Fellow • Phoebe McIlwain Bright
Ingrid skied faster as the cloudy morning light came on. Her nose ran in the cold, and the rifle, a Winchester 94, pulled her pack to one side. She’d wanted to dump the Win once she was far enough from the house that her mother, Lise, could still see her but not catch up. Or, lean it against a tree for Lise to collect because Ingrid having the rifle let her mother feel better about sending her to the mountain alone. But when she’d watched her mother add an extra pat of butter to the oatmeal earlier that morning, her resolve had ebbed.
The night before, she’d sulked when Lise told her she would have to get her father from the mountain. “I know it’s easier when he’s away,” Lise said once Ingrid stopped crying to clean her face. “But three weeks is too long for us to stay with the Seagers.” Ingrid complained that the trail to the cabin where Ove trapped was sixteen miles, and when he was weighed down with gear, the trip took him two days. She used miles, not kilometers, to make it sound harder, but Lise only said, Fourteen is too old to be bothered by the dark.
As Ingrid skied, the snowy ground lightened to the color of wet paper. The trees were tall and dark. She passed a trunk lodged at an angle, caught by the others as it fell, fat with moss and wisps of old-man’s beard hanging from its belly. When she was younger, she had imagined trees like this one as slumbering troll giants. She would play at sneaking past them to rescue her brothers, and she’d whack at the hulking logs with her ski poles—the bones of trolls slain in battle.
Now what she wanted to imagine was her life expanding with people who weren’t her family. At the dance, she’d watched the Ashbys get into a drunken argument, their son sharing an eye roll with her when they’d tearfully made up. If she lived in town, it would be easier to have friends and sweethearts.
The sky sagged around the branches, and sweat stayed on her forehead. She tried to be sorry about the house—the half-burned kitchen and charred portrait of King Haakon VII her mother had brought from Norway—but it was an accident, and the fire didn’t bother her as much as it should. She didn’t feel guilty. She just didn’t want to be the one to tell Ove what had happened. Since the collapse, her father had stopped inviting friends to dinner, stopped exchanging small gifts of home-brewed beer and tobacco. He would cuff her ear when she told him, not smack her face, but his talk would be bleak and mournful as the Oregon rain. His words would seep in to all the places she wanted to keep warm and dry.
By early afternoon, the leather boots rubbed against her heels. Knots formed in her shoulders. She’d been to the cabin in summer, but she’d never made the trip alone. If something were to happen, it would be days before Lise would know to worry. Imagining her mother in tears usually made Ingrid feel rich with the power of being cared for, but in this case Lise would only add it to the list of Ove’s failures—moving them to America, letting the family slide into poverty anyway, working so far away that they couldn’t reach him when they needed to.
The mountains, her father, trapping. They were the same ugliness. The same damp, hairy gloom: sour talk, dried fluids crusted in the corners of its mouth and the folds of its skin.
Ove said he wanted Ingrid’s help with the trapping because she knew how to work. He had trained her for the trip. From one marker point to the next, she’d follow the compass north, east by northeast, north again. Ove had named the marker sites: Bare Ass Tree, Fat Sister’s Stump. The names were Norwegian. He knew the least English in the family. The markers My Teeth and Ove’s Chair made her think of an old god trying to claim land.
The path, he’d told her, disappeared because trappers didn’t like company. What came from months of solitude? There was one story she knew Ove believed because he’d made a point of telling it to her, about three brothers from Bend murdered and dropped through a hole in the ice. He’d kept his hands on her shoulders as he talked, until she’d repeated back to him that the only things stolen were the valuable silver foxes the boys hadn’t kept hidden.
She tried to decide how to tell him about the house. He would be impressed she’d made the trip. If she said she’d volunteered to go instead of Jonas, he might not get that mad. She thought about her mother and brothers at the Seagers’. Mr. Seager would be helping Jonas with his long division while Nils sat drawing by the woodstove. Lise darned the elbows of one of the boys’ sweaters and talked with Mrs. Seager about news from home, how Norway wasn’t as hard hit by the Depression as other countries in Europe, how it was better than the States.
The last time Ove had been at the house for a few days, he’d leaned out from his seat by the woodstove and grabbed Jonas by the elbow, pulling him close. Ove stretched his left arm out to the side. “Death is always here,” he said, tapping the air. “Just a meter to your left. You can reach out and touch him at any time. You forget that, living close to fresh milk and a table, but he’s here.” Ove smiled, spittle stretching across his skewed teeth. Ingrid tried not to roll her eyes. She wanted her mother to tell him to quit with the theatrics. But later, when they scrubbed the dishes and set the oats to soak overnight, Lise’s hands shook. She poured milk into the oat pan too quickly, and it splashed onto the counter. “Death is always here,” she said angrily. “He should be in a sanatorium.” Ingrid wiped up the milk, surprised to understand her mother’s anger as a stand-in for a fear that couldn’t be admitted. The fear was that her father was losing his mind.
