The view was impressive. Asymmetrical rows of leafless silver and white birch grew upward against the slope. Massive pines and brown spruce and green firs stood tall in the heavy thicket below that. Beyond lay harvested hayfields lined by stone walls. Farmhouses in the far distance, with large barns and connected woodsheds, partially blocked the horizon.
The late afternoon sun provided a soft yellow glow to a mid-December day. Breezes swayed the branches of the evergreens, giving motion to an otherwise still-life landscape. The Farmer's Almanac predicted a snowy winter, especially in the mountains. Either light rain or snow flurries were in the present forecast. So they say.
Frank didn't care. The view outside the sliding glass doors didn't impress him. He had other things on his mind. As the sun set in the west so did his mood descend.
Everything was gray.
Behind him was a wooden table with the remains of a meal of canned stew. Classical music played in the background, Mozart's Requiem. The music made his eyes moist. He sipped a beer and reveled in his misery.
The table had to be cleared and the dishes done. He didn't move. Down at another cabin a slim figure gathered firewood from a stacked pile and carried it inside. This was repeated three times. The figure stopped and looked up in his direction. It waited.
A light rain began to fall. A crow swooped by with harsh cries and disappeared into the gloom... The figure raised a hand.
He turned and cleared the table.
Frank woke up in the middle of the night and listened. A moment later he heard a metallic ruckus that came from where he stored his garbage cans.
“Damn-it." He got out of bed and pulled on pants and a shirt. He stood and listened. The noise grew louder.
“Oh, man!” He slid his feet into slippers, then hurried downstairs to the back door and turned on the outside light. He thought he saw something flit away into the darkness. Clouds shrouded the stars. The outside electric light seemed feeble.
The two garbage cans were lying on their sides. Frank went outside and began picking up trash. Butter wrappers licked clean. Coffee grounds and teabags and eggshells.. A plastic bread bag he’d put chicken and pork bones in was missing. Coffee cans filled with food scraps were pried open and emptied. The area reeked. It wasn’t the trash, but something that hung in the air. A fetid stench he could almost feel on his exposed skin. It was not a skunk. And this wasn’t the first time in recent pre-dawn mornings that the trash had been strewed about. He’d hate to put the trash barrels in his basement. He shivered in the cold and realized his feet were getting numb without socks in his slippers.
“Damn it all anyway!” He had to do something about this. He left the outside light on.
Like locking the barn door after the horse was stolen.
The dirt road on the way to North Lars Hill had washboard potholes. There were no ditches and culverts to drain excess rain. The town didn’t perform routine maintenance on a private camp road. During the winter months, camp and cabin owners took up a collection to hire a local man with a dump truck to plow snow. The same man graded the road in the summer. A private firm did trash removal.
Frank’s SUV had four-wheel drive and near useless shock absorbers that made for a bumpy ride. He passed his neighbor's cabin and glanced over. The car was gone.
In town there were plenty of empty parking spaces. One of the main reasons he’d moved here from Salem when he retired. North Lars Hill was little more than a hamlet. It had a combination grocery store post office and two gas pumps out front. Across the street sat a Grange Hall with an advertisement for a late afternoon bean supper and an evening dance. A hardware store sold children’s bikes and firearms and flashlights and clothes pins. If they didn’t have what a customer wanted, they’d order it.
After buying some groceries Frank stopped in at the hardware store. A man in an orange vest and green rubber boots leaned on the front counter and talked with the clerk. A middle-aged woman gazed blankly at ax handles on one wall.
The two ceased their conversation and looked at him.
"May I help you, sir?" asked the clerk.
"Yes." Frank examined the glass display case under the counter. It showed jack knives, handguns, dog whistles. "I need a box of .22 caliber shells. How much would that be?"
"A plain box of fifty is $17.83."
“I’ll take a box.”
“What ya need ‘em for?” asked the guy in the orange vest. He had a full beard and nose hairs growing into his moustache.
“Because I don’t have any.”
“Oh, yuh. You know there’s a fox gettin’ in people’s trash around here. Old Mary Gray lost her cat. I’m waitin’ for him to get in my trash. Then it’s goodbye, Mr. Fox. As for traps, I have some old steel ones in my woodshed.”
