I watched through field glasses as a teenage kid stepped to the edge of the ravine. April had finally arrived, and the mountains had begun to sweat off their snowpack. Already, the creek ran heavy. The kid stretched his calves, as a competitive diver might. His posture told me all I needed to know. Too loose, too casual, like he was waiting for a bus. Maybe in another month he’d be ready to jump, but not today. This kid would be my first save of the season. A gimme.
Before I moved to the house by the ravine, depressed folks would wander to the edge and stare ten stories down at a weave of Blacktail Creek so pure and flame-blue, they could practically taste the lithium content. Every spring, one or two of these pilgrims would take the ten-story plunge and break upon the rocks. Locals called this maneuver the Blacktail Belly-Flop, aka, the Oregon High-Dive. Isolation and meth made a powerful combination, and there was no shortage of either in my corner of the state. Alis Volat Propriis, my freckled ass. Strangely, it wasn’t stuffy winter skies but the bright spring weather that brought floppers from hiding. My theory was, people expected to feel depressed during the sunless months, but when the weather turned pleasant again, and the bad feelings didn’t go away, that opened up a whole new theater of despair.
I crossed my yard—a flat pan of red crust—and started my walk to the ravine, which always took longer than expected. The kid had plenty of time to step back from the edge when he saw me coming. A rangy, slim-waisted boy. No obvious deformities. He wore jean shorts and a bruise-colored hoodie. Unlike so many other gloomy teens, he didn’t slouch, didn’t stare endlessly at the screen of his phone. No older than seventeen. Probably didn’t even shave. Likely, this kid’s girlfriend dumped him during study hall, and now he’d wax dramatic, convince himself that his loss mattered. Maybe Saint Ravine—as local papers called me—would make the headlines again: Seven Souls Saved! Maybe news teams would finally start giving me the coverage I deserved. I wanted both ends of the telescope: to be isolated, yet known. Appreciated, but unbothered.
In my four years by the ravine, I’d saved six and lost one. Playing lifeguard to the creek was never my intended occupation. After Anja died, I decided I was through living in the valley. I wanted a place with a view. The real estate agent never mentioned the Blacktail’s local nickname—a name I grew to hate during the Saint Ravine years. I was not, by anyone’s reckoning, a qualified therapist. My only advantage was that I could relate to floppers. Each spring felt like another self-made bet: would I live to see the summer, or would I end up in the creek?
“There’s a good-sized cat on the loose,” I told the kid. “Hate to see you get mauled, out here all alone.” I wasn’t bluffing. There were reports of a mountain lion earlier that week. I’d been carrying a can of pepper spray the size of a Maglite.
“I don’t get it,” he said, as if he might mean more than cats.
“Cougar,” I said, clawing the air. “Over one hundred pissed-off pounds of predator. What don’t you get?”
“You said you’d hate to see me get mauled all alone.” He narrowed his eyes. “You’d rather it happened in public?”
I liked him immediately, the sarcastic little shit.
“I’m Luke,” I said.
“Evan,” he said, stepping toward the ravine.
“Long way down,” I said, whistling. “Bet it stings like hell.”
“When you hit.” I clapped my hands together. “Ever seen those rocks at the bottom? Bone-breakers.” This kind of talk came naturally. I spent a lot of time thinking about gravity—not the numbers-and-formulas part, but the feeling of acceleration.
Unimpressed, Evan brushed his bare eyeball with a fingertip, maybe to adjust a wayward contact lens.
“Suit yourself,” I said. “I’ve got steaks that need cooking. Might even have an extra if you’d like to join.”
“I don’t eat red meat.”
I felt my mouth pucker up like a bellybutton. The steak routine rarely failed.
“I’d offer you a beer,” I said, “but you probably wouldn’t be interested in that, either.”
Evan kicked a pebble over the edge. I wondered if, like me, he found himself counting the seconds before it splashed.
“I’m underage,” Evan said. “In case that’s not obvious.”
“Makes no difference to the beer,” I said.
I walked back to the house, as if I didn’t care which path Evan chose.
Anja would have said I was too young—at the pink age of thirty-eight—to be a recluse, to which I would’ve said she was too young—at twenty-eight—to be dead. Besides, my ski shop operated better without me. A pair of college kids ran the place. They skied like angels, they spoke slopes lingo, and they always knew which new products were worth stocking.
