“My shit hasn’t smelled right in weeks,” the guest said.

It was hard to tell if his comment was made to me, or was something he was noting idly to himself as he stood at the railing of my porch, gazing out at the rocky pinewoods behind the house.

I offered him the cup of coffee I held. Shaking himself, he took the mug from me. Though I normally wouldn’t, I joined him at the rail, mug in hand.

“Sometimes travel does that to you”, I said.

“My wife’s still sleeping”, he told me.

I nodded my understanding. My Airbnb listing brings in a couple of thousand dollars each month, particularly over the late spring and summer when folks are touring around Montana. The preserve I live on has easy hiking, and I can tell people honestly that we have bear, fox, eagle, and even the occasional wolf around here, though not many rattlesnakes; strange, as the place is called Rattlesnake National Recreation Area.

A thing I’ve learned doing this: travelers can be as skittish as wildlife; they don’t always want to make an acquaintance, so much as borrow your view and coffee-maker. So usually I show them around the guest flat I have developed in the downstairs of my house and leave them to it. If I get an interested vibe from someone, or they turn up around the cocktail hour, I might invite them to have a drink and get to talking, but usually not. I’ve used Airbnb myself and I’d just as soon be left alone to fantasize that I own the place where I’m staying. Anyway, mornings aren’t everybody’s best time for socializing.

So, normally, I wouldn’t have interrupted the early morning musing of this guest out on the porch, but I’d overheard the phone call that he’d gotten on his cell phone at 6:30 in the morning. My bedroom sits above the porch, so if you’re out there talking, I’m hearing it. I was already up keeping an eye out for the pair of golden eagles who’ve built their nest in one of the trees down the incline from the house. Sometimes they’re already out hunting at that time of morning, but if I’m lucky, they might also be tending their chicks.

I was buttoning my flannel shirt and cursing my arthritic fingers under my breath when I heard a phone ring down on the porch. 6:30 is pretty early for phone calls, unless you’re getting them from the East Coast.

I’d heard him say, yes, and then listen. Then, what stage? Then, what’s the survival rate with treatment?

After he’d been standing out there staring at the preserve unmoving for half an hour, I brought him a cup of coffee. I didn’t want to intrude on his private grief, but I wondered if he’d appreciate having a stranger to talk to. Some people do.

So far, we’d just stood there. The dew on the wooden railing flashed dots and dashes as the sun’s rays hit it. From away across the forest, there came the screech of an eagle, though I couldn’t see if it was one of the pairs I knew. Down below the porch, the snuffling of my dog let me know he was already following something that had made its way across the property during the night. We watched him move through the rabbitbrush and serviceberry. With the angle, he was moving downhill and his nose to the ground, he looked like some headless hump of muscle pushing through the shrubbery. His loud snorting just added to the sense that he was some alien life form.

“Does he ever catch anything?” the guest asked.

I shook my head. “Not many deaf chipmunks out there”, I said. “I’ve got to leave that old guy at home when I go hunting now. He gives us away immediately.”

When he turned to face me, I could see the man he’d been when he started his trip, the one that was gradually being leeched away by the wilderness we lived side-by-side with. His gray and brown stubble had taken on a brittle appearance. The hard sun he’d encountered had turned his skin brown, except for the bridge of his nose, which had burned red, and there were white spots under his eyes where his sunglasses had sat. The hiking dirt was buried deep in the lines of his middle-aged face and gave him the grave expression of a nineteenth-century silver miner. He wore his shirt out over his long shorts, and on his right ankle was a brush burn of some kind.

“You hunt a lot?” he asked.

“Not so much anymore now that my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be,” I told him. “More like I go for walks with my gun. Got a fourteen-point buck a few years ago that’s up on my wall now. I can show you if you like.”

He made no move to leave the railing, but he did a funny thing then. Almost absent-mindedly, he stuck his index finger into his coffee and held it there, even though I knew it was hot as the dickens. I glanced at his face, but there was no sign he registered any discomfort. I brought my own mug to my lips, but even the ceramic of the cup was still hot enough that putting it against my skin was uncomfortable. I lowered the mug to rest on the rail and watched the man with interest.

