The Tormented Writer

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“I’m NOT a writer!” Frances says. She is staring at me from across the black kitchen counter, stark against the white glass of milk firmly set in her small hand. The pencil lies diagonally across her paper, which is covered in the ghosts of labored sentences, impressions from the tightly gripped pencil, then erased furiously until the page is ragged.

Poor Frances, I think to myself. She really is a writer.

In third grade, her teacher is trying to get them serious about their writing. They have something called “Writer’s Workshop,” and in the beginning of the year Frances was writing personal essays, focusing on “small moments,” and being encouraged to describe her feelings. The young writers learn to share their work publicly in a “writing celebration” that is attended by friends and family. I remember attending her first writing celebration, listening to all of her classmates speaking their words out loud in front of adults they didn’t even know, and thinking it was great for kids to take themselves seriously as writers so early.

Now I’m not so sure. It is almost the end of the year and Frances has her first “informational essay” to write. It’s really a term paper. She had to pick a topic, make a list of subtopics, do research and site references. Having worked on it for three weeks now, she has produced five pages of pencil scratches, crossed out words, corrected spelling, grammar and punctuation squeezed in on layers of post-it notes, and margins full of words and arrows.

The edited and revised draft was due Monday. We had no other plans so I thought it would be fun to spend the weekend bonding over our writing. I would work on my book and provide support for her essay. In the past we have written stories together, and I have watched her sit at a typewriter for hours, pressing the keys letter by letter to build some fabulous convoluted fictional tale.

But that was then. The weekend of writing was spent pulling teeth.

“Frances, after breakfast we are going to write,” I said on Saturday, and again on Sunday. But as soon as she sat down to work, she got up to go to the bathroom. Then I heard her brushing her teeth.

“I have something caught in my molars!”

“Okay Frances, sit!” I said. But no sooner had I said it and she was out of her chair.

“I have to get something,” she said, disappearing before I could stop her. When I went to find her she was doing origami on the floor of her room.

“Frances, come on. We have to write,” I said, annoyed.

“I’m hungry,” she said softly. I glanced at the clock. Where did the morning go?

“Okay. We’ll eat, and then we will write.”

This went on all weekend. It was incredible how much time and energy I wasted trying to get her to sit down and focus. And when I managed to get her to look at her text and think about what she needed to add or subtract, she would fall into despair.

“I don’t know what to say!” she wailed. “I don’t want to do this anymore!!”

She fought me for two days but somehow we still managed to comb through her five pages, correcting spelling, cleaning up phrases and even adding a little more information. But there was one chapter that her teacher had told her needed more work and that was the part she couldn’t face. In the end, she avoided it so hard I gave up. It was late on Sunday evening when I broke the bad news: She had to go to bed.

“But I’m not finished!” she cried, her eyes brimming with tears.

“Frances,” I said gently. “It’s all right. We tried our best and it’s good enough.”

“But I didn’t do what my teacher told me to do.”

“I know. And sometimes we just don’t manage to do what we set out to do. It’s okay.”

She stared at me like I was crazy. “Why do you think this has been so hard?” I asked.

“Because I don’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t know anything about art.”

“Oh yes you do. You know all about the struggle of making something and how vulnerable that makes you feel and that is at the crux of all art. We have to be brave to write and sometimes that’s really hard.”

“I HATE writing!!” she screamed as she marched off to her room, leaving me to question the wisdom of the assignment. Or maybe for Frances, it’s just the way it is.

Fiction: The Fury Inside

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Fury was the name of my first car. It was a beat up 1975 black Ford Mustang with white racing stripes up the middle. Larry, the guy who sold it to me had named it and every time I got in it I felt the power of that word.

Larry was a mechanic and a scientologist who didn’t look anything like a Larry or a scientologist. I didn’t know much about the Church of Scientology before Larry talked my ear off about processing emotions and childhood traumas. Because he sold me the car, Larry must have felt guilty every time I brought it in because he always insisted I wait around while he fixed it and he barely charged me. He had put a new engine in it that was fast but finicky. It never stranded me on the side of the road, which Larry said meant the car had a conscience, but sometimes it wouldn’t start in the morning, or it would gush smoke or just drag when I pushed on the accelerator. Larry liked to curse Ford for their crappy parts, but he loved Fury as much as I did.