I’d broken up with her when all our good spoons started disappearing. She never left needles in plain sight, but I knew the score. I’d tried smack only once, on my twenty-fourth birthday. A gift from Anja. At the time, I thought of us more like taste-testers than junkies. It’s nice, how your veins seem to fill with warm bathwater, but I came down shaky and paranoid. Afterward, we both promised to stay clean.
Evan kept me waiting for half an hour. Cowled in that unseasonal hoodie, he moved across my yard with a patient, shuffling gait, as if he had not a plan in the world beyond putting right sneaker in front of left. He stepped over to the redwood picnic table and sat opposite me. Unlike my other rescues, Evan didn’t drum his fingers or nip his hangnails. He sat still. The kid was in trouble, but his was a special brand of trouble.
I uncapped and limed a Red Stripe for Evan. I planted the bottle between his steady hands.
“You really don’t care?” Evan asked.
“Be my guest.”
Maybe I was remiss, providing booze to a possibly unstable minor, pitting one vice against another. I needed leverage. Evan didn’t make the sour faces you’d expect from an unseasoned beer drinker. He also didn’t try to match my pace. When I plated the steak and cut into the meat, Evan didn’t object, or avert his eyes.
Broad shadows slid down the mountains as I ate. Insects played their reedy music. By the time Evan spoke again, I was two Stripes deep, and he was still sipping his first. Evan asked me something, but his balsa-weight voice sank beneath the insect buzz.
“I mean, look at your yard,” Evan was saying.
I looked, seeing the barrenness as it must’ve appeared to Evan’s eyes: hardscrabble lanced with wild grasses. The long wooden table, mostly empty.
“There were plum trees when I moved in,” I said, “but I had them chopped.”
Evan touched his lens. “Why’s that?”
“Guess I lost my taste for plums. Might lose my taste for all solid food if you don’t quit that eyeball shit.”
Evan roweled the table with the heel of his bottle. “I know who you are.”
“You know my name’s Luke,” I said, “and that’s it.”
“You were in the paper. My friend says you pushed that old man into the creek because you needed publicity.”
Fred, I wanted to say. Fred was his name, and it was Fred who ruined Saint Ravine.
“Let’s not pretend you’ve got a friend,” I said. “Couple hours ago, you were gearing up to make the world’s biggest splash.”
A misstep. One of my cardinal rules was that I never called out potential floppers. Usually, I didn’t reveal much beyond knowing that a flopper was troubled. That way, they could go through life fooling themselves, thinking they might’ve changed their mind, might’ve backed from the edge, even if I hadn’t shown up.
“You say that,” Evan said, “but you’re the one living over Suicide Creek.” He pumped his eyebrows, then stamped the table with his empty bottle. The water ring didn’t bother me nearly as much as hearing the creek’s hateful nickname.
Evan stood. He walked back the way he’d come, leaving me at the table. I could endure only so much ingratitude. Evan didn’t have to thank me for my walk to the ravine. He didn’t have to thank me for the beer, or the steak I offered, but there was something about the way he strolled off without looking back.
“Well, fuck you, too,” I called. By then, he was too far to hear.
For a long time, I sat with the strangest feeling in my chest. I couldn’t see the mountains, but I worried that they were swelling in the dark, folding me in. Night insects pattered my ears and neck en route to nowhere.
Anja’s Romanian father had never adjusted to the coarse landscape. Oregon had no elegance, no symmetry. The mountains reminded him of dog’s teeth. One afternoon, instead of driving to the airport, he downed a bottle of his wife’s beta blockers. According to Anja, his heart sort of dozed off. She found him after school, dressed in shirt and tie and little captain’s hat, shoes polished to a modest shine. She said he looked happier than he had in years, like he’d been bouncing on the bed and simply gave out.
I could relate. On clear mornings, I heard the mountains whispering to each other. Mostly, they talked nonsense, but sometimes they spoke my name.
To her credit, Anja never overdosed like I feared she would. Instead, she hanged herself from our favorite plum tree. She used holiday lights, several strands braided together into a kind of rope. They were holiday lights because we didn’t really
celebrate Christmas. Our lights were secular—they decorated our bedroom year-long. A green extension cord ran from the end of Anja’s noose to a low-hung limb. It looked like she wore a scarf of starlight. She hadn’t written me a note, but she did leave a few spare light strands at her feet—a scarf of my own, in case I chose to join.
