Nancy Scott Hanway / Fiction 5.2 / Fall, 2017

NANCY SCOTT HANWAY

ELK CALL

For six months, from his thirty-fifth birthday in April, until the season arrived in October, Martin Riordan practiced elk calls. Elizabeth had given him the long plastic tube with crimped ends, which came with a tape called Sounds of the Bull Elk. Every night after dinner Martin crouched in the living room, first listening intently to the instructor calmly explain how to blow into the tube. Then followed the live animal call, a real bull elk bugling for a mate, and Martin nodded as though a secret had finally been unfolded to him. He inserted the mouth diaphragm into his cheeks, raised the plastic tube to his mouth, and blew: A husky mid-octave bellow led to a long, slow, high squeal, almost like a tin whistle, ending in a low grunt. A month before his hunting trip, he had everything perfected except the squeal. The squeal, said the instructor, in his precise voice, is a key element of the call, essential to attracting the doe and, therefore, the rival male. Martin tried every variation of breath and tone; some days he wet the tube with saliva, and other days he dried it clean. Yet he could only manage uneven squawks, and he was not satisfied.

What made his attempts more frustrating was that Elizabeth could do it perfectly. She lifted the tube to her mouth, relaxed her shoulders, and puffed quickly: And there issued the sound—exactly like the animal on the tape—of the bull elk in heat. If he could bring her with him on the hunting trip, what success they would have. He doubted if the pompous instructor had ever sounded so real.

When Elizabeth did the call, he could see her in his mind trailing a bull elk in the woods—her long, white-blonde hair tangled in the brush. She would lift her knees in rhythm along with the animal, calling insistently, ardently, until the buck grew agitated and turned to face its rival. When it saw Elizabeth it would draw short, tensing its muscles in preparation to mount. It would die, sweating with excitement, Martin’s bullet in its forehead.

“You’ve got to come with us,” he told her, a few weeks before he was scheduled to leave. She was cooking soup, stirring it, and tasting, pushing back her hair. “It’s in the deep woods.”

She picked up her teacup from the counter and took a sip—from where he stood, he could smell cardamom and fennel. “If you were hiking or bird-watching, I’d go,” she said. “I don’t want to kill animals. You know that.”

He knew. He’d always loved what he called her hippie quality. It had attracted him when they first met on a blind date set up by a local newspaper in Saint Cloud that ran an online column called “Opposites Attract.” You sent in a description of yourself, and the editors tried to match you with the most unlikely person possible.

Martin had described himself as “Cubicle Man,” not because he thought of himself that way, but because he knew it would make the paper pick him. Elizabeth wrote that she was a “Child of Nature,” although that was nearly true. She loved everything to do with the outdoors. She could stare at a maple leaf for minutes at a time, exclaiming at the color, the translucent veins, the leathery feeling. When she walked into the restaurant that first time—tall and lean, in a long, gauzy dress, with dark wooden beads woven into her light hair—Martin could see them together, could see how they would look as a couple.

“She’s awfully independent,” his mother had said, the only criticism she offered.
“What do you mean?” He was crazily in love. “She’s changing her name.”
“It’s something else,” his mother said. “I think she’s a little wild for you.”
He had just laughed.

“And what do we know about her?” his mother continued. “She doesn’t have family—you’ll be everything to her.”

“That’s what I want,” he had responded. “Someone who will only pay attention to me.”

He knew from how his friends stared at Elizabeth—how his manager Brendan stared when they’d invited him to dinner—that she was the kind of woman men dream of marrying, that in movies, she was the kind of woman who made guys dump their boring girlfriends.

He loved everything about her. Still, after seven years of marriage, he liked that her parents were dead and she had no dull and chatty family to invite them to barbecues or interminable Thanksgivings. He loved that she didn’t do things just because he wanted. It made her trustworthy. And she had few interests outside her job at the Department of Natural Resources, where she kept herself apart from her colleagues. He felt like the center of her world.

There was one thing about Elizabeth that worried him. She had explained at the beginning of their marriage that she sometimes needed to get away from civilization, but he hadn’t realized that civilization would also include him. She sometimes disappeared for weekends at a time without telling him. She returned with leaves and mud clinging to her shoes, a little sunburnt, out of breath, sometimes with scratches along her legs and arms. When he asked where she had been, she simply said, “The woods. A little farther north. You know.”

