What is it about fear that we adore? Is it the the chill along the spine or the way our blood bubbles under the skin? It must be how much we love masks, how playful we become when we feel infinite and unknown. From celebrity Heidi Klum transforming herself into Jessica Rabbit to the child running throughout your own neighborhood in a Star Wars Stormtrooper costume, Halloween delights in the idea of fear, of making oneself unrecognizable, inhuman, a creature.
To celebrate this ghastly night, the minnesota review has collected ten works from the previous five issues of the minnesota review for its blog. Take pleasure (and a little fear) in reading poems and stories about keeping a sheep brain in a jar, severed dolls, bats in the attic, chaining up a father, dreaming of sex with a bear, seeking out a ghost, stealing a soul, cartoon dancing skeletons, demon possession, and of course growing a severed head in a garden.
We’ve handpicked poems and stories that give off a similar sensation of a chilled spine, a hair-raise, a thumping heart. Though not all of them will make you scream, these works know how to give the reader a piece of the unfamiliar and unknown.
We at the minnesota review wish you all the ghouls and gore this Halloween. Don’t forget our submissions deadline for the upcoming issue is November 1. If you felt strange about submitting that zombie love sonnet or that devilish flash fiction piece, fear not!
Read on to gather any last-minute inspiration for your undead poem. We love to be surprised (and scared) just as much as you do!
“I Keep My Little Sheep Brain in a Jar”
First appeared in Issue 76, 2011
At the Science Museum sheep
brain likes the fetus exhibit best. We
slide along the back-lit jars. Bulbs
of many sizes float and squeeze their fists
and black pea eyes. Little sheep brain likes
to watch me eat three hot dogs at the Galaxy
Café but not the buns. We exit quickly past
the incubator chicks who hatch-re-hatch
their too-small tender wings. Usually
is our favorite word. A day starts like this:
open mouth aerobics in the dawn light
to practice humming and denials. Seven
grain cereal then a phone call where I answer
yes then fine then yes and then we bang
the screen door three times out of safety. We
ceiling check for spreading stains. Usually
the weather stain has grown northeast one
corner of an inch. Once a day we have our time
away from one another. Sheep brain sits
windowsill and I outside so we are glass
and Venetian blind apart. I watch for extinct
deer. I imagine one might wobble from
the Conoco on spindly legs. Usually
this is a big enough day for sheep brain who
already starts to get a weariness about her. When
little sheep brain wants to dream I shake her jar
up vigorously. When nighttime comes a pooling
of the face at corners. My little sheep brain wears
her earmuffs and I mine though hers are red
and mine are mintish-blue. We wear
our earmuffs so the hearing comes in
quieter. I try to stay inside my brain and play
my stick and ball game but sometimes ribs
and the space-betweeness of things, bundled
curses, huddle of almost in the throat. The empty
and the never-done are loud and bicker, not
quiet like you’d think. Mornings I limp
heavy. Give two quarters of the listening
to sheep brain and she carries it for me. This
is what love is. If little sheep brain dies
I will empty the contents of her jar onto
the stick grass of my yard. I will sit
inside and watch the ravens come
and peck. Should I die first I have told
my little sheep brain in a jar to do the same
for me. Holstered on my hip is how
my little sheep brain walks as the dogwood
bloom and bloom.
“lesson on dream interpretation”
First appeared in Issue 76, 2011
the best way to fend off a serial killer is to jab them
right in the kidney over and over, or perhaps throw them
over the banister of a house you share with at least eight
strangers just like you. afterward you all gather around
the kitchen island like nothing happened, sharing tiny hot dogs
and pimento loaf though you keep screaming across the room
you’re a vegetarian let’s face it, no one eats pimento loaf. not
really. no one is listening except the night. there is a zombie this time
and you think the kidney punch will work since in your dreams
cognitive learning jumps from scene to scene only the tactic
doesn’t bode well. you end up running for your life in slow motion.
