BY: Kali VanBaale
The brothers first heard the screaming one morning as they fed calves. The piercing cries echoed from the timber above the dairy farm, a bluff the family had called “Monkey Mountain” since the boys were little. Startled by the sound, Jamie and Eric straightened in unison and turned toward the dark woods.
“What the hell was that?” Jamie’s breath billowed against the flat pink horizon.
“Shh.” Eric frowned.
Seconds passed. A cold gust funneled between the white fiberglass calf huts and swirled late spring snow into Jamie’s face.
Another screech splintered the air. Several calves scrambled to the back of their huts.
“Is that a woman?” Jamie whispered. He shivered inside his winter coveralls.
Eric shook his head. “It’s an animal.”
“What kind of animal sounds like that?”
Eric tossed an empty calf bottle into the back of the utility wagon. “Some kind of big cat. Bobcat, maybe.” He paused. “Or a mountain lion.”
“Bullshit!” Jamie threw an armful of hay into a pen and brushed off the front of his denim coat. “You’re lying.”
“No, I’m not.” Eric cuffed his red nose. “We get ’em here sometimes. A couple dozen in the last twenty years or so. Look it up on the DNR website if you don’t believe me.”
Jamie didn’t need to. He knew his brother was telling the truth. Eric was only eighteen, two years older than Jaime, but he’d always seemed to be some version of a responsible adult. He could’ve picked on Jamie anytime he’d wanted to, but he never did.
Eric pulled another empty bottle from a pen. “We should tell Dad.”
“He’ll want to kill it. Big cats are hunters.” Eric mounted the four-wheeler and started the motor. “Let’s go,” he said. “I got homework to do.”
Jamie straddled the back of the seat, trying to imagine a mountain lion strolling through Iowa hills and pastures, hunting for its dinner, but couldn’t. The idea seemed ridiculous.
Two days later, Eric and Jamie donned their camouflage hunting clothes, loaded their 12-gauge shotguns, and started for Monkey Mountain in search of the animal. Once again, they’d heard the screaming during evening chores, and their father agreed with Eric that it sounded like a big cat. Bobcat or lion, he didn’t care. He wanted it dead before it started picking off livestock or their mother’s beloved dogs.
The boys crossed the frozen Fox Creek, trekked up the snow-dusted bluff, and hiked deep into the trees. Eric was a good shot and had been hunting the timber most of his life, but Jamie didn’t much like hunting and only did it when his father made him during deer season. He’d never killed anything and hated the sound of gun blasts, but sometimes it had to be done, he was often reminded. They needed meat, rabid animals were dangerous, and dying cattle shouldn’t be made to suffer. It was part of farm life, and eventually he would have to accept it like any other necessary chore.
The boys silently entered the section of timber that had spawned the nickname Monkey Mountain—a copse of non-native catalpa trees that had been there since Grandpa Chuck bought the farm in the early thirties. No one knew who planted them. As children, Grandpa Chuck told Jamie and Eric an absurd tale about some circus performer planting the trees to attract monkeys with the catalpa’s long, browned banana-looking seed pods that hung from branches all winter. The boys readily believed their grandfather, and the name Monkey Mountain stuck long after they outgrew the story.
Eric stopped and brushed his gloved fingertips over a short, crooked trunk. “I love it up here,” he said. “This is my favorite place on the farm.”
Jamie rested his gun against his shoulder and plucked a pod from a low branch. He crushed it in his gloved palm. Jamie and Eric had camped amid the trees many times on warm summer nights in a little yellow dome tent. He’d always felt safe here, when it was just the two of them in isolation.
“Do you really think there’s a mountain lion up here?” Jamie asked.
Eric shrugged. “Maybe.” He tilted his head back, staring up into the branches. “I sure wish Grandpa’s story had been true.”
“Which one?” Jamie chuckled.
“That there were monkeys up here. It was always my favorite story.”
“Yeah, that was a good one.” Jamie dropped the pod pieces and switched his gun to the other shoulder. His favorite story from Grandpa Chuck had been his claim that once during a dust storm, he’d witnessed a flock of birds flying backwards to keep from getting dirt in their eyes.
“Are we resting or what?” Jamie asked.
Eric exhaled, sounding tired. “Just for a minute.”
