I stuck a fallen branch from the old Box Elder tree through the trap, tripping the trigger. The jaws closed neatly and savagely on the stick. I looked up to see Tuomi’s reaction in the window but she wasn’t there. The door opened and she was walking toward us quickly, seriously. It seemed to me that every emotion Tuomi felt eventually melted into anger if you waited long enough, and looking at her face it seemed she was about to cross that threshold.
“It won’t work,” she said – abrupt, short – “one end of the spring is too slow.” She looked back and forth at Grandfather and me with a child’s urgency, shifting from one foot to the other.
“Looked fine to me,” Grandfather said.
“It isn’t fine!” She nearly cut him off. “It’s – they’ll suffer. It’s too slow.” She turned to me. “Don’t you see?” I looked in her pale blue eyes, their vision perfect and predatory, having instantly ascertained the trap’s weakness, its fatal flaw.
“Let’s try it again,” I said.
Tuomi had never hesitated a moment in her life and she found another stick so fast she must have been eyeing it from the moment she walked out of the house, anticipating not only our skepticism but how she would overcome it. Grandfather and I went about resetting the trap, Grandfather grumbling about how he didn’t much care if the wolverine suffered or not as long as it would quit poaching his stock. We were used to this from her: the nearly reptilian focus; the inborn, misplaced intelligence fit more appropriately for a wartime general or a grey wolf than a young girl. She stuck the stick through the trap, the jaws closed, this time snapping the stick.
She looked at me, not hopeful but expectant. I looked at the trap, then at Grandfather, who shrugged. “Seems fine,” I said.
Her eyes glazed over and chilled, her jaw set furiously. She said, “It’s still too slow. You’ll see.”
In those days we regarded her, Grandfather and I, as something like a Siberian Tiger: immensely powerful and yet delicate, singular, unaware of its tenuous hold on existence – and all the more sacred for its rarity.
She must have heard the sound just before I did, because when I woke up I could see her out the window, already dressed in her down jacket and work boots, walking. She had an invincible sort of walk, similar to how a porcupine walks, eternally confident of the wariness of all nature before it. Head up, arms crossed, razor-edged chin jutted out, blond hair flung backward, she trudged toward the noise in the woods. I got out of bed and followed her.
The sound was grotesque – a muffled gurgling, strange and high-pitched, not unlike the sound of two fox squirrels at play. It was easy enough to guess: the wolverine had been caught. And Tuomi had been right.
I saw her in the moonlight, standing over the dying animal, its sputtering cry the sound of a slow asphyxiation. It was drowning in its own blood, choking on bits of shattered collarbone. She looked small and lonely, glowing in the bright moonlight, her misty exhalation forming a coagulated benediction over the beast. She pulled something metallic out of her pocket and when the moonlight lit upon it I could see it was Grandfather’s old six-shooter, the gun with which he’d taught us how to hunt rabbits. Joyless, robotic, her arm moved forty degrees away from her torso. Without a hint of hesitation, she pulled the trigger.
She didn’t even wait for the echo of the shot to die down before she got on her hands and knees and started digging with her hands. I stood up behind her. “Guess you were right about the trap,” I said. She stopped and looked back at me without surprise and said nothing. Her face was dismissive, betraying nothing save a vague disappointment. She went back to digging.
I don’t know how she knew they were there, but she found them. Her excursions always began in the night’s near-silence – bats flapping overhead, swimming in a starry ocean, frogs croaking lazily – and usually ended in the liquid transience of pre-dawn.
She would hunt for them almost every night. Awakened by some unheard sound, some unfelt movement – an ethereal ripple she alone perceived at the exact moment when some life had lost its efficacy – she rose quickly but without hurrying. When she first started, she had to take time to dress and then go downstairs to the closet where Grandfather kept the six-shooter in an old shoebox on the top shelf. After a few nights, she started sleeping in her clothes and kept the six-shooter in her coat pocket. Grandfather never used the thing anyway, and if he noticed it was gone he didn’t say anything.
They were all trapped, dying. With relatively few people on the island and its positioning between Canada and the Upper Peninsula, fur-bearers were everywhere and trappers were enthusiastic. There were foxes, coyotes, beavers, bobcats, muskrats, otters – sometimes young wolves and one time a mountain lion. The mountain lion: struggling, gasping in a harsh growl, too large for the trap, thrashing with the jaws closed around its throat. She: not a hunter but an executioner, a passive, scavenging killer, unprepared, trying to steady the six-shooter as the huge cat reared, towering over her in a confused fury. I, who had been following her, rushing at the mountain lion, hitting it low, sending it against a tree. It scratched me up, but by then it was losing strength and its brain was aching for oxygen. I got to my feet and as it turned over onto its belly Tuomi shot it in the head. She said nothing; she had been talking less and less the more she killed. She only looked at me, not alarmed but disturbed, puzzled, tilting her head like a dog after its owner feigns throwing a ball across the yard and then hides it behind his back.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked her, panting, bloody.
