Up to now she’s never thought of the danger animals present to her personally. She has a working knowledge of such words as trample, maul, swarm, impale, but she’s never imagined in her own life they would pertain. It’s true that the town has become more or less overrun with whitetail deer—on the golf course when she drives by with her mom on the way to swim meets, in the yard every day eating everything, the mothers and young in daytime and at dusk, among the trees, in the shadows and in the sweep of the highbeams, and the carcasses of them, broken on the shoulder, like dirty laundry, or else eviscerated beyond comparison to anything. The twitchy does, the fawns nearly grown. Clemmie at ten and a half has seen her first buck. At ten and a half she’s become something of an early riser. She’s begun to have trouble sleeping. In her house she’s often the first to wake and, in the robe that bears her initials but has become too short to truly be hers, she steeps what is commonly known as herbal tea but is more properly referred to as a tisane or an infusion. According to her brother. Mint in the warmer months, although she’s begun her transition to chamomile. It was chamomile this morning, chilly but not too cold to sit outside in the air, robe but no slippers even, to feel the brick night-damp beneath her feet, begin to remember her dreams. She’d been thinking about deer. It was difficult to explain how it felt, to see them. They were wild animals. It seemed certain that they had thoughts, though she understood this to be impossible. Their flanks when they walked, the hitch in their stride, very slight, unlike horses, or dogs, and this moment she always seemed to miss when a deer in stillness became a deer in motion. They had become bold, if you drove slowly they would stare at you, into your face. In some way this was connected in her mind to her sighting of a celebrity, while visiting her brother in the city, a character in a show she’d seen many times on sleepovers, in line at the coffee place where the chocolate croissants were so good—she had looked so real. Small shoulders, clothes from a store. Not so much in relation to her televised image as in relation to the memory of her televised image. And it was in fact at a sleepover that she’d tried to express this. That it was somehow the same, for her, with deer. Sonia with a mouthful of yogurt had said that literally deers were the new squirrels. Clemmie had been thinking about this. She was a child and children liked to see animals. With her toes she’d tried to grip the brick, this was a way of starting her blood, a slow start, in which regard her tea was useless, she knew. It was only recently that she’d been permitted to handle the kettle. She’d watched her teabag spin on its string, dripping. The brick patio was not only damp but truly cold. The air was incredibly clear but also, she thought, almost visible. There was a moment that she saw the deer and there was a separate moment that she saw the antlers. Her heart froze. It could be said that it was standing fast. They’d become bold, deer, and Clemmie had too, apparently; she approached the buck with her tea mug, having realized too late she’d forgotten to leave it, and she said to herself that she’d like to try to enjoy this. It was breathing. Its fur was hair, but very fine and dense. He—his. Head inclined. So easily he could do her harm. Utter stillness. She has no way of knowing, now only hours later, whether the picture she holds in her head of this deer is a picture of the deer she’s seen or a picture of her own creation whose purpose is to hold the place of this event in her memory. So much of her life has become this way.
“I saw a pack of wolves,” her father says. “Up north of Oneonta.”
“You saw a pack of coyotes,” her brother says. “If you saw anything.”
“That’s what the gas station guy said. I said fuck you, these were wolves. These were big animals. I’d been driving for like three days at that point, Saint John and back, Nashua and back, up past Oneonta now. Jebus help me, these podunk hardware shops, places with barrels of screws, five old guys with dirty fingernails you can’t even tell if they work there who stand around all day shitting each other’s balls, and you have to sort of intuit which one of these guys to give the sample, your spiel, for what? It’s basically just advertising, to get on these guys’ shelves, there’s no volume.”
“Dad,” her brother says. “The coyotes.” This is at the table. Clemmie has three brothers who are twenty-six, twenty-eight, and thirty. When you get past a certain age, which she suspects she herself is approaching, you don’t need to say the fractions. On her plate Clemmie remembers to cut her food into smaller bites than she would instinctively and to chew them with practiced care. Additional to all these brothers she has two sisters-in-law from Virginia and Paris, France, respectively, who are both twenty-eight-and-counting, and a brother-in-law who’s in his early thirties. Sonia thinks it’s pretty neat that she herself has a half-sister who’s in college but in Clemmie’s presence she won’t discuss it. In the contest of older siblings there is no contest.
“Hours vanish when you put in that kind of time at the wheel. Blackout—this is a fact. Suddenly there’s two hundred miles between you and the last thing you remember. Especially up there when you start to get toward Canada. You’re in the woods to where you can’t see the sky for hours and then suddenly you’re in this clearing. And I sort of come to and look out across the field and there they are, about a hundred yards off, about eight of them. I said to myself, my god, look at those magnificent fuckers. In this sort of loose formation, spread out a little, and moving fast, let me tell you. But effortlessly, like there’s no reason in the world to hurry, like eight or maybe nine of them, plus the scout or lead dog maybe fifty sixty yards ahead—there’s a kind of loping to it, the way they move, ten wolves. I’m very sensitive to majesty.”
“Oneonta isn’t really up by Canada,” her brother says. More and more often, her almost-thirty-year-old brother’s been taking the train out for dinner and staying for several days at a time, and she knows this is not a good sign as it concerns the course or state of his life but she likes to have him around. Arthur. He always says funny things to her. “I know it’s exciting to think you’ve seen a pack of wolves but there’s almost no chance you saw a pack of wolves that far south.”
