He knelt next to the kennel and traced with one finger the long track. Its delicacy surprised him, a hoofmark like a stretched Valentine’s heart, the cleft narrow. But the creature’s power was shown by the gash in the chain link and the head of the Black-and-Tan bitch, crushed on the concrete. A course of blood had darkly frozen between her abdomen and the drain. The young Setter whimpered and nipped as he coaxed it from its house.
There had been, already, talk in town. It amused but at the same time irritated him: the way that farmers, intent to fix nature into patterns, blew up adversity. The heavy thunder-storm became an omen of flood, the odd dead shoat meant epidemic, ruin. Now this. A marauder which had gutted a few sheep and ripped through a flock of pondfowl was already a bear or wolf, which they would hope to kill as quickly as possible. All in the interest of their degenerate beasts and stock-still crops, and their myths that grew like weeds— tractors overturned in the night, a child fright-frozen by “a thing so big she couldn’t see the barn behind it,” “a horse thrown over the pasture wall,” windows torn from casings.
Like everyone, alas, he himself depended on the farmers’ obsessions, so knew the flaws in his own mythology in which he sometimes exchanged greetings over the centuries with some fellow chipping flint to a point. He had a notion of the kinship between poet and hunter-gatherer, but could not articulate it—even to himself—without repugnance at either his own pretension or stuffiness. All he really knew was that the predator saw things that others didn’t.
Of course his luck and wit were uneven, like everything he prized. There were times when the sense of landscape, the cast of the dog, the swing of the gun all came together with an intuition of the prey’s escaping rush, and he felt then a fullness that nothing could equal, not even that bodily thrill of grasping the very phrase for thing or emotion. Other times, the most evident lessons of his past failed him, the land grew strange and jumbled, the game apparently extinct, and a gun no better than a club. Then ruins spilled from his waste barrel like beersuds.
He was angry at the bitch’s death. Sad too. But there were other feelings the neighbors couldn’t know: admiration, for one; pleasure at mystery, something teasing to be known. He gathered up the dead hound and lugged her to the barren well uphill, where in successive layers of clay already lay two dogs, both gone by natural causes. He tucked her in, his mind roaring. The November air produced in him the tart nausea of nostalgia.
There were the usual frustrations and enchantments of beginning. What gear did he need? He sat in his shop, in love with boots, certain hanks of rope, a rucksack, blankets, guns on pins in the wall. Ahead of himself as usual: it was first a matter of learning habits, if there were any, of this thing; not necessarily to kill, but to push toward comprehension.
His son stepped tentatively into the room and, sensing welcome, let go a string of questions. What happened to the dog? Why don’t you know? What will you do? Where are you going? His wife smiled indulgence and patience, seeming to sense that something other than grief or revulsion had robbed his appetite.
He set off at inapt noon in a long line west, partly for the sake of the climb over Simoneau Ridge, so steeply pitched he would have to pull himself upward by outcroppings of rock, green suckers of hardwood. A cloud slid precipitately downhill, and he watched hand, arm and torso turn color. A flake or two fell by. White-shod, a hare flushed at height-of-land. In front of his nose, a ball of hair dropped by an owl: he knocked it, tumbling tiny bones, one of which he secured in a pocket, inconsequent talisman of the kind he often carried.
Slightly north of west, into the wind. The squall came on, but he walked easily along the rim, cropped clean by wild browsers. The brook water to which he stooped tasted of softwood tannin, of afternoons with certain dead woodsmen he thanked God he had known when alive. . . .
It was a quick drop back to the house cross-lots. He ran the clearings and swung through second growth like a child. Shuffling his feet in the final meadow, he left a trail, he supposed, like the ones the farmers reported: great dragging strides that plowed the frozen dew and new snow, two obtuse lines of Vs. He knew, however, the track to be delicate to the point of daintiness. His own would mar the woods’ floor for a month or better before he picked up the trail, a skein of Valentines—the odd one clear, the others wetted out—on the Ballard Road. He followed them to a slough between two hills, then lost them in the slush of the bog made treacherous by January thaw.
That night, there was conversation after son and daughter had been put to bed:
“Should we worry for the children?” Unlike the mass of people, she was not given to that instant alarm founded on confident ignorance.
“I don’t think so. I’m surprised that it even came as close as the kennel.” They dismissed, together, the tales of peril in town, resolved themselves to say nothing about the kennel killing until something was known.
