Susan Pope

December 2009 Writing Regimen Contest Winner

sue_pope.pngAt the end of every month-long writing regimen for adults, participants are invited to submit up to three of their best regimen-inspired pieces for a chance at publication on southeastreview.org. We are proud to announce that Susan Pope is our most recent winner.

Susan Pope has published essays in Pilgrimage, Alaska Woman Magazine, Damselfly Press, and Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment. A lifelong Alaskan, she explores wild places ranging from the woods behind her house, to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Kalahari Desert, and the dunes of Namibia. When she is not traveling or working as a researcher with the University of Alaska Anchorage, she enjoys biking, hiking, and skiing on the trails near her home with her husband and grandchildren. 

Susan chose to submit a piece of creative nonfiction she wrote in response to Day 8 of our December regimen. As part of that regimen, several of the days were themed, so that all the regimen content within the selected days revolved around a chosen theme. Day 8's theme was "animals."

 

Animals
by Susan Pope

 

Here in Anchorage, Alaska, we live the Big Wild Life. That’s the slogan to lure tourists to our city. The Chamber of Commerce keeps quiet about the maulings—the girl who startled a grizzly in an all-night bike race, or the woman who jogged between a bear and his favorite fishing hole. These women lived to tell about it, but not without deep and lasting scars. The bears, well, they just went back to the business of trying to make a living.

We locals accept the risks of living in place that offers jobs and wilderness. In summer, we pack our bear spray when hiking or biking on miles and miles of trails. In winter, we ski with eyes scanning the dark shadows for cranky moose who claim the trails as their personal highways. But mostly, the wild creatures carry on their lives just fine without us, unseen, leaving signs for us to read—a bloody hare’s foot against the snow, a pile of gray feathers beneath the scrawny spruce, a ragged patch of moose hide dropped in the middle of a bike trail.

*

Early November. Before the first big snow, my husband Jim and I hike our usual route past the elementary and high schools, along the ski trail, and down the steep, mucky bank beneath the highway overpass. Here, on the old abandoned trail, built before the city grew big and parents demanded a safe passage for the children up and over the busy two-lane road, we scuff our feet and kick up a wake of red and yellow leaves. Suddenly, I spy a big blond dog weaving in and out of the naked birch trees. It crosses the trail, pauses, cocks its pointed ears in our direction, and surveys us with eyes dark and twitching nose. This is no one’s dog.

No barking, groveling, or tail wagging signs of domestication.

“Coyote,” I whisper. Thick winter coat, fluffed-up tail, it ambles across the trail and stops again, glancing back as if to say, “what the hell are you doing on my trail?”

It climbs the bank, slips beneath the alders, and disappears. Had I been alone I might have thought I spied a ghost.

“He’s gorgeous,” I say, staring hard into the thicket. 

“Must have been cleaning up French fries in the school parking lot,” Jim says.

“Or maybe he was snacking on our neighbor’s cat,” I offer, hoping some wild creature would take out the tailless nuisance that poops in our flowerbed. No matter, I’m thrilled to catch sight of a predator on the prowl so close to my home. I feel privileged to live in a town where things are not quite tame.

*

Early December. Heavy snow compresses the frozen leaves on the abandoned trail. It’s noon on a cloudy day, when daylight never really takes hold. Cars zip out of the high school parking lot as students begin a frantic race to Burger King, or McDonald’s or Alaska Pizza to gobble lunch and make it back before class starts again. Kids without cars hang out in the cafeteria food court or steal into the woods for a smoke.

A boy and girl slip across the soccer field into the trees beside the old trail. They are sweethearts, or former lovers, or friends, or enemies or some combination of all those things as happens with young people trying to sort out life and love and power and freedom. A handsome couple, he proclaims his love, and begs for just one more chance. She is the girl of his dreams. Come with me, he says, I have a surprise for you. Remember that ring you liked?

Feeling guilty that she no longer finds this boy interesting or exciting, and, in fact, finds him more than a little annoying, she agrees. Holding hands they walk across the snowy parking lot, down the sledding hill, tracing the same route the coyote traveled a few weeks before.

Stand here.” The boy pulls the girl beneath a scraggly spruce. “Close your eyes.”

“Hurry, I’m freezing,” she says and does what he says.

He reaches into his pocket and instead of a ring he pulls out a pocket knife, the kind a father might give his son for slicing fish or whittling wood or tightening screws. He opens it up, and thrusts it into the neck of the girl he loves.

She screams and tries to run away. He tackles her to the ground, stabbing again and again and again, twenty times or more into any part of her body he can reach. A crowd of students grows.

“Stop!” they yell. They lunge at him and try to keep him from stabbing her, but he threatens them with the bloody blade.

A man skis by, practicing his skate ski technique, enjoying the cold crisp air, concentrating hard on carving a perfect “v” back and forth. He sees what he thinks is a boy pinning a girl to the ground and beating her, but, no, this is something worse. Against the white snow, he sees red, the girl’s blood gushing, gushing, melting the snow, forming a red pool around her thrashing body.

“Stop!” he yells, and calls 911 from the cell phone in his jacket. He unsnaps his skis and runs toward the boy.

“You mother-fucker,” the boy yells, jabbing at him with the bloody knife. The skier, still grasping a ski pole, hoists it above his head as if to strike. The boy stops, stunned, then dashes off into the alders and disappears into the woods.

Our woods. The coyote’s woods.

The blood leaves a dark brown stain beside the trail, like a moose hit by a car, then butchered beside the road. What twisted, broken mother’s son thinks that murder is the only way to ease the pain in his heart?

What grieving mother asks herself why she never thought to tell her daughter, “be afraid if someone says he loves you?”

The police pack descends on him—dogs, helicopters, and swat teams. They block the roads, lock the schools. The dogs will not be gentle. They find his bloody coat and now he runs like a skinned rabbit. They capture him as the town watches on the local news. Eyes glazed, breath steaming, face bloody, now he’s a frightened animal surrounded by wolves. Life as he knows it is over.

Gently, a cop in blue rubber gloves, perhaps with a son this boy’s age, removes the boy’s cap, his red bandana, throws a towel across his shivering shoulders, then shoves him into the police car.

*

Winter solstice. Snow falls and falls and falls, blanketing the stains on the land. With heavy boots, Jim and I kick up a wake of soft, untracked snow on the old trail. The cloudy sky reflects the pure white ground which bounces back up to the sky in a constant interplay of light illuminating what seems like endless night. We see no animals on our walk tonight, our first to this spot since the stabbing. I couldn’t come back until the snow had covered this spot, but even now, the place is unclean. The magic of the coyote sighting is lost, the wonder of that moment replaced by a sad recognition that while animals kill for food, only humans kill for love.