The Hermit's Story: Stories [NOOK Book]

Overview

The Hermit's Story is Rick Bass's best and most varied fiction yet, "the work of a seasoned author in full possession of his art and craft" (Denver Post). In this story collection, Bass explores the mysterious and near-mythical connections between man and nature. In the title story, a man and a woman travel beneath the frozen surface of a dry lake; in "The Cave," a couple passes a magical afternoon in an abandoned mine; in "Swans," a woman lights fires along the shore of a freezing pond to warm the five swans ...
See more details below
The Hermit's Story: Stories

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK
  • NOOK HD/HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$10.99
BN.com price
(Save 26%)$14.99 List Price

Overview

The Hermit's Story is Rick Bass's best and most varied fiction yet, "the work of a seasoned author in full possession of his art and craft" (Denver Post). In this story collection, Bass explores the mysterious and near-mythical connections between man and nature. In the title story, a man and a woman travel beneath the frozen surface of a dry lake; in "The Cave," a couple passes a magical afternoon in an abandoned mine; in "Swans," a woman lights fires along the shore of a freezing pond to warm the five swans living there. The characters in each of these ten stories try to seek out the marrow of life. "[A] fully realized collection of the highest quality" (Baltimore Sun), The Hermit's Storyshows Rick Bass at the top of his form.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Chris Barsanti
The stories in this thin collection are written in short, graceful arcs, and some of them are refreshingly humorous. In "The Cave," a man and a woman climb down an abandoned mine shaft and end up shedding their clothes in order to fit; in "Eating," a man with a gargantuan appetite demolishes a diner's food supply. It's too bad that the characters, even the more dramatic ones, play secondary roles. Bass seems more interested in describing the beauty and fury of nature than in developing personalities. A fine sense of style doesn't make up for a lack of character development in this book, in which lonely people get lost in the background.
Publishers Weekly
Nature is as otherworldly as a line of bright birds frozen stiff, and as prosaic as a patch of grass, in this uniformly excellent collection. In the title story, a dog trainer and her companion, a man called Gray Owl, take six dogs out on a hunting exercise. Toward the end of their trip, Gray Owl falls through the ice of a lake, but instead of drowning, winds up on at the bottom of a dry basin covered with a layer of ice. He is joined by the trainer and the dogs, and together they cross the lake under the ice, an adventure that forces the trainer to examine her perspective, since every step presents a fresh challenge to the senses. "The Fireman" relates the dissolution of the title character's first marriage through the metaphor of fire, with Bass skillfully juxtaposing the blaze of human relationships and the searing, organic power of fire. The volume dips into humor with the pseudo-fantastical "Eating," in which an owl trapped in a canoe lashed to the top of a car initiates a memorable episode in a North Carolina diner; the ensuing gastronomical feats both amaze and amuse. The jewel of this collection, "Swans," introduces Billy, who has a preternatural connection with the trees on his Idaho homestead, and describes his idyllic life with his wife, a soulful baker. As the story progresses, Billy grows ill and slowly wastes away, even as the unnamed narrator eloquently and simply chronicles his decline. Billy's life takes on a stirring quality of pathos, and his graceful death leaves the reader deeply satisfied yet yearning for more. That sentiment might be extended to each of the lovely stories gathered here. (July 23) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
