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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

The mind is such a strange thing, untethered to our wills, going one way while the body in which it resides goes another. We think we control our thinking (itself a form of veering off the road we pretend to be motoring smoothly down), but really we don't. We are two things, each holding maps of different worlds.

How did I get so lucky? I don't know. But I am, unspeakably. The latest apparition of the roulette wheel stopping just where I wanted it to (Black, 31!) is that last week I was able once more to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway. I have now done it four times, on three different motorcycles, and each time it has revealed itself to be utterly new. I felt as if I had never been there before, riding the crest of the world, looking left down into impossible space, right, the same. It's slow dancing with your motorcycle, that road, rich with sensualities like skin against skin, an intake of breath suddenly full of the scent of someone else. So what was I thinking as I went along, flicking side to side? I was thinking of animals.

There was the vision of Nelly's body as I left her with the petsitter; her tail arcing down as the other dogs rushed her at the gate, crowded around her for a sniff and a "I'm priority here and don't you forget it" hard, cold look. "Take me with you!" she seemed to cry, quietly. But bikes were loaded on a truck, and a full ten hours were needed to get to North Carolina, starting now. I had to turn away.

I was abjectly grateful, then, on return to be given some photos: Nelly doing her own slow dance, once I was gone, canoodling with a retriever on the floor, luxuriating in slobber and pawing of an almost X-rated sort. She did not suffer, thank goodness.

At last I was on my way, on a trip that magnetizes my thoughts for longer in advance of it than the trip itself will last.

Along the way, at the sides of the road, there were cattle, lying serenely in the shade of the trees, ears tagged with big plastic markers to show what they were really here for. My stomach lurched at the sight. They did not know. They would not know, until the last moments, until the truck, until the smell of death. But what was worse was the sight of the long barns, exhaust fans spinning on the roofs, that were full of the animals we would never see.

There was the black racer, venturing out onto the heat of the parkway's pavement, that I saw too late; I veered around, with a childish futile wish that the next vehicle behind would also go around. I knew I should have stopped, moved him to the grass. The same with the turtle, surprised, motionless head raised, in the middle of the lane. I wish I had stopped for him, too.

There were horses in the meadows, stately in silent self-possession. Horses do not know how well they own their ideal and impossible beauty. How they strike me speechless with their muscled smoothness, their Greek form. I love them still. Always will.

There were the dead by the roadside, golden fur ruffled by the wind of our vehicles, a brief simulacrum of life, quickly reduced to goneness when we have passed. A fox. A skunk. A squirrel. A deer. A chipmunk. Numerous dead, some appearing to reach to heaven in supplication. Oh, but that's my gloss; the end was swift (evinced by the exploded state of the corpse, the proximity to the point of impact) and rigor mortis plays tricks.

I've long wanted to write a poem about roadkill, but another poet has already done it, and anyway it is a tough subject to get right, without hitting a tone of accusation, sentimentality, or worse, both. I leave it alone. There's really nothing to say about these anonymous lives slowly assuming oneness with the paving.


Night fell, and still I was riding. The second year in a row that the clock pulled a fast one on me, found me still riding past dark on the parkway that only belongs to us during the day. A flash, an animal crossing ahead, and--what was that? A tail, brown fur, what was that? --Not given me to know. But safely into the grass on the other side. The kamikaze toad? Well, some make it. And some do not.

The fawn, with mother, shocked by the feel of strange hardness under soft cloven feet, scrabbling now in panic, slipping in the roadway. I was the agent of this fear.

The luna moths, dropping down from above, then yoyo-ing up and down, as if drunk. They are rare, now, but always were rare in their strange beauty. A luminous blue-green in the headlight., the color of old bottle glass. I looked, but could not see, in the mirrors what became of them in the darkness behind.

I went on, and the days, the nights, were filled with animals. They prompted thoughts about them, and us. (Them versus us.) They made me both sad and awestruck, filled with a sense of my own otherness. That's the tables turned, for a change. That's the way the mind works, the body going down one beautiful road, the thoughts down another.