Mattie can't remember a time before she and William lived alone on a mountain together. She must never make him upset. But when Mattie discovers the mutilated body of a fox in the woods, she realizes that they're not alone after all.
There's something in the woods that wasn't there before, something that makes strange cries in the night, something with sharp teeth and claws.
When three strangers appear on the mountaintop looking for the creature in the woods, Mattie knows their presence will anger William. Terrible things happen when William is angry.
Release date: April 13, 2021
Print pages: 336
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Near the Bone
There was a dead fox in her path.
At first Mattie only saw it as a streak of scarlet across the fresh snowfall. Her initial thought was that some predator had gotten a rabbit from the traps she'd come to check.
Then she saw the orange fur matted with blood, and the place where something sharp had torn through the fox's middle. Viscera were strewn over the snow, the scent fresh and strong despite the cold air.
There weren't many creatures that would eat a fox-a bear would, of course, a bear would eat anything. Maybe a mountain lion, sometimes an eagle, but almost no creature would take the trouble of killing an animal and then not bother to eat it at all. None, as a matter of fact, except people, but there were no people at the top of the mountain except for Mattie and William.
Mattie crouched down to get a better look at the animal, but she didn't see any prints or claw marks that would give her a clue. She stood again, brushing the snow off her heavy wool skirt, and paused for a moment, irresolute.
Perhaps she ought to go back and tell William about the fox straightaway. Then she decided she ought not to until she checked the traps. That was why he'd sent her down to the creek in the first place, and if she didn't do as she was told then she would pay for it.
Mattie stepped around the fox and paused again. There was a strange track in the snow beside the fox's body. She couldn't quite make sense of it.
The track seemed to be from a bear, but if it was a bear then the animal was much larger than any bear Mattie had ever seen-maybe twice as big as the biggest grizzly in the area. The print appeared to be a rear paw-she could make out the curve of the heel and the five toe pads. But the claw marks at the front were much longer and deeper than usual. The size of the print made her think it must be the biggest bear in existence.
Mattie glanced around the path, checking for more prints. The path she followed wasn't a man-made one but a deer trail. The trail was flanked by the trunks of tall mountain pines and the remains of scrub from the summer. She found another print-another rear paw, and some distance away from the first. That was strange, too. It was like the bear was up walking on its hind legs like a person. They might do this for a few moments, especially to intimidate another creature, but not as a general practice.
Mattie shook her head. This wasn't anything she should worry about. She could practically hear William's voice saying, "Get a move on, girl. It isn't any of your concern. You're always curious when there's no cause to be."
Yes, she should check the traps before William had to come down and find out what was taking her so long.
Mattie continued on, kicking up some of the powdery snow with her boots as she went. It wasn't proper winter yet-summer was barely over, in fact-but they'd already had several days of snowfall and unusually cold days. William worried that they might not have enough food set by if the winter was especially harsh. There wouldn't be very many animals about. They'd all be snug in their dens.
That made Mattie wonder-what was a grizzly doing, leaving fresh meat behind like that? This time of the year most of them were getting ready to bed down for the winter. Those bears still active wouldn't pass up an opportunity to put on a little extra winter fat. If the grizzly wanted to save the kill for later it would have cached the fox-though it was hardly worth caching what amounted to a mouthful.
She had to stop worrying on it. William was waiting.
They had three snares set apart in the brush by the creek. All three were full, which meant rabbit stew with carrots and potato. William would be pleased.
Mattie put the rabbits in her canvas sack, carefully reset the snares and started back to the cabin. A few flakes of snow drifted down as she walked and she stuck her tongue out to catch one-
(holding hands with Heather with our heads tipped toward the sky, catching as many snowflakes as we can, our eyelashes coated white)
No. She was not to think of that, either. That was only a dream. William had told her many times that it was all something she'd made up in her head and he didn't want to hear about that nonsense.
She shouldn't dwell on the dream or the strange bear print or the dead fox. She should hurry home with the rabbits, because her husband waited for her. He expected her to be a good wife.
When she reached the dead fox again on the way back, Mattie carefully stepped around the corpse and the prints in the snow. William might want to come and see them later, but she wasn't going to trouble herself about it anymore. She wasn't going to think of how strange it was, because William told her what to think and she was sure he wouldn't like her thinking on this.
William was outside the cabin chopping wood when Mattie hurried into the clearing.
The clearing was large enough to accommodate their two-room cabin, a storehouse for meat, an outhouse and a small garden in the summer. William had cleared away extra trees so that there was fifteen or so feet of open ground in front of the cabin before the forest. He said this was so nobody could sneak up to their home without him knowing.
Her husband was a tall, powerfully built man-more than a foot taller than Mattie, with broad shoulders and large hands and feet. His hair was dark, streaked with gray, but his eyes were bluer than ice on a frozen creek bed. William's back was to her but he immediately turned as if he'd sensed her presence when she stepped into the clearing, the heavy wood axe in his left hand.
He said nothing as she approached, only waited with that expectant, impatient look that told her she'd made a mistake.
"There was a dead fox," she said by way of explanation. "But the traps were full."
Mattie thought the evidence of a good night's supper would be enough to distract him, but she should have known better. "Why should the fox be any of your concern? I told you to check the snares and come straight back."
Mattie bit her lip. This was the trap. If she didn't answer, he would be angry. If she tried to explain, he would be angry.
She should try, at least. Maybe he would understand this time.
"Something killed the fox and left it there," she said.
His gaze sharpened. "A person? Someone in the woods?"
