Four. Yes, that’s how many there were. Come to my home. Come to my home in the hills. Come in the middle of feast, when the skin had been peeled back and I was ready to sup. Interrupting, disrupting. Stealing the comfortable bloat of a full belly, the black scent of clean bones burning dry on glowing embers. Four.
Yes. That’s how many there were. I watched them through the stretched-skin window, saw them standing cold in the snow with their guns at their sides.
The hollow man saw them too. He heard the ice dogs bark and raised his sunken face, peering at the men through the blue-veined window. He gasped, expectant, and I had to draw my claws from their fleshy sheaths and jab deep into his blackened muscles to keep him from saying words that weren’t mine. Outside, they shouted, Hullo! Hullo in the cabin! and the hollow man sprang for the door. I jumped on his back and tugged the metal rings pinned into his neck. He jerked and whirled away from the latch, but I was left with the sickening sound of his hopeful moans.
Once again, control was mine, but not like before. The hollow man was full of strength that he hadn’t possessed in weeks, and the feast was ruined.
They had ruined it.
“Hullo! We’re tired and need food!”
The hollow man strained forward, his fingers groping for the door latch. My scaled legs flexed hard around his middle. His sweaty stomach sizzled and he cried at the heat of me. A rib snapped. Another. He sank backward and, with a dry flutter of wings, I pulled him away from the window, back into the dark.
“Could we share your fire? It’s so damn cold!”
“We’d give you money, but we ain’t got any. There ain’t a nickel in a thousand miles of here . . .”
Small screams tore the hollow man’s beaten lips. There was blood. I cursed the waste and twisted a handful of metal rings. He sank to his knees and quieted.
“We’ll leave our guns. We don’t mean no harm!”
I jerked one ring, then another. I cooed against the hollow man’s skinless shoulder and made him pick up his rifle. When he had it loaded, cocked, and aimed through a slot in the door, I whispered in his ear and made him laugh.
And then I screamed out at them, “You dirty bastards! You stay away! You ain’t comin’ in here!”
Gunshots exploded. We only got one of them, not clean but bad enough. The others pulled him into the forest, where the dense trees muffled his screams and kept us from getting another clear shot.
The rifle clattered to the floor, smoking faintly, smelling good. We walked to the window. I jingled his neck rings and the hollow man squinted through the tangle of veins, to the spot where a red streak was freezing in the snow.
I made the hollow man smile.
• • • •
So four. Still four, when night came and moonlight dripped like melting wax over the snow-capped ridges to the west. Four to make me forget the one nearly drained. Four to make me impatient while soft time crept toward the leaden hour, grain by grain, breath by breath . . .
The hour descended. I twisted rings and plucked black muscles, and the hollow man fed the fire and barred the door. I released him and he huddled in a corner, exhausted.
I rose through the chimney and thrust myself away from the cabin. My wings fought the biting wind as I climbed high, searching the black forest below. I soared the length of a high mountain glacier and dove away, banking back toward the heart of the valley. Shadows that stretched forever, and then, deep in a jagged ravine that stabbed at a river, a sputtering glimmer of orange. A campfire.
So bold. So typical of their kind. I extended my wings and drifted down like a bat, coming to rest in the branches of a giant redwood. Its live green stench nearly made me retch. Huddling in my wings for warmth, I clawed through the bark with a wish to make the ancient monster scream. The tree quivered against the icy wind. Grinning, satisfied, I looked down.
Two strong, but different. One weak. One as good as dead.
Grizzly sat in silence, his black face as motionless as a tombstone. Instantly, I liked him best. Mammoth, wrapped in a bristling grizzly coat he looked even bigger, almost as big as a grizzly. He sat by the fire, staring at his reflection in a gleaming ax blade. He made me anxious. He could last for months.
Across from Grizzly, Redbeard turned a pot and boiled coffee. He straightened his fox-head cap and stroked his beard, clearing it of ice. I didn’t like him. His milky squint was too much like my own. But any fool could see that he hated Grizzly, and that made me smile.
Away from them both, crouching under a tree with the whimpering ice dogs, Rabbit wept through swollen eyes. He dug deep in his plastic coat and produced a crucifix. I almost laughed out loud.
And in a tent, wrapped in sweat-damp wool and expensive eiderdown that couldn’t keep him warm anymore, still clinging to life, was the dead man, who didn’t matter.
But maybe I could make him matter.
And then there would only be two.
• • • •
When the clouds came, when they suffocated the unblinking moon and brought sleep to the camp, I swept down to the dying fire and rolled comfortably in the crab-colored coals. The hush of the river crept over me as I decided what to do.
To make three into two.
Three men, and the dead man. Two tents: Grizzly and Redbeard in one, Rabbit and the dead man in the other. Easy. No worries, except for the dogs. (For ice dogs are wise. Their beast hearts hide simple secrets . . .)
The packed snow sizzled beneath my feet as I crept toward Rabbit’s tent. The dead man’s face pressed against one corner of the tent, molding his swollen features in yellow plastic. Each rattling breath gently puffed the thin material away from his face, and each weak gasp slowly drew it back. It was a steady, pleasant sound. I concentrated on it until it was mine.
No time for metal rings. No time for naked muscle and feast. Slowly, I reached out and took hold of Rabbit’s mind, digging deep until I found his darkest nightmare. I pulled it loose and let it breathe. At first it frightened him, but I tugged its midnight corners straight and banished its monsters, and soon Rabbit was full of bliss, awake without even knowing it.
I circled the tent and pushed against the other side. The dead man rolled across, cold against the warmth of Rabbit’s unbridled nightmare.
