Edges are where things get interesting. They are where transitions happen — or don’t happen — from one state to another. Ethnic assimilation, for instance, is an edge state, where you’re neither fish nor fowl, and you have to navigate for yourself how much of which culture you want to take on when and with whom. The fringes of urban areas are another edge, where wild animals like coyotes and ravens live amidst humans.
I wrote the novel Last to explore edges. I made my protagonist, Last, a creature who belongs nowhere. He’s a sasquatch who was orphaned young and raised in the woods by a human woman (Clare). Not only does he have no companions or peers, he’s not even a proper sasquatch because he was raised by a human, is culturally human, speaks American Sign Language, and in his mind he’s half human. He can’t remember his native language, native culture, or even what his parents looked like. So Last is in this horrible limbo state where he is the only one in the world like himself. No longer a child, he wants friends, he wants a mate. He wants to find a place where he belongs. So he’s on a walkabout and crisscrossing the wilderness in his home state of Maine, looking for other sasquatches, although he suspects the species has gone extinct (hence the name he calls himself, Last).
Clare’s ex-boyfriend Nils is a failed biologist who wants to make his name by releasing film, sound and DNA evidence on Last. When he learned that Last had left for a walkabout, he shot him with a tranquiliser gun and fitted him with a radio collar.
Last awakens from thirst. He is still groggy. Around his neck is a new constriction and weight.
He is wearing a radio collar. He cannot get it off. He feels for its mechanism but cannot figure it out.
From now, his every movement will be tracked.
He does not know this. He just knows he has something on him that is a man thing and that means no good. But there is nothing he can do about it.
He picks himself up and walks in a direction he hasn’t tried before. He goes south.
Where to find the Others? He follows the winding trout streams in the general direction south. Skirting lake after lake, bog after bog, walking the deer trails from mountain to mountain. He travels from dusk to dawn, sings the songs he remembers from Clare’s iTunes collection. He can’t make the words but he can sing the melodies.
The wind picks up. From far in the distance, he hears a rhythmic banging. A vaguely familiar banging, a sound from childhood, a sound from before thoughts could be put into words.
He follows the banging. The People, that’s how they called each other. They banged, and you knew where to find them. The banging continues, bang! bang! bang! and he chases the sound.
He imagines them, a family who looks like him. He imagines them alone and lonely, and delighted to meet another like them when they are so few.
He imagines smiles of welcome. Outstretched arms.
He runs to this vision as fast as he can until his breath comes ragged and he has a cramp in his chest.
And then he sees it, the broken branch knocking against a trunk, hanging by its inner bark as if from a hinge.
The wind sighs and it bangs.
He comes to a stop and drops to his knees.
There is nothing to do but to go on.
The collar has a heavy box that chafes and it is wearing away the hair on his neck. He holds it as he walks, because his collarbone has begun to bleed.
And then he stops holding it, and just keeps walking on.
At night, all he hears is crickets. He calls out to the Others, as he had called as child in the swamp.
No response. Maybe if he travels farther south…
Sometimes he hears the high-pitched yip of a coyote, also calling with no response.
He travels farther, and he still hears that coyote. It is as though they are travelling together, a mile apart.
At dawn he sees the silhouette of a coyote loping on the ridge.
She is so skinny he can see the points of her vertebrae. Pointy nose, pointy ears, spiked hair, she is all points. She trots on.
Full sun, from a hilltop. He sees her hunting mice in the meadow below. She listens, head cocked. Listens, listens. Then pounces with her forelegs, grabs the mouse with her teeth and whips her head from side to side.
Mouse neck snaps.
She slits the skin and unzips the flesh, crunches it down in a few bites, and then resumes listening.
Last admires the coyote’s practiced, efficient technique. In his mind, he calls her MouseBreath.
Listening, head cocked, silent trot, listening for hours, earning each bite. This is a coyote down on her luck, working hard, and hungry.
It is getting late in the season but the trout are still running. Last keeps an eye out for people and stands in a good stream, awaiting fish.
Claws would help. Sometimes he grabs a fish just as it swims between his
legs, but his numb fingers move too slowly, fish gone.
He remembers, I used to be good at this. What happened? Farmed food? He keeps at it, grabs the next trout and flips it onto the bank, where it flaps, gasps, and expires.
