When Mr. Sorensen - a drab, cipher of a man - passes away, his lovely widow falls in love with a most unsuitable mate. Enraged and scandalized (and armed with hot-dish and gossip and seven-layer bars), the Parish Council turns to the old priest to fix the situation - to convince Mrs. Sorensen to reject the green world and live as a widow ought. But the pretty widow has plans of her own, in Kelly Barnhill's Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch.
"A warmhearted tale."--Locus
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Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch
By Kelly Barnhill, Chris Buzelli
MacmillanCopyright © 2014 Kelly Barnhill
All rights reserved.
The day she buried her husband — a good man, by all accounts, though shy, not given to drink or foolishness; not one for speeding tickets or illegal parking or cheating on his taxes; not one for carousing at the county fair, or tomcatting with the other men from the glass factory; which is to say, he was utterly unknown in town: a cipher; a cold, blank space — Agnes Sorensen arrived at the front steps of Our Lady of the Snows. The priest was waiting for her at the open door. The air was sweet and wet with autumn rot, and though it had rained earlier, the day was starting to brighten, and would surely be lovely in an hour or two. Mrs. Sorensen greeted the priest with a sad smile. She wore a smart black hat, sensible black shoes, and a black silk shirt belted into a slim crepe skirt. Two little white mice peeked out of her left breast pocket — two tiny shocks of fur with pink, quivering noses and red, red tongues.
The priest, an old fellow by the name of Laurence, took her hands and gave a gentle squeeze. He was surprised by the mice. The mice, on the other hand, were not at all surprised to see him. They inclined their noses a little farther over the lip of her shirt pocket to get a better look. Their whiskers were as pale and bright as sunbeams. They looked at one another and turned in unison toward the face of the old priest. And though he knew it was impossible, it seemed to Father Laurence that the mice were smiling at him. He swallowed.
"Mrs. Sorensen," he said, clearing his throat.
"Mmm?" she said, looking at her watch. She glanced over her shoulder and whistled. A very large dog rounded the tall hedge, followed by an almost-as-large raccoon and a perfectly tiny cat.
"We can't —" But his voice failed him.
"Have the flowers arrived, Father?" Mrs. Sorensen asked pleasantly as the three animals mounted the stairs and approached the door.
"Well," the priest stammered. "N-no ... I mean, yes, they have. Three very large boxes. But I must say, Mrs. Sorensen —"
"Marvelous. Pardon me." And she walked inside. "Hold the door open for my helpers, would you? Thank you, Father." Her voice was all brisk assurance. It was a voice that required a yes. She left a lingering scent of pinesap and lilac and woodland musk in her wake. Father Laurence felt dizzy.
"Of course," the priest said, as dog, raccoon, and cat passed him by, a sort of deliberation and gravitas about their bearing, as though they were part of a procession that the priest, himself, had rudely interrupted. He would have said something, of course he would have. But these animals had — well, he could hardly explain it. A sobriety of face and a propriety of demeanor. He let them by. He nodded his head to each one as they crossed the threshold of the church. It astonished him. He gave a quick glance up and down the quiet street to reassure himself that he remained unobserved. The last thing he needed was to have the Parish Council start fussing at him again.
(The Parish Council was made up, at this time, of a trio of widowed sisters whose life's purpose, it seemed to the priest, was to make him feel as though they were in the midst of stoning him to death using only popcorn and lost buttons and bits of yarn. Three times that week he had found himself in the fussy crosshairs of the sisters' ire — and it was only Wednesday.)
He rubbed his ever-loosening jowls and cleared his throat. Seeing no one there (except for a family of rabbits that was, en masse, emerging from under the row of box elders), Father Laurence felt a sudden, inexplicable, and unbridled surge of joy — to which he responded with a quick clench of his two fists and a swallowed yes. He nearly bounced.
"Are you coming?" Mrs. Sorensen called from inside the Sanctuary.
"Yes, yes," he said with a sputter. "Of course." But he paused anyway. A young buck came clipping down the road. Not uncommon in these parts, but the priest thought it odd that the animal came to a halt right in front of the church and turned his face upward as though he was regarding the stained glass window. Could deer see color? Father Laurence didn't know. The deer didn't move. It was a young thing — its antlers were hardly bigger than German pretzels and its haunches were sleek, muscular, and supple. It blinked its large, damp eyes and flared its nostrils. The priest paused, as though waiting for the buck to say something.
Deer don't speak, he told himself. You're being ridiculous. Two hawks fluttered down and perched on the handrail, while a — Dear God. Was that an otter? Father Laurence shook his head, adjusted the flap of belly hanging uncomfortably over his belt, and slumped inside.
The mourners arrived two hours later and arranged themselves silently into their pews. It was a thin crowd. There was the required representative from the glass factory. A low-level supervisor. Mr. Sorensen was not important enough, apparently, to warrant a mourner from an upper-level managerial position, and was certainly not grand enough for the owner himself to drive up from Chicago and pay his respects.
