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Encompassing both previously published pieces and original fiction, this richly varied anthology of short stories by the author of Colter and Where the Sea Used to Be features the title story, about a man and woman who travel across a frozen lake under the ice, as well as "The Distance," Eating," "The Cave," and "Real Town," among others. 15,000 first printing.
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RICK BASS is the author of many acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction. His first short story collection, The Watch, set in Texas, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award, and his 2002 collection, The Hermit’s Story, was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. The Lives of Rocks was a finalist for the Story Prize and was chosen as a Best Book of the Year by the Rocky Mountain News. Bass’s stories have also been awarded the Pushcart Prize and the O. Henry Award and have been collected in The Best American Short Stories.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Hermit"s Story
An ice storm, following seven days of snow; the vast fields and
drifts of snow turning to sheets of glazed ice that shine and shimmer
blue in the moonlight, as if the color is being fabricated not by the
bending and absorption of light but by some chemical reaction within
the glossy ice; as if the source of all blueness lies somewhere up
here in the north — the core of it beneath one of those frozen
fields; as if blue is a thing that emerges, in some parts of the
world, from the soil itself, after the sun goes down.
Blue creeping up fissures and cracks from depths of several
hundred feet; blue working its way up through the gleaming ribs of
Ann"s buried dogs; blue trailing like smoke from the dogs" empty eye
sockets and nostrils — blue rising as if from deep-dug chimneys until
it reaches the surface and spreads laterally and becomes entombed, or
trapped — but still alive, and drifting — within those moonstruck
fields of ice.
Blue like a scent trapped in the ice, waiting for some soft
release, some thawing, so that it can continue spreading.
It"s Thanksgiving. Susan and I are over at Ann and Roger"s
house for dinner. The storm has knocked out all the power down in
town — it"s a clear, cold, starry night, and if you were to climb one
of the mountains on snowshoes and look forty miles south toward where
town lies, instead of seeing the usual small scatterings of light —
like fallen stars, stars sunken to the bottom of a lake, but still
glowing — you would see nothing but darkness — a bowl of silence and
darkness in balance for once with the mountains up here, rather than
opposing or complementing our darkness, our peace.
As it is, we do not climb up on snowshoes to look down at the
dark town — the power lines dragged down by the clutches of ice — but
can tell instead just by the way there is no faint glow over the
mountains to the south that the power is out: that this Thanksgiving,
life for those in town is the same as it always is for us in the
mountains, and it is a good feeling, a familial one, coming on the
holiday as it does — though doubtless too the townspeople are feeling
less snug and cozy about it than we are.
We"ve got our lanterns and candles burning. A fire"s going in
the stove, as it will all winter long and into the spring. Ann"s dogs
are asleep in their straw nests, breathing in that same blue light
that is being exhaled from the skeletons of their ancestors just
beneath and all around them. There is the faint smell of cold-storage
meat — slabs and slabs of it — coming from down in the basement, and
we have just finished off an entire chocolate pie and three bottles
of wine. Roger, who does not know how to read, is examining the empty
bottles, trying to read some of the words on the labels. He
recognizes the words the and in and USA. It may be that he will never
learn to read — that he will be unable to — but we are in no rush; he
has all of his life to accomplish this. I for one believe that he
Ann has a story for us. It"s about a fellow named Gray Owl,
up in Canada, who owned half a dozen speckled German shorthaired
pointers and who hired Ann to train them all at once. It was twenty
years ago, she says — her last good job.
She worked the dogs all summer and into the autumn, and
finally had them ready for field trials. She took them back up to
Gray Owl — way up in Saskatchewan — driving all day and night in her
old truck, which was old even then, with dogs piled up on top of one
another, sleeping and snoring: dogs on her lap, dogs on the seat,
dogs on the floorboard.
Ann was taking the dogs up there to show Gray Owl how to work
them: how to take advantage of their newfound talents. She could be a
sculptor or some other kind of artist, in that she speaks of her work
as if the dogs are rough blocks of stone whose internal form exists
already and is waiting only to be chiseled free and then released by
her, beautiful, into the world.
Basically, in six months the dogs had been transformed from
gangling, bouncing puppies into six wonderful hunters, and she needed
to show their owner which characteristics to nurture, which ones to
discourage. With all dogs, Ann said, there was a tendency, upon their
leaving her tutelage, for a kind of chitinous encrustation to set in,
a sort of oxidation, upon the dogs leaving her hands and being
returned to someone less knowledgeable and passionate, less committed
than she. It was as if there were a tendency for the dogs" greatness
to disappear back into the stone.
