Cara discovered some coyote tracks around the chicken shed.
How many? I said.
It was the lowest hour of winter, so she wasn’t much for talking.
When it dropped below freezing, we took turns trudging out to the shed and feeding the woodstove. We kept it warm enough that the chickens didn’t die or suffer much, but it was still bitter. Their strange clockwork bodies moved about like always. I found it hard, though, to pay much attention to them when it was this cold. Their little personalities, endearing in summer, weren’t quite as charming in sub-zero weather. Poor things. If they could talk, I was afraid they might complain about the meager ration of wood we allotted them, trying to wheedle a little more out of us, but they couldn’t, thank God.
When it was my turn to go out to them, I carried the axe. Coyotes probably wouldn’t care if a woman waved a gun at them in a snowstorm even if the thing were loaded, which it wouldn’t be since we had no bullets. Not that I would ever shoot a coyote. Swinging an axe around might scare them off, though.
Dan was gone again—was hardly ever there—and Cara was sitting by the stove, drinking out of the bottle. We’d reached that most dreadful stage of winter. Neither of us had had a proper bath since the last time the sun had some heat in it. At least the thieves and rapists had holed themselves up in town. Snug in their lairs. Let them all drop dead, I prayed nightly. Now we only had the coyotes to keep us on our toes.
If it weren’t for the chickens, I wouldn’t have minded having a few coyotes around. They were a good animal. Unlike wild dogs, they knew how to mind their own business, and they weren’t raving idiots. But they did get hungry, and we couldn’t lose those chickens.
It was my turn to visit the shed. I tried goading Cara into doing it for me. She was drunk, so what did she care? But no, she wouldn’t get up. Wouldn’t even look at me. But then she looked me in the eye all of a sudden like she was staring into a bottomless pit. Her cheeks were blotchy, ruined till spring, and her lips had little cuts and sores on them.
So I put my coat on, grabbed the axe, pushed the door open.
At once, the bitter air burns my nostrils and my lungs crackle like paper bags. The moon assaults my eye with its icy, useless beauty. Cara shoveled a way out to the shed this morning through snow up to her waist, but the trail is already filled in with drift. I plunge in. Millions of pointy snowflakes sift down the backs of my boots which aren’t tied tightly enough. I am stupid. Careless. Why didn’t I marry some well-off fool? Some cutthroat. I wasn’t made for this kind of life.
And yet here I am.
Stillness. Hardly a sound. Just a faint glassy tinkling as snowflakes drift across each other and settle into my footprints. I push on a few more steps and then see it. The shed door is open. We are going to die out here. I don’t even care if there’s a bear inside, I’ll kill it. I’ll hack its head off. I’ve got the axe in my hand. In both hands. Ready to swing. Three more steps and I’m there.
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