Fieldin was under round-the-clock hospice care, and the jagged, liquid rasp of his breathing made it almost impossible for Rose to think about anything other than his vain search for oxygen. Unable to sleep, she put on his old down jacket and stepped onto the back porch, closing the door quietly behind her. It was about two-thirty in the morning, the world silvered with frost. The orchard glittered in the harsh light of a near-full moon. The gnarled old apple trees seemed on the verge of movement, as if she had caught them marching in formation toward App Mountain, whose black shoulders sloped suddenly upward just beyond the last row of trees. Had she been in a more peaceful mood, she might have fetched her sketchbook and made notes about the shadows for painting later. Instead, she stared at the mountain and wondered, as she often did, if Wayne Lee Cowan was still alive. Cowan had set off a bomb behind an abortion clinic in Birmingham the year before, killing eleven people. Then he’d parked his truck on a Forest Service fire road and disappeared into these mountains. Nobody, at least nobody who was talking, had laid eyes on him since.
Rose had lived on the farm for twenty-five years, and had stood on this porch and studied the orchard and the mountain countless times. But something about the view that night puzzled her, although the puzzlement didn’t immediately register as such. She actually noticed that her brow was furrowed before she understood why. The moment that the unease she felt formed itself into a conscious thought—Wayne Lee—a figure separated itself from the shadow of one of the trees and strode quickly through the orchard toward the mountain. The figure was large and broad-shouldered, long-armed and stooped. It had some kind of silver stripe running the length of its back. Until it turned to look over its shoulder at her, Rose didn’t fully appreciate that the figure not only wasn’t Wayne Lee Cowan but wasn’t even human.
When she ran back inside to tell the hospice volunteer sitting with Fieldin what she had seen, she found the woman removing the oxygen tube from Fieldin’s nose. As Rose stood in the doorway and stared, thinking, Bigfoot, I just saw Bigfoot, she realized that the house had grown extraordinarily quiet. Fieldin had stopped breathing.
In 1975, when Rose turned twenty, married Fieldin Kohler, and moved to the farm, Tanner, the nearest town, had seemed to be as close as one could get to the end of the earth and still have access to a grocery store. That was why Fieldin had chosen it. He had been Rose’s painting teacher at the small state college in Georgia onto whose campus she had wandered after graduating from high school. He was an emaciated praying mantis of a man who stuffed the legs of his paint-spattered chinos into knee-high fringed moccasins. He pulled his thinning gray hair back into a greasy ponytail, and wore vaguely piratical linen blouses whose sleeves billowed when he waved his arms. In class, he paced and chain-smoked while ranting about the soullessness of American art, and routinely offered beer and gas money to any student who would drive to Pennsylvania and personally shoot Andrew Wyeth.
Rose’s father had been an Air Force intelligence officer who came home at night prohibited by federal law from talking about what he had done during the day. Her mother was a perfectly coiffed and made-up alcoholic with even more stringent standards of secrecy. Fieldin had been the first adult who ever actually told Rose anything. What he told her was that her breasts alone would have made Gauguin swear off Tahitian maidens forever, and that he would gladly cut off his right hand and never make art again if she would allow him to paint her nude just once. She went to bed with him during their first “sitting.” His apartment was squalid. The only painting in the place was a self-portrait, done in the style of van Gogh, through which Fieldin had stuck his foot during a particularly virulent fit of self-loathing. On the ceiling above his bed he had meticulously copied out a long passage from Rimbaud, in French, and he became almost inconsolable when she told him that she didn’t understand it. Later, when he went out to wander the streets alone, weeping with joy over how ancient her soul was, she got dressed and cleaned his apartment. By the time she realized that Fieldin had been a caricature when she met him, a by-the-book cutout of the lecherous college professor, they’d been married for years and his health was already beginning to fail. Once he became sick, holding him accountable for seducing the girl she’d been at eighteen—he’d been forty-three—struck her as an unnecessary act of retribution. That girl had found Fieldin Kohler terribly romantic.