funny how the brain tries to make up for what it can’t understand,
except there’s a buffet line, a room full of poets you’ve talked to
maybe twice where you split a cookie with a writer you envy as
you fixate on her red pin up pumps beneath the table you two share
with the round movie gangster who tops off your chianti, ignores
the wife whose glass has been empty every half hour for the past
thirty years you say to yourself none of this makes sense, know
it’s too late. you are wrapped in the arms of a lover you won’t go
back to and it is lovely to see up close both your limbs atop one
another, strewn across the bed as a canvas of severed dolls marked
and mapped with each others scars, until the darkness of the morning
claws at the edges around you. none of it is meant to mean any one
thing at all, yet everything in you broken sticks itself to your tongue
like a brine, even after you click on the night stand lamp, after you reach
for a glass of lukewarm water, try to wash down your throat something
you can’t yet name away
“Ingredients for the Unmaking”
First appeared in Issue 78, 2012
Her propensity to worry
scabs, trust strangers, blush.
4 pounds of blood and a fistful of forget-me-nots
dangling over the rim of a pill bottle.
Earnest sympathy for every fever
you ever faked or
the hiss of hydrogen
peroxide on a dog bite.
a lab technician digging for a vein.
The little box on the dresser, the one crowded
with kernels of milk teeth — their dark centers.
Hereditary terror of crows
of thunder of the cellar of
Everything she ever bought you in lavender.
The bat from the attic, wings broken like umbrella spokes.
Lullabies, the cream
quietly curdling on the table.
This rubber summer. A miraculous
medal in the glove box.
and a firm handshake.
Succor for the dead.
A face like crumpled laundry.
“The Devil’s Fingers”
First appeared in Issue 78, 2012
Eliot enjoyed the blue rasp of his brother’s sleepy breathing, but then a floorboard near the bedroom door creaked, the sound cracking into the room. Eliot kept his eyes closed, though. He knew those heavy boots and didn’t want the first thing he saw to be his father. Not today.
“Wake up, boys.”
There was no ignoring that tone, so Eliot opened his eyes. Sherwood leaned against the doorframe, his breath ghosting into the air. Hard as an axe handle, Sherwood had an abundance of black hair on his forearms and a nose that burned red when he was into his whiskey. Leaning forward, he jabbed the butt of a rifle at Hilton’s shoulder. “You too, pee wee. We got business.”
Eliot’s chest tightened in the cold. “What time is it?” he asked. The moon was high and bright through the black square of the window.
“Time to put a hitch in your giddy-up,” Sherwood said. “Meet me in the yard. No bellyaching.”
“Yes, sir.” Eliot swung his bald feet to the floor and tried to keep them out of the moonlight. His toes were too long, bony. He also worried about the sharpness of his elbows, that his ears were small. Once, he’d scooped a spoonful of bacon lard from the pan and eaten it, thinking it would help thicken his chest and arms. Eliot rubbed his hands together, pulled the blanket off his brother.
“What in the Sam Hill?” Hilton sat up, anger sharpening his face. There was never irritation in Hilton’s features, just anger, some- times bold enough that bone gleamed through. The boys in Button were afraid of Hilton. He’d broken his own finger once on a dare.
“What does Pa want anyway?” Hilton asked.
“We’re about to find out soon as you stop jawing and put boots on.”
In the yard, Sherwood was eyeing the moon, cradling the rifle in his arm. His eyes were watery, distant. But he hadn’t been drinking, his nose wasn’t red. The woods edging their fallow were full of breath.
“That’s a right pretty moon,” Sherwood said. “Take a gander.” Eliot and Hilton looked up.
“Moons like that always remind me of your mother’s knee.”
The cold and bodiless light of the stars turned the air blue and sheer. Sherwood lowered his face and pointed to the wagon. “You boys grab two chains and follow along.”
The chains were swaying metal snakes across Hilton and Eliot’s shoulders. Their legs burned with the weight. Sherwood slipped into the forest on the east side of their farm, and the boys exchanged glances. The still was through the north quarter, the weed in the hollow of Alligator Hill out west. Nothing was east but Turtle Lake. And the path through the dogwoods was rotten with sticky leaves this time of the year. Each step released a smell like bad breath.
