Benjamin Kessler

Honorable Mention, 2021 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction

They’ve formed a barricade.

Mountain goats stand shoulder to shoulder across the narrow two-lane. They appear unbothered by the idling of my car’s engine, content to simply stand and chew dry grass sprouted between asphalt cracks. My destination is only five or so miles past their mottled hairy bodies. Outside of Grievance, Idaho, there is a gated road, and up that road is someone I’ve driven nearly two hundred miles to see.

Via text, Van Dyke, a tenured epidemiologist at the State Health Department, suggests I simply drive towards them. They’ll scare, he says.

I visualize the alpha ramming into my fender and stranding me. So instead, I press into the horn—lightly at first, then with the whole of my palm when the herd fails to respond. I lay into the sound, and it stirs only the birds nesting in the surrounding evergreens.

A particularly large ram stares at me, horns wound into a rutted spiral, rectangular pupils unmoving. It’s so still that, if not for its breath made visible by the cold, one might think it were taxidermied.

I call the office in Coeur d’Alene. My boss, Helena, tells me to wait it out and that she is very busy and maybe she should have sent someone who could handle this better.

I will wait, I say. I will get it done. I will get the signature and I will send it to Boise using the first fax machine I can find. I’m capable. I hang up and toss my phone onto the passenger seat where it bounces into the footwell full of empty fast food cardboard clamshells and a few unopened quarts of 5W-30. If this job sticks, I will buy a new car. Well, a car less used than this one.

I push my glasses up and pinch the bridge of my nose, but then immediately force my hands back onto the steering wheel. Avoid touching your face is the first thing listed on the preventative measures pamphlet I am to give to Sheila Abercrombie.

“Into her hands, no exceptions,” the woman behind the plexiglass at the office told me. She slid a manila envelope across the counter, making sure her fingers were safely back on her keyboard before I took the packet and slotted it into my oversized purse. Her mask—white cloth with purple stars—moved rhythmically as she chewed gum. “If she’s not there you go back the next day.”

“And if she’s not there again?” I asked.


My boss flagged me down on my way out of the office. I moved to sit across from her but she reminded me to stand in the doorway, to distance. She’d only need a minute, anyway.

“Do you own a white coat?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Like a doctor’s coat.”

I told her I didn’t. We were public health officers, not physicians.

“Maybe borrow one then. A clipboard, too. Look official.”

“Are we not official?” I read the name placard on her desk: Helena Query, MPH, Associate Regional Director.

“It just helps, especially out in the sticks. And you will be out in the sticks.”

She told me to log my mileage and instructed me to take a stack of generic Idaho Department of Health and Welfare business cards, since mine wouldn’t arrive for another month. The thought of seeing my name—Jennifer Dalal, Epidemiologist I—printed on them terrifies me.

Van Dyke texts again, telling me to not accidentally hurt any of the goats. They’re protected, he says. Last thing the Department needs is more bad press. Recent opinion pieces in the Idaho Statesman have accused us of “deadly inaction,” citing our slow pace at contacting those often underserved.

I could feel the implied severity behind Helena’s words: Think of the Department. Don’t fuck this up.

I shift into drive and edge forward until my front bumper nearly brushes against the line of still creatures. Their response is simply to gape. I look through the back windshield, checking to see if they are staring at something behind me, but there’s only the empty road curving around a ridge and disappearing.

Never much traffic this far north; even less now with the travel restrictions. There’s speculation that the border between the US and Canada will close, making this area nearly abandoned. I doubt that’ll matter much to the goats, who have only now started moving again, their point seemingly made. The largest one is last to pass, and as I drive by it looks in through the passenger window, blowing air through its nostrils and fogging the glass.

Grievance is every small mountain town off State Highway One: Mexican chain drive-thrus, auto body shops, truck stop gas stations large enough to require multiple parking lots. People stand in line outside a grocery store (some safely spaced apart, most not) and the pawn shop’s windows are covered by plywood. After moving to Idaho from Atlanta for this job, I’ve often felt exposed, the thrum of urban life replaced by patches of desolate ranchland between small towns such as this. No longer can I be another faceless body on a city bus headed towards my CDC internship. Instead, I am one of only a few dark-skinned women in Coeur d’Alene waiting in line at Costco or buying potting soil at the Home Depot garden center, an object of curiosity.

