The road is straight for miles: not that you can see that with the gentle roll of the land but you’ve driven and walked and run it for thirty years and you have it in your heart dull and gray on a moonless night with its great black brooding firs leaning in over you from both sides, the black-on-black woods clotted with tangles of blackberry and Oregon grape crowding you heavy and thick, the great swooping owls preying on mice and rabbits and squirrels, the ragged coyotes looking for anything they can find, really, surrounding a frantic creature, snapping its neck if it’s lucky, ripping open its belly with that godawful hysterical yipping that haunts your dreams when you live in the country. But everything’s quiet now. There’s the hum of your tires on the asphalt and the tinny whine of the music on your radio but they’re tiny in the dark universe like a distant cosmic mosquito. Your left high-beam, the one that arcs wide, picks out the huge fir down the road at the edge of Frohs’s pasture, skinned where some kid sideswiped it while texting, pale and sickly now in the darkness. It’s the photographic negative of that other giant fir, the charred one at the end of the road. Two brothers careened down the hill with their girlfriends at one a.m.—arguing? laughing? sleepy? drunk?—on their way home to Portland after visiting their mother in her single-wide up in the gaunt woods at 2400 feet, slamming at sixty into the mute old tree on the far side of the tee-intersection. Derek in the back seat climbed out almost untouched and pulled Lindsey out, too. She was in critical condition but survived in the end. Jason was killed on impact most likely they said, just an instant before the fireball. They identified Isabella by her dental records but that was a formality because Derek and the neighbors and the cops and the aid crew all stood there and watched her burn. The couple down the road had heard the impact and seen the sudden bright flicker and called 9-1-1 right away, but there’s nobody close up here. You think of the opening scene in All the King’s Men, the hypnotic effect of the road, and that moment when you come to just as your right front wheel hooks off the pavement and down into the soft, black dirt, or in this case earth, full of mold and fungus and fir needles, thick and moist and giving, maybe forgiving, who knows, and you think about putting your foot to the floor and turning the wheel, maybe now so that you have a good long while both to center in on the tree and to change your mind should you want to, or maybe at the last moment, doing all your thinking as you accelerate in your lane and then just a bare twitch of the wheel, and you remember that conversation with your son his senior year, when he told you he had thought about just picking a tree on the way to his girlfriend’s house that night after you’d had that fight, which would have been this road, and you wonder if it was this tree, and then you pass it, the tree with its pale naked wound, and it passes, as you head up the hill tonight on your way home.
Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun is the author of a book of essays, Goodbye, Little One (Crosswater Books), and former senior editor of Spring Hill Review. Her feature stories, essays, fiction, and regular columns have appeared in The Seattle Review, Vancouver Voice, OIKOS Australia and other publications. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University, drives a Mini with well over 200,000 miles on it, and lives in a log house on Little Elkhorn Mountain in rural southwest Washington State.