They pushed through clots of cogon grass and loops of cow- itch. Eliot held a branch aside for his brother, watched him trudge past with a determined look, damp leaves sticking like leeches to his pants.
Sherwood moved through the woods easily, dipping a shoulder here or lifting a foot there to avoid thorn and branch. He would stop and lean his cheek against the cobbled bark of an oak or rub a dead nettle’s silvered leaf between his fingers. Moonlight plunged through a canopy of leaves as if searching for them. Now and then Sherwood stopped to let the boys catch their breath, but not for long.
“What’s up his ass?” Hilton whispered.
Eliot re-shouldered his chain. “Today’s her birthday.”
Hilton’s mouth drew into a sharp line. They continued on.
The boys caught up with their father in the shadow of Kissing Rock, a granite thumb thrust from the ground. Eliot’s mother had called it an error in the earth, a fault caused by the Devil reaching his fingers up. The memory of that picnic rushed up. Baloney sandwiches under an unforgiving sun, the bread mottled with finger dents. Dark seeds bobbing in cold lemonade. His mother’s bony hands threaded through his hair. Never stand in one spot too long, she’d told him. Lest the Devil grab you.
Sherwood sat on the ground, leaning against the rock. His white fingers shook in the air.
“Pa,” Eliot said.
Sherwood cuffed tears off his cheek. His face hardened and flushed. “I’m done with it, boys. Bring them chains.”
Eliot and Hilton shrugged off the chains. Links clattered to the ground.
Sherwood wrapped one end of the chain across his chest. “Hilton, you wrap the other round my legs. Wrap it tight.”
“Pa,” Eliot said.
“Do as I say!” Sherwood spit a little snapping the command.
“Yes, sir,” Eliot said, but didn’t move.
Moonlight wiggled on the black water. For a moment, Sherwood’s face reddened, then his eyes warmed.
“I’ve got the black-ass, son.” He rubbed his face with both hands. “Got it fierce. This whole world is nothing but mistakes.” Sherwood’s hands fell away into fists. “Sell Mildred to the McAllens, but only after you milk her dry. Take the weed and the shine to the Clangs. That’ll work the way it has for years. You boys can eat off those proceeds. Let the rest fall to shame.” Sherwood grabbed the rifle, lever- aged the barrel under his chin. “Wrap them chains around me, boys. Do it before I have to spend my last breath whipping you.”
Eliot shivered. A drop of sweat crawled down his ribs.
Hilton moved forward and started wrapping the chains around Sherwood’s legs.
“You too, Eliot,” Sherwood said.
“I can’t do that.” Eliot felt awkward, like he was full of clothes hangers.
Sherwood pulled the rifle from under his chin and pushed the barrel forward. The cold, black circle pushed against Hilton’s white forehead. Hilton’s eyes narrowed and his breath stopped, but he didn’t turn away. “You do as you’re told, Eliot, or I’ll take your runt brother with me. I’ll take both of you with me if I have to. After I’m passed, you boys roll my body into the lake. Let me sink into the black with your mother.”
Hilton wrapped his fingers around the rifle barrel and moved it off his forehead. Then he leaned forward and wrapped the chain around Sherwood’s chest.
“Spunky little runt,” Sherwood said. “Always have been.”
Hilton finished. He stood next to Eliot, who hadn’t moved at all. Sherwood pulled the rifle to his chest. Absurdity radiated from him. He looked at his boys.
“Watch or not,” Sherwood said. “Maybe you’ll be able to for- get. This won’t be the last thing you wish you could turn away from.”
A tendon tightened along Sherwood’s arm and his thumb mashed. When the trigger clicked, Sherwood jerked his head back, but the rifle didn’t fire. “Damp,” he said. “Never has shot right.” Then he closed his mouth around the muzzle. His cheeks swelled as he blew through the barrel. “Never buy a gun from Kaufman’s Mercantile, boys. The man sells junk.” Sherwood steadied the rifle between his thighs again. He lowered his chin onto the barrel and flicked his eyes toward his boys as he pulled the trigger.
