By Sarah Blackman
Once there was a widower who had an only daughter. He was always admonishing her to marry a good hunter, someone who could provide for her and keep her into her old age. This was somewhat ironic because the widower himself, who had been renowned about the county in his younger years for his sharp eye and skill with a knife, had forsaken hunting all together in favor of building cairns out of river rocks in the backyard. He was building a cairn for every animal he had ever killed. As he had lived many long seasons alone with plenty of time on his hands and had all those years a daughter to feed, this meant the backyard was rapidly starting to fill with stones. All the grass had been smothered, the tomato vines crushed
"But father," said the girl as she stood on the back porch and surveyed the ruin, "I'm too young to marry."
"Nonsense," said her father, taking off a work glove to wipe the sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist. "Why, when I was your age, I had already outlived two wives and soon would have outlived a third. You're never too young to make a start in the world."
The cairns were often top heavy and had no mortar to hold the individual stones together. No matter where the father and daughter went in the house, at all times of the day or night they heard the sounds of rocks sliding off each other and clunking to the ground. "Goddamnit," the father would say, "there goes another one." Much of his mornings were spent repairing the existing record before he could go on to commemorate something new.
Well, they lived in this way for a long time: the father admonishing, surrounded by rocks; the daughter washing the dishes, swirling her rag around the face of each dish as if it were the face of a human man, a husband she would come to love. Her father's cairns grew more and more elaborate and pressed closer to the house until one day the daughter arose to discover that there were pebbles piled up against the glass at every window and boulders in a dusty jumble blocking the front and back door. Smooth river-stones filled the chimney so that their fireplace had become a rock-slide, their foyer a cave-in, their house itself a cave pierced by rays of strange, golden light.
"Dad," said the girl, "what were you thinking?" But her father was building a monument to a flea out of sand and didn't reply.
That was the day a suitor finally came for her.
It was her father who answered the door and gave the man he found there a hand as he scrambled down the loose slope of a cairn dedicated to her father's childhood pet, a budgie named Mary. Her father helped him brush off the knees of his pants and retrieved his hat, knocked from his head by the doorframe during his entrance and rolled all the way to the living room where it had come to a rest under the couch.
"Shit," said her father, eyeing the damage to Mary's cairn ruefully. He pulled a pad of paper from his back pocket and added Mary's name to the list of cairns to repair which, while very long, still did not compare to the list of ones yet to be built. "What's your business?" he asked the visitor who was peering around him as if even the dim light of the house hurt his eyes. The man was tall and thin and in need of a haircut. He wore an entirely brown suit with a brown hat to match which he held up before him and turned in his hands as if studying it, darting glances at the father over the bridge of his short, hooked nose.
"Well, sir," said the suitor, for it was he, "I've come to ask for your young woman. Or not quite," he corrected himself, fluttering the hat in the air as if to erase what he had said. "I've come to ask if you would ask her for me. Your daughter, I mean. I want to make her my wife." He had a strange way of talking, winding down through his sentences so they ended on a wheeze. The daughter, who had been in the kitchen this whole time counting the cutlery, a task she assigned for herself once a week, rain or shine, popped her head around the doorframe to look at him. When he saw her he smiled and gave a little wave.
"Hmm," said the father, sizing him up. "You look pretty weedy to me. Only a good hunter can marry my daughter. It's kind of a sticking point."
"Oh, but I'm just that kind," said the suitor.
"Are you sure?" said the father, sounding doubtful.
"I am just that kind," the suitor repeated, bending his knees and bobbing a little as if for emphasis.
"I'll talk to her," the father said. "But don't hold your breath."
After the suitor had left, seeing himself out, the father came into the kitchen and sat down heavily across from his daughter who had reached seventy-five knives and was on to the spoons.
