The Morning After
Skook: The Story Continues
I buried poor brave Paka at about mid-morning the next day. The storm clouds had rolled into the mountains, which were bedecked with fresh snow, and the sky was blue and cold. I left the boy in his high chair in the kitchen with Harry, both with food to distract them, and the blinds drawn.
I emptied one of my canvas decoy bags for a shroud. She had stiffened into the sleeping posture I placed her in the night before, so I disassembled the kennel to avoid disturbing her rigor and tucked her snug in the bag. I punched through a couple inches of frosty mud to get to the rich black dirt behind the fireplace. Once I had the grave roughed out I spaded deep into the gray lahar mud; I didn’t want anything disturbing her final sleep. When I got the dirt tamped back down I leaned on the spade, my throat tight. She deserved some last words.
Finally I just told her, “You always loved to lay by the fireplace, girl. So I put you on the other side of the chimney. What a brave girl you were last night. We got him back okay, baby. But who’s going to fetch his alphabet blocks now?”
Grown men aren’t supposed to stand by a dog’s grave and cry. Screw that. Rudyard Kipling was a grown man when he wrote that poem about giving your heart to a dog, to tear. I cried for her again there in the bright sunlight, and then put up the tools and moved her disassembled kennel into the garage. That took all my remaining energy for the day.
I hadn’t slept for more than a couple hours in my recliner before my wife’s strident 6 a.m. alarm went off. She came shuffling out and we held each other and murmured, mending the hurt feelings around my unexpected homecoming. Then she headed off to shower and go to work and I went right back under. The boy woke me next, crawling into my lap.
He smelled all clean and soapy and well-powdered, and rubbed his head against my shirt. “’Zat smell, Da? He wrinkled his nose.
Some of that thing’s stink had soaked into my shirt when I tucked my son under my coat. I got him settled in his high chair with a bottle of chocolate milk and some banana slices, put food down for Harry, and left them to deal with Paka’s burial.
When I got back inside, I could smell traces of that stench in my recliner. I was going to have to scrub Harry down, spray smell-good stuff on the chairs and carpets and double-wash my clothing. And clean my rifles…The list just seemed to grow. After dealing with Paka, I couldn’t face any of it.
My son had smeared banana chunks all over his clean shirt and half the kitchen table. He had apparently ingested enough milk and banana to occasion a horrific dump. For once I was glad to smell it — it chased the stench of that beast out of my nostrils. I wasn’t sure that thing did smell worse than baby shit, as my wife claimed. But baby shit was familiar and normal.
I went through the motions of cleaning him up again like a sleepwalker, and went back to sleep in my recliner almost as soon as I sat down. My son was playing quietly with an ancient set of Lincoln logs from my own childhood. So far he hadn’t seemed to notice Paka was missing, thank God. I had no idea how I was going to deal with that.
I was dreaming of Paka’s first retrieve, a ruffed grouse she flushed from alder thickets up in the foothills when she was only six months old, when Harry woke me with his Hound of the Baskervilles roar. Before I was even awake, I had my Remington out from behind the recliner where I’d leaned it this morning. My mind was all twisted up between the shattered happy dream and a violent flashback to the skook.
Early dusk had descended. My son was curled up on his mother’s recliner, sound asleep. Somewhere he had found his Binky and was sucking away in a steady rhythm.
I got all the way awake and realized I heard a truck in the driveway. I looked out the kitchen window, and saw Bob Petoskey. I realized I had forgotten to call Bob. Joe Consonants was with him. There was a rifle in the window rack behind the pickup seat; Joe’s Yeti rifle. I told Harry to hush, unloaded my rifle, and went to the door.
“You okay?” was the first thing out of Petoskey’s mouth.
“More to the point, is your boy?” Joe added.
Joe had traded his galoshes for low-topped round-toed boots like the ones Li’l Abner wore in Dogpatch. I guess that meant if was officially winter in the Gorge.
“We’re fine,” I said. “Come on in, the coffee’s on.”
My son was awake now, struggling down off the recliner. Harry wagged at Bob and started forward but stopped in mid-stride and studied big Joe impassively, his tail out stiff. Joe’s wind and rain smell had been augmented by a tracery of skook. I told Harry to down and stay in the living room, and we all trooped into the kitchen. I brought the boy with me, got out cups and we sat around the table.
“Did you get my message?” Petoskey asked.
“I meant to call but I forgot.”
Petoskey sighed. “That cabin is a mess.”
“A bunch of big rocks came down on the roof, and one came through the back window,” I said. “Just like Ape Canyon in 1924. The so-called experts said back then that was students on a camp-out, giving the miners a hard time. My wife said kids in the Gorge weren’t above giving an outsider — that’s me — the same kind of hard time.”
“God damn it,” Petoskey said. “When I find out who did that, if their parents don’t kick their ass, I will!”
“It wasn’t kids in Ape Canyon,” Joe said flatly.
“You sound pretty sure about that,” I said.
“I was there.”
“That was fifty years ago!”
“I wasn’t hatched yesterday.”
“That’s a yarn I never heard you spin,” Petoskey told him. “About being in the siege of Ape Canyon.”
Joe shrugged. “And it wasn’t kids last night.”
