Shadow Animals

I.

On any afternoon in Stein’s grocery store parking lot in Troy, Montana, a truck—American made, four-wheel drive, dented and dirt-streaked, axles riding high—will pull in and park. A young sawyer will jump from the cab. His beard is trimmed neatly or his face is clean shaven; he wears thick-soled leather boots, loose jeans hemmed above the ankles, orange suspenders, and a T-shirt screen-printed on the front with a bull elk in mid-bugle, and on the back with “Got elk?” in large, white letters. (Elk T-shirts are for sale at the Booze N’ Bait just up the road. Black bear, mule deer, and moose shirts, too.) 

Inside the store, a herd of animals awaits, preserved and mounted above the produce section—spoils from the hunt displayed in the one Troy business that enjoys steady customers. Shoppers peruse heads of lettuce beneath an elk’s looming antlers. Mule deer peer down their snouts at human hands squeezing tomatoes and rifling green beans for choice pods. A bighorn sheep, chin-raised and regal, surveys pyramids of apples and oranges. A claw-foot bathtub could nestle comfortably in the moose’s dusty rack. Over the years the exhibit has swelled with donations from hunters eager to show off their trophies to the grocery-shopping public.A brass plate engraved with a name and date is tacked to the base of some mounts. Others include a faded snapshot of a hunter grasping the rack of his kill, raising the animal’s slack face to the camera moments after the wild thing went down. 

Out-of-towners stepping through Stein’s automatic doors startle at the parade of dead animals overhead; locals don’t bother to look up. During hunting season the rear window of nearly every truck in Lincoln County sports a gun rack bearing at least one rifle. A drive through town during late-autumn twilight will likely include passing three or four men gathered around a truck parked on the side of the road. The men’s flannelled arms rest on the truck-bed’s rim, and their hungry eyes gaze at antlers jutting from a laid-out carcass. Another man, standing apart, leans against the truck’s door, ankles crossed, thumbs slung through belt loops, his mouth weaving the slow spell of story. 

A teenage boy will hunt in the misty morning before school and in the brief light after the day’s final bell. A high-school date could mean holding hands at the Dome Movie Theater on a Saturday night, or the date could have taken place earlier that afternoon in a truck cab, a girl pressed beside a boy, her legs tucked on each side of the stick shift, the boy’s fist knocking her inner thigh as he shoves the stick down, the truck shuddering up steep inclines and easing along rutted logging roads. The couple makes small talk as they scan the woods for a brown rump and flash of white warning tail; a loaded rifle is racked and ready, the warm cab crackling with anticipation of sex and the kill and country music overwhelmed by static on the a.m. radio.

 

II.

My father spent the summer of 1977 cutting down trees. He was clearing land to build the log house my mother had sketched on graph paper. I was seven years old, and all day until dusk a chainsaw’s drone buzzed in my brain and vibrated my bones. My parents had just sold their ownership of a hardware store to pursue my father’s frontier dream. We had moved from the city of Butte, Montana, onto twenty-one tree-tangled acres near Troy, a speck of a town in the northwest corner of the state. Big Sky Country. The Last, Best Place. My father was finally living the life he had longed for. 

My mother had longed to be a wife. She grew up in a time and place when girls were raised to be wives and wives wanted what their husbands wanted. This isn’t sacrifice; it’s what wives do. 

One evening in July, instead of returning to work after dinner, Dad hoisted on his shoulder a large sack he had brought home in a truckload of building supplies. He grabbed a rake leaning against the camp trailer, our temporary home, and handed it to Mom. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said. Mom, my eight-year-old brother Justin,and I followed him to a faint trail that ran up the hillside behind the camper. Ferns, tall grass, wild daisies, and saplings pricked my bare calves as our single-file footsteps broke a fresh path. At the top of the hill, the trail met an abandoned horse-logging road. Dad turned right and walked until the weeds gave way to a flat stretch of sunbaked clay. He eased the sack from his shoulder, slit it open with his pocketknife, and tipped it. Grains of sand shimmered and formed a pearl-colored pool. Dad drew the rake across the sand, smoothing it into soft furrows—a perfect spot, I thought, for the fairies that lived in the forest. I hadn’t seen the fairies yet, but I had seen their slippers that grew in shaded pockets. The elaborate flowers poked from moist duff, delicate and pale purple, half as long as my pinkie finger—just the size for fairy feet. The fairies could use this new ground for their garden, and I would sneak close and spy, as they tended the seeds they had planted, to see the magical, miniature world they would grow. 

My father bent on one knee and appraised the sand, then swiveled and studied the length of road that faded into a thicket of woods. He looked hard into the trees, as though discerning a distinct shape emerging from deep shadow. A squirrel nearby scrabbled pine bark and hurled chirped warnings.

“What’s the sand for?” Justin asked. 

Dad turned and looked up at us. “Animals use this old road as a game trail,” he said. “When they pass through here, they’ll walk across the sand and we’ll be able to see the shape of their footprints and tell what wildlife is in the area, get an idea of how many there are.” 

“What kind of animals?” I asked. 

“Deer, moose, bear. We might see elk if we have a tough winter and they come down from the mountains looking for food.” 

Deer, moose, bear, elk. Father, mother, son, daughter. We lived where animals lived. We walked where they walked and stood where they stood. I knelt beside Dad and reached out my hand. The sand was warm and fine. I had never seen a deer’s hoofprints before. I had never seen a live deer. Did the animals know we were here? Were they watching us right now? I peered into the trees for eyes, bigger than my own, peering back at me from stilled, camouflaged bodies. The thought of animals brushing near, crossing paths with us, made me shiver. 

That night, after we climbed into our sleeping bags and Dad extinguished the propane lantern, I listened for telltale sounds drifting from the encroaching woods. There was only the crest and drop of my father’s deep, fatigued breaths, the rise and fall of my chest at last slowing to meet his. After I joined him in sleep, a small band of shadow-animals crept from the forest’s edge and paused in the darkness of my dreams with ears cocked and nostrils quivering. They moved on with careful steps like measured stitches along the moonlit path spooling through my imagination.

