Horseshoe Highway

by Jill McCabe Johnson

There’s a barn on Horseshoe Highway, where every season the owner mounts lights. In spring a bunny, in fall a pumpkin. Come December, he usually puts up a star, but this year he erected an angel with wide skirt, broad arms, and an unnaturally tiny head. Driving by late to catch the last ferry, I wonder about small-minded, pin-headed angels.

The sweep of the Douglas fir branches, with their dip of vestments and upturned tips, follows exactly the encompassing curvature of angel arms that, even on an indifferent night like tonight, beckon, because now it’s January. The war limps on. Christmas and its attendant love- thy-neighbor have passed. In fact, there are no neighbors out tonight. Only me worried for the dumb angels, and noticing how the debris from three solid days of wind makes beds of needles and cedar fronds on the forest floor for the three-legged deer I’ve seen in these woods, and the raccoon whose eyes shine at night, and the Douglas squirrel who, good soldier that he is, barks when frightened to warn the other squirrels.

But none of it is real. Not the angels, nor the loving arms of trees, nor the beds they create for furry friends. Even the compassion I feel is nothing more than a clever selfishness to trick me into thinking ‘I care, therefore I am,’ an undeserved elevation, a reaching toward heaven, like the tops of trees. A funny thing about the Doug fir: sometimes it bends a little, so it doesn’t reach its full height and certainly can’t aspire to eternity, as though it bumped its head against life’s limits, or perhaps was bowed down like the cedar, dejected at the broken promise of life divine. I want to believe the angel’s head is small on purpose so it won’t accidentally lift itself into heaven but will stay on earth for those of us who need grace most. But this is the foolishness of limited minds: the fearful and superstitious, those of us stubbornly unwilling to fall like needles and boughs.

Forgive me. I don’t mean to sound morose. It’s January. The roadside reflects more brown than green, and what little green remains will turn brown soon enough. I’m just trying to catch a ferry. Not thinking about angels staple-gunned to the sides of barns. Not thinking about fallen arms. Not thinking how we’re all nothing more than the future stomping grounds of rodents and the lame, and maybe this is the most perfect, most just reward, that we should lay our bodies into the loam for innocents like the deer whose leg we hit on a night unbearably similar to tonight.


Jill McCabe Johnson is the director of Artsmith, a non-profit to support the arts. She is the recipient of the Paula Jones Gardiner Award in Poetry from Floating Bridge Press, a grant from the Center for Great Plains Studies, a Deborah Tall Memorial Fellowship, and an artist residency from the Anderson Center.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as The Los Angeles Review, Umbrella Journal, and Harpur Palate, and was recently nominated for the Pushcart.  She has an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University, and is currently pursuing a PhD in English from the University of Nebraska.