Once Upon a Time in Montana
T’s Nov. 11 Travel issue is dedicated to a series of five fairy tales written exclusively for us — the kinds of stories that will inspire your own adventures, if not of the body, then at least of the mind. Read more in our letter from the editor.
This story is inspired by “The Legends of Tono” a collection of 119 Japanese folk tales published by Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962) in 1910. The 101st tale involves a traveler who visits a friend’s home and ends up watching over a dead body.
A TRAVELER WAS passing through a Montana town late one night. He had once lived here, in a white house that he now walked past again and again. The shapes and shadows in the windows of this house he imagined to be his own, and that of the young woman he’d lived with at that time — as if they had not moved away, had not parted, had settled here and perhaps started a family together.
Later, he walked past the restaurant where this young woman had worked, then the bowling alley where she had also been employed.
The moon rose, round and pale. The train yard was empty. A distant dog barked; another answered.
Still later, he passed a nursing home, a memory-care unit where another woman he knew now lived. He had once worked for this woman, tending animals on her ranch; if he were to visit her this evening, she would not likely remember his name or anything about him. Her mind had forgotten most everything it had known, and yet her body remained behind, eating and sleeping and waking each morning.
In the final letter the traveler had received from this old woman, a few years before, she had said that one night, while in bed, she’d heard a clattering in her kitchen, cupboards slapped open, metal pots and pans bouncing on the floor. In her nightgown, she had leapt from bed and seized a broom to confront the intruder. Standing in her kitchen was a large grizzly bear; it stared at her for a moment, then leapt out the broken door. Cattle scattered as the bear bounded across the pasture toward the trees.
Read more: a guide to Livingston, Mont., near where this story is set.
The traveler, aware of the declining state of the woman’s mind, was not certain whether to believe her story. A few weeks later, however, her granddaughter sent him a photograph of a round trailer, set outside the old woman’s house, in which the bear, upon its return to the kitchen, had been captured and driven far away. It was as if that bear was drawn to her, the granddaughter wrote, as if she called it.
Remembering this story, the traveler had lost track of where he was walking. He now found himself out along the Yellowstone River and, before long, in another landscape. The earth here was humped up in mounds, white pipes twisted from the ground. This was a place where people had prepared for the end of the world, and yet the world had not ended, or had not seemed to. They had left all these shelters behind.
The traveler shivered, walking atop these hidden rooms, feeling their emptiness beneath him. It grew still later, and he was tired. Fortunately, he saw smoke twisting up against the night sky, and he walked toward it. He came, before long, to a heavy door set into the side of a low mound. He knocked upon the door with his fist, and then with a stone.
Faint footsteps approached, a click as the lock turned. The door swung inward with a scraping sound.
“Hello!” his friend said. “You have come at just the right moment.”
“Can I rest here?” the traveler asked. “I’ve been walking.”
“Of course,” his friend said. “Come in! Someone just died this evening, and I was wondering what to do. There is no one here to watch things while I go out. Would you mind watching over things for a bit?”
Before the traveler could respond, his friend slapped him on the back and disappeared down a zigzagging path into the darkness.
The traveler closed the door, then proceeded to a stairway that was actually a ladder, which he had to descend backward. When he turned around at the bottom, he saw the fire in the hearth, the chair waiting before it. He sat down, unlaced his boots, and took them off. On the small table next to the chair was a mug of peppermint tea, still warm. He took a drink, then looked around. The dead person appeared to be an old woman, and she was laid out on a bed in the adjoining room. His friend had not thought to close the door, or had left it open on purpose. Why was it necessary for the dead to be watched? And what were the consequences if they were not watched? The traveler decided not to close the door; he drank the tea and stared into the fire, keeping the dead woman in his peripheral vision. Again, he shivered. Would it be less unsettling, perhaps, if there were more than one dead person? If her face were covered? If the dead person were someone he’d known when alive, would that be more or less disturbing?
Standing, the traveler stepped away from the fire, through the doorway, and stood at the foot of the bed where the woman had been laid to rest. (Was she resting? Why were the dead put in beds? Why was a blanket pulled up to her waist? To keep her warm?) She was tiny, frail, the size of a child, wearing a white nightgown. Her bare gray forearms were crossed on her chest, her thin knotty fingers on her shoulders. The dead woman’s white hair was all loose, spread around her wrinkled face. Her eyes were closed.
The traveler was certain he had not known this woman. Relieved, he stepped back through the doorway, leaving it open and, adding wood to the fire, sat down again. He picked up a notebook and saw that his friend had been studying calligraphy, writing the whole alphabet again and again in complicated letters. The hour was late. The traveler stretched out his legs and closed his eyes. Just as he began to doze, he was startled by the ringing of a telephone.