The world was one sound. A red and fast panting. Eliot went to his knees.
Hilton laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “He ain’t dead.”
Eliot looked up. Sherwood’s left foot twitched. Blood wormed over the wrinkled folds of his throat. His lungs struggled, but his skull was intact.
“Should we roll him in anyway?” Hilton asked.
Eliot punched Hilton on the shoulder. “What’s wrong with you?”
A sigh in the trees. The gentle teeth of the water chewing the shore.
“Does it take a long time to die?” Hilton asked. “I wish we would’ve brought some food.”
Sherwood raised his head and groaned.
Eliot leaned close to his father’s face. Foggy eyes, unfocused as a fish. Blood had dried on Sherwood’s shirt, and when he breathed, the cloth rasped.
“Should we fetch the doctor?” Hilton asked.
“He didn’t for Ma.” Eliot touched Sherwood’s forehead and snatched his hand back when the dull eyes rolled up. “Best we wait longer.” Then he moved off the spot on which he’d been standing.
“We can shoot him again,” Hilton suggested. “Or just roll him in.”
Eliot turned toward his brother and swung his fist. He knew he’d only get one chance, but he’d swung clumsily and his fist glanced off Hilton’s chin. Hilton’s skull gleamed under his face. He turned toward Eliot, both fists swinging. The first blow knocked Eliot to the ground. The fight was over then. Hilton jammed his knee into Eliot’s belly and brought first his left fist and then his right against Eliot’s face. It was like getting hit with the ball end of a bone, and Eliot’s mouth filled with the warm salt of his own blood. Soon he couldn’t even keep his arms up and that’s when Hilton stopped, two streaks of clear snot blown from his nose, his breath pluming white and hard.
“We’ll drag him back home, then,” Hilton said, gasping. “Since you don’t have the nuts to follow through. We’ll feed him until he dies, but when he dies, we’re dragging him back to the lake and rolling him in like he asked us to.” Hilton held out his bloody hand to Eliot. “Shake on it.”
Eliot spit a tooth into the mud and reached out. It would take all morning to drag Sherwood back to the house. Mildred would be fat and sloshy from a day passed without milking. Hilton could milk her and Eliot might perhaps haul her to the McAllens before supper. Or not. Maybe he’d keep her. Mildred’s eyes were soft like his mother’s. Eliot enjoyed having her warm belly under his palms on cold mornings. There were things he couldn’t bear to lose too.
“The Dancing Bear”
First appeared in Issue 79, 2012
First, she was the sound of a breaking branch. A splintered knuckle crack shattering the quiet of these western Montana woods. It is a heavy quiet here, and no good comes when it is broken. Red men, gunslingers, and all manner of gold-crazy down-and-outs plague this wild country. My heart went to scampering.
I took up my Winchester and crept to the door. Early light played on the mud-daubed timber walls. I built this cabin ten years ago with naught but a hatchet, five yards of rope, and Jeremiah—a mule by then more dead than alive. Damned if I would give it up without a fight.
Another branch snapped and I toed the door open. The smell of dew-wet pine wafted in. I slid the rifle’s nose into the crack. I held my breath.
She was up on her haunches, weight back—all six hundred pounds of it, her arms raised—like the dancing bear I saw in Barnum Bailey’s Fantastic Roadshow when I was a boy. But this was no dancing bear. She was a grizzly. Eight feet tall and used to having her way in the world. Her dinner-plate paws thrashed apples from my apple tree. She huffed and snorted, blowing clouds of steam. She was gorging on fruit, preparing for hibernation, and I believe she was enjoying herself. The rising sun smoldered the crest of Scapegoat Ridge above her massive head.