I drained the rest of my beer and let the tears come. This kind of thing happened with some regularity, always at night. Not a full-on weep, but the eyes-only sort of crying. Just beyond the yard, a large animal snarled. I’d forgotten my pepper spray, and I wondered what human despair might smell like to a cougar.
Two days later, Evan returned to the ravine, along with Bree, a local ranger. Bree was friendly, but she seemed young for a ranger, like she’d been hired right out of high school. She liked to stop by the house every few weeks to check in. As I crossed the yard, I noticed that Evan wore the same hoodie, the same shorts. While Evan and Bree chatted, he kicked rocks and watched them tick over the edge.
“Neighbors,” I said, so they’d know to turn around.
Bree had never worn one of those Smokey the Bear–style hats. Her badge hung on a neck lanyard. She stamped the ground with the butt of her rifle and turned her wide-angled face my way. She greeted me with one of those slick handshakes that musicians use. At the end, we were supposed to snap our fingers and point at one another, but I couldn’t remember the timing, and I ended up pulling my hand away too early.
“What’s new in cougar country?” I asked.
“Don’t get comfy,” Bree said. “Somebody down the mountain’s missing a few hens.”
“We’ll let you know if we see anything,” I said. “Won’t we, Evan?”
Evan hooked a finger toward his eye, then seemed to remember something. “Thought you were kidding about that,” he said.
“How do you two know each other?” Bree asked. She knew it was normally big trouble that brought pilgrims to the ravine, but I didn’t want her to worry. I had the Evan situation under control.
“He’s my new hire,” I said. “Helping me dig a vegetable garden.”
“Since when do you eat vegetables?”
“Doctor’s making him do it,” Evan said. “This guy hasn’t pooped since the nineties.”
I gave Evan my finest scowl.
“Which is also the last time he got laid,” Bree said.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said to Bree. “We’ll let you know of any oversized kitties.”
I invited Evan to my place. We sat a while, not speaking. Clouds skated between the mountains, their bottoms stained pink. The Cascades whispered to me: Look how beautiful this place could’ve been, look how warm.
The Fred debacle happened last spring. He was an older fellow with the sort of gooey hacking cough that could only mean something terminal. Fred nodded along to my Saint Ravine spiel for nearly ten minutes. Then he sat and butt-scooted to the edge, so his feet could dangle. His shoes were the kind that closed with Velcro, and he looked for all the world like a wrinkled kid waiting for an amusement ride to fire up.
Fred bobbed his head as my speech became more insistent, more crowded. Almost polite, how he slid down the ravine, leaving an abrupt swish sound to hover in the space he’d been filling. Fred’s splash was quieter than you’d think, as if someone had dropped a tiny champagne flute. Bree and the local investigators spent a long time gathering Fred from the creek rocks. After that, the reporters stopped coming, and the papers stopped calling. I had my share of nightmares, but otherwise, grieving was difficult. I was too busy brooding over the only headlines they’d run: Saint Ravine Loses His Wings.
“Listen,” I said. “Don’t ever talk to me like you talked the other night.”
“You don’t know what happened with Fred, so don’t pretend you do.”
Evan picked at some splintered wood.
“You’re forgiven,” I said, “for being the sort of backwoods pissant who believes every slice of gossip he hears.”
“Shut up. Now, do you want some grilled eggplant, or what?”
“Guess you’re one of those grill-only cooks.”
Anja used to give me similar grief. Ovens never made much sense. The window between undercooked and scorched is too narrow. With a grill, you can at least watch as your food changes states.
I went inside and sliced eggplant and zucchini. I shined the slices with olive oil and a shake of salt, then arranged them on sheets of foil.
Often, Anja had been happy in our valley home. She used to say Toodles as she left the house, but because of her accent, it always sounded more like Turtles. She used to describe how certain months weighed more than others. That May, in particular, weighed too much: a plum tree that wouldn’t bloom, a sentimental American Airlines commercial that played endlessly, and an aching realization that after four years on the straight and narrow, her veins still craved tar. Maybe Anja’s was less a crisis of spirit than of imagination. She couldn’t foresee a future where things improved.