In the morning Justin and I fidgeted through our bowls of cereal, then raced up the hill to the sand. Animals! When Dad caught up with us he identified the curved Vs of deer hooves—big and small, mother and fawn. We looked closer. Were those bear prints? Relief outweighed my disappointment when Dad said the indentation of pads and claws belonged to our curious dog. 

Evidence of animals began to appear everywhere. To-and-fro tracks across the sand, piles of poop Dad called “sign” on the logging road. I guessed a mound of brown pellets had been left by a rabbit, but Dad said no, a deer. The sign was shiny and dark, proof that a doe had passed through a short while before. With August came the splat of seed-speckled bear sign, the aftermath of hours spent foraging for berries. I would quicken my step and stick close to Dad. 

As my family cleared brush or hauled firewood, my father pointed out hollows of flattened grass where deer had slept shielded beneath branches, and trunks where bucks had scraped the late-summer velvet from their antlers. He fingered coarse brown hairs clinging to bark where bears had rubbed their bodies, and traced gashed aspen where they had swiped their claws; he boot-scuffed the belly of a fallen log, spongy with rot, which had been rolled from its earth-nestled trough by a hungry bear hunting for grubs. 

So many mysteries, so many clues, so much to discover, interpret, guess, and wonder.

 

III.

In October my family moved from the camp trailer into our just-dried concrete basement, where we would live for the next three years. At its center was a double-barrel stove my father had welded from steel drums. Justin and I slept again in the bunk bed my parents had pulled from storage and set up near the stove that Dad stoked each night with hunks of split larch as long as his arm. Lying on the top bunk, I could reach and just touch the foil-coated insulation tucked between the joists overhead. At bedtime, in a bulb’s dim light, I studied growing fingers of dark red wet that had begun to seep across the silver foil and stain the clean wood joists. Each night the scents of raw earth, fresh wood, and a strange new odor mingled and hovered above me as my parents’ murmurs and the snap of flames and falling embers soothed me to a disturbed sleep.
Outside, frost feathered the basement’s slim windows, and sharp stars needled hard but could not pierce the canopy of trees surrounding our underground home. Their low-swooping branches harbored the shadow-animals that had bedded down for the night: sleek bodies curled tight, breathing shallow, and braced for danger.

 

IV.

My once-peaceful sleep had fallen prey to nightmares when my family lived in Butte, where my parents had co-owned Plaza OK Hardware from 1973 to 1977. Butte, in southwest Montana, boasted the Berkeley Pit, the largest open-pit copper mine in the country. The record of Butte’s storied past as a mining boomtown shows the industry was still going strong in the 1970s. Our hardware store did a brisk business. All day long my father helped customers select just the right lawn mower, power drill, chainsaw, or ladder. He ordered merchandise, stocked shelves, and scanned for shoplifters from the smoky-windowed office overlooking the store. He worked seven days a week with a day-and-a-half off every other weekend. He was gone when Justin and I woke in the morning and returned home as we slept. Mom helped out at the store, alternating three days one week, two days the next. She balanced the books, placed ads, clerked, cleaned toilets. My brother and I attended daycare when she had to work, our caregivers changing a few times during those years, based on their availability and whether Justin and I were in school.

After Mom dropped us at the daycare we attended when Justin was six and I was five, a shadow fell when a man would appear and kneel beside me. The man—the husband of the lady who ran the daycare—would smile and praise my pretty blonde hair, finger the hem of my dress. “Is it new? What’s your dolly’s name?” The first time I asked the lady permission to use the bathroom, she nodded at her husband. He took hold of my hand and led me to a door at the end of a long hall. But instead of releasing me and retreating he came in, too—he came in that first time, and from then on—the door clicking closed behind him. On the other side of that shut door and back down that long hall, just off the entryway, was the room where we ate snacks while seated in small plastic chairs backed in a line against the walls. A picture window overlooked the spare front yard where girls and boys swarmed a swing set and slide, the glass muting the clamor of high-pitched voices, my brother’s somewhere among them. 

The yard was rimmed by a chain-link fence with a latched metal gate that swung open smoothly when my mother brushed through to collect us, buckle us in the back seat of our car, deliver us home to dinner and play, then tuck us into bed, where Justin and I made steeples with our hands and closed our eyes while reciting with her the prayer she had taught us: I believe in God above, I believe in Jesus’ love, I believe that I must be, kind and gentle, Lord, like thee. Amen. We felt her soft kiss on our foreheads, and then the room went black, and later a slash of light cut the black when Dad looked in after returning home from work. 

When the man’s hands would at last release me and he reached for the bathroom doorknob, his boots would pause and turn, and he would say that he’ d kill my brother if I told. I didn’t tell. The unspeakable words hooked my innards like barbs, wormed deep and began slicing, slowly, skinward. My body became a fluent interpreter of memories my mind refused to raise. Once, at the home of one of my mother’s friends, I wet my pants while sitting on her sofa. I was five years old—old enough to know better—but the promise of shame, my mother’s embarrassment, and my brother’s finger-pointing ridicule could not trump my newfound fear of using a stranger’s bathroom. I began sleepwalking—staring vacantly at my parents as they watched late-night tv, stacking bars of soap in the bathroom. Once, I split my toe open on a metal stake as my father and brother slept in a living-room-pitched tent. 

Moving to the woods disrupted these nightly prowls; I realize now that the camp trailer and then the basement cramped with our belongings penned my restless body. The stifled terror began to manifest in my mind. Many nights, in that camper, that basement, I lay in bed with my eyes locked open, limbs rigid and numbed by heart-slamming fantasies playing in my unblinking brain. In some scenes I was the pinned recipient, in others the grinning inflictor. At last I would sleep, then wake in the morning wrapped in a residue of fear: fear of the sadistic movies trapped in my head, fear of an invading second self that somehow conjured cruel worlds and delighted in pain, a predator self that stalked me through childhood, clawed my heels, and whiskered the nape of my neck, its panting breath searing my tense skin, urging me into a suppressed, desperate drive to escape that other frightening, frightened self. 