In each of these ten stories, Bass explores the interconnectedness of humans and nature. He does this by showing how humans relate to animals, as in "Swans," where a woman lights fires around a lake to warm and keep company with swans at night, or in "Two Deer," where he shows how understanding deer leads to understanding each other. He also has his characters experience nature in new ways by literally going into nature, as in "The Cave," where two people explore an old mining cave and discover themselves, and in "The Hermit's Story," where a woman is led into an unknown world of an under-ice cave. The author's understanding of nature comes through in every tale, but the stories have plots that can stand on their own and characters who are fully developed as well. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Houghton Mifflin, Mariner, 179p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Nola Theiss
Library Journal
In his new collection, novelist and nature writer Bass (e.g., Colter) focuses a naturalist's eye not only on the frozen lakes and interplay of predator and prey often found in his work but also on the ebb and flow of human emotions and relationships. Among several selections set in a remote region of northern Montana is the title story, in which a couple and a pack of dogs, lost in a winter storm, almost miraculously find refuge beneath the ice on a frozen lake. Failed or troubled marriages figure throughout, and the male characters often ponder lost love while deeply involved in more immediate tasks, like fighting fires or helping a friend after an eye operation. In an especially strong story, "The Distance," a man recalls his first visit to Jefferson's Monticello as a teenager while touring the estate with his wife and daughter. His critical view of both Jefferson and the tour guide gives Bass a chance to quote from Jefferson's writings, which show that he was a dedicated and radical environmentalist. Thought-provoking and entertaining, these stories move along quickly but continue to resonate long after the reader is done; several have been anthologized in award collections. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/02.] Jim Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
More tales on life lived at the cusp of wilderness from the prolific animal lover (Brown Dog of the Yaak, 1999, etc.). Bass's characters are never quite happy with the civilization they leave behind, or the wilds that ultimately threaten them when they enter it. They are never at home, always longing for a perfection imagined or simply impossible. The title story recounts a woman's experience beneath the ice ceiling of a lake that froze before it drained, and becomes a meditation on the stillness of solitude in the unlikeliest of greenhouses; in "Swans," the narrator's neighbors live a love story about the joys and dangers of life lived in the near wild; "The Prisoners" concerns three men whose encounter with a prison bus on their way to a weekend fishing trip reveals that they've outgrown neither their adolescence nor their testosterone; "The Fireman" is a lyric excursion in which every apocryphal tale of firefighting is recycled in an effort to make firefighters seem even more brave and heroic; "The Cave" introduces Russell and Sissy, an unlikely couple who discover their primal selves in a descent into an abandoned coal mine, and who reappear in "Eating"; "President's Day" sees the occasion of a friend's eye surgery become the opportunity for a young narrator to reflect on his accumulation of youthful wisdom; Thomas Jefferson's Monticello becomes an expression of civilization in "The Distance," its ambiguous grandeur forcing a young man to question what our gadgetry has done to our social conscience; and "Two Deer" recycles more apocryphal stories of deer accidents as a nature novice reflects on both the lives and habits of ungulates and his wife, and, of course, failed love. Whatwould be an accomplishment for a beginner is simply workmanlike from Bass. Civilization never seemed so far away.
From the Publisher
"Rick Bass puts his talent as a nature writer to terrific use . . . his ability to map the inner lives of his characters is equally impressive."—Don O'Keefe The New York Times Book Review

