Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure
One evening almost thirty years later, a call from an unknown number. The ringing brings your husband out of the kitchen, ladle still in hand. This is the prelude to the only scenario that keeps him up at night: some stranger, a kelp-rig medic perhaps, interrupting dinner to notify you that your son has been killed, washed overboard somewhere off the coast of Cambria amid the gray roil and boom of the Pacific.
To flaunt your immunity to these catastrophic fantasies, you let the phone ring and ring.
Tom’s smiling, but he doesn’t find it funny. “Pick up, Syl.” Then, after a moment: “Fine. Why don’t I just cancel our anniversary picnic and volunteer us for roadside cleanup instead? I know how you love scraping those possums off the freeway.”
When you finally lift the phone to your ear to deliver the usual greeting—“Rayles-Brennan residence, home of the Arbor Cottages in scenic Grey’s County!”—you get the wind knocked out of you. It’s not a medic. Not a telemarketer. Not the Mammalian Gene Bank of the Rocky Mountains inquiring if you’d like to increase your annual donation.
It’s Wade. Your Wade. So long-lost that his name overcomes you as first a sensation and then a smell before finally taking lettered form. Wade Dufrane. Calling from some other lifetime, his voice as familiar as your own, saying: “Syl?” And then: “I knew you’d sound exactly the same.”
In a minute, it will hit you that of course you sound the same. But for now—for this particular second—there’s just that one-note whiff of Fell Gulch in January, of pine and woodsmoke, of you at twenty, assisting your father up the narrow stairs to the office of Serenity Pods overlooking Main Street. Through his coat sleeve, Dad’s elbow feels like a bag of bolts. Somewhere outside, the Rendezvous Trio is fiddling an overzealous two-step for the benefit of the tourists.
Serenity Pods occupies the attic above the Well Digger’s Wallet Saloon, where your childhood friend Kenny Kostic tends bar. In the six years you’ve been helping him oust inebriates, you’ve never thought to investigate where the back stairwell leads.
Dad’s monstrous shirt hides the black threads of more than a dozen mole excisions. Six-foot-three and down to 140 pounds, he’s taken pale frailty to another level. And now here’s Wade Dufrane, tall and ginger-stubbled, good-looking in the way of people who don’t know it, manning the front desk in a white linen getup.
The place looks like a celestial break-room. Everything hums: the bare bulbs, the sleek computer panel, the wall painted up like a field of tree-brindled snow. At its center stands a thick black elm. Its roots twisrayt around a subterranean teardrop, in which a glyphic body lies folded.
Wade maneuvers you both to the sofa with pamphlets and rank gray tea, then carefully sits between you.
“So—which of you is looking forward to reabsorption?”
While Wade talks your father through the marketing collateral, you try to smother your irritation. Let Dad get the reassurance he needs: that he’s doing the right thing, that pod burial restores soil nutrients, that you just don’t get this kind of solace from a coffin.
“Something about committing to reabsorption just gives folks a sense of peace,” Wade says. “I know it did for me.”
Conveniently, Wade’s own father had signed the entire family up for pod burial back when the process was still new. “Not to mention far more expensive,” Wade says, skirting around the price, “but I figured: if it could offset some of my parents’ debts to our world, worth every penny.”
You can’t help yourself: “Yet here you are, sucking air and drinking water—I guess that means your folks are still in arrears.”
Dad says: “Syl. Please.”
Wade, as it happens, came dangerously close to reabsorption when he was a teenager. Some vague cardiac incident briefly killed him en route to the hospital. He perceived himself floating up, above the gurney, above the bald EMT trying to resuscitate him. Of his three remaining sensations—besides filial love and the strange, sulfuric odor of his chest hair frying under the paddles—what stood out most was how complete he felt, knowing that he would soon give sustenance to a new tree. Even his miraculous return to his body, and the continuation of his life, haven’t dispelled the strength of that feeling.
Dad nods gravely. As if Wade’s story has firmed the legs of a newborn notion.
“We want to take a couple of days,” you say, standing to leave. “Consult with the rest of the family.”
The rest of the family consists of an uncle in Cleveland who hasn’t returned your father’s calls in years and the dog who’s been underfoot ever since the combined chaos of veterinary school and bartending forced Kenny to abandon her at your house.
Wade insists you take all the time you need. “It’s a tough mind-shift. In the end, we’re all just items awaiting protective enclosure. Most of us have a vision of what that is—a coffin, an urn. Not everyone can get used to the idea of a tree. But remember that with a Serenity Pod, the whole world is your memorial.”
The trouble is, he really means it. The spell is cast. All the way home, Dad rests his head dreamily against the window. The tram winds past the Refuge boundary, past Highness Park, with its cocoa stands and skate rentals and brightly bundled husks of winter tourists, and then up Painter’s Knoll, where the constellated hillside mansions recall the Fell Gulch of twenty years ago, when people were still able to convince themselves that everything would work itself out somehow, as it always had before.
