“Jackalope” was a runner up in the 2016 Birdwhistle Prizes.
The man rests his bottle of bourbon down in the longstemmed grasses stiffened by a frost come down from the night sky. His wife is dying. He sings desperate songs in a tongue not his own and strums his mandolin to moonlight.
This grassland promises whatever is left of the jackalope, but he hasn’t seen one in months. Younger men with unkempt morals and fixes for booze have been slaughtering them rare for pelts and antlers hacksawed free.
Staring into the fire he thinks of her dying. So special her way of falling out of the world, the way she coughed deep until her ribs cracked and she begged him to stay so she would not die alone.
It’s all the things being hurt for my sake, his wife said.
I don’t kill them, honey. Of course I just let them go.
But isn’t that the same?
They’re fine, the man said. They carry on, just like we will.
I don’t think I can carry on much longer.
The man gave her a kiss and finished packing his things.
And you know I hate the taste of it, she said.
He left to the sound of her crying. It had a beat he could recognize as it faded out to his riding-away and it is a beat he hears again in the emptiness of the grasslands.
And then there is a voice in the night: Heya, stranger. Yeah, you there. Cold one tonight, ain’t it?
The man turns his eyes southward and sees a jackalope’s patchwork fur moonlit as it ambles toward him. Hobbles. Trying to drag that bottle of bourbon pinched between a paw and its chest.
The man says, Another cold front coming down from the north.
Just the way the world works, friend, the jackalope says. Just the way the wind blows.
You should come closer to the fire, the man says. It’s warm up here.
The jackalope approaches slow, saying, All the hurt will go away sooner or later.
The man wonders about what the jackalope knows it’s saying: if they are mimics by design or necessity, like talking birds.
The jackalope says, Sometimes I just feel like the whole of the world is slipping away from me, darlin’.
Its bead-black eyes staring off at the moon, the man supposes, like it is waiting for an answer.
The man takes a knee and the jackalope crawls into his arms. He scratches it between its ears and carries it back to the fire. Opens the bourbon and pours some into the palm of his hand and lets the jackalope drink. Takes pulls himself now and then, pouring more, small oblations.
This pink tongue dancing along his lifelines. The jackalope says, Goddamn it hurts.
How long has it been since you’ve seen another jackalope, the man asks.
The life of a cowboy is a lonely one, the jackalope says. But don’t you worry about me, now.
The man says, I’m so sorry.
I got a feeling you’re alright, kid. Don’t you fret any more about days gone by.
In time the man and the jackalope are drunk and he is strumming his mandolin.
The jackalope sings patchwork and discordant a collection of phrases overheard: This land is a goddamned treasure. Lewis, just look at it. Just look. Where I’ve gone there ain’t no coming back. I give you my blessing, child. Love all the good in the world like this sunset. I ain’t all all right, but don’t you worry. Don’t you worry nothin’ ‘bout me. Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing. So then until next time, partner. Until we come ‘round this way again on younger legs, and younger hearts. I hope we’re still beatin’ hearts by then. If you love something then hold it in your hands until well after it goes falling apart, now. That’s the only way. The only way.
The man wakes in the morning to a dead fire and an empty bottle of bourbon and frost on his eyelids. A sheathe of snow all across the land. There is no jackalope, and no footprints leading away. The man packs up his mandolin and coughs into the inside of his elbow, finds blood there, and on his tongue. Walks and walks. Tries to not worry about a thing, although he can’t quite manage it all the long way.