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Wolf.

When she finally came out of it, Beth stayed on the bed, belly down, hands tucked like two crumpled leaves beneath the pillow. It was winter, and where the heavy curtains nearly met the sill, she watched the black line of glass turn cold indigo. Not counting the afternoon Emma had had to shake her awake in the back of the snowcat--because she wasn't sure it had really happened then, and she wanted to be sure when she counted--seventeen times Beth had woken from a night's sleep or a nap and been unable to move. After those first terrifying episodes, she'd stopped trying to fight it and had finally learned to let it pass: feel her heart beat against the thin mattress, count the small thumps, a helicopter in her chest revving and relinquishing but never taking off, until by some flick of a switch she was released. Now she pushed herself up from the bed, and like a wet dog, shook herself all over.

This was Beth's third winter working at the Old Faithful Lodge, and as in previous years, it was part of her job four days a week to drive a snowcat to West--the town of West Yellowstone--carting departing tourists, loaded down with snowshoes and cross-country skis. She would drop them off where their cars were parked just outside the gates and pick up a fresh load of interlopers for the ride back in. The snowcats varied: some were old yellow Bombardiers with the sloping shoulders of a 1940s field ambulance, while others were modern touring vans stripped of their tires and retrofitted with rotating rubber belts like bulldozers. The machines were huge and unwieldy, and, aside from snowmobiles, the only way in or out of that part of the park from October through May.

Each morning, Beth wished she could have one leg of the journey to herself, especially the trip out. The snowcats did their first run of the day just as the sun was coming up, the best time to spot an animal. To entertain the tourists as they rode the two slow hours out of the valley and toward town, Beth would keep up a steady naturalist's patter, directing her passengers' gaze to the buffalo and elk she'd passed a hundred times before. The herds wallowed in snowdrifts or grazed near the Firehole River, which, because of the thermal springs that fed it, never froze over, even when the temperature of the air dropped well below zero. Steam would rise off the water as swans and ducks paddled playfully in the warm currents. And Beth would announce it all through the microphone she wore like a headband over her knit cap: the eagle who made its nest in the notched snag a mile down the road from the lodge, snowshoe rabbits that flung themselves into the path of her dawn-dimmed headlights, coyotes trotting lightly across blown fields of snow that her own heavy boots would have fallen through right up to her thighs. But what Beth really wanted to see, what she was convinced she would only ever see alone, was a wolf.

It was Thursday, Beth's day off, and though she wished she could sleep, there was no going back now. Instead, she ran a toothbrush over her teeth and then zipped her parka up to her chin. Outside, the path from the employee cabins to the lodge was icy with tracks that had melted and refrozen every day for the last week. Beth carried her skis with her as she avoided the ice and cut across the plowed lot to the employee cafeteria; she'd catch breakfast with the Thursday crew, maybe even see Emma before she hit the trails.

But when she pushed through the wooden doors, there was a cluster of staff members gathered at the far end of the room. Beth's boots echoed and dropped chunks of slush as she crossed the pine boards to where the group stood quietly.

"This isn't an official search yet," Emma announced as Beth reached them. "But I plan to start checking the trails near the falls, and anyone who'd like to take a snowmobile and join me is welcome."

Hands went up fast, and another shuttle driver, Pete, bent into Beth's shoulder, whispering, "Missing tourist. She went out yesterday with a pair of rented skis. When she didn't show for her shuttle this morning, they started putting it together. I'd go looking, too, but I've got a haul this afternoon."

"I'll take the shift," she offered, and held out her hand for Pete's keys.

Beth didn't relish the thought of taking the afternoon snowcat run on her only day off, but neither did she want to be out looking for a lost skier. Beth tried to have compassion for the tourists--the careless, the oblivious, the happy-go-lucky--who inevitably, each season, found themselves in situations for which they were wholly unprepared. She couldn't understand what it was that made them feel so safe, what unaccounted-for fearlessness guided them as they headed out into a landscape they really had no business in.