I had no job or boyfriend so I would hang around Larry’s dusty place, which was more like a corral than a shop. It was in Van Nuys somewhere, I can’t remember the street now, but it was hidden behind some depressing nondescript block. It was basically an empty lot with a collection of sheds around the perimeter and a lot of broken cars and empty carcasses crowded between them. His office was just the shade of an old tree and a desk drowning in crumpled purchase orders and receipts with black fingerprints on the edges. I got the feeling Larry lived there somewhere and that he never showered. His long hair was as greasy as his hands. But there was something about being around an older loser guy that I must have enjoyed since I sat there for hours listening to him complain about the fact that he couldn’t afford scientology anymore. I thought it was sad that the cult he had sucked himself into had priced him out.

As much as I liked Larry it was tiring being around him for too long and I was always happy to get back in my car and drive away, feeling superior. When Fury was running well, the engine made a loud angry growl when I revved it. I felt like I was some tough guy in a wife-beater who was going to hurt someone, instead of the young female artist without much of a life that I was.

Acting on my anger was something I could only fantasize about. I knew my anger, but I was afraid of it. A hot cup of coffee just waiting to be spilled. Fury is bigger than that. Fury is anger in a black leather jacket with spikes on the shoulders. Or maybe, if anger is fire, fury is hot lava spewing fifty feet up into the night sky. That’s how I feel sometimes when I ‘m really in it. Like I’m going to blow.

I grew up in a family where we didn’t express or even admit to having anger. My mother would only say she was disappointed in me. Of course kids naturally get mad, but when I lost my temper I was sent to my room. The message was that it was bad, and I was bad for even feeling it.

I’ve generally shied away from making things that touch on the heat and fire that lives inside me. These last few days, it has really been pushing me to do something with it. Blaming it on someone or something that happened only serves to perpetuate the false perception that something outside of me is at fault. I’ve learned that no one has that power unless I give it to them. I own my anger just like I owned that beautiful decrepit old car. And like Fury, I can choose to sit in it or leave it on the side of the road. Sometimes that’s the best option, at least for a few days, until I’m ready to come back, get in, and enjoy taking it somewhere.

Close Call

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We have no idea what’s going to happen. We know death is an inevitable part of life, but to see it close up is to be brought back to a state of awe that we are alive and all is well.

On Friday night my husband had a choking incident. Now that I’ve learned a little about choking, I don’t believe that he came close to death. But there was a long slow moment when his death seemed absolutely inevitable, and in that time I was changed, yet again.

We were having dinner. He and I were enjoying leftover curried chicken and the girls were having something else. I have no idea what anymore. Certain parts of the evening have evaporated from memory.

We had decided to watch a show while we ate, which was unusual (and is now banned). It was Parks and Rec, and my husband had just taken a big bite of food as well as a large swig of bubbly water when his favorite character, Ron, did this hilarious thing where he uses a remote control to shut the door to his office as if he were Cool Hand Luke pulling out a gun. We all laughed and my husband made a face like he was trying to keep from spitting his food across the table and then, still holding his mouth closed, he started coughing. I stood up and started patting his back, asking if he was okay. I remember feeling silly, saying in my head of course he’s okay, while realizing he wasn’t. His torso started leaning to one side and I watched as his fist dropping into his bowl of curry.

My mind reacted with confusion. I remember thinking, He’s fine, I’m overreacting, but also feeling terrified that my husband was in serious trouble. The reality of what was happening descended fast. The girls were yelling, “Dad! Dad!” So I knew he must look terrible even though I couldn’t see his face from my position behind him. I grabbed him around the middle, still feeling this split reality as if what I was doing was somewhat silly, while squeezing as hard as I could. I’m not doing this right. I don’t know what I’m doing. He’s going to die if I don’t do this right were the thoughts I had along with he’s fine, this will all be over soon. I thought I wasn’t squeezing hard enough and that to give him the Heimlich effectively, I’d have to get him on his feet and throw him against the table. I thought maybe he could hear me so I started pleading with him to stand up as I pulled.

I don’t actually remember the moment when he came back. I think I had let go of him and moved around the table to the girls. Or maybe I did that after he came to. I can’t remember how he came around other than he looked at us and said, “What happened?” He knew he had passed out. He was shaken up, a little pale, but he was back.

For a few minutes I had this awful sinking feeling that he would now die of a heart attack. Sort of like in the movies when the guy misses the bullet only to be killed by the car. I had that feeling that even though he was back, he was still going to die. I stood there holding the girls who were still shaking with fear, still haunted by the feeling that I had tried to save him but couldn’t. What if he dies right now? What will I do?

