The Sky The Stars The Wilderness

Overview

GQ called the three short novels in this collection "wondrous." A woman returns to live on her family's west Texas ranch . . . a man tracks his wife through a winter wilderness . . . an ancient ocean buried in the foothills of the Appalachians becomes a battleground for a young wildcat oilman and his aging mentor. Here is Bass at his magical, passionate, and lyrical best.

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The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness

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Overview

GQ called the three short novels in this collection "wondrous." A woman returns to live on her family's west Texas ranch . . . a man tracks his wife through a winter wilderness . . . an ancient ocean buried in the foothills of the Appalachians becomes a battleground for a young wildcat oilman and his aging mentor. Here is Bass at his magical, passionate, and lyrical best.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Hauntingly beautiful." Boston Globe

"Writing of this quality creates a stillness in the mind." Time Magazine

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Spirit world, my butt," thinks one hard-bitten character in the first of these three splendid novellas, but it is exactly that, a spirit world, that Bass grasps in his tales of people in the Western wilderness. In the first, a mentally ailing trapper goes after a troublesome quarry: his wife. In the second, a wildcat oil man, who has never once picked a dry well, finds his rewards not in the money or in his perfect record but in his own enchantment with the land. In the title piece, the longest and most powerful of the three, a 44-year-old woman returns to her family's huge Texas ranch and remembers how she communed with her dead mother's spirit in the nature all around her. She wonders what part of her character is due to "bloodline" and what part "has been sculpted by the land," and how, indeed, she has failed the land by not producing children to continue the legacy. Bass (In the Loyal Mountains) takes a number of breathtaking turns and apparent digressions in this moving story, and readers will encounter a bounty of meditations on time and memory that showcase his graceful, precise, almost musical language, and his magical way of making nature animate. His innate sense of shaping a story brings to these tales the transcendence of myth.
Michael Gorra
This is writing so precise that even those of us who've never witnessed that plunge on television, let alone in the wild, can see it here, that bird ''screaming silently toward the earth.'' In this hymn to bloody nature you can feel the presence of an essayist who believes that observation is in itself a kind of sacrament, who wants simply to describe rather than to mold and shape a narrative. -- The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
Two appealing short stories and an exquisite novella from Montana essayist and storyteller Bass (The Book of Yaak, 1996; In the Loyal Mountains, 1995). The title novella revels in the rugged beauty of bluffs and thickets in Texas hill country, where three generations preserve the family ranch as a haven for wild animals and the wild at heart. The narrator, a middle-aged woman living alone on the ranch with her memories, recalls her formative influences: iron-willed Grandfather, whose battle cry ("the natural history of Texas is still being sacrificed upon the altar of generalization") was stifled by a stroke, then reemerged when the old man relearned speech using the cadences of birdsong; his Mexican right-hand, Chubb, who was afraid of the dark but a tireless worker and fiercely loyal by day; Father, the county agent, who fought in vain to end overgrazing and protect eagles from his sporting, good-old- boy neighbors; and especially Mother, who died when the narrator was still a girl, but whose limestone-bluff resting place ensured that her presence remained, even as the family dwindled one by one. These ties to the past, binding the mother to the daughter and the daughter to the land, prove more durable than any link with potential mates. In "The Myths of Bears," another Texan, Judith, breaks free of the increasing lunacy of her longtime partner, Trapper, outwitting him and enduring winter in the Alaskan wilderness alone, only to be tripped up later by her concern for him; in "Where the Sea Used to Be," an Alabama man breaks away from his cold-blooded rich boss to show a knack for finding oil from the air that makes him legendary, but also introduces him to a rivalpassion: Sara. As thoughtful and captivating as his previous work: stories that can only increase Bass's reputation as a writer remarkably able to put people in nature in a way that enhances our understanding of both.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395924754
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/30/1998
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 204
  • Sales rank: 696,430
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author

RICK BASS’s fiction has received O. Henry Awards, numerous Pushcart Prizes, awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. Most recently, his memoir Why I Came West was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

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Table of Contents

The Myths of Bears 1
Where the Sea Used to Be 47
The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness 87
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First Chapter

I

Trapper is so old and tired that every August he just sits in the sun in front of his cabin with his head bowed, trying to gather up the last of it. A week of heat left, and then each day after will be cooler. He sits with his arms spread and tries to gather it all in, absorbing the vitamin D. Everything is draining from him. He used to love winter the most; now he tries only to stagger from August to August, crossing the months like steppingstones across a dangerous river.

