When Mr. Sorensen—a drab, cipher of a man—passes away, his lovely widow falls in love with a most unsuitable mate. Enraged and scandalized (and armed with hot-dish and gossip and seven-layer bars), the Parish Council turns to the old priest to fix the situation—to convince Mrs. Sorensen to reject the green world and live as a widow ought. But the pretty widow has plans of her own.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
The day she buried her husband—a good man, by all accounts, though shy, not given to drink or foolishness; not one for speeding tickets or illegal parking or cheating on his taxes; not one for carousing at the county fair, or tomcatting with the other men from the glass factory; which is to say, he was utterly unknown in town: a cipher; a cold, blank space—Agnes Sorensen arrived at the front steps of Our Lady of the Snows. The priest was waiting for her at the open door. The air was sweet and wet with autumn rot, and though it had rained earlier, the day was starting to brighten, and would surely be lovely in an hour or two. Mrs. Sorensen greeted the priest with a sad smile. She wore a smart black hat, sensible black shoes, and a black silk shirt belted into a slim crepe skirt. Two little white mice peeked out of her left breast pocket—two tiny shocks of fur with pink, quivering noses and red, red tongues.
The priest, an old fellow by the name of Laurence, took her hands and gave a gentle squeeze. He was surprised by the mice. The mice, on the other hand, were not at all surprised to see him. They inclined their noses a little farther over the lip of her shirt pocket to get a better look. Their whiskers were as pale and bright as sunbeams. They looked at one another and turned in unison toward the face of the old priest. And though he knew it was impossible, it seemed to Father Laurence that the mice were smiling at him. He swallowed.
“Mrs. Sorensen,” he said, clearing his throat.
“Mmm?” she said, looking at her watch. She glanced over her shoulder and whistled. A very large dog rounded the tall hedge, followed by an almost-as-large raccoon and a perfectly tiny cat.
“We can’t—” But his voice failed him.
“Have the flowers arrived, Father?” Mrs. Sorensen asked pleasantly as the three animals mounted the stairs and approached the door.
“Well,” the priest stammered. “N-no . . . I mean, yes, they have. Three very large boxes. But I must say, Mrs. Sorensen—”
“Marvelous. Pardon me.” And she walked inside. “Hold the door open for my helpers, would you? Thank you, Father.” Her voice was all brisk assurance. It was a voice that required a yes. She left a lingering scent of pinesap and lilac and woodland musk in her wake. Father Laurence felt dizzy.
“Of course,” the priest said, as dog, raccoon, and cat passed him by, a sort of deliberation and gravitas about their bearing, as though they were part of a procession that the priest, himself, had rudely interrupted. He would have said something, of course he would have. But these animals had—well, he could hardly explain it. A sobriety of face and a propriety of demeanor. He let them by. He nodded his head to each one as they crossed the threshold of the church. It astonished him. He gave a quick glance up and down the quiet street to reassure himself that he remained unobserved. The last thing he needed was to have the Parish Council start fussing at him again.
(The Parish Council was made up, at this time, of a trio of widowed sisters whose life’s purpose, it seemed to the priest, was to make him feel as though they were in the midst of stoning him to death using only popcorn and lost buttons and bits of yarn. Three times that week he had found himself in the fussy crosshairs of the sisters’ ire—and it was only Wednesday.)
He rubbed his ever-loosening jowls and cleared his throat. Seeing no one there (except for a family of rabbits that was, en masse, emerging from under the row of box elders), Father Laurence felt a sudden, inexplicable, and unbridled surge of joy—to which he responded with a quick clench of his two fists and a swallowed yes. He nearly bounced.
“Are you coming?” Mrs. Sorensen called from inside the Sanctuary.
“Yes, yes,” he said with a sputter. “Of course.” But he paused anyway. A young buck came clipping down the road. Not uncommon in these parts, but the priest thought it odd that the animal came to a halt right in front of the church and turned his face upward as though he was regarding the stained glass window. Could deer see color? Father Laurence didn’t know. The deer didn’t move. It was a young thing—its antlers were hardly bigger than German pretzels and its haunches were sleek, muscular, and supple. It blinked its large, damp eyes and flared its nostrils. The priest paused, as though waiting for the buck to say something.
Deer don’t speak, he told himself. You’re being ridiculous. Two hawks fluttered down and perched on the handrail, while a—Dear God. Was that an otter? Father Laurence shook his head, adjusted the flap of belly hanging uncomfortably over his belt, and slumped inside.
The mourners arrived two hours later and arranged themselves silently into their pews. It was a thin crowd. There was the required representative from the glass factory. A low-level supervisor. Mr. Sorensen was not important enough, apparently, to warrant a mourner from an upper-level managerial position, and was certainly not grand enough for the owner himself to drive up from Chicago and pay his respects.
