The Pionjar

Megan Gebhard

The rhythm shook my bones until I was numb at the joints. I struggled to keep hold of the jackhammer’s rubber handles. I called it a jackhammer anyway. That’s what it looked like to me. Daniel called it a Pionjar.

I tried to keep a firm grip and guide its butting head into the shelves of sandstone. Shards crumbled onto the floor of the dirt trench. Dust churned in the hot air, choking my lungs and making my mouth dry and gritty. The drill head ate through the last of the soft sandstone and hit hard bedrock. My right hand slipped momentarily from the handle and the pounding metal drill jumped from the sandstone towards my feet, nipping at the edge of my boot. I let go of the gas and the Pionjar sputtered to a stop. I wiggled my toes, trying to count each one that moved. Ten. Good, they were all still there. I half smiled. Not bad for a girl.

I wiped muddy sweat from my face. The morning air was already hot and oppressive. Snakes of sweat slithered down my back and stomach. As the dust settled, a swarm of gnats attacked my head. Swatting was useless, I knew, but I batted them away with my hand anyway. I hadn’t imagined a summer job at the national park being so miserable. I’d woken up that morning with my ears swollen and my eyes red and puffy from gnat bites from the past few days. Since when could gnats bite anyway?

I grabbed my water bottle from the edge of the trench and leaned against the warm dirt, staring at the Pionjar resting against the opposite wall. My arms ached looking at it. Sometimes the Pionjar reminded me of a big horn sheep—like the ones I’d seen on the nature shows on TV—always butting its head, only the Pionjar butted against the earth and not against the head of another sheep. It sure didn’t seem like it was going anywhere. My morning’s work had only produced a small depression in the rock. The progress seemed so insignificant. I surveyed the remaining few yards of sandstone and bedrock I still had to drill through. Today would be a long day.

The park had finally gotten enough money spattered together to dig a new sewer line for the campgrounds. Jess, the park superintendent, put the maintenance crew in charge of the project. I had never dug a trench or installed piping, but I quickly learned it was an art form. The trench slope had to be at a specific angle—not too steep, because everything would flow too quickly and cause a clog, and not too shallow, because everything would move too slowly and cause a clog. Greg, our safety supervisor, came to check the slope every few hours. Some days we shoveled out dirt like crazed badgers. Others days we had to pour the dirt right back in.

I’d never liked working with my hands. The only experience I had for the job was projects done with my family. I built a lopsided birdhouse with my little sister Julie once and last spring I helped my grandma wrap chicken wire around her garden to keep the rabbits out. I took the job because I needed money to put away for college.

I wanted to be a history teacher and I needed a degree to be one. Most kids my age think history is boring, but history was always my favorite. It’s safe. You already know everything about it—no surprises. Anyway, I only wanted to go to the local community college, but money was tight at home. My parents were still paying off Lizzie’s medical bills.

Lizzie was my sister. She was supposed to start high school this fall. She was supposed to be working at the Snow Shack making snow cones this summer and going swimming with me and Julie and reading books on the back porch. She’s buried in the City Park Cemetery instead. She died last winter.

She wasn’t supposed to die. She went up to the mountains with some family friends to go sledding and snowmobiling. She’d been sledding up there a thousand times. There was an accident and Lizzie’s sled collided with a tree. She was life-flighted to St. Luke’s hospital with some bad head injuries and was in a coma for a few days. She never woke up.

“Ready for another job?” Daniel came up, shovel in hand. I shook my head. I didn’t like thinking about Lizzie too much.

“I can finish this up in a minute. I’m just taking a breather.” The last thing I wanted was for him to think I was too wimpy for this job. Deep down, I knew I was only hired because the government required a certain number of female employees working in the park. I filled the quota.

“Too bad. Greg radioed in. He wants us to drive to the east side. Someone called to report a dead animal on the road near Double Falls. We’ll check it out and clean up the mess.”

The mess? Would I be sweeping guts off the side of the road? My stomach churned as I climbed out of the trench, pulling the Pionjar out with me. Daniel slung it in the bed of the truck. I slid into the passenger seat. I wasn’t allowed to drive the park vehicles yet.

