Joan Fox's most recently published poems appeared in Stand and Red Rock Review. She has stories forthcoming in War, Literature and the Arts and Flyway. She lives in Los Angeles with her son.
"Look at the deer," he said, pointing out the window. "Would you just look at them all." He put his hand on her knee.
"How many do you think there are?" he asked.
Jhonna's arms felt heavy. She thought of lifting her hand and placing it over his, but didn't. She looked at his hand, her eyes held by the blue veins under his pale skin.
Matthew took his hand off her knee and put it back on the steering wheel. Jhonna was listening so hard the night seemed to tremble around them. She cracked her window, wanting to feel the cool wind. She was so tired her thoughts came to her as if they were dreams.
Last year she had been pregnant for seven months. The entire time of the pregnancy and for months after the induced stillbirth, she had felt this tired. Jhonna thought of the diaphragm she had used only once since then. Now it was kept in the cedar chest, pink and creased as an ear.
Sometimes she forgot and allowed herself to hope that she was pregnant. Mainly Jhonna felt withdrawn, almost isolated, from hoping, and so from Matthew and the ordinary events of their lives. As of today, she was fifteen weeks late. She was allowed and supposed to hope. But she approached that with dread, yet as though it were a terrible job awaiting her.
Matthew slowed down some, then took his eyes off the road.
They both looked into the field. Below the horizon, between the night-blackened trees and the starry sky, deer fed on grass. Their large ears twitched and twisted distant from their bodies.
"And just think of all the fawns," he said.
She didn't say anything, just looked out the window.
"Think we'll see any bucks tonight?"
"Matthew, there aren't any little baby fawns out there in the field," she said, without having heard him ask about the bucks. "It's too late in the year for them."
Jhonna spoke slowly and carefully. Often she called her husband "Matt," especially when he did not please her. When she said "Matt," her voice became lower.
The wind pattered in through the slitted window. Jhonna raised her arm, ran her hand through her hair. Her fingers caught on new tangles.
He slowed down.
"What is it?" Her voice sounded different to herself, almost fearful that nothing was going right.
He steered the truck to the side of the road. The engine made a sound like taking a breath, then he turned it off.
Matthew twisted his body; one hand stayed on the steering wheel. He put his other arm around Jhonna and pointed with that hand. The full moon shone over the trees and fields. The moon was bright and stayed in her eyes even when she closed them.
She looked where he was pointing. Blinded by their headlights, a possum weaved off the road onto the shoulder. Matthew turned off the lights. While her eyes adjusted, Jhonna bent over, out from under his arm, and tied the laces of her shoes, then she stepped out onto the road's gravel surface.
"Got the blanket?"
"Yeah," she answered. "Let's try down near the creek."
They walked down the grassy slope. The moon was rising, and they had no trouble seeing. Their shoulders and backs were warm. A wetness brushed their shins and ankles.
Jhonna wished the possum crossing the road had been a porcupine.
She watched her feet kicking through the dirt as if they were eating up the ground. The moon's light shadowed her steps into triangles, aligning her body and the earth. Jhonna felt her heart thudding, new blood circulating through her body. She lifted her hand and put her fingers on the quill earrings she'd made last week: dangling loops with blue and red beads setting off the egg-shell like sheen of the white and black quills.
"Last time I was down here, I saw a huge one," said Matthew.
Jhonna didn't say anything; her finger pulled the circle of her earring.
Matthew wanted her to go to the clinic in Colville and set their minds at peace. He'd been teasing her, saying he would drive her there, and all she had to do was pee in a cup. He was right, Jhonna knew, and they wouldn't have to wait for long. Just like last time, the clinic could tell them the results almost right away.
They separated under the trees: ponderosas, white pines and larches. Even under the trees they had no trouble seeing. They walked around a ponderosa whose trunk was bare of branches until the top where its branches and needles fanned out against the sky. Jhonna put her hand on the bark as she circled around the tree.
Matthew and Jhonna walked up an incline. At the top railroad tracks shone under the moon. Down on the other side of the embankment was Pierre Greek. Eventually the tiny stream from the north flowed into the Columbia above the Grand Coulee Dam.
They stopped in the middle of the tracks and stood on the ties.
"Look how the moon lights up the rails," said Matthew.
