Hukka and the Cougar
By Katie Welch
Del lived alone at Stone Lake, conversing with animals. Suspecting her drugs, she halved then quartered pills, but it didn't help; animals spoke on an inner channel. Possibly the voices sprang from head injuries, fall from a horse, car accident, and Del was glad she'd surrendered her children in the valley after the earthquake. She was crazy, dangerous. If her kids had survived, they were better off without her.
In due course, Del stopped caring if animal speech was real; talking to Manx, her shaggy blonde retriever, alleviated loneliness. She rationed medication, drawing out her supply, but, in the second year of self-imposed exile, she swallowed her last pill. Withdrawal was ugly: twitching in a balsam-browse bed, sweating, longing to die. When detox symptoms subsided, very little had changed. On a plateau above feelings, Del invented happy lives with friends and parties for Cleo and Amelia, her daughters, and described them to Manx. Dreams seemed real. Days skimmed past fleetingly like ducks across the lake, there and then gone. Poplar leaves faded to yellow, fell, and grew again. As time passed, leaving the fish camp became less plausible. Thoughts of her children tore holes in Del's chest, and she clutched at empty places with red, chafed fingers.
It was November when the cougar came; she knew from a calendar carved in smooth silver birch. Squatting outside her shack, using a tree trunk for balance, ankles shackled by tatty long underwear, Del gazed at Orion's belt. Satellites in orbit cluttered constellations, like static on a screen. Cold air chilled exposed skin, urine streamed into a tuft of moss, and a sultry voice spoke.
We are patient, seeking only that which is provided.
In a thicket along the creek — two bright green oblongs — cat's eyes.
Del had come across cougar scat, and feline paw prints pressed deep in lakeshore muck. She sometimes heard the animal in heat, yowling to be mounted, a ghastly sound like murder. When she snared a rabbit or caught a fish she left bones and guts as gifts, in case the cat might spare a feeding hand. A ridiculous practice, she realized, as the cougar emerged from shadow, white feline muzzle and tawny sinew backlit by a gibbous moon hanging over treetops. Her bladder still partway full, Del's urethra tightened in fear. She bounced on her heels, shaking errant drops to the ground, and stood up slowly, sliding decrepit underwear to her waist. Her plaid jacket was unbuttoned; she tugged it across her breasts, and met the cougar’s blank eyes with a thrill.
We are hungry, the cougar said. Lifting a casual paw, it licked between claws.
What do you mean?
That which you provided, and now do not. We seek it.
I’ve been sick. I haven’t been hunting.
We seek it, the cougar repeated.
Del wondered why the cougar said we. Was it female — did she have a litter nearby? Tense seconds passed. An owl hooted, and the cougar swung back toward the creek.
In the morning, Del set six small snares.
An afternoon trapline check produced a scraggy rabbit, body still warm, foam from death throes lining strangled chops. She butchered and skinned the anorectic creature, keeping only a small portion of flank, leaving the rest for the uppity cougar.
Stumping back into camp, she spied a brown flicker in the vegetable garden and squinted through deer fencing: a whole and healthy rabbit, feasting on tough kale. Sensing trouble, the rabbit rose to its haunches and spoke in a squeaky, plaintive timbre:
Killer hag, killer hag. Yuk-tuk-tuk, yuk-tuk-tuk. Hating hating, you taking taking.
Del deserved loathing. Her hands were bloodstained. She had snared, mutilated and eaten the rabbit's kin, often without proper rituals of gratitude. She felt bad about it, and with guilt came resentment: from this moment on, the creature's objectionable voice would ricochet inside her skull. Bounding to a hole by the cabbages, the rabbit vanished underground. It was Manx's job to keep foragers from devastating the garden — where was he? Lately the dog had been roaming; soon he would find other strays, and form a feral pack.
At dawn the next day, hungry and indolent, Del ate some raw potatoes. Winter was coming and the cabin walls were imperfect, with gaps that needed chinking. The weather was clear and not too cold: good for collecting moss and stockpiling cedar sprigs, though it would mean venturing further afield than she cared to. Mustering resolve, she took the high ridge trail to a logging cut-block, a slope littered with the dry branches of trees felled for their straight, true trunks. A shoulder-high juvenile generation of spruce and pine pushed up in planted rows. Westward lay the jagged Coast Mountains, peaks bright with snow. Gold-green grasslands rippled to the south. Pitchy conversation betrayed a flock of birds hidden in shrubs, gorging on bitter berries. At her approach they flew away, cursing her presence, but a pileated woodpecker remained, pinned to a snag, its taunt echoing off distant trees.
