The mountains are meat and the rivers blood. The sun broods above the valley and a swatch of black forest brushes the hills.
Hamilton Weir steps from the rutted track. His cudgel is endowed with a greasy knob and metal grieves protect his legs from dogs. His hand fiddles with his black cracked lips. The napping of his jacket is torn and fluffed. From its interior bulges a packet, a wad of documents for which he holds great value. A sack worms against his back; made from an antique tablecloth, white grapes on red, one torn ear is embroidered with a date: 1848. At its swollen bottom, suspended from a clutch of grapes, a bead of blood.
“Back already, my love?” Hamilton says, speaking to no one.
Barking echoes from the village as the horizon blues. White wood smoke rests in the hollows. Night is lifting and autumn is the crispiness of dawn. A mare nickers in alarm. Something answers from the crest of the hills.
He rights his head, squints into the indigo light. He tips his umber cap at an approaching villager tarred with age.
“Morning, Aesop. Anything for Master Ham?”
Aesop’s tools chime together as he walks. His straw hat is aslant and hatched with holes, a belt of twine stretches around the waist of his trousers, the zipper busted, the cloth marked with patches of dung and straw.
As Ham erupts from the underbrush, Aesop says, “Number 43, Master. The man is kind.”
The houses are packed tightly against one another, biscuits of timber and stone. Each property extends from the road, a house, yard and barn, then the orchards and gardens in strips that then blend into the meadows and forest that are the natural border of a village with one road.
Aesop stops and spits. He stinks of schnapps and his look is dull. His nose is bulbous, cracked at its seams. Aesop wrinkles his face.
He can feel Ham fingering his thoughts and salting them.
Ham’s tongue clicks over his exceptionally intact teeth, his fingers curl in his palms.
A cart lurches along the rock-strewn road. Brass bells sing from the raw shoulders of the chestnut horse; its halter is decorated with a charm of red yarn. The peasants nod between gulps of smoke, hats and kerchiefs pulled over their coarse faces.
“Good appetite, master,” they mumble in subservient tones.
The cart passes, a squeaky burr of planks and iron.
Aesop shivers in his vest of salvaged leather patches. To think this beggar is their lord.
“Good hunting?” he asks.
“A hare.” Hamilton gestures with his staff, stained with dry blood.
Aesop speaks with a sly look in his eyes: “We live with the forest. Like you, Master Ham.” Aesop risks brooking Hamilton, who can be met in any circumstance or hour, who talks to livestock and wild animals alike, who extorts pathos and charity with the threat of his poverty and reputation.
But it feels good to hate him and they need to. The villagers subsist on brandy, curd, soup and grits, holding on to the land that has been contested and returned, re-aged by what was left of their beliefs. Now they are frail, their children have vanished to the cities, and Hamilton’s lair is among them. Yet they know he always has been here.
Hamilton’s visage is drawn and his heart angered, for Aesop is insolent, of which Hamilton is a fair judge.
“A lesson, Aesop?”
Aesop bows, his black eyes glimmering, undeterred. “No, master. Last winter I was a beater and nearly met my end on the bear hunt. But for you I wish the best of appetites.” He wants his freedom from this black-bellied man who has eaten his donkey and his mice.
Hamilton’s face blooms. His cheeks draw back over his teeth that hang so doggedly in his mouth and ejects a hot, acidic foam on Aesop’s face.
The divots of Aesop’s boots screw in the dirt. He rushes away carrying his scythe and rake. Among many things, Aesop is a maker of hayricks, practical, consoling fodder that will last from Michaelmas to Whitsun. Yet Aesop chuckles. Hamilton fears him.
Hamilton hoists his trousers over his hips, lean and willowy, a stray’s. He raises a hand to his black lips. Dirty, the nails are filled with dirt, spores, leaves and a hard black mortar of blood. He is pleased, taps the packet in his coat pocket: it’s there.
He scuffs at the rocky road, passes the dinged up cars and greasy tractors along its length. A group of old women gossip on a bench, tease a friend feeding scraps to her pig. Hamilton nods and they grimace, screwing their tongues in their mouths at the limping man who looks like a wet rooster and who will beg, if not now, then later: a candle, rags, rusks, bits of fat, anything to keep him alive.
The bakery is a tatterdemalion building of sagging beams and bleached blue paint, where inside, the refreshing smell of yeast and heat have gathered like a despondent memory of wealth. Eugenia—hair dyed a flashy red, lips tarted up, who makes enough money for such luxuries—greets him from the white counter, the loaves stacked like soldiers on the wooden shelves.
“Christ has risen,” she says, mocking him as he opens the mouth of his sack. She places the stale loaves in the black maw, dares to push in her hand and feels it disappear in what is a grave before she quickly removes her arm.
“Yes, he has,” he replies, clasping the windy bag shut, comforted by the godly reference. It isn’t Easter but he understands what it means to rise again. He smiles and cocks his head.
Eugenia laughs. Returning to add a tray of chocolate fritters to the display, she whispers, “Till tonight, sweetheart.”
He lifts his head quizzically then leaves. He doesn’t like women that talk.
His staff bites at the road and he misses his silver box. Hamilton hurries to the premises of what had been the village confectionary, what was now a crumbling building that was both pub and shop. It smells like a flooded privy.
Devotedly clearing his constitution with a tall glass of vodka, Jonas the drover sits on a stool of broken concrete outside. Rested and healthy, his cattle observe him from the grassy verge with amber eyes.
“Master Ham?” calls Jonas. A straw was wedged between the old lad’s teeth.
“Yes?” The delay makes him seethe.
“Been milking cows?”
“No,” Hamilton says firmly. “Have I a cauldron to boil milk for cheese?”
“What you cook, Master Ham, is your business. But we’re scant of milk and I heard you talking to my cows.” He holds a whip, made of leather and bits of chain, stern and painful.
“Why not talk to my brothers and sisters?”
“I’ll wring your neck—no matter.” The drover shakes his fist.
Hamilton isn’t long. “Like to report from death, Jonas? Or should I spare you?” He squints and his eyes pulse with a cruel black mead.
Within seconds, Jonas jolts. He spills to the road, wracked with headache and muscle pain, paralyzed, involuntarily wetting his baggy trousers.
Hamilton can afford to exercise his powers here: what was unusual about a drunk going down outside the pub, collection point that it was next to the shop, across from the basilica, under the chapel, in view of the church?
“Pity his bag’s stained,” murmurs an old woman pushing a flagon of propane in a handcart. She tucks behind her gate and pushes the lock into place.
Hamilton pauses. The sack wiggles on his back yet still feels scant. The shop, divided by a thin wall from the pub, has pastel stencils of cakes on the windows, a sweet promise rarely met.
Vesselina enchants him this morning, dressed in a white bodice of embroidered damask, the sleeves touched with fine handmade lace, a vest of white wool buttoned over to retard the chill blowing in the door of the unheated shop, her skirt of countless pleats folding alluringly over her old wrinkled knees, the hem underneath touched with a bright cochineal red, resting on the tops of her boots. Her eyes flash.
“Figs,” he commands, tapping his mauled fingers on the dusty glass shelf shared by detergent and chips.
She gives him the wreath of figs.
“Matches,” he says. “A Coke.”
The old maid frowns at him. The items already are on the counter. She knows.
“A bird too.”
She clucks and then leans into the deep freeze. Birds are expensive, but Hamilton’s a favorite. Unlike the rest of the men in the village, he doesn’t drink.
He snatches fragments of the incoming broadcast, the stern tone of the litany reminding him of his father’s sermons and how he, bored outside the church, had used skulls for balls, kicking them from one plague grave to another. He had never been like other children, no. He had been called a fiend not a baby when exhorted by the midwife. That is how the crows had related the black circumstance of his birth.
Vesselina’s adoration reflects in the luster of her eyes: man dog, dog man, wild dog, man wild, where wild, where dog where, man where. She can’t believe that he’s all bad.
“What’s that in your pocket, Master Ham?” She’s keen.
“A man doesn’t like being hunted,” he says.
“Just like a dog.” Vesselina knows too well when a man plans to go.
“Look,” he says. He pulls out the wad of documents and slips a passport and airline ticket from its guts. He puffs out his breast, the lapels ragged and darned, and regards the documents with pride. They have taken all his cunning and resources.
“Shame,” she says. “Has someone offended you?”
A burst of laughter uncoils from his belly and he drops his sack and staff. They’d been on his back for generations.
“Good for you,” she says. “But I’m worried.”
“O Vesselina, are you my mother? Or my bride?” Her white outfit is extraordinary and its purity touches the appetite of his soul.
“Neither, Master Ham. But bless them both.” He’s a dangerous fantasy and she desires him, her door ajar, wanted and unwanted, invited and uninvited, yet he never is there. Does he know tonight is his last chance?
“My box?” he asks, reaching for his documents and ferreting them to his coat.
Demure, Vesselina nods, rummages in the pocket of her apron, places the square silver box in his palm, the shaggy hairs of his hand reaching to rub the token.
“Nothing bad will happen,” she says in a blurt.
“Will?” His intelligence rises at once. “Vesselina, what’s going on?”
He slips the box into his pocket. He studies her, waiting for an answer, his reflection in the shop’s mirror, cracked in one corner. He pushes back the soft brim of his cap, relaxes his eyes and wrings his hands.
“Master Ham,” she says. “They’re having a feast tonight.”
“What a coincidence. So am I.” He’s sly to this woman who is the keeper of his box.
“Do what you want, Master Ham,” she says as a terse goodbye. He would not delay. Not tonight. Not ever.
His footprints bend out the door. He ignores the hollers of approval outside the pub as a man beats his horse with an iron bar and its hot blood gushes on the road. No, Master Ham does not intend to revisit the cruel village again.
Hamilton tramps toward the forest, massed, an army. He shies away from the gates that are carved with formidable symbols and he feels tangled inside. Being good is far harder than he imagines. He ducks onto the path of rutted switchbacks; he’s invincible from the treks to his hut. Hamilton can lope for miles if warranted, through mud like this, stirred with the wheels of oxen carts, a slithering trail of fallen logs and the imprints of hooves.
He pauses at the rock lookout. The village is a long gash, the houses repeating and fracturing like a kind of crazy math. Intently he gazes upon the pastures from above. Aesop is tending to a wooden tower and in its center is a perch baited with a haunch.
“What’s that tasty treat?” he asks, then shakes his head in despair.
So the village knows about his departure and plans to send him off.
“Fool,” he says from afar.
