“Malheur Refuge” by Rick Attig

Late at night, Lee sits on his unmade bed with a tumbler of melted ice and looks through a gap in the window blinds, searching the darkness for the flash of headlights. He’s still in his sweat-stained uniform, the patch with a leaping salmon and a fleeing duck high on the shoulder of his khaki shirt. Mia told him she was going to a dance with her new boyfriend, then maybe out to grab a burger afterward. She was supposed to be home by midnight, but now it’s almost one-thirty. Lee’s called twice and sent three texts. She’s not answering.

This one’s name is Brock. He looks at least eighteen, three years older than Mia. They’re always older, the boys who whoop and swoop around her like hungry crows. Brock was a starting tackle until he got caught sucking on a bong in the school parking lot and kicked off the team. Now he’s just another ranch kid fast going to seed. He came to pick Mia up in drooping jeans and a black t-shirt stretched over a promising beer gut and breasts bigger than hers.

Lee’s cracked the bedroom window to listen for the crunch of tires on gravel, but the only sound is the low, anxious chatter of a flock of weary Canada geese resting in the flooded pasture behind the house. Sitting there, he feels a sudden gust of fear, like a skier hesitating at the top of a steep slope in the late afternoon shadows, thinking how absurd it would be to fall and blow out a knee on the day’s final run. This is his last night as her foster father. She’s leaving tomorrow afternoon, moving, being moved, across a hundred and thirty miles of sagebrush to a new foster home in Redmond. It’s not her choice, or his. Their old farmhouse on the edge of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where Mia lived with him and his wife, Joni, for the past two years, no longer is a “suitable placement,” according to her caseworker. Two weeks ago Joni left him, taking only clothes, a few pictures, and a box of favorite books, like she was fleeing from a wildfire. Mia wanted to stay with him, but her caseworker nixed that idea. Hovering in the hall outside the kitchen he eavesdropped on that conversation and replays it again and again, Mia pleading, insisting she would be safe there, safe with him, the caseworker’s voice firm: “Honey, you know we can’t take that risk.”

Lee should have burst into the kitchen right then and fought for her. He knows how hard another move will be, another house of strangers, another new school, all those kids staring, sizing her up, sniffing for weakness. But he also knows how it would sound, how it would look: a forty-four-year-old man whose wife has just run off arguing that this girl who has been hurt so many times before ought to be left alone with him way the hell out in the middle of nowhere.

Staring out into the darkness, his worry tipping toward panic, he’s ready to call the sheriff’s office and ask about accidents, at least get them looking, but he can’t remember the color of Brock’s pickup. Blue? Green? Damn it, he watched her follow the stupid lout across the sunburned lawn and climb into his truck, her face a blur behind the dusty windshield, but now he can’t recall anything about it. She and Brock are probably parked out in the marsh somewhere, Mia shoved up against the side door, the cold chrome handle digging into her bare back, the beefy kid yanking at her pants. He can’t stop thinking about all that weight on top of her.

The geese take flight then, hundreds of birds bursting all at once into the night sky, alarm calls wailing. The flock wheels low back over the house, confused and crying in the darkness. He figures a coyote or a wandering dog has spooked them, but then a stick figure jogs up the driveway. His exhale leaves a circle of fog on the window. Mia bends at the waist, hands against her hips, catching her breath. What’s she carrying? He leans closer and feels the cold blinds against his forehead. Her heels. She has run home in her bare feet.

She hates it when he meets her at the door, and he forces himself to hold still behind the blinds. He’s got sharp eyes, all that field work, and when she pauses on the porch and glances up at the sobbing geese, he sees the swollen lower lip, the smeared mascara, the two-inch-long rip in the neck of her lime sweater. He’s on his feet then, rushing down the hall, but she’s waiting in the foyer, braced, hiding behind her fierce smile. She is so much quicker than him.

“Little past your bedtime, isn’t it Mr. S?” She calls him Mr. Science, or Mr. S., another way of keeping him at a distance. Never Lee or Mr. Taylor. Never Dad.

“Mia, where have you been? What happened?”

“Sorry I’m late. It’ll be the last time, Mr. S. I promise.”