I thought to shoot her. Even leveled the Winchester’s barrel. Her pelt would have fetched a hefty price. But I could not pull the trigger. She was magnificent. All the dreadful beauty of this territory was bound up in her figure. She ate the apples whole, picking them up between her paws and crushing them with her molars. Her fur shimmered and rolled in waves, like the windy prairie where I was born. Her pink tongue swept stray apple chunks from around her mouth.
I wondered if she had lips.
She stood to her full height, reaching for an apple high in the branches. Her body was shapely: trunk thighs widening into hips, slimming a bit through her middle before expanding again into the muscled bulk of her shoulders. She jumped and swung and caught the apple on her first claw — her index claw — and, with a snarl, tore it from the branch.
I had planned to save the apples and enjoy them as a treat on cold winter nights (nights when my cabin is a lump in the snow), but I was not angry at the bear. I was happy to watch her. I wondered if there were breasts beneath her fur.
I suddenly realized I was erect. Confusion and shame roiled my gut. I had never thought of lying with a bear before, but once I began I could not stop. I knelt, hiding my swollen cock behind the door jamb, and, instead of thinking of protecting my home, I imagined running into her great hairy arms. Licking her throat. Inhaling her thick smell. Finding her tongue with mine, tasting apples. Tumbling back into the high grass, her legs clamped around my buttocks, both of us sticky with apple juice. Warmth. Brown eyes. A roaring tangle of limbs.
I was dizzy, the rifle slack in my arms. She looked at me, wiped her jaws, and ambled back into the woods as the sun rose over Rattlesnake Canyon.
She came back the next morning, and the next. I took to waiting for her, first in my long-johns and then naked. I stood in the doorway letting the morning sun draw the chill from my skin. She would watch me, sometimes for several minutes, unconcerned. I squared my shoulders and stuck out my chest.
My days fell into a friendly pattern. There is a deep pool in a bend of Rattlesnake Creek just east of my cabin. It is fed by melted snow from the Mission Mountains. After the bear made her way back into the forest, I would run, still naked, and plunge into the icy water. I slid around the rocky stream-bed like a trout. I emerged dripping, every inch of my body a-tingle, feeling younger than I had in years. Then I would wrap myself in a blanket and make coffee over the fire.
I spent the afternoons hiking through the woods checking my traps, killing and skinning what I caught. Boulders fill a ravine cut ting down from the highest point on Scapegoat Ridge. Each day I carried one of them as far as I could, hoping to impress the bear with my strength. I stopped cutting my nails. When they were long enough, I sharpened the ends. I had the notion that, if we were to make love, she would want to feel my claws in her back.
I treated myself to a cup of whiskey in the evenings. I sat by the creek with my back against a birch as the first stars showed themselves. I sipped the whiskey and whittled toys for the furry, indistinct children that wandered around the edges of my mind.
I do not know if the bear noticed my expanding muscles, but she became comfortable with me and continued to visit even after the apples were gone and the nip of fall was replaced by November’s true chill. She would sit in the clearing, surrounded by lodgepole pines, snuffling at the morning air and running her claws through the fur on her belly as I shivered in the doorway. She was quite fat by then. I knew the day would soon come when she took cover for her winter sleep.
I dreaded it.
I was never brave enough to step out of my doorway. I stood there, throwing off sparks, wanting desperately to go to her, but paralyzed. I have lingered many times atop high cliffs, tempted to step into the abyss. It was this same feeling with the bear. She could easily tear me limb from limb, rake her claws down my spine, and eat me — bones and all. Part of me wanted her to. I had been alone for a long time.
I began to fear for my sanity a month after the bear went into hibernation. The first snow had fallen the night before, and, as the wind whipped through the windows, rattling my pans and keeping me from sleep, I did a shameful thing.
I was heartsick. I had grown used to a dull emptiness — such is the life of a trapper in the Montana and Oregon Territories—but this new feeling was sharp. Desperate. I wanted nothing more than to find the cave where she slept, curl up in her arms, and so too dream the winter away.