"Nature is as otherworldly as a line of bright birds frozen stiff, and as prosaic as a patch of grass, in this uniformly excellent collection . . ." Publishers Weekly, Starred

"Probably no American writer since Hemingway has written about man-in-nature more beautifully or powerfully than Rick Bass."—Bryan Woolley Dallas Morning News

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547346687
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/18/2003
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 848,054
  • File size: 556 KB

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.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

The Hermit’s Story

An ice storm, following seven days of snow; the vast fields and drifts of snow turning to sheets of glazed ice that shine and shimmer blue in the moonlight, as if the color is being fabricated not by the bending and absorption of light but by some chemical reaction within the glossy ice; as if the source of all blueness lies somewhere up here in the north—the core of it beneath one of those frozen fields; as if blue is a thing that emerges, in some parts of the world, from the soil itself, after the sun goes down.
Blue creeping up fissures and cracks from depths of several hundred feet; blue working its way up through the gleaming ribs of Ann’s buried dogs; blue trailing like smoke from the dogs’ empty eye sockets and nostrils—blue rising as if from deep-dug chimneys until it reaches the surface and spreads laterally and becomes entombed, or trapped—but still alive, and drifting—within those moonstruck fields of ice.
Blue like a scent trapped in the ice, waiting for some soft release, some thawing, so that it can continue spreading.
It’s Thanksgiving. Susan and I are over at Ann and Roger’s house for dinner. The storm has knocked out all the power down in town—it’s a clear, cold, starry night, and if you were to climb one of the mountains on snowshoes and look forty miles south toward where town lies, instead of seeing the usual small scatterings of light—like fallen stars, stars sunken to the bottom of a lake, but still glowing—you would see nothing but darkness—a bowl of silence and darkness in balance for once with the mountains up here, rather than opposing or complementing our darkness, our peace.
As it is, we do not climb up on snowshoes to look down at the dark town—the power lines dragged down by the clutches of ice—but can tell instead just by the way there is no faint glow over the mountains to the south that the power is out: that this Thanksgiving, life for those in town is the same as it always is for us in the mountains, and it is a good feeling, a familial one, coming on the holiday as it does—though doubtless too the townspeople are feeling less snug and cozy about it than we are.
We’ve got our lanterns and candles burning. A fire’s going in the stove, as it will all winter long and into the spring. Ann’s dogs are asleep in their straw nests, breathing in that same blue light that is being exhaled from the skeletons of their ancestors just beneath and all around them. There is the faint smell of cold-storage meat—slabs and slabs of it—coming from down in the basement, and we have just finished off an entire chocolate pie and three bottles of wine. Roger, who does not know how to read, is examining the empty bottles, trying to read some of the words on the labels. He recognizes the words the and in and USA. It may be that he will never learn to read—that he will be unable to—but we are in no rush; he has all of his life to accomplish this. I for one believe that he will learn.
Ann has a story for us. It’s about a fellow named Gray Owl, up in Canada, who owned half a dozen speckled German shorthaired pointers and who hired Ann to train them all at once. It was twenty years ago, she says—her last good job.
She worked the dogs all summer and into the autumn, and finally had them ready for field trials. She took them back up to Gray Owl—way up in Saskatchewan—driving all day and night in her old truck, which was old even then, with dogs piled up on top of one another, sleeping and snoring: dogs on her lap, dogs on the seat, dogs on the floorboard.
Ann was taking the dogs up there to show Gray Owl how to work them: how to take advantage of their newfound talents. She could be a sculptor or some other kind of artist, in that she speaks of her work as if the dogs are rough blocks of stone whose internal form exists already and is waiting only to be chiseled free and then released by her, beautiful, into the world.
Basically, in six months the dogs had been transformed from gangling, bouncing puppies into six wonderful hunters, and she needed to show their owner which characteristics to nurture, which ones to discourage. With all dogs, Ann said, there was a tendency, upon their leaving her tutelage, for a kind of chitinous encrustation to set in, a sort of oxidation, upon the dogs leaving her hands and being returned to someone less knowledgeable and passionate, less committed than she. It was as if there were a tendency for the dogs’ greatness to disappear back into the stone.
So she went up there to give both the dogs and Gray Owl a checkout session. She drove with the heater on and the windows down; the cold Canadian air was invigorating, cleanerr. She could smell the scent of the fir and spruce, and the damp alder and cottonwood leaves beneath the many feet of snow. We laughed at her when shhhhhe said it, but she told us that up in Canada she could taste the fish in the water as she drove alongside creeks and rivers.
She got to Gray Owl’s around midnight. He had a little guest cabin but had not heated it for her, uncertain as to the day of her arrival, so she and the six dogs slept together on a cold mattress beneath mounds of elk hides: their last night together. She had brought a box of quail with which to work the dogs, and she built a small fire in the stove and set the box of quail next to it.
The quail muttered and cheeped all night and the stove popped and hissed and Ann and the dogs slept for twelve hours straight, as if submerged in another time, or as if everyone else in the world were submerged in time—and as if she and the dogs were pioneers, or survivors of some kind: upright and exploring the present, alive in the world, free of that strange chitin.

