Home From A Deadly Confrontation
When I turned into our driveway, half the lights in the house were on. I could see my wife looking out the kitchen window, almost like she expected us. She normally would have been asleep long since. She was on the front stoop, wrapped in her old maroon bathrobe, by the time I parked. As soon as I had our son in my arms, Harry bounded out the door and ran prancing and wagging to my wife.
They’d always enjoyed a special bond. She was the one who spotted him in a city pound on the other side of the country, curled up shyly in a puppy pen while the others stood on the wire yapping and trying to attract attention. When she stooped down and spoke to him, he uncurled and came right to her as if recognizing his savior; he was eight weeks old. She spent a lot of time spoiling him the year I was flying all over the place, and complained when he automatically shifted attention to me when I got home. I represented hunting dummies to retrieve, scent drags in the woods, duck wings tied to a fishing rod for him to chase, but she felt slighted. She really loved that dog.
Now she barely gave him a quick pat on his head. He sat wagging, waiting for more. Then he followed her as she came to me along the walk, still wagging but a little subdued.
“Is my son okay?” was the first thing she said.
Storm flags flying that had nothing to do with the weather. When the boy irritated her for some reason, he was my son. When I failed to measure up to some unspoken standard as a father, he became hers.
Her voice awakened him. He popped his sleepy head out of the down vest and said, “Mo?”
“Thank god!” She took him away from me. “This old down vest of yours?” she said as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. ”Where’s his winter jacket?”
“I’ll get it tomorrow.”
“You left it up there?”
She peeled my vest off and just dropped it in the mud. Turned on her heel, hugging him close, and marched back inside. Over her shoulder I could see she had a fire going in the living-room fireplace.
Harry looked at me. I looked at Harry.
“Welcome home, Harry,” I said. “Now you say it.”
The poor dog looked like he thought he was in trouble. I squatted and pulled him into my arms. “You’re not in trouble, Harry. You’re the best dog there ever was. Bravest, toughest, best. You and…” My throat closed. I couldn’t say Paka’s name, or he would start looking around for her.
I tossed the vest on the seat and sheathed my rifle in its scabbard, still loaded, before I locked the truck door. Harry examined the yard for evidence of interlopers before we went in. I didn’t discourage him; I was fresh out of patience with night-time surprises. By the time he re-established all the urine-warnings his bladder was good for, my wife was back on the stoop.
“Where’s the boy?” I said.
“Eating Neapolitan ice cream. I bought it for tomorrow, but since you’re home early I figured why not?”
The corners of my eyelids stung for no accountable reason. Certainly not because the boy was doubling down on his ice cream rations.
“Are you coming in?” she said. “The heat is getting out and I need to talk to you.”
Now what had I done? The Gorge seemed off somewhere in another lifetime. “We’re coming.”
Harry cocked his ears at the name, and immediately started looking around. God-damn it.
“Don’t say her name again,” I said. “Harry will get upset.”
“What? Why? Where is she?”
“She’s in her kennel.”
“Well, let her out!”
“She can’t come out.”
“Why won’t you let her come out? Did she misbehave?”
“I didn’t say I won’t let her out. I said she can’t come out. And no, she didn’t misbehave. She was as brave as anything I ever saw in my life.”
“Brave? Is she hurt? We can call the vet…”
“No vet on earth can help her now.”
“Oh, God,” she said. “Harry,” she said. “Come here, you poor old thing.”
The only part he really got, I feel sure, was that finally he was getting his accustomed loving from the woman who rescued him. She sat down on the steps and cradled him in her arms, crying into his neck fur. The heat was still blowing out of the house; I thought it pretty wise not to bring that up right then. The woman’s tempers were mercuric in the best of times. She had gone from snappish to sentimental in the blink of an eye.
I laid a hand on her shoulder and one of hers came up to cover mine and squeeze. “Are you all right?”
“I’ve been better. But I’m all right.” I squeezed her shoulder gently. “Let’s go inside. You can tell me what you need to talk about.”
She disentangled from Harry and stood up. He leaned happily against her bathrobe, his world put right. Baby-stealing monsters he took in stride but a momentary failure to show affection from his humans bothered him. He was some dog, Harry.
We all trooped into the kitchen where the boy announced loudly that he was having Neapolitan, Da! Though only his mother and I could have figured out the word. I noticed the red eye of the percolator burning on the counter and went for coffee.
“I put it on as soon as I knew you were coming,” she said. “The roads were pretty bad up there, huh?”
“I took it really slow. But how did you know I was coming home tonight?”
“I didn’t until the phone woke me up. It was Bob Petoskey. He told me you were on the way home. He was surprised you weren’t already here.”
“The thing is,” I said, “how did Bob know? Last time I saw him, I was staying.”
“Joe Consonants told Bob you left just before Bob got down to Lower Fairfax.”
“Wait. Bob went down there tonight too?” It was like the damn Gorge was trying to reach out of the night and rope me back in. “Why?”
“He was in the Eagles when a couple Carbonado guys mentioned they gave Joe a lift. He wanted them to take him all the way to Fairfax but they wanted a drink before the Eagles shut down. Joe never demands to be taken to a special spot.”