“Coyotes are dog-size. These were wolves on the hunt my little friend.”
“You know”—this is Clemmie’s mother now and her dad is already making his oh-christ-here-we-go face—“I had a gentleman on the other day who mentioned this precise phenomenon. Concerning Clemmie dear, your handsome buck, I’m afraid. It seems that predators of every sort have been following their prey into more populous areas of the continent. Fishercats, for example, after a long period of extirpation, have had a wild resurgence here in southern New England, and this is because we’ve seen an explosion of the rabbit population. The deer population of course is long past carrying capacity, and that means bow hunters by municipal permit and the ruined hoods of a lot of cars, et cetera. But it also means, already, coyotes, cougars, black bears, and—Arthur—the gray wolf, or timber wolf if you prefer, Canis lupus lupus. It has to do with global warming somehow, I suspect. As to exploding populations of various prey, I couldn’t tell you.”
“I suspect that has to do,” Arthur says, “with s-e-x.”
It’s been agreed among Clemmie’s family that she has the eyes of a wolf, which she’s never been sure how to take and is surprised no one by this point’s mentioned. Clemmie focuses on chewing her food completely and swallowing it without once opening her mouth or smacking her lips together and apart in such a way that anyone might find revolting. She holds her fork in her fist. At one level she understands that, like her father’s cursing, Arthur’s referring to sex as s-e-x is a gentle manner of ribbing her for being a child among adults. Contained in which ribbing is the supposition that Clemmie like all children would herself like to become an adult as soon as possible. Arthur loves to act like Clemmie can’t spell, can’t tie shoes, isn’t potty-trained, isn’t ready to hear the facts—and in an undefinable way it’s always given her an impression of safety, to be teased this way. Something like being kissed on the top of the head. That it’s a joke about her need of protection that’s made her feel safe only now occurs to her, and with this thought it starts to feel more than anything like a warning.
“At any rate it’s all very fascinating,” Clemmie’s mom says. She’s been folding the corners of her square dinner napkin toward the napkin’s center to make a smaller square. This square she makes a smaller square. She seems interested in knowing how long this can continue. That the conversation at hand involves actual in-the-flesh sightings of predators and prey has likely slipped her mind. “Wouldn’t you say, dear?” she says to Clemmie’s dad.
Her dad is picking at the callused heel of his palm, pitching slightly, as is his habit when lost in thought. And it’s strange to think that this very minute in his brain are these pictures of wolves in an open field, moving south, tongues in the wind, blood in their teeth—loping. All business, Canis lupus. These pictures are in Clemmie’s brain as well.
Clemmie knows that Sonia knows that the plural of deer is deer. Deers with an s represents a sophisticated brand of dismissal she’s mastering that’s just beyond Clemmie’s ability to articulate. Clemmie’s heard her dad describe Sonia’s mom as a great beauty and she studies Sonia’s own face for signs of this. Her parents do a lot of parental heavy-lifting on behalf of Sonia’s mom and occasionally as a gesture of gratitude Sonia’s mom takes Clemmie for the weekend so they can get some peace and quiet; Clemmie’s mom says Clemmie’s such a calm and inward kid that how much more peace and quiet could they require, but her dad says it’s the gracious thing to do, to let the lady return the favor. Which Arthur says is an almost semantic manner of turning it into another favor they’re doing for her.
“It’s funny,” Clemmie’s saying. Sonia’s room is full of magazines. “Her hair looked just like this. But on the show it’s brown, and longer.” She looks up from the page to Sonia. “You don’t think it’s a wig, do you?”
“Clemmie, o-m-g,” Sonia says, “you need to shut up about Tell, she’s not even an important character.”
Sitting on someone else’s bed has a texture all its own. She never sits cross-legged on her bed at her house. She never sits on top of the blankets. Clemmie looks hard at the photos and text and she wonders what they do to make the pages feel so unlike paper. Sonia’s on the carpet brushing her hair in such a way that’s meant to be soothing, although it’s hard to imagine Sonia being truly soothed. Sitting on her feet in front of the full-length mirror so that if need be they can see each other’s reflected faces. She’s been trying to get Clemmie to discuss Halloween.
“I think it’s a fucking goddamn wig,” Clemmie says. Sonia rolls her eyes. Halloween is still more than five weeks away. Clemmie’s guessing she’s supposed to notice how Sonia keeps pausing to pinch and pull at her earlobe. It’s something they’ve promised to go through together, ear piercing, probably at the hands of Clemmie’s brother’s wife, and it’s a knotty prospect but for elusive reasons this pact means a lot to both of them. She is in fact very pretty, Sonia, but whether she’s a great beauty is a matter for time to tell.
“Last year I was Cinderella but I like to think I’m past that now.”
“Or maybe it’s the hair she wears in real life that’s a wig!” For obvious reasons Clemmie is a few years ahead of most of her peers in both facility with profanities and willingness to use them and she likes to trot these powers out now and again for Sonia’s benefit, who for reasons related to her appearance is completely incapable of cursing convincingly, and knows it. “So that people won’t recognize her!”
