The Bear Wife
Noal Brown sits up and catches the pager vibrating on the coffee table above him, sees the page is from the sheriff's station. Decides to radio in from the truck. This is Friday. This is February. He lies back down on the rug where he's been awake since five-thirty, an afghan braiding his leg and his son's My Buddy doll on the floor on the far side of the room. He retrieves his glasses and puts them on, watches the gray dawn creep in now through the windows and grant shape to the room: the sectional couch with his clothes hanging off it, long johns and jeans and plaid flannel shirt. Wool socks. The recliner where he would read Field and Stream magazines while his wife, Jacqueline Portier, would prop up against the corner of the couch, a cookbook in the sunken lap of her linen skirt, pale legs exposed. Freckles on her thighs marching from somewhere beneath the skirt. Toys scattered on the rug and Sam asleep in his room. The house empty now.
He makes like to stand but a catch in his left hip stops him, an injury from the wreck last summer that took their son's life. When the tension in the joint releases, he limps over to the couch and climbs into his clothes. The thermal underwear peeks through a hole worn in the right knee of his jeans, and he tight rolls the cuffs so they'll fit down inside the knee-high rubber boots waiting at the door where he kicked them off late last night. He'd gotten drunk at Fugley's and ended up at Carol's: the clothes smell of her trailer, cigarette smoke. The Model-19 Glock he slips into the holster on his belt, and he makes sure to take the toddler-sized doll as well so as to return it to Jacqueline.
At the truck, Noal places the doll in the backseat of the extended cab. The pistol he sets in the front passenger seat. From the tool box in the bed of the truck, he collects the last two of a half-case of beers. One of the beers he places in the glove compartment. The other he situates over the defroster vents until it's thawed enough he can pour it in the coffee mug.
Noal is the chief detective with the Claygardner County Sheriff's Department. He checks in with the sheriff station on the CB mounted beneath the dash. The dispatcher tells him the sheriff left an hour or so ago, headed over to Colonel Harks' land in Bodock, a small town of 900 on the outskirts of the county, twenty miles from Noal's house in Lee.
"Emergency?" Noal asks.
"I don't know," she says. "Didn't happen to say."
"They out on the colonel's land or mine?"
"Your land?" the dispatcher asks. "Um, not sure, Detective. Don't know. Sheriff Stokes just said they was out on the colonel's property. Didn't say anything about yours."
Shit, Noal thinks. The colonel's land is adjacent to the couple-hundred acres Noal inherited from his father, and as far back as Noal can remember his dad and the colonel had been in one dispute or another over property lines. Jacqueline moved out to the cabin on the land after they buried Sam. No one knows she's there, and Noal would prefer it remain that way.
"I'm just leaving the house," Noal says. "They call back tell them I'll be out there in twenty."
Noal switches off as she's giving directions. On the radio a weather report reminds of the ice storm coming in this evening, a severe cold front that had been sweeping its way across the Mid-South all week. Suspected power outages for several days, school and factory closings. Roads out. He waits long enough for a patch of clear glass to reveal itself on the windshield—large enough he can navigate through—and puts the truck in gear.
Off the highway, the tires of Noal's truck spin some over the slick surface of frost and the soil underneath half-thawed and kicked up by the trucks that came before him. Dwight Yoakham croons on the radio about love lost in Bakersfield. The air vents whistle along, not too generous with heat. When the tires find traction again the old Chevy lurches forward, the steel chassis moaning and creaking in the effort. Somewhere along the way, as Noal suspects, the ruts veer off the colonel's land towards a property marker. Noal has to ease over a sheet of rotted plywood laid across a section of barbed wire between two uprooted fence posts meant to frustrate such trespassing. He curses the colonel as he crosses over onto his own property. The fog of his breath in the cold cab like a visible echo.