Maybe the breadth of time he's spent in the woods turned Trapper's mind: his need to be versatile, to change with the seasons. Or maybe it's the absence of cities, towns, or villages. It wasn't something, though, that human contact could stave off in him, or else his wife would have kept it at bay. He wants her back worse than he ever wanted a pelt. Judith has been gone now almost a year.

She broke through the cabin's small window on a January night during the wolf moon when Trapper was having one of his fits. At such times something wild enters him. Trapper is as pale as a snow lion. Judith came from Tucson, and was still brown ten years after she left. It was as though in Arizona she'd stored a lifetime of sun.

Judith has curved feet, like flippers. She's six feet tall (Trapper is five-nine), and her shoe size is thirteen. Judith gets around in the snow well; the inward curve of her feet makes it so she doesn't need snowshoes.

*

Judith ran all night to stay warm, floundering, heading for the north. She knew he'd figure she was headed to a town.

It was true she'd be safe in a town, because Trapper would never enter one to look for her, but he might go so far as to hang around on the outskirts, like an old lobo skulking around a campfire.

Judith didn't miss the desert. Sometimes she did--in the spring usually--but right now she was thrilled to be half running, half swimming through rich deep snow. The sadness of her leaving him being transformed into the joy of freedom, and the joy of flight, too.

She imagined the sleeping bears beneath her. Her Uncle Harm had raised her in the desert outside Tucson and then she had taken up with Trapper when both she and Trapper were eighteen. Uncle Harm had been an old trapper and hunter and had tried to teach Trapper some things, but had not been entirely successful.

Another year and Judith and Trapper would've spent half their lives together.

It was delicious to swim through the snow.

The blizzard was a sign that she was meant to escape. A fool could have followed the swath of her tracks under normal conditions, but these weren't normal conditions. This was the first night of her life.

It wasn't about babies, or towns, or quilting bees. Domesticity. It wasn't about flowers, or about the desert in spring. It might not have even been about his snarling fits, or his lonely, flat-eyed, "Trapper says" fits.

It was about those red and green rods streaking through the sky.

He was gone, Judith knew. It would be a luxury to feel sad about it. He'd been gone for years. If he'd been a deer or moose, elk or caribou--if he'd been prey instead of predator--something would have noticed his odd demeanor, his slowing step--that trembling--and would have singled him out and brought him down.

Judith slept at the base of a giant fire-hollowed cedar for a short time before dawn. She took off her leather boots, socks, and leggings and tucked them between her body and clothes to dry. She half dozed with her hands around her naked feet, trying to warm and dry them. The cedar jungle where she had stopped offered shelter against much of the snow and wind; it was the place where the deer had taken refuge, too. They'd been living in the tangle of cedars for several weeks, ever since the storms had started, shedding their antlers and milling together for warmth. Great curved antlers lay scattered all around her; they were being covered quickly with skiffs of snow--the drifts weren't as deep, back in the cedars--and Judith could feel the deer watching her. She dreamed that she could feel the warmth of their breath as they moved slowly over to investigate. Her coat and pants were made of deer hide, deer that Trapper had shot for her to skin and sew into garments.

Judith slept as the deer circled and sniffed her and looked at one another in the deep night and waited out the storm.

The wolves would notice his odd gait, Judith dreamed. If Trapper tried to follow her too far in his condition--his sleepwalking--the wolves would get him.