“There’s another brush,” Sonia says. “Just something to think about.” Once, in a more compliant mood, Clemmie let Sonia persuade her to make a music video in which these very brushes served as microphones. And Clemmie remembers watching the video immediately afterward and the sinking feeling she’d gotten, to realize they’d both of them enacted this rite of girlhood not wholeheartedly but with palpable self-consciousness about how little they resembled real females in real music videos, and also with a measure of dread that, she thinks now, had something to do with their respective upcoming tenth birthdays. That something irrevocable was happening to them. It seems like either Sonia is a glutton for this kind of punishment or is just insensible to it, but it’s also a fact that she’s grown her hair down past the middle of her back and will take any opportunity to remind Clemmie that this is so. Clemmie has always kept her hair short. Her mother says it’s button-cute and when Clemmie’s asked if she can grow it out has said that she certainly may but that it needs to be trimmed periodically, a little longer each time, if it’s to grow out straight and full and not a total bushy disaster. But then each time she takes Clemmie to the hair place it ends up the same length, around the chin, and in the same way that Clemmie can’t believe she ever believed in Santa she’s begun to realize that not only has she seen through this ruse of her mother’s all along but that she’s never really wanted to grow her hair long anyway.
“She’s in a movie my brother saw,” Clemmie says. “He said she gets nakey.” She doesn’t want to admit that she knows the actress only as Tell and not by her real-live name. It’s true that since she saw her in the New York coffee shop where Arthur brings her for chocolate croissants when she visits him and Odile at their apartment she’s ascribed to Tell a greater complexity of character, mostly because in the coffee shop the actress was alone, seated at a big communal table, reading a newspaper with a furrowed brow and chewing at her thumb in a nervous, distracted way that reminded Clemmie of her dad.
“Clemmie, hello?” Sonia says. “The reason her hair is different in real life and in a recent photo from some dumb magazine is because they don’t shoot the show the same week it airs. They shoot it like months ago, genius.”
The dumb magazine of course is Sonia’s own, one of a devoted collection. Clemmie doesn’t want to admit that the reason she’s pressing Sonia’s buttons is that Sonia, in front of the mirror, is pretty obviously also contemplating whether it’s in store for her to become a great beauty like her mom.
“You could be Drusilla,” Clemmie says, flipping the pages. “Wicked stepsister. You could be the cat—what’s the cat’s name again?”
“Clemmie”—Sonia looking up at her coolly in the mirror—“your hair is in tangles and you have split ends coming out your rear end. Think of Hayden. Come brush your hair, I’ll put some makeup on you, it’ll be fun. You could use a makeover. You look like a boy who looks like a girl.”
“You know what?” Clemmie closes the magazine and abruptly stands up on the bed. She grips the blanket with her toes. At her sides she balls her fists. Her musculature coiling around her. Sonia’s face for just a moment registers a flutter of alarm. “Fuck this shit,” Clemmie says.
Clemmie doesn’t consider herself a tomboy though she definitely takes pride in her affinity for nature and her indifference to its various discomforts. But something she consciously hates is walking over freshly mown dew-wet grass in sandals or bare feet. It’s after midnight. To drive from Sonia’s to Clemmie’s house involves a series of right turns, but if you climb and hop the chainlink fence at the edge of Sonia’s property you can walk through a strip of woods that opens into a broad meadow. At the far side of which you can walk through a second strip of woods and find yourself at a chainlink fence at the edge of Clemmie’s property. What it looks like on the map is Clemmie’s street and Sonia’s street running roughly parallel and in between there’s this big blank space. Door-to-door is about ten minutes. The best part of which is watching her dad climb two chainlink fences and then with branches in his hair try to act like a dignified adult in front of Sonia’s mom. But she’s never tried it alone, the shortcut. In the woods Clemmie does okay though it’s cold now, at this hour, and the branches above her fracture the sky like cracked glass. She makes her way with her hands before her, and moves her feet in a deliberate and searching manner. This she can do, the woods. The absence of light she’s prepared to face down. The shadows that become things become shadows again. It’s the light of the moon that throws her: in it the meadow becomes more vast than seems logical. The wet cut grass itches most of all her ankle knobs. There is the noise of what she takes to be an owl and also distantly and from different directions the baying of at least three separate dogs. Sonia’s said it more than once that her street’s name is better because it has more syllables and can more readily be pronounced in foreign languages, but Clemmie prefers her own because it’s named for the hard land itself. In the meadow’s precise middle there’s a large rock and, losing some skin from her toe-knuckles, she climbs atop it. It’s a clear night, all sky. It’s times like this she always thinks of pictures she’s seen of Earth from space. How unlikely it seems that we all live there. She looks at the edge of the woods across the meadow and realizes she can’t decide in which direction her house is. In a worst-case scenario she becomes hopelessly lost and has to climb some stranger’s chainlink fence and knock on his backdoor in the dead of night and ask to use the telephone. And even best case—she arrives at her house safely under her own powers of navigation and her parents discover her in her bed in the morning with grass all over her feet—she realizes now represents a world of trouble and explaining. Behind her is the rim of woods she’s come through. This presents the exact same problem. She hasn’t really thought this through. Her best option may be to sleep here on a high rock until first light and see if she can’t find her way back to Sonia’s with the help of the sun before Sonia’s mom gets up and anyone is any the wiser. But it’s cold, and damp. In a way that’s not entirely histrionic her teeth have begun to chatter.
