I'm driving through the foggy dark of a mild spring night in West Virginia. Tino is in the passenger seat. We're talking so fast we haven't touched the radio. Behind us is the little house in Beckwith, the base for our strange little school. Across the hammocks, beds, couches, floors and porches, the kids are falling asleep for the night. Or so we presume. Teenagers have their own secret world, and when the lights go off, who knows. Who knows.
We are driving towards town, to some basement rafter's bar where Tino and I will drink beers and catch up on the months and miles between us. I haven't seen him since we said goodbye one early morning in Chile. He was half asleep, I hugged him in his wooden bunk and headed towards the Temuco aiport. We were both bruised by exhaustion. I was shaking with both sadness and relief to be leaving, deep in the fog brought on by one life quickly running out, and another poised to begin. Tino stayed behind, ran bigger waterfalls every day and fell in love with a Chilean girl named Canella.
Tino and I are both native New Englanders; we grew up with seperated by only a stretch of highway 91. We met in Chile as teachers for the school, I was 24 and he was 20. We've shared two long trips to Chile, two trips to Canada, two trips around the South East of the US. Sometimes our days together seem as if they could fit inside the space between heartbeats, other times, it seems like we shared half of our lives.
He is the kayaking, survivalist trained son of an herbologist and a Unitarian minister. He knows how to break hearts across the world, pose for a camera, and play the guitar. He's a lot of fun. And I miss him so much.
We drive down the road, high beams spotlighting the dilapidated houses on either side of us, roadside souvenirs of an area of the US that is dying. And then I see an animal in the road. At first I think it's just a shadow, but as we approach it, the lines darken and solidify into the shape of a heavy, grey and black body and a long, pointed nose. I hit the brakes and we are thrown forward. The animal freezes, then jumps up. It jumps up, as if to meet the underside of my car. Which it does. There is a thunk.
"Oh GOD!" I yell, taking my hands off the steering wheel and holding them out in front of me. "Oh my God oh my god ohmygod!!" Tino reaches over and grabs the wheel. "Oh man, you got him!" He shouts, laughing. "You got him!"
We continue driving this way, my foot on the gas peddle, Tino's hands on the wheel. I continue to say "ohmygodohmygodohmygod!!!"
"If it's any consolation," Tino shouts over my hysteria, "you hit the ugliest animal I've ever seen." He was right. That long, pointed nose, that fat body, that grimmace. "What was it? What was it?" I ask.
He says, "I think it was a badger."
Eventually, I regain control of myself and the vehicle. We drive into town and sit at the basement bar, peeling the labels off of our bottles as we talk. On the way home, he points to a slouched figure on the yellow line, says "there's your animal!" and laughs.
Later on, I fall asleep listening to the girls late night whispered conversation, the raspy sounds of someone watching a movie, someone snoring. These are the sounds that used to drive me crazy as I tried to fall asleep after the long days. Now, I welcome them as I drift away, invite them to permeate my dreaming. I am so happy to be back in the secret, hushed symphony of a regular night at the school I love so much. The badger I killed, just a detail melted into all the other details, is forgotten.
Until yesterday. I am back home from West Virginia, back to my safe, square little house. I wake up late, as usual, and shuffle downstairs. I put something on the stove, flip through a magazine on the kitchen counter. And then I see it. Actually, I almost trip over it.
There is a skull on my carpet.
As far as skulls go, this is a particularly hideous one. This is not something to be mounted over the counter of a Phoenix, Arizona bar. This is not the stuff of porcelain white bone, sun bleached and anonymous. This is the skull of something that died recently, and viciously. There are bits of black and white fur clinging to the long, pointed nose. It's teeth, still filled with plant and animal decay, are twisted downward into a sneer that clearly says, I was killed before I should have died. This is the skull of a badger.
First I blame the dog. She's lying on her side in a puddle of sunlight, peaceful, and she's obviously annoyed when I wake her up in the rudest of manners. I yell and pretty much drop-kick her outside. I grab a hand towel and, which my eyes closed, pick up the skull, fingers in the eye sockets. I run through the house and toss it off the porch. It lands with a sickening thunk. A vaguely familiar thunk.
I go about washing my face and hands, violently scrubbing under my fingernails. I'm not a stickler for germs or cleanliness or any of that, but I feel as if I need to cleanse myself of any trace of that skull. It was not a friendly thing. I think of that time I was in San Alfonso del Maipo in Chile, and we drove up into the mountains and found one of Pinochet's death camps. "Do not touch anything, or bring anything home," said Lorenzo. "This is a bad place."
Then I quickly pack up my things, give one last shiver, and start the car. I go into town to write, listen to music, and forget. I take the dog with me.
When I return in the evening, the skull is back. On the carpet, in the same spot, with its gaping eye holes and grimacing, clenched mouth. The living room smells like a carcass.
This time, I can't blame the dog.
I'm not entirely sure, but I think I've been cursed.
Oh my God, what was I thinking that day I turned 25, in the gloom of a Vermont mud season, when I decided to make this year my year of magical thinking? And why did I ever put it out there into the universe by writing this:
This is the year to blur the lines between what is fiction and nonfiction, what is possible and impossible. Magical thinking is like positive thinking in HD, Native American spirituality blended with American pop psychology. I am going to see the power, the potential, and the meaning in all things. Life will be luminous, studded with the unexpected, rich in omens, visions, unexpected wisdom.
Oh, that's right. Studded with the unexpected, rich in omens. Then that post goes and wins an award, and gets a lot of publicity, further pumping that extremely silly message into the world. I really thought magical thinking would mean more fireflies and sunsets and candlelight and train tracks and things just falling into place, la la la. Instead, it seems so far to be my year of dark magic, power animal digestion, skulls on the carpet, money magically disappearing. Not my intent whatsoever.
As I am writing this, my girlfriend Abby walks through the door into the cafe. Abby is one of my most precious discoveries since moving to Boone. Blond, beautiful and full of color, she laughs as she talks in such a way that she sounds just like a sweet, exotic bird.
I close my computer screen and give her the details of my weekend, including the story of my curse. I list to her the things that have gone wrong already since the skull befell me. Headaches, lost possessions, more money concerns. Trivial things, maybe, but this is just the beginning of my curse. Trivial things so far. (Duh duh DUH!)
"My year of magical thinking isn't going too well," I conclude, leaning back in my chair, only half joking. "I'd say it's going quite darkly."
"Don't worry," she says in her bird way. Although the story of the skull made her eyes get big and round, she tries her best to sound reassuring. "This is just life. Sometimes there are bumps in the road."
"Sometimes, you're right, I guess." I say. And then we both pause and say at the exact same moment, "and sometimes, those bumps turn out to be badgers." We're laughing and it's just so ridiculous. But then she leaves. And my coffee is cold. And I am left to sit here, staring at the computer screen, thinking. This is what I can conclude so far:
Sometimes there are bumps in the road. Sometimes, those bumps are badgers, and you kill them. Sometimes, those badgers exist in purgatory between the dead and the undead, and they haunt you and leave their mangled skulls on your carpet.
What next? I wonder.
And I do wonder.