PseudoPod 843: Mother Trucker

Mother Trucker

by Wailana Kalama

My mother hits the moose in the pitch black of 4:32 a.m. There’s almost nothing to see, just a blur of limbs burnt sepia by the headlights of her truck. But it’s the noise that really grinds its hooves in—a startling, thunderous clap that blooms from the moose’s body into the hood, into the steering wheel, shaking the world around my mother with shocks and aftershocks, and all that metal and flesh that make up her and her truck absorb it like a dried-out towel.

But that isn’t the strangest thing that happens that day.

Picture this. A marmot peeks its head out from its den in a scree slide. It yawns away hibernation, yawns away slow breaths, wakes up in pillows of fat. A sleepy metabolism wheels into gear. The little ones drop out of its womb, gently like pebbles, three wriggling, one still. This one isn’t moving at all, not even breathing. Is it hibernating? No, it doesn’t work like that. Newborns don’t go into hibernation, not right away.

But—but what if?

In the quiet muck of your burrow, a tiny doubt bites, not slinking away any time soon. You sniff the sour air. How can you be so sure? What do you do? Give it to the foxes?

Or wait—wait until it wakes up, knowing that it most likely never will? And, if you wait, how long do you wait?

And, worst of all, what if it’s actually awake, there in its dark, grimy corner, watching you with its beady mirror eyes, watching you waver, watching you hesitate?

The day before she hits the moose, my mother is hugging the leeward side of the Rockies on the Alcan Highway in her 8-wheeler. Snow littering the filter strips turns into streams by mid-morning. A blaring sun fixed steadfast in the cold firmament. The kind of morning that feels like it’s been ordered special just for all-nighters like her.

It usually takes her around twenty-five hours from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks, longer if she clips a car. And the way things are with her now, squeezed into a dreamlike vise by sun and  sleeplessness, that’s not so far-fetched. The tractor stinks of weeks of sweat and snow tracked in, long overdue for a vacuum. Even though she hasn’t eaten in nine hours, my mother doesn’t notice her breakfast bagel has fallen down into the space between the trash and desiccated Clorox wipes.

She’s already been driving two days from down south, catching curl-legged naps on the bottom bunk behind her seat like a sleeping badger. Yesterday, though, she had to push through all night to make it to Dawson Creek in time for the loading at dawn, kept awake by hot flashes and the caffeine pills she’d slipped into the glove compartment. She’s exhausted by now, that kind of exhaustion you just can’t shake, the kind that burrows in your pelvis, in vertebrae you never knew existed. And she still has a full day left to go.

My mother is the most stubborn woman I’ve ever known. She powers through cramps and clots of blood falling out onto her underwear, even days on the road. It’s her way of keeping on A to B, because she feels it’s all she deserves, because she knows if she stops, stops to think, she’ll never make it past Whitehorse. Plus, she’s not going to let something as selfish as menopause slow her down.

It’s been five summers now since she first picked up an engraved mesh cap from the Boss. He’d looked her up and down and said Tala was too pretty a name for a truck driver. The sort of name you’d give a flower. She’d smirked and told him it meant beggartick in Tlingit, and he hadn’t stopped laughing at that bullshit for six minutes.

So here she is, left cheek and forearm sporting a tan one shade deeper than the right. Butt growing like an exponential number. Her jaw’s the envy of every Ken doll, and sculpted gashes on the sides of her mouth form whenever she slides her credit card over a counter. Every piece of clothing is company-issued, from her rain jacket to her yellowing blue jeans, except for the Salomon boots her father had given her years ago, back when he was still alive. That time, the last time he visited, her as pregnant as a mare, he’d told her he understood her choice to stay with her unborn
daughter on the West Coast, instead of coming home. You’re such a good mother.

She hadn’t believed it even then.

Scouring the 97 North means wild turns, steep grades, and gravel kicked up into thick clouds of dust this side of the Rockies. It’d all be a breeze for my mother if it weren’t for the hundreds of gallons of mare piss she was hauling up to Alaska. Ironically, it’s an ingredient in menopause pills. Hormone therapy. Or so she’s heard. She has to mind the brake pedal more than she likes to. She powers through cities with trade posts for names, passes roadside hamlets and lines of lodgepole pine squatting at the base of the mountains.

Every so often, her glance cuts to the left, into the stretch of snow-powdered peaks and forests that seem to go on and on and on. Like she’s looking for something she left behind. But then her eyes dart away, gluing once more to the dash and its nest of cables and wires. Whatever she’s lost,it’s long gone already. Truth is, west, east, south with the cargo—nowhere’s safe, except that snaking road in front of her.

