The Language of Elk



By Benjamin Percy

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“Benjamin Percy is a force.” — Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
This debut collection of stories, The Language of Elk, by the award-winning author of Red Moon, assembles its cast from the mountain towns and low life taverns and high desert ranches of Oregon–a state that in isolated pockets remains a still-unfinished place, the frontier.

Here nature exists as a source of wonder and a force to be conquered. Here myths haunt the moss-laden woods and Benjamin Percy shines his light on them, revealing bearded ladies and Bigfoot and marijuana colonies and elk hunting ranches and haunted Indian burial sites, the underside of contemporary western America.

With a salty mystical voice that partners the landscape and a vision as wild as his characters, Percy explores a world of surprising violence and gentleness, hilarity and heartbreak, loveliness and ugliness, and in doing so emerges as a beautifully raw voice of the West.


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Author's Note

About the Author

Also by Benjamin Percy

Table of Contents


Copyright Page

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Weekends, Drew bicycled to Huntington Lake, where the Aloha cheerleaders gathered to sunbathe and swim and dive off the high basalt cliffs. He liked watching them, when they didn't know they were being watched, at the sandy cove where they spread their neon beach towels and oiled their bodies and drank rum and Pepsi.

Nobody knew about the cove, really—not about the deer that drank from it, nor the crawdads that slept in its beds of warm mud, nor the many panfish shining in its water like gems—nobody except Drew, his friend Kenny, and the cheerleaders.

Nobody knew about it because a storm brought some logs down the Harpeth River and into the lake where they settled at the mouth of the cove, camouflaging it, and Drew, making a nice shady spot for the giant garter snakes and the brown trout to doze.

Here he floated, among the logs, his eyes just above the surface, like an alligator, watching so long his skin got wrinkled and the trout considered him just another part of the lake, something to nuzzle and chew, to rub with their slick bodies, and occasionally, when they wrapped their sharp sucking mouths around his feet and tasted them, he wanted to move but didn't. He rarely moved—not even when the powerboats ripped by and shifted the logs and disturbed the snakes—and he never made a sound, never moaned, never screamed I-love-yous at the girls.

Though he wanted to.

He loved them with everything he had. He loved them more than anything in the world. The water was warm and he floated there, pretending the girls belonged to him, like dolls, and if he wanted to kiss them or hold them or anything else—anything at all—they would gladly succumb to it.

Sometimes Drew brought along his friend Kenny. Kenny was tiny and fine-boned and got thrown in garbage cans a lot. He could swallow an entire banana and bring it back up. It was spooky. He liked the cheerleaders, too, but feared the snakes and the dragonflies and Drew always worried he might suffer a screaming attack and ruin everything.

Sometimes—bobbing in the water, algae clinging to his bald cheeks—Kenny whispered all the unbelievable things he wanted to do to the cheerleaders, his voice accelerating into a pressure-cooker sputter that bothered Drew.

It made him feel grotesque. Like he had been caught doing something embarrassing. It made him feel fat and fifteen, which he was, with hair only beginning to spring from his armpits.

If you keep quiet and listen to your fantasies—Drew thought—it sounds like angels are talking to you. But if you say what you want, if you expose your wishes to the air, they melt and spoil like ice cream in the sun.

Drew preferred the sound of the frogs drumming, the lakewater softly popping against the logs, the girls laughing. He preferred to forget who he was, even where he was, his eyes tearing from the sunlight on the water, making everything glittery, like the best kind of dreams.

Around noon, when the sun burned away all the clouds, when the air trembled with humidity—making the girls look like some mirage you prayed was real—they ate their tiny lunches of baby carrots and yogurt and tortilla chips before climbing the nearby hill, through the hardwood forest, and assembling at the jumping place, the basalt cornice that jutted over the water, maybe fifty feet above it.

There was never any wind—Drew could hear everything they said—which was how he learned her name was Jessica.

She was the most beautiful among them—her hair as brown as her belly, as brown as a bread—and maybe her beauty gave her bravery, because she always jumped first—her legs tight together, her feet pointed down—screaming until the lake swallowed her with a ploosh.

A bubbling curl of water lingered where she broke it.

This was Drew's favorite part, when he adjusted his goggles and took big gulps of air and dove down among the trout, flapping his arms, palms up, so that he might remain submerged long enough to see her bikini torn away when she struck the lake, revealing her breasts, so pale against her brown body, surrounded by the gray-green nothingness of underwater.