Your father had been one of those people. Then came the Posterity Initiative, and a complete 180. He spent your entire childhood collecting prairie grasses for the Rocky Mountain Seed Vault, tallying pollinators, teaching you to culture penicillin. All the while bewailing what was lost: bacon and air travel and elephants. Things you would never have, thanks to his generation’s excesses.
You could never see the point of his retrospective hand-wringing.
At home, Dad fans the pamphlets out on the dining table. He shouts pull quotes over the crack of your knife on the cutting board: “Did you know that the average Serenity Pod offsets two people’s worth of carbon dioxide a year?”
“If it’s so clean, they should be paying you to commit to it. Not the other way around.”
“Don’t you think this is all a bit premature?” He looks up from the blue columns of numbers on his napkin. “We haven’t got the biopsy results back. You’re probably not even dying.”
“Well,” he shrugs, “someday.”
The prospect of this “someday”—whose advent he’s attempted to accelerate at least twice—sends you back to Serenity Pods one cloudy afternoon a few days later. Alone this time.
Wade, still in his diaconal finest, tries to bring you around. “Tell me what’s giving you pause.”
“Guilt rules my father’s life. And now he’s got it in his head that putting twelve grand down on a burial he might not even need—knock wood—is the best way to square his ecological debts.”
“It’s not a bad place to start.”
“Yeah, well. We run a housekeeping service. It’s about all we can do to keep the lights on.”
Serenity Pods, it turns out, offers a payment plan. Wade pivots to show you the literature on making reabsorption accessible to everyone.
You tell him you have all the pamphlets at home. “I didn’t come here for more of the company line.”
He tilts his head a little, and says, “All right”—which is when you go all warm. You sit there, blowing ripples across the smoggy surface of your tea.
“How did you die?”
“Well, I guess in the end I didn’t.”
As he resumes his pitch about soil renewal and generational duty, you’re disappointed in his failure to intuit what you really want to know: whether there’s a crack of light and an eventual shore to dying, or just darkness like you suspect. When the time comes, will trenching your father in a shawl full of seeds, so that filaments and roots can suck away everything that made him who he was, somehow render the former more likely? You can’t bring yourself to say: I’m afraid my father will simply cease to exist.
“I’d like to hear more about burial from someone who doesn’t get commission selling it to me.”
Wade laughs outright—a real laugh, earnest enough to furrow his whole nose. “Believe it or not, there’s fuck-all money in pod sales.”
“Yeah? What about this?” You hook a finger under his tunic collar to reveal the strap of his FieldSight 5000s—the latest model, the one you’ve been eyeing for months—and you’re instantly embarrassed. Is it wrong to touch a man who dresses like a monk?
“Those are an oversight.” Somehow, he’s managed to catch your wrist. “They’re for my other job. I usually remember not to wear them here.”
“I didn’t think revenant pod people needed side gigs.”
He smiles that smile. Huge white teeth from here to doomsday. “If anything, this is the side gig. The other’s more of a calling.”
Which is how you get your start shed-hunting with Wade Dufrane.
All winter you drift along trails and fire roads together in the blue hours before sunrise. Geese vault overhead. Thick mists leave the Bitterroot peaks and come coursing down into the Refuge. You grow to love the cold walk from your porch to the corner where Wade picks you up, the bitterness of his whiskey-laced coffee, the way the snowpack warps your bulky shadows. Together, you scout tracks, cut and climb fence, disable cameras, dodge patrols, sift through acres of deadfall in your pursuit of the shed antlers of bull elk.
Most of the sheds have spent a decade or more underground, a vestige of the days of the great herds that once wintered around Fell Gulch. Generations of cast bone. Brittle scimitars snared in tree roots, or forking up where occasional mudslides have overturned the hills. You dig for them in gullies and creek beds below south-facing slopes, and along old game trails Wade first prospected with his father as a boy.
You’re wary of encroaching on what was once a Dufrane family enterprise, but Wade has a lot of sympathy for your current predicament. He, too, grew up in West Gulch with a renter in the attic and a father prone to rash, costly decisions. He’s surprised your families don’t know one another: like yours, the Dufranes would let their house to snowies every Christmas and drive south to winter on the parched shores of Lenny Lake. Wade even supports an arthritic mother somewhere in Minnesota.
All this is nominally why he sees fit to cut you in on his shed hunts. Of course, you suspect there may be something more to it. Something warm and visceral and conspicuously unspoken.
On a good day, the two of you haul twenty or thirty pounds of bone back to Wade’s place, a converted garage behind Zeke’s Antiques. Between shots of whiskey, you lay the antlers out like kindling and sort them into pairs. Wade can read the life in them: tridents of bone notched with a hidden legacy of battles and famines and narrow escapes. He teaches you the criteria of appraisal: straight or crooked tines, spreads, points.