The clearing is in a crease where two mountains kiss. A storm has twisted the beech trees and one fallen trunk is split in two. It rests in the air like a bed and the bare fragrant plank is suspended over the forest floor. Hamilton clambers on the slab.
The box slithers from his pocket. It skips in his hand, welcome, and Hamilton peeks inside. It’s black and impenetrable. But he stirs his finger in its cold silver mouth and finds what he expects in the pockets of his coat, taped in places, a tin of tobacco and a roll of corn sheaves. The mix is coarse, an ally mixed from medicinal herbs. He’s careful to shield it from the wind as he clamps the leaf shut with spit. The match darts at his eye, then he lights the rough cheroot.
The smoke wipes him inside and he feels serene after his confession to Vesselina, his senses free. Yet he notices himself sharpening as he exhales, the borders of his body increasing and dissipating in the air. He laughs on the plank as he smokes, a high hiccupping yabber, pleased that he is such an enigma, and stares at the canopy of beech jabbing the sky—the world upside down yet familiar: flat honks of snow geese high in the atmosphere, sharp caws of crows roaming the hills, roebuck foraging near the spring. No, not far. He is frozen for an eternity of his making, his feet curled upward, his chin sewn into the roof of his mouth, his bits tied together, shrouded in the mist licking the blue trunks of the trees, spindly and great, within reach of Hawk’s peak, all the while the box shuttling between his hands, the cigar at his lips, everything of its own accord, until his jabot tingles.
“Afternoon. Master. Ham. Here. All. This. Time?”
Aesop hasps, out of breath, the words junked together. He doesn’t anticipate Hamilton resting on this strange altar. Hamilton’s haste is astonishing, for his dexterity and uncanny sense of balance leave the ground undisturbed. Aesop has whistled at the jays to ask where Hamilton has gone.
Hamilton flops over in the direction of Aesop’s voice. His eyes flare. He likes being caught. Hamilton rustles away his black box into the tough armor of his coat. His tormentor is made of many men yet one.
“Just talking to my mother,” Hamilton says, full of nonchalance, pointing at a speckled owlet tooting from a branch. “Like to speak with her too? She likes company.”
“May she rest in peace, master.” Aesop notices Hamilton’s red consumed eyes have turned into slits. “I’ve a message, master.”
“Go on,” he says from his wooden throne.
“The Haynau family is asking for your remedy.”
“My remedy?” His eyebrows arch like grubs. “How sick?”
“Haven’t been ague for generations.”
“Transylvania is getting warmer, master, like before.”
“It will pass. Remember the Ice Age?”
“But the sick child, master?”
“Cows are worth more to me than children.”
“True, master. We’re opposites that way.”
Both know not to tell the truth when a lie will do.
Hamilton ponders the bladder of sun that floats between the hills and clouds. Looking up, he is hopeful: illuminated like phosphorescent paste, the trails of jets are overhead, the difference of a day separating him from his departure.
“Hurry, master, not much time.”
“But I’ve seen it all Aesop, like you, famine, pillage, tyranny. Why this child?”
“She calls for Master Ham.”
“She’s very pretty and smothered in hair.”
“Ah!” He pops up from the plank in one explosive movement. “Haynau’s daughter? The one excused from school in the next village?”
“The very one. Almost grown and she waits for you. Haynau’s come for her. He’s in the chapel.”
Aesop twitches in expectation. Will Hamilton take the bait? That Haynau, the butcher who had sacked Transylvania in 1848, has returned with his hairy daughter?
No one knows if she has a name or what she’s like.
Hamilton springs to his feet. “Why didn’t you say, you duff?” He applies his staff with enough force that Aesop’s ribs audibly crack.
Aesop staggers to the ground. He doesn’t feel so clever about the ruse while kneeling and coughing a scab of blood from his bruised lungs. But he grins: for one day, the king will be a slave.
“I shall retrieve my remedies then.” Hamilton stamps his feet.
“May I be of help, master?”
“No!” he hisses.
Ham’s intrigued. He certainly doesn’t mind a little mustache and the idea of far more—beard, carpet, thatch, carnal pleasures of a feral girl—stir the ecstasy within him. Aware of this ultimate night, Haynau’s call for help jeopardizes what will be his exceptional accomplishment: a trip to America, a cure at the Glades.
“Master,” says Aesop, swaying on his hands, his eyes twinkling with pain, “I am but your servant.”
“Been away?” Hamilton asks the hut of sod, wood and stones.
He casts his sack on the cracked table, burnt along one edge, and it settles uneasily. The single room reeks of rags and sweat. The walls are chinked with bits of cloth and plastic. Books are jumbled on the floor among feces and garbage. The mess is a way of keeping visitors away—and who would dare to come?
He places his documents on top of his rucksack, booty from the blitzkrieg at Lemberg when he had lingered to watch the slaughter of Jews. Inside are gumboots, a woolen coat smelling strongly of sheep, a stained white suit threadbare at the elbows and knees, a rabbit fur hat and a bag of cigarettes, packets carefully wrapped in thin paper printed with the head of a red buck. Among these necessities, a clasp knife and several books, including a hardback guide to the new western states of America from 1897, and a biography of the American impresario, Buffalo Bill. He didn’t need much but he had been debating whether or not to bring his large jute sack.
Hamilton admires the airline ticket in the dim light of the fire. Then he turns to the real achievement: the visa he worked so nefariously to obtain. He looks sprightly and young in the photograph on the multicolored, secure surface. It’s him, refreshed.
Hamilton ducks under the beams of the lean-to and pantry. Salted hams, slabs of fat and cords of sausages hang along one wall of the larder. Ribbons of herbs rustle along the other, above the buoy-like jars of vegetables inebriated in sweet vinegar, and on the floor, barrels swollen with sour cabbage and crates of apples. He looks up and his crop hangs from the rafters. Everything is as it should be.
He unknots his sack and folds back the coarse sleeve. He sorts through the folds, through the frozen scraps of his beggings to the bloody, black bottom that has struggled until now. He then pauses to stir the fire and tips on a log. An iron cauldron swings in the fireplace. He empties in a spoonful of pig’s fat, an onion, unpeeled, Vesselina’s frozen bird and a handful of rock salt from the highway department depot. He tops up the stew with rainwater from the cistern.
“How pretty,” he says to the consumptive face of the rabbit child pulled from his sack, dangling from his hands like a doll.
“Did you suffer?” he asks the drawn face.
“I bet you did.”
He sniffs the baby, redolent of disinfectant, places it on the floor and splashes it with a bucket of water. He coos and dances before lifting the blue thing into the simmering juices of the cauldron. “You’ll be mine, won’t you be mine,” he sings. He’s sick and he enjoys the thought of a stew of chicken and child.
As the dead infant sinks beneath the surface of the broth, he’s aware of the smoke’s strange compulsion. There is no past in it. No, nothing. He is just present, combusting like a hairy torch, burning eternally, an oracle that spares no one.
He promises he would be.
He would be.
Aesop counts on it in the clearing.
“Master?” Aesop asks the darkness.
He has volunteered to be leader despite the fear of meeting his own lucid creations. As much as he depends on his mouth to render the immaterial, Aesop thanks his gray eyes awed by the bright celestial sky. He feels better since Hamilton has left. He pulls ice from the overflow of a spring to rub on his ribs for a while and binds his chest with his torn shirt sleeves.
“Be unafraid, Aesop,” Hamilton says.
His sack is loaded with bundles of herbs. Poppy pods tinkle delicately from his waste as he walks. He plans to give Haynau’s daughter a sleeping draught.
“This way,” Hamilton says, pointing through the leaves and briars. The man seems to float above the forest floor.
Aesop skids and tumbles as Hamilton glides, pausing to encourage his companion.
He waits at the cemetery, standing to the side of the consecrated ground. Fog billows around the outline of a man and the shadow of a dog.
“The chapel?” he asks of Aesop, covered in burrs, mindless with exhaustion and pain.
Aesop manages a nod and cradles his ribs.
A finger of light from a barn rips the darkness; a cold haze has settled over the anxious village, filled with measures of humming black color and patches of baying dogs.
“No, master. To the clinic.”
Aesop trembles with doubt. Already wounded, could he accomplish the deed?
Their feet hammer at the frozen mud that follows the slight dip of the road littered with dead vehicles.
“Haynau?” asks Hamilton.
“I will fetch him once you have seen her,” says Aesop.
They walk though an open gate, skirt a well, then up the crumbling concrete steps to the clinic.
“Please,” says Aesop. He opens the thin door for his master.
Hamilton sniffs at the air touched with nervous musk. “This is the vet’s,” he says, suspicion rounding his thoughts.
“We’ve no doctor, master.”
“And the vet?”
“He’s gone to Cluj. Our pharmacy has no quinine.”
Hamilton lowers his head and drops his sack to the floor. He’s unbothered by the corrosive odor seeping from Aesop’s pores. The examination room is plain and heated by an iron stove. On the table, wrapped in a thick fat of blankets, Haynau’s daughter, her face obscured by a veil.
“Aesop, a pot of water to boil.”
“Yes, master.” He makes it so.
“Hello, child,” says Hamilton. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m poorly, Master Ham. And I’ve heard so many good things.” Barely audible, her voice shakes with fever as she completes her words.
“What’s your name?” he asks in a soothing voice toned with bedside manner.
“Elizabeth Haynau,” she says.
“May I have a better look?”
“Certainly,” she whispers.
“From what do you suffer, child?” He puts his hand to her hot flushed mouth, her mustache tickling his hand.
“Ague, they say.”
Hamilton leans over her, licking his lips, slurping back the saliva accumulating in the deep reservoir of his mouth.
Aesop interrupts, “Please excuse me, master. I will fetch General Haynau.”
With a brush of his hand, Hamilton accepts Aesop’s dismissal.
Once out the door, Aesop begins to jog. His footsteps clatter over the stones of the yard to the road where he breaks into a painful dash to the chapel. The congregation is waiting for news.
“How I hurt,” she says in a hush. “The fever does not go.”
“I will give you something. Let me see you now.” He pulls back the white veil with a tender sweep and finds an alluring mask of fur on her cheeks, chipped teeth behind lips made of bits of bone, her head cloaked in a tangled brown mane.
“What a shame if you would die of your ague,” he murmurs to the girl supposedly decimated by liver fever.
She’s extraordinarily familiar, like a girl recurring in his dreams.
“How old are you, Elizabeth?”
“Seventeen,” she says.
“I’m very young too, young enough to be your husband.”