“Joe’s habits seem to be a major topic up there,” I said. “It was snowing like hell, and all he had on his feet was galoshes. So he wanted a ride a few miles farther along. So what?”
“So Joe had his Yeti rifle with him,” she said quietly. “Joe told those Carbonado boys he was afraid the skooks were going to attack you. A lot of people in the Gorge worry about Joe and his Bigfoot obsession. That’s why Bob lit out of there for Fairfax.”
Joe’s Yeti rifle; of course she had to mean the big old 1886 Winchester in .45–70 or .45–90 or whatever big-bore round it turned out to be. What else would he call it, after guiding the ill-fated colonel and his lethal lady in the Himalayas?
“Is it unusual for Joe to run around in the snow with his Yeti rifle?” The echo of my question sounded slightly mad to me.
“Bob was worried you were okay. He said he thought at first there had been some kind of land slippage. Some pretty big rocks did hit the cabin.” she said. “But now he thinks maybe some Gorge kids just wanted to scare you. He was afraid Joe got it all confused and might shoot some stupid kid by mistake.”
I pulled out a kitchen chair. “If somebody was dropping boulders on my head and killed…you know who…I would have shot them myself,” I said. “And not by mistake.”
She ignored that, hovering over our son, which he didn’t mind as long as it didn’t interfere with the trajectory of his ice-cream spoon. He was smeared almost up to his eyes in three different flavors. Harry leaned against her knee and studied each flight of the ice-cream spoon as carefully as a flight of mallards.
“You can have what’s left when he’s done, Harry,” I said.
My wife looked at Harry. “Ice cream is the only thing on his entire mind right now,” she said. “Yet he’s a widower. Right?”
“If you use that term for dogs.”
“Suppose you’d forget me that fast, if you were a widower?”
Jesus Christ. Here went that mercury skittering up and down the barometer of her moods again.
“Honey, Harry is a dog,” I said. He cut his eyes at me when I said his name. “Dogs live in the now. That was then and this is now: ice cream.”
“Nice avoidance,” she said.
I sighed. Everything here was so normal that it was like the things in the Gorge had never happened at all.
— — -
We retired to our respective recliners in front of the fire. All the residual terror and tension soaked out of me on alder-scented warmth. Our son crawled out of her lap and over to Harry, sprawled by my chair, and rolled over on his back to use Harry’s rib cage for a pillow. Harry blew out a gusty sigh and my son yawned widely and almost fell asleep before his mouth closed.
“He needs a bath something terrible,” she said. “Couldn’t you smell him? I took him right back and changed his diapers, but it wasn’t that.”
My mind was far away. “Wasn’t what?”
“Poo,” she said primly.
“Not much smells worse than baby shit,” I said agreeably.
“You’re half-asleep! I said it wasn’t that. And yes, it did smell worse.”
That stench had been around me so long up there in the Gorge, and I had been so utterly focused on other things, my mind must have shut off the receptors as irrelevant to survival. I bet my old Filson up in the cabin stank with it. Now that she had forced it to the top of awareness, I smelled it rising off my son and the dog — a thin, sour shadow of its full-blown reek, right in my home.
My rage against that God-damned monster roared back so hot it choked me. I didn’t feel I could speak past my knotted vocal cords. I started trying to breathe through it, like she did in our Lamaze natural-childbirth class. She heard it.
“Are you all right? Are you having chest pains? Your face is all red.”
“I’m just really, incredibly tired,” I managed to get out. “Far too tired to sleep.”
“Will you go talk to Bob in the morning since he’s so worried about his story?”
“I’m not taking my son back in that Gorge!”
“Why are you yelling?” she said. “You woke Harry up. You’re going to wake our son up.”
“I’m not yelling,” I said.
“Maybe a little,” I said. “I’ll call Bob.”
“What on earth has you so upset?” she said. “Did somebody really throw rocks on the roof of that cabin to try to scare you?”
“Who would do such a thing? I’m trying to write a story about their glory days!”
She sighed. “It wouldn’t be the first time Gorge kids pulled a stunt on outsiders. They don’t like outsiders.”
“Thanks for the warning.” My sarcasm was heavy.
“Just as well you don’t go, with you in this mood,” she said. “We can tell Bob the roads are too icy.”
“That’s not going to fly,” I said. “Bob knows I have a fine air conditioner in my truck.”
She gave me a dangerous look. “What are you talking about?”
“Why, that air conditioner should get me over black ice better than any four-wheel drive like I wanted to buy.”
She jerked upright abruptly. “I hate you when you get like this!” Her lower lip trembled. “And I was looking forward to a happy homecoming. Bring the baby when you come to bed. Asshole!”
She swept off down the hall. I didn’t feel too bad about deliberately pushing her buttons. I couldn’t let her get into her compassionate, caring mode. When she got in her compassionate, caring mode, no trained interrogator was better at worming out all the details.
And I wasn’t going to give her the details. Not about this.
We had built a pretty decent marriage based on love and mutual respect and honesty. But I was not going to tell her that I slaughtered a lactating female skook that stole our child right out of my keeping. I sat and stared at the flames for a long time. After a while, my son woke up and climbed unsteadily to his feet.