I had made a fine haul that day. The beaver and muskrat, sensing the deeper snows to come, were anxious for food — vulnerable. Fifteen fresh pelts were strung above my doorway. Their rich animal smell reminded me of the bear. I took them down and arranged them on the floor in a bear shape: legs, arms, head . . . Then I stripped and lay flat on my stomach on the skins. I thought of her: the muscles in her rump, the way she snorted with pleasure over a ripe apple. I opened my mouth and sucked on the fur. I licked it. I wriggled my hips, moaning. The cold wind slapped my back.
Seeing the sticky furry mess on the floor the next morning, I was filled with dread. Years before, hiking through dense cedar forest on the Kitsap Peninsula, I came across the body of a fellow trapper. His corpse was sprawled over a knobby root. Naked. He had used his skinning knife to carve the word meat into his own skin. Meat in jagged letters on his thighs, his chest, his arms, even his neck. Then he had opened up his wrists. Scavengers had eaten his nose and eyes, but I could still tell that he was a young man. I covered him with dirt. His eyeless face visits me when I feel my own mind slipping into the whispering woods.
I decided to go into Missoula at once to lie with a woman at the Golden Rose.
The hike into Missoula is twenty-two miles along unmapped game trails. I filled my pack with dried venison and hardtack and set out with my longest knife. I hacked away the huckleberry bushes that had grown across the path since my last trip into town. A film of snow covered their thin branches. Deer and rodent tracks spotted the ground and I caught myself searching for the bear’s familiar paw. I shook my head and hurried on.
I arrived just before dark, tired in body but not in mind. Missoula is a fast-changing place. I remember when it was nothing more than several saloons and a general store stubbornly gathered on a bend of the Clarkfork River. Now they are building a university. The foundations surround a grassy oval at the foot of Mount Sentinel. I have to laugh to think of such learned folk in a town where it is often joked that a man’s life is worth less than his boots.
The Golden Rose is a clapboard building with a peaked roof and oriental detailing on the eaves. It faces Higgins Avenue, between Holcombe’s Curiosities and the Downstairs Saloon, but the entrance is around back, in the alley. I knocked the dirt from my boots on the red doorframe and stepped inside.
I stood dumbly in the parlor, staring looking up at a large oil painting of General Custer ravaging a Sioux camp. His yellow beard was flecked with blood. A chandelier warmed the room with gold light. Crystal decanters, holding all manner of spirits, lined the shelves above the bar. There was no one behind it. I smelled strawberry per fume and my own mountain stink.
Bad Lucy padded through a bead curtain, smoothing the front of her black dress. She was a beauty once, the kind you paid extra for, before age sunk her cheeks. “Bill,” she said. “It’s been years.”
I nodded. The skin on her arms was translucent, revealing ropy blue veins.
“You’ll be needing a bath.”
She led me upstairs, past framed pictures of Parisian girls in dark garters, to a small room with a clawfoot tub. I peered down her dress as she twisted the faucets. Her shrunk wrinkled breasts hung like testicles. Even so, I was heartened by a stirring in my loins. Steam thickened the air.
“These will have to be cut as well.” She gestured at my claws.
She left the room and I undressed, carefully folding my dirt stiff garments. I felt savage and oversized as I lowered my body into the small tub. I caught sight of my reflection in the teardrop mirror and my heart fell even further. My beard was matted into a single clump and stuck to my chest. Mucus crusted my nostrils. Wiry tufts sprang from my eyebrows. I looked every bit the mad woodsman, and I knew that whatever girl I chose would be disappointed.
The hot water loosened my muscles and I sank beneath it, blowing bubbles to the surface. I was a regular at the Golden Rose when I first settled in Rattlesnake Canyon, ten years ago. There was a whore named Molly that I took to hard. She was red Irish. Mean. A scratcher. She loved to laugh at the sad types that wash up in such territorial outposts. I deluded myself into believing that she joked with me in confidence—that I was special to her because she told me how Jack Kipp’s wife left him for an Indian, or that Doc Evaro, who owned the general store, liked a finger in his anus.
