Christian Woodard, 10/9/2017
Current Occupation: I just finished a Forest Service season out of Red Lodge, MT and am on my way to Kodiak to pack goat hunts. This winter I'll guide glacier trips in Patagonia.
Former Occupation: I've been a newspaper writer, managed an apple orchard, gillnetted salmon, and built trails. I've had short stints as a professional kayaker, graphic and web designer, driver, and dishwasher.
Contact Information: I was born in Western New York and live most of the time in south-central Montana.
Skinning the Fish
Graham followed, bloodying his palms on the salmonberry to catch his balance. “It’s important to be wounded,” he said. He showed his hands to the guide then wiped them on his new pants.
“I avoid it when I can,” Falco said without looking back. He followed game trails through birches which sometimes opened into cottonwood orchards where deer had trampled the meadows to mud. The elder bushes were bitten back hard. Too many deer.
They were going to fish on Park Creek. That’s what Merle and Falco called the drainage that linked their camp to the center of the island. Merle had built the camp near Park Creek’s mouth, where it carried quartz and gold dust to a black gravel delta that, at low tide, nearly closed off the bay. It was an old mining claim.
Falco was taking Graham to the pool where silver salmon collected before thrashing up a canyon. The drainage hooked behind one of the long, peninsular ribs that descend from the backbone of the island and define its bays. Merle had always called those sharp, icy mountains “The Spine.”
They were nearly to the pool when Graham whispered, “Look,” and pointed out a lone hoof track in the mud. “I think there might be a deer here.” His eyes went wide inside their heavy brows.
“I think you’re right, Graham.” Falco tried not to treat him like a child, but he couldn’t help ending sentences with his name. He led with exaggerated quietness, stopping sometimes to listen.
Graham unslung his rifle — a Savage 30-06 that still had stickers on it — and tried to walk exactly in Falco’s footsteps. It was the same, ordinary rifle Graham had used two days before to shoot a mountain goat through the hoof, across the rump, and in the gut before they could finally get close enough to kill it.
Falco’s rifle wasn’t old, but saltwater had corroded the blueing and its butt stock was chipped because he used it as a walking stick. He was hard on his body, too, which at thirty-five had bad knees and back, arthritic fingers, and deep lines around the mouth that showed through a fine blond beard. The skin above his cheeks was thin and creased, which which gave him a distant expression. From time in the binoculars, he thought.
His eyes, though, were quick and earnest. In close conversation he had the same youthful energy as when he had first met Merle at O’Hare.
Falco had stood at the baggage claim, looking for an Alaskan Hunting Guide that had rescued three Kodiak bears siblings when their mother was shot. The Zoo was flying Merle down for their bear symposium. Big beard, Falco had thought. Plaid shirt.
“You the zoo kid,” a very tall man asked. He wore a blazer. The man bent toward him and Falco could smell booze on his breath. His short dress pants made him look even taller.
Falco stood quietly until his expectations adjusted. “How did you know?”
“You smell like shit.”
Falco worked in an animal behavior lab where he entered data on a computer. He wished he smelled more like shit.
Merle leaned down again and winked. “No. I can’t smell worth a damn, anyway.”
At the symposium, Merle had talked about how trophy hunting helped Kodiak bears. One of the scientists asked how many he’d killed and Merle said he had only taken one bear himself. “I caught her knocking down my cabin wall,” he said. “Wish I didn’t have to do it.”
“But when you take trophy hunters, do you carry a gun?”
“Of course.” Merle shook his head slightly at the scientist. “I back my clients up, if that’s what you mean.”
The man smiled. “How many bears have you pulled the trigger on?”
Merle thought for a minute and counted on his fingers. “Close to a hundred, I’d guess.”
Doctor Petersen stood quickly and thanked Merle politely for saving the baby bears.
Merle sat down heavily next to Falco. “They think I’m a peasant who accidentally dug up a pot of gold,” he’d said from the side of his mouth. “These bitches,” he finished his wine and exhaled, “wouldn’t know a tapeworm if it crawled out of their ass.”
Falco quit his job and went to Kodiak that summer. Merle flew him to the hunting camp in his 206. Neither of them had been south in eight years.