Elizabeth nods, her eyes fiery with expectation.
“So you like dogs?” he asks. He inadvertently strokes her facial hair.
“Wild dogs,” she says, smiling.
“Awoooo!” he howls for a short canine spell and they laugh together.
She’s a perfect match and he’s enthralled by her beauty, humor and the naïve sweetness of her smell, akin to baking bread. He does not want to be a bachelor any longer and faults himself for having ignored this short, squat morsel, apparently so near. How happy he could have been! Yet he’s torn. He wants the joy of matrimony but he also wants to be saved, the mortification that it would surely mean. Mistakenly, and unused to having to juggle any feelings, Hamilton didn’t see them as mutual or coexistent.
A wisp of red hair falls into her eyes behind the mask. It itches but she isn’t brave enough to scratch.
“What’s this?” He’s alarmed but again he ignores the questions boiling in his mind about the origins of this bearded child.
Haynau’s daughter doesn’t answer. Her fingers grip at the edges of the blanket. She has taken the risk and she quivers with the distinct possibility that he will eat her alive. “My daddy,” she says. “He does not let me out. He’s ashamed.”
She’s sassy and it’s true: General Haynau had no mercy for the revolutionaries and their supporters he so utterly destroyed.
“Are you ashamed?”
“At not having found you sooner, my love,” he says, pushing aside the guilt about all the smaller and larger lives he’s consumed.
“Will I die, Master Ham?”
Hamilton stoops over the stove, devising a concoction of flowers from his bag. He adds poppy, a few slices of emetic mushroom, spoonfuls of honey and pushes the pot aside to cool.
“May I examine you further?” he asks. “In the interest of your care?”
“If you are to be my husband, granted that my father accepts my choice, then why not?” Elizabeth faints at that moment, overcome.
He freezes. Does Elizabeth have the power to read his mind?
“Yes, dear,” he says with the subordinate tone of a husband to this divine creature of pure hair.
With a fast and accomplished sweep, he pulls off the blankets and looks upon his bride: Elizabeth in a white gown sewn tightly over the fine mottled fur that is her blessing and bane. On her arms she is dark and black, on her legs too, but there are also rich patches of lilac and purple in her wolf-like splatterings, and a gluey white that reaches over the surface of her hands and feet.
How he desires this pale child.
He begins to undress, his shirts catching on his own coat of luxuriant fur, and slips his shoes off the gnarled slabs of his filthy feet poking from under the metal grieves, when he observes the orange flash of torches rebounding on the walls of the room.
“Eugenia, is that really you?”
He bends low to kiss the mask, his teeth bared, his cold hands reaching under her costume.
“It’s now,” Aesop tells the congregation sitting in the pews. Their gaze dips from the elaborately painted cassettes of the ceiling and turns to the messenger standing in the nave. The men rush together in a group in front of the organ at the transept and confer with Aesop. They have rehearsed many times killing pigs but there is confusion now that the undertaking is reputedly a man.
“Is he in the clinic?” asks the mayor, pacing, glad that he might be of service.
Aesop flickers in assent.
“Has he discovered the bait?” asks the pharmacist, pulling his hands from the pockets of his white coat.
He prays for Eugenia’s safety.
Pushing his glasses to his eyes, the schoolteacher asks, “Has he learned of our plot?”
He shrugs. Aesop wishes not until it was done.
“Who will be elected to kill the vagabond tonight?” asks the drover.
“Not you, Jonas,” says Aesop, brandishing the silver dagger that had remained in the chapel’s treasury, stored among the bones of the counts who once had been the village’s guarantee.
But the priest beseeches the men. “He’s part of the greater good. He’s what unites us together. He’s our charity and our goodness made real. It’s not too late.” He shakes his head in alarm from the pulpit, his last argument delivered from under a smart golden roof.
The villagers have implored their religious leaders to rid the village of him. Only due to the persistent argument of Aesop have the villagers realized the time has come, no matter if the verdict of murder would rest upon their souls. Such beasts belong on the page, in stories, in the imagination, not on Earth.
“No,” they say in a firm chorus that echoes from the ceiling decorated with the chronicle of the Protestant struggle in a land divided by Catholic and Orthodox. A few cassettes on the blue firmament remain empty, ready for a new act.
Outnumbered two score to one, unwilling but coerced by his congregation, the priest knows citing God is unlikely to win. His flock is stubborn, determined and threatening and he must yield. His rhetoric has failed. He comes down to the white floor of the chapel, dressed in the authority of his vestments, with the comfort that he would bless the man who had terrorized them through the ages.
The men leave the refuge of the chapel, the moon upon its stern wooden spire. In the distance, reflecting among the low roofs of the village, the bulk of the Orthodox basilica and the tin dome of the Catholics. They parade through the low gate of the thick wall fortifying the chapel and brandish their tools, then light the torches that burn with a savage brightness. The rabble descends along the spiral of wagon road to the brook. The procession curves sharply in the direction of the clinic, their heads turning longingly to the pub. They ask not for the company of fiddles or pipes or drums, nor for the company of women, but consider the ease of a drink. Aesop shakes his head. How many times have tasks gone awry because of a man’s simple thirst?
Vesselina is drawn to her apartment window above her shop. She crosses her chest as the somber procession passes. Tonight she will be jilted and she dare not watch.
The plotters murmur among themselves and Aesop whispers his instruction to Jonas.
“Hand me the dagger like this, Jonas, when he’s down.”
Aesop places the silver blade in his palm and shoves it Jonas’s way.
“Clamp the tongs on his ankle, right?”
It’s a cruel device, forged of iron and made to immobilize pigs.
“Yes, Aesop,” Jonas replies, his voice slim and peeved that it isn’t him. “Your will is mine.”
To the others he says, “He will fight. Pin him down, even if he changes into a dog, a wolf or any other beast.” The idea is far-fetched but they are willing to forget their doubts and believe. They mumble in agreement.
The ragged torches sing, just and violent and the men fan around the clinic.
“Master Ham!” Aesop cries, summoning the man and beast. His voice booms along the valley.
Hamilton Weir sneers at the sole window. His answer is swift. He lifts Eugenia to the sill, the mask torn from her face, her costume in shreds, her body as pale as dough, her arms bruised and twisted. She flips over the precipice like a sow. Haynau’s daughter lands before the men and does not so much as moan.
“You ungrateful lot!” Hamilton snarls. He’s disappointed with the villagers, and most certainly with Aesop.
“We want our children, Hamilton Weir,” demands the mayor.
“They’re no more,” he sneers in a white pall of breath.
“Master Weir, will you not leave this place as it is wished? Have you no feelings, alleged and callow fiend?” calls the priest, judicious yet supportive of his most troublesome subject.
Has Hamilton ever considered his anger of the day of his birth, the day he was named, ostracized and hated. But he has feelings, swallowed somewhere, emotions tucked under his murderous shirt. The priest’s empathy touches him deeply as he rises again to harangue them.
“Miserable fools! Were your enemies harsh? No! None of your opponents were capable because they left you a village. But I will spare nothing. Not a name. Not a soul.” He stamps his feet as he speaks and the clinic shakes.
Provoked, he feels the souring of his breath, the glassy calm of Neptunian energy, the increase in appetite, the by now comforting roar and pant of his own shape-shifting architecture.
The vision sends shivers through the congregation of what they haven’t considered: revenge by the wild dog.
Jonas crawls over the bloody boards of the clinic. His grip tightens over the tongs and he carefully slips the pincer-like mouth over one of Hamilton Weir’s ankles, avoiding the lashing tail. Rising, he yanks the rawhide straps after him. The iron tongs pull shut over the tendons of Hamilton’s ankle and his quarry squeals in pain. Jonas dashes into the yard and the congregation loops the line around their waists and they haul the beast from his lair.
Clutching his staff, Hamilton comes, a scratching lunging flipping fury of electric animal fear bouncing on one leg like a top.
They throw their weight upon him. They drag him to a tree and fasten a large iron staple over his neck but Hamilton is seized with a vile energy before it’s secure. He pulls away, straining against the chains wrapped on his limbs. He sees the buckets that have been gathered for his blood and the washing of his body, blankets of straw and bottles of propane for the burning of his hair and brushes to scrub his pork-like skin.
Hamilton is smothered under the vengeful weight of men unaware of the force with which they were about to contend. He’s not about to die there, ignominiously beaten to death and shamed. He rests as he takes the blows, and then with the reminder of stew in his belly, the angry hunger.
Hamilton attacks when Aesop settles on his muzzle and beckons to Jonas, who holds the silver dagger in his palm.
He sees it slip away, clean and mute on the frozen lawn.
Hamilton wiggles free and recovers his staff, the knotted raw end biting into them, smashing the skulls of those who had harassed him for generations. He tosses them aside and casts his staff upon Aesop’s knees, for he intends Aesop to suffer, he who had asked him to inform, in whom he had trusted, he who is scrambling towards the dagger.
The men are insubstantial. Not quite dispatched, the cries of the mayor, the teacher and the pharmacist cry like nervous birds and soon the others join them. Their end is without dignity as their blood coagulates and steams on the ground, pools of frothy bright red as if they had been pigs. Hamilton then busies himself with the renting of cavities and the smashing of brains, pausing to shovel the fatty matter into his mouth.
The Greek is groaning, clutching his knees to his broken chest. Aesop squints through his cloudy eyes, his only hope is Jonas who appears to be dead. The avenging dog squats beside him.
“Good evening, Aesop,” says Hamilton, his breath short and foul, his mouth filled with the taste of ears.
“Forgive me, master. I’ve done you wrong.”
“What’s the punishment for traitors, Aesop?”
“Dante was in the ninth ring of hell the last time we talked.” He is lucid and frightened of what he could not imagine.
“Yes—and you’ll be there too.”
Hamilton is alarmed. Who has spoken? He has spared his only ally, the priest.
Jonas doesn’t waver but lunges from the ground and drives the silver dagger in the notch between Hamilton’s neck and shoulder. Jonas screws down, cutting, cutting, searching for the beast’s heart, and as he does so, Hamilton emits a howl, a howl of surprise that balloons into agony as the blood squirts onto his face, sweet and slick, a scream that shatters the bricks of the clinic and twists the iron of its gates.
Born, the fiendish wind gusts through the village, the opening sortie. But Jonas hangs on, for if Jonas could ruin Nineveh, surely he could destroy this unholy man. Jonas pushes into the wild dog, the silver scorching and burning as it encounters the black lungs of Hamilton Weir, the tip visiting the ventricles of his heart, passing a thread away from the end.