She spent a week up there, showing Gray Owl how his dogs worked. She said he scarcely recognized them afield, and that it took a few days just for him to get over his amazement. They worked the dogs both individually and, as Gray Owl came to understand and appreciate what Ann had crafted, in groups. They traveled across snowy hills on snowshoes, the sky the color of snow, so that often it was like moving through a dream, and, except for the rasp of the snowshoes beneath them and the pull of gravity, they might have believed they had ascended into some sky-place where all the world was snow.
They worked into the wind—north—whenever they could. Ann would carry birds in a pouch over her shoulder and from time to time would fling a startled bird out into that dreary, icy snowscape. The quail would fly off with great haste, a dark feathered buzz bomb disappearing quickly into the teeth of cold, and then Gray Owl and Ann and the dog, or dogs, would go find it, following it by scent only, as always.
Snot icicles would be hanging from the dogs’ nostrils. They would always find the bird. The dog, or dogs, would point it, Gray Owl or Ann would step forward and flush it, and the beleaguered bird would leap into the sky again, and once more they would push on after it, pursuing that bird toward the horizon as if driving it with a whip. Whenever the bird wheeled and flew downwind, they’d quarter away from it, then get a mile or so downwind from it and push it back north.
When the quail finally became too exhausted to fly, Ann would pick it up from beneath the dogs’ noses as they held point staunchly, put the tired bird in her game bag, and replace it with a fresh one, and off they’d go again. They carried their lunch in Gray Owl’s daypack, as well as emergency supplies—a tent and some dry clothes—in case they should become lost, and around noon each day (they could rarely see the sun, only an eternal ice-white haze, so that they relied instead only on their internal rhythms) they would stop and make a pot of tea on the sputtering little gas stove. Sometimes one or two of the quail would die from exposure, and they would cook that on the stove and eat it out there in the tundra, tossing the feathers up into the wind as if to launch one more flight, and feeding the head, guts, and feet to the dogs.
Seen from above, their tracks might have seemed aimless and wandering rather than with the purpose, the focus that was burning hot in both their and the dogs’ hearts. Perhaps someone viewing the tracks could have discerned the pattern, or perhaps not, but it did not matter, for their tracks—the patterns, direction, and tracing of them—were obscured by the drifting snow, sometimes within minutes after they were laid down.
Toward the end of the week, Ann said, they were finally running all six dogs at once, like a herd of silent wild horses through all that snow, and as she would be going home the next day there was no need to conserve any of the birds she had brought, and she was turning them loose several at a time: birds flying in all directions; the dogs, as ever, tracking them to the ends of the earth.
It was almost a whiteout that last day, and it was hard to keep track of all the dogs. Ann was sweating from the exertion as well as the tension of trying to keep an eye on, and evaluate, each dog, and the sweat was freezing on her as if she were developing an ice skin. She jokingly told Gray Owl that next time she was going to try to find a client who lived in Arizona, or even South America. Gray Owl smiled and then told her that they were lost, but no matter, the storm would clear in a day or two.
They knew it was getting near dusk—there was a faint dulling to the sheer whiteness, a kind of increasing heaviness in the air, a new density to the faint light around them—and the dogs slipped in and out of sight, working just at the edges of their vision.
The temperature was dropping as the north wind increased—“No question about which way south is,” Gray Owl said, “so we’ll turn around and walk south for three hours, and if we don’t find a road, we’ll make camp”—and now the dogs were coming back with frozen quail held gingerly in their mouths, for once the birds were dead, the dogs were allowed to retrieve them, though the dogs must have been puzzled that there had been no shots. Ann said she fired a few rounds of the cap pistol into the air to make the dogs think she had hit those birds. Surely they believed she was a goddess.
They turned and headed south—Ann with a bag of frozen birds over her shoulder, and the dogs, knowing that the hunt was over now, once again like a team of horses in harness, though wild and prancy.
After an hour of increasing discomfort—Ann’s and Gray Owl’s hands and feet numb, and ice beginning to form on the dogs’ paws, so that the dogs were having to high-step—they came in day’s last light to the edge of a wide clearing: a terrain that was remarkable and soothing for its lack of hills. It was a frozen lake, which meant—said Gray Owl—they had drifted west (or perhaps east) by as much as ten miles.
Ann said that Gray Owl looked tired and old and guilty, as would any host who had caused his guest some unasked-for inconvenience. They knelt down and began massaging the dogs’ paws and then lit the little stove and held each dog’s foot, one at a time, over the tiny blue flame to help it thaw out.
