The summer Terra got pregnant with Maisy was the hottest since they’d started keeping track. She’d fallen asleep as the heat of the day descended on the high back hills and the only relief from it was hidden away in thick poplar copses and shaded nooks near the river. The bleat of the ringer pulled her out of a sweaty dream that felt like it would never end but had only lasted a moment, just a flash of undigested anxieties and random images, like lighting on the walls of her interior. In the dream, she’d been hiding a swallow with a broken leg under the kitchen sink in a Tupperware container next to the cleaning supplies.
“Felicity’s out there again.” Her sister Leslie chewed gum into her ear over the phone.
“She is?” Terra inhaled, still half-asleep and hungry for air. She rolled herself from the fetal position onto her back, her hair stuck to the side of her face with sweat. A plastic ice cream pail sat empty on the floor of the trailer.
“You sound awful. Are you still sleeping? It’s past lunchtime.”
“I’ve got some sort of summer flu.” Terra sat up on her elbows and searched the coffee table for her plastic bottle of ginger ale.
“Who or what did you get up to last night?” Leslie snickered.
“I wasn’t drinking, Lez.”
“Sure, sure. Anyway,” she moved on, sounding bored: “I went down to the Calahoo Store for wine. I bumped into Jason.”
Terra rolled her eyes. Leslie’s latest obsession. She’d been tracking him like a deer across town. The poor guy had no idea what he was about to get into.
“Did you know he broke up with Amanda?”
“The horse, Leslie. Get back to the horse.”
“He’s so cute. I could just fucking eat him.”
“And I’m sure you will.”
Leslie giggled. “Anyhow, he was out shooting coyotes for the municipality, for the bounty. He ended up on Bertha’s land. He’s chasing a coyote, rides up on his quad and she’s already standing outside in a bathrobe with a rifle trying to pick it off. At her age!”
“She told him she’s been seeing Felicity out there.”
“Where? Where did Bertha see her?”
“The field by Dead Man’s corner, apparently.”
Terra sat up on the couch. “And when was this?” She found the yellow notepad she kept nearby and looked for her pen. She’d been keeping notes about the calls she made to the RCMP and the fish cops and Billy Eben out at the municipality office.
“I went into Calahoo yesterday, so maybe the day before? Forgot to ask him.” “Why didn’t he call me? Why did making fucking posters if nobody is going to call me when they see her?” She dropped the notepad with a thud on the couch.
”Jesus. How the fuck would I know? Gotta go. I’m walking into work,” Leslie said, cutting Terra off.
“Okay, bitch,” Terra lobbed the phone onto the coffee table. It landed on a pile of Brandon’s abandoned hunting magazines. Monster Big Bucks. Alberta Whitetail Adventures.
She dug a lighter out of the couch cushion and lit a cigarette and walked through the back of the trailer to the yard. The black Irish wolfhound stood on his hind legs against the fences, tracking something out on the neighbours’ quarter section.
She’d been taking care of the dog for about a year. He was an unexpected gift to Leslie from an ex-boyfriend, Evan. He was almost as tall as Leslie, who was living in a 600 square foot apartment in town. “Evan’s an idiot,” she said at the time, refusing to take his calls. Terra couldn’t disagree. Leslie said she wanted to give him away in The Bargain Finder magazine they sell at the gas station, but Terra refused to let her put him alongside the ads for barbeques and used forklifts and estate sale china.
She opened the gate. The big black dog turned to her, his long face stupid with joy. “Get in the truck.” She threw horse lead rope into the back and Igor jumped up on the tailgate to sniff it.
Terra drove down the gravel road with Igor in the flatbed. He stood erect with his paws on the roof, like the captain of some absurd vessel. They passed Felicity’s pen on their way off the property. The gate was open like Dad instructed Terra when Felicity first ran away back in junior high: She’ll come back if you let her. Igor seemed to have been waiting for her too, laying outside the pen most of the day since the morning she went missing.
