“Thirteen’s too old to be scared of a rock,” Clay’s dad smirked, even though Clay hadn’t said he was scared. They’d come to fish beneath a huge outcrop that loomed over the creek like a giant bending to drink. Hollows brimming with bird droppings glared down at them. Flecks of gleaming green mineral pocked its gray face. Fifty feet up, sage grass and brambles jutted from its crown.
“Remember how I told you,” Dad said. “The hook goes through three times, but leave enough worm loose to thrash around and draw some attention.”
“Yes, sir,” Clay said. They settled down on a lichen-crusted boulder. Clay imagined threading a huge hook three times through Dad. Leave enough of me loose to thrash around and draw some attention, Dad would no doubt say, as if he ever failed to draw attention to himself.
“What are you giggling about?” Dad barked. “You’ll scare the fish.”
Clay sat quietly then. His line looked bent where it entered the water. Six feet down, catfish groped dreamily among the water plants.
Something splashed downstream. Clay glimpsed a bulbous form sliding into the creek.
“We’ll have to hunt those beavers out,” Dad said. “Look at all those lodges.” Clay looked. He had seen the unruly stacks of twigs when they hiked in to look over their new farm, but he hadn’t realized what they were. Back east, they never saw beavers. “There’s half a dozen dams, too,” Dad went on. “That’s what slows the creek down and makes this whole area swampy. Clear them out and we’ll have a good five acres more to farm.”
“Oh,” Clay said. Farm work didn’t interest him much; he would have preferred to look at the catfish in their dreamy depths.
“Well, I’ll be!” Dad shouted, pulling in his line. A fish thrashed at the end of it, paused, then thrashed again. Dad landed it on the boulder and crouched over it. “My God!” he whispered. It was ugly as a sock full of mud, with isinglass eyes glaring over a gaping mouth surrounded by wormy tendrils. As it thrashed, it got its legs under it. It had, by Clay’s count, five—jointed, wiry legs like a crawdad’s. It went scampering toward the water, and Dad yanked the line to bring it back. “Give me your knife,” he said, and Clay unfolded it and held it out to him. “Handle first, dumbass,” Dad said. It seemed a shame to kill the fish; it might be the only one of its sort in the world. After Dad gutted it, the fish still struggled feebly to remove the hook, grasping at it with tiny fingers on the end of its tendrils. Dad eased the hook out and dropped the fish into the bucket, which Mama had pointlessly scoured before they set out. Clay hoped its misery was over, but then he heard its little hands—there was no other word for them—scratching at the tin walls.
The next fish they caught was a wonder. It had bigger hands, but only a few wispy legs, hardly enough to scamper on.
Half a dozen ugly fish later, they trudged home along the creek. Clay suddenly raised his eyes to a line of elms fussing in the wind. Some other sound had mingled in with the fussing. Listened for, it went unheard. The elms paused as if to show they had nothing to hide. They stood still as the purple hills beyond. Then a breeze rattled them into motion again.
Clay set down his pole and the bucket full of strange fish and went looking. Dad lumbered on ahead, eyes on the ground, lost in his own thoughts. With luck, Clay could catch up before Dad noticed his absence. The strange sound resumed, subsided, leapt forth once more. Maybe it was water shouldering through stubborn reeds. It might almost have been the weeping of a child. Clay ventured onto stones slick with creek-moss. At last, beneath a cottonwood whose leaves winked and glittered in the wind, he glimpsed bright red and, a second later, a yellow brighter than that.
“Looks like an owl nearly got him, or an eagle,” said a grizzled man Clay hadn’t noticed. The crooked twig of oak in his hand looked too flimsy to fish with, but the legged catfish dangling from its tip said otherwise.
“What kind of a bird is it?” Clay said. The bright shape flipped and shivered. Its feathers were yellow but stained with welling blood.
“I see you caught one of these deformed fish too,” Dad said, interrupting the old man’s answer. His boots sent river-rocks clattering out of his way.
“Skitterfish, they call them,” the old man said. “My name’s Hawkins.”
