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Fur by Kylie Westerlind

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Kylie Westerlind was born and raised in Reno, Nevada, where she received her undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada, Reno. Currently she is pursuing an MFA at the University of Montana, in Missoula.

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Last I hear from my sister Jorie, the poet is unwell and back in Iowa with his children and ex-wife, on dialysis twenty-four seven. The new kidney failed, and you think, well I thought at least, did he really want it in the first place? But so he’s hooked back into the dialysis machine, and I’m standing outside when she called to tell me, a smoked-out night falling still east from California, something the poet could not have seen. 

Where have you been, she goes, I’ve been calling you for days. 

Been in Wells till yesterday. Scouting the line. 

And so he was not taking his blood thinners, Jorie goes on. She’s all, he had a stroke—and my sister cries against my ear. It’s hard to picture her face even though when you think about it, when I think about it, she’s known me her entire life and how long have I known her? Does she still do that, wipe the meat of her palm against her eyes, and what if she pushes against them too hard? It hurts to watch it, hurts my eyes to think of her doing it anytime, and so I don’t, don’t think of her much at all, really. 

Minutes of this, and then, blood patch. 

The fuck like I know what that is, Jorie.

The phone line crackles, something or other. 

Using your own blood to patch up over the blood you’ve been losing, she says.

I opened my mouth to taste the smoke. He’s in surgery. It’s not good, is what they’re telling her. Again, her eyes. I heard them rolling under her lids from her palm pressing and pressing. Someone next to me glowed from his mouth and cupped hands, and I shivered because soon it would be November and I would be out in the desert. 

Why are you crying about him, I say.

She’s all, it’s not about him. I called because I thought you would want to know. Her voice back and her hand I’m sure off to other old habits, threading fingers through her hair and over her scalp. 

All you care about are those cats, Jorie says. Why did you even ask me to call you? 

If I could find him inside the dialysis machine, what would I say? Don’t speak to me again.

Fur’s worth over three-hundred this year, is what my mouth does.

Nice to know. When will I see you?

If even to say it to Jorie, she’s known me her entire life.

I always come back, I say.

.  .  .

It’s miles north and gray toward Jarbidge, setting the trap line along west 93. Hang right to Jackpot and a lot of jackrabbit mush on the road. Drive far out, hike the rest. What quiet the desert is. I could forget the sound of myself. I’m out looking for edges with burn and fence lines. Washes, creeks, the steep banks that border them. A lone tree. Boulder fields. Thick bands of vegetation, sage and willow patches for nesting in a set, #2 Bridgers and Montgomery dogless. I test for thick juniper and sage for anchors. Always eight to ten feet of cable attached to the chain—avoiding winters of chasing cats across the basin, following tracks that were never there. No drags. Somewhere around Antelope Peak and rain, I heave forty-pound rocks up and drop them for shatter and this sound I can hear and wrap them up with fourteen-gauge wire, bow-tied. Pan tension, five pounds, not for pika or black-tailed jacks.

Along the trap line anything I see, a cat sees, remembering that. Rimrock. Cattle ponds, rocky jumbles. The sun blazes but does not burn me. I cannot force the cat to do what I want. Look for choke points. I move through sagebrush, my fingers itching with blood, itching to move the wilderness with my hands. Bobcats choose the path of least resistance. My hands are cold, and I set another trap’s tension. A cat’s foot must be fully committed to its step before it fires, and it’s this all the time, hearing these words from someone else’s throat. I will always come back. 

Driving out on the road when the game warden comes up in his truck. He flashes his lights and we roll our windows down.

Ninety-six hours, he says, pointing back the way I came. 

Getting the last of the trail cams set up, then, I say, half-joking. 

You don’t want to know how many nights I’ve spent on that bedroll.

Think I saw you on top of your caravan with a pair of binos. Just near Angel Lake.

Always watching. He holds up a pair, the binos catching the light, and rolls forward in his truck. Maybe you’ll win fur handling this year.

Maybe, I say.

Piss off some of the guys.

That’s how it goes.

Ninety-six. On the dot. 

I will.

South to Ely, chasing bitterbrush, snow, and fur. Due west, toward home, through Eureka and Austin. Away from the road, strict blind sets. Lures catch dogs and flags catch people. I crouch to the dirt, placing the trap directly on two pieces of wax paper, hovering it over the earth. I could sing to it and would the bobcat come out from the dark? Would it give me its skin, its teeth and skull? But I hardly ever have words, and the wild out there knows this in me. Do what they want and not what you want them to do. Crack open the jaws and leave them out where they wander. 