Coming out into the clearing, Noal parks beside the sheriff's Bronco and the two four wheelers there and knocks back the last of his beer, drops the mug in the floorboard. Gargles some Scope from the bottle in the side pocket of the door. From his truck he can tell the wet cold and death has left the colonel's flesh pale blue and swollen. His body slumped over in the tree stand at the edge of the field not thirty yards from Noal, his head resting on the rifle support in front of him. The sheriff and two deputies stand around it. Twins, Marvin and Hal Franklin, looking up at the hunter perched above them as if in admiration, as if the corpse is the mounted trophy.
Noal opens the door and spits out the mouthwash and faces the back seat to check on the doll. Satisfied, he steps out on the ground thinly layered with frost and wipes away some snot from his mustache. Clears his fogged-up glasses with a section of untucked shirt. The spectacles still in his hand, he notices the others start to walk towards him in a blurred mass of camouflage. Like the trees themselves are migrating his way.
"Nah, now," he says and puts the glasses back on, motions at them. "I'll come over to y'all." Noal holsters his gun and shuts the truck door, tucks a plug of snuff into the cavity of his jaw. On his way Noal stops and kneads a cramp out of his bad hip, glances out across the hay patch at a grove of trees. On the other side, the trail leading to the cabin where Jacqueline has been living since the funeral.
Four years ago, Noal was a detective with Shelby County in Memphis when he moved a pregnant Jacqueline to Lee so they could care for his father, Monroe, after he suffered his second stroke. Monroe's wife—Noal's step mom—had gone on the lam after the attack, leaving the old man to fend for himself at the North Mississippi Medical Center. It was supposed to be a temporary move. After Monroe's death, Noal decided to stay in Lee and get Jacqueline and their unborn son out of Memphis, took a position with the Claygardner County Sheriff's Department and spent the next three years renovating the cabin and cultivating the surrounding property as a place he intended to spend weekends with Sam in winter hunting deer when the boy was old enough. In the spring and fall, walking dove and quail, pheasants out of the field. When Sam was in high school, a place Noal could turn the occasional blind eye toward while his son hosted a kegger, spent a weekend with whatever girl he was dating that week.
But now Jacqueline's spending her days at the cabin and each week Noal drops off a cooler of food at the mouth of the gated trail leading there. A dressed deer, cluster of quail or a string of catfish, drum or two of propane for heat and cooking. Boxes of groceries and ingredients she was never without: onions, garlic, basil, parsley, thyme, olive oil, red wine vinegar. A miscellany of spices. He felt this system of provision a means to the end that would be them reaching some point where they could move on. Preferably together. Alone if he has to. But then two weeks ago she left something at the gate for him: the My Buddy doll they gave Sam for his third and last birthday. He tried to go along with it at first, but after a day of riding around with the doll in the car seat he should have had Sam in that night, he left the toy at home. Which is why, after he handles this business with the colonel, gets them all off his land, he's going to take the doll and a load of groceries and confront Jacqueline for the first time since the wreck. Tell her he loves her but that he has to move on.
What Noal thinks is a beacon of red hair in the corner of his eyes. He scans the area again, doesn't find her. Even so, he imagines Jacqueline standing somewhere at the edge of the woods, those blue eyes trained on him, blended in with the trees where he can't make her out.
"What're you looking at?" one of the twins says.
Noal looks over and shakes his head, walks to them.
"Glad to see you could make it," Sheriff Patrick Stokes says and extends his hand. "Get up and get around, come join us this morning."
"Wouldn't miss it, Patty," Noal says. Six-foot-three, Patrick towers over Noal. Clean-shaven face and crew-cut hair, his unseasonable tan Noal knows is attained at the video-shop-slash-tanning salon Carol manages. In high school Carol hopped between the two of them every few months when she was just a flighty hometown beauty of sorts. Last night, after an hour of flirting with him at Fugley's Bar in Bodock, Noal went home with Carol, which seemed as justifiable at the time as anything ever had been, too drunk to refuse the company. The turtleneck Patrick wears under his khaki uniform wraps around a neck as thick and long as a highcut stump. Even through the camouflage coat, muscles bulge from the get-up like severe tumors.
Noal looks up at the colonel. "So what killed the colonel?"
