My mother is driving us away from Spokane International Airport when she tells me about the elk. Before dawn, she warmed her Ford Ranger and headed into town, planning to catch up on some work before I arrived from Baltimore. At one moment there was no elk. And the next: elk. A world of elk and the metallic rip of something under the hood, the sort of sound I fear on the long flights home. That undeniable knowledge that something has gone horribly wrong.
I tell her I’m glad she’s okay. I don’t say I’m running images of her death in my head. While she describes the elk as female, a cow, I’m still seeing a bull’s antlers crashing through the windshield, her body flailing as the truck rolls on its side and skids to a stop. I study my mother’s profile as she drives her work truck, hands gripped at ten and two. I imagine the worst, but she has barely a scratch.
She looks much older than the last time I saw her. The laugh lines around her mouth have sharpened in the last two years. I know she’s thinking the same thing about me, the new lines of gray in my hair.
We take the Thor St. exit, our exit for the last 25 years. But where our house used to be is a level bit of ground with no distinguishing feature, except the honey locust tree my parents planted when my brother was born. Somewhere out there are the bones of my dog. Eventually, this will all be a freeway interchange.
I stare at the ghost of my house and refuse to turn my head toward my mother. I don’t want her to talk. But when I hear her sniffle, the invitation to cry together opens itself. I wish we were the kind of family that would reach out for each other, but we’re not. I grab some tissues from the glove compartment, handing her one while dabbing my eyes. The moment quickly passes and we laugh at the sentimental women parked next to a non-descript piece of land.
As we have so many times before, we drive toward the Idaho border. It had been a Sunday tradition to make this trek to see my grandparents in Twin Lakes. Now I go because my mother has built a house there, at Echo Beach on the land she inherited. My grandparents have been gone for 12 years, and the land they owned, dozens of acres, was parceled out to my mother and her siblings. Her sister and brother own what was my grandparents’ house, which has become a summer cabin. Legal proceedings strained their already-tenuous relationships and they are now all but strangers.
Cruising in silence, I look for elk and the remnants of my mother’s truck. I look for blood. This road is so familiar that I’ve never read the warning signs. But there it is, just after crossing into Idaho: Game Crossing: Next 1 Mile.
My mother pulls to the shoulder when she sees the ragged bits of bumper and plastic of the Ranger.
“Tell me more about this elk,” I say as I hop down from the cab. “Was it just standing in the road?”
It wasn’t just an elk, she tells me, but a herd of 90. They stretch across the Washington/Idaho border, not limited by intangible boundaries.
“The trooper said they were bedded down for the night between the highway and the trees,” she says, picking up a piece of headlight. “He said it was the third time this week.” She turns the plastic over in her hands, then tosses it to the ground.
It isn’t rutting season, so there wouldn’t have been any males. Only sleeping cows and calves. No antlers.
“It was so dark,” she says, “All you could see were stars. You wouldn’t even think a train was there to spook them.” The railroad tracks run just beyond the trees, where they are easily obscured by the dense evergreens.
I remember nights spent driving aimlessly on these highways, where I thought those stars were my only companions. In the lush purr of the woods, I looked out the sunroof, oblivious of anything but what glittered above.
My mother and her Ranger were the first to enter the moving herd. Her rig sustained the most damage. She points to an embankment that leads into the woods. “That’s where the other elk died,” she says. It was killed by the truck behind her, while the third truck in line cut through the herd as if it were invisible. “It tried to pull itself up that berm. Horrible to watch. I was hoping the trooper would get here quickly, you know, to put a bullet in its head.” The last truck tapped an elk’s rump, but the animal slipped into the woods, presumably unscathed, with the rest of the herd. I’m surprised at how calm she seems as she picks over debris from her truck. Then I realize that some of the pieces are likely from other collisions. It’s unnerving.
When we arrive in Twin Lakes, I’m momentarily frozen. The last time I was here, the tiny cabin my great-grandfather named Pine Knot was drooping, derelict, with five giant ponderosa pines running its perimeter. In one of my storage boxes, there’s a photo of me, aged seven, with my grandparents standing in front of that tiny house. Before my mother remarried, I spent my weekends and summers with them at the lake. Until their house was built, they lived year-round in that studio-sized cottage, and I slept on my grandfather’s army cot. But where Pine Knot was is a new Craftsman-style home with an attached garage.
“Different, isn’t it?” my mother says. She’s lived here for two months, but I can tell it’s still a shock to see it every day.
I take off my heavy boots when we walk inside, and I shake off any lingering ice crystals. The house is nearly finished, except for the installation of interior doors and the final coating on the oak floors. I keep my hands to myself, not wanting to ruin anything with wet fingerprints. I always feel like a child when I come home, but this new house breeds something new in me, a feeling that I am now just a guest. My mother shows me around like a real estate agent, pointing out the details in every room. Everything is period-appropriate. Even the elaborate quarter-sawn oak cabinets, flooring, and molding have been constructed as if it is still the 1930s. It’s a house her parents would have loved. She has a view of their lakefront home, just across the county road that splits the parcels in half, and Echo Beach. Later, we walk down the hill to the lake’s edge, using the old deer trails, so I can take pictures that will hang in my office.
