She brought only a small vinyl purse. The truck skidded and sheered as he steered it over the unploughed roads, fishtailing in the deep snow, but she didn't seem afraid or worried about where he might be taking her, about the possibility that the truck might sink in a drift, that she might freeze to death in her pea coat and glittery magician's-assistant dress. Her breath plumed out in front of her. It was twenty degrees below zero. Soon the roads would be snowed over, impassable until spring. At his one-room cabin, with furs and old rifles on the walls, he unbolted the door to the crawl space and showed her his winter hoard: a hundred smoked trout, plucked pheasants and venison quarters hanging frozen from hooks.
She scanned his books over the fireplace—a monograph on grouse habits, a series of journals on upland game birds, a thick tome titled simply Bear. She wasn't bad on snowshoes, a little clumsy. They went creaking over wind-scalloped snow in the nearly unbearable cold.
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The bear denned every winter in the same hollow cedar, the top of which had been shorn off by a storm. Black, three-fingered, and huge, in the starlight it resembled a skeletal hand thrust up from the ground, a ghoulish visitor scrabbling its way out of the underworld. They knelt. Above them the stars were knife points, hard and white. The breath that carried his words crystallized and blew away. They listened, face-to-face, their ears over woodpecker holes in the trunk.
She heard it after a minute, tuning her ears in to something like a drowsy sigh, a long exhalation of slumber. Her eyes widened. A full minute passed. She heard it again. Grizzlies are light hibernators. Sometimes all you do is step on twigs outside their dens and they're up. He began to dig at the snow. She stood back, her mouth open, eyes wide. Bent at the waist, the hunter bailed the snow back through his legs. He dug down three feet and then encountered a smooth, icy crust covering a large hole in the base of the tree.
Gently he dislodged plates of ice and lifted them aside. From the hole the smell of bear came to her, like wet dog, like wild mushrooms. The hunter removed some leaves. Beneath was a shaggy flank, a patch of brown fur. His forelegs must be up here somewhere. She put one hand on his shoulder and knelt in the snow beside the den. Her eyes were wide and unblinking. Her jaw hung open. Above her shoulder a star separated itself from a galaxy and melted through the sky.
Her voice sounded loud and out of place in that wood, under the naked cedars. She removed the mitten from her other hand with her teeth and reached down. He pulled at her again but lost his footing and fell back, clutching an empty mitten. As he watched, horrified, she turned and placed both hands, spread-fingered, in the thick shag of the bear's chest.
Then she lowered her face, as if drinking from the snowy hollow, and pressed her lips to the bear's chest. Her entire head was inside the tree. She felt the soft silver tips of fur brush her cheeks. Against her nose one huge rib flexed slightly. She heard the lungs fill and then empty. She heard blood slug through veins. Her voice echoed up through the tree and poured from the shorn ends of its hollowed branches.
The hunter took his knife from his coat. Dredging his flanks across river pebbles. Get into his arms.
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I'd grab him by the ears and kiss him on the eyes. The hunter watched the fire, the flames cutting and sawing, each log a burning bridge. Three years he had waited for this. Three years he had dreamed this girl by his fire. But somehow it had ended up different from what he had imagined. He had thought it would be like a hunt—like waiting hours beside a wallow with his rifle barrel on his pack to see the huge antlered head of a bull elk loom up against the sky, to hear the whole herd behind him inhale and then scatter down the hill.
If you had your opening you shot and walked the animal down and that was it. But this felt different. It was exactly as if he were still three years younger, stopped outside the Central Christian Church and driven against a low window by the wind or some other, greater force.
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Bruce Maples stood beside him, jabbing the ice in his drink with his straw. The hunter was watching the thin, stricken man, President O'Brien, as he stood in the corner of the reception room. Every few minutes a couple of guests made their way to him and took O'Brien's hands in their own. Sometimes the people who track them will come to a snag and the prints will disappear. As if the entire pack just leaped into a tree and vanished. Eventually they'll find the tracks again, thirty or forty feet away.
