Among the Living

I learned the particular paranoia of the Alaskan driver when I was very young. My mother taught it to me. She told me to watch for moose while she drove--to help her scan the dark highway for their bulky, sudden, long-legged forms dashing out of the trees. You never knew when or where they would appear to kill you, and themselves: hapless kamikazes diving from the wilderness to take your life, or in some cases, turn you into a cripple or at best someone with a terrible, terrible story.

As a consequence of growing up here, drives through the pristine Alaskan wilderness have never been purely pleasant for me. I am always, somehow, expecting to die or be robbed of my legs. I have lost countless friends to the highway. I drive with my hands obediently at ten and two, my eyes too wide and jaw too tight. As a result I fatigue easily; I begin to look away from the road too often. I mess with the stereo, glance at my phone.

But I wasn't doing this tonight when I passed Hope Junction on the way to Kenai to visit my parents. My eyes were on the road. I was thinking about a disturbing dream I'd had last night, in which I was dancing with a spirit-man whose face was a handsome but gaunt death's-head. A grinning white Dracula-face, oversized for his graceful, narrow frame clothed in a silken black suit. I was drawn to this man, such a skilled dancer was he and so gentle, the way he embraced me and kept his hand at the small of my back. Soft, gauzy, parachute-like material drifted around us as we danced onstage in a dark theatre, with other actors around us. Suddenly, he tossed his parachute over my head and disappeared. I was left with the swirling fabric which bore the imprint of his face. I was a little distraught--to think that I had lost him--this mysterious man, this Death. I went looking for him. People tried to distract me, to fool me with look-alikes, but I wouldn't be fooled. I kept searching, moving through a surreal staged landscape, while furry creatures bounded around me and before me.

I never found him in the dream. But as I drove toward the Hope road tonight, I saw a single flare in the middle of the road. Taillights. A looming bulk blocking half the highway. I slowed. There were cars pulling over, stopping from both directions. Moving closer, I could see him for what he was: a giant bull, just dead (dying?--did I see his side jump? did I imagine that, in those wild moments?) Stretched out on his side in a horrible pose, he was longer than my truck. His furred, palmated antlers branched wide, his one eye that I could see was big and bright and reflected the sky; the lashes, I saw, were long and curled gently upwards, ferns around a still pool. His lips drew away from his square herbivorous teeth in agony or rictus; bright blood ran from there, onto the asphalt. No time to absorb the incongruity of that; Keep moving, my mind said--Get out of the way. I didn't stop to think that there had to be a very badly injured person nearby. I didn't stop to offer help. My mind was gone; it had disappeared into that one clear eye, into that agonized mouth, that pool of blood. I was officially useless.

I drove on for miles, after that. Ten and two, eyes wide, jaw tight. I didn't have another thought until I stopped at Summit Lake to take a photo of the sign that says "Please Drive Safely. In Memory Of ______" --the name of a dear friend who had died years ago in an accident at that spot.

Why is it that death sometimes seems like it wants to drive home a point? You are temporary, it snickers at us. Someday, you won't be driving along anymore, listening to The Shins, squinting into the sun and letting thoughts blow through your mind like summer breezes. You'll be dead as that moose. Dead dead dead. So? So what? Do with it what you will. That's the point death made to me today. Live like you are dying--whatever that means to you. Want to start working out more? Great. Want to eat more cheeseburgers? Get on it. Take your lover to Paris? Experience living in a new place, try something you've always been afraid to try? Go! Live before you're dead. An African proverb puts it like this: When death comes for you, may it find you among the living. 

KB © 8/1/2013


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