 

V.

By the fifth grade I carried a clear understanding that certain wild animals were to be admired, respected, and—from late October through sundown the Sunday after Thanksgiving—shot. The antlers my father displayed in our log house rivaled the grocery story’s exhibit. On our living-room walls hung the select remains of mule deer, white-tailed deer, antelope, and elk. Small, smooth prongs protruded from bits of leather-capped skull. Furred heads bore generous, nubby racks. Animals marched down the center loft-support beam and surrounded crisscrossed snowshoes tacked high on the room’s west wall. In the evenings we read Reader’s Digest or played checkers or visited with company beneath the blank gaze of glass eyes shining in the lamplight. 

Dad’s collection grew to include the snowy pelt of a mountain goat, a black bear paralyzed in mid-charge, a badger with bared fangs and grasping claws, and a javelina head. (The javelina’s beady-eyed glare first greeted me one morning when I had stayed home sick from school and padded downstairs in search of cough drops. The head sat in a box my father had left on the loft steps. Of all the creatures in our home, our dog was the only one that jumped at my sore-throated shriek.) Dad also displayed Justin’s deer and elk antlers, after he began hunting at age twelve. The less impressive antlers from their hunts Dad nailed to an exterior wall of the garage. 

 

VI.

Daniel Owens hunted and fished, and he bashed bodies on the Troy Trojans football field, just like his older brothers. The Owens boys wore Wrangler jeans, leather belts with large silver buckles, and cowboy hats. Their boot heels scuffed our high school’s waxed hallways. But unlike his boisterous brothers, who drove big trucks and pursued girls in sport, Daniel was quiet and shy, keeping company with a small group of upperclassmen, fellow football players who had taken him under their wing.

Daniel’s sophomore year, his friends goaded him into asking Janie Miller to prom. She was taller and one year older. A photographer shot the couple as they posed in front of a construction-paper moon and tinfoil stars, their awkward embrace arranged just so; Janie with her salon-styled ringlets and blue satin dress, Daniel with his ruddy, freckled cheeks and the black tuxedo he had rented from a catalog at Kootenai Drug. 

The spring of Daniel’s junior year, he died in his bedroom from a gunshot to the head. The police ruled his death a suicide, but my stunned friends said it had to have been a terrible accident. This was Daniel, soft-spoken and kind, the aw-shucks guy with gentle brown eyes and a constant half-smile that made him look as though he had just noticed a telling detail the rest of us had missed.

 

VII.

The locals in northwest Montana betrayed a casualness toward killing that, to citified outsiders, came off as quintessential Louis L’Amour, or backwoods crass, or downright cruel. Tourists snapped cameras at the grocery store’s trophy mounts and no doubt slid the pictures into albums alongside photos of their summer treks to Glacier Park. Family relations from Detroit or St. Louis or Chicago, on rare visits to Troy, shook their heads and uttered remarks of disbelief at the sight of bearded men with foot-long Bowie knives strapped to their hips and trucks with antlers wired to their grilles. California retirees moved to our community for the fresh air and slow pace, endured a couple of carcass-riddled hunting seasons and bitter winters, and retreated south. These brief witnesses to our way of life returned to their far-off homes and must have told entertaining stories of jarring scenes, disdained our supposed ignorance, dismissed our code from a comfortable distance. 

But what about those who could not leave? What about the damaged, the different, the vulnerable—lost girls, hesitant boys, compliant wives—bound to place by fathers and husbands, the providers who headed their homes? What choices were open to these resident aliens living in a land where strength reigned, where livelihoods depended upon killing animals, where communal embrace and personal worth were awarded to those who demonstrated the desire to take aim and pull the trigger?

 

VIII.

Justin was an eager hunting apprentice. As a boy he took aim at squirrels and birds with a slingshot, then a pellet gun. (Mom couldn’t abide the bird killing and told him he’ d have to eat every robin, woodpecker, or crow he killed. So, he stopped shooting birds. Or maybe he still shot them, but abandoned the yard for deep forest, away from Mom’s watchful eye.) He shot stray cats and gophers with a used .22 rifle Dad had bought at a gas station as a father-son fix-up project. Justin graduated to wild game after he passed his hunter safety course and Dad outfitted him with a Ruger .243 rifle.

When my parents were dating, my mother became an eager hunting apprentice, too. She was a petite junior majoring in English at the University of Colorado–Boulder; my father attended gunsmith school at the Colorado School of Trades, in Denver. On nighttime dates, Mom sometimes held a spotlight while Dad shot rats at the city dump. (“That’s when I knew she was the girl for me,” he joked whenever they told their “how we met” story. “I did it all to please you, baby,” she would say.) They hunted jackrabbits at a deserted ranch, pursuing the darting animals by truck. One time, after firing and reloading, Mom forgot to put the safety on and the jouncing truck triggered the rifle, shattering the passenger-side mirror. 

My father graduated with a certificate in gunsmithing in May 1966. In August, just before the start of her senior year, my mother withdrew from college and my parents got married. They had planned to move to Alaska to homestead and had bought a used truck for the trip. But one day in October, while they were still saving money to move, my father returned home to their Denver apartment and announced he was taking the entrance exam to join the Colorado Highway Patrol. “Announced” is the word my mother used when she told me this story a few years ago. She was nuts about him, she said, and would have followed him anywhere. And she was relieved they weren’t moving to Alaska. 

My father worked as a highway patrolman at a one-person post in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. The remote location was his top choice, and even though he was a rookie he got it; the patrolmen with more seniority didn’t want the assignment. A rare car chase would get his blood pumping and break up the routine of the road, but after four years he grew bored and restless, and he craved to test his academy-honed mettle. He hired on with the police department in Tucson, Arizona, but we lived there less than a year—the extreme summer heat and stress of big-city living spurred my father to search for new work, and he led his family to Montana.