Spring, even the hint of it, was still three months away.

She dreamed of Tucson, holding her cold toes in her hands: rubbing them in her sleep.

It was still snowing outside of the cedar jungle, when her shivering woke her in the early light. Judith considered whether she would forever after this night associate guilt with cold. She could see the tracks of deer around her where they had come in the night; she could see those places where they had stopped to sniff and identify her. They had touched her, she knew, with their noses: they had given her her identity.

It is not that he is a bad man, or that I am a bad woman, she thought. It's just that he is a predator, and I am prey. It is the way of nature for our lives to be associated, even intertwined, for a long while. But now if I am to survive, I have to run. It has nothing to do with him. It used to; but now, suddenly that I'm free, it doesn't.

It is so sad, she thought; but even as she was thinking this, she was pulling on her damp socks, her damp boots and leggings, and dusting the snow from her clothes and rising stiffly, her legs as bow-legged from the cold as the curve of her big sorrowful feet. She stared at the deer's delicate tracks.

He is gone, Judith told herself again. I am not running from him anymore, I am running from his death.

Trapper is gone.

She looked up the next ridge, into the wind-and-north-stunted alpine fir; a little farther north, she knew, there would be tundra. She definitely did not want to leave the woods.

No, she remembered then, I am no longer running from anything. I am running to something.

Her feet were hurting, which was good; the blood was returning. Judith limped down a game trail. Snow continued to fall. Her long yellow hair shrouded her neck and face and kept the snow out. It was too cold for the snow to melt. Trapper used to brush her hair every night; brush it and then wash it. Already she missed his broken-fingered hands.

"Trapper is gone," she repeated out loud, as she trudged up the trail. Later in the day, she would find a gaunt-ribbed deer dying in the cedar jungle, starving, and she would chase it a short distance--the deer falling and floundering, crazy-legged, unable to go on--and she would kill it by cutting its throat with her knife.

Judith drank the blood from the cut throat, but only after the deer was dead and its eyes were turning waxy blue, its soul rising into the trees.

Then the liver, still hot; steam rising from it as she cut it free. Then the blood that was sloshing around inside the body cavity. Judith washed the blood from her face with handfuls of snow; skinned the deer quickly while it was still warm, before it could freeze, and cut the meat from the shoulders and hamstrings and wrapped it up in the congealed hide. Tied it to her back.

Judith felt the woods wrapping her, taking care of her in her sorrow, and she thanked the woods every step of the way for giving her a deer. She felt embraced. Judith knew this was how her Uncle Harm--the one who'd taught Trapper certain things, though not everything--used to feel, because he'd talked about it often, back in Arizona.

Deer stood aside, too cold to run, and watched her pass.

*

Judith felt badly: not knowing why she was moving, only that she must. Grizzlies will travel thirty miles in a night, she knew, to get to a good acorn crop. Deer and elk will leave a mountain, will come down off the highest peak and into the river bottoms in advance of a storm, in only a matter of hours. But Judith was not entirely sure why she was traveling, and why she was moving north, into the winter, rather than away from it.

It had been a hundred and six degrees on the day she was born. But she'd gotten used to the cold. It wasn't that different from the heat. Both were things that got your attention.

Maybe it was as simple as the feeling that if she went south, it would be like running away; but if she went north, it would just be running.

*

Trapper hunted her for four days and nights, making concentric circles around his cabin, trying to pick up her sign: making the circles larger and larger; calling her name and crying and howling. Chasing the game off: ruining his season.

Betrayed; abandoned. He'd thought she was tame. He'd not understood she was the wildest, most fluttering thing in the woods.

He thinks, Next time when I get her back, I will keep her tied up even tighter. I will tie her with rawhide to a stake in the front yard.

He thinks, She didn't love me enough. Maybe she even hated me. But what about all those good times in Tucson? And up here?

