All life is sacred. This I honestly believe. When I was six, my grandfather brought home Tillie, a calico cat rescued from a chemical testing facility. Tillie’s fur was singed and patchy, and her damaged eyes shone like small, iridescent oil slicks, but the abuse she’d suffered didn’t soften her. She didn’t think twice about upending insects, watching them struggle until they grew weak and then dead. She enjoyed letting mice dash for the safety of holes before stopping them with a paw on the threshold. When I witnessed Tillie tormenting smaller, weaker beings, I tried to save them, but it was always too late. I would gather what bits she did not devour and bury them in matchboxes, and I swore never to harm a living thing, to dedicate myself to the preservation of life. This is how, in spite of the way he was conceived, we ended up with Caleb.
Weekdays, I drop Caleb at school on my way to the animal hospital. Our home, a cabin accessible by a solitary dirt road, stands in a pine wood, and at times it seems the trees are encroaching, as though when I turn away and back, they’ve crept closer. We used to live in a bungalow in town, but we had to move on account of Tillie. Tillie isn’t the cat I knew as a boy; she’s my wife. Caleb’s mother. The cat died years ago; my wife only sometimes wishes she were dead. She, too, bears the scars of what she’s suffered, and when Tillie no longer felt safe in our bungalow, when she needed to put a great deal of distance between herself and other people, I was happy to oblige. I moved us to my great-grandfather’s mountain cabin. We lived there for twelve years, and I thought we’d put the past behind us. Then I woke on a Wednesday to find Tillie’s side of the bed empty. She’d left without so much as a note. When Caleb asked about his mother, I told him to get ready for school. I made a peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwich and packed it in a paper sack with pretzels and a juice box. I hustled the boy out to my pickup, and we rode in silence through the pass.
Seventy-five years ago, WPA workers leveled a portion of a mountain known as Grandfather to build the highway, and on either side of this ravine, pines that are snow-capped from November to April cling to the sloping land. An abundance of creatures dwell in the surrounding wood – beavers and rabbits, wolves and foxes, black bears and whitetail deer – and I always navigate the pass on high alert, eyes roving, scanning the tree screen for any sign of a possum, groundhog, or wild turkey. Half the animals brought into the hospital have been struck down in the pass. I spend my days setting their bones, repairing perforated organs, stitching skin, but only a fraction of them pull through.
I was nine when my mother left us. A month later, I was riding through the pass with my grandfather, who used to let me sleep over at the cabin he’d helped his father build, when I saw a twelve-point buck step into the road. A man appeared to be dozing at the wheel of the F-150 beside us, and I struck my window, crying, “Do something!” at my grandfather, who laid a hand on my thigh. He squeezed as he slowed the pickup, and for a suspended second, I thought machine and animal had canceled one another out – neither truck nor buck seemed to give ground – then the front of the F-150 crumpled and the deer was airborne. He came down in front of our truck, which crunched and thumped over him. My grandfather had a knack for nursing injured animals back to health; his folk remedies and methods are more useful than much of what I learned in veterinary school. There was no hope for the buck, however, who ended up in bloody hunks on the shoulder, one antler torn clean off, his hind legs attached to the rest of him by a flap of hide. Afterward, my grandfather held me and stroked me in the cabin I would later share with Tillie and Caleb. A short time later, the DOT signs appeared in the pass.
“What does it mean?” Caleb asked at five, sitting on his knees, peering through the windshield, pointing at one of the signs. The boy had already taught himself to read; I was amazed and frequently intimidated by him.
“Lots of animals live in the woods,” I said. “They tend to wander into the road, so you’ve got to keep your eyes peeled.”
Caleb shook his blond head. “That’s silly.”
I agreed. Watch for Animals would have sufficed, or just plain Deer Crossing. Whether something was or was not wildlife seemed to me straightforward, but the signs implied this was not the case; what wandered into the road looking like wildlife and walking like wildlife might not, in fact, be wildlife at all.