On my parents’ first deer hunt together when they were just married, my father sighted-in a buck standing on a ridge three hundred yards distant and fired, his aim dead-on, piercing just above the heart to send the buck toppling downslope. Mom cried while he gutted the animal. On another hunt, it was Mom’s turn. My father situated her with a rifle on a large, flat rock overlooking a ravine, leaving her with instructions: “If anything with horns comes through here, shoot it.” He climbed downhill and hiked slowly through the ravine to flush deer her way. Dad was thrilled when a shot rang out; he scrambled back to the lookout site and found her, seated and shaking on the rock. “What happened?” he asked. Two bucks had appeared and Mom had sighted one through her scope, just as he had showed her, drawing the animal’s big brown eyes and long lashes near enough to brush. She didn’t want to kill the beautiful animal, but she didn’t want to disappoint her husband, so she shut her eyes, aimed by chance (perhaps raising the rifle barrel a few inches), and pressed the trigger. 

From then on Mom sat beside Dad on occasional daytime hunting drives, but she did not hunt. She did not like the bleeding and gutting, the blood and guts.

 

IX.

My sleepwalking resumed when I was ten and we moved from the basement into the wide-open space of the log house’s unfinished main floor and loft, where for the first time I had my own bedroom. One night a dream my mother had gone missing drove me from my bed and downstairs, across the living room’s rough subfloor and cool kitchen linoleum to the front door. (My mother, who slept the sleep of a wary doe, woke as the deadbolt turned.) My semiconscious body recorded my search through touch and sound: chilled steel of bars embedded in the front porch to scrape muddy boots, dew-slick grass, distant cries my own. Behind the house, the sting of metal shielding the tractor’s mowing blade, the gouge of sharp bark where my father chopped wood, rounding the front deck to the low rumble of river. As I raced past the front porch my body snagged in sudden limbs—my mother’s grasping, gathering arms that yanked me off course and pulled me to her chest, her heart pounding as wild and frightened as my own. 

She led me to bed and tucked me in, and maybe she sat by my side for a while, watching to ensure that I would stay. In the morning she told the story of my nighttime escape, and I recalled my dream and the panic of my mother gone—she had vanished without a good-bye kiss or promise of return. I recalled, too, my muted cries and the press of cold, then wet, then sharp; the purl of water over rocks; a grasp of arms. The relief I felt at the story’s resolution was as much for finding my mother as it was for having been found.

 

X.

After each successful hunt, Dad would back the truck into our open-faced garage, slip a gambrel between the deer’s hind legs, and winch the body with a hook and chain slung over a rafter. Every year, as autumn hardened to winter, a skinned deer dangled upside-down in the garage to age. The body hung for a week, hoofless and headless, striated slabs of white fat and plumb muscle, taut tendon and glistening bone. When I squeezed past the carcass to get to the truck, my coat sometimes brushed filmy membrane bristled with remnant hairs, and I breathed the thick odor of cold, subdued blood.

To save money on butchering, my parents often quartered the deer themselves. Dad would back the truck bed under the hanging carcass, and with a sharpened butcher knife he cut it in two below the ribcage, the severed front half of the deer dropping into the bed to be driven to the front door. My mother, in preparation, cleared the dining table of its decorative centerpiece and cloth, exposing a long scar chewed into the thick alder tabletop by a handsaw when my father, bent on completing a project, once used the table as a sawhorse. She pulled two hefty leaves from storage (they appeared twice a year, for hosting Thanksgiving dinner and cutting up deer), extended the table to a long oval, and spread plastic sheeting over the surface. The first time Dad slung half of a deer on the table its stout legs buckled and everything—the carcass and tabletop, bone saw and butcher knife—crashed to the floor, delaying my parents’ inaugural operation while Dad reinforced the table’s brace plates and reassembled the work station. 

Beneath the glow of a pendant lamp my mother followed my father’s instructions to grip haunches or hocks as he sawed down the spine from the neck to the bottom of the rib cage, splitting the chest in two. He brought in the deer’s rear half and sawed the pelvis into separate hindquarters, then packed the quarters in coolers and discarded the plastic sheeting while Mom washed the tools and her hands in hot, soapy water in the kitchen sink. She lifted the table leaves and returned them to storage, closed the table, unfurled over the scarred tabletop her decorative cloth (seasonal fabric she had chosen from bolts at Ben Franklin), and then repositioned her centerpiece—a potted ivy, or a kerosene lamp, or a vase with a philodendron cutting she was nursing to root—to make the scene once again invitingly domestic save for the lingering, primal odor of chilled muscle and stilled blood that had been ushered indoors and warmed.

My parents delivered the quartered deer to a meat market in town, and ten days later they brought the animal back in tidy packages wrapped in white paper marked with letters denoting the contents. Mom stacked the steaks, roasts, burger, and cheese smokies in the freezer. 

Deer were plentiful where we lived; a good-sized mule deer fed our family for one winter. Elk were plentiful, too, but harder to come by, since they hid in the brush at high elevations. My father shot two elk in northwest Montana, my brother, one; each fed our family for three years. Mom adapted the recipes handed down from her Midwestern roots, substituting venison for store-bought beef; she liked cooking with deer and elk burger because the meat, when seasoned, took on the taste and texture of hamburger.Her wild-game casseroles and stews and soups bore the hallmarks of traditional comfort fare. 

When Dad and Justin shot the antelope crowding Montana’s east plains, or rabbit, grouse, or duck, Mom scouted for new recipes that claimed to make the meat moist, tender, and flavorful. She whipped up crock-pot rabbit stew, marinated and simmered duck breasts, and, one lamentable winter, canned antelope. These tastes and textures were stringy and strange on my tongue, but I cleaned my plate because we did not waste food.

 

XI.

The first time I was cornered in that daycare bathroom in Butte—a little girl used to indulge a grown man’s sick delights—my emotional self separated from my body like a hot-air balloon untethered from ax-chopped ropes. I floated high above the scene that played out far below, the man now a shadow, the girl a stranger. When the bathroom door opened, I floated down the daycare’s long hallway and out the front door, followed that little girl home, hovered above her as she lay rigid in her bed and as she sleepwalked, too, and I trailed her through the coming days that turned into months and years.