She imagines a time when human life was limited in its scope of concerns to the search for food and shelter. Whether anyone might find her here she doubts. It’s the light of the moon that saves her. In the grass her little feet have left a trail of matted prints. She follows these back across the field and gropes through the woods and sees that the lamp in Sonia’s room is lit still, and Sonia herself is sitting by her window.
In Sonia’s hands the word scoff becomes almost onomatopoeic.
“Clemmie, god,” she tells her, rolling her eyes, “you’re such a drama queen.”
On the radio a man who sounds like he’s in a hole has been speaking to Clemmie’s mom about Civic Evolution. “For millions of years the human species evolved its social instincts. Morality is one such instinct, e.g., the greater good, the good of the clan, what have you. We developed these instincts over millions of years because as individuals we would never have survived our environments. To say nothing of surviving each other. As animals it’s in our nature to coordinate our individual interests with the interests of our communities.” Clemmie can somehow tell for certain that in this moment her mother has her forearms parallel on the studio tabletop, leaning forward in a posture of fascination. “But point being this is millions of years of nature doing its good work, and then we create a system of civilization that’s based on the idea of individual freedom or greed if you prefer and just like that dismantle the whole thing.”
Clemmie’s mom says, “This is all so fascinating.”
The pack is in her dreams, its loping and its hunger. Wolves in open space whose eyes don’t glow demonically but shine, reflect light, searching. Moving south. These dreams are not so much nightmares as visions; they don’t frighten her until she wakes. For weeks now, every time she swims she sets a new personal best in the five-hundred free and fifty fly. In the water her thoughts persist. She can feel herself becoming stronger. In her room she sits by the window watching her dad chop wood. Her dad who used to be some sort of sculptor in the city. Who now builds wood stoves and wood stove products in a small factory upstate. It occurs to her to wonder why she’s never wondered what it means about a person in whom such a reversal can take place. What it means about people generally. This time of year he’s mostly on the road and when he’s not he’s chopping wood, for pleasure. With her blood still singing with post-meet endorphins she watches him, framed by the windowpane, and she imagines herself in this frame, swinging the axe high overhead, the sound it makes and the feel of it, sinking into the stump, the split logs flying, and the moment between selecting the next log and setting it before her, stopping to stack these logs periodically, for a moment of rest, and leaning on her axehandle, watching her breath cloud before her face, and returning to her work. He’s in a T-shirt out there, Clemmie’s dad, rosy, flushed, arms wrapped in wiry muscle.
Someone’s put moustaches on all the pumpkins. It’s Clemmie’s dad and Sonia’s mom who take them trick-or-treating. Climbing the fence Clemmie takes care not to tear her costume. While they wait for Sonia to come down from her room Sonia’s mom and Clemmie’s dad have a glass of wine. In the plate-glass kitchen window Clemmie sneaks a glance at her reflection to satisfy herself that she looks as fantastic as Arthur claims. She picks through a fistful of chocolates and gumdrops. Sonia descends the stairs at length, avoiding Clemmie’s eyes. It’s immediately clear that she’s dressed as Tell and dressed as Tell she’s stunning. In her brain Clemmie begs her dad not to ask but inevitably he does ask and Clemmie has to hear her say it.
It’s a warm night after a stretch of cold nights. In the street they run into a herd of fifth-grade boys and among these boys is this boy Hayden. Sonia’s standing at the center of the spreading yellow light of a sodium lamp overhead. Hayden’s got these big brown eyes and a cowlick in the back he’s always pawing. He’s one of the night’s many wizards and something about this strikes Clemmie as just too sweet for words.
“Hiya,” he says. “What are you?”
Sonia’s skirt is dancing at her thighs. Her shoulders are bare and she rolls them as if stretching. In this light her eyes are nearly black. Twisting her hair around a finger. She tells him that she’s Tell but he’s never seen the show.
“It looks really cool!” he says, reaching out to touch the fringes of her sleeve. “I’ll have to start watching.”
Sonia’s mom and Clemmie’s dad have fallen somewhat behind, explaining not so much to each other as just aloud for general benefit that the girls could use some space. The pavement is cracked in a spreading, vascular fashion. Clemmie shiftless in her robes. Her leather sandals are too big, she has to squeeze them with her feet to keep from walking out of them. She holds her bow at her side, quivers her arrow, traces in her mind the course of her own veins. It wasn’t even her idea, dressing up as Artemis.
Darkness falls in a continuum but can be described in discrete phases. In the basement her father’s sculptures are lifelike in every respect except the one that counts. Vividly, on the windowpane, a housefly dies of natural causes, while she has her tea. On a blustery day Clemmie imagines wind as the direct result of Earth’s spinning. The trees lean and sway. Her favorite phase of darkness is a blue she can’t quite describe. Arthur calls just to chat and says to remember that nothing can hurt her.
