The mammoth skeleton stands in the distance, barely visible below the drooping limbs of monstrous evergreens. My father and I have been watching it now for an hour from our campsite, seated comfortably in blue nylon chairs. The mammoth is scavenging, and with our binoculars we’ve seen it pull leaf after leaf from the smaller oaks. The leaves collect in its mouth of solid bone. Earlier it tried to swallow one, but the leaf passed down the throat into the ribcage and then fell from between the narrow bones. The mammoth stomped, crushing the leaves into dust. It hasn’t swallowed one since.
“It must be a mother mammoth,” I say.
“No way,” Dad says. “It’s a daddy. Look at its tusks. Too big for a female.”
“Yeah, okay.” I put down the binoculars. “Clearly a male, a papa mammoth, sure.”
My father has this hope in his eyes, gazing at that mammoth, and it kills me. Makes my stomach flop. He’s always been a wishful thinker, ever since I was a little girl. I’m as old as he was when he and Mom had me, but that silly hopefulness hasn’t disappeared.
What I want to say to my father is, grow up. Quit living in the past. You’re only a small part of this world now. But I could never say this. Despite his obliqueness, I love him with this outdated kind of love. The emotion even feels dusty in my chest, like it’s something I should cough out.
From the ice chest, I take the jar of mayo and the bread and the turkey. I make two sandwiches and eat mine as he oohs and aahs at the mammoth skeleton. Mammoths I’ve seen before. What I’m hoping for is a bald eagle skeleton, or maybe even a giant sea turtle skeleton in the lake – they’re hard to find. Skittish. Plus there are so few in this part of the world. Most of them inhabit the coasts, bury themselves in the black oceans. I know this not because I’ve been to the ocean, but because my father has told me. He’s full of knowledge like that, which is why I don’t argue about the mammoth being a father. His hopefulness doesn’t force him to lie; rather he seeks out instances of himself in nature, in daily life, clings to ancient movies. Father of the Bride is his favorite. When he watches it, I pretend I don’t know the glisten in his eyes is there because he likely won’t see me down an aisle.
The mammoth moves on, the leaves still collected in its mouth, its huge metacarpals thumping the ground, and even at our campsite we feel the vibrations under our feet.
Dad taps me on the shoulder, urgent. He hasn’t looked away from the mammoth skeleton, the binoculars glued to his face like a second pair of eyes.
“He’s going, he’s going,” he says. “Look, Maya, look.”
I raise the binoculars. “Guess he’s going home.”
Part of me wishes we could do the same. Only I don’t want to go back to my drafty apartment or Dad’s empty shack of a house. I want to go back to the house I grew up in, to our family. With Mom around, Dad had a purpose, someone he could make laugh. He was less oblique, less a relic from a distant age, before the virus attacked any human with a Y chromosome. There were few survivors; my dad was one of them. Maybe the world still had a use for him, I don’t know. Maybe he was just one of the lucky ones.
So things change. People die. Whole species die off, then the remaining endangered fade until they are nothing but bone. They haven’t fixed death the way they’ve fixed conception, which they were forced by circumstance to do. Even if we went back to our old house it would be smaller than I remember.
The mammoth disappears. After about ten minutes Dad lowers his binoculars. His smile is gone.
“I made you a sandwich,” I say.
Early in the morning I bolt to the underbrush by the restrooms and vomit. Yesterday I was able to hide my sickness from Dad, but this morning was a close call. I’m almost sure he can hear it. If he asks, I’ll tell him I ate a bad apple before bed.
I can’t tell him the truth yet. It’ll break him. He wants so badly for me to cling, like he does, to the past.
I wipe my mouth and pat my belly on top of my shirt. You bastard, I say. See what I’m dealing with for you?
I don’t feel anything under there. It’s too early.
When I get back to the campsite Dad’s still asleep. His snores carry from the tent. I crawl back in my bag and pretend I never left.
I smell sausage. Climbing from the tent, I hear its sizzle. This trip must’ve taken all year to save for. I tried to pay for it, but he wouldn’t let me. He never lets me pay.
“You shouldn’t have spent so much,” I say.
He holds his finger to his lips. Points out into the woods. When I squint I’m able to make out the faint form of a deer, a real flesh deer, frozen in its tracks, its eyes glinting in the light that reaches through the trees.
“Another daddy?” I whisper.
“Don’t be silly,” he says. “It’s obviously a baby.”
I take a seat at the worn, moldy picnic table. The bench creaks, and I feel fat already. But I know I’m not even showing yet. On the tabletop sits an empty wooden pipe and a lighter. Guess Dad’s been up a while.
