Hunger, Not Tame
Brutal wind beat against the door of her camper. The cold didn’t bother her—Kate had only ever lived in cold and windy environments—but the sand did. It made its way into corners of her temporary seaside home, into her clothes, her hair. She was trying, uselessly, to sweep it up from her minuscule kitchen when Tony knocked and opened her door, blowing sand back under the table.
Kate poured him a cup of hours-old coffee. Tony was the lone year-round park policeman who stopped by every day or two to check in on her. The coffee was their ritual and he accepted a thick, earthenware mug as he brushed sand from his winter wool doughboy hat. Onto her floor. She said nothing when a few grains ended up in his cup.
“Don’t go chasing them horses today,” he said. “We got a full Nor’easter coming up the coast toward us.” He settled his bulk on her couch. He was a big man, not fat, but had learned on his first visit that he could not fit into the camper booth and table set up.
“I was hoping to go out for a few hours. Find where the horses hole up during that kind of storm.”
“You won’t be able to find ’em. You can’t drive in this mess.”
“Wasn’t real bright of me, was it? Anyhow, I’m on a mission. Chief Whitman said to come and get you. Bring you back to headquarters.”
“Am I in trouble?” She was joking, sort of. Technically she was supposed to live in the park housing, but she’d managed to funnel off a little grant money dedicated to room and board for the RV.
“Only if the wind blows this damn tin can over.” Just then a gust rocked the camper. The park rangers’ row of apartment-style housing might not be a bad idea during the storm. “Besides, chief said he’d buy us pizza. You’ve got to be tired of all the rice and beans or whatever it is you eat out here. Beginning to think you chew on the sea grass alongside the horses.” Kate smiled, hesitant. Pizza sounded good but she had work to do.
“C’mon, Kate. You can’t stay holed up here all winter. If this storm passes through, maybe we can hit Ocean City. See a movie.”
She must have flinched.
“Not like that,” Tony corrected. “I just meant you getting out some. You know.”
“No, I didn’t think that, not at all,” said Kate, heat rushing to her face. “I just worry about my work…the grant timeline…” Then they were both all over themselves with apologies.
Work, her reason for solitude. She was alone because she chose to be. She chose not to stay in park housing. She didn’t bother to visit headquarters on any regular basis. Sooner or later, she supposed, someone would ask how she got here and she’d have to tell them. If she had to tell of her eastward journey, she’d have to mention Jennie.
Kate gathered her things while Tony waited. Her laptop, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes—all shoved into a backpack. They bowed their heads and tunneled into the oncoming storm. The doors to the truck had to be pushed open against the wind, her hip wedged against the frame while she loaded her gear.
Waves crashed on the dune barrier that sheltered the road from the surf. Pavement unprotected by the dunes would flood. She hoped that her RV, parked on the bayside, would make it. Kate felt guilty for Tony’s effort as they drove slowly north on the battered beach road.
Then there they were, the horses, Chestnut and his band, tucked in between two dunes, heads down against the rain and blowing sand. Bands of horses had leaders. This leader of three was a solid brown; his color deep and rich, so different from the ginger and patterned paints. Chestnut. Kate knew she shouldn’t give the animals names but this particular stallion stuck with her. The horses pawed at the windblown grass on top of the dunes. Their fare was akin to tough, chewable rope. They ate enough to subsist.
“Oh.” The sympathetic sound was out of her mouth before she could stop it.
“They’ll be fine,” Tony said. “They’ve grown up in hurricanes and ocean gales. This is all they know. What would you do? Stable them in the camper?”
She scribbled a few notes in her field notebook, the horse’s location, their position. How Chestnut stood in front, taking the brunt for the other two horses.
“I should stay. I need to see how they react during the storm.”
Tony shook his head but didn’t slow down the truck. “Are you on some kind of suicide mission over a bunch of horses?”
She swallowed hard and leaned back against the bench seat, mollified. “No.” She’d grown used to her isolation. Her decisions were hers. Tony’s blanket call, official orders or not, irritated her.
“Kate, good to see you at headquarters.” The park chief said when they arrived. She nodded in acceptance of what he offered: a week’s worth of words and a slice of pizza.
“Thanks for sending Tony out for me. “
Whitman shrugged. “I didn’t send him. I forgot you were here.”
Her stomach sank at the double meaning: Tony’s thoughtfulness and the supervisor’s forgetfulness. Her choices had led to both. She couldn’t blame the chief when she had hardly been visible since summer.
“Here you go.” Tony proffered a Coke and bottled water. She chose the water. “Don’t worry,” he whispered when the chief stood for another slice at the headquarters office counter, “a couple of the rangers stocked up on beer. We can stop by their place later.”