I will make her love me more, he thinks, wandering his woods, casting for scent, trembling, like an old dog. He hunts for her harder than he ever hunted for any grizzly or wolf, fisher or marten. He abandons his traps, forgets where he's hung them.

Martens dangle from the trunks of trees, a rear leg snapped, broken by the snap of the trap's jaws. At first the martens scramble and chatter to get free, but over time their movements become slower. They hang like small shawls against the tree trunks, snow catching on their fur, and the traps, rusting...

If Judith had heard Trapper cry like a child she probably would have gone back to him and stayed until he got better, or didn't. But some instinct told her to go all the way up to the edge of the forest: to winter away from him in a place where she could not be lured back.

Maybe in the spring, Judith thought, she'd ease back and spy on his cabin. See if he had made it or not. See if he'd survived or if he was bones.

Forty, fifty, fifty-five below. She can't build a fire, or he'll find her. She left in such a hurry. She builds a snow cave in the cedar jungles; makes a coat of her deer hide, but still she's cold, even with two coats. She doesn't dare build a fire. Even mind-sick, Trapper can smell smoke at a hundred miles.

Such is her fear, and the word beyond fear: longing.

*

Trapper sleeps with the window open--the one she crashed through--to punish himself for letting her escape. He knows she's not building fires. He'd smell them. If he could just find where she is, he could begin setting traps for her, but he has no idea whether she is east or west or north or south of him. He feels trapped by his ignorance, and thrashes around on his bed at night and moans and howls. His trap-cracked fingers surge with pain; they've been frostbitten so many times that each new time they freeze, he's sure he'll lose them, that this time the blood won't return, and what good is a trapper without fingers, without hands? He'd be no better than a bear, with nothing but paws.

Trapper remembers the big grizzly he killed down in the Gila desert, back in the nineties. Its tracks were thirteen inches by eleven inches--the bear's feet as long as Judith's, but so very much wider--and Trapper remembers how the bear dragged Trapper's chain and trap twelve miles up into the mountains, and into a cave. Trapper had nailed the trap and chain to a twelve-foot timber, and he followed the swath the bear made as he fled. October. Buzzards shadowed the bear, knowing what was coming. It was easy for Trapper to follow the bear at a dead run, as there were the birds to look to. The trail itself was like the wake of a canoe. Trapper has never owned a horse: he despises and distrusts anything stronger than he is.

As Trapper's shakes set in, Judith grew that way: stronger than he was. He still had his strength, but when he was trembling, it was of little use; he'd drop things. He'd have to ask her for help. The glimmer of reasoning that this might have frightened her as badly as it frightened him glows in his mind, and then fades. He's remembering this bear in the Gila.

You must tie a drag to the trap for them to run with, one which will only slow them down. If you tie the chain too tight, with no hope of escape, the bear or wolf will chew its damn leg off, to get away.

This Gila River grizzly holed up in a cave. It was a smart bastard. It ambushed Trapper, trap and chain and log and all. Wrapped Trapper up as best as it could. Biting at Trapper's face and neck. The only thing that saved Trapper was the fact that the bear's teeth had been broken by the huge steel trap: he'd tried to bite it off. Still, the bear raked Trapper's back with his terrible claws. The first bear that ever got in close with Trapper; the first one he ever wrapped up with. Trapper was nineteen. Trapper grabbed the bear's big tongue the way he'd been told and twisted like hell; the bear released his grip, and Trapper pulled his big knife free and stuck it up under the ribs, again and again, probing for the heart. Found it.

Bright red blood and froth and bits of tooth all over his face. He had to sleep on his stomach for three months. He remembers how Judith would lick the wounds; and then, when they healed, how she would lick the scars. They were living on her Uncle Harm's ranch, in an adobe by the Salt River. White-winged doves cooing all the time. The mornings were cool; everything seemed new.

Nineteen!

He didn't know if his seed was bad or if she was barren. Nothing ever happened, and he's not sure, as he trembles now, ancient at thirty-five, that that was a bad thing.