Hamilton doesn’t want to die, not like this, disrespected and gloated over. He has too many plans.
In a haste he will regret, he disregards the prone, awe-struck Aesop. With a sweep of his hands he guts Jonas. Hamilton pries the hand of the startled man away. He smears himself with the remains, bloodthirsty and vengeful.
“Father,” he says, panting.
The priest questions his caller, his face illuminated by the hissing torches castaway on the ground, fire spreading into the straw. The flames quickly leap into a bush, creep into a pine, spread to another, jump onto the shingles of a barn and the village’s fate is sealed as flakes of soot began to dance in the air.
“Inside,” Hamilton commands the priest as he drags him by his nape into the clinic, almost flattened by Hamilton’s ferocious emotions.
The priest is becalmed with anxiousness. This is his opportunity. And as Hamilton kneels, he makes a choice to forgive: he dexterously removes the silver dagger from the wound with his soft hands. He does not seek the death of his subject for whom he has sympathy, even envy.
“Thank you,” Hamilton says and the priest bows. They’d always been in cahoots, good needing evil and likewise.
“Bless you, child,” he says, to which Hamilton shrugs. But it’s too late for blessings.
Hamilton empties what remains of Eugenia’s herbal tea into his wound, choking like an extra orifice. Pressing his hand to it and exiting into the yard, he lopes away, but not before wrapping the dagger in a cloth and taking the token.
Shouts of alarm, the panicked wails of immolating livestock and the hot carnage of fire flow in his wake. He runs to the meadow and he stops and admires Aesop’s swarthy tower casting a long shadow over the frosty grass. In its center, in what he concludes to be a cage, hangs a ham. He doesn’t hesitate to climb the structure and bash the meat from its mechanism. The door slams but he wedges the trap open with his staff and withdraws the salty haunch. He sniffs deeply. But Aesop’s treat isn’t enough to stay alive and he needs help.
He purses his lips together and whistles, leans on his staff.
They smell like beechnuts, maggots and fungi as they come thundering to his rescue.
Hamilton rubs his hand over the prongs of their tusks and scratches their throats.
“Home,” he says, and with a gentle kick he’s on his way, the pigs surging through the brush, eager to serve their master, knowing, saddled on the largest. The trees buckle from their roots and the storm surges, unabated, his pain and anger given violence, a maelstrom releasing boulders and felling trees. His chest is dry, aches tediously, his face like ice.
The stew saves him.
He savors the glutinous mash, lashing his lips with entrails and offal, munching with gusto on baby fingers and toes, even if it hurts to eat, he pushes the morsels aside, the best bits for last, especially the cheeks.
After, called by habit, he searches for his silver box.
“Are you lost, my love?” he asks, body stiffening and hot. He’s not going back for it. Who needs sentiment now, when he’s ready to leave it all behind. He’s relieved: the vessel will be someone else’s bane. Hamilton will let go: that’s the secret.
He delicately stands on his sole chair, wheezing, and unhooks a bundle of flowers from the rafters. He unpeels the paper cloud around its top, adroitly mixes a cigar from the hairy rubbings and his brittle tobacco leaves before settling down to rest, savoring the smoke that passes through him like a slow, incremental suicide that calms his metabolism and elates his thoughts.
Recovering on his bed of ticking and straw, noticing the poverty of his filthy lair, a rhapsody of distant sounds gathers in Hamilton’s mind, the bass of trucks crisscrossing Europe, the soprano of jets flying among continents, the panic of the villagers trying to save the doomed town and the slow reactive fizz of his silvery wound.
He has been careless. But he has survived and for that he should be congratulated: he has not married, he has not died and he has not permitted any withering of his legend. Hamilton touches the ticket and passport, his charms, winces and knows he will not return.
Seated in a condor-like aircraft, Hamilton Weir keeps an aloof bearing among the plebs. In his white suit, a cream cravat cinched over the fast-healing wound, he is no more recognizable than any desperate, bandaged old man with a grizzly grandeur and red rheumy eyes.
Temporarily free of temptations, he encounters everything new with perfect intuition and a sense of grace. He acts without reproach and is fair to everyone.
Hamilton toys with the in-flight entertainment but he finds it no substitute for a victim.
Removed from the rural missteps and dead ends that have made his journeys satisfying and even made his soul soar, he is puzzled by the mystery of this fleet, modern conveyance. Yet during the last hours of the flight when the ice merges into Martian deserts, he spots his brethren underneath, leaping and biting at the belly of the plane and he is elated.
Forgetting where he is, he cackles in hysterics and rolls to the floor, nearly weeps with the devious humor of the restored hunger within, before he regains control of his wild eyes. He giggles as he pushes himself back in his seat. The high of his last cigar has diminished and he needs a smoke, even if that is what he hopes to finish, for once and for all, at the Glade.
At last the aircraft slides onto the runway at sunset, the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains beckoning with promise. He is slow and his neck hurts. Passengers are overtaking him along the concourse, posted with photographs of the First Nations. He smiles with a touch of irony and mischief. The tribes belong to the past, dead like him.
Hamilton presents a nonchalant and handsome face to the immigration agent who has little idea he is letting in two for one. He places his hairy thumb on the scanner, smiles carefully into the camera posted on the desk.
The agent sees no more than a respectable man with his visa and ticket in order. The image and the print register all clear, but on a hunch, and with a respect for duty, the agent questions the passenger.
“What’s the purpose of the trip, Mr. Weir?”
Hamilton has no difficulty with this language, master that he is of shapes and changes. He smiles like a ghoul, his voice hypnotic. “I’m ill and I’ve come to be cured,” he says. “At the Glade.”
True, he seeks a halt to the living sleeping. Yet he is coming down and restless, positive he’ll find a fix on the other side. He sets his eyes upon the agent.
“Sorry to hear it, master.” The agent bites his tongue as he utters this foreign word—not sir, but master, as if cast back to the epoch of slaves.
Hamilton crouches at the immigration counter, his hands burying into the white plastic veneer. “They have the best doctors in America. And the Glade is world renowned.”
“Yes, master.” The agent’s speech moves without the cavalier attitude to which he is accustomed.
The agent pauses, perplexed, unsure of how to go on. Yet servant to a power he cannot fathom, he mechanically stamps Hamilton’s passport, returns his ticket and directs him to baggage claim.
Hamilton is pleased. Who can stop him now?
He waits with the other travelers who watch the belt and appraise their luggage. Some have opened the clams of their phones and are barking orders about their arrival. Others simply are stunned. Hamilton paces, uncomfortable and thirsty, until he sees his mangled bags. They don’t look like such great trophies now.
As he approaches the final desk, a custom’s officer intercepts him.
“Have you been on a farm or other agricultural land in the last six months?”
“Please move to the inspection area.”
He is waved over to a large scanner and his bags are inserted into its bay, not without a certain amount of panic on his part, his bruised heart thumping at a deadly rate.
“What are those?” ask the two clumsy agents, pointing at the large splotches of green organic manner on the screen in his jute sack. “Grenades?”
“Apples,” he says, changing tact, seeing that he is at risk and will have difficulty fixing their thoughts and deeds. “I collect apples, old kinds of apples, heirlooms.”
He can’t say: “I’ve come to terrorize America to suck the blood of women and infants.” No, he has come to reinvent himself.
“Hobby,” he adds. He expects to be treated fairly by the pair of officials with mustaches and guns. He wipes his sweaty hands on his white slacks and sucked in a foul lungful and exhales. “Sirs?”
The agents cinch their arms over their chests. Humorless, they are not obeying the sweet old man with the awful breath. “Dump those apples and you can go, bud.”
“May I have them back? They need my care.”
The answer is a big fat negative, a no that makes him squirm.
What a disaster! Hamilton empties his sack, what had been a last minute decision. The apples ring into the bin, some speckled, others greasy, more still blotched, round or flat, crispy, tasty examples of his love of the old flavors that have no market now. He rues the waste and is bitter that the rule of God is what it is. Hamilton laughs at the poetry. Has he shaven his body in vain?
Upset, he begins to argue with the agents, who watch the suspect with odd, glowing eyes.
Hamilton begins a pitch to save his cargo. Unwrapping a saucer-like yellow apple, he says, “Peony it’s called. Squat, chewy texture, keeps all winter. Documented from 1360 in the Carpathian Basin. These sooty ones? Russets from trees half a millennium old. That’s why I’m here! It’s diplomacy, no?”
The two agents don’t respond. He’s from what world? What’s he on about?
He panics momentarily. Would they care if he says he is impervious to bullets? Hamilton loves to manipulate fear to his advantage.
“May I eat, say, one?”
They nod. “Eat all you want.”
He changes tact again, trying to fix their skeptical gaze. “Imagine, the growers are so poor they don’t even have money for pesticide. They’re depending on me to find a way to market their product. It’s for the greater good.”
“Wasting your breath, Mr. Weir.”
He is disheartened as he selects the choicest and munches them next to the scanning machine. Hamilton’s sorcery has no effect on the dolts. He’s neutralized and it’s very puzzling. He imagines the world empty and wild again, informed by the old messages suppressed in its current workings. He sighs. To hell with apples. And America.
“Have it your way,” they say.
The last of the apples tumble out. He admires their scarred skins, the calluses where they have rubbed against branches, the scabs where wasps have milked the sweet juice, the shapes imperfect and ugly, inappropriate but so divine. How wrong are the pundits who insist that such apples are the product of inefficient, dead modes of agriculture. Let the world be so, so much richer for it.
At last the two agents allow him to go. Hamilton’s apples are impounded, destined for incineration.
He crosses the administrative area and breezes through the set of automatic glass doors into the vast tent-like terminal like any other traveler. What the agents have forgotten are the seeds.
Sam Wild is waiting with a placard among the crowd. Smartly dressed, he talks into a cell phone when Hamilton Weir approaches. He clamps it shut. “Mr. Weir?”
“No other,” Hamilton says.
“Just me today?”
“Yep.” The youth puts the bags on a trolley, turns on his heels and leads Hamilton to the rooftop of the parking lot. The land smells of kerosene, dung, cattle, prairie and sun tan oil.
Hamilton flags on the way to the van. Buckled in, depleted, he eats the courtesy sandwiches and drinks the thermos of coffee as the vehicle heads towards the dark, purple Rockies.
The game is on, the ineffable progress of the home team and tourists flowing from the radio, the chauffeur cloaked in the lights from the dashboard, typing messages into his phone as they pass the stadium, lit up like a white eye; from within, the strange roar of 80,000 people hammers at the sky threatened by a web of lights that spread into the foothills.
