The Elk

after “The White Horse” by Yasunari Kawabata

In the low light of the gloaming he felt the pulse of the late evening in the cutting wind. It broke around the branches and tree trunks as it slid down the mountainside into the valley where he found himself standing, his knees aching. The waning sun surrendered ever more the violet, the harsher reds and oranges ebbing. The mountains closed and crowded him, and the valley darkened much earlier in the evening than the sky above it, which reflected the sun’s light long after it had passed from view. As he’d grown older, Estill claimed to his wife that he could feel the turn of the Earth and that it knocked him off his feet sometimes. She said it was vertigo or that he was just getting long in the tooth. But her face was not in his thoughts now, and he tried to place himself in the valley where he stood. The mountains moved around him, toward him, suffocating the valley. The rushing of the creek grew nearer, and as the sky darkened, an elk burst from the weeds against the mountainside. Its enormous pale antlers tore at the kudzu vines that spanned the gap from the brushy ground to the tall, wavering trees.

Standing in front of the elk, he felt small. Its breath frosted in the air, though the mountains were green and the air warm. When it turned its head in profile the antlers weren’t aimed as they should have been. They pointed forward.

It leapt into the sky and treaded across the violet rimmed in gold. Each step with its skinny hooves sent ripples across the clouds as if they were the surface of a lake. The elk rode the streaks of light into the distance as the wind picked up and the trees overcame him.

When Estill woke he still felt the chill air from the ceiling fan rushing around him. The elk was not a strange dream for him, but the antlers were different. Since he’d retired he found it harder to sleep. The doctor said his body had been used to the labor, the routine, and he’d have to find new ways to exercise during the day that were less strenuous than the mines he’d crawled through during his youth, that he’d managed as he aged, that he’d been forced to retire from before layoffs.

Early light shined through the blinds and fell on Amy’s face, but she didn’t move. It had crept up on him, but she was much older now. They both were. He still thought of the young her, the one with the hint of crow’s feet holding Richard on his first birthday. The damp sheets were cold under his fingertips and the image of the elk came back, clear in his mind. In his youth he’d only heard tell of such a thing. For most of his life elks had been gone from the mountains, but they’d been set back into the wild in the past few years, same as black bears. They were creatures that needed a lot of territory—too big to handle people encroaching on their land. Folks spotted them everywhere once they were reintroduced, but he didn’t. Every day the mines miles behind their house blasted at 4:15 p.m. on the dot. Animals were sensitive to such things. He longed for the wails of the mountain lions his father warned him about, though he never actually heard them as far as he could remember. Just the memory of his imagination, of his father’s stories, was enough. His father had been gone close to forty years. When he got older their existence was more myth than a memory.

For the first time since he was a very young man he thought of Brenda, the girl he met in elementary school and would go on to date through most of high school. He felt guilty with his wife asleep next to him, but he could no more control his mind than he could the seasons. He’d not seen or thought of Brenda since he graduated—since he’d met Amy. When they were young, Brenda’s dad came to their third grade homeroom for show and tell. He brought in a rack of elk antlers, which were rare then. The children all sat on the floor as he carried them around. They were smooth like varnished wood, but at their base they were dark brown and deeply grooved. The tips drew to a point and faded to a white-yellow, the color of bone or stained teeth. They’d asked how he’d hunted down the elk and were disappointed to hear he’d found the antlers at the back of their garden near the mountain. Elk shed their antlers seasonally he told them. Every year they lose them at the start of spring, and then they begin growing them all over again.

The kids took turns rubbing the antlers and, with help, they lifted them to feel their weight. Estill’s hands were too small to wrap around them then, and the tallest point loomed over him. After they’d all taken their turns his teacher asked the students to get out their paper and pencils to draw an elk. Estill imagined them to look almost the same as the deer his father would bring home from his weekend trips, but the chest had to be heavier with a strong neck to hold those impressive antlers. He drew the points of the rack forward, lunging out over the snout to fend off whatever may come.

Their teacher walked around class with the natural history textbook to show them pictures of Kentucky’s native elk. They’d been prominent before the population grew and people thinned them out. The teacher stopped at his desk and put the book by his drawing. In the black and white photograph the elk’s head was lifted to the sky, antlers branching up and out behind it, protecting its neck and shoulders. The antlers didn’t sprout forward as he’d drawn them. She told him the drawing was a good effort and complimented his work but reminded him that he could ask for help if he needed it. He wondered why something so big should have to be scared of anything, why the antlers came back the way they did, why they shed them after so short a time.

