Sandra Boyd lived in Oshawa, a city 50 miles east of Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario, for the first 17 years of her life. Then her parents got divorced and her mom, Sally Boyd, kept the house, along with her boyfriend of the past two years, Mick Johnson, who had been a good friend of Sandra’s dad’s. Sandra’s father, Jeff Boyd, kept the cottage in Peterborough, which he sold and then he moved further north, to Bancroft. When Sandra’s parents got divorced she had two years left of high school, and then she would go to Durham College and study to be a baker. That was the plan anyway. Sandra’s dad told her it was ok if she wanted to stay in Oshawa and live with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend, who was also a co-worker of Sandra’s dad at the General Motors plant in town, but Sandra decided to move up to Bancroft with her father and their German Shepherd Max and Sandra’s only sibling, her 14-year-old brother John. Sandra moved to Bancroft and she didn’t speak to her mother, for more than five minutes on the phone, until she was 20.
Now Sandra was 27 and she had her own place in Bancroft, just south of the bridge. The bridge went over the York River, and was just south of downtown Bancroft. Sandra’s dad had bought a house two hours west, and one hour north of Toronto, in Barrie three years earlier, and lived there now with his new girlfriend, Leigh Dobbs, only six years older than Sandra, and with the dog Max. Her brother John had moved back to Oshawa at 20, and was working in construction now in Mississauga. Her mother was still with the guy she had cheated on her dad with, living in her childhood home in Oshawa, which she had not set foot in or seen in 10 years. That left Sandra all alone in Bancroft.
Sandra worked at the diner and ice cream shop in downtown Bancroft, the one that served pancakes and bacon and eggs all day, and that was where she met James Saunders. James was this writer from Toronto. He had come for ice cream one day and saw her looking pretty in her blue dress, with her long dark hair which fell in bangs over her brown, doe-like eyes. She had never heard of him before, although maybe she might have, she had told him, but it was easy to find stuff on him once she knew who he was. He had his own Wikipedia page and she saw all the awards that his second novel had won. He had given her copies of both his books, and she had seen the blurbs from the Toronto Star and National Post on the back. James didn’t seem to care about any of that stuff, and that was part of the reason she liked him.
James lived about 30 minutes north of town, up Highway 62 in this nice wooden cottage on the lake he had bought with money from his second book and renovated himself. Things weren’t really serious between her and James, but she liked hanging out with him and she liked driving up to his cottage. She liked the drive itself. At the end of the drive was the cottage, and at first Sandra would only stay there when she didn’t have to work the next day. Then sometimes she’d drive up there after work in the middle of the week and drive back from there to work the next morning. She’d have to wake up a little earlier, but it was nice having someone make her breakfast in the morning. Not having to make breakfast made up a bit of time, and more. She had never slept there that James hadn’t woken up before her. Always she would wake up alone in the bed under the big white sheets and go to the kitchen and there would be sunlight pouring in from the sliding glass door, and the kitchen would smell of coffee and breakfast and James would be inside drinking coffee or outside somewhere in the back.
James was the opposite of Sandra’s last boyfriend, Sean, in a lot of ways, and she liked flattering him by telling him all the good ways he was different. For example, James was neat and organized and he always kept the cottage clean. Also, she said, she never had to worry about how James looked when they went out together. James liked hearing Sandra flatter him as the anti-Sean in this way, but deep down both Sandra and James knew part of her missed being able to correct someone on their clothes or remind them to clean up after themselves.