The priest bristled at this. The man died at work, he thought. Surely . . .
He shook his head and busied himself with the last-minute preparations. The pretty widow walked with cool assurance from station to station, making sure everything was just so. The mourners, the priest noticed, were mostly men. This stood to reason as most of Mr. Sorensen’s coworkers were men as well. Still, he noticed that several of them had removed their wedding rings, or had thought to insert a jaunty handkerchief in their coat pockets (in what could only be described as non-funeral colors), or had applied hair gel or mustache oil or aftershave. The whole church reeked of men on the prowl. Mrs. Sorensen didn’t seem to notice, but that was beside the point. The priest folded his arms and gave a hard look at the backs of their heads.
Really, he thought. But then the widow walked into a brightly colored beam of stained-glass sunlight, and he felt his heart lift and his cheeks flush and his breathing quicken and thin. There are people, he thought, who are easy to love. And that is that.
Mrs. Sorensen had done a beautiful job with the flowers, creating arrangements at each window in perfect, dioramic scenes. In the window depicting the story of the child Jesus and the clay birds that he magicked into feathers and wings and flight, for example, her figure of Jesus was composed of corn husk, ivy, and dried rose petals. The clay birds she had made with homemade dough and affixed to warbled bits of wire. The birds bobbed and weaved unsteadily, as though only just learning how to spread their wings. And her rendition of Daniel in the lion’s den was so harrowing in its realism, so brutally present, that people had to avert their eyes. She had even made a diorama of the day she and her husband met—a man with a broken leg at the bottom of a gully in the middle of a flowery forest; a woman with a broken heart wandering alone, happening by, and binding his wounds. And how real they were! The visceral pain on his face, the sorrow hanging over her body like a cloud. The quickening of the heart at that first, tender touch. This is how love can begin—an act of kindness.
The men in the congregation stared for a long time at that display. They shook their heads and muttered, “Lucky bastard.”
Father Laurence, in his vestments, intoned the mass with all of the feeling he could muster, his face weighted somberly with the loss of a man cut down too soon. (Though not, it should be noted, with any actual grief. After all, the priest hardly knew the man. No one did. Still, fifty-eight is too young to die. Assuming Mr. Sorensen was fifty-eight. In truth, the priest had no idea.) Mrs. Sorensen sat in the front row, straight backed, her delicate face composed, her head floating atop her neck as though it were being pulled upward by a string. She held her chin at a slight tilt to the left. She made eye contact with the priest and gave an encouraging smile.
It is difficult, he realized later, to give a homily when there is a raccoon in the church. And a very large dog. And a cat. Though he couldn’t see them—they had made themselves scarce before the parishioners arrived—he still knew they were there. And it unnerved him.
The white mice squirmed in Mrs. Sorensen’s pocket. They peeked and retreated again and again. Father Laurence tripped on his words. He forgot what he was going to say. He forgot Mr. Sorensen’s name. He remembered the large, damp eyes of the buck outside. Did he want to come in? Father Laurence wondered. And then: Don’t be ridiculous. Deer don’t go to church! But neither, he reasoned with himself, did raccoons. But there was one here somewhere, wasn’t there? So.
Father Laurence mumbled and wandered. He started singing the wrong song. The organist grumbled in his direction. The Insufferable Sisters, who never missed a funeral if they could help it, sat in the back and twittered. They held their programs over their faces and peered over the rim of the paper with hard, glittering eyes. Father Laurence found himself singing “Oh God, Your Creatures Fill the Earth,” though it was not on the program and the organist was unable to play the accompaniment.
“Your creatures live in every land,” he sang lustily. “They fill the sky and sea. Oh Lord you give us your command, To love them tenderly.”
Mrs. Sorensen closed her eyes and smiled. And outside, a hawk opened its throat and screeched—the lingering note landing in harmony with the final bar.
That was October.
Father Laurence did not visit the widow right away. He’d wait, he thought. Let her grieve. The last thing she needed was an old duffer hanging around her kitchen. Besides, he knew that the Insufferable Sisters and their allies on the Improvement League and the Quilters Alliance and the Friends of the Library and the Homebound Helpers would be, even now, fluttering toward that house, descending like a cloud.
In the meantime, the entire town buzzed with the news of the recent Sasquatch sightings—only here and there, and not entirely credible, but the fact of the sightings at all was significant. There hadn’t been any in the entire county for the last thirty years—not since one was reported standing outside of the only hotel in town for hours and hours on a cold November night.
People still talked about it.