“Mo?” he said.
“Gone to bed, son. Go crawl in.”
“’Kay, Da.” He toddled off down the hall. My hearing still seemed unnaturally acute. I heard every soft footfall down the carpet, heard the door open quietly, heard him speak, heard her answer — instantly awake like mothers everywhere — and then murmurs as he settled in with her.
The fire burned down to red-hot embers before I moved again, to add split alder. My face baked in the heat near the fireplace. I went to the kitchen and replenished my coffee. The house creaked, settling in the cold. The wind picked up. Everything seemed safe, sane; normal. Sheer illusion: I wondered if I would feel safe or sane or normal again in my lifetime.
I could hear Joe Consonants’ cracked pipe organ of a voice against the Gorge wind: “The kind of human that made Neanderthal extinct.”
He sounded sad, not accusing.
But he had come running out of the night with his Yeti rifle, and told the Carbonado boys skooks were on the prowl.
“You are a changed man.”
Was I? I didn’t know about that. The old saying goes that circumstances don’t make the man, they reveal him. Under the rock siege in the Gorge, I stood revealed to myself as well as old Joe. I walked back into the living room. Harry had appropriated my recliner, curled in a comfortable ball. I saw his eyebrows twitch, and read it like plain English: was I going to evict him now he was comfortable? It lightened me a bit.
“Stay right there, Harry,” I said. “Stay in Dad’s chair. You earned it tonight, in spades.”
I detoured to my office, flipped on the overhead light and started browsing my bookshelves. We probably had five hundred volumes in there, from big hardbacks to twenty-five cent Pocketbook Westerns my uncles gave me when I was a kid. Books everywhere: on shelves along the wall, a shelf above the wide door, on low shelves under the picture windows facing the foothills. I was looking for the book that jumped into my mind when Ralph the shell-shocked Montana cowboy tried to emulate Bigfoot speech. I wasn’t sleepy, and I didn’t want to sit and consider why a lactating beast had stolen our son.
I would kill her again in a heartbeat, extinction or not. But my peculiar divided mind couldn’t ignore the tragic implication of the theft, or my son nursing at that alien breast. Best not to think about it at all. And especially not to talk about it. Not with anyone.
I found the book I was looking for: Wildfowl Decoys by Joel Barber, “140 illustrations with 4 in Color.” I sat at my desk to scan the chapters. My peculiar brain had a memory quirk that told me just about where to look, though I hadn’t cracked that particular volume in years. Page 46 — I dog-eared the page so I could find it again. Chapter VIII, The First Decoy. Barber had been tracing the earliest published references to use of decoys along the Eastern Seaboard, and quoted from “Sporting Scenes and Sundry Sketches,” published in New York, 1842, by somebody named J. Cypress, Jr.
His purpose in quoting Cypress was to describe the hand-made decoys Cypress found in use by a Fire Island duck gunner, handed down by his great-grandfather who came down from Massachusetts after the Revolutionary War to take a small farm on shares. “The most of his time, hows’m’ver,” the hunter told Cypress, “he spent in the bay, clammen and sich like. He was putty tol’r’bl’ smart with a gun, too, and he was the first man that made wooden stools for ducks…”
Then this: having lain out overnight in his skiff with his decoys not many years after Cornwallis surrendered, “putty well hid, for ’t was th’ fall of th’ year, and the sedge was smart and high”, the old man heard splashing in the shallows and peered out of his hiding place. What he saw was “a queer-looken old feller waden ‘long on th’ edge o’ th’ flat, jest by th’ channel, benden low down…and his eye upon gr’t gr’ndf’ther’s stool. ’That feller thinks my stool’s faawl,’ says the old man to himself, softly, ’cause he xpected the feller was an Injin, and there wa’n’t no tellen whether he was friendly or not, in them times…”
The stranger waded among the decoys, picking them up and uneasily smelling of them. But he overcame his nervousness, yanked every decoy up by its anchor, slung them over his shoulder and started off. That was too much for the old man. “He didn’t like this much, but he didn’t want to get in a passion with an Injin, for they’re full of fight…then he could see plain enough it was a merm’n…so he sung out to him, putty loud and sharp, to lay down them stools, and he shoved the skiff out the hassack…and got his old muskets ready…
“Well, the merm’n turned around, and sich another looken mortal man gr’t gr’ndf’th’r said he never did see. He’d big bushy hair all ov’r ‘im, and big whiskers…He hadn’t stich clothes ont’ ‘im, but the water was up to’s waist, and kivered ‘im up…the merm’n began to talk out the darndest talk you ever heerd. I disremember ‘xactly, but I b’lieve ’twas something like ‘norgus porgus, carry Yorkus….’”
And there it was, in bald print from 1842, the exact phrase Ralph from the Soldier’s Home had uttered tonight at the Pick ‘N Shovel in Wilkeson. The book was silent on the outcome of the confrontation, but since the decoys were still there to inherit, they spoke for themselves. Almost two hundred years later, I recognized that silence. I wasn’t saying anything about my confrontation either.
“The kind of human that made Neanderthal extinct.”
I closed the book and leaned back and tried not to think about anything at all.