Wildlife

Wildlife

Wildlife 1920 1547 Aidan O'Brien

Lucy carves chocolate icing over a bûche de Noël. She’s in the dining room, working at the table. The lace tablecloth describes rosebuds and blooming lilies. The widely spaced white stitches could be interlocking thorns. Miniature model pine trees for decorating liein their packaging, waiting to be popped loose. With a butter knife she spreads the icing into juts and scars meant to resemble bark. Beneath the frosting, her cake is a chocolate sponge rolled up like an intestine and padded with buttermilk whipped cream. The wind scrapes past her parents’ Vermont home, tossing up white powder that capers over the road, twisting and spilling, flirting with the pavement. She’d like to see a bear. Instead, a low pickup full of bearded hunters scuttles past, two men up front and the rest in back, sitting on yellow coolers on the truck bed and bracing against the turns.

Once, as achild, she’d gone into the back yard to find a long banner of blood, feathers, and clots of flesh, but no body. “Some raptor attacked a deer or something,” her Dad had diagnosed. “Death from above.” He’d waggled his fingers and raised his eyebrows for effect. A few feathers had drifted past, sticking tip-first into snowdrifts or skittering down the driveway. “Killed on impact,” her Dad had said. “Wild stuff. Watch that you don’t get carried off as well.”

Her husband bustles about the kitchen, slamming cabinets and fussing through spice racks. He’s baking scones. It’s just the two of them in the house. His name is Dr. Warren Cheever. “No relation to the writer,” he always says, to which his patients usually reply, “Who?” He specializes in drawing out, like poison from a snakebite, the buried memories that subconsciously torture his sexually defunct patients, something he accomplishes while leaning back in his leather swivel chair and gazing up at his office’s popcorn ceiling. He owns an unused pipe with a ship’s bow and forepeak carved into its turquoise-toned stone bowl. When speaking, he crosses his legs, uncrosses them, and crosses them back the other way. Lucy’s husband and father love talking trauma. “Tell me about the people you’re helping,” says her Dad. “I’ve got this one woman,” says Warren, with a wait till you hear this grin. He listens to Rachmaninoff on his way home from work, and she can hear it when he calls her from the freeway to ask about dinner. Is it ready? Do they have that dressing he likes? What kind of greens did she buy for the side salad? Oh boy, does he hate kale. It’s the warped way the leaves look, the ugly fluffy edges. She suspects he has a buried fear of yonic structures. He hates the fleshy seams of deep-sea clams and Georgia O’Keefe paintings. They make love in total darkness. Billowing curtains upset him.

Her parents’ home is loosely themed. Each room contains between four and eleven porcelain or pewter animal statues that collect dust in their ears or on their underbellies.

Her parents love Warren. They think he’s quite the guy. They tell her that she’s lucky to have someone like him who can help her, in her father’s words, “Discover herself.”

“You must get free sessions all the time,” jokes Dad. “I bet he can tell you all the ways we messed up.”

She leaves the cake on the table and wraps herself in a shawl, making her way to the screened-inporch that juts from the rear of the house. Through the trees to her left and right she can see patches of grey-blue panel siding: the neighbors’ homes. Ahead are the woods. Four orange safety vests with reflective patches on their chests hang on a hook by the screen door. A digital camera sits on a porch swing to her left and she picks it up and turns it on. She peers through the viewfinder, into the woods. For a moment, she thinks she sees movement. She slings a vest on and stomps out, beyond the tree line, her boots untied and loose on her feet. She steps in adeep drift and snowfalls in between her khaki pant leg and the footwear’s rubber lip, shocking her where it packs against her bare ankle. Branches flick behind her where she bends them back to pass. The snow hides an inch-deep layer of dead leaves.

She begins to play a hiking game with herself, something her mother used to play with her when they climbed Mt. Monadnock, an alphabet game. “The Addams Family,” she says, “Barton Fink, Casablanca,” and by F (“Fatal Instinct”), the home behind her is out of sight. Coming to the road, she trots along it.

Her mother worked for many years as a wildlife photographer documenting large furry mammal females and their adorable mammal babies as they bumbled through tundra and mountains. “Sometimes,” her mother told her when she was five, “male bears kill a mother’s children so that they can mate with her. This is common practice in the animal kingdom. Run of the mill. Snow leopards do this as well.” She’d been given her own camera when she turned thirteen, a boxy Polaroid that dispersed images though a deadpan slit, and she’d wandered through the forest snapping pictures of lichen and chewing on birch twigs. She would swear at chattering squirrels and run dirt-packed nails along the soft gills on the undersides of mushrooms.