The moon was full and the winds raged. The Sasquatch slipped in and out of shadow. It raised its long arms toward the topmost windows, tilted its head back, and opened its throat. The mournful sound it made—part howl, part moan, part long, sad song—is something that people in town still whispered about, now thirty years later. It was the longest time anyone could ever remember a Sasquatch standing in one place. Normally, they were slippery things. Elusive. A flash at the corner of the eye. But here it stood, bold as brass, spilling its guts to whoever would listen. Unfortunately, no one spoke Sasquatch, so no one knew what it was so upset about.
It was, if Father Laurence remembered correctly, Mr. and Mrs. Sorensen’s wedding night.
Sasquatch sightings were fairly common back then, but they ceased after the hotel incident. It was like they all just up and disappeared. No one mentioned it right away—it’s not like the Sasquatch put a notice in the paper. But after a while people noticed the Sasquatch were gone—just gone.
And now, apparently, they were back. Or, at least one was, anyway.
Barney Korman said he saw one picking its way across the north end of the bog, right outside the wildlife preserve. Ernesta Koonig said there was a huge, shaggy something helping itself to the best crop of Cortland apples that her orchard had ever produced. Bernie Larsen said he saw one running off with one of his lambs. There were stick structures on Cassandra Gordon’s hunting land. And the ghostly sound of tree knocking at night.
Eimon Lomas stopped by and asked if there was any ecclesiastic precedence allowing for the baptism of a Bigfoot.
Father Laurence said no.
“Seems a shame, though, don’t it?” asked Eimon, running his tongue over his remaining teeth.
“Never thought about it before,” Father Laurence said. But that was a lie, and he knew it. Agnes Sorensen – before she was married – had asked him the exact same question, thirty years earlier.
And his answer then had made her cry.
On Halloween, Father Laurence, in an effort to avoid the Parish Council and their incessant harping on the subject of holidays—godless or otherwise—and to avoid the flurry of their phone calls and visits and Post-it notes and emails and faxes and, once, horrifyingly, an intervention (“Is it the costumes, Father,” the eldest of the sisters had asked pointedly, “or the unsupervised visits from children that makes you so unwilling to take a stand on the effects of Satanism through Halloween worship?” They folded their hands and waited. “Or perhaps,” the youngest added, “it’s a sugar addiction.”), Father Laurence decided to pay Mrs. Sorensen a visit.
Three weeks had passed, after all, since the death of her husband, and the widow’s freezer and pantry were surely stocked with the remains of the frozen casseroles, and lasagnas, and brown-up rolls, and mason jars filled with homemade chili and chicken soup and wild rice stew and beef consommé. Surely the bustle and cheeping of the flocks of women who descend upon houses of tragedy had by now migrated away, leaving the lovely Mrs. Sorensen alone, and quiet, and in need of company.
Besides. Wild rice stew (especially if it came from the Larson home) didn’t sound half-bad on a cold Halloween night.
The Sorensen farm—once the largest tract in the county—was nothing more than a hobby farm now. Mr. Sorensen had neither the aptitude nor the inclination for farming, so his wife had convinced him to cede his birthright to the Nature Conservancy, retaining a bit of acreage to allow her to maintain a good-sized orchard and berry farm. Mrs. Sorensen ran a small business in which she made small-batch hard ciders, berry wines, and fine jams. Father Laurence couldn’t imagine that her income could sustain her for long, but perhaps Mr. Sorensen had been well insured.
He knocked on the door.
The house erupted with animal sounds. Wet noses pressed at the window and sharp claws worried at the door. The house barked, screeched, groaned, hissed, snuffled, and whined. Father Laurence took a step backward. An owl peered through the transom window, its pale gold eyes unblinking. The priest cleared his throat.
A throaty gurgle from indoors.
Father Laurence had known Agnes Sorensen since her girlhood (her last name was Dryleesker then)—she was the little girl down the road, with a large, arthritic goose under one arm and a bull snake curled around the other. He would see her playing in front of her house at the end of the dead-end street when he came home for the summers during seminary.
“An odd family,” his mother used to say with a definitive shake of her head. “And that girl is the oddest of them all.”
Laurence didn’t think so then, and he certainly didn’t think so now.
Agnes, in her knee socks and mary janes, in her A-line dresses that her mother had made from old curtains and her pigtails pale as stars, simply had an affinity for animals. In the old barn in their backyard, she housed the creatures that she had found, as well as those that had traveled long distances just to be near her. A hedgehog with a missing foot, a blind weasel, a six-legged frog, a neurotic wren, a dog whose eardrums had popped like balloons when he wandered too near a TNT explosion on his owner’s farm. She once came home with a wolf cub, but her father wouldn’t allow her to keep it. She had animals waiting for her by the back door each morning, animals who would accompany her on her way to school, animals who helped her with her chores, animals who sat on her lap as she did her homework, and animals who curled up on her bed when she slept.