At a certain stage the viscera of deer spread by tire tread into the pavement resemble nothing so much as paté. On the morning bus Sonia can’t help but admire this observation. It used to just be this way with Sonia. In third grade when Clemmie peed her pants a little and in front of everyone Sophie P. said she smelled like a trucker, it was Sonia who told Sophie P. that if she was going to make remarks about the way people smelled then she’d do well to buy a toothbrush and to have someone show her how to use it. Sonia who loved to watch Clemmie swim and would sit on the edge of the neighbors’ backyard pool with a stopwatch and when Clemmie was tuckered out bring her a towel and a soda. There were movies they could both recite from memory but Sonia said Clemmie could recite them best. Including grownups and people on TV Clemmie was the funniest person Sonia knew, and the strangest, she always said. In the summer she counted the cuts and scratches on Clemmie’s legs and wiped them with peroxide. Clemmie’s vague notion was that allowing Sonia to protect her was a manner of protecting Sonia. Her father they’d never once discussed. For whatever reason she was proud, to have a friend like Clemmie. On the bus Sonia reminds her, warmly, of their plans to have their ears pierced. It’s strange to Clemmie how when she remembers the events of her past life she pictures herself as she is now, because she can remember that in imagining the events of her future life she could only picture herself as she was then.
The hearing of gray wolves is so acute as to register the falling of autumn leaves. Early mornings Clemmie begins to spend time on her mother’s computer. Her brother’s still talking about the movie Tell’s in and so she finds a scene. Tell not only nakey but engaged determinedly in s-e-x, the precise physics of which Clemmie tries and mostly succeeds to forbid herself to picture. The boobs mashed against this man she’s on top of, and her various hollows, at her sternum, her spine, and beneath her collarbones, the sinews of her and her ribs and the creased bottoms of her feet. For the first time this year the windows have frozen over. She drinks her chamomile at the breakfast table, the computer in her lap, reading up on Canis lupus. Every day is shorter. The formerly bright and vital Ms. Mackey has been abandoned by her fiancé and in school her manner becomes blunted and lethargic. Clemmie’s mom suspects she’s forming an addiction to sleeping pills. From her homeroom during roll call Clemmie watches a flock of what her father’s fond of calling honkers, squatting haphazardly on the softball field. Ms. Mackey reads the roster slowly and as if for the first time. It’s a half-day and at least half the class is absent. When what can only be a fishercat comes trundling out of nowhere and kills a goose by its neck, Clemmie’s the only one who’s seen, and she says nothing. At recess she finds a mess of feathers and takes one home.
Arthur arrives by train and brings with him Odile. It’s Thanksgiving. Odile holds Clemmie’s shoulders and says she’s gotten big.
“It’s true,” Arthur says. “Pretty soon she’ll be an entire person.”
Odile frowns and then looks at Clemmie sweetly. Sonia’s instructed Clemmie to ask when Odile can pierce their ears, and it’s not that Clemmie’s frightened but she’s waiting for the moment.
“Clumee,” Odile says in all sincerity. “You’re becoming a young lady.”
The changes to her body are manageable, psychically, however slight, because she can see them in the mirror. Clemmie’s concerned that something’s happening to her brain and that when it’s finished happening it won’t seem bad. The house is full-up with brothers and their spouses. She inflates the air mattress in her parents’ room. Her brother Tim tries to get her interested in the parade. Arthur and Odile keep disappearing in the car for hours at a time, and when they return no one can think of anything to say. The best part of the day is a baked sweet potato she tears open with her teeth when no one’s watching. At the table her dad gives a toast to the bounty of the land; her mom makes her oh-christ-here-we-go face, swirling her wine like a pennant. Arthur gets drunk and goes to bed early. A pack of gray wolves is a nuclear family, Clemmie reads, consisting of a mated pair and that pair’s grown-up offspring. Only in very rare and exceptional cases will a pack adopt a displaced pup into its fold. The air mattress is too bouncy for proper sleep. Tim and Laura and Nick and Tim are off the property as soon as decency permits.
In the morning, her parents snore in counterpoint, different rhythms but same key. While Clemmie’s helping Odile with the dishes Odile lights a cigarette, right there at the sink.
“There are certain things about being an adult,” Odile says, “that your brother thinks he dislikes more than other adults.”
She’s not the only one to have noticed that the baying of dogs in the dead of night has increased. A few hours from dawn the neighbors’ lab Moreau gets going and soon the lights are coming on all the way to the end of Feldspar. Little Teddy Brooker says his terrier’s been digging holes in the furniture and carpet. Sonia’s mom at breakfast says there’s a bitch in heat somewhere. Arthur suggests it’s related to global warming.
“You laugh,” Clemmie’s mom warns him.
The town, she’s begun to notice, is built into the land. Why this should surprise her she couldn’t say. Modest rock formations catch her eye—outcroppings and cliff faces, narrow ravines. It’s in consideration of such features of the landscape as these that many of the town’s houses have been situated. Rivers, creeks, tidal pools. The reservoir is frozen. Her class takes a field trip and Clemmie forgets her mittens. Sonia’s packed an extra pair. They’re wandering the grounds of a recreated Wappinger encampment. Everything is brown and gray, the solid earth, bare trees, this year’s leaves and last year’s leaves. From what Clemmie can tell the general cultural fascination with Native Americans has to do with the perceived simplicity of their beliefs. The woods smell like something she can almost name. Inside a wigwam Sonia discovers that her bag lunch is all candy. From a pocket inside her coat she produces a folded fortune teller, four corners she operates along four folds like a complex set of jaws.