She often thought with great tenderness about the administrators and counsellors and professors who had taken turns trying to talk her out of leaving school and marrying Fieldin. At the time, though, she had enjoyed the desperate quality of their attention. She had felt as if she were standing on a high, narrow ledge while they shouted at her not to jump. Until then, no one had ever cared whether she jumped or not, and she had been afraid that if she climbed down off the ledge they would stop noticing her at all. So she jumped. Fieldin stormed into the dean’s office and quit in the middle of the fall term of her junior year, two days before the board of trustees was due to fire him. The morning they left for North Carolina, two campus police officers prevented him from entering her dormitory. He stood on the lawn outside her window, pretending to struggle with the cops, and screamed, “What have you fascists done with Rose?” The girls on her hallway silently watched her walk to the elevator. Everything she owned in the world fit into two suitcases and a duffelbag.
They moved into the farmhouse in November, during the last pale, generous days of a prolonged Indian summer. A few yellow leaves still clung to the upper branches of the apple trees, like decorations from a party she had missed, and rotting apples dangled from the twisted branches. At dusk, deer came down from the mountain and tottered around unsteadily on their hind legs, as if experimenting with a new mode of locomotion, eating all the apples they could reach. Late at night, possums climbed the trees and got drunk on the fermented fruit. From the bedroom she could hear them fighting and falling out of the trees, thudding onto the ground. The house was a disaster. No one had lived in it for years, and when Fieldin carried her across the threshold it had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. Fieldin told her that the modern world was overrated and that they were going to live closer to the earth, the way the Cherokee had before the white man destroyed their way of life and made them forget who the Great Spirit had intended them to be.
He lost patience with living close to the earth, however, as soon as the weather turned cold. The only heat in the place came from an ancient woodstove in the front room. The first frigid morning, Fieldin went up the mountain with an axe and came home less than an hour later, without any firewood, crying and cursing, blaming her for having got him into this mess. He dropped the axe at her feet and told her to go and cut wood if she was cold. By sundown she had managed to chop up and drag enough deadfall into the yard to get them through the night, blistering both her hands in the process. The next day, she took the credit card that her father had given her to use in case of emergency into Tanner and purchased a chainsaw. When her father received the bill, he cancelled the card.
Their nearest neighbors were Charlie and Plutina Shires, an older couple of indeterminate age—they might have been sixty or they might have been eighty—who farmed a small tobacco allotment the next hollow over. Rose had already smelled the wood smoke from their kitchen chimney, and noticed with admiration the carefully corded stacks of wood that Charlie had laid in beside his barn, so on the way home from town she stopped and introduced herself and asked him to show her how to work the chainsaw. Plutina insisted that she come in and eat a late breakfast of cold biscuits and molasses. Plutina’s blue eyes were hugely magnified by the thick lenses of her glasses, and she sat and blinked, without saying anything, or missing anything, as Rose told her about Fieldin.
Charlie appeared in the woodlot the next morning, bearing his own saw and pulling a sled behind his tractor. He was a wizened little man who chewed on the stub of an unlit cigar, forcing his right eye into a perpetual squint. He never said three words when he could get by with two, and wouldn’t waste two if he could make his point without speaking. That day, without drawing attention to the fact that he was teaching her, he showed Rose how to notch a tree to make it fall in the direction she wanted, how to keep the chain from binding and bucking, how to trim branches safely by cutting away from her legs, how to stack wood on the sled so that it wouldn’t roll off. On the way back down the hollow, he taught her how to drive the tractor. Because she had been cutting wood in a pair of saddle oxfords, the only remotely warm shoes she owned, the next morning he showed up with a pair of tall green rubber boots that he said were too small for him. The boots were brand-new, but it was the mud he had rubbed on them, in an earnest attempt not to embarrass her, that made her cry.
Charlie managed to keep an eye on their woodpile without seeming to, and took to parking his tractor in their woodlot and walking home over the ridge when he thought the pile was getting low. The only way to get the tractor to the woodlot was to drive it through their yard. He never looked at the house as he drove past, but if Rose was outside he greeted her by lifting his index finger from the steering wheel—which was about as ebullient as she ever knew him to be. If Fieldin was outside, Charlie just stared straight ahead. For his part, Fieldin pretended that the clattering tractor, as well as the old guy perched on top of it, was invisible. He spent his days that first winter drinking coffee at the diner and reading detective novels at the library. One Saturday morning in February, Charlie drove into the yard with a plow attached to the tractor and asked if she didn’t reckon it was time to bust up the garden spot.