The engine gurgled contentedly as we pulled out of the campground. The drive to the east side of the park took about half an hour. I rolled down the window, my fingers playing with the breeze outside. Driving around was my favorite part of the job. I think it was everyone’s favorite part. I kept my eyes on the red rocks and sweeping canyons blowing past my window. I’d promised my little sister Julie that I’d report any wildlife I spotted during work. She’d informed me of all the animals living within the park—mountain lions, squirrels, lizards, desert bighorn, mule deer, coyotes, and a pair of golden eagles. I doubted I’d see anything. If I were an animal, I’d stay as far away from this noisy roadway as possible. With thousands of acres in the park, I could think of lots of places to hang out besides the side of the road.

My sister Julie was nuts. She wanted to be a zookeeper. While most kids came home from school and flipped on the TV to cartoons, she turned on recorded episodes of Emergency Vets and decade-old videos of Marty Stouffer’s Wild America. She was only eight but I was convinced that she was on her way to being a crazy cat lady. She kept a wad of her cat Muffi’s musty fur in her sock drawer. And last Christmas she knit Muffi a vest. That was the first time I felt like that cat and I had anything in common because Julie knit me a matching scarf with the leftover yarn. I knew she really made the scarf for Lizzie, but she gave it to me instead.

“Good work handling the Pionjar today. It’s not an easy job,” Daniel said.

“Thanks. It’s definitely not as easy as it looks.”

Daniel huffed out a laugh. “That’s for sure.”

“So what’s the difference between a jackhammer and a Pionjar? They look the same to me.”

“They’re spelled differently.” He looked at me and raised his bushy eyebrows.

“Why even have two names then?”

He shrugged. “Dunno. That’s just what it’s called up here.”

“What kind of animal did Greg say was on the road?”

“Sounded like a mule deer. A car of German tourists called in, and I guess they had heavy accents, and Greg’s been half deaf in his right ear for years. We’ll find out for sure when we get there.”

Pictures of all the dead rabbits I’d seen on the road by my house floated into my mind. They were all pretty flattened; you’d have to use a putty knife to scrape them off. We didn’t bring any putty knives with us. I hoped we didn’t need them.

We passed the sign marking the Double Falls turnoff. About fifty feet further was a brown smudge on the side of the road. We pulled up behind it. I didn’t want to breathe when we stepped out of the truck. The air smelled slightly rank, of meat just beginning to rot. The animal was sprawled against the blue asphalt, its slender legs awkwardly angled beneath its body. It wasn’t a mule deer.

Daniel swore. I tried to remember what Julie has said about the herd of desert bighorn sheep that lived in the park. They lived on the west side. What was this one doing all the way out here? Daniel pulled out his radio.

“Greg, its Dan.”

Greg’s voice came out of the radio, loud and full of static.

“Did you find the deer?”

“Its no deer. Someone hit one of the bighorn ewes, one of the two-year-olds by the looks of it.”

I took a step closer to the dead sheep. My boot nearly touched its bloody hind leg. I knew enough to realize how important the herd was to the park. It was one of the last native herds left in the state. These sheep had been born in these canyons and had wandered through the juniper groves for who knows how long. Generations of Native Americans, settlers, and tourists had heard the clack of their hooves as they bounced up a rock face. This ewe was a part of this park.

Her unblinking eyes reflected the world like two small globes. I thought I could see my silhouette moving in the black of her iris. Her horns were small, dainty. They didn’t look strong enough to withstand the powerful head butts her breed was famous for. Maybe females didn’t head butt like the males did. Or maybe she was too young to take part. I wondered if two years was much in the life of a bighorn. Then I saw the blood draining from beneath her rump. Her hind flank was strangely flat and sagged against the asphalt. I wanted to gag. The car must have crushed her hipbones, knocking them into jumbled pieces and tearing into her tender flesh. I tried to imagine what it felt like to be hit so hard that all my bones shattered. I felt my bones drifting into my innards. I caught my breath. It was a familiar feeling. I took a deep breath as my vision blurred. That was how Lizzie died. That was how I felt when Lizzie died.

