David heard himself -- his high-pitched sing-song -- calling, "Here kittykittykitty, here kittykittykitty," so he tried a manly "Hey, Killer, come on, boy. Tuna!" He knew it wouldn't work. Killer -- a 20-pound Maine coon cat with tufted ears and a tiger's yellow glare -- might look like a tough guy, even a wild thing, but he was a marshmallow, a city cat, accustomed to a lambswool bed, designer food from tiny cans, and petting on demand . . . at least he had been before the baby. David worried. Killer had never stayed out overnight before, had only been venturing outside at all for a couple of months, since the snow melted in April, just after the baby came. Neither David nor Vicky had even thought about Killer until yesterday. They had been away three days.
When Vicky phoned from the hospital, checking to see that he'd made the drive home safely (two hours; no, he didn't speed) and to report the number of seizures the baby'd had since he left (only one, thank god), David didn't tell her about Killer. The cat will come home in the morning, he told himself, missing Killer's weight on his feet at the end of the bed. He didn't sleep well. Something rustled in the farmhouse wall behind his head, scratching and gnawing at midnight, and he banged with his fist until it settled down. He started awake again when the screeching from the pond began. Peepers, he remembered, the locals call them peepers. Then he dreamed that he was free-climbing the rock face behind the house. The granite split open between his hands with a wail, and he hung by one hand, proud of the muscles in his arm and shoulder, but knowing, even in his sleep, that he was ridiculous, dangling in the air, the smell of warm stone sharp in his nostrils. A shadow slipped from the crack and faded into the darkness down the cliff, toward his house.
The can of tuna on the porch was untouched in the morning. "Killer!" David called. "Here, kittykittykitty!" Nothing.
Dawn streaked the eastern sky pink. He wished Vicky were here to watch it with him, the view so different now that the trees had leafed out. He remembered holding her just-swelling belly in his hands in October, standing behind her here on the porch in the morning, their first sunrise in the new house. "Our baby will grow up in the country," they had bragged to city friends. In private, they had wondered -- both city-raised children -- what will her life be like? Barefoot. Naked sometimes. Close to nature, a little wild even. They would get her a pony. They would read together by the wood stove in the evenings. But by January, it had become so quiet when they ran out of talk, playing game after game of gin rummy, slapping the cards down, shuffling, that they had finally called the cable company. We'll just watch the good stations, they said to each other, educational TV. Maybe A&E or Discovery. No commercial stuff. But the woman at the cable company told them that they were three miles from the end of the cable.
Even the local radio station, on the far side of a hill, came in scratchy, as if from an earlier era. The nights stretched to 16 hours, the winter into a frozen March, and Vicky's belly grew. David sometimes missed the rumble of the subway far underground, shaking their little apartment. He didn't tell Vicky about his own cravings, for oil-shiny hot dogs and for the simplicity of running down the stairs to buy one from the cart on the corner below their old apartment. Here, coffee at the local diner required layering skin in long-johns, flannels and goose-down, shoveling snow from the dirt road, warming the car, and driving four miles down the mountain to town. David longed for friends too. Even though he'd eaten breakfast at the diner nearly every morning for six months, the men still only nodded when he entered. Life here should be different. They had moved to Vermont for community, for closeness as well as simplicity and safety. But the winter had come and snowed them in, and then the baby had come too soon and all wrong. Parts put together wrong. The world gone wrong in the birth of that misshapen product of their love.
The phone rang. "Two seizures last night, one at 9:00 and one at 11:45. I almost called you," Vicky said. "But nothing since midnight. I slept a little. I think maybe she's better."
David drew in his breath. Better. But she'd never be fine. Why had this happened to them? He pinched his tongue between his teeth. No. He exhaled carefully. "Good," he said. Should he come to the hospital?
"No," she said. "Work. Get some work done. There's nothing you can do here. It's too far. You should just take care of business. Get some sleep. I --" She faltered. David heard her draw in a breath, ragged at first, and then she exhaled, controlling the air. She made her voice strong again. "I'm fine. I'll go over to Care House later for a nap. A shower. I'm fine."