But then came this saving grace: After my family moved to the woods, I found ways to feel. As my brother and I explored the land, wisps of moss brushed my cheeks, stiff pine needles poked my fingertips, my palms grazed rough bark and brittle lichen and got sticky and stained with gummy pitch. The heels of my hands pressed down on sharp stone, raising contours I could trace, a connection to the land embedded on my body. 

When I walked into the insistent press of the river that fronted our property, winter’s runoff bit my calves, and when I waded deeper into dark, swirling pools, I forced myself to sit and soak. Icy water chilled my skin and muscle, blood and bone, seeped down deep and numbed organs and nerves, then merged with my already numb core. At that moment—for a moment—I felt something like relief, outside and inside connected and united, my separated self restored. 

In summer Justin and I floated the river, our bodies draped across inner tubes, tennis shoes protecting our feet, our torsos stiff with life jackets. Toward the end of our float lay a large logjam caught in a deep bend—root-ripped trees swept up in springtime floods, the mass growing and shifting each season. Just before the logjam, the river’s bobbing rapids funneled into glassy sheets that gathered speed and plunged beneath the mangled trees, the impact spewing froth. Each time the logjam came into view, our arms turned to paddles and we rowed with all our might to cut an exit from the quickening current to the slow side of the river. Justin was stronger and could pull himself away from danger. I was weaker, but if I began paddling early enough, most times I could beat the current. Sometimes the water won and slammed my tube into the logjam, forcing me to fight back—to lash out and shove and grab and kick—my scraped arms and bruised legs accepting pain, pouring all of my energy and will into escape. And in the struggle to free myself I released swallowed rage. 

 

XII.

When I was twelve, my father got a job as a deputy with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department. He brought his work home in the stories he told during dinner, sharing the highlights of his shift with relaxed detachment—until Mom would cut him off with a sharp “Doug!” when details turned alarming. He would meet her intercession with an irritated “What?” He was catching us up on his day—what was wrong with that? Most times he spoke the sentences Mom had implored him to hold back. He was, after all, telling a story, and stories must have endings. A woman bit off another woman’s ear in a fight. A bar owner had been strangled with a telephone cord, probably by her son, who coveted her coin collection. One man had stabbed another in a bar, the act so swift and covert that witnesses only saw their fellow drinker slump inexplicably to the floor.

At the family dinner table my father transformed violence into evening anecdote, and at bedtime I recorded his stories in a small diary my grandparents had given me, its mottled green jacket adorned with gilded lettering and an engraved lock, its pages allotting just three short lines for each day. My father’s dinnertime stories earned the same attention as Justin and me playing spies after school and our truck breaking down while hauling firewood. The diary kept my father’s stories contained and safely distant, reduced them to bite-size pieces I could swallow and keep down, allowed me to meet his eye during dinner, ask questions and comment, merit my seat at the table.

My father eventually transitioned from the job of deputy to being the department’s evidence technician. He photographed accident and crime scenes, collected and cataloged evidence, testified in trials, and sometimes hauled bodies to the crime lab in Missoula. One evening, when he had worked late and missed dinner, I met him as he stepped through the front door with a bundle of sheets in his arms. Without taking off his coat, he began draping the sheets over the basement stairwell railing like a housewife hanging laundry on her backyard line. Dad was all business as he arranged the dingy white cloth splotched with crimson darkening to deep rust.

“What happened?” I asked. “Who died? How’ d he kill her?” Dad smoothed the sheets and absentmindedly answered my questions until Mom rounded the kitchen corner to welcome him home. 

“Doug!” she wailed, intoning his name over three syllables. “What are you doing?” 

“Hanging these to dry,” he said, glancing up as he completed his task. 

Mom’s hands curled and found her hips. “I will not have bloody sheets in our house, Doug. Not around the kids.” 

Dad gripped the railing with both hands. “Well I am not driving these things twenty-four miles back to the evidence room tonight. They can hang here until morning.” 

He glared at her and she glared back, defending the fresh line she had drawn between the intruding outdoors and the harbor of home while I monitored their faces and stole peeks at the stained sheets. Finally Dad shook his head. “Alright,” he sighed, “I’ll take ’em to the basement.” He scooped up the sheets and stomped down the steps, slamming the door on my chance to record the end of his story.

_____

Such victories were rare for my mother. Sometimes the sound of her crying woke me at night. I would tiptoe through the dark and find her at the top of the stairway that led to Justin’s and my bedrooms. She sat with head bowed, spine hunched, bare feet resting on the steps Dad had hewn from thick logs and secured with steel bolts. I would sit beside her, slip my hand in hers, and hold on as she released grief in strained gasps, eyes squeezed tight against tears that slid down her cheeks and splashed on her bathrobe. Long minutes would pass and then she would whisper, “He won’t listen,” or “He doesn’t care how I feel,” or “It’s always about him.” I knew “he” was Dad, but she did not say what he had or hadn’t done. 

I would tuck my nightgown under my feet and we’ d press close as the cooling house relaxed around us, the refrigerator motor stuttering off, floorboards ticking, embers settling in the woodstove. In time her tense body softened, her breath evened, her tears slowed and then stopped. After a few minutes more Mom would squeeze my hand and say, “You go on back to bed, hon. I’m okay.” 

“Are you sure?” 

“Yes. Now go to bed, it’s late.” Her hushed voice had grown firm, the wounded wife finding strength as authoritative mother.

I would pad to my room and climb in bed, wait for her careful footsteps retreating down the stairs—then wait for my feet to warm and sleep to settle—my eyes closed against the dark.

 

XIII.

Like my mother, I did not desire to hunt. My parents didn’t push me; my brother, when setting out his gear for an upcoming hunt, would challenge me, much as he would when he’ d hold an opened tin of sardines to my nose and insist I eat one, then call me a sissy and demand to know why I refused. 

