After my parents were buried, my grandfather took me to his fishing cabin in the mountains south of Great Falls, Montana. I was seventeen, an orphan with no siblings. I’d stayed there hundreds of times—released on weekends and summers to run deliriously through the meadow, throw rocks in the Smith River until my shoulder wobbled, and lean back in a chair on the porch while sunlight licked my face.
This time the canyon’s limestone walls, from which I used to pry the fossil imprints of shells from a long-ago sea, loomed, closing in. Maybe my grandfather knew I needed such arms around me, comforting a child in a tantrum: contain and restrain until she calms herself. Maybe he just needed to get away then remembered, while packing his fishing gear, that I, too, would now need to be packed along.
In the single room log cabin, I tried to read a mystery novel stolen from my mother’s bookshelf. I ate Spaghetti-O’s cold from the can, but I threw them up behind the woodpile. I walked to the river, expecting to cross and hike up to the quartz crystal caves and steal a treasure, but I remembered that I had my period, and bears could smell blood over a mile away. I felt sick and dizzy.
Thinking of blood made me think of my parents, though I hadn’t been in the car on that two-lane highway to Fort Benton, them on their way to the fancy hotel for an anniversary weekend. I hadn’t even been with my grandfather, him gone fishing as usual. When my grandfather pulled into my friend’s driveway that Sunday morning, still in his fishing vest, he told me that they were both gone in an instant. “A blessing,” he said. ater I would learn that my mother had survived a day in ICU, fighting for life while I roamed the mall a mile away from her, while my grandfather tied the lines on his fly rod with expert blood knots.
I imagined blood on the highway, on my mother’s sundress, as I tried not to look at my own in the outhouse where I wrapped the pad in excess toilet paper and threw it down the hole. I knew my grandfather wouldn’t want me to do that, but we didn’t talk about those things, and I couldn’t stuff it in the cabin garbage can for fear of luring bears to the scent.
I stood on the river’s rocky shore, stopped by my own fear. Then anger. I stood, trembling, fists clenched, waiting for a ferryman who wouldn’t come for me. I picked up the nearest rock and chucked it toward the crumbling canyon wall, but it fell short, dropping in the water, impotent. I threw another. Plunk. Another. Then I threw fistfuls of rock that pocked the water surface before disappearing.
My grandfather found me standing there, staring up at the limestone cliffs, my hand still clenching a rock. He was sweaty, trudging awkwardly in his waders, creel pack slung over his shoulder and bowed with the weight of our dinner. He leaned down, searched the shore, and selected a flat stone.
He snuggled the stone expertly between thumb and forefinger, drew back his elbow, and with a quick flick of the wrist, released it. I counted four long skips before it hit the wall with a resonant crack and fell back, lost in the current. He picked up another. I imitated his motions until I got it right, my third stone skipped twice before drowning.
He nodded approval then said he was heading up to clean the trout. “You come on up when you’re hungry.”
I was hungry. But I kept practicing with those river rocks, concentrating everything into those controlled throws that my grandfather made seem effortless. Finally, shadows bridged the river, the sun slipped behind the canyon, and I sent a small rock telegraphing over the surface like a message to everything hidden below. I watched it smack the rock wall opposite from me and spring back into the river.
Then I heard a response, a small, unexpected splash to my left. By the time I turned to look, only a shuddering circle of waves, the living source already sunk.
“Everything Wants Our Blood”
I found it when I ruffled his hair. My son, eager to return to his fort on the forest’s edge, shoveled corn pops into his mouth, milk dribbling, my hand on his head a weight to slow him. Then my fingers slid over a suspicious bump. I parted the hair, my hand heavier as he squirmed, and there, a tick latched into his scalp.
“Hold on,” I said lightly, drawing back. “You’ve got a little spot here that needs some medicine.”
I slathered antibiotic ointment from the first aid kit over the tiny black bump and batted his hand away. “Leave it alone,” I warned, “We’ll clean it up later.” I kissed the other side of his head and sent him to finish that fort meant to defend us all from bears and cougars.
Then, while my daughter slept the morning away, hair shrouding her face, I hunted for Rocky Mountain Animals and Insects and discovered it tucked between the First Baptist Family Cookbook and my grandfather’s King James Bible—mine now, like this hunter’s cabin and every other small thing he’d cherished.
I read the entry on the Rocky Mountain wood tick. I tried to imagine a life in which I ate only three meals: perhaps a childhood cheeseburger, a giant ribeye in my teen years, and then an entire cow in adulthood, right before I reproduced and died. Starving at all points in between, waiting in the grass, hands upheld, sharp nails at the ready to leap on whatever chanced my way.
My stomach snarled. I grabbed the still-open box and munched dry cereal like popcorn. I read more, about larva and mouth cement. Lyme disease. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
The screen door banged, my son whirling into the room so fast I feared a lion was after him. “It’s moving! Something’s moving!” His eyes were shock-wide, rolling back as if in an epileptic fit. My daughter stirred and sat up, and I stayed in my chair, paralyzed, half-chewed cereal clogging my mouth, until I realized it was only the ointment working. The tick, smothering, was backing out of my son’s scalp. I swallowed and my throat seemed to stick to itself.
