weekend-readsPredators

Kent Nelson

The lynx steps from the forest and scratches down the snowy bank onto the lake ice blown clean by wind. The animal is as gray as the low clouds that nose down over the foothills, a change from the last three days of bold, bright air. The lynx looks toward the house where I’m standing at the window, coffee steaming from the cup in my hand. Across the inlet is only a hundred yards, and I can see the ear tufts, the yellow eyes, the huge paws adapted to snow travel. I’ve seen moose, bears, even a wolverine, but never a lynx. It proceeds in no particular hurry across the ice toward the willows along the outlet creek. I fetch the binoculars from the bookshelf, but by the time I get back to the window, the lynx has disappeared.

Barnes is showing property in Whitefish today, and I’ve already finished the breakfast dishes and the ones from dinner last night, so I have an hour before Ray shows up. I put on my boots and wind pants and my blue parka. It’s February, and there’s deep snow in the woods so I circle the house, edge down the boat ramp and past the pulled-up dock, and walk out onto the ice. It’s obvious enough where the lynx entered the willows: Its wide paw prints are three or four inches deep, and I follow them up the embankment, through the fir stand, and down into the frozen slough. The tracks lead across the creek, where the ice is thinner over the moving water, and into the trees.

 

At nine forty-five Ray’s truck with the snowplow mounted in front drives in. It’s snowing now, and he parks where the truck’s hidden from the road. Crossing the yard, he peels off his dark knit cap and his long hair comes loose. He’s six two and two hundred pounds, a hunter and fisherman – who isn’t up here, except Barnes? In summer Ray works for Montana Game, Fish, and Parks, and he’s been assigned to Ashley Lake State Park west of Kalispell, as yet unopened. In winter he plows driveways and caretakes vacant houses.

As soon as he’s in the kitchen, he throws off his down jacket and kisses me, and in the middle of the kiss, he runs his hands under the back of my shirt. I jump away. “Your hands are freezing.” “Get them warm then,” he says and leans in to kiss me again.

“You’re a man on a mission.”

I ease away and turn on the gas under the front burner. “Put your hands over this,” I say. “You want coffee?”

“I’m coffeed out. Are you trying to tell me something?” Ray puts his hands over the flame. “It’s supposed to snow ten to twelve inches,” he says. “I’ll be working late.”

I look out the window toward the lake where the tracks of the lynx are filling with snow. “I saw – ” But I stop mid-sentence and start again. “I saw they appropriated the money for the park.”

“I may have to move over there,” Ray says. “Not by desire.” He turns off the burner and rubs his hands together. “Ready?”

“Maybe,” I say.

“You seem funny,” he says. “Are you all right?”

The kissing resumes, and, after a minute or two, we climb the stairs. There’s a corridor lined with photographs – Barnes’s place back east in Pennsylvania; my parents, my brother Wendell and me at Swan Lake; another of the house here under construction. Ray examines the one of my daughter Rebecca waterskiing, taken twelve years ago, when she was ten, graceful even then, though a photograph doesn’t reveal grace.

“What kind of trouble was she in?” Ray asks.

“All kinds.”

“I was the EMT at the accident. Did I ever tell you that?”

“No, and I don’t want to hear about it now.”

“At one time she must have been a good kid. I mean – ”

I pull Ray away from the photo. “Are you interested in sex or not?”

The master bedroom is on the lakeside, and I’m not squeamish about seeing Barnes’s clothes thrown over a chair, his sock on the floor, his book about the debt crisis spined open on the bedside table. Ray and I undress without ceremony, and he embraces me from behind and puts his hands over my breasts. My body’s full, not youthful, but not fat, either. My hair’s long and dark and draped over my shoulder, and he lifts it and kisses my neck. I lean back into him to see whether he’s coming around, and he isn’t.

“You were hot and heavy when you got here,” I say.

“You don’t think Rebecca would have got clean?” he asks. “It might help to talk about it.”

I don’t respond, and Ray kisses my neck again, but desire, or even wanting to go through the motions, has dissipated. I go into the bathroom and run the hot water in the sink, stare at my reflection. Admit it. You’re bad, the reflection says. I assume Ray is getting dressed, and I wash my face but can’t get rid of the kisses.