Rose knew that Fieldin’s family had money. She just didn’t know how much he had. Afraid that he would one day announce that they had run out of cash and couldn’t buy food, she planted an immense garden, with the idea of selling the produce they didn’t eat. She knew nothing about gardening, of course, so she learned how to do it by helping Plutina and Charlie. She planted the same vegetables they planted, though in larger quantities, and hoed and fertilized and sprayed and dusted exactly as they did. Miraculously, her garden flourished. When Fieldin had the house wired for electricity, she was able to convince him that it would be in his best interest to buy her the largest chest-model freezer offered in the Sears catalogue.
Spring inched in an uneven line up the mountain and didn’t reach the ridgetop until the middle of May. When the weather warmed up for good, Fieldin set up his studio in the loft of the barn. While Rose worked in the garden, she could see him through the loft door, usually smoking and staring at a blank canvas propped on his easel. Occasionally, she’d catch him watching her. Cutting firewood and working in the garden had caused her shoulders to broaden and her waist to shrink. She developed the kind of muscles in her arms and legs that she had previously seen only on the boys who played football in high school. Her normally straight, mostly brown hair curled wildly and lightened in the sun. On the days when she knew that Charlie and Plutina had gone into town and wouldn’t be dropping by, she stripped off her overalls—another gift from Charlie—and worked in the garden wearing just her underwear and the green rubber boots. The single painting of Fieldin’s that she hung after he died was a gouache of her hoeing string beans. She occupied only a small portion on the upper right quadrant of the canvas, although the converging lines of the bean rows led the viewer’s eye to the spot where she worked. Behind her, the mountain was dotted with the white of blooming dogwoods. In the painting, she wore only the green boots—artistic license, she supposed, and just like Fieldin—but her breasts were discreetly concealed behind her arm. She found the painting hidden in his studio when she went to clean it out.
It was during those first years that Fieldin adopted the Trail of Tears as his great subject. He wore a leather headband and, occasionally, a loincloth over his jeans. The town of Cherokee was less than an hour away, and he began driving there once or twice a week, sometimes staying overnight. He often came home in a foul mood because most of the Cherokee he encountered either wanted nothing to do with him or laughed at him outright. Their derision, however, never lessened his sincere, rather simplistic admiration of them as an oppressed yet spiritual people. He obsessively painted large, melodramatic canvases of weeping Cherokee slogging westward through the snow, watched from barren ridges by faceless white soldiers. The Indians were always marching toward a large stone pyramid that loomed in the distance. Because he couldn’t find a gallery in Asheville that would show his paintings, Fieldin doggedly carted them to festivals and county fairs all over western North Carolina without ever managing to sell one—although he did, in a somewhat mysterious act of generosity, give one to Charlie and Plutina. Rose couldn’t tell whether their neighbors actually liked the painting, but they hung it in their living room, where it shared the wall above the couch with a print, cut from a calendar, of Jesus praying in the moonlight while a storm raged behind him.
Despite the various privations that came with living in a drafty, fieldmouse-infested, hundred-and-fifty-year-old house with a terminally self-absorbed man, Rose grew to love the farm as she had never before loved a place. (When she was a child, her family had moved from Air Force base to Air Force base, and the only place she had loved was her bed, the dark safe tent of its covers, assembled and disassembled in a series of shabby, interchangeable bedrooms.) Afraid that Fieldin would make fun of her, she secretly began painting small watercolors of the garden and the orchard, the mountain vigilant in the background. Eventually, she worked up enough courage to take a portfolio of her work to Three Weird Sisters, an art gallery in Tanner that was run by a trio of crewcut lesbians, transplanted from Milwaukee, whose specific domestic arrangements Rose could never figure out. Much to her surprise, not only did the gallery take her on as an artist but her paintings began to sell. Within a few years, they were selling as fast as she could paint them. Soon it seemed that every Florida Yankee who built a big house in the mountains had to have at least one painting by Rose Kohler. The only time Rose ever asked Fieldin what he thought of her art, he shrugged and told her that, while it didn’t grab him by the balls, he liked it better than Andrew Wyeth’s.
In the end, Fieldin quit painting and took a part-time job in the gallery. He called the weird sisters his harem, and they called him their boy toy. At least once a week, either he threatened to quit over the crappy art they chose to display or they threatened to fire him for condescending to the customers. Whatever disappointment he must have felt at giving up painting, whatever resentment he harbored over Rose’s success, he kept to himself, even after the state art museum in Raleigh bought two of her paintings for its permanent collection.