The wind changed direction, and with it came animal howls. She counted her steps to keep her mind from conjuring up how many wolves she’d heard and how close they might be. The wind hid directions, distances. They might be too far away to smell her, they might have just eaten, there might not be very many of them. As long as she had daylight, she could at least see to aim the rifle. Ove had told her timber wolves were usually shy of men because their upright posture looked like a bear’s, but she’d never fully believed him.
If the wolves did reach her, both her parents would be sorry. Though it wasn’t something they’d feel together. The last time they had shared anything had been in Norway, where Ove had grown potatoes and root vegetables. Each night, Lise would massage his head and shoulders, starting at his crown and working her way downward, her pink fingers moving through his hair slowly, like salmon hovering behind rocks in a streambed.
Ove’s cabin was two miles from the summit, always in the shade of something—the forest, the peak, the monotonous clouds. The growing cold sapped the last of her strength, and the fear that had made her hurry faded. She could barely see the trees ahead. Her legs had been throbbing for miles. Now they cramped.
As she rounded the last switchback, a shot echoed through the trees. When a second crack sounded and splinters from a spruce log went flying into the air, she understood he was shooting at her.
She knew she should get away, but her legs moved forward. She shouted, “Pappa, det er meg!”
The next shot snapped in the branches to her right.
She stopped. He had better aim; the shots were warnings. He might think she was another trapper. A rival after his furs, traps, and food supplies.
She waited as the sweat on her face dried and droplets of ice formed on her collar where the condensation of her breath passed over the fur. She waited as her legs shook more and more. Realizing she could wait all night, she lay down in the snow, hoping he would come. Despite the cold, she closed her eyes.
She heard the crunch of old snow under a booted foot. Ove hesitated before saying, “Ingrid,” and helping her up. He collected her pack, clicking his tongue at the Winchester lying in the snow.
“Who?” he asked. Ingrid stared; he squeezed her elbow, and his voice turned sharp, “Who?”
She shook her head, understanding. “Everyone’s fine,” she said.
They ate snowshoe hare boiled in salted water and lard. Ingrid wished Lise had thought to send her with a packet or two of spices. But Ove had a fire going in the fuel drum stove, and slowly her muscles thawed.
The cabin’s one room listed westward. In the corners, the slanted roof reached down so low even Ingrid had to duck her head. She wanted him to say something approving about her making the trip alone, but he only apologized. “I didn’t mean to fire at you.”
“I run to hot meals, not away from them.” It was the kind of thing he would have said when she was younger, when he wanted to excite her about a candy or a trip to town, and without meaning to, she put his old inflection on it.
He frowned at his stew.
“We went to town for the dance,” she started.
Ove shook his head. “Your mother will resent me ’til I’m in the ground for moving us here, but as soon as I’m gone, she’s kicking up her heels.”
Ingrid tugged carefully at a hangnail. She hadn’t had news like this since Lise sold the marriage bed. “When we came back home the kitchen had burned.” Ingrid made her voice flat, casual. “I must have forgotten to put out the lantern. I wanted to be the one to come get you, not have Mamma send someone from town.” He remained still, looking into his lap. The spoon he held jittered against his thigh.
Ingrid chewed her meat and pretended she hadn’t felt a flush of shame at his trembling fingers. His hair and beard were long. He’d lost weight. When she got up for more stew, she flicked open the cabinets and saw that the flour and lard were mostly full. He had been at the cabin for weeks. She looked at his mess of a bed. Traps that he always kept outside, away from the smell of people, were piled beside the woodstove. She waited for him to tell her to stop nosing around.
“I’m tired,” he said when she closed the cabinets. “I don’t eat as much.”
“Because you’re working all day?”
He returned his spoon to the bowl. “I sleep. When I wake, sometimes the morning has gone.”
She felt days could blur together when he looked back. Even when he knew he’d done things, he couldn’t always take apart the pieces of what he’d done each day and reassemble them.
She scraped the stewpot and split the soak water between their bowls. She had a sudden urge to be kind. “Mamma says we need you at home.”