Little brookie. All bones.
He eats his raw trout and tries again. It does not take long. Another trout on the bank, and as he wades out of the water he sees the coyote watching, pacing the opposite bank. He knows, she wants his fishing spot.
He eats his fish, then goes back into the water, squats down, looks the coyote in the eye, and cocks his head to a spot downstream.
He cocks his head again, eyes the spot, and then resumes fishing and ignores her.
The next he looks, she is standing in the water downstream, waiting patiently. Last scoops up a trout and lets another slip between his legs.
She plunges her face in the water and grabs it, all teeth. Then she raises her head, fish flapping, and proudly climbs up onto the bank to eat.
She catches Last’s eye and smiles her coyote smile: ears back, hair down. Last
smiles back his ape grimace.
They fish on, separate but together.
She follows closer now. At night, they call out, Last to his people in the language he remembers, which is the baby talk of a five-year old. The coyote calls to her people in her language — high-pitched yips and half-howls. No sasquatch answers, no coyote answers. But the call of each, through the night, is a sort of answer. Another found, not kin but kind.
In the woods, MouseBreath lopes as silently as fog.
Last struggles to keep up with her. But they are friends now. She doubles back to him, scouts forward, doubles back.
Soon she tires of travelling three times his distance, and she waits for him when he is out of sight. The coyote sits in the bushes or in the tall grass and listens, aware of everything around her.
After one of these forays, Last finds her sniffing the ground, skittish. She stops him with a look, looks at the ground, directs his eyes.
A loop of wire, a tree bent to the ground. Snare.
She trots off the trail, drags over a rotted branch, drops it on the wire.
The tree snaps up, carrying the branch with it. It dangles high in the air.
Last marvels and has new respect for the coyote.
They trot on.
Another day she stops to show him a big slab of rock. One end is on the ground, against a log. Underneath one end is open, and at the opening, a piece of cheese. But through the cheese, a twig, and the twig supports the rock by a
Now it is Last’s turn. With a found branch, he bats the cheese, stick and all, out before the rock crashes down. They grin at each other and split the cheese.
Friends for life.
They come upon a fox with a leg caught in a steel trap. The fox whines and gnashes at them. Its eyes are bloodshot. It has tried to chew off its leg and has only gotten part through.
The coyote trots past. She has no intention of stopping.
Last sees the panic in the fox’s eyes and can’t leave. MouseBreath rounds a turn and is gone. Last has never seen a steel trap before. He has faith he could figure it out. He pulls at this and that.
On the hilltop, just the points of the coyote’s ears are visible, as she watches and waits.
A crunch of gravel. Axe in hand, a trapper walks along the trail, breathing heavily from his exertion.
The coyote yips.
Last freezes. The fox struggles. The birds go silent, the only sound the footfalls of the man.
Having no better ideas, Last pries open the jaws of the trap. The fox jumps away and bites him, hard. He lets go of the trap and it snaps shut.
The man’s head snaps towards the sound.
The fox runs away on three legs.
Last looks back in the direction of the man and hurries up the trail towards MouseBreath.
The trapper fires on Last but misses. And then Last is gone.
Last catches up with MouseBreath, who is still waiting for him. He holds out his arm, to show that he is has been bitten. MouseBreath licks the wound.
They come to a highway. The sun glares low in the sky and orange light glints on the metal machines that rush past.
All sounds are drowned out by the roar of the cars and trucks, and all smells are drowned out by the stench of their breath. Faster than the fastest animal, the machines follow nose to butt, with scarcely a gap between.
The trail continues on the other side. Last and MouseBreath have to get to the other side. And the machines are in the way. Last has no idea how to cross. The sky turns red, then purple, then gray. MouseBreath looks up and down the highway. She catches Last’s eye: watch how it’s done. She crouches low, wiggles her butt in the air, and takes off. Weaving through the traffic, she runs as fast as she can.
The cars do not slow.
At about 80mph, a truck hits her and she flies up into the air. The truck passes underneath.
Then she crashes to the pavement and the car behind rolls over her, BUMP bump, front wheels then rear wheels.
The next car doesn’t even swerve. BUMP bump.
Afterwards, the cars that follow, the bumps grow softer, as MouseBreath spreads out over the pavement.