Out of bed, Estill’s morning coffee did nothing more to pull him from the dream or those memories. Coffee was a decades old habit, a fortifying ritual before going deep into the mountains for work. In retirement he had nowhere to be but still couldn’t do without it. The smell of the beans after he’d run them through the grinder, the whistle of the kettle, and the shimmer of steam in the morning light made him feel at home. They were rites he’d never set to make or considered dropping. He always woke before his wife but never set an alarm. He liked to sit on the back porch with his coffee and listen to the mourning doves. The breeze carried the sweet smell of dew. Soon the sun would rise high enough to steal it away. Retirement had not suited him, but his body grew into it. His muscles ached less, despite his age, and the definition from years of labor faded without use.

The cordless phone on the table beside him vibrated. He picked it up on the second ring.

“What do you say, old man?” his son said.

“Beautiful morning, but I’m beat,” Estill said. “Dreamed about elks again.”

“Ought to talk to the doctor about your sleep.”

“Well,” Estill said. “What’s new?”

“Nothing to speak of,” his son said. “You seen any real elk your way?”

“Nary a one,” Estill said. “Not in person at least.”

“Guy at work was talking about them coming down from the mountains near the head of the holler he lives on. Stomping up his yard and all that.”

“That right?”

“I ain’t ever seen one in person,” Richard said. “Stopped by the feed store and bought a salt lick this morning. The kind they keep for deer.”

“If a cop sees it they’ll fine you for trying to poach,” Estill said.

“Nobody’s going to fine me,” Richard said. “I just wanted to see an elk. Ain’t going to hurt them or anything, and the lick’s back up in the holler. No one will see it.”

“I can’t blame you,” Estill said. He sipped his coffee and listened to the cicada cries winding up over the mountain. It was going to be a hot day.

“I’d like to see one myself.”

“Guy at work said they usually come of the morning, so I figured I might catch sight of one when I come home from my shift.”

“Let me know how it goes,” Estill said.

“I will. Tell Mom I love her and I’ll call back some night before I go to work.”

“She’ll be wanting you for dinner.”

Richard said he would try and hung up to get some rest. He usually called in the morning a couple times a week to catch his father up on the mine. Richard worked a late shift and got in a few hours after dawn. Dark is dark when you’re that deep, Estill told him. He was glad his son still had a job but worried the time would come when the mountains would give their last. Then everyone would be hurting. He’d seen the signs of it before he left. Miners and their families had been raised and fed on coal’s profit, but it had left its mark on the land. In time trees would reclaim the land, and the creeks would fill with crawdads and minnows again, but people would file out on the narrow highways that snaked through the valleys. There’d be nothing for them anymore.

Estill did well in school and thought about college but decided against it. He never planned on a career in the mines, but it was hard to pass up as a young man. It was good money. He fell in love with Amy soon after high school, and they were married within the year. She’d always wanted to stay where they’d both grown up, and it never occurred to him to leave. He always thought he’d have work.

Estill and Amy didn’t see their son much anymore. He’d come by some evenings when he had more than a day off at a time. He needed those days to readjust to the sun. Richard never said it, but the late shift wore on him and so did the stress of keeping the job. You take the job they give you, he said. Richard was still a young man, but he was no longer in his twenties. He hadn’t married, and after a while Amy stopped bugging him about it. If it happened it would happen—no use in making him feel bad about it.

The screen door opened and Amy joined Estill on the porch.

“You’re up early,” he said. “You were a bit restless last night.”

“Rough dreams.”

“Talk about them?” she said. Flour stuck in the creases of her wrinkled hands that wrapped around the mug. She’d already put biscuits in the oven.

“I love you,” he said.

“Love you,” she said. “That Richard?”

“Sorry if he woke you. I always try to answer early as I can.”

“I was fixing to be up before long anyway,” she said. “Have to be down at the library soon.”

“Food drive?”

“I’m helping set up.” She blew on her coffee.

“Richard said he’d be over for dinner sometime. Said he’d call you.”

“If he don’t call me more often there won’t be any dinner when he shows up.”

“Don’t be too hard on him.”