Del hacked young branches from supple green growth with a hatchet, sap-blood sticking to her fingers. As she worked, a deep groan emanated from underground, a rumbling muffled by dirt. Lower tones joined in, creating a chorus, and the ground reverberated, bass notes amplified on subterranean speakers. Was it the root system, the mycorrhizae, or a chorus of both? Stripping saplings was tantamount to torturing a baby forest: the earth was urging her to cease. Hurriedly she gathered bundles of insulating material and returned to long-dead walls that baffled the clamour of living things.
Del's leg muscles cramped up that night, and her hips ached. She shifted her weight, distributing it evenly on balsam boughs. Her thoughts turned to the valley. Tempted to return, she fought the impulse by imagining Cleo and Amelia’s reactions to her surfacing: denouncements, spleen, accusations of treachery. And her children might not be alive; after the earthquake, inadequate resources had surely led to looting and savagery. Sometimes a spire of black smoke spiralled up from Vernon, or Kelowna, further south. She could count, using three of her eight fingers (two lost to frostbite the previous winter) the number of humans she'd seen in as many years. Civilization had likely collapsed. But jet planes roared overhead, and far-off blasts boomed. At night satellites orbited, spying on the world. Human inventions shrank the planet, and wild things expanded it, but where did the balance lie between the manufactured and the natural? Circumstances were dire, and yet a person could still cleave the forest, stake a claim along a stream, and cobble together a home. As long as you could renounce society, there was hope.
Finger-combing her hair, Del noticed it was white. Black spots with scalloped edges had erupted on her arms, cancer probably, but there was nothing fancy to be done. She heated a knife in the fire, cauterized the lesions, and excised her own seared flesh. A plump grey Whiskey Jack watched her work, babbling repetitively: wouldn't do that, never again, wouldn't do that. Birds were boring, easy to tune out. For all their speed and grace, deer were tedious too, their utterances marked by non-sequiturs. Mice had better elocution but tended to run away mid-thought, so the bulk of what they said was lost.
On a foggy morning, Del melted snow, too chilled and lethargic to fetch water from the creek. Dextrous orange and blue fire-fingers stroked a blackened pot. At Stone Lake, she mostly gathered ingredients and stirred them into stews, nostalgic for a life of meagre subsistence she’d never known. Phantoms grinned through dense campfire smoke, their features mirroring hers, same broad nose, same wavy hair. Manx was gone; he often disappeared for days, and returned with rust-coloured jowls.
A weasel popped up near the fire, stood on its hind legs, and regarded her with flinty eyes. It should have been fearful but instead warmed its paws, toasting them front and back like miniature hands. Del passed a dried Saskatoon berry; the weasel saluted, took the food, and nibbled until a distant BOOM came from the southwest. A brown mushroom cloud billowed, and the weasel scampered off. Del was unsettled, but she'd heard explosions before. She wasn’t concerned until later that morning when a drone whizzed over the lake and hovered briefly above her camp. She hurled a rock, and the drone zipped away.
Later that day an illness came over her, a fever and nausea. She piled blankets on her body, hoping for the kind of sweat that purges evil. Night had fallen when she heard human voices, and the shack door opened. A tall man with sandy chin-stubble entered, and ripped blankets roughly from her sweat-drenched body. Behind him an older man sidled in, a hunchback with a bulbous purple nose and grizzled grey beard.
Get up, Grandma. It's time to share, said the old man.
I’m sick, Del said.
It was strange to speak real words, like blowing bubbles of noise. Covering their mouths and noses with grubby sleeves, the men recoiled, and went outside. Del listened to them overturning her belongings, pillaging her sanctuary, and the cougar entered her thoughts like a hidden weapon: a club beside a bed, a knife inside a boot. She had provided scrawny offerings, and now she reached out to the cougar for help, with a silent cry of vulnerability. She sent her ague, the faces of the men, her indignant outnumbered helplessness.
After a time, thumps and scrapes of men helping themselves were interrupted by screams that tore the night apart. A shriek of pure agony echoed across the lake. In her feverish state, Del's senses were enhanced. She heard chewing sounds, cracking of bones and cartilage, sucking and gulping of fresh meat. She smelled the iron tang of blood.
We are satiated, woman, and there is a spare.
Quavering on her bunk, Del sent the cougar a message about the sickness coursing through her system. Be well, the cougar replied. Del shivered and thrashed. Above the ill-fitting shack door, she saw a sliver of starry night sky. Was her illness caused by radiation, or an atmospheric pollutant — had the brown cloud dispersed a poison? No — the cougar would be affected, and those men, too. Something she ate, then. Disease wouldn’t do; one bout of bad weather, and she could die.