"I suppose you heard that," the father said, pushing his hair back from his forehead. The daughter had noticed recently that her father was starting to look older. While this called up in her unpleasant reminders of her own mortality—and what would she do with him when he was too old to care for himself, too tired to walk down the side of the mountain looking for rocks, too sore to haul them home and fit them into their piles?—it was not a bad look for her father. He was the sort of man who had settled into his features as he aged. He had olive skin, a mobile, soft mouth, deep lines curving on either side of it from the high bones of his cheeks. He had black hair which he wore closely cropped on the sides and longer on top so it hung in a rakish forelock over his forehead. Recently, it had become marked with the same flecks of white as his sparse chest hair which grew in an even T on his chest. He was fit, all that rock-carrying, and in general looked as if he were blazing with the last full light of day—harder and faster and stronger than the indeterminate hours of morning or mid-afternoon—that bursts from the ridges of the mountain just before the long, gentle descent into night.
Though she did not often examine the thought, the daughter had always sort of hoped that her husband-to-be, good hunter or not, would resemble her father in some small way. This one did not. He was too thin and looked soft under his suit. His skin was too pale, almost luminous, and instead of her father's almond-shaped, brown eyes, the suitor's eyes were perfectly round and blue, an unnatural shade as if he had dipped his irises in dye and slipped them back into his head still wet. His hair, a tawny sort of yellow, floated up from his head and curled out over his ears like feathers. He was, all together, an unimpressive specimen…but he had seemed kind.
But no one else had called.
"I don't know," said the daughter, polishing a spoon with the hem of her cotton dress. "What do you think?"
Her father looked at her and then he smiled, reached across the table to put his slim, hard fingertips on the back of her hand. "You're a beautiful girl," he said, turning her hand over and tracing the cup of her palm in a way that had always made her shiver. "He said he was a good hunter. I think it's a match."
"Just as you say," said the daughter and so the matter was arranged.
The next day when the suitor came back, the father met him in the front yard between a soapstone cairn for a deer struck on the highway and a teetering slate one for a mouse in a trap, and gave the suitor his daughter's hand. That evening they were wed and went immediately away for a short honeymoon in the Catskills where the suitor had rented a cabin. They went skiing and snowshoeing, ate heavy meals and stayed up talking and drinking wine by the fire. One afternoon they went for a long walk in the forest and came upon a clearing where it was so quiet they could hear each breath as they took it, almost the blood as it whooshed around in their veins.
"This is beautiful," said the wife, taking her husband's gloved hand in hers. The pines were tall and still. Heavy snow drifted against their trunks, cut into ripples by the wind.
"Beautiful," said the husband and he kissed her in his nipping, hesitant way which—she closed her eyes and examined her reaction—she believed she was beginning to learn to like.
At the end of the honeymoon they returned home to her father's house where they were going to live temporarily until they got on their feet. In her absence, her father seemed to have been busier than ever. The gutters were filled with shifting piles of pebbles; the roof was lined with them. On one side of the house, her father had begun to build cairns on top of cairns and so brought the rocks up level to the roof, which they had spilled onto, which they were starting to consume.
"Can you live like this?" the wife asked her husband.
He shrugged, stroking his chin. "It's only for a little while," he said.
The very next morning, the husband said he would go out hunting. He began to gather all the necessary accoutrements: the different scents and whistles, the camouflaged jacket, the bullets, the gun, but before he could finish getting ready, he changed his mind and said he would go fishing instead. An hour or so later, in hip waders and a cap pierced with hooks, he kissed his wife at the door and left, pole slung over his shoulder, bait box dangling from his fist. He was gone the entire day which the wife spent in much the same fashion as she had when she was the daughter. She did the laundry and then sat on the couch in the living room. She made her father a sandwich and then washed his plate and watched him through a chink she had cleared at the kitchen window as he strode around the backyard with a measuring tape, checking the cairns for unnoticed drift.
In the afternoon, she watched a television program about two elephants who had been sent to a rescue park to live out the last years of their lives and, though they had been separated all that time, recognized each other from their babyhood as the stars of a traveling circus show. In the end, one of the elephants died and the friend went back to the place they had last been together to do things like lean disconsolately against a tree and turn over rocks with the tip of her sensitive trunk. It made the daughter a little weepy, though she had known from the beginning this was how it would end. She turned off the television and read a couple of chapters of a book instead. Soon, she drifted off to sleep on the old plaid couch where she had slept many an afternoon away in her long time in that house, lulled by the sound of her father pounding two rocks together in rhythmic counter-point to the ticking of the clock which hung above her head.