It wasn't a surprise that Emma was heading up the impromptu search party. Because she was one of the staff geologists at the park, a permanent position, she didn't need to be hanging around the cafeteria with the seasonal staff. But Emma could never help herself; she had started out working trail crew at the geysers in summers off from college fifteen years ago, and she still spent more time with the transient crew of lodge workers than she did in her own cabin near town. Real wanderers couldn't learn to stick; that's why they all worked these seasonal jobs, switching crews, locations, occupations every six months. The same reason Beth had passed on an offer of a full-time position as a lead forestry technician--her field, the reason she'd stuck it out through those deadening years of graduate school --at Glacier last year. She found it hard to say yes to something that didn't have a natural expiration date on it, and she liked that the people she worked with felt the same way.

Beth caught Emma's eye as everyone started to head for the parking lot, and she walked up to lean against the table spread with maps, trails highlighted in neon orange and green.

"We won't be back until after dark unless we find something," Emma told her, something being either the woman, half frozen but still breathing, or her lonesome body. Emma began to gather the papers, moving easily around Beth, but, she noticed, not touching her, her fingers careful, the backs of her hands guided as if by some invisible metric that kept them always at least an inch from where they might have brushed against her. Beth wanted Emma to touch her and she didn't. The same way, she knew, that Emma wanted and didn't want Beth to come by her cabin after dark when the search would be called off for the night.

"I think I'm going skiing," Beth replied.

This is what Beth had asked of Emma: to never touch her in public, never treat her differently from the rest of the crew, never suggest that there was anything between them beyond their friendship. And so far Emma had agreed to these terms. In return, Beth visited her cabin two or three nights a week, when she felt like it. Behind the flannel curtains Emma's mother had sewn for her when she first took the job, Beth was as affectionate as a puppy, playing at the easy sweetness she'd observed between the lodge's visiting newlyweds, pulling Emma's head down onto the wide pan of her abdomen and stroking the dark hair that usually fell in a gusset from the ponytail she tied at her crown. But when Beth kissed Emma goodnight and stepped out onto the tiny Forest Service porch, the unhinged Milky Way, undampered by the light pollution of any city or town, dazzled her every time.

"Only you would go out for the fun of it today," Emma said. There was no malice in her voice, but she was all business now. "Stay on the trails this time, would you?" she added, and headed for the door.

Breakfast was solo, and Beth ate her bowl of oatmeal quickly and without the formalities of butter or brown sugar. Emma had left a pile of flyers bearing a photo of the missing woman and a description: blond hair, cream snowsuit, no hat. A woman the color of snow.

Outside again, Beth picked her way to the road, skis propped on her shoulder, before tossing them down and stepping in with a click. Though she wasn't a small woman, she moved elegantly on the skis--where others became more clumsy, Beth gained grace, her stride smooth and sure as she lifted her eyes to the geysers percolating and blowing bubbles on the slope ahead of her. The air was gauzy with steam, and the rotten-egg smell of sulfur that made the lodge guests gag wafted over Beth's head as she cut a quick path past Old Faithful and up Biscuit Basin trail. She had just enough time for the Mallard Creek loop before the afternoon shuttle run she'd promised to cover.

As she moved up the gentle slope, Beth thought of the first time she'd been unable to climb back into her body. It had happened on a plane, where she awakened face down on the tray table, her trachea a toilet paper roll squeezed flat. She'd looked it up afterward: sleep paralysis, disturbance of the hypnopompic state. But on that plane she'd thought she was going to die--like a fish on the bottom of a boat, she couldn't get enough air. When she tried to call out for help, she'd managed only a few whispered gasps, her right hand flopping weakly against her thigh like a cutthroat trout that dies before you can unhook it. She'd had to wait out the terror while that heaviness sat on her back pressing the air from her lungs.

Now she cut off the trail, ignoring Emma's admonition and making tracks in the drifts. Emma would have hated this, had told her a hundred times that the trails were there to keep her safe.

"Do you know how many people have died falling into these thermals, B?" That's what Emma liked to tell her, stories of all the people who'd made the worst kinds of mistakes. She shouldn't have bothered, though--Beth had read about them already in the dog-eared copy of Death in Yellowstone she'd found in the employee library, a single bookshelf next to the lodge linen closet. The stories had filled Beth with a sickening vicarious regret that made her want to step into the pages and tell everyone to turn back: Parents who'd posed their baby for a photo perched on a grizzly's shoulders. Men who, on a dare, had died with their eyes turned milky-white blind from the heat of a thermal bath.

