The Beast of Waste and Desolation by Douglas Payne
May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment
The Beast of Waste and Desolation by Douglas Payne
Barrett Busto headed down the road towards home with two buckets full of salmon in the back of his truck as noon washed over the quiet valley of Wasilla. He had been fishing since he was a boy. Now, as an old man, he owned a bait and tackle shop in Anchorage. He was the widow of a content but childless marriage, his wife now ten years dead. Busto was nearing seventy and word had somehow reached him that the neighbors, and even his customers at the shop, thought he was losing his mind. Damn them to hell, he thought. What did they know?
He flicked through the radio channels as he drove on; the receiver gave him nothing but fuzz. Over the dissonant static, he heard a clear and heavy sound ring out like thunder. Moments later he heard the whir of a plane overhead. When he looked up and saw the plane cutting through the sky, he identified it as belonging to a prominent local politician named Stella Peyton. Hunting wolves is a hobby of hers. The revised law stated that aerial hunters had to chase down the wolf with the plane to the point of exhaustion, before shooting it from the ground. Not Stella Peyton though. As a state employee she was granted special provisions that allowed her to shoot it from the plane. She never even had to look it in the eye.
Barrett Busto never saw the sense in hunting wolves. When the wolf population was at its peak a century ago and a possible threat to other wildlife as well as dogs or livestock, the practice might have been justified in some eyes. Now though, with the creature just rising up from near extinction because of such killing, what point was there? Now that the animal had been forced into small isolated populations on the part of human expansion into their territories?
A pelt to hang by a mantle piece.
A righteous extermination of some symbolic evil. Something that is primitive and heathen and ungodly.
Maybe Stella Peyton being a steadfast fundamentalist played into her justification of this supposed sport.
As the stream of thoughts reached its end in Busto’s mind, a definite impulse rose from him to turn the truck around and go off the road, looking to see a sign of her kill. Why he would have such a desire he did not know. There may be just a splatter of blood, or a bullet shell. There was little point in it, but still something drew him there.
Knowing the plane would be gone by now, he turned the truck around in search of where it might have landed to collect the carcasses.
Bits of brush continued to gather on the bottom of Barrett Busto’s shoes and he knew he was close. He could smell the blood. He had already spotted a few paw prints, and they were becoming more numerous as he went out through the other side of the small grove and into the open.
In the distance he saw a small black lump. He approached it with caution, but scoffed when he realized that it was discarded jacket. It was altogether wearable and so he put the bundle under his arm to keep for himself.
He saw the limp body in the corner of his eye, off a little ways to the east. He easily could have missed it and went on. The wolf was still and dead in the cold autumn air. He walked over to examine the inanimate corpse. Its eyes were open and they looked as you suppose dead eyes would. Not those of a peaceful death, but of a death that was resisted and struggled against with great resolve. The pelt was the color of rust and night and maple syrup. it was all of that except for the dark stains of red on this impeccable coat, a pattern interrupted by the gaping hole in the side of the body. Looking close, Busto could see the shell lodged in the animal’s flesh. He didn’t know why Peyton had discarded the body instead of collecting the kill. In her eyes the wolf was no creature to be exalted and this particular one was not even fit for a trophy, but only fit to die and lay rotting in the fields. Busto would salvage this creature from Peyton’s already forgotten memories and bring him to eternity.
The cleaned pelt had been placed carefully over the back of a kitchen chair as Busto began to salvage the meat, slicing it from the bone. he threw it in a large pot with onions, carrots, and chicken broth and allowed it to simmer for an hour. In that hour he burned candles and incense and offered lamentations to the wolf’s spirit, expressing his deeply felt regret.
When the meat was done cooking, he secured the lid tightly over the pot and wore the pelt of the departed wolf on his back, going out to his truck.
Stella Peyton’s residence was a twenty minute drive from Busto’s own house, and so the pot of meat and vegetables was still warm when he pulled up. The sizable driveway was already filled by five cars. He heard bantering voices and short fits of laughter seeping through the walls and out into the street.