She had no other strange habits, other than keeping a bowl of autumn leaves by his side of the bed, which she claimed would increase his fertility. Occasionally, she became intrigued by some quirky religion or odd mythology and researched it for months before she lost interest. She was intrigued by religions that believed in animal totems or worshipped nature, and for a brief period, she said Wiccan incantations over their suppers.

He told himself that eventually she would lose interest in escaping to the forest. When they had children. Someday.

***

On the first trip with the guys from work, they had hunted deer in Michigan. Martin was only a salesman then, still working the phones and living on commission—and they brought him along because he knew how to hunt with a bow.

Martin disliked everything about it—cold, sodden boots, getting up at dawn to sit in a deer blind, blood soaking his jacket. But he enjoyed nighttime when they sat around the fire, drinking beer, while the older men talked business. And they’d say to him, “You thinking of staying in sales? It’s a good life.” He always lifted his head, trying to look young and sincere. “Yes, that’s my plan.” After they got back, for months Brendan would lean over him when Martin was about to pick up the phone, and say, “God, I was just thinking about that day in the U.P. when Johnson nearly shot you in the ass. That was a hoot.” By the second trip, they had promoted him. He and Elizabeth finally had enough money to buy a house on a lake with—most important for her—acres of woods that separated them from other people. He thanked heaven that he had agreed to go on that first trip.

At work sitting in his glassed-in office, Martin watched the salespeople work the phones: gesturing, pleading, bullying, and waving frantically for a supervisor to come and verify the sale. When he first became a manager, the actual day-to-day work used to make him happy; particularly the image he had of himself sitting in his navy suit, frowning over his laptop, attempting to put sales reports into some kind of order that would change the workings of the company. But after a while, he saw the mass of information as a phenomenon of nature in which reports produced more reports, like seeds shat out by animals that produced new plants in unlikely places.

One day he tried to discuss it with Brendan, an Irishman married to an American, who often complained about the obscene bureaucracy. He said in his humorous accent, “Too much effin’ documentation, that’s for certain.”

“I mean it feels unstoppable. Doesn’t it?”

Brendan cocked his head to one side. “When I get in one of those moods, I always remember that other people’s jobs depend on me. We’re the cannon fodder, y’know.”

Martin closed his laptop. “Maybe we’re all doing this for nothing.”

“You need to go hunting,” Brendan said. His voice was falsely hearty. He obviously didn’t want to have this conversation. “Only a week’s countdown. You’re just chomping at the bit.”

“Yeah,” Martin said.

“By the by.” Brendan stroked the top of Martin’s cubicle. “You mind staying for that call from corporate? I was supposed to do it but I’m cratered.” He smiled. “Might help you remember why we’re here.”

“Sure. And thanks,” Martin said, although talking to Brendan hadn’t helped, and he’d gotten roped into a late meeting. But at least Brendan had listened. And Martin trusted him.

Martin thought it had something to do with Brendan’s Irishness, which reminded him of his own family. While drunk one night in Michigan, Brendan had even admitted to believing in ghosts. He saw the ghost of his grandmother in Dublin, he said, after she had passed. She first appeared in his room the night before her funeral. And then she appeared again as a white bird alighting on the coffin before they buried her.

Some of the other guys had gossiped afterward about Brendan and “his freaky grandma story.” Martin hadn’t joined in. He knew that Elizabeth would love the story, and he had asked Brendan to tell it when he came over for dinner.

“That’s beautiful,” Elizabeth had said, breathing out her approval. “Your Nana was saying good-bye in the best way possible.”

“You get it!” Brendan was half drunk and he picked up his glass, nearly sloshing wine on the table. “My wife doesn’t. Here’s to you, Lizzy. If I’d married someone like you, I wouldn’t be getting divorced.”

Elizabeth had shaken her head, smiling. When they went to bed that night, she had said, “Brendan has depth. He’s not your typical sales guy.”

