Anna and her husband John, a master saddlemaker, have created a quiet existence for themselves in rural Vermont. When John disappears in the woods near their home, Anna hides what she finds there in a desperate effort to ensure her own survival. She must learn to live alone in a landscape where poachers trespass, coyotes roam, bears menace livestock, and winter starves the wild animals—while debilitating illness and long–buried secrets threaten to upturn her life.
CHERA HAMMONS holds an MFA from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, and serves as writer–in–residence at West Texas A&M University. The author of four books of poetry, including Maps of Injury and the 2017 Southwest Book Award winner The Traveler's Guide to Bomb City, she lives near Amarillo, Texas, with her husband, three cats, a dog, a rabbit, a donkey, and five horses.
|Publisher:||Torrey House Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)|
About the Author
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The first thing John said when he came inside was that that he had seen blood in the new snow.
"Blood?" Anna mused over her coffee, not awake enough yet to feel alarm.
"Yes, beside the driveway," he said. He hit the newspaper against his leg to get the ice off of the orange plastic wrapper. It was a habit Anna hated because it left cold, clear pools on the kitchen tile that seeped even through her thick winter socks. "Just a few drops, not a lot. Still…"
Anna could picture the blood, how stark it must look against the crystallized white, like rubies loosened from a ring and fallen into a white fur pelt. "Where could it have come from?"
"A deer, I think," John said. "There were tracks going off into the trees."
"Oh," Anna said. "Again?"
"It looks like it," John said. "They didn't get a clean kill this time." He sat in one of the worn oak chairs and unfolded the paper. "I'll take Charlie out later and try to find it."
"Why? What good will it do?" She knew, of course, but she wanted it to be spoken.
"Well." He cleared his throat. "It might be suffering."
She nodded. They both knew they couldn't allow anything to die slowly in the cold, bleeding to death. Not on their land. They were decent people.
She asked, as she had the last time, "Should we call the game warden?"
He looked at her over the paper for a moment, thinking. "Let's wait," he said. "I want to make sure there's a good reason first." They were, after all, used to keeping their own counsel. Neither of them had any interest in hunting or knew anything of hunting laws, though they had read stories about these subjects in the Gazette and knew generally when hunting season fell. Anna didn't even know how to find the number for a game warden if she needed to call one. She assumed John would know, though he had never called one, either.
They ate in easy silence. Anna picked at her eggs, sipped her coffee, and watched John read his paper. Every once in a while he frowned, and she knew he was probably reading bad news, obituaries, politics, crime, fracking, reports of invasive species that would kill the trees. That's all the paper ever had in it besides births and weddings.
She tried not to think of the blood. It was nice to watch John without his noticing. She studied his eyes, the pleasing wrinkles at their sides that meant that he had laughed a lot. Nearly everything he did possessed an air of benign absentmindedness that had only increased over time. He tapped his foot as he read. Anna could tell from the squeak that he had forgotten to take off his boots again, and she knew that the snow would be melting onto the kitchen floor in dirty rings. She sighed. Still, staying annoyed with him was hard; he was easygoing, and he tended to take good care of her.
She stood and began to do the dishes while he finished the paper. The window over the sink let chilly air seep in that made the metal faucet handle cold. The taps sputtered at first. As she waited for the water to run hot, she looked at the naked maples and tall thin evergreens at the edge of the yard. The snow had clumped on the needles, making them droop. The trees looked heavy, gray, depressed.
It was still only the middle of autumn, and it had been harder than most. She knew the ground would be white and blank for months yet. The floor under her feet leeched cold, making her heels ache. She was glad there wasn't much to wash. The soap bubbles burst in the sink in tiny rainbows. The almost–translucent, spotted skin on her hands turned pink. The blue veins at the tops spread like roots.
As she dried her hands and slid her wedding ring back on, John stood and stretched, yawning wide and slow like a bear. "Well," he said.
"Are you going out now?" Anna asked.
"I guess I'd better," he said. "Who knows how far it might have gone." He kissed her on the cheek.
"Old Charlie hasn't thrown me yet," he said.
She stood at the kitchen counter and listened to him rummage in the hall closet for the rifle. The rifle was only a secondhand .22 they'd purchased years ago, when they'd first bought the property, but it would do well enough at close range. They both hated the gun and knew nothing of killing except that it should be both careful and quick. They had originally been driven to buy it for protection of their livestock from wildlife and dogs, and it came out only in emergencies.
