Something Low, Something Golden
by Becca Borawski Jenkins
If Linda crawled up on the kitchen counter, pushed her shoulder against the far wall, and leaned her face forward until it almost touched the window, she could catch a glimpse of her father on his bench behind his shed. It had taken her some time to discover this and to understand where he went when he disappeared.
She turned as Nate entered the room, but wasn’t quick enough to slide off the counter before he noticed. He smiled at her, and she considered smiling back, but too often the fake smiles just melted into crying and she knew he found that more exhausting than finding her huddled on the kitchen counter.
“You can’t still miss spying on the man,” Nate said as he wiggled the door handle on the refrigerator. She thought having an old model would be quaint.
“Don’t you ever wonder what he did back there?” She looked out the window at the forest that lined their yard.
“Stared into the woods and drank whiskey?”
“Sometimes I thought his lips were moving,” she said.When her husband didn’t respond, she turned to him.
He held up his hands and shrugged, like he did when the dog shat on the rug and dragged his butt around in it, like there was nothing to do about the situation and they should live with a dog-shitty rug. “What was he? Ninety? I’ll be happy if anything is still moving,” he said.
She leaned back against the wall. “He was only eighty.”
Nate brushed by her as he headed for the door. Possibly he kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be back in time for dinner,” he said.
Once she’d heard the sound of the gravel under his tires fade away, she dragged one of the breakfast stools over to the corner, climbed up onto the kitchen counter, and knelt there with her face pressed against the glass.
During the long hours of summer, he liked to sit behind the shed and watch the woods as he sipped the whiskey Linda didn’t know about. He kept it in a flask he stashed in his trapping shed. Linda would never go in there. She hated the musky scent of beaver castor and the sight of all those animals dangling from the ceiling, stretched around boards and strung across hoops. To him the musk smelled like expensive perfume and he would have thought a child would like to run her fingers through all that soft brown fur. It was a vain endeavor, trying to gain the appreciation of a child. Unless, it was a grandchild. They were a different sort of creature. As different as a cougar and an elk fawn, a bobcat and a house cat, a coyote and a rabbit. The grandchild was the gentler, more generous creature, softer and to be protected. His daughter’s eyes held the suspicious slant of a predator, then and now.
He sucked from his flask and gazed into the forest that circled the homestead. In years past, the garden had been better tended, the rooster crowed each dawn, and the goats trimmed the lawn so he didn’t have to. All of that was gone. Linda tried her hand at growing vegetables, but she thought she didn’t need his advice, so the vegetables fell short of expectations and potential. The rooster and the billy goat had both grown so old as to be unsuitable even for the stew pot. They stood stiller and stiller, until one day it was noticed they were entirely absent, though the length of their absence or when it had begun could not be accurately accounted for.
His children had moved out, and then his wife had passed on, and Linda returned with her own family in tow. But the life that would be expected to accompany them was not the same as that which he had felt when he hammered the nails into the boards of this house, the vibration that zapped his palms and numbed his fingertips with every brick he laid, every beam he erected, every shingle of roof he slapped into place. That energy he had so carefully sealed in had somehow escaped.
Through all this, one thing remained steady—the woods—and sometimes as he drank his whiskey in secret and silence, the forest would grace him with old friends. The gray squirrel emerged and crinkled its nose at him. The cottontail jumped its front and then its bottom and wiggle its undersized ears. The raccoon rubbed its conniving little fists before disappearing back into the bushes to enact its plan. He sat on his bench facing the tree-line and watching the animals appear and disappear, one by one. Rustling in and out of the undergrowth, jiggling the buds on the blackberry bushes, daring to press themselves against the copious nettles of spring. Above them, the flicker squealed, the woodpecker fired a few rounds, and the chickadee sang chick-a-dee-dee-dee.
And sometimes, on a special day like today, the Elk Mother appeared, pushing softly through the leaves, her dark brown snout, followed by her long profile, damp eyes, and silly ears. She poked her head out and then stilled, surveying her surroundings for anything out of place from the time before, her head haloed by branches as if mounted on a wall.