By the time they’d been married for twenty years, Fieldin had somehow become an old man. He spent the last five years of his life angrily wheeling a small tank of oxygen around the gallery, bitching about his emphysema and Abstract Expressionism. Rose was never able to persuade him to give up smoking, but he promised the sisters, under threat of physical violence, that he would at least shut down the tank before he lit up. The slow process of dying never really softened Fieldin, the way it did people you saw in the movies, but it did sand down some of his rougher edges. Before he faded into unconsciousness, he told Rose that she was the only thing he had ever loved that he hadn’t over time come to hate.
Climbing through her forties now, and living alone for the first time in her life, Rose wasn’t sure which puzzled her more, the creature she had seen in the orchard the night Fieldin died or Fieldin himself. When Fieldin’s will was read, she found that he had left her an investment portfolio—all blue-chip stocks and conservative mutual funds, worth just over six hundred thousand dollars—in addition to a small Renoir, which had belonged to his mother and father and was stored in a climate-controlled vault in Cleveland. She also learned that he wanted to be buried beside his parents, beneath a headstone bearing a Star of David. He’d never even told Rose that he was Jewish. About his history he’d said only that he was born in Vienna, to a long line of devout atheists; that when he was three years old his family had emigrated to Cleveland, where his father taught surgery at Case Western; and that his parents had kicked him out of the house shortly after he was kicked out of medical school. Although Fieldin’s mother had still been alive and living in Florida when he and Rose married, he’d never taken Rose to Palm Beach to meet her, and the old woman had never travelled to the mountains.
About her Bigfoot sighting, Rose learned that such creatures were routinely spotted in all of the Southeastern states—although the scientific authorities of course denied their existence—and the animals were commonly referred to as skunk apes, because of the broad white or silver vertical stripe on their backs and their notoriously disagreeable odor. Southern skunk apes were generally known to be smaller, but meaner, than their Pacific Northwest counterparts. Rose gathered all this information from the Internet, from a Web site posted by a group calling itself the Cryptozoological Study Association (C.S.A.), which was devoted to documenting the existence of heretofore undiscovered primates south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Studying these reports gave Rose something to think about besides Fieldin, at whom she unexpectedly found herself violently angry. Late at night—when she just wanted to kill Fieldin, and was stymied by the fact that he was already dead—she gratefully followed the C.S.A. links to cryptozoological Web sites all over the world. (The Norwegian site had particularly stunning photographs of fjords, although she couldn’t understand the text; the Albanian Web site had pictures of naked women.) When she gave the C.S.A. a thousand dollars of Fieldin’s money, she received an effusive thank-you letter, spattered with exclamation marks, naming her an honorary cryptozoologist.
Most days, she thought that the skunk ape she’d seen in the orchard had been a gentle being, sent by a benevolent god to lead Fieldin to the other side, but some days she couldn’t help thinking that its mission had been more malign, perhaps even evil. Either way, it seemed obvious to her that, for whatever reason, that particular skunk ape, on that particular date, had come for Fieldin. Late one night, she publicly weighed in on the debate between the small but harshly vocal cryptozoological faction who thought that in order to convincingly document the existence of an undiscovered species of primate a specimen would have to be killed and the larger but less combative contingent who insisted that the shy, gentle creatures must be protected at all costs, by hastily mailing a somewhat—she realized later—histrionic letter to the editor of the local paper, imploring area hunters to let the skunk apes of the North Carolina mountains live in peace. The only noticeable effect that her letter seemed to have on the community, however, was to lead carloads of drunken teen-agers to pull into her yard at all hours, beat on their chests, and make monkey noises. She couldn’t decide if the kid wearing a gorilla mask who peered in her kitchen window one night was made more or less frightening by his fluorescent-orange University of Tennessee sweatshirt. Despite the awful nature of Wayne Lee Cowan’s crime—and Rose had never heard anybody, not even the other Cowans, suggest that Wayne Lee hadn’t blown up that abortion clinic—she eventually found herself feeling a little grateful to him for absorbing, with his conspicuous absence, much of the community scrutiny and derision that might otherwise have been aimed at her.