David hesitated, ashamed. He should insist. He should make the drive up to Dartmouth to the hospital. Two hours isn't so far. He should say, No, I'm coming. You'll need me. I'll be there. But he couldn't. He didn't want to go. He didn't want to watch the baby quiver, the blue lines jittering on the screen above her crib. He didn't want to sit in that little room watching television, waiting for the next specialist to breeze in and deliver his new edict contradicting the last specialist's edict, for some city friend to call and ask, "How is she?" and listen with that antsy tone of obligation, making excuses to disconnect as soon as possible, while the pristine green hours of Vermont summer stretched on in the other world outside. "Are you sure?" he said. The gruff note in his voice masked relief. "I should get those asset management team reports done before the deadline." He heard his words hurrying. Don't change your mind, he thought. "We'll need the money from that project," he said.
He worked from home now, but it was still a job. And it was still new enough -- this working from a distance -- that he felt the pressure to prove himself, to prove that he could produce just as much, complete just as many projects and reports, process as much data, all that stuff that disappeared into the electronic void, off to the city, as if he were still just down the hall a few blocks from that ragged gap in the lower Manhattan skyline.
"Yes," Vicky said. But David knew money meant nothing to her. Nothing but the baby had meaning now. Keeping the health insurance and paying the bills was his business. Keeping the baby alive was hers. They'd never had that kind of relationship before, divided according to some biological tradition, but here it was.
"Killer," he said before he could stop himself. Damn.
"Is he okay?" Vicky asked. "I bet he was glad to see you." She laughed a little. David imagined her standing again beside him on the porch watching the sunrise, Killer winding around their legs. For one instant, he felt her escape the hospital. Then he remembered the way the baby looked in the crib, the blue lines on the screen.
"Uhm." David stopped. He couldn't tell her. "Yeah," he said. A silence widened between them. He hoped she was smiling, thinking of the cat. "Well," he said.
"Okay," she said. "I'll call later. Maybe after my nap." She sighed. "I need to sleep."
"Yes," he agreed. "The nurses will call you at Care House if . . . if they need you. Right?"
"Yeah," she said. "Yes. They will."
"Okay," he said. He scanned the reeds beside the pond and the line of boulders that marked the brook disappearing into the trees. No cat.
"Work hard," she said. "I love you."
David could hear the bleeping of the baby's heart monitor. "Me too," he said.
After eight hours at the computer, the evening still pristine with daylight in the approach to solstice, David drove the Cherokee to town for chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes at the diner, four-berry pie with ice cream for dessert. He stopped first at the general store, the town hall, and the gas station to pin the flyers he'd made to the community bulletin boards:
Grey tabby. Very large.
Pink collar with bell.
Answers to Killer.
David regretted the pink collar. The bell was to keep Killer from the birds at the feeder, but it was really unnecessary. Killer preferred sleeping to hunting, and they hadn't remembered to fill the bird feeder since the baby had come in April. The pink, like Killer's name, had been a nod to the irony of the cat's size and fierce appearance. Only once had Killer shown any natural instinct, cornering a mouse in the kitchen one autumn night soon after they had moved in, while he was still restricted to the indoors. As he stuck a thumbtack into the board beside the door to the diner, David recalled the lazy batting of the giant paws, the ee-ee-ee screaming of the mouse. "Get it away from him! Don't let him torture it anymore!" Vicky had cried. David had dropped the soup pot over it, slid a magazine under it, and flipped it out into the early crust of snow on the still-green grass. The mouse had dragged a leg, cowering under a leaf. It had probably died there from exposure, or had been eaten by some other predator, a real predator who killed quickly and efficiently, for food rather than sport.