He’s learned that it’s safer to ignore her sarcasm. “Why didn’t Brock bring you home?”

Mia glances down at the heels in her hand. “I needed some air.” She looks over his shoulder down the hall, like she’s measuring the distance to her bedroom. He’s locked on that swollen lip, that ripped sweater. He can’t just let it go, let her go. Any father, any half decent guardian, would do something.

“Mia, did he hurt you?”

Her right hand flies to her bruised mouth, but she lets it fall just as quickly. She meets his gaze before looking away. “Nope, just an accident, Mr. S. Got a little crazy out there on the dance floor. I’m fine. See you in the morning.”

When she goes by him in the narrow hallway, he doesn’t dare try to stop her. He has touched her only one time, a week earlier, when she told him she wasn’t moving to Seattle with Joni, that she wanted to stay at Malheur with him. He was so surprised and happy that he pulled her into an awkward hug. Mia kept her arms at her sides, her body tense and rigid. Afterward he thought, I shouldn’t have done that.

“Mia, wait,” he says.

She stops in front of her bedroom door, and looks back at him. Her cropped black hair is plastered with sweat. “It’s too late, Mr. S.”

“No, it’s not. I can help you.”

He’s never seen her cry. She gives him a hard smile.

“I don’t think so, Mr. S. This isn’t your field.”

She shuts the door and he’s left in the hall remembering another door closing in his face. Joni had wanted to talk about their dying marriage and he’d driven her out to Sod House Lane and parked by a field of wheat stubble dotted with whistler swans. It was nearly dusk, and a pair of cinnamon teal, chocolate heads and dark eyes aglow in the fading light, floated in the ditch. Two stilts stalked the shallows on long red legs. Joni caught him studying the birds. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Lee,” she said, bursting out of the truck like she was suffocating. When she slammed the door the swans flushed. They looked like white flags going up in the dark sky.

Next morning, Mia comes into the kitchen in baggy gray sweats while Lee’s hunched over a bowl of soggy Cheerios and an Audubon magazine open to a picture of a golden eagle flying low over a flock of nervous mallards, searching for cripples. He tries to sneak a glance at her lip, but she catches him. In the light of day it looks worse, a scab split in half, leaking a thin line of blood. He’s ashamed of his first thought: What will the caseworker say? He’s been mentally rehearsing a morning greeting for the past hour, coughing from anxiety, the cereal churning in his gut.

“You OK?” he asks.

“I’m fine.” She gets her bowl and pulls out the chair across from him. At breakfast they always read: he scans a newspaper, magazines, field reports; she taps on her phone. He wonders if Brock has messaged her, wonders if she has told any of her friends what happened, but he knows better than to ask. She eats without looking up from her phone. He neglects to turn the page on the eagle. Every sound is magnified: the crunch of cereal, the tick of the furnace, the thud of wind against the exposed south side of the house. He can’t keep quiet any longer.

“Want to band some baby sandhills today?”

She glances up from her phone. Of course, she sees right through him, his feeble bribery. Banding is one of her favorite things, following him through the high grass and tules, helping find and capture the clumsy six-week-old cranes, all big feet, oversized eyes, and fuzzy down a shade lighter than a copper penny.

“I have to pack,” Mia says.

His heart strums. Everything she owns will fit into the new suitcase and duffle bag he bought for her online. Like Joni, she could be ready to leave in no time.

“We’d only be out a couple hours,” he says.

He knows not to lean on her; at the slightest pressure she’ll shove right back. He knows almost nothing about her past, what she has been through. He and Joni were instructed never to ask; the caseworker only dropped hints. But once, when he and Mia were riding through the marsh, he asked how many foster homes she had lived in, and she counted them off, her voice distant, like she was telling someone else’s story, hesitating at five, and again at nine, before going on. She stopped at nineteen: the farmhouse on the edge of Malheur.

She is always gentle with the crane chicks, tucking them against her fleece jacket, stroking them, whispering, the parent birds circling overhead and calling anxiously, while he takes a blood sample and attaches the metal band, down low on the right ankle, loose enough so that it won’t constrict even as the eight-inch chick grows into a four-foot-tall adult crane. He logs the data while she gives the chick a kiss on the top of its head, carefully sets it back in the grass, and watches it stagger away.

