The lives of two strong-willed, feuding women—an aunt and her niece—intertwine as one searches desperately over decades for a woman she knew in the 1930s while working the sugarbeet fields, and the other grows up to track and research mountain lions in the male-dominated world of the 70s.    

Vasa--Summer 1935--13 Years Old

It was the typical mirage floating above a dirt road on a stifling summer afternoon. The light rays bent to produce a displaced image of the dry sky. Maybe to some those transparent waves would be beautiful. But to Vasa, dust kicking up with every stomp, her armpits running damp, the optical phenomenon was a point of focus to keep going. Dried out Cottonwoods leaned in the distance, the old branches posing like many dancers reaching in step, and a pair of ravens croaked and cawed near the road. Vasa’s lips split from the heat, blood surfacing. She licked them and tasted the iron while the dust clogged her nose. With each step, the anger rose. She heard a Northern Flicker drill at a tree, the tapping echoing over the plains. And then the crackling of pebbles beneath tires crawling on the left. She did not have to turn to know that it was Rolf cruising his pickup next to her, matching her pace. The rolling and popping continued for a good minute or two.

Finally, Rolf hollered out of the rolled down passenger-side window. “Where you headed?”

She kept her focus on the horizon. “I don’t know.”

“You can’t keep doing this, Vasa.”

She continued to stomp down the road with ire fuming.

“Do you even know the name of the next town over?” He asked.


“You know how far you got to walk to get there?”

“Don’t matter.”

Rolf laughed. “Oh, so you’re just going to keep walking ‘til the end of the line, huh?”


The pickup rolled in their silence again.

“Vasa, your mama didn’t send me this time.”

She stopped. He stepped on the breaks. She looked at him through the dust.

He looked down, wiped his forehead with a bandana, then looked back at her with a sympathetic brow. “Your mama didn’t say a word. She saw you walk off the fields.”

Vasa began walking again.

“Come on, get in the truck.”

“I ain’t following Deit no more!”

Rolf looked a bit confused. “What? What does that … Well, you’ll have to talk to your mama about that, I don’t have anything to do with who follows who during the thinning. Or topping for that matter, you know that.”
She stopped, the pickup continued to adjust to her actions.

“Can’t you talk to my mother, Mr. Adler?”

“What do you got against your own brother?”

She walked again. She did not want to speak of it, but her disdain for Deit had resonated now for a few years. Like rough grounds of coffee stuck to the bottom of a cup once the liquid has been drunk. Leland had developed the same disdain toward their older brother. The ravens screamed. She knew the older ones stayed in pairs, the young ones began in large flocks.

“I can’t meddle in family business, now get in the truck!”

The stomping continued, she struggled to keep tears back.

“Vasa, come on. I have a thermos of nice cold water in here. Ain’t you thirsty? Don’t you want a drink of water?”

Again, she stopped. She stared at this man she had known her entire childhood, yet did not know. But his kindness reached into her, and each time she swallowed, the dryness seemed to make her throat harden. Rolf leaned over and opened the passenger side door. She climbed into the truck.

“Why are you fighting with Deit?”

“It don’t matter.”

He chuckled. “Well I guess it matters if you refuse to follow him in the fields. Don’t tell me you’ve been takin’ off down this road every so often for the last two years just because you don’t like your brother.”

She stared out the window. She could see the Rocky Mountains, blue in the distance. She had never been to those mountains. Didn’t know what a Blue Spruce looked like, or a Douglas-Fir, or Bristlecone Pine. Didn’t know the whistling the needles made in the cool mountain wind. Or the sharp smell of those trees. Or that they stopped growing at an elevation of twelve thousand feet. Didn’t know what sap on a pinecone felt like.
When the pickup neared the fields, Esther stood to see her daughter coming. She glared at the sun, at her daughter’s disobedience. Vasa stepped out of the pickup that parked thirty feet from where her family worked. She and her mother stayed in position for a moment looking at one another from a distance, sharing a line of tight ferocity. Vasa leaned down and tied the shoelace to one of her boots, took her time. She walked straight toward her mother, who then bent down to thin beets and ignore her daughter. Jacob walked to Vasa, took her by the left arm and told her in his sweet voice to follow him in the field. After fifteen minutes of thinning in the heat, Esther yelled over to Vasa without looking up.