Gray Owl walked out to the edge of the lake ice and kicked at it with his foot, hoping to find fresh water beneath for the dogs; if they ate too much snow, especially after working so hard, they’d get violent diarrhea and might then become too weak to continue home the next day, or the next, or whenever the storm quit.
Ann said that she had barely been able to see Gray Owl’s outline through the swirling snow, even though he was less than twenty yards away. He kicked once at the sheet of ice, the vast plate of it, with his heel, then disappeared below the ice.
Ann wanted to believe that she had blinked and lost sight of him, or that a gust of snow had swept past and hidden him, but it had been too fast, too total: she knew that the lake had swallowed him. She was sorry for Gray Owl, she said, and worried for his dogs—afraid they would try to follow his scent down into the icy lake and be lost as well—but what she had been most upset about, she said—to be perfectly honest—was that Gray Owl had been wearing the little daypack with the tent and emergency rations. She had it in her mind to try to save Gray Owl, and to try to keep the dogs from going through the ice, but if he drowned, she was going to have to figure out how to try to get that daypack off of the drowned man and set up the wet tent in the blizzard on the snowy prairie and then crawl inside and survive. She would have to go into the water naked, so that when she came back out—if she came back out—she would have dry clothes to put on.
The dogs came galloping up, seeming as large as deer or elk in that dim landscape against which there was nothing else to give the viewer a perspective, and Ann whoaed them right at the lake’s edge, where they stopped immediately, as if they had suddenly been cast with a sheet of ice.
Ann knew the dogs would stay there forever, or until she released them, and it troubled her to think that if she drowned, they too would die—that they would stand there motionless, as she had commanded them, for as long as they could, until at some point—days later, perhaps—they would lie down, trembling with exhaustion—they might lick at some snow, for moisture—but that then the snows would cover them, and still they would remain there, chins resting on their front paws, staring straight ahead and unseeing into the storm, wondering where the scent of her had gone.
Ann eased out onto the ice. She followed the tracks until she came to the jagged hole in the ice through which Gray Owl had plunged. She was almost half again lighter than he, but she could feel the ice crackling beneath her own feet. It sounded different, too, in a way she could not place—it did not have the squeaky, percussive resonance of the lake-ice back home—and she wondered if Canadian ice froze differently or just sounded different.
She got down on all fours and crept closer to the hole. It was right at dusk. She peered down into the hole and dimly saw Gray Owl standing down there, waving his arms at her. He did not appear to be swimming. Slowly, she took one glove off and eased her bare hand down into the hole. She could find no water, and, tentatively, she reached deeper.
Gray Owl’s hand found hers and he pulled her down in. Ice broke as she fell, but he caught her in his arms. She could smell the wood smoke in his jacket from the alder he burned in his cabin. There was no water at all, and it was warm beneath the ice.
“This happens a lot more than people realize,” he said. “It’s not really a phenomenon; it’s just what happens. A cold snap comes in October, freezes a skin of ice over the lake—it’s got to be a shallow one, almost a marsh. Then a snowfall comes, insulating the ice. The lake drains in fall and winter—percolates down through the soil”—he stamped the spongy ground beneath them—“but the ice up top remains. And nobody ever knows any different. People look out at the surface and think, Aha, a frozen lake.” Gray Owl laughed.
“Did you know it would be like this?” Ann asked.
“No,” he said. “I was looking for water. I just got lucky.” Ann walked back to shore beneath the ice to fetch her stove and to release the dogs from their whoa command. The dry lake was only about eight feet deep, but it grew shallow quickly closer to shore, so that Ann had to crouch to keep from bumping her head on the overhead ice, and then crawl; and then there was only space to wriggle, and to emerge she had to break the ice above her by bumping and then battering it with her head and elbows, struggling like some embryonic hatchling; and when she stood up, waist-deep amid sparkling shards of ice—it was nighttime now—the dogs barked ferociously at her, but they remained where she had ordered them. She was surprised at how far off course she was when she climbed out; she had traveled only twenty feet, but already the dogs were twice that far away from her. She knew humans had a poorly evolved, almost nonexistent sense of direction, but this error—over such a short distance—shocked her. It was as if there were in us a thing—an impulse, a catalyst—that denies our ever going straight to another thing. Like dogs working left and right into the wind, she thought, before converging on the scent.