She was right. Brendan was trustworthy, Martin thought. He wouldn’t tell anyone about Martin’s fears. But Martin reminded himself not to be so open. He didn’t want Brendan thinking that he didn’t care about the job.

***

When he finally got home that night, the lights were out. For one second Martin thought Elizabeth had gone away, and a surge of fear made blood come to his mouth. Then he saw a flashlight trained on the ground near the edge of the lawn. As he got closer, he saw her moving slowly, bent over and picking at fallen leaves, blending in with the dark woods behind her. When she looked up, he thought she was going to bolt.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

She stared at him for a moment, as if she were trying to pretend she wasn’t there, and then she leaned down and grabbed a handful of leaves. “I lost one of my new earrings. I thought it might be easier to find in the dark.”

He reached forward and brushed mud from around her mouth and a few leaves from her hair. “You been rolling around in the dirt?” he asked, laughing.

“Wow,” she said. She wiped her mouth. “I’ve been out here too long. Come on, let’s go in.”

The flashlight glinted on something beneath her feet, and he reached down to pick it up, sure he’d found the earring. His hand closed around something else—a small medallion of some kind, cold to the touch. As he picked it up, a silver chain dangled from his hand.

“What’s that?” she asked.

He took her hand and guided the flashlight to the medallion—an old-fashioned religious medal, like old ladies used to wear.

“Oh,” she said. “Wonder where that came from.”

She’d never been a good liar—he could tell that she had seen the medallion before, that it must be what she had been looking for.

“Saint Christopher?” he asked and then peered more closely. “No. Saint Hubert? Never heard of him.”

“Oh,” she said. “Hubert is the patron saint of hunters.”

He laughed, uncertain how to take it. “How do you know that?”

“I just do,” she said, holding out her hand. He put it there, with a jolt of fear. She was lying again. “I must have read about it somewhere in my studies.”

“It can’t have been here too long.” He couldn’t see her face in the dark, but her hand was trembling. “It’s too clean.”

“Maybe from the landscapers,” she said.

“You can tell me if you’re into Saint Hubert,” he said. “You don’t have to hide it. I know I make fun of your obsessions.”

“Not mine. I promise.” She pocketed the medallion and chain. “I’ll ask around.”

***

At work the next day, he cornered Brendan at the vending machine as Brendan was about to push the button for a Diet Coke. Divorce had turned Brendan into a gym rat, and he had lost about twenty pounds. He looked handsome, Martin thought sourly.

“Hey,” Martin said. “You know anything about a saint called Hubert?”

The can slid noisily to the bottom of the machine. “That’s pretty old school,” Brendan said, scratching his chin. “My Nana—the one I told you about—she was into Hubert. If you wear the Hubert medal, it protects you from wild animals.”

“Really?” This was too much of a coincidence, and Martin’s chest grew hot and tight. He pretended to examine the choices at the vending machine. He slid his card into the slot and jabbed at a number without looking.

“I thought you hated the diet stuff,” Brendan said, as another Diet Coke thunked against the lip of the machine.

“Not anymore.” Martin picked up the can, resisting the desire to crush it, or throw it at Brendan. “Your Nana ever have, like, a necklace with one of those medals?” he asked.

If Brendan and Elizabeth were having an affair, this would show Martin’s hand, but he didn’t care. The thought of losing her made him crazy.

“Not that I know of,” Brendan said. “Why?”

“Elizabeth found one,” Martin said. “Thought you might have dropped it at our house.”

“Nope,” Brendan said. “Not mine. Some other crazy Irish fellow’s been sitting on your sofa.”

Brendan looked relaxed, and Martin convinced himself that he was imagining things, although he wondered why Brendan had said, “on your sofa.” It seemed pointed, as if to prove that he didn’t know that the medal had been spotted outside. And a little nasty, as if he wanted to suggest that Elizabeth regularly entertained men in their living room.

Yet from that day on to the moment they left for Montana, Martin found nothing else to make him suspect anything was wrong, although the next time he said something about Brendan, Elizabeth made a face. They were driving to town to buy supplies for his trip, and Martin knew that she didn’t realize he had been watching her.

“What’s that?” he asked. “I thought you liked Brendan.”

She turned away toward the window and the dense foliage that grew along the side of their long driveway.