But then she got married. To Mr. Sorensen—good man, and kind. And he needed her. But he was allergic. So their house was empty.
Mr. Sorensen was also, Father Laurence learned from the confessional booth, infertile.
Agnes only came to Confession once a year, and she rarely spoke during her time in the booth. Most of the time she would sit, sigh, and breathe in the dark. The booth was anonymous in theory, but Mrs. Sorensen had a smell about her—crushed herbs and apple cider and pinesap and grass—that he could identify from across the room. Her silence was profound, and nuanced. Like the silence of a pine forest on a windless, summer day. It creaked and rustled. It warmed the blood. Father Laurence would find himself fingering his collar—now terribly tight—and mopping his brow with his hands.
He worried for Mrs. Sorensen. She was young and vibrant and terribly alive. And yet. She seemed in stasis to him somehow. She didn’t seem to age. She had none of the spark she had had as a child. It was as though her soul was hibernating.
There was a time, maybe fifteen years ago, when Mrs. Sorensen had closed the door of the booth behind her and sat for ten minutes in the dark while the priest waited. Finally, she spoke in the darkness. Not a prayer. Indeed, Father Laurence didn’t know what it was.
“When a female wolverine is ready to breed,” Mrs. Sorensen said in the faceless dark, “she spends weeks tracking down potential mates, and weeks separating the candidates. She stalks her unknowing suitors, monitoring their habits, assessing their skills as hunters and trackers. Evaluating their abilities in a fight—do they prefer the tooth or the claw? Are they brave to the point of stupidity? Do they run when danger is imminent? Do they push themselves to greatness?”
Father Laurence cleared his throat. “Have you forgotten the prayer, my child,” he said, his voice a timid whine.
Mrs. Sorensen ignored him. “She does not do this for protection or need. Her mate will be useful for all of two minutes. Then she will never see him again. He will not protect his brood or defend his lover. He will be chosen, hired, used. He will not be loved. His entire purpose is to produce an offspring that will eventually leave its mother; she needs a child that willlive.”
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” prompted Father Laurence. “That’s how people usually—”
“Now, in the case of a black bear, when the female becomes aware of the new life in her womb, she makes special consideration to the construction of the den. She is at risk, and she knows it. Pheromones announcing her condition leak from every pore. Her footsteps reek pregnant. Her urine blinks like road signs. Her fertility hangs around her body like a cloud.”
“When she digs her den, she moves over a ton of rock and soil. She designs it specially to provide a small mouth that she can stopper up with her back if she needs to.”
“She will grow in the dark, and birth in the dark, and suckle her babies in the feminine funk of that tiny space—smelling of mother and baby, and sweat and blood, and milk and breathing and warm earth—hiding under the thick protection of snow.” Her voice caught. She hiccupped.
“I thought I was anonymous.”
“And you are. I call all my confessionals Agnes.”
She laughed in the dark.
“I am asleep, Father. I have been asleep for—ever so long. My arms are weak and my breasts are dry and there is a cold dark space within me that smells of nothing.” She sat still for a moment or two. Then: “I love my husband.”
“I know, child,” he whispered.
“I love him desperately.”
What she wanted to say, the priest knew, was “I love him, but . . .” But she didn’t. She said nothing else. After another moment’s silence, she opened the door, stepped into the light, and vanished.
Father Laurence had no doubt that Agnes Sorensen had loved her husband, and that she missed him. They had been married for thirty years, after all. She had cared for him and tended to him every day. His death was sudden. And certainly one must grieve in one’s own way. Still, the sheer number of animals in the house was a cause for concern. The list of possible psychiatric disorders alone was nearly endless.
The priest walked out to the apple barn but no one was there. Just the impossibly sweet smell of cider. It nearly knocked Father Laurence to his knees. He closed his eyes, and remembered picking apples with one of the girls at school when he was a child—sticky fingers, sticky mouths, sticky necks, and sticky trousers. He was eleven then, maybe. Or twelve. He remembered her long hair and her black eyes, and the way they fell from the lowest tree branch—a tangle of arms and legs and torsos. The crush of grass underneath. Her freckles next to his eyelashes, his front tooth chipping against hers (after all those years, the chip was still there), the smell of her breath like honey and wine and growing wheat. So strong was this memory, and so radically pleasant, that Father Laurence felt weak, and shivery. There was a cot in the barn—he didn’t know what it was there for—and he lay upon it.
It smelled of woodland musk and pine. It was covered in hair.