"Well," Marvin says. "For all we know he might've just been scared into not coming down. Died of dehydration or hypothermia, one."
"I'd have to see the thing that kept this son-of-a-bitch from coming in out of the cold," Noal says.
Patrick says, "Follow us."
They lead him to the deer carcass about a hundred yards away from the colonel. Noal measures the distance with his strides. Around it the ground is rutted up and the deer looks as if it's been run through a wood chipper, the chipper having done a shitty job of digesting it. The cold has preserved it. There are no maggots. The animal's back is broken and its entrails spill on the ground from its chest and torso. The tendons of its hips severed, its hind legs hang from their split joints like a Thanksgiving turkey. The meat from its hind quarters and backbone has been torn out and tufts of fur crowd around the animal, pieces that might fit into patches of visible flesh had its skin not been ripped back and turned inside out.
"Huh," Noal says and scratches the back of his head. "Goddamn."
"What do you think got a hold of it?" Patrick asks. "Cougar?"
"Looks like a cougar maybe," Hal said. "Maybe some of them pits the niggers let run wild after fighting them."
"White trash'll do the same," Noal says.
"To the deer?" Hal says.
Noal says, "With pit bulls."
"What about coyotes?" Marvin asks.
"Could have been coyotes," Noal says. He spits a brown rope of tobacco juice and wipes away some saliva that caught on his chin. Under other circumstances, Noal would've chalked the deer up to the doings of a black bear, the way the skin's ripped back being the bear's style. But Noal knows better. When Jacqueline ran off, she'd left most of her things there at the house and a note instructing only that she was going away for a while but didn't know where, that she would call in the next few days. She added in a post script that no, she wasn't plotting to end her life. A few days later Noal went out to the cabin to finish renovating, do any damn thing in the world to get his mind on something else besides the fact he hadn't heard from Jacqueline in almost a week. Walking up the trail to the cabin he saw her there rocking the doll on the porch. He ducked behind a tree before she could see him and watched. She didn't say anything to the doll, wasn't reading it stories or telling it jokes or cooing it to sleep, wasn't playing patty cake with it. Was just holding the doll, staring off. He wanted to go up to her then, hold her in his arms and not for any damn reason let her go. But then he saw the myriad carcasses of small bird and game on the porch and out in the surrounding yard: birds and squirrels mostly from what Noal could make out from his particular vantage, feathers and fur littering the yard. Rib cages pointing upwards like grasping hands. Looking back, it made sense that she'd need to provider herself food eventually, but at the time the evidence of what Noal could only explain away as her madness terrified him. Instead of approaching her, he turned around and headed back to the empty house in Lee, faced a brand of lonesome there you only get when all the sounds of a child had filled a place once and then just didn't anymore. The next day, he started bringing her the food, had continued making the deliveries every week until this past Sunday. Too distracted by the doll, his frustration over the ambiguity of the gesture. He hopes to God what he's looking at now isn't the result of his negligence.
"Yeah, could have been coyotes," Noal says. "But the way the skin's ripped back there makes me think black bear. Y'all moved around out here at all, see if you could find any prints?"
"Marvin was out here first," Patrick says. "We all walked the field some. Far as prints go, only ones we saw was from two different pairs of boots. Figured they was from yours or Colonel's."
Noal nods at the grove of trees. "What about back in those woods?"
"Just around this field's all," Marvin says.
"Huh," Noal says. On the other side of the deer he notices some blood frozen near the peak of a pine sapling in a pattern similar to the one the exit wound of a long rifle cartridge would cough out. "Looks like the colonel bagged it before he died," Noal says, pointing at the blood. He looks back at the colonel's body, little more than an orange brushstroke halfway up the tree, like a mistake in a painting. Then, over at the twins. Noal notices the only difference between their outfits is one's wearing a pair of coveralls. The other, a coat over his overalls. Same Mossy Oak pattern. He nods at the rifle slung over one of their shoulders. "Is that the colonel's?" he asks. "Mind if I take a look?"
The twin hands it to him.