Seven years later, on the morning Tillie vanished, as I drove through the pass toward Caleb’s school, I sneaked glances at the boy’s face, which is an amalgam of my wife’s and that of a stranger. He has Tillie’s upturned nose and sharp chin, but his mouth is wider, his lips fuller. Tillie is dark; Caleb is blond and apple-cheeked like a cherub, and his eyes are a profound shade of green. Over the years I’ve tried to put together a picture of his father based on these features, because neither Tillie nor I ever saw the man’s face. From my position on the floor, I couldn’t – the angle was all wrong – and Tillie never opened her eyes. Once he growled a warning about not calling the cops and stole out through the bungalow’s busted back door, once Tillie released me from the belts with which he’d hogtied me, she climbed into the tub, where she spent some time scouring her skin with the precision of an automaton. Neither of us thought about the fact that she was destroying evidence. The police never made an arrest, but two months later, just after we’d moved into the isolated cabin, just before Tillie told me she was pregnant, the detective who’d handled the investigation called to say they’d found a likely suspect burned to a crisp in a single-wide trailer. Daniel Mayo’s record included assaults on women, and the night in question he’d been pulled over for a busted taillight two blocks from our bungalow. Tillie, who was no longer able to sleep through the night, who’d stopped teaching second grade and going to the grocery store, surprised me by refusing to let them take a DNA sample from then-unborn Caleb. “Don’t you want to know?” I asked gently. “Won’t it give you some peace?” Tillie shook her head. There was no more peace. A photo of Mayo appeared in the paper, and I looked for traces of him in Caleb but found none. In the end I decided he couldn’t have been the boy’s father. I never would have said this aloud, but in my heart I knew Caleb’s father was special. Extraordinary, even. For all his brutality, his sperm had triumphed where mine had always failed. Caleb emerged from Tillie’s womb drenched in purity and beauty in spite of everything, and knowing his father is out there – at large – gives me some twisted and entirely inexplicable hope.
“Was it something I did?” Caleb asked as we headed toward Millard Fillmore Middle School, breaking the silence that had bound us since we left the cabin. “Did she leave because of me?”
Something shook the branches of a roadside pine. I gripped the wheel with both hands and tapped the brakes, my eyes glued to the shuddering needles. “Of course not,” I said. “Why would you ask that?”
Caleb shrugged. “Sometimes I think she wishes I’d never been born.”
Tillie once told me she’d been dreaming of motherhood since she learned to crawl. She’d started stuffing pillows under her shirts at three, and in childhood games of make-believe always took the role of mother. She’d spent her teen years babysitting, majored in early-childhood education. When we met in the children’s section of a bookstore, she’d been teaching second grade for three years. I told her I was looking for a book for a nonexistent nephew, and she recommended some titles. Afterward, she let me buy her a latte in the bookstore café, and we discovered that our grandfathers had served on the same destroyer in WWII. On our third date, I mentioned that I was eager to get married and start a family, and Tillie took me back to her apartment, where I stripped off her modest blouse and skirt and became acquainted with the dips and hollows of her angular, boylike body. We started trying to conceive on our wedding night, and when I woke to discover Caleb’s father looming over our bed, shrouded in shadow, pressing the blade of my own butcher’s knife to my throat, ordering me to lie face-down on the floor, we’d been trying for four years.
“I can’t,” Tillie said from where she huddled in a corner of the cabin, wrapped in a green afghan crocheted by my great-grandmother. The pregnancy test lay where it had fallen on the heart-pine floorboards after my wife hurled it against the wall. Through its tiny plastic window, the pink lines for which we’d long been hoping were visible. “I can’t have it.”
“Tillie,” I said, using the voice I employ with frightened animals – a voice picked up from my grandfather, who taught me how to move stealthily among the trees, identifying eggs in nests and fur clinging to bark and various paw and hoof prints, who could quiet a badger, bear, or boy with a couple of carefully pitched words. I’d hardly dared touch my wife since the night Caleb was conceived, but I lowered myself to the floorboards and reached for her knee. She flinched. “A child isn’t responsible for the sins of its father.”
“And we’ve been trying for so long.”
We’d often speculated about how quickly after conception a woman would feel the initial flicker of life, and I asked Tillie when she first suspected she was pregnant.
“When he was on top of me,” she said after a pause. “Before he pulled out, I knew.”
I felt stung by this revelation, and I wondered why she’d waited two months to take a pregnancy test but didn’t ask. I lifted her chin with a finger, forcing her to look at me. Her dark eyes, once calm and even, now danced like windblown drops of rain. “You’re the woman I love,” I said, “and you can have this baby. I know you can.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
“The thought of raising his child.”
I shook my head. “The child deserves to live.”
