Since moving to this city, I have taken to wandering my neighborhood twice daily, miles-long rambles launched without forethought or direction. Nearly every day I see the turkeys.
The turkeys are members of a loose group of two dozen birds whose territory spans several blocks—less a discrete flock than a shifting collection of cliques that cohere, dissolve, and reform with the fickleness of teenagers in a lunchroom. One day I’ll encounter eight birds strutting up my walk, five perched in the low branches of a ponderosa, and six more scuffling in wet leaves, heads bobbing as they unearth grubs. The next I’ll meet the entire gaggle at once, crossing the road in a single-file line as orderly as a bank queue, the corpulent tom posed in the street with his tail fanned like a stop-sign, heedless of the honking traffic.
My neighbor doesn’t care for them. “They’ve turned too bold,” she tells me, shaking her head at such avian temerity. She’s a weathered
woman, crackly and folded as a paper crane, who spends her days scratching at the bare earth she euphemistically calls a garden. She blames its barrenness on the turkeys. “Those fowl keep ripping up my lettuce,” she adds, accusatorily, as if the turkeys and I are in cahoots. She leans her forearms on the chain-link fence and spits. “Little demons need to be taught a lesson.”
When I amble by a week later, sure enough, the turkeys are milling about her yard with an air of furtive expectation, as though waiting for the start of an underground craps game. I pause to watch, and as I do, I see a gleaming rifle barrel slide out from a makeshift blind, a hut of plywood and canvas tarps that my neighbor has slapped up alongside her house. I hold my breath. There’s a sudden, flatulent pfft—it’s an air gun, not a rifle after all—and, with a startled warble, one of the hens hops like she’s been caught by a gust of wind. She settles a few yards away, stung but unharmed; she fluffs her feathers and attempts to recover her poise. From the blind comes a muffled cackle.
We also share the neighborhood with a coyote, his presence betrayed by stringy, desiccated scats packed with rodent fur. I saw him once at dusk, a gray shadow slipping between yards, ethereal as smoke. The next day there is one fewer turkey, a living animal reduced to a chaos of bloody feathers, as though the bird had swallowed a live grenade. I expect my neighbor will be pleased to hear of her adversary’s demise, but instead she’s dismayed—another varmint to battle.
Later I find her roaming the block with a Louisville slugger gripped in her claws. I ask her if it’s for self-defense, and she scowls. “Preemptive strike,” she tells me.
My neighborhood is part of the city, yes, but a distal one, miles from downtown’s mostly vacant storefronts. Our street is peri-urban and leafy, all craftsman houses and big blue spruce, attractive young couples and fanciful breeds of chicken. Tricycles lie capsized in front yards; youngish women walk purposefully down the street with yoga mats slung over their shoulders. There’s a kid with a riding mower who seems to have negotiated a sophisticated set of contracts with local homeowners—every day I see him cutting grass on another property, cruising back and forth across the lawn in sober lines. I call hello and he wordlessly taps his noise-blocking earmuffs, goes back to the job.
There are mice in my neighborhood, and songbirds, and that means there are also birds of prey. Merlins and kestrels hurtle from powerlines to snatch sparrows mid-air. Red-tailed hawks dive-bomb voles and convey them writhing into the pines. I come upon a golden eagle tearing violently at a flayed rabbit on a manicured lawn, blood staining her hooked beaktip like sloppy lipstick.
When I mention it to my neighbor she finally smiles. “Damn rabbits are almost as bad as the turkeys,” she says.
The days lengthen and more animals emerge: skunks, foxes, raccoons. I learn their habits, come to recognize them not only by species but as individuals. Here is the gap in the hedge through which the opossum commutes; here is the burrow the badger has dug. The whispery June nights are floodlit by the moon, its cratered visage as craggy and all-seeing as my neighbor’s own face.
In summer the elk arrive. They high-step through the streets, their cream-colored withers bouncing, and nibble the lawns. They are long-legged and elegant, their bearing sophisticated in a way to which mule deer only aspire. The lone bull has a mighty rack, heavy and branching as an old cottonwood, furred with velvet that catches the afternoon sun. I sense him before I see him, his presence announced by an ambient musk. One morning his antlers snag in a clothesline and he carries laundry with him all day until the last pair of boxers sloughs off in the evening. Local news crews film the demeaning spectacle; I’m vaguely offended on his behalf. Slapstick is beneath his dignity.
The weather cools and more elk show up—herds of twenty, fifty, two hundred, cows and calves and young bulls milling in the streets as though at a festival. No one’s sure where they’ve come from, or why they’re here: Some say they’ve been driven from the hills by wildfire, some that logging has destroyed their habitat. The newspapers fill with complaints: gardens ruined, apple trees stripped, picket fences flattened. By November, even I have to admit the incessant bugling has become disruptive. Some residents string up barbed wire; others, soft-hearted, fling corn across their lawns. My neighbor pens an op-ed proposing a hunt. “Lock the kids indoors, shutter the windows, and let humans control these dangerous beasts like we’ve always done,” she writes.