“He was cheating on his wife, you know, before they separated. And he was cruel to her—hit her once over the upholstery.”

“Who told you that?” he asked, still suspicious.

“I ran into her at the farmers’ market.”

That was possible—he knew that Brendan’s wife loved the farmers’ market. He had a vague memory of once seeing her and Brendan, both of them tense and unhappy, arguing over a box of blueberries. The wife had glared at them when they said hello.

Martin shook his head, suddenly disappointed. He had convinced himself that Brendan was the soul of honor.

“Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t trust the word of an almost ex.”

“I believed her,” Elizabeth said, her voice vibrating with it. “I don’t like males who betray their mates.”

He wanted to say, “What about females?” but he didn’t. He was afraid he wouldn’t like her answer and reassured by her statement about cheaters. She must feel that way about women too.

They had come to the end of their drive, to the local highway, where cars passed in thick procession. It was a Saturday, and some SUVs had deer strapped to the roofs. Elizabeth blinked when she saw them, giving the little shudder she always did when she saw a dead animal. The sight made Martin shudder too, but only because he worried about his elk call—how he hadn’t perfected it. Brendan said he had it down so well that people couldn’t tell the difference between the real elk and him.

Brendan never mentioned the medal and didn’t seem at all worried when Martin brought it up in front of him, except to ask, “Ever figure out who dropped it?” And Martin didn’t have time to worry because he got busier at work. He spent twelve hours a day in his gray-blue square—he was starting to feel like a true “cubicle man.”

After Brendan inquired about the medal, Martin asked Elizabeth if she’d discovered the owner.

“No,” she said, blinking her ash-blonde lashes. “I think it must have been some hunter on our land. We’d better put up signs.”

He didn’t believe her—her gaze wandered when she spoke—but he didn’t know what to do. And then something strange happened that convinced him that he had misjudged her. The morning he left on his trip, she put the medal around his neck and made him promise he’d wear it.

At first he wriggled away from her like a child, swatting at the medal, angry she would do this. But finally, feeling ridiculous with her stalking him throughout the house, he let her fasten it around his neck. It couldn’t belong to Brendan or some lover, he thought.

“You will keep it, won’t you?” she asked. “I’ve been looking up Saint Hubert. There’s an active cult to him. People are serious about it. There really have been miracles.”

“Oh, God,” he said. “We don’t know who it belongs to.”

“You have to,” she said. “Please.”

She had tears in her eyes, and it shook him. “Okay,” he said. “I promise.”

***

On the drive to Montana, Martin sat beside Brendan in the backseat of an SUV that belonged to one of the IT guys, who drove maniacally, at high speeds, drinking Red Bull and exchanging terrible jokes with one of the salesmen in the front seat.

Brendan looked at Martin. “What’s that?” he asked, his Irish accent suddenly sharper and more insistent.

Martin felt his face grow red. “Elizabeth made me wear it. It’s that medal she found.”

“Can I take a look?” Brendan asked.

Martin wanted to refuse, but he didn’t know how. He undid the silver chain and passed it to Brendan, who examined the medal. His face was calm, but he had developed an odd facial tic that made a vein pop at his temple.

“Curious,” he said, passing it back. “These old superstitions.”

“Elizabeth—well, she believes,” Martin said.

“An old-fashioned girl, that Lizzy,” Brendan said.

Martin grew angry. In some ways that was true, but how did Brendan know? And why did he keep calling her “Lizzy,” which Elizabeth had once said was her childhood name? He kept reminding himself that he had no proof that anything had happened.

* **

In the woods, they rode mules for two hours into the back country. As they rode, Martin had the strange sensation of being watched. Was it his imagination that every time he turned around, Brendan was quickly looking away? Once he thought he saw a person in the woods, just a flash of something, as if another hunter had followed them. When Martin asked, the guide shook his hand.

“This is private land,” he said. “No one but us here—unless they’ve been traveling across the mountain to get here.”

When they set up on the downhill side of an open area, where bulls were said to roam, the guide split them into pairs. He was going to work with the two younger guys, while Martin and Brendan, the more experienced hunters, were on their own. Martin was irritated, but Brendan seemed pleased by the arrangement, saying in a low voice to Martin, as the two others went off with the guide, “Jesus. Couldn’t take any more of those jokes.”