Dawn faded in, dirty as a dishrag. Her fever broken, Del shuffled into daylight, a blanket lumped on her shoulders like a carcass. Crimson splatters on stale, crusty snow turned out to be the younger man's remains. Del blushed, thinking greedily of blood and bone, soil improvements. The older man was crouched in the lean-to where she kept firewood and kindling. He had evidently spent the night in there; his clothes were littered with wood chips and birch bark. Del hastened to claim her axe, sunk in a chopping-block stump. The pitiful man shrank at her approach, and hugged his knees fearfully. Ignoring him, she carried logs to the pit, and poked at coals until the fire caught. Sap popped and wood snapped. She beckoned for the man to join her. He obeyed. He sat on a bundle of cedar branches, eschewing the seat-stumps as if he didn’t deserve one.
I'm called Del.
Hukka, he whispered. Grey eyelids fluttered like moths over red-rimmed eyes. Scruffy jowls trembled.
Why are you afraid? The cougar has eaten — she won't return.
I want to bury what’s left of him, before scavengers come.
You can't, Del explained, as if to a child. The rest is for them — for the others.
Hukka shuddered. Del withdrew dried chokecherries and a bunch of flaccid carrots from a hide-lined storage box. She made a thin tea from dried mint leaves and they ate and drank in silence, hunkered over the flames. He was right; carrion eaters would arrive soon, to clean the dead man's bones. Del could already hear the silly bragging of coyotes. Hukka coughed wetly, and cleared his throat.
Where did you live?
West of here, Del replied, in the Vernon valley. You?
North, Hukka said, and he waved a vague hand.
His swollen lower lip vanished behind an uneven row of orange-brown teeth, and to Del’s surprise, she realized the old man was crying. Tears leaked along deep creases flanking his misshapen nose. Before she could soften and empathize, Del mustered contempt.
What was he to you, anyway?
He was my son.
He couldn’t have been — he looked nothing like you, Del said. She spat a purple mass, seeds and saliva, into the snow.
No one looks like anyone, Hukka said.
Del thought of her children, but couldn't say their names. Anyway, he was right: any Homo sapiens, balancing a brain and wearing scraps from a century of consumption, was family. It meant he was a brother, a cousin, long-lost kin, and the prospect of sharing her fish camp, breaking loveless bestial solitude, raised prickles on her neck.
Russet and silver fur moved beyond the camp; coyotes were close, massing in the conifers. Coyotes were crass, yet oddly fastidious in their eating habits, preferring to dine in private. If she were alone, Del would simply leave them to their feast, but the coyotes would smack their chops, joke and gloat, and she pitied the man the cougar had left alive, the spare. Crows were landing in branches over the garden, fixing beady black eyes on the messy feast below. Hukka clutched at his elbows.
We could go fishing, Del offered.
She wasn't afraid of him; she could summon the cougar with her mind. Or was the cat's kill a coincidence? Fever had blurred the memory. Either way, they should leave the scavengers to their banquet. She collected fishing tackle, and chose a circuitous route to a secondary lake, a reedy oval of brackish water amidst drooping black spruce. Hukka trailed behind her at a wary distance. When they got there the sun was high. A resonant hum, filtered fish speech, rose from the water like a monastic chant. Del used a fly she'd tied herself from hair and bright bits of plastic garbage. She cast, got a bite, and reeled in a small trout.
Muhduh, muhduh, muhduh!
The hook somehow garbled the fish's thought-speech. Murder, it was trying to say. Del raised a fist-sized rock and smashed a lidless eye. She cast again. As she fished, Hukka spoke of his friend, his son. Del admitted leaving Amelia with a boyfriend, Cleo with a family of holy rollers. The memory of her children was a keen blade that ripped her guts.
The man listened. Folded and unfolded filthy blunt-tipped fingers. Nodded in sympathy. She landed three more trout, threaded them on a coat hanger, and made Hukka carry them home. Near the cabin, she caught a pine-needle-sliced glimpse of coyotes, lingering on the dead man's remains.
Go away, she shouted.
Not finished, sister, one answered.
The others cracked up, and crooned a mocking refrain, sister, sister, yip yip yip yip yip! Del pried up a rock, and lobbed it into their midst. Blood on snow, a giant bullseye: the rock thumped down on target.
Get the hell out of here! she screamed.
The coyotes lolloped off, laughing amongst themselves.
Inspecting a paw-trampled pink circle, Del saw they had mostly finished. She kicked snow over unconsumed parts, and returned to the edge of the woods, but the friendless hobo had spurned her company.
Hukka was gone. She never saw him again.
Katie Welch writes fiction and teaches music in Kamloops, BC, on the traditional, unceded territory of the Secwepemc people. Her work has appeared in EVENT Magazine, Prairie Fire, The Antigonish Review, Longleaf Review, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She was first runner-up in UBCO’s 2019 Short Story Contest, and her story Poisoned Apple was chosen as Pick-of-the-Week by Longform Fiction. Her debut novel will be published by Wolsak and Wynn in the spring of 2022. Hukka and the Cougar is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress, and she's currently working on a collection of short stories.