I wanted to pull the ewe away from the road and dig her a grave. I felt she deserved as much. The hole would have to be big. My uncle made the mistake once of digging a hole too small for his old dog Tank. He spent four hours digging it only to find that Tank had stiffened up and wouldn’t fit. So Tank was buried in pieces. I didn’t want to learn how to use a chainsaw today. I nudged her hind hoof. It hardly budged. Daniel was still on the radio with Greg.

“The body? In good condition. The hind legs are broken but the head is still decent. Yeah, I think maybe they could use it at the visitor’s center. We’ll bring it back to headquarters and you can have a look.”

“We’re taking her back to headquarters?” I glanced at Daniel, then back to her. He nodded.

“Greg figures we can use the head at the visitor’s center.”

“What?”

“We’ll have it stuffed and they’ll probably hang it on the wall in the animal exhibit. It’d be a shame to waste what’s left of her.” He motioned to the ewe.

We pulled on our thick leather gloves and unfolded the plastic tarp on the ground next to the body. As Daniel instructed, I took hold of the head. The flesh was no longer soft and supple. It was like I was gripping something wooden and cold. Like it hadn’t been living at all. I took a deep breath. I tried not to think of Lizzie. How cold and stiff her hands felt before they closed her casket. As Daniel and I picked the ewe’s body up and transferred it to the truck bed next to the Pionjar, the body didn’t sag with gravity’s pull. It was stiff, as if we were carrying a piece of furniture. I shook my head. But it wasn’t a piece of furniture. She had existed. She was more than the stiff body, lying so still.

We got into the truck again and started back towards maintenance headquarters. I stared into the passing wilderness, my eyes searching for anything that moved. Julie would ask what animals I’d seen today. I wanted to find something living to report to her. I didn’t want to tell her about a dead sheep. Thinking about the ewe, her body broken, her brown eyes staring at me, I kept seeing Lizzie’s bruised body, wrapped in a hospital gown, her eyes closed. She had looked peaceful. Like she was asleep. But the ewe died with her eyes wide open.

Suddenly Daniel pulled off to the side of the road. He pointed out over the canyon.

“Look—on that overhang just to the right—you see them?” he said. I followed the direction of his finger. “That’s our pair of golden eagles.”

It took a moment before my eyes found them: two giant birds perched in the gnarled branches of a juniper tree rooted precariously on the cliff’s edge. The sun glinted off the eagles’ brown feathers. I squinted. The light made my eyes water. I blinked a few times, and then looked away. I had found something living to tell Julie about. But all I could think of was the ewe, warm in the bed of the truck. She had brown eyes, like Lizzie did. She was young. Lizzie was too. I looked back at the eagles once more.

“They’re beautiful,” I said, nodding to Daniel.

Daniel pulled back onto the road. The roar of the engine disrupted the silence of the canyon. “This canyon is their favorite place in the park. It’s the only place I’ve ever spotted them,” he said. I looked back briefly. I could still see the eagles, two lone black specks against the desert sky.

“Greg can help me with the sheep. Are you up to finishing off that sheet of sandstone today?” Daniel asked. He slowed the truck as we passed the visitors center and turned off towards the campgrounds.

I nodded.

“Good. Greg’ll be over in an hour or so to see how the slope’s coming along. I’d say try to go about six inches deeper. The bottom of the trench is all bedrock, so it might take you awhile to cut through it.”

He dropped me off at the trench site. I leaned against the side-door. I tried not to look in the bed of the truck. Dan pulled the Pionjar out from next to the dead ewe. She was beginning to smell. He handed me the Pionjar. I didn’t want to touch it. I wanted to wipe it down, to clean it. But I took it from him anyway.

The metal casing burned my leg through my work pants. I glanced once more at the still body in the truck bed before turning and trudging to the trench, dragging the drill behind me and sliding down into the hot dirt. I could feel the heat seeping through my work gloves. I found the spot where I’d stopped drilling hours before, the same small insignificant indentation in the rock. I had a long way to go. I wasn’t worried. The Pionjar roared to life, butting its head into the red rock. Sweat rolled down my face like tears. Or maybe they were just tears. I couldn’t tell. They both taste salty to me.