 My older daughter went to the bathroom. I went to Dave and asked how he was feeling. He was freaked out. We all were. But we were also incredibly relieved and happy. It was a strange combination of the real fear that was so potent in it’s proximity and the absolute joy that we were all okay and alive. Slowly, the realization that he really was okay sank in.

I went to the bathroom to find my daughter crying. I held her for a long time, not trying to cheer her or reassure her, but just letting her release the trauma of the experience through her tears. I joked that I would probably lose it after everyone went to bed.

I called a friend who is a paramedic the next day. I wanted to know if it was normal to pass out the way my husband did. My friend asked me for every detail of what happened and then said yes, it was perfectly normal. “When you cough like that and you’re afraid of not being able to breathe, your throat tightens and the airway is restricted. The loss of consciousness is a way for the body to force the muscles to relax. Once the body went limp [when the hand went into the food] the airway opened up and he woke up.” In other words, my husband is perfectly healthy.

We are both no longer young enough to think we’ll live forever. But watching him choke was a very frightening reminder that anything can happen. I realized in that moment that as hard as it would be to lose my husband, we would survive, as many have before us. I felt grateful that we have things organized for the girls if something catastrophic were to happen to both of us. But the big difference is that for the next few days, every time I looked at my husband, I felt incredibly thankful that he’s alive. It has worn off slightly, but I don’t think I’ll ever take him for granted again.

 

Fiction: The Hunter, Part 3

lion tracks.pdf

Slowly, heart pounding, she looks up. The stillness that characterized the previous moment evaporates into a swirl of movement and confusion as she searches for the cat, now her enemy, among the layers of maple branches overhead. The sun is low making it hard to see in the raking orange light. She hears her own breathing, quick and nervous, and tries to slow it down. Keep calm, keep calm. The fact that she hasn’t got a gun seems supremely stupid as she stops herself from reflexively reaching for it. Her eyes search the massive boughs overhead and catch on something, the flick of a tail and then she sees her. Her massive body is largely hidden by the thick bunches of summer leaves but she can see the head, the shape of it surprisingly blunt and wider than she expected, and the eyes. Deep saucers of black.

It would be easy for the cougar to jump down on her. It could be a game for this full-grown youngster. But in the eyes she sees a calm that doesn’t include excitement. She sees adolescent boredom more than anything else. As though the cat were thinking, “you’ve been sitting there for hours. Aren’t you going to do something?”

She calms her breathing down, convincing herself the cat is not going to attack her but knowing a sudden move could change her fate. She keeps her eyes on the cat’s eyes and takes a slow step backward.

With eyes locked she finds herself in standoff game she has played with her tabby, Felix, at home. All cats do this. They lock eyes and move slowly. I am speaking cat right now. I must maintain this position of presumed dominance or I may die.

As she moves slowly backward she has to release the lock. The angle doesn’t allow her to see the eyes. But she keeps them glued to where the cougar is lying in the branches. The last thing she wants is to lose sight of her. Or to give into the fear that would have her run as fast as she can.

A sound startles her, she gasps and automatically turns her head to see a large hare, ears erect and eyes glaring. He’s nearly hidden in a patch of goldenrod but his eyes are sharp ovals of black that cut through the yellow. She snaps hers back to position and finds the cat has moved. A large branch shudders. She is now ten feet out from under the tree’s canopy but that doesn’t make her safe. She continues her slow movement backwards, into the open pasture trying to formulate a plan. Her car is the only thing that would provide real safety and it is over a mile away, but there is a road about a half mile east that she could reach by cutting through the woods. The cat won’t follow her to the road. They avoid humans at all costs. So why is she so afraid now? This cat, the one she believes has never been identified, is probably only two or three years old and she is sure it is afraid of her. Her senses are coming back as she searches the tree for a glimpse of tan fur. Her opponent is masterful at hiding, knows her visual trajectory and is avoiding being seen. This part of the cougar’s skill set as a hunter is quite obviously far superior to her own. To keep prey in the dark as to her location is pure instinct. But at least she knows the cat is in the tree. She just doesn’t know where. It wouldn’t take her long to jump down and reach me, she thinks. I could never outrun her. I’m such an idiot not to have armed myself, at least with a dart that would knock her out. She realizes how arrogant she’s been all this time. Tracking a deadly predator without any protection. I’m like the grizzly man, she thinks, believing that I’m somehow protected just because I’m trying to do something good.