Immediately, she stiffened. Restricted. She wasn’t here to hang out with Tony. She was here, as she had been told, for storm safety.
Whitman stacked boxes of hot pizza in front of them. “I’d hoped to find you an empty apartment, but housing is booked.”
“Seasonal staff is staying through Thanksgiving this year,” he added.
“Rare, but we had high enough visitation numbers to support it. You’ll be staying in here, in the staff lounge.”
Kate looked at the well-worn staff couch. Rain hammered down on the roof. She didn’t have much of a choice.
Her job, grant-funded for one year, was to study the near-native wild horses. For two hundred years the animals had survived on the coast, descendants of plantation cast-offs, and tax liabilities. Because of tourists, many of the feral horses were close to tame. There were occasional problems, a bite or a kick, to tourists who irritated the wrong horse. But most of the time, the animals ate straight from the beach goers’ hands. The horses even ransacked campsites to find potato chips and granola bars hidden in backpacks. Kate’s job was to study the wild horses farther south, to determine why they stayed away, analyze if the reasons for their isolation could be applied to the tamer bands.
“Another one, Kate?” Tony was up, filling more paper plates with cheese and pepperoni.
“Did you all empty the restaurant before the storm hit?” Her laugh was nervous and she played her question to both Chief Whitman and Tony. Clearly, the chief assumed seasonal rangers would join in the pizza party but none did. They were probably in their apartments, as Tony said, drinking beer. Kate craved a beer, anything to help take the edge off.
“We knew we’d be stuck for some time. Closed the main gates before I headed out to your place.” Tony handed her the pizza. The wind gusted again and the building shook. “Hope your camper makes it through.”
She glanced at her backpack, grateful she’d stuffed it with her laptop and field notebooks. “They’re still out there, though. In the storm.”
Whitman pulled a plastic chair up to the table. “Animals know what to do. Can’t worry about that now.”
“I know. I’m just so close. Three seasons worth of research…”
“Is this work going to help your Ph.D. at all?” asked the chief.
Kate shook her head. She had been studying feral horses on the Navajo lands in northern Arizona. Circumstances, none of which she cared to discuss with the chief or Tony, had led her to Maryland’s eastern shore. She’d compare bands of feral horses on the northern and southern sections of the park. She wanted to include the sister island to the south, Chincoteague, but the grant she’d won was specifically for the Maryland horses. A small but vocal activist group wanted the horses placed on the Endangered Species list. Kate agreed with them in theory. In sympathy. But there was little chance that feral horses, not wild, not native, would fall into the endangered category. She had a full year to live on the island, to observe, study, and write.
“Ph.D.?” Tony looked surprised. He’d revealed with pride his academy police training and community college criminology courses before landing the park job. Kate had never spoken of her academic background, only mentioned that she took classes at the university.
“I have a few years left and a big report to write.”
“Damn, girl.” Tony whistled and pulled his law enforcement cap down more tightly over his head. “Didn’t know.” He tugged at his cap then crossed his arms, hiding the badges on his uniform. Kate had hidden her education, she realized, all in an effort to make Tony feel comfortable. She hadn’t had to worry about academic superiority with Mark. He had been in her graduate program, part-time, taking an occasional course in wildlife management to bolster his resume with the forest service.
“This was a good opportunity to travel, see the country…” She had scrambled for last minute paperwork and a proposal for the east coast grant. Decisions made on the heels of a brush fire divorce, a brush fire death. Jennie’s death had preceded the divorce and the grant, but everything had happened so suddenly, so irrevocably, that Kate sometimes forgot the order of things. Time, in a chronological sense, didn’t matter. Like a dream, or nightmare, events happened without logic.
She was treading into dangerous territory. Nobody here knew what had happened. They didn’t know about Mark. They didn’t know about tiny Jennie and her death explained only by the meaningless acronym of SIDS.
Kate swallowed hard and picked up her pizza. The staff lounge confined her. Bare white walls, occasionally taped with calendars and staff schedules decorated her storm refuge. It’s just one night, she thought.
Gusts shook the building again. The blinds jangled against the tall, floor to ceiling windows. The surf pounded against the shore and again, she wondered where the horses would weather this one out. Whitman messed with the NOAA radio and added the annoying sound of static to the storm.
“I’m going to do a round before it gets worse. Make sure no one’s doing anything stupid, like trying to surf or swim.” Tony pulled on his green park slicker. “Maybe I’ll rustle us up a few beverages. Chief Whitman? Want to come along, check out the recruits?”
