You are reading Fiddleblack #10
Miles from town, miles from anyone, Walter stared out the front window of his cabin and down the steep hillside. The fireplace crackled behind him and the generator in the garage hummed. A surprise late-September snowstorm had forced him to shelter and knocked out the power and phone lines.
It was early evening. Outside, the crags and boulders and bushes pocking the hillside looked like knees and elbows pressing up from beneath a massive white sheet. Everything was either white or gray or shadowy brown. But Walter spotted something red, not the burnt red of brittle fall leaves, but a dyed red, a product red, the red of a car, the red of an article of clothing.
Walter pinched his fingers to his teeth and let fly a high-pitched whistle. Dozens of mutts—strays he’d taken in, all of them—emerged from their resting places on couches, beneath beds, and clumped together in corners. They swarmed around his feet, huffing, whining, sneezing, wagging their tails, and dragging their bodies along the legs of his jeans.
He led them to front door and swung it open. They rushed into the snow and hopped in and out of drifts down the hillside, looking almost like porpoises in the way they would sink and then emerge with arched backs.
A gust of wind threw flakes at Walter’s face. He slammed shut the door and brushed the snow from his beard and returned to the front window.
The dogs carved intersecting lines down the hillside through the snow. It did not take them long to converge upon the swatch of red. They circled it and began to bay and howl.
Even from up at the top of the hill, behind the panes, Walter could see their snouts set high in the air, pointing back in his direction, calling their master to come and see what they had found and make judgment upon it.
Walter grabbed his shotgun.
By the time Walter reached them, the dogs had created a wide, circular swath of compacted snow around the swatch, which lay in the middle, part of a large encasement of snow, looking like some sort of museum piece or holy relic. The dogs whined and sniffed and backed away and pointed with the joints above their paws.
With the butt of his shotgun, Walter began brushing away the snow around the swatch of cross-stitched red, which he could now see was fabric. Cotton. He brushed away more snow until a swipe revealed the blue of a bare fist.
No, he said. He dropped the shotgun. He began swatting wildly at the rest of the snow, revealing more of the body. He ripped his gloves off and felt the neck for a pulse.
No! he yelled. He stood up and circled the body. No. He kicked at the snow, kicked his shotgun, kicked at nothing. The dogs cowered from him, whining, until he quit kicking and pacing and sat down in the snow. Then they came around him and licked his beard and cheeks and forehead. He began to moan and cry and they joined in with him. If anybody were around to hear, they might have feared for their lives, even though the sound represented the opposite of danger.
Walter stood at the door to his shed and leaned on the shotgun. He was out of breath. The dogs yipped at his heels. He slid open the wooden door. The dogs slipped around feet and through the door like river water by the stilts of a bridge.
Walter ripped the dusty tarp from his snowmobile. He straddled the seat and flipped the ignition. Nothing. He opened the hood and checked the gas and the oil. Again he straddled the seat and flipped the ignition. Nothing. He opened up the hood and peered into the mechanisms. The dogs milled around him, watching. A gust of wind whistled through the cracks in the shed and after a quick moment left them again in the soft silence of snowfall.
Walter slammed shut the hood and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He said something unintelligible and licked his finger and wiped off some dust from the windshield of the snowmobile.
The strays made room for Walter as he dragged a burlap sack of dog food from the kitchen closet and let it come to rest in beneath the overhead light in the middle of the kitchen. He pulled a steak knife from the maple block on the counter and made an incision through the center of the burlap sack. The dogs whined and sniffed the air and panted and dug their claws into the linoleum. Walter kicked the sack and a few biscuits spilled out and skittered onto the floor.
This will be enough, he said. Don’t eat it all at once.
He kneeled down and they came to him. He scratched the soft spots behind their ears and let them nip his clothes and hair and beard.
If you were a team of huskies I’d take you with me, he said. But it’s too cold and I couldn’t feed all of you. And if I only took a few, the rest would never forgive me.
The body was curled up stiff from the cold or rigor mortis or both. Snow fell heavy as Walter lifted it onto the yellow tarp that he’d laid flat on the circle of trampled snow. He began wrapping the body in the tarp as one might swaddle a child.
Your identification says your name is Anne, he said. I’m Walter.
He stood up and saw that he’d wrapped the body poorly, all loose ends.
There isn’t a guidebook for this, he said. Something’s wrong with my snowmobile. And there’s no way my pickup could make it through to town. And who knows how long this weather will continue. We’ve no power, and no news. Everything’s down.
He lifted the wrapped body onto a flat-bottomed sled he’d retrieved brought from the garage. He took a coil of rope from his pack and cut a few yards and haphazardly tied the body to the sled. He cut another few yards of rope and made a loop and attached both ends to the front of the sled. Then he stuffed the rest of the coil into his pack.
