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The Hermit’s Story is Rick Bass's best and most varied fiction yet. In the title story, a man and a woman travel across an eerily frozen lake under the ice. The Distance” casts a skeptical eye on Thomas Jefferson through the lens of a Montana man’s visit to Monticello. Eating” begins with an owl being sucked into a canoe and ends with a man eating a town out of house and home, and The Cave” is a stunning story of a man and woman lost in an abandoned mine. Other stories include The Fireman,” Swans,” The Prisoners,” Presidents’ Day,” Real Town,” and Two Deer.” Some of these stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, but for many readers, they won’t even be the best in this collection. Every story in this book is remarkable in its own way, sure to please both new readers and avid fans of Rick Bass’s passionate, unmistakable voice.
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RICK BASS’s fiction has received O. Henry Awards, numerous Pushcart Prizes, awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. Most recently, his memoir Why I Came West was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.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 will learn.
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, cleanerr. 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 shhhhhe 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 north.
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 vision.
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 reached deeper.
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 ever knows any different. People look out at the surface and think, Aha, a frozen lake.” Gray Owl laughed.
Did you know it would be like this?” Ann asked.
No,” he said. I was looking for water. I just got lucky.” Ann walked back to shore beneath the ice to fetch her stove and to release the dogs from their whoa command. The dry lake was only about eight feet deep, but it grew shallow quickly closer to shore, so that Ann had to crouch to keep from bumping her head on the overhead ice, and then crawl; and then there was only space to wriggle, and to emerge she had to break the ice above her by bumping and then battering it with her head and elbows, struggling like some embryonic hatchling; and when she stood up, waist-deep amid sparkling shards of ice it was nighttime now the dogs barked fe...
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