In the end, Tillie came around to my way of thinking. She carried the boy to term, and on a windy March morning I drove her through the pass, slowing to avoid a pair of possums and the fox that was shadowing them, coaching her on Lamaze breathing. All my people were long dead, but Tillie’s parents and sister and nieces and nephew were there, and we captured every moment of the birth on video. I caught Caleb as he flowed from Tillie in a torrent of pink-tinged fluid. I clipped the umbilical cord and laid him on my wife’s belly. I felt not the slightest twinge of regret, only joy and relief and an overpowering current of love, love that seemed to permeate the room, seeping into the corners. When I looked at Tillie, I thought she felt it, too. Despite the recurring nightmares I’d had before Caleb’s birth – nightmares about Tillie batting him around and pinning him to the floor and tearing him to bits with the teeth and claws of a damaged and long-dead cat – she took to mothering like a raccoon takes to refuse. It seemed to calm her, to return her to the serene state she’d occupied before Caleb’s father broke into our lives, which is why I was surprised to hear the boy say what he said about her wishing he’d never been born.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said as we stopped in front of Millard Fillmore. “What’s she ever done to give you that impression?”
Caleb hoisted his book bag onto his shoulder. His lips quivered. “It’s just a feeling.”
“Well, it certainly isn’t true,” I said. “Your mother loves you.”
“I know she does.”
“Come here,” I said, and Caleb slid across the bench seat until he was pressed against me. He’d recently turned twelve, but unlike most boys his age, seemed to be growing more affectionate. Often he would still scramble into my lap. “He’s getting too old, Walter,” Tillie said into the darkness of our bedroom on more than one occasion. “It isn’t right.” “Would you rather he was shaving his head and spitting at us?” “Of course not. You know what I mean.” And though I feigned ignorance, I did know. Caleb’s delicate nature would bring him nothing but sorrow, but I couldn’t bring myself to discourage it. As I watched him stroke the exposed belly of a terrier at the hospital or felt his arms snake around my waist from behind, my feelings for the boy swelled painfully, squeezing my lungs until I was forced to gasp for air. “It can be a lot scarier than you’d think,” my grandfather used to say after my mother left us. “Loving your own damn child.” He would imprison me on his bony lap, gulping Old Grand-Dad and weeping, and I was appropriately terrified by the thought of such desperate love.
“I’ll bet Mom went to see Aunt Carly,” Caleb said now as I buried my nose in his curls, which smelled of sun-dried cotton. Tillie’s sister had moved to the piedmont with her family two years earlier. The boy’s explanation for his mother’s absence reminded me of scenarios I’d come up with after my own mother’s departure, and although I knew he was wrong, I told him I was sure he was right. I tickled him until he squealed, then watched him trundle inside. The sky hovered over the school like the iron hull of the destroyer Tillie’s and my grandfather served on in WWII, and as I drove to the animal hospital, snow started drifting. It was the war that convinced my grandfather of the sanctity of life. To escape detection by the Japanese, he’d once buried himself under a pile of his slain comrades, and for the rest of his days he would wake periodically, shrieking, trying to shove his buddies off him, screaming about their blood, how it burned his skin. Whenever this happened, I held him until he quieted, but my mother just rolled her eyes. “He’s no saint, you know,” she would say, dragging on a filterless cigarette. On the day she left for parts unknown, I found a sealed envelope under my pillow, one on which she’d written: If you’re ready for the truth, open me. I buried the envelope in my sock drawer, where it waited for years, yellowing patiently.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” Tillie said into the inky darkness of our bedroom the night before she disappeared. This was when we discussed vital things – after we’d switched off the bronco-shaped bedside lamps my grandfather bought at auction while I was in my mother’s womb. “Something I’ve kept from you for twelve years.”
My mouth went dry, and I swallowed.
“It’s about Caleb’s father,” she said. “I lied when I said I never saw his face.”
I felt angry, but not because she’d lied. This was a jealous anger, one I tried to quell as I reached for her hand under the bedclothes. “Tillie, what are you saying?”
Darkness spread itself through the rooms of the cabin so densely that our pupils were never able to adjust, and in the still of night we were forced to make our way to the bathroom like the blind, our outstretched fingers acting as eyes. I couldn’t see Tillie, but I felt her turning toward me. “When he tied you up,” she said, “when he yanked up my nightgown, I was terrified, but I never felt any pain, so I peeked, and when I did my fear vanished. Caleb’s father was seven feet tall, and he was crowned by soft light. He wore a cape and boots, and his body was covered in downy fur. He had horns, Walt, huge white horns that wound around and around. His teeth looked so sharp, but he was smiling the whole time. And crying. His eyes were the color of ancient moss. I heard a deep, melodious voice, and I realized he was speaking to me with his eyes. He kept saying this wasn’t an act of violence. I am a creature of love, he said. I venture out of the wood only to deliver love wherever it is needed.”