The hare takes a few leisurely hops through the grass and suddenly the cat is flying down to the ground, a long blur of yellow and brown she pounces on the hare who manages to slip through the massive paws. The cat chases the hare around the base of the tree and then lifts up into a hunched but tall position as she bats the hare, and pins it under her paw. She sees the cat nestle her head into the grass and knows she is biting into the hare’s neck. There is blood all over the cougar’s face as she looks up and they lock eyes again. The cougar’s look is warning her to keep her distance. Don’t worry, she thinks. From now on, I will.

 

 

In Support of Writing on Paper

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This week I was cleaning out my studio and I found a box containing a few stacks of old personal letters and a notebook. I wondered if I could discard some of the contents so I decided to go through it quickly, having no idea what I was getting myself into. There were dozens of letters from family members addressed to me at camp, college, graduate school and traveling in Europe. I was stunned.

We used to write letters. My God, we used to communicate that way. It was as if I’d forgotten how much more practical it once was. We were concerned about the expense of calling. Hard to imagine that email, texting and facebook did not exist. We actually wrote on pieces of paper and mailed them, and that this allowed me to unearth their contents thirty odd years later was an incredible gift. I learned things I had forgotten about my own history and the history that came before me. There was a stack of love letters from my uncle to my aunt, written in the 1920s. He courted her from abroad and the letters continue into their married life when, as a young senator, he frequently traveled. His handwriting is pure art, and the language he uses is from another world. But they lived not so long ago, and their story, their love, infused my childhood. What overwhelmed me as I read was how much love all those letters, including the ones addressed to me, still exuded.

Then I opened the notebook and read, “This Diary is intended for Grace Muller.” I had no recollection of it, but it was clearly my hand. There was the sinking feeling of good intentions never met as I expected to find the pages empty, but they were filled, spanning over three years. I didn’t remember writing any of it until I found a vase full of tulips, carefully outlined in ballpoint pen, and another drawing of Dave holding the sleeping infant that is now my gangly twelve-year-old. Somehow, I remembered doing those.

For me, the false promise of “paperless” means forgotten, and forever lost as old computer files are rarely retrieved. I was grateful to have had the foresight to record Grace’s first years in words, and on paper, for me to find and give to her, so she can discover it later. Of course there was one small problem with it. There was no matching notebook for my second child, so I pulled a blank notebook from the shelf.

April 14, 2015

One thing I have learned in a long life is that time moves quickly, speeding up every year and there truly is none to waste. My dear Frances, tonight I found a diary I kept when Grace was a baby, and gave it to her. It is full of the reflections of a new mother, a few drawings, and many sweet anecdotes of Grace’s early life that would surely have been lost if I had not recorded them. Upon discovering it, I immediately thought, “Oh! But I don’t have anything like that for Frances!” The last thing any mother wants is for her child to feel less important or loved than their sibling. So, in the spirit of “it’s never too late,” (your childhood isn’t over yet!) I am going to attempt a similar project in your name. I can’t promise I will keep it up for three years, but you never know. I can promise that like all my efforts as your mother, I will do my best.

-Mom

Going through that box changed the course of my life to some degree. I have written several pages in Frances’ notebook already, enjoying every moment of remembering what makes her a unique little being, and I have spoken to my family, letting them know how much I appreciate their unending support. I especially thanked my stepmother, whose hand had written the bulk of the family letters and whose love has never waivered. Sometimes I forget how much she means to me, and I am so glad those fragile pieces of paper came back to remind me.

My New Best Friend

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It all happened so fast. One day I was single and happy and thinking it would be nice to have kids pretty soon as I pressed up against the far end of my breedable years, and the next day I was shacked up and making babies. By late 2008 I was weaning my youngest and looking over my shoulder at my reproductive years. I was done. I had made it through three pregnancies, two live births, one still, and a couple thousand sleep deprived days. I realized I had been either pregnant or nursing for six years when I finally weaned my youngest. As my boobs slowly deflated I realized my job producing people was done and I was now graduating into a managerial position. I went from being “Mommie,” gurgled out of drooling lips and gazed at with wonder to “MOM!!!” yelled from a car window. “I forgot my______! Can you get it for me?”

Unfairly, as they push up against adolescence and face the prospect of a menstrual cycle mine is on the way out and I suddenly have this mini tire around my abdomen. I don’t want to exaggerate the situation. It’s not that bad. But it is definitely there, hanging out over the top of my jeans, and it’s not going anywhere. That much I know. Though I don’t share genes with my step-mother, I watched her lament her own abdominal bulge when I was a teen. She complained that no amount of sit ups put a dent in it, was embarassed by it, tried to hide it and though she ultimately made peace with it, she still curses it given the chance. She is eighty-three. Like me, she is tall and slender, and the little paunch sticks out like bad hair on a beauty queen. It just looks wrong. Not bad, really, just out of place.