When she woke up, her husband was home. He had brought only three small fish which she cleaned and scaled and pan-fried in butter, keeping their bones for a soup.
"No luck?" said her father. He pushed his meager portion back and forth on the plate, knife scraping against the china.
"Not today," said her husband, bobbing his head up and down over his fork as if too nervous to take the bite into his mouth.
"Tomorrow will be better, I'm sure," she said.
The next day her husband went out again to a different fishing spot at which he claimed to have never had a bad day. "Brook trout as big as your arm!" he said, wheezing. "Their bellies fat and speckled, eyeballs good for soup. You'll see," he said, kissing her at the door. In his excitement he nipped her so sharply that afterwards she checked her lip for blood.
The day passed in much the same way: laundry and dishes, watching and reading. The clock in the living room—a wood block carved with figures of rabbits and a swooping owl her father had picked up somewhere before she was born—broke the hours into minutes, the minutes into seconds, the seconds into even smaller parts that were so quickly gone they had no names.
Finally, her husband came home, but she saw right away he had not been successful. He had a sheepish air about him, pausing in the hallway to bob in the door frame and look in on her where she lay reading on the couch, and he carried the creel slung from his fist as if his prey were very light. In fact, there was almost nothing in it at all: just two worthless spring lizards limp inside a folded dock leaf, their bodies pierced as if he had caught them with a spear.
"What am I supposed to do with these?" the wife asked her husband, holding one of the lizards up by its tail. "My father will never eat a lizard," she said, shaking her head.
"Does he have to know?" said her husband. "Couldn't you bake them into something?"
She was dubious, but she set about making individual pot-pies, rolling the dough out thick, covering the butchered lizards with a kitchen towel as her father came into the house and walked past her, went into the bathroom to wash up for the meal. "What happened, anyway," she asked her husband who was sitting at the kitchen table watching her work. "I thought this place was a sure bet. Brook trout as big as my arm, remember?"
"I know, I know," said her husband, hanging his head. "Everything was going really well, but then a bird came along and scared all the fish. I would have shot it, but I didn't bring my gun."
He looked so mournful, blinking his round eyes at her, his shoulders hunched, that she took pity on him and after the meal, which her father picked at and largely did not eat, the wife pulled her husband into their bedroom and locked the door. In the dim light that filtered through the rocks covering the window, she looked down at her husband's body, at his hand on her breast, at his bony chest rising up to her as he propped himself up on one elbow, and thought, just for a minute, she saw a wash of feathers fluttering at his throat. But this was wrong, of course, and in the middle of the night she looked over at her husband and saw only the face of a man, relaxed in sleep, his brow smooth and unlined.
The next morning, the husband announced he was going hunting today and fetched his gun out of the hall closet. She stood in the doorway and watched him weave around the cairns and walk down the road, his peculiar characteristic gait making him look as if he were edging sideways along a steep drop instead of walking down a perfectly level, freshly paved lane. She leaned against the doorframe, thinking, peeling thin strips of paint away from the wood and dropping them on the stoop.
"Where's he going?" her father said, appearing at her shoulder and making her jump.
"I don't know," the daughter answered. "He said it was a spot he knew about from when he used to go hunting with his dad. When he was a kid."
"Humph," said her father. "Around here? What was his father's name? I would have known him, and I don't think I remember anyone's kid that looked like that."
"I don't know," the wife answered as her husband crested a rise and disappeared from sight. "I've never asked him. He never said."
That day passed in the way of the others, marked only by a restless hunger that kept the father and the daughter on the move through the house, passing each other in the hallways, bumping into each other more than once in the kitchen which was small. Lunch was a sad affair: a wilted celery stick for them both, a handful of raisins, a hard-boiled egg. Her father's face was set, the jaw-line sharp. He was looking a little brutal, which made her uneasy but also, a little bit, excited. What would happen next? she wondered.
When her husband came home it was late. The sun had long since gone down and she turned on the porch light so he could see to navigate his way around the cairns in the front yard. Her father had gone out.
"Fuck this," he said, rising from the table where he had been sitting in front of an empty plate for an hour, his hands clenched around his silverware. "It's nine o'clock. I'm going out for a beer." He banged around in the hall closet for his coat and the daughter walked out into the yard with him, loitering between the rocks indecisively as her father, hands crammed into his pockets, walked down the road and disappeared over the ridge just as her husband had that morning.