So she went up there to give both the dogs and Gray Owl a
checkout session. She drove with the heater on and the windows down;
the cold Canadian air was invigorating, cleaner. She could smell the
scent of the fir and spruce, and the damp alder and cottonwood leaves
beneath the many feet of snow. We laughed at her when she said it,
but she told us that up in Canada she could taste the fish in the
water as she drove alongside creeks and rivers.
She got to Gray Owl"s around midnight. He had a little guest
cabin but had not heated it for her, uncertain as to the day of her
arrival, so she and the six dogs slept together on a cold mattress
beneath mounds of elk hides: their last night together. She had
brought a box of quail with which to work the dogs, and she built a
small fire in the stove and set the box of quail next to it.
The quail muttered and cheeped all night and the stove popped
and hissed and Ann and the dogs slept for twelve hours straight, as
if submerged in another time, or as if everyone else in the world
were submerged in time — and as if she and the dogs were pioneers, or
survivors of some kind: upright and exploring the present, alive in
the world, free of that strange chitin.
She spent a week up there, showing Gray Owl how his dogs worked. She
said he scarcely recognized them afield, and that it took a few days
just for him to get over his amazement. They worked the dogs both
individually and, as Gray Owl came to understand and appreciate what
Ann had crafted, in groups. They traveled across snowy hills on
snowshoes, the sky the color of snow, so that often it was like
moving through a dream, and, except for the rasp of the snowshoes
beneath them and the pull of gravity, they might have believed they
had ascended into some sky-place where all the world was snow.
They worked into the wind — north — whenever they could. Ann
would carry birds in a pouch over her shoulder and from time to time
would fling a startled bird out into that dreary, icy snowscape. The
quail would fly off with great haste, a dark feathered buzz bomb
disappearing quickly into the teeth of cold, and then Gray Owl and
Ann and the dog, or dogs, would go find it, following it by scent
only, as always.
Snot icicles would be hanging from the dogs" nostrils. They
would always find the bird. The dog, or dogs, would point it, Gray
Owl or Ann would step forward and flush it, and the beleaguered bird
would leap into the sky again, and once more they would push on after
it, pursuing that bird toward the horizon as if driving it with a
whip. Whenever the bird wheeled and flew downwind, they"d quarter
away from it, then get a mile or so downwind from it and push it back
When the quail finally became too exhausted to fly, Ann would
pick it up from beneath the dogs" noses as they held point staunchly,
put the tired bird in her game bag, and replace it with a fresh one,
and off they"d go again. They carried their lunch in Gray Owl"s
daypack, as well as emergency supplies — a tent and some dry clothes —
in case they should become lost, and around noon each day (they
could rarely see the sun, only an eternal ice-white haze, so that
they relied instead only on their internal rhythms) they would stop
and make a pot of tea on the sputtering little gas stove. Sometimes
one or two of the quail would die from exposure, and they would cook
that on the stove and eat it out there in the tundra, tossing the
feathers up into the wind as if to launch one more flight, and
feeding the head, guts, and feet to the dogs.
Seen from above, their tracks might have seemed aimless and
wandering rather than with the purpose, the focus that was burning
hot in both their and the dogs" hearts. Perhaps someone viewing the
tracks could have discerned the pattern, or perhaps not, but it did
not matter, for their tracks — the patterns, direction, and tracing
of them — were obscured by the drifting snow, sometimes within
minutes after they were laid down.
Toward the end of the week, Ann said, they were finally
running all six dogs at once, like a herd of silent wild horses
through all that snow, and as she would be going home the next day
there was no need to conserve any of the birds she had brought, and
she was turning them loose several at a time: birds flying in all
directions; the dogs, as ever, tracking them to the ends of the earth.
It was almost a whiteout that last day, and it was hard to
keep track of all the dogs. Ann was sweating from the exertion as
well as the tension of trying to keep an eye on, and evaluate, each
dog, and the sweat was freezing on her as if she were developing an
ice skin. She jokingly told Gray Owl that next time she was going to
try to find a client who lived in Arizona, or even South America.
Gray Owl smiled and then told her that they were lost, but no matter,
the storm would clear in a day or two.