She flips on the radio but it’s all tabloid news and conspiracy theories. The closer to the Rockies, the wilder the stories: Bigfoot, lizardmen, UFOs. The mountains have a way of making screenplays out of shadows. Then you’ve got those urban legends you’re never quite sure aren’t just gossip. In the city parks of Fort St. John, someone’s been throwing acid onto babies while they sleep in their strollers. Up in Fort Liard, the DJ at 98.5 FM reads off an ad for a child’s used skeleton in the local Craigslist. For medical reasons, the DJ assumes, before cracking a joke at the asking price: $33 Canadian, 60% off.

In the old days, my mother had a lot more problems. With money, with men, with roofs that kept changing. She moved out west for a marriage that left her with a bone-rooted bitterness. And when she got pregnant, she didn’t tell my father. She just left him.

When her own father died, she didn’t even go to the funeral. I think part of her figured he wasn’t really dead. That as long as she didn’t go back, things would be the same at home as they’d always been. He’d be there on his doorstep, beer belly sticking out from under his shirt, ringing her to pick up some chicken thighs on the way home. As long as she kept her distance, he’d always be there on the porch, waving her in as she pulled up on the driveway.

And then I was born. They say having a child is like having your heart taken out of your body. And it’s still beating, pumping with that same wild instinct, only now it’s outside and open season for all the storms and landslides and whatever else the world lifted from Pandora’s evil box.

I guess some people, they’re just too weak for all that.

It’s 1400 miles from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks, her boss used to say, and there’s a problem for every mile. Pulling out from a station near Pink Mountain, she clips a Toyota going 60.

Don’t swerve, he’d always told her. Never swerve. Even if you smack the car full-on like an ox. Keep going like you always did. You might hit it, you might not, but a 20,000-lb truck swerving in the middle of a two-lane is a hundred times more dangerous.

“You swerve, you hit the ditch, you lose the load—anything at all—know what the cops will think? Stupid trucker fell asleep at the wheel, that’s what. You gotta go in lightly, so you tag the car—not trying for any real damage, you know—but if you at least get paint wipes on the truck, then we can prove something.” And so my mother paints like Monet, in staccato punctuations. Bang! She carves the license plate down onto the notepad she keeps on the dash and makes a few calls, makes a statement to the cops in nearby Buckinghorse and is out of there within five hours.

But this means she has to make up time. Meaning, no sleep this night. She pops a few more pills. But they’re almost like candy compared to the power surges in her body that keep her awake—white-hot, blasting from her core to her palms, sousing every crevice in sweat. She blasts the A/C, making it as early spring inside here as out there.

It’s not until Fort Nelson that she starts to have hallucinations. Forty two hours without sleep will do that to you. This time it’s rolling marmots, twice the size they ought to be, rushing the boulders on the roadside, hopping from one signpost to the other. And while part of her knows this isn’t real, she watches with a sort of mellow satisfaction at her own insanity, watching it play out without any doubt, while another part of her asks, in all seriousness, what marmots are doing at this low altitude. It can’t be more than 100 yards from where she is, and yet here they are, teeth gnashing, tapping on each other, their heads bobbing up and down on the moss-mush. Biting, gnawing, tearing into each other’s cheeks, jumping on their little pups and sinking teeth into their fat and fleshy coats.

My mother knows what’s in her cargo this time, and it’s not that she doesn’t care, it’s that she can’t. She fixes her eyes on the road because she doesn’t want to think of those sixteen barrels topped to the brim with mare piss just behind her. She doesn’t want to picture it: fifty pregnant mares sardined in a warehouse, strapped to pumps and emptied of their piss, foals falling out and into the grinder.

If they gave out awards for denial, she’d get a big trophy, the kind they
give out at college football matches. But this isn’t what makes her a villain,
it’s just the underline.

One day, she promises herself. One day I’ll drive it off a cliff, all sixteen barrels and me.

Close to midnight, she stops to refuel at a gas bar off of Muncho Lake, the name “Yukon Motel” blaring at her in yellow lights. Fluorescents light up Canadian roadside signs that promise better days she’ll never have: Kiskatinaw Curved Bridge 2km ahead; RV Park –Vacancy; Muncho Tackle & Bait. The exhaustion’s driving a wedge into her skull, so once she’s all filled up, she leans back a moment to catch a break. That’s when she hears the wail.

It sounds almost exactly like a baby crying. My mother tenses up like a bullet about to fire. Grips the steering wheel. Doesn’t want to move at first, just wishes it would stop. The wailing goes on and on, a stuck record, hoarse. Like it’s sick or something. And with each second, it seems to be getting closer and closer. So my mother straightens up and peers out the window.