I sometimes rode along on weekend drives in search of deer, but I can’t recall witnessing an animal being shot. Whenever my father and brother returned home victorious from a hunt, they would sit at the dinner table to warm up and rest before heading back out to tend to the deer. Mom and I would take our seats at the table and listen as they recounted their adventures. I heard so many hunting stories across fifteen years—stories told by my father and brother, stories told by their friends—that I could imagine the scene as though I’ d been there myself: the crack of rifle fire, a deer rearing and dropping—or bolting into the brush, a blood-spotted trail betraying its final flight. I could see the men tracking the animal, finishing off the creature if its flanks still heaved, dragging the body to the truck (by the horns if a buck, a rope around the neck if a doe), skinning the animal to cool the meat, the truck bed dipping under the hefted weight. 

This is what I could not conjure: scope-drawn brown eyes and long lashes, taking steady aim at an animal and squeezing a trigger, slowed running and ragged breathing, last breaths and warm stillness, methodical gutting, knives and hands bloodied, the sweet fatigue of hard-won success. Hunting, to me, was long rides with my family over dirt roads; falling asleep with my feet tucked next to the heat vent, my head lolling on the nearest down-coated shoulder; rousing, disoriented, at dusk as the truck lurched into reverse when my father turned it around and aimed its headlights for home. 

Why didn’t I want to kill animals? I had no words to tell my brother, or myself, that I knew what it was to be stalked and caught, that I knew the lure of the chase and the gratification of dominance. My bodystrained with the whimper of the hunted and the impulse of the hunter—and fought to suppress the terror each invoked. And so, somehow, live animals and killed animals coexisted in my child’s mind, and in between dwelled their suffering that had become my own—suffering that lay at the bottom of a fathomless gulf.

 

XIV.

Children learn early the rules they must follow to remain within their family’s circle. The rules I tried to follow were these: (1) We each must work to help build the house and meet basic necessities. (2) My father bore the burden of building the house and putting food on the table; my behavior must not distract him from his duties or his pastimes of hunting, shooting, and hiking. (3) No whining, no blaming, no sulking. 

When the abuse began, I became afraid of losing the approval and acceptance of my parents, who were my only source of safety. But I also became afraid of the paralyzing night fantasies that grabbed me again and again, afraid of bathrooms, afraid of the dark. After the log house was finished enough for my family to move to the main floor, I grew afraid of the basement that had been our home but subsequently was filled with the foreign shapes and dark spaces of my father’s gun shop, deep storage shelves, clothes hanging on rods and draped with sheets, and the wood room. When I had to venture to the basement for chores—to stack firewood, stoke the stove, or sweep bark—I would ask someone to go with me. In the afternoons after school, while my parents were at work, I asked Justin. He would refuse (“Geez, you big baby, it’s a stupid basement”), or he would come as far as the doorway and wait, then switch off the lights and tear upstairs, leaving me screaming and fumbling for safety. Once in a rare while he would stand at the door and stew until I had raced through my task or his patience gave out. When my parents were home I knew better than to bother my father, but I could ask my mother. She would set aside her sewing scissors or the checkbook, and sit on the stairway’s bottom step and talk to me while I worked out of sight. Her patient voice found me, flowed around me like an easy current; the sureness of my voice responding to hers was a surprise, a relief, a courage-lifting sound.

But then came the night—I would have been eleven or twelve—when I had to take a shower in the cinder-block stall in the basement. My father had built the shower for us to use until our upstairs bathrooms were finished. I don’t remember why I had to take a shower that night; a parent’s order was reason enough. At the time, my father’s friend Dave, a fellow cop and hunting buddy, was visiting from Colorado. When I approached Mom at her sewing machine and asked her to come sit on the bottom step, she glanced at Dad and Dave catching up at the dinner table and pulled the pins clamped inher mouth.

“No, Julie, not tonight,” she said. 

“Mom, pleeeeeze, please come wait for me.” 

“I said no. Now, you go on and take your shower.” 

I made it to the stairwell’s bottom step and sat down, drew my knees under my chin and hugged my legs. Bursts of deep laughter punctuated the stories being swapped overhead. How I adored Dave. Dark-haired, handsome Dave, bachelor Dave, who kept horses and gave me rides when we visited, and showed me how to groom the looming, antsy animals. Dave, who dated rodeo queens and said yes to the question I always asked him: “Will you wait for me, so we can get married when I grow up?” 

Mom’s brisk face appeared over the stair rail.

“Julie. Get in the shower.” 

By then I was crying, my arms clenching my legs. I craned up at her. “Mom, I can’t, I can’t. Please don’t make me.” 

When her face didn’t soften, panic set in and snapped the brakes on my mouth. My pleas gathered speed, hurtled headlong into blubbering and shuddering and begging desperation, my crying careening out of control—and Dave was up there at the table, hearing my monumental meltdown. 

Chair legs scraped linoleum and the light fell dark as my father’s frame filled the head of the stairs. “Knock off the malarkey, Julie. You get down there and get in that shower. Now.” His words kept time with his index finger jabbing toward the basement’s closed door at the base of the steps. My father’s final judgment ended my appeals. 

Hot water pelted my quivering body. How long was a convincing shower? A few minutes should do. I did not soap up or shampoo my hair. A wet head should be evidence enough, and shampoo burned open eyes. I pulled back the plastic curtain a few inches and peered around the basement, my vigilance blurred by tears and coursing water. There was the double-barrel stove my father had welded from steel drums, and the stacked wood he had split to keep us warm. There was the spot where the bunk bed once stood, where my brother and I had slept. The thick joists overhead had grayed from air and time and heat, but the strips of foil between the joists still shone in the bald light. The stains above the bed, the seeping fingers of dark red, had dried long ago and turned black. 