Dad scoops some sausage onto my plate. I’m starving, so I pick the patties up with my hands and shovel them into my mouth.
“Geez, girl. Haven’t seen you eat like that since you were a teenager.” Dad takes smaller bites, plops a couple of patties from his plate onto mine. “My appetite’s not all it used to be.”
When we used to go camping, Dad and I would bring along whole rolls of chocolate chip cookie dough and eat it straight from the tube until we felt sick. We would eat breakfast burritos with egg and cheese and sausage and fresh tomatoes. Skillet apple cobbler. Trail mix with cashews and marshmallows singed over the fire. Mom used to buy so much food for us we would’ve been set even if we were stranded for weeks. With Dad’s modest income from warehouse work and the occasional sperm bank donation – every remaining man’s duty – there is just enough for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, though it seems as though he’s purchased only luxuries for those three meals. I’ve snuck along trail mix and a roll of cookie dough. A surprise.
“I thought we’d go down to the lake today. See if we can’t spot that mammoth again.” Dad rinses both our plates with water from a jug, stows them back in our bag which we’ll leave in the car on the way out so that the bears – flesh-and-fur bears – don’t get it.
I grab my swimsuit and a bag and a piece of ginger root I’ve brought to nibble on. A friend of mine tells me it will help with the sickness. At this point I’ll try anything.
Good men are impossible to find, so I stopped searching. For every twenty women these days, there’s one man, and I didn’t have the patience to deal with them. It’s like getting used to being treated as a rarity, being seen as something special, has made them too big-headed and lazy to do anything on their own.
Dating isn’t for me. Some girls still dig it, sure, but usually those are the girls so tightly wound by work or kids that they just need some kind of release. It’s like a competition. The problem is it’s uneven. The women have all the cards: the money, the careers, the children. What do men have, now that they’re coddled by their meager government pensions? Penises. Given, they can feel good, great even; but the packages that come with them are too often damaged.
I tried. Not long, but I tried. Even tried a few women, but I couldn’t make myself desire them like I did men. Turns out Dad’s the last good man on Earth, and even he gets that weak look in his eye sometimes, which he never used to get when Mom was alive. I just couldn’t hunt around anymore, and I know Dad always thought I shared his and Mom’s values, but he hasn’t been out there in the modern world as much as I have. He hides away in his shack and reads about stars and skeletons.
The clinic I went to for the insemination had metal chairs and cream-colored walls, a big fish tank with several species of skeleton fish. I tried not to watch them, because each time I did I thought how Dad would look if he saw me here. I’d picked a place far from the donation center, so the chances of him walking by and seeing me in the window would be slight.
They called me into the back. A nurse led me down a hall, took my weight, height, blood pressure. Sat with me in the room and went over my paperwork. It was easy. With me right at the proper age, a healthy income, steady background.
They handed me the tablet with the file I had chosen from their online database. Handsome guy, black silk for hair, dark eyes. A natural sample, not one they’d altered but rather one from the old days, frozen all this time. The guy was an artist, classical-looking stuff – he’d submitted a picture of his, a portrait of a woman. I could tell he had loved her. It was why I picked him. The capacity for romantic love, maybe it was genetic. Maybe I’d missed out on it, like it was recessive or something and got buried in me.
I signed the form saying that yes, he was the one. Yes, I understood that the procedure could, in rare cases, result in twins or triplets or sextuplets, or that there was another small chance it wouldn’t take; they’d figured out the perfect timing, the amount to use, all that, long ago. Feet in the stirrups, I gripped the arm of the chair hard. The speculum cold inside me, the catheter of warm sample stiff. The cramps seized me, and I clasped my hands together and squeezed.
The old way, at least, probably felt better.
At the lake I read while Dad swims. He ducks under the surface and stays too long. When he comes up his goggles are filled with water. He must’ve stayed down there watching for skeletons until the water came up past his vision.
“Anything good?” I call out.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Come on in.”
The book I’m reading, an anthology of men’s fiction, isn’t that great. I’d much rather be reading the baby books I snuck along. For a moment I think of pulling one out, getting it over with. But instead I toss the anthology into the dirt and run down into the lake so I get used to it all at once.
“Check this out.” He hands me the goggles. “A lone whiskerfish. Probably separated from its –”
Dad smiles. He has a warm smile. “School. From its school.”
Underwater the upkicked dirt hazes my view, but through a very small window I glimpse the flicker of a tailbone. A huge shadow passes over my head. Bubbles swirl out from the force of its movement. I look up. The skinny lizard-shaped underskeleton of a sea turtle, the shell large as a television screen tread the lake fog with its phalanges. It paddles away.