From sick black November to March, it will be seven-hundred miles every four days to check the traps. Snow pack crunching down already. The trap line mapped, the truck lightened of the metal chops. It’s night as I roll the truck up the driveway. Garage, lights off, night stars bleeding their weak glow onto me and the moon a lure to me against the oily sky. I walk into the chill of fans and a dozen coyote furs, brushing by them in the dark sway and, eyes closed, it’s like I’m with them as they walked among the pines. 

.  .  .

Snow falls so quiet you can hear the world murmur. Tableside this morning with the ceramic cup missing its handle, I thumb over the edges. Out the window the land before me white and fuzzy like radio crackles. My sister calls and leaves no message. If I could just think of her face, then I could stop thinking what did her face look like. The same goes with him.

95 north to Lovelock, day one. The coffee’s cooled in the truck but can drink it, still. The CD player clicks, rotating through the tens she abandoned in a closet. Jorie, my kid sister, thinking of her every day now she’s called, not wanting to. Locked down now with some guy Griff who said he stood ground against a brown bear once, but it was hardly anything. It was a black bear, I knew, not a grizzly, and I told him this and we went back and forth, and was one of the few moments that I came to know Jorie was embarrassed of me. They’ve been steady for years, I don’t keep count for them. Radiology, as if she could see what’s broken around her and fix it. But bad rock and worse gangster music. Over and over in my head. A bootlegged indie song—And you’re listening to Rock 104.5, Reno’s Rock Station. Cattle on the right. Antelope jetting across the highway and could shoot them but can’t, don’t.

Coast through Elko. The poet and I dancing to—was it rock at the infirmary? And it takes a lot to remember if I was happy. Deep in drink, boots slick on the liquored floor but could have been blood from mine. Afternoons of wet, sticky furs. And Jorie claws her hand into my arm. What are you doing here?

Early spring, the start of what’s dying now. I’d caught the most cats of anyone. 

Rifle through for binos, glass my line outside Wells. Sagebrush tapping against snowfall. The cat’s usually awake and pissed off by the time I get there. The guts gone once in my truck.

He’s my professor. Jorie had a way of hissing at you without anyone else noticing. And over the music, too.

Who?

The poet, not poet yet to me. He was in deep, ginger sours while I threw back whatever. 

You’s a thing?

No. Jorie nearly turned to leave but didn’t. Explained herself in a rush of breath. There was a reading after our class and we all came out.

We all? I made a show of looking around her.

It’s late. Some have gone home. Jorie was looking for the poet. 

I told her, yeah, well the last shot we took was for his ex-wife’s new book. She stole a line straight out from him. I said, Isn’t that fucking hilarious! 

Things had actual feeling when I got like this.

Jorie pulled me out into the night. What are you on?

As if she could fix me. 

Lots of things.

Looking at the cat’s eyes they are mirrors. Loosen the choke pole and it’s done. I can be so fast now, not like I used to. Slit, slough, skin. The coyotes sense when I’m near, that I leave for them meat. Back to the truck and my vision is all spots. Fur in my eyes.

And it happens with the poet. I woke up in sheets on the ground and wished he would gut me right there. He could end it, this nothing that is nothing. Touch my lips, and did he give me his skin, his teeth and skull? 

He asks, how do you do it? 

The men don’t like it when I tell them that I do it. That’s it. I do. It’s not even a consideration.

Like throwing a fish against a rock. A rock down upon a fish. This I tell the poet and he doesn’t leave. 

Can I see them?

The fur is worth nothing if it’s messy. Unclean. You spill the body, slip off the skin and watch for blood. Get the chills when you come right back and the muscles and insides are gone, all bones. The coyotes always take and take. I drive for Jarbidge. Rabbits across the road.

Took him to Fallon. He walked through the fans, hands reaching up to touch the skins. 

They’re soft.

It’s fur.

I was expecting them to be warm. Hands upon mine. 

You’re warm. I’m cold. I’m always cold.

And slowly he drugged me in that way, leeching out my loneliness. I woke up each day and reached for that gasping breath after a deep dive, but I finally wasn’t alone. He was the one who pulled me through the water. Asking Jorie about him before going back to Fallon and she turns from her books. Dark as a lake.

Hundred miles northwest of Ely, hiking through snow and crunching through snow and breathing in snow. Sundown and the snow glitters orange against the rocks and dying bitterbrush. 

Rush of wet dirt under the quad as the poet and I drove through backcountry, over sand dunes and bleached playas, way west. Cut back from the bar. Slipped books from his shelves and thumbed through them, and if he could read it out loud, would I come out from this? Water I could see through.