On the eighth of January, he was camped by the slough, tired and fractious from having carried his grip through the gluey snow: camera, bedding, tarpaulin, sealed-beam head-light mounted on a board, and, worst of all, its twelve-volt battery. Dark came so early that he was bored by eight o’clock, uncomfortable and slightly self-contemptuous. He began to wonder at all that had passed since the dog’s death. Was it some obscure act of revenge which had led him here, or was there in fact a trail? Or was it both? And what was the trail?
Then the night sounds—the nattering of pine spills on the tarp, the far chatter of an owl, of which he had not been quite conscious before—stopped. The wind died, the hemlock stood unwaving.
Next day, he was sure he had been watched. Ranging gingerly around the heath, he came on a windfall with a string of heart-shaped tracks leading in, another leading neatly out. Inside, lightly cuffed clear of snow and twigs and now abandoned, was a faint whiff like that of an herb whose name he could not summon. No sign of remnants from feeding. The den had been temporary or was new. The outgoing tracks led further around the bog until, directly opposite his camp, they turned as if to cross the muddle of slush, water, and tussock. There was, also, a small crowd of uprooted bushes and saplings which had been curiously piled so that in silhouette they looked like a wigwam. This aroused in him, unaccountably, his first fear.
There was no getting over the slough. He continued along it to the north, following its trickle downhill. The tracks did not reemerge, yet on circling back and walking the campsite side, he did not find them either.
He wrapped his provisions in the tarpaulin and pulleyed them into a tree, all but the battery, which he decided to take home against the cold. It might already need charging. How, he smirked to himself, would your hunter-gatherer have managed that? Imagining the mysterious process in Blake’s garage, the box with the blued terminals sucking in odd nurture. . . .
At home he decided he would keep no journal, no “Notes On. . . .” He would follow through till he had this thing direct. Yet he might as well have been fretting at his desk. His family detected a quiet irritability, as when the words wouldn’t come. He was oblique and brief in answering their questions about the night before, napped all through the afternoon, dreaming randomly: a drunken woman, an argument with a faceless antagonist, the grisly, self-inflicted death of a famous novelist. When he set back out for camp, it was spitting snow, but a certain smell suggested a long and seasonable storm. Arrived, he whacked down evergreen boughs for more bedding. Chickadees flicked out like motes from a beaten rug. Runnels of ground rodents, so recently uncovered by the thaw, now filled rapidly with powder. It stirred him to think of their numbers, but finally, how helpless they were! This thing he sought was by contrast singled out, maybe dangerous.
The early night was less tedious than the one before. He could hear the skim-ice stiffening, and somehow the stubborn fall of snow intrigued him, made the evening pass like reverie, both slow and chaotic, not to be predicted. Several times he nodded. The snow reached nearly to his tree-strung tarp, which he had now and then to kick so that the weight of the storm would not sag or break it. He must ultimately have dropped into heavy slumber, for he felt his throat dry when the sound, muffled by the risen drifts, awakened him. An odd click, regular without somehow being mechanical, punctuated by loud slaps, as on bare skin. Quietly, he pushed a hole in the bank at the head of his shelter, felt for the lead from battery to headlight. He reached with sleep-crippled fingers for the glasses he’d stored in a boot, put them on, and touched a loose wire to a terminal.
The glasses, damnably, had frosted, He could not be sure. Between two large hemlocks, the sheen of a hairless flank, almost equine, thewed with the long muscles of fleet things. He blinked and squinted. This time, nothing. He swung the headlight. Nothing. Having removed his glasses, he caught himself minutes later, lost in a trance of snowflakes falling through the beam.
He clambered at dawn from his niche, snowshoeing on a line from his tent to the “sighting,” Nothing. Snow had fallen all night. He began another circuit of the slough, not certain whether or not the ice had sufficiently thickened to walk it. He had once broken, on snowshoes, through a springhole; the recalled agony in feet and calves, the struggle to disengage from his blindings, the long hike home, unshod, the ice beaded up to his groin so that he had to hold himself apart as he trudged—these prompted his caution.
He could not tell whether certain blurred lines of depression in the snow marked the creature’s going or were merely windrows made by the storm. He could not find the windfall discovered two evenings before; each hump he kicked free of snow turned out to be the wrong one. He screeched anger as paper-white rabbits bolted crazily from them. In anger, too, he litanized his self-castigation: when will you learn to see, to notice?