People used to think it was magic—flying wolves. But all they did was jump. One great coordinated leap. She stayed. The first time they made love, she shouted so loudly that coyotes climbed onto the roof and howled down the chimney. He rolled off her, sweating. The coyotes coughed and chuckled all night, like children chattering in the yard, and he had nightmares.
In December it never got warmer than fifteen below. The river froze—something he'd never seen. On Christmas Eve he drove all the way to Helena to buy her figure skates. In the morning they wrapped themselves head-to-toe in furs and went out to skate the river. She held him by the hips and they glided through the blue dawn, skating up the frozen coils and shoals, beneath the leafless alders and cottonwoods, only the bare tips of creek willows showing above the snow.
Ahead of them vast white stretches of river faded into darkness. In a wind-polished bend they came upon a dead heron, frozen by its ankles into the ice. It had tried to hack itself out, hammering with its beak first at the ice entombing its feet and then at its own thin and scaly legs. When it finally died, it died upright, wings folded back, beak parted in some final, desperate cry, legs like twin reeds rooted in the ice.
She fell to her knees beside the bird. In its eye she saw her face flatly reflected. You'll freeze too. She slipped off her mitten and closed the heron's beak in her fist. Almost immediately her eyes rolled back in her head. Her hand turned white and then blue in the wind. Finally she stood. That night she lay stiff and would not sleep.
It was good that we buried it, but tomorrow something will find it and dig it out. She turned to him. Her eyes were wide. He remembered how they had looked when she put her hands on the bear. I saw where she went when she died. She was on the shore of a lake with other herons, a hundred others, all facing the same direction, and they were wading among stones.
It was dawn, and they watched the sun come up over the trees on the other side of the lake. I saw it as clearly as if I were there. He rolled onto his back and watched shadows shift across the ceiling. He resolved to make sure she went out every day. It was something he'd long believed: go out every day in winter, or your mind will slip. Every winter the paper was full of stories about ranchers' wives, snowed in and crazed with cabin fever, who had dispatched their husbands with cleavers or awls.
Winter threw itself at the cabin. He took her out every day. He showed her a thousand ladybugs hibernating in an orange ball hung in a riverbank hollow; a pair of dormant frogs buried in frozen mud, their blood crystallized until spring. He pried a globe of honeybees from its hive, slow-buzzing, stunned from the sudden exposure, tightly packed around the queen, each bee shimmying for warmth. When he placed the globe in her hands, she fainted, her eyes rolled back. Lying there, she saw all their dreams at once, the winter reveries of scores of worker bees, each one fiercely vivid: bright trails through thorns to a clutch of wild roses, honey tidily brimming a hundred combs.
With each day she learned more about what she could do. She felt a foreign and keen sensitivity bubbling in her blood, as if a seed planted long ago were just now sprouting. The larger the animal, the more powerfully it could shake her. The recently dead were virtual mines of visions, casting them off with a slow-fading strength as if cutting a long series of tethers one by one. She pulled off her mittens and touched everything she could: bats, salamanders, a cardinal chick tumbled from its nest, still warm. Ten hibernating garter snakes coiled beneath a rock, eyelids sealed, tongues stilled.
Each time she touched a frozen insect, a slumbering amphibian, anything just dead, her eyes rolled back and its visions, its heaven, went shivering through her body. Their first winter passed like that. When he looked out the cabin window, he saw wolf tracks crossing the river, owls hunting from the trees, six feet of snow like a quilt ready to be thrown off.
She saw burrowed dreamers nestled under roots against the long twilight, their dreams rippling into the sky like auroras. Bruce Maples gasped when the hunter's wife finally arrived. She moved through the door like a show horse, demure in the way she kept her eyes down, but assured in her step; she brought each tapered heel down and struck it against the granite.
