By Barb Howard
Sure, there was an element of surprise when Bigfoot gently plucked Josie off her bike and enveloped her in his arms. But she didn’t feel fear. She felt a hug, really. A hug with just enough squeeze, just enough warmth. The hair on Bigfoot’s arms and torso was as soft as an angora comforter. And right away Josie liked the smell of him. He smelled a bit like popcorn – the way a dog’s paws often do.
Bigfoot held her for a moment, then he set her on the ground. Josie stood there, a little wobbly, missing the hug, while Bigfoot retrieved her bike, which had rolled down the trail a short distance, and carried it back to her. After giving her the bike he held out his huge paw-hands as if to say “sorry, sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” Then he backed off the trail into the bush. He gave Josie a short wave, turned, and walked deeper into the forest.
Josie looked at the trail ahead of her, the same trail she road every day after dinner, the haze of dusk beginning to settle on it. She thought of her house, full of good memories but empty of people, waiting for her at the end of the ride. Then she thought of Bigfoot’s hug. She pushed her bike off the trail and into the trough of flattened bushes. Bigfoot was easy to track.
Before the Bigfoot hug, Josie had been biking a section of narrow single track, a few tight banked corners, the trail dotted with yellowing poplar leaves. And she’d been riding hard, ignoring that slow leak in her front tire, trying to keep up enough speed so she didn’t know if her eyes watered from wind or weeping. Or if her nose ran from adrenalin or crying. Pedaling was a release from the hollowness that had been inside her for months — since her kids left, the two of them, best buds, leaving together in a blur of duffle bags, idealism and brotherly trash talking, for college in the north. The older one had stayed home to work and wait for the younger one to finish school. And now they were off. Josie knew that this was good. Her kids had grown up, reached adulthood. She knew that they were a lucky family living the dream, that things could not have turned out any better. But still. She missed them in such an embarrassing pathetic fashion that she could not voice it aloud. She was ashamed to be that woman who, after they left, plugged in their weird dubstep music and sat at the kitchen table and cried as she rolled up the extra placemats – and yes, that woman who any onlooker would look upon and say, oh for God’s sake, first world problem, suck it up.
And then, as if the kids leaving wasn’t enough, there was the dog. Josie had counted on the dog as a companion for at least another year. He was old and smelled like canned tuna. After waking up from a nap he would seem shocked that that he’d left a tiny pee puddle on the floor. His death wasn’t a grim tragedy, just another natural trajectory. But still. The dog’s death, like the kids leaving, surprised Josie. Even though it shouldn’t have. The dog had wrapped himself around the wheeled legs of her chair every morning while she worked—which may have shown, as the kids said, that the dog did not have a vestige of animal survival instincts – but it made Josie feel grounded to have him there weighing down her chair. Somehow it even made Josie feel like her work mattered – like she should keep at it, because if she stopped suddenly and stood up she might roll over, and crush the dog’s tail or thin legs.
And then there was Josie’s husband. Well. No hanging out with a weepy wife for him. He had animal survival instincts. He moved right in with his own Bigfoot. Young Stiletto-foot from the office. Such a cliché that Josie should have seen it coming. Good riddance. Still. Her husband was good at making omelets and doing laundry. His footsteps and sports radio and overlong showers had taken away some of the unwanted, unbroken hush in the house.
Josie caught up with Bigfoot at a backwoods pond – an oasis of thick moss and purple fleabane. Bigfoot was at the edge of the pond pulling bulrushes. Josie sat on the ground near him and wrapped her arms around her knees. She watched Bigfoot working, and she listened as the crickets began their evening chorus, and she tried to think of a reason why she should go home. As night fell she stretched out on the ground, used her knapsack as a pillow. Bigfoot left the pond, a stack of bulrushes under one arm. When he walked by Josie he stooped to cover her with a moss blanket. Before she closed her eyes, Josie watched Bigfoot crawl under a fir tree, eat the bulrushes, and then curl up to sleep.
The next morning, Bigfoot used his paw-hands to indicate that Josie could travel with him if she wanted. Josie nodded, and they were on the move together. Bigfoot never threatened or restrained Josie. She could leave anytime. He carried her bike over his shoulder, but he wasn’t keeping it from her. He carefully buckled her helmet onto the crossbar, and when they rested or camped at night he leaned the bike against a tree or laid it on the ground, gear side up, always protecting the derailleur, almost as though he knew it was a fragile part. Josie was thankful that Bigfoot carried her bike. The terrain they travelled, through the thickest brush and hidden creek-sides of the foothills, was mostly unrideable. And there was that slow leak in her front tire. Josie knew the more she rode the bike the more likely the tire would go fully flat. She should have fixed the problem ages ago by changing the tube but, instead, she had dealt with it by topping up the air before every ride. She carried a backpack of supplies, but during the summer she had used up all her spare tubes and inflation cartridges and not bought more. Small tasks, like buying tubes and cartridges, had started to become insurmountable.