It was easy for James to be neat though, because he didn’t really have a lot of stuff. If anything, Sandra thought his cottage was maybe a bit on the empty side. But a lot of that was because it was so big. James had a few pieces of furniture (some of which he had built himself, like the oak coffee table in the living room and the cedar swing chair on the front porch), two couches with the big-screen TV in the living room and the Queen size bed in the bedroom, but other than that the only “stuff” he really seemed to have were the contents of the big wooden bookshelf in the living room. Lots and lots of books, and a few CDs and DVDs. Sandra regarded the bookshelf as one single entity. He had told her she was free to take any of the books she ever wanted to read – she could keep them, if she wanted – and then they dropped it. Sandra was a smart girl, but she didn’t read a lot. She had read maybe 10 books since she dropped out of high school, and that was her own guess and probably an exaggeration. James kept the literary part of himself separate from the part of him that had to live real life, day-to-day. Sandra didn’t have a lot of experience with writers, and didn’t know how many of them looked down on people defensively who didn’t read a lot, even though instinctively they knew the people they were judging were no less or more intelligent than they would have been either way. Anyway James wasn’t like that at all. The more she thought about it, the more she really liked James.
James liked Sandra too, but it wasn’t really serious. Before he bought the cottage and moved to Bancroft eight months ago, he had been seeing this girl Nikki in Toronto on and off for the past two years. More like the past eight years. That wasn’t serious either. James and Sandra were both free to see other people, and sometimes Nikki would come up and spend the weekend at the cottage. Since things weren’t serious between James and Sandra, he didn’t think he needed to tell her about Nikki. But sometimes when Sandra would come over after Nikki had spent the weekend, he would instinctively look around to see if Nikki had left anything behind. Then he would stop himself, on principle. Sandra hadn’t seen anyone in the six months since she had been seeing James, or in the two years before that since she had broken up with Sean.
One morning in mid-November Sandra was driving south into town from James’ cottage and she stopped at the Tim Hortons on Hastings Street North, the main street in town. Standing in line, the type of long line-up that characterizes all Timmys at 8:30 in the morning, but especially ones in small towns (with only two coffee shops), she was thinking about the thing she had been thinking about for most of the drive, which was James Saunders.
“He really is a good guy,” she thought to herself. “And he’s so patient too. He reminds me of dad, in that way. I shouldn’t make that comparison. But he does. I bet he’d make a really good father. I’ve seen the way he is with animals. They say the way you treat your mother is the way you treat your wife, but that’s nonsense. Look at my mom. So any guy that had a whorebag like my mom for a mom would treat his wife like that? Will John treat his wife like that? If John ever gets married, that is. I think the way you treat animals is closer to the way you treat other people. I wonder what James’ mom is like? She’s probably a sweet lady. She’d have to be, for James to be like that. But who knows. James is a self-made man. But you have to start somewhere.
“James never talks to me about his family,” Sandra went on thinking to herself. “He’s really secretive. Maybe not secretive, but what’s that word? Reserved. But we always have a really good time together. He’s a good guy. He always makes me breakfast too. Sean used to make me breakfast sometimes too. Sean was sweet. But Sean was never around. I don’t see James that much either, but I know he’s always there. In that big cottage of his. I really like the way we’re approaching this. I’m proud of you, Sandy. Breakfast was so good this morning. I’m breaking my own rule by having a second coffee before work. But it’s Friday. I’m looking forward to tonight. I wonder if that drunk girl will be there? The one that’s always looking at James. With that fake, puffed-up fish look on her face all the time. Haha. It’s funny the way James makes fun of her. What does he call her? Oh yeah, Nemo. Haha. That’s a funny name. You can tell James is a writer, the names he comes up with for people.”
Sandra knew she had allowed her mind to wander too far when she started thinking about James being a good father, but unlike James, she never punished herself when it happened. Instead, she just stopped. But this morning, she didn’t feel the need to stop. For some reason, she figured she could get away with letting her thoughts go off for a while. All women think of stuff like this, she told herself. That’s all she was doing. Thinking. James is a good guy, is all. And she liked spending time with him.
There were now three people ahead of Sandra in line, and a long line-up behind her. There were two women in their 50s talking to each other right behind her, but she wasn’t paying attention to them and didn’t hear what they were saying.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a coyote?” one of them asked. “We see them around the house all the time. And we hear them every night. Frank shot at one a couple weeks ago in the daytime, with the pellet gun, not to hit it, just to scare it away. It ran away but we still hear them every night, right there in the woods by the house.”
“No, it wasn’t a coyote,” the other woman said. “I know what a coyote looks like. This was a big cat, with a long tail.”