Coming down the hill, snow taking my steps, and there against the juniper the mountain lion waits for me. Up on back legs and its free paw over a branch, massive. I have a .22 only for coyotes and badgers. Hissing like rising air. Out of range for the game warden. The dark comes for us, and I stand there still with water and snow soaking me. Its tail going, and it never looks away from me, those mirrors, and my breaths settling and my heart moving back into place. Set off the other traps, I knew, no need to catch it again and they were empty anyway. Headlamp presses into my skin. The light shining up the lion’s orbs and snow goes slant between us, falling thicker and even quieter. 

You’re Jorie’s sister, he said. On the floor in his studio above the river, and he saw it, us, while I never can. She writes about you. Not every time, but in a few of them. 

The lion opens its mouth, screaming without noise. 

What it was like to grow up with you. 

I looked out over the river. 

How you found your father’s old muskrat traps in the garage. 

The four-foot choke pole is too short. It could catch me with its claws. 

Then skunks and coyotes eventually, hanging the bodies in the garage. 

Skins, I said. Just skins.

She was afraid of you—should I even be telling you this. He laughed but it wasn’t a laugh. 

The water rushing below, the lion struggling as I move closer, claws shredding bark that shot up like shrapnel. 

As you both got older, she hoped things could be normal. She could hear you cut lines on the work desk, you know, he said.

It made me a slow skinner, I said. I’d hike the hides back and drape them over the truck bed, do a line and open the door and turn a CD up so loud I couldn’t hear the desert anymore, and sometimes I’d forget I was skinning and instead I’d be dancing, just going crazy, obliterated, the music was all I wanted because I could feel something like I was happy just for a moment and if I could just keep it forever, just forever, what if. I had my hand against the glass. Were there rocks below, under the current? 

Coming up behind the lion at the end of the cable and my heart back in my throat, and I’m alone. 

I think she needs you, he said. She’s going through a lot on her own.

She’s told you this.

No.

So you have a feeling.

A guess, he said.

I turned and pressed my back against the window, Can I say, would you get it if I told you that when I’m not with her, I can’t picture her face and really if it wasn’t for this she wouldn’t be a thought in my mind, and what I would like to think, what I want to say is, would you want to go swimming? But we sat there. 

You’re cruel. 

He said this, and the noose tightens around its neck as the lion pulls away from me. 

I’m not. 

How do you do it. 

It’s necessary, I said.

Do what it wants and not what you want it to do. Slowly, don’t jerk it. It will go down much quicker. 

I think you need to take care of some things, he said. And that laugh that wasn’t because anything was funny. I don’t quite know what we’re doing, I’m doing, and he moved for the door and I was falling in slow water but somehow I got up and followed him, past him, felt my truck beneath me, was he up there watching me go, and the lion fights against the line until it settles, floating down like leaves stirred up by winds, and just a few seconds, loosening the noose and throwing my jacket over its head and going for its paw, and how yes I called him, the line ringing as I walked through the coyote furs, trying to feel what it was like to be warm, and no answer, and how I actually called Jorie but she hadn’t heard from him, it was summer, it was one class, but she had heard he wasn’t feeling well, he might not be there the next year because there were health issues, things I had never known, a transplant, acute rejection, and yes, he was hospitalized and Jorie asking what was going on, but I went to the hospital to see him, I had to tell him that I felt out of body when I was with him, there was something there, nothing was just nothing, but he turned his head and he looked tired, or scared, and he said, I don’t want to talk to you. 

He said, Don’t speak to me again.

Before I can release it, the lion startles, hissing for breath. It hurls itself up and over the branch and breaking it as it falls in a burst of snow, and I snap open the trap and run as the lion swipes at me, catching my leg, and I hear water rushing, the sound of my name screaming out across the desert, my sister, and if she called for me would I come out from the dark? The soft patter of wet snow against the rocks. Stars above, the moon. The light from my headlamp flashes in slow beats. I sit up in the snow and run a hand over my damp leg. Near the tree the lion waits, watching. Don’t speak to me again. It returns to the desert dark, the quiet.

.  .  .

I drive to Reno near the end of December and meet her at the casino buffet, tradition. An ice city, the parking garages full of melting snow under the sun and hardening into patchy discs by nightfall. Six months I last saw her, and her face a blur all the time, but I find her amongst the booths of families and loners playing keno, and I feel like a sister again. She slides out from the booth and we grab plates together, pushing them along the counter, along the line of hot trays and bowls.

I have to leave by early morning.

I know, she says. Have you heard from—

No.

Plates full, we go back to the booth. Jorie hates how fast I eat, so I eat faster to get it over with. She doesn’t even pick up a fork. 

