Home > Fiction > The Black Bear Month
Published: Wed Apr 15 2020
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 91 Ethnicity Gender Youth
The Black Bear Month

Forty-two to forty-two and the big blond chick kept mumbling “Eskimo.” She’d bump Heather’s hip and say, “Eskimo.” She’d drop her shoulder and push off and say, “Eskimo.” She’d give a secret shove when the ref wasn’t looking and say, “Eskimo.” Any word repeated that many times begins to lose its meaning, but this word was different. It was becoming more and more meaningful every time. “Aren’t you getting tired?” Heather would say. “Don’t you want to quit? Look at that belly on you. How much Kentucky Fried did you eat today? How many Big Macs?” The chick had thirty pounds and four inches on her, but you had to give back what you got.

“Eskimo,” the chick would say without even looking in her direction, and then their feral-cat point guard would lob-pass her the basketball at the top of the key.

“You should be sumo wrestling, not shooting hoops,” Heather would say. “And what’s with the nose? I wouldn’t fuck you if you were the last girl on Earth.” It was like talking to a wall except that the wall moved and sometimes knocked you over and tried to break your heart. “We fuck dogs up in Barrow,” Heather said. “We fuck our snow machines. But I have to draw the line somewhere.”

Heather knew she’d find bruises on her body in the shower that night. Her mouth guard tasted of blood and lukewarm Gatorade. It looked like half the town of Fairbanks had turned up for the game—delinquents and half-wit grandmas stomping their feet and waving styrofoam number-one hands. And they all loved that big blond girl, number twenty-six, and they especially loved it when she backed Heather in with that meaty ass, held up her hand to receive the ball, and spun with the hook. Ugly shot, but it kept rattling around and dropping in. Then the blond chick would backpedal and give the nastiest little fist pump you ever saw, and even though the crowd wasn’t shouting the word—they were shouting the chick’s last name—it was easy to imagine their chant as the reverberating echo of that one word over and over.


When Heather’s team started the season with two solid home victories, her mother asked, “Why are you so excited? You know how this ends.” But when she returned from the first road trip with three more victories, her brothers were waiting at the landing strip on their mud-spattered ATVs and Jason, the youngest, called out above the sound of the engines, “Five-o, five-o,” as if he were calling her new name to her. Her team split off and dissolved around her, meeting parents and grandparents. Heather had scored thirty-two points in the blowout in Anchorage, including a half-time buzzer-beater that even the home crowd had cheered.

But once she unloaded her bags and said goodbye to her teammates, all her brothers talked about was the stuff they always talked about. They gave her shit for her too-short hair and her smelly sweatshirt, and Jason said the state troopers had arrested Kyle Shandy for shooting the new stop sign. They all thought that was pretty funny, although they only showed it with a bunch of sullen nods. A few weeks ago, a story about anyone shooting anything—even a dog—would not have deserved retelling except to maybe say, “He went on a bender again.” Did they think she’d been gone for years?

They took the ATVs through the center of Barrow in a miniature parade, going slow with her on the back of the lead vehicle, her arms wrapped around Jason’s waist. People called out to them as they passed. Then down to the beach, where they rode parallel to the water, tires spitting up chunks of broken shell and rock. They slowed to walking speed where the water met the sand and let the waves clean their tires. It was late, but Charles Bekoya was still down there tying off walrus skins and throwing them back into the water. She smelled him first, the scent of death and fish, and then she saw him, bent low, tugging on a knot. “Old fucker,” Toby said with a tilt of his head.

“Back into the sea,” Heather said. That was what Charles always said as he did his work. Back to the sea, back to the sea. It was almost a song he sang, a lullaby to whatever he killed. He’d ease the skins out and then pull them back in, clean as a whistle, after the sea had done its slow work.

The fog felt cool and wet on her bare arms—she was dressed in just a T-shirt and jeans and she was cold but she didn’t care.

“You’ve got a split lip,” Toby said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Good for you. I remember scoring forty with a broken hand.”