Beth always thought of one tourist in particular, a man who had wandered off the path one night in 1927, a cigar in his mouth and cognac in his glass, and had been swallowed up in one of the geothermals, smoking jacket and all. The story made her think of sleepwalking, the opposite of Beth's condition: the body awake but the mind asleep, whereas her mind was awake while her body would sleep on without her. She was still trying to shake off that morning's feeling of being unable to move forward, and now she plunged her poles through the delicate crust of the snowbanks and deep into the pockets beneath, enjoying the sensation of fleeing, weightless, across the surface of the earth.

And then there was Emma. These three winters Beth had found herself in bed with her, not in a regrettable way but as an afterthought, a decision she still hadn't made yet. So that when each spring the snows in Yellowstone began to melt and she would pack up her hatchback and do her best to wait patiently while Emma lingered with her hand pressed to the hood of the car as they said goodbye, it was always with a kind of relief that she put that four hundred miles--the distance from Yellowstone, where Emma stayed for the summer, and Glacier, where Beth worked on a trail crew--between them. There was nothing very permanent about their lives. Even Emma, who'd worked the same job for a decade and stayed in Yellowstone year round, still lived in a government-owned cabin furnished mostly with castoffs from previous occupants. Emma could have drifted away from her as easily as Beth pulled away from Emma each spring.

But Beth didn't want to think about Emma this morning, or the missing woman, or even all the stories that haunted these pools. Today she was looking for a wolf. The geothermal springs attracted all kinds of animals, beginning with the birds that fed on insects hatching at the water's edge, all the way up the food chain to the bison and elk who were drawn in by the patches of melted snow that circled the springs, some of the only places in the park where grass was easily available without having to first paw through three feet of snow. And these big mammals, of course, brought in the wolves.

Everyone who worked the park in winter had seen a wolf. With multiple packs making their homes within its bounds--a total of nearly ninety documented wolves--there was a healthy population to observe. And in the winter, with their gray or coal-colored coats, they were that much easier to spot against the waves of snow. Every day in the off-season, wolf-watching tour groups flooded the park with spotting scopes and long-focus lenses in hand, and it was a common occurrence for a shuttle ride to be halted by the sight of twenty people clustered on the roadside as wolves fed on an elk kill a few hundred yards away. It wasn't common for Beth, though--for her it had never happened once. For some reason, the kills were never on her route or didn't happen when she was on shuttle duty. She'd never seen a wolf outside a high-resolution photograph.

Beth looked down, searching for tracks as she headed up a small incline toward a stand of scattered pines. Thin streams of spring water crisscrossed the plateaus in tributaries here; Beth saw the shine of water over concentric patterns made by the turquoise and gold microorganisms that thrive at high temperatures. The water was more than 200 degrees, and Beth's skis edged around the pockets. She could track the water's path ahead of her by the little bursts of steam rising up through the thin snow crust that remained, like sugar baked into an air-filled dome above an apple pie.

She'd come out here to find a wolf because it was what sat on her chest in the morning when she couldn't wake her body. Hot breath on her neck, fur in her mouth, and the paws--like those of the creatures from the Hungarian folktales she'd read about online, the monsters invented to explain away the terror of waking too deep inside yourself--were heavy weights on her breast. Emma would have found the whole thing ridiculous, which was why Beth hadn't told her about her plan.

That morning as she'd watched herself in the mirror, brushing her teeth and tucking her pale hair behind her ears--as if there were some power in these preparations--Beth had made a pact. It wasn't the first time she'd tried to strike this sort of deal, but before the things she'd bargained for had been small: If she could keep the snowcat in the tracks for the whole first mile into town, it meant that night they'd serve her favorite pineapple upside-down cake in the cafeteria; if she managed to make the shuttle full of tourists laugh at one of her tired jackalope jokes, there'd be a letter from her brother waiting for her at the P.O. box in town. Of course, it hadn't always worked. Sometimes Beth held up her end of the deal and the universe didn't come through.