Jhonna nodded her head and started walking up the tracks.
"It lights them up for miles," he said. "Look how far away."
He put his hand on the back of his neck and rubbed, pressing down hard. The rails shone, a silver spine stretched over the land. He looked down to the darker ground where they were going.
Behind them, the tracks wound through the trees, snaking to the left, then disappearing in a curve to the right. He heard something, perhaps an animal stirring, and stood motionless for a moment, watching the tracks. Ahead of him, Jhonna stopped. He turned and walked along the ties to her.
"Oh," she said, holding herself, her arms crossed over her stomach below her ribs.
On the tracks was the body of a large deer, a doe halved at the stomach. It was late in the year, yet the doe had been pregnant. Now the night air congealed its blood. It was the worst thing she had seen in a long time. She could not stop staring.
Matthew had been in Wallace, Idaho. She'd driven herself to the doctor, aware she had not felt the baby moving for almost a full day. The doctor waited for Matthew to arrive before inducing labor. Jhonna's baby had turned so the cord had strangled him. He fit into the tiniest casket. The doctor kept saying it was a one-in-a-million accident. The doctor had said other words too, words put into phrases to give Matthew and Jhonna hope. She never felt brave or strong enough to remind herself of those words, much less to believe them. Blood was all over the ties and the tracks. She rubbed and pressed her hand over her stomach, fought the urge to retch.
Matthew wrinkled his nose. The odors of iron and blood mixed with the cooler scents of grass and trees. The engineer wouldn't have tried to brake, even if he had seen the deer and had had enough time. No train could have stopped in time, he thought.
"Must have been the eight-o-nine through Island Rock."
She had started, hearing his voice. He tapped the dead animal with the toe of his boot.
"Guess so," she said. She handed the blanket to him and stretched her arms wide over her head. It felt good.
They looked at one another and started walking down to the water, on the trail that cut through the underbrush.
Jhonna followed Matthew down the slope and into the trees. She concentrated on following him. He was still towheaded, like a toddler. Jhonna liked his large forearms and the way he didn't always swing his arms when he walked, as if sometimes he just forgot.
She heard the creek and there was the scent of water. "Here it is."
"It's a bit lower," Matthew said, looking down.
They decided to cross. The small rocks made clacking sounds when they stepped and lifted off them, then sucking sounds settling back into the mud.
Matthew and Jhonna turned left, walking upstream, and came upon a moose. Jhonna's heart beat faster at the sudden presence of the animal. The moose's face was lit by the moon. She saw the whites of its eyes before it turned away through the trees. She looked for a calf, not wanting Matthew or herself to come between it and its mother. Apparently the moose was alone. She heard its feet crushing the thicket after she could no longer see the moose, or tell where it had gone.
She could not see Matthew as he moved ahead of her through the brush. Again she remembered the sight of the deer. But seeing the moose had reminded her of another thing, and she shook her head, deliberately remembering that.
She was young when her father had taken her fishing. They had left home hours before sunrise and whenever she woke they were still driving. After driving for almost a full day, they reached the Grande Ronde, a tributary of the Snake River, in the southeastern corner of the state. Jhonna helped her father set up camp and then, as the sun lowered, her father fished upriver, moving farther and farther away from her. Cries of birds echoed across the sheer walls of the canyon. The river was dark blue. On the other side, a cougar with two cubs stared at her from the trail cut into the canyon wall.
Jhonna and the cat had watched each other until the cougar nosed her cubs and moved away. Staring at the cougars across the darkening water Jhonna had felt something mysterious and special connecting them. It was because they were alive at the same time, and breathing the same air, but it also was beyond that. She never had forgotten that moment, not even when her father had come back and yelled at her for staying in the open after dark.
She was glad to have a memory from when she was a girl. She felt again how, despite her father's reprimand, she never had been sorry: So many important things seemed to happen in the darkness.
"Jhonna, " Matthew whispered. "Over here."
She breathed deeply and stepped over some rocks, remembering how the cougar had stood over her cubs, protecting them.
Matthew unfolded the blanket so it would be easier to throw. She put her hand
out to touch his wrist, but he moved away. There was some vaguely formed
question she wanted to ask him, but she remembered not
to say anything aloud just then. She started walking faster, keeping up with him.