The number and the injury had changed in response to her games. It used to be twenty-eight with a sprained finger.

Charles Bekoy was behind them now. Heather could no longer hear his song but she could imagine it, and she could imagine the skins floating beneath the surface, pulling the ropes tight. Her brothers liked to come down here and build fires out of plywood and branches and whatever the tide brought in. Sometimes they got rowdy and other times they just watched the mist pulse across the water and envelop the boats at their moorings. As they approached the blackened remains of their last party, they pulled the ATVs around and spoke over the idling motors. They’d seen a pack of wild dogs earlier that morning up on the east side. Little scrappy things with open sores and broken ears. One of the dogs had tried to sneak into someone’s trailer and steal bologna off the counter. Bologna and mayonnaise. It trashed the place and got the jar stuck on its head. “A ten-dollar photograph,” Jason said, because the trailer’s owner had taken a picture, because mayonnaise cost $7.99 at the local grocery. But the brothers just nodded their heads as if he had said something profound. Then Jason said, “Heather, do you have it all out of your system now?”

“Winning?” she asked. She gave the charred wood a light kick. Crushed beer cans and something made of melted plastic had been thrown into the fire. As it shifted and collapsed in on itself, she realized the melted plastic was one of her old Barbie dolls. Whatever. She hadn’t played with it in years. She turned back to her brothers.

“C’mon,” Timmy said. “Don’t be that way.”

“When I came back from Portland five years ago, I came back humble,” Toby said.

Down the beach, Charles Bekoy was moving into the water with his waders, scrambling sideways in a low crab walk. You had to walk the skins out far enough for the ocean to catch them and bring them under, and then leave them dancing out there for a couple of days. From this distance the water looked as deep gray and hard as gunmetal, and Charles seemed to be sliding across it on his knees.

“I don’t know why you have to do all this shit,” Toby said, but he didn’t sound angry, he sounded sad. His arms were folded across his chest, head lowered and shaking back and forth, as though it were a heavy thing he wanted to work loose from his shoulders.

Timmy said, “It’s like you’re showing off.”

“You don’t know how much Mom loves you,” Jason said. “You should see her back at the house. It’s crazy.”

“Don’t mess this up,” Timmy added, but Heather didn’t know what they were telling her, or what failure and success were anymore. She walked up the beach toward the hill, her brothers following slow on their ATVs. But when she reached the signpost, its two dozen arrows pointing at the world’s great cities every which way, she stopped. Paris, New York, London. Her brothers motored past her down the slope, three across, like bandits on horseback. From there she could see them getting smaller and smaller, and then that raggedy trailer, the plume of fresh smoke. She wanted to tell the girl that lived there something she’d discovered: that luck was a thing you could grab and grip and hold and use just like any other tool.


“Mom,” she said, when she came in through the back door. But she couldn’t think of anything else to say. Her mother stood at the stove making potato pancakes, her hands white with flour. Heather stepped forward and their chests touched in an almost hug, her mother’s hands raised like a surgeon’s just before entering the body.

Her father pulled her in for one of his slap-back hugs. He smelled of the ocean and Old Spice. “Where are your brothers?” he asked.

“Coming,” she said, because they’d roll in sometime, knock into things in the dark and laugh.

Her mom returned to the spitting grease, picked up a pancake, and slapped it from palm to palm. “I’m going to see you on TV someday,” she said. “When you’re in the NBA.”

“That’s not even possible,” she said. “Dad, tell her.”

“Maggie,” he said. “It’s no women in the NBA. They have their own thing, the women do. It’s on TV too, though. It’s actually pretty good.”

“There’s always a first time,” her mother said, the faint residue of her New England accent like the tasty guck at the bottom of a cup of instant coffee. Heather loved to hear it creep into the edges of her sentences. It felt like a small branch leading down into the roots of her mother’s history.