She passed the evening in a dissolute fashion and, by the time she heard the front door open, had already gotten into her nightgown and was brushing out her hair in front of the vanity which had sat in her bedroom since she was a child. She could tell it was her husband and not her father by the sound of his footsteps as he walked down the hall.
"Well," she said as he leaned in the doorway. "What did you get?"
"You look beautiful," her husband said. He looked tired. There were dark circles under his eyes.
"Thanks," she said and, though she knew once again it was slim pickings, she turned out the light and brought him to the bed where the sheets were cool beneath them and the night very long.
The next day she was awakened by her father making a lot of noise in the kitchen. Her husband was already up, already out of the house, and her father had discovered in his absence that all he had brought home the day before were some scraps he had found in a place where another party of hunters had cleaned their kill.
"What is this?" her father shouted, waving a fistful of viscera in her face, loops of intestine dangling almost to the floor. "And this?" he held up the heart, its strange oval tough and impervious. "This is what I am supposed to eat?" he yelled, tossing the heart onto the table where it slid into a candlestick and knocked it over.
"Calm down," the daughter said. "I'll make a gravy." But it was clear something more had to be done.
That night her husband came home empty-handed and the next morning, at her father's urging, the daughter waited until her husband had disappeared over the rise and set off to follow him.
He travelled a long way and then, at a spot where the stone wall that bordered the road lay broken, he looked around him and left the track for the forest. At first, the daughter thought she had lost him. She had to duck down behind the stone wall to keep from being seen and when she made it to the spot where he had entered the tree-line there was no sign of him. Not a broken branch, not a bobbing leaf; it was as if he had vanished. But, as the daughter pushed her way into the dark, thick forest, she heard someone singing a little song.
It was her husband and he sang:
Come dance with me and be my love
My light in darkness, turtledove
Oh come to me, my heart's desire
The clearing where I build my fire
He had a beautiful voice, high and silver at the top of the register, vibrating like a brass bell when he dipped into the lower notes. From behind a tree, the wife caught a glimpse of her husband's blue shirt as he bent and picked a blade of grass, twirled it between his finger and thumb. He sang:
Against my body slide your hips
Against my body move your lips
And when it's time for us to part
I'll leave you with my beating heart
He used his fishing pole to hack a path in the forest and she followed it, trying to walk on the sides of her feet as her father had instructed her and so make little noise. The morning had been cool but, in the patches of sunlight that filtered into the forest, it was beginning to warm up. Sweat beaded on her upper lip. She could feel it dampening the hair at the nape of her neck where it rubbed against the collar of her father's coat which she had borrowed because it was warmer than her own. She paused as her husband paused and wiped her face on the shoulder of the jacket. It smelled like her father: a mixture of sweat and sunlight, a musk. Her husband sang:
So dance with me, my life's embrace
And turn to me your lovely face
To love you always that I vow
If not forever, then for now
In this fashion they came out of the forest and to the bank of a swift river. The wife ducked behind a blackberry tangle and watched as her husband carefully wedged the tackle-box and pole into a niche made by a tree trunk and a mossy boulder and began to strip off his clothes. As he took off each article—jacket, shirt, pants, underwear, socks—he folded them neatly and stacked them in a pile on top of the rock. Finally, he stood naked, still humming to himself, stretched his arms over his head and windmilled them as if warming up for something. She could see his ribs as they descended his back and the archipelago of his vertebra. She felt a little feverish, as if her senses were overly sharp. She could see his skin pucker into gooseflesh as a breeze struck him, the fine golden hairs that downed his lower back and swept over his buttocks, the cracks in the tough skin of his heels. Then her husband turned into an owl and flew out over the river.
She supposed she should have been more surprised. Shocked, even. Instead, she found herself admiring the sweep of his wings as he downbeat to land on a snag of driftwood in the stream and the powerful flex of his claws as he drove them into the wood. He ruffled his feathers and looked around him.
"Uh-gu-ku! hu! hu! u! u!" her husband called.