Elk sheds sell by weight, and come out to about two hundred dollars a pound. This is for hard white, the stale stuff, probably older than you are. Fresh brown—newly fallen, dark with recent life—is a thing of the past. Wade hasn’t seen fresh brown sheds, or any other evidence of living elk, in years. He can’t begin to guess what they might be worth.
Your dealer, a scrambled voice who goes by the moniker “Antlerdam,” communes with Wade once a week by telephone. He wraps your money in turn-of-the-century plastic bags, which he leaves in a broken toilet tank at the Carter County Library. He is responsible for shipping your plunder to lavish and remote destinations: Canada, where bone smiths work in secret to carve the antlers into walking sticks and knife handles and door knockers; or California, where black-market apothecaries grind them into powder, measure them into tinctures and compounds.
On radio broadcasts and reward flyers, the Forest Service calls you poachers; yet in his more winsome moments, Wade likes to say you’re nothing but vernal custodians.
Never mind that your exploits carry a $25,000 fine, and a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
“Prison, Syl,” Kenny says, when you finally admit what you’ve been up to.
His disgust is pretty righteous. Elk sheds, like everything on the Refuge, are protected under Posterity. They’re supposed to stay where they fall, reintegrate with the undergrowth. None of this is news to you.
Luckily, you’ve got a line for just this moment: Wade knows what he’s doing, been at this for years. Besides, it’s not ivory. It’s not hurting anyone. “What am I supposed to do if Dad does turn out to have cancer, and I have to sell the house so he can come back as a tree?”
Kenny’s having none of it. “I’m sure you’ll be a lot of help to him in prison.”
His resolution not to speak to you lasts about a week. Your father, meanwhile, is too busy convincing himself of his imminent death to suspect that you’re flouting your entire upbringing. If he realizes that your agreed-upon eight-month hiatus from college has turned into two years, he doesn’t show it. He won’t interview new hires for Rayles Management, or let you teach him how to balance the budget by himself. Most days, he just ghouls around the house, checking for new skin lesions and comparing snowfall reports from down-valley towns. “Erlton only got twenty inches this year,” he says by way of good morning. “Twenty inches. I remember when they had to shell the pass all night to loose avalanches. Now I doubt they’ll get another real winter.”
But it’s still real winter in Fell Gulch. The snowies keep coming: keep sledding, skating, building legions of snowmen. Zambonis chug back and forth across Highness Lake. Curtains of icicles rim the Main Street gables. Christmas lights twinkle well into March, like the whole place is some antique snow globe.
You start picking up cleaning shifts whenever a staff member calls in sick. Changing sheets, staging ski compounds so you can visit the big mansions on Painter’s Knoll and study the handiwork of your clandestine life: antlers twisted up in huge chandeliers, trophy tips meeting neatly over stone fireplaces.
“Nice twelve-point,” you say to the lady of a house on Ridge Street one afternoon, gazing at a mount above a mantel littered with pictures of towheaded kids. The elk’s eyes are dark and stygian. A tendril of cobweb drifts from one of his crowns.
“Oh.” She pauses at the bottom of the banister, one sapling leg braced on the first stair. You can’t help thinking of her heating bill, what it must cost to be able to willow around in such a thin nightie this time of year. “I don’t really know. Somebody shot it a while back, I guess.”
“Well, if we ever go bust, at least you know what to auction off first.”
“That’s probably fifty inches of beam on each side.”
Knowing more about her own possessions than she does thrills you. So does every corner of this new, secret world you’ve staked with Wade: the coded cuts on the trees, the white silence of the Refuge, the alpenglow gilding the rumpled chevrons of the
Bitterroots, the black breaks of runoff ribboning the snow.
For all Wade’s precautions, his lifework is hardly unknown. January through May, when the doors swing for him at Caviston’s Roadhouse, shots line the bar.
Growing up, you were made to understand that Dad would skin you alive if you ever set foot inside Caviston’s. It’s out on Route 29, a lopsided cabin where the fur-trapper great-grandfathers of the current regulars would rendezvous back in the days before the chili pepper lights and neon signs and shamrocks that now disgrace it. You feel a little out of place among all the pretty women and their black-marketeers: James Muldoon, who still harvests wood out near Silver Pass; Roy Fitzgerald, who charges Painter’s Knoll–types two thousand a head for an underground quail feast every fall. But once Wade announces that “Sylvia Rayles is no fucking waster,” you’re as welcome among them as anyone.
And all assembled are eager to supplement what you know about Wade. There’s an ex-girlfriend he’s been hung up on, and a litany of hilarious entanglements with park rangers. They tell you not to worry about his vague idea of moving to his mother’s place in Minnesota—he always fails to follow through on his best intentions.
Listening, you’re warmed as their stories fail to breach your own trove of hard-won intimacies: Before moving to Minnesota, his mother sang with the Silver Banshees down in Miller’s Hole. The night his father emptied his pill bottle he gave Wade twenty dollars, which still sits, untouched, in a tobacco tin under the sycamore at the old Dufrane house; passing on Pinedale Road, Wade reflexively pulls into the driveway sometimes. He’s never cooked a dish without burning it, or made it all the way through “Shenandoah” without his voice breaking.