"Hey, hold up." He said this softly. They both peered through the trees. First they saw the beady eyes. A porcupine moved into the small opening formed by the trees.
Watching the porcupine slowly walking closer, she held Matthew's hand tighter for a moment and almost closed her eyes. The porcupine turned to run away, but Matthew threw the blanket over it. At the last moment she saw the porcupine puffed up, ready to throw its quills.
"Quick now," he said. The animal's feet began to push past the blanket edges.
Kneeling on the ground she tried to push and keep the porcupine under the blanket. A foot kicked wildly against her palm, and for a moment she felt its nails.
"Oh no," she said, and pushed harder.
Her face felt hot. We need him, she thought, don't let him get away.
"Careful," Matthew said.
"You got it." She grabbed part of the blanket from him.
Their hands touched, and he smiled at her. The porcupine made dry, scurrying sounds as it tried to escape.
Matthew and Jhonna continued to hold the blanket edges pressed against the dirt. The corner Jhonna held down was worn and fraying; through it she could feel pine needles on the ground.
From beneath the blanket came the furious sounds of the trapped animal. Its entire body thrashed and kicked, moving inside the blanket, trying to make its way out.
Still they held the blanket pressed to the dirt. Jhonna saw one paw held against the dirt as the porcupine went momentarily still. The paw had a large pad and neat nails.
"We'll let you out," she said softly.
"What'd you say?"
"Nothing. I just don't want him to get away. And we don't want any quills broken."
The blanket stretched tightly over the animal. Matthew and Jhonna looked at each other and in one movement stepped back. They squatted on the ground next to one another, several feet from the animal.
She watched as Matthew put his hand on a tree to balance himself, and for a moment she felt that anything, not just the day-to-day events and plans of their lives, was possible. She smiled at him. She didn't feel tired anymore. The porcupine stopped its furious struggling.
"Let's just wait," Matthew said and nudged her.
She fell against him. He gently pinched the fat on her waist.
"Ow." Laughing, she pushed him to the ground.
She is bigger, he thought, and pulled her down with him. His hope that she was pregnant ached in his chest as if he had been holding his breath for a long time. The feeling gradually slipped away through the dark spaces of the trees, as dew might, expanding to fill the air. He tightened his arms around Jhonna. She was laughing and trying to get away.
"Got you," he said, then playfully bit her nose. "I know how much you like that."
"No," she said, "what I like is breakfast in bed."
"That'll get you fat." He leaned closer.
"Hope so. You should hope that too." There was a flatness in her voice. She remembered Matthew saying that they had to sell the one mare. The mare had not foaled; Matthew doubted she ever would.
She saw his vision of how he wanted things to be on the patch of land they had saved for, bought and now worked. The mare who had not foaled did not fit. She imagined he worried too—about how to pay for the doctor, how to pay for delivery; mainly about her carrying a baby to term. Still, even if he worried, she thought most of the burden fell on her. She put her hand on her stomach. Everyone, even strangers, would want to know how she was doing, how she felt, what she was thinking. When the baby was due. She felt a sudden weight of cold air. She shivered.
"Hey look," he said.
They watched as the porcupine shook off the blanket.
"All right." Matthew grinned, "A big one."
She never looked at the porcupine after the blanket came off and before it ran away. What would it look like after it threw so many quills? She couldn't think of exactly why she never wanted to look.
"You gather those in the blanket."
She said this to him as she collected quills from the ground. Each quill was toothpick-size and almost weightless, a hollow black and white tube, especially sharp on one end. The quills reminded her of the featherless pointed ends of feathers. Some quills were opaque, dense and strong looking; these quills were of that type. She held up several to the moonlight. The quills were white with just a touch of black at the tip. Both ends were pointed and sharp. Coarse hairs from the porcupine were wrapped around many of the quills. She did not bother separating those out. As she squatted, she twisted her back, to the left, to the right. The moon was almost straight overhead; still she threw a shadow on the ground. Jhonna wanted to see; she didn't want to miss a single quill.
Those still tangled in hairs from the porcupine were slightly harder to see.
Brushing off her hands, when she thought she had all the quills, she sat down cross-legged beside Matthew. He gathered the quills in the blanket, piling them together in the same direction. She put her quills with his.
"This is a good-sized bundle," she said.
