The Hunter's Wife

A short story

She regained her health, took on energy, no longer lay under furs dreaming all day. She was out of bed before he was, brewing coffee, her nose already between pages. With a steady diet of meat and vegetables her body bloomed, her hair shone, her eyes and cheeks glowed. How beautiful she seemed to him in those few hours he was home. After supper he would watch her read in the firelight, blackbird feathers tied all through her hair, a heron's beak hanging between her breasts.

In November he took a Sunday off and they cross-country skied. They came across a bull elk frozen to death in a draw. Ravens shrieked at them as they skied to it. She knelt and put her palm on the leathered skull. "There," she moaned. "I feel him."

"What do you feel?" he asked, standing behind her. "What is it?"

She stood, trembling. "I feel his life flowing out," she said. "I see where he goes, what he sees."

"But that's impossible," he said. "It's like saying you know what I dream."

"I do," she said. "You dream about wolves."

"But that elk's been dead at least a day. It doesn't go anywhere. It goes into the crops of those ravens."

How could she tell him? How could she ask him to understand such a thing? How could anyone understand? More clearly than ever she could see that there was a fine line between dreams and wakefulness, between living and dying, a line so tenuous it sometimes didn't exist. It was always clearest for her in winter. In winter, in that valley, life and death were not so different. The heart of a hibernating newt was frozen solid, but she could warm and wake it in her palm. For the newt there was no line at all, no fence, no River Styx, only an area between living and dying, like a snowfield between two lakes: a place where dreams and wakefulness met, where death was only a possibility and visions rose shimmering to the stars like smoke. All that was needed was a hand, the heat of a palm, the touch of fingers.

That February the sun shone during the days and ice formed at night—slick sheets glazing the wheat fields, the roofs and roads. One day he dropped her off at the library, the chains on the tires rattling as he pulled away, heading back up the Missouri toward Fort Benton.

Around noon Marlin Spokes, a snowplough driver the hunter knew from grade school, slid off the Sun River Bridge in his plough and dropped forty feet into the river. He was dead before they could get him out of the truck. She was reading in the library, a block away, and heard the plough crash into the riverbed like a thousand dropped girders. When she got to the bridge, sprinting in her jeans and T-shirt, men were already in the water—a telephone man from Helena, a jeweler, a butcher in his apron, all of them had scrambled down the banks and were wading in the rapids, prying the door open. The men lifted Marlin from the cab, stumbling as they carried him. Steam rose from their shoulders and from the crushed hood of the plough. She careened down the snow-covered slope and splashed to them. Her hand on the jeweler's arm, her leg against the butcher's leg, she reached for Marlin's ankle.

When her finger touched Marlin's body, her eyes rolled back and a single vision leaped to her: Marlin Spokes pedaling a bicycle, a child's seat mounted over the rear tire with a helmeted boy—Marlin's own son—strapped into it. Spangles of light drifted over the riders as they rolled down a lane beneath giant, sprawling maples. The boy reached for Marlin's hair with one small fist. In the glass of a storefront window their reflection flashed past. Fallen leaves turned over in their wake. This quiet vision—like a ribbon of rich silk—ran out slowly and fluidly, with great power, and she shook beneath it. It was she who pedaled the bike. The boy's fingers pulled through her hair.

The men who were touching her or touching Marlin saw what she saw, felt what she felt. At first they spoke of it only in their basements, at night, but Great Falls was not a big town, and this was not something one could keep locked in a basement. Soon they discussed it everywhere—in the supermarket, at the gasoline pumps. People who didn't know Marlin Spokes or his son or the hunter's wife or any of the men in the river that morning soon spoke of the event like experts. "All you had to do was touch her," a barber said, "and you saw it too." "The most beautiful lane you've ever dreamed," a deli owner raved. "You didn't just pedal his son around," movie ushers whispered, "you loved him."

He could have heard anywhere. In the cabin he built up the fire, flipped idly through a stack of her books. He couldn't understand them—one of them wasn't even in English.

After dinner she took the plates to the sink.

"You read Spanish now?" he asked.

Her hands in the sink stilled. "It's Portuguese," she said. "I understand only a little."

He turned his fork in his hands. "Were you there when Marlin Spokes was killed?"

"I helped pull him out of the truck. I don't think I was much good."

He looked at the back of her head. He felt like driving his fork through the table. "What tricks did you play? Did you hypnotize people?"

Her shoulders tightened. Her voice came out furious. "Why can't you—" she began, but her voice fell off. "It wasn't tricks," she muttered. "I helped carry him."

When she started to get phone calls, he hung up on the callers. But they were relentless: a grieving widow, an orphan's lawyer, a reporter from the Great Falls Tribune. A blubbering father drove all the way to the cabin to beg her to come to the funeral parlor, and finally she went. The hunter insisted on driving her. It wasn't right, he declared, for her to go alone. He waited in the truck in the parking lot, engine rattling, radio moaning.

"I feel so alive," she said afterward, as he helped her into the cab. Her clothes were soaked through with sweat. "Like my blood is fizzing through my body." At home she lay awake, far away, all night.

She got called back and called back, and each time he drove her. He would take her after a whole day of duck hunting and pass out from exhaustion while he waited in the truck. When he woke, she would be beside him, holding his hand, her hair damp, her eyes wild. "You dreamt you were with the wolves and eating salmon," she said. "They were washed up and dying on the shoals."

He drove them home over the dark fields. He tried to soften his voice. "What do you do in there? What really?"

"I give them solace. I let them say good-bye to their loved ones. I help them know something they'd never otherwise know."

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