Her mother still spoke of the beauty and harshness of New England winters. “Seasons put you in your place,” she’d say. “Like here.” But sometimes, during a cold spell, when the water of the Ikpiarjuk and the land formed a seamless blank vista, you could tell her mind had returned to a red farmhouse in New Hampshire, and that this place was nothing like that.

Always there was work to be done, much of it involving grease or blood. They kept rabbits in wire cages at the back of the house, which the children were forbidden from naming. Heather and her sister did it anyway, names like Sugar and Cupcake and Bugs when they were younger, and then Toby Keith or Michael Jackson when they’d reached their teenage years. Heather had once fantasized that finding the exact right name—the one that would melt her mother’s heart—would spare a rabbit’s life. But when it was time, her mother would pick a rabbit by some hidden rule of selection and grab it by the back of its neck. She’d hold it up and look it over, the matted fur, the weight of the throbbing object. Then she’d shake it out the way she might a damp rag: a flash of the wrist and it became something else, a thing to put on the table with instant mashed potatoes.

Her mother’s right eye leaned slightly outward, a defect from birth. Sometimes when her fingers brushed across the backs of the rabbits, that eye looked off in another direction, as if she were worried she might be caught in the act.

“It’s not like that, Maggie,” her dad said.

Her mother blotted the oil from a pancake with a rag. “The universe is full of possibilities,” she said. “Anything can happen. Don’t snuff out the magic in things.”

Heather had never heard her mother talk like this, but her father sighed as if he’d heard it all before. Her mother said, “The Angakkuq were the doorway between the spirit world and this world. They snuffed them out—we did. But not all the way. I think you’re a new kind of Angakkuq.” She looked at Heather and smiled without breaking the motion of her hands at the spitting pan. What was this except maybe happiness? Even her mother’s right eye seemed kind of normal.

“Maggie,” her dad said. “If you’re going to talk that way at least get it right.”

Heather stood waiting for something to happen. All her confidence had left her. She could hear the engines coming up alongside the house, the footsteps at the room’s edge—her sister had walked in, but her mother did not seem to notice.

“I’m telling you because your father won’t,” her mother said. “The Angakkuq could run as fast as caribou. They could fly. And if you had a hard life you could become one, and sometimes you were called on to visit Sedna the sea woman and comb her hair.”

“Cut the shit, Maggie,” her dad said. He turned to Heather and tried to work the smile back into his features, but his face had become a hot mask, an imitation of a smiling man. There were flecks of gray in his hair, in the braid running down the back of his heavy jacket. “Don’t listen to her,” he said. “Just find your spots and shoot the damned ball.”


Forty-four to forty-four. Heather raised her hand like she knew the answer for the first time in her life. Then the ball appeared there on the tips of her fingers and she was turning. She could take this chick all night off the dribble, so she faced her square up on the left side, a simple isolation technique, and stepped past her with a wide crossover. Because even when a wall moved, it couldn’t move well, and no way was she going to let her team lose to West Valley like last year and the year before. How many years now? More than a decade, going back to the high school careers of her brothers and cousins. Heather, youngest of five, one of two girls, could still see the loss in the way they entered a room and how they smiled. It seemed like the typical shyness of tall men, but of course that wasn’t it.

Forty-four to forty-four and she could do this all night. She could do it tomorrow too, and the day after. They had won in Portland and won in Anchorage and won in Juneau. They had even won in Seattle, and then toppled through the city laughing and dizzy.

“Don’t get cocky,” Coach said.

At the end of the second half, Heather watched herself from the outside as she did something she didn’t think she could do: a finger roll from the left above two defenders. The ball arced up and then in, and she felt the contact, hard, to her face. As she hit the court, she heard one of her teammates say, “Wow.”

That shut the crowd up, at least for a moment. The big blond chick was walking away from her fallen body, but even then Heather could hear the word “Eskimo” from the other side of the court. “I could fuck something right now,” she said from the floor, looking up at the lights in the ceiling, the conference champion banners and stained tiles. “I’m really in the mood. But not you, fat girl. Anything but you. Do you know why? I don’t fuck losers.” She was still talking as three teammates helped her up. “We don’t fuck losers. We might fuck a moose once in a while, if it’s a pretty one, but we have standards.”