“Were you scared?” I ask.
She considers the question, trying to remember what is quickly becoming hazy. “It was like I blinked and it was there. There wasn’t any warning. I took my foot off the gas and pulled to the side of the road where it just slid off. The hardest part was that it tried to walk away, like the other one.”
“When you said you hit an elk I didn’t know what to do,” I say. She’s the type who is always early and, anticipating my arrival, the one who nearly sees my plane descend and land. But on this trip, for the first time, she wasn’t waiting. No voicemail came through. I stood outside the doors and called her, my breath visible in the cold morning air. All she said was, “I’m running late. I’ll be there soon. I’m okay,” before she hung up. It had not been a possibility that anything could be other than okay.
She points her boot to the hoof tracks that lead across the lake. “I saw a moose here once. When grandma and grandpa were alive,” she says. “But never elk. Their herds are too big.”
The ice on the lake is thick, so we walk past the dock before we stop. The ice cracks and thumps a slow heartbeat. When my grandparents were alive, we’d clean all the snow off the ice and skate on our private rink. We only had to share when my grandmother’s sisters’ families were visiting, which was rare. When we look across the lake, we see a layer of fog descending and know a storm is coming over the mountain.
“The ice had just come off, so it was still cold. But I watched that moose walk the same way we came down just now, right through here, and then it swam across to the other side.”
I turn to face the shore and look back up the hill, past my grandparents’ property. The home my mother dubbed Pine Knot Estates looks as if it has always belonged here. The antique, three-foot electric Christmas candle already stands on the porch just like it used to at my childhood home.
My grandparents’ house is only yards away from us, but it seems untouchable. It feels as if we should still be able to walk up to the door and open it. Now, I only go inside on the rarest occasions—when the new owners are there and I knock on the door. But I get little pleasure from these visits. I sit on the couch half listening, half trying to bring my grandparents back to life.
It will always be too quiet there without those sounds that exist now only in memory: the soft scratching of my grandmother’s pen on paper as she writes letters in the front room, my grandfather slowly turning the pages of a Louis L’Amour novel. No one is watching the Seahawks game with the volume turned high, or vacuuming the carpet, or calling relatives on one of the old rotary phones. No one is at the windows watching my mother and me on the lake.
The next day, we wake to find the trees under a fresh dusting of snow. The tallest ponderosa, the one that had the finest widowmakers until the framers used their rig to pull the broken limbs down, is changed from scraggy pine to Christmas card perfection. It says Happy Holidays from the Lake and Wish You Were Here. Soon, my brother arrives, and the tranquil scene starts to feel more like home.
“We’ll pick up the elk steaks tonight,” my mother tells us while she wanders around the kitchen, trying to find where she’ll keep her spatulas. I stand guard at the island, not knowing where to put myself. “Find a home for these, would you?” She sets the utensils in front of me and turns to another box that she gives to my brother.
I start picking through boxes and find a cracked-glass jar from our old house. I set the jar, full of spatulas and spoons, next to the stove. She nods her approval.
“You know, they saved the elk’s ivory teeth. There are two: one for my Ranger and one for the work truck.”
In Idaho, when you strike and kill an animal, it becomes yours. The troopers oversee your salvage and removal of it, and they can accept its donation to Idaho Fish and Game. While in shock, my mother gave her elk to two guys wearing camo who stopped at the accident. They took the animal but said they would share the meat and ivory teeth.
“I can’t wait to eat it,” I say. She can’t decide if her most finicky eater, her former vegetarian, is joking, so I flash her my teeth and chomp down, pretending to eat my brother’s shoulder. He smiles and leans against a box on the kitchen’s island, smelling of soap and cologne, a scent that seems too old for him.
When I was a teenager and he was a child, I’d yell to the Echo Man as we sat around the beach bonfire toasting marshmallows. My voice would bend and bounce back to us, something I knew would scare him. But my grandmother would place her hands together like a shell and blow into the small opening made by her thumbs. It sounded like a bird had flown into her hands.
Though 12 years separate me from my brother, we’ve found a way of interacting that gets easier, and more natural, as we get older. We usually speak on the phone once or twice a year and send occasional texts, but I sometimes worry that we will fracture like my mother’s family, that the distances between us will eventually tear us apart.
“Is your girlfriend going to eat with us on Christmas?” I ask him. “Does she eat meat? Should we save a steak for her?”
“No, she’ll be out in the afternoon.”
“You told her to watch out for the elk, right?” my mother says, though she knows the elk are only near the highway in the earliest hours of the morning.
A cat outside catches my eye, as it struggles to slip beneath a tarp left by the builders. “Can’t we shoot some of these cats?” I say, changing the subject. They’re everywhere, the product of a man who owns the house that used to be my great-grandparents’ lakefront store. My great-grandfather, a railroad man from Illinois, bought over 60 acres of timberland and three lakefront parcels along Echo Beach. The parcels became the store (where he raised his family), a lodge that once hosted Bing Crosby, and the ice house where he stored frozen chunks of the lake. The ice house went to my grandmother, and she built her house on the land where it had stood. This sent ripples through the family. In less than three years though, her sister sold the old store to the cat man.
In a flash, I think of times before my brother, me with my step-dad, taking pistols and shotguns to the upper timberland to shoot pop cans. I haven’t thought about this in years. After the divorce, we simply went our separate ways.
“I thought about getting a pellet gun,” my brother says, “but I’d feel really bad.”
“Yeah. Me, too,” I say, but this is only mostly true.
I wonder where the old rifles have gone. I remember, aged 11, bracing the shotgun in my shoulder, looking down the barrel, placing my finger on the trigger. At the end of my sight was an empty can of Rainier Beer or Hamms or Coors. But now I imagine an elk emerging from the middle of a herd. My target has a beating heart, ears that turn my way when I crack a branch with my foot. I could never pull the trigger.
I couldn’t bring myself to hunt, but I could fish. I was eight when my grandfather taught me how to clean perch. His calloused hands left a buzz in the air as he smoothed out a paper bag and set the fish on its side. As he showed me where to start my knife, I wondered if the guts would spill, if the heart would pump until severed from the body. He took my hand and showed me how to scoop the guts with my fingers. When he fried the fish in the kitchen, it turned white and flaky. Chewing the flesh and picking out the bones felt extremely intimate. The art of gutting a fish now lies dormant somewhere inside me, but sometimes I find myself daydreaming about coming home, taking the boat out for a lazy day of trolling for whatever tugs the line.
Guns were always different. After a few lessons, the connection between cans and animals became too much, and I put the pistols down for good. I consider the Idaho trooper, his job that includes euthanasia at the roadside, and silently thank him for doing what I could not. I imagine the butchers opening the elk. The smell of blood. The darkness of the flesh.
On Christmas morning, my mother finds an old apron in a box marked KITCHEN and sets it aside for me. It’s blue with small pink flowers and green leaves. As I tie it into place, I imagine my mother’s grandmother wearing it down in the old store, standing at the window of her kitchen, scrubbing dishes as my great-grandfather readied his ice prongs for another ice harvest out on the lake. It’s the same window I can see as I fry three elk steaks and crack eggs against my grandma’s porcelain custard bowl.
As I prepare breakfast, I hear my mother in the living room, admiring our Charlie Brown-style tree with its sparse limbs and vintage bubble lights. A couple days earlier, we followed the deer trails into the woods and cut down a six-foot ponderosa. It stands next to the stairs, with our childhood stockings hanging down the sides of the unfinished steps.
“Merry Christmas,” I say, as I serve plates of elk, eggs, and hash browns. The steaks leave a smear of blood that soaks into the potatoes. The meat is lean, and I imagine the other elk out in the field, chewing grass that has poked through the snow. I hope the herd will adopt any calves the trucks leave behind.
I take a bite that tastes like beef and bison and something else I can’t quite put my finger on.
“Does it taste like the lake?” my brother says as he stabs another chunk with his fork.
“It’s kind of sweet,” my mother says.
They talk of New Year’s Eve plans, of banging pots and pans at midnight, but I’ll be back in Baltimore, watching the fireworks from the cold balcony of my apartment. I’ll be asleep when my family rattles the new neighborhood, setting the dogs barking.
I pick up one of the ivory teeth and weigh it in my hand. “Are you really going to hang this from the rear view mirror?”
“Of course. It’s not like this happens every day,” my mother says.
“I’m grateful for that,” I say.
There are herds of elk, miscellaneous deer, and stray moose that roam this area. We often hear the stories of friends and acquaintances hitting game, but this is the first time anyone in our family has actually done it. Normally, we just see a deer on the shoulder of the road and keep driving. Sometimes, we forge through blood and gristle, extending the spray of red. I never imagined that I could lose my mother to an elk.
She takes the empty plates into the kitchen and comes back, setting the other tooth before me on the table. “Maybe you should take one of these to Baltimore,” she says. “We can both have one.”
I wonder how it would look, hanging from my rear view mirror.
“Thank you,” I say. “It’s perfect.” Before I can stop myself, I touch her arm.
She looks surprised, then smiles.
“Put on your boots,” she says. “Let’s clean up some of that snow.”
As she leaves the room, I shake the ivory teeth in my hand. It feels almost like a pair of dice.
Jenne Knight writes poetry and essays. Her work appears in The Rumpus, Dead Housekeeping, Rust + Moth, and elsewhere.