“Jesus, you’re freezin’, Charlie,” whispered Rabbit as he moved closer. “But don’t worry. I’ll keep you warm, buddy. I’ve gotta keep you warm.”
But in the safety of his nightmare, that wasn’t what Rabbit wanted at all.
I waited in the tree until Grizzly found them the next morning, wrapped together in the dead man’s bag. He shot Rabbit in the head and left him for the ice dogs.
Redbeard buried the dead man in a silky snowdrift.
• • • •
That day was nothing. Grizzly and Redbeard sat at the edge of the clearing and wasted their only chance. Grizzly stared hungrily at the cabin, seeing only what I wanted him to see. Thick, safe walls. A puffing chimney. A home. But Redbeard, damned Redbeard, wise with fear and full of caution, sensed other things. The dead man’s fevered rattle whispering through the trees. An ice dog gnawing a fresh, gristly bone. And bear traps, rusty with blood.
Redbeard rose and walked away. Soon Grizzly followed.
And then there was only the hollow man, rocking gently in his chair. The soles of his boots buffed the splintery floor and his legs swung back and forth, back and forth.
• • • •
Two. Now two, as the second night was born, a silent twin to the first. Only two, as again I twisted rings and plucked muscles and put the hollow man to sleep. Just two, as my wings beat the night and I flew once more from the sooty chimney to the ravine that stabbed a river.
There they sat, as before, grizzly and fox. And there I watched, waiting, with nothing left to do but listen for the sweet arrival of the leaden hour.
Grizzly chopped wood and fed the fire. Redbeard positioned blackened pots and watched them boil. Both planned silently while they ate, and afterwards their mute desperation grew, knotting their minds into coils of anger. Grizzly charged the dying embers with whole branches and did not smile until the flames leaped wildly. The heat slapped at Redbeard in waves, harsh against the pleasant brandy-warmth that swam in his gut and slowed his racing thoughts.
“Tomorrow mornin’,” blurted Redbeard, “we’re gettin’ away from here. I’m not dealin’ with no crazy hermit.”
Grizzly stared at his ax-blade reflection and smiled. “We’re gonna kill us a crazy hermit,” he said. “Tomorrow mornin’.”
Soon the old words came, taut and cold, and then Grizzly sprang through the leaping flames, his black coat billowing, and Redbeard’s fox-head cap flew from his head as he whirled around. Ax rang against knife. A white fist tore open a black lip, and the teeth below ripped into a pale knuckle. Knife split ebony cheek. Blood hissed through the flames and sizzled against burning embers. A sharp crack as the ax sank home in a tangle of ribs. Redbeard coughed a misty breath past Grizzly’s ear, and the bigger man spun the smaller around, freed his ax, and watched his opponent stumble into the fire.
I laughed above the crackling roar. The ice dogs scattered into the forest, barking, wild with fear and the sour smell of death.
• • • •
So Grizzly had survived. He stood still, his singed coat smoking, his cut cheek oozing blood. His mind was empty — there was no remorse, only a feeling that he was the strongest, he was the best.
Knowing that, I flew home happy.
There was not much in the cabin that I could use. I found only a single whalebone needle, yellow with age, and no thread at all. I watched the veined window as I searched impatiently for a substitute, and at last I discovered a spool of fishing line in a rusty metal box. Humming, I went about my work. First I drew strips of the hollow man’s pallid skin over his shrunken shoulder muscles, fastening them along his backbone with a cross stitch. Then I bunched the flabby tissue at the base of his skull and made the final secret passes with my needle.
Now he was nothing. I tore the metal rings out of his neck and the hollow man twitched as if shocked.
A bullet ripped through the cabin door. “I’m gonna get you, you bastard,” cried Grizzly, his voice loud but worn. “You hear me? I’m gonna get you!”
The hollow man sprang from the rocker; his withered legs betrayed him and he fell to the floor. I balanced on the back of the chair and hissed at him, spreading my wings in mock menace. With a laughable scream, he flung himself at the door.
Grizzly must have been confused by the hollow man’s ravings, for he didn’t fire again until the fool was nearly upon him. An instant of pain, another of relief, and the hollow man crumpled, finished.
And then Grizzly just sat in the snow, his eyes fixed on the open cabin door. I watched him from a corner of the veined window, afraid to move. He took out his ax and stared at his reflection in the glistening blade. After a time Grizzly pocketed the ax, and then he pulled his great coat around him, disappearing into its bristling black folds.
In the afternoon I grew fearful. While the redwoods stretched their heavy shadows over the cabin, Grizzly rose and followed the waning sun up a slight ridge. He cleaned his gun. He even slept for a few moments. Then he slapped his numb face awake and rubbed snow over his sliced cheek.
Grizzly came home.
I hid above the doorway. Grizzly sighed as he crossed the threshold, and I bit back my laughter. The door swung shut. Grizzly stooped and tossed a thick log onto the dying embers. He grinned as it crackled aflame.
I pushed off hard and dove from the ceiling. My claws ripped through grizzly hide and then into human hide. Grizzly bucked awfully, even tried to smash me against the hearth, but the heat only gave me power and as my legs burned into his stomach Grizzly screamed. I drove my claws into a shivering bulge of muscle and brought him to his knees.
The metal rings came next. I pinned them into his neck: one, two, three, four.
• • • •
After I had supped, I sat the hollow man in the rocker and whispered to him as we looked through the veined window. A storm was rising in the west. We watched it come for a long time. Soon, a fresh dusting of snow covered the husk of man lying out on the ridge.
I told Grizzly that he had been my favorite. I told him that he would last a long time.