Set in the fictional college town of Deaton, Montana, The Wolf Tone centers around an unlikely friendship between two drastically different women. Margot Fickett is the middle-aged principal cellist for the Deaton Symphony Orchestra. Eva Baker is a twenty-year-old single mother who claims that her three-year-old boy is Margot’s grandson.
Convinced of her son’s innocence, Margot insists on a paternity test. Before she complies, Eva leads Margot to her boyfriend’s burgeoning medical marijuana business, the reason she wants her child support money in the first place.
Over the course of a tumultuous Montana spring, Margot and Eva witness one another’s difficult, often poorly thought-out decisions. As they approach real disaster, the women begin to see that what they want is not so different.
I hope you enjoy this peek at chapter one!
Spring took its time. March in Deaton, Montana, was winter’s final exhale. Robins had been spotted and the creeks were beginning to melt, but the surrounding mountain ranges still slumbered under blankets of white. The night of her accident, a new moon held the canyon in complete dark and Margot Fickett couldn’t sleep.
Earlier her cello group played at the cider house, seventy minutes of Latin music that turned into one of those shows musicians live for: a sold-out crowd, a dozen players in their half circle gazing at one another, smiling as they bowed, plucked, and tapped their cellos. The audience was captivated; every soul in the room breathed in transcendent harmony. Once a musician felt this, knew that it was possible, she never wanted to do anything else.
She’d rather play than eat.
Air whistled through the cracked window in the corner and a great horned owl called. Several weeks ago, a pair built a nest in the fir tree nearest the deck. During the day not much happened but at night there were calls and commotion, probably a transfer of food, the male bringing dinner.
Margot sat up, pulling on a sweatshirt. Next to her, Andy didn’t budge.
By the light from the hall she could see the dresser, its surface strewn with rings and bracelets, a performance program and her husband’s pocket trash: his phone, coins, a crumpled list, half a roll of breath mints. She crossed the hall to gaze at her son, home from Minnesota on break. He was too long for the mattress—his legs hung off almost to the knee. Astonishing, the absence of boy. As recently as the holidays, that eager look was still in his eye. In its place now was an assuredness, a kind of knowing, as if he’d been let in on a secret.
He wasn’t coming home this summer, he had told them. He would rent a room in Minneapolis and work for his professor, who was recording a film soundtrack. Benji was twenty-one and had toured or attended summer festivals since he was fourteen. Margot was used to his absence, had even encouraged it. Yet for the first time, she didn’t know when she’d next see him.
Movie music, according to Benji, was a new career path for string players like him. Also, music for computer games. You didn’t really need a degree anymore, he said.
A bigger surprise was that the film music wasn’t classical. He’d be playing fiddle with his rock band, something that came together six months ago. Margot was just hearing about it though she suspected Andy might have known earlier. Andy played bluegrass. Margot played classical. Benji’s preference had been settled long ago. When questioned about his change in direction, Benji responded with a calm that was somehow patronizing, “It’s still music, mom. Music is music.”
Under the lamp’s circle of light in the foyer, the telephone sat on the table in its tidy way next to the straight-back velvet chair. Over by the front door was a garbage bag full of the day’s trash. Tomorrow, someone would take it to the shed. Seized by a wish to feel the outside, Margot decided to take it now.
She picked it up, unbolted the door and stepped out to the porch. Her bare toes gripped the edge of the front step, benumbed. Her lungs froze in shock.
The stars shimmered like something alive. If she reached out, the points of light would recoil like an underwater creature. There was no wind, no sound until the owl called again, fainter from this side of the house.
Railroad ties acted as bumper blocks along the edge of their drive, running along the crest of a steep hill. Wanting a glimpse of the yard, Margot stepped onto the tie, following it away from the house. The Suburban was pulled forward further than she realized; she had to sidestep around its front bumper, which turned out to be tricky. Barefoot, holding the bag aloft, Margot lost her balance. Her arms wheeled madly and she dropped the trash bag. There was a sense of cartwheeling, her legs pointing at the sky as she rolled like a Frisbee on its edge, missing by some miracle every stone that might have brained her. When she hit the pavers at the bottom she heard her collarbone snap like a pencil. The fall was over in seconds yet seemed to take forever, long enough for her to wonder: How will they find me?