She said to herself, "I thought I had married a man, but my husband is only an owl." She tried to feel angry. She had been lied to, she and her father both. Yet, as she watched the owl blink its round, blue eyes, she found herself focusing only on the second half of her thought. "My husband is an owl," she whispered and caught her breath.
For a long time her husband stared into the water and she watched him. At last, he swooped down and brought up in his claws a handful of sand from which he picked out a crawfish. He flew to the shore with the crawfish impaled on his talons, shuddering as it died, where he took the form of a man again, dressed carefully, one article at a time, and wrapped the crawfish in a dock leaf he pulled from a plant near where his wife was hiding. He was still humming his little song as he packed the crawfish in his creel and started for home. The wife followed him.
"And when it's time for us to part," the owl who was her husband sang. They were almost out of the forest. She could see up ahead the place where the light changed as the trees thinned. The wife felt very close to her husband. Something tremendous had been shared between them.
She thought of how hard her husband had to work to hide his owl nature, of how lonely he must be in his lie. He really was a good hunter for an owl, she thought and impulsively she jogged a few steps to close the gap between them, reached out and took her husband's hand.
"I'll give to you my beating heart," the wife sang, finishing the line. Her husband turned to her, his eyes widening in shock. His face fluttered back and forth, shifting from a man's face with its soft lips and sensitive eyebrows to an owl's face: beak agape, eyes huge and gold and totemic.
"Uh-gu-ku! hu! hu! u! u!" her husband cried and she smiled and held out her arms to him.
Believe it or not, there are rules that govern such things. The husband knew them because he was an owl, but the wife had lived a more sheltered life in her father's house. Even as her husband reached out to fold her in his arms (wings) his arms, she felt something happening to her body. Her back bent and then elongated, her arms stiffened, the elbow popping and bending in the wrong direction. There was a wrenching sensation in her pelvis, a stretching sensation in her neck. All over her body she felt a wash of prickling heat and her tongue became thick and heavy in her mouth.
"What?" the wife tried to say, but it came out of her mouth like, "Maa? Maa?" because, to her surprise, she found she had been transformed into a doe.
Her husband flew to a low branch and perched there, bobbing at the new level of her head. She examined herself, lifting her neat, black hooves, turning her head to consider the flirting tip of her soft, white tail. She was a fine creature with a shining coat and strong legs. She could feel the power in her new chest and haunches as she strode up and down the thicket. She could smell the rich underscent of the forest like never before and could interpret it and read its subtle warnings.
"Maa, maa. Maa, maa," she said to her husband in great joy.
He nodded in agreement and sprung from the branch onto her back. And so they went off together deeper into the woods.
That evening her father waited in vain for his daughter and her husband to come home. He turned the porch light on to guide them and fell asleep fully clothed on the couch, his boots tightly laced in anticipation of whatever might be required of him. The next night passed in the same fashion and the next.
Finally, the father had to admit to himself that something had happened. He had searched the road and the fishing holes, all the deer and duck blinds and the ruddy meadows where the bucks came in the autumn to stamp. He had gone in and out of the caves in the hillside with a lantern and trod lightly through the underbrush looking for a trail, a stain, any sort of sign, but found nothing. No trace of his daughter. No trace of her husband. It was as if they had risen into the air and now walked in the world above this world where he could not follow them. He didn't know what to do next, and so, for awhile, he did nothing.
The father was unused to preparing his own meals and was clumsy in the kitchen. He ate poorly: undercooked scraps, strange combinations of condiment and meat. The father was also unused to providing his own entertainment. In the evenings he sat alone at the kitchen table where, in the past, he had sat with his daughter playing cards or just listening to her sing as he whittled at a stove-length. When she was a child, he had sat there with her and cleaned his knives and sharpened them. When she was a woman, he had watched her bend over her task and admired the simple way her hair caught the light. Now, the father was lonely, and the father was angry. What right? What right did either of them have: to go away from him, not to say goodbye?
Eventually, the last of father's store of dried deer jerky ran out and the very same morning he fried and ate the last of his eggs with the last grainy pat of his butter. It was time to move on and so the father went to the hall closet and assembled his scents and whistles, his camouflaged jacket, his bullets, his gun. He set off into the forest to hunt.
