Laws of Motion


March 14, 2012 by The Citron Review

by Nancy Whitley


The thump and hum of the tires hush and I sense his foot ease off the gas. He won’t hit the brakes, not even gently, because if he does we’ll slam into the granite wall on our right or careen over the cliff on our left. He’s already navigated two patches of black ice since we left home, but they were before we reached the stretch of two-lane highway cut into the gorge, and before the bleak January sky gave way to a starless moonless night.

The rear of the car swings toward the cliff and he snaps the wheel into the slide. A shaft of light from the headlight stretches out against barren thistles scratched into the granite wall, and even though the heater blows a steady stream of warm air, the mute chill which has been gathering between us descends like a veil of freezing rain. I start to shiver.

We slide sideways. I pull my elbow into my waist as if the inch of space I free will insulate us from the scarred upheaval outside. I wonder what cataclysm unmoored that slab of granite and pitched it on its edge.

The right front tire grabs a patch of dry asphalt and he turns the wheel and we angle back onto the glistening black. I shift against the door again. I think of the river running a couple hundred feet below the cliff, its cold waves carving the gorge a million years ago.

The car should be straightening out. He should be expounding about friction and force and inertia. He should be quoting Newton’s laws of motion to explain the car’s action on the ice. I should be staring out the window into the dark again, asking myself why I no longer oppose the force pulling him away from me. But the car slides sideways at a faster rate than it skates forward.

Maybe it’s just the buildup of momentum which sends the car snaking across both lanes. More than likely his foot taps the brake. Neither of us utters a sound when the road swerves away from the cliff but the car keeps heading straight. The front tires crunch onto the shoulder.

And then we are sailing off the ledge. I see the futility of his hands gripping the wheel, his right leg pumping the brake. The car hits the ground and in the rumble down the slope I hear boulders claw at the underpinnings. I flinch as a thin tree appears and disappears as if swallowed by steel. The boulders, the scrawny tree, nothing stops us.

The car begins to flip and I tumble into a cramped, dark void. I am still in the car but I don’t know where. The clamor sounds like thunder. Like a thick layer of ice breaking free.


Nancy Whitley lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in the online magazine,

9 thoughts on “Laws of Motion

  1. What a powerful piece of work! Your command of detail and the physical facts of the situation is really impressive.

  2. Donna Thomson says:

    WOW,!! Nancy my friend. . .this is great work.. . .so descriptive Thanks for sharing.

  3. Judi Levens says:

    I am blown away Nancy! very powerful and gripping…

  4. Tom Nelson says:

    A different “spin” on your tale, Nancy. Someone finally described the action in every turn during my years of powering sports racing cars around the track. Aways on the edge, but without going over.

    See you when? Cheers.

  5. B. Hauch says:

    It was so terrifyingly real that I physically was nauseous. Just great.

  6. We all know that experience of flying out of control you so vividly describe. I find it fascinating to encounter the passivity of the observer watching the other who seems to direct what happens next. But does he? I particularly like the sense of inevitability and the weight of ice breaking free. Each reading gives up more. A marvelous and rich prose poem, Nancy!

  7. Michaele says:

    This was riveting! Reminds of so many late night drives in the Colorado mountains. Very well done!!!!

  8. Nancy:
    My heart was stopping and starting as the car slipped and then gripped. Not only did I want the car to get traction, but wanted answers to the chill inside the car. Wonderful writing!

  9. Connie Rosenblum says:

    Nancy, You do exactly capture the hitting ‘Black Ice’ on the road-experience, as I have known it driving in the northwest, but I kept thinking there was a whole …..BOOK….. leading up to or as a back flash from? this literal “black ice” clincher, which would reveal the underlying figurative or metaphorical ‘Black Ice’ you have in mind? Keep Writing!

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