Margot spent the days after the accident adjusting to the shock. Apparently it had all really happened. She broke a bone for which there was no cast.
Nobody could even tell, unless she wore the sling, which wasn’t required or even recommended due to the way it immobilized the elbow. When Benji was little, the thought of him falling down that hill haunted her. As it turned out, he rescued her. His bedroom window overlooked the slope. He heard her cry out.
The cello was off limits, ending her symphony season as well as spring shows with Strings, the cello group. Students were notified, lessons cancelled.
Benji went back to school. Andy’s bluegrass band, The Wilmas, started their tour. He put off joining them until after Margot had surgery. Seven screws and a plate raised her hopes for a full recovery.
Andy loaded Margot’s favorite music on the iPod and rigged it to the stereo in the den. He stocked the house with groceries, brought her soup and crackers, rented movies with her until she finally insisted that he go. Seeing him bored was worse than being bored herself.
Andy toured often and Benji had been in school for years. Margot was used to solitude. Busy solitude and idle solitude turned out to be quite different. The sight of her large inert hands disturbed her. She spied on the owl. The bird was hard to find, camouflaged against the tree bark.
Andy knew where to point the binoculars, but it took Margot several tries, scanning up and down the branches. When she finally landed on its huge yellow eyes, her hand jerked and she had to restart the process. The owl’s face was terrible, startling in its hostility, the feather horns like angled eyebrows and the vicious, hooked beak. The creature appeared outraged by the invasion of privacy. Its stillness was impressive. An immunity to loneliness.
Hours, days, sitting on those eggs. It was a good thing human beings grew their young internally, Margot thought; if a nest were required, we’d never make it.
The day after Andy’s departure, she received a phone call, making this officially the strangest month of her life. Margot was in the den hooked up to an automatic icing machine, listening to Beethoven’s Ninth. The Ninth was the orchestra’s season finale piece, one she’d rehearsed exhaustively since January.
She was out, of course—not a chance she’d play before three months.
Bernstein’s Berlin performance, from after the wall’s collapse, was the recording their maestro liked best, though he felt it was too long.
Margot sat breathless after the first movement, that wild, leaping symphony in miniature. The section break was long, with no applause, only the sound of rustling clothing, crinkling paper, the ubiquitous cough. And a phone rang. Not in the recording but in Margot’s house. The odds! It rang again and still the music didn’t resume, as if everyone in that hall waited to hear who it might be. The answering machine picked up as the strings began their ecstatic tiptoeing.
Margot was sure it would be Satterfield, the maestro, but he was apparently still sulking. A female voice unknown to her, young, crisp, and insistent, said, “I’m looking for Mrs. Fickett.”
The violins romped; the caller cleared her throat. “It’s an urgent matter concerning your son,” she said, then added, in case Margot had forgotten, “Benji.”
The building, swelling call and response of woodwinds and strings rolled on.
“This isn’t really phone call material,” the young woman said. “I wondered, maybe, if you could come by Dolly’s Second Hand Store on Randolph Ave. Where I work.”
She hung up. The music rose to the surprising, boorish drum, then dropped back to its tiptoeing flutes. Sunlight spilled onto the carpet. The den was suddenly hot. I imagined that, Margot thought but the moment was ruined. She stopped the music with the remote and began the process of disconnecting from the icing machine, ripping open Velcro straps, detaching the hose. Standing on the warm tiles in the foyer, she stared at the pulsing red light on the answering machine. So it wasn’t a dream. She decided she’d better get dressed.
Later this seemed rash, to immediately follow the directions of a stranger.
Why not wait for a second call, even a third? The matter was urgent, said the voice, and it concerned her son. No woman had ever called for Benji before.
He was a violin prodigy; he didn’t have dates. Following directions seemed like the right thing to do.
Though there was sun in the canyon, winter’s inversion had socked the town in fog. Traffic was heavy and visibility was poor. She was driving Andy’s huge Suburban as her Honda was too low to the ground. She hit traffic and a flare of panic rose in her chest: she’d made a bad decision. The accident did this, she was certain. Not that the accident caused the phone call. She felt separate from reality, almost immune to peril, which couldn’t be good.