April brings mud season, and Antlerfest with it. Fell Gulch goes full cervine. Rangers scatter a modest haul of confiscated sheds all over Highness Park, and the whole town turns up to honor this last shred of heritage: ursine dads shouldering winter-swaddled daughters, reluctant teenagers milling around the parking lot, grandparents reminiscing about the days when you could hunt a whole elk, goddammit, and not just the antlers.
A whistle-blow at sunup sends four hundred citizens charging out into the field. Aware that your absence might raise suspicion, you and Wade make a point of being seen. You overturn logs and comb through bushes, right in the thick of it with all the grannies. You watch the kids hauling back their finds—nothing but spikes, straight and thin and practically worthless, but borne along as tenderly as sacrificial offerings. And all the while you recognize that you are the villains in this scene; you are responsible for this dearth.
You finally wind your way over to Kenny’s pickle stand to bridge the two sides of your life. Kenny grips Wade’s hand, then upsells him on a jar of beets and turnips.
“Twelve dollars?” you say through gritted teeth. “Really?”
Kenny shrugs. “They’re award-winning.”
He makes no attempt to mask his dead-eyeing of Wade, who wanders the parking lot inspecting the Antlerfest auction lots laid out on the tarmac like shot-down chandeliers. A chinless, brown-eyed ranger touches your elbow, keen to tell you more about the sheds. Did you know that elk cast their antlers every year? That once upon a time, pretty much anybody could just scoop them right off the ground?
You can hardly decide what thrills you more viscerally: knowing a man has underestimated you so profoundly, or flirting with a loathed enemy right in front of Wade.
The prize set of antlers—with an atypically considerable fifty-two-inch spread—sells handily for four grand. Afterward, Wade boosts you into the truck bed. The matter-of-factness of his presumption is stunning. As he continues to stand there, scraping a gob of mud off your knee, it hits you.
Still, you take a full week to say it aloud. “I think I might be in love with Wade.”
“Well, fuck,” says Kenny, without looking up from his textbook. “Just give me a moment to absorb this completely unexpected piece of news.”
Apart from marooning you in a constant state of impatience, the realization changes very little of your daily life. Maybe you sleep a little less, rotate your more flattering clothes to the top drawers. But most nights Wade just picks you up, and the two of you drive the long, pine-ribbed highway to the Serbian diner over in Gentry. You share burek and fries and tease out where you’ll land when Fell Gulch finally goes bust. You revisit the humor in familiar things: tourist tat shops, people who stand on ceremony, the daily reenactment of Crazy Jim Collins’s murder at the Wallet, in which you briefly appeared as Dolly Dove, the shrill whorehouse madam.
Before your limited run, Wade had played Bertrand Stills, shooting ol’ Jim right in the heart every Tuesday and Thursday.
“I’d have paid to see you in that white Stetson and bolo.”
His fork dimples the top of your hand. “Those were mandatory.”
He decides that if the need for aliases should ever arise, the two of you will be “Stills” and “Dove.”
On the drive home, Wade cracks a window to let in the smell of pine. His fingers drum the console between you. The truck feels too small to contain this electric haze of possibility. Your first kiss is imminent, a single dram of courage away. There’s safety in the knowledge that either of you could choose it anytime, a kind of chemical understanding. It’s a world beyond the high school boys who used to hold you down.
Midnight, however, usually finds you on opposite ends of Wade’s sofa, reading aloud to one another. By two thirty, you’re home.
Fielding your reports of the lack of consummation exasperates Kenny. “What’s taking him so long?”
You’ve spent hours puzzling this out. Maybe you’ve overestimated your appeal. Maybe if you were more delicate, more serious. More feminine. Maybe if every meal didn’t stick to your ribs, if your body had any corners at all.
Kenny doesn’t see the point of speculation. “You’ll never know unless you confront him, Syl; and the faster you get on with it, the better. Go for broke.”
You will yourself to courage. But it’s easier to imagine almost anything—your father absolved, Fell Gulch parched—than that kiss and its aftermath. You can’t even slip your hand past your waistband in the darkness of your room for the sheer mortification of having to face Wade afterward.
Again and again, you return to the same reality: a declaration of love will change things, one way or another. Better to linger in doubt than to lose your only source of joy, better to preserve the veil of promise. Like that shed hunt in mid-April, when you and Wade split up to cover more ground. He sends you down to Bitterroot Creek, a bottomland bearded with red-twig dogwoods. The day is warm and blindingly bright. You’re enjoying the solitude, the ftt-ftt of your steps mashing the snow, when there’s a whistle behind you. A rising note that could peel the enamel off your teeth. You twist around to find the source. A red flare explodes over the woods to your left, about a half mile away.