When Warren calls Lucy’s name from the kitchen and she doesn’t answer, he goes searching for her. He gets to the screened-in porch and sees her footsteps in the yard. He strangles bootlaces about his ankles. Typical, he thinks. He doesn’t merely follow her footsteps but actually walks in them, trying to get the treads of his boots to line up with her indentations. When he comes to the road he has to look around for clues, for anything to show which way she went. Twenty feet left from where he emerges he finds the tip of a boot-print impacted into gray slush and he feels like an old-timey hunter-trapper type in search of prey. While driving home from work, he likes to call Lucy and tell her he’s hit traffic and then pull over and massage his feet, contorting themonto his lap.

Up ahead, out of view, Lucy says, “North by Northwest.”

A dirt lane diverges from the road and she follows it until she comes to a dead end, a circular clearing that’s wide and barren and empty like a place for witchcraft. The pickup truck she saw earlier is parked opposite, cold and unoccupied except for a few diamond-patterned plastic crates, coolers, and some blue, white-speckled tin coffee mugs, one of them tipped over with its dark liquid cooling between the metal ridges of the truck bed, visible because the rear gate hangs lewdly open. The truck and clearing smell of coffee and cigarettes. Big boot footprints lead away from the truck into the forest. Bumper stickers flash at her. One reads “Come and Take Them,” with the words imposed over an image like a skull-and-crossbones but with guns for bones and an American flag for the skull.

She follows the tracks into the woods and finds the men clustered together around a fire they’ve built in a metal circle intended for summer picnickers. The men huddle together and talk. One of them says that they should have been there the other day when he’d called his mother. He’d told her he was going to catch some good lean venison and she’d said that between him and her and the deer and his wife (especially his wife) that the deer would be the only lean one. Lucy stands behind a tree, peeking around its trunk at the men shuffling from foot to foot and swigging lukewarm coffee from their silver thermoses. One of the men exhales, lifting his head and blowing out the vapor through circular lips. Her forearms tingle as if insects were scuttling along them. It’s a hunting sort of sensation. She wishes she’d encountered a bear or moose rather than all these men. One of them begins discussing baseball because his son has two left gloves and needs to give up the dream. A gun leans casually on a nearby tree. How she approached without their noticing she can’t imagine. They’re supposed to be hunters: keen ears and quick eyes. The snow that fell into her boots has melted and the faux-fur lining inside holds the water in place so that when she takes a step her heel sucks and pops. Otherwise, though, she’s warm. She’s good in the elements. She’s good with nature. She can identify tree leaves and she’s fast enough to kill the scuttling wolf spiders that Warren hates. She’s about eighty feet from the men.

Her mother used to come home and describe her close encounters with the Yellowstone grizzly bears¾the times she heard them blundering past her tent at night or the surprise encounters on mountain slopes. “The adults have piggish eyes,” she’d once said. “But they’re lovely animals. You hope for the best and carry bear mace.” In this part of the world, by her parents’ house, they only have black bears, often pictured looking docile and sleeping on a floating log or eating berries. As a child, she’d sometimes wished that a black bear would kill someone, a local, even a baby, to make the woods feel more exciting, wilder. Her mother would come back with pictures of growling grizzly females standing guard over their babies. She would find young trees that bears had leaned against for a scratch and knocked over. Lucy would walk into the woods with her Polaroid and nestle in silence between tree roots, wearing brown for camouflage and waiting for something big to march by. She was so bad at encountering wildlife that she’d started to believe that you needed some kind of supernatural knack, something in your blood that her mother had but hadn’t passed on.

Warren stands at the intersection where the dirt road meets the pavement and searches for clues. He’s wearing oversize white earmuffs and he rubs his hands together as he looks around for footprints, locking his knees and bending from the waist to inspect the ground.

Lucy takes the camera from her pocket and approaches the men. “Howdy,” she says. Three of them startle.

“Lord!” says one, “where did you come from?”

“Just out for a walk,” she says. “I’m a nature photographer. Would you mind?”

“Your boots aren’t tied,” says the smallest one.

