Esta, a few months shy of her ninety-first birthday, makes the quarter of a mile trek from the house and is nearing the mailbox when she hears the noise. A breath, almost. An expulsion of air so subtle it could be the wind in the water oaks. But she knows it’s a living creature. And even before she turns to see what it is, she feels the steady chill creeping into her chest.
It crouches in the leafy shadows, looking for all the world like a picture in one of the National Geographic magazines she has in her attic. It’s at once familiar and alien, the eyes slanting just so, merging with the flat nose. Quiet and still as moss, the cougar is watching her. No mistaking what it is. No chance she’ll think it’s only an overgrown housecat. Even as the cold weariness of fear enfolds her, Esta marvels at the creature’s beauty, the alignment of the yellow eyes with the lines down the sides of the mouth.
How funny, she thinks. Her sister was right after all. June had warned her, going on and on about how terrible it was that people like their new neighbors, who’d moved in with what they called a “collection of exotic animals,” were going against nature, trying to raise those creatures up like family pets.
“You take your high-bred wolves,” June had said. “I saw a picture in the paper once of a little boy who’d been mauled by one of those things. Looked like he had a mended stocking stretched over his face. High-bred, my eye. You can’t breed the wolf out of it.”
June was always finding stories like this in the Tupelo or Memphis papers, reading them aloud to Esta and mulling over the details. After she read several articles about home invasions up in Germantown, she started keeping a loaded shotgun propped against the corner in her bedroom. It was the economy, she said, criminals looking for easy victims in suburbs and out in the country.
“They’re just looking for sitting ducks like us, two old ladies,” she said when Esta tried to protest the shotgun. “They better not mess with me.”
A sign she’d tacked up on the gate in front of their driveway warned trespassers: We have guns and know how to use them. We will shoot you if you come on our property. We are serious.
Before Esta started out this morning, June had taken the old German Luger their brother brought back from World War II out of a shoebox in the back of a closet.
“Here,” she said, handing it to her sister. “If you see anything that looks like one of those animals coming toward you, shoot first and ask questions afterwards.”
“Is this Jim’s?” Esta asked, feeling the weight of the pistol dragging her thin hand down. “Does it even work?”
“There’s at least one bullet in the chamber. I guess it’s still good. Those Germans made things to last.”
“June, I don’t know how to use this thing.”
“Just cock it, point and pull the trigger. How hard can that be?” June cocked the pistol and showed Esta how to release the safety.
“I never killed anything in my life.”
“You might change your mind if it was trying to kill you.”
“Surely to goodness they don’t let those animals run loose,” Esta said as she gingerly placed the weapon inside the pocket of her windbreaker, shuddering when the long, narrow barrel pressed against her thigh. She seriously doubted she would need to shoot anything, but she knew her sister wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Wild animals escape all the time,” June said. “Didn’t you hear about that gorilla at the Pittsburgh Zoo?”
“Okay, well, if you hear a shot, call nine-one-one,” Esta said, setting out in the early morning chill. As usual, she was neatly dressed, even for a walk on the farm, wearing a white sweatshirt embroidered with pink and blue flowers and a pair of blue pull-on slacks. Her daily walk was less than half a mile, both ways, just down to the mailbox and back.
“I’d go with you, but my knee and all,” June called after her. She was the younger of the two, barely eighty, but years of childbearing had taken a toll on her legs. Esta didn’t even need a walking stick.
Esta has been standing on the path for goodness only knows how long when the fist begins rapping inside her chest. Her legs grow still as the useless fence posts that separate her property from the neighbors’. How easily the cougar must have cleared the fence. Maybe there’s another one somewhere behind it, ready to enjoy feasting on an old lady.
She forces herself to turn and begin putting one foot in front of the other. Mustn’t let it smell the fear. She hears the light echoing movement of the animal, just a few yards away. Expects to see teeth flashing just for a moment before they sink into her neck, claws ripping her chest open.
