Lana was a little girl, memories just beginning to take hold, when she first saw the wild goats on the mountain. This is when they were still cloud wool, pulled from the sky, before they were blood and broken bone down a scree slide.
“Do you see them, Lana?” Her mother crouched beside her in the garden, her cotton skirt gathered about her legs, and pointed up the mountain. “Look there,” and Lana rested her cheek against the bare, outstretched arm and smelled warm skin and dust and onions. Her mother continued to point. “You see where the forest ends, where the green stops. Just above there, on the rocks.”
At first she saw only her mother’s hand. The dark spruce forest at the edge of the garden. The tall, rocky mountain. Then there was sun, blinding white in the sky.
“Oh, I see it! I see it!”
“No, love. Not the snow. Not at the very top. Bring your eyes down just a bit. There. Those are mountain goats.” And tiny white flecks formed on gray-blue stone.
“Let’s go see them,” Lana said.
“Oh, it is much too far. When you are bigger, maybe Papa will take you.”
For the rest of that August afternoon, Lana thought of nothing else. Her mother unearthed potatoes, turnips, and onions and gathered them in burlap sacks, and Lana sat at the garden gate and watched the tiny white spots in the arctic sun. She never imagined such creatures lived on her mountain – goats with wild blood. More than anything she wanted to see one up close. It looked to be such a pleasant climb, through mossy green pastures up to smooth cliffs. Not much farther than the meadow where she and her father, both with their knee-high boots and walking sticks, went to look for moose. If she could make her way to the meadow, surely she could go up the mountain. She’d leap along the cliffs, through the fog and snow, as if she had wild blood, too. The goats would come to her across the rocks, their shaggy white coats stirring in the wind, and she would stroke their muzzles, and maybe, if she were brave enough, she would climb upon their backs and ride them across the skyline.
“Lana, time to come in!”
Her mother stood in the shadow of the cabin door and tightened her apron at her waist.
“Is Papa coming home?”
“Not tonight, I’m afraid.”
“And he’ll bring a caribou, won’t he? Can we cook some over the fire?”
“Then he’ll take me to see the goats on the mountain?”
But her mother was already gone into the cabin.
* * *
The land was hard, beaten by wind and lined in glacier silt. And it was narrow, as narrow as hand to mouth, so narrow Lana could see nothing at its end. Even before she went to see the mountain goats, she knew she would leave Alaska someday.
* * *
Her father had a funny, gentle way of beginning any conversation. A clearing of his throat. A pause. “Well.” And then, “I’ve been thinking.” Then he’d smooth his short, white beard.
Lana was 13 and beginning to know the limits of a life in a cabin beyond the train tracks, in the shadow of a mountain. But the goats had not lost their enchantment.
“You think maybe we should go after those billies?” her father asked. “You and me?”
“Really? We can go?”
“Sure. Sure we can.”
When the morning came, she was bleeding, only her second menstruation, and it ached in her pelvis and weighted her with a strange, new melancholy. She listened to the cold September rain splatter against the windowpane. Her father had started a fire in the woodstove, lit the lantern, and made her a cup of tea. Their packs, bedrolls strapped across the top, were propped beside the door. She did not want to go. The mountain would be steep, and she would be cold and tired, and her father wouldn’t understand. She could stay home, beneath her quilt; her mother would bring her a hot water bottle and know everything without ever asking.
But Lana climbed out of bed, put her bare feet to the rough-cut wood floor, dressed in her loft bedroom above the kitchen, braided her long, blond hair, and climbed down the ladder. With her back to her father, she stuffed strips of cloth in the side pouch of her pack.
“Are you sure you want to go?” her mother asked.
“She’s a strong girl,” her father said, and handed Lana her rifle. “And you know how she’s always wanted to go after those goats.”
The mud sucked at their boots as they followed the log fence past the garden and through their yard in the damp gray. Lana gave one last wave to her mother, who watched from the kitchen window. In the spruce forest, they were buffered from the rain and wind, but still Lana hunched against the cold. The pack frame was stiff on her back and the rifle awkward at her side.