He slept instantly. In his dream he was barefoot and lanky and young. He was on the prowl. He was hungry. He was longing for something that he could not name. Something that had no words (or perhaps he had no words; or perhaps words no longer existed). He was full of juice and vigor and hope. He was watching Agnes Sorensen through a curtain of green, green leaves. She carried a heaping basket of apples. A checkered shirt. Apple-stained dungarees. A bandana covering her hair. Wellington boots up to her knees, each footfall sinking deep into the warm, sweet mud.
When Father Laurence woke, it was fully dark. (Was someone watching? Surely not.) He got up off the cot, brushed the hair from his coat and trousers. His body ached and he felt curiously empty—as though he had been somehow scooped out. He walked out into the moonlit yard. Mrs. Sorensen wasn’t in the barn. She wasn’t in the yard. She wasn’t in the house either. (Was that a shape in the bushes? Were those eyes? Heavens, what am I thinking?) The house had been emptied of its animal sounds, and emptied of its light and smell and being. It was quiet. He knocked. No one answered. He walked over to the car.
There were footprints, he saw, in the mud next to the driveway. Wellington boots sunk deep into the mud and dried along the edges. And another set, just alongside. Bare feet—a man’s, presumably. But very, very large.
Thanksgiving passed with several invitations to take the celebratory meal with neighbors or former coworkers or friends, who would have welcomed Mrs. Sorensen with open arms, but these were all denied.
She said simply that she would enjoy the quiet. But surely that made no sense! There was no one on earth quieter than Mr. Sorensen. The man hardly spoke.
And so her neighbors carved their turkeys and their hams, they sliced pie and drank to one another’s health, but their minds wandered to the pretty widow with hair like starlight, her straight back, her slim skirts and smart belts and her crisp footsteps when she walked. People remembered her lingering smell—the forest and the blooming meadow and some kind of animal musk. Something that clung to the nose and pricked at the skin and set the mouth watering. And they masked their longing with another helping of yams.
(The three sisters on the Parish Council, on the other hand, didn’t see what the big fuss was about. They always thought she was plain.)
Randall Jergen—not the worst drunkard in town, but well on his way to becoming so—claimed that, when he stumbled by the Sorensen house by mistake, he saw the widow seated at the head of the well-laid table, heaped to the point of breaking with boiled potatoes and candied squash and roasted vegetables of every type and description, with each chair filled, not with relatives or friends or even acquaintances, but with animals. He said there were two dogs, one raccoon, one porcupine, one lynx, and an odd-looking bear sitting opposite the pretty widow. A bear who grasped its wine goblet and held it aloft to the smiling Mrs. Sorensen, who raised her own glass in response.
The Insufferable Sisters investigated. They found no evidence of feasting. And while they did see the dogs, the tiny cat, the raccoon, the lynx, and the porcupine, they saw no sign of a wine-drinking bear. Which, they told themselves, they needed to know whether or not was true. Drunk bears, after all, were a community safety hazard. They reported to the stylists at the Clip’n’Curl that Mr. Jergen was, as usual, full of hogwash. By evening, the whole town knew. And the matter was settled.
For a little while.
By Christmas, there had been no less than twenty-seven reports of Sasquatch sightings near, or around, or on the Sorensen farm. Two people claimed to have seen a Sasquatch wearing a seed cap with the glass factory’s logo on it, and one swore that it was wearing Mr. Sorensen’s old coat. The sheriff, two deputies, the game manager at the local private wildlife refuge, and three representatives from the Department of Natural Resources all paid the widow a visit. Each left the farm looking dejected. Mrs. Sorensen was not, apparently, available for drinks, or dinner, or dancing. She answered their questions with crisp answers that could have meant anything. She watched them go with a vague smile on her pale lips.
The Insufferable Sisters investigated as well. They looked for footprints and bootprints. They looked for discarded hats and thrown-off coats. They hunted for evidence of possible suitors. They interviewed witnesses. They found nothing.
By late January, neighbors noticed that Mrs. Sorensen began to walk with a noticeable lightness—despite the parka and the heavy boots, despite the sheepskin mitts and the felted scarf, her feet seemed to float atop the surface of the snow, and her skin appeared to sparkle, even on the most leaden of days.
Bachelors and widowers (and, if honesty prevails, several uncomfortably married men as well) still opened doors for the pretty widow, still tipped their hats in her direction, still offered to carry her groceries or see to her barn’s roof, or check to make sure her pipes weren’t in danger of freezing (this last one was often said suggestively, and almost always returned with a definitive slap). The Insufferable Sisters arrived, unannounced, at the Sorensen farm. They came laden with hotdish and ambrosia salad and bars of every type and description. They sat the poor widow down, put the kettle on, and tapped their long, red talons on the well-oiled wood of the ancient farm table.