It’s crowded with cars and houses but people are absent from its streets.
He dozes to the thick chug of the motor as the van climbs up the pass.
Later a rich pungent smell burns in the vehicle and sends him into paroxysms of joy. He scratches his rump in dizzy celebration: the chauffeur is smoking a pipe!
Hamilton bays silently at the deluded moon breaking through the passing forests of spruce. Nothing he wanted has ever been that far or that close.
Sam Wild turns, paranoid and worried. What a nut, he thinks as he turns back into the dashboard and the flashing lights of the gritters salting the pass.
After midnight the van swings into a carport.
Hamilton is stiff and tender as he pads over the frozen drive. He studies the Glade’s illuminated logo, understated, simply a circle of aspen trees. He smells dogs beyond the lawn studded with designer lamps. Hamilton walks through the automatic door into the Glade, smooth white walls and natural wood, cozy like a cabin. He coolly nods at the volunteers and the nurses at reception.
The supervisor asks, “Something to drink?”
“Oh, yes please. A schnapps.”
“You must be from Germany?”
“Oh no, I’m American,” he says. Hamilton has always been the ultimate cultural traveler, preying on paranoia, exploiting it for food, drink, shelter and notoriety. But if he’s anyone he’s a maligned equal attributed with bloodthirsty rites and mysterious ways. Doesn’t he remember?
“Everyone has a nametag. It makes it easier,” the supervisor says. “Yogi tea? Pomegranate juice?”
Hamilton makes a powerful introduction to the staff and they are puzzled how he has survived so long among men when he tells them his age and his problem. He has promised to be open from the start, for this no one will judge.
“I’m a werewolf and I’ve 488 years.”
But the diagnosis is clear: a junkie and a liar.
He drinks his tea quietly, strangely spiced, his teeth clinking on his mug, and then moves to his quarters. The rehab clinic smells overwhelmingly of the burnt out ways of the lost. He is to be isolated in his own ward, for his or their protection he cannot guess. His pajamas are ironed.
That night he backpedals. Of course, he wants a break, he reasons, but as he rises from an irregular and troubled sleep, he is confronted with a new regimen: a low-fat wheat-free breakfast, followed by mandatory counseling. No stale bread and lard.
Therapy is an unanticipated voyage.
Carol is assertive and comforting, the perfect redhead. She shakes his hand, directs him to an armchair, sits directly across and looks intently into his eyes. “Ham, I’m not against you,” she says, her voice warm but unemotional. “And I understand all of this is a symptom of your pain.”
“I’m already a new me,” he says, but he’s fibbing; he has made room in his reconditioning for a return.
“Let’s start with your emotions, the positive ones and the negative ones. But beforehand, tell me for what you are grateful.”
“It’s up to you.”
“Seems so.” He sighs, fidgets in the chair. “Do I owe anyone anything? My father who made me? The midwife who called down the curse on the night I was born? The villagers who gave me their womenfolk and children so that I could grow? The tales that made my legend bigger than my deeds?” His voice quavers.
“That’s a start, Ham. You must understand that—”
“We’re copies of our parents plus something extra.”
“Yes. You’ve been to therapy before?”
“Never in my lives.”
“I mean that my life is the continuum of another being. This being does not end with my death, but keeps on living.”
“That can happen too.” He focuses on the window. The white tree tops are blowing in bursts, leaves lifting and flying away. “We never really die, not really.”
“So what you’re saying is that you might die but what lives within you will carry on? And that because of this you’re not afraid of death.”
“I am death. I have nothing to fear.”
The revelation pops out and he’s flabbergasted. He is death and death surely cannot die. That’s worrying. He feels everything slowing down, huge gaps opening between the words and phrases.
Carol looks up. “It’s the fear of death from where our negative feelings come.”
“And the positive ones?”
“The soul, the spirit.”
“But if your job is to take it away?”
“What I want you to do is draw two things: a tree and a family. Can you do that?”
Hamilton begins to draw. He sketches the trunk of a tree but amputates all the branches and shades a rotten hollow in the shape of a baby. He draws a ring of figures horribly attached.
“We’ll talk about these next time,” she says. “For tomorrow, I’d like you to write a CV of your emotions.”
“You’re no different from anyone else. Like most people, you think they’re no bigger than your shoe.”
His time is heavily controlled. Conditioning follows in the gym, with a short break for a light lunch, then a nap. A mixture of yoga, sweat lodge and massage follow. The events smell of felt, wax and mules.
Carol catches him off-guard with her oral questionnaire the next morning, ignoring the wisp of paper in his hand.
“When did you kill your first child?”
After the Black Death and the occupation of the Turks. After the arrival of the Pied Piper with his rats and children and long before General Haynau came, before his beautiful hairy daughter was born. He had always been on the prowl. Maybe 1519?
“What did this hairy child mean to you?”
She was his bride and like time he was the ultimate of men. Then it occurred to him: why eat only children when he could eat women and children.
“You have children?”
No, he ate them all.
“Who were you with the first time?”
He was alone. How he had gorged! Better than elk or turtle.
“Where are you now?”
“What was it like? How did you feel?”
Feel? How horrid. The wretchedness shook him then, that cold grip from bowels to heart.
“How many children have you killed since then?”
He was the best and worst friend.
“Was it dangerous?”
The greater risk, the better. The stars above reminded him of his place in the universe.
“Was it ever difficult?”
The church had battled him and the communists had censored him. That was a difficult patch. But when Ceausescu outlawed birth control, unwanted infants made abundant treats. And now, thanks to the fall, he was back, stronger than ever.
“What motivated you to kill children?”
They’re whores and princesses.
“Aren’t whores and princesses the same thing, Hamilton?”
It made him feel better than God.
Because God always changed from good to evil. And he, Hamilton, would change from evil to good. That’s the difference! He would be morally superior to God.
Carol wondered. Are not taboos and ills rooted in story? Doesn’t he know the unspeakable is now illuminated by psychoanalysis? Has Freud may no impact? Anyway, he’s a throwback.
“Would you like some medication to help you?” she asks.
Hamilton doesn’t accept the anti-psychotics and doubts that anyone could explain his condition, not even Carol, goofy and attractive at the same time. Indeed, she insists that nothing needs to be spooky or uncanny. “Just let the hair grow,” she says. “Be Hamilton Weir.”
Without a clear prognosis Hamilton is depressed and he snips at his hair each day. He wants to be normal and he can feel the spirit parting. Already his arms and legs have atrophied. They are used to the chase and hunt; here, there is only the gym.
He ignores the wound that has festered to an ulcerous mass. Studying the keepsake from the Aesop and Jonas’s assault, he realizes how foolhardy he has been to think he might change.
A Last Run
“Curtis can’t work this weekend. Can you, Sam?”
Carol’s beady eyes squint into a look that Sam cannot decipher: a call for empathy or a declaration of authority. He knows the request isn’t about work.
“Elk hunt,” he says.
“That’s a no?”
“What about the new guy?”
Everyone in Breckenridge keeps a few jobs in the delicate balance of work in a place so pornographic in its nature, obscenely beautiful and devoted to play. It’s their perpetual struggle: season and off-season. Extremes. Even the rehab clinic is prone to waves of detoxers who mix therapy with the good times of the ski and board season.
Carol huffs. “No fuck-ups, okay.”
Petite, firm, too smart, Carol’s made of day hikes and yoga. Fasting is part of her attack on longevity and she’s unbothered by a denial-based diet of Marlboro Reds that has sustained her from her pressures as a medical student on a merit scholarship and to her present business, the Glades. Nothing is beyond her compass of therapies and for that her practice is famous. No one guesses it’s mortgaged to the hilt, that she’s spent more than she’s made on PR.
“Oh, I promise. Anyway, you’ll save some overtime.”
Carol reaches for him but he slides away. He’s a hunk and she can’t get enough of Sam Wild.
“What’s wrong, Sam? You’re so moody.”
“Kathy back? Or you run out?”
His eyes flare. She knows he never runs out.
But why did he get hung up on Kathy anyway? Is she back? Pert curves and a smile that could melt a billionaire—her purpose exactly.
Carol looks with yearning at the thick neck, the brawn, the overworked pecs and arms. But he’s not a gym rat, he’s all brute nature.
“What’s going on inside, Sam? Or do I have to draw it out of you?”
“This ain’t therapy, ma’am.”
“But I helped you, didn’t I?”
“Sure, without Dr Carol, I’d never be who I am today.” He wiggles past the counter of the staff kitchen and into the hall. “Tuesday, okay? I’ll come early for the van and pick up the LA people. If they’re still alive.”
He can’t help but think she’s some sort of advanced witch, benign of purpose, a little greedy, spinning wisdom and cures from people who are too vulnerable to help themselves. Attractive too. After a few Coke and Jacks.
“That elk hunt’s bullshit,” Carol says, believing that he’s seeing someone else.
“Nope, the elk are waiting up in the snow,” he replies, smiling casually, attractively. It’s calculated to make her jealous. He shouldn’t have porked her.
He didn’t give a hoot about the weekend shift yet he has worked long enough to know that it didn’t do to antagonize one’s employer. Sam’s been through enough women, bosses and jobs. Of course, he’s a loser on the exterior but he’s clever all the same. He lives in a condo, keeping the garage as a workshop and storage space, converting the basement into a bedroom for himself, and presto, he sublets the ground floor to some grommets in clear violation of his tenancy.
He should iron his shirt for Monday and then be off.
But Carol asks, “You’re after more mountain butt, aren’t you?”
“Since when did you get huffy about my love of mountain butt?”
Sam recalls the two seasons he had whittled through ski-bunnies without pause or reflection and with a big dose of self-hatred and very little self-love. But they just wanted sex and weren’t into relationships. He brightens and forces a wink. An elk hunt is a perfect excuse to piss outside.
That’s what irritates her. She’s excluded.
The tug of Carol’s eyes aren’t enough to keep him, Sam Wild, glorified chauffeur, the smiling, handsome front office of change waiting in arrivals at DIA, trying to hold his sign while staring heatedly and indifferently at the babes passing under the strange dull canvas of the airport.
He disappears down the marigold hall.
Carol shouts after him, “Well, if that’s so, bring me back some elk burgers!”
She knows Sam’s full of it. She’s at pains to explain to him that she won’t let him continue to screw up his life. He’s got too much talent, in what exactly other than fucking, she couldn’t say, her professional judgment impaired.