Her father led her through the trees, down into the moose meadow. They slopped through swampy water and jumped the deeper channels, balancing on one yellow-grass hummock after another. The rain slowed to an icy drizzle as they reached the foothills. Overhead, clouds trailed across the top of the mountain like strips of cloth caught in the wind.
* * *
“And what is that thing, Robert? It looks like the hide of an abominable snowman.”
“No, no. It’s a mountain goat. Lana shot it herself, when she was just a girl.”
“Dear God — your wife?” The man looked from Lana to the woolly, white fur spread out in the apartment window seat.
They were celebrating Robert’s tenure at Seattle University. The man was Robert’s colleague in the mathematics department, and he had brought his fiancé, a finely chiseled woman with tailored slacks and a silk scarf at her throat. Lana had never met either of them before, and could not remember their names. She poured more wine into the man’s glass, handed the woman an ashtray, and tried to smile like a hostess at ease in her own home.
“Lana grew up in Alaska, you know. And not in Anchorage or Sitka. In…” Robert snapped his fingers. “You know — what was the name of that town where you lived?”
“Matanuska,” she said softly. Which wasn’t true either. It wasn’t really a town, and they didn’t live there. They only went there for canned goods and catalog deliveries. How could she describe her home, the cabin and garden carved out of the earth, her mother smelling of onions and blueberries? Her Papa, old for as long as she could remember, his face scarred by frostbite? The sun shining on the mountain?
“And you brought that thing all the way down here with you?” The woman flicked her cigarette at the ashtray. “What on earth for?”
“Don’t you see?” the man said and laughed. “It’s her albatross. She’s doomed to carry it with her, wherever she goes.”
Lana felt her cheeks flush.
“It is an awful thing, isn’t it?” the woman said, gesturing with her cigarette toward the window seat. “I’m sorry, dear. But really.”
“So is the territory up there as lawless as everyone …” the man began.
“Territory for not much longer,” the woman interrupted. “They’re seeking statehood, I hear.”
“How the hell do you form a state out of icebergs and Eskimos?” the man asked.
Lana didn’t speak up, and no one seemed to notice. She was relieved when the conversation turned elsewhere, to university politics and literature and psychoanalysis. This is what had drawn her here. The broadness of it all. People with questions and experiences and a desire to know the world. People who contemplated and debated, argued and then laughed and toasted each other with stemmed glasses. Robert and the woman discussed a new exhibit of Deeter Aube’s paintings in Seattle. The man offered Lana a cigarette, and when she politely declined, he told her about his travels through the tobacco country of the Deep South. She overheard Robert talking about Churchill’s resignation and Eisenhower’s ill health. And then the man asked her about the nearby teaching college she had attended, asked if a certain professor was still there. As they talked, the sun descended to the horizon and its light poured across the Pacific Ocean and into the small apartment, where it glinted off wine bottles and earrings.
After the couple left, Lana put the glasses and hors d’oeuvre plates in the kitchen sink, emptied the ashtray, and went to the window seat. The sky and ocean were gone to the night, leaving just her reflection in the glass. She looked away from her own eyes, and rolled up the goat skin. She would hide it somewhere. She went to the bedroom, knelt on the carpet, and slid it beneath the foot of their bed.
“I’ve received a letter from Mama,” she said. Robert was at his bureau, loosening his tie. “I don’t think she is well. It is too much work for her, without Papa. I was thinking, perhaps we could go…”
“She is always welcome here,” Robert said. He said it decisively, without warmth. Lana was 24 and knew she would not see her mother again.
There were no gentle pastures on the mountainside. As Lana followed her father through the September rain, she bruised her shins on alder boughs and snagged her hands on devil’s club spines. Down in the dark creek bottoms, she stepped over bear tracks in the mud.
For a time they followed a rocky, dry creek bed up the side of the mountain. It was easier than breaking through thick brush, but Lana had to walk with her eyes down, placing her feet carefully on the boulders so she wouldn’t trip. The pack threatened to topple her. As she struggled over a fallen cottonwood tree, her father gave his hand and helped her across.
