Aloneness suited him, he thought, but he found himself needing the overheard voices.


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In 1924 at the age of 70, when his hands got so wayward and sudden with the scalpel that he feared injury to his patients, Dr. Hiram Flint retired from surgery in Palo Alto, sold his practice for a handsome price, and purchased a gone-to-seed ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. There was a still–upright barn with a paddock and a tilting chicken coop, so “just to keep busy” he got at a livestock auction a few chickens, a milk cow, a well-behaved quarter horse, and a half-dozen juvenile cattle.

Each morning he hustled through his chores as he would in his hospital rounds, then just luxuriated in a bucolic horseback meander across green pastures so lush that the cattle were filled and lying down and ruminating by -noontime.

The old house was a teardown, so he spent $3,000 on a mail-order eight-room home, “the Castleton,” from Sears, Roebuck and Co., hiring a handyman his own age, and also named Hiram, to help him with the plumbing and electrical and nailing the shipped materials together.

Each noon the handyman and Dr. Flint ate sandwiches from their lunch boxes and swapped stories about their achievements and regrets, like you do, and the handyman asked if the former surgeon had heard about the catamount.


With a self-importance like his own, the old handyman explained, “Mountain lion. Cougar.”

No, Dr. Flint hadn’t heard of it. The handyman said no one had seen it of late, but the hoary legend was that the cougar prowled the forests at night, being nocturnal, and ate whatever was in front of it. “And he hunts alone. Can’t keep a mate. Which speaks volumes about his character.”

Dr. Flint took this in and drank his lemonade, flatly -saying, “Well, I’ll keep my eyes peeled and my head on a swivel.”

Within a few months there would, of course, be an encounter.

With the house nicely constructed by fall, Dr. Flint hunted or fished for his supper, read classics and histories under the Edison floor lamp, or rode into the village for gasoline and groceries in his new Ford Model T pickup truck with its varnished oak box behind the black cab. Although affable as a customer, he sought no friendships and was thought of, if at all, as a hermit.

Alongside the county high school was a four-room public library that furnished him with his nightly reading, but he would also pause under the overheads in a cool leather chair to scan an assortment of newspapers hung on bamboo rods. Aloneness suited him, he thought, but he found himself needing the overheard voices.

And it was in the San Francisco Chronicle that he read a classified advertisement for what was called then a “picture bride.” In the instance, she was Japanese and pretty, maybe 18, and the first statement was “Girl from good clean family.” She claimed she was without disease or foul temper, owned a passport, could speak a little English, and “be fine wife.” “Object matrimony,” the advertisement ended, just in case that wasn’t clear.

Dr. Flint was five years a widower, the wife he married in medical school having been lost to the Spanish flu as a volunteer nurse just after the Great War, and childlessness, grief, and loneliness were his sole company since then. But he found himself staring with interest at a girl in a silk kimono who was solemnly, even fearfully, staring into the camera, her black hair parted in the middle and tied back in a bun, her sweet mouth in a pout, her skin seemingly as white as pastry. His medical mind told him his fascination was illogical and unhealthy. She would be more than 50 years younger than he. She would be distraught and terrified once she saw him, she’d be friendless and miserable on his widower’s ranch, there’d be nothing to say to each other, she’d finally leave him. Yet he surprised himself by welcoming the insanity and seeking at least her temporary acquaintance.

So he secretly tore the rotogravure from the Chronicle and wrote Miss Aiko Mihara in care of the postal address of the immigration office on Angel Island, just off San Francisco. She’d be arriving by ship in six weeks, and he told her he’d be there. The doctor had second thoughts about including in the letter a photograph of himself, for he was no swain, so in a postscript he instead told Miss Mihara she could identify him by the white carnation in his suitcoat lapel.

In the meantime, Dr. Flint pinned the classified ad and its photograph of Aiko next to the bathroom mirror. She was becoming important to him.

Six weeks passed with frustrating laxity, but he was indeed in a fine suit with a white carnation as he got off the ferry at Angel Island and observed stern immigration officials in suits shouting mangled, misunderstood instructions to a weary, huddling, and frightened group of Japanese women in formal dress. Looking on were Japanese men of a variety of ages and income groups, as well as a few Americans like him, but not as well off or elderly.

Aiko seemed missing, so with the confidence of a surgeon used to having his way in the world, Dr. Flint strode forward and interrupted an official with, “I say, old sport, which one is Aiko Mihara?”

The official frowned but, faced with the surgeon’s certainty and intimidation, the civil servant’s indignation fled, and he looked at the forms he held. “We have no Aiko Mihara.” He licked a finger to flip through his sheaf of papers and then fixed on another name. Almost as a question, he said, “There’s a Yokai Mihara …”

Was it a misspelling? A transliteration? The surgeon asked, “Where? Which?”

