The Libertarian's Daughter
BY JOE SCOTT
Morning on a mountain, brisk—the pinnacle of briskness—no fresher feeling ever before for the Libertarian’s Daughter, but she is alone when she expected not to be and her right arm is completely asleep. Her guide, a park ranger, left sometime during the night. The dirt of her camp site looks warm in the morning sun but is like ice to the touch. In it, there is an imprint of the ranger’s self-inflating sleeping mat: a sarcophagus shape.
She unbuttons and unzips her sleeping coat and tosses it aside. To wake her arm, she sits up and pushes it with her left hand. She waits for that buzzing pain to sing through her veins, pushing the arm around in circles, flipping it on the ground, dragging it through the dirt which should feel like ice but feels like nothing to this hand. She drags it through the imprint of the ranger’s mat making lines with her numb knuckles. She attempts to sign her name.
After a minute, it still won't move, and she starts to get worried. She’s up and pacing. She torques left and right at her hips, slapping the arm across her body.
After another minute, she loses herself in panic.
After some depthless time, she’s sitting again. She needs medical attention, and it’s two days back to the ranger station. But her father’s home, the object of this excursion, might be around the next bend. In fact, the ranger had been sure of it before he suggested that they bed down for the night. If he could reassure her, though, she might feel better, because last night’s claim seems like bullshit now.
The guy had had a crush on her since the day she came into the station with a small bag of envelopes. He entertained a deepening fantasy of their love blossoming in some harlequin romance sort of way. He watched her lips as she spoke. He called her Light-smile with Native American flair that he thought whites found charming. Light-smile used him as a mail courier, and he didn’t mind. He delivered personal letters to her father who had years ago left the comforts of The New Socialist Order for the peeks of Guadalupe National Park.
They had correspondences like, Daughter: I miss you. How are you? Father: Fine, I think. D: I miss you. I wish you’d visit. F: I can’t, I don’t think.
When Light-smile came to the ranger, this time needing a guide to take her into the mountains, she didn’t right away say why. She needed the kindness of the ranger. She needed his expertise and his equipment. What she needed was to tell her father in person that she was finally getting married, and she had to request that he walk her down the aisle. There wasn’t any drama to it, no argument about the insignificance of tradition in this day and age. She said “I guess this is what I’m gonna do,” and her fiancé said, “Yeah, I guess that’s that.”
When the truth came out, the park ranger actually didn’t mind. He took her secrecy to be a sign that she wanted to cheat on her fiancé with a man of real ruggedness. He held himself in high esteem as a member of the ever-dwindling population of good, manly men. It was only through habit and folly, he believed, that women ended up with these city-slicker assholes who would inevitably cheat on them.
That second night, they were in their campsite, and the light from the ranger’s lantern made a room with darkness as walls. The entire world in shadows held them to this place. It’s like wading in the middle of the ocean.
He kissed Light-smile, and she responded delicately with a disgusted twist of her face. That was it.
They laid side by side to sleep, but his anguished mind kept him up. He wouldn’t face her in the light. Retreating from the eyes of the world was his go-to move. Facing her meant grasping dull reality: people make mistakes, people move on. Slinking off on the dark mountainside, he could let shame crush his poor, poor heart.
He left as soon as he was sure that little Light-smile had drifted off.
Now, feeling the dew against her ankles, the Libertarian's Daughter finds a canvas bag outside her campsite. The ranger left it. She turns it over, and dozens of unopened envelopes tumble out, envelopes she doesn’t recognize. She falls to her knees and scoops them up to protect them from getting damp. She stops. She reads one. Through a plastic window on the front of it, she reads the address for the ranger station. She tears it open, recalling—as she has ever since she was ten when someone told her—that opening someone else's mail is a federal offense. The letter is a notice of an attempt to collect a debt. She opens another and another. They are all from different banks for different amounts, and they are all addressed to her father.
She leaves the letters in the grass.
Somewhere in her house, there's a pile of letters from the same banks for the same amounts addressed to the same man. She pays them month after month so that there will be a place for her father in this world when he chooses to return.
She’d guessed, but she didn’t know that her father still got these letters. She rode this question in her mind on plausible deniability, but here is confirmation. He knows that she pays his debts. But, then again, maybe he gets them and doesn’t bother to read what they are, to see the money ebbing and flowing around his name.
She hasn't decided yet whether she's going to head straight down in defeat (seek medical attention for her arm) or press on. Either way, she has to go back down the side-trail that took her and the ranger to the camp sites. She enjoys not choosing just yet.