He slurped his soak water and ran his finger around the rim of the bowl. When he finished, he opened the only book in the cabin. Not the Bible of the Church of Norway, but a Norwegian copy of the Eddic poems, given to him by Mr. Seager. His voice was scratchy, and the lines came out like pulls from a rusted saw.The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea,
She took the bowls and spoons outside to scrub with snow, but she could still hear him rattling through the stanzas about Ragnarök, the fate of the gods, lines that used to make her feel she’d live through the high drama of the battles. Now she only felt tired.
In Romsdal, where the blue arm of the river curled along the valley floor, bordered by the spires of the Troll Wall, Ove had farmed the land that had been in his family for hundreds of years, and he’d liked people more. There, if he’d needed help fixing his house, all the family would have come, and he would have been happy to see them and given them aquavit.
She woke the next morning to Ove’s boot nudging her shins. “We’ll take the traps down and get as far as we can before night.”
“As far as we can?” Ingrid let her voice rise.
“Back down the mountain. To my house you burned.” He put a bowl of oatmeal next to her. A pot of snow was melting beside the stove.
Ingrid flopped back into the blankets.
“You feel how wet the air is?” He opened the door, and a blast of cold blew through the cabin. “I don’t want to get snowed in.”
They set out together, each with an empty knapsack. His traplines spread out from the cabin for miles in every direction. Ingrid asked why he chose to set a trap in one place instead of another, not because she cared but because it was easier than silence. Wet air rolled in. No snow fell, but the white sky stretched above them.
At the lake, they found a mink pulling against a long spring trap, its lithe, brown body spinning and flailing around its ensnared leg. In summer, Ingrid had seen them move like water across the shore. Ove slipped the catchpole over its neck. He pulled it to him and wrapped his mittened hands around its neck. Ingrid watched to see if he closed his eyes.
They returned to the cabin by light of pitch torches. Ove held her torch so she could remove her skis. When she bent over too fast and swayed against the cabin wall, he squatted beside her and undid the bindings.
“I need sleep,” she said.
“And I don’t?”
“I won’t be able to keep up.”
The peak of his hood stilled. “Fine, but we’re going the whole way down tomorrow.”
Inside, he packed their knapsacks with furs and even traps, which he only took if he was worried about the cabin being looted. When he ran out of space he lay on the packs, punching the furs down. He pulled furs from his pack and tied them to the outside with rawhide straps. Then he replaced them with as many traps as he could.
Ingrid felt as if she were wading against the current of a stream. “What if we wait until after the storm. Mamma will understand.”
He laughed bitterly and left the cabin.
Ingrid stayed on the floor, uncertain. Her wool sweater smelled of damp and animal musk. They wouldn’t make it off the mountain in one day. Not with heavy rucksacks and new snow to slow their skis and let them sink. He’d notice the missing weight, but from her own pack, she pulled out the traps and hid them in the back of the cabinets. Then she fluffed up the furs to make the pack look full again.
When he came back, he began cataloging the food he’d need to buy in town as if nothing had happened. Ingrid asked when he thought the snow would start.
“I won’t have—people—saying I don’t take care of my family.” He rubbed a hand across his face. “She wants me back; I’ll be there.”
The night Ove had made his decision to leave Norway, he’d pulled Ingrid into his lap, his beard tickling her ear. Lise sat in a chair by the hearth, nursing Nils; Jonas might have already been in bed. “You can stay or you can come,” Ove said to Lise. “I can’t tell you what to do. But I’m taking the children with me.” He wrapped his arms around Ingrid. Instead of their usual game where she yelped in mock pain and pretended to faint, she’d stayed quiet, nervous at the tension. “Even the baby,” Ove said.
He had been sure Lise would forgive him. It must not have occurred to him that he’d need to count on being able to love the new country when his wife couldn’t trust him again.
The snow started in the night. By the time they left the cabin, Ove bolting the door shut to keep out any curious black bears, the new snow was halfway up Ingrid’s shins. Wet, heavy flakes melted on her shoulders and hood. It came in surges, sometimes falling so fast she couldn’t find the markers. Other times, a space would open and they could see a quarter mile out if they were traveling along a ridgeline. Ove kept them moving at a brisk pace. He was impatient when she needed to stop and pee. “You have to push yourself,” he said, facing the other way as she tried to keep her rear above the drifts.
Even when they skied through the trees, the high mountain wind blew the snow in bands, and it felt like other people were traveling with them. Ove also seemed to see these echoed shapes. Sometimes his hand moved to his rifle. He carried the Marlin tied to the side of his pack with its loose-hanging furs. At first, he kept getting caught in the brush. But he adjusted to his new bulk, and then Ingrid had trouble keeping up.