The official lifted his nose toward a pretty girl in her late teens who stood apart from the main group of picture brides, as if seeking not to be included. And Dr. Flint was humiliated that she did not smile when she recognized the older man with the white carnation.

“You’ll have 15 minutes to get to know each other,” the official said, “then you all will have your weddings on the dock.”

An old Japanese woman interpreted for them for less than those 15 minutes, and after an initial conversation with Miss Mihara she explained that the classified ad for the picture bride had been written by a friend in Osaka. The interpreter noted, “She say she is only study English onboard ship, but she promise to learn very hard.”

“And is her name Aiko or Yokai?”

The interpreter seemed puzzled or displeased for some reason but spoke Japanese and reported the answer. “Is Aiko. Which mean ‘love, affection, beauty.’ Pretty name. Common for girl.”

“And is she willing to marry me?”

The interpreter decided not to indulge him. “Sure,” she said.

“Would you please ask?”

The interpreter sighed but made the inquiry in Japanese, and the physician saw the girl gently nod as she offered a comment that could in fact have been an assent. “Like I say,” the interpreter told him, and then hustled off to another fumbling couple.

Dr. Flint tried a Japanese phrase he’d memorized for the occasion: “Ohayu gozaimasu.”

His tone or pronunciation may have been off because Miss Mihara frowned with curiosity before finally understanding and matching his greeting with the English: “Good mo-ning.”

“Ogenki desu ka?” he asked. How are you?

She smiled. “Good,” she said. “Hah-py.”

Each then seemed to have arrived at their limitations and were shy and silent until an official with a bullhorn called them dockside.

Some arrangements seemed to have fallen through or grooms had lately become overcautious and cowardly, for some girls there were unclaimed. But other plucky and yearning rescuers stepped in so that most of the picture brides finally found spouses and in a rather cursory ceremony were joined in matrimony en masse on the dock. Hardly any of the couples kissed at the wedding’s conclusion. Even though officially husband and wife, it still seemed too forward. Dr. Flint himself intended a gentleman’s hug, but Aiko offered only the formal bow he associated with geishas.

And that was their way over the next weeks. She was accommodating, undemanding, as smiling as a hostess, and gratefully agreed to wear his lost wife’s underthings and dresses, for she owned but a satchel of clothing. She immediately assumed the jobs of cook and maid, collected eggs and milked the cow in the morning, and at meals seemed genuinely to listen as he filled the silence in their neat-as-a-pin mail-order home with an immensity of facts about himself. “Watashi wa isha desu,” he said. I was a doctor. She nodded, not without boredom, and he realized he’d quite often informed her of his high status. Still, he went on talking because she didn’t. Was his a full life? Was he successful? Somehow, he thought not. And what was her history, her ambitions? Without a shared language, each of them was without a past. Was eerily a mystery. And so he filled the room with words until in self-criticism he said once, “Oh dear. I’m bloviating.” Although she could not possibly understand what he meant, she kindly shook her head as if to say politely, “Not at all.”

One night he stirred up the recklessness to invite Aiko into his bedroom to finally consummate their marriage. But his fears about the wreckage of his physique and the -imbalance in their ages made it fraudulent and unnatural as he initially opened to illustrations in an anatomy textbook and hoped he got across the notion of a medical examination. Like it was finally necessary, a governmental regulation. With hand signals, he got Aiko to fully disrobe and for just a moment marveled at the girl’s fine naked body. She caught his glance of appreciation and seemed amused as he first scientifically checked her hair, eyes, ears, teeth, and lymph nodes. And as he was going for his stethoscope, she shamelessly gripped him, the hand lingered, and she gave him pleasure even as she taught him to kiss as the Japanese do. She called him Hiram for the first time.

Waking early the next morning to their first fallings now, Hiram felt so youthful he got into his winter clothes, jarred open Aiko’s bedroom door just enough to ensure she was still sleeping, then went outside, a shotgun in his yellow-gloved hands, intending to hunt some rabbits for a stew. And yet he was so exhilarated by the night’s romance that he failed to lift his gun in time even when he flushed a bevy of quail from skunk brush, hearing the burr and clatter of fly-away fowl yet only wondering when he could impose upon his pretty wife again.