He went to the door, the pot cradled in his arms and pelt covering his back, and knocked three times. The lady herself answered.
“Hello,” said Stella with a toothy smile, poking her head through the door. His face did not register.
“Oh, you brought food,” she interrupted, eyeing the pot and opening the door wider.
“Yes, it’s a stew.”
“Well come in,” she said, and then motioned with her hand as she stepped to the side allowing Barrett Busto to enter her home.
He followed her to the kitchen.
“It’s so nice of you to bring a dish, Ted and I made plenty of food, but this is such a treat. Thanks,” she said to Busto. She took the pot from him and set it on the counter.
She led him into the next room, where a group was gathered at a large dining table. They all looked up at Busto as he entered.
“I don’t know where Ted is, but this is his sister Annette,” said Stella pointing to a thin and pallid blonde who was seated at the side of the table, her eyes on Busto.
“Hi there,” Annette said.
“And this is my older brother Keith,” said Stella pointing to a stoutly built man with salt and pepper hair who sat next to Annette, with one seat between them.
“How are you,” said Keith, standing to shake the hand of Barrett Busto.
“I’m fine, thank you,” said Busto, accepting the handshake. The other man’s grip was spongy and cool like the raw flesh of a chicken.
“And I’d like you to meet Carol,” continued Stella, “she’s a volunteer at our church.”
Busto could only see the backside of Carol, clad in a long black dress. Shed strands of white hair clung to the fabric. She turned around to reveal a pudgy face, The upturned corners of mouth forever damned to always convey an insincere smile.
“Afternoon, how are you?” she said. She was without her top set of dentures.
Busto saw Stella glancing around the room.
“Holly and Tex are here somewhere. You know kids, they like to run around.”
“Have a seat,” said Stella, quickly pulling out a chair for Busto to sit down, as if it had slipped from her mind and returned all of a sudden.
“Thank you,” said Busto. He then pulled out the chair at the end of the table and took the pelt form his back, setting it upright in the chair before sitting adjacent to it. Busto now sat across from Annette, an empty seat flanking the both of them on either side.
He looked to the wolf pelt.
“This is the chief,” said Busto, “he has come.”
A sliver of uncertain silence hung over the room and then dissipated.
“Hey there, chief,” said Keith, waving to the pelt, this caused all at the table to laugh, save for Busto.
“I think we should eat,” said Stella, “I’m going to have a rib, a little macaroni salad, and some of that stew. How does that sound for everybody?”
All at the table agreed.
“Kids, it’s time to eat,” Stella hollered, and the children came running down the stairs.
Tex took the seat next to Busto, his eyes immediately attracted to the wolf pelt sitting upright at the end of the table, as though it still lived. Tex, a boy around eleven, had a strong face and short brown hair, with a nose both smooth and sharp like a precious stone. He held a strong resemblance to his mother.
Holly wedged herself in the unoccupied chair between Annette and Keith, wiggling around with impatience. She had light colored hair, almost blonde. Busto could tell from pictures that she looked very much like her father. She must have been about nine.
Stella made up plates for them all. Each with a rib, a few spoonfuls of macaroni salad, and a small bowl of the stew. The broth had been eliminated from the servings with a straining spoon, leaving only vegetables and the meat that had been taken from the very animal she had killed, though this remained unknown to her.
She passed the food to all that were present, and set another plate in front of an open seat for her still absent husband.
“I’m sorry, I forgot your name,” said Carol to Busto after taking a bite of the stew.
“It’s Barrett, Barrett Busto.”
“Well Barrett,” said Carol as she gathered another bite of the stew on her fork. “This is very good. Did you make it?”
“Yes I did,” answered Busto as he sampled his own work. He was satisfied.
“It’s real good meat,” added Keith. “What is that? Veal?”
“It’s the wolf,” said Busto with a smug look, pointing to the ghost like inhabitant of the end chair. It’s head was now resting on the table as if in a state of dejection.