Tillie paused for breath, and I was glad she couldn’t see my face. I wondered how I could have been so blind to her unraveling.
“He said he was giving me what I wanted most, that Caleb would be extraordinary because he was conceived of pure love. Once he’d gone, I doubted what I’d seen and heard, and yet, there was Caleb. I thought he might come out with horns and a halo. I’ve been struggling with this for twelve years, going back and forth, but the memory hasn’t faded, and I’m convinced now that everything happened just as I remember it.” Tillie squeezed my hand, which had gone numb. “Say something, Walt.”
What could I say? That I, too, believed Caleb’s father was special, but that I drew the line at the notion of a mythical man-beast roaming the earth, impregnating women in the name of love? That I’d been in the room when Caleb was conceived, and that to me, what happened between Tillie and Caleb’s father had sounded like an act of violence? That when the man wasn’t grunting and moaning, I’d heard him saying lewd and disparaging things? That when my wife wasn’t sobbing, I’d heard her begging him to get off? To leave her alone? That lying on the floor of our bungalow with my hands and feet bound behind me, I’d felt more powerless than I used to feel when my grandfather pulled off his pajama bottoms and pressed himself against me in the night? That knowing even the most unthinkable act could result in a being as pure as Caleb was the only thing that had prevented me from going against my own deeply held belief and taking my life?
“Why are you telling me this now?” I said.
“It’s time Caleb knew the truth.”
“About his father.”
“You’re going to tell him what you just told me.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s still pretty young.”
“He’s almost a teenager.” She squeezed my hand. “We both know how special Caleb is. Don’t you think it’s time he knew, too?”
Once Tillie was sleeping I stole down the blackened hall, feeling my way. I pushed open the door of Caleb’s room, and there, in the glow of an owl-shaped nightlight my grandfather bought me when I was a boy, I knelt beside Caleb’s bed. I pushed the curls from his damp forehead, and he sighed and turned toward me. As far as the boy knew, I was his father. Tillie and I had never before discussed telling him the truth about his parentage. I saw no point in shattering his illusions, but he was her son, and I’d always deferred to her when it came to Caleb. I knew the boy would be confused by his mother’s version of events, that he would come to me with questions. I considered scooping him up and stealing out to my pickup. Driving through the pass, just the two of us, heading for parts unknown. He would never realize I wasn’t his father. He would never understand how his conception had damaged his mother. As I pictured us rolling over sun-drenched blacktop, I stroked his sleeping limbs. I thought of my grandfather, and fear fluttered within me. In the dimness of the owl’s light, Caleb looked unnaturally beautiful – godly – and I wished his eyes would open, that he would throw his arms around my neck.
The next morning I surreptitiously examined the boy as he ate Fruity Pebbles and drank orange juice. I’d never before noticed that the green of his eyes was so like the color of moss. After dropping him at school, I drove through increasingly heavy snow to the hospital, where I was instantly wrapped in the comfort of contained chaos. I examined a steady stream of Labradors and poodles, spaniels and collies, mutts and housecats, parakeets and rabbits. To my dismay, I was forced to put down an Irish setter who’d got hold of a poisoned steak. Rex’s distended tongue lolled from his mouth, and his eyes spun, unfocused. His limbs jerked, his breath was ragged, but worst of all was his plaintive keen. Rex’s owner stood beside the exam table stroking the ginger dog, cursing his neighbor, who he was sure had put out the poisoned meat. “Rex tore up one of his flowerbeds last year,” the old man said, shaking his head. “The bastard’s never forgiven him.” After administering sodium pentobarbital, I retired to my office, where I sat weeping until the receptionist buzzed to tell me a black bear cub had been struck down in the pass.
The teen boys who brought in the cub smelled of whiskey, and I decided the mother bear must have been dead already not to have torn them apart as soon as they stepped from their truck. The cub was unconscious. His hind legs were broken, and blood leaked from lacerations on his abdomen and chest. I went to work with another vet and two nurses, cleaning, suturing, setting bones. Once the plaster casts were in place, we moved him into an oxygenated recovery tent. Only time would tell if the cub would live.