It’s one thing to memorize protocol in case of a ranger encounter. Another thing entirely to follow it. You take off mindlessly into the trees, spraying snow everywhere, losing a snowshoe in the loamy creek bed. Finally you drop down in a stand of cottonwoods and wait. A line of melt drips beneath your collar. Through all that panting and hammering, you’re a long while in returning to silence.
It’s dark by the time you hear Wade calling. He’s empty-handed, hatless, quietly infuriated by a wasted day, but relieved you’re in one piece—which is definitely something.
The stars are out in their whorled millions. Eventually you give up arguing about where the road might be. Wade unpacks his winter hammock, strings it between two oaks, piles deadfall for insulation, while laughing periodically at your chattering teeth.
“At least we’re together,” he says. “If it grows too cold, we can just get to fucking.” Then, after he sees your face: “Calm down, Syl. I’m joking.”
The hammock sags with your combined weight, though your stomach is so empty it hurts. And even as the wind leaches all the heat from your back, there’s a higher order of warmth between you, knees clicking, ribs grazing, the white purl of your breath massing in the clear air.
All night you commune over the truly celestial questions: What meat would you have most enjoyed, if you’d been born before Posterity? Wade thinks bacon; you say beef. How much nose could a person lose to frostbite and still look respectable? It apparently depends on the nose. “I could probably lose a good inch and be fine,” Wade says. He butts his forehead against yours. “But you’d be doomed with one tenth of that.”
If ever there was a moment to ask. “How did you die?”
“Briefly and stupidly.” His long silence makes you hopeful. Then he says: “When people measure distance by ‘a cunt hair,’ do you think they mean length or breadth?”
You manage to reply: “Breadth.”
The next morning, during your postmortem of the evening’s unrealized romantic potential, Kenny snaps. “I don’t care how long he lingers over his good-nights or how many Yeats poems he knows by heart: no guy breathes the words cunt hair to a woman he cares about.”
“I don’t think I’m describing the moment properly.”
He shakes his head. “You can take that to the bank, Syl.”
You take it nowhere. You crumple it up and hurl it into the void that devours all evidence of Wade’s ambivalence toward you.
Dad meets you in the doorway, floating around in a beloved tartan nightgown that refashions him as a junkie Ebenezer Scrooge. “Just getting in?”
“You know I am.”
He watches you unlace your boots. “I almost called the police.”
You glance up at him. How to explain you can’t be officially unaccounted-for the same night poachers are spotted on the Refuge?
“Well? Did you?”
“Kenny said you were out with that Wade fella from the mortuary. You could have called to check on me.” He gives you a dubious once-over. “You look like you slept in a ditch.”
In late April you find a cast antler out by Willow Fort. Just lying there, sharp as a scythe, half-buried by last night’s snowfall. Fresh brown. Wade glasses it from across the field and starts running. By the time you get there, Wade is standing it up. It’s taller than you, so big your hand can’t fit around its knotty stem. The burr is pink with blood.
Ice encrusts Wade’s nostrils, and in the morning sun his laughter courses out in shining eddies.
“It’ll be a grand a pound if we can find the matching one.”
“To hell with the matching one,” you say. “If there’s a live elk around, I want to see him.”
Wade indulges your frantic search for the bull’s tracks. The few hoofprints evident disappear into a bluestem grove. He isn’t surprised.
“You’re chasing ghosts,” he says.
All the way back to the road, you let him rhapsodize about the living elk of his childhood. The disheveled bulls, with their flat, dark eyes, mean-mugging like he owed them money. Riled as hell in winter as they shed and looked utterly robbed. Often a single antler would linger, listing the head, the empty pedicle raw and leprous. The cows, with their accusatory stares, distinguishable from one another only by the tick trails in their coats.
That night, emboldened by tequila, the two of you try the door of Zeke’s Antiques. Cones of light fall through the hangar windows. You trail your fingers delicately along racks of empty dresses. Wade won’t quit with conjectures about where Zeke’s old partner might be rotting. The steamer trunk is the obvious choice—but there’s room enough for a body in the old roll-top desk, too.
“Jesus,” you say as he swipes a feather boa along the nape of your neck. “Stop that.”
A chance intimacy arises when a mannequin tips over while you’re unspooling its collar of pearls. Of your clumsiness, Wade says only, “Oops”—but softly, as though your mishap is predictably endearing. As though he’s grown accustomed to telling you to watch yourself. His hand lingers on the small of your back as you right the dummy. Flushed with booze and the thrill of the break-in, you will him to lean in and close the final distance between you. Maybe get to it right there on the old card table where Crazy Jim Collins allegedly played his last hand of poker, amid the mining lanterns and a century’s worth of license plates from the forty-five states neither of you will ever see.
Instead, he sinks a plug hat onto your head. You force a laugh while he pries open the roll-top. Its dark insides smell like the woods after a rain.