“Tell us about Clemmie’s life,” she says.
According to Sonia there are happy and sad fortunes in equal measure. Clemmie is destined for homelessness, disfiguration, a half-eaten pizza on the night of her prom. Her children will resent her. She tries to discern the mechanism by which Sonia manipulates these outcomes but as far as she can tell there’s none.
“You will be a singer,” the fortune teller informs Sonia. “You will live near the sea.”
They eat out in the cold, as a class, seated on felled trees. It emerges that Clemmie’s sandwich and Hayden’s sandwich are alike in every particular but one. “I always ask my mom to do diagonals,” he says. “But all I ever get is rectangles.”
“You’re learning a valuable lesson,” Clemmie says. She’s never known Hayden to be quite so playful. “In terms of what you want versus what you need.” Hayden chuckles, paws his cowlick. “Still,” Clemmie tells him, “I hate to see you suffer.” She trades with him and eats his sandwich, and he keeps looking at her, she can tell.
“Your eyes are crazy blue,” he says eventually.
“Hayden!” Sonia says. “There’s a Jolly Rancher in your hair!” It appears that this is true. She goes and stands behind him, and as Clemmie sits there watching makes a delicate affair of getting him straightened out.
On the radio a man is talking to Clemmie’s mom on the topic of the End of the World. “In the last decade or so I’d say it’s true that a kind of dream logic has come to dominate our narratives. We have beautiful kids’ movies about the fear of growing up that are actually marketed toward adults. We have movies in which quantum physics is a manner of religiosity, we have movies in which fantasy and reality are indistinct, in which the metaphorical and the literal are indistinct. We have entire short-story oeuvres of ghost stories, spirits transcending the body, transcending human futility, vampires in literary fiction, zombies in literary fiction, werewolves in literary fiction, time travel, parallel worlds, secret powers, movies that are dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams. Our apocalypse tales are tales of renewal. A brand of mourning that doesn’t know what’s lost. It’s Stage Nine we’re at. It’s Day of the Locust with actual locusts.”
He has the voice of Nat King Cole.
“This is all so fascinating,” Clemmie’s mom is telling him. In the car she drives with two hands on the wheel. Clemmie sees a buck on the frozen golf course as they roll past.
“Mom!” Clemmie says. Her mother pulls onto the shoulder where they can watch.
It holds its rack of antlers high, and doesn’t look in the direction of the car but seems to relish being watched.
“In the Cold War for example,” the man on the radio is saying, “nuclear holocaust was imminent but not inevitable. That was a time of ifs. We’ve moved into the realm of whens. Think of the last time anxiety about the changing planet came into your head. High tide is all it takes, for me. Do you ever have dreams of falling? Close your eyes. Think of your last dream of falling and try to remember how that felt. You feel terror, yes, you feel panic, yes. But you know at some level, in the dream, that you’re not falling to your death. Somewhere in your deepest brain you know that this is not the end. This is dream logic and it’s the logic that has come to rule our imaginations. As if this is a dream we’re about to wake up from.” There’s a pause, and when he resumes his voice has softened. “There’s something touchingly childlike about it.”
Children love to see animals and Clemmie’s a child and it’s really as simple as that. Her mom is wearing the stern and conflicted face she reserves for tasting soup and hearing her own voice on the radio. The buck is before her eyes and registers in them as a glimmer of recognition.
“There is something majestic about him, isn’t there?” she says, here in the car.
Arthur says that the longer you live the smaller the percentage of your total life each day and week and year is, and to Clemmie this seems to describe a kind of acceleration. She swims through her pain as if pain were itself an element. In the showers her teammates’ voices echo off of every wall and she stands there in the steam, leaning and breathing hard. What she likes about being sore is the feeling it gives her of her body’s movement in the world. With respect to habitat the gray wolf is what’s called a generalist, which she takes to mean they can sleep where they please. All this research contributes to her sense that they are out there, on the surface of the same planet. In Clemmie’s dreams they’re moving faster, snarling at unseen threats, vanquishing prey in precise proportion with the appetite of the pack, resting at dusk in the shadows, the slow wheeling of turkey vultures, high aloft, and dreaming themselves, the wolves, in preparation for the day to come.
On the bus Sophie P. drops a scrunchie and Sonia retrieves it from beneath the seat, handing it to her with what looks for all the world like genuine warmth and open-heartedness. Only a few days remain until holiday break. By the time the bell rings for dismissal the sky’s already started growing dark. It’s true that there’s something almost primal about Clemmie’s steely eyes. Getting her hair cut she searches the counter for things to look at besides her own image in the mirror, and the image of this image reflected on the facing mirror behind her, and the infinite repetition of these images the unfortunate arrangement of these mirrors creates, an effect known as a hall of mirrors and one she doesn’t even like to think about. The hair lady asks her what she thinks she’ll get for Christmas and Clemmie, catching her own eye, imagines herself snarling in response, and then a moment later can’t tell whether she has in fact snarled or has simply ignored the question. Her mother in the waiting area is on the phone with Arthur. Her side of the conversation is mostly listening noises but from what fragments can be heard across the room Clemmie gathers that there’s something wrong with Odile.
