I am in love with an Elk-Headed Woman. On weekends I hike to her windowless cabin in the mountains, just above the tree line where the scent of cedar blows over rocky, barren fields. We spend this time gathering wood and sitting, wrapped in blankets, in front of the fire. She runs her hand through the back of my short hair, and I pick ticks from the fur on her nose as I tell her about my week. She says she envies me when I talk about my co-workers and staff meetings. I reassure her it’s nothing exciting and ask about her birding journal.
I haven’t seen a new bird in months, she says.
You could start a journal of rodents, I say.
She doesn’t think that joke is funny.
If we leave now, I say, we could be in town by two in the morning. Everyone would be asleep. No one would see you.
She shakes her head, says she can’t risk it. Her antlers scape the wall.
When I first started seeing her, the cabin was decorated with cross-stitched clichés like, Home is Where the Heart is and Bless This Mess. Shadow boxes filled with pine sprigs and red berries paired and tiny mountain flowers hung on the wall next to leaves pressed in frames. But her antlers have punctured all the cross-stich. The framed leaves fell to the ground the first night I told her I loved her. She jerked her head away from me and knocked the frame off the wall. The glass shattered. The wood split at the corners.
Leaves usually fall in a more gentle way, I said as I swept up the glass.
They’re always so clumsy when they first come in, and thank you, she said and then apologized.
I said she had nothing to be sorry for and we resumed snuggling.
I ask what she feels when her antlers bump the walls.
She tells me she only feels the weight of them. When they hit the walls, she only feels the push back, the strain on her neck, the loss of balance.
The Elk-Headed Woman sleeps on her back to accommodate her antlers. I sleep on my side, hugging her, keeping my cheekbone on her shoulder. Our feet tangle, our arms twitch and become numb under each other’s weight, but we keep these positions all night. Some nights I stay awake with my head rested between her neck and breasts where the fur of her mane grows thin, listening to her heartbeat. It is always slower than mine. I wonder if this is the elk in her, some animal part only seen by hunters who want flesh to eat, heads and hooves to display in trophy rooms, pelts to make rugs and blankets, who leave nothing in the wild but trails of blood on dried leaves. Sometimes, when she falls asleep and I’m still awake, I stroke her antlers. They are rough, like unfinished wood. I have asked if she would let me carve our initials into them.
She says I can once we’re married.
I have asked to marry her.
She has said no.
In the morning, I cook bacon and make coffee on a camp stove while she collects lichen-covered rocks from the yard. We eat our breakfasts together on the cabin’s small porch. She licks the pale, green fungus from the rocks and swallows it without chewing. When the rock has no lichen left, she throws it back in the yard, leaving it more devoid of life, lonelier than it was when we woke up this morning.
I tell her I could move up here and travel into town every day. The hike only takes a few hours.
She says she couldn’t do that to me. It’s too much to ask.
You didn’t ask, I say.
She says she would feel like she was imposing.
When I leave, I kiss her wet nose and it wiggles against my lips. She licks my cheek with her rough tongue.
My co-workers decorate their desks with pictures of their kids and spouses, calendars with pictures of cats or rivers, quotes from the bible, Buddha statues, snow globes, small pieces of the worlds they occupy outside the office. My desk is decorated with a picture of an elk and tufts of fur clipped from the Elk-Headed Woman’s mane. When no one is around, when I hear only the hum of electric lights and tapping keyboards, I sniff a tuft of fur. The dry smell of cedar and petrichor that fills the Elk-Headed Woman’s cabin is faint but strong enough to remind me of the weight of her arm, the way my hair tangles with the fur under her chin, and the sound of her antlers scraping the headboard. I am exhaling when a co-worker taps my shoulder and tells me she loves seeing my decorations, so rustic.
She asks if I am a hunter.
I tell her I used to hunt.
She tells me her father loves to hunt. She could never bring herself to hurt another living thing. But she did like all the antlers and taxidermy as decoration.
She asks if that makes her a hypocrite.
I tell her I should get back to work.
She says she understands and says we should talk more than we do.
We have to look out for each other in this corporate jungle, she says.
All of my interactions with my co-workers are like this one, small talk about the weather or other co-workers, clean, clinical, simple, but frequent.
I have lost weight since I started seeing the Elk-Headed Woman. My affect has improved. My co-workers say things like, all that fresh air must be doing you good. People say I am more confident. They say I am more present at work events, birthdays and happy hours, even though I feel distant, like the part of me that would enjoy gathering around an ice cream cake decorated with pastel-colored frosting flowers to sing happy birthday is somewhere else. I attend these events and listen to stories about annoying interns and when we play “do an impression of your supervisor as an animal” I play along so I’ll have a story to tell the story to the Elk-Headed Woman.
Do you do an impression of your superior, she asks.
I scrunch my nose and show my upper teeth. She looks bewildered.
I tell her I usually tuck drinking straws under my lip because he looks like a walrus.
She tells me she doesn’t get it.