The chief shook his head. “I find it’s best I leave well enough alone. I’ll go back to my place soon. Kate, you’ll be all settled in here all right?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.” She didn’t think the huge glass windows of the visitor’s center added to her safety any more than her camper.
“Can I go with you?” Kate met Tony at the door. She couldn’t stand being cooped up in the office.
Tony shrugged. She didn’t know if his lack of enthusiasm was because of her earlier refusal of a date or her additional credits in academia. It didn’t matter. She didn’t want to stay in the visitor’s center.
“Here.” Tony handed her a green rain poncho and goulashes from the closet. “Standard park storm-wear. Put this on too.” A crank-operated headlamp.
“We’re driving about a half mile to the housing. I want to get out there before the rain kicks in any harder. You sure you want to go?”
Having shunned human contact for the better part of a year, she was surprised by her own eagerness. Her focus had been all about the horses, to immerse herself in the study to let a scar form over the wounds of Jennie’s death and Mark’s defection.
Rain pounded like bullets on the rubber poncho and wind blew the hood back from her face. She climbed into the truck again.
“I shouldn’t let you come,” said Tony. “If there’s an accident…”
The rain came down in sheets. Streetlights dangled intermittently along the shoulder of the road. One sputtered and went black leaving them in, except for the headlights, darkness. “We shouldn’t be out here,” said Kate. “Neither of us.” She flicked her headlamp’s light switch. On. Off. On. Off.
“Bad call on my part. Guess those rangers are going to have to fend for themselves. Only hope none of them are doing anything stupid.” He looked along the shoulder for a place to turn around, as he inched the truck downhill. The surf pounded and a rush of water came across road, water up to the tires. The truck stalled. Tony turned the keys again. Nothing.
“Fuck.” He pounded the steering wheel with his hand.
Kate cringed in her seat. His fist reminded her of Mark’s, who had punched a hole in the wall the night Jennie died. You were here. How could you let this happen?
Tony turned on the hand-held radio on his belt. Static. “I’ll try to get through to Whitman, let him know where we are.”
Kate leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. They were in a dangerous depression in the road. The water pooled around them. Too risky to stay in the truck, too risky to leave it.
“We’ll have to walk back,” said Tony. “I’ve got some rope and life vests back there in the truck box.”
Whitman’s voice crackled in on the radio. “Stay put. The weather map shows a lighter band coming through. Go then.”
“Got it. Staying put,” said Tony.
Kate stared out into the blackness. The cab was stuffy and she wanted to open a window.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the Ph.D.?” Tony asked.
“Didn’t think it mattered.”
“We’ve talked each week for near close to a year.”
“Small talk. Coffee talk. I told you about the grant.”
She didn’t understand his irritation. “What, Tony? What do you want to know?”
“Something besides horses. All I know is you’re from Arizona and you like to study the horses. I guess so much you’re going to be a doctor in it.”
“I’ll have a doctorate in wildlife ecology. Not like a doctor…”
“I know. I’m not stupid.”
His tone punched her in the gut.
“Well, whatever.” He drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel for several minutes. He reached over her, into the glove compartment and pulled out a manila envelope. “Your mail. I forgot to give it to you earlier.”
She flipped on the headlamp and studied the envelope. No return address. Only her name, in black, handwritten print. Kate McDonnel, care of the park. Then the pink postmark. Flagstaff.
She opened it and shook the contents into her lap. Photographs. Dozens of them. All of Jennie. She gasped at the suddenness of Jennie’s appearance in the confined, claustrophobic truck cab. The moment she was born, that tiny, writhing baby with fingers that grasped hers in a no-release grip. Another at the hospital, where Kate held Jennie, wrapped in her pink blanket and cap. That fuzzy tiny cap that covered her delicate down of wispy hair. Feathers, she’d said to Mark. Jennie doesn’t have hair, she has feathers. Another photo of Kate holding the baby against her breast. She loved to breathe in that sweet infant scent, the warm softness, as Jennie nursed. The pictures slid onto her lap, onto the seat of the truck, as more spilled from the envelope. All evidence that Jennie, her daughter, had existed. Proof of what had come before.
Mark had negated Jennie’s existence from Kate’s life. The baby’s clothes and blankets and even the unused supply of cloth diapers had disappeared into the back of his truck when he left. All of her photographs, the barely begun albums, he took with him. He erased photos off of Kate’s laptop. Even the Facebook photos were gone. Kate didn’t have a page of her own and had only gotten around to setting it up one day when she was bored, home with the baby. After Mark left, she logged on to the site, desperate, frustrated with her ineptitude to find the pictures Mark had posted. She didn’t know then he had removed all photo tags, blocked her, and had his family do the same.