Well, how’s Griff, I offer, but nothing. Seconds? As a joke, since she just sits there, but I go get more.

Caught a mountain lion in one of my traps, when I sit down. 

Jesus. Finally she comes back to me. Really.

It got my leg. Had stitches in Ely after Randy cussed me out about it.

The warden?

Yeah, but I told him no service out there. Had to do it myself. It happens. 

She puts the fork down again.

Worse than the time I went after that bobcat in the cave.

God, she says.

Don’t know what’s worse, getting stuck crawling through a tunnel or a mountain lion trying to kill you. 

Both are awful.

It happens.

It doesn’t just happen. She smacks her hand on the table and a knife falls off her plate. The things you do, she says. The things you do. Do you think about anything when you’re out there?

Jorie.

Do you think maybe that I’m still here, that I’d still be here? She turns away and moves her hand against her eyes. You tell me this and expect me not to think about it. When you are gone for days at a time. Picks up her fork and stabs her food but doesn’t eat it. But I do, she says.

I’m always careful. And I always come back.

I just, she starts. I need to understand, to know why you cared about him. Did you, at all?

I put the fork down.

You don’t ask about anything, anyone. You don’t seem to care. Why him?

I’ve got almost forty cats.

I’m wrong then. You weren’t seeing him, each other. So when I called you about him. 

It was, sort of. We were. Doesn’t matter now. He ended it.

He did.

Yes.

Oh. She sits back. Are you happy? You seemed happy.

Why were you taking a poetry class?

She takes a napkin up and covers her eyes. And I see a small smile when she brings it down, her eyes and cheeks red from crying. I needed credits.

Credits.

It was good for me. He probably told you.

The traps in Dad’s garage.

That can’t have been all.

Yeah, the coke, I say. 

Sure, that too. She looks at me for a long time, and I see that lake again, where my sister should be. Sure, that too. She eats her food.

Done with that now, you know, I say. 

We leave the buffet and walk through the pit. Jorie sits down and I give her some cash and watch her play through a shoe. I run my fingers through her hair, wondering if I had ever braided it as a child for her. If she braided mine. When she loses all the money she takes me arm in arm and we go to the slots and sit in studded chairs, pulling the black levers for nothing, no reason at all. 

We walk out to the parking garage together, slipping a little on the ice and oil from cars. The resorts glitter green and blue around us and for once I’m outside and it’s not snowing. People crowd downtown in red coats and hats for the bar crawl and I think of the infirmary, how far away that is already in my mind. I can think now and know I was not happy then, not now either, but I feel clear, subdued to soft radio static. 

I tell Jorie I’ll see her soon, but I won’t. It will be weeks again, months. She hugs me, pulls back and then just looks at me, holding my arms. And then she goes.

.  .  .

February and it’s dark all of the time. Snow falls and falls, the land can’t seem to get back up. The drifts soft and white as I walk through them. What quiet this is, and I forget the sound of myself. I’ve been here before. I’ve been here. My head has been clear, but times when I miss that rush. Imagining my sister awake in her room, and the snuffing of myself away from her, from me. Passing sagebrush and juniper trees, alone. A bobcat twists away from the trap but it is held fast. I end it, take its skin.

Back in my truck near 93 is when she calls. Someone has reached out to her, she tells me, about the poet. All right, I say, pulling off to the side. And I close my eyes so I can see her. And she’s there. 

I thought you would want to know, she says.

You’re right. I did.

Pull the truck back on the highway and drive and drive. Most of my line pulled now, traveling along 50, west, chasing the sun. I have more cats than I did last year. Three hundred a fur. Outside Middlegate and checking in with the game warden. I hand him the lower jaws of cats and get the seals for the furs. 

Trapping’s up for legislation next year, he says, turning the jaw in his hand. 

Running us out.

It won’t happen, he says. How many traps you got left.

Just a few outside Fallon.

What are you at now?

Should be at ninety.

Ninety cats. The warden holds one of the jaws up. You know most are lucky to catch seven. Ten in a good season. How do you do it?

How do I do it. The endless miles, the trails I walk. Do what they want and not what you want them to do. Carrying on and then one day the clouds part for relief. The sun lighting up the snow fields and it hurts to see it shine so far. 

Hiking out to one of the last traps and I am tired. I’ve been gone, and I need to tell Jorie this. Gone for a while now. But I’m coming back.

A bobcat on its side, its body moving with slow breaths. I crouch to the earth. Spotted pelt, thick tufts of white. Will it come out from the dark? And it’s this fur. This fur I want and will pull over my shoulders, around my neck, this fur. This fur, and maybe then I won’t feel so cold.  •