He had not noticed the telephone before, and it took a moment to locate it — yellow, affixed to the wall, its tangled cord dangling. It rang and rang, and in that moment, he expected the old woman to rise and answer it. Turning quickly, he saw that she had not moved, was lying exactly as she had been.
When the telephone ceased ringing, the silence tightened around the traveler.
AND WHEN, a moment later, the telephone resumed its ringing, he knew it was a signal to him, a sign that he was supposed to answer it. At once, he realized it was the woman calling, the woman with whom he’d lived in the white house, long before. She had somehow sensed that he’d returned to this place, was compelled to call him and was now going to tell him what he needed to know.
He jerked the handset from the wall. “Hello?”
“What are you doing there?” she said.
Her voice had changed, or it wasn’t her voice. In fact, it was an old woman’s voice, raspy and faint.
“It’s difficult to talk to you,” she said, “from where I am. But I felt you moving around nearby. Are you finding your way by now?”
The traveler turned, the telephone’s cord twisting around his arm. Through the doorway, he could see the dead woman on the bed. While he heard her voice in his ear, her lips were still, not moving at all.
“Are you here?” he said.
“Where?” she said. “Of course I’m here.”
“What is it like, where you are?”
“It’s a comfortable room,” she said, and coughed for a time before regaining her voice. “There are machines here, and some days I go out and look at the sky.”
“Is it a sky like our sky, here?” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“With clouds,” he said. “And the sun and the moon.”
“Of course,” she said. “It’s all just the same.”
“So your body is here, and you are there?”
“Pardon me?” she said.
“I guess I always assumed,” he said, “that the land of the dead would have a different sky, if it had a sky.”
“What are you talking about?” she said, her voice in his ear, her body motionless through the doorway. “You think I’m dead?”
“I stood right next to you and couldn’t see you breathing. I can see you now and you’re not moving at all.”
“You can see me?” she said. “Where are you? I don’t think you can see me. But I felt you were close today, when I was here, in my room with the machines, I sensed you were close, perhaps walking past the building. Why didn’t you come visit me?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought you were someone else.”
“I am someone else,” she said.
“I mean on the phone,” he said, “someone else calling on the phone.”
“I’m different than I was,” she said, “back when you worked for me, but I still remember some things, sometimes.”
“How did you call me, or know I’d be here?”
“I dialed the numbers,” she said.
“Earlier,” he said, “I was thinking of you. That story about the bear in the kitchen — you must have felt that, that’s what you felt.”
“What story is that?” she said. “A bear? You think I’m a bear?”
“No,” he said.
“Why didn’t you visit me?”
“I will,” he said.
“If I don’t remember you,” she said, “that doesn’t mean it’s not a successful visit. My body’s here, but sometimes my mind is not. It’s shrinking down on itself to become more like an animal’s mind. So I am and I am not the same person. In a case like mine, it’s difficult for people to know how to visit, or how to grieve, or when.”
“I’ll come,” he said. “Perhaps in the morning?”
“When will I truly be gone?” she said. “When will we know?”
With that, she hung up the phone. The traveler unwound the cord from his arm, which had fallen asleep, and sat down in the chair once again.
Silence gathered. The logs in the fire collapsed, settled into coals.
JUST AS THE TRAVELER was about to sleep, at the edge of his vision he saw the woman in the bed slowly sit up and turn her head toward him. He was panic-stricken but controlled himself, not immediately looking straight in her direction. Neither spoke, and in that silence, he realized that the old woman — her eyes open now, reflecting the firelight — was not looking at him but past him, across the room.
In the far wall, up by the ceiling, which was at the level of the ground outside, was a window. In that window, the traveler could see something like a fox’s head, its eyes staring fixedly at the dead woman, who was staring back.
Carefully, the traveler dropped to the floor and crawled slowly to the ladder and climbed from the room to the door. Outside, he crept around until he saw, in the moonlight, that it actually was a fox, flattened on the ground with its head stuck down into the window and its hind legs stretched out straight. The traveler snatched up a piece of pipe and began beating the fox, meaning to kill it, to break the connection with the old woman, but the fox leapt away, escaped into the night.
Next, the traveler bent down and peered through the window. Once again, the old woman was lying flat on the bed, deceased. The fire glowed on the empty chair, on his boots with their laces scribbling across the floor. The traveler filled the window with stones, to prevent the fox’s return, then walked back to the door. He went through it, turned and descended the ladder.
The traveler’s friend, returning home the next morning, found the traveler fast asleep, lying in the bed next to the dead woman. The woman’s white hair was so knotted and tangled with that of the traveler that it required a very sharp knife to sever them, one from the other.
Hair: Nikki Nelms. Casting: Yasuyo Hibino at Fish Co. Models: the artist Noriko Shinohara and the vintage dealer Koji Kusakabe. Digital tech: Thomas Seely. Set assistants: Mike Smith, Todd Knopke and Jay Jansen
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