I meet a girl and her father on the crest of a hill. She waves as the dog and I climb, and the dog bolts so fast I think he might hit the hilltop and keep running into the clouds and on to the sun. I hold back a shout with a fist to my lips, and the dog skids to a stop and licks the girl’s shoes. When I get close, the father juts his chin to greet me. With one hand, he blocks the wind from a camp stove. With the other, he flicks a silver Zippo. It sparks but won’t light, and he tosses it to the dirt. His fingers are black with grease. “Always something,” he says, and he reaches around to scratch his own back.
The girl rubs the dog’s ears, and I ask her questions. She is twelve. She figure skates. She loves vampires and feels “discombobulated” by the leap from elementary to middle school. Her hands dance as she speaks of cell-phone coverage, her dead best friend, and a stainless-steel stud someone will punch through her eyebrow the day she turns eighteen. Her apple-yellow hair hangs in a thick braid down the back of her pink T-shirt.
“Knock it off already with the piercing talk,” her father says.
I scope out the glen below. It looks empty, and I tell the father I will pitch my tent a bit downhill. He asks what I’m up to in the woods on a Wednesday. I say I got laid off, and he tells me to join the club.
“You remind me of a boy I know,” I say to the girl. “A special boy.”
She smiles then frowns and looks to her father. He examines his hands. I pick a burr from the dog’s coat and feel an impulse to give the girl a gift. But I have only the dog, and he is not mine to give.
The father tips a canvas chair onto its side by the camp stove, grabs his lighter, and coaxes a blue flame from the burner. “Give me the coffee,” he says, “and those sausages.”
The girl pets the dog again.
“Hurry up,” her father says.
She unzips a backpack, hands him a tin pot, and pulls out a plastic bag of ice water and a pack of eight sausages. The dog sniffs at her knees and crotch. I tug him away by the collar. The father asks if I have enough food. I point a thumb over my shoulder and turn so he can see the trout dangling from my pack. I tell the girl to stop by later if she wants to play fetch. She says she might. Her father tells me no offense but he won’t let her visit a stranger in the woods. I say good call. And, as the dog and I hike downhill, the girl sings the same catchy pop song my son was humming as I drove him to the mall this morning — a song my wife has insisted Satan himself surely composed.
I make camp and dig a fire pit on the far side of the draw. The dog sniffs everything in sight while I fry the trout with wild onions and morel mushrooms. Whiffs of pork and garlic from the sausages on the hilltop swirl through the fir trees and mix with sage, trout, olive oil, smoke, and mist off the stream. I look around and breathe it all in. This is the first peace I have known in weeks.
I have come to the woods to escape drama at home. My wife and I have long suspected our son Peter is gay, and we have worked hard to come to terms with this. Erin wanted to take him to psychologists for counseling. I argued for loving the sinner even if we hated the sins he might someday commit. Our worst fear was that one day Peter would ask us to pay for surgery to make him our daughter. But the real shock came two months ago, when he sat us on the sofa to announce he would forgo gender altogether.
“I am not a boy,” he told us, “and I am not a girl.”
Erin’s grip nearly broke my fingers. She asked Peter what the hell he was, then. He had a term for it:
“I am an asexual androgyne.”
I put my arm around Erin’s shoulders. She jerked away and asked Peter if he was some kind of sex robot. He said, “Oh my god,” and she warned him never to use the Lord’s name in vain. Meanwhile, the dog licked his paws.
“Sorry,” Peter said, “but I won’t let society dictate my identity or tell me what to desire.”
“Have you joined some kind of cult?” Erin asked.
Peter stood up. “I don’t expect you to understand,” he said. “But I do expect you to love me as I am.”
I felt strangely proud of my boy, or whatever he was, and it was pride — not judgment, not regret — that pushed a tear from my eye. Peter saw this, and he too started to cry. I reached for him, but Erin dropped to her knees and burst into prayer. She shouted at the ceiling with such force I expected her to conjure the wrath of God then and there. Peter’s face crinkled. He ran from the room and took the stairs three at a time. His bedroom door did not slam, but it shut hard and the lock clicked. The dog came over and put his head in my lap. Erin turned to me.
“You have to put a stop to this,” she said.
“Pray on it. Read scripture. It’s been a long time since I saw you with your Bible. Stop going through the motions. Consult Pastor Weaver. We’re losing our son. Do something.”
“I am,” I said. “I’m letting him be.”
Over the next few days, Erin made it clear she blamed me for Peter’s strangeness. I had let him play with dolls. I had let him wear towels as skirts when she was not home. I had refused to spank him, and I had permitted him to listen to popular music. This androgyny business was just a clever smokescreen to hide his homosexuality, she said. If I hadn’t kept her from intervening early on, maybe Peter could have been saved.