Falco walked upstream until the canyon vaulted above them. Its whitewater swirled and churned into a dark pool. He pointed out the slow, dark dorsal fins of salmon resting at the inside bend. “Just cast across them and pull your lure through that bunch.”
“Won’t we scare them?” Graham scrunched his eyes shut when he asked questions. He might have thought he was blinking, but it used more cheek than eyelid.
“I doubt it,” Falco said. “Good job walking quietly back there, Graham.” Falco picked a stem of dry rye grass and chewed it while Graham lowered himself down the cutbank and threaded his rod.
Once, in the zoo basement, Falco had found an escaped chimp tugging at a payphone. The monkey squinted at him. With a sudden violent motion it broke the telephone cord and galloped down the hall holding the receiver.
Graham glanced up at Falco and moved a few steps upstream. He swung the rod with the bail closed and the lure splashed into the shallows. Graham slammed the reel open and tried again, losing his balance with the cast. Falco turned his back to the stream so Graham didn’t feel watched.
Falco had gone to college for animal behavior, which had all the benefits though none of the social requirements of studying people. He had had a few strong human relationships, but they’d all soured in the end. It had been that way with Doctor Petersen and the director at the lab. Merle was different, though. Merle had never meant to misuse him.
When Falco had cornered the escaped monkey it brandished the phone receiver. He knew he should return the chimp to its enclosure but crouched to speak softly and the animal came to him. It rested the thick skin of its palm on Falco’s shoulder in the sort of gesture only one free being could give to another. He let it walk its strong fingers up to his ear. They faced each other curiously.
“I’m sorry,” he’d said. Startled, the monkey jumped back, clubbed him on the forehead with the phone and run out into the hallway. Oh well. He had been sorry, all the same.
Graham made a few casts well short of the fish, which held their place. The lure was heavy enough that he should have been able to send it all the way across. Graham relaxed into the gentle repetition of retrieving the spoon. Maybe he just wanted to fish without actually catching one.
When Graham had arrived three days earlier, Falco expected to see Merle get out of the floatplane, too. The old man wouldn’t be tying up at the floating dock anymore. He had flown straight into a mountain that spring, when the ceiling closed down during one of his rare runs to town. Crashes like that didn’t happen very much anymore, but it happened to Merle, and Falco still had the small bag of his ashes in the hide shed.
The new pilot was young and couldn’t get the back door handle to turn. When it did pop open a flat of eggs slid onto the dock.
“Sorry,” he said. “Rough flight.”
Falco set the eggs on a fuel drum. Graham stumbled off the plane under the weight of his backpack. His lips and eyebrows stuck out so that he looked like a pensive, balding ape. He shook Falco’s hand and then leaned in for a back-patting hug. Falco had hunted with Graham before — sheep and moose in the Alaska Range and once for brown bear on the Peninsula. Graham pretended to be a plumber, but he sure had a lot of money for trophy hunts.
Falco planned to bring the ashes into the head of Park Creek, but he was booked solid through the winter. He’d have to get up there on a hunt, and needed a strong client to make it over the mountains and back. He and Merle had always wanted to hunt up there. Once they’d watched from the plane as forty-six goats formed a line and walked out the head of the valley through a narrow notch. They could plot approaches on the map, but neither of them had made it to the high bowl that looked, from camp, like the belly button of the island.
Falco helped Graham carry his bags up the slick stairs. Camp was a collection of buildings racked by wind. Merle built the main house and a guest cabin; Falco had added a small cabin for himself. There was also a small shack leftover from the mining claim that, by unspoken tradition, they left to decay. They stretched and salted the hides in there and hung mesh meat bags from the haphazard rafters. So far, it still stood. Canning salt seeped from its foundation and the door skewed off one hinge.
The charter plane roared away from the cove. Graham set down bags at his cabin. He spread his arms and sighed deeply. “It’s good to be back,” he said, and wrapped Falco in another hug. He meant Alaska, maybe, because he’d never set foot on Kodiak. Falco imagined that Graham was the disappointing son of a powerful businessman. He tested Graham’s gym muscles under the new camo jacket. He could probably make it to the Spine.
Finally, by luck, Graham snagged a silver in the heavy current. After a few runs he pulled it onto the clay. The fish was pale red, with its silver scales long gone, and lay tangled in monofilament from desperate rolls to throw the lure. As Graham worked the line off, a few orange eggs rolled out onto the bank and back into the water.