Grandpa stilled, too, his flask midway between his lap and his mouth, as did the squirrel, and the rabbit, and the chick-a-dee-dee-dee. They all paused in anticipation of her majesty.
Next came her neck, so naked compared to that of her mate, which sloped down to her small shoulders that were somehow suspended above her knobby, thin legs. Her strength not obvious, but never tenuous. A strength apparent in the gentle, yet insistent nudge she would give her fawns to keep them moving, but there were no fawns this year. It was just her, and once the light hit her white behind, and Grandpa could see her in complete, he knew she was real.
She was here.
She tiptoed along the edge of the forest and the collective gaze of the fauna followed. She was so large, and gentle, and quiet, and precise, her eyes so softly blinking as her teeth crunched at the leaves with a mindfulness not even a monk could achieve. She was not beautiful, but she was beauty.
She did not often appear, especially in summertime. She preferred the cooler air of the mountainsides and only came down low in the deepest of winter. Or so it was said, but he and his forest friends knew better. They knew if they stayed silent and still for long enough she would appear. Grandpa had as much time as any squirrel, or cottontail, or raccoon anymore.
The Elk Mother turned toward him. She snorted lightly, unconcerned.
He stared at her, watching her small muscles slide underneath her gray-brown coat. In the corner of his eye, something bright appeared. He pulled his gaze from the Elk Mother and was greeted with a smile.
His granddaughter Ellie’s face glowed in the sideways light that framed her face with a cascade of sunset and golden hair. She stood at the edge of the forest, some twenty feet behind the Elk Mother, another two or three times that from Grandpa, taking equally dainty and precise, though somewhat smaller steps. She put her finger to her lips.
“I am following the Elk Mother,” she whispered, and somehow he could hear her loud and clear.
Linda straightened the row of stuffed animals for the fifteenth time this week. It was something she did every time Nate left the house, a coping mechanism. Compulsively organizing and straightening. Folding the clothes, remaking the bed. Opening and closing the curtains lest the room get too hot in the morning or fail to cool in the evening. Changing the towels in the little pink bathroom that adjoined. Checking the shampoo, the soap, and the toothpaste so nothing ever ran out, which of course it never did since nothing in this room was ever used.
And she straightened the animals.
Sometimes she swore the furbears moved, but that was the sort of nonsense her father had spoken, that he tried to convince her of when she was a child and that she would have none of. Despite all the time her mother had forced her to spend with her father, they had never reached any sort of understanding. Moving back here after her mother died, she’d thought things were better for a while, that a common love for Ellie could provide them with a common ground, but then everything was lost—the common and the uncommon ground—and she’d not realized how much she would miss them both.
Now, it amused her that her own child had succumbed to the fairy tales and even given the toys a name.
“The furbears,” Ellie had called them.
Her father’s quaint way of speaking, his strange rural accent that thank God she hadn’t inherited. Fur bearers. Furbears. Was he still trapping when Ellie was little? Or did he just tell her stories. She wasn’t sure. So much blended together. The memories that were and the memories that weren’t. The memories that might have been.
Her fingers ran along the stuffed animals until they rested on a leopard-print bear. She plucked it from the shelf and pet its fur into place. She snuggled it amongst the pillow array that crowned the little twin bed. How many pillows did one child need? It was enough for a girl to get lost in them.
Ellie tiptoed closer to the Elk Mother, so close Grandpa thought she might be kicked if the creature suddenly noticed his granddaughter’s presence, but the Elk Mother did not notice for the longest of time. Conspiring to help the little golden-haired girl, the birds chirped to cover the sound of her movement and a cottontail darted across the field and caught the Elk Mother’s eye.
When Ellie was almost close enough to reach out and touch her rump, the Elk Mother finally noticed. She did not start, or snort, or squeal, but turned toward Ellie and lowered her head. She nudged her damp, dark nose against the girl’s cheek.