That meant that Anna had never used the rifle, and had seen John shoot it exactly three times. Once, at a tree trunk to warn off a couple of coyotes that had been prowling near the chicken pen. Once to put down the Hansons' gelding when it had gotten loose and was struck by a car. She could still hear the horse screaming when she remembered; she had called their own vet to ask where in the forehead to shoot it for a clean kill, shaking so badly that she had misdialed several times. And once to kill a dog with distemper that someone had dumped off near their house.
If you lived out of town, you had to get used to some killing. That was the way of things, she knew. But that didn't mean you had to like it.
Anna was sorry that John needed to take the rifle with him. She knew that he was trying not to seem bothered by it. "Take your cell phone," she said. "I'll be in the tub for awhile, but I can help you after I get dressed if you need it."
But she was still at the kitchen window watching twenty minutes later when he finally led the ageing mule, Charlie, out of the barn and towards the woods. The mule was, as always, beautifully rigged with one of John's handmade saddles. John specialized in custom orders, hard–to–fit horses, the short backed Quarter horse sore from trees that bridged, the wide table back of a paint with no withers, the large flat shoulders of a Tennessee Walker, the slab–sides of mammoth donkeys. John sometimes had Anna help him with the leather tooling when orders piled up in the spring. To her, it felt clumsy, unnatural, knocking the stamp into the unyielding hide, and the leather sewing machine with its noise and strength frightened her, made her hold her breath while her heart pounded. She sometimes found herself in awe of John, who was comfortable around such industry.
She watched him check his girth and swing up on Charlie's back. The mule's ears flicked back and forth, listening. John patted the mule and spoke to him, then reached back to check the rifle in the scabbard. Charlie looked thick and warm in his winter coat. She saw John kiss the air, their signal to the mule to go ahead. It was strange to see the expression from far away without sound. Charlie tucked his nose and strode forward, and they were soon lost in the horizon of slim trunks. Anna knew, without remembering how, that at least one out of every ten of the trees in Vermont forests stood tall even though the tree was actually dead, though it was harder to spot the dead ones in winter. Going into the woods was always a little like walking among ghosts. She pictured not only the spirits of trees, but caribou, mastodons. Lives that had passed through the land before hers and would never come back.
As she waited for her bath to run, Anna thought of all she ought to do that day. She kept a list stuck with a magnet to the fridge, ticking chores off as she went, but today was a good day, and she could remember much of what it contained. The barn needed to be mucked out, more hay dropped from the loft, the chickens fed and watered. The cold often made these tasks seem impossible. There were some bills to pay, and the house, of course, could always stand a cleaning. She watched the Epsom salts swirl and vanish in the steaming water as it roared from the faucet.
She tested it first with her foot, then stood in the tub, acclimating herself to the heat. She knew she ran it hotter than she was supposed to. It turned her skin red, and sometimes it hurt. The hotter it started out, though, the longer she could stay in, weightless and untethered to her unwieldy body. She held onto the sides of the tub and lowered herself inch by inch. As she sat, she could feel her joints loosen, relax, and the pain soon seemed to float around her, no longer a part of her, but a part of the water. The ache hovered around her wrists, hips, fingers, and knees in filmy clouds. She closed her eyes.
When the cold finally started to spill into the bath, too, Anna pulled herself up and wrapped herself in a towel. She dressed in faded jeans and a sweater that was too big for her. Her once–brown hair, she pulled into a tight ponytail. Older women, she knew, were supposed to keep short hair, but she was used to the low–maintenance collarbone–length style and couldn't bring herself to cut it.
She didn't like growing older, though she didn't try to fight it; there wouldn't have been any point. Appraising herself in the mirror, she tried to judge her reflection as a stranger might, but she didn't make herself look at her wrinkles, the sagging lines of her neck; she looked instead at the dark brown eyes, which she thought still had some of the depth and sparkle they'd had when she was a girl. She rubbed moisturizer into her skin, enjoying the feeling of softness and luxury that came from it. She didn't bother with makeup anymore.
There had been no missed calls. She knew that John likely didn't have a signal, which was spotty even on the best days so close to the ranges. The Green Mountains and White Mountains together were like two hands cradling the Kingdom between them, isolating the region from the land around it, making it colder and lonelier, but also protecting it—giving it a history all its own. Its inaccessibility had become part of what she liked about it. She texted John so that he'd have a message to respond to when he could: "Is everything okay? Find the deer?"