"Cat gone missin', eh?" The man who held the door open for David was his neighbor down the hill just past the trees, Arnold Chamberlin, an octogenarian who still tapped his sugar maples with buckets instead of rubber tubing. David blushed, remembering Arnold's look when he'd explained to him in March, just before the baby, that no, the trees weren't tied together with string; those folks were just sugarin' the new-fangled way. They both took seats at the counter, leaving a stool empty between them, and looked up to read the Specials board.
"Evenin' fellas," said Ellie, the thin, grey-haired waitress. She opened a bottle of Bud and put it in front of Arnold, then stuck one hand into the back pocket of her jeans. "No stew tonight, Arnold," she said. "You want the meatloaf instead?"
Arnold took a swig of beer and nodded. "I reckon," he said.
"How 'bout you, sir?" Ellie looked at David. "Chicken-fried steak? Gravy on the side, right?"
David smiled. "Yep. You got it."
Ellie laughed. "What to drink tonight?"
David hesitated. He preferred microbrews, but he could feel Arnold listening. "A beer," he said. "Bud's fine."
"How's the wife?" Ellie lowered her tone and frowned. "That baby doin' okay now?"
David sighed and shook his head. He pulled the corners of his mouth down. "She's back in the hospital," he reported. "Seizures. Vicky's up at Dartmouth with her."
Ellie shook her head. "I'm sure sorry to hear that," she said. "You tell her I'm thinkin' about her." She turned and went to the kitchen to put in the orders, and probably to spread the news. Even though they were new to the little village, everybody seemed to know about them and their business. Not insiders yet. Not quite outsiders either.
David ate, following Arnold's lead, in silence, newspapers propped against the sugar holders on the counter in front of them. He tried to focus on a story about a discovery of new cave paintings in the French countryside, a farmer uncovering an old entry with his plow. He imagined the cool air rushing out of the darkness, ripe with images of something older than time, the secrets, perhaps, of a people who worshiped the creatures they killed, people who lived closer to the edges of death and life.
Ellie asked when he'd see Vicky again and David set the paper aside. "Oh, I'll go back to the hospital day after tomorrow," he said. "After I finish up a project for the boss-man in the city." He didn't want the locals to think he was a trust-funder. He wanted them to know he worked.
Arnold may or may not have been listening. Another man had stopped to ask if he could borrow a chain saw. Arnold nodded. "Just go on in the back and get it out the mud room next time you're by," said Arnold.
"Door'll be open?" the other man asked.
"Shoot. Lost that key 30 years ago," Arnold laughed.
David tasted his pie, listening. No one around here locked their doors. How could you just trust the world like that? He thought of the old apartment in the city, the satisfying clunks of the deadbolts at the end of the day, being alone and safe with Vicky inside. Then the Towers fell. Then they had moved here.
David put cash down on top of his check and stood up to go.
"Fisher prob'ly got'im," Arnold said, still looking at his paper, open to the story about the French farmer.
"What?" David asked, not sure he'd heard right.
Arnold looked sideways, his bushy white eyebrows dipping in at the middle in a scowl. "Fisher," he repeated. "Hate to say, but your cat's prob'ly dead. Fisher cat." He wiped one hand across his mouth. "Fishers kill off a lot of house cats 'round here, 'specially them that's new to the woods." He folded back the newspaper page. "I'll keep my eyes peeled," he said, "but like I say, prob'ly already been got."
At home, evening light stretched out in bright streaks against a deepening blue and David, shouldering long-handled branch-loppers, followed the path down from the house around the pond and into the trees, stopping to cut saplings sprung up almost overnight as he walked. He and Vicky cross-country skied right from the back door last winter, before she'd gotten too big, and now the New England forest seemed determined to reclaim even the little strip of a trail he'd cut last fall. It must have been hard for farmers to keep their fields clear before bush-hogs and tractors. He couldn't imagine the labor involved. After the interminable bareness of winter, spring had seemed to happen in an instant. The trees became lush with green, and weeds and ferns and vines shot up from the ground to obscure rusted hulks of old cars and tumbling foundations and stone walls as if humans had never touched the land. Maybe it just seemed to have grown up so quickly, David thought, because of the baby. He whacked a low pine branch with his pruners, cracking it off onto the ground. Maybe he just hadn't noticed. Because of the baby.