The animal stops when she turns again, one sleek, taupe paw in front of the other as it inches toward her. Esta pivots slowly, tottering, pulse pounding in her ears like an advancing army. A thin tributary of perspiration trickles down her neck and between her breasts. She hears just the barest whisper of leaves stirring as the cougar keeps in step with her.
The path she had walked so casually half an hour earlier stretches before her, an endless corridor. At any point between here and the house, the animal may spring. She has watched Animal Planet on the TV. She has seen how far these creatures can leap, how the sharp teeth tear the flesh off their prey. Killed and eaten. As if killed weren’t bad enough.
Walk. Walk. Stop. Stop. Esta and the animal continue their solitary dance up the lane. She moves. It moves. She stops. It stops. Suppose she just stood there forever, until she dropped to the ground, exhausted. Would the cougar freeze too, watching her for its next cue? The walking Esta sees the frozen Esta, even as the leaves are scuttling around her feet.
June sits down at the dining room table for a cup of coffee and her first cigarette of the day. She opens the paper to the crossword puzzle. Since she left her husband, Tillmon, and moved out in the country with Esta six months ago, she feels like she’s on a never-ending vacation. It had started out to be just two weeks, after Esta’s cataract surgery, then dragged on to four, and now she can’t imagine going back.
“You know you don’t want to live with two old women in the house, and somebody’s got to take care of Esta,” she had told Tillmon. “I simply cannot bring myself to go off and leave her out there alone right now.” She had failed to add that she was also enjoying not having to be his personal secretary and maid.
“You’ll be fine with Amber here,” she said. Amber was the teenage granddaughter their youngest daughter had dropped off for them to raise, another task June was glad to get away from.
Chores at Esta’s were practically nonexistent. Cooking and cleaning for two people was nothing to June, who’d raised five kids and babysat umpteen grandkids. Plus, a Mexican girl named Immaculata came over once a week to do the laundry and bring a load of groceries from Jitney Jungle. And there was plenty to occupy their leisure time. Esta had everything you need in the way of entertainment in the big old log house her late husband had built. Every movie Disney ever made and a host of musicals like The King and I. An endless supply of crossword puzzle magazines and romance novels came once a month in the mail.
Sometimes, when they felt adventurous, they would climb into Esta’s old Buick, with June at the wheel, and head down the back roads for Tupelo or New Albany, where they would eat at Shoney’s buffet, stopping by the Shoe Carnival or Wal-Mart afterwards. Invariably, Esta would buy another pair of Easy Spirit shoes or comfortable pull-on slacks for herself and June.
“An actress—‘Joanne.’ Three letters in the last name.” June muses over her crossword puzzle. The only Joanne she can think of was married to Paul Newman. Her last name has more than three letters.
A breeze stirs the sheer green panels over the dining room windows. June looks up from the polished mahogany surface of the table. Seems funny now to think Esta’s had nearly as many husbands as some of these movie stars. Her first one, Harold Gene, was mean as a snake, belittling Esta in front of the family all the time. June felt downright uncomfortable around the second one, Martin Lowry, the way he tried to kiss her on the mouth whenever he saw her. It was a shame Esta hadn’t found a keeper until Mr. Earl. And then, wouldn’t you just know it, he had to go and die on her right after they built this house.
Esta’s hand trembles as she tries to grasp the long, cold handle of the Luger in her pocket. Even though it’s only early October, the morning chill has stiffened her fingers. Years ago, when she and June were growing up, Jim had tried to teach them how to shoot a .22 rifle. Esta wishes now she’d taken the target practice seriously. Thought it was too countrified back then. Besides, she gave herself a manicure every Sunday night and didn’t want to break her fingernails, fooling with locking and loading. June took to guns right away. But she’d loved all that outdoors stuff, played football and baseball with boys right up to high school.
Esta glances out of the corner of her eye at the shadow moving slowly, implacably through the underbrush, wishing Mr. Earl were still alive. Her husband’s been gone five years now. She’d respected that man, worshipped the ground he walked on. He would be right beside her at this very minute if he were alive. March up to that old cat and order it off his property without firing a shot.