Eric had been up since four for the early milking. He’d milked the morning shift before school for years, and Jamie and their father milked the evening shift. Soon Jamie would take on the evening shift by himself. That was the plan. The brothers would eventually take over the farm in a partnership, accepting the reins from their father.
Jamie’s toes grew cold inside his boots, and he stamped his feet to get some blood flowing. He studied his brother’s profile in the fading light. Maybe it wasn’t fatigue in his face. It was something else. He seemed distracted or worried. Heart harried, their mother called it, whenever Eric became pensive and quiet, as he often did.
An ear-splitting scream spooked the brothers, and Eric reflexively trained his gun in the direction of the sound. Jamie fumbled with his own weapon, struggling to get the safety off and the recoil pad comfortably settled against his shoulder. They waited, fingers on triggers, steel barrels side by side, until another scream tore through the trees.
“God damn,” Jamie whispered, “that sounds like a woman being strangled.”
Eric shifted his weight and leaned forward.
The screaming continued, a demented, painful growl that echoed off the hillsides. A half mile away, maybe less.
“It is a mountain lion,” Eric finally said, his voice low. “Female. She’s in heat.”
Jamie’s muscles strained to hold his gun up, and the end of the barrel wavered. “How do you know for sure?”
“I watched a YouTube video last night.”
Jamie widened his stance for better balance on the uneven terrain.
“Stop moving,” Eric said.
Several minutes passed before another screech echoed, farther away this time.
Eric lowered his barrel. “She’s heading east.”
Jamie looked at his brother. “Will it come back?”
Eric patted Jamie’s shoulder. “Just remember that you’re the one carrying the gun.”
During their second trip into the timber, Eric tracked fresh scat and paw prints in the new snow. The trail led from the creek straight into the heart of Monkey Mountain.
There, the brothers hunkered down in the fallen needles and seed pods, huddling close to a catalpa with fresh claw marks on the trunk.
It was even colder this evening than the previous, and Jamie wished he’d thought to bring a couple of warming packs to stick in his coat pockets. He shivered and clenched his jaw to try to mask the chatter of his teeth.
Eric burrowed down deep into his coveralls until only his eyes were visible over the collar. “This is funny,” he said.
“We’re in Iowa hunting lions in a place we call Monkey Mountain.”
Jamie laughed softly.
Eric yawned and rubbed his face. Last night, after the boys returned from the timber empty handed, Eric and their mother had walked out to the milking parlor where Jamie and their father were finishing up the evening shift. Their mother told Jamie to go into the house so the three could talk, and they stayed out there until nearly midnight. When Eric finally returned to the house, he’d gone straight to bed without a word. The silence had continued through breakfast. Jamie knew better than to ask what was going on and get in the middle of it, but the tension between them had been like a taut wire strung across the room that he could’ve reached out and plucked. Despite not knowing what was up, Jaime felt the ground beneath him become unsteady. It’s how he always felt when Eric seemed unbalanced.
The sun made its final descent below the horizon, basking the fallow fields and barns in a soft orange light.
“The farm looks so small from up here,” Eric said.
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “But I like that you can see it all from one place.” He picked up a stick and scratched at the hard ground. “What’s going on between you and Mom and Dad?”
The timber was quiet but for the occasional rustle of the wind gently rocking the catalpa pods hanging above their heads.
After a pause, Eric said, “I had to break some news to them.”
“What news? You get someone pregnant or something?” He laughed but Eric did not.
“I told them I joined the Marine Corps last week,” he finally said. “A four-year enlistment. I leave for boot camp at the end of August. In California.”
Jamie dropped the stick. He lifted his face to the sky and watched the brown pods sway back and forth.
The Marine Corps.
His throat tightened and he turned away. Eric hardly ever cried. Jamie had only seen it a couple of times in his whole life. Once, when Eric had to put down his old sheep dog, Dolly, and once at their Grandpa Chuck’s funeral. But Jamie choked up all the time it seemed, no matter how hard he tried not to.
“Did you hear what I said?” Eric asked after some time, but Jamie didn’t answer. He kept his gaze high in the canopy, blinking the tears away.
“I signed up ’cause I just want to do something different for a while,” Eric said. “Something on my own.” He kicked at the snow with his boot. “It’s hard to explain. Mom and Dad don’t understand.”
