I tell my friend Brianna I've become obsessed with the prairie here in Oklahoma, that the rolling hills, the tallgrasses for miles, are the space beyond grief. She says, "Well, it's certainly wide open."
Of course one of the main functions of a prairie is also to conceal. The sign at a prairie restoration project in Stillwater reads: "By establishing an area of native prairie, you can provide cover for a host of plant and animal species.")
The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, has a visitor center that doubles as a museum. The docent is delighted to hear that I'm new to the prairie and don't have a working knowledge of the wildlife. She leads me to a pile of bones on a table, lifts one long, heavy example. With her free hand, she points to an illustration of a bison, its bones exposed like in an X-ray.
"A bison's hump isn't like a camel's," she says. "A camel's hump is soft. But you see the thickness of this bone? That's what makes a bison so strong." In the picture, the bison's hump is full of stocky vertebrae.
I ask if we're allowed to touch things, and she encourages me. I wrap my hand in a swatch of bison fur, as if I need a mitten in the summer heat.
"Warm, isn't it?" she says. "The birds like it too." She points to a nest, the bony branches cushioned with tufts of fur. I want to make myself tiny, curl up for a long nap.
(Ten years ago, after my father's suicide, I slept with blackout shades. I slept until noon, one, three. Sometimes I felt a violent urge toward openness. [End Page 103] My own skull too tight a case. I never made moves but had a recurring fantasy of putting an empty chamber to my temple. As if I could somehow get the air in there, and this would bring relief.)
The Study Trail features a mown path through the cover: big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass, mixed with pops of wildflowers. Post oaks line the edges of the field. The grass on either side of me is at least hip high, though some grasses tower overhead. I can't say this enclosure is a bad feeling.
I wonder if there's any escaping this duality, the urge to expose and cover the body. Years ago, working for orthopedic surgeons, I was drawn to intraoperative photos of hands. White bone and tendon against an oxygenated red.
But surrounding the exposed structures: sky blue surgical draping. The patient adrift in an anesthetized cloud.
I hear a constant ping, ping, ping of creatures throwing themselves off the trail, back under cover. I stop to see how much of their bugging out is caused by my own footfalls. The sound slows but doesn't end. Their panic reminds me of the two-hour drive from Stillwater to Pawhuska, where the open highways gave me an agoraphobic twitch. I prefer the county roads near the preserve, their white gravel a soporific. When I pulled up to the barn-red visitor center, my tires were chalked in dust. A soft camouflage.
(My father lived several states away. I could dodge his creepy birthday cards, his sobbing phone calls. Once he was dead, though, he could be anywhere. Anyone. I dodged men who looked like him on the street. I dodged flickering light bulbs. I didn't trust that he was gone.)
After the patients had surgery, they went to hand therapy. This struck me as hilarious. I pictured a tiny chaise, flexor tendons in repose.
"How have you been?"
"A little curled up, but ready for a stretch."
Therapists often got the whole life story. If you hold a person's hand and hurt them a little, they'll spill. [End Page 104]
Though one time, with a patient who sliced his tendons during a suicide attempt, there was no need for words. The body already a narrative.
My friend Haley gave me a book of...