The hunter had not seen his wife for twenty years, and she had changed—become refined, less wild, and somehow, to the hunter, worse for it. Her face had wrinkled around the eyes, and she moved as if avoiding contact with anything near her, as if the hall table or the closet door might suddenly lunge forward to snatch at her lapels.
She wore no jewelry, no wedding ring, only a plain black suit, double-breasted. She found her nametag on the table and pinned it to her lapel. Everyone in the reception room looked at her and then looked away. The hunter realized that she, not President O'Brien, was the guest of honor. In a sense they were courting her. This was their way, the chancellor's way—a silent bartender, tuxedoed coat girls, big icy drinks. Give her pie, the hunter thought. Rhubarb pie. Show her a sleeping grizzly. They sat for dinner at a narrow and very long table, fifteen or so high-backed chairs down each side and one at each end.
The hunter was seated several places away from his wife. She looked over at him finally, a look of recognition, of warmth, and then looked away again. He must have seemed old to her—he must always have seemed old to her. She did not look at him again. The kitchen staff, in starched whites, brought onion soup, scampi, poached salmon. Around the hunter guests spoke in half whispers about people he did not know.
He kept his eyes on the windows and the blowing snow beyond. The river thawed and drove huge saucers of ice toward the Missouri. The hunter felt that old stirring, that quickening in his soul, and would rise in the wide pink dawns, grab his fly rod, and hurry down to the river.
Already trout were rising through the chill brown water to take the first insects of spring. Soon the telephone in the cabin was ringing with calls from clients, and his guiding season was on. In April an occasional client wanted a mountain lion or a trip with dogs for birds, but late spring and summer were for trout.
He was out every morning before dawn, driving with a thermos of coffee to pick up a lawyer, a widower, a politician with a penchant for wild cutthroat. He came home stinking of fish guts and woke her with eager stories—native trout leaping fifteen-foot cataracts, a stubborn rainbow wedged under a snag. By June she was bored and lonely.
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She wandered through the forest, but never very far. The summer woods were dense and busy, not like the quiet graveyard feel of winter. Nothing slept for very long; everything was emerging from cocoons, winging about, buzzing, multiplying, having litters, gaining weight. Bear cubs splashed in the river. Chicks screamed for worms. She longed for the stillness of winter, the long slumber, the bare sky, the bone-on-bone sound of bull elk knocking their antlers against trees.
In September the big-game hunters came. Each client wanted something different: elk, antelope, a bull moose, a doe. They wanted to see grizzlies, track a wolverine, shoot sandhill cranes. They wanted the heads of seven-by-seven royal bulls for their dens. Every few days he came home smelling of blood, with stories of stupid clients, of the Texan who sat, wheezing, too out of shape to get to the top of a hill for his shot.
A bloodthirsty New Yorker claimed he wanted only to photograph black bears; then he pulled a pistol from his boot and fired wildly at two cubs and their mother. Nightly she scrubbed blood out of the hunter's coveralls, watched it fade from rust to red to rose in a basin filled with river water. She began to sleep, taking long afternoon naps, three hours or more. Sleep, she learned, was a skill like any other, like getting sawed in half and reassembled, or like divining visions from a dead robin. She taught herself to sleep despite heat, despite noise. Insects flung themselves at the screens, hornets sped down the chimney, the sun angled hot and urgent through the southern windows; still she slept.
When he came home each autumn night, exhausted, forearms stained with blood, she was hours into sleep. Outside, the wind was already stripping leaves from the cottonwoods—too soon, he thought.
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He'd take her sleeping hand. Both of them lived in the grip of forces they had no control over—the October wind, the revolutions of the earth. That winter was the worst he could remember: from Thanksgiving on they were snowed in, the truck buried under six-foot drifts. The phone line went down in December and stayed down until April. January began with a chinook followed by a terrible freeze.