In the front yard, a card door slammed and a thumping bass pulsed. The Elk Mother raised her head and with a single leap she should never have been able to manage, she was gone—over the impassable blackberries and into the woods with only the hush that accompanies the realization of absence.
“Did you see, Grandpa?” the little girl yelled as she ran to him and the birds scattered. “Did you see?”
She collided with his knees and he placed his palms on either side of her heart-shaped face.
“I did, little one.”
She pressed her lips together and scrunched her eyes, trying to squeeze her cheek muscles and push out against his hands. After a moment or two of effort, she sighed.
“Can I pet the furbears now?”
“Of course,” he said and took her hand.
The inside of the shed was strung with every kind of animal, from wall to wall like an old lady’s walk-in closet—otters, beavers, bobcats, civet cats, muskrats, raccoons, rabbits, martens, and even a cougar or two. Beaver pelts stretched across hoops like the skin of a drum. Otters and weasels wrapped around boards into something resembling their original, strange, long shape. The wood stove crackled and kept the air warm and dry. The furs swayed in the breeze of the ceiling fan.
“How can we tell if they’re prime?” Grandpa asked the little girl, as if reciting a school lesson.
“The skin is white,” she said as she reached for the nearest fur and ran her fingers through it. She pet at the beaver and pulled on the otter tails.
“Gently,” he said. “We should always be kind to the furbears. They provide us with a lot.”
She let go of the tail and blew a kiss to the otter pelts. She rubbed her cheek against a skinny marten.
Piled along the couch beside the fire were so many furs it was no longer a place to sit, at least not for him. Ellie liked to climb in among the furs and bury herself like a kit in a den. These furs were different from the ones that hung and he loved that she wasn’t disturbed by them.
They had claws and dark dried holes where their fake eyes would go.
Whole furs, but not whole animals, waiting for the taxidermist to reanimate them.
Ellie lifted the head of a bobcat and aimed her eyes at its black orbits.
“Do they ever come back to life?”
“What do you think?” he asked.
She looked into the bobcat’s eyes for an answer.
“I think they do when we’re not looking,” she said. She lifted the cat from the couch and straddled it, holding its midsection with one hand and its head with the other, trying to walk it across the floor as if it were a living thing.
“Maybe they leave here at night and sneak back in by morning,” he said.
“Maybe sometimes you find their fur is a little damp even though your fire has been burning,” she said.
“Maybe I find their paws have been dirtied,” he said.
She released the bobcat to the floor and stared into the mouth of a cougar. It hung across the back of a chair by itself, its front legs poised on the chair arms, its large body draped behind the chair back, its long tail running unexpectedly far across the floor.
“Maybe you find blood on their teeth,” she said.
Grandpa and Ellie traipsed along the forest path despite the waning daylight. There might be enough time before dinner to collect the oyster mushrooms he’d been waiting to tell her about. If only she’d arrived sooner, it would be safer for them now. His hips ached as they pressed forward and the gravel crunched loudly beneath his feet.
Ellie pulled him to a stop and again put her finger to her lips.
“We don’t want them to hear us,” she whispered, always on the hunt to spot the furbears in their habitat.
He nodded and squeezed her hand.
They continued their walk in a slow and deliberate silence as the flowers closed and the mushrooms glowed in the bluing light, but it wasn’t them she had eyes for. Her eyes were like night-vision goggles searching for sign.
He pointed to the scrapes on a tree trunk.
She made claws with her hands and quietly roared.
He pointed to the scuff marks on another trunk.
She spread her fingers and made antlers on her head.
He pointed to the scat on the trail.
Her face scrunched up as she thought. After a moment she whispered, “Woof, woof?”
He smiled, but the presence of the predator made him uneasy.
“Let’s go back now,” he said as he tugged at her hand. “Your mother will be mad if we’re late to dinner.”
“But look,” she said and pointed at the ground.