Petoskey helped himself to more coffee, and topped up our mugs. “Well, something sure happened up there last night,” he said, “and it wasn’t a land slippage.” He sipped coffee and kind of smiled. “Joe tried to tell me it was skooks. But the only big footprints I saw at the cabin were his. The galoshes made ’em look even bigger.”
“The snow covered skook sign,” Joe said.
“Yeah, yeah, there’s always some reason nobody ever quite sees one, or their tracks, except you,” Petoskey said tolerantly.
To me: “Joe said you went out of there like your tail was on fire. When you didn’t call, I decided to come see if you’re okay. I picked up Joe on the way. He was walking down here to check on you too.”
I looked at Joe again. “Carrying your Yeti rifle.”
“When they get that stirred up over something, it’s not a good idea to wander through their territory unarmed, even for me.”
“For God’s sake, Joe,” Petoskey said. “Quit trying to scare the guy to death. And try not to shoot some idiot kid by mistake, okay?”
“I am always careful with firearms,” Joe said coldly.
“Sure, Joe, I know. Just kidding.” To me: “Your son sure is fascinated by Joe.”
“Hasn’t taken his eyes off him since we came in. Has he, Joe?”
Joe smiled in his whiskers. “He recognizes a kindred spirit.”
“A kindred spirit?” I said.
“We each have been marked by skooks. Myself, when I was somewhat older than the tyke here.”
Petoskey grinned. “Nah, he just thinks you’re Santa, with all those grey whiskers.”
Joe didn’t even crack a smile. “Loss of your offspring is the most awful thing a sentient being can confront,” he said to me. “As you well know,” he added.
I met his gaze. “And if I say I have no idea what you’re talking about?”
“Keep saying that. It’s the right thing to do. I know young Mildred told you what she saw last year. The lost youngling, chased to its death on the rocks by wild dogs.”
“That was a retarded kid from the State School,” Petoskey said. “They try to hush those things up, all right.”
“Mildred thought otherwise,” Joe said.
Petoskey shrugged. “Mildred was really upset when her dog was killed. Didn’t believe wild dogs could have killed a full-grown Husky. We’re going to have to do something about those wild dogs.” He drank coffee. “The guy at the stone quarry thinks he’s figured out where they den, up by the park boundary. We need to go in there and clean them out before they get one of our kids waiting for the school bus.”
Joe nodded. “I can find them for sure. No more youngsters must suffer because of humanity’s cruel neglect of its pets.”
“Mildred told me everybody up there uses skook as a nickname for Bigfoot,” I said.
“Chinook word was skookum,” Petoskey said. “We shortened it over the years.”
“Skookum,” I said. “Skookum he-man: big and strong. An Indian word that entered the language, like hammock and other words Columbus and his crew picked up in the Caribbean?”
“The Southeast tribes had their own jargon resembling Chinook,” Joe said. “Did you know that? Lost to history in the European conquest.”
“Skookum gets used a lot in the Northwest,” Petoskey said. “Businesses use it as part of their trade name. Skookum Off-Road Tires and so on. Accepted meaning, like you say, is big, strong and potent. But originally it meant ghost, evil spirit or demon. Each tribe had its own word for Bigfoot, usually meaning wild man, same thing old Mr. Tuchi calls them.” He grinned at me. “It was an old-time newspaperman who standardized on Sasquatch, from a Vancouver Island tribe.”
“Trust a newspaperman to invent a catchy name,” I said.
Joe graced us both with a sad smile. “There have always been stories about skooks stealing babies. But a skook that would try to steal a baby from this man is a tragedy. On both sides.”
Petoskey shook his head. “Steal his baby? You making up a new tall tale for the tourists, Joe?”
“The bedroom window was shattered by a boulder. You did notice that, didn’t you?” Joe said. “And the blood on the outside wall?”
“I thought it was blood,” Petoskey admitted. ”Did you or your boy get cut by the glass?” he asked me.
I just shook my head. “You’re quite the crypto-zoologist,” I said to Joe. “But your only warning to me was to keep my dogs close. Even old Mr. Tuchi warned me about wild men. Not warning me is the next thing to enemy action, where I come from.”
“I have no desire to be an enemy of such a lethal man.” He didn’t sound as if he were being ironical. “But you are correct: what happened up there was my fault.”
“Why,” said Petosky, “do I get the feeling that there are at least two more conversations than I know about going on in this room?”
“You were well-armed,” Joe said. “Well-guarded by your brave dogs. Incredibly brave dogs.”
“I don’t think I want you talking about my dogs,” I told him. “You don’t have the right.”
He rubbed a big hand over his face. “The habit of staying unknown is centuries-bred. I thought you were perfectly safe. So you’re right to chastise me.”
Before I could think of anything to say to that, we heard the loose shocks of my wife’s Pontiac thumping and bumping down the potholed driveway. I looked at the kitchen clock. She was home early.
“We’ll be going,” Joe decreed, standing with an easy grace that belied his years. He bent his gaze down on my son. “Be well, young man. You have many interesting years ahead of you.” It sounded like that Chinese curse. To me he said, “We will talk again. We must. I have an obligation now.”
“I guess we’re going,” Petosky said, and sat his cup on the drain board. “Don’t take Joe’s ramblings too seriously,” he muttered as he left. “Sometimes he can’t seem to turn off his tourist patter.”