“Did you see that?” I ask once I’m up again, ripping the goggles off and handing them over.
My father goes under. Comes up. Shakes his head.
“Sea turtle,” I say. “Right above my head.”
This time my father’s smile is colder, stretched a little too tight. I imagine for a moment I can see his jawbone behind that smile. I shiver. “Sorry I missed it,” he says. “But what a sight for you. You’ll probably remember it the rest of your life. You’ll tell this story to your own family. Likely the last one this half of the country.” He squeezes my shoulder with his big, red hands. I want to tell him he’ll see one, one of these days. But this was probably his last chance.
Over the course of the years we’ve seen the following skeletons: snow leopard, whiskerfish, mammoths, jackrabbits, countless birds darting around on skeleton wings, bull trout, baby stegosauruses, and even a couple of bearcats. Dad’s right. Someday I’ll tell my family about the sea turtle, even if it isn’t the kind of family he envisions for me.
Night falls, and the stars glow. The one thing that’s never changed about these trips is the stars. Out comes Dad’s portable telescope, and he assembles it atop the picnic table. I fix us some crackers and bring out the cookie dough, offer him a pinch once his hands are free.
“What a daughter,” he says, mouth full. “Too bad your Mom can’t be here.”
“Mom never came with us,” I say.
“She’d be so proud of you.” He peers into the scope.
“Because I brought cookie dough?”
“Check out the moon,” he says.
The moon is low and round and beautiful, and impossible to see from the city. “Gorgeous,” I say, because I understand that often my father needs encouragement. And it is gorgeous.
In the dark I hear the flick of a lighter. The flame bright floods the air with light pollution. Dad always said it takes at least thirty minutes to become readjusted to the dark. I look over at Dad, pipe to his lips.
“Smoke a little doobavitch?” he says.
I always have before. It’s been one of the things that cemented our bond, once I was old enough.
“No thanks,” I say. I open my mouth, close it, open it again. “I’m, uh, my throat’s been itchy all week.”
The air now is smoky, the skunk smell overwhelming. It enters through my nose and collects in my throat, my stomach it feels like; as if I’ve swallowed smoke, and of course the smell rises up, up. I run to the bushes on the other side of the table, hand cupped over my mouth, and puke crackers and cookie dough.
Dad’s hand is on my shoulder. “You okay?”
“Fine.” I stand. He hands me his towel from earlier. “Guess I am getting sick.”
“Do you wanna go home? I could drive you, come back tomorrow and pack up.”
“I’ll be okay,” I say. “I just need some sleep.”
Outside the tent I hear Dad smoking and coughing for another hour or so. I think about that moment in the lake when I thought I could see his skeleton showing through. It makes me shiver again. I have to tell him. He has a right to know he’ll be a grandfather.
The door zips open. The ground rattles under Dad’s big feet as he clomps into the tent. His sleeping bag is in the other half, and we’re facing opposite ways so our feet end up right next to one another in the middle. I hear him settle into his bag and sigh his pre-sleep sigh.
“It’s amazing the stars haven’t changed much since even I was a boy,” he says.
“I’m pregnant,” I say, before I lose the nerve.
There’s a tense silence for a moment, as if he isn’t sure he heard me right.
“Well, great,” he says. “When will I meet him?”
He means the father. I’m tempted to pretend I think he means the child, but Dad deserves better.
“You won’t,” I say. “He died a long time ago, fifty years or so.”
Another silence, this one worse, this one less a product of confusion, more a product of disbelief.
“I went to a clinic, Dad.”
“I know. I’m not a moron.”
“I don’t think you are. I had to. I want a child. I tried to find someone, to do it your way, but—”
“Your life, Maya.”
The finality in his voice would be impossible to crack. I say nothing more. I let my body take over. It pushes me into a troubled sleep.
The next day Dad’s got bags under his eyes. He looks older, skin thinner and ashen, stretched tight without the smile, so tight his wrinkles have become deep creases in his cheeks. Shadows float in the sky; later it’ll rain. He slides my plate over to me without a word, and we say nothing as we eat. The rest of the day, I know, will be much the same.
While I’m sitting at the table, looking out into the thicket of trees across the way – Dad’s right, this place is beautiful – Dad gets up and grabs his jacket and heads off down the trail to the restroom. Thirty minutes pass before I realize he isn’t coming back. I trudge down the path, knock on the restroom door. When there’s no answer, I open it. Empty. I continue down the path.
Above me a woodpecker – flesh and blood, they’re still alive and thriving, like the bears – stabs away at a tree. I pass the river, the water grey and deep, cold if I were to touch it. The wind picks up, rattles branches. Under my feet rocks crunch. I wish Dad were with me to point out what trees are what, which clouds mean we should head back to the campsite.