The deep pits of the Elk Mother’s tracks pocked the wet soil. From the depth he could tell she had been moving quickly. She had sensed what he sensed. What was beyond the trail’s edge. What hadn’t left any sign, any track for them to discover. The presence in the woods that he only felt in the tiniest hairs on the back of his neck—but if he was honest, he had felt it for some time. His hand drifted to his belt, feeling for his pistol, but it was not there. Linda had demanded it from him some years ago, locked it up somewhere and left it to rust.
Ellie darted ahead of him on the trail, hovering alongside the Elk Mother’s tracks.
“Let’s find her again!” she shouted. Her voice reverberated through the trees. A wave of sound followed by a wake of silence. The air being sucked out of the atmosphere in the collective horror of the animals, a communal gasp. Who would make themselves so known in the presence of the beast?
His eyes probed the woods, looking for it. Feeling it. Knowing it must be.
Ellie leaned over and poked her finger into one of the Elk Mother’s prints.
He scanned the growing darkness—the pointed leaves of the blackberries and the dull orange bark of the madrones blurred together.
“Grandpa, look,” she said.
She stood in the trail and pointed into the woods.
He followed her fingertip, the make-believe line it projected into the brush.
He met the glow of the yellow-green eyes. Jewels, dotted by small round irises, embedded in the broad cheekbones of the cougar. Its head hovered among the salal branches in front of him. Their stares locked each other in time. He lost sense of everything but the spaces between he and the cat, Ellie and the cat, Ellie and himself. His mind jumped from one side of the triangle to the next, wishing he were closer to the girl, but not daring to move as he stared back at the animal, trying to hold its focus, to be the only creature in the woods, the only prey it could see.
The cat’s eyes shifted to the little girl.
“Ellie,” Grandpa said.
She looked at him.
Linda plucked the leopard-print bear back from the bed, from its den of pillows. She hugged it tight against her chest, crushing its soft insides flat until it felt like she was hugging herself. No matter how often she entered this room, no matter how clean the sheets, or how straight the towels. No matter how she imagined the ways her daughter would have arranged the toys. No matter if she tossed them on the floor and picked them up again in pretend exasperation. No matter if she secretly bought school outfits and added them to the closet. No matter how many times her husband sighed and invited nieces, nephews, and neighbors’ children to visit, wishing she would move on. No matter how many times she read books out loud to the empty room, her daughter would not return.
She missed her child.
The fur of the animal she hugged grew damp beneath her fingers.
Grandpa had thought Ellie would run toward him, toward home, but instead she ran away. She ran after the Elk Mother’s tracks into the deeper woods. The cougar leapt from the brush and pursued her. Grandpa lurched forward, but he had no hope of catching either creature.
“No!” he yelled as the pain shot through his hips and he fell to his knees.
For every twenty steps the girl needed, the cougar needed one. For everything she didn’t know about the forest, the cougar knew a thousand more. For every sense she lacked, for her previous lack of fear, the cougar had a deeper, stronger, more terrifying ability. It did not have fear. It was fear.
Ellie stopped running. She turned back toward him and the oncoming cougar.
“Run!” he yelled. Why did she stop?
Then, with a bound so immense he did not see from where she came, did not see the barrier she crested, so large and so far it was, so broad her abilities, the Elk Mother appeared—as if she had always been there and it was they who were mistaken in not seeing her.
She stood tall in the trail between Ellie and the now stalled and snarling cat. Despite the distance, Grandpa could make out its teeth below its curling lips, but the whites of the Elk Mother’s eyes glowed just as bright. As the cat crept forward, boldly, egotistically, the Elk Mother leaned back on her haunches and let her front hooves fly. She pelted the cougar’s skull with her blows and he flurried back. He snarled and she snorted and Ellie screamed. The gangling limbs of the Elk Mother pummeled down against the fleshy muscle of the cougar. Her hooves banged into his bones and slid off his plush fur. He swiped his claws at her. He bit at her passing forelimbs, but she remained out of his grasp. For every claw he caught on her skin, an army of blows landed on his sides and his skull. With a grunt she landed a push against his face that drove them both backward.