Today the stakes were higher. If she saw a wolf before the sun went down--on her own, without anyone's help or a pack of tourists leaning over her shoulder--then she'd never wake a prisoner in the still sarcophagus of her body again. A wolf was all she needed.

By noon, Beth had seen a cow elk with a calf grazing near one of the springs, a herd of bison bedded down in a valley about a mile away, and too many small rodents to count. But no wolves. She was due soon at the lodge for the afternoon shuttle shift, and so she turned her skis back toward Old Faithful.

An hour later, her snowcat held the usual mix of families and couples. As Beth loaded their bags into cargo storage beneath the cab, snow fell in damp tongues all around her, dimming the scarce sunlight and the sound of the engine, even seeming to warm the air. And then, in the rising silence, from somewhere beyond the parking lot, she heard the faint whine of a high-pitched engine, and then another, and another--snowmobiles. "They're back," said an excited voice from over her shoulder. Yes, back early, thought Beth. Which could mean anything.

The tourists had already climbed back down from the shuttle, expectant and silent as they waited to see what the snowmobiles had brought with them, when reaching through the still-falling snow came the revolutions of a rescue choppers blades--deep and vibrating, a set of bass strings pressed to Beth's chest and plucked. The lodge was the rendezvous point, the only safe place for a helicopter to land. Emma must have radioed it in. Was she here now? From a pallet attached to one of the snowmobile's bumpers, two of the riders, Beth couldn't see who, lifted something wrapped in a crackling insulated emergency blanket. They were moving fast, like time still mattered. The blue and red Life Flight helicopter, now lowering itself to the icy concrete like a giant out-of-season dragonfly and throwing the snow back up into their wondering faces, would take the skier to the hospital in Butte. She was alive.

The transfer of the tourist to the helicopter was over in a matter of minutes, and the medical team and their living, breathing cargo vanished into a sky suddenly cleared of snow and bluing in a gift of cold afternoon sun. Beth shepherded her passengers back on board, and pulled away from the crowd that had gathered around Emma and the other staff who'd joined the search. Beth had seen Emma clap her gloved hand on the helicopter's side before bending low beneath the blades and crouching her way out from under them. But there was no reason for Beth to stay behind now, and she had a shuttle to run.

It was a quiet ride toward West, with urgent, whispered speculation from the back seats punctuating the silence. During the first half of the trip into town, no one saw a single animal. At the halfway point, Beth stopped the snowcat at the warming hut where everyone piled out to buy cups of instant cocoa. Inside, her friend Kyle was manning the counter, dumping little tong-fulls of mini-marshmallows into paper cups and emp- tying pots of cheap coffee into the giant thermoses that stood at the far end of the repurposed single wide trailer.

"Emma the one who headed up that search team?" Kyle asked Beth, though, of course, he knew. "Nice day for it," he added, lifting his eyes from the hot water kettle to the window paned in aqua sky.

Beth pictured the missing skier under a blanket of snow, how peaceful sleep might look if succumbing to it weren't such a disturbing prospect.

"If that woman had had to spend another night out there on her own, it would have been a lost cause," she replied.

The tourist beside her turned from filling his coffee, a wry smile on his face. "Either the cold or the wolves, right?"

The man was older than Beth, a retiree enjoying his yearly dose of wilderness. His wife, quiet in glossy pink camo, turned a warm cup of chocolate-flavored water in her gloved hands. They were harmless, just pleasantly repeating whatever talk they'd heard.

"Wolves generally keep to themselves when it comes to people," Kyle said from behind her. "There's lots that'll do you in out here, but a wolf isn't high on the list."

Beth, too, wanted to set the man straight, to correct a fear as fabricated as his overpriced Gore-Tex boots.

"Some of us have worked here years and never even seen one," Beth added. "They don't bother with us."

The man laughed.

"Oh, you're a sack of guts, just like anything else. Those things are equal opportunity eaters."