After a moment, he shook his finger off and popped it casually into his mouth to suck on it. When he placed his hand back on the railing, I could see the skin on his finger was red from the heat.

“We’ve got an Irish setter at home,” he told me. “The shedding drives my wife crazy.”

I chuckled. “I had a hound once,” I said. “Whined non-stop. Drove my ex crazy, too. Had to get rid of her finally.”

The guest looked confused. “The hound?” he clarified.

“The wife,” I said, waiting for the smile. He just nodded thoughtfully and turned his head to look out over the preserve again. Just then, down the slope, one of the eagles swooped in on its nest high in the tree and dropped something in it for the chicks to eat.

“What a place,” the guest breathed quietly.

Maybe I thought it would serve as a distraction, or maybe just that he’d appreciate it, but I left him and went inside to the kitchen where I pulled a manila envelope out of one of the drawers and brought it back outside to him. I handed it to him silently.

He took the envelope from me without any sense of surprise or real curiosity. As he opened the clasp, I thought he moved like a man who’d come to expect things to happen to him without explanation. He slid out the stack of eight-by-ten photos inside and began to flip through them.

The sun had now risen above the tops of the trees. I put both elbows on the rail and leaned into the soft white light the morning sun offered. On the slope down below, my dog had disappeared, but right below us, a magpie hopped back and forth, the iridescence of its feathers flashing purple and cobalt. A chipmunk dashed across a section of flat slate and disappeared under a cedar branch.

The man stopped on the photo of the two black bears wrestling.

“Took those right out back, if you can believe it,” I said, pointing off to the yard behind the house.

Slowly, he flipped through the shots of the yearlings rolling and challenging each other with their mouths open and teeth displayed. Their fur was fine-looking, cocoa-colored and glossy as a kitten’s. One of them already had a notched spot on its ear, proof that nature holds no special place for babies. These young ones played hard in anticipation of that harshness. They would heal, they would fight, they would live on the edge of starvation at times. They would do these things, or they would die. People like to say that the world isn’t black and white. I’m not so sure.

The guest shuffled a few more photos to the back of the pile, but he wasn’t really seeing them anymore. I could tell his mind was elsewhere. After a second, he gave up and lowered the stack, turning his gaze again out over the woods where the staccato bark of my dog interrupted the morning quiet. Hidden from view, the throaty woof of the hound came in bursts of three. We listened to it until it stopped.

“Do you think you’ll get another one when he goes?” the man asked.

I thought about how I wanted to answer. “I don’t see why not,” I said.

He nodded in a small, contained way as if I had confirmed some private thought of his. He handed me the photos.

“I’d better go get Margerie up,” he said. “Thank you for the coffee,” he added.

He walked away down the gravel path I’d laid along the side of the house until he reached the door to the guest flat. I watched him pause, hand on the knob, then turn it and disappear inside.

I glanced down thoughtfully at the pile of pictures. Placing my mug next to his on the railing, I continued to shuffle the stack until I reached the photo that I had been thinking about when I brought them out to him. It was a close-up of a coyote with several dead field mice dangling from her mouth. I’d taken the photo years before, having watched her over the course of a season as she dug a den, bore her pups and raised them, often carrying them the fruits of her hunting, as she was in this particular picture. The alert focus of the animal as she returned to her den, ears perked high and forward, eyes wide and set, contrasted sharply to the small, limp bodies that hung from her mouth; bundles of gray and brown fur that seemed so completely devoid of life they might well have been beanbags.

I stood admiring the photo and the animal in it. When the ache in my hip told me I’d been standing too long without moving, I slid the photographs back into their envelope and whistled my dog in.

 

Elizabeth Rosen

In addition to being a writer, at various times in her life Liz has been a backpacker, waitress, freelance editor, college professor, hamburger flipper, mail-sorter, step-parent, dog-rescuer, and receptionist who collected the payment from prostitutes to pay for their ads at the back of an independent newspaper. Her fiction has appeared in Xavier Review, Stoneboat, Litro New York, and a few other spots. Her study on apocalyptic fiction and film, Apocalyptic Transformation, did not include a chapter on zombie apocalypses, so she missed the boat on that one.

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