She winked at Estill and went inside. He thought he’d see more of her when he retired, but she had her own life. His retirement didn’t mean she’d be home more, so he had to learn to be alone. The timer on the oven sounded and he heard Amy pull out the old blackened skillet she used for breakfast. It was stained from years of use and seasoning. He wondered if she’d given one of their iron skillets to Richard so he’d cook more often and eat out less.

Estill stood and stretched his back before stepping into the yard. The mountains were in full growth. The paths were probably covered. He’d not hiked them in years. The kudzu swayed in the wind and he waited, but the vines settled back into place. The glare of the elk’s black eye had faded in his mind since he woke. He went inside to eat.

***

Midsummer passed and the dreams stayed. Over the warm months he’d slept less at night and started napping throughout the day. Amy never said anything about it. She kept busy and still spent most of her days at the library or volunteering for the church. She started leaving breakfast on the counter for him—cold scrambled eggs, biscuits in the skillet, gravy that had thickened as it cooled. Every night he followed her to bed and she’d fall asleep soon after he shut off the light. The only sounds in the house were the hum of the refrigerator and the click of the air conditioner. Restless nights were spent dreaming of violet skies and endless forested mountains. On many days lunch would be his first meal. Sometimes Richard’s phone call would wake him. He slept when he would have been gardening, or reading, or working in the shed.

Estill woke to the sound of the neighbor’s lawnmower. He squinted at the reflection of the sun on the tin roof of his shed and felt lost. He hoped he’d not slept outside overnight. Amy would be worried. The last of his coffee sat cold in the mug on the table, and he was in jeans and a shirt, not pajamas. He’d been awake earlier. The smell of gasoline and the droning of the engine reminded him of work he should have been doing. He was losing time. His underarms were damp, and he went inside to shave and clean up.

He stood before the mirror and was disoriented looking at himself. It was like the mirror had shifted down on the wall. The tool box for small repairs was in the utility room, and he sat it on the sink to check the frame of the mirror in case it was loose. He couldn’t forgive himself if it fell and hurt someone. The screws on the frame were tight when he fitted the screwdriver into them. The measuring tape was new, and he slid it to the ceiling with ease to measure the distance between the ceiling and the top of the mirror, then he felt silly because he’d no idea what the distance was before—no frame of reference to compare. He put the measuring tape and screwdriver back into the tool box and snapped the lid shut. The reflection he studied as he stood with the tool box on the sink was the same as he remembered, though he knew well how he’d changed in time. His hair had thinned. His waist had expanded more than he’d admit so his jeans cut into him. His chest had lost its firmness. He wore his reading glasses most of the time now. But he seemed taller.

He stared back at himself from a different point in the mirror and felt uneasy in his stomach. He looked down to where his gut pushed against his shirt and noticed his shoes and the tread marks they’d left on the floor mat. He’d forgotten to take off his shoes. Estill threw cool water on his face. The shoes had made him look taller. Nothing was wrong with the mirror. Amy had long ago made it a habit for him to take his shoes off before coming inside. He’d been caught tracking mud around the house after she’d swept, so she broke him of it. It was strange that so small a detail could make such a difference.

Estill sat back in his chair on the porch and checked the phone. Richard didn’t call as often as before. He’d been given fewer shifts at work. The lay of the land had changed. People were moving away from the mountains and mines were running at a loss until they shut down. New regulations made it harder to turn a profit, and there was little left to mine anyway. He told his son that was just the way of things, to ebb and flow, and that it would pick up again soon. There were always down times, even when Estill was still under ground.

“There’s always whisperings about layoffs,” Richard had said. “Never can tell if it’s because of other mines going out or if it’s because we’re in trouble, but I’m worried, Dad.”

“It’ll be okay, son,” he’d told him, but Estill didn’t know.

The dream of the elk had not changed much over the summer. Sometimes he and the elk just stared at each other until he woke and other times he knew it was just beyond the trees. So he waited.

Estill left his chair and walked toward the mountain. He moved along the edge of the yard where the grass grew wild into the trees. His legs were stiff, but the exercise loosened them. He kept going toward the small creek that ran down through the valley where two mountains met. It separated his property from his neighbor’s. He walked against the flow of the creek into the tall grass. The weeds were patchier under the trees, which took most of the sun, and the incline wasn’t too steep if he stayed near the creek, so he kept going. By noon he’d moved beyond the place where he could hear the humming power lines and his neighbor’s lawnmower.