“Maybe it was a lynx? Or what are those things called, a bobcat?”
“Nah, I looked it up. Bobcats are a lot smaller, and they have these short, stubby little tails. This was big, like a German Shepherd, but it was a cat. It looked right at us, and it had whiskers and a flat head like a cat and big green eyes. It looked right at us and then walked away. I swear to God my heart froze. I don’t know what I would have done if it didn’t walk away. Nibs kept barking at it, I guess it would have gone after Nibs first. This was about 50 feet from the house. I don’t think I would have made it in in time if it went after me. If it got Nibs I would have gone into the shed and gotten the axe. Jim says he doesn’t want me walking on the trail anymore. I told him nonsense, but I’m always going out with bear spray now. I tell you, it was one of the scariest moments of my life. But it was so pretty. It just looked at us, not like it was scared but not like it wanted to attack either, and just walked away into the bush. If it happens again I swear I’ll have a heart attack. I’m surprised I didn’t have one when I saw it.”
“What does Jim think it was?”
“Same thing I knew it was. A mountain lion.”
“Wow,” the first lady said. “I’ve never heard of anyone seeing a mountain lion around here. Do you think it came over from Algonquin?” Neither of them knew that cougars – what they also called pumas, mountain lions, and numerous other names in different parts of the Americas – had been declared extinct in Ontario for longer than they had been alive, despite sightings like this one to the contrary.
“I dunno,” the second lady said. “But you know how they’re always saying all the moose or caribou or whatever are disappearing from Algonquin because of global warming, or whatever it is? Maybe that’s why they’re coming over here now, to where people live. I just hope someone doesn’t shoot it. Or it doesn’t attack someone. It was the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. It just stood there in the path looking at us, and then it just vanished.”
That day Sandra got off work early, at 3 p.m., and was in a happy mood driving back up to James’ cottage. She hadn’t been home in over two days, since before work Wednesday morning, for more than 10 minutes to pick up and drop off some stuff. Now she was heading back up north again, with a bag of clothes in the back seat. She had always loved this drive. It was long, and peaceful, and she could be alone with her thoughts, and with the sky and the road and all the trees zipping by.
Three weeks earlier the trees along the way would have been bright with colour, but now only the dark green pine and spruce trees retained their leaves, and the others were bare and skeletal. Every so often the Canadian Shield rose out of the ground at the side of the road like a 12-foot rock hedge, and registered in the periphery of her vision as a grey and green blur passing by. Along the way there was a dead possum on the road. She swerved around it to avoid running over it. Further up the highway there was a dead something-else. It looked like a porcupine. Finally she saw the sign to Plath Road, turned west onto it, and after 10-minute drive past several driveways (with wooden signs in front identifying the families whose cottages they led to) she turned left again onto another unpaved path identified as “Saunders’ Lane” that led 300 feet through the woods into an opening that was the front of James’ cottage.
Sandra saw James’ dark green Ford F-150 pickup truck on the grass in front of the house and she pulled up right behind it, under a big maple tree. Walking around the right side of the cottage (she never knocked on the front door because she knew the sliding door at the back of the house that led inside to the kitchen was always unlocked) she saw James Saunders standing tall and slim just to the left of the fire pit halfway between the house and the lake. He was standing with his back towards the house, looking down. Then she saw what he had in his hand. Then she saw what was on the ground at his feet.
“James,” she called out to him, and he looked over his shoulder.
“Hey,” James said. His voice sounded dead and flat.
“What’s that?” she asked, walking towards him, her eyes on the short-furred brown mass that lay long and flat on the short grass at James’ feet.
“It came out of the forest,” James said. “I was just going into the kitchen and I looked out the door. I didn’t hear it. I just saw it jumping around like it was crazy or wounded or something. I opened up the door to go outside and it looked at me and just collapsed, and then it kept looking at me like it was wondering what I was going to do. I thought maybe a hunter got it. Then I got closer to it, and I saw…”
There was a wound on the dead animal’s throat with dried blood around it, that had not been caused by a hunter’s bullet. But there was a fresher gunshot wound at the top of its skull, which had blown a three-inch section of its scalp clean off on the grass nearby.