The elk and the cat stood before each other. She stared down at him from the bottom of her eye, her breath huffing up into the dusky air. The cougar stood with all four limbs slightly bent, as if he might go any direction at any moment, and yet he did not. From behind the cougar, Grandpa could see its shoulder muscles, ample and dense. They moved, slowly, gathering at a nearly imperceptible rate, tightening into the nape of its neck.
Grandpa grasped at the mud in front of him.
“No, please,” he whispered.
The cougar flew through the air. He hung for an eternity. His claws reaching beyond the elk toward Ellie. His tail strung behind him like a rocket flare. Beneath the arc of his flight, Grandpa saw Ellie’s face locked in terror.
The Elk Mother spun and let her rear legs fly.
The brunt of her awkward body, the mass of her beauty, the magnitude of her motherhood struck the cougar square in the chest. She tore him from the sky and flung him at the dirt.
He rolled into the brush and disappeared into the darkness once again.
The Elk Mother stood next to Ellie and nuzzled the child’s forehead, then quickly ushered the girl against her belly, pushing her down the trail—not toward Grandpa, not toward home, but again toward the deeper woods.
“Wait,” he said.
Ellie looked back over her shoulder as the Elk Mother continued to push her away. He crawled forward, but his hands and knees sunk deeper into the mud. The air felt thinner and his mind spun. The edges of the trail softened. He brushed at his eyes and felt the mud on his face.
When he looked again, the trail was lined with fur. Animals? Their fuzzy shapes became clear. Dozens upon dozens. Squirrels and martens. Raccoons and rabbits. Beavers and possums. Otters. Muskrats. Coyotes and foxes. A civet cat.
A small leopard-print bear.
They stepped into the trail and amassed before him, pushing against each other, staring at him like taxidermy art, like toys on a bookshelf. But they kept moving even when he looked away and looked back again. Their eyes like glass. Their bellies cut open. Their bodies empty inside. They hovered in front of him like the many furs that hung from his shed. That he walked through and smelled, that he pressed his cheeks against when the days were long and hard, that he spoke to when he couldn’t speak to anyone else, that he tried to bury himself inside.
The hairs on the back of his neck tingled. He looked to his right.
The Elk Mother had known the danger had not passed.
The cougar lowered himself and stepped forward. His chest hanging heavily between his shoulders, his neck stiff and vision locked as his golden shape slunk through brush.
As the cougar leapt, Grandpa dove forward and pressed his face into the mud. He wrapped his hands around the back of his neck and hugged his elbows to his skull. He felt a sharpness tear at his spine. He lifted his head, and though he could not hold it still against the storm on his back, he stared into the faces of the furbears.
Linda stood in the backyard, hugging the leopard-print bear to her chest. She mumbled under her breath as she took high steps across the backyard, cursing Nate for not having mowed. It was too hard to maneuver around the shed, he claimed. If he kept it up she was going to tear down the whole damn thing just to see what he did then.
The door to the trapping shed stood ajar. She poked at it and the door swung open.
It was the same as it had been for some time. The animals that terrorized her youth were long gone. No more pelts hung from the ceiling. No more stench of castor and flesh. An empty room with barely an echo of its past lives.
She closed the door and walked back to her father’s bench. If she leaned forward far enough, she could look back and see the kitchen window. If she squinted, she could make out her own face pressed against the glass.
She turned back to the woods.
She blinked at a bit of movement.
Something low. Something golden.
About Becca Borawski Jenkins
Becca Borawski Jenkins holds an MFA in Cinema-Television Production from USC and has short stories appearing or forthcoming in Menacing Hedge, concis, The Forge, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Jersey Devil Press, and Corium. She and her husband live half the year off-grid in the Idaho Panhandle in a cabin they built by hand. The other half of the year they roam the country in their RV.