"Appreciate it, Marvin."
"It's Hal," he says. "We found it on the ground under the colonel there."
Noal admires the piece: .270 Weatherby Magnum, synthetic stock. Bolt-action. He shucks out the remaining cartridges and harvests the three ballistic-tip shells from the ground, sticks them in his pocket. It's a four-cartridge magazine. Because of the unaccounted shell, Noal explains on the way back to the tree stand that the colonel probably shot the deer before he died. But when he looks around the ground below the colonel, he doesn't find an empty casing.
"No shell?" Patrick asks.
Noal considers the colonel above him. "Might've put it in his pocket. That deer was definitely shot though. Whatever got a hold of it did so after the deer was dead."
"What about the colonel?" Hal asks.
"Probably a stroke," Noal says and shrugs. "Cardiac arrest. Typical shit that gets people that are old. I'd be willing to bet he had prostate cancer, although I'm going to go out on a limb like the colonel there and say that's probably not why he's dangling halfway up one of my fucking trees."
"Don't change the fact some badass something got a hold of that deer," Patrick says.
Noal can't argue there. Patrick instructs Marvin to get a garbage bag from the truck and collect the deer. When the rest of them get the colonel out of the tree Noal checks his pockets for an empty shell—just to make sure—but doesn't find one. Patrick volunteers to take the colonel down to Jackson that afternoon for an autopsy. They wrap the body in a tarp and put it in the back of Patrick's Bronco in the same hunched position rigor mortis had captured it in the stand.
"Ought to set up a lookout out here," Marvin says, the black garbage bag slung over his shoulder, the weight of it drawing the plastic thin in places.
Noal places his hands on his hips and arches his back to stretch out the cramp. "What the hell for?" he says.
Marvin says, "Case that cougar or bear or whatever thing did this is still out here."
"Noal," Patrick says, staring back at Noal. "You know it's standard procedure."
"There's no standard procedure for abandoned carrion."
"There is when there's a corpse involved," Patrick says.
"Not when the two are unrelated."
"I don't know that these ain't. Besides, ain't like any of us got something better to do to bide our time anyway." Patrick scratches the back of his head and looks up at the swollen gray clouds. "Ice storm might get bad. You heard from Jacqueline?"
Noal doesn't answer. He's reminded of the meal Jacqueline had prepared for him just days before Christmas in their studio apartment in Midtown Memphis—grilled salmon and butternut squash and arugula salad with almonds and cranberries and balsamic vinaigrette—when, afterwards, she told him she was pregnant.
"Why don't you get some rest, Noal," Patrick says. "Shit, you look like death. I'll post one of the deputies out here."
"Nah," Noal says. "Had enough of people dicking around on my land for one day. I'll be back out here after lunch and walk around, play lookout for y'all."
· · ·
The night of the accident, Noal was driving Sam back from the cabin after Jacqueline had convinced him to move back to Memphis, resume his position with Shelby County Sheriff's Department. She couldn't stand it here, in Lee, Mississippi, where there were no live theaters or museums, not even a movie theater except the run-down drive-in which had given the two of them something to do on just three occasions, half-clothed in the backseat and moaning wordless spells in an effort to conjure up high school years they didn't have between them. Noal would still have the cabin of course, she offered, could drive Sam down I-55 every weekend to it if he wanted. Noal had conceded her point: renovations were just nearly complete and it was only an hour-and-a-half drive from Memphis. He could bring Sam down on Saturdays and Sundays, school breaks. Maybe that would've been the case. Maybe, had he and Sam made it back home that night after locking up the cabin, had the near-blind wife of that old preacher not pulled out in front of them, had Noal had time to swerve and miss the long black Lincoln growing like a shadow across the road. Had he not had Sam standing in his lap, manning the steering wheel like Sammie Brown, Winston Cup champion.
On the night before the funeral, Jacqueline had curled up on the far side of their bed and Noal lay on his back at the other edge. Noal was mapping the random constellations of glow-in-the-dark stars they had glued to their ceiling at Sam's request for those nights he wanted to sleep there between them. At some point Jacqueline had broken her silence.