While I wait at one of the few stoplights, a Homeland Security cruiser stops beside me. The officer inside pulls his mask down and draws from a vape pen, blowing the resulting cloud out the window before turning off onto a side street.

Gradually the town’s buildings are replaced by tree stands, waves of new growth along the shoulder. Then, separated from the road by a metal gate and hidden behind a rotting pine, a dirt path emerges. I park over a cattle guard and put on my heavy coat before stepping out into the cold. Approaching the gate, I blow air into my cupped hands—partially for warmth but more a nervous habit I’ve picked up since moving up here—unseat the latch and swing the gate open to rest against a tree with a PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING sign stapled to it.

“Is she dangerous?” I asked in the break room back in Coeur d’Alene. I’d just been given the assignment.

“Abercrombie? I don’t think so.” Van Dyke metrically fed quarters into a vending machine and punched his selection in with the tip of a pencil. “We only just found out she existed. Doesn’t have access to the internet that we know of, no phone line to the house. County has no record that she receives mail at her property, just a PO Box that they say she doesn’t check often. She lives in a newsproof bubble. The state sees her as a liability, getting people sick if she goes into town or something.”

The county had sent someone out once before, but they’d been scared off. Abercrombie wouldn’t even open the door, preferring instead to shout through a closed window that she was within her legal rights to evict him from her property by whatever means necessary. That’s not exactly the message you stick around for. The Department decided then to escalate things to the regional level.

“What makes them think she’ll talk to me?” I asked.

“Honestly?” Van Dyke fished a sleeve of snack cakes from the machine’s plastic mouth. “Helena thinks she’ll respond better to a woman.”

Maybe this is true, but I think it came down to the fact that I was the most green of anyone on the staff, having held my position for only a month before everything went tits up—I’m the sacrificial lamb.

My car safely through the gate, I seat the latch back into its notch and retrieve from my trunk the white coat I’d acquired at the North Idaho College bookstore back in Coeur d’Alene. I rip it from its plastic, taking care to not let it dip into the plentiful mud, before putting it on under my winter jacket. It still has the factory creases and is a size larger than I would normally wear. I look like a child cosplaying as a pharmaceutical saleswoman.

The road to the house is steep, and I worry that my little aging four- door won’t make it. There I would be: sensible shoes and Democrat bumper stickers, stuck up in the Idaho wilderness on the private property of someone who probably owns a rifle. I avoid divots in the dirt, places where weeks-old snow has piled up over rocks. My FM radio frays to static. On either side of the path, outlines of large shapes move between the pines: forest animals, but larger, their shadows darker. While slowing to navigate a series of earthen potholes, one of the shapes announces itself. An elk presses its body against a nearby fir, scraping off bark and causing desiccated branches to fall from the tree’s crown. I watch for a moment, taking a photo on my phone, then proceed until the path flattens and a small ranch-style cabin emerges. The house is clean, the dirt around it packed down. Saplings have been planted on either side of a concrete pad where a beater truck sits. Its appearance is like that in a fairy tale, a cottage secluded away in the woods.

I park what I consider to be a respectable distance away from the house and kill the engine. Only now do I realize how silent it is up here in the Rockies. The closing of my car door seems like a terrible intrusion, a knife through the quiet. The lack of noise, the stillness, is reminiscent of the larger towns now, people all shut up inside their homes, sealed away for their own protection. You can drive down the middle of the street in Coeur d’Alene at midday and not pass another person. There seems to be more birdsong. Everything looks serene if you don’t stop to think about the cause. I retrieve an empty clipboard from the back seat and snap the packet I had been given into place.

I linger before the front door and affix my mask. I am an authority. I am an authority.

“Can I help you?”

I pivot quickly to face the voice coming from close behind me, half expecting to be blown away by a shotgun burst. Instead, there is only a slight woman, hands on her waist like she is waiting for the check at a restaurant. A bulky denim jacket conceals most of her body and a pair of work-worn blue jeans is tucked into her boots. She is older than me by maybe thirty years and Native American, I think.

She spits onto the ground and wipes a dangle of saliva from her chin with a shirtsleeve. It’s then I realize she isn’t wearing a mask, her lips visibly chapped from the cold. I’ve seen people’s mouths so little over the last month. Doing so now seems almost perverse.

“Can I help you, I said.” The woman looks over to my car then back at me.

“Are you Sheila Abercrombie?”

“That depends.”

“Excuse me?”

