Alyssa Quinn is the author of the novel Habilis and an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College.
The guide comes to me in the forest and tells me I have the wrong gear. He says, There is no bad weather, only bad equipment. He wraps me in a raincoat of very light material and places a wide brimmed hat on my head. Behind him, the trees open in a hole of sun. He is haloed. The guide says, You must learn to read the body of a bear. He teaches me how to deploy bear spray, how to play dead, tells me never to run or climb a tree. All my life I’ve been given conflicting advice on bear safety, and as such bear territoryhas always disturbed me. Less because of the bears themselves and more because I felt ashamed; twenty-five years on this earth and still I lacked strategies for staying alive.
But now the guide pulls the pin from the can and demonstrates how to move it in a wide arc of peppery haze. There have been no fatalities in any situation in which bear spray was properly deployed, says the guide. And for this, I fall in love with him.
In the wetlands, the guide points and says, You may think that is a river otter but it is a muskrat. He says: That is cheatgrass, it is invasive. He says: You will know the sandhill by its cry. I take meticulous notes. Keep as close as I can.
Each night, I call my boyfriend back home. The wild is what I’ve lacked, I tell him. The flowers! The sunsets! The stars!
The server crashed today and took seven hours to fix, says my boyfriend. I make a sympathetic noise. Think of the sandhill crane. Do not mention the guide.
We will wait for seven minutes, says the guide. We stand at the tree line, water spiraling our limbs. Lightning has trapped us at the edge of a meadow. After seven minutes with no bolts, it will be safe to cross. His body is straight and tall. I wonder if he has picked seven intentionally. Five or ten would seem imprecise. Less a designation of a specific interval than a phrase meaning merely: a short while. Seven, however, sounds purposeful, precise, scientific. Certain enough to allay my fears. But the guide has been lying to me, I’ve learned. Earlier he told me: It gets less steep from here. It didn’t. Afterwards he said, You need psychological tricks. Otherwise everyone gives up on you.
Back at camp, the guide smells my skin and says, The deet will kill you. I ask him to scrub me clean, anoint me in eucalyptus and lemon. He does, and afterwards, we kiss and recite the names of poisonous plants.
To my boyfriend, on the phone, I say, It’s a dangerous world.
He says, When are you coming home?
Standing on a ladder, the guide peels a pair of bats from the rafters. He opens his palm and lets me touch; the wings are soft as petals. We take the bats to our bed and place them on our pillows. They eat mosquitos as we sleep.
Lying in bed with the guide, I see his bones poking. I have not eaten in many weeks, he admits. I trace the cage of his ribs. Flat expanse of sternum. Something isn’t right. A bat has nestled in the hollow of his collar bone but he pays it no mind. I kiss him on the jaw. Earlobe.
What are the names of those peaks out the window? I ask him. What are the Latin names of these trees? But he has no names for me tonight. The mountains turn to silhouette and we lie awake for hours.
Each week the guide sprays invasive weeds at the edge of camp. Medusahead and Dyer’s woad and Scotch broom and ragwort. I help. We wear goggles and gas masks and carry little tanks strapped to our backs. Neon blue fans from the nozzles. This is great, I say. The guide says nothing. Perhaps my mask has muffled my voice. This is great, I say, louder. Doing our part, I add, louder still. It is hot, hot, hot and when I wipe sweat from my neck I feel a chemical sting. It’s hot! I say, shouting now. So hot!
The guide stops spraying. I go to him, lift my goggles, see a rotted corpse at his feet. Some small misshapen mammal. Vertebrae poking. Rags of meat and fur. Sad, I say. Then wait for him to tell me no, it’s not sad, death is but a part of life, life and death hang in such beautiful delicate balance, that is what we’re witnessing here, balance, that’s what we’re doing, right now, with this bright and toxic blue. Restoring balance.
But he says none of this.
The guide stands in the meadow with a thermometer. The mercury heats and builds and he says, The marmots are dying. The ground squirrels are dying. The kingfisher are dying. The pronghorn are dying.
I say, Can you save them?
He says, No. In the bed the bats are dying. We feed them sugar water with a syringe. The sun scorches white and dry. The guide sits on the back porch with his chin in his hands.
Remember, there’s no bad weather, only bad—
But the guide cuts me off. Another lie, he says. And we listen to the cattle keen.
Then the fires. Birch and fir crackle to char and smoke climbs to asphyxiate birds. The guide watches from the cabin’s roof as raptors meteor to earth. A golden eagle, juvenile, smacks into the shingles. He doesn’t flinch. I climb up and sit beside him. A spotted kestrel plunges. Dark streak against the sunset. Then another. I am afraid to look at the guide. Afraid to touch him. Are you crying? I want to ask. We sit and the sky goes dark and when the sun rises again the world is still ending and there is nothing we can do.
On the phone, my boyfriend says, I watched a house fall into the sea. Are you coming back? Then hail the size of grapefruit takes out the phone lines and I cannot answer. Lightning hammers fires in the forest.
We will wait seven minutes, I say out loud to myself. Do not try to run, I say. And do not climb a tree.
In the bedsheets, the bats are corpses. The guide is gone. He has left his bear spray behind.