“It’s a doe,” James said. “That’s why it doesn’t have any antlers. See how she’s almost kind of ash-coloured? That’s the colour their coats get in the fall and winter. In the spring and summer they’re more of a reddish-brown colour. This one looks like she’s at least about eight-years-old. They don’t get much bigger than this.”
“What do you think killed her?” Sandra asked. She was trying not to look at the red, glittering gunshot wound at the top of the animal’s skull. The deer’s black, oval eyes were still open, but they were lifeless and staring at nothing. Its head was arched almost elegantly upwards on its long, slender neck, and its long, black-snouted face was pointed in the direction of the forest to the left. Its slender, black-hooved limbs under its body were pointed towards her and James.
“It must have been a black bear that attacked her,” James said. “Looks like it got a pretty good hold of her under her throat. That’s more like how cats kill though, strangely enough. They hold onto their prey and try to suffocate them by crushing their windpipes. I dunno how she escaped. She must’ve put up a real fight. Not that it saved her in the end.”
“And you shot her?” Sandra asked.
“Yeah,” James said.
“When did this happen?”
“I shot her about half-an-hour ago.”
“How long have you had that gun?” Sandra asked, looking now at the black, pump-action Remington 870 shotgun still in James’ hand.
“I’ve had it for as long as you’ve known me,” James said. Then, “I bought it when I moved up here.”
“Where did you buy it?”
“This place in town. I forget the name. I haven’t been back there since I bought it.”
“Do you have a licence for it?”
“Why did you buy it?”
“I dunno,” James said, “Just to have it. What if we were asleep one night and we heard a black bear trying to get into the house?” Sandra blushed and James immediately regretted he had said it.
“So what are you going to do about the deer?” Sandra asked.
“I dunno,” James said. “I can’t just leave it here, and have whatever it is attacked her coming out of the forest right behind the house. I’ll have to take her down the road and put her in the woods somewhere, far from where anyone lives.”
“Are we still going to the Fox tonight?”
“Oh,” James said. “About that, Sandy. I was thinking of pussying out and staying in tonight. I’ve been up since 4:30 this morning and I’m pretty tired. Why don’t you go on without me?” Then, remembering that she had driven all the way from town, “You can stay here tonight if you want.”
“What do you mean go on without you? We planned this all week, remember?”
“I know Sandy, but I have some stuff to do. I didn’t think of it this morning. This business of the deer kinda got me sidetracked…”
“I thought you said you shot her half-an-hour ago?”
“I know, but I had some other stuff I had to do today.”
“Oh, ok,” Sandra said. “Well, are we still going down to the falls on Sunday? I was telling Audrey about that and I think she said she and Hayden want to go…”
“I might have to take a rain check on Sunday too, Sandy,” James said, his throat now dry. “But you and Dree and Hayden go. And you should go to the Fox tonight too. But like I said, you’re free to stay here tonight, if you want…”
Sandra suddenly, yet instinctively, felt a strange lump in her throat, that reminded her of the one she felt that afternoon 10 years ago when her mom and dad called her and her brother John into the kitchen and explained to them the four of them would not be living together anymore. It was the realization, that feeling of being cast away, when you had taken for granted that everything was fine.
“No, it’s ok,” Sandra now said, almost angrily. “I’ve been up for a long time too. I think I’ll just grab my stuff and head home. I have to wake up sort of early tomorrow. Audrey’s coming over at noon and I think we’re supposed to go to the fruit market...”
“How was work today?” James asked her, lamely. They were both still standing over the body of the extinguished deer, but finally he had turned to her.
“It was fine,” Sandra said, “typical Friday.” She was about to tell him the story about the guy who came in asking for directions for Quebec, but stopped herself.
Then James said to her, “I’m thinking of selling the cottage, Sandy.”
“Oh.” She was about to ask him if there was someone else, but remembered she wasn’t supposed to care, and didn’t.