I wake up Thanksgiving morning to find our street floured in snow. Tracks scurry everywhere: bobcat, fisher, short-tailed weasel. Nocturnal epics are written here, conflicts that make the stakes of my own life feel insignificant. I follow the bounding stride of a snowshoe hare for ten blocks, only to find the tracks abruptly vanish, as though the bunny has been vaporized, borne off this mortal coil upon the silent wings of a great horned owl.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that our elk would attract wolves. The first howls rise on winter’s coldest night, spectral and sad, like music played on a star. On the sidewalk the next morning, in front of a three-story Victorian with ionic front-porch columns, I find the carnage: a yearling elk reduced to a mound of hide and bone, still steaming, encircled by a corona of pinkish snow. Ravens croak balefully at my approach. Saucer-sized pawprints lead away from the kill, beelining into the Douglas fir at the end of the block.
“We have wolves now,” I tell my neighbor when I pass her on my rounds.
“Oh, I heard ’em,” she affirms, chambering a shotgun shell with a hearty thunk.
Our neighborhood becomes a perilous environment for pets. The wolves and a newly resident cougar pick off the outdoor cats; my walks come alive with sparrow-song and thrush trills. On our community Facebook page, a florid man a few doors down claims that a single, crafty coyote lured his beagle off the porch with a display of canine comradeship, all wagging tails and playful licks. By the time the bewildered dog realized he’d been betrayed, it was too late: the pack had him surrounded. Angry emojis accumulate on the Facebook post; when I express my admiration for the coyotes, I’m summarily blocked.
My neighbors begin fleeing. Flocks of moving trucks and transport pods pull up to curbs and then disappear. Even these units are colonized; one mother, I hear, has to chase a lynx from her storage container with a broom. The entrepreneurial mowing kid drives his John Deere up a ramp and into the belly of a U-Haul. I hope, for his sake, that his family is bound for a town more hospitable to lawns. Some of the departed are replaced by new tenants, including a band of grim survivalists who hunt deer with AK-47s. Mostly, though, the houses stand empty, their chimneys now the nests of squirrels, basements the hibernacula of rattlesnakes. Soon the survivalists, too, are gone, decamped to a redoubt somewhere in the Rockies. I’m nearly alone.
Nearly, I say, because my neighbor, too, has stayed put. Her home has by now become a compound, its perimeter encircled by electric fences, its inner wall topped with shards of broken glass, its roof turreted with
motion-activated floodlights. She sits on an upstairs balcony most days with her shotgun, watching a sow grizzly scratch her back against the pines, a pair of butterball cubs frolicking in the soft rain of dead needles that falls from the shaking boughs. I’ve never heard my neighbor fire her gun.
We are not friends, exactly, but have developed a tentative camaraderie; when I pass her house on my afternoon strolls, she invites me up for a whiskey—always neat. We watch lilac chase orange from the dimming sky. Martens dart from a broken window across the street, leaping from ledge to tree with the grace of trapezists. A female bobcat gingerly conveys her mewling kittens in her mouth, one at a time, into their den under a stoop. My neighbor sighs, sips, leans her shotgun against the rail. “Those cats would’ve been hell back when I had chickens,” she says wistfully. When the first planets appear, she asks me to leave—she doesn’t like the thought of me walking after dark.
Time passes. Roots erupt through the sidewalk, heaving up slabs of pavement like mountain ranges thrust skyward by colliding plates.
Cavernous potholes fill with water, blossoming into pools that writhe with chorus frogs and larval salamanders—prey, in their turn, for herons. Caribou, skittish and lanky, gangle down from Canada to browse the fibrous lichens that cloak the firs; wolverines pad hungrily in their wake. Beavers colonize the trash-choked gully behind the dollar store, weave willow stems through broken-wheeled shopping carts. Salmon spawn in the flooded parking lot, dorsal fins cutting wakes through water that still shimmers with trace gasoline. The fish deposit eggs and milt with spasmodic shivers, then surrender to the bald eagles perched atop crooked light poles.
Across the street, maple helicopters alight atop moldering shingles and sprout into saplings whose collective weight caves in the roof. The house becomes a courtyard, four collapsing walls paying homage to the red cedar growing at its center. Eventually the walls, too, crumble, leaving behind only a fireplace that marks human passage like a cairn beside a forgotten trail. One fall afternoon, a light snow falling from an iron sky, I visit my neighbor and find her slumped on the balcony, white flakes unmelted on her cold, peaceful face. I bury her in the hard earth of her own compound, rolling rocks onto her grave to deter magpies.
Later that season I climb the hill at my neighborhood’s southern terminus and, sitting cross-legged on the foundation of a derelict McMansion, survey the retreating city. The evening has turned indigo and distant lights have begun to blink on, electric constellations that delineate main streets and strip malls and trailer parks. The brilliant white supernova of a high school football field, the orange beads lining the runways at the airport. The dark, forested shoulder of my abandoned neighborhood laps at the city’s lights like a hungry wave. I gather the remnants of a cherry dining set and smash it to firewood.
I smell fire before I can light my own, the windborne wood smoke sweet and near. Voices, human ones, drift on the chill breeze. I slip through the trees, following ears and nose to a gap in the young forest, another concrete pad ringed by ramshackle walls. A flickering campfire throws faint light on the tableau—an improvised ceiling of canvas tarps, an axe tilted against a tidy pile of firewood, a few wire snares hanging from an old hat stand. Two kids, soot-smeared and smiling, crouch over a board game. Against one crumbling wall, their faces shadowed, lean two adults—legs outstretched, fingers lazily interlaced. And over the fire, impaled on a crude spit, its golden skin cracking to reveal white meat, a turkey.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.