I never had any children, he said. But I have a strong imagination. And I imagine you have parents. I imagine they are in a special kind of hell. They need to know about this now, not later. And I imagine you would have wanted them to know, too.
He tightened the straps of the snowshoe webs to his boots and shouldered his pack. He looked back at the house. In between the gusts of wind, little clips of dogs barking sang out.
He stepped into the loop of the rope and lifted it up until it found a snug place on his belly just above his belt.
A few hours later, up ahead in the dusky lume of snow, a mute grey disc appeared. The lake. Walter wiped sweat from his eyebrows and continued along the buried path through snow-dusted evergreens. The dead body, covered by the tarp and tied fast, scraped along behind him.
I’m going to need to stop, Anne. I need a rest. I can’t. There’s an overhang up the path here. We need to stop. We’ll rest there.
A dozen yards ahead the maw of the overhang yawned. He moved toward it, brushing aside the blueberry bushes and huckleberry bramble crowding the path along the shoreline flats. Many of the leaves were still green and some of the branches still clutched berries, unprepared for the cold, just as surprised as everything else by the storm.
Walter put his gloves to his lips and yelled some loud nonsense. No wild animals scattered from beneath the overhang. There was no sound and nothing moved except the falling snow.
Welcome to the Marriott, he said.
He dragged the sled inside and sat down. He unpacked his small propane stove and set it on wire stilts. He lit the blue flame of the stove and peeled back the cover of a sausage tin and poured the contents into a pan. The oily liquid spat and cussed.
Watch your mouth, he said.
He took off his shell and fleece and lifted up his shirt and felt a sting as the cold air hit where the towrope had rubbed a red, weeping line into his stomach. Some skin had already begun peeling and in places his stomach looked like a bruised peach. He licked his fingers and rubbed saliva into the wound and left his shirt cinched up above his belly so it could breathe.
He popped a hot sausage into his mouth and chewed and looked at the wrapped body. The tarp had come loose on one side, revealing a light blue fist. He felt along the top of the hand and noticed through the skin the tracks of bones and tendons attached to the fingers.
The funny thing is, he said, I never even so much as touched her. No one believes it. But I didn’t.
He leaned over and tucked the yellow tarp into the places where it had escaped.
Did not, he said. Not that it matters. They hate me. I hate them, too.
He patted the body on the shoulder and lay down next to it and closed his eyes.
No, I don’t hate them, he said. They’re just how they are.
Along with the rattling of brush and leaves there was the sound of dogs baying on the wind, but Walter heard it in his dreams if he heard it at all.
Walter shivered and woke. He sat up and spit and tried to take a drink from the water bottle, but only tongued a few drops because the rest had frozen. He took a silver canteen from the front pocket of his pack and sipped from it. He swished the rye whiskey around in his mouth then swallowed. His eyes watered. He took off his gloves and checked his watch. He’d slept for two hours.
It occurs to me, Anne, that this might only confirm what everyone already thinks.
He fingered one of the brass-ringed corners of the tarp and sighed.
Not that the cement hadn’t dried years ago, he said. But maybe this will finally give them what they want. It’s what they expect. Probably been waiting for years.
Outside, the wind huffed and snow dust skated across the frozen surface of the lake.
I shouldn’t speak like that, he said. I shouldn’t think like that either. It helps nothing.
After a few deep breaths, he gathered his things and pulled the sled from beneath the overhang. His breath quickened as he tried to situate the rope around his belly, which still stung where a groove had been worn.
But what choices do we have? he said. Was brought you all the way up here? Don’t say the weather. Don’t say luck, either.
He looked at the body for a long time. Then he spit and dragged his eyes away.
If you take the time to look at it, we didn’t really have a chance –
The harsh, cutting sound of barking dogs interrupted Walter. He stopped and looked around. A few more barks split the morning quiet. He waited and listened. There was no sound for a while.
Then a Northern Flicker called out somewhere in the forest beyond. Half a dozen black Juncos flitted the mouth of the overhang, tree hopping and chit chattering, happy in the still of the morning, moving farther and farther into the woods. He followed.
It was now eleven in the morning. Walter touched the rope on his belly and winced.
There’s no name for this, Anne. I know them. They won’t know what to call this, so they’ll call it something else they do know.
In the distance, the outline of an alpine cabin emerged from the fog. He trudged toward it and found no vehicles parked outside. No snow had been shoveled, either.