“Your nose is bleeding,” Clarice Dickens said.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” Megan Powell said.

“Get off,” Heather said, and she shook herself free from their hands. “I’m fine. I’m just speaking in tongues.”

At the other end, Heather crouched down and the blond chick’s ass kept pushing, pushing, pushing. And then again with the hook and the word. It was like the chick was digging a very narrow hole, as small as a shovel itself, digging it very, very deep. The same thing over and over again, the motion of her arm, the word, the fist pump. Her hair was tied into a ponytail by a red rubber band and the ponytail bounced when she ran and it was getting to the point that Heather was seriously considering giving it a pull. Forty-six to forty-six but she had a lot left in the tank, she’d talk herself through this, and then she’d go home and never stand on the hill again. She decided that the signpost itself was a kind of arrow pointing down into the ground, to Barrow, her hometown. She tongued blood from her upper lip. It tasted pretty good.

“Want to hear a joke?” the blond chick said after another two. Was that the hint of a smile? Suddenly they were coming together. A tangle of arms and legs, a double foul, the ref between them.

Coach yelled, “Do not get kicked out of this game.”

Someone in the crowd yelled, “Kick her out.”

Her dad yelled down the long corridor of her imagination: “These mashed potatoes look like something you’d smooth over cracks in drywall.”

“What’s worse than an Eskimo?” the chick said, and then a pause. “Half an Eskimo.”

Someone in the crowd stood up, cupped both hands to his mouth, and let out a throaty holler. He was calling the number on the back of Heather’s blue and gold jersey, but she refused to look up there, even when the number transformed into her name. They knew her here. They had read about those other games and wondered how she had done everything she’d done during this brief season. He seemed to be calling out to her for some kind of acknowledgment, a recognition that maybe she knew his name too. As she stood at the free-throw line, her mother whispered in her ear, “Don’t name them. All it will do is break your heart.”


The evening of the eleventh win, Heather had crashed in through the back door to find the house empty. She got a mixing bowl and filled it to the brim with cornflakes, crushed the box and left it on the counter like an open book. Milk was too expensive—they never had any—so she put the bowl under the tap and ran cool water into it. Maybe they were still looking for her in the frenzied pulse of the crowd. She had slipped out through the locker room and across the back parking lot, running all the way home.

She was upstairs in bed when Ashley came in and asked, “Are you here?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“That was amazing.”

“What was?”

“Don’t be funny. You’re always being funny. Are you eating something?”

Heather tried to chew as quietly as possible.

Her sister liked to sweep her hair across her face and then smile and occasionally wipe it out of her eyes as she talked to boys. Heather imagined her doing that now in the dark. After all, Ashley had taught herself to do this when speaking with hunky sports heroes and that’s pretty much what Heather had become, right? Was in danger of becoming, she thought, as if reading it from a sign displayed at the back of her mind.

“Do you know where my September Glamour is?” Ashley said.

Heather said, “It might be under my bed.”

“I saw you up on the hill,” Ashley said. “By the signs. Whenever anybody stands up there it’s a bad thing. Remember when Tricia kept going up there and then she overdosed?” Tricia had been a classmate of Heather’s who had been especially good at English. She wrote stories about dragons and young women with names as long and flowing as their gowns and hair. Sometimes she talked about moving to California, the hole from which all these fantasies seemed to spill.

“Yeah,” Heather said. “It’s not like that.”

“I bet you’re going to go to one of those places one day,” her sister said. Paris. New York. London. If Ashley had a sign, it might read married with six kids. Heather tried to snuff out her mean thoughts with more cornflakes. Maybe their mom’s sign, long ago in New England, had read Barrow.

Then their mother cracked open the door. “Where’d you rush off to?” she asked. “We were worried.”