Ove lagged until Ingrid had to slow herself to keep from running over the backs of his skis. Then he seemed to remember he was hurrying and sped up so she had to hustle not to lose him. She shouted at him, but he didn’t turn. A few minutes later, he slowed again. Ingrid thought he might be tiring from his heavy pack and knew she ought to offer to take some of the weight, or at least a few of the dangling furs, but that would mean admitting she’d lightened her own load. Finally, she let herself run into him. Not hard, just coasting into his rucksack, her nose pressing against the back of a mink skull, but he spun around sharply, as if he’d forgotten anyone was there.
Small icicles hung from his beard, the lower ones made of spit, the upper ones snot. His eyebrows were tufted with white; he’d been protecting her from the worst of the wind.
“I hear wolves,” she said.
The howls sounded again. He closed his eyes and his shoulders went soft. It looked more like relief than fear.
“What if they’re tracking us,” Ingrid said.
He opened his eyes and seemed to come back to himself. The fear that squeezed at her belly loosened slightly, like easing down a notch on her belt.
“This weather is good for hunting elk. The elk sink through the snow beneath this fresh stuff, and they can’t run as fast. Wolves know that.” He tilted his face up at the clouds. When he looked back at her, flakes stuck to his nose and cheekbones. “But they also know we’re not elk.”
Ingrid pressed her lips together. It was hardly an answer. They kept skiing. Words floated back to her. He was reciting the poetic Edda, but the stanzas were out of order. She thought of what she wanted most, which was to live in town, and then listening to her father, she thought that when what you wanted most was a person who refused to come to you it could leave your mind ajar like that. At least, she felt she could imagine. She had never liked the dark and the feeling that anything could be in it. If she turned the lantern out, the stiff, waxed coats hanging by the door and the flour barrel and the comfortable spaces that were supposed to be there vanished. She hadn’t wanted to walk through the dark rooms. She’d planned to ask her mother to go back inside and turn the lantern off.
Ahead, Ove kept mumbling. They came out of the trees to a steep, exposed section with a sharp drop-off to the left, as if a piece of the mountain some thousand feet across had crumpled. Ingrid didn’t recognize it. The wind came at her from all sides, pushing up from the lip of the narrow traverse they followed, then belting her across the face like a crack from a wet strip of canvas. Her eyes watered. Each gust threw up thick flurries. She could feel the pull of the edge to her left. She knew not to look over, that once she looked it would be easy to lose her sense of balance, and she kept her weight leaning in toward the mountain slope on her right. She hurried as best she could, keeping close to her father.
He stumbled—the weight of his pack, the wind catching the furs like sails— and his left knee dipped to the ground. The snow crumpled, pitching him over the edge, and he tumbled down the slope. The sound carried for a few seconds after she lost sight of him. She shouted but there was no answer.
She yelled again and kept yelling until the wind changed, and she thought she heard him calling to her. She inched up to the edge.
The slope was too steep to ski down without falling. Ingrid took off her pack but slid the Winchester strap across her chest and began to sidestep down, leaning her hip into the snowy slope. She hadn’t heard the wolves since before Ove fell. She called to him every few steps, her scratchy voice barely rising above the wind.
He’d come to a stop on a stretch of flat, bare land at the bottom of the bowl, one broken ski still bound to his left foot. When she reached him, he had opened his coat. She knelt down and pulled it shut. He grunted but didn’t stop her from buttoning it up.
She turned to undo his ski binding and clipped her chin on the Winchester. Ove gave a gleeful, childish snicker.
Ingrid’s eyes watered; her chin stung; it wasn’t funny.
The line of his thigh curved sharply. The pant leg was torn and dark with blood. She could make a tourniquet, build a sled, go for help. “Sled. It’ll have to be a sled.”
He made a hacking noise and glared at her. “Burned it all down. You and Lise.”
Ingrid began to cry. She thought of the mink by the lake. How efficient he’d been.
The skin around his eyes loosened, and his shoulders dropped. He wiped a mitten across his running nose. “Stay. Wait with me.”
Ingrid nodded. “One thing first,” she said. In the trees, she pried stones from the roots of a fallen hemlock and used her knife to strip bark and moss. She scraped out the insides of a nursery log. She drove branches into the snow beside him and without asking, tied the furs from his pack between them, forming a three-sided wall. She pushed away the new snow and laid down the stones as a base. She took the matches and tin of dried moss from Ove’s bag. She fed the flame slowly. When the fire was big enough for the furs to reflect its warmth, she stepped back.