“Odile is pregnant,” her father says at home. He chooses a log from the pile and balances it on the stump. “Arthur has no health insurance so they’re moving back to goddamn stupid France.” He splits logs through dinner, in the floodlit yard. There’s a difference, Clemmie decides, lying on her bed staring at the ceiling, between hearing an axe fall and hearing it actually strike.
Arthur’s phone goes straight to voicemail. At breakfast the baying of the neighbors’ dog seems not so much to drown out thought as to replace it. Her parents, for the first time in recent memory, are awake when she comes down, blood-eyed and pouchy at the kitchen table; they appear to have been up all night. Waiting for the water to boil Clemmie continues her research on the lives of wolves and on life in general. On numerous occasions wolves have been recorded to have actively sought out bears in their dens and to have killed them for reasons unrelated to predation. Stories in which humans are torn apart by wolves play a prominent role in the folkloric traditions of numerous but unspecified primitive cultures. Tell is marrying a ballplayer who has formerly stood trial for crimes of a sexual nature. The ocean is reclaiming the planet. When Clemmie notices her parents staring at her she becomes aware that she has been humming in a tuneless, guttural fashion. She goes to school in sunglasses, sipping a chamomile tisane from a go-mug, an affect that creates a general murmuring among her classmates, though it’s nearly an hour before puffy-faced Ms. Mackey notices, and asks her to remove them.
“The fuck I will,” Clemmie announces. She’s turned her head ever so slightly in the direction of Sonia, who’s seated in the front row of desks, and who is the only student not to have turned immediately around to face her.
“Clemmie, Clemmie,” Sonia, still not turning, says before Ms. Mackey can respond. “You’re spinning off the planet.”
Winter break begins on the day of the winter solstice and is occasioned by the first considerable snowfall of the season. The tidiness of which Clemmie takes for a happy sign of something. She’s in supposedly big trouble but her parents have planned an entire afternoon and evening in the city with Arthur and Odile—getting ready in front of the same mirror and trading fond and private jokes about each other’s bodies in such a way Clemmie doesn’t know what to make of—and so Clemmie is to stay at Sonia’s. Already there are six inches on the ground. More or less spontaneously upon Clemmie’s arrival at Sonia’s door, they reach a tacit compact to suspend the resentment that’s somehow grown so taut between them, in consideration of the circumstances. Sonia wears a one-piece snowsuit and mittens that draw tight about halfway up her forearm. Her boots are filled with down. “You’re ready for the moon!” Clemmie tells her, and Sonia laughs and walks across the yard in giant steps, in slow motion, with her arms held out away from her.
A rabbit hops across the corner of the yard and Sonia asks what kind it is. A snow hare, Clemmie decides authoritatively. Clemmie’s been thinking lately of what it is children do when they’re past the age of make-believe but still disposed to play. In the snow she sees it has to do with impulse. They stomp their feet and chase each other, they fall down where they please, face first, they twirl, they take off sprinting along random vectors and change course as abruptly or else stop short, sink to their knees. They tackle each other and roll around, they request each other’s audience for pointless little stunts. They gather snow up in their arms and dump it on their own heads.
There’s a steep bank the plow has made by the driveway and it’s Sonia’s idea to climb the tree beside it and take turns jumping off its sturdy lower limbs.
In the tree, Clemmie and Sonia sit for a minute, swinging their legs. It used to be hours they’d spend this way, in the barefoot months of longer days. There were girls whose parents wouldn’t schedule playdates at Sonia’s because her mom permitted this type of thing, but Sonia’s mom has always seemed to understand that it’s a special kind of intimacy that’s possible in such activities as climbing trees, which children shouldn’t be denied. So here they are not in fact all that far above the Earth, side-by-side, prepared to jump but in no hurry.
“I’m going to be an aunt,” Clemmie says.
Sonia sighs. “Oh wow,” she says. “That must be weird for you.”
They’ve entered a period of larger snowflakes, fat and delicate, that stick to their woolen hats, to their hair, and in Sonia’s long dark lashes. In the snow it never quite feels cold, a curious phenomenon. That she’s said weird and not exciting is exactly what it is about Sonia that Clemmie loves.
“I just don’t know what it’s supposed to be like,” Clemmie says. “People keep acting like it’s something I myself have accomplished.”
“My mom says you have a gift for abstraction,” Sonia says. “This is the kind of thing a gift like that can make seem worse than it really is.”
“Have you heard,” Clemmie says—their breath is in evidence before them, and has grown even, and synchronized—“about how the wolf population is spreading south because of the abundance of available prey?”
In response to which Sonia pats Clemmie’s gloved hand with her own gloved hand. Before long it’s dark. It occurs to Clemmie that she’s become incapable of experiencing happiness or contentment as anything but a prelude to the end of something. She is, though—happy, in this moment. They teach Sonia’s mom the secret to really good hot chocolate, because finally it doesn’t seem to matter that it’s too late. She builds a fire, Sonia’s mom, and pours herself a glass of wine and in her favorite chair she folds her legs beneath her. Sonia and Clemmie eat dinner on the floor, reading comics in old newspapers. Sonia asks her mom how they know that no two snowflakes are alike.