She holds up the camera, tilting it back and forth playfully. “I saw you from over there,” she gestures at the woods behind her, “and thought I’d come over.” She’s operating on impulse. “Normally I take pictures of wildlife, but I’m working on this series called People in Nature”¾boy, that name is stupid, she thinks¾“and so when I noticed you I thought, why not?”

The men shrug and make affirmative grunting noises. She introduces herself with her mother’s first name and shakes hands with them, one by one.

She has the men line up in front of the metal fire pit, holding their guns and looking solemn. One brushes snow from his mustache. A few are giggling at the novelty. One keeps reversing his hold on his gun until another tells him to quit it. In their seriousness they resemble old photographs of Europeans on African safari. The fire in front of them might be a lion’s corpse. She humors herself, thinking that she has actually found some wildlife, some uneducated rural brutes. She takes a few pictures like this and then instructs them to just have fun with it, but “having fun with it” is not in their wheelhouse. A few of them relax their shoulders and one of them half-heartedly sticks out his tongue, showing her an ugly bit of curled pink. “What are you going to do with these?” the small one, whose name she now knows is Howard, asks.

“They’re going to be published in a magazine.”

The men look pleased and insist that she take a few more. They puff out their chests.

“If it’s good enough it might get a whole page.”

The mustachioed one whistles.

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” says another.

“We’re going for a rugged vibe,” she says. This induces one of them, a man of middle height but who clearly exercises a lot, to rip off his coat and shirt and stand topless with goosebumps breaking out along his shoulders and forearms. The other men look away in mock horror. The shirtless man flexes, accentuating a mole above his right nipple.

Then Warren arrives, huffing and jogging toward them with the lopsided gait of the out-of-shape. She has to run to intercept him. When they meet, he leans over, gasping with his hands on his knees. She whispers to him that she’s not herself anymore, and certainly isn’t a human resources worker, but has become a famous wildlife photographer taking pictures for an exposé on human beings in nature. “A sort of getting-back-to-our-biological-roots-type visual thinkpiece type of thing,” she says.

“Are you insane?” whispers Warren.

She stomps back to the fire pit but her husband lingers behind her, put off by the men. He glances uncomfortably at the topless one flexing for his uninterested and potbellied friends.

“This is my husband,” she announces. “I sometimes use him as a model. He’s wonderfully expressive.”

She snaps a few more pictures. She can tell Warren wants to go home. “I think we should do some hunting,” she says. “I’d like some action shots.”

“Sure,” they say, “sure.” She can see they’ve warmed to the idea of modeling.

“It’s really not very exciting,” says Howard. His friends glare at him. “You just find a place to hunker down and then you wait.”

“I’d love to see some hunkering,” she says.

“What do you do?” one asks her husband.

“I’m a therapist.”

“That can’t be fun,” the mustachioed guy says to her. “Does he try to read your mind?”

“I’m not a superhero,” says Warren.

“Then you should probably be wearing a safety vest like your wife,” says Howard. This gets a laugh.

They go trekking.

At the dinner table, some nights, Warren asks that they perform role-playing exercises where they pretend to be one another in order to explore any lurking dysfunction that might be gestating in “the place where our minds meet.” This usually involves Lucy announcing that she, as Warren, is emotionally exhausted from the hours she spends discussing intense traumatic experiences with the intensely traumatized. Then Warren, speaking as Lucy, says, “I don’t want to be just another one of your patients,” and Lucy can’t tell if she wants to laugh or scream. Afterward, Warren always tells her that he thinks they’ve made great progress.

She talks to Howard as they go. He wears a neon orange beanie with the words 3rd Annual Winchester Fishing Competition on Lake Pawsuckett primly embroidered in gray around the hat’s folded-up rim. He moves with a stuttering lope, unable to walk comfortably at her pace. He keeps dropping just behind and running just ahead of her. He asks her about her professional life. Does she enjoy her work? How does she get “up close and personal” with the more cantankerous species? She tells him her mother’s stories. She talks about the bear beside the tent. “I could hear its breath so loud I might have been sleeping with it.” One of the men makes a joke that is both dirty and grammatically incorrect. She relays a few more incidents. “One time,” she says, “after seeing too many cubs get killed by too many angry males, I actually tried to save one. I got between it and the cub and I maced it and it charged me and so I jumped to the side and got my camera shattered on a rock. I didn’t even notice until I was a good mile away, and the whole time I could hear the big guy groaning with fury way back behind me.”