I don’t either, I say, but other people seem to like it.
After work, I buy seven small birdcages and go to a walking trail on the side of town that doesn’t border the forest or the mountains. I climb a tree and sit very still, still enough to convince birds that I am part of the tree, something that belongs there, something I am not. Still enough that the birds peck at the hair on my head and arms, that the birds perch on my knees where I can, if I move without doubt, snatch them and stuff them into a cage. It is well past sundown when I fill the final cage.
In the morning, I tie the cages together and strap the mass to my back. The birds twitter pretty songs back and forth like a conversation. When I trip on a root or step on uneven ground, the cages shake and the birds erupt, their simple melodies replaced by urgent squawks as if to say, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, or, why can’t I fly away. I’m supposed to be able to fly away.
The Elk-Headed Woman thanks me for the birds but says the only new one is the hooded warbler, a bright yellow bird with black feathers covering its head. This one has yellow circles surrounding its eyes. She says the marking is rare.
I ask her if she ever sees the same bird twice? Would she even know?
She says she doesn’t notice or care. It’s not about the individual birds.
At dusk, we tie the cages to my back and walk to the tree line and set them free. After fleeing the cage, before disappearing into the tree line, the hooded warbler perches in a small spruce and sings a song that I can only just hear, a sound that was never heard this far up on the mountain and won’t be heard here again. It will be replaced with the cawing of magpies and the silence of wind blowing over cold stones.
Tell me more about that woman whose father hunts, The Elk-Headed Woman asks.
Her cubicle is on the other side of the office, I say. We went through training together. I don’t know much else about her. I think her name is Elaine.
In the morning, after I have packed my things, I kiss her muzzle and tell her I love her again.
You’ll be back next week, she asks.
Of course, I say.
She tells me she’ll miss me until then.
Her cabin has no internet connection or cell reception. No phone company will send an installation crew, so we are silent during weekdays. We tried smoke signals once. I climbed on my roof and waved a throw rug over the chimney to break the smoke into dots and dashes.
In Morse code, I spelled, .. / .-.. --- ...- . / .- -. -.. / -- .. ... ... / -.-- --- ..- .-.-.-
I watched the tree line for a response but only saw the sunset extinguish behind the mountain.
She said she couldn’t see the smoke against the clouds and, besides, it was too dry and windy to start a fire. Maybe we should try again in the spring when things aren’t so dry.
After work on Monday, I go with my co-workers to Dirndl’s Sausage Bar and Brews to celebrate a birthday. I don’t know whose. Elaine asks about my weekend.
I tell her it was fine.
She says I sound upset.
I tell her I’m fine and get another drink from the bar. My co-workers are talking about fishing when I rejoin the party.
You ever fish when you go out into those woods, Elaine asks me.
I tell her I don’t. I haven’t since I was a kid.
I haven’t been in so long either, she says, but I liked sitting on the bank of the creek with my father, not talking. They wouldn’t say anything until something took the bait.
So we didn’t scare away the good fish, she says.
I ask what she means about good fish.
Fish big enough to keep.
I think it’s funny that the feature that qualifies something for removal from its home is how well it grows there, that only small fish stay in the wild, where they breed with other small fish, creating only small fish. I try to explain this and add, like we can’t let anything wild grow, get big enough to over take us.
She says, I’m not sure fish work like that, like, I think they just get bigger the longer they live.
Another co-worker said he takes his kids gigging for suckerfish. They set up a fryer on the riverbank and fillet and cook the fish right there, under bare tree branches. There are more stars, he says, pure sky.
Someone else adds that they loved looking for discarded antlers.
I used to do that with my dad, Elaine says, we cut them into pieces, lacquered them, and sold them in flea markets as paperweights.
I told her I didn’t know elk shed their antlers.
She says the males will start shedding soon, tells me to look for them on tall hills, where there are no trees to block the wind. Places where snow won't gather, where elk can find food.
I ask about the females and Elaine laughs, tells me only males have antlers. I suppose she would also say only elk bodies have elk heads, that nature has patterns, specific ways it makes everything. I think of the Elk-Headed Woman, who lives with antlers she can’t feel, who has seen all the birds she will see and eats the only other living thing close to her.
You ought to know that, someone says, as much time as you spend out there.
I tell this person I go for the soundlessness, the isolation of wilderness. That’s my favorite part, I say, but I’ll try fishing this weekend, see if I can’t find a few antlers as well.
That weekend, I buy fishing rods and bait before I hike up the mountain. The Elk-Headed Woman is waiting on her porch when I arrive. She tells me she has something to show me. She kneels and shakes her head. Small gaps between her had and antlers open and close as the antlers wiggle with the unsteadiness of her neck.
She tells me it started a few days ago. She wanted to say something earlier, but the distance.
I ask if it hurts.
She tells me it doesn’t. It’s like losing a tooth.
I ask if she is ready to go fishing.
She says she is willing to try.