Snow has fallen for two hours, six inches of cold, dry white that covers Ray’s tire tracks. I don’t have to go out, but I get into my cross-country ski clothes – stretch pants, sweatshirt, Gore-tex jacket – and put my skis in the bed of the Tundra. From the highway I call Barnes on the cell. “I’m coming to town,” I say. “We could have lunch.”

“I’m still in Whitefish,” he says. “It’s snowing.”

“I think we should talk.”

“I can’t talk now,” he says. “I’ll meet you at Barley’s at one-fifteen.”

“I’ll stop at Beth’s on the way.”

“Is she back?” he asks. “Say hello for me.”

I click off the phone and turn onto Montana 83, which runs in a roughly straight line from Seeley Lake to Swan Lake along the east side of the Missions, then skirts the top end of Flathead Lake and goes north another nine miles to Kalispell. Beth’s ranch is on a gravel spur called East Hills Road, and I turn there. The gravel hasn’t been plowed, and I cut my speed to twenty and put the Tundra into four-wheel.

There’s a long, untracked hill that tops out in pine forest, though there are clearings here and there where it’s been logged. Beth’s ranch over there is muted by the falling snow – house and barn hazy, white pastures, gray-green patches of dark timber. Beth bought the place with settlement money from her ex-husband, and Barnes was the listing broker. We put her up three times, and she and I hiked in the Missions and canoed a couple times on the river. She took my company as friendship, and after she bought the ranch we had lunch several times, the last time before she went to Costa Rica. She’s an outsider, someone who didn’t know Rebecca or Wendell from before, and has no reason to judge.

I pass through a stand of spruce, and the day darkens, and there’s less snow on the ground. At a curve, an owl falls from an overhanging bough and swoops along the forest road in front of me – a big owl, all gray. It alights on a slash pile, and its wings puff up the snow. I brake and come even with the owl, which stares at me or at the car – who can tell? Its head is round, no horns, yellow eyes. It turns it head away, then back again, and a chill runs through me.

 

Wendell took sick in mid-June, and the day after his tests, we took the tin boat with the Evinrude out on the lake to a cove where birch trees canted over the water. The sun was intermittent through high clouds, and it was smooth water in the lee of the point. Wendell fished from the stern, and I watched his face as he cast and settled a caddis on the surface. His eyes followed the fly, but his gaze wavered, as if beneath his attention, he was aware he was going to die. It didn’t matter to me he was divorced and living in a trailer behind the True Value in Missoula or that he only saw his son every other week, no matter he drank hard or wanted me to wash his clothes and buy him whiskey. In blood, muscle, and bone is the memory of love, and every second I felt love beyond love for him. That’s what I still feel now that he’s gone.

Beth’s ranchhouse has a pitched red metal roof from which the snow has slid off, so there is color in the landscape. Several sheds and a barn surround the house, and the cattle are gathered in the near pasture around two broken hay bales. The four horses in the corral face away from the wind. Beth’s shoveling the stoop, tossing snow to the side, and she sees me driving in and waves. She’s in her down parka and appears bulked up. Her blondish hair is short and curly, a style I’ve never liked. “You’re right on time,” she says. “I’ve finished my chores and am ready for a sandwich.”

“I’m meeting Barnes for lunch,” I say. “How was Costa Rica?”

“I feel as if I never went,” Beth says. “The work’s the same as when I left.”

She opens the door to the mud room, knocks the snow from her boots, and peels off her parka. I hang my coat on a peg. There’s a fire in the stove, and she lays her wet gloves on the nearby drying rack.

“You’re tan,” I say. “You were on a beach.”

“I spent a week near Cahuita on the Gulf side, but mostly I was in the cloud forest.”

“I’d like the sun,” I say. “I’d melt the last few years from my body.”

“The cabinas weren’t expensive,” she says. “I’ll give you the name.”

“Barnes would want to go. I’d prefer to go alone.”

“Are you two not getting along? You want tea?”

“I’ll drink some with brandy.” I look out at her pasture filling up. “It’d be different is all. I’d want to feel afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Everything. I’d like that.”

Beth takes out two cups and a brandy bottle, measures a shot into each cup, and lops in a tea bag. She pours in hot water from a pot with hummingbirds on it. “I bought this pot in Costa Rica,” she says. “The hummingbirds are hand-painted.”