A peculiarity was afoot, an ill wind. How absurd, to be summoned, to drive under the influence of painkillers. She ought to turn this rig around and begin the day again.
But Margot did not turn around. Switching the heater off to keep herself cold and alert, she followed the directions coming from her phone. Dolly’s turned out to be one of several businesses in the Rock Creek Commons, a strip mall angled inside a moat of parking. Snaking around it was Rock Creek itself. Margot parked on the west side of the building where a thin stretch of woods stood between the creek and an auto parts store.
Dolly’s was at the front, facing Randolph Avenue. An antler arch encased the entrance, hundreds of deer antlers wired together to create an arbor around ordinary glass doors. Inside the vestibule, the sounds of the busy street vanished as though she’d been swallowed. Through the next set of doors Margot found herself inside a warehouse, a mix of clothing store, furniture store, and haunted house. Old panel doors hung on the walls from industrial sized chains. Boudoirs and antique sideboards were set up among rack after rack of used clothing. The displays were not stalls, exactly, but more like sets, little slices of life. A miniaturist might be behind it all. The smell was of thrift store and furniture polish. Most surreal was the ceiling. The exposed ductwork peeked through a vast webbing of charcoal grey fabric that draped several feet and slowly swayed. It darkened the room and its movement made the ceiling feel close and alive, as if she were looking up from underwater.
The display nearest the front counter held a dining room set with an antique table and chairs. On the table a notebook lay open to a page full of numbers. Next to it lay a pencil, a calculator and a cup of coffee. She heard movement and turned. From inside a circular rack of dresses emerged a child, a barefoot boy in striped overalls, not more than three years old.
“Boo!” he shouted.
Margot jumped, sending a jolt of pain through her collarbone. She cried out and alarm widened the boy’s great blue eyes. A woman emerged from a side room, short, with bleached hair cut severely at the jawline. She wore a low-cut dress and knee-high boots. Margot knew immediately that this was her caller. The look matched the voice, a girl trying to disguise her youth.
“A giant!” cried the little boy, pointing.
Margot turned and he withdrew, folding his body back inside the dress rack.
“I—I didn’t dream you’d come right away!” said the young woman, giving her head a toss. She held out a hand. “I’m Eva Baker.”
Margot stared at the girl’s hand, then down at her own, peeking out of the sling.
“Oh!” Eva cried. “You’re hurt! Aren’t you in the orchestra? And your husband—Benji’s dad—isn’t he in a band? I remember the whole family was musical. I tell the Bird all the time, there’s hope for you yet.” She gestured towards the hidden boy. “Not from me. I think I’m tone deaf. My god, you’re tall.”
A great white noise began in the back of Margot’s mind. “I’m sorry, do I—have we met?”
“Never,” Eva said, raising her chin. Her neckline was low enough to reveal the edge of a chest tattoo, the tip of a wing.
“You said it concerned my son?” Margot asked.
Eva put her hands on her hips and blew out an exhale. “Wow. I don’t know how to begin.” She gave a hollow laugh and her left leg moved a little, a slight quiver at the knee. “It’s probably not the best time. Well, let’s face it, when is a good time to meet a grandchild you didn’t know you had?”
The white noise became a howl. On the ceiling above, the banners moved with a faint creaking sound. They were not made of fabric but paper. Miles of it, stencil cut like Mexican papel picado, in intricate, unrecognizable shapes. Impossible to mass produce something like that; it had to have been hand cut, a detail that matched the carefully placed fringed lamps, lace pillows and rows of colored glass bottles. All of this came from the same mind.
“I know this is weird,” Eva continued. “At least he’s cute. Good company. Aren’t you, Bird?”
The boy stuck his head out from under the dresses, grinning. He stepped out and stood in front of his mother, asking for something Margot couldn’t make out. Eva reached into a pocket and handed it to him. He turned to show her. It was a pack of gum.
“What on earth are you talking about?” Margot asked. Her voice seemed to come from the distant end of a long tunnel. It vibrated through the fractured bone, a dull tapping. “What are you saying?”
