This story was previously published in the Minnesota Review.
First, she was the sound of a breaking branch. A splintered knucklecrack shattering the quiet of these western Montana woods. It is a heavy quiet here, and no good comes when it is broken. Red men, gunslingers, and all manner of gold-crazy down-and-outs plague this wild country. My heart went to scampering.
I took up my Winchester and crept to the door. Early light played on the mud-daubed timber walls. I built this cabin ten years ago with naught but a hatchet, five yards of rope, and Ezekiel—a mule by then more dead than alive. Damned if I would give it up without a fight.
Another branch snapped and I toed the door open. The smell of dew-wet pine wafted in. I slid the rifle’s nose into the crack. I held my breath.
She was up on her haunches, weight back—all six hundred pounds of it, her arms raised, like the dancing bear I saw in Barnum & Bailey’s Fantastic Roadshow when I was a boy. But this was no dancing bear. She was a grizzly. Eight feet tall and used to having her way in the world. Her dinner-plate paws thrashed apples from my apple tree. She huffed and snorted, blowing clouds of steam. She was gorging on fruit, preparing for hibernation, and I believe she was enjoying herself. The rising sun smoldered the crest of Scapegoat Ridge above her massive head.
I thought to shoot her. Even leveled the Winchester’s barrel. Her pelt would have fetched a hefty price. But I could not pull the trigger. She was magnificent. All the dreadful beauty of this territory was bound up in her figure. She ate the apples whole, holding them up between her paws and crushing them with her molars. Her fur shimmered and rolled in waves, like the windy prairie where I was born. Her pink tongue swept stray apple chunks from around her mouth.
I wondered if she had lips.
She stood to her full height, reaching for an apple high in the branches. Her body was shapely: trunk thighs widening into hips, slimming a bit through her middle before expanding again into the muscled bulk of her shoulders. She jumped and swung and caught the apple on her first claw—her index claw—and, with a snarl, tore it from the branch.
I had planned to save the apples and enjoy them as a treat on cold winter nights (nights when my cabin is a lump in the snow), but I was not angry at the bear. I was happy to watch her. I wondered if there were breasts beneath her fur.
I suddenly realized I was erect. Confusion and shame roiled my gut. I had never thought to lie with a bear before, but once I began I could not stop. I knelt, hiding my swollen cock behind the doorjamb, and, instead of thinking of protecting my home, I imagined running into her great hairy arms. Licking her throat. Inhaling her smell. Finding her tongue with mine, tasting apples. Tumbling back into the grass, her legs clamped around my buttocks, both of us sticky with apple juice. Warmth. Brown eyes. A roaring tangle of limbs.
I was dizzy, the rifle slack in my arms. She looked at me, wiped her jaws, and ambled back into the woods as the sun rose over Rattlesnake Canyon.
She came back the next morning, and the next. I took to waiting for her, first in my long johns and then naked. I stood in the doorway letting the morning sun draw the chill from my skin. She would watch me, sometimes for several minutes, unconcerned, before returning to the apples. I squared my shoulders and stuck out my chest.
My days fell into a friendly pattern. There is a deep pool in a bend of Rattlesnake Creek just east of my cabin. It is fed by melted snow from the Mission Mountains. After the bear made her way back into the forest, I would run, still naked, and plunge into the icy water. I slid around the rocky streambed like a trout. I emerged dripping, every inch of my body a-tingle, feeling younger than I had in years. Then I would wrap myself in a blanket and make coffee over the stove.
I spent the afternoons hiking through the woods checking my traps, killing and skinning what I caught. Boulders fill a ravine cutting down from the highest point on Scapegoat Ridge. Each day I carried one as far as I could, hoping to impress the bear with my strength. I stopped cutting my nails. When they were long enough, I sharpened the ends. I had the notion that, if we were to make love, she would want to feel my claws in her back.
I treated myself to a cup of whiskey in the evenings. I sat by the creek with my back against a birch as the first stars showed themselves. I sipped the whiskey and whittled toys for the furry, indistinct children that wandered around the edges of my mind.
“She could easily tear me limb from limb, rake her claws down my spine, and eat me—bones and all. Part of me wanted her to. I had been alone for a long time.”
I do not know if the bear noticed my expanding muscles, but she became comfortable with me and continued to visit even after the apples were gone and the nip of fall was replaced by November’s true chill. She would sit in the clearing surrounded by lodgepole pines, snuffling at the morning air and running her claws through the fur on her belly as I shivered in the doorway. She was quite fat by then. I knew the day would soon come when she took cover for her winter sleep.
I dreaded it.
I was never brave enough to step out of my doorway. I stood there, throwing off sparks, wanting desperately to go to her, but paralyzed. I have lingered many times atop high cliffs, tempted to step into the abyss. It was this same feeling with the bear. She could easily tear me limb from limb, rake her claws down my spine, and eat me—bones and all. Part of me wanted her to. I had been alone for a long time.