His stomach quivered as he removed the rope. After it dropped to the ground, he stood for a moment and with his hands and his knees, watching his breath form clouds. Then he walked around the perimeter of cabin, checking here and there, rubbing the condensation off windows with his fist and peering inside. Everything was dark.
He went back and pulled the sled into the front yard and pushed it beneath a large Madrone tree bordering the front porch.
Stay here, he said. I’ll be back in a minute.
He unbuckled his snowshoe webs. He knocked a few times at the door. He peered again through the front window. He found a key hidden under an empty flowerpot.
He let himself inside. In the kitchen, he poured himself a few glasses of water and chugged them down. He searched the cabinets and found a box of macaroni and cheese and a jar of instant coffee. He made himself lunch.
He searched the house. It was built in the shape of the triangle roof, which started at ground level and came to a point in what looked like a loft upstairs. The main floor hallway was lined with pictures. They were arranged along the hallway chronologically. He moved slowly down the hallway and, through the pictures, watched the family grow up. He plucked one of the pictures from the wall, showing the family vacationing somewhere tropical, tan and beached and looking happy.
He shook his head, took a deep breath, replaced the picture. He walked back outside and pulled the sled holding the body from beneath the Madrone tree. He undid the wrapping and lifted the curled body up in his arms and walked it back into the house then laid it down on the carpet next to the brown couch.
He grabbed the canteen from his pack and poured another cup of coffee and sat down on the couch next to the body. He took a long swig of whiskey and coughed and chased it down with the sour brew. He turned on the television. Plinko was on The Price is Right.
He turned down the volume and said, Let me tell you a story, Anne.
On the screen, a thin blond coed with a college sweatshirt dropped the first puck into the Plinko board. After clicking slowly down a few notches, it rushed toward the one hundred dollar slot.
I don’t know what to tell you, he said. These things, these circumstances—once people think of you that way it doesn’t change. You don’t know how hard it is to change how people think. If you try, they suspect you even more.
He took another sip of whiskey and a few gulps of coffee with it.
The funny thing is, he said. I was trying to do the right thing. She needed a place to stay was all. Worst mistake of my life. But I was trying to do the right thing. It just didn’t look like that. I can see that. People see things the way they see them. I might have seen the same thing. But here I am. Here I am.
The blond coed let go of her last puck. It struggled down the Plinko board, stopping at every notch, until it tilted at the bottom and dropped into the ten thousand dollar slot. Confetti dropped and she jumped and cheered and the host smiled and received the hug from the coed.
You see that? In another situation that hug would be something different entirely.
Walter twisted shut the canteen and the television went to commercial. Walter leaned back and didn’t say anything for a while. His eyes began to flutter and close. Then they flipped back open again.
This is no different, Anne. Do you see that? People will see this as something it isn’t. Even if they can’t find anything to prove it. They’ll wonder, and be afraid that if they don’t wonder, people will think maybe they’re in league with a guy like me.”
Walter closed his eyes.
League, he said. League is a funny word. There’s no line to get into my league.
A dog barked, somewhere out in the neighborhood. It was a sharp sound, jilted, cut off. It was followed by another bark, one that sounded more like a howl, one that moved in pitch from high to low and then disappeared into grovel.
Except my dogs, he said. If I didn’t have my dogs, I don’t know.
He shifted in his seat and lost his breath and touched his stomach. He tried to lift up his shirt, but blood and mucus had coagulated and glued to the fabric and staunched the wound. He gritted his teeth and peeled it off. The thin gash had broadened. The edges of the wound were now red and inflamed and blood and puss had dripped down and soaked the rims of his pants. The wound had the look of a molten glacier crust, split apart.
He twisted open the canteen and poured a few drops of rye across his wound and screamed.
Six hours later, Walter emerged from the forest. He stood on a hill overlooking a soccer field on the outskirts of town. He closed his eyes and bent over and massaged his calves and his thighs and then stood back up. He gently touched the rope clinging to the ridge in his belly and grit his teeth. He removed his cap because it had warmed considerably. The snowflakes now landing on the sleeve of his parka quickly lost their integrity and pearled into water.
In the corner of the field were some kids, bundled up stiff in caps and parkas and mittens and galoshes, playing tackle football in the snow. Beyond them stood a thicket of houses split by streets. Afternoon was nearly spent and a hazy dusk had begun settling on the valley.
Walter took a long drink of rye from the canteen and a few longer gulps of water from the bottle. He pulled the dead girl’s wallet from his jacket and flipped it open and checked the address. He shook his head.
I’m going to need to be a little drunk for this, Anne, he said. I never know how it’s going to be in town.
After one more slug of whiskey, Walter began crossing the field, one snowshoe after the other.