This was what Beth didn't like about people, the reason she wanted to turn her back and walk away--their willingness to commit themselves to a lie, to see something that wasn't there. She wanted to get out of the trailer, out of her snowsuit, this park, her body if she could. Beth hadn't wanted to spend her day shuttling tourists or drinking coffee out of Styrofoam. When she'd signed on for another season at the lodge, she'd thought she knew what she wanted. But now all she wanted was a wolf, her wolf.

"We're out of here in ten," she called to her passengers as they moved back and forth from the coffee counter to the woodstove in the corner. Beth could feel the trailer shudder and shift with their steps, and she let herself rock there for a moment like a buoy with a forgotten anchor before she exited through the trailer door and back into the easy cold.

All the voices remained behind her, and Beth breathed in the steam from her coffee, counted the seconds, minutes until she could feel her heart slow to its regular pace, whatever had been simmering inside her now cooled back down to the temperature at which she normally operated. She was facing west, away from the warming hut, toward the sun, feeling it fall low across the sky and onto her face. The glow made her feel the weight of the day she'd been carrying: the contained fear of waking frozen in the darkness of early morning, and then the long miles she'd put in on the trail. Her bones felt heavy, and she lowered her padded backside onto the metal grated steps and leaned the wool of her hat against the railing.

The ridgeline across the road was backlit and crosshatched with tree trunks, and Beth peered into the woods, imagining a wolf--hidden, breath steaming the air like those birds she's seen coughing tiny puffs of frosty song--watching her from within the shadows. The wolves in Yellowstone ranged from black to nearly white, with undercoats of tawny brown or gray. Some had been tagged and wore radio collars; others had earned nicknames like "Crooked Ear" or "Spitfire" from the wolf-watching groups. Beth had been told that once you'd seen one in person you'd never com- pare a wolf to a dog again. But she remembered the front page of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that first fall they'd removed wolves from the endangered species list and reopened the hunting season on them: a picture of a man, at his feet his dog asleep and stretched out on a patch of dirty snow. It had taken her a moment to realize that it wasn't a dog but a wolf, not asleep but dead. She couldn't forget the man's smile as he leaned over his gun to hold up the animal's long, black-tipped tail.

Beth traced her gaze across the ridge's spine. Many times while playing tour guide for her shuttle passengers she'd enthusiastically mistaken a tree stump for a mammal, and now she wondered if she'd done the opposite, if perhaps one of those dark lumps of slash on the hillside across from her was a wolf. But when she narrowed her eyes, all she saw were shadows without a shape to cast them.

Some time later, Beth heard the trailer door open behind her and her shuttle passengers begin to come down the steps. There was laughter, the sound of graceless shuffling, as they moved past her and across the plowed lot toward the snowcat. But Beth couldn't see them, couldn't lift her chin from her chest. She felt the railing where it had come to meet her cheek while she'd dozed, and she willed herself to ignore the way its icy metal seared her skin.

It was the breathing that was difficult, and she knew she had to con- centrate on fighting the sticky gauze of panic swelling in her windpipe. The group's footsteps had stopped just a few feet from where she sat, and their laughter had grown quiet, too, just the anxious hush of voices back and forth. Beth realized that each of them was too embarrassed to reach down and wake her.

While she'd slept, the sun had dropped behind the ridge, and Beth could feel its shadow thrown across her like a cold arm. She could hear snowmobiles coming and going from the parking lot, boots continuing to shake the steps where she knew she sat collapsed to one side. What would it mean now for her to be unafraid? She felt her hands inside her fur-lined gloves, felt herself pressing her desire toward her fingertips, the edges of herself igniting with need. She knew what she wanted--more than a wolf, more even than her wish of waking each day to kick the tangled wool blanket from her legs--to believe that a woman could live through the coldest nights of her life, to understand that the possibilities when Beth shut her eyes need not be paralyzing in their multitudes but instead as thick and rich as the scarf of stars she turned her face to each night.

Emma would be watching for her headlights that evening, standing on her porch, listening for the sound of a snowmobile on the path through the dark. Beth could make her choice, break the spell. With her eyes closed and her head tipped forward, she sat now burning in the chill of the setting sun, waiting for the hand she longed for, the one that would reach down to touch her shoulder and shake her, finally, into being.
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Author:Kuipers, Keetje
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2016
Words:4844
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