Except that the dogs would not get lost, while she could easily imagine herself and Gray Owl getting lost beneath the lake, walking in circles forever, unable to find even the simplest of things: the shore.
She gathered the stove and dogs. She was tempted to try to go back in the way she had come out—it seemed so easy—but she considered the consequences of getting lost in the other direction, and instead followed her original tracks out to where Gray Owl had first dropped through the ice. It was true night now, and the blizzard was still blowing hard, plastering snow and ice around her face like a mask. The dogs did not want to go down into the hole, so she lowered them to Gray Owl and then climbed gratefully back down into the warmth herself.
The air was a thing of its own—recognizable as air, and breathable as such, but with a taste and odor, an essence, unlike any other air they’d ever breathed. It had a different density to it, so that smaller, shallower breaths were required; there was very much the feeling that if they breathed in too much of the strange, dense air, they would drown.
They wanted to explore the lake, and were thirsty, but it felt like a victory simply to be warm—or rather, not cold—and they were so exhausted that instead they made pallets out of the dead marsh grass that rustled around their ankles, and they slept curled up on the tiniest of hammocks, to keep from getting damp in the pockets and puddles of water that still lingered here and there.
All eight of them slept as if in a nest, heads and arms draped across other ribs and hips; and it was, said Ann, the best and deepest sleep she’d ever had—the sleep of hounds, the sleep of childhood. How long they slept, she never knew, for she wasn’t sure, later, how much of their subsequent time they spent wandering beneath the lake, and then up on the prairie, homeward again, but when they awoke, it was still night, or night once more, and clearing, with bright stars visible through the porthole, their point of embarkation; and even from beneath the ice, in certain places where, for whatever reasons—temperature, oxygen content, wind scour—the ice was clear rather than glazed, they could see the spangling of stars, though more dimly; and strangely, rather than seeming to distance them from the stars, this phenomenon seemed to pull them closer, as if they were up in the stars, traveling the Milky Way, or as if the stars were embedded in the ice.
It was very cold outside—up above—and there was a steady stream, a current like a river, of the night’s colder, heavier air plunging down though their porthole—as if trying to fill the empty lake with that frozen air—but there was also the hot muck of the earth’s massive respirations breathing out warmth and being trapped and protected beneath that ice, so that there were warm currents doing battle with the lone cold current.
The result was that it was breezy down there, and the dogs’ noses twitched in their sleep as the images brought by these scents painted themselves across their sleeping brains in the language we call dreams but which, for the dogs, was reality: the scent of an owl real, not a dream; the scent of bear, cattail, willow, loon, real, even though they were sleeping, and even though those things were not visible, only over the next horizon.
The ice was contracting, groaning and cracking and squeaking up tighter, shrinking beneath the great cold—a concussive, grinding sound, as if giants were walking across the ice above—and it was this sound that awakened them. They snuggled in warmer among the rattly dried yellowing grasses and listened to the tremendous clashings, as if they were safe beneath the sea and were watching waves of starlight sweeping across their hiding place; or as if they were in some place, some position, where they could watch mountains being born.
After a while the moon came up and washed out the stars. The light was blue and silver and seemed, Ann said, to be like a living thing. It filled the sheet of ice just above their heads with a shimmering cobalt light, which again rippled as if the ice were moving, rather than the earth itself, with the moon tracking it—and like deer drawn by gravity getting up in the night to feed for an hour or so before settling back in, Gray Owl and Ann and the dogs rose from their nests of straw and began to travel.
“You didn’t—you know—engage?” Susan asks, a little mischievously.
Ann shakes her head. “It was too cold,” she says.
“But you would have, if it hadn’t been so cold, right?” Susan asks, and Ann shrugs.
“He was an old man—in his fifties—he seemed old to me then, and the dogs were around. But yeah, there was something about it that made me think of . . . those things,” she says, careful and precise as ever.
