Authors: Benjamin Percy
Tags: #Literary, #Wilderness Survival, #Psychological, #Hunting Stories, #Fiction, #General, #Oregon, #Fathers and sons
Also by Benjamin Percy
with Danica Novgorodoff and James Ponsoldt
The Language of Elk
Copyright © 2010 by Benjamin Percy
This publication is made possible by funding provided in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and private funders. Significant support has also been provided by Target; the McKnight Foundation; and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.
Published by Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-55597-569-2
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-55597-013-0
2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1
First Graywolf Printing, 2010
Library of Congress Control Number: 2010922923
Cover design: Scott Sorenson
Cover photo: Paul Nichols. Used with the permission of Getty Images.
I felt as though I had dipped into some supernatural source of primal energy.
My father, I thought, could have told me things to know, actual as a stone with a code engraved on it, a thing you could put in your pocket and carry around, cool and hard and smooth, that you could touch when you were worried. But such a thing was not in our contract.
Who Owns the West?
Instead of adapting, as we began to do, we have tried to make country and climate over to fit our existing habits and desires. Instead of listening to the silence, we have shouted into the void. We have tried to make the arid West into what it was never meant to be and cannot remain, the Garden of the World and the home of the multiple millions.
—Wallace Stegner, “Striking the Rock”
His father came toward him with the rifle. From where Justin sat at his desk—his homework spread before him—both his father and the gun appeared to be growing, so that when handed the weapon, he wasn’t sure he was strong enough to carry it. Around his father, Justin had always felt that way, as if everything were bigger than he was.
His father said he wanted to show him something, but he wouldn’t say what. He only said for Justin to follow him. This happened outside of Bend, Oregon, where they lived in a cabin surrounded by ten acres of woods.
The moment they stepped off the porch, as if on cue, a sound rose from the forest, as slow as smoke. It sounded like a woman crying. Justin—who was twelve at the time—felt his veins constrict with alarm. “What’s that?” he said. “What the hell
“Don’t be a pantywaist,” his father said over his shoulder. By now he was several steps ahead of Justin and moving across the lawn, a browned patch of grass choked with pine needles. “And don’t say hell.” When he reached the place where the grass met the trees, he perceived Justin had not followed him, and turned. “Come on,” he said.
There followed a moment of silence where he motioned Justin forward with his hand and Justin clutched his rifle a little closer to his chest. Then the noise began again, sharper and louder now than before, reminding Justin of metal rasping across a file. Even his father—who was a big man with a mossy beard and a keg-of-beer belly—cringed.
This was that in-between time of day, not quite afternoon and not quite night, when the air begins to purple and thicken. Once they entered the forest the pines put a black color on things, and through their branches dropped a wet wind that carried with it the smell of the nearby mountains, the Cascades.
They walked for some time along a well-worn path, one of many that coiled through the property like snakes without end. The screaming sound continued, sometimes loud and sometimes soft, like some siren signaling the end of the world. It overwhelmed Justin’s every thought and sensation so that he felt he was stuck in some box with only this horrible noise to keep him company. Everything seemed to tremble as it dragged its way through the air.
They hurried along as fast as they could, less out of wonder or sympathy than the urgent need to silence. They hated the noise—its mournful mixed-up music—as much as they feared it.
Then, between the trees, Justin saw it. The inky gleam of its eyes, and its huge ears drawn flat against its triangular skull, and then its bulky body. Blood trails oozed along it, dampening its black fur and the soil beneath it.
“Man alive,” his father said.
It was a bear—maybe a year old, no longer a cub, big enough to do some damage—and it was tangled in a barbed-wire fence, the barbed wire crisscrossing its body. To this day Justin remembers the blood so clearly. It was
perfect shade of red. To this day he wants an old-time car—say a Mustang or one of those James Bond Aston Martins—the color of it.
The bear, bewildered, now let its head droop and took short nervous breaths before letting loose another wail, a high-pitched sound that lowered into a baritone moan, like pulling in a trombone. A tongue hung from its mouth. Its muscles jerked and rolled beneath its pelt.
Justin stood behind a clump of rabbitbrush as if to guard himself from the animal. The bush smelled great. It smelled sugary. It smelled like the color yellow ought to smell. By concentrating on it so deeply, he removed himself from the forest and was thereby able to contain the tears crowding his eyes.
