Sometimes Pa’s cover is so deep that he forgets that he’s an agent.
He’ll be cleaning and greasing the traps—the little traps, the big traps, and that one great-jawed iron trap sound enough to catch a bear.
Or he’ll be sitting by the fire, playing his fiddle through the long winter evening.
And he’ll remember.
This isn’t your life. This isn’t who you really are.
It’ll make him startle, and he’ll almost drop the traps. And if he’s playing the fiddle, then he’s sure to miss a note.
But it’s worst when he’s out in the woods in the silence of the trees.
When he’s out there and the trees are carrying their backpacks of snow and pointing their knives of ice at him; when the wind goes still and there’s only a distant, staccato rustling in the woods; when there’s frost on his moustaches and beard and he’s hunting out in the emptiness of it and the silence of the trees, and he remembers.
You are not this Pa.
And if it weren’t so cold that his eyes would freeze, he’d cry from it.
And if it weren’t that he knew there was a warm house for him, back that way, when he was done with his hunting and his chopping and his gathering of things—
When he was done, though he did not say this consciously to himself, with the great sweeping child-net of his patrol—
Then he would probably just fall down, and tremble there, like an animal too wounded to go on.
He doesn’t know who else in these woods might be an agent.
He knows there’s at least one other.
Sometimes he thinks it’s his cousin Bernard. And sometimes he thinks it’s Ma.
Maybe even the shopkeeper, down at the big store in the town.
You can buy candy for a penny there, a great big chunk of it. You can buy fabric so beautiful it’ll take your breath away. And the shopkeeper doesn’t seem to judge, he doesn’t seem to care who comes in and who doesn’t.
Why, he might even sell things to a wicked, naughty child.
But that seems a bit like entrapment, to Pa, a bit too close to the edge.
So while he doesn’t know if the man is, and he doesn’t know if the man isn’t, he hopes it isn’t so.
And he moves through the forest and it’s marked with snow angels where the cougars and the bears and the owls have been at play.
And he breathes the bitter wind.
And he thinks: thank God for another day without finding even one.
Not that day, anyway.
Not that day, but there are others.
Now one night Pa is going home, in the darkness of the woods, and he hears a cougar scream.
He’d followed the tracks of a bad child that day for almost an hour before losing his quarry to a stream.
He felt guilty about that—
A seething, trembling guilt—
Because he’s thinking that maybe he didn’t go quite so fast as he could’ve; and maybe he’d given up too soon; and that he’d wasted so much time on that that he hadn’t gotten meat or furs; and anyhow he’d wasted ammunition, there at the end of it, when he’d turned around and seen a scrap of calico cloth stuck onto a bush and in the panic of the moment he had fired off his gun.
He works hard, making the bullets, and the lead costs money, so it burns him, that he’d fired.
And he’s thinking, Maybe I’ve gone too deep.
Maybe I don’t want to hunt bad children any more.
And anyhow, what a waste. What a waste of a good bullet, on a stupid scrap of cloth.
So he’s in that state of mind—all kinds of things worrying him, warring in him, twisting up his head—when the cougar screams. And a chill goes down his spine because suddenly Pa realizes that he hadn’t thought afterwards that he should reload his gun.
To shoot, out in the woods, and not reload his gun!
If he stops now to reload, then the cougar’ll get him; and if he runs, it’ll probably get him still.
Of the two, running seems better; so he turns, and he bolts.
He can hear the cougar behind him, screaming, to the left, then to the right. It’s hungry. It’s winter, and it’s hungry.
He’s an agent. He’s not a real frontiersman. He’s not the man Ma married and he’s not the father to the girls. He doesn’t really belong there, in the woods.
But he’s still meat.
He’s still meat, and meat’s still warm.
So he runs.
He runs, and there’s a kind of peace to it, because he’ll die in cover and not out of it, and he’ll never have to face another Hansel; another Bettany; another Max.
The cougar hits him with both sets of claws, and as his body goes chill and his blood runs out, he chokes out, “Bureau,” just in case.
There’s a stillness.
The cougar rises.
Delicately, it licks its bloody paws. It looks at him. He meets it with a wavery gaze.
They share an understanding.
This isn’t my life, the cougar is thinking.
This isn’t who I really am.
It’s just a cover. It’s only a cover. It’s not me.
It meets his eyes and they understand one another.
Then it flicks its tail once, and its stomach gurgles emptily, and it turns and it moves and quietly it lopes away.
Pa thinks he can make it to the house, back to where his family’s waiting.
He knows Ma will ask him how he survived— how a man can get away from a cougar, once it’s got its claws in him. He thinks that maybe if she’s Bureau too, her eyes’ll be narrowed and there’ll be suspicions in her head; and maybe if she’d been a bad child, if she’d been a bad child and had somehow slipped the net and grown to an adult, then maybe some vestigial memory of the enemy will drift up and she will grow cold and hard to him.
He knows that she’ll ask him, and he knows that he can’t tell her.
So he wonders what he’ll say.