“Stay calm,” I ordered, my voice cracking. “It’s just a bug.” My daughter stared, sleep-drool winking on her lip. I wiped my own mouth. I found tweezers and tugged my son to the nearest lamp. My daughter shuffled over in her nightshirt to watch me seize the end of the tiny, flat tick and pull, slow and steady, until it separated. I imagined the inaudible pop like a suction cup releasing. I remembered giving birth. As if it had been so easy.
My daughter examined what looked to be a living blemish—a freckle or mole—plucked from skin. “What was it doing there?” she asked.
“Eating,” I said in a low voice.
My son whimpered. No, I said, only a little blood. “Wow. I’m going to study these,” she declared. “I’m going to grow up to study blood bugs.”
My son wouldn’t look at the thing that carried his blood. I wadded it in toilet paper and let him light the match in the sink, reminding him to never, never light a match outside where another dry summer had turned the forest to tinder.
My daughter frowned and told me to let her have the next bug.
“Let’s not go looking for trouble,” I advised.
That night, after we ate the trout my husband caught, after my son retold the story of how his mom saved him from the tick, after we’d checked both kids for tiny invaders, we tucked them in, and I sat with my husband on the porch as the bats emerged to pursue the mosquitoes buzzing in our ears.
“Everything wants our blood,” I said.
“Just tiny amounts,” he answered, slapping at his neck. “We’ve got plenty to spare. You know, you could have left the head in if you pulled too hard.”
“I’ve been coming here since before I could walk. I’ve had ticks, our dogs had more ticks than a clock. I know what I’m doing.” A shooting star streaked long and bright, silencing us.
“We’re lucky to have you,” my husband murmured at last, nuzzling my neck. I slipped a hand up his shirt, stroking the muscled back until I felt a small bump on the left side.
I knew this mole, had known this mole since we first made love, my fingers clutching tightly to him then. Now it felt foreign, dangerous.
I looked up to the constellations, so distinct here in the darkest dark. Cassiopeia: the throne, the giant W, or what my husband liked to call the Pointy Tits from Heaven. I looked for Leo, the lion’s head that looked like a question mark, a universal Why?
“Coming to bed?” my husband asked. “It’s too dark to see anything.” I shook my head, as if he could see that. I heard the screen door creak and bang.
I watched the blurry shadows of bats echolocating above me, felt the air stir close to my hair once or twice and slunk lower in my seat. A stick cracked somewhere in the direction of my son’s fort and I imagined all the invisible eyes in the forest watching. Even the stars looked like eyes now, blinking, twinkling, their disinterested gazes more frightening than whatever wanted my blood.
“Alone in These Widening Circles”
In August the dry, yellowed meadow fed nothing but whirring locust, and my children caught them for their father. “If anyone asks,” he instructed. “You tell them this is your bait.” He sat on the cabin porch, concentrating on tying flies to his line, fumbling with the blood knots in which my grandfather was an expert. We all knew he’d lose patience and put a hopper on a hook. The children forced the locust under the lid of a clear, plastic sherbet container. I kept my distance: those alien eyes and twitching antennae, the unpredictable launches that seemed always aimed at me. Some days I stayed in the cool of the cabin. Fair skin, I explained.
Later I saw my daughter out the window walking slowly in a wide circle, alone, her hand conducting some inaudible symphony. Suddenly she broke into a run then slowed again, giggling.
I considered sun block. Chose a wide-brim hat instead. I picked my cautious way through the grasses, stopping for sips of air whenever a camouflaged locust sprang.
“What are you doing out here?”
She was mumbling under her breath some incantation. Magpie, I heard. Magpie, Magpie, MEADOWLARK! With that shout, she ran a full circle as though chased, flopping down in the same spot before looking up at me, squinting.
“Are you playing Duck, Duck, Goose by yourself?”
She shook her head. “There aren’t any duck or geese here.” Not true, but I played along.
“There aren’t magpies or meadowlarks either, if that’s your substitute.”
My daughter frowned. “I’m playing my own game. The magpies and meadowlarks are all up there.” She pointed to the top of the canyon walls, to the invisible road to town. “You tell us to count how many we see.”
True. Where paved road dissolved to gravel loomed the trees where magpies gathered to squabble and flap, showing off their formal tuxedoes, long black tails trailing. Then, on the posts holding up barbed wire on either side of the road, we’d see meadowlarks, duller except for the yellow V on their breasts. Once, we’d stopped the car and rolled down the windows to catch a few notes of that full-throated jubilance.
“Would you like a playmate?” I asked, eyeing the prickly grasses. But she shook her head no and began again: Magpie, magpie, magpie.
I walked then to the ledge with a view of the river. My husband stood in the current, casting with his illegal live bait while my son skipped stones in the quieter swimming hole upstream. He picked carefully through the rocks on shore, testing for weight and flatness and fit in his fingers, like his great-grandfather. Then, a practiced chuck, an expert flick of the wrist, and the surface of the water would rupture into tiny wounds, concentric circles widening, crossing each other. Too far for me to count his skips, but my son was patient, playing at this for several minutes until he pried up a rock half the size of his head and heaved it straight for the center of the hole. Ga-LOOOMP.
He watched the waves, the choppy circles fading as they reached from canyon wall to shore. He stood still, hands outstretched as though blessing the waters. Then I heard, amplified by the great canyon walls, “Goddammit, you’ll scare everything away!”