“I see that, there.” She points to my clipboard. “In my experience, people who ask your full name first thing want to serve papers.”

“I’m not, I mean, I don’t—”

“You’re on private property. I’m sure you saw the signs, I’ve put up plenty.”

“I’m not from the court, really. I’m from the Department of Health and—”

Sheila walks away before I can finish the sentence.

“I really have to talk to you.” I follow as she makes her way toward a sheet metal shed, holding the clipboard out in front of me like a dowsing rod. “It will only take a minute.”

“I told your boy last week I wasn’t interested. I thought by the way he ran off he’d gotten the message.” She takes a plastic tub from the shed and places it into the trailer of an ATV.

“All we need is for you to take this.” I extend the packet out towards her, but she walks right by, passing so close that the smell of diesel on her jacket penetrates my mask. I take a step back and plant myself before her, gesturing with the packet again, though this time it merely brushes along her shoulder as she heaves a set of gardening shears into the trailer. “There’s information in it about the virus, some money too, the stimulus.” I go into my practiced speech. “People are getting sick and we want to make sure you know how to protect yourself and others. The disease attacks the respiratory system, causing potentially life-threatening—”

“I don’t need your money.” She buttons up her jacket and slides behind the wheel of the ATV, which looks like a supercharged golf cart with camo decals. After failing to turn over a few times it coughs to life.

“Please go out the same way as you came and do good to close the gate.”

“Please, Ms. Abercrombie, I need you to take this.” I strain to speak over the ATV’s engine. “Have you heard about the virus?”

Sheila turns around to face me. “Are you going to leave?”

I shake my head no. “Not until I show you this.” I gesture with the packet in her direction.

She sits back and puts her hands in her lap.

“Well, if you’re not going to leave, then you need to come with me or I’ll miss my shot.” She points to the passenger seat.

Helena’s voice plays in my mind: Get it done. I take my phone out to check the time and notice that I have no reception. I try to remember how much gas is in my car, the last time I fed my fish. I stand beside the ATV and retrieve a blue surgical mask from the packet, offering it to Sheila.

“I’m not going to wear that,” she responds, and turns away.

I pull up the tail of my coat beneath me and join her on the bench seat. The ATV vibrates my own mask down beneath my nose, then we lurch off down a rugged trail flanked on either side by deciduous trees bereft of their leaves. We hit a divot in the dirt and I leap in my seat, but Sheila is rooted to the steering wheel, silent and focused.

“I know about the virus.” Her voice startles me; we’d been quiet for so long, moving in bursts through the forest. “I’m not an idiot.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that you were.”

She takes a hand off the wheel and points to the packet on my lap. For a moment I’m worried she’ll lose control as we maneuver around a fallen log. But she is practiced. I, on the other hand, feel like I am going to vomit, my guts shaking and jostling, gas station dark roast worming up my throat.

“What’s so important in there?” she asks.

“Some pamphlets about how to stop the spread, a mask, the government money. I need you to take it. I can explain it all to you if you’d like.”

“I’m not sick, and I’m not worried.”

“I’m not saying you are, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t get sick.”

“From who? Them?” The trees break away in a single line and an enormous meadow stretches out, ending at a small creek. Across the browned grass, the same shapes from alongside the steep road are spread out in patches, their heads down into the dirt.

“Elk,” I say. “I saw one on my way up.”

“Not elk, caribou, and yeah, they get down near the highway sometimes.”

We drive over a set of four-wheeler tracks to a group of caribou lounging in the sun. They’re much more physically imposing than the goats: some as tall as I am, thick bodied, pronounced muscles in their legs like those of a racing horse. As Sheila maneuvers the ATV toward one group, they move a few yards away before laying down again, content to doze. Sheila turns off the engine and steps out into the field like there aren’t enormous wild animals surrounding us on every side. She walks beside them, running her hands along their flanks as though they are house cats, creatures she could pick up and move if they were in her way.

Sheila moves slowly, methodically, pressing into the tall grass with her boot until she finds whatever it is she’s looking for.

“What are you doing?”

“Harvesting. Time for them to pay rent.” She crouches down and then walks back to the ATV and gets into the driver’s seat with what looks like a piece of driftwood. “Here, look.” She thrusts the thing into my hand and our fingers briefly touch, reminding me of how long it has been since I have felt another person’s hands. Having her this close to me, separated only by a small expanse of leatherette upholstery in an open air front seat, allows me to forget for a moment the need for distance.