"My womb is empty," she said. "My heart is both emptier and heavier. It's like a fist is pressed tight against the roof of my ribcage. It gets to be more a burden every time I speak."
These were not the things Noal, detective, understood. How something could be emptier and weigh more simultaneously. The anti-physics of goddamn life. His was a rationale based on concrete evidence in some instances easy to find, other times taking a further, forensic or psychological investigation. But that didn't mean he didn't feel it also. Lying there, it was if Sam was sitting on his chest playing some spontaneous game of theirs: Sam the cattle driver riding Noal the mustang. Peglegged Sammie steering his pirate vessel The Noal through warm Bahamian waters. Noal wanted to share that with Jacqueline, wanted to reach out and brush the swatch of her bare back exposed in the nightgown, finger the single mole there, his acknowledged presence and mutual grief some comfort to them both. He wanted to hole up in some intimate crevice of her body and wait this whole thing out. But just as she'd barely spoken to him since the accident, Noal had hardly been able to touch her. In those long intervals between human contact, Noal could sustain under the illusion that nothing had changed. Besides, it had been impossible to embrace her. How could he, when the last person he'd held flew out a windshield and slid across the dark pavement like only the limp shell of a boy could.
· · ·
After he sees them off his land, Noal grabs a quick lunch at the Butcher Block and goes over what all had developed out there. A dough burger and fries and two sweet teas later, he still can't wrap his head around it. He would like agree with Marvin that it was nothing but coyotes, that the reason the colonel only had three cartridges in his rifle was that he had fired the one to kill the buck and died some natural death at the commotion of it all. That the coyotes picked up the scent after a while and made their way to the buck. But there wasn't an empty shell nearby, and coyotes aren't generally capable of doing the damage that had been done to the buck. A black bear would make more sense, but there was no evidence, no prints. No matter how he figures it then, it all points in a direction Noal wishes it wouldn't.
When he's done with lunch, Noal drinks the beer from the glove compartment as he heads over to Jackson's Grocery on his way back out to the cabin. Inside the store, Noal works his way to the produce section through the herd of people hectic and eager to get home before the ice storm hits and the roads get too bad. He has his pick of butternut squash, relieved there's still some left over from season. He knows better than to even look for arugula and gets a head of Romaine lettuce along with some cranberries and almonds, picks up a bottle of balsamic vinaigrette and a lemon, a half-gallon tin of olive oil in case Jacqueline's run out. At the butcher he orders a dozen salmon filets, has to settle for seven. He grabs a few loaves of French bread on his way to the checkout stand.
"Ever see anything like this?" Terry Jackson, the owner, says, yelling over the jingling of the bell on the hinge of the door. Continuous chiming of items being scanned.
Noal watches a woman next lane over step up to the cashier, five cases of toilet paper in her buggy and four gallons of two-percent milk. "Not since the last ice storm we had caused everyone to go batshit crazy," Noal says. "Do nothing but sit on the toilet and drink milk for three days straight."
Terry laughs. "Heard the Colonel's left us."
Noal nods. "Yep."
"Damn peculiar way to go out, you ask me." Terry examines a loaf of French bread, holds it up to Noal as if Noal hasn't examined it himself already. "Peculiar choice for an ice storm."
"All the sliced bread's bought up."
Terry looks in the direction of the bakery aisle. "Well sure hope we got another pallet in the back. They ain't even let the lumberyard or factory out yet." Terry rolls the bottle of vinaigrette over the scanner. "You was out there, wasn't you? When they found the colonel?"
"I was. He died on my land."
"It true they found a deer out there look like it swallowed a grenade?"
Noal says, "More or less."
"And he just died in the stand there? That's some right scary stuff you ask me, Noal. Weird Twilight Hitchcock shit. Armageddon's closing in everyday." Terry glides the beers across the scanner. "I smell beer somewhere. Better make sure none of them's busted. So how you holding up Noal?"
"Not bad," Noal says.