“A nice fish, eh?”
“A very nice fish.” Falco used pliers to pull the rusted treble hook from where it had snagged, near her vent. “Would you like a picture?”
“Of course.” Graham held the fish gently for the photo.
“Nice. You know how to let her go, running the water over her gills?”
“I’d like to keep it.”
Falco always paused before speaking. This came off as awkwardness among people who prepared their next statement while the other person spoke. Here on Kodiak, though, he felt that clients appreciated time to weigh their thoughts. “Will you eat it? The meat will be pretty far gone.”
“No, we’ll mount him.” The fish moved quietly and Graham squirmed against it.
Clients came to escape whatever trapped him down south, and Falco didn’t like to burst their bubbles. Falco touched his waxed baseball hat. “They don’t do skin mounts on fish anymore. A taxidermist will use a photo and measurements to make a fiberglass model. You’d better let her go before she’s too weak to swim.”
“Aren’t those skin mounts in the house?” Graham squeezed his eyes closed and shook his head a little.
At times, Falco pitied his clients so much he forgot to be angry with them. “Yes, but they were done fifty years ago. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who does them, now.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll find someone,” Graham said, handing the fish back. “Can you kill him, please?”
Falco didn’t notice Merle’s absence so much a shadowy presence in his own habits and attitudes. Now wordless, Merle-like hatred overtook his pity. He rapped the fish on its forehead with his knuckles. She jerked and the muscles quivered. Graham scurried off into the weeds, probably to take a shit, which he did after most exciting events.
He slid the thin tip of his boning knife into the fish’s skull, cut out the stiff gills and washed her in the water. Even so, her body undulated in the current. Dying was such a long process. Her skeleton was already soft and the throat had separated so that her head gaped free, attached only by the backbone. She was a poor, mid-sized fish. He held her over the water and massaged the eggs from her belly into the current. Salmon, he thought, most ancient of fish. Female antecedent to all. The current was probably too strong for them to be fertilized but what did it hurt.
The canyon cut its top layers through glacial sediment and volcanic ash, but the bottom was a dark corridor of smooth schist. Salmon rested in pockets carved into its overhung walls. A few bright dikes of quartz receded up the black walls, padded with moss and fern. Falco had tried to walk around it on a bear hunt last year, but his client had been fat, and they had to turn back. Even after the canyon it was many miles to the green, headwater lake.
Two days ago they had nearly made it over the mountains to that basin where spring’s lemony green held long into the fall. Falco loved Kodiak’s insistent wetness. The water that evaporated here seemed to fall right back down. There was always a bit of life crawling out of some sodden pore.
He’d had his eyes on the highlands and when he looked back down, a bear walked on a sandflat downstream. It moved slowly with steps originating in its swinging belly. Falco liked watching them peel open salmon and swallow them down. The bear looked at Falco, glanced above him to where Graham may have been pulling up his pants by now, and disappeared silently into the alder.
They walked back to camp, where he set Graham up in the guide cabin with a small curved knife and a sharpening stone. Falco demonstrated how to pull the blade over the stone, and George tried with shaking hands.
“I don’t think I can do it,” he said.
“You got it, boss.” Falco opened the fish down its side and set it in Graham’s lap. It would be difficult to finish without ripping the decaying skin, but Graham needed to do something for himself, even if he failed.
Falco got some beer from under the porch and pulled a broken plastic chair next to Graham to work on the goat head. The painstaking work of ears nose, eyelids and lips would last him the afternoon.
Falco stropped the fine tip he needed. He adjusted the diesel stove and made his first cut to pull clean, white skin away from the skull. Falco loved the inner workings of animals — where the blood comes and goes; how the bones fit into one another. Muscles peeled apart in perfect packets like they were supposed to be meat. On the mountain he was careful not to set boned meat on dirty rock or lichen. Sometimes, he would drag an animal a long way to get it to snow or a stream where he could clean it properly.