“Ours is Brown,” Dad said. Clay could see he was trying his trick of squeezing just a little too hard on the handshake ‘to let the other fellow know who’s boss’. Hawkins winced, but never stopped smiling. “Skitterfish, you say?”
“Good eating,” Hawkins said. “A little butter if you have it, a little salt. People catch them all along this stretch.”
“That will have to stop,” Dad said. “This land is mine now.”
“Folks are used to open range around here,” Hawkins smiled. “Cattle country, you know.”
“That will have to stop,” Dad repeated.
The bird shrilled. Kneeling over it, Clay saw brown ants nibbling its wounds. He brushed them away, like sand from silk. It cooed.
“You’ll see lots of strange animals along Saxum Creek,” Hawkins said to Clay, as if he had lost interest in Dad. “Too many legs, too smart, too hard to kill. I’ve seen beaver lodges built with labyrinths inside, like some architect had laid them out. I’ve seen eagles smart enough to pull the hook out of a fish and fly off with it. I’ve taken the trophy head from a ten-point buck, only to see the body wander off before I could butcher it. They say it’s the saxum—that’s the mineral that washes out of that Great Saxum Rock where you were fishing.” He pulled a nugget from his pocket, like lead peppered with chips of malachite.
Just then they heard a staccato slapping. Again Clay only glimpsed the beavers slipping into the creek—two of them this time, each leaving a wake of ripples to show where it swam below.
“I’ll have to hunt those damn beavers out,” Dad said.
“Worth a try,” Hawkins said, his smile withering almost into a sneer. “You might look up Hal Vinson in town. He’s a trapper from way back.”
All the way home, with a pole over his shoulder and the handle of the heavy bucket cutting into his right hand, Clay felt the bird softly thrashing in the bib of his overalls, bumping the little nugget of saxum Hawkins had given him.
“Clay and I’ve plotted the lodges along my whole property, and the dams too,” Dad said, leaning over the hand-drawn map he’d spread on the kitchen table.
“That’s a pretty good map,” Hal Vinson mumbled. He winced shyly as Mama refilled his coffee. He was a taciturn man, more mustache than meat, and his red eyes looked perpetually on the verge of weeping. Dad said that meant he was a drunk.
“My boy’s good at drawing,” Dad said. Clay was glad he wasn’t at the table where he’d have to acknowledge the compliment. He sat on the floor fixing up a box for the bird he’d brought home, pretending not to hear them. “Point is, how to remove them. Dynamite?”
“Ruin your fishing that way,” Vinson mumbled, softer than before, as if to mute a criticism. “I’d say hitch a mule to them and pull. But them beavers are mean. Have to shoot them first.”
“I never heard of a mean beaver. How much for the whole job?”
Vinson blinked his bleary eyes. Clearly he wanted no part of such a job.
“I’ll give you the pelts,” Dad said. “Any beaver pelt you take on my land, by gun or trap, is yours.”
Vinson twitched visibly. It was clear to Clay that this represented a greater sum than Dad realized, which Vinson nonetheless preferred to decline. But he withered under Dad’s gaze.
“I’ll do it for the pelts, I guess,” he blinked.
In the night, Clay woke to weeping. The helpless bird showed yellow in the moonlight. When he lit a candle he saw mosquitoes crouching to kiss its wounds. Their bellies swelled so full he saw the vermillion within. The bird writhed and cried.
“Shut that damn bird up!” Dad’s voice thundered from the other bedroom, and then Mama’s said something soothing that Clay couldn’t make out.
He brushed the mosquitoes away. One of them came hovering back, too delirious to abandon this nectar. He grabbed it from the air. When he opened his fist to make sure, he found it smudged into blood and delicate filaments of leg. The bird he lifted with cupped hands. Once he’d soothed it, he put it back in the box he’d built. Already in it for weight were his coins and the speckled nugget of saxum Mr. Hawkins had given him. He lay a handkerchief across it to screen out the mosquitoes. The bird breathed within, softer than distant crickets.