The creek pooled and was surrounded by large, smooth rocks. He sat to catch his breath and splashed water on the back of his neck and on his cheeks. A sharp white point grew out from beside the rock he sat on. It stood out against the gray creek bed. The antler was shattered at the ends where points had grown out, like twigs snapped from a larger branch. The elk could have broken it in a fight or against the rocks as it tried to shed the antler. There was just one. It was heavier than he expected, even with most of the points missing. The rounded spot where it had joined with the animal’s head was rough, but the short point near the end was smooth. It stuck out like the handle of a cane. He used it to steady himself as he hiked forward, but he still saw no tracks or other signs of the elk as the afternoon passed. Amy would be home soon. He’d left the door unlocked and no note. The hike back down was much easier. Estill leaned the broken antler against a tree before he made it to the weeds and his backyard. He didn’t want Amy to worry. He’d find it there the next day when he went looking for the elk again.

***

The hikes helped with his sleep, but some nights he couldn’t stand staring at the ceiling. He’d sit on the back porch and let his eyes adjust to the way the stars lit up the mountains. They were large in the dark, a void of trees looming at the edge of the valley. The security light on the telephone pole made it harder to see the stars, but he thought of driving the dirt roads on summer nights on his way to the mines, the way the stars shined, the depth of that darkness, and the multitudes of purple that made up the pure night sky. The moon broke in through the dark trees, his car moving in and out of its light with each limb that hung overhead, as the road wound up the mountain. The lights around the mine muted the stars the closer he came, and the scarred, pale earth stood in stark contrast to the green that surrounded it. It felt like a dirty secret they hid up there—the way they tore up and bored into the earth.

By the end of summer he was waking earlier. The weeds eventually wore down into a trail that led to the pool where he’d found the antler. From there, he tried new directions. The elk would probably stay close to the water. He only went into the mountains after Amy had left for the day. His reflection had grown slimmer. He’d moved beyond the last notch in his belt. Estill took the hammer and screwdriver from his tool box and unthreaded his belt from its loops. He aimed the sharp point of the screwdriver just below the worn hole and brought the hammer down twice. It punched through the soft leather with more ease than he’d expected, but it went through to the coffee table as well. He moved a placemat over the gash in the table. The light wood beneath the varnish stood out. He was home more often than her now, so he could do the dusting. Amy wouldn’t notice.

In the passing of time he’d come to wake in want—dreams of his youth, friends and loved ones lost, time passed, routines broken. It was a tiredness he carried with him through the day and into the night as he settled for bed only to rise early, unrested again. He took the elk antler with him on every hike into the mountains. The short point he’d used as a handle grew glassy and dark from the oil and sweat of his hands, and the tip of his cane was stained green from tearing at weeds and digging into the ground for grip.

From the pool, he kept following the creek deeper into the mountains. He walked so far that he didn’t come across any other trails he’d made over the summer. New ridges sprouted from both sides that he didn’t recognize. It was much rockier, though the trees were still thick. In the soft earth by the creek were deep impressions, and cloven hoof prints led up the mountain, so he followed. The grass grew taller and the tracks were difficult to see, but he kept moving. The mountain steepened and he stopped to catch his breath. He’d not gone so far from home before. The days had grown shorter, and Amy would be home cooking because their son was coming over for dinner. Before Estill turned back, he saw it. In the weeds sat a mound that didn’t belong. It looked like a cluster of berries made from earth. He recognized the droppings, but how he knew escaped him. He climbed on.

At the top of the ridge he looked down into another valley he’d never seen. It had been cleared many years before, trees cut down, earth moved, but it was abandoned. Scars from old roads and machinery were visible even through the tall grass and saplings. It was no mine he’d ever known, but now it had been reclaimed by the mountain. The fading light cast down from over the ridge, and it was in that ebb of light, that falling away of the day when the sky purpled and the mountains darkened, that he saw the elk standing at the edge of the tree line. Its black eyes stayed on him, and the elk’s leathery nostrils flared as Estill slowly stepped toward it. Deep brown fur covered its head and neck. Long muscles flexed beneath the tan fur of its body. Estill kept taking small steps, careful not to scare it away. He cast his cane aside and the elk turned in profile, lifting its head to the sky, and the great antlers cut into the light, aiming forward.

Gary Thomas Smith is a writer from Eastern Kentucky. His work has appeared in Still: The Journal, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Inscape, and The Pikeville Review, among other places. He earned his MA in English from Ohio University and MFA in fiction from the University of Kentucky.

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