He had made Graham drag the goat to the edge of the snowfield so Falco could look down into Park Creek while he worked. It was such a perfect, blue day to walk and still early. Falco had tried to settle into skinning, but the ragged flaps of hide were dirty and he had to be careful around the hind flanks where a bullet had creased both haunches and the scrotum. Maybe his bullet. The front hoof was punctured through its hard sidewall. Viscous oil poured from the soft interior pad where the goat used to feel its footing on slate.
He blamed Graham for taking the shot, but Falco should have been a better babysitter. They had watched the small billy for a few minutes. It was at about four hundred yards, sidehilling talus. It had small glands and spiky horns and was no trophy, but it kept glancing up before moving. Falco snuck ahead to see if it was looking to more goats above.
He hadn’t been ready when Graham shot. Falco turned to see the goat hunch and stumble before trotting down the talus. It looked like a good chest hit from the way the animal shrugged, so he was slow to find a rest on his jacket, dial down and shoot.
He should have been able to put the goat down, but the animal ran before Falco got on. He’d hit it once at about five hundred, and he’d broken its front leg at even farther. That was long range for a .375, but Falco wasn’t proud. There was no reason for a fit guy like Graham to take a long shot like that. With a little patience, you could usually get inside a hundred yards. He’d never done it with a client, but once, wearing a white Tyvek painting suit, he’d come close enough to see a big billy’s strange, squared pupils. The hunters always brought camo, but goats were more comfortable with white.
Graham’s goat drug itself downhill to lay in the melted pocket under a boulder. It raised its head to moan as they picked their way down. It looked like a yellow stain in the shadow. At two hundred yards, Falco made Graham shoot again.
“Hold right where its shoulder pokes out. You can kill it, Graham.” But he’d missed and it still whimpered when he shot again at a hundred.
Sick with its distress, Falco ran up and killed it from ten yards. He smoothed the goat’s ears as it finally quieted and waited ten minutes with his fingers in the coarse hair. Falco wanted them both to calm down before they did anything.
Falco stood slowly. “Alright, Graham?”
“I feel awful, man.” His eyebrows were pulled down tight and their wispy outer edges quivered.
Falco eyed the pass above them. Once he’d seen a bear run through that gap. It wasn’t likely, but if it happened he wanted more time before it got to the goat. He took a piece of cord from his pack and slipped it around the hind leg. “Drag him down where the ice rolls over that edge. Not too close, though.”
The guts were destroyed. They poured out in a stinking mess, purple and green and all mixed up. Above the diaphragm the lungs were roiled with broken ribs and froth from his last shot. He found a fragment of Graham’s 30-06 against the far hide and held it up.
“That’s your bullet,” he said. “Went through the chest, probably your first shot.”
Graham had a small knife out but hadn’t found a way to help. “It’s ruined, eh? The trophy?”
Falco turned downhill. The body cavity breathed rank steam across his view of Park Creek. “No. The taxidermist can fix it. At least it didn’t lose a horn, like if it had fallen off a cliff.”
“They do that?”
“Fall off cliffs? Yeah, when you poke holes in them. A taxidermist can make up a fake horn, even.” Falco worked the hide off the ribs. It was a three-year old and came off easily. He hardly had to use the knife. “The fall’s what kills ‘em a lot of the time. They’re one hell of a tough animal, and yours wasn’t in a place to fall.”
From where he skinned, the hanging lake at the head of the valley looked like a green eye. Park Creek’s highest spring sprouted from a bank of wet stones below the lake. Falco pulled the undamaged tenderloins from the vertebrae and sensed his own hidden muscles with a sinking thrill.
Merle had shown him that the island’s interior was a secret. Kodiak’s people had always looked outward, drawing their life from the sea. But the interior — its thickets and milky streams, berry-covered highlands and long plateaus — remained a mystery to almost everyone. Pilots flew over and knew the landmarks, but Falco had run his hands through its hair.
He finished two beers before he looked up. Graham was running along pretty good. He had his tongue out between oversized lips, which he hadn’t opened to speak in who knows how long. Falco let out an impressive fart. It was magnified by the plastic chair on the raised plywood floor and they both paused before laughing.
It was nice to see a smile on Graham’s face. He’d been taking himself so seriously since the goat. “You know, I’ve been married twenty years, and I’ve never farted in front of my wife.”
“Go ahead,” Falco flipped the skin off the head bone, “I’m not your wife.”
“I mean anybody.”