He was nothing like her first husband, that crazy Harold Gene, who deserved to be killed and eaten if anybody ever did. Stayed with him all that time for their son Tommy’s sake and look how much good that did. Esta was always too ashamed to tell June the things Harold Gene had done to her in the privacy of their bedroom, making sure to leave bruises where they’d never show. And she certainly wasn’t proud of the fact that she’d committed adultery with Martin Lowry, but if it weren’t for him, she’s sure she would be down at Whitfield, the state insane asylum, right this very minute. Martin had an antique shop right across the street from the bank where Esta worked, and she’d been one of his best customers. Nothing improper had ever happened between them until Martin’s wife left him. He seemed so lonely that Esta opened up and told him how a person could be married and still lonely. When Harold Gene had disappeared on a fishing trip at Sardis Lake, Esta waited a year before accepting Martin’s marriage proposal. Tommy had refused to speak to her ever since, and that was forty years ago.
Maybe it really is true what they say about your whole life passing before your eyes when you’re facing death, she thinks. Martin hadn’t surfaced in her consciousness in ages. She’d pushed him so far down, he could be at the bottom of Sardis Lake right along with Harold Gene. Martin had never raised a hand to her in all the years they were married. But, then, Harold Gene hadn’t run around with other women, either. At least, not that she knew of. As it turned out, Martin never stopped, although it took her a while to figure out that others were finding their way to the cot in the back of his store just as she once had.
June is concentrating so deeply on the crossword puzzle that she doesn’t hear the shot, which is the only one Esta manages to get off before the creature flees, clearing the six-foot-high, chain link fence in a flash of amber. But eventually she begins to feel restless, so she goes out to the backyard to smoke another cigarette, careful to hold onto the wrought iron railing Esta had installed on the steps so neither one of them would lose their footing and crack a bone. The yard is half an acre deep, walled in with cinderblocks. One ancient pecan tree with pansies surrounding its trunk provides most of the shade.
She wonders if Esta has fallen. It’s not like her to take so long. She has to have her glass of warm water and fifteen pills before breakfast or the world will come to an end. You just never know. Might be a bull or a wild pig roaming around out in the fields. Or one of those so-called exotic animals.
June had saved Esta’s life once years ago when they were teenagers. It was a summer Sunday afternoon out on Dumas Lake, the two of them with Jim and his girlfriend, reclining on a quilt they’d placed on the narrow sandy beach. Jim was still dressed for church, wearing a white suit. June had swum out and back to a raft anchored some fifty yards from shore, doing a perfect Australian crawl without stopping.
“Bet you can’t do that,” she said to her sister, who hadn’t even gotten her bathing suit wet.
Esta looked out at the raft, rocking slowly in the murky water, then at Jim’s girlfriend, a redhead who worked at Union Planter’s Bank in Memphis. June didn’t think she’d really try it, but sure enough, Esta stood up, waded into the lake and struck out. Halfway there, it became apparent she was in trouble. The three of them leapt to their feet, Jim removing his hat and yelling for Esta to hang on. But he couldn’t bring himself to get in the water, not in that white suit. So June, only thirteen at the time, ran in after her. She had Esta in her arms when her sister panicked, pulling them both under. June hauled off and socked her. Afterwards, Esta had the gall to complain about a sore jaw, never even saying “thank you.”
Truth be told, June used to always think Esta was too prim and proper, even secretly took pleasure in seeing her embarrassed. She’d once told a boy who’d come to the house to call on Esta that her sister was “still running around in her teddy.” Esta about died when she heard that.
But after Mr. Earl passed and they started spending more time together, things changed. Esta always seemed so glad to see her. “My baby sister,” she took to calling June. When June put the drops in Esta’s eyes twice a day after the cataract surgery, her sister’s serene, upturned face reminded her of their dead mother’s.
She decides to go look for Esta now and hollers for the old yellow lab, Sheba, even though she can’t bear the sight of that mutt and it wouldn’t be much protection. The dog rises from its corner in the yard, a grumbling mass of yellowing folds, shuffling toward June.
“Come on along, you old hound. Come on and earn your keep.”
