The Hunter's Wife

A short story

She was a magician's assistant, beautiful, fifteen years old, an orphan. It was not a new story: a glittery red dress, long legs, a traveling magic show performing in the meeting hall at the Central Christian Church. The hunter had been walking past with an armful of groceries when the wind stopped him in his tracks and drove him into the alley behind the church. He had never felt such wind; it had him pinned. His face was pressed against a low window, and through it he could see the show. The magician was a small man in a dirty blue cape. Above him a sagging banner read THE GREAT VESPUCCI. But the hunter watched only the girl; she was graceful, young, smiling. Like a wrestler, the wind held him against the window.

The magician was buckling the girl into a plywood coffin, which was painted garishly with red and blue bolts of lightning. Her neck and head stuck out at one end, her ankles and feet at the other. She beamed; no one had ever before smiled so broadly at being locked into a coffin. The magician started up an electric saw and brought it noisily down through the center of the box, sawing her in half. Then he wheeled her apart, her legs going one way, her torso another. Her neck fell back, her smile faded, her eyes showed only white. The lights dimmed. A child screamed. Wiggle your toes, the magician ordered, flourishing his magic wand, and she did; her disembodied toes wiggled in glittery high-heeled pumps. The audience squealed with delight.

The hunter watched her pink, fine-boned face, her hanging hair, her outstretched throat. Her eyes caught the spotlight. Was she looking at him? Did she see his face pressed against the window, the wind slashing at his neck, the groceries—onions, a sack of flour—tumbled to the ground around his feet?

She was beautiful to him in a way that nothing else had ever been beautiful. Snow blew down his collar and drifted around his boots. After some time the magician rejoined the severed box halves, unfastened the buckles, and fluttered his wand, and she was whole again. She climbed out of the box and curtsied in her glittering dress. She smiled as if it were the Resurrection itself.

Then the storm brought down a pine tree in front of the courthouse, and the power winked out, streetlight by streetlight. Before she could move, before the ushers could begin escorting the crowd out with flashlights, the hunter was slinking into the hall, making for the stage, calling for her.

He was thirty years old, twice her age. She smiled at him, leaned over from the dais in the red glow of the emergency exit lights, and shook her head. "Show's over," she said. In his pickup he trailed the magician's van through the blizzard to her next show, a library fundraiser in Butte. The next night he followed her to Missoula. He rushed to the stage after each performance. "Just eat dinner with me," he'd plead. "Just tell me your name." It was hunting by persistence. She said yes in Bozeman. Her name was plain, Mary Roberts. They had rhubarb pie in a hotel restaurant.

"I know how you do it," he said. "The feet in the box are dummies. You hold your legs against your chest and wiggle the dummy feet with a string."

She laughed. "Is that what you do? Follow a girl from town to town to tell her her magic isn't real?"

"No," he said. "I hunt."

"And when you're not hunting?"

"I dream about hunting."

She laughed again. "It's not funny," he said.

"You're right," she said, and smiled. "It's not funny. I'm that way with magic. I dream about it. Even when I'm not asleep."

He looked into his plate, thrilled. He searched for something he might say. They ate.

"But I dream bigger dreams, you know," she said afterward, after she had eaten two pieces of pie, carefully, with a spoon. Her voice was quiet and serious. "I have magic inside of me. I'm not going to get sawed in half by Tony Vespucci all my life."

"I don't doubt it," the hunter said.

"I knew you'd believe me," she said.

But the next winter Vespucci brought her back to Great Falls and sawed her in half in the same plywood coffin. And the winter after that. Both times, after the performance, the hunter took her to the Bitterroot Diner, where he watched her eat two pieces of pie. The watching was his favorite part: a hitch in her throat as she swallowed, the way the spoon slid cleanly out from her lips, the way her hair fell over her ear.

Then she was eighteen, and after pie she let him drive her to his cabin, forty miles from Great Falls, up the Missouri and then east into the Smith River valley. She brought only a small vinyl purse. The truck skidded and sheered as he steered it over the unploughed roads, fishtailing in the deep snow, but she didn't seem afraid or worried about where he might be taking her, about the possibility that the truck might sink in a drift, that she might freeze to death in her pea coat and glittery magician's-assistant dress. Her breath plumed out in front of her. It was twenty degrees below zero. Soon the roads would be snowed over, impassable until spring.

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