Falco gestured around the bunkhouse — antlers and bullet boxes, old gloves and knives. “This is the best fart rehearsal room in the world.” He stomped the resonant floorboards. “Makes even an amateur something special.”
Graham laughed again and with a distracted gesture put a long tear in the fish skin. He swore and jiggled his foot. “That’s it, then. The whole thing is fucked. I ruined it.”
That was the same way he was on the way up the mountain, poor guy. Always ready to blame himself. They were almost to tundra when he realized that every movement of his arm spun his scope turret. It was an expensive scope, but Graham hadn’t marked the zero, so he couldn’t tell how far off it was.
“This whole hunt. I’ve been planning it for years, and now look. My rifle is fucked.” Then he ran into the bushes to shit.
Falco said it was okay, that they could boresight it when they got to camp and if nothing else, he could use Falco’s gun. Beneath his reassurances, though, Falco’s anger rose against the pitiful, frantic energy.
Falco set down the nearly skinned head in his lap, its lips inside-out. The fish skin was torn across the belly. He reached down to the sixpack and opened one for each of them. “You’re going to have two ragged trophies from this trip,” he said, and drank half the beer in a gulp. He raised the can. “Congratulations.”
“You said the taxidermist could cover up the damage, right? Because the hair was so long?”
“He will.” After a year or two of looking at the perfectly mounted animal, Graham would forget how they’d ripped it apart. And how it lay there bawling for half an hour before they could finish it off. Falco despised clients who mangled the pure essence of things to serve their ego. Few didn’t.
“Fuck, man. You know I feel awful about how that went.” Graham extended the tear in the skin until it separated into two strips over the gray flesh. “It’s not polite to talk about it.”
Falco lifted his hand. He was ashamed of ruining Graham’s hunt and disappointed they hadn’t made the high valley. He would be polite. “I just wish we hadn’t ruined that goat’s day.” Falco knew that Graham was waiting for an opportunity to justify himself. He’d probably start by glorifying the animal.
“It’s okay. They’re just tough animals. Magnificent animals.” Graham sipped his beer with hazy eyes and exhaled like he’d taken a shot of liquor. “I just like being in their country.”
They sounded like soothing phrases that Graham had repeated to himself before he came, but also like practice for stories he’d tell his indifferent wife. Next, Graham would say something about friendship. He always talked like Falco and Merle were his buddies, but you don’t pay your buddy this kind of cash.
“I’m glad we could go up there together,” he said.
Falco wished they hadn’t gone up there at all. “They are tough.” They both drank their beers and stared at the wall. Falco turned down the oil stove.
Graham burped loudly. Getting warmed up for a fart, maybe. “How come you never got married?” He rolled strips of fish skin into little balls.
Falco shook his head and pulled the wooden form out from the ear. Just the eyelids left to finish up. “Not fit for female company.”
“Don’t you get lonely?”
Falco was lonely but not for women. He wished Merle was there to help him hate Graham. Merle always believed that living without humanity is superhuman, but made an exception for Falco. “I was born lonely, I think. Nobody to remind me of it around here.”
“I’m the opposite. I have to try hard to get alone. Back home, everybody wants me to do something.” He laughed. “Try being married sometime, man.”
Falco coughed. “You’re not lonely, then.”
“Not when I’ve got good friends to hunt with.” Falco had to uncomfortable sense that Graham was about to lean against his shoulder. He scooted his chair away.
“Listen, man, if I could live this life, I would. Little house on the water. It’d be perfect.”
Falco finished his beer. Graham looked so mournful that the pity returned against his anger. “I don’t have to bite off farts for anybody, anyway.” “
“But I didn’t grow up to it. You must have done this since you were a little kid.”
“Nope. My dad ran a grain elevator.” Falco hadn’t admitted that in years. “I’m from Indiana.”
“What?” Graham shook his head. “Guess I never knew you could. Until too late. How’d you start guiding, then?”
Falco laughed a little and crushed his can with a twist. “I got a college degree for it.”
“Stop shittin’ me.”
“No, I did. Animal Behavior. Had a bunch of stuck up bosses, then I met Merle by accident.” Merle was the first man he’d met who was proud of imperfection. He wore t-shirts filigreed with sweat holes. He spit into the bottom of the skiff. It wasn’t always easy to be around him, but it was easier to be around himself in Merle’s presence. Falco clenched his jaw to keep the tears back.