“His name’s Birdie. Birdie Ethan Baker, after my dad, Ethan,” said Eva. “Who’s actually kind of a prick. A wealth manager. He has a good person in him somewhere, he just lost sight of it. Kind of sad when you think about it. I try not to. Do you want a cup of coffee? It tastes like shit. Trucker’s coffee. But it’s warm and caffeinated.”
Margot let out a breath, which sounded like a gasp. The boy was unwrapping one stick after another, stuffing them in his mouth. They had identical eyes, he and his mother. Exact color and shape.
“You’re probably wondering why now. I mean, obviously, he’s not an infant. But all of a sudden, boom.” Her small fists opened like stars. “Here we are! But this isn’t about getting Birdie grandparents. Or a dad. I mean, that ship has sailed.”
Eva’s chin lowered a fraction and she gave a little snort like she’d said something clever. She shifted her weight and her small hand came to rest on the counter.
“I need cash,” she continued. “Five thousand dollars, actually. Benji technically owes me two years of child support.”
Margot frowned. Had something happened last week when he was home for spring break? The little boy’s cheek bulged. A mess of foil wrappers littered the floor by his feet. Following Margot’s gaze, Eva cried, “Oh!”
She knelt and plunged a polished forefinger into his mouth, pulled out a pink wad then hurried behind the counter to flick it into the trash. The boy scowled at Margot and dove back inside the dresses.
“What you’re saying,” Margot stammered, “the idea—you and Benji, you—”
For all her nervous yammering, Eva displayed an astonishing patience. Her gaze grew heavy. She squared her shoulders. Among her eleven cello students, Margot was known to be demanding. She was quiet and watchful as they composed themselves, exactly as Eva was watching her now. This turning of the tables was uncanny. For the briefest moment, Margot believed the scene was a narcotic delusion; she’d been left alone in the canyon too long. Terribly hot, she wished she could shuck off the jacket wrapped over her shoulder. And how was it she couldn’t remember the drive to town, all those curves through the canyon, the stop sign at the highway, passing under the interstate?
Later, tearing out of the parking lot, Margot couldn’t recall exact words, only her own scalding voice. Fragments surfaced. Now you listen to me, she may have said, her tone identical to her beloved but frightening grandmother. There might have been finger pointing. Regrettable, all of it. Some kind of mix-up. Eva had the wrong boy. Margot may have suggested as much, for Eva mentioned The Wilmas, Andy’s band. So what? That proved nothing. Type the name ‘Fickett’ in Google and anybody could come up with The Wilmas.
Her good hand trembled on the steering wheel. She watched it at each stoplight, dry and foreign. She would flush the narcotics, even if the pain kept her up all night. Definitely should not be driving. The thing to do was get off the road.
(C) Christy Stillwell, 2019
Christy Stillwell’s THE WOLF TONE won the Elixir Press 2017 Fiction Award. This novel, set in a Montana college town, takes us on a journey through such issues as motherhood and freedom, accompanied by a buoyant soundtrack like no other. Debra Spark had this to say about it: “For me, Christy Stillwell’s novel THE WOLF TONE was like a wonderful vacation to a beautiful, arty Montana town, where I got to live for a season among musicians, art patrons, locals, and owls. I met a tough-minded single mother, a solitary
classical musician, and a vet with a start-up medical marijuana dispensary. By the time my stay was over, I’d heard the unexpected and profound story of these unlikely literary bedfellows, a resonant tale about the choices we make, the secrets we keep, and our (often misguided) expectations regarding love, children, and career. No Airbnb booking required.”
About Christy Stillwell
Christy Stillwell earned a BA in English at the University of Georgia before moving west, first to Wyoming, then Montana. She taught college freshman, tutored adults in writing skills, clerked in bookstores and edited manuscripts, college essays, textbooks and artist statements. She holds an MA in Literature from the University of Wyoming, and an MFA from the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook of poetry, Amnesia, in 2008. Poems, short fiction and essays have appeared in journals such as Pearl, River City, Sonora Review, Sou’wester, The Massachusetts Review, literarymama.com, and The Tishman Review. She has been honored with a residency at Vermont Studio Center and a Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellowship. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Contest. Her debut novel, The Wolf Tone, won the Elixir Press Fiction Prize and will be published in January 2019. She lives with her family in Bozeman, Montana.