Never was anything so beautiful as she was then, her hair swirling, her bikini twisted around her neck, her eyes closed, her mouth open in an oval, savoring the casual danger of the jump, the elastic acceptance of the water.

She made you want to cry, just seeing her.

When she scissored her legs and kicked her way to the surface, the water rippled and bubbled, the bubbles rolling off her skin, twisting in her wake, soon vanishing.

Drew wondered what the water felt like to Jessica—and what it would feel like to be the water, cleaning her, embracing her, finding his way into her every crevice.

Drew lived in Overall. Overall is just outside Aloha.

Everybody who lived in Overall wished they lived in Aloha and everybody who lived in Aloha knew this and reveled in it.

Here, in Overall, five stoplights swayed over the wide empty streets. Here, in blocky black and red letters, billboards advertised Budweiser, Marlboro, and Lynyrd Skynyrd playing at the Washington County Fair.

Here a dusty Dairy Queen sign read, "OVERALL. WE LIKE WHO WE ARE."

Here a deer crossed the highway and hurdled a barbed-wire fence, rolls of alfalfa moldered in the fields, a farmer chased cattle with his pickup. Here was the Feed and Seed, the First Baptist Church, the Safeway, the Pinch Penny Tavern, the Old Hickory Trailer Park, hidden among the pines, where the watery blue shadows gathered.

That was Overall.

A rifle shot's distance and you were past it, you were going to Aloha, where they had a Cineplex and a Wal-Mart Supercenter and beautiful cheerleaders who did high kicks and somersaults and flashed their clean white panties, where—as Drew saw it—life seemed a better thing.

Every Friday night was the same old story.

Around eight o'clock, when the bats and the owls and a purplish color rose from the forest and filled the sky, the Aloha footballers paid Overall a visit. Everyone gathered on the sidewalks and on their lawns, in lawn chairs, as you would for a parade, with cold cans of Bud Light tucked into Amoco cozies, with bags of jerky balanced on their thighs, waiting for the footballers to come.

And then they came.

Their tricked-out Camaros and El Caminos and cherry-red Dodge pickups with the Cummins diesel engines made a collective noise that started as a barely perceptible whine—you could hear it a long way off—and rose to a grumbling shout that rolled into Overall like a deeply gray thunderhead.

Probably they went a hundred miles per hour—that was what people said—but who could know for sure. They were so fast, they were their own kind of fast. Their speed was such that it ruffled Drew's hair and popped his ears. They tore through the streets and parking lots and slammed their brakes and cranked their steering wheels so hard they spun around corners, tires smoking, blistering, melting, leaving behind swirling rubber designs for Overall to remember them by, until next Friday.

Of course the cops chased them.

Overall had two cops whose singular duty, it seemed, was to chase the footballers while everyone watched, not cheering like maybe you'd expect, just watching, for the spectacle, knowing the cops didn't really want to catch anybody, and even if they did, they would never be fast or brave enough.

The footballers hurled eggs and crumpled beer cans, they tooted their horns, they did donuts in the park and screamed mostly unintelligible screams about your mother, before zooming back to Aloha and leaving Drew, trembling, slightly dizzy, with their noise still in his head.

They had done this for years. It was their custom, as it was Overall's to watch, fearful and panicked and excited, not really understanding why they sat around and let the footballers beat them, only knowing it felt right, somehow.

Drew's father, Marty, called himself the fish czar. Which sounded a lot better than Washington County's senior fisheries biologist. He spent his days in waders, catching steelhead and king salmon and sturgeon and measuring and tagging them, collecting scales, classifying and reclassifying salmon streams on their ability to support good salmon habitat, that kind of thing.

Sometimes he gutted fish and examined their spiralized guts and made marks in his little black notebook. Sometimes he gathered their eggs, as round and yellow as corn kernels, to look at under a microscope.

The man had energy. Of that Drew was certain. Forever clapping his hands and smiling and jumping from the sofa to answer the phone with a yello. No matter how early, when Drew woke in the morning, there his father was, at the kitchen table, spreading marmalade across wheat toast, never drinking coffee or Coca-Cola, claiming he didn't need it, apparently drawing his energy from a source deep inside, some spring that Drew often wished he could pour in a pitcher and drink.