“You’ll have to keep that bird quiet, or I’ll kill the damn thing,” Dad said next morning as they trudged to the creek. “I slept so bad I’m all out of temper.”
“Is that what did it?” Clay said.
Dad turned and backhanded him. He saw the blow coming. He knew he was better off not to try dodging. For just an instant, the side of his face felt hot and wet, but then that sensation sizzled away into mere pain. Clay felt tears come to his eyes. He wouldn’t cry, not if he could help it. He hated the smirk he’d get. It occurred to him, for the first time in his life, that he might hit Dad back. He was nowhere near as thick, but almost as tall. The slap hadn’t even knocked him down. He might win.
“That’s for having a smart mouth,” Dad hissed, and stomped on toward the creek. Clay followed. Not that he hadn’t daydreamed it many times—hitting his father—but it had never occurred to him as an actual plan. The thought sent fear thrilling through him. Of course, even if he did it, Mama would try to smooth things over. She’d tell him fathers got impatient sometimes, and now was a bad time with all the pressure Dad was under, that he’d sacrificed so much to move them all west for a better life, and so on, and it would end with her telling Clay to apologize.
Now that Dad’s back was turned, he wiped at his tears. The corner of his mouth felt wet. His tongue found a little blood there.
Dad stomped into the shallows of the creek, parting the head-high cattails like a curtain. The water rilled in little braids over the rocks beyond. Further still, in a sluggish pool at the far side of the creek, a messy beaver lodge stood. “Look at this!” Dad bellowed. “I don’t believe Vinson’s done a thing.”
He slogged out of the creek, carefully not looking at Clay. Clay could read the bunching muscles of his back. They meant he was halfway between rage and regret. Later there would be an apology, along with an explanation of how Clay had brought it on himself. This time he actually had. Clay took a sort of comfort in that.
“What’s that?” Dad said. They’d come near the Great Saxum Rock, which seemed to leer at them from the corners of hollow eyes. Something was bobbing briskly round the bend before it.
It was a dead body, plain as the dumb look on your face, Clay wanted to say. Dad would have said exactly that if anybody else had asked. It rolled over in the current, as if turning in its sleep, except that its red eyes—Vinson’s eyes—were wide open. Clay felt grateful when the current gently rolled those eyes out of sight again. By then the body had passed them.
“Good God!” Dad said. “Do you think we can catch him?”
“I don’t think so,” Clay stammered. For once, Dad took his opinion as gospel.
That night the yellow bird screamed loud enough to rattle the panes.
“Quiet!” Clay whispered as he rolled out of bed. “He’ll hear you!”
The match he struck showed the bird shivering under fluffed feathers in the box he’d made. A wound had burst open into a red scribble. He put his match to a candle; the wick brought a calmer kind of light. The bird settled under his petting. Still, it was too loud.
“You have to be quiet!” he whispered. He noticed its nostrils, fine as the eyes of needles, where flecks of blood had dried.
The door slammed open. The candle-flame danced. Dad was almost invisible in the buffeting shadows. Clay never saw the blow that decked him. He was suddenly sprawling on the wood floor, aware of his teeth, his skull, like the stones in overripe fruit.
His coins clinked in the box. “Leave my stuff alone!” he said.
“I told you what I’d do,” Dad said, with a sort of triumph. Then he was out the door. No use following, and besides, Clay’s head tingled. He wasn’t sure of his footing.
It was easy to hear Dad’s progress. His bare feet on the stairs. Mama’s exclamation of “Jonathan!” as he went past their room, as if she could possibly be shocked. The front door opening, crashing back. Clay scrambled to his window and looked down in time to see Dad lumber forth into the moonlight with the box in his hand. The bird shrilled, and kept shrilling until he had carried it far out into the darkness.