“Why would you be worried?” Heather asked. “You said it yourself. I’m not even a real person.” The silence stretched on long enough that for a moment Heather thought her mother wasn’t there anymore, had never been there. She closed her eyes and let the dark inside. It felt like water. She was tied beneath the freezing sea for three, four, five days and soon they would pull her out and the initiation would be over. But no—she let the darkness, the freezing water, out with her next breath. She was still dressed in her uniform, sweat cooling on her skin. She was falling asleep with food in her mouth. She could hear her sister fishing around under the bed and then she heard her father’s voice saying something about exploring. He was speaking to her mother out in the hall, but then something shifted and he was speaking directly to her from someplace beyond the dusk of her brain. “You’ve heard about my teenage years before I found your mom and your mom found me.” He liked to say that Heather’s mother had poked a pinhole in his heart. The anger had bled out over the years in a barely noticeable dribble, like oil from an old engine. He still liked to walk to the outskirts of town and smoke a doobie, sure, but he hadn’t sold anything in two decades.

But really it was just the hand searching for the magazine. It was just her parents arguing in the hall about God and geography and tradition and jail and marijuana and a hundred other things. It was just desire and fantasy. She stood beneath the signpost on the hill. Two dozen arrows and one of them pointed as far away as Paris, more than four thousand miles to get there. You couldn’t see the educated city, of course, just the gray ocean, so still that it seemed you might be able to walk across it and through the wall of sea fog as if through a veil in the world. If she looked in the direction opposite Paris, she could see the small trailer parked at the bottom of the south slope. The girl didn’t come outside until noon at the earliest, but she was clearly visible when she did, and she’d sit with her coffee in her plastic lawn chair and think her small hippie thoughts. If Heather saw her then she could join her, maybe bring her a little pot from her father’s hidden stash and they’d talk about how beautiful everything was in this incredible place. How lucky that Heather had lived here all her life, the girl would say, although luck did not exist. Luck was just a word you sometimes gave to unexplainable things. At this the girl would smile hazily and make a motion with her hand to indicate the two bodies, one in the lawn chair, the other squatting and tensed as if to jump: Heather’s body, waiting. Heather had to listen to a lot of this kind of talk before the girl’s mouth would finally run out of things to say and they’d head into the dark of the trailer together as if into a cave. It smelled of grilled cheese and blueberry incense sticks and the complicated alchemy of the girl’s unwashed body.


Forty-eight to forty-eight and the blond chick set up for another barrelhouse hook, squatting, her hand waving like hey everybody look at me as I’m about to take a colossal dump right here at the foul line. The crowd was throwing stuff now: paper cups full of lemonade, balled-up candy bar wrappers, even a smashed box of tissues that landed just on the periphery of Heather’s vision. The crowd threw baseball caps and popcorn and a flattened tube of toothpaste. They threw old telephone bills and a broken baseball bat. A number-one foam finger and a baby pacifier.

“You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve fucked,” Heather said. “I’ve made love to trees. Permafrost birches. The kind you can push over like movie props. I’ve fucked old ladies with fish breath. But I know when to say no and I’m saying no to you right now, no matter how many times you beg.” Making love to a tree didn’t seem like such a bad idea. It was late October in central Alaska and they had already missed the blazing yellow of the valley. She had seen it only once, when she was ten and her mother had moved to Fairbanks with her and Ashley. That had lasted just a year, and during that time her mother had talked often about going even farther south to cities like Seattle and Portland, where you didn’t have to struggle just to survive. But what Heather really remembered from that time was the sound the wall-to-wall made when she slid her feet across it, the divided highway splitting the town in half, the smell of wildflowers.

“Keep your head in it,” Coach yelled. She was a fifty-four-year-old woman with a buzz cut and a skeleton tattoo on her forearm. Sometimes after a win she gathered her team at half-court and told them they were special, that they just needed to play the game of life the way they played out on that court. Then they would all be okay.

“My head is in it,” Heather said. “I’m all the way in.”