That first summer we lived in the woods, my father had identified hoof prints in the sand and brown pellets he called sign. He had pointed out hollows of matted grass and claw-scuffed trees, and he had named the animals that paused on our property and moved on: deer, moose, bear, elk. That autumn, when we moved into the basement and the overhead stains appeared, I asked my father what the wet red was. “Animal blood,” he said, used to glue plywood, liquefied and leaking in the stove’s radiating heat. In a single sentence he stripped the mystery down to certain words carrying practical information. “Oh,” I said, and that was that. Now I knew what my father knew. This knowledge left me unsettled, but I could not tell him so. I had sensed, from his matter-of-fact explanation and tone, that he would have said there was no reason to be afraid of the things we see and can name.

I did not reveal my fear of the blood, and I never spoke of the fairies that I had once thought lived in the woods. Each spring I saw new flower-slippers the fairies could have worn, but the small plot of sand my father had put down never did produce a garden.

 

XV.

Dispatch called my father to Daniel’s home the night he died. A few evenings later, I approached my father in his basement gun shop. I was eighteen at the time, far removed from that child who had hoped fairies were real, but still I hoped to glean consoling facts to share with my suffering friends, who believed Daniel had died by chance, and to ease my own grieving, too. 

My father stood beneath a halo of fluorescent light, hunched over a vise, drawing a flat file across a braced rifle stock. 

“Dad? Some of my friends think Daniel’s death was an accident.” 

My father’s body didn’t register my presence, my interrupting voice, my loaded question framed as fact. The file gripped in his firm hand continued its steady scrape of steel on wood, and in that long, quiet space hope sprouted. Maybe my father would give me a maybe. Maybe this time he would answer with words that carried a fissure of uncertainty, words offering glimmers of softer possibilities. 

My father’s hand stilled. He stood up and studied me. He looked strangely old against the backdrop of gray concrete, his face lined and shadowed in the stark lamplight. He exhaled a slow sigh, as he did on long hikes when he paused to shift the heavy pack on his back. “Julie,” he said, “it’s impossible for anyone to accidentally put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger.” He held my eyes a moment more, searching for any traces of lingering maybes, then turned to the stock and resumed filing. 

My father’s brief words allowed no room for doubt. The truth of Daniel’s death settled in my chest, where it lodged and across time disappeared by degrees, silted over by silence, hidden from my friends. 

Some nights, while lying in bed after I had written in my diary and switched off the light, I thought about Daniel. I pictured him easing his bedroom door shut, drawing down the window shade, maneuvering the long shotgun barrel into his mouth (a smooth, simple motion in my imagination), the cold metal choking his throat. And then he did what any Troy boy would do when aiming a gun at a flesh-and-blood target: He pulled the trigger and did not flinch.

 

XVI.

I think my friends knew, deep down, that Daniel had killed himself. But facing the truth of how he died would have led to facing the truth of why, and few of us—if any—had seen possible warning signs. The members of our community recognized suffering in animals and remedied their distress. In dire situations, men bore the mantle of taking decisive action, both to end an animal’s pain and for practicality’s sake: a horse’s leg fractured by a hidden gopher hole; a deer hit by a truck, back broken, still breathing; the dog given to my family—a Doberman pinscher we named Shadow, her color shifting from smoke to lavender in certain light, sleek and delicate—falling sick, muscles wasting, nerves trembling, mouth frothing. My father, one day while Justin and I were at school, led Shadow into the woods. He did not tell us how she died. There was no need; we knew.

We recognized physical suffering in humans, too, and tended our own wounds. We did not cry, or we stifled tears, and we took stitches out ourselves. No sense wasting time or gas driving into town, no sense paying a doctor to do a simple task. But we had no communal language for suffering we could not bandage or stitch, and so those whose hurt could not be touched held it in, tamped it down, their bodies absorbing pain until some, like Daniel, sought relief in death. Others released mounting pressure in small measure, alone, at night, when no one else could see. Sometimes light sleepers became accidental witnesses: children woke to their mothers’ sorrow; mothers woke to a deadbolt’s slide. Hard-working husbands and fathers slept soundly, and did not speak of the visions that rose when they lay down at night and closed their eyes.

 

XVII.

My father was a skilled hunter who brought home plentiful wild game. My mother prepared nourishing meals that she did her best to make taste good. And I accepted the hot, homemade food heaped on a plate and placed before me. After I had eaten all I was given, my father excused me from the table, releasing me to the evening and then to bed, to the grasp of fantasy and restless sleepwalking, prowling the log house as my family slept, pursued by a predator I could not see, searching for something I could not name or locate, groping toward daylight and the relief of trading invisible terror for the hard truth of the known that ordered our world. In this home my fraught body was provisioned, sheltered by trees and fed by animals my father had felled—his heart’s desire, the singular desire he had followed and fulfilled, and in the fulfilling had left his family wanting for nothing. What more could a daughter ask for? What more from these abundant woods could a little girl with pretty blonde hair—or my mother, with her tender heart, or Daniel, with his gentle brown eyes—possibly need?

 

XVIII.

After graduating from high school in Troy I attended college in Spokane, Washington, a three-hour drive from home. When I finished college I remained in the city, where I lived on my own in a studio apartment and worked a series of temporary jobs. The daily routine and demands of school that helped keep me buoyed had fallen away, as had my social support of friends. I no longer spent summers or holiday breaks at home, and had lost the solace I had found in the Montana woods. The pursuing predator began to close in. Bouts of anxiety compelled me to seek distracting activity; most often I would spend evenings cleaning and reorganizing my already clean and organized apartment. On weekends I woke early and tackled a long list of errands, projects, and plans, and climbed into bed late at night, exhausted. Sometimes, as I watched tv or read, a sudden sadness would rise and I would crumple in tears. Once, a panic attack struck while I was at a café, leaving me rattled and afraid. 

My senses had ratcheted to high alert, like those of an animal sensing a hunter’s approach. My body felt vulnerable, exposed, stripped of camouflage. An escalating fear drove me to the public library, in search of language that could help me name its source. One of the books I found was on childhood sexual abuse. The opening pages contained a long list detailing the ways survivors can manifest signs of the trauma. 

