Joseph Sigurdson is a writer and poet who lives in rural Alaska. His first novel, Buffalo Dope, will be released in fall 2021.
Autumn came and killed off all the swarms of mosquitoes and gnats. Wishbone and I ventured off the trail in search of geese and tundra swans. We came to a meadow that must have once been a quagmire, for the grass had the feel of a dried sponge. Goose droppings everywhere. They were once here, or maybe further down.
We walked so far that the way home was uncertain. Wishbone had his snout in the grass, a ways ahead of me. The sun shone through the tree line, blinding me, but not enough to mask the movement of some large animal. I moved a few paces to block the sun with a tree, revealing that this animal was a bear on two legs, staring at me.
This was right before their long sleep when they’re desperate for their final pounds of protein. I had my gun, but it was only a 20-gauge loaded with birdshot. That would tickle a bear at best. I knew not to panic though. I knew not to run.
I stepped back into the blinding sun and could no longer see the bear watching me. Wishbone couldn’t either, but now he sensed it. That air of no longer being the hunter, but the hunted.
We made our way slowly to the tree line. I paused and found the bear’s silhouette. It was still standing. I grew bold and said loudly, “I see you bear! Get out of here!”
It responded with a deep and guttural bark that echoed across the meadow. My knees lost their lock. Wishbone whimpered.
“Come on little boy. Follow me.”
Trembling, we ventured deep into the brush, scraping our limbs and faces on thorns and protruding branches. Their sharp edges, like the tickling fingers of witches. I prayed we wouldn’t hear the rustle of foliage, the stomp of a running bear, from behind.
We never did.
It was dark by the time we found the trail again. We went home and I took a shower. As the hot water pulled the dirt and blood from my skin, I could hear Wishbone crying from behind the bathroom door.
“I’m right here Wishbone.”
When I got out, I found him on the couch with pants and socks from my dirty laundry. He wanted my scent.
“You thought I’d leave you little boy?”
To read “Wishbone” in its entirety, please order Reed Magazine Issue 154.
Suzanne Rico's Commentary
Give me a story that takes me to a place where I’ve never been—and make me actually feel like I’ve experienced it—and you’ll have me every time. From the flying minivan to the frozen beaver to a man sharing a grouse with his dog, the two of them a new unit, the story built itself, piece by piece, in my imagination. It also brought me along emotionally. The lessons learned from an Alaskan village mutt—and the prickling understanding, from the moment that we hear of the young, goateed man with a rifle slung across his lap, that this story will be one of loss. But “Wishbone” is also about so much more. I found myself feeling acceptance for a culture so different from my own. There was an understanding of the dog catcher’s point of view, even as I cried over the narrative’s tragic resolution. Finally, I found this story to be about resilience, a much-needed reminder in these uncertain, troubled times. All you need do is look to the beautifully simple, yet powerful ending of “Wishbone”: “They asked me if I was leaving after that, and I said no.”
in conversation with
The grief present in “Wishbone” is heart-wrenchingly palpable. What was your process like in writing on such an emotionally intense subject? Was there a precise moment when you decided to write this piece?
I wrote the whole thing in one day, without stopping, which is unusual for me. I couldn’t bring him back, I couldn’t call the police . . . I guess I could have fought the guy who shot him, but then who was to say that man wasn’t coming back to my house with the same gun that killed Wishbone? I was just sitting there with my guilt, anger, and grief . . . so I wrote. It felt like I was taking action in some way.
How would you describe the relationship between grief and writing?
Unconscious, up until now. I never really think about why I’m writing . . . I just do it. Like with that first question you asked—that explanation wasn’t going through at my head at the time, but in reflection I think that’s why I did it. This is also why I think I’d never be a good literary scholar. The writing just comes out, but I’m bad at describing how or why. I write about grief sometimes . . . that’s my best way of putting it.
Are there any stories about your time with Wishbone that did not make it into the piece that you want to share?
There was this one dog that always bullied him when he was younger. That dog got killed by the dog catcher too, but sometime before. I found its corpse in the dump, alongside Wishbone. That dog had the bluest eyes ever, but they’d rotted away or had gotten eaten by ravens. I tried to fit that dog into the story, but I couldn’t get it to work.
“Wishbone” is the story of your relationship with the titular dog, but it’s also the story of your adjustment to life in rural Alaska. The final line of “Wishbone” states that you don’t intend to leave your new home—does that still ring true today? Do you think it will continue to in the future?
Yeah, I’ll be here for some time. I fantasize about leaving at least once a week, but there’s too much here I can’t give up. I have direct access to the Alaskan wilderness. I could walk to places no human has ever walked to and be back for dinner. I ride a four-wheeler to work. There are no streetlights, no lines, no H&R Blocks. I like it here, I just wish they didn’t shoot people’s dogs.