Half a dozen skitterfish mouthed at a carcass where it floated, snagged among the cattails. Clay watched with interest. Was it another beaver, maybe? He’d found half a dozen dead and skinned, no doubt the work of Hal Vinson before whatever happened to him. The bits of fur on the carcass suggested beaver, but its skull seemed round enough to be human. For a horrid moment he imagined it as Vinson. Could his body somehow have traveled upstream all this way to lodge beneath the Great Saxum Rock? A skitterfish took hold of the skull with its delicate little hands and turned it gently, as if to afford Clay a better view. He leaned out as far as he dared. The carcass bobbed. The fish fussed with each other for position and kissed its flanks.
A shot rang out. It echoed from the trees behind Clay, then echoed again from the great rock opposite. He nearly lost his balance.
Dad wouldn’t put up with poachers. Clay set out to investigate. In a few minutes he’d picked his way across on a beaver dam. He had only a vague sense that the shot had come from near the Rock. He was almost surprised to find confirmation. The doe must have been drinking from the creek in plain sight of him, if only he’d looked. Now she lay quivering. He could smell singed fur from the buckshot wounds.
But where was the hunter? He looked downstream, where cottonwoods crowded in, and upstream, where the dam made the water pool lazy and deep. No human footprint showed on the muddy bank, though the deer’s tracks, like double stabs, were clear.
“I shoot from the heavens!” a voice laughed. Clay couldn’t, for a long moment, see who had spoken. Then he looked up. Ten feet high, within the hollow cheek of the Rock, leaned Hawkins, brandishing his shotgun. “Animals never think to look up,” he added.
“My dad won’t like it if he catches you hunting on our land,” Clay said. He regretted his words instantly. He sounded stingy as his father.
“I’ve watched your father at his work,” Hawkins smiled. “He never looks up either.”
Clay didn’t know how to take that. It sounded like a threat.
“Stick with me, kid, and I’ll teach you a few things your father never knew.”
It was more than a year later when, over supper, they heard a woman scream.
Clay paused with a spoonful of potatoes in hand. The steam of them writhed as it rose.
“Someone needs help,” Mama said—exasperated, it seemed, because no one was moving.
“Shows how much you know,” Dad smirked. “That’s a panther.”
“Are you sure?” she said.
“Good God, woman, haven’t you heard it these three nights running?” Dad said. “And I’ve seen its tracks beside the barn. We’ll have to hunt it. Liable to take some cattle.”
The thought of Dad on a dangerous hunt reminded Clay of his guilty secret, of all the days he’d stolen away from chores to learn tracking and shooting from Hawkins. Now he imagined the panther lurking in the trees, gathering itself for a leap, while his father lumbered heedless beneath.
Serve him right. Yet Clay quivered at the thought.
Along Saxum Creek, the cat tracks ran thick, going both ways. Clay knelt to look at them. Immediately he sensed a creeping danger. Something must be watching him. He rose, held his rifle waist high. He wondered if he could hit a moving target.
As he scanned for movement, he noticed a beaver lodge in the creek. He’d seen this one before; it was among those Dad had made him sketch for Vinson. Its top had ruptured. Some of its sticks lay dragged along the bank. This might be old destruction; it might be Vinson’s work.
He waded out to it. A mottled branch along the top seemed to waver like grease on a griddle. He got close enough to breathe on it before he realized its mobile texture meant ants—one file trailing out from undergrowth on the bank, another coming back laden. He wondered what sort of food they were dismantling, crumb by crumb.
He pulled himself up from the water and onto the lodge. It creaked and shifted under his weight. He paused. He was near enough now to see over the rim of the crater. A meaty smell rose from the darkness. He found a match in his shirt pocket and struck it. The flame faltered in the humid air. It made the medley of bones within seem to wriggle. He’d never thought of beavers eating meat. Apparently, on Saxum Creek, they did.
The broken lodge he stumbled on a week later told a clearer story. The tracks of the panther led down from the shore—the pugs like a letter M with four little toe-smudges in front. Two beaver kits shivered on the inner dome of grass, nestling on their sides to form a circle. They would die if he left them. His hands were reaching in when one of them barked. It was like oatmeal burbling in a pot, but shriller. Now that it had sensed him, it kept up a steady stream of chirps, asking, he supposed, to be fed. Soon its sibling joined in.