And then there was just the waiting in the chilly morning. Lying alongside Brendan, listening to his hoarse breath, the screeching of squirrels overhead. After about an hour, they heard a bull elk bugling—and Martin felt the glow of recognition. There was an answering squeal from a doe—the estrus call, the call that meant she was ready and waiting, that she would be there for him.

“Want to try?” he asked Brendan, who nodded and inserted the plastic diaphragm between his lips and raised the tube. When he blew, Martin was astonished. Brendan was right—he sounded so perfectly like the bull that it was eerie. He was better than Elizabeth. And Brendan’s face changed too, taking on the wide, alert look of an elk that Martin had seen in YouTube videos.

The call pulled Martin, like anger. It stirred that animal part, that jealous part that made him hate Brendan, although it was obvious that nothing had happened between Brendan and Elizabeth. Could he ask? It would be terrible if he was wrong, and it could affect his future if his boss knew Martin suspected him. What would Elizabeth say if his suspicions lost them his job, which would mean the loss of their house and the ten acres that protected them from the world?

Martin got his bow ready, the stiff arrow, his hand pressing on the trigger, ready to let the arrow fly. There was a rustling behind them, and suddenly he saw her, an enormous doe elk racing toward them, running like crazy, her head down, and Martin let the arrow go. It hit her in the shoulder, and she staggered for a moment, bucking her head, before running off into the forest.

“Follow her!” Brendan shouted, and they ran after her, tracking the trail of blood and the haphazardly broken brush. At some point the trail stopped, and they couldn’t hear any more crashing. Either she had collapsed or she was hiding somewhere.

Brendan pointed up ahead. “Look,” he said. “There she is. Let’s get closer.”

They were almost upon her, seeing her lying there, panting and bloody from her shoulder, when she suddenly lunged at them. Martin felt her breath on him, sure she was going to knock him over when she turned on Brendan. Then she had Brendan pinned against a tree, butting him while Brendan cried for Martin to help, to do something. The minute Martin raised his bow, the elk turned and looked at him, a slow, almost contemptuous look, before she walked off slowly. Martin ran to help Brendan, who scudded against the tree trunk, pale, eyes closed, one arm bloodied, bones visible through the skin.

Everyone said it was a terrible tragedy. There was no question about it. Brendan had been making a video of the hunt, and his phone picked him up hissing, “Let’s get closer!” to Martin, and later—the video pointing at branches and the sky—recorded his cries for help and the sound of Martin raising his bow, of the elk wandering off, of Martin screaming for the guide and eventually having to leave Brendan to go get help, and then the sound of the elk returning—a rogue elk, they all said—to stomp Brendan to death.

The saddest part was—as one of the sales guys said—no one outside the company mourned Brendan. Not his estranged wife, who inherited his 401(k), or the kids from his first marriage. Martin had never even heard Brendan mention them. At the funeral, Elizabeth said she knew about the children and the first wife.

“That was a sadness for him,” she said. “The children wouldn’t speak to him after the divorce, and his second wife never wanted kids.”
 
He didn’t ask her how she had known this—maybe Brendan had told her that night at dinner while Martin was out grilling the steaks—and anyway, it hardly mattered. Elizabeth was busy and happy, finally pregnant. She hung the Saint Hubert medal in the nursery above the crib she had bought for their future child. Pregnancy brought some aches and pains, especially in her shoulder, which never recovered from an injury she suffered while painting the nursery. As he had hoped, she stopped her sudden forays into the woods to meditate, or whatever it was she had done there.

Nancy Scott Hanway is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received an M.F.A. in fiction writing. She received an M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa. Hanway has won many awards and honors, including a Fulbright Fellowship for International Dissertation Research to Argentina. Recently, she was named a finalist for the 2015 McKnight Fellowship in Creative Prose.  Her short fiction has appeared in The Florida Review, Portland Review, Washington Square Review, WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Inertia, Grey Sparrow, Willow, Southern Humanities Review, Conte, North Dakota Quarterly, Limestone, Apalachee Review, and elsewhere.

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