Against the pine paneled wall the rifle stood, within reach of both of them. He strapped in his wheel-chair, she looming over him.
“Ogling her again?”
Mr. Percy did not answer his wife, his eyes fixated out the backyard window. A grin of knowledge unshared slithered across his burnished face.
“What’s with this?” She motioned toward the scoped 30-06 rifle.
Her cotton house dress hung like curtains laden with pool hall funk. An acrid stew of sweat and woodstove smolder hung thick within the walls of their tiny clapboard on the dead-end road. Theirs was a mongrel Montana mountain village. Enviro-activists, big game hunters, loggers and stoners. All sweated passion from their pursuits.
“A sow bear and her cub are out back. Sara next door’s hanging wash. She’s not aware.”
Days before his paralyzing logging accident four months earlier, Mr. Percy had helped their neighbor, Sara, set up the clothes lines. Poles were sunk. Lines strung taut.
“Finest thing anyone ever did for me,” Sara had said with a wink. A starvation lay visible in Mr. Percy’s eyes. The corpse of a yearning.
“Wasn’t much of anything,” he had mumbled, wiping perspiration from his forehead. Sara had done most of the work. There was a strained moment of mutual awkwardness and assessment. Sara smiled and kissed him full on the mouth.
Months later Mr. Percy’s wife of forty-three years crouched over him. She peered through the window for herself.
“Good God,” she screamed. “Shout to her.”
“Christ no! That’d rile up the mamma sow.”
“So now you know what an old bear thinks?”
“Your every thought.”
“Bastard,” she said. “Where’s the papa bear?”
“Long gone. Sired cubs with three or four other sows I’d bet.”
“Of course he did,” she smirked.
“She’d claw him to shreds like a wheat sickle,” he said. “If they crossed paths again.”
Mrs. Percy found work at the Kalispell Walmart after the felled tree had shattered her husband’s lower spine. He had been a lifer for the Flathead Lumber Company. A newbie cutter sent the wrong ponderosa pine thundering to earth. Mr. Percy was left forever numb below the waist, his mouth full of salami and mayo.
“I gotta get to my job,” Mrs. Percy said. “Or we’ll starve.”
“Just wait. See what those bears are going to do.”
“Eat Sara whole, I’d say. Shoot the mama bear already.”
“I’ll worry about when to shoot,” he snapped.
Sara, a single woman of forty, pushed a wooden clothes pin to peg up a pair of red pajama bottoms. The early summer breeze lifted the sheets that hung, but not so high as to reveal her face. With futility, Mr. Percy angled his head in an effort to see around the dull fuzz of his advancing cataracts.
“Look at you. Like a horned up teenager,” Mrs. Percy said.
Beyond their window was mystic abundance. Fresh life. The bear cub sated with discovery. Its mother driven to bestow the mysteries, perils and magic of their wildness. Sara, a native Montanan. Self-sufficient. Chickens and goats. Solar panels and air dried laundry.
Mr. Percy gazed upon his calloused hands. Claws attesting to decades in the timber trade. Nine digits still intact. Deep into life’s fourth quarter, he was hardened by threat of mountain lions and protestors. His eyes lifted to behold his spouse. Arms crossed. A scowl well-earned.
He leaned forward in his wheelchair and plucked the rifle from the wall. Snugging the buttstock into his shoulder, Mr. Percy rested the barrel on the window sill. He scanned Sara’s yard through the scope until the sow bear’s head and neck were within the crosshairs. Mrs. Percy pressed her hands over her ears. The scope then pivoted away from the bear, sweeping across the grass.
It settled on Sara.
Flapping sheets on the line afforded but a brief glimpse. Mr. Percy lowered the barrel until an obvious yet small bump in Sara’s belly filled the scope. He pulled his eye away from the lens. There was momentary stillness. Straining forward in his wheelchair he set the rifle back against the wall.
“What the hell?” Mrs. Percy said. “Do I have to do your shooting now too?”
She leaned to again peer out the window. The sow bear was by then upright, on her haunches, sipping the air. The cub had meandered to about eight feet from Sara. A waft of warm breeze lifted the sheets as high as Sara’s shoulders. High enough for Mrs. Percy to spot Sara’s protruding belly and the clothes basket it propped up.
“My God,” she hissed, casting a trenchant glare down upon her withered spouse.
Hundreds of starlings erupted in a noisy black throbbing cloud that hovered above the lines of clean sheets like a swarm of bees. Sara eyed them with dread. She whispered a prayer. The bevy of birds descended instead upon the roof of the Percy house. The snowy cleanliness of the hanging sheets left intact. Only then did Sara notice the open window next door. Her arms occupied with the laundry basket, she could only smile at the two peering faces. A wind roused up as she walked between the rows of sheets.
A wrathful explosion cracked like July thunder.
To the soft grass the wicker laundry basket dropped. A fierce gust bowed the sheets like ship masts. The starlings burst from the roof, a frenetic black mass against the slate sky.
Sara thrust her head back, her auburn hair lifted in the wind. She searched for the storm clouds that could have caused such a deafening blast. There were none. She bent to recover the wicker basket, her ears ringing.
The close stillness of a wake rolled into the valley, dense as wet wool. The cub turned and bounded toward its mother. They sniffed each other. Together they loped toward the shade of the woods, to their worn path in the pinegrass. It was still a young day. There were many ways of the wild yet to be understood.
William Burtch is a 2018 American Fiction Short Story Award finalist. His story will be published in American Fiction Volume 17 (New Rivers Press) in late 2019. Recent work has been published in BULL and Northwest Indiana Literary Journal. More at www.williamburtch.com.