“You’ll be off somewhere, won’t you?” he asked.
Lana was surprised by the question. It had only recently occurred to her that there was a somewhere, and that she would, when she was much, much older, seek it out.
“I think so, Papa,” she said. “But not for a long time.”
He turned away and shifted the pack on his shoulders.
“It won’t be so long,” he said.
They walked in silence for a while. Lana looked at her father’s back and wondered if he was angry or hurt.
He cleared his throat but didn’t break stride. “It was your mother,” he said. “She always was the smart one. She said you had faraway eyes, even when you were a baby. She said you’d want to go farther than the train could take you.
“Soon as you were born, she started putting away some, just a bit here and there. Fur money when we could spare it. Then there was what she got when her folks died. I wish there was more, but it’ll be enough to get you somewhere, when the time comes.”
Lana felt just as she had when was three years old and wandered off into the forest alone. She had been following a chickadee as it flitted from spruce tree to birch branch, and she only wanted to look into its small black eyes. She knew that she was venturing farther than she should. When at last she stopped and looked back, she could not see the cabin or her mother. It was a terrifying, thrilling sensation.
“I don’t have to go right away, do I?”
Her father laughed his rare, gentle laugh.
“No, Lana. You don’t have to go right away.”
They walked in silence for some time, and when her father spoke again, she could only just hear him.
“Me and your mother – we’ll miss you.”
* * *
Lana did not tell Robert when she first learned she was pregnant. She should have been joyous. It was what they had planned, and she knew Robert would be pleased, but instead she curled up in bed with her clothes still on and slept all afternoon. That is how she spent the next few days, sleeping whenever she could with the curtains drawn and the apartment silent.
Perhaps it was her mother’s death. She had not traveled to Alaska when she got the news. Robert said it would be a financial hardship to send her, and Lana did not argue. In some way she was frightened to return to a place still so raw and wild in her mind. But as she slept through the days, she dreamed of the old cabin and her mother and father. She dreamed she picked cranberries on the tundra while her father watched for caribou. She dreamed she snowshoed along the river. She dreamed of northern lights and bluebells and salmon fillets in the smokehouse, of a cottonwood-scented breeze in her hair and goat meat on her tongue. Hand to mouth. Often she cried in her sleep.
The rest of the pregnancy she searched. The urge was strong, as if something depended on it. She walked to the butcher’s stand in Pike Place Market and surreptitiously sniffed the cuts of beef until she was caught.
“We don’t sell tainted meat here,” the man barked at her. She did not understand it herself, so left without explanation.
Another day she walked through the rain, following something unseen through the streets of Seattle. It was faint in the ocean air. She walked past department stores and boardwalks until she came to a little wooded creek. There she found a cottonwood sapling. She took a handful of the sticky leaves and crushed them in her palms and breathed in their fragrance. But it wasn’t enough.
When they brought the baby home from the hospital, she waited until the next day, when Robert returned to work, before she pulled the hide out from under the bed. She was still sore and shaken from the delivery, but she crouched on the living room floor and unrolled it in a patch of afternoon sunlight. As she lay there, her son cradled in goat wool, she kissed his tiny, soft ear and wished that her breath could be like the breeze down from the mountaintop. She wished her son could know that cold brightness.
* * *
When Lana looked up to the sky, she saw that the clouds had broken up and she caught pieces of blue. The rain had stopped.
“Is it snowing up there?” she asked her father.
“Will we camp in the snow?”
She could no longer see the full height of the mountain. They were too much a part of it now as they scrabbled up its side. The mountain was reduced to crumbling slate, mossy boulders, damp rock over their heads, cold dust on their hands.
Around midday, they climbed out of the creek valley and emerged on the fine edge of sky and rock. Lichen curled at their feet. The valley far below them was a braid of water and spruce flatlands. She was trying to spot their cabin when her father suddenly crouched down beside her and gestured for her to do the same. Then he pointed.
