Once Upon a Time in Montana

Once Upon a Time in Montana

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.

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