“Well?” said Mrs. Ostergaard, the eldest of the sisters.
“Oh,” said Mrs. Sorensen, her cheeks flushing to high color. “The tea is in the top drawer of the far right cabinet.” Her eyes slid to the window, where the snowflakes fell in thick curtains, blurring the blanketed yard, and obscuring the dense thicket of scrub and saplings on the other side of the gully. The corners of her lips buzzed with—something. Mrs. Ostergaard couldn’t tell. And it infuriated her.
Mrs. Lentz, the youngest of the sisters, and Mrs. Ferris, the middle, served the lunch, arranging the food in sensibly sized mounds, each one slick and glistening. They piled the bars on pretty plates and put real cream in the pitcher and steaming tea in the pot. They sat, sighed, smiled, and interrogated the pretty widow. She answered questions and nodded serenely, but every time there was a lull in the conversation (and there were many), her eyes would insinuate themselves toward the window again, and a deepening blush would spread down her throat and edge into the opening of her blouse.
The dogs lounged on the window seat and the raccoon picked at its bowl on the floor of the mudroom. Three cats snaked through the legs of the three sisters, with their backs an insistent arch, their rumps requiring a rub, and all the while an aggressive purr rattling the air around them.
“Nice kitty,” Mrs. Ostergaard said, giving one of the cats a pat on the head.
The cat hissed.
The sisters left in the snow.
“Be careful,” Mrs. Sorensen said as she stood in the doorway, straight backed and inscrutable as polished wood. “It’s coming down all right.” Her eyes flicked toward the back of the yard, a flushed smile on her lips. Mrs. Ostergaard whipped around and glared through the thick tangle of snow.
And then it was gone. Snowflakes clung to her eyelashes and forehead. Cold drops of water crowded her eyes. She shook her head and peered into the chaos of white. Nothing was there.
The sisters piled into their Volvo and eased onto the road, a dense, blinding cloud swirling in their minds.
The next day they called a meeting with Father Laurence. Father Laurence withstood the indignities of their fussing in relative silence, the scent of apples, after all this time, still clinging sweetly in his nostrils.
The day after that, they called a second meeting, this time calling the priest, the mayor, the physician, the dog catcher, and a large animal veterinarian. They were all men, these officials and professionals that the sisters assembled, and all were seated on folding chairs. The sisters stood over them like prison guards. The men hung on to their cold metal chairs for dear life. They said yes to everything.
Three days later, Arnold Fiske—teetotaler since the day he was born—nearly ran Mrs. Sorensen over with his Buick. It was a warm night for February, and the road was clear. The sun was down and the sky was a livid color of orange. On either side of the road, the frozen bog stretched outward, as big as the world. Indeed, it was the bog that distracted Arnold Fiske from the primary task of driving. His eyes lingered on the dappled browns and grays and whites, on the slim torsos of the quaking aspens and the river birches and the Norway pines fluttering like flags on the occasional hillock. He lingered on the fluctuations of color on the snow—orange dappling to pink fading to ashy blue. He returned his gaze to the road only just in time. He saw the face of Mrs. Sorensen (that beautiful face!) lit in the beam of his headlights. And something else too. A hulk of a figure. Like a man. But more than a man. And no face at all.
Arnold Fiske swerved. Mrs. Sorensen screamed. And from somewhere—the frozen bog, the fading sky, the aggressively straight road, or somewhere deep inside Arnold Fiske himself—erupted a ragged, primal howl. It shook the glass and sucked away the air and shattered his bones in his body. His car squealed and spun. Mrs. Sorensen was pulled out of the car’s path by . . . well, by something. And then everything was quiet.
He got out of the car, breathing heavily. His dyspepsia burned bright as road flares. He pressed his left hand to the bottom rim of his ribcage and grimaced. “Oh my god,” he gasped. “Agnes? Agnes Sorensen! Are you all right?” He rounded the broad prow of the Buick, saw the horror on the other side of the car, and felt his knees start to buckle. He fell hard on his rear and scrambled back with a strangled cry.
There was Agnes Sorensen—her long, down coat bunched up around her middle, her hood thrown off, and her starlight-colored hair yanked free of its bun and rippling toward the ground, curled in the long arms of a man. A man covered in hair.
Not a man.
Her voice was calm. Her hands were on the man’s face. No. Not a man’s face. And not a face either. It was a thicket of fur and teeth and red, glowing eyes. Arnold Fiske’s breath came in hot, sharp bursts.
“What is that thing?” he choked. He could barely breathe. His chest hurt. He pressed his hands to his heart to make sure it wasn’t going out on him. The last thing he needed was to have a heart attack in the presence of a . . . well. He couldn’t say. He couldn’t even think it.