Standing below, on the other side of the glass and lit up by fluorescents, is a woman with wild, wiry curls. Her red mouth dilated into a rectangle, pain and saliva dripping from it like a running faucet. She keeps wailing, shrill like a baby, even as my mother locks eyes with her. Her eyebrows droop downward, eyelids swollen with saltwater. She’s crying, only it’s more like a caricature of crying, like you might see in a school play. With a desperate blush to her cheeks.

This doesn’t go well with my mother. She jerks the truck door open, smacking the woman full in the teeth, her head and blood flying back in an apostrophe.

She pummels into the woman, punching and slapping at her face, breasts, and forearms where the woman tries to defend herself.

“Shut up!” my mother screams at her, her throat rusty. “Shut up shut up shut up shut up!”

All the while, the woman keeps wailing and wailing out of her bloody hole, hiccupping from time to time, wanting a blanket, wanting a teat, wanting just please to be safe and secure and far from harm. And my mother, she just stands there, full of heat.

Full of rage.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

A man in a baseball cap and red parka faces her square. He’s in my mother’s bubble as quick as a boxer, shoving her shoulder hard.

“Don’t touch her! What the hell is wrong with you?” He picks up the wailing woman by her armpits and glares at my mother like she’s something inhuman, like I expect anyone would, and slowly it dawns on her that she would, too.

My mother slinks back into her truck while the bloody woman wails, quieter now, and yanks the stick shift bigger than her arm. She floors the gas as quickly as she can, back to the shelter of the highway.

My mother left me to die in the forest off the Alcan when I was two months old.

It was raining in big dunks, like it always does that time of year in the Yukon. I was with her—in blankets and listening to rustles in the bushes, feeling her all around me, her whispers and coos, her inky hair falling over my face—and then I wasn’t. Then I was all alone.

I remember spruce trees making a crown in the night sky. And me, flinging out cries into the darkness, shrieking at it, blaming the rain with all the raging fury of an infant, compounding the biting wind, the damp leaves, the woman I’d clung to for eleven months into one, absolute emotion.

And I screeched my lungs out.

That was before I tasted wet dirt in my mouth. Before my fists dug into the earth, squeezing, feeling the heat of the earth. Something stirring in the soil.

This is the part where I explain why my mother did what she did, how she felt torn and battered, cornered by isolation and grief, how she didn’t really want to, but felt she had to, how she had no one left in the world and couldn’t take care of me and didn’t want me to suffer how she’d suffered and I was better off gone and buried.

This is the part where I lie.

She forgot where she left me. For months she drove the same road, from point A to point B, and B to A again, foot hovering over the brake but never quite slapping it down. Sensing roughly where, but never quite sure. The exact location just out of reach. When the hot flashes started, I think she felt it was her penance, in a way.

And she took her sleeplessness out on the open road, feeling somehow contained and swaddled in the heavy air of the truck, summer after summer, south to north and south again, for five years, every winter holed up in a hibernation, quietly disintegrating, slow murder by french fry and grease and gristle. And I was nowhere near to save her.

Twenty miles from Whitehorse, the moose flies out in front of her. She lets loose a sharp cry, though she doesn’t know it. It’s raining and it’s all she can do to keep her foot from the brake pedal.

As soon as she’s safe to, she slows and stops the truck, gets out into the drizzle. She catches sight of the moose limping away in the red, burning tail lights, fading into the forest.

Even though she’s shaken, she gets herself together enough to check the cargo. In the back, the sixteen humongous barrels of mare piss stand at attention.

The memory of the moose’s wail draws whorls on her eardrums.

She drives another half an hour to Whitehorse, while the sky grows a shade brighter. Passing a couple of pickups honking at her like mad. She thinks maybe the nose of the truck is dented. She’ll check it soon enough.

She backs up into a truck stop just outside of town, grabs her wallet. As she hops out, a guy in a gas station uniform is already at the hood, staring at something. She feels a drop of premonition. She walks around to see what he’s staring at and

The baby the baby the baby

Caught in the metal jaws of the moose guard is the slippery mess of a moose calf. Fur glistening with the sheen of afterbirth and blood, neck like paperclip, its back cloven hooves scratched down to almost nothing where they’ve been scraped on the road.

You’re such a good mother.

The amount of afterbirth splattered on the face of her truck is enough to make it a lie.

The baby must have slipped out when she hit its mother, kicked its way to freedom and flight. Only, stuck in the moose guard, it couldn’t get far. My mother feels a coldness beating against her ribcage and she keeps staring at the calf like it’s a sculpture, vaguely aware that the station guy is talking to her, asking her questions, but it all seems far away and she can’t.