She found it hard to stay motivated when John was gone; with so much to do, she didn't know where to start. He always had a way of streamlining tasks and making them seem easier. Without him, she too easily fell into the trap of resting through the moods of the arthritis.
She decided to go into the barn first and throw more hay down for the week. They were on track so far this year, still only about fifteen percent of the way through their winter supply, which they'd bought over the brief summer at a low price and stored in the loft. The sweet bright smell of it usually soothed her, reminded her of the soft green breezes of an easier season. She sometimes thought of lying in it and dreaming the way she did when she was young, but she knew how it would prickle through her clothing and leave welts on her skin.
She plunged through the deep snow into the warm cloud of her breath, the barn tipping up and down in front of her as she tried to step into the footprints John had left that morning, struggling to match his wider, straighter stride. The snow and the white–veiled trees muffled every sound, the bright summer birds had long since moved south, the animals all huddled somewhere in burrows; against the silence of the hibernating forest, her breath seemed loud and uneven.
When she opened the barn door, dust motes swirled and rose, but they soon settled and hovered in the cold light that came in through the planks. Her short, gentle Icelandic horse, their only riding animal now besides the mule, whickered and bumped its head against its stall door as if asking her to open it. The only other inhabitant of the barn was the border collie that stretched from its bed and padded up to her, tail wagging in slow arcs.
She patted the horse and spoke to it for awhile in low, singsong tones. It had been cribbing on the edge of the stall door; the wood there was splintered and pale. A quick–natured horse, it had difficulty staying inside all winter. She checked its hay and water. She needed to take it out for a ride, give it some exercise. She mentally added that to the list.
The dog whined when she began to climb up the ladder to the hayloft. She looked down at the pale wolfish eyes and tried to reassure it. "Good girl," she soothed. "Good girl. I won't be long."
The dog never whined when John climbed the ladder, as if it, too, viewed him as the stronger member of the house and her as the weaker. In the same way, the house cat never left its toys in her shoes, only John's. She wondered how they knew, what it was about her that they read as submissive, as lesser.
Anna took the smooth tan cowhide gloves off of the hook at the top of the ladder and put them on. The fingers, too big for her, held bits of hay that had broken off and fallen to the tips to lodge in the stitching. They pricked her as she opened and closed her hands. She tossed the hay down in the easy rhythm she'd learned long ago, swinging it by the baling twine to get momentum and letting go at the top of the swing to throw it over the edge. She threw down three before a hitch in her hip nearly knocked her over. She leaned over a bale, breathless, holding her hip and trying not to look down. The dog whined and she knew she should leave the loft while she still could, in case the hip locked up. She hadn't done as much as she'd intended, but it was something.
The dog circled the ladder as she came back down, and when she had stepped off the ladder and let go of it, the dog bumped her legs, sniffing. She petted it to calm it down, holding its head to look into the sharp, intelligent face and rubbing its warm ears. When she closed the barn door, she could hear it barking after her in staccato yelps.
She checked her phone where it charged in the kitchen; still no messages. She knew John hadn't packed a lunch. It was 11:38. Maybe he was nearly back home. Or maybe the wounded deer had gone farther than he had guessed. Perhaps it was really okay and he wouldn't find it at all. He would get to a place where the snow showed that the bleeding had stopped and the deer had run off, tracks wide apart and blurred with speed, indicating the deer had disappeared into the wilderness, as it was meant to do. The rifle would hang cold and still in its scabbard, unnecessary weight. And John would turn around.
Anna ate canned tomato soup and watched the local news. Cold, cold, and more cold. More snow. It never changed here. Winters were always the same. Each winter ran into the next in her memory, a dashed line of frozen pipes and raw throats and the smell of space heaters burning off their dust. Even in spring and summer, the sun rarely broke through.
She put her bowl in the sink and ran water into it. She didn't bother to wait for it to get hot before she washed the bowl. She scrubbed the red line on the side until it had disappeared, then rinsed it and set it on the drying rack.
When she looked up, movement at the edge of the window caught her eye.
It was Charlie, pawing desperately in the snow in front of the barn. As she watched, he raised his head and called with his strange sound, the noise somewhere between a whinny and a bray. He took a step and tripped, and she saw that his leg was between the reins, which were dragging on the ground. She noticed the white froth of sweat like foam along his neck.
Then she realized he was riderless.