They walked a long way, Ann continues, eager to change the subject. The air was damp down there, and whenever they’d get chilled, they’d stop and make a little fire out of a bundle of dry cattails. There were little pockets and puddles of swamp gas pooled in place, and sometimes a spark from the cattails would ignite one of those, and those little pockets of gas would light up like when you toss gas on a fire—explosions of brilliance, like flashbulbs, marsh pockets igniting like falling dominoes, or like children playing hopscotch—until a large enough flash-pocket was reached—sometimes thirty or forty yards away—that the puff of flame would blow a chimney-hole through the ice, venting the other pockets, and the fires would crackle out, the scent of grass smoke sweet in their lungs, and they could feel gusts of warmth from the little flickering fires, and currents of the colder, heavier air sliding down through the new vent-holes and pooling around their ankles. The moonlight would strafe down through those rents in the ice, and shards of moon- ice would be glittering and spinning like diamond-motes in those newly vented columns of moonlight; and they pushed on, still lost, but so alive.
The small explosions were fun, but they frightened the dogs, so Ann and Gray Owl lit twisted bundles of cattails and used them for torches to light their way, rather than building warming fires, though occasionally they would still pass though a pocket of methane and a stray ember would fall from their torches, and the whole chain of fire and light would begin again, culminating once more with a vent-hole being blown open and shards of glittering ice tumbling down into their lair . . .
What would it have looked like, seen from above—the orange blurrings of their wandering trail beneath the ice; and what would the sheet of lake-ice itself have looked like that night—throbbing with ice-bound, subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire? But again, there was no one to view the spectacle: only the travelers themselves, and they had no perspective, no vantage from which to view or judge themselves. They were simply pushing on from one fire to the next, carrying their tiny torches.
They knew they were getting near a shore—the southern shore, they hoped, as they followed the glazed moon’s lure above—when the dogs began to encounter shore birds that had somehow found their way beneath the ice through small fissures and rifts and were taking refuge in the cattails. Small winter birds—juncos, nuthatches, chickadees—skittered away from the smoky approach of their torches; only a few latemigrating (or winter-trapped) snipe held tight and steadfast; and the dogs began to race ahead of Gray Owl and Ann, working these familiar scents—blue and silver ghost- shadows of dog muscle weaving ahead through slants of moonlight.
The dogs emitted the odor of adrenaline when they worked, Ann said—a scent like damp, fresh-cut green hay—and with nowhere to vent, the odor was dense and thick around them, so that Ann wondered if it too might be flammable, like the methane—if in the dogs’ passions they might literally immolate themselves.
They followed the dogs closely with their torches. The ceiling was low—about eight feet—so that the tips of their torches’ flames seared the ice above them, leaving a drip behind them and transforming the milky, almost opaque cobalt and orange ice behind them, wherever they passed, into wandering ribbons of clear ice, translucent to the sky—a script of flame, or buried flame, ice- bound flame—and they hurried to keep up with the dogs.
Now the dogs had the snipe surrounded, as Ann told it, and one by one the dogs went on point, each dog freezing as it pointed to the birds’ hiding places, and Gray Owl moved in to flush the birds, which launched themselves with vigor against the roof of the ice above, fluttering like bats; but the snipe were too small, not powerful enough to break through those frozen four inches of water (though they could fly four thousand miles to South America each year and then back to Canada six months later—is freedom a lateral component, or a vertical one?), and as Gray Owl kicked at the clumps of frost-bent cattails where the snipe were hiding and they burst into flight, only to hit their heads on the ice above them, they came tumbling back down, raining limp and unconscious back to their soft grassy nests.
The dogs began retrieving them, carrying them gingerly, delicately—not caring for the taste of snipe, which ate only earthworms—and Ann and Gray Owl gathered the tiny birds from the dogs, placed them in their pockets, and continued on to the shore, chasing that moon, the ceiling lowering to six feet, then four, then to a crawlspace, and after they had bashed their way out and stepped back out into the frigid air, they tucked the still-unconscious snipe into little crooks in branches, up against the trunks of trees and off the ground, out of harm’s way, and passed on, south—as if late in their own migration—while the snipe rested, warm and terrified and heart-.uttering, but saved, for now, against the trunks of those trees.