The goats would not come across the rocks to her. She would never pet them or tame them. She knew why she brought her rifle.
They camped that night against a rock face. The goats had disappeared over a ridge, and night was coming.
“Tomorrow. When it’s just getting light. Then we’ll go after them,” her father said. “We don’t want to get caught out tonight.”
The sky spit a sleety snow. Her father started a campfire and fed it twigs. Lana walked down a ravine, out of sight of their camp, and went behind a willow bush to clean herself. She had never felt so alone and strong, so entirely of her own. Walking back, she watched the smoke rise from the fire and mix with the falling snow. Her father was a gray shadow.
* * *
“Lana? Lana.” Her father whispered at her through the tent door. “Daylight’s wasting.”
She had not slept well. The canvas tent flapped in the wind, sometimes so hard she feared they would tumble off the mountain. Her father snored loudly beside her. The ground was rocky, and she shivered inside her bedroll. It was only near dawn, when the wind stopped, that she had finally fallen asleep.
She crawled out of the tent, still wearing yesterday’s clothes. A heavy, wet snow fell on the hillside and tent. The fire was out. Her father handed her a tin cup of cold water and a biscuit.
“Do you see them, Lana?” He pointed to the cliff face. Several hundred yards away, through the snowy fog, two mountain goats walked along the cliff face. The animals seemed to hang impossibly on the sheer rock. No trees or shrubs grew, and Lana could see no ledge or break in the rock. And yet the goats traveled as if along an easy path. They were larger and more impressive than Lana had imagined, their chests the size of a bear’s and large, muscular humps over their shoulders. Their thick, white fur crested along their backs and narrowed at their legs as if they wore shaggy knickers. One stopped and put his muzzle to the rock as if grazing. The other turned its long, narrow head down toward Lana and her father.
“They’re so close,” she whispered to her father.
He nodded. “But not close enough. It’ll take us some time to get to them. We’ll circle up and around, so they don’t wind us.”
They left camp with little more than their rifles, a canteen, and a length of rope. Lana tucked her braids under her coat collar.
“Keep your calm, when we’re up on those rocks,” her father said. “It’s easy to scare yourself, when you look back down. Just keep your calm.”
They moved in silence along the base of the cliff face until they came to a slide of broken rocks that funneled off the mountain. Her father nodded upward and began to climb.
Several times Lana doubted whether she could go on. Again and again she slid backward down the loose rocks. There were no roots or branches to grab. Her hands caught on the sharp rocks. When she stopped and looked back, the height caused a sickening, falling sensation.
At last they climbed onto a solid ledge. They were not far from the mountain’s summit. Her father held a finger to his lips and beckoned to Lana. They crept along the side of the mountain, lichen-covered stone beneath their feet, until they neared the end of the ledge. Her father got down on his hands and knees, his rifle slung over his back. Lana did the same. Side by side, they crawled on their bellies to the edge of the precipice and looked down. The goats were almost directly beneath them. Her father nodded to her rifle. Lana slid it off her shoulder and pulled back the steel bolt to load the cartridge into the chamber. Her hands shook.
“Shhh,” he mouthed. “Steady. Take your time.”
Her father reached over her and helped her brace the rifle stock against her shoulder. Still prone on the ground, Lana closed one eye and looked down the barrel, through the iron peep sights. The snow fell harder. The larger of the two goats shook itself and breathed hard through his nostrils. She aimed for his front shoulder, the heart and lungs, as her father had taught her. The goat turned its head to the side and rolled its solid black eyes up at Lana.
Her chest tightened until it seemed to stop her heart. She let out the last bit of her breath and squeezed the trigger.
The shot rang off the cliffs so she thought she had missed and that the bullet ricocheted. But then the goat stumbled, fell to its front knees, struggled to rise to its feet.
“Again,” her father whispered urgently. “Shoot again.”
Lana chambered another cartridge. Her fingers were numb. She took aim and shot again. This time the animal jumped as if hit with great force, and then it fell off the ledge, disappeared into rock and snow. The other goat trotted away across the cliff.