There was a call-in show playing on the truck’s AM radio: women asking other women’s advice about cheating husbands. Terra turned it off and drove in silence. The FM station wouldn’t come in this far from town and the tape deck never did work.
The truck reached the highway. Terra slowed down and scanned the fields and the stands of bush on both sides of the road. No Felicity. Nothing. She drove out to Dead Man’s Corner then far past and back to the turnoff to Amisk Road, a good twenty-minute trip from home. No signs. No quick white flashes on the green alfalfa or movement deep in the stacks of blonde hay. Nothing moving in the heavy green bush, just the flicker of pink flagging tape in the left ditch as Terra contemplated a U-turn to get back home.
She slowed the truck off the side of the highway. She called Leslie.
“I have thirty seconds. It’s happy hour and I’m alone behind the bar.” Leslie snapped. Terra heard Motley Crue’s “Girls Girls Girls” playing in the background.
“At 2 pm?”
“It’s a strip club with a buffet, Terra. It’s happy hour all fucking afternoon.”
“Did she leave a phone number with Jason? Bertha I mean.”
“What’s Jason’s number? I’ll call him.”
“You are definitely not calling him about this,” she hissed.
“You’re too fucking intense.”
“Help me out here, Lez.”
“I am. Felicity is a thirty-year-old...horse. She’s older than both of us. Hasn’t it occurred to you that she probably went off somewhere and...and fucking died?”
Terra’s eyes burned.
“No, it hadn’t.” She hung up and set her cellphone on the passenger seat.
She drove the truck up to Bertha’s road. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel.
She exhaled and pulled a hard turn off the highway. A stream of gravel trickled north through cool green aspen, their papery white trunks disappearing into the wild undergrowth creeping up from the ditches. She passed a few gated-off paths leading into deep, shaded brush: oilfield gas plants prefaced by NO TRESPASSING signs and video cameras high on poles. Then the gravel dropped off completely into an old mud road. A few stark divots banged the jeep down into the baked earth. Terra, worried, looked back at Igor through the cab window. He was still standing, almost like a man, on his long back legs.
Terra came up to the clearing. Bertha’s little red wood-framed house was over in the dark pocket of spruce trees, the only ones left standing when the rest of the bush came down and the land was split into sections a hundred years ago. Just beyond the house, a decomposing grey barn sighed toward the ground.
She parked the truck and lit a smoke. She scratched Igor’s back, holding her hand on his hot fur until it stung her palm. He whined as she walked away from the truck.
The old woman was outside, in a little sun-baked garden to the east of the house. Terra walked towards her, each step slow, uncomfortable, the result of a concerted internal effort, like stepping into a lake in January. The sun-bleached the landscape blue when Terra closed her eyes.
Bertha bent over a large mound of black dirt on the furthest border of the garden, darker than the surrounding rows of established potatoes and cabbage.
“Kind of late in the season for planting, isn’t it?” Terra sucked in her cheeks.
Bertha straightened up but ignored her. She wore a black cotton dress that fell to her bare ankles and a dirty red plaid shirt, the sleeves rolled up over her skinny elbows. Her hair ran down her shoulders in grey braids that almost matched her faded blue eyes.
“You.” She laughed. “Back again, eh?” She wasn’t wearing her dentures.
“Back again.” Terra didn’t smile.
“Least someone still smokes around here.” She nodded at the cigarette in Terra’s fingers.
“You saw Felicity out here again?”
Terra sighed. “My Dad’s horse.”
“What colour?” She motioned for a smoke. Terra stared at her.
“Come on Bertha. I was out here a couple of weeks ago looking for her.”
“Fresh me on it again,” Bertha said.
“She’s a tiny little Palimino horse, gold coat and white mane. Smaller than that dog I have in the truck.” She pointed back at Igor. He barked.
Bertha’s face wrinkled up around her nose. “Ugh. Damned sasquatch-looking thing.”