“I never went to college.” Graham turned the fish’s gray flesh in his hands. “What are we doing tomorrow?”
Graham had paid for a five day hunt and they were only two down. Three days was a long time to sit around camp. They could go ocean fishing, but the halibut had likely moved deep by now. They could hunt deer or chase ducks around in the skiff. “Haven’t decided yet. You think about what you want to do, and let me know in the morning.”
“What time is breakfast?” Graham stood and dropped the rank fish skin in the scrap bag.
“I’ll get you up,” Falco said.
Graham stepped outside then peeked back in through the almost shut door. “I’m sorry about Merle,” he said. “He was a good friend.”
Falco nodded slowly. He waited for Graham to close the door before slowly shutting his eyes and squeezing tears onto his nose. You got no idea, he thought. Falco finished the head and took the hide to the shed. His headlamp cast plump shadows from the meat bags. He unfolded the skin on the floorboards and poured salt from a forty pound bag. He knelt to spread salt across the flapped skin.
The hide would cure here for a couple weeks before he sent it off to the taxidermist. Every animal out of Merle’s camp had paused in this building before its immortal tenure in somebody’s trophy room. Falco liked the humid, metallic smell. Moisture from the skins of all the bears and deer and goats and even a few foxes had had joined the air in this broken down shed. He liked that their living wetness stayed on Kodiak so the hunters took nothing but dry, dead husks with them.
The salt got into nicks on his knuckles he hadn’t noticed. Falco carefully worked the fine crystals into sinuses of the goat’s face. He turned out his light and knelt over it a long time. He listened to the dock sway under light waves. An oil drum bonged with the cooling temperature. The salt dissolved with a subtle hiss.
He cleaned salt and fat from his fingernails. Falco turned on his light, nodded to the rafter where he’d hidden Merle’s ashes and went in to bed.
Falco slept badly and got up to piss. The moon was down and it was past the middle of the night by the tide. The dry skiff was about to float. His inland mind told him that a moonless night is pure dark, but the sea gathered starlight and the subtle electrical pulses of its creatures and heaved itself luminous on the shoreline.
The Spine’s was a jagged, blank border below the stars. Merle was up there. The Coast Guard retrieved his body but up high, Falco felt, he could still meet Merle. He didn’t know if they’d recognize each other, Merle being dead. Some old trait would give him away, though — long steps on the outside of his feet, maybe. He expected to see Merle through the binoculars, striding a distant ridge.
Merle never said much, so it wasn’t right that they’d talk. Even just a wave would calm him down. In the last few years, Merle resented his clients more and more. Falco didn’t think it very professional, but as part of his unconscious imitation, he indulged himself in the same, quiet judgements: naive, childish, helpless, egotist.
To avoid confronting those traits in himself, Falco tried to live one moment at a time. He didn’t give much thought to the future and hadn’t considered what guiding would mean without Merle. He hadn’t planned to take over the operation but he was licensed for it, and the hunts had already been booked.
Graham was his first client since Merle died. Falco had put up with him so far, but the remaining three days weighed like a dense pack he couldn’t find a place to set down.
Falco hummed but it made him more lonely. The nights in October were too long to wait for sunrise. They could still make the green-eyed lake, he thought, if they got an early start. Graham was fit and if they escaped the brush before lunch they could take two days up with one to get back down. The tide filled under the skiff and it floated free to the end of its painter. He went into the main house to make breakfast.
He said they were going deer hunting. They ate in the dark and by the time they skiffed to the gravel flats it was dawn. Falco carried their camp and Graham, his rifle. The deer were just standing from their beds as the sun hit them.
“What about that one?” Graham pointed to a tall deer with his nose up a doe’s butt.
“That’s a little guy.” It was a nice three-by, but Falco wasn’t hunting. If they were going to make it he needed to keep Graham from shooting anything.
By lunch they had passed the canyon and were in the broad, meandering flats. Graham had figured out they were making a dash for the Spine. “Better deer hunting up high, eh?”
Falco stayed in his binoculars, watching an eagle fluff itself by the water. “That’s where the big ones are.”