She’s thinking about the calf’s mother, the mother who’s not a mother, dashing into the darkness blind into the spruce, stomach sagging with unbirth, ears shredding with a shriek of the wild, of the womb, of the fold. For a minute it’s all she sees, a moose tearing through branches, moans swallowed up by the rainstorm, being consumed by its own emptiness and no one’s there to know, to see it. And all she wants in that moment is to absorb the shock, the pain, everything into herself. To undo, to erase it, to just take back all the pain she caused, please please please…

Come back come back come back

She knows she can’t.

But she tries anyway.

My mother climbs onto the moose guard and slowly, gently, slips the baby out. It’s not easy, but the afterbirth makes it easier. The gas station attendant is still talking to her but she can’t hear him. The blood and who knows what else paints her clothes, smelling like sour earth and musk and new life.

She places the baby down on the pavement, covers it with her oversized jacket. Then she climbs back into her truck and screeches due south.

She drives back to the spot where she thinks she hit the moose. She parks the truck at the 20-mile mark, taps the emergency lights on, and, against all reason, dashes out into the rain, fumbling to zip up her hoodie, flipping up the hood over her head.

She searches for minutes, hours, she doesn’t know how long. Boots stamping through a labyrinth of black spruce and trembling aspen. The rain pelting her outstretched arms just a breath away from freezing.

She knows it’s here. Eyes peeled for a boulder in the shape of a hand. She hates herself for forgetting it, but that’s not what’s important right now.

She finds it.

She chose the stone, no taller than her hips, because it made her think of a palm outstretched, sheltering the clay beneath it. This way, it didn’t feel quite like abandonment. More like a handing off.

And there I am, sleeping, not a day older than when she left me there five years ago. My nose blushing with snot, tufts of wet hair plastered to my head, still wrapped in the blanket, in the same folds her fingers remember making.

My mother is crying, wailing with guilt and self-pity and regret. She keeps saying sorry, I’m so sorry, gripping my arms, and it’s her cold nose burying into my tiny self that makes me thrust my legs against her cheek.

Now it’s my turn to scream.

I scream because I’m cold, I scream because I’m hungry, I scream because my mother left me all alone, I scream because I was somewhere else, somewhere below, safe and deep inside and now I’m in the rain, and there’s so much noise, so much noise.

My mother pulls off the blanket and out around my flailing limbs comes tumbling dirt, twigs, and the ruins of a mouse nest. She brushes my naked body clean and clasps me in her zipped hoodie, starts laughing, still crying, and it’s the tightness that finally calms me down.

I should’ve been dead, chilled to the bone, eaten by lynxes, but I wasn’t.

I was waiting. Not breathing. And I saw—

The endless twists and turns of worms in the hollows of my armpit, my gums, my ear canals—

The aspen leaves turning green, gold, green again, gold again, green again and no one no one no one no one

I saw it all.

She never wonders where I was. Even though it’s been years since.

I think she’s afraid to ask, to question her luck.

As for me—because I never forgave her, not really, or because I was too long there in the deep, below the mulch—I don’t think all of me came back to her that drizzly morning.

Because she never chucked those sixteen barrels of mare piss and herself down a cliff.

She calls me her blessing every day, but I swear whenever I look at her, I can feel the dirt caked in my nails, smell the stink of wet leaves in my nose. And those things I saw in the muck, they make me grind my sweaty fists into the sheets every night. And, if I’m not careful, the heat of worm-ridden soil starts pressing against my eardrums.

Sometimes, to get away from mocking schoolmates and stifling classes, I duck under the school bleachers and listen to the radio. For months now, I’ve been hearing about women disappearing, taken right off the Alcan. Hitchhikers trying to leave the mountains. And the stats keep rising month to month. Turning people into numbers, what a thing. Some found
on the roadside, mangled beyond recognition. Some never found at all, like they were just swallowed up by the earth.

But me, I know where they go.

And trust me, they’re not hibernating.

They’re awake for it all.

About the Author

Wailana Kalama

Wailana Kalama

Wailana Kalama is a dark fiction writer from Hawaii. Her pieces are upcoming in Mother: Tales of Love and Terror by Weird Little Worlds Press, and Dark Matter INK’s Monstrous Futures.

Find more by Wailana Kalama

Wailana Kalama

About the Narrator

Jen Zink

Jen Zink is a stay at home parent and podcaster with a love of all things science fiction and fantasy. Jen is the Executive Producer and a co-host of The Skiffy and Fanty Show, an audio editor for Nightlight Podcast, and she blogs at The Homepunks. The Skiffy and Fanty Show is a weekly podcast and active blog featuring anything and everything related to the science fiction and fantasy genres, with commentary on controversial topics and news in literature, film, and interviews with authors, scientists, and filmmakers.

Find more by Jen Zink