I began to fear for my sanity a month after the bear went into hibernation. The first true snow had fallen the night before, and as the wind whipped through the windows, rattling my pans and keeping me from sleep, I did a shameful thing.
I was heartsick. I had grown used to a dull emptiness—such is the life of a trapper in the Montana and Oregon Territories—but this new feeling was sharp. Desperate. I wanted nothing more than to find the cave where she slept, curl up in her arms, and so, too, dream the winter away.
I had made a fine haul that day. The beaver and muskrat, sensing the deeper snows to come, were anxious for food—vulnerable. Fifteen fresh pelts were strung above my doorway. Their rich animal smell reminded me of the bear. I took them down and arranged them on the floor in a bear shape: legs, arms, head . . . Then I stripped and lay flat on my stomach on the skins. I thought of her: the muscles in her rump, the way she snorted with pleasure over a ripe apple. I opened my mouth and sucked on the fur. I licked it. I wriggled my hips, moaning. The cold wind slapped my back.
Seeing the sticky furry mess on the floor the next morning, I was filled with dread. Years before, hiking through dense cedar forest on the Kitsap Peninsula, I came across the body of a fellow trapper. His corpse was sprawled over a knobby root. Before shooting himself, he had used his skinning knife to carve the word meat into his own skin. Meat in jagged letters on his chest, his thighs, even his neck. Scavengers had eaten his nose and eyes, but I could still tell he was a young man. I covered him with dirt. His eyeless face visits me when I feel my own mind slipping into the darkened woods.
I decided to go into Missoula at once to lie with a woman at the Golden Rose.
The hike into Missoula is twenty–two miles along unmapped game trails. I filled my pack with dried venison and hardtack and set out with my longest knife. I hacked away the huckleberry bushes that had grown across the path since my last trip into town. A fine layer of snow covered their thin branches. Deer and rodent tracks spotted the ground. I caught myself searching for the bear’s familiar paw. I shook my head and hurried on.
I arrived just before dark, tired in body but not in mind. Missoula is a fast-changing place. I remember when it was nothing more than several saloons and a general store stubbornly gathered on a bend of the Clark Fork River. Now they are building a university. The foundations surround a grassy oval at the foot of Mount Sentinel. I have to laugh to think of such learned folk in a town where it is often joked that a man’s life is worth less than his boots.
The Golden Rose is a timber-frame building with a peaked roof and red tassels hanging limply from the eaves. The once-bright red paint on the trim has flaked away and taken on the quality of dried blood. It faces Higgins Avenue, beside Holcombe’s Curiosities, but the entrance is in the alley around back. I knocked the dirt from my boots on the red doorframe and stepped inside.
I stood dumbly in the parlor staring up at a large oil painting of General Custer ravaging a Sioux camp. His yellow beard was flecked with blood. I wondered what else new I would find inside. If the whores spoke Latin now, or oiled their hair straight up from their heads. A chandelier warmed the room with gold light. Chrystal decanters holding all manner of spirits lined the shelves above the bar. There was no one behind it. I smelled strawberry perfume and my own mountain stink.
Bad Lucy padded through a bead curtain, smoothing the front of her black dress. She was a beauty once, the kind you paid extra for, but age had sunk her cheeks. “Bill,” she said. “It’s been years.”
I nodded. The translucent skin on her arms revealed ropy purple veins.
“You’ll be needing a bath.”
She led me upstairs past framed pictures of girls in dark garters tiredly eyeing the camera, and one of a mountain lion roaring and reared back on its hind legs, to a small room with a claw-foot tub. I peered down her dress as she twisted the faucet knobs. Her shrunk wrinkled breasts hung like testicles.
Even so, I was heartened by a stirring in my loins. Steam thickened the air.
“These will have to be cut as well.” She gestured at my claws.
She left the room and I undressed, carefully folding my dirt-stiff garments. I felt savage and oversized as I lowered my body into the small tub. I caught sight of my reflection in the teardrop mirror on the far wall and my heart fell. My body had taken on the stringy, leathery quality of a thing left too long in the sun. My beard was matted into a single clump and stuck to my chest. Mucus crusted my nostrils. Wiry tufts sprang from my eyebrows. I looked every bit the mad woodsman, and I knew that whatever girl I chose would be disappointed. The hot water loosened my muscles. I sank beneath it, blowing bubbles to the surface. I was a regular at the Golden Rose when I first settled in Rattlesnake Canyon twelve years ago. There was a whore named Molly I took to hard. She was red Irish. Mean. A scratcher. She loved to laugh at the sad types who washed up in such territorial outposts. I deluded myself into believing that she joked with me in confidence—that I was special to her because she told me how Jack Kipp’s wife had left him for an Indian, or that Doc Evaro, who owned the general store, liked a finger in his anus.