“You know you ain’t too old for a whippin’!” She hacked the beets, then emphasized the whipping part again with more force behind the words. “Tracht prügel!”

Just then Vasa sliced her own hand by mistake. She dropped her hoe, cringed when the pain hit and rubbed her hand with the hem of her filthy dress. Jacob turned and grabbed his daughter’s palm.

“Don’t use your dress, it’ll get infected.”

He spit in her hand, rubbed the wound a bit, then pulled out a clean, white handkerchief from his pocket and tied it around her palm.

“When you get home run it in cold water, don’t put nothin’ else on it, just cold water. Then wrap it in gauze, you know where it is.”

He turned his back on her then said, “Also, when you get home, you apologize to your mother.”

Later, after the cucumber slices had been salted and eaten clean from every plate, after Lydia and Vasa washed and dried the dishes, after the twins found a black cricket and put it in Vasa’s underwear drawer and she scooped up the creature without harming it, went out back and let it go, Esther waited on the living room sofa with a cup of black coffee. Vasa went in and stood until Esther said it was okay for her to sit. She sat in the chair next to the sofa. Even now, Esther spoke in German.

“In Russia, they took our land away and we got nothing, but I have told you that before. You also know we left Russia before the war.” She drank her coffee and Vasa could see the steam rise in the dim light. “Some years later, the Tsar’s government exiled four of my brothers to Siberia. This you do not know. You also do not know that two of my childhood friends were sent to Schneidemühl in Posen-West Prussia. A refugee camp.” Esther drank more coffee. “You do know that I can read and write. You probably do not know that I can name every president of the United States. You do know that I have lost three children.” Esther placed her empty coffee cup down on the small table next to the sofa. “What is it that you think you can do, Vasa, that would break me?”

Vasa felt an instant ping of humiliation. She did not want to hurt her mother; she did not want to fight her mother.


Tilly--Winter 1975--31 Years Old

Halfway into her first season, the alarm clock buzzed at 6:00 AM. They had to get to the area they were tracking by dawn to find the crepuscular cats. Tilly remained under the wool blankets a little while longer, the chilly walls pushing in on her. Her body temperature began to rise a few degrees, yet the trailer held winter. The heaviness of sleep seized her, the disorder still beleaguering: lethargic limbs, cloudy brain, heavy eyelids. Only, she knew he would be waiting and didn’t want to hear any more remarks about the frailty of women. She lifted her legs high, pushed them down hard causing her torso to rise, a maneuver she had developed as a girl, understanding how momentum creates force.

She poured water from her canteen into a small bowl and brushed her teeth, then tossed the water out in the brush. Combed and formed her hair into two long braids. Pulled on her long underwear, jeans, and wool sweater. Early on in the season, she had the idea of using a fishing vest with an absurd number of pockets to hold all of her small equipment: scissors, tape measure, blood vials, pencil, thermometer, matches, miniature flashlight, straws to contain whiskers, small envelops for hair samples, vial of sterile water, sealed glass vials with butyl stoppers of tiletamine, darts, data sheets, paint and brayer for paw prints, syringes for blood draw, herparin, and a dental probe. She shoved her thick, leather, work gloves and wool glove liners into a backpack, as well as a wrapped turkey pastrami sandwich and apple. She wore a wool ski hat and her tall Sorel boots. Finally, over her vest she draped on a red coat. Iona had given it to her soon after she began her research. Tilly had sought out a decent coat and was perplexed as to why her mother would have a man’s coat robust enough for the mountains—canvas on the outside, wool on the inside, and draping to the top part of her thighs. When she was young, Tilly had gone to the mountains with Max and Deit whenever they fished and neither of them had ever worn a red coat, and Iona always stayed at home. There had never been a need for her to own this type of coat. Her mother had brought it to her on a visit to the trailer, ignoring the inquiry, telling her it didn’t matter from where the coat had come.

