The men come smelling of caribou blood and campfire smoke and cold night air.
Birdie is wiping down the tables and looking out a window at the falling snow when they stomp into Wolverine Lodge. Their faces are unshaven, their rubber boots caked with muddy slush. One of them wears a .44 revolver in a leather shoulder holster. When Birdie gives them menus, she sees dried blood in the deep creases of their hands.
“You guys do any good?” One looks a few years younger than Birdie, not yet 20. His cheeks are still smooth.
“Thanks,” he says quietly when she is at his shoulder.
“Yep. We got a few,” one of the men says. But then she becomes invisible and they talk only to each other. Never seen a herd of caribou come through like that, they just about trampled the camp stove. Bullets ablazing. You flew out of that tent like it was on fire. Laughter.
Out the front window she can see their pickup trucks and snowmobile trailers parked in the hard light of the halogen street lamp. She wants to be out there – the snow cold and clean, the antlers a jumble of points and bone and shadow, the meat in muslin sacks stiff with frozen blood. Hindquarters, front quarters, ribs, heart and tenderloin.
“What the hell is this?” Tiny comes out of the kitchen wiping his hands on his stained, sunflower-print apron. “Two minutes before closing time and you saunter in here expecting food.”
“Tiny Weatherhorn? Holy Christ. You still slinging burgers here?”
“They can’t get rid of me.” He shakes hands with one of the men. “You back from Michaelson Pass?”
“I heard the caribou were moving through. Get some nice ones?”
“Come out and have a look.”
Birdie watches them leave, and then goes to the kitchen to push potatoes through the French-fry press.
When she was a little girl, she wanted to be John Wayne. She wore a six-shooter cap gun in a plastic holster and practised saying “Pilgrim.” That was when her dad started teaching her how to tie fisherman’s knots and load a .22. They hunted snowshoe hare in the foothills. By his side, she imagined herself an Indian scout or a mountain man.
When she was 13, her dad said it was time for her to move in with his sister. “You need a woman to raise you.” His eyes glanced off her small, growing breasts.
He went to work on the North Slope oil fields, two weeks on, two weeks off, but eventually he stopped coming around even when he was in town.
“You can head out as soon as we get the food on the table,” Tiny says as he flips the patties on the grill. “I’ll close up.”
Tiny hired her as a waitress – the one and only – five years ago when Birdie graduated from high school. She moved into a guest cabin, and she watched the men come and go.
It was about this time that her desire to inhabit their skin turned to something else. She wanted to taste them, to lick their whiskery jaws and feel their rough hands. She wanted them on her, around her, in her; it was like hunger, but the ache was lower, just above her pelvic bone.
The first was an upland bird hunter from New Hampshire who wore Orvis corduroy slacks and cardigan sweaters and brought a bottle of white wine to her cabin. She wanted to know about ring-necked pheasants. She tried to tell him about the ptarmigan near Monument Peak, how they take to the air in great, noisy, beautiful bursts. He said he’d never met a woman who liked to hunt; he said it with distaste. He drank the bottle of wine and then buried his balding head between her young, smooth thighs, but Birdie was still thinking about ptarmigan rising, how the winter sun flashes off their white wings and makes you want to cry.
There were others, but the only one who lasted more than a few nights was Saunders, a climbing guide old enough to be her father. Tiny didn’t like him. Saunders wore Teva sandals and smoked pot and pretended to read Thoreau, like a gentle hippie-type, until Birdie started sleeping with him. As he balled her hair in his fist and forced her onto her knees, he told her that’s how animals are, that males crave dominance and females want to be forced into submission.
“What’s it like in the canyon, when you’re climbing the ice falls?” she asked when he was finished. He never answered.
It took her several weeks, but she finally turned him away from her cabin door. That night she cut her hair very short, and she felt like a wild animal that had wiggled free of a snare, leaving behind a few strands of hair.
“You go on and turn in for the night, Birdie.” Tiny leans back in his chair where he sits with the men and gives a wave.
The lodge lights are off except in the dining room. They are all smoking cigars, even the boy, although it doesn’t appear to agree with him. His skin is pale and greenish, and Birdie feels a pang of sympathy for him.
They don’t notice her slip away. By the back door, she pulls on her ski boots and headlamp.
The snowfall has slowed to a gentle sprinkle. The night is still and hushed. Birdie kicks, glides and finds her rhythm, the cross-country skis slipping across the snow. Her headlamp lights the narrow trail in front of her as she skis into the spruce trees and away from Wolverine River. She doesn’t stop to look back. She doesn’t think about the men.
This – her breath rising into the cold, the movement of her body strong and alive and beautiful in its own skin, the knowledge like a cool round stone in the centre of her chest that she belongs here, alone in the dark forest – this is what she has been hunting for.
Eowyn Ivey won the International Writer Of The Year Award at the 2012 Specsavers National Book Awards. The Snow Child (£7.99, Headline) is out now
Illustrations: Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini