In the High Prairies
Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom
The railroad tracks carry the smell of dead things warmed by the midday sun. In the high prairies of Montana, it’s been a cold March—but this morning a northwest wind swept in, bringing mild air that makes the ice on the trees crackle and sigh. The snowdrifts are deep and not going anywhere soon. The girl starts to sweat as she walks along the edge of the tracks. She’s thirteen and supposed to be in school.
Around her shoulders hangs her father’s favorite jacket, made of heavy wool in dark green plaid. He called it a hunting jacket, though she never saw him hunt anything except scaring off squirrels with a BB gun. Although she’s tall for her age, the sleeves are still too long. He left a little folding knife in the pocket, the inside pocket hidden in the lining, and she can feel it swing gently against her ribs as she walks.
The girl is bleeding for the first time, not like when she cut her foot open on the sharp rocks at the quarry. She’s bleeding and doesn’t want to be and doesn’t know how to tell anyone, so she just keeps walking along the railroad. She wishes she could shed her body like a snake sheds its skin.
Somewhere up ahead, nearly three hundred dead antelopes lie in piles along a lonely stretch of track. There are bucks with their horns broken, tongues lolling out. There are does with heavy bellies, who would have borne their young in May. More than anything, there are flies.
Last week, spring snow buried the county in powder so deep that animals sought open ground to rest. Without meaning to, the trains cleared a place for them, the locomotives with their sturdy plows barreling through the drifts. A whole herd of antelope came down onto the tracks. On a moonless night, in the narrow beam of the headlight, the engineer didn’t see them until it was too late to stop.
The local sheriffs came out to help with the mess. A welter of antelope lay scattered over the snow with broken legs and ragged wounds. One of the deputies had hunted pronghorn with his brother-in-law, even shot one himself. But this wasn’t the same. The antelopes’ eyes widened with fear as the men came close with their rifles. The animals had long eyelashes and cream-colored patches on their cheeks and throats. Soon the deputies ran out of ammunition and had to send someone back to the station for more.
Too long ago for the girl to imagine, this place used to be an inland sea. Then the glaciers formed and receded, leaving behind erratics—oversized boulders cropping up from the prairie like the gravestones of giants. A few hundred years ago, the Blackfeet, Sioux, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventre people ranged across this land, hunting herds of buffalo so vast that their hooves were as loud as a storm-crazed sea. Then Europeans came and killed nearly all the buffalo and drove the indigenous people onto reservations. The railroad helped them do it, carrying white men with rifles who shot buffalo and left their bodies to rot, carrying settlers farther and farther west. The girl’s history books in school describe this colonization as if it had been something inevitable, unstoppable, like the flow of water in the streams that cut through this landscape.
The girl has learned some of this other history from her older brother, who works at the video store and goes to community college and reads a lot of books by Howard Zinn. Her brother is wrong about a lot of things, and she doesn’t hesitate to tell him so, but she thinks he’s right about this.
The girl isn’t in history class not only because of her period, but because of what she heard outside the drugstore this morning. A sheriff’s deputy was on the payphone talking about how the dead antelope are still there, and the railroad company needs to send a front-end loader. She told herself she didn’t want to see the antelope, but curiosity gnawed in her stomach, then she felt the warm blood start and her feet carried her toward the railroad.
As soon as she gets out of sight of town, she grabs a handful of tissues from her backpack and stuffs them down the front of her underwear. Her boots sink deep into the snowdrifts beside the rails. Pain radiates through her lower belly in waves. The film strip her teacher showed them in seventh-grade science class didn’t prepare her for this. She hates her body for doing something she can’t control, her blood not staying put like she’s always relied on it to do. Her mother has never talked to her about this, only said vaguely, “When the change happens, tell me.”
But everything is changing—the girl’s shoe size, her shape, her skin, the way she looks at herself in the mirror, the way her mother doesn’t talk when she gets home from another late shift at work, the empty space in her parents’ double bed where her father used to sleep.
So the girl walks. The bad smell starts to wrinkle her nose by the time she takes a hundred steps. She walks until she spots the shape of something around the next bend. It’s about three hundred feet away. The dense stink catches in her throat. The sheriff doesn’t need to put up a fence: the smell is clear enough saying, “Go back.” But she ducks her head and pulls her shirt over her nose, and that’s when she sees the poppies under her feet. They’re yellow, the color of butter against the snow. Her grandmother showed her poppies like these when she was little. They aren’t supposed to bloom until summer.
The worst part for the engineer was how long it took to hit them all. The herd had strung itself out along the track, breathing out clouds of vapor, drowsing in the early morning dark. The engineer braked hard, but soon she felt the first thud of flesh. The noise echoed through the cars and seemed to ripple the solid steel. The train struck one antelope after another until the battering sounded like a hailstorm.
Most passengers in the sleeper cars startled awake to the sounds of impact. They stumbled out in their pajamas to ask each other what had happened. A few slept on, with earplugs in and last night’s miniature bottles of wine leaving them dead to the world.
The engineer hated the feeling of the train still barreling forward out of her control, its own weight and momentum so much larger than hers. Usually it was comforting, being aboard that great mass of steel, but on this night it was terrifying.
Once the train had come to a full stop, the crew climbed out to survey the damage. There were pieces of antelope caught under the wheels, in the snowplow on the locomotive. There were small sounds coming from the mouths of the animals still living. The crew members had snow shovels for storms and chainsaws for fallen trees, but they weren’t equipped for this. They radioed the local sheriff’s office.
“This is train seventy-four, about two miles outside of town,” the conductor said into the radio. “There’s been a collision.” The engineer climbed down the steps from the door and stood beside the train, where so much blood splashed across the snow.
The girl presses one hand over her face, breathing through a gap between her fingers. She’s one hundred feet away from the antelope. Fifty. She coughs and it only makes the ache in her belly sharper.
She thinks of the old Chevy coughing the night her father left, the way it always coughed and grumbled when someone tried to start it up. It was a dusty gray clunker whose engine would stall out and die if you didn’t nurse the gas pedal just right, and her father was the only one who could make it run without breaking down.
Her parents’ fight that night was not about the car, or about money, it was about everything at once, from what the girl could hear from where she was hiding in her room. She’d been partly deaf in one ear since she was a baby, but their shouting traveled well enough through the closed door. They’d fought plenty of times before. She looked through the window to see her father throwing a suitcase into the backseat of the Chevy and slamming the door.
The girl listened to the grumbling of the Chevy’s engine driving away, until she couldn’t hear it anymore. Her father had only taken a few of his clothes and toothbrush and razor with him, and in his hurry he forgot his favorite jacket.
A few days later, the girl answered the phone when her mother and brother were at work.
“Hey, it’s Dad,” her father said, as if she wouldn’t know.
“Dad, where are you?”
“Chicago,” he said. The girl had never been to Chicago and couldn’t believe the old car had made it that far.
“Have you seen my hunting jacket?” he asked.
Was that really the first thing he was worried about? “No,” she lied, because she was angry with him. She’d found it on a coat hook the day after he left.
“How’s school going?” he asked.
“How’s your brother?”
“He’s fine.” It made her sad to realize how little they had to say.
The girl doesn’t know anything about Chicago except that it’s windy and people there eat a lot of pizza. She imagines her father standing on a city street corner with his back turned against the high wind, eating an oversized slice of deep-dish pizza from a paper plate. Then she remembers he doesn’t have his jacket to keep him warm, and a pang of guilt hits her, so she imagines him in a long trench coat like she’s seen in old movies, with the collar turned up against the wind. His fingers drip tomato sauce and he smells like garlic. She can’t imagine this version of her father ever coming back home.
Finally the girl’s feet carry her close enough to the carnage to see details: fur caked with dried blood, splintered hooves, eyes no longer glassy but dark with ants. A litter of empty shell casings on the ground. The flies never stop moving.
She stumbles and retches onto the snow. Her belly and back ache in symmetry. She crouches with her palms on her knees. Her boots have snapped the stems of a cluster of poppies.
It’s not as if the girl hasn’t seen dead things before. Gutted whitefish from the Milk River, a limp coyote tacked to a fence by a rancher. Her grandmother’s body turning cold in a hospice bed. Her grandmother had lived with them until she got too sick. When the girl had cried over the dead coyote, even though she was terrified of dogs, her grandmother said to her, “You have a soft heart.”
The sun dips behind a cloud and the temperature is dropping. She knows she should turn around and go home. Instead she fastens the buttons of her father’s jacket, pulls the collar close around her throat. The wool is rough but warm. Then she steadies herself and steps onto the tracks. It feels easy to walk on the wooden ties after trudging through the snow. Her good ear listens for a train horn. But there’s only supposed to be one train a day, and sound travels a long way across this flat landscape. The smell makes her stomach clench into a knot again.
She walks forward and looks so steadily at her feet that she doesn’t notice the huge bird crouched ahead of her, not until she’s close enough to see the outlines of its feathers. The vulture is nearly black from neck to tail, with a bald red head and uncanny eyes. They stare at each other for a long minute. The bird blinks once, twice, then hunches its shoulders and lifts its body into the air with a tremendous lurch. It flies to the low branches of a nearby tree and stares at the girl balefully, opening its beak to let out a low hiss.
The girl breaks into a run, sprints past the vulture and between the piles of antelope. Her legs are strong and she runs for a long time. She keeps going after she’s passed the last of the animals and can breathe deeply again. The smell clings to her hair and her father’s jacket. She can feel the blood has worked its way through to her blue jeans.
The girl lopes slower, her breath tight in her chest. Her boots are still bounded on either side by the twin metal rails. Being on the tracks gives her a queasy thrill. She turns her head to look for a place to cut through the trees and circle back toward home, and that’s when her boot slips on a patch of ice. Her foot skids to the side and her ankle twists as her body crumples downward. Instinctively she throws her hands out to break her fall, and as she hits the ground the closed pocketknife jabs hard against her side.
She lies there stunned for a minute. Slowly pulling herself to a sitting position, she realizes she’s still on the tracks and tries not to panic. But her heart pounds faster as she takes stock: pain shoots through her left ankle, and she must be miles from town by now. Gingerly she straightens her leg and crawls a few feet away from the railroad, sitting in the snow and panting. She’s scraped the palms of her hands, and her skin burns.
She looks around and sees no houses in any direction, no roads, no people. Suddenly she’s desperately hungry. She opens her backpack and takes inventory: science textbook, composition notebook, ballpoint pen, tissues, English textbook, pencil, and a paper bag holding a packet of store-brand Pop Tarts and a carton of orange juice—what she’s been packing herself for lunch most days since her mom has been too tired to notice. She rips open the Pop Tarts and wolfs them down, licks the frosting from her fingers, drinks the orange juice slowly.
She pulls herself to stand but can’t put weight on her hurt ankle. She takes a few steps forward and the faint line of a fence appears to the west, below a row of spruce trees. A fence means a farm, maybe someone home. She’s starting to shiver and her clothes are damp from snow and blood. The girl limps toward the fence. It’s slow going through the deep snow, and she winces with each step.
She’s almost to the gate when a trio of farm dogs rush up to the fence, put their paws up on the top rail, and open their mouths in a wild, keening howl. When she was little, the neighbor’s hound dog got loose and bit her on the face, and she still has a cluster of tiny scars denting her cheek. She stumbles backward in fear. The huge dogs are a mess of fur and grinning jaws as they leap and fall over each other.
There is no one else here to help her. From her chest she summons her deepest, sternest voice to tell them: “Off. Get down. Chill out.”
The dogs look chastened and stop howling. They are still jumpy and overexcited, licking her hands and yipping as she opens the gate, but she says, “Down. Shoo,” and they listen.
There’s a faded white farmhouse at the end of the long dirt drive. She limps along the slushy wheel ruts, the three dogs following behind her with barely contained excitement.
The blue paint on the front door is peeling, revealing the bare wood beneath, and the doorbell is broken. The girl knocks as loudly as she can with her scraped hands.
No answer. She waits and knocks a second time. A stubbly-faced man with a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek opens the door a crack and narrows his eyes at her. “Not interested in Girl Scout cookies,” he says.
“Wait,” she says before he can close the door. “I sprained my ankle and can’t get home. Can I use your phone, please?”
“Sure can’t,” he says.
“Because I couldn’t pay the bill last month, and when that happens, the telephone company gets snippy. Get it? Snip.” He holds his index and middle fingers like scissors and makes a cutting motion. She hates adults who talk to her like she’s stupid.
The girl tries to peer into the front hall, but she can’t see much. Is he telling the truth about the phone?
“Are you sure I can’t call my mom?”
He scratches the back of his neck and sighs. “Guess I could give you a ride home. Where do you live?”
The girl hesitates. She has watched her share of after-school specials. Don’t tell strange men where you live, don’t get into cars with strangers, always be careful or a weirdo might kidnap you and you’ll be murdered and never be seen again. She looks closer at this stubbly-faced man. The whites of his eyes are tinged a little yellow. He’s maybe her father’s age, but looks older. His hair is scruffy and he’s wearing Carhartt work pants and a white T-shirt. In other words, he looks like most of the men she sees around town, but the way he stares at her makes her stomach turn over.
What other choice does she have? She can’t walk as far as the main road. And then what, hitchhiking home? Getting hypothermia out in the snow? She remembers the folding knife in her pocket and it gives her courage. She clears her throat and says to the man, “I live just off of Route 2.”
“All right,” he says. “Lemme get my jacket.”
He disappears and reappears in a barn jacket and ski cap. He comes through the front door with a shuffle and a slam, and the girl follows him to the pickup truck parked out front. The dogs whine and press against his legs, but he says, “Go on, get out of here, you stupid mutts.” He spits dark tobacco juice into the snow.