Within days of Wayne Lee’s disappearance, more than two hundred state and federal agents had descended on Tanner. They’d rented every motel room in a two-county area and made it virtually impossible to get a table at the Waffle House. An unusually quiet black helicopter circled the mountains day and night, dangling on the end of a cable extended from its belly some top-secret medallion of electronic equipment shaped like an upside-down mushroom. Because the sheer number of agents stomping or slinking through the woods made deer hunting a pointless exercise and growing marijuana even more hazardous than usual, and because a large percentage of the agents seemed to possess neither a baseline level of politeness nor a modicum of respect for personal property rights, the F.B.I. soon lost favor with a significant portion of the local population—most of whose Scotch-Irish ancestors had moved to the mountains to escape some type of authority in the first place. Following the detention—by a SWAT team whose members wore ninja masks—of seven-year-old Brian Lee McInerny for aiming a laser pointer at the helicopter, stickers bearing the legend “Run, Wayne Lee, Run!” appeared on telephone poles and stop signs all over town. Not even the million-dollar reward the government offered for information leading to Cowan’s arrest noticeably softened public sentiment. And even more troubling than the agents were the television crews, who, once it became obvious that Wayne Lee wasn’t going to be captured anytime soon, desperately began filing one-dimensional “local color” pieces. Rose respectfully turned down interview requests from four national news organizations regarding her single, probably menopausal foray into advocacy for the protection of Appalachian skunk apes. Not one of the producers who contacted her even mentioned her paintings.
As time passed, and Wayne Lee Cowan remained at large, the television people and the majority of the cops left Tanner for what they probably considered civilization. Eventually, only a skeleton crew of F.B.I. agents remained encamped on the far end of the second floor of the Best Western. Before he became an abortion-clinic bomber, Wayne Lee had worked for Rose and Fieldin two or three times as a sullen and not particularly industrious day laborer, which had led to their being interviewed in the early days of the search by an agent whose name she had forgotten. But she hadn’t spoken to anyone in the F.B.I. for almost four years when she was visited by D’Abruzzio, the new Special Agent in Charge.
His first name was Richard, but shortly after his arrival he had made the mistake of telling one of the old guys in front of the barbershop to call him Dick. Now he went by D’Abruzzio only, or Special Agent in Charge D’Abruzzio when he was pissed off. Rose had noticed him in the Waffle House and found herself sneaking looks at him. He had the knobby biceps of a man who lifted weights for his health and not for his appearance, and he unself-consciously sported the type of virile, dark, vaguely ethnic mustache that most Southern men either wouldn’t or couldn’t grow. Late one fall afternoon, he materialized on her front porch, tapping gently at the screen door; he must have parked somewhere away from her house, an act she found both smart and considerate. They drank hot spiced cider, sitting at the edge of the orchard while the air cooled around them. They watched the hollows blacken as the shadows pushed the sunlight farther and farther up the side of the mountain. Rose told D’Abruzzio what she had told the other agent: that although Wayne Lee had worked for her, she couldn’t honestly say that she knew him, or anything about him.
D’Abruzzio nodded and looked away. He seemed to be thinking about something else. “I read your letter,” he said.
Rose felt her cheeks go hot. “Oh my,” she said. “Why on earth are you reading three-year-old newspapers?”
“I like to know where I am,” D’Abruzzio said.
Good answer, Rose thought. “Do you think I’m crazy?” she asked.
D’Abruzzio pursed his lips and stared toward the mountain. “No,” he said finally. “I don’t think so.”
“Do you believe in Bigfoot?”
“No comment,” he said.
“What’s that thing that looks like a mushroom that hangs underneath the black helicopter?”
D’Abruzzio smiled at her. “What black helicopter?”
She blushed again. “You know what black helicopter.”
“Ah,” he said. “That black helicopter. Well, that thing hanging underneath it that looks like a mushroom? I can’t tell you what that is.”
“I see,” Rose said. “A secret. But, hypothetically speaking, could such a thing be used to find a skunk ape? Or, if such a thing was looking for something else, and accidentally found a skunk ape, would you be able to tell anybody?”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” D’Abruzzio said. “I’ll tell you if I see a skunk ape, if you tell me if you see Wayne Lee Cowan.”
Rose wondered where D’Abruzzio had parked his car, and if anyone had seen it. “O.K.,” she said finally. “You’ve got a deal.”
