Seasons in the Boneyard

by Andrew Bourelle 

Part 1: Fall

The bull elk was tired from fighting and fucking. He led his harem high into the mountains, away from the bugling of his competitors, and found a wide valley full of wild grasses. The twenty cows and some of their children fed on the grasses, slept, and fed more. There was only one other bull in the group. A yearling, he, like the other young, would stay close to his mother until spring when she and the other cows would have new babies. He had a short set of antlers, barely more than nubs. He watched the bull, who wasn’t his father, and tried to learn from the older male.

The food was ample. When the first snowfall came, the elk thought nothing of it. Instinct told them that they had time before they needed to descend into the lower elevations. When the second and third snows came, the cows began to feel nervous. But the mature bull made no effort to move, and the cows were unsure if they should strike out on their own. The bull stunk of his own piss and was sore from fighting, and all he wanted to do was eat and heal and come out of the crazy fog that had overtaken his brain during the rut.

As the snows came, the elk were able to trample drifts down in a vast swath and continue eating the grass underneath. But the snow outside of their feeding area grew higher, and soon they found themselves surrounded on all sides by a steep wall of white. The bull tried to fight his way out but the snow was too deep. He retreated back into the meadow, having finally faced a challenger he could not overtake. The elk were trapped in a bowl, with no way out and a dwindling supply inside.

The snow continued to fall.


Part 2: Winter

The bull elk shed his antlers, as did the young male. The cows nosed through the shallow snow to pick at what grasses were left. They chewed the bark from the few trees around them. They were able to keep the snow in their basin trampled down, but the walls grew higher and higher as the storms came almost daily. Their bodies began to thin, and, because they were starving, their coats refused to thicken.

The bull elk, weakened from the rut, was one of the first to die. He lay down in the snow and closed his eyes without ceremony. Snow drifted against his frozen fur. Two days later, the young bull’s mother went to sleep and never woke. The young bull lay beside her and nudged her with his nose and tried to lick the ice off her fur as she had once licked the afterbirth from his.

The young bull thought about giving up, but there was a primal determination in him that made him fight. He and the remaining cows pushed their noses into the snow, searching for blades of grass. Their snouts were raw and bloody, their mouths full of sores. Ribs were visible, stomachs shrunken. The cows perished one after another, the fetuses inside staying alive briefly afterward in their warm placental sacks.

Then the unborn animals froze solid.


Part 3: Spring

One morning, the young bull awoke to find that none of the cows were standing. The sun was shining. The ground under his hooves was muddy with snowmelt. The bodies of the other elk were starting to stink. The bull approached the wall of snow and discovered that it wasn’t as tall as he remembered. He tested the snowbank and found it soft. He scrambled up the slope and into the snow. He fought his way through the slush and disappeared down the mountain.

As the days warmed, flies appeared, buzzing around the bodies as they planted crops of maggots. Wolves were next, howling at their discovery. They ripped the rotting meat from the carcasses, snapped bones with their powerful jaws. Their spring shedding began, and tufts of wolf fur drifted among the bones like pollen. Birds came from the sky and pecked at the sunken yolks filling the eye sockets. Coyotes yipped as they ate the carrion and scattered the bones. A black bear feasted for two days. Later, raccoons and weasels and skunks came to pick the bones clean. Rivulets of water ran around the remains, and green stalks of grass grew up through the rib cages.


Part 4: Summer

Two humans—one male and one female—hiked high into the mountains, far from any trail, and came to a peak where they could see for miles. Clouds sailed below them, casting shadows like giant whales swimming through an invisible ocean. They ate sandwiches and drank from water bladders. They rutted sitting upright on a wedge of granite, kissing each other and declaring their love while trying to make a baby.

Hiking down, they came upon a skeleton, its bones bleached from the sun. They spotted more remains hidden in the tall grass. Most of the skeletons were not whole. Legs had been dragged away. Skulls were missing. But every few feet, they found a pelvis or a block of vertebrae or a jawbone still holding onto its teeth.

“Let’s get out of here,” the woman said.

They quickened their pace but stopped. A bull elk stood in the grass fifty feet away, looking around among the ribcages, white islands in a sea of green. His velvet rack was small, three or four points on each side. Maybe it was their imagination, but the bull looked sad. Mournful. He didn’t graze. He simply stared at the meadow around him.

Andrew Bourelle is the author of the novel Heavy Metal and coauthor with James Patterson of Texas Ranger. His short stories have been published widely in literary journals and fiction anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewBourelle.
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