Esta’s arm is still trembling from the kickback of the pistol. She can’t believe what a noise that thing made, setting her heart to pounding so hard she wonders if it will give out on her completely. But she refuses to stand still, to die out here alone, carrion for wild animals. The path back seems so long, she can’t imagine making it all the way to the house, so she turns around, walking backward. That way, she reasons, it won’t seem so far and she can see if the cougar comes back with its mate.
Halfway down the path, June sees Esta, walking with her back turned, like a movie reel rewinding. What on earth is the matter with that woman? Stroke is the first thought that comes to her mind. Esta’s had a stroke and is disoriented. In the split second before her sister turns to face her, June sees herself back in town, back in that house with Tillmon and Amber, no place to go with Esta dead.
Sheba spots her mistress, then springs into a gimpy little trot.
“Sheba, come back here. You’re fixing to make her trip,” June calls. “Sheba, Sheba! Heel.”
Esta turns at the sound of June’s voice, and the presence of an animal leaps into her line of vision. The other one, the cougar, had fled when she’d fired into the bushes, mistaking a sudden loud rustling in the leaves for a prelude to an attack. She isn’t taking any chances now, so she turns around completely, waving the pistol back and forth, holding it with both hands the way she’s seen them do on TV. It’s another cougar, she thinks. This must be its mate, maybe its mother. Just as her finger tightens on the trigger, she hears June’s voice clearly.
“Esta, put that thing down before you hurt somebody.”
I should’ve let her drown, June thinks. The trigger clicks on an empty chamber.
“You were aiming right at me, Esta. You had me right in your crosshairs.”
Esta drops the weapon to the ground, wondering dumbly if a pistol has crosshairs. “I, I was aiming at Sheba, guess I thought she was the cougar. Things looked kind of blurry.”
Sheba, exhausted from the short walk, collapses at Esta’s feet, dust clouds rising from the swish of the long, bedraggled tail.
“A cougar? What cougar?” June asks.
“There was one. A real one, just like you said. I fired at it. Maybe even nicked it. I could’ve been killed and eaten.”
“Are you all right? You didn’t get bitten, did you?” June takes her sister’s thin arm, guiding her back toward the house.
“No, I’m okay. Just got to catch my breath. Did you hear that thing go off? Sounded like a cannon. My ears are still ringing.”
“Guess I wasn’t paying attention, working on a crossword puzzle. I’ll call the sheriff on those folks. We can’t have wild animals running around here.”
Esta pauses for a moment on the front porch to look back at the path disappearing up a slight incline and through a corridor of cedar trees. She sees herself disappearing like the path, just out of reach of her sister. The way Mr. Earl had disappeared, and before him, her son and her first husband.
“You never know,” she says, half to herself, “you just never know. You walk out your front door one day. . . .”
“I know what you mean,” June says, helping her into the house. “I read about this woman in California? She was out in her garden? All of a sudden, this big old black bear jumps out of the bushes and bites her on the head.”
Esta lets June finish the story, but she isn’t hearing the words, just the familiar, comforting sound of her sister’s voice.
“I was thinking,” she says, when the woman in June’s story is finally saved from the jaws of death, rescued by her two large dogs, “why don’t we drive over to Tupelo later on and have lunch at Shoney’s? Maybe do a little shopping afterwards at the Shoe Carnival.”
“You sure you feel up to a road trip after fighting off a cougar?”
“It really wasn’t much of a fight. I expect the thing was half tame anyhow,” Esta says. “But maybe I oughta target practice a little, just in case.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” June says. “Next time, why don’t I go walking with you, and I’ll carry the gun.”
About the author:
Sharon Mauldin Reynolds grew up in Ripley, Mississippi, and now lives and writes in Lexington, Ky. In her previous life she was a teacher and newspaper reporter. A graduate of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, she has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and Kentucky Arts Council. Her short fiction has appeared in Habersham Review, New Southerner, The Southern Humanities Review, SNReview, The MacGuffin, and Underground Voices. She is currently at work on a novel.