I carried the trays outside. Evan held my best steak knife, and he examined the serrations with great care, as if he’d commit the design to memory.
“What was it like?” Evan asked. “I mean, when he jumped?”
I envied smokers, whose hands always had work to do. My fingers drummed “Wipeout” on the grill handle. I wouldn’t lie to Evan, but I also didn’t want Fred’s fate to sound appealing.
“Quick,” I said. “It was quick.”
“Hasn’t been quick for my dad,” Evan said, still admiring the serrations.
“What’d he use?”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
“Fan belt.” Evan checked his reflection on the blade. “He cinched it with a few of those nylon zip ties and made it into a noose.”
“Creative, at least.”
“Only, he didn’t measure right. His feet were touching when we found him. Still alive, if you want to call it that.”
“He got a little better, then a little worse. Now, he’s a lot worse.”
I knew sympathy would probably be lost on a kid like Evan. Maybe what he wanted was someone who recognized the absurdity of a botched noose.
“Anja used holiday lights,” I said.
“My girlfriend.” I shook my head and drank. “Ex-girlfriend.”
“You’re Saint Ravine,” Evan said. “And you let your girlfriend commit suicide?”
There was that word again. My cheeks blazed. Reckless kid. He hadn’t known Anja, and he hadn’t been there to see how beyond help she was.
“Your dad’s a putz,” I said.
With exaggerated effort, Evan put down the knife, as if he’d already defined me by taxonomy, and sequenced my genes, and I was so predictable that he already knew the words to the boring lecture I’d now deliver.
“Everybody knows that you measure twice, hang once,” I said, happy to surprise him. I pretended to poke my eyeball, Evan-style.
For the first time since I’d met him, maybe for the first time in his life, Evan smiled. An uneasy task for his face, which showed premature lines.
“How would you kill yourself, genius?” he asked.
“Me?” I was convinced that everyone considered ending themselves at one point or another, whether they admitted it or not. “I’ve always admired Plato’s death. Drink the hemlock, fall asleep.”
“I think you mean Socrates,” Evan said. Smart kid. Hell of a lot smarter than I was at seventeen.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I read about this guy who built a special helmet lined with shotgun shells. Lots of them, aimed inward from every angle.”
“Too messy. Ought to strap yourself to an ACME rocket.”
“Well, you should crush yourself with a baby grand, you lonely fucker.”
“Go hump a beehive.”
“Play drums for Spinal Tap.”
That last one got me. I sneezed beer foam, which made Evan laugh, low and honking. Evan’s goose laugh made me laugh harder, and only then did I realize how long it’d been since I’d done so in a way that wasn’t forced.
We went on like this through April. Evan showed up, I grilled veggies, and he drank his one Stripe. He never asked for a second beer, and he never wore anything besides jean shorts and a hoodie. We discussed the wildest ways that a person could exit the world. The hard lines of Evan’s face softened, and he smiled more.
One evening, Evan schlepped a video game console with two controllers, one of them still in its box. He asked where I kept the TV, and what kind it was. These questions made me uneasy. Every summer, I held a cookout for my ski shop staff, but I hadn’t had company inside the house since February, when Bree had stopped by to use the toilet and gripe about coyotes. Evan would probably find my place obsolete. Like my father, I’d never understood my own generation, people who obsessed over the fidelity range of speakers and the scan speeds of televisions. I didn’t even know what the popular shows were. Mostly, I watched shameful stuff: talk-therapy shows, or whatever prison redemption movie TBS was running. Anja used to say my soul was so old it had gills.
“Like the world’s saddest motel,” Evan said, surveying the interior.
My place was tidy, if not contemporary. As soon as I’d eaten dinner, I liked to let the dishes soak. And I didn’t keep busted stereos or kitchen appliances lying around. There was little décor, other than a blown-glass light fixture and a watercolor train—both from Anja’s freshman year of college, when she thought she might have artistic talent. My TV was an older model, deeper than it was wide, with the old-style connectors. Evan carried a shaving kit filled with spare parts and complicated adapters.
“You need a girlfriend,” Evan said, fishing pieces from his kit.
“So do you,” I said.