He cleared away the fresh snow at his side, his movements stiff and painful. Ingrid sat. He pulled her to him. She didn’t think they’d sat so close together since she was ten, maybe eleven.
“Now, tell me how to line up the trees,” Ove said.
Ingrid repeated to him what she’d known for as long as she could remember: On a cloudy day, line up two trees forward of your position, in your direction of travel. When you pass the first, line up another beyond the second.
“Good,” Ove said. “Now tell me how you get home.”
She did until he began to mumble. She thought he was correcting her, but he was singing “Pål sine høner.” Ingrid stopped and listened to Ove hum about a boy named Paul and his chickens. He’d sung it to all three of them when they were little.
The snow eased to a dusting. They waited, listening to the wind on the ridgeline above them. This time, they both heard the wolves. Ingrid stiffened. Ove would have felt it, so she relaxed against him. They had rifles, they had fire.
“Ingrid.” Ove’s voice sounded dreamy, half-asleep. “You need to get help.”
She added sticks to the fire. She knew quite certainly, like an ache in her tooth, that if she left, she couldn’t come back.
He opened his eyes. “Can you ski down?”
She’d put a tourniquet on his leg and make a sled and take him with her. Why was he not telling her how to build a sled? To cut up all his furs, to hike through the old growth giants, looking for new trees, to cut chips into the bark and drop them with her little knife? How long would that take?
“You know how to ski,” Ove answered himself in Norwegian. “I taught you,” he said, frowning.
Ingrid watched the fire and leaned against him.
He gestured toward his pack. “Open that.”
And without thinking, she stood. It was cold away from the fire. She moved to stay warm. Already, she rooted through the pack’s side pouch for dried elk and his canteen, as he asked.
When she found his things, Ove waved her down toward him. Ingrid thought he was going to rap her forehead with his knuckles for being so slow, but he kissed her cheek. His lips felt like jerky. He wrapped his scarf around his upper thigh, wincing as he shifted his weight. He tied the scarf ends across a stick for the fire and began to turn it, winching the scarf tighter. “Ask in the store—that will be quickest.”
“Pappa,” Ingrid said. He’d told her, Wait. Wait for him. But now he was sending her away. She wanted to touch the lump of his betrayal, like fingers against a wound.
He didn’t give her time; he was a puppeteer. She knew what he was up to: he smelled of blood, he needed her gone, but even as she pushed against his plans, her limbs followed his directions. Take the Win, Leave the canteen, Give me the rest of the wood. Her words repeated him. In the force of his voice, she found a handhold—he’d stemmed the bleeding, he had a gun and fire.
Trunk, then the next trunk. Fix on a spot ten feet up. She fell often, and the rifle knocked against her ear. The snow floated down through the branches like ashes from a distant fire. In the failing light, the trees looked black against the snow, charred husks.
She had to stop before she wasted herself going in circles, getting more lost, but she kept looking at the tree trunks, each next one pulling her forward, even though she could barely see them in the dusk. She had already skied past the hollow cedar when she stopped. The dark gash in the trunk was a foot at its widest point. Even if the storm broke, it might be twelve hours before she could see again. She was costing her father time; it felt like she’d fallen into a cold gray lake and could not seem to find the bottom as she sank.
She crawled inside. There wasn’t enough room for her to lie down. She cocked the rifle and, cradling the gun in her arms, prepared to sleep sitting up, keeping vigil. She tried to imagine Ove still sitting in the base of the bowl. He would have held off putting the barrel in his mouth until she was out of earshot. No. He wouldn’t. He’d wait for her. It had been easier to feel sure when he was still there in front of her, telling her to go. When there was still the sound of his newly formed words in the air.
She couldn’t hold onto the clipped thinking that had kept her moving through the day. She saw him reaching out to clear a spot for her to sit, his sheepskin mitten cupping the snow.
Huginn og Muninn, the ravens of Thought and Memory. A joke with her brothers, one closing his eyes and opening them to ask, Who are you? Closing his eyes as soon as he gets the answer I am Nils, I am Jonas, I am Ingrid. Forgetting. Opening his eyes again, Who are you? Over and over. Each second opens with, Pappa is dead. As soon as she thinks she has a hold of it, it starts over again, Pappa is dead. Each moment is a new moment, and each one begins with this, setting out the terms of the world she still lives in, and each time she swallows the flash of pain, tries to move to the next place, the next idea, she’s stuck, trapped, and the confines are set again, Pappa is dead. There is no following thought.