Though Drew wondered about his happiness, when his father showered so long the house filled with steam, when late at night wet choking sounds fluttered down the hall, seeping through the crack under the door to wake Drew.

Marty handled so many fish, their sharp oily smell crept into his skin and followed him around. Drew didn't mind it except when the kids at school said he smelled not good, as in funny, fishy.

The two of them didn't have much to talk about—"That was great," Drew would say when they finished a movie or a meal, and Marty would say, "Wasn't it?"—but they loved each other. They loved each other a lot, in the unsaid way fathers and sons acknowledge such a thing, with slugs to the shoulder, wrestling matches. Fishing away their afternoons on a skiff.

When they fished, they wrapped peanut butter balls around their hooks and plopped them in the water and hung bells from their lines, so that they might nap, together, with their caps pulled low, sometimes so startled by the bell's ringing they screamed.

Then they reeled in what was oftentimes a rainbow trout, sometimes a bass, and removed the hook and tossed the fish back in the water because they didn't enjoy killing. It wasn't in their hearts. Both of them were tender in this way—bruised and gentle—no thanks to her.

She left them to marry Shane Harvey, aka Donut, the former Overall High defensive coach, whose early retirement led to an offensively lopsided football team led to a series of chronic and devastating losses led to the Friday night troubles with Aloha.

She and Donut moved north, to Washington, where the air tasted like a cold drink of water, they claimed.

Washington was a place Drew never wanted to go.

Sometimes he forgot what she looked like. Like every day her memory sank deeper inside, where it was slowly digested, broken down into little particles that cried their way out of him late at night when he buried his face in his pillow. And soon there would be nothing left? How could he resent what he couldn't remember? Sometimes he wanted to chew grass like a sick dog and throw her back up.

And sometimes he dug through the closet and wiped the dust from the wedding album and saw her and his father, happy and hopeful and running down the aisle.

"That bitch," Drew wanted to say, "that fucking bitch!" Though he kept quiet, keeping his anger for his mother as he kept his love for the cheerleaders, nested inside him, like an egg.

Drew went down, beneath the water lilies and logs, past the trout that nipped playfully at his shorts and toes—five, ten, twenty feet—until he reached the lake's muddy bottom, until the blood pulsing in his head matched that in his groin.

Below him were sticks and bones tangled in silky grasses. Above him were the black silhouettes of trout, lazily whipping their tails back and forth, and beyond them, a rippling sky, colored white and orange and blue, like an enormous church window forever reorganizing itself into little crescents and diamonds, sparkling.

There was nothing else. There was nothing to say and nothing to hear—no powerboats, no airplanes, no frogs, no Kenny whispering his hunger for the cheerleaders—nothing to do except resist the alternate gravity that took hold of his fat and tugged upward.

He embraced a slimy boulder and held tight. A rainbow trout brushed past him, its colors the brightest thing in the water until the girls crashed through the ceiling of the lake, every one of them beautiful, with their breasts bared and their arms wide open.

He could hold his breath a long time—he practiced at home and at school, sometimes gasping in the back row and making everyone turn around and laugh—and so he waited for Jessica. Even when black and red spots danced across his eyes, he waited.

When she finally appeared above him, surrounded by a white column of bubbles, as if she were boiling hot, the blood came rushing to his face and bordered on causing an aneurysm. Earlier that day he found himself suddenly aroused and in a pinch ended up jerking off not into his own hand or sock—that would be pathetic enough—but into his mother's bedroom slipper, the one shaped like a bear claw, which she left behind and which they had not bothered to throw away.

Now, among the black leeches and crawdads, he felt the impulse to grab her ankles and drag her down, swallow her with his arms, squeeze, until they both lost their breath and perished. Together.

The swans came in April.

The Aloha footballers—who played baseball now but who fundamentally remained footballers, swinging at every pitch, swinging with everything they had, sometimes forgetting to drop the bat and charging first base with it tucked in the crook of their arm, other times tackling a runner to make certain he was out—they won their sixth straight game and the cheerleaders celebrated this by getting wonderfully drunk.

At the cove they skipped stones and practiced their cheers and their human pyramid and when it collapsed they laughed so hard they cried, their nearly naked bodies tangled together in the sand. Then, after they sunbathed and ate some lunch and jumped off the cliffs, forward, backward, hand-in-hand, Jessica pulled a hatchet from her backpack and announced they would build a raft.