Mrs. Sorensen didn’t notice.
Her voice was a smooth lilt, a lullaby, a gentle insistence. A mother’s voice. A lover’s voice. Or both at once. “I’m all right,” she soothed. “You see? I’m here. I’m not hurt. Everything is fine. Everything is wonderful.”
The man (not a man) bowed its head onto Agnes Sorensen’s chest. It sighed and snuffled. It cradled her body in its great, shaggy arms and rocked her back and forth. It made a series of sounds—part rumble, part hiccup, part gulping sob.
My god, Arnold Fiske thought. It’s crying.
He sat up. Then stood up and took a step away. Arnold shook his head. He tried to hold his breath, but small bursts still erupted, unbidden, from his throat, as though his soul and his fear and his sorrow were all escaping in sighs. In any case, he felt neither his fear nor his sorrow as he looked at the widow and her . . . erm . . . companion. (He had never felt his soul. He wasn’t even sure that he had one.)
He cleared his throat. “Would you,” he said. And faltered. He started again. “Would you and your, um, friend . . .” He paused again. Wrinkled his brow. Muscled through. “Need a ride?”
Mrs. Sorensen smiled and wrapped her arms around the Sasquatch’s neck.
Because that, Arnold Fiske realized, is what I’m seeing. A Sasquatch. Well. My stars.
“No, thank you, Mr. Fiske,” Agnes Sorensen said, extricating herself from the Sasquatch’s arms and helping it to its feet. “The night is still fine, and the stars are just coming out. And they say the auroras will be burning bright later on. I may stay out all night.”
And with that, she and the Sasquatch walked away, hands held, as though it was the most normal thing in the world. And perhaps it was. In any case, Arnold Fiske couldn’t shut up about it.
By noon the next day, the whole town knew.
A Sasquatch. The widow and a Sasquatch. Good gracious. What will they think of next?
Two days later, the pair were spotted in public, walking along the railroad tracks.
And again, picking their way across the bog.
And again, standing in the back of the crowd at a liquidation auction. The Sasquatch sometimes wore Mr. Sorensen’s old seed hat and boots (he had cut out holes for his large, flexible toes), and sometimes wore the dead man’s scarf. But never his pants. Or some kind of shorts. Or, dear god, at least some swimming trunks. The Sasquatch was in possession, thankfully, of a bulbous thicket of fur, concealing the area of concern, but everyone knew what was behind that fur, and they knew it would only take a stiff breeze, or a sudden movement, or perhaps the presence of a female Sasquatch to cause a, how would you say—a shaking of the bushes, as it were. Or a parting of the weeds. People kept their eyes averted, just to be safe.
And the sisters were enraged.
Mrs. Sorensen was spotted walking with a Sasquatch past the statues and artistic sculptures of Armistice Park.
(“Children play at that park!” howled the sisters.)
They called Father Laurence at home nineteen times, and left nineteen messages with varying levels of vitriol. Fool of a priest was a phrase they used. And useless.
Father Laurence, for his part, went to the woods, alone. He walked the same paths he had followed in his boyhood. He remembered the rustle of ravens’ wings, and the silent pounce of an owl, and the snuffling of bears, and the howling of wolves, and the scamper of rabbits, and the slurping of moose. He remembered something else, too. A large, dark figure in the densest places of the wood and the tangled thickets of the bog. A pair of bright eyes and sharp teeth and a long, loose-limbed, lumbering gait that went like a shot over the prairie.
He was eleven years old when he last saw a Sasquatch. And now all he had to do was pick up the phone and invite Mrs. Sorensen over for dinner. Huh, he thought. Imagine that.
The meal, though quiet, was pleasant enough. The Sasquatch brought a bowl of wildflowers, which the priest ate. They were delicious.
Two weeks later, Mrs. Sorensen brought her Sasquatch to church. She brought her other animals too—her one-eyed hedgehog and her broken-winged hawk and her tiny cat and her raccoon and her three-legged dog and her infant cougar, curled up and fast asleep on her lap. The family arrived early, and sat in the front row. Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch in the middle, and the rest of the brood stretching on either side. Each one sat as straight backed as was possible with the particulars of their physiology, and each one was silent and solemn. The Sasquatch wore nothing other than Mr. Sorensen’s father’s old fedora hat, which was perched at a bit of a saucy angle. It held Mrs. Sorensen’s hand in its great, left paw and closed its large, bright eyes.
Father Laurence did his pre-Mass preparations and ministrations with the sacristy door locked. The sisters hovered on the other side, pecking at the door and squawking their complaints. Father Laurence was oblivious. He was a great admirer of the inventor of earplugs, and made it a habit to stash an emergency set wherever he might find the need to surreptitiously insert a pair at a moment’s notice—at his desk, at the podium, in his car, in the confessional, and in the sacristy.
