, dragging fans down from the stifling attic and plugging them in so dust kitties skitter out from under every surface. My coyote must smell today. Now that the air is close. I consider what parasites might still pick away at those remains when fleshier kills must exist. Recognizable tissue. The memory of blood. Next time I will be able to take the prize home with me.
We arrive at the end of the month. This time of year, we have crossed paths with a turtle on her way to lay eggs. The bullfrogs and peepers chorus from the pond outside our bedroom window. Blue water. Still as a lake. Wild pea vines shoot bright green tendrils along the seawall. Water’s edge is quiet, the last storm’s detritus—rope scrap, bleach bottle, pine plank soft with rot—assembled. The coyote rests on the edge of the neighbor’s meadow and this makes sense. Field mice, moles, the eggs of meadowlarks and bobolinks, all here. But somehow, on a final trip, winter coming, the predator had lain down. The neat arrangement of bones suggests it was a natural death, the animal stretched out the way his cousin the dog might on linoleum on a hot day.
I see it there still as I approach, the tail gone now, except for a final few strands, the kinds of wiry hairs horses lose in barbed wire fencing and that birds sometimes claim for nests. Dried pompoms of seaweed cover leg bones, the vertebrae hinged, ribs extending a spiky embrace.
Only the skull is gone.
This is the way Rebecca swims in her creek: She keeps her head up, breast strokes, frog kicks. She is incapable of sinking. Beside her, her dog paddles, panting. If Rebecca gets too far away, Amelie whines until Rebecca turns over on her back and calls to her:“Well, come on then.” They never swim separately.
And on a day like that, on a day when Rebecca is, no doubt, swimming in her creek despite that the snow melt’s influence will not completely have left it, I am in the post office in my own town. Attached to the post office is a bakery that sells a few loaves of bread, some shrink-wrapped frosted cookies, and I keep thinking I should be able to smell things baking, but I don’t. The woman in front of me is deciding which stamps: Breast Cancer? Birds? The kind of people who keep PO boxes are peering and twirling and reaching in, their street addresses safe from strangers, at least those who are unfamiliar with the Internet.
“Anything flammable, liquid, explosive?” the clerk asks. I shake my head. And, let’s face it, why would I admit that? If I was the kind of person who would try to mail those things? Though I am the kind of person to mail this kind of thing. I am now.
I pay the clerk a few dollars and change, head back out into the garish light of June.
In a few days, the postal worker assigned to rural routes in the Allegheny Mountains of Central Pennsylvania, will make her way through the small meadow of columbine, bee balm, field daisies, wondering if anyone uses the front door. Everyone does. She will most likely leave the package on Rebecca’s front steps because Rebecca will be sitting now on the banks of her creek wondering how it is she’s missed fiddlehead season again. Beneath the water’s clear surface, she’ll see the tricycle left by the flood, a spoon, a chunk of road with a double yellow line. She’s trolled an underwater camera over the side of her rowboat to capture the footage, this American Atlantis. She spent a season painting neighbors’ houses, dragging sodden sheetrock and rotted floorboards out to dumpsters. She’s been knee-deep in creek mud several miles from its banks. She’s that kind of person and the kind of person who leaves work midday to photograph the migrating snow geese. No one will wonder how she knows they are coming. If she happens upon a deer in a field, washed pink with sunset, she has all the time in the world to stop with her camera. Often, she forgets to eat, but when she does, it is with small bites of cheese or figs on a plate.
When she comes home, barefoot, she might not see the package. She will be calling to Amelie to come into the shower. They shower together. Then, she will be toweling them both off and twisting up her hair. From the refrigerator, she will pull a few pieces of meat from last night’s chicken. A taste for her, a taste for the dog. She will run the tap so the cat can drink. Her son, maybe, or her husband, will set the package on her dining room table. It is not blueberry season yet. If it was blueberry season, there would be no room on her table, only the berries drying on a white cloth. She might cry a little when she realizes who the package is from. When she thinks about what we think about: how impossible it is to live so far away from so many people we love.
Inside, wrapped in tissue paper will be my wholly inadequate gift: the picked-clean pelvis, its eye holes and horns. She will lift it, the way she lifts things, always the gesture of an offering. She will consider the animal’s sacrifice, its loping steps through my world. In a few days, into my own mailbox, I will find a note: You always know just what I want.
The way she is blind to shortcomings. I forgot to say that about her.
Carla Panciera’s collection of short stories, Bewildered, received AWP’s 2013 Grace Paley Short Fiction Award and is available from the University of Massachusetts Press. She has also published two collections of poetry: One of the Cimalores (Cider Press) and No Day, No Dusk, No Love (Bordighera). Her work has appeared in several journals including Poetry, The New England Review, Nimrod, The Chattahoochee Review, Painted Bride, and Carolina Quarterly. Carla lives in Rowley, MA, with her husband and three daughters.