When my cabin was finished, I asked her to come live with me. I told her about the clearing on the creek and how the shadows of the lodgepole pines were like friends in the evening. I told her about the apple tree I had planted and that she could have a garden. She did not laugh in my face, but I could tell she would as soon as I left, and many more times when she told the story.
My hankerings faded after that. I figured I was past the age of passion, and decided that there must be something better for a man to spend his money on than a woman. I bought a set of books — Greek epics — from a schoolteacher returning east, and took some comfort reading them aloud. I would march along Scapegoat Ridge pretending to be Odysseus lost at the western edge of the world.
Now, I was back, and I worried that coming had been a mistake. I finished my bath and set to work on my nails. They were thick and hard and the clippers she had left were dull. I clipped and clipped, hopelessly. Trimmed nails or no, I was an ugly man who belonged in the woods, where no one could see me but the animals.
I paid Bad Lucy a large sum (they claim that statehood and modern advancements lead to lower prices, but my experience has been just the opposite) and her smile sweetened. She whistled for the girls. They formed a line in front of the bar. Their painted faces seemed to be made entirely of slashes and bone. One of them lit a cigar from the sputtering oil lamp on the bar. She bit down on the end and her face was lost in smoke. Another had a black-haired baby dripping from her breast. I grinned at them. They looked through me. The grin stuck fast to my face.
I selected the girl with the longest hair. Light brown, it fell past her waist. She told me her name was Frances, like the First Lady, as I struggled with the silk ribbons securing her scarlet bodice. I kept my eyes on her hair. I tried to steady my hands. We were in one of the many identical rooms in the Golden Rose. There was a cot, a mirror, and a small table covered in bottled creams. The creams cost extra.
I finished with the ribbons and she shrugged her shoulders. The bodice fell to the floor and her flesh settled into a roll at her waist. She sighed. A single whip scar divided her pale back from shoulder to hip. All that flesh. It smelled like spoiled fruit. A queasy desperation, either to run, or cry, or throw her to the ground, rose in my throat. I licked her neck. She inhaled sharply when I squeezed her breasts. I bit them. I tried not to think about the bear.
She lay back and closed her eyes. She spread her legs. A tiny tuft of hair, much smaller than my fist, rose between her pale thighs.
I rushed from the room, clattered down the stairs, and pushed through the bead curtain. Bad Lucy was at her desk writing in a leatherbound book.
“She’s but a child!” I sputtered. I was fairly shaking. I had heard of houses in Oregon City where such things could be had for a price, but I did not think Bad Lucy would sink so low. I could not believe such foulness had become commonplace.
She swiveled to face me. “I can assure you, she’s nineteen and seven months.”
I shook my head, motioning at my groin in an attempt to convey hairlessness.
Bad Lucy narrowed her eyes. “Did you expect a forest?”
My face reddened. I thought of how I’d run from the room, leaving Frances on the bed. I tried to picture my big hairy body atop her small hairless one. “I want a different girl. Older.”
“Do as you like,” Bad Lucy said, her face stone, “but you’ve paid for this one. If you want another, you’ll pay again.”
I began to argue and a large man appeared in the doorway. He wore a floral vest and held a tomahawk in his right hand. I could tell by his face that it would not mean much to him to shed my blood. I bowed my head and edged past him into the street.
“You’re a fool, Bill,” Bad Lucy called.
The rest of the winter was cold and dark and I would be a liar if I did not admit that on several occasions I arranged the pelts on the floor and lay down upon them.
The bear came back in March and what I had known in my heart was proven as fact: she was a she, for she had a cub. It was three feet tall and nearly as wide. The beaked sedge at the edge of the clearing tickled its nose. Its coat was ashy brown with a white marking around the throat. It romped around its mother’s feet as she approached the apple tree. She was thin. Disturbingly thin. Her skin hung loose and I could see her collarbone against her fur. The little creature had been sucking her dry.
She sat beneath the tree. Small leaves and buds sprouted from the branches. She nipped off one of the buds and chewed it thoughtfully. The cub batted her knees. I saw worry in her brown eyes. She shooed it away and it circled her and jumped on her back. I covered my genitals with a pot.