D’Abruzzio stood up and stretched. “App Mountain,” he said. “Do you know where the name comes from?”
Rose shrugged. “I always assumed it was short for ‘Appalachian.’ ”
“I wonder,” D’Abruzzio said. “Maybe the guy who named it just didn’t know how to spell ‘Ape.’ ”
Rose stopped at the foot of Plutina’s driveway and stared sadly at her neighbor’s house. It was tucked far back up the hollow on a knob that Charlie had deemed too rocky to plant. A single light burned in the living room, and a thin gauze of wood smoke hung immobile above the kitchen chimney in the still, dusky air. Charlie had died two months earlier, and Rose knew from personal experience that Plutina was just now crossing over into what would be the darkest days of her widowhood. The officious stream of Sunday-school classes and bereavement committees bearing casseroles and Jell-O molds would have begun to dry up, if it hadn’t already, and the other visitors would have returned to their normal pattern of stopping by only when it suited them, if they came at all.
Plutina opened the front door and blinked up at Rose through the screen. Her eyes, magnified as always by her glasses, looked even bigger, though everything else about her seemed to have grown smaller in the last two months.
“Well, Rose,” she said. “You might as well come on in.”
In the living room, she perched in the middle of the couch, her feet barely brushing the floor, while Rose settled uncomfortably into Charlie’s recliner. Its cloth upholstery reeked so strongly of cigars that it might as well have been haunted. Above Plutina, Fieldin’s mournful Cherokee marched toward one of the mysterious pyramids he had dropped over and over again, without explanation, into Oklahoma.
“Did that F.B.I. man go back to town?” Plutina asked.
Rose grinned. “How did you know he was over at my place?”
“He ain’t as smart as he thinks he is, that’s how. None of ’em are.”
“He wanted to know what I knew about Wayne Lee.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“I told him I didn’t know anything.”
“Good,” Plutina said sharply. “That’s the right answer.”
“I didn’t ask him to come to my house,” Rose said.
“I know you didn’t ask him, but he ain’t doing you any favors by coming, either. You ought to tell him that.”
“I doubt anybody saw him.”
“I saw him, and I’m half blind.”
“Did he talk to you?”
“Do you think Wayne Lee’s still alive?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Plutina said. “I’m just sad it’ll be turning off cold before long. I hate to think about that boy living out on that mountain in the wintertime.” Her shoulders started to shake. She reached into the pocket of her sweater and pulled out a well-used tissue, which she dabbed at the corners of her eyes. “I just hope Charlie’s warm.”
“Oh, honey,” Rose said. “Don’t cry.”
“His feet are bad to get cold. I used to heat him up a pan of water before we went to bed.”
“I’m sure Charlie’s feet are fine.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Plutina said.
“You just miss Charlie, that’s all. It’ll get better.”
“I don’t want it to get better. I want it to get over. I’ve been living up in this holler a long time.”
Rose opened her mouth and waited, but no wise words of consolation spilled out.
“I wasn’t but seventeen years old when Charlie brought me up in here,” Plutina said. “Took me away from my people, but that’s the way it’s always been when a girl gets married. You know about that. My people are all dead now, anyway. We come from over by Sylva. My daddy was a town man. He could read good and always knew what time it was. He worked on the railroad.”
“Sylva,” Rose said.
“Me and Charlie never could have babies. Did you know that?”
Rose shook her head.
“I had one, but it was born dead.”
“Plutina, I’m sorry.”
“After the doctor left, Charlie took it in an old sheet and buried it up on the mountain somewhere. That’s the way people did things back then, but it don’t seem right to me when I think about it now. All these years I’ve thought that baby must be wandering around up there, looking for somebody to take care of it. Charlie never even told me where it was. I couldn’t go find it if I needed to.”
She took off her glasses and fished another tissue out of her pocket.
“Well, I’m sure Charlie didn’t mean anything by it,” Rose said.
Plutina glared up at Rose, her eyes a concentrated blue, smaller and harder than Rose had ever seen them. “You don’t know what Charlie meant.”
Rose stood reflexively. In the foreground of Fieldin’s painting, a young Cherokee woman looked at her beseechingly, as if begging her to do something. Rose pointed at the painting. “You’re right,” she said. “I never understood what Fieldin meant, either. That pyramid.”