“I miss the city,” James went on. “It was fun for a while…” He stopped before he said anything more.
“How do you know about Nikki?”
“She texts you all the time, doesn’t she?”
“Just some girl from Toronto,” James said. “I went to college with her.”
“Is that the one who comes up and stays here? Unless your hair grows 10 feet at night and you shed it on the bed.”
“You hair is long and brown,” James pointed out.
“My hair is dark brown,” Sandra said. “Is that why you thought you didn’t have to do anything about it?”
They were walking towards the house now, the shotgun being carried lamely but dangerously in James’ hand. “Stop it, Sandy,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
“Are you going back to Toronto to write?” she asked. James was glad she understood a bit of the reason. What James didn’t know was that Sandra had almost asked “Why are you casting me off?” instead.
“That’s part of the reason,” he said. “A big part.”
“I’m sure your next book will be amazing,” she found herself saying. She wasn’t being sarcastic. She wasn’t sure what role she was adopting now, but wherever it came from she meant it.
“Thanks,” James said. “Let me just get this away from you.” He went into the bedroom and removed the unused shells from the shotgun. He put the gun under his bed and put the shells back into the cigar box he kept in the nightstand. Why had he filled the whole magazine, he thought, when he’d only need one, or two shots at the most? I guess I wasn’t thinking, in the confusion of getting the gun I thought I’d never use, and loading it. I was probably just thinking of putting the deer out of its misery as quickly as possible. She must’ve suffered a lot by the time she stumbled into the back of the cottage. Poor girl. That was a stupid joke to make about the bear. Safety catch or no safety catch, I don’t like leaving this thing loaded there under the bed with Charlie poking around. Where is that cat anyway? I wonder what Sandra would have thought if she had seen it there one day? When James got back into the kitchen he saw that Sandra had left and had pulled the sliding door in behind her.
James waited a while, to let Sandra drive away without having to see him again, then grabbed his keys and went outside through the front door and got in the pickup truck and backed it to the side of the house. He grabbed the deer by the ears and dragged its warm body heavily along the ground and pulled it up the ramp into the bed of the truck. He shut the tailgate and got inside. “She could tell right away,” he thought to himself. “Even before I said anything about selling the cottage. I’m a real shit to have cancelled our plans for tonight. I totally forgot. If it wasn’t for the deer we would have still gone out. Maybe it was better this way, to get it over with. Like shooting the deer. That’s one hell of a pretentious way of thinking of it, Saunders. Who or what the hell do you think you are?”
James drove south on Plath Road until he had timed 10 minutes between cottages, then drove back about five minutes and pulled up at the side of the road between the two cottages. He got out of the truck and hopped on the bed and grabbed the deer by its ears again, turned it around on the bed and pulled it down the ramp. He dragged it about 20 feet into the forest with crows circling overhead and then dropped its head softly onto the ground. “Yes, a real shit,” he thought. He had stopped thinking about the deer five minutes ago.
Meanwhile, Sandra was driving south into town, with the Canadian Shield on both sides of her. “Stupid,” she thought, “you’re stupid for letting yourself be hurt by this. And I acted like such a bitch to him. Why did I have to bring up that other woman? I knew it wasn’t serious. We both said it wasn’t serious. But I was really starting to fall for him. I didn’t realize it until just this week. I wonder if they can tell? I wonder if men can sense it? They don’t like it when they feel trapped. I honestly thought things were going so well. Oh well. I guess it’s just me and you again, Sandy.”
Several times she glanced at herself in the rear-view mirror, then looked away so quickly that only the reflection of her red, watery eyes registered. “You’re a real mess right now, aren’t you?” she suddenly said out loud, laughing. “No wonder you scare them off. I guess you can’t blame them.”
She had no way of knowing how beautiful she looked at that moment, or that James Saunders had often thought she was beautiful, and never more than today when he broke up with her, and now Sandra never, ever would know.
Ambarish Maharaj is a writer, poet, musician and visual artist from Toronto. He performs, musically, under the stage name, Marquis de Amberfish.