"No, no," she said quickly. She knew how careful he was about keeping the location of their home a secret, how upset he got if there was any sign of people nearby. "There was a track, like a bear track, but much bigger than any bear I've ever seen."
William's jaw relaxed a fraction. He did seem relieved that she hadn't found evidence of a person.
That slight unclenching deceived her, though-she wasn't braced when he dropped the axe in the snow and his fist flew out.
Stars shot across her vision and she tasted blood on her tongue. Her bottom felt cold.
You're sitting in the snow. Get up before your skirt gets wet, she thought.
"You know if you find anything unusual you're supposed to come get me immediately." William didn't sound angry, but then he never did. There was never any yelling, any warning that the blow was about to fall.
"I thought it would be better if I checked the traps first," she said.
She knew she ought to stand up, but if she stayed on the ground she was harder to reach.
"That's your trouble, Martha," he said, using her Christian name-always a bad sign. "It's not your role to think."
"Yes," she said. "I'm very sorry."
He stared down at her, and she could tell he was deciding whether or not he'd punished her sufficiently for her transgression.
"Take those rabbits inside and skin them," he said. "When you're finished you show me this dead fox."
"Yes," she said, pushing out of the snow.
Her stockings were wet just above the tops of her boots. It would be nice to change them when she went inside but William might come in with the firewood and find her doing something other than the task he assigned.
Mattie hurried toward the door of the cabin, her shoulders hunched. She didn't relax until she heard the whistle and thud of the axe again. That meant William wasn't following her.
She put her boots away and set about the task of skinning and dressing the rabbits for cooking later. Rabbits were small and not much work, and Mattie knew that William would expect her to finish quickly.
Don't make him angry again. Do your job as you're supposed to.
But her mind wandered away, as it often did, and she had to call it back so that William wouldn't find her woolgathering. Her hands made quick work of the rabbits even as her thoughts drifted elsewhere, to that place they weren't supposed to go.
William came to the door of the cabin and called in. "Are you finished?"
Mattie knew he didn't want to remove his snow-coated boots only to put them on again. This was less about saving her the trouble of wiping up the water on the cabin floor and more about saving himself the effort of lacing and unlacing.
"Just about," she called back.
"Don't take too long," he said, and shut the door again.
In truth she was finished, but she wanted an extra minute or two to wash up and compose herself. She'd been thinking about the dream again, thinking that she heard a song playing (something about a dove, there are these big black things and the music is coming out of them, coming from a silver disc, but that seems silly. Something from a dream like William always says)
William believed music was sinful so she knew it wasn't anything she'd heard since she'd come to live with him.
Mattie plunged her hands into the cold water in the basin and scrubbed the blood away, trying to scrub the dream away with it. William seemed to be able to sense her dreams on her, like a scent that clung. He was already irritated. If she went outside with those strange images still in her eyes, he'd be even angrier.
A few moments later she was outside again, bundled in her coat and mittens and boots. William had his rifle in his hand.
"Show me," he said.
Mattie indicated the deer path she'd followed earlier. William didn't like Mattie to walk in front of him and she was careful not to do this. Her tracks were still visible in the snow, in any case. Only a few flurries had fallen since Mattie returned home.
There were crows gathered around the fox corpse, picking at the exposed meat. William shooed them away and they flew off, cawing loudly.
Mattie stood behind him and a little off to the side, so she could see his face. She hated being surprised by his moods. He might decide she was silly for mentioning the fox to him in the first place, and that would stack on top of his earlier mood to create a fury she could not escape.
Sometimes Mattie wondered why he married her, why he'd chosen her in the first place, especially when he always seemed to find fault. He could have picked a different girl, one with more of the qualities he seemed to desire-someone less curious, more biddable.
Mattie watched her husband closely as he scanned the area around the fox. His eyes widened when he saw the paw print. "Did you find any more of these?"
She pointed toward the scrub to their right. "There."
William went to take a closer look, and it was only then that Mattie noticed the scrub was broken, like something very large had blundered through it. The bark on one of the trees had long, deep claw marks, as if the animal had scraped it as it went by. William ran his hand over the marks, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"If it's a grizzly, it's the biggest damned grizzly there ever was," he said. "I wonder where it came from. Something that big would need a lot of game."
Mattie remembered then just how sparse game had been over the last few weeks. Both she and William had attributed this to the early cold snap. But maybe it wasn't the cold at all. Maybe it was this bear, this monster of a bear that was out in the woods eating up all the moose and deer that William wanted to kill and hang in their storehouse for the winter.
"I'd like to think it's gone from the area," he said. "The footprints seem to indicate its going down the mountain, anyway. Some lucky fellow is going to shoot it and end up with his name in the newspaper, not to mention the best trophy anyone has ever seen."
Even if some man did shoot the bear, Mattie would never see his name. She was expressly forbidden from reading anything except the Bible. On the rare occasions that William went into town and returned with a paper he would always lock it in his trunk.
Mattie was not permitted to be in the bedroom when he opened the trunk, and he kept the key on a key ring that was on or near his person at all times. The keys to the cabin and the storehouse were also on this key ring, as well as two strange keys. Mattie didn't know what these were for, and the one time she'd asked about the keys he'd given her two black eyes so she never asked again.
"Big bear like that would be a lot of meat, though," he mused. "We could eat all winter on that bear."
If you can kill it without getting killed yourself, Mattie thought.
William glanced at her, and not for the first time Mattie had the idea that he could hear what she was thinking.
"You don't think I can kill it?" he said, and there was a glint of something in his ice-chip eyes, something that might have been humor on another man. "Well, you might be right this once, Mattie girl. I'm not going to get a bear that size with this."
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