After removing a tumor from the back of a guinea pig and extracting a three-foot length of dental floss from the intestine of a kitten, I changed out of my scrubs and headed home. Darkness had fallen, but light shed by the waxing gibbous moon bounced off a blanket of snow, infusing the air with a ghostly brightness. In the pass, I drove ten miles under the limit, searching for wildlife. Snowflakes swirled in white tunnels thrown out by my headlamps, and I’d almost reached the turnoff to the cabin when I spied a hunched figure moving along the shoulder – a man, remarkably tall, wrapped in a hooded cloak. I wondered what in the hell he thought he was up to. Even an experienced woodsman like my grandfather wouldn’t have ventured out on such a night. After passing the man, I looked for him in my rearview. Had he ducked into the trees? I eased the truck onto the shoulder, turned and surveyed the white road, but saw no movement. As the heater hummed, I considered pulling the flashlight out of the glovebox, stepping out to investigate. Perhaps he was in need of help. I pictured myself wandering down the road, peering into the trees, calling myself hoarse. But for drifting snow, the pass was still. Minutes ticked by, and I became less and less certain that I’d seen a man at all. A sense of desolation crept through me. My gloved fingers trembled as I put the truck in gear.
At home, I told Caleb that Tillie had called the hospital, that she was visiting her sister as he’d suggested. When he asked why she’d gone without telling us, I said she needed some alone time. When he asked if we were getting a divorce, I assured him that we were not. Caleb nodded, but I don’t think he believed me. That night, we ate spaghetti and watched The Night of the Hunter, a movie I used to watch with my grandfather, who couldn’t abide death scenes. He refused to watch war movies, but he loved sleepy-eyed Robert Mitchum. He passed this affection on to me, and I to Caleb. As we huddled on the couch under the same afghan Tillie had been wrapped in when she discovered she was pregnant, I studied Harry Powell’s shadow. On the night Caleb was conceived, his father had thrown a similar shade on the wall of our bedroom – long, with a large, misshapen head. From where I lay bound on the floor I’d studied this shadow carefully, trying to block out the sounds, humming the old-time hymns I used to hum when my grandfather slid his hands into my underpants. On the couch, Caleb now pushed against me, and I wound my arms around him.
Two days later, after dropping Caleb at school, I sailed right past the hospital. I followed Main Street to Madison and turned from there onto Jefferson, slowing as I approached the brick bungalow where Tillie and I had lived at the outset of our marriage. The house in which Caleb was conceived. Not wanting to taint the place for its new owners, we hadn’t told the young couple what happened there. “What if he comes back?” Tillie had said. “Shouldn’t we warn them?” I assured her that perpetrators only return to the scene of the crime in movies. As I cruised by, I realized that though the shutters and door had a fresh coat of paint, the house was devoid of life. A red-and-white For Sale sign was staked next to the front walk. Wondering what had become of Ricky and Sue Scott, I drove to the hospital, where I found the bear cub awake. He was weak, but he would live. Burying my face in his fur, I nuzzled his sutured stomach, and he wrapped his front paws around my head in what seemed an embrace. I attributed his recovery to age. Young bodies are miraculously resilient. Children abide. In time, they can recover from abuse that would permanently damage or kill an adult.
After tucking Caleb in that night, I tossed and turned. I rolled my truck down the hill before revving the engine. There was no sign of the tall, cloaked figure in the pass. I headed into town, toward Jefferson Street. For several years after we’d moved, I suffered from terrible insomnia – at times, I still do – and when I couldn’t sleep, I would sneak out of the cabin and drive through the pass. I would park outside the brick bungalow on Jefferson, where I was sure Ricky and Sue Scott were sleeping peacefully or making love, and I would imagine Caleb’s father returning. I would consider how the sight of him might affect my belief in the sanctity of life. On several occasions, after watching for some time, I exited my pickup and moved stealthily around the house, checking every door and window. Ricky and Sue Scott left the back door open once, and I walked right in. I examined the kitchen in the dim light of the bulb over the sink. Someone had left a butcher’s knife on the counter, and I studied its softly glowing blade. The Scotts hadn’t gotten around to replacing the avocado-colored 1970s appliances, and I was overcome by an uncanny sensation of trespassing in my own home. I crept all over, rifling through cabinets and closets, sitting on unfamiliar chairs and couches. I wondered, as I went, if Caleb’s father had stopped to paw through our belongings, or if he’d made a beeline for the bedroom. The sound of Ricky’s and Sue’s deep, even breathing flowed through the house, filling every crevice, and as I slunk toward their king-sized bed, I thought about how long Caleb’s father might have stood, listening to the sound of Tillie’s and my breathing. Had he been nervous, or was this something he’d done a dozen times before? I tried to picture myself pressing the blade of the knife I’d seen in the kitchen to Ricky’s throat. Sue was a lovely blonde, and I tried to imagine shoving up her nightgown, yanking down her panties despite her protestations, despite the tears that would no doubt flow. As if my thoughts had penetrated her rest, Sue stirred. Sitting up, she looked right at me. A streetlamp partially illuminated the room, and I waited for her scream to pierce the quiet of Jefferson Street, but Sue didn’t scream. She sighed – a deep, satisfied sound – before rolling over and pressing herself into her husband from behind.
