“THERE’S NO THROUGH TRAIL” —HAN-SHAN, TRANSLATED BY GARY SNYDER
/ 45 Million Ghosts

45 Million Ghosts

by Shayla Felix

March 1st

Mom,

I couldn’t help but anxiously tap my foot, and it didn’t help that there was a haunting photo across from me. The grainy picture showed a man at the top of a mountain, the size of a two-story building, made of stacked bison skulls. Another man was on the ground smothering a skull under his dirty shoe. This would all become fertilizer. I’ve shown you this photo before. It was in one of my biology textbooks. You wondered how many were in that stack, how all of the buffalos would look roaming around alive and how many skulls were outside the frame.

I was called into Teddy Grant’s office. He’s been the head ranger for thirty years and handpicked his entire staff. I’m living my dream job studying bison here at Yellowstone, but we both know how replaceable I am. 

My boss’s voice echoed ahead of his body, greeting me with my name. It sounded sour in his mouth. A chill ran through me as the bear-like man sat in front of me, obstructing my view of the picture. He settled himself, fiddled with one of the pens, and suddenly put it back. He sighed, and I tensed for the final blow. But he said something else disturbing. He told me of reports of red-eyed blue bison. All the reports were on the park’s southwest side during the night or early morning.

I honestly thought he was joking, and I laughed out loud. He looked deadpan at me. He wasn’t joking. Then he listed off the many reports we’d gotten. He assigned me to a team to check it out, even though we both know I prefer to work alone.

As I closed his office door and stepped into the cold, a raven perched itself on the hand railing. It stared at me. It’s always these small moments that remind me of you. The first time we saw one together, I asked you why that crow was so big. Your tired face lit up into a warm smile. You told me it was a raven. It was so clever that a little body couldn’t hold the knowledge it had. It had to be creative because it could only rely on itself to survive, and that’s why it’s your favorite animal. It unfurled its wings and then flew onto a white pine. Its raspy voice let out a call as I walked away. I smiled.

– Tatanka 

March 15th

Mom, 

I saw them. We were less than a mile from our car, observing in a field of sweet-smelling grassland that the road sliced in half. The field has the same texture as the old house’s backyard; thick and coarse, padded down from the dirty snow and wildlife. At first, we didn’t realize what was happening. We were observing a small herd of ten bison. Then the sun slowly crept behind the horizon. That’s when we started seeing them. Their bodies whirled as mist into existence as the last of the sunlight left. Their bodies are a shimmering transparent midnight blue, with glowing soulless red eyes. The smallest was the size of a Volkswagen bug; the largest was the size of a minivan. You would have loved seeing them. But we were stranded from our lifeboat in a deadly sea.

All of us knew that the best bet was to slowly make our way to the road, even though there were sixty of them spread between us and the car. As the last person in the line, I walked backward, ensuring that none of the ones we passed had a change of heart. We threaded through them as slowly as possible, pausing for openings to appear. 

I don’t know how many hours we spent weaving through them. But when the first two people reached the car, they unlocked it with the key fob, inadvertently turning on the headlights. As they got in, I cursed under my breath, and a pair of red dots appeared in front of me, rushing toward me. I was still fifty feet from the car. I didn’t have time. I told the others to get in and lock the doors. They rushed towards the car, and I stood in place. 

I closed my eyes as it approached me. I said a small prayer. At least the others were safe. Then it went silent, and I peeked. I saw the stars on the horizon, then the crimson fire eyes a few inches from my face.

Its head was as big as the distance between my shoulders and knees. 

It stared as though it recognized me. 

A gun went off in the distance. 

It brushed against me, almost knocking me to the ground. I followed behind and got into the car. A tidal wave thundered the ground, and they grunted like tigers as they all ran towards the treeline on the other side of the road. The car shook in waves as hundreds passed us. We held onto each other, anticipating the blow that would crush us.

When dawn arrived, the surrounding field looked like a fire had scorched the earth. We closed the park this morning. My crew thanked me, saying they wouldn’t have made it without me. I didn’t do anything special, so I nodded and said no problem. But they continued to say that I saved them. No, we saved each other, I insisted. But they continued to call me their hero.

That’s why you chose my name, right? You never said it, but that’s why. You want me to be strong and selfless, an imitation of your grandfather to carry on his name’s legacy. You told me so many stories of him, the wonderful things he did for you and the family. I wonder if he was really all you said he was or if your memories are rotten. I wonder if mine are too. I wonder if you wanted a son or just someone to fill the space he left behind.

-Tatanka

March 17

Mom, 

My park was just the beginning. They seem to have started appearing around other herds of live bison. There are small groups all over North America. The Turner herd in Montana gets over half a million every night. They asked for our help, but Teddy won’t allow it because it was a private herd, not our jurisdiction, he said. There’s even a small herd in a tiny town in Northern Alberta. But the largest herd spans over a five-hundred-mile area of Oklahoma’s panhandle that touches southern Kansas and Colorado. It’s mostly farmland, with a few small towns scattered around the interstates. 

It doesn’t scare the government that they exist. Hell, the government doesn’t even want to figure out where they’re coming from, just how to get rid of them. But we can’t herd them; if we scare them, they become aggressive, and they’re stronger than any buffalo species we know. We have no idea how to stop them or kill them. The gunshot we heard that night was

from a poacher. We found his body face down in a puddle of melted snow, trampled to death. I’m sure he won’t be the last.