Josie knew the region that she and Bigfoot travelled. She had biked the area for decades, although until now she had no idea of the extent of the lush world beyond the trails. Sometimes Bigfoot led Josie to the edge of the trails, where they laid on their bellies and peered through the red alder and tall grass at the bikers. Many of those bikers were people that Josie recognized. Neighbours, cycling colleagues, the local plumber, the woman with braids who taught her kids biology in high school. People she might have waved to, or talked about the weather with, if she was riding on the trail, but no friends. She had a few true friends, she’d thought about calling them about this ache caused by the exodus of her household, but how would she start? How could she not be embarrassed by problems that would seem so everyday, so not problems, to the rest of the world? So, instead of talking, she biked. A lot.
Josie offered Bigfoot the dried apricots that she carried in her backpack. He declined, gestured that she should eat them all herself. After the apricots were gone, Josie ate bulrushes with Bigfoot. In her youth, once, at summer camp, Josie ate bulrushes after they’d been roasted over a fire. With Bigfoot she ate them raw. Day after day. The bulrushes, even the ones that had started to go to seed, were not that different from camp food. Not that different from the bagged salads and toast she’d been eating every night at home.
Bigfoot ate slowly, usually in silence. He didn’t respond to questions, but he could mimic. He made crow calls, and the squeal of bicycle disc brakes, and the sound of water rushing over rocks. He made Josie laugh by puffing out his huge auburn chest and muttering small words he overheard from bikers on the trail. Nice. Dude. Wow.
Bigfoot said wow a lot.
At night, after the first night, Bigfoot and Josie spooned. Bigfoot draped his arm over Josie’s body, crushing her a little, but in a cozy, companionable way. The weight of his arm squeezed out the empty space that had been overwhelming her. At home, sometimes she woke and realized she had been crying in her sleep, her eyes feeling wet and raw and unrested. It happened the first few nights with Bigfoot – and in the morning, when she wiped the dried salt tracks from her face, Bigfoot would put his paw-hand on her shoulder and nod in a way that seemed to say yes, that’s okay, let it out.
After those first few nights she slept soundly beside Bigfoot. Deep restorative sleeps without tears.
One morning, Bigfoot got up earlier than usual from the low grassy nest where they slept. Josie watched him walk towards the creek, his arms swinging low and easily, his head nodding slightly side to side, as though he was listening to, or full of, music. He stopped, tilted his head and looked skyward, at a formation of geese flying across the indigo dawn. Josie watched his shoulders rise and fall with each breath. She heard him say wow. After a few moments, he dropped his gaze and continued ambling to the creek.
Josie sat up. She noticed the frost on the surrounding rye grass and fescue. Not the light frost that had appeared a few mornings ago. But a thick, hard frost that wouldn’t burn off until midday. Josie wore all the spare clothes she carried in her knapsack. Her fleece, her bike tights and toque. She wasn’t cold, Bigfoot’s warmth lingered in the nest, but she felt the seasonal change in the air.
Bigfoot returned with Josie’s water bottle, filled with creek water. He handed it to her and, sitting on his haunches, watched patiently while she drank. Then Bigfoot got her bike. Rather than carry it on his shoulder, he rolled it towards her. He patted the seat. She knew he was telling her that it was time for her to go home.
Josie gave the front tire a light squeeze. The slow leak had not yet completely deflated the tube. Somehow it had held on. There was enough air to start riding. Bigfoot undid the helmet from the crossbar and handed it to Josie. She snugged the helmet onto her head, buckled the chin strap. Then Bigfoot pointed to the trail on the other side of the bushes.
Josie pushed her bike out of the brush and onto the familiar stretch of single track. Bigfoot walked beside her. She straddled the bike and tried to smile at him. Bigfoot placed his hand on her lower back. Then, ever so softly, he gave her a tiny push. The bike began to roll and Josie began to pedal and work the shifters, the derailleur smoothly guiding the chain to the next gear.
At the first hill Josie rose out of the seat, put all her weight onto the pedals, forced the bike to keep rolling upward. She thought of her kids, her dog, her husband. In that order. Near the top of the hill she thought of herself. Yes, she was going to be alright. And as she crested the hill and saw the full expanse of sky meeting the foothills, and took in the deepening golds and reds of autumn, she felt a hint of joy rising in her heart. And she thought of Bigfoot. Wow.
Barb Howard is the author of 3 novels and the short story collection Western Taxidermy. She is a 4-time nominee at the Alberta Literary Awards, a winner of the Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story, and a winner of the CAA (Alberta Branch) Exporting Alberta Award. Basically, she’s won some stuff, but none of the big stuff.