05 January 2014

Train Dreams

from Train Dreams

                    by Denis Johnson

. . . . . .
Her whimpering ceased as he got closer, approaching cautiously so as not to terrify either this creature or himself. The wolf-girl waited, shot full of animal dread and perfectly still, moving nothing but her eyes, following his every move but not meeting his gaze, the breath smoking before her nostrils.

The child's eyes sparked greenly in the lamplight like those of any wolf. Her face was that of a wolf, but hairless.

"Kate?" he said. "Is it you?" But it was.

Nothing about her told him that. He simply knew it. This was his daughter.

She stayed stock-still as he drew even closer. He hoped that some sign of recognition might show itself and prove her to be Kate. But her eyes only watched in flat terror, like a wolf's. Still. Still and all. Kate she was, but Kate no longer. Kate-no-longer lay on her side, her left leg akimbo, splintered and bloody bone jutting below the knee; just a child spent from crawling on threes and having dragged the shattered leg behind her. He'd wondered sometimes about little Kate's hair, how it might have looked if she'd lived; but she'd snatched herself nearly bald.  It grew out in a few patches.

He came within arm's reach.  Kate-no-longer growled, barked, snapped as her father bent down toward her, and then her eyes glassed and she so faded from herself he believed she'd expired at his approach.  But she lived, and watched him.

"Kate, Kate.  What's happened to you?"

He set down the lamp and club and got his arms beneath her and lifted.  Her breathing came rapid, faint, and shallow.  She whimpered once in his ear and snapped her jaws, but didn't otherwise struggle.  He turned with her in his embrace and made for the cabin, now walking away from the lamplight and thus toward his own monstrous shadow as it engulfed his home and shrank magically at his approach.  Inside he laid her on his pallet on the floor.  "I'll get the lamp," he told her.

When he came back into the cabin, she was still there.  He set the lamp on the table where he could see what he was doing, and prepared to splint the broken leg with kindling, cutting the top of his long johns off himself around the waist, dragging it over his head, tearing it into strips.  As soon as he grasped the child's ankle with one hand and put his other on the thigh to pull, she gave a terrible sigh and then her breathing slowed.  She's fainted.  He straightened the leg as best he could, and feeling that he could take his time now, he whittled a stick of kindling so that it cupped the shin.  He pulled a bench beside the pallet and sat himself, resting her foot across his knee while he applied the splint and bound it around.  "I'm not a doctor,: he told her.  "I'm just the one that's here."  He opened the window across the room to give her air.

She lay there asleep with the life driven half out of her.  He watched her a long time.  She was as leathery as an old man.  Her hands were curled under, the back of her wrists calloused stumps, her feet misshapen, as hard and knotted as wooden burls.  What was it about her face that seemed so wolflike, so animal, even as she slept?  He could say. The face just seemed to have no life behind it when the eyes were closed.  As if the creature would have no thoughts other than what it saw.

He moved the bench against the wall, sat back, and dozed.  A train going through the valley didn't wake him but only entered his dream.  Later, near daylight, a much smaller sound brought him around.  The wolf girl had stirred.  She was leaving.

She leaped out the window.

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