Teddy wants me just to focus on our bison. Everyone stays inside at night, pretending not to hear the phantoms. I can’t help but feel that I could be doing more. I didn’t work my ass off to just sit here doing paperwork, trying to forget what I saw. What worries me the most is that it’s almost migration season. Our bison migrate every spring to the other side of the park, which is only fiffy-four miles, but a wild bison can migrate from two hundred to four hundred miles in a season. They could march across the plains and demolish the Midwest’s crop season overnight, and millions could starve. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. 

-Tatanka

April 28th 

Mom, 

It’s been over a month since all of this started. Now they’ve expanded into two different areas. The northern area spreads as far north as the northwest territories in Canada, from the Rockies along Idaho, completely encapsulating Montana and spanning to the nose of Nebraska. It’s not like a vast sea of bison. They’re freckled throughout in small herds. As many as two hundred herds have been recorded in a night. Some herds are estimated at a million to a quarter of a million. The larger herds tend to be in North Dakota and graze in Montana’s grasslands.

The second area spans from Denver south past Amarillo. The northern group is more of a nuisance to people, but the southern group is preventing farmers from planting crops. There was a story on the news about a farmer in Oklahoma that tried planting corn, but at night the bison appeared in his field, turning the soil and preventing anything from taking root. Angry, the farmer started shooting at them, screaming for them to leave. The herd ran towards the gunshots, barreling through all of his fields, trampling over fences, power lines, their silo, and then demolishing his house in a matter of minutes. He had four children. Luckily his family spent the night in their tornado shelter, so no one was injured. I don’t know why he thought he could scare them off or take them on. Two weeks ago, in Kansas, twenty miles from their home, the bison knocked over a midnight-running Union Pacific passenger train.

I told Teddy that I’m leaving next week. I’m not doing anything here. It felt like we were the only ones left; over half the staff had left, and government funding keeps getting reduced. I told him that I received a job offer to help with relief efforts, charting and mapping the herds, to figure out at least how to live with them. But when I told him, his expression changed into the same one you had when I told you I didn’t want kids. The same look you had when I said I was leaving you for this job. A mixture of anger and heartbreak. We both needed something to hold on to; it just wasn’t the same thing. I looked away from his pained expression as I walked away with mine.

I know you didn’t want me to leave, but how could I have lived up to your expectations if I didn’t? Ever since I left, I barely feel alive, just surviving day to day. I can’t keep telling myself that you didn’t love me, to feel better about hurting you. 

-Tatanka

May 9th 

They’re everywhere now. They’re like a virus, reaching coast to coast of North America from Canada to the United States and Mexico. They’ve killed the crop season too. The millions of wheat, soybeans, and corn – didn’t even have a chance compared to the forty-five million bison. At my new job, the largest herd I recorded was fifty miles long and twenty-five miles wide; I estimated that there were over four million in the herd. 

I ran across it on the outskirts of Wichita; they were grazing by the river. I was tracking their movement north. But the city sounds scared them. The bison charged through the city streets, barreling into anything in front of them, lampposts, cars, mailboxes, stores, people, police cars, and fire hydrants. There were fires and floods throughout the city. In a panic, people started throwing things from windows and yelling at them. We’ve been telling them for weeks not to startle them, don’t aggravate them – leave them alone. I tried to stop them. Still, people screamed in horror, and children cried for their parents. I couldn’t help them. All I could do was watch them create chaos, attacking something they didn’t understand. I cried until my voice became raspy from the smoke. It’ll never end.

 They let me have a day off today. I drove all the way to our old town to see you. The small streets felt foreign to me, like I wasn’t supposed to be here, existing in memory. I’m not surprised that they’re here grazing in the graveyard. I enter and whisper to them that I’m just visiting. Their crimson eyes peered at me until I sat down next to you on the cold dew grass.

Your stone is engraved with a raven, you’re favorite, extending its wings in midflight. I came here because I have too many memories of you; they’ve just become remnants of distorted feelings. When I planned to leave this town, I never intended to leave you. And when I left, I didn’t mean it when I said I hated my name. I hated what that name labeled me as in your mind. You used it to trample on who I was and wanted to be. I didn’t care how much disowning it would hurt you. I didn’t know Tatanka means bison. I don’t deserve forgiveness, and I don’t need it. As long as I’m here, I want you to know that your fears, hopes dreams are alive. But I can’t live haunted by ghosts.

Dawn is here, and the bison will return to mist in the amber sky just as they always have.

Your son, Tatanka

Shayla Felix

About Shayla Felix

Shayla Felix (she/ her/ hers) is a Pacific Northwesterner living in Bellingham, Washington, currently studying English with an emphasis on Creative Writing at Western Washington University. She loves getting outdoors, collecting weird-looking rocks, marine biology (especially the creatures found in tidepools), and hopes to travel to all fifty states one day. @unlimited_rest_

Cold Mountain Review is published once a year in the Department of English at Appalachian State University. Support from Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs and College of Arts and Sciences enables CMR’s learning and publications program. The views and opinions expressed in CMR do not necessarily reflect those of university trustees, administration, faculty, students, or staff.