The next morning a three-inch crust of ice covered the snow. On the ranches to the south cattle crashed through and bled to death kicking their way out. Deer punched through with their tiny hooves and suffocated in the deep snow beneath. Trails of blood veined the hills. In the mornings he would find coyote tracks written in the snow around the door to the crawl space, two inches of hardwood between them and all his winter hoard hanging frozen beneath the floorboards.
He reinforced the door with baking sheets, nailing them up against the wood and over the hinges. Twice he woke to the sound of claws scrabbling against the metal and charged outside to shout the coyotes away. Everywhere he looked something was dying: an elk keeling over, an emaciated doe clattering onto ice like a drunken skeleton.
The radio reported huge cattle losses on the southern ranches. Each night he dreamt of wolves, of running with them, soaring over fences and tearing into the steaming carcasses of cattle. In February he woke to coyotes under the cabin. He grabbed his bow and knife and dashed out into the snow barefoot, his feet going numb.
They had gone in under the door, chewing and digging the frozen earth under the foundation. He unbolted what was left of the door and swung it free. Elk arrows were all he had, aluminum shafts tipped with broadheads. He squatted in the dark entrance—their only exit—with his bow at full draw and an arrow nocked. Above him he could hear his wife's feet pad quietly over the floorboards.
A coyote made a coughing sound. Others shifted and panted. Maybe there were ten. He began to fire arrows steadily into the dark. He heard some bite into the foundation blocks at the back of the crawl space, others sink into flesh. He spent his whole quiver: a dozen arrows. The yelps of speared coyotes went up. A few charged him, and he lashed at them with his knife.
He felt teeth go to the bone of his arm, felt hot breath on his cheeks. He lashed with his knife at ribs, tails, skulls. His muscles screamed. The coyotes were in a frenzy. Blood bloomed from his wrist, his thigh.
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She heard the otherworldly screams of wounded coyotes come up through the floorboards, his grunts and curses as he fought. It sounded as if an exit had been tunneled all the way from hell to open under their house, and what was now pouring out was the worst violence that place could send up. She knelt in front of the fireplace and felt the souls of coyotes as they came through the boards on their way skyward. He was blood-soaked and hungry, and his thigh had been badly bitten, but he worked all day digging out the truck.
If he did not get food, they would starve, and he tried to hold the thought of the truck in his mind. He lugged slate and tree bark to wedge under the tires, excavated a mountain of snow from the truck bed. Finally, after dark, he got the engine turned over and ramped the truck up onto the frozen, wind-crusted snow. For a brief, wonderful moment he had it careening over the icy crust, starlight washing through the windows, tires spinning, pistons churning, what looked to be the road unspooling in the headlights. Then he crashed through. Slowly, painfully, he began digging it out again.
It was hopeless. He would get it up, and then it would break through a few miles later. Hardly anywhere was the sheet of ice atop the snow thick enough to support the truck's weight. For twenty hours he dug and then revved and slid the truck over eight-foot drifts. Three more times it crashed through and sank to the windows. Finally he left it. He was ten miles from home, thirty miles from town. He made a weak and smoky fire with cut boughs and lay beside it and tried to sleep, but he couldn't.
The heat from the fire melted snow, and trickles ran slowly toward him but froze solid before they reached him. The stars twisting in their constellations above had never seemed farther or colder. In a state that was neither fully sleep nor fully waking, he watched wolves lope around his fire, just outside the reaches of light, slavering and lean. He thought for the first time that he might die if he did not get warmer. He managed to kneel and turn and crawl for home.
Around him he could feel the wolves, smell blood on them, hear their nailed feet scrape across the ice. He traveled all that night and all the next day, near catatonia, sometimes on his feet, more often on his elbows and knees. At times he thought he was a wolf, and at times he thought he was dead. When he finally made it to the cabin, there were no tracks on the porch, no sign that she had gone out.
The crawl-space door was still flung open, and shreds of the siding and the doorframe lay scattered about. She was kneeling on the floor, ice in her hair, lost in some kind of hypothermic torpor. With his last dregs of energy he constructed a fire and poured a mug of hot water down her throat. As he fell into sleep, he watched himself as from a distance, weeping and clutching his near-frozen wife.