“He’s on disability,” the clerk said.
“I hurt my back.”
Frank paid with a twenty. The clerk put a box of .22 shells in a paper bag along with the sale’s slip. When Frank turned the lady was right behind him.
"Oh, excuse me. I didn't see you," said Frank
"It's okay," she said. "I'm a quiet person." She wore a winter coat over a sweater. Her blond hair had streaks of gray. "You folks live above me.”
“I could cook a casserole and bring it up?”
“No need. But thanks anyway.”
“Are you okay being alone?”
“Yes. I make do.” Frank walked to the door and opened it. He paused and took a quick look back. All three stared at him with concern.
Before Frank shut the door he heard the lady ask the clerk, "Does this town have an animal control officer?"
Frank sat in his SUV. He should have out-right thanked her. The whole town knew. Anybody who worked at the Blue Hill Hospital would have spread the word.
Frank did a u-turn and headed for the hospital. His vision blurred. He made a fist and wiped both eyes so he could see to drive.
The hospital parking lot held plenty of empty spaces. Frank parked in the farthest one out. He visited every day. That would be known, too.
He nodded at the front desk receptionist. The woman waved as she talked into her telephone headset. The waiting area was deserted. He chose the stairs and climbed to the third floor. The hallway to the rooms was also deserted. He entered his wife’s room and shut the door. He looked down at her. She wasn’t breathing on her own. A shunt did that. A plastic bag on a pole fed her. Her face looked gaunt. Her eyes were closed.
She didn’t respond.
He leaned down and kissed her ear. She didn’t acknowledge the kiss.
Frank pulled a padded chair up beside the bed and sat. He pawed in a book-bag. “How about this one? It’s by Dennis Must. A book of short stories titled, “Banjo Grease.” I’ll read, Say Hello To Stanley. ”
“Buddy Hart hauled the Hammond B-3 in a two wheel trailer hitched to his father’s….”
He read and read. He paused when the nurse’s aide changed the sheets. He paused when the nurse’s aide replaced the IV bag. He nearly napped because of the heat in the enclosed room. A single room was worth the heat. He stopped and left for a drink of water. He thanked the nurse’s aide for turning on the room’s light.
He sat in the chair, and mused. All is well that ends well. Time heals all wounds. It could be worse. Not by god-damned much, though.
Frank rose and kissed his wife.
“I’ll be back, my Love. Tomorrow’s the big day.”
Upon leaving, it began to snow. Frank swore under his breath. Figures.
Snowflakes hit the panes of the sliding glass doors. He looked up at the clock. Ten p.m. He put the book he was reading down and decided to clean his .22 revolver. He hadn’t used it for more than a year. Then he had shot at a squirrel. His wife made him stop. He didn’t want to do it anyway. A bigger animal was something else. One big enough to rifle through garbage cans. The trash collector preferred cans neatly put by the side of the road. If she saw garbage strewed about, she wouldn’t stop. She didn’t last time.
By eleven he was done. He yawned as he put the gun in a desk draw. He went to bed and fell asleep minutes after his head hit the pillow.
At 1 a.m. trash barrels fell over with a metallic clatter. A full moon shined in the loft window and bathed Frank with a silvery light. More clatter. It sounded insistent, as if he was being targeted.
This time Frank pulled on rubber boots and a winter coat. He hurriedly got the .22 and put it in his coat pocket. He stuffed a flashlight in the other pocket. Outside he saw a shadow that ran over the snow headed for the trees. The trash barrels and garbage were scattered. He turned on his flashlight. He saw tracks in the snow. He decided to follow them. The shine from the moon reflected off the snow and made the night brighter.
The storm had dropped three inches of snow. Up ahead he faintly saw the moving shadow, and thought he smelled a stink. He could see his own shadow in the moonlight. He began to walk briskly with the light from his flashlight bobbing.
Frank couldn’t take too long in doing this, but it was a way to get rid of one annoyance. He hated the bother. The gun in his coat pocket would lance one abscess. This he could control. The troubles of the past two weeks should begin to heal today, tonight, tomorrow. The shadow entered the tree-line and hung a right. He automatically adjusted direction.