Out the window snow is coming down slantwise, and I sit at the table. “What kind of owls are around here?”

Beth laughs. “Hummingbirds make you think of owls?”

“I’m curious,” I say.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Why?”

There’s a moment of not telling – I feel it – and then I say, “I want to see the pictures of your trip.”

“Oh, I never take pictures,” Beth says. She pours a little more brandy into her cup and then more into mine. “I like remembering the fragments of stories.”

“Did you meet any men?”

“That depends,” she says. “There was a guide in Monteverde who spoke good English, but he was a boy in his twenties. He shows tourists the quetzal, but he knew where one was, and I wanted more of an adventure, so he offered to take me overnight to a camp.”

“Is this a romance or a tragedy?”

“Hidalgo was his name. We started the next day after lunch, but early enough to reach the shelter by dusk. We crossed through the cloud forest from west side and descended on the Caribbean side along a trail of pink Impatiens. We forded two or three creeks, but finally we came to a river we had to cross. It was fast-moving, and we waded from one boulder to another, keeping balance with our walking sticks. I thought any minute we’d be swept away.”

“But you weren’t.”

“My boots and pants were soaked, and then it rained. Rain there is different from rain here. It’s all-encompassing and drenching, but warm. Rain gear is useless. You sweat inside a poncho, and Gor-tex never works. Then I discovered Hidalgo knew generally where we were going but not exactly. We couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead. We climbed up, we sloshed down. It got darker, and Hidalgo turned on a pen-sized flashlight and started looking for frogs.”

“Frogs?”

“Finally we took refuge under a guarumo tree and listened to the water. It dripped from the trees and cascaded down the trail. It fell from the sky. There was not another light anywhere. Here I was in a jungle in a foreign country with a boy I’d only met the day before. I couldn’t walk out alone. I couldn’t fly away. I don’t know how long we stood under that tree – maybe two hours…”

“What did you do?”

“I did something surprising. I gave up fear.”

“What do you mean?”

“I made a rational choice. I sat down. There were insects and snakes around, but after a while I lay down among the roots of the tree. I slept a little. So did Hidalgo, next to me. But it rained all night. Before light, there were screeches of monkeys and songs of birds.”

“And you survived.”

“We hiked on and got to the shelter about ten the next morning. We cooked rice and beans and slept, and in the afternoon the rain let up, and we walked out.”

“That’s all?”

Beth smiles at me. “What did you want?”

The snow’s sticking to the sides of the fenceposts, and there must be ten inches on the corral fence and the roofs of the sheds. I revisit Beth’s story, and it wasn’t so little, a glimpse into her life. “Lately I’ve wondered whether I love Barnes,” I say. “He’s someone around the house, a gentle man and a provider, but when Wendell died that changed everything.”

“I didn’t know Wendell,” Beth says.

“He couldn’t hold a job and wasn’t a good father to his son. . . ” I stopped. “Why should I take it out on Barnes?”

Beth is quiet for a moment. “I tell people I bought this place with settlement money from my ex-husband, but the truth is he died on his way to seeing another woman.”

“How do you know that?”

“He wasn’t where he told me he was going to be.”

“And there wasn’t another explanation?”

“He could have been seeing a man.”

The brandy’s going to my head, but the heat from the woodstove feels good, and Beth’s confession makes me want to stay longer. I check my watch. “I can’t stay. Do you want to go cross-country skiing later?”

“I have work to catch up on,” Beth says. “Maybe another time.”

She gets my parka from the mudroom, but there’s confusion getting my arms in the sleeves, and when it’s on, Beth brushes my hair from my cheek. “Are you sure you want to drive in this weather?”

“If you wait for the weather, you’d never do anything.”

There’s a moment of eye contact, and Beth leans forward and kisses my lips, soft and sweet, nothing like Ray’s kiss.

“You think about it,” Beth says.

 

Barley’s Brewhouse and Grill is on Main in a defunct Safeway, and Barnes is sitting at a table near the bar with a Blue Moon in front of him, staring at the western art on the walls. When he sees me, he stands and pulls out a chair for me. Any woman would measure him as handsome, wide mouth, blue eyes, silky hair, which is why he’s successful at selling real estate.