In the morning you offer Kenny a ride to work. He bids his latest paramour for her address, and you find yourself winding up a familiar aspen-lined drive on Painter’s Knoll, past bison topiaries and frosted ponds. You slink around the house before finding Kenny hunched over a breakfast counter, pectorals roiling in an undershirt you’d mock were it not for the similarly clad waif charring pancakes within earshot. She calls you “honey” without raising her eyes and spoons three more puddles of batter onto the griddle.
Kenny slides his coffee over to you. “How’s your sad little heart?”
He squeezes the waif’s hips as he gets another mug, taking an age to select one. His movements are oddly, infuriatingly labored whenever he’s choosing his next words with caution.
“Why isn’t it enough just to be in love with him, Syl? I mean—what’ll happen if the feeling turns out to be mutual? You gonna give up on college, move back here for good? Wait around till the place goes bust?”
This enrages you. It’s meant to. “Maybe.”
Kenny shakes his head. “I doubt you’ve even thought that far.”
At dawn you climb into Wade’s truck fully intending to lay it all out in the open. His unwitting grin convinces you to leave it until after the hunt—no point in ruining the day. Your plan, however, doesn’t anticipate the phone call from your neighbor, whose breathless words all run together over the roar of the engine: “They took your father! They took your father!”
By the time you determine that they are the paramedics, you’re back in town and Wade is racing daylight on his way to the Refuge alone. You finally track Dad down at St. Luke’s. Laid up in urgent care, he’s pale and sallow, with a brown plash of blood on his sleeve where the nurse made a failed run at his veins.
“I got a little out of breath,” is all he offers as explanation.
You expect his chest scans to resemble an alien invasion. Bright orbs roaring out from the darkness between his ribs. But Dr. Miller only admonishes him for failing to take proper care of himself: “More protein, Mr. Rayles, more sleep.” Nodding and smiling, he looks exactly as a doctor should, which makes you wonder why he has yet to leave Carter County. He rifles through a chart as thick as a cornerstone. “I see you recently got some very good news about your biopsies—but that’s no excuse to get complacent about lifestyle.”
In the hallway outside, Dr. Miller spells it out for you: the pathologist gave your father the all-clear weeks ago. He squeezes your shoulder and hands you a pamphlet on panic disorder.
Your call goes straight to Wade’s voicemail. “You won’t believe this shit,” you say. “Come back and get me.”
From the foot of Dad’s bed, you read the pamphlet aloud: “Do you experience jolts of fear that make you think you are sick, dying, or losing your mind?”
“I know you’re angry,” he says, “but still, this is nice.” His fingers on your hand are so light they feel deboned.
An hour later, returning from a coffee run, you find him hyperventilating again. “I can’t stop thinking about all those water bottles I threw away.”
“Jesus,” you say. “Please don’t start.”
“How many gallons of water you think I just tossed into trash cans, back when I was a trucker?”
“I really don’t know, Dad.”
“Think it’s more than a hundred?”
“Probably. So what now? You want to moonlight as a capper? Dig through landfills for trapped water?”
He takes a hit of oxygen to steady himself. “When I was a teenager, I used to run the tub every time I went to the bathroom. And I mean every time. We lived in such a small house—I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone hearing.”
Your venom slips away from you. “Well, don’t worry,” you say. “Once we get you into that Serenity Pod, you’ll be square with the world, and everything will revert to the way it was.”
By the time you realize his eyes are wet, it’s too late. “When’d you get to be so cruel?” he says, without looking at you, which makes it worse. “Can’t you be a little gentler to me? Don’t I deserve to make amends? Aren’t I worthy of the things I want?”
Perhaps to break this weird, sour sadness, Dad turns on the TV. He flips between aerial shots of a dry riverbed and close-ups of manicured fingers pressing eggplant slices into a lasagna pan, before stumbling on the breaking news of a raid on the Refuge. Hovering above the trees, the chopper’s camera zooms in on rangers escorting a man toward waiting squad cars, while the chyron announces: Shed Poacher Caught!
“Syl,” Dad says, “isn’t that the guy from the mortuary?”
At Caviston’s the next morning, the barroom is clenched in a gallows hush. Wade’s compatriots fort up below the TV, as Channel Four loops footage of him getting pinned to the hood of a cruiser. There are no new details.
From behind the bar, Alfred, the owner, finally notices you and says: “Hey, ain’t you Wade’s girl?”
Suddenly drinks are on the house, and everyone’s trading Wade stories again and treating you like the widow: reassuring you while you all wait for the bail jar to top up.
“Ever wonder why he’s such a legend at shed-hunting?” Luckily, Alfred’s not the kind of man who asks questions to have them answered. He leans over the counter toward you. “He’s got elk in his blood.” In a whisper intended to carry to the far corners of the room, he tells you the secret you’ve been longing to hear.