Jamie didn’t understand either. He couldn’t understand why his brother would want to leave this place, their home.
He tried to imagine the house without Eric for four whole years or doing chores every day without him just an arm’s length away to talk to and make the work go faster.
“Are you coming back after you’re done?” Jamie asked.
Eric shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Jamie picked the stick back up and chipped at the ground. “Monkey Mountain is such a stupid name,” he said.
“It’s just a nickname, Jamie.”
“Well, it’s a stupid nickname.”
As Eric opened his mouth to respond, a screech echoed over the bluff just above them, and the boys scrambled to their feet. It was close.
Eric lifted his gun to his shoulder and silently motioned to the top of the bluff. He tapped Jamie’s chest and pointed right, then tapped his own and pointed left. Jamie nodded, and the boys split up.
Jamie made his way up the western side of the steep hill, taking slow, silent steps. His shoulders and biceps began to burn. Tiny flakes of snow drifted through the trees dotting his face, making his skin itch. Another screech, this one even closer. His heart hammered in his chest. He stopped and fumbled with the rifle to double check that he’d taken off the safety, that it was, indeed, loaded.
He hadn’t fired it in months, since the last time Eric took him target practicing. Had he cleaned and oiled it after the last time? He couldn’t remember. Maybe he did oil it. But maybe he oiled it too much and the gun would jam if he tried to fire it. Maybe he would shoot more accurately with his gloves off. He bit the tips and pulled his hands free, leaving the gloves where they landed on the ground.
Just as he repositioned the stock against his shoulder, his peripheral vision caught a sliver of movement. Jamie turned his head toward the bluff, and there she was. Ten, maybe twelve feet away. She stared back at him, perfectly still, poised with one front leg bent, ready to pounce. She was beautiful with a light cinnamon-colored coat, dark-tipped ears, and black-lined eyes. So much bigger than he’d imagined.
Monkey Mountain was quiet. Jamie and the lion remained locked in a staring contest, like he and Eric used to play when they were kids.
Jamie pressed his cheek against the cold stock and squeezed his left eye shut, sighting with his right. His index finger curled around the trigger.
Shoot it! Jamie’s mind screamed at him. Just shoot it!
The lion lowered her paw to the ground and took a few steps backward. Maybe she was retreating. If she turned and ran, he wouldn’t have to fire at her.
But in a blurry motion, the lion launched from the top of the bluff straight at him. Jamie cried out and squeezed the trigger. One, two, three times, the violent punch of the butt slamming his shoulder with each shot. The lion screeched and hit the ground hard, front legs buckling, her face plowing into the fresh snow. She tried to stand, staggered sideways, then collapsed with a thud.
Jamie lowered the gun barrel, his ears ringing. Acrid smoke drifted into his face and clogged his nostrils. The lion lay just a few feet in front of him on her side, unmoving. He waited until her shallow breaths ceased and took a step toward her. Her glassy eyes were fixed on nothing.
Two small red circles dotted the left side of her neck.
He kneeled next to her and laid his bare hand on her warm belly, stroking her coarse hair.
Footsteps pounded down the hill above him.
“Jamie!” Eric shouted, panting. “Jamie!”
Eric halted, mouth agape, when he saw Jamie and the prone animal. He crouched next to Jamie and lay his shotgun down on the ground.
“I got her,” Jamie said quietly.
The snow fell thicker now, covering everything in a smooth white blanket. Jamie lifted his face to the sky and let the cold flakes gather on his eyelashes. He loved it here, too.
Tears streamed down Eric’s ruddy cheeks. “You did it,” he said.
Jamie gave a small smile.
“Sometimes it has to be done,” he said. For once, he didn’t feel like crying.
Kali VanBaale is the author of the novels The Good Divide and The Space Between. She’s the recipient of an American Book Award, and Eric Hoffer Book Award, an Independent Publisher’s silver medal, and is represented by Dunow, Carlson & Lerner for a third and fourth novel. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, The Chaffey Review, Nowhere Magazine and others, and she’s the assistant editor of the essay series Past Ten. Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a faculty member of the Lindenwood University MFA Creative Writing Program. She lives in Iowa with her family. www.kalivanbaale.com