Dad wouldn’t put up with this noise.
Maybe he could hide them in the tool shed.
Better just to leave them alone. Why prolong their lives, only to see them killed later on?
Just then he spotted something gleaming in the dark. A match showed him a side-pocket woven of grass, and within it a handful of saxum nuggets. Their flecks winked green in the firelight.
The maples shed red leaves and brown ones. The elms became lacy and beetle-bitten before they, too, cast off their clothes. Clay drove their two milch cows through this rattling litter of leaves one evening, lost in thought. “Too many legs, too smart, too hard to kill”—that was what Hawkins had told them about the animals of Saxum Creek. It seemed to him the beavers had been smart enough to scheme, to somehow kill Vinson when he went to work on their lodges.
And yet the beavers were fewer now. The panther must be taking its toll. It had been a presence on their land for weeks now, calling in the night like a woman with a broken heart, crying until Dad cursed. Its tracks, Hawkins said, showed it to be young, yet big enough to take cattle or kill a man. Many a day, Dad set out with his gun, leaving a list of chores for Clay to finish before sundown.
Something interrupted Clay’s thoughts. He took two steps back to be sure what he’d seen. Amid the leaves lay a dead bird. He paused. The cattle knew the way to the barn. The gold shape was battered and dusty, but he recognized it.
There were no ants to trouble its body. They had, he supposed, picked the skeleton the morning after Dad killed the yellow bird. The feathers had not interested them; they remained, an empty suit of clothes for its bones. He was off the usual path by only a yard or so. Maybe the bird had lain here all this time. He poked through the weeds nearby and found the box he’d made, now broken, and even one of the silver dollars it had held.
Of course he had already known what happened to the bird, more or less. Yet the proof hurt him. He felt a headachy pressure behind his eyes, but something in him refused to cry. It was only a bird, after all.
He brought a shovel from the tool shed. As he dug, his own hands, thick like Dad’s, somehow made him ashamed.
“Bury him deep,” Hawkins smiled, coming up the path with his shotgun. By now Clay was used to his sudden appearances. “Bury him deep; things don’t rest easy on Saxum Creek. It’s the mineral, you know.”
That night the panther shredded his sleep with its calls, and Dad raged through the house. At dawn, Clay opened bleary eyes and decided he’d spend the day trailing it. Both cows were restless while he squeezed their tender udders. “You heard it, too?” he asked.
On his way to the creek, the rifle propped on his shoulder, he was startled to a stop by the sight of Dad’s eyes. They looked at him imploringly. He could hardly understand what he was seeing. The eyes were low and upside down. It took a long moment for him to see, among the light-brown maple leaves, the identically colored shape of the panther. It lay draped on Dad, partly obscuring his form, and held him in its paws. It glared jealously at Clay. Its eyes were red and familiar. After a moment it seemed to decide he was no threat. It licked Dad on the face, the neck. Until Dad shuddered, Clay had thought him dead. Certainly he was bloody, though the red leaves among the brown ones made that hard to sort out.
“Go home and bolt the door, Son,” Dad said with surprising calm. “If you miss from this distance, he might charge you.” The panther growled softly, as if offended by the remark.
Clay brought his rifle to his shoulder. His sights lined up—not on the panther’s face, but on his father’s.
The possibilities dizzied him. People would think it was an accident.
If only Dad hadn’t just now said something kind, something to keep him safe.
Yet killing him might be a kindness in itself. Surely his wounds were fatal?
These thoughts transpired like a syrupy dream. He was aware, at the same time, that he’d taken only a second, that he should take even a little longer with his shot. He should sight carefully; then still his breath, as Hawkins had taught him; then squeeze, rather than pull. He would not get another shot. The panther would melt away into the undergrowth, or else charge and end his troubles.
It glanced up with its rheumy red eyes. He sighted between them. Despite everything. The fur was lighter there, almost white, but peppered with fine black hairs. He stilled his breath. The panther turned its full resentful gaze on Clay, but he was already squeezing the trigger.