I do not wish to hate any part of myself. I’ve worked too hard. So I came up with the affectionate term ‘menopaunch,’ and it has helped me make friends with the litte handful of softness that now rides around my middle.

Dream Work

Dear MeI feel very lucky that I have a teacher. He is not much older than I am, but he leads the writing group I am in, and that group has saved me many times, in many ways. Without it, I would surely have abandoned writing by now.

We meet every Monday at six pm for about ninety minutes and those evenings have become sacred to me. I only skip my group if one of my children is sick or if they are performing. It has become as important to me as meditation and running, and like those other two, it is a crucial moment of grounding in an otherwise hectic week.

During the meeting we each check in and talk about what we have written since our last meeting and what we plan to write before the next. Sounds simple enough, but it’s not. We all have good weeks and bad. Sometimes I can’t wait for Monday to talk about all the pages I’ve written, but if I have hit a rough patch, it can be hard to show up. The group has taught me to be disciplined, not only to write every day, but to give myself credit for every scrap of scribbling I manage. My teacher has trained me to celebrate every project I finish, even if I don’t think it counts. I have learned, albeit to a modest degree, how to validate my own writing.

I love Brene Brown and how she talks about “the arena.” You don’t get to critique the person who is standing naked in the arena, exposing their darkest secrets, she says, if you’re not doing it too. I love that because it helps me quiet the voices that want to tell me I don’t deserve to call myself a writer, or dream of getting paid to do it.

The last time we had our group, my teacher asked me a question that has stayed with me: “What is it going to take for you to feel valued as a writer? How many books do you need to sell? Or is it the stamp of a publisher that you want?”

I didn’t think I was looking for a stamp of approval from anyone. I’ve already self-published my first book and I’m a steady blogger, so I think of myself as already self-validating, but he is right. I am still seeking some sort of approval from somewhere.

It’s so good to call these things out because if you don’t they just sit there and get under your slick skin and keep bugging you. I mean me. So thank you David, my favorite teacher, for reminding me that I’m right where I should be: A very happy writer who keeps on pressing the pen.

 

Fiction: The Hunter, Part 2

lion tracks.pdf

Be bold, she tells herself. It’s what her father always says. “To get anywhere in life you must be bold and patient.” He’s been drumming this into her since he first took her hunting and it has served her well. Here she is, sitting in the grass, doing what she loves. She had managed to carve out her own perfect path in life, running this center for wildlife conservation in her favorite part of the world. It would have been easier to leave town and get a job in Burlington or Portland selling hunting gear or maybe leading outdoor tour groups or even teaching biology to kids but none of those would have allowed her to do this. She shifts her seat and realizes her ankles are going numb. The easy thing to do right now would be to give up and go home. Call it a day. But she knows something is supposed to happen today. She can feel it.

She stands, and the dream flashes in her mind. The mountain lion pouncing from behind, but this time, instead of leaping over her and running away, it lands on her, and she flinches. She sees the massive claws dig into her shoulder and the weight of the cat knocking her flat. She shudders, spooked, and looks fast behind her. She has never been afraid of the cat before. She reasons that it would have no cause to attack, but the truth is cats are less predictable than deer, or bears. They can be playful, but a playful pounce from this girl could be lethal.

She stands, perfectly still and there is a surreal quiet all around. Shit, she thinks. I’m being watched. There is no mistaking that feeling. Slowly, she backs toward the maple she has been under all day, hoping to get out of sight. The tree trunk will provide some cover as she scans the woods from standing. All is eerily quiet. Not a bird chirp or squirrels rustling to break up the dead silence that is suffocating positive thoughts. She has never ever felt fear in these woods, only excitement and anticipation. This is different. She realizes, it has been different since she arrived early this morning. Through the binoculars she scans the forest floor and the field for the millionth time today. Another shudder passes through her and two ominous words knock into her head.

Look up.

Memory Loss

Sunset over Lake Parker VT

As soon as I heard it I was taken over with sadness. I had to stop running and just cry. It was the kind that shoots up, as if from a deep, dank well and overwhelms. The feeling was of losing something, and a hopeless, endless searching.