Then his father said, “I want you to kill it.”
Just like that. Like killing was throwing a knuckleball or fixing a carburetor.
That happened a long time ago. Thirty years ago. And still, Justin feels weighed down with the memory of it. When he lectures his students or when he feels the baby moving around in his wife’s belly or when he lies in bed in a half dream, the bear sometimes emerges from the shadows, snapping its teeth, retreating back into shadow as quickly as it appeared.
Thirty years—and during this time little changed between Justin and his father, even as Oregon changed all around them.
His wife, Karen, works as a dietitian for the school districts scattered throughout central Oregon. She spends her days designing new lunch programs for the cafeterias, sitting down with obese diabetics to ask them about their eating habits, and giving PowerPoint presentations to auditoriums full of bored children, telling them about the food pyramid and how they might incorporate it into their lives. At this time she is pregnant with their second child. She drinks orange juice every morning and what seems like gallons of water every day, but no soda or alcohol, not even to sneak a sip from Justin. She stays away from fish and red meat and spends the extra dollar on organic free-range chicken. And so on. Every precaution in the world—and none of it stops from happening what happens next.
Justin comes home from work to find a design of bloody footprints on the floor. He stares at them a long time as if to decipher their message. Only then does he pull out his cell phone. He shut it off earlier in the day so that it wouldn’t go off when he was teaching. It reveals three new voice mails—one from the hospital, the next from his in-laws, the last from his wife.
He finds her in her hospital bed and she seems to have shrunk. Really, she has, her belly caved in, suddenly empty.
She is, she was, five months pregnant. The doctors tell her she has preeclampsia. Essentially her body came to recognize the baby as an allergen and expelled it from her. When she tells Justin this, her voice slurring from the Vicodin, she seems to be looking inward and outward at the same time, lost in dark thoughts in a too-bright room.
When the nurse comes to check Karen’s vitals, she asks if Justin wants to see the baby, a baby girl. He does and doesn’t. When his son, Graham, was born, he had looked so shiny, as if polished by Karen’s insides, a precious gem they clutched to their chests and passed back and forth with the greatest care. That’s how this baby looks, too, only smaller, bluer.
In the weeks that follow, Karen walks around as if bruised. She shrinks from Justin’s touch—his, but lost to him. He finds her often in the office, the office they converted into a nursery. On one side of the room sits a rolltop desk stacked with ungraded papers—and on the other, the varnished pine crib, decorated with Winnie-the-Pooh bumpers and a mobile that plays “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” the song sounding so eerie now, when Karen turns the knob, filling the empty crib and seeping through its slats to echo through the house.
When they finally make love again, five months later, she starts crying and when he asks if he should stop, she says, “What do you think?” A line comes to run down the middle of their bed. Neither of them crosses it.
He can’t remember if they were having problems before. He tries to remember the last time they went on a date—a real date, without their son—white linen, lit candles, wine in goblets, their feet touching beneath the table—and can’t. He tries to remember the last time he bought her jewelry or flowers. He tries to remember the last time she took him in her mouth. He tries to remember the last time they read novels on the couch, their legs intertwined, sharing favorite passages. Years. It’s been years, hasn’t it? So much of his memory is hazy, chunked up by memories of work. He can recall her frequent headaches—her full-throated sighing—her desire to be alone. He remembers putting away laundry, finding an enormous pink dildo shoved to the back of her underwear drawer, and feeling somehow betrayed. Maybe these are only the warts that naturally grow out of a marriage moving forward. Or maybe he and Karen have been in trouble for some time and only now does he notice it. He wants to blame the baby, but maybe the baby has only turned up the volume on what was there all along.
She takes up running. Every morning she pulls on pink shorts and a white tank top and laces her Nike cross-trainers and runs five miles. All the fat she accumulated during her pregnancy melts off to reveal hard-plated muscle that looks like the exoskeleton of something that lives at the bottom of the ocean. Her feet develop thick calluses. Her calves jump when she walks. Her forearms are a lacework of veins. Even her ears look skinny.