For the first time in my life I recognized myself: my childhood fear of bathrooms; my sleepwalking and persistent fantasies of wielding power over others; the intrusive, recurring images that sprung into my mind during the day. I learned that many survivors of abuse coped, as I had, by becoming emotionally numb, and by being hypervigilant of their environments and hyper-aware of others’ needs and moods. The list identified my sense of foreboding about the future—even as a child I felt certain I wouldn’t live past the age of thirty—and stated that it was typical to be a perfectionist and an overachiever. I recognized my history of exploitative relationships: a boyfriend, whom I dated for two years, had picked up where the daycare abuser left off. I learned I had let him have his way with me because many survivors of abuse become passive, unable to say no or set appropriate boundaries. I read that it was common to feel a pervasive sense of shame.

Additional listed behaviors seemed to apply to me, but I couldn’t absorb any more. I slid the book back on the shelf and left the library. I felt nauseated and confused—I didn’t know where to go or what to do. But another sensation had surfaced, too: something akin to when, as a girl, I would wade into the deep pools of the river back home and force myself to sit and soak, the icy water chilling each layer of my body, seeping down and touching my numb core, my separated self, for a moment restored.

_____

One evening, a few weeks after I had moved into my apartment, my father called. I was living alone now, he said, and I should have protection. He recommended buying a .38 Ruger snubnose revolver because it was a good weapon for females—small enough to conceal in a purse but powerful enough to kill a man. He could get the gun at cost; he’ d pay half if I could pay half. 

On a warm September weekend I drove to Montana to visit my parents. Soon after I arrived Dad stepped from his gun shop, holding a narrow red box with a black phoenix on the lid. Nestled inside was my gun, stubby and gleaming stainless steel. He gave me a shooting lesson before I returned to Spokane. 

We had begun shooting targets together when I was in junior high, when I had asked him to teach me to shoot and he agreed, allowing me a point of entry into his world. But the shooting we did back then was for fun; the lesson in our driveway that September day was different. Rather than stapling a small paper target of concentric rings to the wood frame he had built for target practice, he attached a large silhouette of a broad-shouldered man, a black X marking his center chest. Dad handed me a compact box of bullets. Hollow points, he said, ideal for self-defense. A hollow point doesn’t pass cleanly through the body, but mushrooms upon impact to damage more tissue and cause more blood loss, to drop an advancing man in his tracks. As I slid the bullets into the gun’s cylinder, Dad gave me a pop quiz.

“What’s the first rule of self-defense?” he asked.

I was stumped. My father had insisted we lock our doors even though we lived in the sticks. He never sat in a café with his back to the entrance and always chose a booth overlooking the parking lot. When I began driving and left the house for school or my waitressing job or a date, he did not say “Good-bye” or “Drive safe,” but would warn, “Watch your backside” or “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” Stay alert for danger. Don’t let others fool you.

“Lock your doors?” I guessed.

“No,” he said. “The first rule of self-defense is to never let the attacker know you have a weapon.” 

  “How come?” 

“The element of surprise is critical. If you’re waving a gun around, threatening to shoot, why, it just gives him time to react. He’ll probably gamble that you’re afraid to use it. What you want to do is keep the gun hidden, and if he advances pull it out and shoot. Don’t hesitate, don’t warn him, just fire. If he’s coming after you, I guarantee he doesn’t have your best interests in mind.”

My father’s job was to bust bad guys, backed by the full authority of the law. He trained new police recruits at the firing range and won trophies at marksman competitions. He was the sniper on the Lincoln County SWAT team because he possessed the skill, the courage, the cool-headed calm to ease his rifle into position, settle his sights on the target, exhale slowly, and choose the precise moment to squeeze the trigger. Threat eliminated.

I had heeded his safety warnings—at the age of five my body had become hardwired to sense the approach of danger, to recognize guile in others. But whenever the long shadow of harm closed in, I left my hands hanging limp at my sides and allowed myself to be snared. I did not fight or cry out for help; I held still and submitted, and in submitting wielded the only weapon I possessed: waiting. Waiting for the attacker to decide if and when the assault would end, waiting to be released, waiting for solitude and the exhale of held breath, for the onset of denial slowing my surging pulse.

As a grown woman newly living alone, I hadn’t given safety much thought. (I locked my apartment door at night; what more could I do?) Even though I hadn’t asked my father for help, he had wanted to get me a gun. I was touched by his concern. I felt proud that he had struck a deal with me; I was working full time and could pay my share of the cost. I was flattered that he had given me an official shooting lesson and had divulged his first rule of self-defense. But his rule contained a false assumption so smooth it had slipped by us both—that with a gun in my hands I could hold my ground with inherent certitude and strength. Arming me could not alter the fact that we had lived as animals lived: when under attack the powerful could fight back, but the weakened would succumb.

I stashed my new gun in my bedside stand, within easy reach during the night, but it did not provide peace of mind. I had begun to sense the surfacing words that would take decades for me to speak: my father’s defense had been misplaced, and his call had come too late.

_____

I wonder, now, what might have been. What if, while growing up in Troy, I could have recognized myself within my family and my community as I had when I stumbled upon that book in Spokane? What if my father, my brother, and the other males empowered in our town could have somehow expressed uncertainty in themselves, awareness of the unseen, a desire to understand the confounding other? A subtle gesture, an altered tone, a softening of squared shoulders could have allowed an opening for words. Maybe Daniel would have felt emboldened to reveal a sliver of his pain. Perhaps I might have shared my fear of the animal blood, and then the nighttime terrors that plagued me. My mother might have told her stories at the dinner table, her family leaning in to listen as we did when my father spoke. And he might have been the one who awakened to her crying and sought her out in the dark. 

I can only wonder, now, what might have been if words had split the silence and cracked hearts had become known. I couldn’t consider such questions back then, or imagine new ways of being: we lived as animals lived, governed by what is, not what if.

 

 

Julie Riddle is the craft essay editor for Brevity and the creative nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling at Whitworth University, where she works as senior writer for marketing and development and associate editor of Whitworth Today. Her essay in The Georgia Review is her first publication.