Soon, photorealistic graphics lit my primitive screen. We watched cut-scenes of artilleried robots, their joints fully articulated. There were futuristic cities ringed with flame, fractured towers of metal and glass, endless deserts.
Evan and I didn’t practice war so much as celebrate it. We ruined what was left of those pre-collapsed cityscapes. Evan made great sport of me. He’d programmed the game so that his robot was named Reverend Punishment, and mine, Saint Latrine. I’d owned a Nintendo when I was a kid, but I was never very good. With Evan’s system, you had to wiggle two rubber knobs with your thumbs to keep the robot balanced. For most of the game, I faced the wrong way, or fired missiles into the sun. Evan knew how to pot-shot me from a mile away. When he got tired of sniping, he pulled an I-beam from the wreckage and clubbed me to death. He laughed like a goose, and I did, too. In this manner, we lost an entire evening, so immersed in robo-violence that our grilled vegetables grew chilly, and our beers flattened.
Between rounds, Evan stared at Anja’s painting.
“What’s it supposed to mean?” he asked.
“The train’s a symbol.”
“The fact that she liked trains.”
While Evan was distracted, I maneuvered my robot behind his and missiled its vulnerable back. Flame brightened the screen. He howled betrayal as his machine’s legs unmeshed from its hips.
Evan stopped visiting during the first week of May. I was glad, sort of. Evan had probably moved on, found friends closer to his own age. But I missed our debates, and it was turning out to be a slow season for floppers. No local paper would want to run the story of a grown man who learns to play killer robots with a mopey teenager. Saint Ravine would conquer no headlines, no Oprah specials. At best, I was a novelty that had run its course, and I was ashamed to learn that the lives I’d saved didn’t satisfy. Someone kept moving the finish line.
I grilled steak again. I bought less zucchini, less eggplant. I shirked my ravine duties. It seemed impossible that anyone would want to die in the cloudless season. Too bright to bother. Evan had overcome the worst family tradition. He’d always be a little unhinged, but he was no flopper.
I ordered a video game console and a copy of the destructive robot game. For over a week, I drank beer, mashed buttons, and sent pixelated robots to their doom. Wasn’t as fun without Evan, but still I played. When I got hungry, I thawed steaks. At night, I dreamed of smoky ruins, where robots meted out two-handed violence.
I tried to spend more time outdoors, but spring had worn out its welcome. One too many bright mornings, one too many rainless afternoons. I lost most of my non-gaming hours standing at the ravine’s precipice. For thrills, I’d let my toes hang over the edge and imagine the quick chill of submersion. Spring floppers had made their meager run, and it only seemed sensible that someone should carry on in their absence. I felt very calm during those moments, nothing but sunshine between me and the Blacktail. There, at the edge, my pulse slowed, and my blood turned buttery. Heroin didn’t hold a candle.
I’d think of Fred, how grateful he seemed as he scooted into space. Mostly, I’d think of Anja and her scarf of starlight. Fred and Anja had known exactly what they wanted, but I was still too timid to flop. Maybe I always would be.
One afternoon, I mixed together a new rosemary steak marinade. I was at the grill, savoring the smell of seared meat, when a deep catcall angled off the mountains. I’d forgotten the alleged cougar, but apparently it hadn’t forgotten me. Sounded closer to the house this time, and hungrier. I went inside for the pepper spray.
The marinade was a bust. The steaks tasted like they’d been aged in a mossy log. I flung the ruined meat across the yard. Let the cat get them, if it wanted, or let the damn thing pounce on me. I was done being cautious. I drank another Stripe, mainly to cleanse my mouth. How many Stripes total? I’d forgotten how many I’d started with. The animal called again, its voice a full octave higher. Was there a second cat? The ravine was pretty far away, and I’d left the field glasses inside. Any of those rocks or trees could’ve concealed a cougar. I answered with a howl of my own, to show the cat that I wasn’t having it. If the animal disdained me, it ought to be decisive, like Fred and Anja. It ought to attack, commit to hostility.
A long thread of rosemary twisted loose from my hindmost tooth. As I spat, a wicked idea murked my thinking: I ought to walk over to the ravine and lay eyes on the cat. I still hadn’t seen it. Afterward, I’d be able to describe the animal to Bree, who’d probably alert the media. Already, I could imagine myself uttering words like majestic to the camera. Was that so much to ask? Did people have any idea how lonely it got? Not likely. They didn’t know about the debilitating pressure of a save, or how after the first year, even the fir trees along the ridge looked like they were ready to jump.