Last hears screaming. It goes on and on. He realises he is the one screaming, and stops.
The light empties out, sucked into the machines’ glowing white eyes and red butts. And into the night, they hiss along the highway and exhale filth.
Last stands by the side of the road, a black hulk against the black forest, because he does not know what to do.
Flashbacks: his mother has just died, his father has just died, he is a little boy alone in the wilderness. He calls and calls and no-one answers. He is hungry and lonely and tired and no-one comes.
The emptiness, the despair, the panic of his abandonment comes upon him now with the full force of repetition.
He understands wordlessly that he is alone in the world and there is no help for it. It is dark, and his friend is spread out all over a highway, killed for no reason, and he has no home and no people, and his heart is broken.
When he comes to himself, he notices the cars are gone. The moon is high, and he can see the expanse of MouseBreath spread across the pavement.
Last had not known about such things as rush hour, or the fact that a highway empties out in the middle of the night. Now he knows. The middle of the night is the safe time to travel.
He walks out onto the empty highway and scrapes MouseBreath off the asphalt. She comes away in pieces. He gathers the pieces together and lays them in the woods, on the far side of the highway, at the base of a fir.
Ravens will do the rest.
The Mourner’s song. He remembers there was a Mourner’s song. He still doesn’t remember how it goes.
A tune passes through his head, and he hears words he understands but can’t pronounce:
Underneath the bridge
the tarp has sprung a leak
and the animals I’ve trapped
have all become my pets
and I’m living off of grass
and the drippings from the ceiling
but it’s OK to eat fish
‘cause they don’t have any feelings.
Something in the way. Oo-ooh.
Something in the way, yeah. Oo-ooh.
For some reason, this reminds him of his father’s tumour and the stench of the paper mill.
Something wrong, something messing up his life, something bigger than him, something he can’t fix.
Something in the way.
They watch the blip on the screen. Beep. Beep. Beep.
‘He made it across the highway,’ says Nils.
Clare breathes, ‘Thank God.’
Day by day the air grows colder. Now he walks north, into the cold wind. The oaks drop their leaves. The ground is covered with acorns. Squirrels are busy in the trees. Last bites into the acorn from a red oak and it’s so bitter he can’t get it down. He remembers he had eaten a lot of acorns as a child but he doesn’t know how his mother made them.
The whitetails are rutting.
Too big for the little stones he throws with precision. That leaves squirrels, woodchucks, partridge. He eats them raw and misses cooked food. He misses the underground cabin, warmth, and Clare.
He fails to bring down wild turkeys. He fails to bring down deer. He has been eating farmed food too long and has forgotten how to hunt.
The first few flakes of snow dust a landscape queerly silent. Overhead, a dozen geese fly with military precision.
Too high to hit.
Skinny Last is starving. He is lightheaded all the time now. He’s cold.
He sings as he walks, sometimes Nirvana, but mostly the Stones ‘Miss You’.
Ooh hoo, hoo-hoo.
Ooh hoo, hoo-hoo.
Who does he miss? People he’s never met.
On the horizon balsam firs. He walks towards them. Underneath, deer scat and not a sound.
The snow comes down in earnest. White ground, gray sky, black line of trees in the distance. Behind him, his own footprints stretch back forever.
He can’t feel his toes.
He searches for tracks, shrivelled apples, berries, anything to eat. He is dizzy.
He is afraid he will starve to death. He is alone, and this brings up the memory from his childhood of wandering lost and alone and cold and hungry, of calling out until he is hoarse, of no answer, no answer, no answer. He is that scared five-year old orphan again, lost in his memories, seeing nothing before him.
His feet hurt from the cold and the pain brings him back to the present.
There is nothing to do but to keep on keeping on. He signs to himself while he walks. He sings the songs that go through his head. Oo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Oo-hoo-hoo-hoo. And then the tune, because he can’t make the words: ‘Lord I miss you.’
Then one day, someone sings back.
Shelah Horvitz is a writer and a painter. For 30 years she has painted and exhibited in galleries and museums, and her artwork has appeared in books, magazines, and on television. Her writing has appeared on various blogs. This excerpt is from Last, or Earworms in the Wilderness, her recently-completed first novel.
She lives in Maine and Massachusetts with her husband and dog.
Illustration by Shelah Horvitz
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