“I figured I was past the age of passion, and decided there must be something better for a man to spend his money on than women.”
When my cabin was finished, I asked her to come live with me. I told her about the clearing on the creek and how the shadows of the lodgepole pines were like friends in the evening. I told her about the apple tree I had planted and that she could have a garden. She did not laugh in my face, but I could tell she would laugh as soon as I left, and many more times when she told the story.
My hankerings faded after that. I figured I was past the age of passion, and decided there must be something better for a man to spend his money on than women. I bought a set of books—Greek epics—from a schoolteacher returning east, and took some comfort reading them aloud. I would march along Scapegoat Ridge pretending to be Odysseus lost at the western edge of the world.
Now I was back, and I worried that coming had been a mistake. I finished my bath and set to work on my nails. They were thick and hard and the clippers Bad Lucy had left were dull. I clipped and clipped hopelessly. Trimmed nails or no, I was an ugly man who belonged in the woods, where no one could see me but the animals.
I paid back Lucy a large sum (they claim that statehood and modern advancements lead to lower prices, but my experience has been just the opposite) and her smile sweetened. She whistled for the girls. They formed a line in front of the bar. Their painted faces seemed to be made entirely of slashes and bone. One of them lit a cigar from the sputtering oil lamp. She bit down on the end and her face was lost in smoke. Another had a black-haired baby dripping from her breast. I grinned at them. They looked through me to the opposite wall. The grin stuck fast to my face.
I selected the girl with the longest hair. Light brown, it fell past her waist. I followed her upstairs, and she told me her name was Frances, like the First Lady. She brought me to the third of eight rooms on the second floor. There was a cot, a mirror, and a small table covered in bottled creams, each of which cost extra. I closed the door and Frances sat down on the edge of the bed. She looked out the small window at the dusk-lit rooftops. Workers sat along the eaves of the mercantile, a second story going up behind them.
I struggled with the many silk ribbons securing her scarlet bodice. My fingers shook, unused to such delicate work. I kept my eyes on her hair. I thought of the warmth inside my cabin on spring mornings, the cold clearness of the stream, and the way the bear raised her head in the brilliant flood of sunlight over Scapegoat Ridge. Finally, I finished and Frances shrugged her shoulders. The bodice fell to the floor and her flesh settled into a roll at her waist. She sighed. A whip scar divided her pale back from shoulder to hip. All manner of tragedies must have led her to this room, and men like me. Her skin smelled oversweet, like spoiled fruit. A queasy desperation, either to run, or cry, or throw her to the ground, rose in my throat. I licked her neck. She inhaled sharply. I squeezed her breasts. I bit them. I tried not to think about the bear.
She pinched my ear in warning. “No marks,” she said. Then she lay back and spread her legs. A tiny tuft of hair, much smaller than my fist, rose between her pale thighs. Everywhere else on her body was utterly bare. I stared, horrified.
I rushed from the room, clattered down the stairs, and pushed through the bead curtain. Bad Lucy was at her desk writing in a leather-bound book.
“She’s but a child!” I sputtered. I was fairly shaking. I had heard of houses in Virginia City where such things could be had for a price, but I did not think Bad Lucy would sink so low. Even with so many changes, I could not believe such foulness had become commonplace.
She swiveled to face me. “I can assure you, she’s nineteen and seven months.”
I shook my head, motioning at my groin in an attempt to convey hairlessness.
Bad Lucy narrowed her eyes. “Did you expect a forest?”
My face reddened. I thought of how I’d run from the room, leaving Frances on the bed. I tried to picture my big hairy body atop her small hairless one. “I want a different girl. Older.”
“Do as you like,” Bad Lucy said, her face stone, “but you’ve paid for this one. If you want another, you’ll pay again.”
I began to argue and a large man appeared in the doorway. He wore a floral vest and held a tomahawk in his right hand. I could tell by his face that it would not mean much to him to shed my blood. I bowed my head and edged past him.
“You’re a fool, Bill,” Bad Lucy called after me.
The rest of the winter was cold and dark and I would be a liar if I did not admit that on several occasions I arranged pelts on the floor and lay down upon them.
The bear came back in March and what I had known in my heart was proven as fact: she was a she, for she had a cub. It was three feet tall and nearly as wide. The beaked sedge at the edge of the clearing tickled its nose. Its coat was ashy brown with a white marking around the throat. It romped around its mother’s feet as she approached the apple tree. She was thin. Disturbingly so. Her skin hung loose and I could see her collarbone against her fur. The little creature had been sucking her dry.
“I tried to shake my melancholy with more whiskey. I told a knot in the ceiling about all the wonders I had seen, all the beasts I had shot.”
