6.02 / February 2011

Vision Quest

Out in the woods late at night, beyond the city lights, you can hear them. You wouldn’t know they were even there, were it not for their howling. It cuts through the air, sending chills up your spine. Matheson tells me this. He says he’s seen them. He is an interesting man.

One night when we were sophomores at Cornell, prefaced by nothing more than, “Follow me,” we walked out of our dorm. He led me off campus and into the woods, away from the highways and headlights. I started to speak as the hum of the sodium vapor lamps faded. Matheson cut me off, raising a single finger to his lips. We reached a clearing. He lay down, his back to the ground and eyes to the stars. I followed his example. We stayed there until the stars faded with the morning light, and walked back to campus without so much as a word. We never spoke about it. We didn’t have to. But that was ten years ago.

I tell this to my wife as we get dressed. I caress her leg. She smiles.

Matheson is down in the city and said he wanted to meet up for drinks. My wife says she’s nervous about leaving our daughter at home with a sitter while we go out. I tell her everything will be all right. Matheson has a daughter, and she’ll be all right too. She agrees but is less than optimistic; she has that look about her.

When we arrive at the restaurant, he’s not there. She wants to leave. I assure her he’ll be there soon. He is a deliberate man, arriving exactly when he intends to, never early or late. I tell this to my wife. She scoffs and orders a gin and tonic. I order a Scotch and soda for myself-whisky for Matheson. He’ll want a drink when he arrives. I know this because I know Matheson.

I see him come through the door, calculated in his movements, just as the drinks arrive. He takes the seat adjacent from my wife and I, giving the glass placed in front of him a skeptical glance before he speaks. Matheson is an entertainer. He tells us of a young couple not unlike my wife and me, who lived just north of the city, in Rye. Their daughter wanted to see the sun rise over the bay. He tells us she was no older than our daughter. Under the table my wife grabs my hand. So the father woke her up early one crisp winter morning to surprise her. They only lived a half-mile walk from the shore, and the snow had fallen fresh the night before so they decided to walk. On the way, the girl broke free of her father’s grip and ran ahead. He heard the howling first. When she came back into her father’s view, she was on the ground, crying. Two coyotes loomed over her, one with her tiny leg in its jaw. The father ran up to them shouting. They fled, but the girl was bleeding.

Matheson sips his whisky. My wife squeezes my hand.

Before she can ask, he tells us the girl lived. A coyote was shot, though. They found one wandering on a golf course about a mile away. It bled to death in the snow. She asks why this matters. The child was safe. He tells her a great deal, leaning back in his chair.

“But the coyote attacked a child,” she says.

He asks her how she knew that one attacked the girl. I consider this as the smile fades from my face. I glance at my wife. Her lips are pulled flat against her flushed cheeks. I busy myself with my drink as Matheson continues.

“Why kill the animal at all?” he says. “The news stations say attacks against a human are ‘extremely rare’ and ‘not normal behavior.’ So why kill it-why kill it when we feed them and encourage them to keep coming back?” He slams his glass down on the table. I flinch. My wife rests her hand on my thigh, giving me a slight smile. The room grows silent.

“But the girl was hospitalized. Surely you must agree the little girl is not to blame?” she says.

Matheson doesn’t look so sure. He tells us she’ll never be the same. He says he knows the girl’s mother. Her daughter refuses to go out at night or be around animals at all. They moved away from New York and the father. My wife insists this must be understandable. She would in such matters.

“The girl knows a coyote was killed, yet she still shivers when the wind howls outside her window. She knows the creature is dead, but still she cannot sleep. Why, then, is a coyote dead?”

My wife says he must be crazy. The little girl was attacked. The coyote deserved it.

Matheson thinks otherwise. He tells her she’s being foolish.

My wife, red with anger, demands he explain himself. I know he won’t, and he doesn’t. She whispers she wants to leave.

I finish my drink and we do.

On our way home, my wife asks how long Matheson has been this way. I guess he always has been. He was eccentric at Cornell, but he never seemed too extreme. In college nobody does. But that was ten years ago.

Matheson will stay at the bar long after we leave. As I kiss my daughter goodnight and tuck her in, he will have another whisky, then another and another. While I make love to my wife and talk about our daughter’s future, he will tell the bartender his sad story. It’s one he can’t help but tell everyone he comes across. She will sympathize with him; maybe even share a story of her own, though he will drive her away too. I know this because I know Matheson.

Out in the streets, just before the break of dawn on the winter’s snow, he’s seen them-hears their howling; knows their pain. I know this because he says he has.

I think about this as I lie awake, my wife fast asleep next to me, tangled in the sheets. Her soft breasts rise and fall in rhythm with the beat of her heart. I roll over and kiss her cheek. She stirs as I pull her close to me. I suspect Matheson is alone tonight; perhaps he will be forever. My wife grips my arm tight against her chest as a breeze wafts through the open window. With it comes the smell of rain and the hopes of spring.

Erik Hanson is a junior at the University of Nebraska at Kearney majoring in German and minoring in English. Although he is currently exiled to the prairie, he would rather be using his passport. His work is forthcoming in Long Story Short.
6.02 / February 2011