So she went after him hard. She grounded him indefinitely. Then she dragged him to Pastor Weaver, who knew a camp where they cured homosexuality. But the cure would cost three thousand dollars we did not have, so Erin opted to shout the gay out of Peter despite his repeated claims of wanting no sex at all.
“Where is your porn stash?” she said to him one night at dinner.
Peter squinted at her as if she were insane. “What porn stash?”
“I checked your browser history,” she said.
“No porn. You must have magazines or videos. Where do you hide them?”
Peter looked to me for help, but I felt paralyzed. My marriage was crumbling, and the thought of living without a wife or an income terrified me. I stared into my tuna casserole and waited for Peter’s answer.
“I’m going for a walk,” he said.
“Take the dog,” I said.
A week into Erin’s campaign of terror, we raced to the hospital so doctors could pump a black spatter of pills from Peter’s stomach.
Afterward, while Peter slept, Erin wept onto my chest. I felt so angry that I could not bring myself to wrap my arms around her. I had never been a violent husband and had not raised my voice in years, but it took all my strength not to punch her in the face right there beside Peter’s bed. I prayed that night for the first time in a long time, for more patience.
After three days in Crisis Watch and a month in the psych ward, Peter came home loaded with Zoloft and conviction. But Erin was ready. I begged her to take it easy on him, but she cut off his Internet access and declared her shame for what her son had become.
Then came three weeks of full-on Armageddon. The more Peter resisted, the harder Erin prayed. And the harder she prayed, the less I believed that God gave a damn. So I knocked on Peter’s door. And I knocked again.
“What?” he said from within.
“Hey, Pete, how about you and I go camping, just like old times?”
“Is this some desperate, backwoods attempt to convert me?”
“No,” I said. “I promise.”
He opened his door, hugged me, and said maybe it would be best if he stayed home to sort things out with Mom. We looked at each other and both knew that was impossible. But did this stop me from leaving? No, it did not.
After the trout cooks all the way through, I set the cast-iron pan in the dirt and get on my knees. “Dear heavenly Father,” I say. And no more words come. I had envisioned this as a prayer for sanity, and for wisdom. I had promised myself I would stay in the woods and the wind and the rain until I stumbled onto the path down which God wanted me to lead my family. Yet now, with just me and the clouds and the smells of forest and sausage and trout, I cannot bring myself to say a simple blessing for my meal.
So I sit cross-legged with a plate on my lap and eat as the dog watches every rise and fall of my fork. His whiskers twitch, and he licks drool from his lips. I set down my plate with half the fish still uneaten, but that dog does not budge until I tell him to go for it. When he leaps up, lightning splits the sky. As he eats, thunder rumbles down the valley. The rain begins, and the girl and her father scramble into their tent. They zip and unzip it and gather their things.
Eventually, at dusk, the sky clears and the girl climbs out onto the highest boulder. She looks down and waves at me and the dog. I want to reach up and wrap a sweater around her shoulders. I pretend not to see her and scoop mud onto the embers of my fire.
Long after the moon goes down, I wake to the girl’s father’s shouts. He growls and curses at the night. The dog barks, but I put a hand on his head to hush him. I unzip the window flap of my tent. The father’s flashlight spins on the hilltop like an airway beacon.
“Watch out,” he shouts. “There’s a bear out there. Or maybe not a bear, but something big.”
I hear nothing but the man’s voice and the trickle of the stream. After a while he gives up on me. He and his daughter whisper for a long time, and the dome of their yellow tent glows like a second moon until the sky turns purple and fades into baby blue.
Around noon, the girl arrives at my camp with hugs and kisses for the dog. She tosses pinecones into the stream, and the dog fetches them. Her father shows up, too, with a handful of stone arrowheads. He lets me hold one. It is small and dull and surprisingly heavy. We’re not the first ones here, he tells me, and he wipes his neck with a red bandana. What he wouldn’t give, he says, to build a house on that ridge.
I ask where he comes from, what he does, and if he knows how lucky he is to have such a bright little girl. He is a contractor without contracts, he says. He comes from Butte, and his daughter isn’t half as innocent as she might seem. But it feels right to bring her into the wild, away from friends and computers and a mother who coddles her.
I tell him to never stop coddling her. And, without a thought for how the question might sound, I ask if his daughter likes boys.
Maybe he sees the stress in my eyes or the tightness in my lips. Perhaps he thinks I am a molester or a rapist. Or possibly he just pities me as I fumble his arrowhead to the dirt. But he doesn’t pick it up. He tells me to keep it. I, too, leave the arrowhead on the ground. I am in no mood to bend over. The man calls to his daughter, says goodbye, and tells me to watch out for bears.
I hike a mile to the lake. No one is there. A loon touches down on the water. He folds his wings, looks around, and calls over and over for something or someone who never arrives. I toss in a line. The dog sits up and pants. I think about Peter and the mystery of what he has become. I realize that he isn’t done becoming. After all, he has three years left of high school, then college, then his whole life. And, really, what has my wife become? Erin has always been deeply religious. Until now I have compensated for her mean streak, pretended it wasn’t there. Yet in many ways, she is my rock. I want to be that solid ground for her now, for both of them, but I have no idea how.