“A sacrilege!” Mrs. Ostergaard hissed.
“Do something!” came Mrs. Lentz’s strangled gasp.
“GET THAT DEER OUT OF THE CHURCH,” Mrs. Ferris roared, followed by a chaos of hooves and snorting and the shouting of women and men, and the hooting of an owl and the cry of a peregrine and the snarl of—actually, Father Laurence wasn’t sure if it was a coyote or a wolf.
Agnes Sorensen was too old to have children. Everyone knew that. But she had always wanted a family. And now she was so happy. Didn’t she deserve to be happy? The sisters pecked and screeched. He imagined their fingers curling into talons, their imperious lips hardening to beaks. He imagined their appliquéd cardigans and their floral skirts rustling into feathers and wings. He imagined their bright bead eyes launching skyward with a wild, high kee-yar of a hawk on the hunt for something small and brown and wriggling.
The priest stood in the sacristy, his eyes closed. “O God, your creatures fill the earth with wonder and delight,” he sang.
“Doris,” he heard Mrs. Ferris say. “Doris, do not approach that cougar. Doris, it isn’t safe.”
“And every living thing has worth and beauty in your sight.”
“Oh, god. Not sheep. Anything but sheep. GET THOSE ANIMALS OUT OF HERE.”
“So playful dolphins dance and swim; Your sheep bow down and graze.”
“Father, get out here this minute. Six otters just came out of the bathroom. Six! And with rabies!”
“Your songbirds share a morning hymn, To offer you their praise.”
There was a snarl, a screech, a cry of birds. A hiss and a bite and several rarely used swears in the mouths of the Parish Council. Father Laurence heard the clatter of their pastel heels and the oof of their round bottoms as they tripped on the stairs, and the howl of their voices as they ran down the street.
Several men waited at the mouth of the sanctuary, looking sadly at the pretty widow next to her hulking companion. The men reeked of mustache oil and pomade. Their shoulders slumped and their bellies bulged and their cheeks went slack and flaccid.
“Eh, there, Father?” Ernie Jergen—Randall’s sober brother—inclined his head toward the stoic family in the front row. “So that’s it, then?” He cleared his throat. “She’s . . . not single. She’s attached, I mean.”
Father Laurence clapped his hands on the shoulders of the men, sucked in his sagging belly as tight as he could.
“Yep,” he said. “Seems so.” Family is family, after all. The dead have buried the dead, and the living scramble and struggle as best they can. They press their shoulder against the rock and urge forward, even when all hope is lost. Agnes Sorensen was happy, and Agnes Sorensen was alive. So be it.
He nodded at the organist to start the processional. The red-tailed hawk opened up its throat, and the young buck nosed the back of Father Laurence’s vestments. A pair of solemn eyes. A look of gravitas. Father Laurence wondered if he should step aside. If he was interrupting something. Two herons waited at the altar and a pine marten sat on the lectionary.
The organist sat under a pile of cats, and made a valiant effort to pluck out the notes of the hymn. The congregation—both human and animal—opened their throats and began to sing, each in their own language, their own rhythm, their own time.
The song deepened and grew. It shook the walls and rattled the glass and set the light fixtures swinging. The congregation sang of the death of loved ones. A life eclipsed too soon. They sang of the waters of the bog and of the creak of trees and of padded feet on soft forest trails. Of meals shared. And families built. Seeds in the ground. The screech of flight, the joy of a wriggling morsel in a sharp beak. The roar of pursuit and the gurgles of satiation. The murmur of nesting. The smell of a mate. The howl of birthing and the howl of loss, and howl and howl and howl.
Father Laurence processed in. Open mouthed. A dark yodel tearing through his belly.
I am lost, he sang. And I am found. My body is naked in the muck. It has always been naked. I hope; I rage; I despair; I yearn; I long; I lust; I love. These strong hands that built, this strong back that carried, all must wither to dust. Indeed, I am dust already.
Mrs. Sorensen and her Sasquatch watched him process down the aisle. They smiled at his song. He paused at their pew, let his hand linger on the rail. They reached out, and touched the hem of his garment.
It was, people remarked later, the prettiest Mass they’d ever heard.
Mrs. Sorensen and her family left after Communion. They did not stay for rolls or coffee. They did not engage in conversation. They walked, en masse, into the bog. The tall grasses opened for a moment to allow them in and closed like a curtain behind. The world was birdsong and quaking mud and humming insects. The world was warm and wet and green.
They did not come back.
“Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch” copyright © 2014 by Kelly Barnhill
Illustration copyright © 2014 by Chris Buzelli