Plutina blew her nose loudly, but didn’t look over her shoulder. “It’s a religious picture,” she said. “The people are being led into bondage.”
Late that night, Rose stood at her bedroom mirror and absent-mindedly brushed her hair. Fieldin had been dead five years, and she had resolved some time ago not to cry about him anymore. Enough was enough, after all; he hadn’t been that nice. But Plutina’s spot-on interpretation of his work had simply broken her heart. Of course his Cherokee paintings had been religious pictures. She had just been too literal-minded and, later, too lost in her own work—her popular, sentimental, representational watercolors—to figure it out. And Fieldin had been too gracious or arrogant or both to explain it to her, or to anyone else. She could not imagine how lonely he must have felt, driving home from some small-town crafts fair, the car packed with the same canvases he’d set off with that morning. He’d tried, for years and years, to say something that was important to him, and she, of all people, had never even heard the story he was trying to tell, much less understood it. She had never for a minute known who he was. If she had only been able to piece the clues together, perhaps she could have helped him. Fieldin had told her that his only memory of Vienna was of sitting in a sidewalk café, watching a small cyclone of dead leaves swirl down the street. He had thought they were birds.
“Oh, damn it, Fieldin,” she said. “Why didn’t you just say something?”
In the mirror, Rose looked past her shoulder to the reflection of the bed they had shared, and willed Fieldin to appear in it. He didn’t show, of course—that, at least, was just like him—and the Fieldin she wound up imagining had that awful oxygen tube stuck in his nose. She closed her eyes and listened, but he had stopped breathing all over again. She dropped her brush on the dresser and walked quickly through the house to the back door, where she cupped her hands against the cool glass of the window and looked out at the orchard. The light was warm, golden—the gentle light of the approaching harvest moon—but the old trees, stooped again with a harvest of hard, bitter heirloom apples that nobody wanted, looked exhausted by the weight they carried. She found herself staring intently, for no reason she could think of, at the narrow lane of grass between two trees at the far end of the orchard. As she stared, a bulky dark figure stepped out from behind one of the trees and crossed the lane, turning its head toward the house in the instant it took to step across.
Afraid that the creature would hear her open the back door, Rose ran through the house on tiptoe, stopping briefly at the hat rack in the hallway, where she jerked out of her bag the small digital camera she carried with her in case she saw something she wanted to paint. She gently opened the front door and ran down the steps and around the side of the house. She crossed the back yard, keeping the nearest tree between her and the spot where she’d seen the figure, and when she reached the orchard she ran up the lane as quickly and quietly as possible. The skunk ape had come for Fieldin five years ago, she thought, and now Fieldin had sent it back. She would take a picture of it and post it on the Internet. She would be a world-famous cryptozoologist. She would get the entire mountain declared a skunk-ape preserve. She would be the goddam Jane Goodall of skunk-ape studies.
She stopped on the downhill side of the tree behind which the figure had disappeared, her thrashing heart wildly alive in her chest, the dewy grass cold on her feet. She peered into the maze of apple-laden limbs and through a narrow opening saw in silhouette the figure’s black shoulder and great, shaggy head. It was standing absolutely still. She could just detect a musky, unpleasant, urine-tinged odor. Maybe, she thought for the first time, she would have to go with it. Maybe when the skunk apes came you just had to go. She would follow it up the mountain. She would find Fieldin and kiss him on the mouth and say, Fieldin, you dead bastard. Your paintings, I get them now. I’m sorry. She would be a ghost, if she had to. She would walk the darkest hollows on the coldest nights, singing Scotch-Irish lullabies to Plutina’s lost baby. She and Charlie would plant gardens in the forest for the deer to eat. She would paint pictures of her neighbors’ children, and leave them tacked to the trees in their yards. And, occasionally, she would scare the hell out of teen-age boys wearing U.T. sweatshirts, just for fun.Through the tree, she made out the almost inaudible sound of breathing, shallow and fast like her own. The poor thing was as excited and scared as she was. In the distance she heard the muffled, percussive whup whup whup whup of D’Abruzzio’s black helicopter. Too late, Special Agent in Charge, she thought, you with your beautiful mustache. She was ready now. It was time to go to the other side. She wanted to know everything. She looked down, plotting her next step, and on the ground saw two five-gallon plastic buckets, half-filled with apples.