Sometimes Justin sees her on his drive to Mountain View High School, where he teaches. Her hair will be pulled back in a ponytail to reveal a red and compacted face. Her teeth, bared in a snarl. She pumps her legs and swings her arms wildly. She looks like a madwoman. He always beeps his horn and waves at her, but she never sees him, lost in the heat and rhythm of her run.
Normally she is gone by the time he showers and dresses and comes down to the kitchen for breakfast. But sometimes they run into each other, as they do this morning, when he finds her standing in front of the sink, looking out the window and drinking a short glass of orange juice. He says, “Hi,” and she says, “Hey.” He asks her if she heard the news, and when she says, “What news?” he tells her.
Last night—on Z-21, the NBC affiliate—the ten o’clock news reported a bear attack at Cline Falls. These girls, two teenage girls from Prineville, left their food and cooking supplies out, rather than washing them and bagging them and hanging them from the highest branch of a juniper tree. In the springtime bears possess a terrible hunger, having slept through the long winter, and this one was no exception. One slash of its claws parted the nylon like a zipper. Their screams didn’t scare it away, only encouraged it, as it fit its jaws around the head of one girl, chewing her, her scalp finally sliding off her skull. The other, in trying to save her friend, was hurled against the canyon wall, then mauled. They played dead or fainted in their pain and after so many minutes the bear abandoned them. Now both are in critical condition at St. Charles Memorial in Bend. “They say they think it’s a grizzly.”
“There are no grizzlies in Oregon.”
“That’s what the Forest Service guy said, but then this other guy said—”
“I gotta run.” She sets her glass down on the counter with a click. Yellow bits of pulp cling to its inside.
“Okay,” he says and opens the cabinet and pulls a box of Cheerios from the shelf to rattle into a bowl and splash with milk. “Have fun. Watch out for bears.”
“Don’t worry about me,” she says, already running, on her way out the door.
He teaches English. Several years ago a sophomore named Jimmy Westmoreland, after downing a twelve-pack of Budweiser, flipped his Camaro and died. Everyone gathered in the gym the next day. The principal—a leathery-looking man who dyed his hair jet black and kept it styled in an “Elvis”—stood before them all and muttered a few kind words about Jimmy. There was a chair next to him and it had a boom box resting on it. “This one’s for Jimmy,” he said and hit the play button. From the speakers came the drawling voices and disorderly guitar licks of Lynyrd Skynyrd. They sat and listened to “Free Bird.” Eight minutes and twenty-three seconds had never seemed like such a long time.
This is the kind of school they are. Wranglers and Levi’s. F-10s and Firebirds. All of old Bend send their kids here—while the Portland and California refugees, in their tight designer jeans and brightly polished SUVs, end up at the new high school across town. Justin prefers Billy Joel to Skynyrd—and Starbucks to Folgers—and finds himself identifying more with what Bend is becoming than what it once was. He often thinks about applying for a transfer, or maybe even going back to graduate school, maybe teaching at the college level or doing something else entirely.
There was a time when he enjoyed his job greatly. And then something happened. The same thing that happens to many teachers, he expects. The work begins to rub away at your heart. The exhaustion doesn’t come all at once, but steadily, incessantly, like waves wearing away at rock. You get married. You buy a house. You have a kid. And then one day you realize ten, twenty years have passed, and during this time you have grown tired of the low pay, the endless piles of paper, the football players who sit in the back row and cross their arms and seem perpetually amused by everything, a smug smile never leaving their lips.
Sometimes, during the middle of a lecture, he feels strangely distant, separate from himself, as if he is hovering above the classroom, carried there by the drone of his voice. And when from above he looks down on everyone, when he see in their eyes—as he saw in his eyes—a dreamily veiled boredom, it gives him a general feeling of inconsequence, as if nothing he says or does matters.
This morning, during an exam, he glances out the window and sees a gaunt animal, what could be a dog or a coyote, slinking along the edge of the football field. It stays low to the ground, as if it has caught a scent, as if it is stalking something. And then it vanishes into the shadows between the trees. He leans forward and tries to follow it farther, but it is gone, so suddenly he wonders if he imagined it.
The door opens and startles him from his half dream.