The priest bristled at this. The man died at work, he thought. Surely ...
He shook his head and busied himself with the last-minute preparations. The pretty widow walked with cool assurance from station to station, making sure everything was just so. The mourners, the priest noticed, were mostly men. This stood to reason as most of Mr. Sorensen's coworkers were men as well. Still, he noticed that several of them had removed their wedding rings, or had thought to insert a jaunty handkerchief in their coat pockets (in what could only be described as non-funeral colors), or had applied hair gel or mustache oil or aftershave. The whole church reeked of men on the prowl. Mrs. Sorensen didn't seem to notice, but that was beside the point. The priest folded his arms and gave a hard look at the backs of their heads.
Really, he thought. But then the widow walked into a brightly colored beam of stained-glass sunlight, and he felt his heart lift and his cheeks flush and his breathing quicken and thin. There are people, he thought, who are easy to love. And that is that.
Mrs. Sorensen had done a beautiful job with the flowers, creating arrangements at each window in perfect, dioramic scenes. In the window depicting the story of the child Jesus and the clay birds that he magicked into feathers and wings and flight, for example, her figure of Jesus was composed of corn husk, ivy, and dried rose petals. The clay birds she had made with homemade dough and affixed to warbled bits of wire. The birds bobbed and weaved unsteadily, as though only just learning how to spread their wings. And her rendition of Daniel in the lion's den was so harrowing in its realism, so brutally present, that people had to avert their eyes. She had even made a diorama of the day she and her husband met — a man with a broken leg at the bottom of a gully in the middle of a flowery forest; a woman with a broken heart wandering alone, happening by, and binding his wounds. And how real they were! The visceral pain on his face, the sorrow hanging over her body like a cloud. The quickening of the heart at that first, tender touch. This is how love can begin — an act of kindness.
The men in the congregation stared for a long time at that display. They shook their heads and muttered, "Lucky bastard."
Father Laurence, in his vestments, intoned the mass with all of the feeling he could muster, his face weighted somberly with the loss of a man cut down too soon. (Though not, it should be noted, with any actual grief. After all, the priest hardly knew the man. No one did. Still, fifty-eight is too young to die. Assuming Mr. Sorensen was fifty-eight. In truth, the priest had no idea.) Mrs. Sorensen sat in the front row, straight backed, her delicate face composed, her head floating atop her neck as though it were being pulled upward by a string. She held her chin at a slight tilt to the left. She made eye contact with the priest and gave an encouraging smile.
It is difficult, he realized later, to give a homily when there is a raccoon in the church. And a very large dog. And a cat. Though he couldn't see them — they had made themselves scarce before the parishioners arrived — he still knew they were there. And it unnerved him.
The white mice squirmed in Mrs. Sorensen's pocket. They peeked and retreated again and again. Father Laurence tripped on his words. He forgot what he was going to say. He forgot Mr. Sorensen's name. He remembered the large, damp eyes of the buck outside. Did he want to come in? Father Laurence wondered. And then: Don't be ridiculous. Deer don't go to church! But neither, he reasoned with himself, did raccoons. But there was one here somewhere, wasn't there? So.
Father Laurence mumbled and wandered. He started singing the wrong song. The organist grumbled in his direction. The Insufferable Sisters, who never missed a funeral if they could help it, sat in the back and twittered. They held their programs over their faces and peered over the rim of the paper with hard, glittering eyes. Father Laurence found himself singing "Oh God, Your Creatures Fill the Earth," though it was not on the program and the organist was unable to play the accompaniment.
"Your creatures live in every land," he sang lustily. "They fill the sky and sea. Oh Lord you give us your command, To love them tenderly."
Mrs. Sorensen closed her eyes and smiled. And outside, a hawk opened its throat and screeched — the lingering note landing in harmony with the final bar.
That was October.
Father Laurence did not visit the widow right away. He'd wait, he thought. Let her grieve. The last thing she needed was an old duffer hanging around her kitchen. Besides, he knew that the Insufferable Sisters and their allies on the Improvement League and the Quilters Alliance and the Friends of the Library and the Homebound Helpers would be, even now, fluttering toward that house, descending like a cloud.
In the meantime, the entire town buzzed with the news of the recent Sasquatch sightings — only here and there, and not entirely credible, but the fact of the sightings at all was significant. There hadn't been any in the entire county for the last thirty years — not since one was reported standing outside of the only hotel in town for hours and hours on a cold November night.
People still talked about it.
The moon was full and the winds raged. The Sasquatch slipped in and out of shadow. It raised its long arms toward the topmost windows, tilted its head back, and opened its throat. The mournful sound it made — part howl, part moan, part long, sad song — is something that people in town still whispered about, now thirty years later. It was the longest time anyone could ever remember a Sasquatch standing in one place. Normally, they were slippery things. Elusive. A flash at the corner of the eye. But here it stood, bold as brass, spilling its guts to whoever would listen. Unfortunately, no one spoke Sasquatch, so no one knew what it was so upset about.