The land folded in on itself, hiding even the closest neighbors -- the Chamberlin place down the hill; Hop and Gracie Peletier and all their kids and grandkids past the rise; the lesbians from Boston, Chris and Mari, across the road; and next to them, Wesley and Raven, the middle-aged hippies who trucked organic vegetables to yuppie restaurants around Amherst. David still felt a little scared alone like this in the woods, thick with hemlocks and maples and oaks, and the poison ivy he'd learned to see everywhere after a rash made his face swell in May. Anything could happen. Like that logger who died when the tree fell on him, or the hunter who'd broken an ankle and hobbled out after two days. Cell phones couldn't get a signal; he wouldn't be able to reach even a neighbor for help. But he made himself walk the trail -- a gentle loop into the woods, through a break in the stone wall, around and back out into the meadow again below the granite face of the little cliff -- once a week with the pruners. "Keeping the wilderness back," he laughed to his old office-mates in those casual empty minutes before conference calls. He didn't bother to put on the plaid flannel shirt anymore, didn't see himself, in his mind's eye, a Paul Bunyon, ax on shoulder. The green, long-handled loppers from the Walmart over in New Hampshire worked better than an ax, and their firewood was delivered by a guy with a dump truck and gas-powered splitter, a man unafraid of a chainsaw. David wasn't even sure where the ax was now. Maybe buried in the undergrowth.
"Killer!" he called as he trimmed the trail. "Here kittykitty!" The darkness between the trees, the thick mat of pine needles, the bird songs, and blue sky patches between the leaves overhead sucked his voice into silence. Arnold saying, Fisher prob'ly got'im.
David had looked up Fisher Cat in the Britannica online: Martes pennanti. Not actually a cat at all, though he'd been imagining something like a mountain lion, the fabled catamount that became extinct in the New England wilderness before the turn of the century, hunted to death by the settlers. The fisher was a member of the weasel family. The size of a medium-sized dog, he'd read, with short legs and dense dark fur. The name is a misnomer: it doesn't fish; it's not a cat. It kills rodents, squirrels, occasionally a small deer. An inveterate foe of the porcupine. And house cats. Especially the soft, domesticated kind.
The phone screamed him awake in the middle of another earthquake dream. As he fumbled for the phone, 2:53 blinked to 2:54 on the digital clock beside the bed. "Hello? Vicky?" She had been with him in the dream, partly a memory of a day in their senior year at Oswego; they used to go climbing every weekend on the cliffs. They were engaged. He couldn't believe his luck in finding her. In the dream, they rested on a the rounded curve of an enormous boulder, the valley spreading out green and thick with trees below. In the dream, he reached for Vicky, intending to kiss her. Earthquake. A jostling at first, and then a crack. The smooth round granite opened between them, like a crusty roll broken by huge invisible hands. "Vicky?" He snapped on the light, sitting up.
"They say she's dying, David." Her voice shook. His wife. Vicky. She sobbed once, hiccupped a breath. "They say if you want to see your daughter before she dies, you should get here now."
David was already out of bed, stepping into the shorts he'd left on the floor. "I'm on my way," he said. "I'll be there soon." He hung up the phone and zipped his pants in one motion. He crammed his feet into his sneakers and dialed the number of the sheriff's office in town, tying the laces while it rang. When the sleepy voice answered, he said, "I'm David Wells, up Scott Hill Road. I'm leaving for Dartmouth-Hitchcock. My baby is dying and I've got to get there fast." He gave the woman his cell phone number and described his black Cherokee.
She would radio the State Police and get him an escort. "Go with God," she said.
The words stayed in his head. Go with God. David's chest seemed about to split. What kind of God would give a baby just to take it away, just to fuck with your life like this? Go with God. He grabbed his keys, opened the door, and stepped into the night.