Before leaving, she stops at the pile of wet bills. It's litter. She heaves her pack to the ground. She wads them up and stuffs them in a pouch.
The side-trail is made of gravel and rock shelves that step down feet at a time. In a few places, it bottlenecks and cuts little valleys through the earth and then opens to great clearings of brown grass and towering green yuccas. The Libertarian’s Daughter pulls her backpack tight so it doesn’t slip over her dead shoulder. At the tall steps she can’t keep it from falling loose. This is a waste of energy.
At the trailhead sign, she stops for water. Her right arm hangs as she unhooks a jug from her pack with her left—normally a simple motion, but it feels awkward. Drinking does more than satisfy her thirst; it lessens her burden. This is the great pleasure of drinking water on a desert mountain. Forward means less time to survive, but also less weight to carry.
She has enough for one day forward and then three days back, four gallons, 32 lbs. This is the place to choose to dump it or save it for the journey forward.
She reaches her hand under her shirt and feels around her arm. It’s hard to reach her back, though. Her city muscles are already weak from hiking. Stretched to her limit, she feels a spot that might be swollen. It’s totally numb, and she can’t feel her other shoulder for comparison, so it’s hard to tell. Probably, maybe, she thinks, it’s a spider bite. Or a scorpion or something.
Something chirps near her. For one silly instant she thinks it's the first wildlife she's heard or seen this whole trip. But the chirp sustains and blares out of a pocket on her pack. It's her phone. She fumbles for it, chasing her right side like a dog chasing its tail.
She gets to it just after it stops ringing. It was her fiancé calling from the comforts of home. She weighs for a moment the importance of calling him back immediately. She calls.
He asks her how the trip is going.
"Fine," she says.
He asks her how her dad's doing.
"Probably just fine," she says, "The old fucker."
Oh, she hasn't found him yet. "Well, keep on it," he says, "I'm sure you'll find him soon."
"Yeah, yeah," she says.
She's trying to shift the conversation to goodbyes and I-love-yous, but he says, "Any problems on the trail?"
"Well," she says, "My guide ran off, and my arm's been immobile since waking up this morning."
There's a quiet moment between them. He practically scolds her with silence.
"So you're coming down now," he says.
She explains carefully, maybe not. She hasn't decided.
He tells her no, she needs a hospital now.
That's receptionists, she thinks, waiting, lots of waiting, then nurse after nurse, then test after test, then a doctor, then a recommendation for another doctor, and then maybe a government-appointed malpractice lawyer for arbitration with the doctor's government-appointed malpractice lawyer. She reasons out loud that it ought to be watched for developments. This is what the government announcements say on TV. She doesn't want to add to the alarmist healthcare spending bubble. She has more arguments but she's tired of hearing her own voice. She feels pulled back into the house with her future husband. She just wants to keep walking.
Her fiancé explains carefully, she could lose her whole damn arm. He says that she owes it to him to take care of herself. He says, what about everyone else who cares about her? She has to take care of herself. It’s one of those, uh… shit, what’s the term they use… it’s a moral imperative.
What can she say to that?
Her fiancé goes on, but her phone begins beeping, cutting his arguments into nonsensical pieces. The battery is dying because she forgot to charge it in the car. She'd even promised on her way out the door that she'd charge it on the car-ride. But now she thinks, maybe she forgot on purpose.
She butts in, "My phone is dying."
"You're coming down," her fiancé says. "Right?"
"I should conserve the battery," she says.
There is another quiet moment between them, a sort of desperate and aimless silence.
They say their I-love-yous and goodbyes.
She hangs up.
Before her is the first great vista of the trail. The range dives into a bowl. Knife-like promontories push out of the dirt and cut down and make shelves and cut down some more. To the south, the range dies off gradually, and hills wrinkle the low desert. If she squints, she can see the highway, and looking at the highway, she can almost hear the cars.
To her father, when he first climbed this mountain, that thin line of road must’ve been an artery of The New Socialist Order, pumping men and women through oppressive systems of life. To her, it’s a string tied at one end to her phone and at the other to the argument with her fiancé.
The cars seem to get louder the more she stares at it.
She has to get over the next hump.
From here the trail delves into thicker woods. Yuccas and flat faced cactuses are sprinkled throughout the trees. Occasionally, there’s a spindly cactus with a yellow flower that makes the Libertarian’s Daughter think of Lemon Heads.
