The buffaloes arrive just after the father walks to the river with his camera and the mother and boy sit and eat snacks on a bench near the car. It seems as if all of sudden the buffaloes are there, sauntering with heads swaying, between the cars and up along the sidewalk. The mother and boy sit on the bench for a bit, watching, before the mother motions for the boy to move to the car. She is able to get the door open and the boy inside just as the animals come close. She stands with the car door between her and the small herd.
She can smell them, or thinks she can, a tangy musky smell. She imagines this one here, the closest, could turn suddenly and take a run at them. Kill or maim them. Just like that. Then go back to their chewing or looking about. She wishes they would go away. It’s not like she sought them out, like the tourists they saw earlier, out in the meadow, edging ever nearer, reaching out their hands as if to pat the animals on the nose or touch the fur. Others snap pictures or point and talk excitedly, as if they didn’t realize the animals will do as they please or need and that that might be dangerous. The woman saw this too with the grizzly bear. The one out in the lush green grasses, alongside the road, snuffling about, seemingly oblivious to the jam up of cars and humans.
She watches the buffaloes with concern, but admiration too, for the thick matted fur – the bulk of torso – the firm legs – the large brown eyes and curved horns. She admires the delicate cloven hooves holding up seemingly oversized bodies. They’d found buffalo prints around the hot pools. Crazy, she thought, that buffalo would choose to walk here, along the crusted edges, where they might break through to the hot sulfurous water below. And some did – they found whitened skulls here and there along the boardwalks, and once a half-decomposed body, nothing but a pile of bones and tufts of fur.
Touching the animal would be foolish. She knows that, but still, she’s tempted. They’re nearly that close. She’s tempted to reach out and touch one, feel the coarse hair, put her head close and look into the eyes, feel their breath. She doesn’t know why. She knows such a thing would be reckless and put them at risk. She would be just like all the other silly tourists she sees, the ones she thinks she is so different from, smarter than. Although, if she thought about it, if she reflected at any length, she’d have to admit she’d done many foolish things before. Maybe it wasn’t buffalo or grizzly bears – but she’s known desire, done the unwise and meet with less than favorable results. Even when the outcome seemed obvious, she forged on – as if desire obliterated everything else. Or curiosity. Some unbearable gnawing made the risky sensible. As if some learning would be gained or something found that would fill up the wanting and make the living whole and sensible.
When they first decided to come here, they showed their son pictures and books of the place. They read to him about the massive volcano under the park. They read it could blow anytime and take out nearly half the country. It happened before. Most of the park is located in an ancient caldera, formed some million years ago when the volcano erupted. The boy asked why they would go somewhere so dangerous. They were taken aback at first, they’d never thought of the place like that.
They believed his fear would subside before the trip started, but he held the dread all winter and spring and on into summer. When they started the drive through the vast empty spaces between their home and the park, as they drove over mountain passes and followed rivers and camped and swam, it was there, this trepidation.
And here they were, they and the buffaloes and a flimsy car door between. No one imagined this. They’d done as instructed. Stayed on the boardwalks, left the wildlife alone. When they crossed over into the park, the boy shouted from the backseat that he didn’t think this was a good idea but they paid him no mind. They stopped at the first roadside attraction; a hot springs and short trail. There they saw a buffalo skull sitting beside the boardwalk, in a place where certainly no one should walk, especially a living thing weighing tons. They let they boy use the camera and he took picture, looked long into the clear pools, as if he could see something there, something pure or vital or reassuring. When he returned to the car, the dread was gone, replaced by curiosity.
Now the boy squirms and makes the creature look, says he wishes he had a camera as he rolls the window down and hangs his head out to get a better look. The mother puts her hand to her lips, shushes him, mouths for him to stay still. She is afraid of sudden movements or sounds. She is afraid of the beast knowing the boy is there, of turning toward the car and lunging. And the others too, behind the car and in front, the herd moving through the parking lot to the road. She fears what they might do. She wants them gone, all of them. The boy protected. The husband safe. She can see him now, with his tripod and camera, his hat tilted and a scruff of stubble starting around his chin, back from the river and walking into the parking lot, unaware that anything might be amiss.
The buffalo nearest her turns his head and looks at her, sideways and wild. She tries gazing into his eye like she might into her child’s or husband’s eyes, looks for some clue of what broods beneath, what action might come next. As if there is some way of knowing. It didn’t seem fair really, there they were eating a snack and along come the buffaloes, and she having to judge their fear and hers too and what might happen and how much was at risk. And tempting her too, to touch, to reach out and grasp at things for no good reason. Why had she never considered the dangers? Why did she not see the risks? As if there would be no consequence for gazing direct into the workings of the planet? And the animals. All the beautiful, mysterious creatures roaming freely, coming unbidden and doing as they please. And all of them, she, her husband, the tourists, her son even. Snap pictures. Gaggle and point. Marvel and try to touch. What do they desire? What danger? What peril? What curiosity? Why would they, any of them, think they could ever come away unscathed?