The driftwood-type object is an antler as long as my forearm. Along its edges small trenches are rutted out in the bone. The bone. I am holding a bone, something formerly living, growing. The points aren’t as sharp as I would have thought, instead rounding off like the tip of a finger. The base is edged with warty protrusions, totems of previous connection to the skull. I hand it back to Sheila and wipe my hands against my coat.

She throws the antler unceremoniously in the plastic tub and then wanders back out into the field, her eyes cast toward the ground.

Helena’s phantom voice again: No more distractions. Do your job.

“You could be asymptomatic.” I leave the ATV and follow behind her as best I can, stepping into voids in the mud left by her boot prints. “That’s when you’re contagious without showing symptoms.”

“I know what asymptomatic means.” She approaches a caribou and swats it on the rump, causing it to lumber out of the way. “And even if I was, which I’m not, you’re the only one who’s come up to see me for at least a month. Well, you and that other peckerwood.”

“You haven’t gone to Grievance during all that time?”

“Once or twice, maybe.” She picks up another single antler and tosses it to me without even looking, but I sidestep and it falls back into the grass. “But that was nothing. I didn’t linger. I bought milk and coffee filters, cigarettes.”

“Even if it was just for a few minutes, if you weren’t wearing a mask you could have been exposed or exposed others.”

Sheila walks in the opposite direction, her head pointed down, and I find myself talking to her back. “I need you to take this and sign something that says I gave it to you.” I point to the packet. “If you have questions, I’m happy to answer them. If not, once you sign, I will leave.”

She turns to me now, a set of antlers in hand that spans the entire length of her unfolded arms. The ends are curved like giant hands threatening to grab her.

“This,” she says, holding the antlers like twin battle axes, “is nearly five hundred dollars alone.” She walks back to the ATV, deposits them into the bin, then sits on the back of the trailer and lights a cigarette. “They say smoking after sex takes the edge off.” She pounds on the container with her fist. “This is sex for me.” I watch in silence as she drags halfway down to the filter before pinching the ash with her forefinger and thumb and pocketing what remains.

The meadow is a bowl between ridges, stamped like a hoofprint into the earth. The caribou mill around us, locating patches of bare grass where they fall to their bellies or roll in the dirt. Every so often I hear one of them snort. I am intruding, and some of them walk toward me before turning away: performative recon. Some still have their antlers, and I can’t help but imagine a scenario where I am impaled, and my body hoisted like a trophy.

“How’s this,” Sheila says. She’s at my side. I hadn’t noticed. I feel compelled to step away, to create space, but something holds me. I soon realize she is grabbing onto my arm. She is frail, I can see now, using me for balance.

“My back is killing me. If you help me pick up as many antlers as you can find, I’ll sign your form and you can be on your way. Deal?”

“Miss Abercrombie, I really can’t do that.”

“Sure you can. Just look down at the ground and try not to startle the males. They’re easy to spot. It’s their antlers we’re collecting.”

I point to a group of caribou, so close together that their antlers seem destined to entangle. “So, those…”

“Those are females. They lose them later. The males are bald, so to speak. Now come on, if we work fast we can beat the sunset.”

She releases my arm and walks off toward the creek. She takes big steps, like a child might. I set the packet down in the ATV and follow, failing to avoid piles of plentiful scat. I want to prove that I am good at my job, to show Helena that I am worthy of responsibility, so I begin to scan, to scout shadows in the grass. The sooner I am done the sooner I can go home and throw these shoes in the garbage.

“What do you do with these?” I pick up an antler from the grass, though it’s just a fragment. The inside has been hollowed out. These kinds of husks are everywhere, like fallen leaves.

“Is that one of them stupid questions? I sell them. Artists, lodges. People give them to their dogs as chew toys.”

Soon the hammock fashioned from my lab coat is full of antlers and antler pieces and I waddle over to the ATV where I place my stash carefully into the bin. Sheila follows with at least three times as many expertly stacked in her arms and drops them in without celebration.

“You own this land?”

“I do.” She takes the half-finished cigarette from her pocket and picks off some lint before relighting it. “Got it from the government. Petitioned for nearly ten years. Well, my father did.” She coughs out the words and then flicks the cigarette into the bin with the antlers.

“Where is he now?”

“Up near the house. Buried.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to assume.”