"Someone other day said they seen your truck go by with a kid in the backseat. Same color and make as yours. I said ain't no way that could've been it. Wish it'd been though." Terry looks at Noal. "Me and Dyane, we been praying for you."
"Ah, hell." Noal glances up at Terry. "Yeah. Yeah, appreciate it, Terry." He says, "Means a whole lot."
Noal looks out the large panes of glass at the front of the store, out at the parking lot packed with slow-moving cars and drivers at each others' throats, swerving to miss unaware pedestrians heading to and from the store. A dented minivan moves up one aisle away from the store. At the end the vehicle stops and turns slowly down the next row, reveals Jacqueline at the far end of the lot. On her head the buckskin hat Monroe had always kept at the cabin. Ankle-length skirt peeking out from under the bear-fur coat hanging down around her knees and brown work boots on of some kind. Red curls suspended from the hat like the day he first came up on her at the cabin, her blue eyes piercing the gray atmosphere descended down on the parking lot.
"Noal," Terry says. "Noal. Hey, that going to be it?"
Noal shakes his head and looks at Terry. He looks back out at the parking lot, catches a last glimpse of Jacqueline walking away. Her movements are jerky, as if she's treading over loose gravel, distorted through the window pane being sprayed with sleet and rain.
Noal leaves the grocery bags and hurries outside, lurches up and down the lanes of the lot favoring his hip, winter mix pelting his face. He doesn't see Jacqueline anywhere. He runs over to his truck, almost slips on the slick pavement, fumbles the keys. When he opens the door he catches the perplexed face of a woman standing next to the car in front of him looking in at the doll in his backseat. "It's a doll, lady," he yells at her. "It's just a doll. It's just my kid's fucking doll, all right?"
He drives fast out of the lot. The truck fishtails when he pulls out into the street. When he clears the storefronts and hits the highway he locks in the four-wheel drive, the asphalt already holding ice, his right side wheels hanging off the road on the gravel shoulder for traction. He creeps along, scopes out the dense woods on either side of the truck for a beacon of red hair.
At the hay patch, Noal drives up on one of the twins sitting there on his four-wheeler, a shotgun in his lap.
"Hal," Noal says. "You seen anything?"
"It's Marvin," he says. "Patrick had me come back out here."
Noal asks him again if he's seen anything come through here. Marvin explains that Patrick had instructed him to stay and keep an eye out for anything suspicious until Noal got back out there, that he hasn't seen anything yet.
When Marvin is gone, Noal returns to the tree where the colonel had been set up and crawls around there, extends the perimeter of his earlier search, still doesn't find an empty shell. He sets off into the woods in the direction of the cabin. A ways in it comes into view, and he sees Jacqueline standing on the porch, her head in a plume of steam from the coffee cup she holds in both hands, peering up between sips in the direction of the trail, wearing the same thing he'd seen her in at the grocery store. He limps forward a few steps. His foot falls on a tree limb, the sound of the wood snapping muffled by the patter of sleet on the forest floor. He's not sure what move to make, damn ashamed to go up to her empty handed having left the groceries at the store. But he can't leave now and risk someone finding her. After a few minutes pass he threads himself out of the woods back the way he came. At the truck he tries to come up with a plan.
Noal awakes a little after ten in the cab. A set of eyes stares at him through the driver's side window left open a crack. He doesn't remember zipping the doll into his jacket, but there it is, cradled in the nook of his lap. The sleet had let up some time ago. When Noal jolts awake, the set of eyes held in the invisible skull of the animal darts away, rejoins the shapeless congregation of whitetails in the middle of the hay patch. Their eyes reflect the strands of lunar beams falling between the clouds, suspended like dying Christmas lights some distance from the truck.