The shot flipped it end over end. It landed on its feet and dashed to the left, knocking leaves into the air. It crouched, lashed its tail. The tail straightened. Clay wondered whether he should pelt it with rocks to make sure it was dead.
“That was a good shot, son,” Dad coughed. Blood bubbled out of his mouth.
He was too big to carry. In the end, Clay brought him home in the wheelbarrow. “Damnedest thing,” he said. “What did I ever do to get Vinson mad at me?”
It reeked of lunacy. A dying man’s hallucinations. It wasn’t Vinson who had hurt him. Yet it was! The eyes had looked right, anyway.
“You sent him out to kill the beavers, and they killed him.”
“I figure it’s the creek. A cub drinks where that mineral mixes in, and a dead body besides. It grows up wrong.”
“Stay still,” Clay said, and paused to lift the barrow over a fallen elm branch. “Every time you talk, more blood pumps out.” His back crackled under the strain, but the barrow came over, and Dad didn’t fall out or even criticize. He only huffed with pain as the barrow hit the ground again.
“You’ll have to go back for our rifles, son,” Dad said. “I hate for you to risk it, but those cost money.”
Going back was the worst part, worse than Mama’s crying, worse than the ragged new orifice they found when they cut Dad’s shirt away. Clay, unarmed now, expected the panther behind every bush. He paused for a long time to study a forked elm. The shape within it might be a feline face glaring at him. When he finally dared another step, the shape resolved into nothing, into the grain of the bark.
At the bend of the path where he’d shot it, he was surprised to see the panther lying on the bare patch exactly as he’d left it. He noticed now that it had two tails—the one that had lashed so furiously in its death throes, and another curled around a hind leg.
In a dream, Clay found himself small again. Navigating across the kitchen floor in the dark, he passed beneath the table without ducking. Something outside was asking quiet, liquid questions, and he meant to find it. Out on the starlit porch he noticed nothing out of the ordinary, until the noise came again. It was coming from Dad’s ladder-back chair. He hadn’t seen the owl that sat there like a man, camouflaged in feathers the color of pine bark. He gasped to see what it was doing: caressing live coals, making the feathered hands singe and stink. It looked at Clay with eyes the size of silver dollars. Their irises, however, were not silver, but striations of pale maple, amber, doe’s hide. He concluded they’d once been black but were, from gazing at songbirds with predatory intent, rapidly growing lighter and brighter.
“Was that you, talking?” Clay said. His voice rang childish in his own ears.
The owl blinked, thank God; its stare was about to make Clay run.
“Have you seen the finches on the fence?” Clay said, and turned to point. Something cold pinched his spine, the same trick Dad used to play on him when he was little.
“Did you do that?” he said, trying to placate the thing, looking for somewhere to run. This time the owl didn’t even blink. By now the black middles of its eyes floated like bullets in molten gold.
As he woke, his fear drained away faster than he could grasp it, leaving a sadness he had rarely known. He thought of the yellow bird, singing helplessly in its box. He’d held it in his overalls next to his heart, had found its blood in the patterns of his palms, had kept it with his treasures, even after its droppings soiled the box. He tried to remember the beauty of its song, but really it had never sung beautifully, not that he had heard. Its every sound was a shriek of pain or the mournful cooing of pain briefly eased. And then its body had turned up just before Dad got hurt, mingling recriminations with his worry.
‘That was a good shot, son,’ his father had said. ‘My boy’s good at drawing.’
Downstairs, he found his parents before the fire. On the settee, Mama twitched in a bad dream of her own. Dad sat in the stuffed chair where they’d propped him to keep him from choking on his own blood. The toe of his left boot, the one he hadn’t let them remove because of the pain, smoked. Clay knelt before him to shift his leg. It was heavy and cold. Clay looked up into a face flaccid, critical of nothing. The boot let loose one last wisp. Dad must have stretched it too close to the fire in his death-throes.
I’ll bury him deep, Clay thought, already knowing he’d see the man with molten eyes again in dreams. Things don’t rest easy on Saxum Creek.