She finally sets down her phone. “OK, Mr. S., I’ll bite. Just give me a minute.”

He waits by the passenger side of the muddy truck, and when she comes out he notices she hasn’t put on makeup, not even the heavy eye shadow she knows that he detests. She’s driving. She’s two months from sixteen, when she can get her license. Oregon law requires a minor to complete a hundred and fifty hours behind the wheel with an adult before she can apply for a license. She logs her hours on a sheet of paper pinned to the fridge. He checked it that morning: One hundred thirty hours done, twenty to go. They won’t have enough time.

She climbs into the pickup and adjusts the mirrors. The bench seat is stubborn and they both have to shift their hips at the same time to move it forward. He suggests they go out to the Buena Vista ponds and settles back on the vinyl seat as she pulls onto Route 205, headed south, the narrow two-lane road empty, but the sky thick with oncoming traffic, flocks of migrating ducks and geese in ragged V-formations. She drives with only her left hand on the wheel, barely bothering to hold on, her bright blue nails chipped and chewed to the quick. He searches the potholes, the swaying tules, the weedy fencerows, for something to say, but all he sees are shorebirds springing from ditches and hawks glaring from atop twisted juniper posts. He automatically registers the species as they pass; for him every ride through the marsh is like riffling the pages of a bird guide: a blur of avocets, willets, coots, rails, terns, cormorants, grebes, and ducks.

This is his field, but what does he know? Everything that flashes past seems ugly, inappropriate. That sweet pair of pintails canoodling in the ditch reminds him that female ducks sometimes drown while trying to escape from aggressive males. All those cute warbler chicks packed into a nest in that big cottonwood almost certainly have multiple fathers, not just the male bird dutifully tending the nest. Humans are not the only species that fucks and flies away.

He coughs, clearing his throat, and feels her straighten next to him. No matter how careful he is, how lightly he treads, there is no sneaking up on her; she always senses he is coming.

“Want to talk a few minutes?” he asks.

She smiles without looking at him. “Not really.”

“Come on, Mia.”

“All right, Mr. S. Seen any willow flycatchers lately?”

It catches him by surprise, his sudden anger. He twists toward her, the seatbelt grabbing his chest. “Did you even go to the dance?”

She won’t look at him. “Turns out Brock’s not really a dancer.”

He knows she dances alone in her room, the door always closed. He pauses in the hall outside and listens, the thump of the bass, the swish of her gliding across the slick hardwood in her socks. He’s never knocked, never interrupted. “Why do you go out with guys like that anyway?”

She’s gripping the wheel with both hands now. “Like what?”

“Older guys,” he says. “Shitheads.”

She doesn’t answer, but he feels the truck pick up speed, the wind whining through a cracked seal in his side window. He wishes he could take his words back, start over, start fresh. Sitting side by side, shoulder to shoulder like this, sometimes they can carry on an actual conversation. It’s when they face one another, when he can see the pain in her eyes, she the doubt in his, that he stammers and stumbles, she smiles and shuts up.

“Slow down, Mia,” he says.

She backs off the gas pedal, a little. “So Mr. S., you can always tell?”

“Tell what?”

“Who’s a shithead.”

“Somebody like Brock, yeah.”

She glances over at him. “So you can just look at somebody and tell whether they might hurt you?”

He shifts in his seat. It feels like a capture net is sailing through the air toward him. “I didn’t mean that.”

“What did you mean?”

“Just that usually you can tell whether someone is right for you.”

She looks over and smiles, and he feels the heavy netting settle over his shoulders. “Like you and Joni.”

He’s used to her jabs, but this one strikes an exposed nerve. “Jesus, Mia.” His first instinct is to fling something hurtful back at her, but he catches himself. Instead, he cranks down his window and cool air gushes in. For a mile, maybe two, neither of them speaks. She steers around a flattened rattlesnake that had crawled out past the fog line to sun itself on the warm asphalt. He glimpses the raw, meaty tip of the coiled carcass; someone has already stopped and sliced off the rattle.