“I don’t think anyone really knows that,” Sonia’s mom says. She doesn’t look away from the fire or even let her eyes come back to focus. Her eyes shine, and it occurs to Clemmie that she’s at the point of crying. “I think it’s more like a commonsense assumption.”
Like her mom Sonia can be made to snort if you make her laugh when she’s already laughing. Sitting on the bed Clemmie does impressions of her own mother, of Ms. Mackey, Tell’s fiancé, her neighbors’ dog. She does Arthur’s sly asides. Sonia gets going to the point that she’s in pain, clutching her gut, tears in her eyes. Clemmie does Odile like she was born to do Odile—the boredom, the impatience, the fricatives and plosives, the humorless crossing of her legs. Sonia puts her face in her hands and tells Clemmie she has to stop.
“I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard,” she says in the eventual calm that overcomes them both. They’re on the carpet now, Clemmie on her back and Sonia on her side. They’ve mixed-and-matched the tops and bottoms of two pairs of Sonia’s PJs. Sonia says she wishes she had Clemmie’s eyes. When Clemmie imagines her future life there’s so much she knows she’ll face alone.
“I miss you,” she hears herself say.
It’s exactly the sort of thing to make her sneer but Sonia breaks into a wide smile.
“I miss you, too, Clem,” Sonia says. Then she kisses Clemmie’s neck, cartoonishly, below the ear, and hugs her waist. Before long she’s fallen asleep with her head on Clemmie’s shoulder.
The well-being this physical contact effects strikes Clemmie as an experience of her own animal nature—an exchange of bodily warmth. She envisions, in various combinations, Arthur, her dad, her mom, Sonia’s mom, Odile, poor Ms. Mackey, Tim, Tim, Nick, Laura, exchanging heat in this manner, and she envisions waking up this way, with Sonia, tangled in their den. At length she extricates herself, very carefully, in order to bring a blanket and pillows from the bed. There’s a bulletin board on Sonia’s desk and in the window’s moonlight she spends a moment perusing the assembled fragments of Sonia’s life. There are ticket stubs Clemmie recognizes, little doodles on notebook paper that are touchingly sincere. Photos from trips to Vermont, her half-sister, her mother with her elbows up, clasping a necklace behind her head. Behind a photo of Sonia and Clemmie herself in the wet sand at the beach, Clemmie sees the corner of a piece of paper that she reaches for instinctively—what turns out to be a fortune teller, folded flat, decorated intricately in black and red. Clemmie reanimates it, and one at a time she reads the fortunes inside, in Sonia’s careful cursive.
You marry Hayden at the end of a dock. You marry Hayden beneath a waterfall. Hayden takes you to Europe, Hayden takes you sailing. Hayden buys you a horse to ride. Thirteen babies, pets galore. You will live in California. What happens inside Clemmie isn’t anger. It isn’t even quite inside her. She thinks of Earth from space. She thinks of space itself, the notion that it’s getting bigger. Her own muscles wrap around her. Sonia shifts in her sleep, and Clemmie watches over her with this hollow awful feeling, lies beside her, near enough her face to feel her breath.
This is when she notices in Sonia’s ears a pair of matching studs, hidden all day and night beneath her winter hat and beautiful long hair. She touches one of them, she runs the back of her finger along Sonia’s neck, and Sonia stirs and shifts but Clemmie pinches her earlobe gently, and folds it forward, to see where the earring’s post passes through to the other side.
In the mudroom she pulls boots over her jammies. The snow has stopped completely. From the yard she sees that smoke still rises, faintly, from the chimney. The night is clear and black, with stars. The moon and its spreading pallor. With difficulty she jumps the fence, finds her way beneath the sagging boughs of pines. The snow is deep and she vaguely wonders in what way its weight is felt by the surface of the planet. By now her parents are home in bed. Her tracks in the wide meadow are the first. She climbs atop the boulder and lies down on her back, searching the sky for familiar constellations, her breath clouding above her.
There is the sound of what registers unconsciously as distant thunder. She pulls herself tightly into her coat. When she imagines her future life she pictures herself as she is in this very moment. Sonia’s said more than once she’s in danger of disappearing. The distant thunder grows less distant. Less like thunder. Beyond which in all directions dogs, positively howling. Sitting up on her elbows she surveys the empty space around her. Its stillness is near-total but bears no resemblance to the stillness of photographs, or the stillness of gardens or of rooms. Increasingly the howling becomes frantic. Against the sky, the faint shadows of massive birds. Through her pajamas Clemmie feels the boulder’s core-deep cold and she perceives cold to be its own thing, with its own designs.
So much of her life has become this way. At ten and three quarters Clemmie’s begun to have trouble locating herself in the vivid external world. A feeling like the last moments before sleep, a manner of fear but not entirely unpleasant. Over the crest of a low hill to the north, motion. Not in their customary file but in rank formation. Their shoulders turning, muscles, loping. Tongues. Blood on them. Both larger and smaller than the wolves that exist inside her. It seems impossible that they don’t have thoughts. Strong jaws, a low and steady growl that issues as one thing. Something beyond animus, or hunger. Their own breath condensing. Their eyes shine. Whether they see her. Whether to run, whether it matters. Clemmie breathes. Standing slowly. Soon she is among them.