A simple thing like black ice. He should have chipped it off the walkway before leaving in the SUV to get milk. Backing out, he looked forward and saw Amy waving as if he had forgotten something. He waved and watched horrified as she slipped on the ice.
Frank saw the shadow turn and follow another path that led sharply up through a cedar grove. He ignored the beauty of the scenery. Clouds covered the moon as it sank in the west. The shadow stopped and waited.
Frank, out of breath, also stopped. He had not kept fit in years. He looked up at the sky and saw fat snowflakes drift down. The moon had disappeared. The snow began covering the tracks he sought to follow. But another set of tracks ran downhill. He gulped in air, and followed the downhill tracks for a distance. The snow fell harder.
The shadow moved. It cut back and ran downhill.
Frank stopped. He watched as the shadow slowed then trotted along the same set of tracks. He followed for a hundred feet and stopped. Looming up ahead was a barn. It would offer him shelter from the storm.
By this time, the tracks were covered with snow. Frank didn’t care. The farmhouse must have fallen down long ago. Beneath the barn was a walk-in dirt cellar.
He made for that. However, in front of the entrance stood a fox the color of gold.
Frank drew the .22 pistol and aimed it at the fox’s breast. He pulled back the hammer and fired. The shot missed. The fox flinched, and backed further in.
Frank took a few steps forward. The bulk of the barn blocked the effects of the storm. He aimed again and fired. Again he missed. The fox cringed. He moved forward a few paces to the side for a better angle. His flashlight revealed something behind the fox.
There was a tunnel in the dirt wall. Peering in Frank could make out the reflection of eyes from his flashlight. It was a kit. The fox guarded its brood of pups. They remained mute.
The fox had sought to lead Frank away from the barn. It would sacrifice itself to protect its young. Nothing was getting by it. It growled, and advanced, taking the fight to him. He lifted the pistol and aimed. His hand shook, and not from fear.
Frank didn’t want to do this. It felt like a sin to shoot. What about the kit? Kill them, too? His hand dropped to his side. He backed up slowly.
What to do. Let soon to be mature foxes get after trash cans and stray cats, and possibly spread rabies? Turn the TV up to drown out the howls? Or turn the TV off and hit the hay early. Listen to the midnight chorus. Upset his wife….
The Animal Control Officer. That’s the only humane option.
His watch read two-thirty a.m. He needed some sleep so he wouldn’t be late. He emptied the pistol of shells and threw them away.
“The Propofol is completely out of her system,” said the nurse, “and we took the shunt out. She can breathe on her own now. You can read to her if you want.”
“I brought some poetry.”
“She’ll love that. We can close the door for now.”
Frank pulled a chair up to the head of the bed.
“This is a good one. ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’
“And this. ‘I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart.’
“And this. ‘But I have promises to keep.’”
She didn’t react.
“Some William Blake? ‘How sweet I roam’d from field to field.”
“This one? ‘When the green woods laughed with the voice of joy…’
“oh, amy, i miss you so.” He put his hand to her cheek. “please wake up.”
He let the book fall, caressed her face, and buried his head in her lap. “please amy.”
The nurse opened the door a crack and peeked in. She smiled, shook her head to someone in the hallway, and closed the door quietly.
He raised his head.
“Frank. Is that you?”
“How long has it been?”
“Have you gotten anyone to cook for you?”
“I warmed up stew and ravioli. I used the microwave.”
She rubbed the bandage on her head. Her eyes cleared.
“Are you okay?”
Frank’s smile was brittle. He laughed.
“I am now. Tired from not sleeping. Busy you know.”
“I bet, you old fool.”
“I’m your old fool, Amy.”
“And don’t you forget it.”
They kissed each other on the lips.
And that was that.
Edward Turner lives and writes in Biddeford, Maine with his wife Amy, and her black cat, Tina. Ed’s stories and essays have appeared in Dred, Down In The Cellar, Maine Sunday Telegram, Fortean Bureau, Spring Hill Review, and a number of times in The North Shore Sunday, Flying Horse, and Sun Journal, to name a few. He is currently working on his third novel.