She finally says, “I’m sorry, Mr. S. That was cold.”

“It was. But you’re right. I guess we aren’t the best role models.”

He and Joni were newlyweds fresh out of college when he joined the Fish and Wildlife Service. He promised Joni that Malheur would be a brief stop on a flyway of a marriage that would soon lead north to the lush urban habitat of Portland or Seattle. They arrived in May, when Malheur wore a big smile, snow melt gushing down rivers with sweet names, the Donner and Blitzen. The place was hiding its cruel side, just as it seduced the French-Canadian trappers who arrived two hundred years before, piling up pelts and living the dream until fall, when the skies filled with fleeing birds and the cold opened cracks in the alkali soil. The trappers who survived the brutal winter gave the basin its French name: Malheur, or misfortune. Joni didn’t know French; she called it a shit hole.

Joni wanted to start a family, and they tried and tried, even coupling in a muddy blind, slapping at bugs, ridiculed by a yellow-winged blackbird teetering on a fuzzy cattail. Nothing. Joni started a calendar, obsessively tracking her cycle. That spring the marsh was alive with chicks that tittered and taunted them, their own nest under the cottonwoods as barren as the cracked clay. Joni couldn’t stand any more Malheur. She begged him to put in for a transfer, accept a desk job, quit the wildlife service, please, honey, she said, let’s just get the hell out of here. He did the paperwork, but was told that budget cuts had locked down the agency.

One night he came home to a dark house and found Joni filling out a questionnaire for the Children’s Services Division. She was ordering a foster child. Nine weeks later, a skinny, long-limbed girl came up the steps wearing a fixed smile and lugging a garbage bag that held everything she owned. Joni gave Mia a hug, took her sack and handed it to him.

Here he is, still holding the bag. Mia has the truck up to seventy again and they’re sailing deeper into the loneliest corner of Oregon, only a few dozen miles from both Nevada and Idaho. A coyote stalking mice in a field of foot-high weeds looks up as they rocket past. They go by a row of red-winged blackbirds preening on a strand of barbed wire, and a white-faced ibis slowly two-stepping with its elongated shadow in another flooded pasture. Chevrons of geese fly high overhead in loose formations, leaders bucking the headwinds and then falling back, the flocks constantly forming and reforming. He’s wondering exactly how they decide which goose will take the lead when Mia interrupts.

“Where do they go, Mr. S?”

“Those geese?”

“No, the chicks we band. The baby cranes.”

“All over.” He’s cautious, fearful she is leading him into another trap.

“Like where?’

“Some of them winter in Mexico and Southern Texas. They’ve found our birds in Canada, Michigan, all around the Great Lakes. Cranes can easily fly hundreds of miles a day. They cover some ground.”

He has banded hundreds of birds. He never has told anyone this, but when he places the chicks back on their nests or watches them hop away into the tall grass, he hopes never to hear of them again, even though the whole point is to learn where they go, where they feed and nest, and how and when they die.

She says, “How do you track them?”

“We don’t, really. All we know is when someone brings in a band.” The reports trickle in every week in terse e-mails from field offices all over North America: A hunter dropped off a handful of bands; a hiker noticed a glint of metal in a bloody mound of feathers; a rancher found an electrocuted bird under power lines.

“You mean all you really know is where they die.”

He’s never lied to her, never implied that every one of those chicks that she holds in her hands lives happily ever after. But he has never told her about the emails, either. He’s always wanted those young cranes to roam wild in her imagination, just as they do in his, soaring two miles high in the sky, coming back to Malheur each spring, landing in the same meadows, dancing in the same soft alfalfa.

She looks over at him, the fresh scab on the tip of her curled lip. “Ignorance is bliss, huh Mr. S?”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“What would you say?”

“How about no news is good news?”

“Mr. Science knows better than that.”

Moments later, she slows to make the turn into the rutted dirt road that leads to the Buena Vista ponds. The tires throw off clumps of mud that thump thump thump against the truck’s undercarriage like drumming wings. A flock of white pelicans, wings spread wide, floats in a line over the tules that surround the marshy ponds. Wigeons and gadwalls jump from the flooded ditches on both sides of the narrow road. The track dead-ends about a quarter mile from the ponds.