“You’re embarrassing me,” I tell him, but I sit down. The window looks out to a snowy parking lot and the street beyond. “How was Whitefish?”

“What you’d expect. People like to look at ski cabins and condos, but they don’t commit.”

“It’s not a good economy.”

“These were Japanese. They have money.” Barnes opens his menu. “How’s Beth?”

“Good.”

The waitress arrives, a slip of a girl in a yellow shirt, jeans, and a white apron, hand on her pad ready to write. “Should I give you a few minutes?” she asks.

“I’m not hungry,” I tell her.

Barnes looks at the waitress and smiles. “My wife invites me to lunch but isn’t hungry. I’ll have the pulled pork sandwich and a side of fries.” He folds the menu, offers it to the waitress, and smiles again. “Get her a house salad with ranch.”

“And a piece of lemon meringue pie,” I say.

The waitress writes on her pad and takes the menus. “That’ll be right out.”

The table next to us is vacant, but two over is a couple of teenagers with piercings and tattoos – what Rebecca would have been if she’d lived in these times. On the other side are two older women in wool sweaters, sisters, maybe.

“I can’t believe you’d sell Montana to the Japanese,” I say.

“It’s called capitalism,” Barnes says. “I don’t worry who sells or buys.”

“Why shouldn’t you?”

“‘Should’ is a loaded word. Now, if we could agree on the consequences. . .” He glances out the window at some businesspeople he knows, and when they come in, he gets up and schmoozes for a minute.

The waitress slides by on her way back from the sisters. “I’ll have a brandy after the pie.”

The businesspeople are Jed-somebody, Tim, and a woman I don’t know. Barnes laughs at their jokes and looks over at me as if I were a jailer he has to answer to.

Finally he saunters back. “Tim’s part of the group developing the townhouses west of town.”

“‘Conspiracy,’ you mean.”

“It’d be great to be the listing broker.”

“We have three cars, two boats, and a house on the lake.”

“What are you talking about? There’s maintenance. And I thought you wanted to build a guest house.”

“I changed my mind.”

“Nothing ever happens without a little grease to the wheel.”

“So you keep playing these games? Why don’t we travel? We could go to Costa Rica.”

“I can’t leave with summer coming up.” Barnes takes a moment. “Is this what you meant about needing to talk? Did Beth put a bee in your pants?”

The waitress delivers the food, and Barnes tucks his napkin into his shirt collar, a habit learned from his father. “You want anything else?” she asks.

“We’re fine,” I say.

“I’d like ketchup,” says Barnes.

The waitress leans over to the next table, gets the ketchup, and sets it on ours.

“Thank you,” Barnes says. He waits till she leaves, then looks at me. “Are you seeing someone else?”

“Why would you think that?”

“You’re restless. You want to get away.” Barnes cuts his pork sandwich and forks a big bite into his mouth. “What would you conclude?”

“There’s no one else.” I pick up a piece of lettuce with my fingers and put it in my mouth. “You could get away if you wanted to.” I pause a moment. “I know you and Wendell didn’t get along, but. . .”

Barnes cuts another bite of his oozy sandwich. “I got along with Wendell,” he says.

“I’m thinking we should separate for a while.”

It’s not what I meant to say, but Barnes pauses with his fork in midair. “Why?”

“Maybe I’ll get an apartment in Missoula for the winter. You don’t need me.”

“Of course I need you.” Barnes puts his fork down. “I’ll go to counseling,” he says. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”

I push the salad and pie away and throw my napkin down. In a few seconds, I’m up from my seat and running through the tables to the door.

 

Snowplows are out, and I veer around one with its flashing blue light and pull up to Flathead Beverages. I leave the truck running, buy a bottle of Red Truck with a twist-off cap and continue west on 2. On the outskirts is the townhouse development Barnes was talking about. So far it’s nothing but electrical hookups and stakes with orange ribbons, but someday it’ll be two hundred units, and for what? So realtors can make money selling to people who’ll ski at Whitefish or hike in the Swan Mountains or boat on Flathead Lake. After a mile, I open the wine. There’s a mug with dried up coffee in it, and I pour wine into that.