“It’s mercy,” she said, lowering the gun.
“Maybe, but that’s an accident,” I said. “It’s something else for you.”
She gathered herself then and closed her mouth so tightly that the shadow of her jawline made her look like she was grinning. She stuck the six-shooter in her pocket. Acidly, reproachfully, she asked: “Why are you following me?”
“I’m worried about you.”
This seemed to repulse her and she looked at me with that same confused, savage fury that I had seen in the mountain lion just before I rushed it. Confusion, disgust, fright – curiosity, faith, even love – all of it metamorphosed as it passed through her, distilled into hot anger.
For months it consumed her, slowly. At first she approached her pursuit with an apostle’s zeal; she adopted a nocturnal lifestyle, sleeping during the day and staying out all night. But soon she wasn’t sleeping anymore and her eyes sunk into their sockets and her blonde hair grew white. She ate little. It was as though, in her ascetical fervor for tying off circles, closing loops, she had inadvertently opened some immutable chasm in her uniquely primitive consciousness. Whatever unheard noise roused her in the night, whatever sound death makes when it approaches, had become so loud she could hear nothing else.
The times that I followed her into the woods, Tuomi diligently buried the animals she killed. At first she would dig shallow graves with her hands, but soon she started taking Grandfather’s gardening shovel from the shed. She dug deep graves, deeper than they needed to be, her heavy breathing becoming louder and more menacing each time she plunged her shovel into the earth until it was a low, canine growl. She would finally lift her head up from her work when she felt the grave was deep enough, and the look on her face was like a person emerging from a deep trance. If I believed her capable of the sensation, I would have called it peaceful. Then, unceremoniously, she would kick or drag the carcass into the hole, still mortally ensnared in the defective trap.
Sometimes Grandfather and I would try to talk to her, but she acted like she couldn’t hear us. Maybe she couldn’t. I felt like a coward, not forcing her to speak. Engaging Tuomi sometimes felt like wading into Superior from the coast of the Grand Sable Dunes, dodging rip currents waiting to suck me under, drag me around, and make me powerless.
Near the beginning of autumn, with the air hollowing out and losing its summer thickness, she left us for three days. She had been absent for stretches before, but never for that long. After the first day and a half, Grandfather asked around town if anyone had seen her. I scoured the woods for her, at certain moments feeling as though somehow she were right there in front of me, only I couldn’t see her. During daylight, we searched; at night, we sat on the porch with the light on, sipping whiskey to ease our nerves, waiting for her to make her way back to us.
Finally, during the night after the third day, she returned. I had expected her to emerge from the woods, but she was coming from the direction of town. She looked as though she hadn’t eaten since she left, lurching toward us, exhausted; her eyes were violent but without intent, the way river rapids are violent, or a landslide. Her hair was matted and wild, barely shifting in the breeze. Her young frame was impossibly vascular in the harsh porchlight, nearly translucent, her veins as dark and visible as tattoos. She dragged Grandfather’s shovel weakly behind her, her hands callused but still bleeding in places.
We ran to her. I picked her up in my arms and was shocked by her submitting to be touched. In those days it was easy to forget she was still only a child. She touched my face with her hands and said, delirious, “I couldn’t find it. It isn’t alive in me. I’ll never find it.”
The smell eventually made its way to Grandfather’s house. I thought there must be a dead animal in the woods. It was the day following Tuomi’s return. She slept in her room as I walked into the woods to find the source of the stench. I saw, not far from where the woods meet the backyard, a hole in the ground. Not a hole dug by any animal; an exhumed grave. The wolverine, I thought.
By the time I made it back to Grandfather’s, the smell had become oppressive. Tuomi was awake, sweating, feverish but lucid.
“There were so many,” she said. “And after every one I felt the same.” Her face held that same befuddlement as when the mountain lion had attacked her, only this time there was a manic quality to it, an urgency that bordered on fear.
When I reached town, I saw it in front of the hardware store that sold the traps: a mountain of decomposing animals -- foxes, coyotes, beavers, bobcats, muskrats, otters, squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, the mountain lion, the wolverine – each marked with a bullet wound. Flies hovered in a single organism around them, like a visible ozone cloud. Maggots crowded around empty eye sockets and open mouths. It was never about mercy, I thought. The animals were witnesses, acolytes: a monument. She is a futile creature, something ruthless and amoral imprisoned in the body of the only species on earth that must come to grips with itself.
Some of the corpses were well decomposed. Some, from a certain angle, looked as though they could spring up at any moment – sleeping after a long fruitless struggle, resting somewhere between life and death.