Fifty-two to fifty-two. They were draped over each other waiting for the inbound pass, faces practically touching. If Heather turned her head she could speak directly into the chick’s ear. “Not ever. No matter how much you plead with me. There’s this girl in Barrow. She smokes reefer. She huffs paint. She was my first, which shows you where I set the bar. But not you.” It occurred to her that the girl in the trailer park was the last girl. At least, she’d been her only choice, sitting there outside that raggedy trailer covered with spirit catchers. The girl walked around town with a boyfriend now, skulked around its edges looking for shit to steal.

“Lesbo,” the blond chick said. “Eskimo.” And then she threw the hook and the crowd cheered. They were throwing new and more dangerous shit: plastic soda bottles, pens and pencils, aviator glasses, wadded-up gum and wet paper, even a toupee that landed center-court and sat there like a sleeping schnauzer. The ref kicked it out of bounds with a sideswipe of his foot and Heather looked left, looked right, and decided to do something crazy. She backed in, wiggled, set herself, and then she did the hook. Not even she had been expecting that. Now everything rained down: sweatshirts and belts, hats, a couple of beer cans, old love letters and poems, paperback novels and a flip phone, until they had to stop the game again.

Heather strode to the three-point line and picked up a couple of loose pages. It was a badly spelled, drunken note to someone named Sheila, and it was full of promises. A promise to never stop loving her, but also a promise to get over her, to forget and to remember always. Her teammates waited for her at the bench, but she kept reading. The letter reminded her of something her father would have written to her mother in their younger days. It was that thing. Even the penmanship. She wanted to put the letter in her pocket, but she didn’t have a pocket, so she looked up to see if maybe she could spot the person who had thrown it.

Coach said, “Six minutes left. Just keep doing what you’re doing. I’m so proud of all of you.”

“There’s dust in your eye,” Heather said.

“Right,” Coach said, and she laughed.

Two bodies on the floor this time and neither of them wore blue and gold. The blond chick said, “Eskimo lesbo.”

Heather said, “Sometimes I’m in the bathroom reading an issue of my sister’s Glamour magazine. She has a subscription. They come almost a month behind, but it’s not like it’s news. I look at the pictures and I touch myself. I might do it tonight. I don’t need the magazines because I remember. But if I think about you even for a second, everything will be ruined.”

But somehow the blond chick had found her way between the girl from Algebra II and Nicole Kidman in Top Gun with the big eighties hair but wearing Tom Cruise’s army-green jumpsuit. Right there. Holding the ball, passing it out to the three-point line, getting it back for the lay-up.

Sixty-sixty and just under three minutes left. The crowd threw hats smelling of the empty heads that wore them, wine bottles, car keys to beat-up American-made trucks, children’s drawings of popular superheroes looking pumped up and pissed off, even a quarter that struck her right on the top of her head and infected her, just for a moment, with the spirit of George Washington. It met that other spirit—the one placed there by her mother—and they twisted around each other in a swirling knot of smoke and old disappointments.

Heather closed her eyes and opened them and found the ball in her hands. Fourteen seconds left and she willed the world into slo-mo. As the double team turned into a triple team she ducked and faked and the bodies rose in the air, all three as if diving in reverse, and as they came down she was on her way up, and the net puckered to accept the ball. Nobody cheered except for Coach. She was pumping the air with her fist, screaming, and what was the look on her face? It was a kind of joyful rage. Heather had seen it before, felt it before, but she couldn’t remember when. Possibly in the trailer with the girl back home as she worked the other woman’s body with none of the grace she’d just shown on the court.

And as she luxuriated in that filthy thought, the blond chick took the pass in the far corner and let it loose. A completely open shot because Heather wasn’t charging fast enough to the outside. Five hundred people stood and stomped their feet. Heather didn’t even bother looking to see the shot go in. This was what her mother had known until she forgot it. The ref pointed down the court toward the other basket and everybody followed his hand like animals let loose from the harness. Now came the worst part: the time for compassion and pity. No more trash thrown from the stands. Everybody would talk about that upstart team from nowhere and their miracle run. The buzzer sounded as the inbound pass careened over her head.