I’m so absorbed in watching that I don’t see the distant figure before me, massive in the trees. The mammoth skeleton’s femurs jut and retract as it inches forward, skull turning from side to side on its axis. I wonder if it misses its fur. Trying to make as little sound as possible, I follow.
It leads me through brush, across a gravel path, and back into the trees. Lucky for me that it moves so slow; my muscles are working overtime, and vines cut at my legs through my jeans, snag and slow me down. My t-shirt rips at the bottom hem. I stop. The mammoth doesn’t seem to hear.
It’s then, paused, listening to make sure the mammoth doesn’t know I’m there, I hear this sound coming from it, a murmur like bones rattling and scraping together. I’ve heard rumor of talking skeletons, but never have I heard one before. My breath catches. I don’t know that it’s speaking any language I can understand, but the idea of such a tremendous beast with words stuns me; what secrets he must have, what things he must have seen.
It takes another few steps. I follow, and we’re in a clearing. I don’t go all the way in, but peering through the leaves I see the mammoth go to the far brush and emit this blood-curdling screech like a nail on a chalkboard, and from the brush crawls another large one, the mother I guess, who nuzzles her skull against the first’s, and then a little one bounds out and stops under its parents, pushes against their leg bones. The father opens his jaw and lets a pile of leaves fall. The child scrambles for them, but when it swallows, just like before, the leaves fall through the bones of its ribcage. It tries again and again, and I notice then that the ground is covered in crumbled leaves. I wish again that my father were here to see this.
I turn and try to run, but my energy’s drained, my muscles pounding, and the brush too thick to move quickly. So I’m forced to amble back to camp, stopping often to catch breaths. I memorize the landmarks so I can bring Dad back. I’ll bet he went looking for them too and returned to camp when he failed.
Once camp’s in sight, I force myself to run. Outside the tent, I stop, hold my belly, feel a little like puking, but it passes. I’ve never been all that athletic. A shadow moves in the tent.
“I saw the mammoth family,” I call out. “You were right.” Next to the tent, I smell that rain musk gathering in the air, mixed with the nylon of the tent, the plastic of the zipper. “I’m coming in, Dad, better be dressed.” I feel like bouncing up and down, as if I were ten years old again.
I crawl through the opening, shoes on. I’ll get in trouble, I think, smiling to myself, dirty up the tent. I straighten and look at my father.
He’s dressed, but the parts of his skin I can see are halfway gone, the skeleton showing through the outer parts of his cheeks, his arms, his hands which he now holds in front of his face as if he’s playing peek-a-boo with me.
“Don’t,” he says. “Don’t look at me.”
I reach forward and push his hands away. I can’t help but stare at him. His lips curl back so his teeth show through in a grotesque smile. His big toe’s still pink with skin, but the rest have turned to pure bone. I can see the bones connected to one another by nothing but air, the skin of his forehead, his wrists, his nose like patches sewed on sloppily so they hang loose, curled like wet pages at the edges.
“Oh, Dad,” I say. There is no light in the tent, and his form is shadowy, dark.
“Dad.” I say again. “I’m sorry, Dad.”
The first drops of rain patter atop the tent. I wrap my arms around him and hug him hard. The bones shift and creak under the weight of my embrace.
“Me too,” he says. His voice husky. “I’m sorry too. Your child,” he says.
I burrow my head into the crook of his neck. I’ll tell him all about his grandpa, I think, but I can’t tell Dad this, can’t suggest out loud he won’t be there to see the baby’s first breath. I squeeze until I feel him crack beneath me, until the bones groan like an antique house. I feel them slipping apart, feel his skin sliding off, but I can’t let go. I won’t. I hear something fall into the dirt, but I don’t look to see. I’ll keep holding onto him. I’ll keep holding on until there’s nothing left.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam lives in Denton, Texas, with her partner and two literarily-named cats – Gimli and Don Quixote. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Goblin Fruit. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and reviews short fiction on her blog, Short Story Review. Visit her website at bonniejostufflebeam.com. She says:
The basic idea for “The Mammoth” came to me in one of those half-asleep moments before bed. I had previously written a story set in the same world, a world populated by the walking skeletons of extinct animals, where the characters, a group of college friends, spent a weekend camping. This time, I saw a father and a daughter camping and interacting with the skeletons. I woke myself up, jotted the idea down, and wrote the story the next day.
Photograph of Mammoth skeleton display at Children’s discovery museum in San Jose, California by Oleg Alexandrov is provided under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.