Tilly walked across the cold floor to the stove. She made most of her meals in the crockpot, filling it with some sort of meat and vegetables in the morning, and coming home to dish up around 8:00 PM, sometimes not until 10:00 with the longer chases. She plugged the crockpot into a timer that would turn it off in case she didn’t return at a reasonable hour, then poured black coffee into a small thermos, shoved buttered toast into her mouth, grabbed her backpack, and left to meet a wealthy rancher. She had been working with this particular rancher, Elroy, and his houndsman, Gabe, for the last several weeks. Elroy insisted on going with them because Tilly had to track a lion that made part of his land her home area.

“Mornin’ Sugar Shorts,” Elroy bellowed.

Tilly ignored him. She offered coffee to Gabe who took a swig from the thermos. The hounds barked in a high pitch, licked and sniffed Tilly when she approached them, their tails wagging with rapid whips. They all drove to the area they planned to track, then the men took the dogs and followed her as she walked through the snow, about a foot deep but hard on top. Flakes had not fallen in a few weeks so the ground snow was packed in dense paths. They found tracks and the dogs picked up a scent quick. Gabe released them, he and Tilly ran fast, Elroy, with his bloated belly, lagged behind. The conifer needles dripped with melting snow. Mountain Chickadees looked like acrobats as they clung to small limbs and twigs or hung upside down from pinecones.

After a few hours and an empty thermos, Tilly had to pee. She crouched behind a thick spruce-fir. She could see the two men through the trees but couldn’t make out their faint talk. Elroy turned and bent over, searching for a peek. Asshole. Gabe smacked his arm, and Elroy turned back around, laughing.

Twenty minutes later, they treed the cat. A female, she balanced on forked branches and watched the dogs with her intense amber eyes. Gabe gathered the dogs. He stared up at her while his hounds whined and bellowed. “She may be lactating.”

Tilly threw her backpack on the ground and pulled out her notebook. Elroy pointed his rifle at the cat.

“What are you doing?” She demanded.

“You can do your stuff after I make the kill,” he said, keeping his eye on the cat. “Look at my hunting license. I can have her.”

She put her hand on Gabe’s arm and pleaded, “Stop him, please.”

He dropped his head a bit, placed his hand on one of his dog’s head. He wouldn’t look at her. “I’ve worked for him for years, Tilly.”

Elroy moved closer to the tree, the cat hissed. Her short, rounded ears went back.

“But I pay you with my grant money whenever you track for me.” She tried to make eye contact with Gabe. “What about my research?”

Without facing her he walked in front of Elroy and held up his finger to him. “Wait, I need to see if there are kittens around. Don’t shoot.”

He went to tie his dogs to a tree and for a moment, Elroy obeyed, but then he pulled the trigger. She died in an instant, stuck in the tree.

Tilly shook her head. “He told you not to shoot!”

Elroy lowered his gun and addressed Gabe. “Listen to me, son, I decide. It’s my land. Understand?” He looked at Tilly. “Now, Sugar Shorts, I’ll get her down the tree, and you can take all of your measurement shit, then leave me to it.”

As Elroy climbed the tree to rope the animal, Gabe stood at the base ready to help lower her down. Tilly walked away and scoured the area. She found kitten tracks and followed them. Then she heard it, the loud chirping whistle. Kittens trying to direct their mother’s attention. She walked back to Gabe and gave him a nod.

He lowered his head and placed his hands on his hips. “Shit.”

Tilly looked up at Elroy in disgust, but he paid no attention as he began to lower the roped cat to Gabe. Once the cat was down and Elroy stood near his trophy, he instructed Tilly to do her thing.

She shoved her notebook into her backpack. “I don’t want the data.”

“Suit yourself.” He slung the cat over his neck and headed down the mountain. Tilly and Gabe followed the kitten tracks for around twenty meters and then heard the chirping again. They found them, two spotted babies, camouflaged in the terrain, blue-eyed and vulnerable. They popped up their tiny heads, studying the foreigners, then hid. Tilly guessed they were around four months old.