Jefferson was dark, but as I rolled to a stop in front of the bungalow, I noticed a light burning. I found the back door open. Inside, the rooms were bare and empty. Even the kitchen had been stripped. I moved silently through the dim, familiar space toward what had once been our bedroom and found Tillie curled on the floor, her blue wool coat thrown over her. I shook her shoulder. She sat up expectantly, but when she saw me her smile fled.
“Oh,” she said. “It’s you.”
I lowered myself to the hardwoods. “Not who you were expecting.”
“I’m waiting for Caleb’s father.”
“They only return to the scene of the crime in movies, remember?”
Tillie took my hands. She’d been gone three days. She looked exhausted, disheveled. The weight of my fear for her overwhelmed me, and my eyes stung.
“You don’t believe me,” she said, “and Caleb won’t either.”
“What did you plan to do?”
“Ask him to show himself to his son.” Tillie smiled, and I was confronted with the second-grade teacher I’d met in a bookstore fifteen years earlier. “If you’d seen him, you would understand. Oh, Walt. I wish you hadn’t been tied up that night.”
Over the years I’d given a lot of thought to what might have happened if I hadn’t been tied up the night Caleb was conceived. If I’d heard his father breaking in and had merely been feigning sleep as he stole into the room. If I’d leapt from our bed and concealed myself behind the door to lie in wait. If I’d had the foresight to stash a weapon in my bedside table. If I’d been able to loose myself, to rise from the floor while Caleb’s father was still on top of my wife. Would I have been able to sneak up behind him, to sink a knife between his shoulder blades?
“I do believe you, Tillie,” I said, and though I didn’t, I wanted to and hoped that in time I would. I wanted to believe the man-beast existed. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d rejected the truth in favor of something more palatable. When I was sixteen, my grandfather threw a blood clot, and I was forced to drive his old F-150 through the snowy pass, trying in vain to reach the hospital before the clot reached his heart. Afterward I returned to the cabin, removed the unopened letter that had been languishing in my sock drawer for seven years, and burned it. Before my grandfather stopped breathing, as he’d leaned his trembling head on my shoulder, as his gnarled fingers clutched at my lap, he tried to confess things he’d done to my mother. He tried to beg forgiveness for things he’d done to me. He tried to make excuses, but I wouldn’t let him. Over the reedy sound of his voice, I hummed the old-time hymns. Once he was gone, I would be alone in the world, and no matter what he’d done, I didn’t want him to die. I wanted him to live forever. He’d taught me everything I knew, and I believed I loved him with all my heart. When he stopped breathing, I pounded the steering wheel and howled. In front of the hospital, I lowered his lids and called him Grandfather Mountain, the nickname I’d given him as a boy. Two months later, I lied about my age and enlisted in the navy. Four years after that, I put myself through veterinary school working as a CPR instructor and lifeguard.
Having promised to help Tillie explain to Caleb his conception, I convinced her to leave the bungalow. Her car was parked on a side street, but we left it and climbed into my pickup. Tillie slid over until she was pressed against me. She laid her head on my shoulder. As we drove, snow started falling, and by the time we hit the pass, it was coming down in fat flakes. Tillie breathed evenly into my ear, and I thought of how, in the months leading up to Caleb’s birth, I’d considered leaving her. It had nothing to do with Tillie or the way Caleb was conceived; I’d convinced her to have him, and I believed in his right to live. I wanted a child, but I feared that my grandfather had tainted me with his love – a love that choked the man, a love that kicked him in the gut every damned day of his life. But once Caleb was born, I learned to appreciate the torment of such unspeakable love. I also learned that urges and actions are entirely separate things.
As we approached the turnoff, I imagined the sleeping boy, and my heart swelled. I gasped for air, and that was when I saw it – a tall, cloaked figure darting from the white-coated pines, bounding in front my pickup to cross the road. It turned toward my headlights, and I thought I saw curled white horns and moss-green eyes that dragged the depths of me, but before I could wake my wife or say Tillie it was gone, scurrying into the snowy wood. Momentarily, I understood that life is just death yanked inside out. Then the moment ended, and it was me in my pickup with Tillie’s head on my shoulder, shivering with the remnants of awareness, guiding us carefully through the pass.