I was listening to a podcast of an interview about Alzheimer’s, about a mile into my run. <You can listen to it here> In it, a psychologist who works with Alzheimer’s patients was talking about how there are often glimpses of wisdom, even when a person has forgotten much of their lives, and lost the ability to recall the simplest words. He spoke of telling such a patient that he was going on vacation to the beach. They had spoken of their mutual love of the ocean before and when he mentioned it, she lit up. He asked her what she loved about the beach, knowing she probably wouldn’t be able to articulate much of anything but then she said, “There’s some kind of music that lives there.” That was the line that broke me.

My daughter Frances, like me, often loses things. She will call out, “Mommy! Can you help me find my purple marker? I can’t find it anywhere.” Even if I’m annoyed at having to stop what I’m doing, I try to help her because I want her to learn how to look for things. I ask her: Where did you last have it? When did you use it, or see it, or loan it to someone? Usually she misremembers and we look in the wrong places until I start looking everywhere and find it under the bed sheets or by the toilet. Then she remembers, astonished, “Oh yea! I left it there!”

I learn, from the podcast, that memory is more complex than previously thought. We think of our memories as fixed, stored in a certain file within our brains. We are so sure of them we will argue with family members about what really happened decades ago. But memories are not just the stories we tell ourselves are true. Memory is what we are made of. And memories change as we age, and as information is introduced. Memories are pieced together from various elements, stored in multiple parts of the brain and even in muscle tissue, which is why they change as we change.

Yesterday the cat wandered off from the backyard and Frances was distraught. The cat has never disappeared for long, but Frances lay in her bed weeping until I persuaded her that looking for Tabitha would alleviate her anxiety. Help me find her, I implored, and calling the cat relaxed her, and Tabitha turned up.

That awful feeling of having lost something so essential as a pet, or a wallet, or a purple marker, can make one lose all perspective. It can send me into a tailspin that feels impossible to escape, until the thing is found. The idea of getting Alzheimer’s is terrifying to me, like losing something you can’t function without, but not realizing that your memories, therefor your self, is what’s missing.

Sometimes I dream I am back in art school. It’s always the same dream. I’m my age now, and should have graduated with everyone years ago, but instead I am wedded to the campus because of a mysterious missing credit. I take class after class, trying to find the one that will get me out.

It was like that dream, as I stood heaving on the trail, lost in the feeling of being lost, as if the right information will get me where I want to go. I was distraught, like Frances, that I may never find it. A lost memory of something so critical it would change me completely once found.

That over powering sense of loss and the fear of an endless searching had me trembling and I let it for several moments. Then I continued running and it dawned on me that the missing piece may be just a phantom. Maybe it’s just the memory of losing something that was crucial long ago. Or maybe, like the music at the beach, it’s something else that will always be there, even after I’m gone.

 

 

Fiction: The Hunter, Part 1

lion tracks.pdf

She sits very still, elbows propped on knees. Flies land and crawl on her arms and legs but she doesn’t move. They have been biting her for hours. The lenses of her binoculars have become wet with her sweat as she waits.

The air, heavy and hot, presses the hair on her limbs flat, striping her as perspiration runs down. She hopes the tall grass is hiding her sufficiently. Her hat is behind her, floating crooked on brittle stalks. The sun is now behind the maple making the hat unnecessary and distracting. She lowers the binoculars and listens. As the sun drops the birdsong rises. The catbird’s shrill meows from the maple overhead compete with the rising gallop of the ovenbird from the forest to her right. A small black and yellow bird flashes in front of her and up into the branches. Magnolia warbler she thinks, idly tuning her ears for its high-pitched calls. Other warblers sound in the distance and she picks them off in her mind by their complex singing. Blackburnian, chestnut-sided, and yellow-rumped are the obvious ones.

Later the sky is turning a deep cerulean and the wind dies into sudden silence. The leaves of the maple, oak and birch trees around her don’t move and the birds seem to freeze. The grass perks up and there is nothing flying overhead. No sound of distant farm equipment, which can travel for miles with the right wind. No voices. In the stillness she feels the hair on the back of her neck lift, as if one at a time standing at attention. Her ears, trained for years to discern every sound of these woods scan the empty decibels for a clue to the direction she should look. Slowly, she lifts the binoculars back to her eyes. The temperature has dropped enough for her sweat to dry into a thin crust. The eyepiece is warm, instead of hot, against her eye sockets.

Inch by inch she scans the edges of the forest and the blurred line of the grass for a sign. She hasn’t seen any deer or moose all day, which could mean the lion is near, or that lion and prey are miles away. But the hairs on her neck are up, and the dream was a clear sign that today is the day. She knows her prints, her scat, her claw marks on pine bark. She knows this cat like she knows her own fingernails. But they have yet to meet.