After a bend, the path breaks from the trees and comes to a cliff-side stretch. Beams have been spiked into the edge to hold the dirt. She wonders if her father noticed the beams, if he might resent them, paid for by tax dollars to make nature safer. She doubts for a second that he would have followed trails like this, but the park ranger had assured her that the man has never strayed from them. Humans don’t roam the wilderness free. They can’t. They aren’t designed for it, he said. They make paths, and they use them.
She follows it back into the woods and all the way up the hump.
She doesn’t realize when she’s crested it. The beaten dirt gradually fades to beaten grass. The woods become sparser, and the ground slopes down only slightly. When she stops for water, she turns to look for the highway, but sees only a long stretch of black pine and wispy grass ending at an unnatural horizon.
She plops down on a tuft and listens. She hears wind passing through the trees which sounds more or less like the wind of cars on the highway. She hears no birds. She sees no little critters foraging. In the new silence, in what must be true wilderness at last, she tries to fantasize through the argument with her fiancé, but she’s already forgetting the nuances of her points. That damn politician’s term sticks to her, “moral imperative.”
She calls into the woods, “Dad?”
Her voice is eaten by pine needles. There is no echo.
She calls again, stretching the word like a child searching for their pet, “Da-ad!”
Then she shouts sharply, “Hey! Dad!”
She yelps, “Ah!”
She calls out, “Bitches ain’t shit but hos and tricks!”
Only the wind answers.
She has to keep walking. She swings her pack over her good side and then, straining to tilt her shoulders, slips her dead hand through the other strap.
This part of the trail becomes disjointed and nearly indiscernible. It takes her to the bottom of a basin and to the slope of that basin and to sunset. Digging in her pack, she finds zero flashlights. The ranger has taken both of them either by mistake or for revenge. So, before the ambient dusk light fades away completely, she finds a spot that seems like a designated camp site, and she sets up. Tonight is the first time on this hike that the night sky is not covered by clouds, but the Libertarian’s Daughter falls asleep before the first star comes out.
In her father’s declaration of independence (the note he'd left for her to find) he claimed to be trapped. The protest of a group near the Mexican border had shown him something deeply disturbing. Nearly everyone in the world was trapped within the country in which they lived. We’re all trapped, he wrote, by ordinary economic circumstances and imaginary borders which are enforced by the blind henchmen of freely elected tyrants. This was the genesis of his plan. He may be trapped by the country, but he may also escape into country. The government couldn’t extend its tentacles into every recess of the great American wilderness. He then chose Guadalupe because it was the closest wilderness to home.
Of course the government did find him. And their blind henchman—their tentacle—was a middle-aged desperate and sensitive park ranger. A fucking asshole.
The Libertarian's Daughter wakes to sunlight hitting her eyelids. She sits up and spends a quarter of an hour attempting to will her arm into bending. It's a no-go. She lifts the hand with her other hand and finds a penny beneath the knuckles.
"Lucky fucking day," she says.
She holds it to the sunlight and looks with one eye at the molding of Abraham Lincoln's bust. It's just an ordinary, useless penny, even more useless on this lonely mountain.
She puts it in her pocket.
She gets up, cracks her neck, and takes a quick look around. Not thirty feet south of her is a cliff, one she hadn't seen the night before. Surely, she thinks, she would've noticed it before falling over the edge.
She goes to it now and looks down. Not instant death, but pain, tumbling, maybe a landing in some inescapable place. She takes the penny out. She throws the metal chip down hoping to hear it hit rocks. She loses track of it before it hits anything. She strains to hear, but it makes no noise.
"Back to whence thou came," she says.
She takes out her phone to see if it still gets any signal. It's dead. No longer is it a part of her brain, a psychic link to her fiancé and her house and her bills and everything outside this mountain. It's just a hunk of plastic, big enough, she wonders, to make an audible noise at the bottom of this cliff?
She’s sure she has a government issued phone upgrade card somewhere.
She chucks it.
She watches it become a speck and vanish in a shrub nearly halfway down (cliffs are never as straight as you think). There is no noise with this either.
Following the trail today, she stretches her water, trying to drink only half of what she needs. She measures her sips at every stop. She tries to linger in shaded spots in order to sweat less. This will give her an extra day on the mountain—enough to hike back to the station if she’s careful the whole way.
As the sun goes down, through slivers of light between trees, she spots a shack in a clearing. She drops her pack and runs to it. She calls out for her dad. There is no response. It’s a chicken coop, old gray wood, wire netting for walls, but the door, with little glass panels, is either salvaged or stolen from a house. She knocks. The chickens do not answer it. She opens the door. There are no chickens.