I reel in a good-sized rainbow trout, bash its head on a rock, poke a knife into its gills to bleed it, and hike back to camp.
When I get there, the yellow tent is gone from the hilltop. I climb up to see their campsite and find no trace that they were ever there. Then I gut, clean, and fry my trout without the smell of garlic and sausage blowing down the hillside. And the smell is all wrong. So I pack up, hike back to the car, and drive home in the dark.
Passing through Butte, I see Our Lady of the Rockies — a 100-foot-tall Madonna on a cliff above the town. She stands there, all lit up and bursting with love, stretching her concrete arms wide to embrace the world. Surely her gesture is meant to inspire, but it strikes me as weak. It reminds me of me. And for a while I give into the temptation to blame myself for all that has gone wrong. I love Peter and Erin, but emotion alone is not enough. Like the statue, I open my arms, stand tall, and wait for something to happen.
When I get home, the house is silent. I see Peter’s light under his door, but I don’t hear him moving around in there. So I crawl into bed beside Erin. All night, I dream of bonfires, forest fires, and ashes in rings of stone.
Erin and I wake at the same time, eye to eye across the gap between our pillows. She sits up and covers her breasts with the sheet. She asks why I came home so soon then tells me she wants a divorce.
“Can we eat breakfast first?” I ask.
Outside, brakes squeal, a garbage truck’s compactor roars to life, and a trash can slams to the street. I pull Erin close. She pulls away, gets out of bed, and wraps the sheet around her body.
“He’ll outgrow this,” I say. “Give him time.”
“No,” she says. “I’ve prayed on it.”
“Then give us time,” I say.
And she says she has prayed on that, too. This is her final word on the subject. She carries her work clothes into the bathroom and locks the door. I push my face into the pillow and feel the dog’s wet tongue on the foot I’ve dangled off the end of the bed.
And for several days — when I’m not boxing up Peter’s and my possessions, applying for jobs, or arguing with Erin, whose heart has grown crooked and gnarled with knots — I sample sausages from butcher shops around town. I cook these with trout and sage. Sometimes Erin rallies enough to thank me for these dinners. Peter, the vegetarian, refuses to try them. They are good meals, but they do not give off the scent I crave. I soon quit red meat in favor of chicken and seafood. And, once the divorce paperwork arrives in the mail, I eat no meat at all because I can no longer shake the image of that trout’s eyes as I bashed its head on a rock.
At some point Erin and I find ourselves standing together in the laundry room. She asks why Peter and I still live in her house. I tell her I will not leave until I have everything I need. She asks what that means, and I shrug. She piles dry clothes into a wicker basket. I tell her to stop. Then I get down on one knee and ask her to marry me all over again.
“Come on,” I say. “This time at least we’ll know what the hell we’re getting into.”
She puts a hand over her mouth. Then she shuts the dryer, grabs the cordless phone, and locks herself in the bathroom.
Four months pass, and I live with my things in the basement. I eat little and cook almost nothing. I’ve lost forty pounds. When I walk the dog, the neighbors say I am wasting away.
I know now what was missing in my failed attempts to conjure up that elusive odor of sausage, sage, and trout. One simply cannot extract pollen, sap, and mist from the forest air and bring it home. But on winter afternoons, wrapped in the heat of the house, I sometimes stroke the dog and catch myself longing for the smell of that meal. I think about the girl and her father, as if our chance encounter marked a crossroads — as if the odors in the air that night carried meanings I had failed to grasp. I sift through every detail. I shift the angle of a rock and the slant of an arm. I adjust the balance and heft of the gear in my pack. I shuffle the order of moments and string the daughter’s words through the mouth of the father — and his words through her mouth — hoping to catch them out in a lie, a dodge, a moment of truth. I fumble around for some toehold on which to scramble back through time and ask that girl and her father in the full light of day to please take my son’s faithful, dopey dog as a gift.
Yet I love this dog. I bought him as a pup, a present for Peter’s birthday. But Peter ignored him from the start. Now the dog goes wherever I go. He naps with me on the couch in the family room. He rolls in the snow when I shovel the walk. He nuzzles my wife when I pass her in the hall, and he licks Peter’s wet shoes after school. And, after the dog has loved them, he sits at my feet and sleeps. I understand now that he is mine, and he shows me the way.
Eric Bosse has published more than forty stories, some flash fiction and some longer, in such magazines and journals as The Sun, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, Zoetrope, Eclectica, Night Train, The Collagist, and Wigleaf. His story collection, Magnificent Mistakes, was published in September 2011 by Ravenna Press. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife and forty-seven children, give or take forty-five.