Candlelight washes across his crooked face. He can't believe he's alone.

*

In February it warmed to fifteen below. It had been so cold that Judith's head hurt: she grew a little crazy, afraid to sleep for fear that her head would split the way the dry fir trees had been every January night. She couldn't move around, couldn't walk through the woods with her ugly feet unless it was snowing hard; she couldn't risk leaving tracks.

Judith figured she was about twenty-five miles north of him. She could sense by the stillness in the woods--the utter emptiness and newness and peace--that he had no idea where she was hiding.

But he would find out. He would sense that peace--he would feel her feeling it--and he would be drawn toward it. She would have to be ready to move again, and quickly.

She wanted to get away, but not too far away.

There were nights when she felt he was still tied to her: she knew he was out tracking her. Strangely, she felt loved.

But it felt fine to be alone, and to be free of his air. It wasn't bad air that he breathed in and out; it was just his.

When it began to snow, she would rise and go for walks in the woods, walking through the heaviest snowstorms. She'd found a winter-killed moose and made a robe of that, to add to her other coats. She wore all of them when she walked, and when she got lost and could not find her way back to her snow cave, as frequently happened, she'd build a new one. She was following a ridge above a river bottom over into the next valley. It was a country Trapper had never worked before, and sometimes Judith would catch herself with the ludicrous thought that she would have to tell him about it when she got back.

Remember, Judith told herself, he is gone.

She was pretty sure he was gone.

Her hair was wild and dirty, turning darker, from yellow blond to dirty blond, which troubled her. But it wasn't enough to turn back for: the simple touch of his busted-up hands, brushing and washing her hair, and a warm fire.

A wolverine confronted her one day, ran scampering around her snow cave, raising his hind leg and pissing all around it, a vile scent that reminded her of maggots. He stuck his snarling face into her cave and Judith screamed and jabbed her knife at him, cutting his nose, and the wolverine ran away, lunging across the snow like a man with a broken back, squalling and leaving a trail of blood but looking over his shoulder at her as if to say, "I'll be back."

Judith cut a heavy walking stick and lashed the sharpest deer antlers she could find to the end of it. She never went anywhere without it, and had nightmares about the wolverine until she found him dead in March, where wolves had killed him.

The meat of the wolverine had been too mean and vile for the wolves to eat; they'd eaten only his entrails. Ravens led her to his carcass. It pleased Judith to think of the wolves eating his guts. But she moved on, because he'd marked her cave as his territory, and the woods were spoiled.

She kept moving north whenever it snowed, moving from one pocket of stillness and peace to the next. It was exactly as if she had an injury, and had to let the muscle and bone knit and regather strength. It took time.

In February, Trapper had abandoned his cabin and gone south looking for her. By the first week he knew she could be dead and under five or six feet of snow--he might not find her skeleton for ten or twenty years, or ever--but he pushed on, casting for scent. He knew she would cross at least one divide, and possibly two. The way she had hit that window, he knew she was terrified of something.

It was the first time in eighteen years that he hadn't spent a winter trapping; it felt good. He stood by his fire each night, the trembling having spread from his hands to his shoulders and legs. He was alone, and he acknowledged this--there was something wrong with him, something which time would not fix--but he felt good.

He'd piss on his campfire each night to let the wolves know he was in the woods. He heard their howls, the whole of the woods echoing with their sound. Trapper knew that in winter they were all only two days away from starving.

He worked a hundred miles south in a week, and then fifty miles east of that line, coming back across it, and fifty miles west.

"Sombofambitch," he said in March, when he finally felt the peace, and could acknowledge its presence. He was having trouble with his speech. "She has gonb Norf ... Norf ... Norf." His heart was fluttering, and his legs, when they trembled, felt like a colt's.

He was back at his cabin padding traps with hides, as he didn't want her to have an ankle broken. He would set them in the spring.