The boys began to notice him. They stopped playing football and watched. They huddled up and talked and looked over at him some more.
Walter sped up and tried to keep from looking in their direction.
One of the kids broke off from the group and wandered over.
Walter changed his path and veered away and glanced again over his shoulder. The boy had begun jogging after him.
Hey, yelled the boy.
Walter didn’t stop. Don’t come any closer, he said.
The boy didn’t listen and kept coming. He looked more surprised than anything. What are you doing? the boy asked. Then he stopped suddenly and his face corrupted.
Walter saw it.
The boy screamed and backed up and fell down and got back up and started running away.
Wait, come back, yelled Walter.
He looked down at the sled and saw that the edge of the tarp had somehow come loose, revealing a light blue hand curled into a fist.
The boy ran across the field and met the others by the goalpost. They huddled for a moment and then all began running.
Walter almost threw up. He bent over and waited for the churning in his stomach to stop. He folded the tarp back over the hand. He took a deep breath, muscled the last couple fingers of rye down his throat, and jogged across the field and across the street and down the parkways toward the center of town.
A few minutes later, all of Walter’s dogs gathered on the hill overlooking the now empty soccer field. They sniffed the air and pawed the snow and a few shivered as their quick panting made small clouds of vapor in the air. They could smell Walter, but the only visual evidence was the long, deep carve of the sled’s travel across the field, intersected by two scattered lines punched by the boy’s feet.
One of the dogs let out a yip and then trotted down the hill into the field, following the impression made by the sled. The rest followed.
The house of the parents was a brown rambler with a station wagon outside. Walter lifted the rope from his belly and leaned over and burped. He swayed and grabbed the railing and pulled himself up to the front door.
He turned one last time to look at the body.
I don’t know how this ends, he said. But you know how it happened. And my dogs know. I only wish you could have met my dogs.
He rang the doorbell
The door opened. A wave of warm air and wood smoke and cigarette smoke rushed out. A young woman stood beneath the awning. She was dressed in a green knitted sweater loaded with buttons and pockets. Red irritations rimmed her eyes and there were grey hollows beneath.
An unshaven man in a hooded sweatshirt appeared behind her. He looked as though he had either just woken up or never gone to sleep.
Sorry to bother you, said Walter. He turned to the side and opened his shoulder. I wanted to get to you soon.
The woman tilted her head.
Found her yesterday. Up by my house on Crag Point. Frozen solid. I dragged her down on my sled because we knew –
The woman sunk down to her heels and put her hands out to steady herself on the porch.
The man rushed past her down the steps. He ripped at the tarp and the cords. He pulled the body from the sled and held it in his arms.
The woman scrambled on her hands and knees across the landing and down the front steps. When she reached the body, she screamed.
Walter steadied himself against the doorframe. The heat from their house blew behind him and the dark wind from outside. The nearly grey face of the girl rested on her father’s shoulder.
Dogs barked in the distance.
Walter coughed and burped.
The man stood up. His arms were straight at his side and his fists were stones.
What did you do? he said.
Walter shifted his legs and held tight to the rail. I told you, he said. I found her on my property –
The man took two long steps up to the landing. He slugged Walter low in the belly, just above the belt. The impact made very little sound. Walter wheezed and bent over and then crumpled to the ground.
The woman said nothing. She rocked back and forth with the body in her arms.
The man made like he was going to kick Walter but he stopped himself. His shoulders sagged and he began to cry and he turned around and went back to his wife and daughter at the base of the steps and kneeled down and held his hands out like he didn’t know what to touch.
Across the street, a married couple that had lived in the neighborhood for years watched from the second floor bay windows of their master bedroom.
I’m speechless, said the woman. Did the police say how long it would take?
The man was about to answer when from down the street, a pack of dogs appeared. There were dozens, all sizes, spread out but all streaming towards the house.
Those are—my word. That must be. I didn’t recognize him. That’s Walter Grass.
He must have–
The dogs rushed through the yard. The couple cowered and covered the body of their daughter with their hands and shoulders but the dogs paid no attention to them. They milled past and circled Walter’s body and then slowly began dragging it down the steps and around the family and through the snow covered front lawn. Then they began pulling it down the sidewalk, back in the directions they came.
I’m going to do something about this, said the man.
He left the room, and the woman stayed at the window and watched as the dogs continued pulling Walter’s body down the sidewalk.
Then, below, her husband emerged from their house and tromped out into the snow, a shotgun in his hand. He whistled and yelled and began following the dogs.
There isn’t a name for it, said the woman.
Ross McMeekin’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Shenandoah, PANK, Green Mountains Review, and Tin House (blog). He received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and edits the literary journal Spartan.