The road isn’t too bad, though a pickup has no weight in back. A semi barrels from the other direction and showers my windshield with dirt and snow. The wind makes the truck skitter, but I hold the wheel. All around me the world is white – fields of snow, trees draped with snow, scattered houses with snow on the roofs. Ray, Beth’s kiss, the incident with Barnes – everything runs together, and the wine is a pleasant way to forget those things.

There’s no sign for the new park, but I know where it is because before it was designated a park it was Wendell’s favorite place to fish. I turn at the unmarked road. No one else is crazy enough to be out here, but to me it’s the perfect time. At the gate I shut off the engine, finish the mug of wine, and pour a little more. In minutes, the inside of the cab turns gray with snowlight.

I pull on my wool socks and lace up my ski boots. My watch says it’s after three, so I’d better move. It’s dark early. I finish the wine and put on my hat and gloves. Outside there’s not much wind, and I set down the skis and lean the poles against the truck. My toes go easily into the bindings.

Someone else has been out here, though not today, and the snow is compacted into two tracks. Despite the wine, I get a natural rhythm of arms and legs moving – reach, push off, glide, reach with the other hand, push off, glide. Everything around me is white. I lean and tilt my head so I can see through the snow out of one eye.

In the forest it’s windless, and I can ski upright on the flat. Then the road ascends, and I have to herringbone up the hill. I’m not in great shape, but the incline doesn’t last forever, and I come out on a crest overlooking the river. For two summers Wendell ran a kids’ wilderness camp on the far bank, and I helped him ferry equipment across, dig latrines, cut firewood. He was eighteen and paid me three dollars an hour. I remember we loaded the kids and their gear on this side into two inflatable yellow rafts, their faces aglow with fear. Wendell’s was, too.

The river is frozen there now, though upstream it’s rough, with moving water interspersed with snowy stones and overhanging birches. Past the first bend is gray-white, and the mountains. I know are there are invisible beyond the snow. I ski down toward the river in a several long arcs.

The cement tables at the picnic site are covered with snow, and the steel skeletons of the bathrooms are drifted in. I glide across the parking lot to what I assume will be the new headquarters, stick my poles in the snow, and unclip the toe bindings. From there, I walk down through patchy brush to the edge of the river. Wendell had his camp on the other side in a stand of lodgepoles. The tents and communal benches were in the clearing, and that’s where Wendell lectured about fishing in the wild and birds and predators. There’s nothing there now except a board nailed to a tree, which, in the old days, had “latrine” painted on it.

I look up at the indeterminate gray sky, but relief won’t come from up there. The snowlight is blue now, and there’s the hill to climb back up, and not much daylight left. I scramble from the riverbottom to my skis and poles and lift them up onto my shoulder. It’s easier to walk than to ski uphill, but the snow is thigh-deep so I cut over to the trees and make better headway. Even so, I have to zigzag on the hillside, one long traverse and then another. I pause once to catch my breath, and my heart is loud.

Then to my right, maybe a hundred yards into the trees, I see a shadow move at the edge of the winnowing light. At first I think it’s a dog or a coyote because of its shape, but when the animal turns and lowers its head, I see its broad shoulders and enormous tail – a wolf.

I edge behind a tree, not sure what to do next. I feel safe and not safe, unafraid but afraid. The wolf’s breath is visible in the air. I can’t stay where I am, so I angle back toward the crest of the hill where the road is, keeping an eye out and hurrying my step. Toward the top of the hill the snow is deeper, and I’m wading, mindful to keep an even stride, not to struggle, because wolves travel in packs and notice signs of weakness.

The truth is, what can prey do? You can do nothing but the ordinary and act as if everything is all right. At the intersection with my own tracks, now scalloped with snow, I drop the skis into the indentations and press my boots into the bindings. Out among the darkening trees are two wolves now, three, loping through the snow, not yet in pursuit, but measuring me. Within a few seconds I’m striding through the trees, not relaxed, but not in panic, either. My body’s warm. I’m not racing against time or darkness, but against them, because I understand their hunger.

The track curves, and ahead is the break in the forest where the road opens into the fields. I glide, force myself stay in the rhythm of my arms and legs. I live here, too, is what I think. I have to give up fear – that’s the only way – and, as I flee, I refuse to look back to see whether the wolves are following.

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