The deer give him an idea. He retrieves the spotlight from beneath his seat and rolls his window the rest of the way down and fastens the light on the mounting bracket rigged to the side mirror. He slides out the bolt of the colonel's rifle and fishes the three shells from his coat pocket, deposits them into the magazine. Pushes the bolt into the chamber. He props the rifle on his left forearm stretched across the window of the door and aims the spotlight in the direction of a set of eyes isolated from the herd. Flicks the switch, sees a deer freeze in the illuminated path. Noal rushes to pull the animal into his sights before it can get its senses about itself, drapes the crosshairs across the deer's flank. Squeezes the trigger. The barrel flings fire into the darkness loitering along the edge of the spotlight's beam. The remainder of the herd hesitates before dispersing back into the woods.
Noal limps towards the deer. It's a doe. Its hind legs kick in the air and it grunts and slides across the frozen ground like a locomotive that's lost its tracks. Noal draws the Glock and fires once into the animal's lung. It's small, young. Even so he scans the area with the spotlight to make certain it doesn't have an orphaned fawn nearby.
In front of the cabin he walks over the horse apples fallen from the bodock tree as well as the skeletal remains of those long-ago carcasses and slings the animal to the ground. Steam rises from the bullet holes and the warm blood the holes leak. The pulse of Noal's heavy breathing in front of his face. He unzips his jacket and sets the doll on the stump facing the bodock tree. A thick glaze of ice has already taken to the branches of the bodock, and the woods are filled with the pained moans from other trees. The frequent, crisp reports of their limbs snapping.
Slung over a low branch is a rope Noal had hung there last summer, a slender rod of rebar bent into a lazy W and tied to one end of the rope. With a knife from his pocket he makes an incision above the knee and threads the rebar through the incision and hoists the animal into the air. The branch gives under the weight of the animal. Noal grunts a curse and drags the deer and the rope over to the porch. He tosses the rope over a wood beam and hoists the animal up, ties the rope off on the nearest wood column of the porch.
Noal removes a glove and makes another incision through the hide of the animal from its hind legs to its rib cage. Rips back the flaps of skin, cuts open its belly. Its intestines pour out onto the ground. The warm blood between his fingers as he dresses the animal. In the cabin's bedroom window he can make out a red ring of heat form the propane heater. Another in the kichen. A hand brushes across the thin curtains and parts them in the center. Then the curtains are released, and the floodlight above the front door sparks to life and illuminates the porch. Shafts of light spill out into the yard. A few feet from the deer's entrails he notices an empty cartridge casing at the foot of the porch steps. He picks the casing up and compares it with the other two inside the rifle, sees it's the same caliber. The front door opens and he watches Jacqueline step out on the porch huddled in the fur coat, tiny curls on the swatch of leg between her boots and the hem of the coat, her hair falling freely and a cup of coffee breathing in her hand.
"Just bringing you some food, Jackie" Noal says.
Jacqueline extends the mug. "Just bringing you some coffee."
Noal accepts the cup with both hands, looks at the blood he leaves on the mug's white surface. "I'm," he says. "I fucked up, Jackie."
She nods at the doll, then towards the cabin door. "It's late," she says. "You should stay the night."
Later, the gray light of dawn pouring into the cabin, she will tell Noal she had been walking one afternoon around the property when she noticed the man in the stand across the field. She will tell him she had observed the man until well past nightfall and then found him in the stand again early the next morning. She will tell him how she ventured cautiously around the field to where the man was, saw he was dead, saw his rifle on the ground there and how, hungry, she sat at the base of the tree until a deer came along, which she shot, taking the dispensed shell with her. She will tell him she felt bad for letting a dead man just sit up in a tree but she didn't know what else to do. She will tell him, over a cup of coffee, that it's obvious it was her first time field-dressing a deer, which Noal will agree to. They will laugh at that and she will tell Noal she's glad he's here and at some point Noal will attempt to confess things to her, but she will tell him she doesn't want to know, that what happened between then and now doesn't belong here. But right now, Noal follows her inside, as if this was some weekend that might have been and she was only moments away from accepting him and Sam into the cabin, turning the venison from Sam's first kill into some divine rare dish or—since dawn is near—a simple pairing of fried tenderloins and biscuit and jelly she canned last spring. The three of them waiting it out there until the world thawed itself.