They knew it was getting near dusk — there was a faint
dulling to the sheer whiteness, a kind of increasing heaviness in the
air, a new density to the faint light around them — and the dogs
slipped in and out of sight, working just at the edges of their
The temperature was dropping as the north wind increased —
"No question about which way south is," Gray Owl said, "so we"ll
turn around and walk south for three hours, and if we don"t find a
road, we"ll make camp" — and now the dogs were coming back with
frozen quail held gingerly in their mouths, for once the birds were
dead, the dogs were allowed to retrieve them, though the dogs must
have been puzzled that there had been no shots. Ann said she fired a
few rounds of the cap pistol into the air to make the dogs think she
had hit those birds. Surely they believed she was a goddess.
They turned and headed south — Ann with a bag of frozen birds
over her shoulder, and the dogs, knowing that the hunt was over now,
once again like a team of horses in harness, though wild and prancy.
After an hour of increasing discomfort — Ann"s and Gray Owl"s
hands and feet numb, and ice beginning to form on the dogs" paws, so
that the dogs were having to high-step — they came in day"s last
light to the edge of a wide clearing: a terrain that was remarkable
and soothing for its lack of hills. It was a frozen lake, which
meant — said Gray Owl — they had drifted west (or perhaps east) by as
much as ten miles.
Ann said that Gray Owl looked tired and old and guilty, as
would any host who had caused his guest some unasked-for
inconvenience. They knelt down and began massaging the dogs" paws and
then lit the little stove and held each dog"s foot, one at a time,
over the tiny blue flame to help it thaw out.
Gray Owl walked out to the edge of the lake ice and kicked at
it with his foot, hoping to find fresh water beneath for the dogs; if
they ate too much snow, especially after working so hard, they"d get
violent diarrhea and might then become too weak to continue home the
next day, or the next, or whenever the storm quit.
Ann said that she had barely been able to see Gray Owl"s
outline through the swirling snow, even though he was less than
twenty yards away. He kicked once at the sheet of ice, the vast plate
of it, with his heel, then disappeared below the ice.
Ann wanted to believe that she had blinked and lost sight of
him, or that a gust of snow had swept past and hidden him, but it had
been too fast, too total: she knew that the lake had swallowed him.
She was sorry for Gray Owl, she said, and worried for his dogs —
afraid they would try to follow his scent down into the icy lake and
be lost as well — but what she had been most upset about, she said —
to be perfectly honest — was that Gray Owl had been wearing the
little daypack with the tent and emergency rations. She had it in her
mind to try to save Gray Owl, and to try to keep the dogs from going
through the ice, but if he drowned, she was going to have to figure
out how to try to get that daypack off of the drowned man and set up
the wet tent in the blizzard on the snowy prairie and then crawl
inside and survive. She would have to go into the water naked, so
that when she came back out — if she came back out — she would have
dry clothes to put on.
The dogs came galloping up, seeming as large as deer or elk
in that dim landscape against which there was nothing else to give
the viewer a perspective, and Ann whoaed them right at the lake"s
edge, where they stopped immediately, as if they had suddenly been
cast with a sheet of ice.
Ann knew the dogs would stay there forever, or until she
released them, and it troubled her to think that if she drowned, they
too would die — that they would stand there motionless, as she had
commanded them, for as long as they could, until at some point — days
later, perhaps — they would lie down, trembling with exhaustion —
they might lick at some snow, for moisture — but that then the snows
would cover them, and still they would remain there, chins resting on
their front paws, staring straight ahead and unseeing into the storm,
wondering where the scent of her had gone.
Ann eased out onto the ice. She followed the tracks until she
came to the jagged hole in the ice through which Gray Owl had
plunged. She was almost half again lighter than he, but she could
feel the ice crackling beneath her own feet. It sounded different,
too, in a way she could not place — it did not have the squeaky,
percussive resonance of the lake-ice back home — and she wondered if
Canadian ice froze differently or just sounded different.
She got down on all fours and crept closer to the hole. It
was right at dusk. She peered down into the hole and dimly saw Gray
Owl standing down there, waving his arms at her. He did not appear to
be swimming. Slowly, she took one glove off and eased her bare hand
down into the hole. She could find no water, and, tentatively, she
Gray Owl"s hand found hers and he pulled her down in. Ice
broke as she fell, but he caught her in his arms. She could smell the
wood smoke in his jacket from the alder he burned in his cabin. There
was no water at all, and it was warm beneath the ice.
"This happens a lot more than people realize," he said. "It"s
not really a phenomenon; it"s just what happens. A cold snap comes in
October, freezes a skin of ice over the lake — it"s got to be a
shallow one, almost a marsh. Then a snowfall comes, insulating the
ice. The lake drains in fall and winter — percolates down through the
soil" — he stamped the spongy ground beneath them — "but the ice up
top remains. And nobody ...
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