“Good game,” the blond chick said, because everything, every bit of it, was supposed to vanish. She even held out her hand for a slap. So Heather slapped it and said “Good game” right back.


It was two in the morning but they were all up. Her mother had made macaroni and cheese and her brothers were already eating it in big mouthfuls. They looked like what they were: three big men camped around a small kitchen table eating their mother’s cooking. They were happy and they were sad and they were full, but still eating like it was a race. Someday she’d think of this moment and miss them. In a way she missed them already.

“Rough one,” Toby said.

“Tomorrow let’s go out on the ice,” her father said. “You always bring the fish running, you know?” He laughed at his own odd turn of phrase, and she laughed too. She remembered seal hunting with him, not more than a year ago, the shining faces popping up through the hole in the ice and then vanishing, the waiting for the next face and the next. The first one had been big and fat and her father was waiting for it to return. “That’s the one we want,” he’d said. He held a spear across his lap and sometimes he checked his calculator watch and nodded as if playing a second little game with himself. “I guess it’s not coming back,” he said later in the day. By then no faces at all, just the empty hole, and they went home with nothing but a story.

She had never seen anything like it before. Not the seals—she saw that often enough. No, the thing she saw now from the couch. Her mother came around the corner with another bowl of mac and cheese and her eyes were red and inflamed. At first Heather did not recognize this woman who had taken her mother’s place. A split second of animal fear, of feral confusion, and then her mother spoke. “Eat this,” she said, and everything was normal again. No speeches, no spirits. Her father looked at his wife as if from the signpost on the hill. The distance was that intimate and that vast.

But Heather wanted to tell them. She had not been defeated, or if she had, it was just a number on a board, an article in a newspaper. That night before she left Fairbanks she had slipped away into the city, down to Cushman Street, and that’s where she found the row of western saloons, the strip club, the two ramshackle dyke bars. It was easy to get in, easier to smile and nod her head to the pulsing music. None of these people gave a shit about some stupid game.

Funny how easy it was. So many chances, just like her father’s hunting story, and some of them with the same blond hair as her enemy, the same chunky ass. She wrapped her arm around a shoulder and kept all that crazy talk going as if they were still trading baskets back and forth, up and down. Just a few hours before the flight and Coach would let her have it bad, but for now let’s make out in the back corner. Let’s see how it feels.

“What’s with the black eye?” the girl had asked between kisses.

She touched herself there. It was a surprise, a thing just forming.

“Don’t worry about it,” the girl added. “You’re super beautiful.”

They would never see each other again, but Heather had to know her first name, so they exchanged them like little secrets. She had already forgotten it, but not the perfect fit of her mouth.

Of course she couldn’t tell them. She was supposed to take the bowl and eat. She was supposed to show them that she had learned a lesson. And then tomorrow they’d go out on the ice. Her father would let her hold the pole his father had made from wood and iron, raise it above her head and bring it down onto a shining neck. If you did it right then no sound at all, not even the splash of water. Only if you did it just right. The light would come spilling across the sheets of ice and everything not within arm’s reach would be lost in the heliocentric haze. It was the only time her father still prayed, although not really to God so much as to the shape below him. It was as much a reflex as the shudder in the dying body. The seal’s unmoving bulk held a different kind of strength, a strength demanding acquiescence. So he’d crouch and mumble something she could only half understand, words paired carefully with objects like the arrangement of silverware at an extravagant meal. When the heavy knife appeared, it would feel as though all the hardest work had already been completed.

See what's inside AGNI 91
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AGNI 91 Gender Violence Youth
The Spirit of Entitlement
AGNI 90 Gender Relationships Youth
As Though I Have a Right To
AGNI 76 Gender Sexuality Youth

David Crouse is the author of two collections of short fiction: Copy Cats (University of Georgia Press, 2005), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, and The Man Back There and Other Stories (Sarabande Books, 2008), winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize. Their stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Greensboro Review, Witness, and elsewhere. (updated 4/2020)

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