It was, if Father Laurence remembered correctly, Mr. and Mrs. Sorensen's wedding night.
Sasquatch sightings were fairly common back then, but they ceased after the hotel incident. It was like they all just up and disappeared. No one mentioned it right away — it's not like the Sasquatch put a notice in the paper. But after a while people noticed the Sasquatch were gone — just gone.
And now, apparently, they were back. Or, at least one was, anyway.
Barney Korman said he saw one picking its way across the north end of the bog, right outside the wildlife preserve. Ernesta Koonig said there was a huge, shaggy something helping itself to the best crop of Cortland apples that her orchard had ever produced. Bernie Larsen said he saw one running off with one of his lambs. There were stick structures on Cassandra Gordon's hunting land. And the ghostly sound of tree knocking at night.
Eimon Lomas stopped by and asked if there was any ecclesiastic precedence allowing for the baptism of a Bigfoot.
Father Laurence said no.
"Seems a shame, though, don't it?" asked Eimon, running his tongue over his remaining teeth.
"Never thought about it before," Father Laurence said. But that was a lie, and he knew it. Agnes Sorensen — before she was married — had asked him the exact same question, thirty years earlier.
And his answer then had made her cry.
On Halloween, Father Laurence, in an effort to avoid the Parish Council and their incessant harping on the subject of holidays — godless or otherwise — and to avoid the flurry of their phone calls and visits and Post-it notes and emails and faxes and, once, horrifyingly, an intervention ("Is it the costumes, Father," the eldest of the sisters had asked pointedly, "or the unsupervised visits from children that makes you so unwilling to take a stand on the effects of Satanism through Halloween worship?" They folded their hands and waited. "Or perhaps," the youngest added, "it's a sugar addiction."), Father Laurence decided to pay Mrs. Sorensen a visit.
Three weeks had passed, after all, since the death of her husband, and the widow's freezer and pantry were surely stocked with the remains of the frozen casseroles, and lasagnas, and brown-up rolls, and mason jars filled with homemade chili and chicken soup and wild rice stew and beef consommé. Surely the bustle and cheeping of the flocks of women who descend upon houses of tragedy had by now migrated away, leaving the lovely Mrs. Sorensen alone, and quiet, and in need of company.
Besides. Wild rice stew (especially if it came from the Larson home) didn't sound half-bad on a cold Halloween night.
The Sorensen farm — once the largest tract in the county — was nothing more than a hobby farm now. Mr. Sorensen had neither the aptitude nor the inclination for farming, so his wife had convinced him to cede his birthright to the Nature Conservancy, retaining a bit of acreage to allow her to maintain a good-sized orchard and berry farm. Mrs. Sorensen ran a small business in which she made small-batch hard ciders, berry wines, and fine jams. Father Laurence couldn't imagine that her income could sustain her for long, but perhaps Mr. Sorensen had been well insured.
He knocked on the door.
The house erupted with animal sounds. Wet noses pressed at the window and sharp claws worried at the door. The house barked, screeched, groaned, hissed, snuffled, and whined. Father Laurence took a step backward. An owl peered through the transom window, its pale gold eyes unblinking. The priest cleared his throat.
A throaty gurgle from indoors.
Father Laurence had known Agnes Sorensen since her girlhood (her last name was Dryleesker then) — she was the little girl down the road, with a large, arthritic goose under one arm and a bull snake curled around the other. He would see her playing in front of her house at the end of the dead-end street when he came home for the summers during seminary.
"An odd family," his mother used to say with a definitive shake of her head. "And that girl is the oddest of them all."
Laurence didn't think so then, and he certainly didn't think so now.
Agnes, in her knee socks and mary janes, in her A-line dresses that her mother had made from old curtains and her pigtails pale as stars, simply had an affinity for animals. In the old barn in their backyard, she housed the creatures that she had found, as well as those that had traveled long distances just to be near her. A hedgehog with a missing foot, a blind weasel, a six-legged frog, a neurotic wren, a dog whose eardrums had popped like balloons when he wandered too near a TNT explosion on his owner's farm. She once came home with a wolf cub, but her father wouldn't allow her to keep it. She had animals waiting for her by the back door each morning, animals who would accompany her on her way to school, animals who helped her with her chores, animals who sat on her lap as she did her homework, and animals who curled up on her bed when she slept.
But then she got married. To Mr. Sorensen — good man, and kind. And he needed her. But he was allergic. So their house was empty.
Mr. Sorensen was also, Father Laurence learned from the confessional booth, infertile.
Excerpted from Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch by Kelly Barnhill, Chris Buzelli. Copyright © 2014 Kelly Barnhill. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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