Howard is one of those people who produce an unending stream of grunts, short vowels, and exclamations in order to indicate active listening. She likes it. Warren always listens in silence.

“Wow,” say the men. “That’s grizzlies for you!”

“Do you ever worry about her?” Howard asks Warren. “Like while you’re sitting at home?”

Warren walks with his face down and his thick hands tight in his jean pockets. Sometime since they started walking he popped a lozenge into his mouth, but it’s only when Howard addresses him that Lucy notices the annoying sucking noise and the cough drop clicking against his teeth as he knocks it back and forth with his tongue. She’s immediately frustrated, wondering why he had to up and follow her. “I don’t worry too much,” Warren says. He flashes the knowing, paternal smile that he turns on all of his patients to establish dominance. “I like to tell myself that she’s not really in danger, and that the stories about her close encounters are pure fiction. I tell myself that she’s working, I don’t know, in an office, inhuman resources or something.” When they get home, she knows, they’re going to have to talk about what this adventure means. Why she had to pretend to be her mother.

“That’s not realistic,” says Howard.

“It’s the only way I can sleep,” says Warren.

“Well, you are the therapist.”

“Say, could my wife get a free session?” says one of the men. The others laugh.

“Did you know I trained as a circus performer?” says Warren. Some of the men glance over at him. “You can’t tell, to look at me now. In my early twenties I toured as a lion tamer. I only learned therapy because our fortune-telling gypsy up and left one day with an ice cream vendor, though I shouldn’t say she left, because what I mean is that we left her behind and she stayed with him.” He smiles at Lucy. It’s an intimate smile that says see what fun we have together?

She thinks he’s disgusting.

They walk in silence for a minute more, and then she says, “I don’t think we’re going to find any deer or anything.”

“Not like this,” says Howard. “You have to lie in wait, like I said.”

“Well, of course,” she says. “So here’s a new plan. We’ll get some shots of you guys that look like you’re shooting something. In fact, my husband will pretend to be a deer, and you all can pose like you’re shooting him, so that you’re all pointed at one object.”

The men look confused. “That doesn’t make any sense,” says the one with a mustache.

Warren frowns at her, gives his head a little shake.

“No, really,” she says. “We’ll take a few of you guys just pretending to aim, but without showing what you’re aiming at. See, like this.” She takes Warren’s hands and leads him out ahead of the group.

“What are you doing?” he whispers.

She ignores him. “You guys can all just aim this way.”

“Of course not,” says Howard, “you can’t point a gun at a person.”

The men glare at him. “It’ll be fine,” says one of them. “I think we can handle ourselves.”

“Can’t we just aim at a tree?” Howard asks.

“This is better,” she says. “Trust me, I’ve been doing this for years.” She impresses herself, surprised she can sound this confident.

“Well, I won’t,” says Howard, stepping away.

The men lift their guns and halfheartedly point them at Warren, who wants to protest but doesn’t.Lucy walks perpendicular to the tableau, about thirty feet away, and takes a few pictures of the men. “You have to be really into it,” she tells them. “Sell it. Pretend he’s a deer.” She snaps a few more.“ In fact, darling, get on your hands and knees. I’ll get you in the picture. It’ll be like modern art.”

“I’m not wearing gloves,” he protests.

“Warren loves being my model,” she announces. The hunters don’t say anything. They don’t smile. “Down there, darling,” she says. “Hands and knees. Good.”

He lowers himself, not knowing quite why he’s complying. Without gloves to protect his hands, he bunches up the ends of his shirtsleeves into fists.

“Good,” she says.

She jogs to the men and arranges them, tugging their jackets and making a show of thoroughly considering their placement, how they are to hold their heads and guns, her eyes squinting and her head cocked as she appraises each one of them. “Good. Good,” she finally says. “I think we’re good there.” She moves away from them and pulls out the camera again. “I know this may seem silly, but I promise you all that it’ll look wonderful.”

Howard hangs back. He’s taken off his gloves and is rubbing his hands together, looking distractedly up among the treetops.

Her husband’s head hangs, the hair above his forehead falling over to tickle the snow. He quakes at the shoulders, cold. The weapons point right at him.

“Good. Great,” she says. “These are gold.”

Warren is sweating.

“Lift your head,” she yells at him.

She snaps a few more pictures. The word fire readies itself on her tongue.

Header photography © Skye Savage.

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