Picking out some stray quills, she settled them on top. Jhonna touched the quills lightly, avoiding the sharp ends.
"The most ever from just one," he said.
"Bess is going to give us a good price," she said, brushing off her hands again, then wiping them along her pants.
"She will, she will," he laughed. "Last time I was over there her perfume turned my stomach."
"She's a nice lady, Matt."
Bess lived on the reservation, near the Okanogan county line. She made jewelry out of the quills, earrings like Jhonna's, and sold them, mainly to tourists at pow-wows and to Indian traders. Jhonna thought Bess did pretty well for herself—and for her family, which was large.
Matthew was right; these were the most quills ever. But she remembered her lost baby and wondered if she fit into Matthew's vision of how things should be. Her mind, once started worrying, could not stop. She remembered him choosing and buying the mare. Finally she remembered hearing him say that he would sell the animal and why.
She leaned back on her heels in the dirt, watching as he separated the quills from the pine needles, then arranged them in rows. She felt a tenderness toward him.
But she could not relax into the feeling. He doesn't have to worry like I do, she thought, he just takes things for granted. Her tenderness gave way to a kind of anger.
Her hand pressed her belly. She wanted to distance herself from Matthew. She stared at the side of his face, his hands as they moved, lifting, setting down the quills. Then she looked for faults in him.
A story of his that he always told came to mind. Just last week he'd told it to a hitchhiker. Rather than listen yet again to the story, Jhonna had either watched the hitchhiker's face or looked out the window while Matthew told about the time he and his cousins had come upon a cougar caught in a trap, weak, but still alive.
They brought the cougar home and put it into an old suitcase. Then they set that suitcase on the side of the road, and waited, watching from the roadside ditch. Matthew and his cousins wanted to prove that Indians from the reservation were stealing from them. This suitcase was their proof and revenge. Before long, a car pulled up. Matthew leapt from the ditch and waved them on. "We're waiting for Indians," he hollered. Matthew always said the suitcase was finally picked up by the Indians who had been stealing. He said they were drunk and hardly stopped long enough to brake. Their car sped away, took the next turn, and right about then, the Indians opened the suitcase. Matthew and his cousins heard the Indians yell, the cougar's high roar like a scream, and the tires squeal, all at once.
Whenever Matthew told that story he laughed, and his face went soft and young.
Thinking about the story and how Matthew always laughed while telling it made her feel sick.
Matthew told people he was a "pacifist," and he was. He had signed special papers about it, years ago. He hunted to keep food on their table, but if there was a new war, he would not go and fight in it.
The story, she reminded herself, was from when Matthew had been younger. He hadn't thought as much about the world. Still she was uneasy.
"Matt," she said, "some people from Chewelah called, said they saw our ad for firewood and that we deliver anywhere."
"Well, we got time to drive it down—and drop off the quills too," he said. "Hey things are falling in place."
She realized he was feeling optimistic. For months and months, and even now, after trying his best to comfort her, Matthew would go outside alone to grieve over their lost baby.
She put her hand to her stomach. She wished she could speak to him, and that he would say words in return to make her believe she was pregnant and that the baby would be born. She did not speak. Instead she imagined him laughing while the Indians' car screeched to a halt.
But I've never seen him mean to a soul, she said to herself. That crack about Bess and her perfume was as mean as he ever got. Now he was leaning over the blanket, arranging the quills. Jhonna breathed out, hard, through her mouth. She brushed stray hairs off her forehead. Maybe he was right; maybe things were falling into place for them.
"I guess things are getting better," she said. "Ever since we got those chickens."
Matthew had helped some people tow their car from a roadside ditch. In return, they had given him several hens and a rooster. He had made a gift of them to Jhonna, surprising her.
"Yeah," he said, "they're our good luck."
She almost smiled at him. She thought of lying in bed and listening to the chickens scratching, clawing and climbing their way up the screen window, all this right outside their trailer. And the fence they had broken.
"Matthew, you think we should fix that fence? Maybe I should try to build another one."
"I thought we decided to just forget it."
"Yeah, but I don't think it's the dog that's been eating the calf's food. I think it's the chickens."
"You shouldn't be doing any extra work now," he said. He looked at her. "Just in case," he said.