As I neared the ravine, another call vaulted from the creek. My liver did a sort of spit-take, as if it was struggling with backlogged beer. This was a very stupid plan. The animal called again, and this time, it definitely wasn’t a cougar.
The closer I got to the ravine, the less fierce the calls. Fingers minced at the edge, where dirt had been gouged and upset. A flopper had tried to do the deed, and lost heart. Saint Ravine had failed, on account of robot distractions and self-pity. And the flopper could be anyone in this lonely state, but I knew exactly who it’d be.
Evan clung to the edge. Same hoodie, same shorts. He was breathing too fast to speak, his face raked bloody, as if he’d caught a bit of rock during his hang-time. The ravine wasn’t a total, flat-faced drop. There was a bit of slope he could lean against, and a thin line of shelf-rock for his feet. He’d be safe for the short-term, which made me want to break his nose.
“Selfish son of a bitch,” I said. I got on the ground and belly-crawled to the edge. Evan was a slight kid, but I wasn’t sure I could haul him up by myself.
“Is it gone?” he asked.
“Is what gone?” The moment I asked the question, I realized what he meant. I reached under Evan’s armpits and lifted, not to pull him all the way up, but to test his weight. Evan rose a few inches, but so did my legs. If I tried to reel him in all the way, my body would seesaw, and we’d both be in the creek. “We’ll need rope,” I said.
His eyelid twitched, and I could tell that what he most wanted was to adjust his lens. “What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?” he asked.
“Pray the water rises.”
Whatever fear-smells I radiated, no cat sprang from hiding as I ran for the house, though I certainly felt eyes on me. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t the sort who kept rope lying around my house. I searched the garage. All I could find was a box of dusty holiday lights and a few strands of bungee cord.
When I got back to the ravine, Evan’s breathing had steadied, and I knew without asking that the cat had not returned. He waited while I twined together a kind of ersatz rope. I tied one end around my waist and passed the other to Evan, who glared at me.
“Your girlfriend’s fucking noose,” he said. “That’s how you save me?”
“These aren’t the same,” I said. “Anja liked the white ones.”
I lay on my belly and spread my arms and legs like a skydiver, to distribute my weight and Evan’s. I passed down the rope. Evan’s fingers crabbed along the edge, but he put no weight on the line. A moment later, he elbowed his way onto the lip of the ravine. Belly and legs followed, and I couldn’t help wondering if he’d known the whole time that he could climb to safety, and only wanted someone to make a production of saving him. I stood, feeling ridiculous in my belt of household junk.
“You look like a homeless bungee jumper,” Evan said.
We walked back to my house. Evan’s scratches weren’t very deep, but they’d scar, and this possibility seemed to delight him. He whistled what sounded like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” while I gathered hydrogen peroxide, Neosporin, and cotton swabs. Evan patched himself up while I lit the grill. We ate an early dinner. For me, two fat steaks, hold the rosemary, and for Evan, asparagus with garlic powder.
“Figured I’d seen the last of you,” I said.
“He died,” Evan said, teasing the sleeve of his hoodie. “And Mom’s locked herself in the basement. Only comes out to drink her mineral water.”
No clever quips came to mind.
“I’m sorry, Evan.”
“Shut up.” He said it without force, more of a whisper.
There would be good light for at least another hour, so after our meals settled, we returned to the ravine for a postmortem of the broken ground. Many of the cat’s tracks had been erased by my crawling, but Evan located a few that were intact. I saw where Evan’s footprints confronted the tracks of a nimble predator. I saw how the toes of Evan’s shoes pointed away from the ravine. He’d walked backward as the cat advanced, until it had him over the edge, but mostly unreachable. The million-dollar question, of course, was what business Evan had near the ravine in the first place, but I already knew the answer. Maybe he wouldn’t have jumped, but at the very least, he would’ve stood at the edge to flirt with gravity.
