The Animals: A Novel by Christian Kiefer
Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.
—JAMES DICKEY, FROM “THE HEAVEN OF ANIMALS”
WHAT YOU HAVE COME FOR IS DEATH. YOU MIGHT TRY TO convince yourself otherwise but you know in your heart that to do so would be to set one falsehood upon another. In the end there is no denying what is true and what is only some thin wisp of hope that clings to you like hoarfrost on a strand of wire. At least you have learned that much, although you are loath to admit it just as you are loath to come down the mountain, down from the animals, to confirm what you already know you will find. All the while you can feel their shining eyes upon you, their noses pulling at your scent, their bodies pressed tight against the interlaced fencing of their enclosures. The world in its bubble and you holding fast to its slick interior as if to the blood-pumped safety of a womb. You and the animals. And yet after everything you have done, everything you have tried to do, everything you promised yourself, today you know you will have to put on the old clothes of the killer once again.
It was not his own voice, or rather he did not think of it as his own. After all the years and all the conversations he had shared with Majer, he had come to think of that voice, the voice of his own conscience, as coming not from him but from the bear, a sharp reckoning that now, as he descended the dirt path between the enclosures, seemed to drift down upon him like fresh snow. He could feel the animals watching but he did not return their collected gaze, focusing instead on the weight of the black case slung over his shoulder and then on the heavy thump of his boots as he continued toward the parking lot that hung below him beyond the fence wire. There, a jagged line of conifer shadows bifurcated a flat patch of colorless gravel at the edge of which was parked his pickup.
He managed to avoid the rest of the animals but he knew he could not avoid Majer. When he reached that enclosure the great bear cocked his head at an angle as if waiting for him to approach the front fence but Bill only kept walking, his steps taking him past the cage and toward the gravel parking lot below, toward the truck and the drive south to Ponderay. The other animals still watched him, he could feel their eyes upon him everywhere, but it was the bear’s sightless gaze that cut him most of all and finally he stopped in the center of the path, near the door to the blocklike construction trailer he used as an office, and turned to face the rising ridgeline, the enclosures spread out in their circle, the animals all moving against their separate fences.
There stood the bear. He had risen onto his hind legs and towered now near the front of the cage, the clear surface of the little pool blocked by his bulk, the size and shape of him staggering, enormous, a creature of fur and claw and, in some universe not so far from this one, of killing, balancing there with a grace that seemed impossible and staring through the fence at Bill with eyes like small milky stones, the depths of which revealed only a surface of cataracts as pale and featureless as a frozen lake.
What? Bill said. He stood there for a long moment, as if waiting for the bear’s response. Then he said, Don’t. Don’t you even start.
The bear seemed to shift momentarily from one foot to the other but he continued to stand, his face, peppered gray with age, watching Bill as he stood in the path. If there was judgment in those pale, sightless eyes it was without expression, the bear’s gaze only holding within them the same acceptance that Bill had always seen there, as if nothing would be asked of him, not ever, as if the only thing Bill could ever do wrong was not return.
I gotta go, Bill said. I’ll be back in an hour.
There was no response, no grunt or huff, no tilt of head, and yet as he turned toward the path again he could not help but feel that all their eyes, Majer’s among them, held the foreknowledge of what he was likely going to do, of what he was likely moving toward.