The scent, or feel, of her peace reminded him of the northern lights. No one else he knew ever claimed they could hear them, but he could: the sound was faint to be sure, but clearly there, and it was like strips of thin metal delicately chiming. Trapper believed in angels and a God, though he had never seen either, and believed without doubt that the red and green of the northern lights showed where angels had been: just a day's passage ahead of him, or two at most.

Trapper started north with a hundred pounds of traps slung over his shoulder. He hadn't used sled dogs in five years, because the wolves always killed them, and he was tired of the heartache of losing them.

Aiming north and west, he figured she'd head for the ocean--women love oceans, he thought, and men love forests.

He came near her on that trip, missing her by less than a mile. Judith was sitting on the bluff looking out over the western river bottom when she felt his presence in the woods and then, an hour later, saw him go walking below her, all those heavy chains thrown across his shoulder: his steps with the snowshoes looking big and sloppy.

She watched him cross the frozen river with his traps. She couldn't see his face or even his beard, and certainly not his strange blue eyes, which turned almost violet in late winter, as if in anticipation, perhaps, of spring.

She could make out his wide back, the heavy robes he was wearing, and his clumsy steps. She watched as if it were her wedding day; she felt that much love for him, and that much relief that he was missing her. He stopped often to look at tracks in the river bottom, but they were not her tracks.

In Arizona, Trapper had fried everything in lion grease. Pancakes, sausage, elk steaks, or fish--it all sizzled in the sweet fat of the mountain lions he killed. Old folks said that it would go to his brain and give him the trembles later in life, and maybe it did, but watching him move across the river bottom--trembling, though still somehow in possession of his strength--Judith doesn't think that's what did it.

She thinks it is the force of God blowing through the trees that makes him shake. He has chased things so hard and for so long that he has gotten cut off. He's gotten lost, or dead-ended, or trapped. Or something.

Anyway, he didn't look ready to die. He looked like he was holding steady.

Judith watched Trapper cross the river: heading all the way to the coast, she suspected--salmon, boats, fishing villages--just to look for her.

It made her feel good in a way she hadn't felt in a long while.

Trapper moved slowly. Judith stayed behind a tree. He was hundreds of feet below her, and half a mile off. Once he turned and looked back up the bluff, right at her. Tears began to roll down Judith's cheeks, freezing before they fell, as she felt all of her precious space shattering in his gaze, his discovery, but he was looking right through her. Trapper turned away again.

Immediate relief became joy, but then Judith felt an echo of sadness, like a stone dropped, clacking to the bottom of a nearly dry well on a hot day.

Trapper made his way across the mile-wide river. He didn't have long to get to the coast and back before the breakup of the ice left him stranded--the river would surge in a month or six weeks with jagged icebergs, cracking and booming, frothing with dead moose and bear bobbing in its torrent, young foolish animals who'd tried to cross it ... It occurred to Judith that maybe Trapper wasn't coming back.

He still had not come straight north. She believed that when he did not find her on the coast, he would come back and try the forest--the last place he would have suspected her to be. It was a miracle that he had not seen her when he'd looked back up the bluff in her direction. Judith had held her breath to keep from breathing out smoke-vapor, and hadn't blinked--just those round, crystal, frozen tears leaking from her. Judith had seen Trapper spot live animals hidden in the forest at distances greater than half a mile. Despite the beauty of his violet eyes, he was color-blind; he saw a monochromatic version of the world, grainy blacks and whites of tone. Winter didn't bother him, because it was how he always saw the world--and animals that relied on the tones of camouflage were helpless, revealed bluntly, nakedly, before his gaze.

After Trapper was gone, Judith felt sorrow and fear, but then the fear left and joy returned. She wished him well on his journey and worried for him, but reasoned that any time spent trembling in the woods was infinitely preferable to time spent trembling on a bed in a cabin or--worse--in a town.

Judith imagined that the space to the north of her, all the way to the North Pole, was hers--her own space.

She could not wait for spring, when color would fill that space, and her world would burst with life.

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