“Papa! Papa!” Lana cried. She stood and her knees nearly buckled. She was afraid she might cry or vomit.
“Steady.” Her father put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “You did good. Two clean shots. It’s down, down the mountain. We’ll find it.”
She slid along the broken rock so quickly that her hands bled from trying to slow her fall and her legs trembled. Above her, her father stepped more carefully and called down to her, “It’s all right, Lana. We’ll find it. You’ve got your goat.”
When they reached the bottom of the slide, her father studied the mountain above them until he was fairly certain he knew where the goat would have fallen. They walked to a deep cut in the side of the mountain where alders grew thick and twisted. Her father led her up into the thicket and there, at the bottom of a crumbling cliff, the mountain goat lay as still as the fallen snow.
* * *
The creek water was cold enough to burn, but Lana plunged the hide in again and again, and watched the goat blood wash downstream. In the water, the wool was like cold silk, but when she pulled it out it was as heavy as stone.
* * *
“Mother, I really don’t see why you have to lug this along. I can store it in the attic.”
Lana’s grown son carried the goat hide in a large bundle under one arm, and pushed her wheelchair awkwardly down the hall with the other. This was supposed to be one of the best nursing homes in the Pacific Northwest, and Lana was to stay here only long enough to recover from her hip surgery. She knew otherwise. She was 76 years old. There was talk of bone cancer and her inability to survive treatment. This is where she would die. It might take some time, but she would not return to her apartment, or to her son’s home.
“I just worry about her,” she overheard her daughter-in-law say. “She has gotten so frail. And so confused. I really think she’ll be safer there, where someone can look after her 24/7.”
Since Robert had died and she moved in with her son, she had made stupid mistakes. Left the bath water running until it flooded the bathroom. Lost her way when she wandered down to the little creek by her son’s house. The entire neighborhood was called out to look for her. Then, when she fell on an icy walkway and broke her hip, and the doctors found signs of cancer, the decision was made.
“I’d like it on my bed, Bob,” she told her son. “If you would, please.”
He set down the goat skin. The room was institutional and smelled of latex and bleach and urine, not so different than the hospital room where she’d spent the past few weeks. It made her son uncomfortable, she could see. He jingled change in one pocket and glanced again and again toward the door.
“I’m sure somebody will be in here pretty soon, to help you get settled,” he said. “I should get going. The traffic this time of day, you know.”
Two college-age girls in white slacks, pastel smocks, and quiet shoes came not long after he left. They were complaining to each other about someone at the nurses’ station, about how they were short staffed for the night and one of them would have to work a double shift. They did not introduce themselves or make eye contact with Lana. She could have been a TV tray. They stood on either side of her wheelchair and talked across her as they changed her into a nightgown, though it wasn’t yet 7 p.m. Then they lifted her onto the bed. One of them wrinkled her nose at the mountain goat hide, and the other one laughed.
“… nasty old thing …” she heard one of them say as they went down the hall. Lana was unsure if they spoke of her or the goat skin.
She slid her bare feet under the sheet and unrolled the hide across her legs and lap. Its smooth, steady weight was a comfort. She was an old woman. Her feet were swollen and useless. Her hands were knotted like the burls on an old tree. Her skin bruised too easily and tore like tissue paper. And yet, when she closed her eyes and put her hands down on the shaggy wool, she was still Lana.
All these years she wondered if the man had been right, if she bore it like the ancient mariner with the albatross at his neck, in shame and wonder at what she had done. She had hid it from strangers and unrolled it beneath her baby’s naked belly only when she was alone. She kept it in her husband’s house because she had no other place for it. She brought it here, to her death, even as she left behind pearl earrings and photographs and cookbooks.
It was only now, her life unwound like a strip of cloth caught in the wind, that she knew the truth. It was her. A last remnant. Mountain wool laid out over rock. Wild blood on snow. The solid eye and the fall. All this time, her one true self.