When we get to the river, I show her how to bait the hook and cast off.
I tell her to aim for deep water, pools near escarpments.
She tells me she doesn’t think this is going to work but casts off just fine.
I tell her to keep her finger on the string and wait for a tug. I ask if she has seen any new birds.
She tells me she hasn’t.
We stand in the river, not talking, with our fingers on strings, waiting for something to tug at our attention.
She lets out a small bugle and begins to reel. Before it hits the rocks, she pulls a carp twice the size of my hand out of the water. The Elk-Headed Woman dangles the fish above the riverbank. The fish struggles and breaks the line and falls on the rocks. The Elk-Headed Woman falls, too.
I run to the fish first, scoop it into my hands. I cut my thumb removing the hook from its gapping mouth. Drops of blood fall into the water and disappear in the current as I carry the fish into the deep water. I submerge it still sandwiched between my palms. The fish swishes its tail in regular fluid motions; its fins push against my hands. It must know the difference between dry land and rapids. It must know it is back where it belongs. I wonder if it thinks it is swimming yet or if it knows that I could hold on forever, keeping it not quite at home.
I find the Elk-Headed Woman on the shore, fishing line tangled in her antlers.
I ask her to lie down.
She tells me she told me this was a bad idea.
I say, I remember, and cut the fishing line from her antlers. They are looser than were this morning.
I ask how long it takes for antlers to shed.
A few days, she tells me. They should fall off anytime. She tells me she sometimes sees people walking around the woods looking for shed antlers. They’re highly desirable, she says.
She asks if I want to keep hers when they fall off.
I tell her maybe. I might have a hard time getting them down the mountain.
In the morning, the Elk-Headed Woman wakes up on her side, her stiff bristles rubbing against my face.
Her antlers have fallen off.
She asks me how great is this.
She says we can be close now.
She wraps her arm around my middle and nuzzles my cheek. It turns red from irritation.
I brush my teeth, comb my hair. I make coffee and pack my things. When my things are collected and my hiking boots are on, I approach the Elk-Headed Woman, who has not left her bed.
She asks if I want her antlers.
I tell her they might be too big and heavy for me to carry.
What about just one, she asks.
They’re just so oddly shaped, I say.
She asks if I’ll be back next weekend.
I tell her things might get busy at work. Tax season is coming up. We have a lot of prep work and early submissions.
She tells me she understands.
I tell her the weather will be warmer this coming weekend. There will be more birds around.
When I hug the Elk-Headed Woman, she leans her head into mine. I can feel the knobs around the wells where her antlers used to be and I remind myself that it will only be a few weeks before new antlers grow. There will always be antlers and only one season we could be close. I remind myself of this as I hike down the mountain and I will remind myself of it as shower and shave the next day and while I’m at work, I will remind myself of it.
Monday, I go to work early and clear my desk of decorations. I smell the fur one last time. It smells clean. It must have been the mountain air that smelled like rain and the cabin walls that smelled like cedar. These things found me through her but were not her. That in this office, where the air is pushed through filters, this fur was always something that wasn’t her.
After hours working on spreadsheets, my work desks feel empty, like a parking lot. I go to the break room to see if there is a mug, or some candy, or something to occupy the space, make it less lonely. There is a group of people around the coffee maker, doing imitations of our bosses. I ignore them and dig through drawers and cabinets.
Can’t you just see it, Elaine asks the group, He’s got that broad face? She plants her thumbs above her temples and spreads her fingers wide, like the tines of antlers.
Mooooooooose, she moans.
The crowd laughs. I find a sleeve of red plastic cups left over from the office Christmas party. I take one.
I don’t know what sound a moose makes, she says.
Someone says she’s probably close enough, that no one knows what sound a moose makes. It’s one of nature’s great mysteries.
I open a drawer filled with candy, seasoned nuts, trail mixes, small bags of potato chips. I fill my plastic cup with trail mix and a few fruit chews. The sound catches the attention of the group and Elaine asks me what I think of her impression.
You’ve probably heard a moose out there, and she moans again.
I say, I don’t think we have moose around here, just deer and elk.
She reaches into her bag and tosses me something I catch. It is a small, lacquered antler. It is smooth and shiny like blown glass. Florescent lights reflect off its surface.
I went home and found some in my dad’s closet, she says.
I thank her and leave.
I pour the trail mix onto my desk. It scatters the across the grey plastic like rocks on tundra with little pretzel shrubs, orange and yellow candy pieces like small bunches of wildflowers. I pick the candies up first, eat them one at time until my tundra is without flowers. Then I eliminate the pretzels, then the peanuts until my desk is clean, a tamed, wilderness. I set the red cup next to my keyboard and fill it with the few pens I have and the antler, which reflects the blue light of my monitor, blending in as if this is where it belongs, its natural habitat.
Andy Myers lives in Springfield, Missouri. His work appears, or is forthcoming in, Gigantic Sequins, Paper Darts, and SmokeLong Quarterly.