Her heart started beating faster, harder, against her stomach. She leaned
over, as if picking up more quills from the ground, so he wouldn't see
Matthew had finished rolling the blanket around the quills. Now he tucked in the blanket edges so the bundle was secure. He smiled, thinking that things were starting to pay off. Maybe they would make it on their own; for now it would be nice to buy the hot water heater without having to take one hundred and some dollars from his paycheck.
He did construction, in season, the kind of work that paid well, when there was work. Most days of this summer he had been driving over to Idaho, about seven hours each way, to work on the construction of I-90 through Wallace. But he hoped someday the land would support them and their children, all their lovely, beautiful children. What he wanted was to be independent, self-reliant—he wanted no part of a society he thought was too violent. Matthew thought Jhonna understood, that basically she agreed with him.
They were building their house, and he was worried. Already it was late summer and he didn't have the plumbing finished. He wanted to get as much done on the outside while the weather held.
He hoped this would be their last season in the trailer, and that next year at this time the house would be finished, and they would be inside it.
Jhonna was walking slightly ahead of him. He smiled when he saw how tightly she held the bundle of quills. He imagined their children running through the rooms of the house to go outside, those moments he and Jhonna would enjoy being inside.
Matthew and Jhonna walked to the creek and recrossed it. Matthew thought of driving with the vents in the cab open, the whoosh of foxtails spitting through, sucked in from the night. The cab would smell fresh and sharp, like the smells of gasoline and grass. He lifted his arm and shaded his eyes from the moon's glare.
Jhonna shifted her bundle and grabbed his arm. Flaring through the trees, somewhere below the tracks, a flickering light showed. She whispered. He didn't hear, but walked faster. The trees swayed in forms flat and black against a fire.
"Oh Matthew someone left a fire. Just left it. All the way out here."
"This fire could go running wild," he said.
Jhonna pictured the fire pushing through the forest, knocking down trees.
They approached slowly. The air was stiffer near the fire. For the first time the night felt cold to them. Waving her hands over the fire, Jhonna glanced to where she had put down the bundle of quills. Tiny sparks flew up, lit up the ground and sizzled on the dampness. Matthew brushed one from his pants.
They poured dirt on the fire, enough to put it out. Jhonna's eyes watered
from the smoke as the dirt funneled through her fingers. She
wiped the powdery stuff from her wedding band.
Picking up the bundle of quills, she rearranged it in her arms. They walked up the railroad embankment and recrossed the tracks. Matthew looked up and down the rails, staring at their beauty in the moonlight.
Walking down, Jhonna thought of the dead deer.
"Where was the deer—that dead deer?" She shook her head. "I didn't see it on the tracks."
"Someone must have got it," Matthew answered.
The moon was higher, the air cold and damp. Jhonna thought of the deer's legs tied together to make it easier for carrying, the crushed unborn fawn. She wondered who would have taken it, and she felt like crying. There were certain things which shouldn't be taken away.
"Let's get out to the road," she said. As the moon rose, tree shadows the color of ash lengthened.
She wanted to get home, be home; even sitting in the truck would be nice, she felt. She stopped walking. She remembered the fire. She agreed with Matthew: the world seemed a dangerous place. She saw a baby, theirs, helpless, trusting.
"You okay?" he asked.
In the dark, Matthew's eyes were deep blue, almost black.
"I was just thinking," she answered. Jhonna started to walk and then stopped, turning to Matthew. Her hands tightened on the bundle of quills, then slowly relaxed.
It was as if she did not see Matthew, but saw him instead as the person who had been in his story about the cougar and the Indians. And the story was all tangled up in a vision she had about their dead baby, a baby caught and captured in a compartment from which it could not escape alive. But this was hazy, and even if she could have put this half-formed thought into words, she never would have told it to Matthew. Or to anybody.
But there was something she hated about that story of his.
And she felt something hazy and undefined just beyond her reach, hiding as if it were a quarry—some knowledge about stories and why they mattered. She almost reached for Matthew, as if to ask him for help in seeing what she longed to see. Instead, she stayed silent and waited.
The stories people told mattered. From each story their baby could either learn about the world, or else only learn about its parents, those fears or smallnesses that were particularly theirs.