Toward noon, after a frustrated early morning tromping through a land that seemed suddenly emptied of all of its animal denizens, the father took a break to eat a light meal he had packed: a heel of bread, a scrap of cheese, a little thermos filled with coffee. He was sitting in a lean-to he had built with his own two hands many years ago when the daughter's mother was alive and he was barely out of his boyhood. The lean-to faced onto a small meadow which was grown up in starflowers and the bobbing heads of mountain daisies. It was a beautiful day, warm and clear. The father was surprised the lean-to was still there and, as he ate, admired his work which had survived untended all these seasons as the world around it changed.
Suddenly, as the father swallowed his last bite of bread, a doe appeared in the tree line and stepped into the meadow. The father could not believe his luck. He eased his rifle up onto his knee and then to his shoulder as the doe dropped her head to browse in the grass. For a moment, the father watched her through his sights. She was young, graceful. He almost felt guilty for shooting her. But, he thought, he'd build her a fine tall cairn at the peak of the chimney and so, exhilarated, he pulled the trigger and dropped her just as an owl burst from the forest for some reason and flapped into the field. Disoriented, the father supposed, by the sound of the shot and the bright, spring light.
"Uh-gu-ku! hu! hu! u! u!" the owl cried, its voice harsh and wild and familiar, but the father beat it away with his hat as he knelt beside the doe to finish her and take her home.
It had been a good shot, just above the heart, and the doe's chest was rapidly filling with blood. She would die soon, but the father was not an uncompassionate man. He grabbed her by the muzzle and pulled her head back, exposing the long line of her throat which he cut with a business-like slash of his knife. She kicked once and his hands and wrists were bathed in her blood.
But what was this? Just as he cut her, the doe's face flickered for an instant and he seemed to see—hadn't he known all along?—the face of his daughter, her mouth agape, cheeks pale. He looked again, and it was only a deer there below him, but even as the light dwindled from them he recognized some slide of her eyes, some expression, and knew in an instant what he had done.
"Jesus Christ," said the father, the breath knocked out of him. He pressed his hands to the deer's ruptured throat, but it was too late. His daughter was dead.
For a long time, the father knelt in the meadow over her cooling body. The owl stayed too, clinging to a branch of a tree, crying out until his repeated call penetrated the father's concentration and so annoyed him he rose to his feet, raging and throwing rocks, forcing the owl to fly heavily away.
The father returned to the body of the doe that was his daughter and considered the situation. It was tragic to be sure—he pictured her face as a child, her sweet lips, her fat hand clutching his—but he was not a man who believed in waste. After all, life must be taken if another life is to be lived. This, he believed, was the way it had always been So, with his eyes hard and his mouth set, the father took out his sharpest knife and slit the doe who was his daughter as he would have any other deer.
In no time at all, he had gutted her and, hoisting her carcass onto his shoulders, the father carried his daughter out of the woods and back to his home. He dried her meat and lived off of it for a long time, honing his cooking skills to grill tender steaks and drying her flanks to a jerky he cured with his own special rub. For awhile the father kept his daughter's heart in a jar of formaldehyde, for sentimental reasons he supposed. But the seal was imperfect and when the muscle started to rot, fraying in gauzy tendrils that floated to the surface of the jar, the father dumped it out in a creek behind the house and watched as his daughter's heart was washed away.
What happened next hardly matters. The father lived a long life, mostly alone, and died one fine summer morning when the weight of the cairns collapsed the roof and crushed him as he sat at the kitchen table salting his eggs. Where the daughter's viscera had been strewn a spring welled up, cold and fresh. The animals came out of the woods to drink there, often exposing themselves to other hunters who used the father's lean-to for many years to hide themselves as they waited for prey. The owl who had been her husband went deep into the forest where he pined away in grief and love until there was no flesh on any part of his body except for his head. He looked just like the owl he was for the rest of his days and when he called his wild call the young hunters all shivered and looked over their shoulders. They crossed themselves twice and performed other superstitions, but no harm ever came to them.
"Uh-gu-ku! hu! hu! u! u!" the owl called and mothers who were sick of their children crying for attention would say to hear an owl's cry was to hear the sound of your death. They were wrong, it turned out, but no matter. At a certain age, a child will believe anything it is told.