Carol’s upset. Sam’s really not staying. She’s on call all weekend and a little time with Sam would be nice away from the eyes of the staff. Not that they can’t be seen by anyone who lives and works in town.
Sam walks out the automatic doors of the Glade, dodges around the van in the parking bay, and chooses his own vehicle out in the snowy parking lot, a deliberately loud, beat up, crusty truck that speaks mountain cred, as local as the sick, out-of-bounds stunts built on the bodies of local boarders.
He fats his mind with the idea of snow. Still a little thin on the ground, he’s ready sticks and gravel, the washed out, boarded morasses of snow, like last year’s in places, the icy runs made by the snow machines. But what Sam Wild would really like: the high country past the range of the boozed up slednecks and snow cats at Wolf Creek, the dialed in runs where his board is slapping under his feet as he hunts down the mountain, free of any ideas of face plants or rollovers. For Sam, boarding isn’t always a crackalacking contest between Sims and Burton.
The forecast’s for snow. Then clear.
Prime for paraski and skicross.
And pow, not the sugary, wind-buffed stuff.
If it hadn’t been for his stupid promise of elkburgers.
Damn, he’s going to have to fit in a stop at a gamepackers somewhere since Carol took the bait.
He lights a cigarette and cranks up the roar of MC5 once he pushes the cassette in the deck, the Stooges on the other side. Tidy barns and corrals are dotted along the road, nice places to own he imagines, if you’re a gazillionaire. He hits the edge of town, fast food, dumpsters, drive-in liquor, bowling alley, a few motels and the innocuous franchises disguised as high dining on Main Street. He slows on the last stretch. The lifts reach like ribbons up the mountain but a layer of descending fog obscures the last hour of daylight on the peaks. He pulls to a stop. Plenty of cars he recognizes, dudes down for that last run before the barrage of weekenders.
Sam Wild has a shredded board in his toolbox for days like this, the start of the season. He pulls on a bib, pushes off his Tevas and slips his woolly feet in the boots.
He tugs his goggles backwards over his hoodie and jumbles his fingers in his pockets. He’s got the egg, pipe and matches.
“Hi Theresa,” he says to the girl at the ski lift, its great flywheel cutting at the darkening sky, the chairs gliding in, slowing, kicking off. No one in line.
“Pass?” she asks.
“You and a hundred other horn dogs, Sam Wild.” No hat, no scarf, Theresa’s hair is teased artfully by the wind and still smells like Pantene.
“Sore about Tuesday night, huh?”
“Karaoke’s your idea of fun?” The blue star tattoo on Theresa’s chest rises to the V of her jacket.
“But you sang didn’t you? Got a voice.” And a pierced tongue he’d like to be reminded about.
“To Phil Collins.” She’s indignant. How humiliating. Why not Journey?
“Who you like better, huh?”
“Sneak me up, yeah?”
“Hey, it’s my season pass on the line. Not yours.”
“Nah, they’re softies. Anyway, how about a pitcher on Anchor Steam later?”
“Yeah?” Theresa says. She must have done better than she thought.
A group of skiers have appeared at the chute, apparently also dreaming of a final run, when the slopes almost spiritual, even if totally manmade.
“Um, Kathy’s working up there.”
“So my ex back from gold digging, huh?”
“Yeah, and she was asking all about you last night.” She flicked her hair in a manner to indicate she didn’t care.
“So we’re still on for that pitcher?”
“Oh yeah,” he says, nodding for her to scan him past the gate.
He sits down and the chair scoops him up. He’s just one bean carried upward and as the chair rises along the pylons, the trees curtseying with snow, orange fencing and haybales around the snow machines, a pair of noisy snowcats. He rustles in his pocket for his egg and he’s got the pipe loaded in no time. A big iron-colored bud sits on the screen. But he doesn’t light it. The chair rises and falls with the amplitude of each pylon. He wonders about Kathy. She always let him when he wanted a last run.
Sam skis from the lift house with calculated ease, picks up some speed and glides into the bay of the next lift.
“Back from Arizona, Sugar?”
Their chests clash and through the synthetic material her chest feels more robust than it ever did before. Her nose looks like a ramp, too.
“Oh yeah,” he says, studying Kathy’s bodacious oversexed interpretation of mountain Barbie.
“Dropped your daddy, huh?”
“Nope, Sam, daddy dropped me. After he paid for surgery and everything. Go figure.”
“Upgrading or downgrading next?”
“Sam, I need a real man with real problems, not some playboy who’s out of touch. Like you.”
He nods up the mountain.
“Let me up first, then we can discuss it.”
Sam darts forward and delivers a kiss on Kathy’s cheek, avoiding the primed lips.
“Sweetheart,” he says and he’s through.
Sam chuckles to himself as he scoots away, sitting in the swinging spoon bearing for the summit. He sighs and thanks himself: yeah, sweetheart, you mad crazy bitch.
He hunkers down in the chair, lowers his cap. The pines are clocking by. He pulls off his gloves, cracks open his puffy vest, his hand dives into the plaid pocket. He’s glad he didn’t light up then and there and have to deal with Kathy’s opinion about ganja.
He’s adept with the matches in the wind. Just close the circle, he says to the flame as he slides open the lid on his pipe and applies it over the top of the mound of bud.
Good job if you can get he says, thinking of the growers, the gardeners and their help that spend weeks drying and clipping the harvest, nuggets that make his fingers high. He sucks it down into his being, the medicine that keeps him down, keeps the energy low, bottled, and he loses his way to the gate of whatever progress he’s been made to find for himself. The inevitably of another season also bothers him. He’s just doing the same old shit. What a bummer. He’s got no sponsors, no deals, nothing; just a license for ski patrol that he’s been fired from anyway, twice. Like any old-timer faking alpine sports medicine, he’d rather watch an avalanche than ride one.
He stares. Sam can run up mountains for three days. And return the next morning for more. He can ride over the peaks, descend to Grand Junction in one swoop and pedal back, the lugs of his Colnago creaking, his sweat melting the enamel of the frame and the altitude rushing in his ears as his bike dissolves under his feet. He can meditate for months, identify and move muscles of whose function he can only wonder. And after all that effort, his belly stays plump and round, testament to the fact that he’s an outsider to the no guts, no glory crowd of individual thrillseekers riding on the might of the recreational industry that allows you to run over grannies and children without much consequence for a good trick unless it really is manslaughter.
He doesn’t like the feeling of his desires in his stomach. He should have made more of himself by now, like his dead mother would remind him. That’s why he’s struggling. Down there in his dark bachelor hole of boards, tools, bikes, an recording studio (Sam Wild could sing and play drums), a few guns and a mirror neatly wedged under the window well to reflect what light there was into the basement. From tarp he’s divided out a john and shower out of tarp for himself next to the stairs.
The place made his stir-crazy and he savored the ride up the mountain. He studied his favorite jumps and little jogs through the trees when he was timberbashing on his downhill bike, one of five bought on e-bay, reminding him of his debts accumulated from too many hobbies and too much equipment that had eaten into his downtime, even with the income from the subletters. He couldn’t figure out if he was boning Carol because of the financial incentive, the health benefits that came with working for the Glade, or that he was in love with her because she’d made it all make sense, the romantic squalor and purposelessness of his existence. But any girl could do that for Sam. He wasn’t so picky and always had a girlfriend, a crush and a favorite on the go.
Sam took another hit. He could paste it over. He didn’t mind shortcuts. He’d lie if needed, swallow a pill, take a drag, finish a twelve-pack, sip psilocybin tea or suck mescaline lollipops, put a dropper to his eye, sit in a sweatlodge, run naked into a cold stream, do in fact anything that would make it easier to be Sam in a way that was zen-like, distinctly not zen but an approximation, a copy not the real thing, if only for a short time.
He crunches his belly and limbers up. The smoke does its work.
The bowl looks tasty. The powder has indeed come.
It’ll make tracking elk a lot easier. It is the second to last weekend of cows and calves. Bucks are out of season. He’s seen them lying against the timber all week, skittish and wary as ice cubes, waiting for the cover of twilight. They’re the colors of cinnamon and clove, bulky and superior, top-heavy, except when they’re starving. There’s a Bambi-like outline over by some rocks dashed with cedars and splashed with buckets of lichen paint.
He wants to call it, push the bulb of his little shrieker.
The ears move on the mountain.
Sam could ambush one in the morning with his beautiful repro Sharpe’s. After all, he’s been watching the tame herd. He should brain one. It wouldn’t take much time. Just by following his routine, getting in the rocks by four in the morning after sleeping in the back of his truck, frost on his eyelashes, his toes itching like hell from Cabela’s discount merino socks, so distracted or high that he might fuck up, miss, and watch his elk jerk back to life and terrify him with a last stampede. You couldn’t bring down elk otherwise, those big brawny red mottled shaggy ungulates of his supposed weekend.
Sam tightens his bindings.
Take it easy, he says, knowing fully his talent to wipeout while going for the glory, all bare-knuckled adrenalin pumping over rock faces and patches of ice, pushing down, down the mountain for traction. Big air was for those weeks when the medical bills were paid and he had spare cash for more surgical steel parts.
He lifts the tip of his board and slides from the chair onto the ramp. He dips past a cabin, doesn’t stop by the sun decks covered in pillows of snow, even the table swept clean by two cute chicks sharing a thermos of tea. It’s closed anyway this early in the season.
But that’s where he started, expediting mulled wine and bratwurst and fries for a chance to be the last to close, his backpack full of leftovers, a grommet waiting for dark and only the lights of town to guide him, his halogen light off, his eyes soaking up the deep blue differences between snow, trees, sky and impact. Purer and faster, boarding at night, scared shitless he was going to hit a moose or collide with some other kid moving like a panther; no, not like now, a little rusty and cautious, banking, jumping, just taking it easy riding except for frontside backside 180s, jumps and hops, limbering and getting smoother, cruising, testing his rails, his muscles remembering the dimples and moguls from last season that had more or less reappeared, the wet summer’s brutal cross-training of muddy single track having kept him in shape, ready to absorb everything.
Not like that creepy nearly dead fucker in the Glade.
Sam boards like the answers are in the snow. He boards, angry and hungry through the blanket tangled with brush. He’s deliberate, trying to fuck it up but somehow he doesn’t, slaloming trees, jumping boulders, boughs and traverses between runs, arcing over walls in ways he thought about but never dared. Sam’s almost impressed himself. He’d get 500 views for a video, cool and killing time, one trick away from a free ride in a heli, the chatter of radios, a tag-along film crew, his avalanche beacon, shovel and GPS in his pack, nothing but a precipice of blind alleys below the cornices, and the distorted gold gloss of his glasses frosted with courage.