The bushes rustled. A creature. Something large. It growled, a savage sound, gutteral. The hairs on David's neck sprang up. A frightened little noise escaped from his throat -- "Ah!" -- and he stood inside the kitchen before he was conscious of moving his feet. He held his breath. The sound crawled against his skull, something lurking, something from wilderness, darkness. A predator. David swallowed. Vicky. The baby. He flipped on the porch light. He pushed the screen open and forced his feet to move again across the threshold. A black hump, the size of stone too big for a man to carry, slunk away down the slate sidewalk. David gripped his keys, hesitating. It looked back. The eyes reflected the porch light and fangs gleamed. Fisher. His adrenalin pounded. His knees felt bare and cold, damp in the night air. The animal faded into the brush.
She breathed. She stopped breathing. The machine squealed. A nurse turned it off. Another machine clicked, clicked, clicked. Her bulging eyes moved under a thin blue veil of eyelids. She seized, twitching while they watched the lines on the monitor. Then she coughed and breathed. Vicky thumb-stroked the baby's arm above the little fist, clenched like an unfurled fern. She kissed the Neanderthal-broad but porcelain-white brow. The baby looked like a fairy-tale creature, human but disproportionate, hunched and protruding in all the wrong places. David still couldn't believe this was his daughter. My daughter. Angela.
"You should hold her," Vicky said. "Can we hold her?" she asked the nurse.
The woman smiled. "Of course," she said. "Let me help."
David resisted the urge to step back, made his feet heavy and felt the hardness of metal like a tower thick in his spine and shoulders. I can do it. He thrust his chin out, a motion he suddenly remembered from his father, whom he barely remembered at all, a drunk who'd left him and his mom when he was seven, jaw bone stiff, shrugging his mom off as she grasped at his sleeve, walking away.
The nurse held the tubes and wires to the side while Vicky lifted the baby -- Angela, my daughter -- from the crib. The baby opened her mouth in a tiny dark O, like a normal baby, and her tongue poked out to taste the air. Vicky settled the odd little shape into his arms, which he held in the regulation way, cradled, shifting stiffly to the side to take her. The tubes and monitor wires draped over his arm like threads, connecting the baby to life, to the machines.
The doctors had inserted the tracheotomy tube last week after their rush back to the hospital. The baby had been born eight weeks too early, in April, because of the deformity, the problem they hadn't known about until the ultrasound at six months, because Vicky had been too afraid of the needle for the amniocentesis. "I wouldn't have aborted her anyway," Vicky had said. "She's my hope, my little angel."
The doctors said she would never be normal. "Babies with these problems don't usually live past three." They weren't even sure where some of the organs were inside her little round abdomen.
"I can't believe it," Vicky had said. "She seems so strong." The baby had come home in June for two weeks before this last crisis. And those two weeks home, watching the sun come up while the baby -- so small, so oddly shaped, but theirs -- had nursed at Vicky's breast, had seemed almost normal. Maybe she'll be okay, he'd thought then. Vicky loves her so much. And the day they had looked out to see a moose eating the lilacs they had even laughed at the surreal scene, like an hallucination brought on by exhaustion, as if they were, like all new parents, just so tired.
And then the seizures, the ambulance ride north, swaying side to side around the curves. The doctor said that she wouldn't live without a trach tube. Let her go, David had thought, but he had said instead, "Whatever you want, Vic. You decide."
And now, watching the eyeballs roll under their lids, the little tongue probing the air from its cave, he wondered, will she die now? Will she finally die?
The weight of a baby -- this baby, my daughter, Angela -- is nothing, less than that of a cat. Killer. Fisher prob'ly got'im. The baby moved in his arms, a little stretch, then gaped her mouth into a yawn. Her eyes opened, and she blinked. David felt his jaw move. The pounding in his skull, the little hairs at his neck, his bare knees. Fisher. She looked into his face, searching. She had his father's eyes. They seemed to meet his. Her brow creased, a frown. Then she was blank again, smooth. His spine seemed to loosen.