Another flood of ocean wave rocked the truck again. She ran her hand over the jigsaw of photos in her lap. She couldn’t break down now, not in front of Tony. But she wanted to. She wanted to clutch the images to her chest and scream.
“Kate? What is it?” He touched her shoulder. Not now, not now. “I’m sorry, I should have given you this stuff earlier.”
She swallowed against the pain lodged in her throat. “Forget? How could you forget?” Her voice rose in a weird crescendo, half-wail, half-whisper. She shoved the pictures back into the envelope, scattering a few on the damp floorboards.
Tony picked one up. In it, Kate stood on the front porch of the cabin she and Mark had built, surrounded by Ponderosa pine, with Jennie in her arms.
“Is this your baby?” asked Tony. “I didn’t know you had a baby.”
“I don’t.” She snatched the photo from Tony. She was caged in, trapped, with rising water all around. She couldn’t sit there any longer. She pushed the door open with all of her strength and water covered the floor.
“Goddamn it, Kate! Don’t go out there. Take the ropes, the life vest!” Tony reached for her but she splashed out into the thigh-high water.
She flipped on the headlamp and trudged toward the visitor center. She felt the pull of the current as rain and ocean mixed at the low spot on the road. Dimly, she was aware of her stupidity, her impulsivity. She could have stayed and shared the pictures with Tony. She could have stayed and said nothing at all. But she couldn’t do it; Tony’s questions, his probing looks, wanting to know more, always more.
The lights of the visitor’s center flickered. She pushed against the water that threatened to pull her under. Tony’s voice was an echo, barely heard among the crash of waves and gusts of wind.
Sunlight made its way in through the blinds set at a haphazard slant. Kate watched the weak, watered-down rays filter into the room. She was amazed at the quiet sounds of birds and surf after the rough storm.
Tony snored loudly on the couch in the chief’s office down the hall. She had locked the door to the lounge, had refused to let him in when he stumbled into the visitor center an hour after she did. He had knocked for several minutes, water from his gear puddling under the door, before giving up.
A combination of embarrassment and discomfort prevented her from waking him. She’d put him, and herself in danger, serious danger. She’d apologize later. She grabbed her backpack, doubled checked that the envelope was tucked inside, only slightly damp. She added a couple bottles of water from the staff fridge. She’d hike out the six miles in the post-storm calm. Look for the horses, collect her thoughts.
Kate cut across the road, over to the beach. The waves were still huge and she walked close to the dune line. She wondered how Chestnut and his band had fared. Did they hunker down behind a sand dune? Did they try to break for shelter under picnic areas and rest shelters?
Some of the tamer horses stood under the open shelter. She recognized the patterned paint as one who ate potato chips from the hands of tourists over the summer. The horses were starving. Their seemingly fat stomachs were due to bloat. Salt, sea grass and, during tourist season, potato chips, gave the illusion of healthy animals. Hunger, not taming, drove the horses to do as they did. And yet their acts for survival would eventually kill them.
She found Chestnut and his group five miles down shore. She crouched behind a neighboring dune and dug through her pack for camera, notebook, and pencil. Chestnut nickered as Kate moved in closer. She craned her neck to find the cause of his discontent. The island horses didn’t have predators, aside from humans. This far south, she was one of the few humans Chestnut encountered. She thought the horses had grown used to her constant presence.
She could count his ribs as he pulled at the damp, brown grass with strong teeth. The wind buffeted against them both. She climbed to the top of her dune. A perch. He seemed to know she was there; he gave sidelong glances.
One from his band was missing. She didn’t know if it was the storm, starvation, or some other fate that met the horse. She edged closer to the rise of the dune. Chestnut measured her with his eyes, as if daring her to come closer. She took his dare and moved forward, half-crouched, a crab-like slow motion scramble.
“Come here, Chestnut.” She held out a single stem of sea oat. The horse took a step back, then forward again. Undecided.
Chestnut stepped back and rallied his remaining band with a short neigh. They followed him haphazardly to the shoreline and stood in the frothy, pounding surf. She wondered what they saw over the expanse of steel-gray waves.
From the beach, she saw that the camper stood upright in its spot. It had survived the nor’easter. Next to it was the glare of the spinning red police lights. Tony looked for her. Worried, no doubt. She paused, unsure of whether she wanted to face him. Waves crashed at her feet. She hadn’t been paying attention and had wandered close to the rough surf. The cold water soaked through her jeans, and the tide pulled at her ankles. Chestnut issued his distinctive whinny. Wake up, he seemed to say. Wake up.
“Tony, I’m here,” she shouted. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
She gripped the straps of her backpack that cut into her shoulders and headed for dry sand.