They camped on a small rise where they could see the rolling backs of salmon headed to spawn in stillwater crooks. A small bear walked out of the alder and through the floodplain grasslands at dusk. Graham reached for his rifle but Falco touched his arm.
“He’ll scent us when he gets to those trees,” he said. The bear made the downwind birches, then turned and put its weight on its hind legs to sniff at them. It dropped its ears and loped sideways across the stream.
“He sure doesn’t like how you smell.” Falco said, and Graham smiled a little. He had peeled the stickers from his rifle, maybe seeing that they weren’t an integral part of the gun for the first time. It’s easy to get attached to things you don’t need.
Falco remembered when he’d showed his first rifle, a Browning .338, to Merle. The old man said there was a lot of extra gun there and took it to the shop. Falco had watched, speechless, as he hacksawed four inches off the barrel.
“It’ll just slow you down in the brush,” Merle had said, “You don’t need it.” It looked stubby for a while, but Falco got used to it.
He got them up early. They ate by headlamp and started walking with the first blue light. Falco angled uphill to get out of the river, where it was too easy to surprise a bear in the brush. They left the cottonwoods and every clearing stretched longer than the last. By mid-morning they were below the snowfield where Graham’s goat had bawled, waiting for them to kill it.
Bears had already visited the carcass and spread ribs and back and leg bones along the snow’s lower skirt. Falco stopped to watch the ravens fight over scraps of fat. One flew with a strip of meat and the rest harried it. “It doesn’t take long to disappear out here,” Falco said. He wished the Coast Guard had just left Merle on the mountain.
“Don’t let me die on this mountain, man.” Graham was only partly joking. “I want to tell stories when I get home.”
After four days most clients got a little homesick. Falco scanned the valley through binoculars. He could never remember where Graham was from, but it had to be shittier than this. Falco had lived with general homesickness for too long to recognize it in himself. “I wouldn’t mind turning into raven poop.”
“You know if I were younger, I’d be doing what you’re doing.” Graham heaved a heavy sigh.
Why did they all say that? Like they were victims of their age. “Nobody’s getting any younger.”
Falco led on, using his rifle as a walking stick. Graham struggled behind. He’d hurt his knee and tied a red bandanna on as a brace.
They sat in the vibrant, antlered lichens that topped the hummocks to eat candy bars. Graham hadn’t seen them yet, but they had pushed a line of ten goats onto the bulge to their left. Ahead of them was the steep trail that he and Merle had watched the huge herd use. The final push.
“Is that the top?” Graham asked.
“I think so.” It wasn’t quite, but from there they could look down into the lake.
“Christ. I don’t think even a goat could get up that.”
They dropped their packs and went up, leaning into the hill. The ridge was too thin to stand comfortably, so they lay down and peeked over the edge. The far side was a steep gully of broken rock that emptied onto a hanging patch of ice before dropping again into the green lake.
It was perfectly round except for a small dent below them at a rockfall. Falco had thought that the lake was Park Creek’s source. He’d imagined that this ridge was porous so that its water seeped into the stream. But they had climbed on solid rock, and the lake met the cliffs in a clean line. Falco saw now that it was a terminal basin. It didn’t drain to anywhere, and the same water had frozen and unfrozen in that pocket every year since the glacier melted.
“Is that the Spine?” Graham pointed to the serrated cliff opposite the lake.
It was. If they got on those cliffs, they could see the other side of the island, but now that he was here Falco didn’t feel like exploring. “I thought it was going to be different,” he said.
Falco shuffled forward on his knees and peed over the edge. Graham tried, but was too scared to get any out. They returned to the grassy bowl behind them to set up camp. The willow twigs around them were covered with hanks of dirty goat hair. Falco lay on his pack and glassed the herd they had displaced. They made dinner, and sunlight walked up the opposite slope. By then the goats had come down and stood near camp, even though Graham wouldn’t shut up.
“What a beautiful spot!” He said, yet again. “Thanks for bringing me up here, man.”
Falco drummed his fingers on a wet stone. He had expected this to be a sacred place but couldn’t get into the mood with Graham around. Falco uncapped his binoculars and glassed the nearest goats.
“Too bad we didn’t see any good deer, eh?”
