The Hunter's Wife

A short story

She moved into the circle and unfastened the lids of the caskets. From where he sat the hunter could not see inside. His wife's hands fluttered around her waist like birds. "Think," she said. "Think hard about something you would like resolved, some matter, gone now, in the grips of the past, which you wish you could take back—perhaps with your daughters, a moment, a lost feeling, a desperate wish."

The hunter closed his eyes. "Think now," his wife was saying, "of some wonderful moment, some fine and sunny minute you shared, your wife and daughters, all of you together." Her voice was lulling. Behind his eyelids the glow of the candles made an even orange wash. He knew her hands were reaching for whatever—whoever—lay in those caskets. Somewhere inside him he felt her extend across the room.

His wife said more about beauty and loss being the same thing, about how they ordered the world, and he felt something happening—a strange warmth, a flitting presence, something dim and unsettling, like a feather brushed across the back of his neck. Hands on both sides of him reached for his hands. Fingers locked around his fingers. He wondered if she was hypnotizing him, but it didn't matter. He had nothing to fight off or snap out of. She was inside him now; she had reached across and was poking about.

Her voice faded, and he felt himself swept up as if rising toward the ceiling. Air washed lightly in and out of his lungs; warmth pulsed in the hands that held his. In his mind he saw a sea emerging from fog. The water was broad and flat and glittered like polished metal. He could feel dune grass moving against his shins, and wind coming over his shoulders. All around him bees shuttled over the dunes. Far out a shorebird was diving for crabs. He knew that a few hundred yards away two girls were building castles in the sand; he could hear their song, soft and lilting. Their mother was with them, reclining under an umbrella, one leg bent, the other straight. She was drinking iced tea, and he could taste it in his mouth, sweet and bitter with a trace of mint. Each cell in his body seemed to breathe. He became the girls, the diving bird, the shuttling bees; he was the mother of the girls and the father; he could feel himself flowing outward, richly dissolving, paddling into the world like the very first cell into the great blue sea ...

When he opened his eyes, he saw linen curtains, women in gowns kneeling. Tears were visible on many people's cheeks—O'Brien's and the chancellor's and Bruce Maples's. His wife's head was bowed. The hunter gently released the hands that held his, stood, and walked out into the kitchen, past the sudsy sinks, the stacks of dishes. He let himself out a side door and found himself on the wooden deck that ran the length of the house, a couple of inches of snow already settled on it.

He felt drawn toward the pond, the birdbath, the hedges. He walked to the pond and stood at its rim. The snow fell steadily, and the undersides of the clouds glowed with reflected light from the city.

Before long his wife stepped onto the deck and came down to join him. There were things he had been preparing to say: something about a final belief, an expression of gratitude for providing a reason to leave the valley, if only for a night. He wanted to tell her that although the wolves were gone, may always have been gone, they still came to him in dreams. That they could run there, fierce and unfettered, was surely enough. She would understand. She had understood long before he did.

But he was afraid to speak. He could see that speaking would be like dashing some very fragile bond to pieces, like kicking a dandelion gone to seed; the wispy, tenuous sphere of its body would scatter in the wind. So instead they stood together, the snow fluttering down from the clouds to melt into the water, where their reflected images trembled like two people trapped against the glass of a parallel world, and he reached, finally, to take her hand.

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