Terra cleared her throat.
“Come inside this time,” Bertha exhaled smoke and watched a crow land on post lining the garden. “We’ll talk about your pony.”
“You can just tell me what you told Jason.” Terra was still, her hands on her hips.
Bertha sucked in her cheeks and moved a long strand of hair behind her ear. A few of her fingertips had been shortened years ago, by frostbite or a cruel husband or a wild animal; the stories in town varied. “I mean, I’ve been seeing something out here.”
Terra avoided looking directly into Bertha’s faded grey eyes. She ground a little circle into the dry earth with the toe of her shoe. Bertha sniffed and walked away.
Terra’s eyes flickered back to Igor. “Okay, five minutes.” She threw her cigarette butt into the dirt and followed Bertha to the house.
“Don’t let the bugs in, eh?” Bertha nodded as they reached the entrance. Terra closed the screen door behind her.
Bertha’s place had low, uneven ceilings and wood panelling stapled to the walls. The kitchen was hotter than the air outside. Spools of fly tape hung from the rafter by a washbasin full of dishes. A pot boiled on the stove. The air smelled like meat.
“You sittin or what?” She kicked at the leg of a chair.
Terra stood toward the door.
“So that young guy sent you back out here?”
“Sniping my coyotes,” she sniffed.
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“That’s been a real problem this summer.”
“Uh-huh.” Terra shifted her weight between her feet. The floor creaked under the linoleum.
Bertha pulled a can of beer from the half-sized, rusted fridge. She put it in Terra’s hand. The cheapest brand, the can almost warm in her fingers.
“I’m good. I don’t feel like drinking.” Terra shook her head.
“Don’t be rude.” Bertha pointed at the tiny kitchen table under the front window. Terra sat down. The yellowed Formica tabletop was covered with beer cans, rolling papers and dog-eared matchbooks. A clear plastic bag of unmarked tobacco was stuffed into a tin can full of cigarette butts.
Bertha walked over to the stove. She stirred the pot with a wooden spoon, blowing smoke out of her nose. Terra opened the can and tried to drink. Bertha watched her while she moved the spoon in cool, even strokes.
Terra tapped the pull tab from the can on the table. “Man, it’s hot out there.” She tried to smile, to play along for a minute. She looked out the window. Igor was still standing in the back, naked under the sun.
Bertha put a lid on the pot. “Can’t you get that guy of yours to go out and find your little pony?” She coughed.
Terra swallowed. “Brandon? How do you know him?”
“Drives that crazy truck around.” She put her hand over her ear. “Can hear him all the way back here from the highway,” she shook her head.
“Well, he’s not mine anymore.”
“They never really are, eh?” Bertha smiled. She stubbed her cigarette out in a cup next to the sink.
The back of Terra’s neck itched with sweat.
“No men around anymore at your place at all?” Bertha kept on.
Terra took a proper drink this time.
“I didn’t come here to talk about men. When did you see Felicity? I’ve been talking to Fish and Wildlife and the cops. Nobody’s seen her lately.”
“I guess you’re an orphan, then?”
“Bertha.” Terra kicked at the table leg.
“Your dad was a good guy. Sold me my old truck real cheap, before you were born even. I used to sell him deer meat too”
“The horse, Bertha.”
“Sometimes It’s hard to tell what’s out there.” Bertha looked out the window next to the sink. “But I was always able to get my animal.”
Terra stared at the floor. She’d butchered moose with her father and his hunting buddies in the garage, the men smoking and drinking loud over the radio he kept on his tool bench. The Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane. Arguing about who got to take home the tender, rarest parts near the back of the animal. But she had no memory of eating deer. That meat tastes too wild, Dad had complained.
Distracted, Terra grabbed another can off of the table and swallowed hard. Expecting warm beer, she wretched as the taste of old tobacco and stale hops crawled to the back of her mouth. She spat into her hand, cigarette ash mixing with saliva in her palm.