Of course he still wanted to kill something. “You have another goat tag,” Falco said from behind the binoculars. “That one by the stream is a huge nanny. She’s got to be twelve or better.”
“You mean shoot her?”
“She’s inside two hundred yards.” There was a big billy, too, but he was farther and Falco didn’t trust Graham’s aim. “You can use my rifle if you’re still worried about yours.”
They watched her for a few minutes before Graham picked up Falco’s gun and stretched off the scope cover. He sat quietly on the ground and settled his elbows into his knees. The nanny fed toward them. She was very white against the yellow willows, and the hair fell from her flanks in twisted dreadlocks.
Falco heard the safety tick off, the bolt draw back and the familiar clink of one of his jacketed rounds in the chamber. She lifted her head to the noise. Dusk was coming quickly, and the first stars were out above the bowl. The goats, bunched around them in the depthless, rolling flats, appeared to float as they fed.
If it couldn’t be sacred, Falco had a perverse desire for the chaos of fleeing goats and the transformation of a gorgeous wild animal into nothing but a carcass. “Just keep shooting,” Falco whispered. “If she’s still moving, reload and shoot her again.” He slid a rack of bullets against Graham’s leg.
“Should I wait until she turns?”
Head on wasn’t a great shot, but he wanted Graham to blow her to bits. He shrugged. “Your call.”
She had a narrow face and graceful horns that seemed to almost touch in the back. He usually tried to ask the forgiveness of animals but couldn’t tonight. Graham adjusted his seat and settled the stock into his shoulder. His breathing was fast. “Damn. Can’t hold it.”
He put up the gun and stretched prone, resting the stock on a hummock. Graham’s breathe slowed and Falco hunched his shoulders in anticipation of the shot. The dark was coming quickly, but things looked brighter in the scope. Graham still had a minute or two. Falco heard the safety click back on and the rustle of Graham lifting the rifle to vertical. “Not going to shoot her?”
“That’s okay,” Graham said. “That would be a long way to carry her back.”
Falco nodded. He slumped against the pack, and his sweat chilled him. All his overlying emotions had burned out, and Falco drifted on his sadness. It was a pleasant enough night up here. He couldn’t remember why they’d come. Deer hunting. He laughed silently. “It’s a still night for a shot, anyway.”
Graham dropped the magazine, ejected the chambered bullet and handed the rifle back to Falco. “You know, you could live up here.”
Poor guy. Falco understood that Graham’s life felt like a cage, but this was a little extreme. “No, you couldn’t.”
“I mean, make a little hut from stones, eat ptarmigan and goat and deer.”
In a minute he sat up. “It’s a tough winter this high. See that line where the grass stops? The bowl is drifted full to there. There’s no wood to keep a fire going. No place to land a plane. You’d have to make it down to salt every time you needed something.” He shook his head. But, even with all those reasons, he knew it could be done. They both knew it was possible, just hard and lonely, which heightened the attraction.
“But still,” Graham said. “Maybe in that hollow by the spring.”
Falco already had looked it over. “That is a likely spot.”
“They’d probably find us eventually, though.”
“No, man. Nobody comes here.” He wondered if Graham would ever suggest a rock hut on the Kodiak Spine to his wife.
Moonlight filled the valley, and the goats bedded on the face turned to vibrant silver splotches. A few still fed across the moraine where their feet skittered on loose stone. Falco stood with the bag of ashes. “We can catch you another fish on the way out, tomorrow. I should have helped you skin it last time.”
Graham looked up at him. “Where are you going?”
The valley had a companionable emptiness. His loneliness, most palpable in town and on the coast, was soothed by the encircling bowl. He rolled up his sleeves so his sweat could burn off. “On a walk.”
“What about bears?” Graham’s eyes showed a prehistoric fear. He pursed his lips and looked around for his stickerless rifle.
“Don’t put a bullet in your chamber,” Falco said. He smiled in the dark. “I’m going to come back in a few minutes. I might snuffle and stomp a little, and I don’t want you to shoot me.”
Falco walked uphill across broken flat slates that rocked under his feet. He climbed in a light shirt to the ridge, where the lake was already in moonlight. The moon’s shadow line crept across the Spine. When it reached his knees, he poured ashes from the corner of the bag in a thin stream along the boundary.