“It’s fine,” Sheila gets up and walks back out into the meadow, squeezing between two caribou and running her hands along their necks. “He was a prick.”

For the next hour I watch in silence as Sheila discovers and deposits antlers into the plastic tub. I collect only a tenth of what she is able to find. Regardless I sweat through my lab coat and end up tossing it into the trailer. When I turn around, adjusting my jacket, there is a caribou, female, antlers like bare branches, a foot away from my face.

She takes a step forward and I am pinned against the ATV trailer. Her nostrils are rimmed with condensation and as she tilts her head the entire rack of antlers moves in concert. Her breath comes out in little puffs that smell strongly of wet dog. As if propelled beyond my control, I reach out and allow my hand to hover near her nose. She doesn’t move any closer and I put my palm on the ridge of her snout, delicately at first, then with long strokes down the whole of her face. The fur is wiry, not soft as I was expecting, and the warm skin conforms to my fingers. I wonder what will happen to her antlers when Sheila collects them. I picture a dog gnawing at them and feel nauseous.

Suddenly, she recoils and wobbles backwards before running off to join a group near the stream. Sheila has started up the ATV and the exhaust warms my calves. My hand is still outstretched, my fingers in the shape of the female’s snout. I pull it back and stuff it into my pocket, as if to take the feeling with me.

“You coming?”

The ATV moves slowly back up to the house, the antlers in the trailer clacking together over every bump along the trail. The setting sun throws orange through the trees, rays split by conifer needles.

We’re back at the house. My car is still in its same place, though the windshield is frozen over.

“Now what?” I ask.

“Boil them, kill the parasites.”

I picture the inside of Sheila’s house, of her standing on a footstool, watching over steel wash tubs atop a series of propane burners, large and small specimens bubbling like pasta.

“But that comes later. Here’s what I figure,” Sheila hefts the entire plastic tub back into the shed and locks it behind her. “I’ll ride with you in your car down to the gate, sign your form, and you can leave. You won’t even have to get out.” She says this with a smile, genuinely happy to be rid of me.

I tell her this is fine, and she follows me to my car. She steps into the passenger seat and kicks the empty food containers around, not bothering to clear the mud from her boots. I roll the windows down to circulate fresh air, but Sheila raises hers. “Too cold now for that,” she says.

As we drive down the hill back to the main road Sheila takes the packet, which I had thrown onto the dash, and empties its contents into her lap. She flips through the pamphlets, turning them over and over. She asks me for a pen, and after fishing one from my center console, she signs the receipt in an elegant, practiced cursive.

“Should I be worried about this thing, the virus?” she asks.

“It scares me more than anything.” I adjust my hands on the steering wheel. “Kids, adults, the elderly; it doesn’t matter. People are getting it so fast, and they’re dying from it even faster.”

“And wearing this can help?” She holds the mask by its straps, away from her body as though it were radioactive.

“Anytime you’re around people, yes.”

“Ok. If I remember, I’ll put it on, but I’m not promising anything. I’m old, you know, and forgetful.”

I want her to put the mask on now but know that she won’t. Instead she stuffs it down the collar of her shirt, seemingly into her bra. Safe keeping.

I idle at the gate and she gets out to swing it open, stopping momentarily to lean against it and catch her breath. Perhaps she is already sick. She dabs sweat from her forehead and then leans into my window. “Drive safe now, and please, don’t come back.” She flashes an ambiguous smile, showing her teeth yellowed by nicotine, and slaps the hood of my car like it was the side of one of her caribou, as though it will make me gallop off. I wave but she doesn’t wave back, preferring to stick the packet into her waistband and push the gate back as I drive away. When I look into the rearview, I see her walking up the trail to her house, hands in her pockets. She coughs, her body shaking from the effort, and she spits into the mud.

Driving back toward Grievance is time travel—the radio gradually filters back in, the road is less potholed, the trees become more infrequent until they are supplanted by open fields dotted with cattle. I realize I left my white coat in the trailer of Sheila’s ATV, entombed beneath the antlers.

In service again, my phone pings. Did you survive?

Someone will need to return to this place again someday. To administer a vaccine, to check on her. Perhaps that someone will be me. I wonder if Sheila will be there to greet me, to shepherd me down into the meadow, or whether the cabin will instead need to be emptied, relatives called to claim her things and to sell off the herd in her vacancy.

The sky is dark now and billboards pass by in reverse order like a half-remembered dream.