Jennifer Bowen Hicks

“Make a law that loves the one who breaks it.” —Larry Levis


The trouble started before they were born, as our steepest problems often do. Water flowed through cracks and fissures and degraded the earth, soil by speck. To the naked eye the ground looked fine. It looked untroubled. But a day came when the surface could no longer hold and it collapsed and revealed the cavity. Houses have been swallowed by sinkholes, as have highways, humans, half a town. The sinkhole at Hot Springs filled with water, then the bodies of lost, lumbering, juvenile male mammoths. Such sites are called boneyards, which rings faintly of prison yard or schoolyard, and while the sinkhole in South Dakota may have served as both of those things for a fast five seconds—(they learned; they couldn’t leave; they learned they couldn’t leave)— for the beasts that fell, it was and remains, an accidental teen graveyard.

Tens of thousands of years after the fact—with my sons beside me and a tour guide ahead—I see mammoth bones curl from this same pit in spikes and clumps. Tusks overlap knobbed spines. Footprints, broken hooves, scat, skulls, and molars the size of a child’s head are numbered and left where beings died. More than eighty bodies fill this former hot spring. Excavators nicknamed the fossils: Napolean Bone-apart, Sinbad, and so on. A paleontologist later stripped them of their names and christened the lot of them Murray, which makes of them a mob, even though they fell one by one.

The guide asks us why it’s only juveniles inside the pit. “And why” she presses, “only males?” I think of my young student D who got out of prison and one month later went back. Got out. Went back. Got out. Went back. And when I talk to D, I push away thoughts of the boys in my own family who are struggling. I’m learning what I should’ve known all along: Finding trouble is never anyone’s plan.

Murray might’ve grazed for more than his share of the sedges and grass, tussled roughly and too often. Tried to mate with trees. He might’ve grown distant from his pack–was in fact booted out–and begun to roam the plains solo.

He’s young, you see, and his amygdala is still growing and pulsing when he spots this slice of impossibly abundant grass and, well. The water inside the sinkhole is 87 degrees. Its outer edge is a feast, the Pleistocene version of a Vegas buffet, also a literal slippery slope. Murray saunters up to the ledge. All around him snow blankets dried brush, but before him, the earth smells of green grass, peat moss, moist air, soil.

He nears the pit. He’s young and without chaperones and he’s growing every second and always there’s this hunger and there are those who would know better, whether from instinct or experience or inhibition, but they’re not here; it’s Murray’s choice now, isn’t it?

And like that he takes another step forward. He’s hungry, so he eats. He’s thirsty, so he drinks. He steps again. The ground slips beneath his feet and he doesn’t know what he’s doing, let alone how to make it stop. So he splashes into a trap that started thousands of years before he was born. He will never leave, not in body or in bones.

Why him and not others?

Probably it matters if you live with abundance or scarcity. Near holes or grass plains. If it has been a while since your last meal. If you’ve found another to trail in the absence of a family unit, and if that other walks into or around traps. Heat. Predators. Hunger. Hubris. Even when it’s obvious who’s at risk, it’s not clear how to stop them.

The traps may change through regions and time, but stuck is stuck. The sinkholes in South Dakota where the Murrays lie. Old tar pits in California, where floating leaves and weeds beckoned from the top of an oil slick that was covered in dust. Un-solid earth, back alleys, unfeeling classrooms. At Angola in Louisiana: three strikes you’re out.

(He falls. He is falling. He fell. )

What will our teen graveyards look like in five thousand years? Under what sky or roof or reason do we hold their early end? Will the boys in my family, with dimples like D’s, find themselves safe or sinking?

Large is not invulnerable after all. Young is not immortal. Neither is vibrant or well intended or even well loved. Would that the earth had a mechanism to seal itself up before they tumbled in, so rather than slipping, they just keep rambling on ahead, past the sinkholes, past the hot springs, past the tar pits and the cuffs and the cells, straight through the center of their own vibrating adolescence, until they are safe or at least safer, until they’ve survived themselves. Until they’ve made it to the other side.

Jennifer Bowen Hicks has work in Orion, Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her writing has been honored with Best American Essay Notable mention, a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, the Arts & Letters Prize, Tim McGinnis Award, a Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Scholarship, and others.  She’s the Artistic Director of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and teaches creative writing in prisons throughout Minnesota. She lives in St. Paul with equal numbers of teenagers and large dogs.