Since it’s going this well, in theory, Sam reckons the half-pipe deserves a change in course. He cuts between the trees to get the deck. He slides over railings and transcends jumps, wicked, free-riding. He’s on and he’s unnerved and he can’t comprehend the power within him.
Something inside was gnarly and churning like an old burrito or a pig’s ear dredged from his sink.
Something that seems to overtake him as he passes to the pipe and executes some of the sickest moves of his life, gliding from lip to lip, 1080s and flips, pikes, corks and twists, railslides, a raid on hangtime, Sam riding on the never-done extremes of sport.
He’s flowing. He’s stoked.
He’s Sam. He’s Wild.
Of grace, fluidity and dedication, every hour of experience executed with the style of effortlessness. Airtime isn’t his priority until this session. All the strength of yore is back and he’s wondering if he could refind his footing and line up Red Bull.
He doesn’t want a girlfriend, a wife or a kid. He wants to be alone, strapped to a cliff with a carabiner and pinon, or better yet with no rope at all, freeclimbing the firmament. But he’d like to share the inventiveness of his moves. Yes, the abandon and the connectedness, the imagination given to his body, a glyph of forms under the glare of the lights. The roars of the crowd greet him at the pen at the foot of the run. His eyes well up with the sound—clapping, hooting and yee-hawing for the insurmountable freeride right before dark.
Except there’s no one.
The moon sneers at him, then hiccups.
The lot is mostly empty. The lifts are off. No operators. They’ll all be in the bar. Or boarding down behind him.
His board is shattered, strips of peeled plywood.
He unbuckles, ashamed to that Carol’s suggestion of regular yoga must have helped. Absolutely, it’s for pansies. But the poses make him sweat and dissolves the gut acquired when he’s lost the whole day in traffic, bogged down on I-70 doing the final pick up.
Sam walks stiffly to his truck anchored in the vast empty lot of slush and sand.
He stretches next to the rusted door.
“See that rad run?” he asks a stray dog sniffing the gravel and snow.
No one’s around and the dog nods.
How long was he on the mountain? The buildings of the resort are shuttered and dark.
He packs the truck, changes his boots, grabs a Pabst from behind the seat. He’s hungry but he decides to make a brief tour before heading home. He feels no cold but there’s not much to see. The ski tuning shop. Bric-a-brac. Equipment. Boutiques. Skating rink. The blue glow of a few hot tubs. A slow night in the off-season. But Sam doesn’t bump into Kathy, Theresa or any of his favorites.
He almost feels a little inebriated back in the truck, heading home.
Something surges from him that night, so much so that he runs barefoot to jimmy open the front door of Jug and Loaf for a midnight bucket of jerky and two 40s.
Bong hits don’t help him discover the cause, but bong hits are Sam’s remedy for everything, even as he drools and tremors in front of the online personals, tied up in erotic instant messaging from nearby Denver, a pending bid for a Yeti pro frame spiraling by the second; he’s stalling, not sure what to do, blanking out, his bong in his lap, the samples looped on his computer, waiting for the funkberry drums to be queued to Sam’s swampbilly voice that so far tonight had just come out in a series of pondering growls and howls, some merged language of gothic import as he watches the local Bronco Bar webcam, sees Kathy flirting with some poseurs in cowboy hats, her hallmark. He’s browned off with himself that he’s so catatonic that he can’t go out, even if the timing looks good, that enough pitchers and tequilas had gone round to warm up the girls, Kathy be damned. As for that cute fox Theresa who let him up this afternoon? No sight of Carol. But he enjoys being somewhat of a hermit and freak, even if handsome and athletic. A mysterious reputation was sexier than none. Or was it was about as attractive as a mustache?
That Tuesday at the canteen Hamilton settles on fried green tomatoes for breakfast and tomato salad for lunch. Yes, he reasons, only tomatoes, the fruits like pincushions warding off ills. That’s all he wants from the smorgasbord. Nothing else.
Sam Wild straddles the bench next to Hamilton in the cafeteria as he plays with the tomato sauce. “Sam,” he says, extending his hirsute hand.
Hamilton delivers a furtive glance and crouches lower at the table.
“Better now, dawg?” Sam is full of vigor and slang; he lives on extreme mountain sports when not picking up patients for the Glade.
Hamilton nods. He can smell the odor somewhere in Sam’s pocket, the presence of a secret, a clever silver box! “My pleasure, master,” Hamilton replies in a voice unlike his own. His jaw drops. Sam could be the unwitting host to a gift Ham must give.
“Good tofu burgers,” Sam says, his eyes dry, his mind slightly buzzed.
He has to get Sam involved. “Can you help me?”
“Your wish is my command,” Sam says, not knowing how true that will be.
“Any smokes?” Hamilton feels a tinge of guilt and can see Carol’s disappointment from afar.
Sam blanks. Who’s this freak? But he doesn’t leave. Sure, Sam would smuggle in the odd fifth of booze or baggie of crank to the patients for some kind of reward. No harm done if junkies want to be junkies. A relapse is part of the treatment as far as he could tell.
“So,” he drawls into his hand.
“Bud or Salvia?”
“Oh yes, bud. No, both.”
“Wicked,” he says, but he gives Ham one more chance. “Wastes your mind and your money. All your progress here…”
“Wicked….” Hamilton repeats hoping for something other than tomatoes to store his impulse for destruction.
“Want some for now?”
Sam scans the room, which was free of volunteers, and fiddles with his pocket. He’s got his tricky silver box. He shoves the dry mixture in Hamilton’s sweaty palm, adds a few leaves of rolling papers.
“It never runs out.”
Hamilton skips all the activities that afternoon. He hasn’t lasted more than three days, and he is insanely happy in his room, if not a little shameful, his eyes baked into crimson puffs, his appetite returning, his mind roaming outside the window to the mountains filled with his natural allies, his body drawn against the glass. Yet he mourns from the hatch in his room, throwing his voice into the mountains, the trees covered in hard frost, the answers muffled yet encouraging from their midst. That night he hears whispering and a heavy weight of premonition crushes his chest.
“Resistance’s part of the cure, Hamilton. I think you know that,” says Carol the following morning. “Sam told me.”
He’s intractable and unwilling. “Would you like to join me as a dog?” He seeks to provoke her.
“Think of me as a watchmaker who can repair your watch.”
“I’d like the ceremony. The whole sheboodle.”
“Yes, Hamilton, but I’d like you to smoke now, so I can observe.”
“You might not like it,” he responds.
“I’m a professional,” she says curtly. “It’s not what I like.”
He enjoys the tension and he rustles together the nugget of mix.
Carol observes the respect and skill with which he accomplishes the task.
He puts the thing in his mouth.
“It’s good?” she asks as Hamilton fires up.
He immediately relaxes with the first breath. He feels complete and present.
“So what’s happening?” she asks.
“Well one part of me feels guilty because I know this is confusion. And the other part is telling me it’s wonderful.”
“There’s a Hamilton A and a Hamilton B. Hamilton B is crawling over Hamilton A.” She notices no physical change. It’s inside. He doesn’t sprout teeth or claws or shift shapes. “It’s a game, isn’t it?”
“Thinks so?” He smokes it down to the nub and bats the smoke away.
“You’ve been lying to me all this time. You’re afraid to die.”
“No.” He’s adamant. He can dissolve these walls. After A and B it’s only he who’s left.
“Listen, Hamilton, nothing has changed. You’re still Hamilton sitting in the chair. I want you to name your three favorite animals and tell me why.”
“Animals?” he says. “Since being here I’ve forgotten our common language.”
“That’s easy: a mink, a deer and a pig.”
“A mink because it can change colors and will eat anything; a deer because it is so careful and shy; and a pig because it’s smart and brave.”
“Hamilton: the first one is who you think you are, a mink; the second is who people think you are, a deer; and the third is who you really are, a pig.”
“A pig!” He guffaws and doubles over the chair, clutching his feet. Sam is right: bud is wicked. Maybe he isn’t a wild dog at all, but a pig. How Aesop would laugh.
“Pig wild where wild pig,” he says, chuckling at his own gibberish.
Carol isn’t getting through, but it’s no surprise, given the wide grin and stunned expression smeared across Hamilton’s face. She’s prepared to give him what he wants…
“Ba-da-boom,” Sam says, “Ba-da-bam.” He’s upbeat, thinking of new tricks to turn heads, for he suddenly realizes what’s beef is whack, what’s whack is cool, what’s cool is wicked, and what’s wicked is sick.
The pack of elk burger wallops on Carol’s desk. It’s icy, thawing, the sticker sweating. She knows the place: Wally’s Packing and Taxidermy, a box along the highway outside town with ATVs out front and mounted heads on the garage doors that open into the abattoir. Wally’s had been busted for processing the poached buffalo of Coors trophy herd.
Sam grins broadly.
She could tell.
His face drops.
“Don’t like burger?” he asks.
“It’s a joke.”
Sam tends to miss jokes, his own included, like he misses many requests, conversations and imperatives that he does not want to hear as he glosses and glides along, always riding over the surface, which he’s smart in doing, turning away whenever anyone crosses his path.
He stands there waiting, trim and lean, smelling a lot more like paint than conifers, except for the bowling ball of belly that no amount of skiing, boarding or biking made an impact upon, grafted there like the second trimester, even with his radical diet.
Why not vegetarianism? She’s sure he’d resist. She’d never seen a man eat so much of so little so intently. She would test him on the Tofu razorbacks that she loves the most, smoked pork flavor with none of the pork. Or would he pick it apart? The she dreams up angels on horseback, scallops in tofu bacon. Then Tofu chipolatas and veggie burgers fried in canola oil. Okay, the canned corn and jack quesadillas he would definitely accept as good, once covered with mustard and a 68 on the sweaty-tasting cilantro.
And now he’s throwing her a packet of frozen elk?
“It’s the nose, that’s the best,” he says, “Boiled. With sorrel and cranberries.”
“However you like, Sam.”
He’s a vibrant lover in her mind and she demurely accepts his flowing wand like anti-aging treatment, which it is, her sex drive miraculously free after years of Sigmund before veering into Karl. She needs spirituality it dangles like the legs of Karl’s lovers. Belief not fear is her motto, the motto that had brought customers who she had healed, at least temporarily at the Glade. She doesn’t give out pills and people trust her for that.
But Sam did.