She trudges back up to where she dropped her pack. Just below it, the ground is squishy. One of her water jugs has ruptured. It’s still leaking. She snaps the carabiner off and lifts the jug above her head. She finds the hole, and turns the jug over. There’s another hole, drizzling water over her face. She fixes it to her mouth. She suckles the water until there is no more.
She now has one and a half days of water, and a four day hike back to the ranger station.
She gathers her gear and sets up camp inside the coop.
She wakes at night to pee under a clear sky. As she squats just outside the coop, a single bird darts silently overhead. The Libertarian's Daughter looks up just in time to see it vanish. She's in awe.
In the morning, lying on the floor of the coop, she has a feeling in her dead arm. It’s a slight pain or maybe more like a benign tingling. With her left hand, she lifts it and waves it in the air above her. Dust particles swirl in its wake. She drops it, letting it thud against soft, rotting wood. She feels none of this. She only feels a persistent tingle in the back of it, where the shoulder blade meets the arm. Sitting up, she reaches for the spot, but her muscles are too tight and sore. She tries to see it, but it's like trying to lick your own elbow.
She takes a roll of duct tape from her pack and sticks her sleeping coat against the outside of the door to the coop. She presses the coat tight against the glass panels, making little mirrors on the inside.
First, she instinctively looks at her face. It feels strange to have her face observed now, even if by her own eyes. She stretches her mouth into a practiced camera-smile. This is the face of Light-smile? She has three zits on her chin.
She pinches each zit to get that miniscule satisfying pop between her fingers. Then she checks her shoulder. She still has to strain at the neck to see. She leans and twists trying to get the right angle. She kneels and hunches. In the dusty glass, she can just barely make out a difference in color. There's a purple spot on her shoulder. She wants to scratch it. She wants to dig her fingers under the purple skin and tear at the numb flesh. She moves closer to the mirror, pressing her back to the wood of the door. There's a sort of hole in the center of the spot. The hole is dark and twisted. She wipes sleep crust from her eyelashes. She blinks and tries to focus on the hole. Something moves inside it, a yellowish something. It slithers.
She hits the door and swings around to the other side of the room. She's whispering, "Fuck, fuck, fuck…"
She has a maggot in her arm. She has at least one maggot in her arm. The tingling now feels like a bell striking against her eardrum. She presses her back against a beam in the corner of the coop. She mashes her shoulder into it. She uses her left hand to pound the shoulder against the wood.
Gradually, she forces herself to calm. She reminds herself again and again how insignificant the tingling actually is. She tries to not know that her arm will be amputated when she gets down. She tries to not know that this may be a life threatening injury. What does she actually know about maggots? Nothing.
She gathers her gear and walks out of the coop taking deep breaths. Around the side of it, she finds a table, maybe a slaughter table, maybe just a table. There are no tools on it. It is the plainest form of table, the work of either a simple man or an unskilled man. She lets her pack down and piles the wadded letters onto the crappy table. Some of them catch the breeze and roll off. She lets them fall into the dewy grass.
She notices in the daylight, at the edge of the clearing, innumerable paths are cut and beaten through the trees. These are paths cut by her father, she believes. She imagines they each must lead to another branch of his existence. If he's given up on the chicken coop, then he must have another means for survival at the end of one of these veins.
She calls his name once, “Richard!” He doesn't answer.
She flattens an envelope, undoing the folds that make it an envelope, and writes, "Dear dad…"
She writes that despite his principle that he should not pay for what he does not use, he must pay his dues to his daughter by being present at her wedding. She argues that this is a greater moral duty than his fight against taxation. She writes and writes, filling the page with arguments. Then she signs, "Sincerely, Your Daughter."
The thing is nearly illegible, written with her off-hand. It looks like a child's handwriting. It looks and feels stupid.
She re-wads the envelope. She gathers the bills and slides them back into her pack. She walks around then picking up one by one the others that rolled from the table.
She looks at the paths, and they seem to look back at her. She stands and feels the air as if the little hairs of her skin—her left arm, her neck, her cheek—can reach out and grab it.
She calls, "Hey dad!"
She walks nearer the junction of several of the paths. She yells, “Hey!”
The paths each twist off in different directions. She can't see more than fifty feet down any one of them, but if she listens closely, she thinks she hears birds chirping in their depths.
She picks a direction at random, and she walks, calling, "Da-ad? Hey, da-ad?”
Joe Scott is from Wichita, KS. He currently lives in Seattle, WA. His fiction has appeared in Arcadia, Midwest Literary Magazine, The Watershed Review, Jersey Devil Press, and Short, Fast & Deadly.