They had only flour and a few crackers in the cupboards. When she could speak, her voice was quiet and far away. I know where spiders go, and geese Snow fell incessantly. Night was abiding; daylight passed in a breath. The hunter was beyond hungry. Whenever he stood up, his eyesight fled in slow, nauseating streaks of color.
He went out with lanterns to fish, shoveled down to the river ice, chopped through it with a maul, and shivered over the hole jigging a ball of dough on a hook. Sometimes he brought back a trout; other times they ate a squirrel, a hare, once a famished deer whose bones he cracked and boiled, or only a few handfuls of rose hips. In the worst parts of March he dug out cattails to peel and steam the tubers. She hardly ate, sleeping eighteen, twenty hours a day.
When she woke, it was to scribble on notebook paper before plummeting back into sleep, clutching at the blankets as if they gave her sustenance. There was, she was learning, strength hidden at the center of weakness, ground at the bottom of the deepest pit. With her stomach empty and her body quieted, without the daily demands of living, she felt she was making important discoveries. She was only nineteen and had lost twenty pounds since marrying him. Naked, she was all rib cage and pelvis. He read her scribbled dreams, but they seemed to be senseless poems and gave him no clues to her.
In April the temperature rose above zero and then above twenty. He strapped an extra battery to his pack and went to dig out the truck. Its excavation took all day. He drove it slowly back up the slushy road in the moonlight and asked if she'd like to go to town the next morning. To his surprise, she said yes. They heated water for baths and dressed in clothes they hadn't worn in six months. She threaded twine through her belt loops to keep her trousers up.
Behind the wheel his chest filled to have her with him, to be moving out into the country, to see the sun above the trees. Spring was coming; the valley was dressing up. Look there, he wanted to say, those geese streaming over the road. The valley lives. Even after a winter like that. She asked him to drop her off at the library.
He bought food—a dozen frozen pizzas, potatoes, eggs, carrots. He nearly wept at seeing bananas. In the parking lot he drank a half gallon of milk. When he picked her up at the library, she had applied for a library card and borrowed twenty books. They stopped at the Bitterroot for hamburgers and rhubarb pie. She ate three pieces. He watched her eat, the spoon sliding out of her mouth. This was better. This was more like his dreams. As soon as the line was repaired, the phone began to ring.
He took his fishing clients down the river. She sat on the porch, reading, reading. Soon her sudden and ravenous appetite for books could not be met by the Great Falls Public Library. She wanted other books—essays about sorcery, primers on magic-working and conjury that had to be mail-ordered from New Hampshire, New Orleans, even Italy.
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He opened one to a random page and read "Bring water, tie a soft fillet around your altar, burn it on fresh twigs and frankincense She regained her health, took on energy, no longer lay under furs dreaming all day. She was out of bed before he was, brewing coffee, her nose already between pages. With a steady diet of meat and vegetables her body bloomed, her hair shone, her eyes and cheeks glowed.
How beautiful she seemed to him in those few hours he was home. After supper he would watch her read in the firelight, blackbird feathers tied all through her hair, a heron's beak hanging between her breasts. In November he took a Sunday off and they cross-country skied.
They came across a bull elk frozen to death in a draw. Ravens shrieked at them as they skied to it. She knelt and put her palm on the leathered skull. She stood, trembling. It doesn't go anywhere. It goes into the crops of those ravens. How could she tell him? How could she ask him to understand such a thing? How could anyone understand? More clearly than ever she could see that there was a fine line between dreams and wakefulness, between living and dying, a line so tenuous it sometimes didn't exist.
It was always clearest for her in winter. In winter, in that valley, life and death were not so different. When confronted with a raw meat problem think Mr. Bean , hiding little pieces of his steak tartar all over his table he decided instead to use a less sophisticated and probably even dumber approach.
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