Long after Ann and Gray Owl and the pack of dogs had passed through, the birds would awaken, their bright, dark eyes luminous in the moonlight, and the first sight they would see would be the frozen marsh before them, with its chain of still-steaming vent-holes stretching back across all the way to the other shore. Perhaps these were birds that had been unable to migrate owing to injuries, or some genetic absence. Perhaps they had tried to migrate in the past but had found either their winter habitat destroyed or the path so fragmented and fraught with danger that it made more sense—to these few birds—to ignore the tuggings of the stars and seasons and instead to try to carve out new lives, new ways of being, even in such a stark and severe landscape: or rather, in a stark and severe period—knowing that lushness and bounty were still retained with that landscape, that it was only a phase, that better days would come. That in fact (the snipe knowing these things with their blood, ten million years in the world) the austere times were the very thing, the very imbalance, that would summon the resurrection of that frozen richness within the soil—if indeed that richness, that magic, that hope, did still exist beneath the ice and snow. Spring would come like its own green fire, if only the injured ones could hold on.
And what would the snipe think or remember, upon reawakening and finding themselves still in that desolate position, desolate place and time, but still alive, and with hope?
Would it seem to them that a thing like grace had passed through, as they slept—that a slender winding river of it had passed through and rewarded them for their faith and endurance?
Believing, stubbornly, that that green land beneath them would blossom once more. Maybe not soon; but again.
If the snipe survived, they would be among the first to see it. Perhaps they believed that the pack of dogs, and Gray Owl’s and Ann’s advancing torches, had only been one of winter’s dreams. Even with the proof—the scribings—of grace’s passage before them—the vent-holes still steaming—perhaps they believed it was a dream.
Gray Owl, Ann, and the dogs headed south for half a day until they reached the snow-scoured road on which they’d parked. The road looked different, Ann said, buried beneath snowdrifts, and they didn’t know whether to turn east or west. The dogs chose west, and Gray Owl and Ann followed them. Two hours later they were back at their truck, and that night they were back at Gray Owl’s cabin; by the next night Ann was home again.
She says that even now she still sometimes has dreams about being beneath the ice—about living beneath the ice—and that it seems to her as if she was down there for much longer than a day and a night; that instead she might have been gone for years.
It was twenty years ago, when it happened. Gray Owl has since died, and all those dogs are dead now, too. She is the only one who still carries—in the flesh, at any rate—the memory of that passage.
Ann would never discuss such a thing, but I suspect that it, that one day and night, helped give her a model for what things were like for her dogs when they were hunting and when they went on point: how the world must have appeared to them when they were in that trance, that blue zone, where the odors of things wrote their images across the dogs’ hot brainpans. A zone where sight, and the appearance of things—surfaces—disappeared, and where instead their essence—the heat molecules of scent—was revealed, illuminated, circumscribed, possessed.
I suspect that she holds that knowledge—the memory of that one day and night—especially since she is now the sole possessor—as tightly, and securely, as one might clench some bright small gem in one’s fist: not a gem given to one by some favored or beloved individual but, even more valuable, some gem found while out on a walk—perhaps by happenstance, or perhaps by some unavoidable rhythm of fate—and hence containing great magic, great strength.
Such is the nature of the kinds of people living, scattered here and there, in this valley.

Copyright © 2002 by Rick Bass. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

The Hermit's Story 1
Swans 19
The Prisoners 41
The Fireman 51
The Cave 74
Presidents' Day 90
Real Town 122
Eating 135
The Distance 141
Two Deer 161
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 3 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(3)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2005

    Stories you can't forget...

    I started reading this book thinking the stories were somewhat unusual, but entertaining. With each story I read I became more involved with the book. I couldn't leave the book home, had to carry it in my purse, always. After I'd read some of the stories several times, I decided to set the book on my coffee table. It's been on the table or in my bag for a year. I can't put it away. The stories tell of places I want to be, characters I want to spend time with. The story 'Swans' is so perfectly constructed that you can taste the snow, feel the wind on your face, see your own hands crinkle with age as you read. 'Two Deer' is a story so pure I began remembering it as my own memory, confusing Rick Bass's town, with my own. This book opens up new worlds, different ways of looking at what's in front of us. I urge everyone who loves a good story to get their hands on this book. Not my copy, though. I keep it very close by.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2012

    Exceptionally beautiful writing with strong, unforgettable chara

    Exceptionally beautiful writing with strong, unforgettable characters, environment, and profound insights. Highly recommended. This book will stay on your shelf long after you read it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)