On a shed hunt about twelve years back, Wade was caught out in a blizzard up near Brake Creek; and after stumbling around in the drifts for hours, he chanced on an old hunting bunker. The Caviston’s crowd argues about whether his entry was through a door or a ceiling. Inside were all the trappings of fonder days: meat cooler, bone boiler, rusted hooks. And in a corner, miraculously, an elk hung up for dressing. Alfred insists that the hunter’s body was there, too, but most agree it was just the elk, dangling with open eyes, as if its blood had run only hours before. So Wade hunkered down to outlast the weather as the snow piled up, burying any point of exit.
“He got to chewing the rawhide string of the dead hunter’s bow before he’d touch that elk,” Alfred continues, shaking his head. “A true child of Posterity. Not like Fitzy here. Wade would have done damn near anything to keep himself from putting teeth to flesh.”
But by the third day he had to square with the hard realities of his predicament, and he peeled hide off haunch and dug his knife tip into the blue gloss of muscle there.
“And you know what, Syl? It was so perfectly preserved by the cold that it was fine: raw and sweet, right down to the marrow.”
It kept Wade alive for three more days, until the rescue party dug him out. And it wasn’t bad meat that killed him, like some people said, or the cold. No, it was the warming-up that put him into cardiac arrest in the ambulance on the way to St. Luke’s.
“Because you’re one person before something like that,” Alfred says. “And another after it. And it’s a great shock for the body to switch between.”
Solemn faces fill your vision. The ensuing silence is giving you away. Wouldn’t he have told you by now, if you were really his girl?
You say the only thing that comes into your head: “I tell you what—after all that, if he’s the kind of person who can find a fresh brown shed out by Willow Fort when no one’s seen a live elk in a decade-plus, I’d say it’s worth the freeze.”
That earns you another shot of Brimminger’s, an inquest about the shed, and an earful about how Posterity is either our salvation or the single greatest disaster the country has ever faced.
The following morning, Wade makes his phone call—to Alfred, of all people—and it’s decided at Caviston’s by unanimous vote that you alone should go post his bail. You drive over to Moreland County, guts thudding with all your intended declarations.
Wade emerges looking tough as a two-dollar boot. A scruff of beard softens his jaw. He slings an arm around you and gives you a squeeze, and then sits quietly, looking out the window at the blur of trees. Whatever you say now won’t end the way you want it to.
“My dad got the all-clear.”
“That’s great,” Wade says, “he must be so relieved.”
You can’t seem to keep the car off the shoulder. “He’s never put too much stock in doctors’ opinions. Doubt it’ll talk him out of a Pod.”
You roll down the window as Wade slopes up the driveway to his place and call after him: “I should have been there with you.”
“So we could both get stung?” he says, without turning around. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
You don’t hear from him for days. His truck stays tarped under the big elm guarding his house, and by Wednesday is covered in a thick, neat coating of snow. On Friday, the driver’s side window and the margin of the door are clear, but then a cold snap glazes the exposed panels with ice well into the following week.
You ride the tram home from Painter’s Knoll most evenings, help Kenny with inventory at the Wallet. It feels like trying to remember a native language you haven’t spoken in years. One half-hearted morning, you wake up to a smell that reminds you of January so much it hurts, and you decide Wade is incidental to your happiness. You even make it out to the Refuge, probing ingress after boarded-off ingress until you’re scraping through the trees way north of Miller’s Hole, before the hopelessness of it all overwhelms you, and you give up and go home.
You’re driving by Zeke’s Antiques again a few days later when you see the bright glare of Wade’s taillights. You park at the corner and wait. Soon enough he appears, looking almost like the Wade you remember. Knowing he’s all right should be enough—but the sight of snowshoes hung over his shoulder finds you trailing a quarter mile behind him on Route 29, rehearsing your admonition of his silence: it’s cruel, it’s unnecessary. To avoid detection, you pass the Willow Fort turnout when he takes a left, and then double back a few minutes later to find his truck parked in the ditch.
Wade’s tracks start just beyond the fir trees, where the May sun has yet to breach the snowpack. Clouds hurry overhead, plunging the valley in and out of shadow. You keep the bald, brown domes of the Blacktooth Hills to your right and press on.
In a final insult to all your efforts, Wade is waiting for you at the far edge of the tree line. “Goddamn it, Syl.”
His pants are torn, and a small spot of blood blooms near his right knee. “Go home. You can’t be here.” Neither can he, you point out—and what’s he after anyway, a felony conviction? Is a couple thousand dollars’ worth getting stung again? He lets you go on for a while. Then he says: “I’m here to give Antlerdam the Judas kiss.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s meeting me just over the pass, and then we’re going up to Bitterroot Creek, where there’s about a dozen rangers hiding in the fucking bushes. After which I get off for giving him up. Still wanna come along?”
You stand there in the full glare of ruin. Eventually find your way to what feels like an acceptably sedate response: “What about my father?”
“If I’ve put away enough to move to Minnesota, you probably have enough to take care of the Pod.”
“Minnesota.” It’s supposed to be a question, but it lands as ridicule. As if he’s just told you that the earth is flat, or that the icecaps are intact. Minnesota. Impossibly absurd. “When did you decide this?”