The sky was gray and swollen, about to rain.
She ate two more buds, then wedged her back against the trunk and writhed up and down on the rough bark. Her long winter coat was falling out. She growled with pleasure. It would have been perfect—especially after so long—were it not for the cub. It sat beside a stump. It ate a piece of grass. A red-tailed hawk flew overhead and it jumped away from the shadow, then it jumped away from the first raindrops. The pot was cold on my thighs.
A butterfly flitted up from the creek and the cub galloped after it, snapping. It crashed through a chokecherry bush and disappeared into the forest. The mother followed. My clearing was empty again. Wisps of her hair clung to the abandoned trunk.
It had been an idyllic scene but it left my heart so heavy I could not carry it around for the rest of the day. There are thirty six knots in the Douglas fir planks that make up my ceiling. I lay in bed and counted them, over and over, as the rain drummed on the roof.
I only moved to put a strip of venison in the branches of the apple tree. She was so thin.
The six days that followed were all much the same. I left meat for her in the tree each night — high in the branches where the wolves could not reach. Then I rested against the trunk. I imagined I could still feel her warmth. I filled my pockets with her hair, thinking I might make a pillow or undergarment.
The mountains around me seemed to grow as the sun set.
I hardly slept. I rolled from one side of my straw mattress to the other. Several times each night, I would get up, pour myself a glass of whiskey, and sit on the edge of my bed. The ghostly birches swaying outside my window were like skeletons holding hands. I curled my toes on the cold dirt floor. My few belongings were pieces of shadow. I thought back on my solitary life, following game from one forest to the next, always a step ahead of civilization.
I tried to shake my melancholy with more whiskey. I told a knot in the ceiling about all the wonders I had seen and all the beasts I had shot. My adventures in country that is, I suspect, the most beautiful in the world. But I could not escape the feeling that much of my life had slipped away, and now the bear was slipping away, too.
She came back each morning but it was not the same. After taking the meat from the tree, she would sit and watch her cub play. It liked to dive headfirst into the dirt and roll completely over in a somersault. It looked up at the sky, stunned, each time the maneuver was completed successfully. Then it would run to her and she would lick away the burs and nettles that clung to its fur.
I imagined the feel of her tongue.
I do not know why I did it but on the seventh day I shot the cub.
It was an unseasonably warm spring morning. Pale green shoots were pushing through the earth. Arrowleaf flowers splashed yellow on the face of Scapegoat Hill. The creek was full and loud.
The bears came as the first rays of sunlight lit the treetops. She made straight for the apple tree. She stood on her hind legs, showing off her fine shape, and plucked the meat from where I’d wedged it in the branches. She was regaining her weight. The cub sniffed around the edge of the clearing. It tripped on a rock. It was a round, clumsy, stupid thing.
I picked up the Winchester. I steadied the familiar weight against my shoulder. The stock was oiled smooth. A single purple flower hung from the cub’s coat. It paused and looked up at a mockingbird winging south.
I pulled the trigger.
The cub was knocked backward, twisting in a cloud of dust. It went hard to the dirt. It did not move. The purple flower drifted lazily down through the air.
I turned to the mother. She was frozen, staring at her fallen cub. Her eyes moved wildly around the clearing, back to her cub, and again around the clearing. A cracked, bellowing noise came from deep in her gut. She did not notice me, in the doorway, where I always was.
I aimed at her neck. Her winter coat was completely gone and her fur shimmered, like the morning we met. I dropped the rifle and ran toward her, plunging through the grass. I leapt over a stump. I reached for her. She turned and ran on all fours into the woods.
Summer has turned to fall. Crows peck at the meat I leave for her in the branches. They cackle amid the garlands of rotting deer flesh and the ripe red apples.
I wrap the cub’s pelt around my shoulders. I slide its head over my head and hunch down. The rich smell fills my nose. I put my hands on its paws and crawl to the tree.
I wait for her to come back for me.
by KELSEY SCHURER