“Go ahead and turn around,” he says.

She backs up, but he’s thinking about the distant bark of shotguns, cranes folding up in the sky, dust flying when they smash to the ground, and he’s not watching, not helping, and she goes too far. The left rear wheel plunges into the ditch.

“Oh, shit!” she says.

“It’s OK. Give it some gas. Maybe it’ll pop back out.”

She guns the truck, but the wheel just spins, hurling a sheet of muddy water behind them. The truck settles deeper.

“Hold it.” He throws open the door and the high desert wind slaps his face. She meets him at the back of the pickup. They’re stuck, water up to the axle, fifty-five miles from home, thirty miles from the nearest refuge office. They both have phones, but it’s Saturday, the office is closed, and he hates to bother anyone on their day off.

“Should I call Brock?” she says.

“What? Jesus Christ.”

“Kidding, Mr. S.”

In spite of the mess they’re in, he wants to freeze this moment, her hoot of laughter, the wind whipping across the marsh, the bullfrogs bellowing from the ponds. But he checks his watch and just that fast the moment is gone; the caseworker is coming for her in less than three hours. He yanks a shovel from the back of the truck and tries digging a trench to give the wheel a way out, but the mud rolls up with a loud squish and water spills eagerly into the new opening. He hurls a shovel-full of muck across the grass.

“We have to drain the ditch.” He sends her to fetch his keys from the ignition and then leads her up a narrow path churned with mule deer tracks. At the head of the ditch where it intersects with a network of irrigation canals he finds the water works, removes a padlock, and spins the rusted wheel until the steel headgate swings closed.

“Now what?” she asks.

“Now we wait.”

They wander back to the pickup, he drops the tailgate, and they sit shoulder to shoulder, careful not to touch, legs dangling over the ditch. He hears the whirring sound of a diving snipe and the liquid notes of a meadowlark. The wind is dying down, and the sky fills with birds taking advantage of the sudden calm to head north. A huge vee of cackling geese, hundreds of birds, soars high overhead. Smaller flocks of ducks scoot past them. Two snowy egrets, long legs stretched behind them, join the busy flights.

“Everybody’s leaving,” she says. “Everybody but you, Mr. S.”

“That’s OK.”

“You gonna be all right here, all alone? Just you and your birds?”

Yes, no, maybe, he thinks. He says, “I’ll be fine.”

“I can’t go where I want until I’m eighteen. What’s keeping you here?”

“You wanted to stay here, too, remember.” Joni tried to coax Mia to Seattle, talking it up like a real-estate agent: nice weather, restaurants, coffee shops, movies, concerts. A fresh start for them both, Joni promised. No more Malheur. He assumed Mia would go, leap at the chance to move to the city, but he feared for her, that streaked hair, and mocking smile, lost in a big Seattle public school, twenty-five hundred kids. He couldn’t imagine her at Starbucks or strolling with a friend at Nordstrom.

“I never said I wanted to stay here,” she says. “I didn’t want to go with her.”

“I know the feeling.”

They both laugh, and for a moment he thinks everything will be all right, this day, this girl, this life at Malheur. He closes his eyes, listening to another track of his favorite music, the laughing trill of a pine warbler, the throaty backbeat of a black-capped chickadee, the yelps of the migrating geese.

Then she interrupts. “Joni said you’re just like that dove.”

He opens his eyes. “What?”

“You know, that dove that wouldn’t leave.”

Last November a mourning dove showed up on a feeder in front of the kitchen window, and stayed even as the marsh began to ice up. He ordered Joni and Mia to stop feeding the bird, explaining that it needed to get on with its migration, get out of Malheur. “Don’t we all,” Joni said. She kept piling on the black sunflower seeds, and the dove clung to the feeder, feathers fluffed against the cold. One morning he found its stiff carcass on the ground amongst the litter of sunflower shells. He chucked it out into the pasture for the turkey vultures, went in, and told Joni that the dove was gone, that it must have finally flown south. He thought she believed him, but later that night, doing the dishes, he saw tears in her eyes.