Vicky slept on the bench beneath the wide window. Pink streaked the sky. Asleep, just like that. She must have sat down after she put the baby in his arms. He stood still, conscious of the rhythm of air pushing in and out of the baby through the tube, the steady beat of the heart monitor. The nurse was gone. Vicky's face was smooth, her hair tousled. She slept slouched, one hand over her heart, as if pledging or protecting. A hollow yawned in David's chest, pulled apart. His cheeks were wet. If he were alone in the woods, he would scream. He wished he could to go back to sleep too. He wished he could wake up with his wife beside him and the world sane. The baby moved, and he looked down at her again. A little reddish-blond hair had come in on her scalp, like the ragged goldenrod he couldn't seem to get rid of in the flower bed beside the porch. Gracie Peletier said that it secreted a poison through its roots that killed off other flowers. David had pulled it all out, but it was stubborn, it left roots, and he had seen -- had it been just yesterday? -- that it was coming back again. Hanging on. Tough.
When David drove up that evening, Killer sat on the porch, washing his whiskers in a trance of pink tongue-to-paw circular motions. He glanced up, blinked his yellow eyes once, and returned to washing. He was not dead. The fisher had not got'im.
"Hey there, boy." David leaned down to rub the cat's ears. Killer purred and stretched, lengthening himself into a yawn. There was a note stuck in the screen door. Hope you don't mind we let ourselves in to put some food in your fridge. We're thinking of you. Hop and Gracie. He hadn't locked up in his rush to leave -- the snarl of the fisher -- last night.
Killer looked at him, waiting to be let inside. Where had he been? How had he lived?
David remembered his father, that last time. A year or so after he had deserted them, David had come home from school to find the old fuck-up passed out on their stoop. Some big kids had been poking him with the toes of their shoes, laughing and jumping back when he snorted in his sleep, just another homeless guy. David remembered focusing his eyes on the cracks in the sidewalk, pretending not to know who the drunk was. He had skirted the lump of his father's body to climb the steps to the building. He remembered the smell of stale beer, the hoots of the teenagers, the scrape of his book-bag against his knees. The reassuring clunks of each dead-bolt lock as it turned inside the apartment door. He had never told his mother. The door had been granite as he had leaned back, trying to catch his breath, the adrenalin thudding black against his skull. And his father had vanished into the tall buildings and alleys. Killer purred under his finger-tips and David focused on the mountains layered into the horizon. What had happened to him out there? He stroked, fur warm with sun under his hand.
The baby hadn't died. Angela hadn't died. They didn't understand how or why. She was just better, breathing on the machine, not throwing up the breast milk Vicky continued to pump for her, not seizing. David had looked at his daughter, sleeping, his wife, sleeping, and had watched the sun rise, blackening the face of the mountain into darkness. He thought, I will not fuck this up.
Now he opened the door for the cat. He would call his mother later, ask her come to stay for awhile to help, even though she said that the country was too quiet and the mountains scared her. He would call the visiting nurse, and the hospital supply company that delivered the oxygen tanks and the monitor. He would finish the asset management reports and email them to the city. Maybe he would push the lawn mower down the trail through the woods. He would call Hop and thank him for the food, maybe see Arnold down at the diner for a Bud. Try the meatloaf.
David switched on the lamp before the broad windows and dialed the hospital. He jingled his keyring, waiting to be put through to Vicky in the pediatric intensive care unit. The face of the pond below was a dark circle, but the green-shaded light beside him reflected, like the eyes of an animal before a car or in a porch-light, in ripples across the water. Vicky came on the line. Stars pricked the purpling sky.
"How is Angela?" David asked.
Killer jumped into his lap. David listened -- The doctors say maybe Angela can come home again next week. . . . He unbuckled the pink collar and tossed it into the wastebasket. Killer scratched the deep crease in the fur at his neck against the edge of the desk, his groan of pleasure erupting.
David worked the house key loose from his ring and dropped it into the deep lower desk drawer, which he closed. "Yes," he said. "Home soon."