“Right around the time I decided against three to five in county.”
There is no alternate version to this, no hidden meaning. You’ve waited too long, and now anything you can think to say rises to your mouth in some reduced form.
“You must realize I’d want to know something like that.”
“Syl,” he says. “Come on.”
And that’s it. The evening light purples the last dregs of winter all across the field, to the lodgepoles on the opposite hill. A shiver of movement catches your eye. A shadow leaving the shelter of the trees.
“There’s Antlerdam,” you say.
You don’t argue when Wade tells you to cover your face. The man raises both arms and waves. His gear is so new and tight you can practically hear it squeaking even at this distance, and he falls once or twice as he struggles through the snow, gouging a huge wake in the hillside. By the time he reaches the bottom, you’re following Wade to meet him. Up close, his face is battered and blood-plashed. His eyes are wild.
“Jesus,” Wade says.
“Oh, thank God,” the man says. “Rangers, thank God. I thought I’d have to spend the night for sure.”
Not Antlerdam, then—just some lost greenhorn bumbling his way toward nightfall.
Wade doesn’t miss a beat. “Do you realize you’re trespassing, sir?”
The guy’s nose is red and peeling, and you get the sense that he could throw himself into your arms at any moment. You lead him to a stump and sit him down.
“Got any water?” he says. “I’m so damn thirsty.”
It dawns on you both that he didn’t think to eat snow. Wade hides a smile. He hands the greenhorn his water pack, and turns to nudge your shoulder with his chin. Cold with sorrow, you edge away from him.
This is when you see the antler. Fresh brown, the bole stiffly cabled to the greenhorn’s backpack. “What the hell is this?”
“Oh, God.” The greenhorn twists around, clawing at his straps. “I forgot. Oh, God, please don’t arrest me—it’s my first time, I swear.”
Wade drives his voice real low. “What’s your name, sir?”
He says it’s Gavin—except that’s a lie, and all three of you know it. Wade takes out his notebook and writes it down anyway. You watch it materialize slowly—Gavin—right under the bloated consonants of Wade’s previous note to himself: Tell Syl.
“Where did you get this, sir?”
“I found it. Heard from some guys over at Caviston’s there might be new brown around.”
“Fresh brown,” you say, a little dizzily.
Wade grasps the greenhorn’s pack and squeezes the burr. “This can’t have cast more than a few hours ago. Were you trailing this bull?”
“No.” Then: “All right, yes—I trailed him. But only because I knew it was just a matter of time.” He turns to you confidentially. “So late in the season.”
“You understand that’s wildlife harassment?”
He understands, he’ll never do it again, it’s his first and only time—but if the two of you had seen that bull, the sheer size of him, the way this single antler weighed down his head, just magnificent. Well, it would have got the better of you, too.
Wade’s balaclava is smoking like an incinerator. “Where’s the bull now?”
The greenhorn points. “There’s a slope up behind that stand of trees. I ran at him, just a bit to get him to drop it, and he went down the far side.”
For weeks, this elk’s other antler has been wrapped in newspaper under Wade’s bed. You’ve built joy on knowing it’s there—but in the end it was this amateur who got to see him, this idiot who doesn’t even know to eat snow when he’s thirsty, this snowie bastard with the doleful eyes who’s now emptying his wallet into Wade’s hands and uncoupling the antler from his pack and saying, “Can I go now?” while the light fades.
Wade points him toward the road with a ranger-like warning: “Try to avoid the thin ice.” Then he looks at you and says, “Come on, Officer Dove, let’s get a look at that bull.”
For a moment it feels like Wade may be extending his hand—but the point is, he’s not. Not really.
“What for?” you say. “He doesn’t even have his antlers anymore.” You help the greenhorn to his feet. “Come on, Gavin, let’s get you home.”
By the time you reach the road and see the greenhorn shakily off, you’ve imagined it all differently. You’ve imagined the climb up the hill in the bitter cold, a furrowed track near the summit, a glimpse of hide through the trees.
By the time the newspapers are detailing Antlerdam’s arrest, this is no longer imagination, but memory.
And by the time your husband is moving toward you with the ladle, asking, “What’s wrong? Who is it, Syl?” it’s no longer memory, but truth: the great, unrealized love of your youth ends with a sighting of the last bull elk in Fell Gulch, his huge, black head in full sylvan splendor.
So of course, of course you sound exactly the same. So does Wade. And it shouldn’t really surprise you that even after everything—after the bust; and Kenny’s move to Michigan; and your return to ecology; and your years on the same kelp rigs that will eventually lure at least one of your sons; and the great, wild-easy love of your marriage; and life here in Grey’s County; and the eventual death of your father (not from cancer, but pneumonia, of all things, at the age of eighty-three); and so many iterations of disappointment and hope—all it takes is the sound of Wade’s voice to unearth that other part of you: clenched around your guttering twenty-year-old heart, intact, still and always in that moment, in that clearing, raw and sweet, right down to the marrow.