“Are you crazy? That’s one of my ashtrays.” Bertha scowled.
“I have,” Terra’s breath quickened, “to use your bathroom.”
“What do you think? I’m going to be sick.”
Bertha pointed to a door down a narrow hall lined with plywood.
The bathroom was dark, with a smudge of sunlight falling over the bathtub from a small, dirty window. Terra vomited, barely reaching the toilet, and fell to her knees. Tears ran down her neck. Acid seared the back of her nose. She panted. Her abdomen heaved at the thought of Bertha’s hand-rolled smokes sitting in week-old flat beer. She bowed to the floor, gripped by nausea. She pressed her forehead to the bathroom floor and inhaled the sulphurous smell of well water. Her shirt stuck with sweat to her back. She looked for toilet paper to wipe her mouth but found none by the toilet. She saw a cardboard box under the freestanding sink and crawled toward it. She pulled the box toward herself and tipped it into the window light.
On top of a pile of miscellaneous junk was a stack of collars. Some slender straps with tiny copper bells, others thicker bands with dog tags. All with different names and phone numbers.
“What the fuck?” Terra whispered.
She held a large collar with a green shamrock charm in her hand and could almost feel the warmth of a dog’s neck on its leather band. Molly 780-849-3289. She dropped it back in the box.
She listened for the sound of Bertha’s weight on the floorboards. Igor barked outside, in the distance, the desperate, vigilant sound he made when coyotes came around the neighbours’ fence during calving season.
Terra stumbled out of the bathroom, her sweaty palm supporting her weight against the wall in the hallway. The kitchen was empty, Bertha’s pot still bubbling rapidly on the stove, its lid banging like a cymbal. She looked out the window at the truck. Bertha leaned against the back fender, Igor’s muzzle down in her hand. She had a rifle strapped to her back, its muzzle pointed toward the sky. Terra pushed through the front door and ran toward them, the throb of acid in her esophagus.
“The fuck are you doing? She shouted at Bertha.
“Sad ugly thing was losing its mind out here. Don’t you feed him?” she nodded toward Igor. She held another beer out for Terra. Igor whined and stared at the pieces of boiled meat Bertha held on a plate.”You’ve got something on your face.” She laughed.
Terra wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“What’s that for?” She pointed at the rifle.
“You need a gun out here, my girl.” She took the rifle off her back and set it butt-end on the ground between her feet. “Or you won’t last long.”
“I’m out of here.” She got into the truck. “Call me if you see Felicity again,” she yelled through the open window.
“Got no phone.” Bertha shrugged.
“Of course not,” Terra muttered as she started the engine.
“Come see me anytime.” Bertha walked back toward her garden drinking the beer.
The truck sped away through the clearing. Terra hit the low spot in the dirt road. She jumped and bit her tongue, tasted blood. She heard Igor’s paws skitter across the surface of the flatbed as he struggled to stand.
“Sorry, buddy,” she said. She felt for her pack of cigarettes in her shirt pocket and found them empty.
Her jaw ached. Dust boiled in a cloud behind her as she reached the highway. A couple of trucks headed past into town. Terra signalled left toward Dead Man’s Corner. She looked back down the gravel road at Bertha’s, expecting something. She didn’t know what. She wiped her eyes and her forehead and pulled onto the dark asphalt.
Up in the back hills, the trees waited in the heat, for rain or for lightning. The sun warmed the skin on Terra’s arm through the open window and silently rearranged her cells. There was a heat deep in her body demanding water and rest and shade. She pulled a U-turn and headed toward home. In the low dry ditch, she saw an animal running quick in the opposite direction, running back to the moist earth of Bertha’s garden, its pale coyote fur like tinder.
Lisa Michelle Moore is an MFA student in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in writing about addiction, grief and animals. Her work has appeared in Cold Mountain Review, The Daily Drunk, Dribble Drabble Review and Obra/Artifact.