The secretary stands there. She is a leggy blonde who spends all day forwarding calls while paging through the latest copy of
Today she wears too bright a shade of lipstick that makes her mouth appear like a bleeding gash. “Mr. Caves?” she says. “Your wife is on the phone. She needs to talk to you.”
He looks at his students and his students look at him for a long twenty seconds. Then he says, “I’m in the middle of class. What’s this about?”
She examines her nails as if they were a point of curiosity. “How should I know? I only know it’s an emergency.”
He looks about the room, his stomach like a stone, while digesting this. Dust rises in the sunbeams coming through the windows. The clock clicks its way toward three. Someone in the back row snaps their gum, the noise like a broken branch. “You have five more minutes,” he tells them. “When you finish, lay the test on my desk. Don’t cheat. And remember, for homework tonight,
Heart of Darkness,
pages fifty through one hundred.”
He makes his way down the hall, to the lounge, certain something has happened to his father. Perhaps a stroke. He feels oddly calm, as if he has been waiting for this phone call all day. But this soon gives way to panic when he brings the phone to his ear and listens to his wife tell him about their son.
“It’s Graham,” she says. “He’s missing.”
She drove to Amity Creek Elementary, where Graham is a sixth grader, to pick him up. But he never emerged from the swarms of backpack-toting children, never met her at the top of the roundabout where she always waited, engine idling. Fifteen minutes passed—then twenty. She cut the ignition and got out of the car and tried to keep her walk steady in its pace as she approached the school, certain there must be a perfectly logical reason for his absence. Probably Graham had misbehaved and was now serving detention, clapping clouds of chalk from erasers or writing “I will not fire spitballs” again and again on a lined tablet of paper.
Though she knew better. He had never received a detention and likely never would. He was one of those children who took great pleasure in doing exactly as he was told, always saying
never speaking out of turn. He favored chinos to jeans and wore his collared shirts tucked into them. Justin wasn’t sure how this had happened, how Graham had become this self-possessed little man, and in fact Justin encouraged him to live a little more adventurously. When Justin was that age, he used to collect frogs along the riverbanks and carry them to the nearest road so that he might throw them high into the air, enjoying the sound and sight of them splatting against pavement. It was horrible, but boys are supposed to do horrible things. It’s in their nature.
But Graham is different. He is the type of boy who prefers books to BB guns, who makes his bed every morning and plays computer games after he finishes his homework and never begs for the candy stacked next to the cash register. Exactly the type of boy, Karen was thinking, who might climb into a car with a stranger if told a convincing lie, not wanting to offend.
She found his teacher, Mrs. Glover, in her classroom, working her way through a stack of math quizzes. And no, she hadn’t seen him, not since the final bell. Together they searched the school grounds and found no trace of him. With every room Karen peered into and found empty, a wind grew stronger inside her, until it felt as though there were a cyclone tearing loose everything she thought was securely nailed down.
She tells Justin this as they drive around Bend, poking their heads into the video arcade, the pizza parlor, the cinema, the library, all the places Graham knows. They have called the police. They have called everyone in his class. Now there is nothing to do but look and wait. They randomly zip up and down the streets of Bend, their heads swinging back and forth as the world flies past the bug-speckled windshield. Karen has her cell phone cradled in her palm. Her mouth incessantly quivers as if only just holding on to a scream. At one point she grabs Justin’s arm and squeezes it,
He can’t remember the last time she touched him—really intentionally touched him. Her warmth lingers there after she pulls her hand away. “I can’t do this again,” she says.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “Everything is going to be fine.”
Justin is a man with neat hair, parted clean on the right side, cut tight above the ears and along the neck. He brings a hand to it now, tidying it, part of him thinking that as long as every hair stays in its place, everything
It is. Someone spots Graham at Lava River Lanes, bowling with a strange old man in a leather-fringe jacket. Within minutes, two squad cars pull up with their lights flashing. The deputies race into the building, past the pool tables and arcade games, through the clouds of cigarette smoke, to lane nine, where they find Justin’s father, who decided on a whim to pick Graham up from school and teach him a thing or two about how to throw a hook ball.
When Justin arrives, his father is waiting for them in the parking lot, leaning against a squad car with his hands in his pockets. “Can’t a man spend an afternoon with his grandson?” he says.