“Joni’s just pissed at me.” But he sees the frozen carcass of the dove arcing through the winter fog, and the tailgate is suddenly hard beneath his butt. He hops off, grabs the shovel, and stabs at the muddy bank in front of the sunken wheel. There are only a few inches of water left in the ditch. He digs fast, puffing, flinging the soil across the grass. The slippery mud is everywhere, greasing the handle of the shovel, speckling his face, sticking to his hair.

“Mr. S.”

Her voice is a whisper, for a split second he’s not sure she actually spoke, but he looks up, follows her gaze, and sees a pair of sandhill cranes coming in low over the tules, gliding on seven-foot wingspans. The birds extend their long legs, slowing their approach, and settle in a meadow on the opposite side of the ditch.

The larger of the cranes, a male, picks up a feather in its heavy black beak, tosses it high in the air. Lee wants to whisper in Mia’s ear, tell her what she’s seeing, that this is an invitation to dance. But he is ankle deep in muck, and if he moves he will spook the birds, ruin the moment.

As the feather floats to the ground, the second crane, a young female, its gray flight feathers still tinged with brown, rips up a clump of grass and tosses it over its head. The male stabs again at the ground, snatching up a stick, and leaps backwards, shaking the stick in its beak. They are so close he can see the reddish, iron-stained mud they have daubed on their necks and faces, painted themselves.

The male spreads its wings wide and high-steps forward, legs straight from knee to toe, like a soldier in a ceremonial march. The female flares its wings and jumps up and down on stiff legs. The birds begin to circle each other, doing a minuet, moving slowly at first, gracefully, going around and around one another. After a few circles, the female seems to lose interest, breaks the minuet, and wanders away, wings drooping, leaving the male, tall and rigid, alone in the center of the meadow.

He glances back and sees Mia’s eyes locked on the female. The crane seems disinterested now, pecking idly at bugs. Suddenly, it raises its head and charges across the meadow in front of the male, flapping its wings, gliding above the grass. The male throws back its head, its long neck arched, its heavy bill aimed skyward, and gives a deep, trumpeting call. The female raises its head and answers with a higher pitched call. The marsh falls silent for a few seconds. And then the male trumpets again, and the female chimes in. It’s the unison call, a ritual of mating cranes all over the world. As the calls fade away, the birds leap again and again.

He has shown her dancing cranes before, but never this close, this beautiful. He desperately hopes that she sees the dignity and respect in this dance that cranes have taught one another for thousands of years. This moment, this scene, is why people revere cranes, why they are symbols of fidelity and loyalty. He won’t tell her the whole truth: It’s not really love, it’s pair bonding. Cranes mate for life only if they successfully breed. If their nests fail, the birds go their own way. So long.

He hears her quietly slide off the tailgate and move to the edge of the ditch. Standing right above him, she whispers, “See it, Mr. S?”

He glances up at her. “Aren’t they something?”

“She is. I’m thinking he’s a shithead.”

Her careless cynicism sends a wave of despair sloshing over him. It’s too late. He can’t touch her; not even this can touch her. Never mind the new suitcase. He is sending her off with nothing more than she came with.

Then one of her hands lands softly on his shoulder. “Not him, Mr. S.” she whispers. “Look at her.”

He stands in the mud watching the young crane dance across the green alfalfa. He doesn’t see, doesn’t understand, until it leaps into the air, he hears her laugh, and there it is, low on its right leg, a flash of metal, a band.

Rick Attig is a Portland essayist, fiction writer, and journalist. He was a senior writer on the Editorial Board of The Oregonian, where he was honored with the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for his work that led directly to dramatic reforms of Oregon’s troubled mental health system. He also shared the 2001 Pulitzer for Public Service for his writing on abuses in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon and an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. He was a 2008 Knight Fellow in journalism at Stanford University. His essays and short stories have appeared in Timberline Review, Carve, and other anthologies and magazines. In 2015 he was inducted into the UO School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement. His wife, Courtenay Thompson, is also a writer and editor. He has two sons, Mitchell, 27, and Will, 14.


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