Flies tasted their sweat when they took turns with the hatchet. They wore their bikinis and there was just enough fat on their bodies so that when they swung, when they chopped at the oak trees, they jiggled. It was erotic, somehow. They put their hair in ponytails and wiped their faces with their forearms and bound the logs with rope, the sap sticking to their skin, the sand sticking to the sap, and together they dragged the raft to the lake. When they discovered it floated, kind of, they celebrated with more rum and collapsed on their towels and fell asleep.

Drew and Kenny watched all this all day and into the early evening, their chins and cheeks glistening from where the water touched them, their hands pale and wrinkled with strange hieroglyphic designs.

Owls called. Bats swooped down and seized mayflies and moths off the logs, making Kenny nervous. He said, "Maybe we should go," and Drew didn't say anything but shook his head, no. The sun eased toward the horizon, into the forest, setting the white oak and basswood and dogwood aflame, their tops haloed with light.

Out of this came the swans.

There were about twenty of them altogether, flapping and honking when they circled the lake, a tangled white cloud that descended on the cove, their wings breezing silvery ripples on the water when they slowed and settled there.

The cheerleaders woke up and chirped their excitement when they raced down the beach and into the lake. Here they laughed and tasted rum from their cups and said, "Pretty," and "Would you look at that?" and "Can you believe those are swans. I mean, swans, for Christ's sake."

They waded until the water came to their thighs, a short distance from the swans, with Jessica leading them, unafraid. The sunset flared and the swans seemed to glow a phosphorescent white. They were fat—off cattails and duckweed and moss—and they wanted to get fatter. They were hungry. Drew wondered where they had been and what they had seen that made them so hungry when they dunked their heads in the water, searching for something to eat, and finding it. One swan withdrew a crawdad and chewed it until it cracked.

Then the air darkened and the swans turned on them. They moved toward the girls without appearing to move, gliding like ghosts. The girls watched them come, with their arms wrapped casually around each other's waists and shoulders, with Jessica asking, "Do we got any bread? I bet they want bread."

The swans opened their six-foot wingspans and lowered their heads and straightened their necks and a terrible hiss filled the air. The girls ran. They splashed their way to shore and ran along the beach, squealing with frightened pleasure, the sand sticking to their feet. And the swans followed. Their great white shapes lifted from the water as if drawn by wires, gracefully, effortlessly, honking and hissing and striking the girls with the big balls of air that came rolling out from under their wings.

Drew wanted to help. But it was easier to watch.


  • "The Language of Elk, made of equal parts pain, comedy and sweetness, is a book that will leave you gasping and wanting more. Each of the stories contained herein is a sharply-written, laugh-out-loud barn-burner, and Benjamin Percy is the best new writer to step into the spotlight in years."—Brady Udall, author of The MIracle Life of Edgar Mint and Letting Loose the Hounds
  • "In The Language of Elk, men ­ and creatures ­ stagger in a no man' land between wildness and domesticity, jealous, cracked, burning to be acknowledged. Like the flaming projectiles his protagonists often launch into the sky, these stories crackle with energy and violence and a furious beauty. Benjamin Percy is a force."—Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See
  • "Mr. Percy's talent is even more monstrous than Bigfoot himself--epic, beautiful, shocking, funny, brutal, brilliant--and when this book has torn out your heart and fed it to the crows, don't be surprised if you feel grateful and want to go through that all over again."—Mike Magnuson, author of of Lummox: The Evolution of a Man, The Fire Gospels and The Right Man for the Job
  • "With his debut collection, The Language of Elk, Benjamin Percy takes a sledgehammer to the myths of the West. These stories, red in tooth and nail, brim with the primal charm of a writer putting the pedal to the metal. Buy this book, crack the spine, and get pummeled by Percy."—Elwood Reid, Author of What Salmon Know, D.B., Midnight Sun, and If I Don't Six

On Sale
Apr 1, 2013
Page Count
192 pages

Benjamin Percy

About the Author

Benjamin Percy is the author of the novels Red Moon and The Wilding, and two short story collections, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. His writing has appeared in Esquire, GQ, Time, Tin House, and elsewhere. His honors include the Pushcart Prize, an NEA grant, the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, and a Whiting Award. Raised in the high desert of central Oregon, he lives in Minnesota.

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