She sat beneath the tree. Small leaves and buds sprouted from the branches. She nipped off one of the buds and chewed it thoughtfully. The cub batted her knees. I saw worry in her brown eyes. She shooed the cub away and it circled her and jumped on her back. I covered my genitals with a pot.
The sky was gray and swollen, about to rain.
She ate two more buds, then wedged her back against the trunk and writhed up and down on the rough bark. Her long winter coat was falling out. She growled with pleasure. It would have been perfect—especially after so long—were it not for the cub. It sat beside a stump. It ate a piece of grass. A red-tailed hawk flew overhead and it jumped away from the shadow, then it jumped away from the first raindrops. The pot was cold on my thighs.
A butterfly flitted up from the creek and the cub galloped after it, snapping. It crashed through a chokecherry bush and disappeared into the forest. The mother followed. My clearing was empty again. Wisps of her hair clung to the abandoned trunk.
It had been an idyllic scene but it left my heart so heavy I could not carry it around for the rest of the day. There are thirty-six knots in the Douglas fir planks that make up my ceiling. I lay in bed and counted them over and over as the rain drummed the roof.
I only left the cabin to put a strip of venison in the branches of the apple tree. She was so thin.
The six days that followed were all much the same. I left meat for her in the tree each night—high in the branches where the coyotes and wolves could not reach. Then I rested against the trunk. I imagined I could still feel her warmth. I filled my pockets with her hair, thinking I might make a pillow or undergarment.
The mountains around me seemed to grow as the sun set.
I hardly slept. I rolled from one side of my straw mattress to the other. Several times each night, I would get up, pour myself a cup of whiskey, and sit on the edge of my bed. The ghostly birches swaying outside my window were like skeletons holding hands. I curled my toes on the cold dirt floor. My few belongings were pieces of shadow. I thought back on my solitary life, following game from one forest to the next, always a step ahead of civilization. It had not amounted to much.
I tried to shake my melancholy with more whiskey. I told a knot in the ceiling about all the wonders I had seen, all the beasts I had shot. My adventures in country that is, I suspect, the most beautiful in the world. But I could not escape the feeling that much of my life had slipped away, and now the bear was slipping away, too.
She came back each morning but it was not the same. After taking the meat from the tree, she would sit and watch her cub play. It liked to dive headfirst into the dirt and roll over in a somersault. It looked up at the sky, stunned, each time this maneuver was completed successfully. Then it would run to her and she would lick away the burs and nettles that clung to its fur.
I imagined the feel of her tongue.
On the seventh day, I woke with a determination I had not known in years, perhaps since the day I resolved never to see Molly nor any other woman again.
It was an unseasonably warm spring morning. Pale green shoots pushed through the earth. Arrowleaf flowers splashed yellow on the face of Scapegoat Hill. The creek was full and loud.
The bears came as the first rays of sunlight lit gold the treetops and sent insects buzzing up through shafts of light. She made straight for the apple tree. She stood on her hind legs, showing off her fine shape, and plucked the meat from where I’d wedged it in the branches. She was regaining her weight.
The cub sniffed around the edge of the clearing. It tripped on a rock. It was a round, clumsy, stupid thing.
I picked up the Winchester from beside the door and steadied it against my shoulder. The familiar weight comforted me. A single purple flower hung from the cub’s coat. It paused and looked up at a mockingbird winging south. I aimed first at its mother, reminding myself of the fine price her pelt would fetch, the books and other comforts I could buy. Her winter coat was gone and her fur shimmered, golden, like the morning we met. She was so beautiful. I swung the barrel down to the foolish little creature who was taking her from me.
Without thinking, I pulled the trigger.
The shot shattered the morning. The cub was knocked backward, twisting. Its legs flew into the air. It went hard to the dirt on its back, raising a puff of dust. Four small paws treaded the air, and then went still. The purple flower drifted lazily down beside it.
I turned back to the mother. She was frozen, staring at her fallen cub. Her eyes moved wildly around the clearing, back to her cub, and again around the clearing. A cracked bellowing noise came from deep in her gut. She reared up to her full height and bellowed again. She did not notice me in the doorway, where I always was.
I threw aside the rifle and ran toward her, plunging through the grass, mad with grief and shame. I leapt over a stump. I reached out for her. She dropped down, turned, and ran on all fours into the woods.
Summer turned to fall. Crows peck at the meat I leave for her in the branches. They cackle amid the garlands of rotting deer flesh and the ripe red apples.
I wrap the cub’s pelt around my shoulders. I slide its head over my head and hunch down. The rich smell fills my nose. I put my hands on its paws and crawl to the tree.
I wait for her to come back for me.
From Come West and See. Used with permission of W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2018 by Maxim Loskutoff.