“The wolf?” asked Keith.
“Yes, I skinned it for the pelt and used the meat for the stew.”
“Wow, I’ve never had wolf before,” said Annette, diverting course from the Macaroni salad to sample the wolf meat. She chewed slowly to savor the taste.
Up to that point, Stella Peyton had been consuming the stew with eagerness. Now she set her fork down on the plate, staring forward at nothing.
“If you’ll excuse me,” she said, standing quickly and taking leave from the table. Soon after, the sound of her dry heaves could be heard emanating from the nearby bathroom.
“Sorry I missed out on the start of the meal, I was next door at Al’s,” said Ted Peyton as he walked into the room where his guests and children were dining. He noticed his wife was not present.
“Where’s Stella?’ he asked.
“She had to excuse herself for a moment,” answered Carol.
“Oh, well then,” said Ted noticing the seated wolf pelt before taking the last available chair at the other end of the table. Though a bear pelt lain over the back of his couch in the other room, This honorific display of the wolf was just too unnerving for him. The dead thing looked regal and full of knowing, like it were judging him from up on high. He kept his eyes downcast, gnawing on a rib.
Stella returned to the table, seeming to have gathered her composure. As soon as she was seated she took the bowl of stew from her plate and set it aside.
“Hi honey,” said Stella to her husband.
“Hey there, you feeling alright?” asked Ted.
“Yes, I’m fine,” said Stella, trying to shake off some unseeable thing from her bones.
“Mom, can I go?” spoke the quiet Tex. For most of the time that had passed he had been silently chewing his food, gazing at the wolf beside him with fascination.
“Sure dear, you go ahead.”
Tex pushed out his seat and went scampering about the house, his sister Holly decided to join him.
“So your friend Barrett skinned and cooked this wolf all by himself,” spoke Stella to Ted. “How long did it take you to catch it?”
“Didn’t catch it. Found it. It was your kill,” said Busto.
“My friend Barrett?” questioned Ted in reply, “I’ve never met him.”
“What, you–” she stuttered glancing at Ted, then at Busto, “You–”
She was ensnared in a web of confusion.
“What do you mean my kill?” Stella asked Busto.
“You killed this wolf this morning. Don’t you remember? I saw your plane go by when I was driving home and then I found him. You left him there.”
“What?” she said, her breath catching in her throat. “What? Why would you do that?”
She stared at Busto, and again looked to her husband.
“You don’t know him?” she asked.
“I’ve never seen him before. Never,” said Ted.
“None of you know him?” Stella asked.
All at the table shook their head.
“Oh my God,” said Stella as she pushed her chair out, trying to stand and not being able.
“I think you need to leave,” said Ted to Barrett Busto, “Please, just take your things and leave.”
Busto rose from the table that was lined on all sides with men and women who looked as lifeless as the wolf itself, which was now absent from the table.
“Where is that damn thing? Where’d it go?” said Ted.
It was in that moment draped over the body of their son Tex, who was prowling through the grass in their expansive back yard, weaving through the small patches of trees there and growling at birds.
On shaky legs, Stella handed Barrett Busto his half empty pot of stew and Ted almost pushed him out of their front door before calling the police.
It was in the night that Stella Peyton had a dream. She was standing naked in a snow covered glade staring into the wrathful eyes of the beast. There was no sky between them and she had no gun. She knew that in that moment the beast was stronger than she and that it could kill her. She saw the sharp edges of its gleaming teeth and in its eyes all of the power and mystery of the world, before she fell to her knees in fear. For a moment the beast stared into her face, wrought with terror and the agony of weakness, before turning away and going back to that from whence he came. Stella Peyton sat up in a cold sweat, unable to believe the force of such a dream.
At the very same time, her daughter Holly lay asleep in bed, half covered by the sheets and clutching the wolf tight to her small body. As she squirmed in some unknowable vision of sleep, the pelt rubbed against her and pushed up her nightdress, holding the warmth between her legs.