The girl thinks she has never been so cold before. An icy wind gusts and the branches of the spruce trees make a sound like running water. She limps after the man, who doesn’t offer to help her, just gets into the driver’s seat and waits while the girl struggles to climb up into the high cab with her hurt ankle. The sight of the tan vinyl seats reminds her of her bloody jeans, and she feels a flush of humiliation. But what choice does she have? She climbs in and sits miserably in the passenger seat. Through the window, she sees the three dogs lie down on the porch and hang their heads between their paws.
“So,” the man says as he starts up the engine. “What’s your name?”
“Annie,” she lies. In the cab, the man’s smell of chewing tobacco and sweat is strong. Her fear rises, knowing she’s trapped in here with him. She slips her hand inside her father’s jacket, unzips the inside pocket, and holds the small knife tightly between her fingers.
“How old are you?” he asks as he pulls onto the road.
“Thirteen.” Her teeth chatter as the air vents blast on her face. “How old are you?”
The man laughs. “Where do you live?”
“I’ll tell you where to turn,” she says.
“You need a blanket, there’s one in the back,” the man says as he drives one-handed. The girl looks behind the seat and pulls out a scratchy blanket, which stinks of dog. It’s better than nothing.
The girl imagines what she’ll do if this man tries anything. If he tries to kidnap her, she’ll jump out the passenger door and make a run for it. True, she won’t be very fast with this twisted ankle. If he tries to put his hands on her, she’ll slash his throat with the pocketknife. She imagines blood soaking his white T-shirt, like the blood staining the snow where the antelope were killed, and she is not ready but her knuckles clench around the knife until they turn white.
Every muscle in her body is still tense when the man finally turns down her street and shuts off the engine. She realizes it’s too early in the afternoon. Her mother and brother are probably still at work.
“Want me to walk you inside?” the man asks.
“No, thank you.” She shakes her head and fumbles with the passenger door handle.
“You sure I can’t help you?” the man says. He leans closer, his rank smell filling her nose.
“No,” she says. “My dad is waiting for me.” She slides down from the cab, clenches her teeth against the pain that runs through her ankle, and limps to the front door as fast as she can. She turns her key in the lock, locks the door behind her, and slumps against the door as tears run down her cheeks. The pickup truck starts up and rumbles down the street, and she listens until it’s gone.
Her brother comes into the front hall. “What’s wrong?”
“I hurt my ankle,” she says in a tone that she hopes will cut off more questions. He stands there as she staggers into the bathroom and locks the door behind her.
The girl shucks off her wet clothes onto the floor, hangs her father’s jacket over the towel rack, and sits in the tub under a hot shower until she finally stops shivering. Of all people, she doesn’t know how to talk to her brother about what’s wrong. She rummages through the cabinet under the sink to find her mom’s pads, then ruins the first one by getting the adhesive tabs tangled and stuck to themselves. She wraps it back up in its pink plastic wrapper and stuffs it into the trash can. She takes a second one from the box. There’s a knock on the bathroom door.
“Not right now,” she yells.
“OK,” her brother yells back.
Finally she wraps herself in the biggest towel, tucks the pad in the crook of her underarm, and opens the door a crack. When the coast is clear, she sneaks to her bedroom. She sticks the pad into a clean pair of underwear, puts on black sweatpants and a sweater, and walks unsteadily down the hall. Coming around the corner into the living room, she’s surprised to see a chipped mug of cocoa on the coffee table, giving off little curls of steam.
Her brother is sitting on the couch in front of the TV. He looks away as his sister picks up the mug. She sits down next to him and they watch cartoons on one of the few channels that get reception.
“Do you need ice or something?” he asks.
“I guess,” she says.
He walks to the kitchen and comes back with a lumpy bag of ice cubes she drapes across her ankle.
They don’t talk for a while. The girl blows on the cocoa to cool it, but the first sip still burns her tongue. She loves instant cocoa made with two packets instead of one, and she’s surprised her brother remembered. He looks at her sidelong for a minute.
“What?” she says. She is still ashamed, and her ankle is throbbing. The music of a cheery advertising jingle plays on TV.
“Do you want to talk about it?” He stares at the TV as he talks.
“Not really,” she says.
He nods and shrugs his shoulders. They watch to the end of the cartoon and her brother looks over at her again as the credits roll. She drinks the last of her cocoa.
“It’s gonna be OK,” he says.
Maybe he’s wrong about this, like he’s wrong about a lot of things, but she decides to believe him.
Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom’s work appears or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Catapult, Fourteen Hills, The Offing, Hobart, and elsewhere. She was born in Virginia and earned an MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. You can find her online at lizbergstrom.com.