The stories you tell matter, she wanted to explain to Matthew. But on her way to saying aloud what she had just figured out, she realized that the stories you tell yourself matter even more. I can never have a baby, she had told herself. I'm not meant to have a baby. Obviously. "His dying was a one-in-a-million accident." The doctor had said that. And I am the "one." Jhonna put her hand on her stomach, right below her heart. That had been the place their baby had used to kick. Her other hand tightened around the bundle of quills. But that was a story. A story she had told herself, had made herself believe. Why? He had said something else, too. He had said there was no tissue damage, that she could hope for an ordinary pregnancy and safe delivery of a healthy baby. Yes, she said to herself, I can. I can be a good mother. A good mother. I can be a good mother. She let her hand move over her stomach and almost she smiled. Jhonna started to walk and then stopped, turning to Matthew.
"Matt, I don't want you to tell that story anymore."
She stared at him in reply.
"The one about the Indians?"
"Yes," she said. "It makes you sound mean."
Suddenly the bundle of quills was unbearably heavy. She handed them to him.
"With the cougar?" he said. "It's just a story."
"Not anymore, and it makes you sound mean." She paused for a moment, then went on. "In it, you are mean. When we have children, I don't want them to hear that story. Not the way you tell it. I want them to learn to be good to people."
I do too, thought Matthew, but he didn't say anything. The Indians who took the suitcase, they could've been Bess's brothers, people she knew. What would she think of that story?
Jhonna breathed deeply. That was what she had wanted to say to him. That you have to see beyond your own experience. She thought this but did not say it. Instead she started walking, as quickly as she could.
Matthew watched her plodding through the grasses. He wondered how angry she was, or if it was that she was tired. He remembered when she was pregnant before, how she would begin weeping whenever she was hungry or tired. His throat was dry. He hoped there was a can of soda or beer in the cab. Behind him the power lines were humming. He turned and saw them extending across the sky, lit by the moon.
He saw Jhonna stop at the fence. Against the wires her shape looked simply dark, vaguely formed. The barbed wire fence separated the field and the road. He caught up to her, and they parted the strands for each other. She let go of the wires after he ducked through. Matthew straightened. They looked to the left, where their truck was parked farther ahead, off the road. The moon was out, but the road looked dark.
"I guess that story's getting kind of old," he said. He tried to laugh. "We are too."
"It just doesn't sound like you," she said. "It never did."
She sounded tired. He looked at her face, almost didn't say anything.
"It was me," he said. "I was younger."
He remembered that day, how he had followed his cousins. He wanted to go fishing. Then they found the half-dead cougar. He couldn't remember for certain anymore what those screams had sounded like. He hoped it had been only the tires. His arms and neck felt cool. He stopped walking and looked at the sky. At the center the moon still burned. Only occasional stars could be seen around its light.
She was right. From the beginning he had felt badly for the cougar, though he hadn't let his cousins know. Always he told himself, even now, that nothing bad had happened to the people in the car.
It was he, though, who had stopped the people in the first car from taking the suitcase. He remembered himself hollering, his heart bursting with pride as his cousins whooped and cheered him. He felt almost sick.
He looked at the side of Jhonna's face. The moonlight made a pattern of her expression, showing her face as shadowy, then lit again, depending on her movements.
She stopped walking. He saw she put her hand on her stomach.
"Tomorrow we'll stop by the clinic," he said, "We'll find out for sure." He put his hand on one of her shoulders and rubbed it gently.
All night she had been looking for signs, especially after they had seen the doe on the tracks. Matthew's hand on her shoulder felt good. She remembered Matthew and herself working together to catch the porcupine, then gathering its quills.
"Yes," she said, "on the way to Bess's we can do that. We can tell her our news." She reached for his hand. They walked along the road, in the direction of the truck. Jhonna let her other hand rest on her stomach. She felt warm and alive.
Bess kept all her colored beads in plastic trays on shelves. When the sun came through the windows of her small house, each plastic section looked as though it held a glowing ball of colored fire. It was a beautiful sight. Tomorrow Jhonna and Matthew would deliver their quills in that light. They would not need to tell Bess a word. Jhonna's stomach was rounder; it was growing and getting rounder everyday. Like something both escaping and showing itself for the first time, the situation would instantly reveal its truth to Bess. In the background, Matthew would smile, bundled quills in his arms.