She woke to a strip of gray light. She pushed through the hole headfirst, clearing away low drifts that had blown against the opening in the night. Snow sifted into the collar of her coat. She squatted, but only a thin trickle came out. She picked up a handful of snow and ate it.
She had to pay attention. She’d need to come back with the sheriff, several people—enough to carry him out. Her chest clenched. The Seagers were old; they liked having kids around. Lise could have waited for Ove to come down from the mountain on his own. Summoning him was selfish. Ingrid would tell Lise the truth. “You made him think you needed him.” And if Lise denied it? “Liar. Bitch.” In front of the Seagers, she didn’t care. The promise of confrontation pushed her skis faster, and she yelled into the snow: Bitch!
She told herself the stories Ove had taught her. They chained Loki with his son’s intestines. Snake venom burned his face bit by bit to make him suffer worse than death. Impossible stories until Ragnarök at the world’s end. Truth comes twisted. Her father bergtagen, taken by the mountain.
A log in a drift caught one of her skis, and she fell; when she tried to get up, her hands sank in the snow. She used her poles to push herself upright. She moved on.
It was almost dark when the sound of the river steadied, no longer dying with the wind. When she reached it, she made herself drink.
Her mother and brothers would be settling into the routine of another evening at the Seagers’ big wooden house: her brothers reading by the stove, Lise and Mrs. Seager shooing the cat off the kitchen countertop as they cooked. Ingrid couldn’t see herself in the room. She no longer had homework. She spent her days in the woods, and at night, she was too tired to do more than eat. The news from Norway meant nothing to her.
She looked for Ove in the contours of the snow shapes that eddied around her. She couldn’t imagine him as a guest at the Seagers’ either. Instead she thought of him in their own home, the house he’d built. He often went to bed right after dinner, and the times he didn’t were the nights he spent drinking mulled wine by the woodstove. Those were the nights he argued with Lise, arguments that came from the old affection, though neither said a kind word. Lise would lurch forward in her seat or throw her hands in the air, sharp as ground squirrels darting from a burrow. Ove’s face would be flushed with wine. Sometimes, he would bend the last few inches of his beard in Ingrid’s direction, twitching it back and forth as if it were alive, investigating, wanting to know what to make of her.
When a log crossing did appear, it was upstream, and she had to double back. It looked sturdy enough, and squinting against the early night, she could see tracks running down its center. She stepped carefully, wary of trusting the log too much. The tracks were mixed together except for one clear wolf print the length of her hand. To block the fear, she thought about how cold it was, thinking in a kind of chant: cold nose, cold chin, cold feet, cold shins.
At the end of the bridge, a wolf loped away into the dark. She looked for more but held her chant and kept skiing. She couldn’t go back across the bridge.
She skied onto a path that looked wide enough for men to use in summer and followed it to the Okuns River Road. Ove had brought her and Jonas out to see the road a few years before, when he’d worked on the team widening the wagon track for the men who would come to oil it. “The Indians had a trail here,” he told his children in English. “The same ones who come over the pass each spring.” He’d been confident he’d be working on the oiling crew, though when the time came the jobs went to the men who spoke without an accent.
Ingrid guessed it was after midnight when the clouds cleared. The trees cast shadows, but the road was lit by the quarter moon. She skated along easily, snow whispering under her skis. Coming down from the mountain, she believed she was traveling the road alone for the last time. She did not think that when she showed the sheriff the place where Ove had died, his body would be gone, the bloody patch where he’d sat still visible through the fresh snow and muddled animal tracks.
She did not think that later in summer she’d return to the cabin in its clearing of asters and yarrow and burn it with pitch wood. She did not think that when her brothers and Lise left for Norway the following fall, she’d stay behind, driving trucks for the logging crews. She did not think she’d see a headline saying the five dollar state bounty for wolves would no longer be offered because they were gone, hunted out of Oregon.
Instead she thought she’d go back to school. Thought when she reached town and knocked on the door of the Seagers’ house an hour before dawn, Lise would wail and stagger and ask her to explain, not just put her to bed, stroke her hair, tell her it would all be fine as hot tears slipped down their faces.
The houses, when she passed them, looked bare in the moonlight: unguarded, built from the bones of giants.
Phoebe McIlwain Bright has worked in the western Cascades as a whitewater rafting guide and as a photographer for a northwestern adventure company. She studied behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University and received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Oregon. She is a 2017 A Public Space Fellow.
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