He found, at least, the wigwam. One trail, or windrow, led away from it, sheer up a ledge to the east. Three times his snowshoes failed their purchase just short of the brow, and he slid, arms swinging wildly for balance, back down. One sharp twinge that whipped like electricity from shoulder to sternum prompted a brief hypochondriac fantasy, a defeatist thought: home, home, home! But persisting, he made the top, where a wind-dusted puddle in the granite held a hoofmark in the shape of a heart. Next to it, smaller than the first, a cairn of vegetation, juniper tuft and hardback purple with cold time. All ghostly trails away from the spot died into vagueness. When at last he resigned for the day, he had tracked a giant fowl’s foot on the landscape, the Valentine as its spur. He skidded the ledge, returned to camp, got all his grip and moved off houseward.
In the spruce little farms downcountry, paranoia bloomed like a crop whose season was winter: Ralph Hicks’ death, at the reasonable age of 80-odd, was attributed to a confrontation behind his silo, for example; and if there had been no tracks, it seemed the creature came, if not on wings, through the air nonetheless—how else could it have thrown Hicks’s collie, tethered in the loft of the locked barn, through the upstairs door, so that she was found that morning swinging like the angel Death over Ralph’s stiff corpse?
It was now the first of February, and a blue approaching purple softened the land’s contours, lit up the inchoate hardwood buds, gave lustre to afternoon’s long shadows, vanished into sideways squalls, reappeared as suddenly. His family began to doubt him, and he himself. He had written not a word for four months. But who could serve as witness? He settled on his friend Tom—not a hunter, but at least an artist. A sculptor.
They set out at two, and by three-thirty it seemed at last that fine weather had established itself, Macky Mountain taking on that honeyed color he had pledged never again to try and render by word, the failure being too painful. He knew, of course, that he would break his vow, a knowledge which led that night to discussion, comparison of plastic making to verbal, inconclusion, dispute, even tacit love between the two of them. So they scarcely noticed the snow’s return. And he alone noticed—or did he?—that silence, lapse of wind, and again the irrepressible idea of being looked at. His headlight, groping, showed only those ambiguous depressions, probably windrows, now blanking in the storm. He had been caught out, jabbering high-mindedly of perception, blind to that instant of manifestation, if that’s what it was. . . .
With morning, after dreams of rafting waterbirds, crankily calling across a bay, the friends walked the slough. He pointed out the first cairn to Tom, who said nothing till, led to the top of the eastward ledge, he saw the second cairn, which now looked fabricated, somehow childish, above all small.
“What are you trying to accomplish?” He ignored the double thrust of the question:
“To get an eye on it.”
“Oh, right enough if it rips up another of my dogs. Otherwise, no. . . .”
Somnolent summer; happy, unproductive torpor. Dapping for sunfish with his boy, jigging on his knee the baby girl, all appetite and greedy fingers. His wife turns plump and lovely.
A family of raccoons grows up and scatters from the dead elm by the porch. Hosts of salamanders prick the pond. Twang of frogs. Woods dry as cotton, undergrowth so dense and copperhead flies so thick and vicious that he hangs near home, going slightly slack in the belly. A great lull in the town mythology has followed the normal loss, predictably construed as abnormal, of spring calf and lamb. Working their impossible summer hours, the farmers trade fewer tales: anecdotes rather, clipped by the heat and flattened out by their weary wrestle with a great vegetable relentlessness — the flock of skunks, and how they stank when the mower bar dismembered them, new modes of outwitting corn-thieving crows, and so on.
By this time the silos broadcast their heavy stench, the hills recede into haze. Odd nights, though, the air clears, and a significant wind, from just north of west, winnows the clouds from Macky Mountain, October-like, and the stars are sharp. He feels then a surge in his lower torso, shame at his softened body. The kennel fills with drifts of summer hair. He will cut the dogs’ feed and his own. Soon partridge will explode from wormy apple and aspen, woodcock mount, erratic, whistling from alder, rutting bucks scrape off their velvet on stub and sapling. There will be the dazzling energy of wild duck-flight, and beavers pounding the river as he makes his way before dawn to a blind.
His son now and then catches him in an empty stare, asks his thoughts. Perhaps he will find, one day, their measure. For now, confusion, not unpleasant: it seems the heart- shaped presence has always been with him, that he will neither grasp, nor give up the effort to grasp it. Last winter’s memories—the slaps, mysterious tokens in the forms of the cairns, the spicy scent of the empty windfall, snow—mix now with recalls of autumn clouds, sudden on a gamy sidehill, the dog unaccountably raising its hackles, deep silence, a nervous thrill in the stomach. His son may learn all this.
Far down in the valley, he sees a smoking combine creep through a field behind a pigeon-toed tractor, the gold of grainstalks ceding to intentional geometries, as if the driver’s ceaseless efforts to uncover ground might lead him to some knowledge, fixed, beyond transforming.