She has warned him not to stop stealing prescriptions and forging her signature and dispensing to the patients without her authority. No more strikes. Not with the current circumstances.
“What happened to you?” Carol asks. She’s the natural beauty that she should be, tan, a very mild lipstick, her curly hair bobbed to reflect her demeanor one of professional authority and trust. Her own feelings are compartmentalized, neatly managed for when she needs them.
“Elk charged me,” Sam says, attempting to be nonchalant. “Dressed it and packed it out with mules. We’re traditionalists, you know. Pure black powder.” He liked the ring of that, black powder.
He smells like blondes and gum.
“That my meat?”
He’s tense. His shoulders are tense roundabout his ears. He doesn’t face her, but glances aside.
“Rutting again, Sam?”
“Deer rut.” Damn bitch.
“How is she?”
“Carol, a bull charged us. We’d only shot him in the pecker and he was pretty mad.”
“That’s a quite a scratch.” It’s an ugly welt.
“Damn near gored.”
“Poor you.” she says categorically, alarmed. He looks like shit. “Cover that up when you pick up the McCays.”
“They’re not renting a Porsche this time?” The McCays were regulars sold on the oxy-jet.
“The old man had a stroke. Be nice. He’s got a nurse.”
“Too bad. He was a big tipper.”
She rushes him, steams in like a plough, plants a kiss right on his lips, chapped, and he just freezes, even as she smothers him.
“The sheriff called this morning and was asking to talk to you.”
“You tell me.” She runs her finger round the collar of his t-shirt.
“Maybe he should be talking more to you?”
“He had some questions about drug use at the clinic.”
He’s done it before, but he’s pulled back. Partying with clients: forbidden, well, he sometimes did help out the suffering ones, hiccupping and hairy from their prescriptions, coming down, looking for some self-meds.
“So what you got to cover up?”
He thinks about it, well, a few last runs, no elk hunting, and a long weekend spent prepping a van in his garage that weekend. He’s handy with an airbrush and can do wonders on custom anything, boards, skis, snowmobiles, whatever. Some local growers have contracted him to make some dummy FedEx vans to take their cargo cross-country, up to the point, tired after 18 hours of laborious detailing, he tokes up and skewers himself with a drill bit.
“Nothing,” he says. “But I’d ask myself the same question.”
He suddenly realizes; she’s too much like his mother, and he her son.
“Carol, wouldn’t it be nice if this room, this clinic was the only place that my problems existed? Because they aren’t outside here, the walls of which I’ve dissolved, with your help.”
“Ah, Sam,” she says, “Are you totally out of it?”
He’s already gone.
No doubt, he likes mountain butt.
The Great Group
Hamilton purges on hot salt water in the following days. He sprouts an enormous beard and is purposefully smelly and unkempt. The delivery from Sam makes his mood descend and he’s unwilling to talk. A permanent growl lodges in his throat, his toenails push through his socks and his spine stiffens. Confined to his ward, he misses the company of the forest but he can’t remember the words. He’s cut off from his powers and he waits, empty, high and broken.
But one day Hamilton is taken to the recreation area.
The volunteers and nurses stand in a circle wearing crude costumes, masks of teeth, bones, wool, felt, nails, hair, feathers and plastic.
This is the great group therapy session, they announce as they envelope him and whisper him to the floor. They dance around him and they soon wrap him in a tight, immobilizing cocoon of blankets and buffalo hides.
Carol’s voice lowers in frequency. She’s Reverend and Mrs. Weir, his father in his cassock, his mother in her witch’s gown.
“You two!” Hamilton exclaims. He wiggles like a very angry larva. “Where are the others?” He is sweating furiously, wrinkling and shrinking away.
“Enough,” says his father, waving incense from the censure, splashing holy water, determined to take Hamilton back to whence he came.
Hamilton bawls when his mother hits him with a slipper to remind him who he is and where he’s going.
Hamilton watches his father disrobe and take a bath and then he joins his father in the water. His mother bends over in front of the mirror, hands and heels on the floor, and displays herself. His father takes him across his knee and scrubs off his nub of tail.
“You will be reborn!” says Carol with the authority invested in her years of therapeutic work.
He’s trapped in the chrysalis of blankets. The nurses grin behind their masks as they him and press hot stones against the cocoon. Hamilton is absorbed into the fabric of the ceremony. His skin becomes smooth, tacky and pale, with none of the delicious red hair to which he’s accustomed, oily like a hound. Suddenly he’s inert, unchangeable and without time. But he doesn’t worry about the loss—he will find his way back and maybe he has learned something behind the beards of the mountain gods. He searches every gloryhole of the universe but cannot find his mother or father among the ectoplasm of stars.
How many times does he ask, “Where’s Hamilton? Hamilton Weir?”
“Let Ham be a lawyer!” cries Carol.
The staff rally.
A vet! A vet! A vet!
They howl in unison and they huff and they puff but they can’t pull Hamilton through the tiny breach.
Carol shouts, “We must choose lots!” She directs all the people around him.
Sam Wild reveals the fateful straw.
He dons his prize tenderly, a pouched wolf pelt complete with paws and snarling head. He’s supposed to dance around Hamilton, who smiles, feeling his soul of cold emotions, his spirit and universe, slip to a new master as he wanted after the eternity in which the spell had lived in him. It’s so easy, a relief.
Hamilton Weir has marauded everywhere, duty-bound to who and what he is, exploring the limits of Hamilton Weir. From Cluj to Nantes, he begins with a cart, the wheels clicking ominously, the wild boar that are his servants adroit and powerful, bells tinkling from their tusks, the vehicle low and topped with fifty blankets against the cold and boxes of Carpathian apples, gifts for women and children, the target of his wanderings. From Sibiu to Almaty, he might walk, his cargo in a sack tied round his waist, scouting the alpine valleys, camping under a bivouac of plastic near a band of Gypsy carpenters, who are suspicious of the hairy stranger near their fires, whose choice between violence and peace weighs so clearly upon his visage, until he is fed up and can resist his own wrath no more and changes, leaping through the camp, breaking violins and gobbling children like seed. From Iasi to Yekaterinburg, he might play a game, the silver box in his pocket, very attractive, and he is undisciplined with the easy smoke that allows him to change, cutting him from the power of a time, from the past to which he belongs, an unspeakable power present under the papery skin and wiry hairs, hardened in places to quills. On these journeys, if anything, he is even more cunning, more devious. He might stop upon the highway to ask a young woman in Dagestan for a pair of cashmere socks before renting open her neck in full sight of the Federation’s armored cavalry, so strong the lunge that he opens her from throat to chest and finds the her blood inked with milk. It makes him high, for she must have a child somewhere along the road, and then angry that he has been manufactured by God thus. That day in the Caucasus he runs from the cavalry and they never catch him. Not then, not ever. He never answers and he would rather run, run until he can answer no more.
He moans inaudibly, buried yet horribly alive until this moment when the wild dog completes the migration from Ham to Sam.
Sam Wild’s death-metal yells rebound in the gym as Hamilton slowly suffocates under the blankets. Overcome with an ancient energy, Sam spins incoherently and chases the beginnings of a tail. Luxuriating in his costume, he sees opportunities in the wild dog.
A starved empty hungry enlivens him. Sam wants a carcass not a snack. He crouches on the gym floor, hunts his prey, the cute intern, and nods at his companions to help. Sam seizes her and mimes tearing at her throat, but he overdoes it and grazes her. The blood darts from her capillaries onto his incisors and that exhilarates him even more. He’s no longer frail or weak or vulnerable or aging, and there’s only the presence of others to stop him. Sam’s exhilarated and panting, brimming with a new quality of strength that makes him feel invincible as he drops the intern and sits obediently, sniffing the delicious air, flexing his pecs. He’s reminded there are both positive and negative emotions. There’s no need to taste them all at once.
When the claps and chants subsume into silence, they unwrap the buffalo blankets, singed and hot, and bow to the figure. His legs are kicking involuntarily, his mouth is chattering, he’s smothered in wiggling hairs, but there’s no breath left. A morbid pill, poached in his own matter, Ham’s stained pink, green and brown. Carol closes his eyes and pushes his tongue back in his mouth.
Starry-headed, she calls the coroner. Wanting no demerit on her license, she almost recommends septicemia as a logical cause, until she realizes the risks and says, “All I know is that he’s dead.”
Everyone, high with the enchanting possibilities the dance and ceremony has opened, hoots in the halls.
That night in the staff kitchen, Carol congratulates Sam for the conviction of his wolf dance. “Sam Wild,” she says, “Fantastic.”
The suit is pulled around Sam’s waist; the predator’s great shaggy head hangs between his legs. He swallows a V8 from the Glade’s vending machine.
“Yeah,” he says casually to his boss. He places a cocktail stick impaled with cheese and apple between his teeth and taps his silver box, talisman and source.
He’s searching for comfort. He has drifted and he’s lost. He’s terribly afraid that his life was without purpose and moribund. He can only think of a patch of desert and packs of lobos for company, coyotes that appear on a ridge and before you can raise the barrel of your gun they’ve dipped into the shadows of the waist-high prairie grass. He half expects a shell to flip onto the tiles by his feet. He knows it’s pointless yet he continues to act as if it was important
Is it normal, he asks? To live your life around sneak-a-tokes, vaporizers and bongs, the paraphernalia of his mind, what he had always considered to belong to a giant cat, with whom no request at any hours was too much, for pizza, condoms, numbers, to share conquests and information on new girls, Sam of late nights and copious pitchers of Purple Sage. All the time he had considered everyone else to be part of the problem, but as it turns out it’s him, Sam.
But the power was so deliciously familiar he could not leave the mud of the past alone.
There’s an egg in his pocket at all times. He’d eat it if need be.
What a sham.
Yet he feels that strange dogged something churning within him again, some dormant feral presence suddenly as if it had been there forever. Sam senses continuity, as if his soul had never died and never would, a stone creeping upriver.
Undeniably, people have underestimated Sam and Sam has reciprocated by underestimating himself. Did Sam Wild make Breckenridge? Or break Breckenridge?
Either way, he guesses so.
Sam has been yoked to the valley. He’s roofed it. He’s coaxed up the houses with teams of contractors. He’s landscaped the resorts, fed the skiers and groomed the slopes. On good days he takes 600 dollars in tips.
And he isn’t about to stop.
Soon, in the van, out of sight, driving with his pinkie, eating a cookie, Sam smokes his eyes to a fiery red, discovering where the mountain road and his appetite will take him.