Cat tracks led us to higher elevation and cooler weather. Near the timberline, we found a ropey mound of shit. Beyond that, the grass grew dense, and the trail dissolved. Some of the fir boughs were loaded with residual snow, and with every fast-melting clump that fell, I imagined a predator’s lunge. Somewhere between tall firs, an actual cat crouched, scenting the two of us, breathing our fear and our awe. The cougar lived, and its hostility meant we lived, too.
“Ahoy, there.” Bree must’ve spotted us on the trail. She was carrying a load of cougar advisory signs. When she saw Evan’s face, she raised her rifle to hip level. “What happened to you?”
Bree would be forced to exterminate the cat if she learned the truth, but I was too fatigued to lie with any conviction. Evan would decide the cat’s fate, and I wouldn’t blame him if he told her the truth.
“I’m fine,” Evan said. “Been clearing briars for this guy. He’s sort of a hard-ass.”
“I hope the pay’s good,” Bree said, squinting first at Evan, then at me. “No sightings, then?”
Evan and I both shrugged, and Bree relaxed her grip on the rifle.
“Too bad,” she said, watching me. “A verified encounter might’ve put both your names in the paper.”
I had to give Bree credit. She knew me better than I’d realized. Even so, I held my tongue. I wouldn’t feel as lonely knowing the cat was out there, keeping tabs on us. An odd comfort, but one that I preferred to news coverage.
Before Evan and I headed back, Bree subjected him to her complex handshake. He knew her steps, and the two of them ended up snapping their fingers in sync. She blew him a kiss as they parted, and he sank his hands deep into his pockets. When I turned back, she was already posting cougar signs.
“I never got to see it,” I told Evan.
“It looked just like the ones on TV.”
As we walked, mountaintops scattered the low-angled sunlight into wild spokes of gold. Anja used to call it the flashlight effect. I couldn’t help feeling a little proud of Evan. Maybe we were reckless for not reporting the attack, or near-attack, or whatever it was. There was an outside chance that the cougar would maul someone, but I hoped it wouldn’t. Evan must’ve known what I knew: these mountains needed a predator or two. The place wouldn’t mean as much without them.
I sang a made-up song as we walked. I titled it “Lady Bree,” and although I never got farther than “Lady Bree / She’s got eyes like the sea,” the song turned Evan’s face so red that, for a moment, the scratches disappeared.
When we got to the ravine, it was like a belt inside my chest came unfastened. I wanted nothing to do with the edge. Standing on the solid part was fine, but I couldn’t stand the thought of looking over and seeing the Blacktail so far below. I wasn’t ready to join Anja, not this season. She’d have to forgive me. I still needed to get a look at that cougar, and even though Bree was too old for Evan, maybe I could try to bring them together. The kid needed someone else in his life.
We’d walked a long way, and my clothes were heavy with sweat. Evan breathed with his mouth open. He scowled at the creek for a while, then he tugged his arms free of the hoodie and worked the collared part over his head. He removed it with a shrug. The hair of his arms was flat with sweat. Near the wrists, where the hair ended, there were angry red cuts, made laterally. Some of these cuts were fresh, but others had paled to scar tissue. They weren’t the work of cat claws, or rocks. I tried not to stare.
“I always hoped a brush with death might make me more grateful,” he said.
“I’m not sure.”
Evan balled up the hoodie. For a moment, it looked like he might pitch the shirt over the edge and let the Blacktail carry it west, to the Pacific. He didn’t. He held on, as if he knew he’d need it again, and the knowing made him a little resentful.
“You hear that?” I asked.
“What?” Evan rubbed his wrists.
Evan couldn’t hear it, but the mountains were chatting in baritone voices. The creek answered, with its thousand helium throats. I heard my name, and Evan’s, too. There’s always next year, the voices said.
Next year? My head wasn’t rigged to project quite that far. Today seemed like ambition enough. Maybe it was time for Saint Ravine to retire. I could move my shop to Bend and find a house in the valley, far from any ledges or steep declines.
XOXO, sang the mountains.
Turtles, said the Blacktail.
“Right,” I said, quietly, so Evan wouldn’t hear. “Turtles to you, too.”
Nickalus Rupert’s fiction appears in or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Passages North, Gargoyle, The Pinch, PANK, and others. Currently, he is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he works as assistant editor for Mississippi Review.
“The Temptation of Saint Ravine” originally appeared in I Live Here (TLR, Fall 2016)