Wading through ever-accumulating snow, however, he saw a slew of rabbit tracks and felt obliged to follow them, hitting a skittering one with a quick twelve-gauge shot that flipped it into a somersault, then overturning another with a loud blast just seconds later. Hiram stowed his kills in his rucksack and was heading home, fully satisfied with himself, when he fell sideways into a deep drift. It was then that he heard an odd kind of wren’s chirping that was also like the squeaking of a child’s squeeze toy. The old man fought his way to upright against a jack pine and then saw high above him on a steep hillside an animal far larger than a dog and with golden-brown eyes staring down. Like he was prey, sure, but unworthy of further effort, for Hiram was too far below. The tawny cougar yawned his mouth open like a lion in full roar but with a cougar’s telltale warning that was joined growl and hiss and snore. The shock of seeing the cat held Hiram frightened and stock-still until he finally shouldered his shotgun for insurance and shakily aimed. The cougar seemed to take that as an affront and merely snarled a farewell before shambling off into the hiddenness of the forest.

Rushing home, Hiram found Aiko awake in the kitchen, cooking steamed rice and miso soup. Her husband excitedly described the cougar he’d faced off, and though she missed the content, she caught his tone and seemed vexed.

“Yokai?” she asked.

In ignorance of the meaning, he just nodded. And then in a sort of panic he asked, “Will our chickens and cattle be safe, do you think?”

She frowned, and he answered himself by going to the barn and saddling his mare.

His herd was in a harvested cornfield in the snow, chewing the rattling cornstalks or nosing underneath the snow for the prize of fallen yellow grain. Hiram cowboyed the cattle as he’d seen done on the family farm in Modesto before the Civil War. But his quarter horse was superior enough to cattle to do much of the corralling work for him, even with sudden mavericks, Hiram’s own steering with the reins becoming just an order to ignore.

Herding his livestock into the paddock beside the barn, Hiram hit their hindquarters with a stick. “Hut hut,” he yelled, “Yah! Yah!” Some were recalcitrant and bucked aside and shoved him, but Aiko was watching from the front door and hurried off the front porch in his wife’s raccoon overcoat. She could never have dealt with cattle before, but the girl pushed and collided with them, loudly yelling her own Japanese words to scare them forward until they were crowded into fenced safety.

Hiram latched the gate shut and said, “Arigato, darling,” but she just swatted cow stink off her overcoat and quietly went back inside the house.

He heaved silage onto the snow with a pitchfork and the cattle stolidly went to it, then he tested the hook lock and fencing wire on the chicken coop before returning to his new wife’s cooking.

She was at the kitchen counter, skinning the rabbits she’d found in his rucksack. She got their blood on her fingers and furtively licked it off. She noticed but did not understand the doctor’s dismay. She smiled. And then he smiled too. “I love you so much,” he said.

She put a skillet on the hot stovetop and watched a spoonful of lard softly melt.

Even doing just that she was beautiful.

As she cooked, curiosity caused Hiram to wander into the front room and his filled bookcase, getting down the Japanese-language dictionary he’d mail-ordered soon after he’d first written his picture bride. Yokai was defined as a ghost or evil spirit in Japanese folklore. And he recalled the immigration official on Angel Island: “There’s a Yokai Mihara …”

Would parents give such a name to their offspring?


Snowfall followed snowfall for the next few days and rose as high as the windowsills. Aiko wore his wife’s too-big galoshes to do predawn chores. She wrapped her skull and ears under a black woolen scarf. Each of them vigilantly looked for a predator in the wooded surround whenever they went out. And on the third morning she ducked into the barn as Hiram hefted a haybale toward the paddock, hiking it up with a knee to heave it over the fence. His cattle were restless in the cold but then crowded close together to get at the hay bale as soon as his pitchfork broke it apart.

And then he saw she was standing at the side door to the barn, a still-empty milk pail in hand, and waving him inside.

“What?” he called. “What?”

“Yokai,” she said. She went into the night of the barn and he scrambled after.

The milk cow was fine but swollen and in want of relief. His quarter horse hung her head low as if in grief over the calf in her stall. It was a steer that was bled out and was now hours dead, the neck and belly feasted on and ugly. The surgeon crouched closer to the injuries and recognized that the calf’s succulent thymus gland was torn away, and the leaf of the pancreas, those delicacies that fancy chefs called the sweetmeats. And he was chilled as he imagined Aiko lying there, wildly attacked and oozing life.

He stood. His wife was watching his face with concern. “We’re in grave danger,” he said. And with resolve, “I’ll have to kill it.”

Aiko went to the house as he saddled his horse, and she was back with his Remington shotgun as he was tightening the cinch. She waved to him like a wife in a Western as he heroically rode off. “Ki o tsukete!” she called, and he knew the words. Be careful.

Another night’s snow had erased any comings and goings of the mountain lion, so Hiram rode alongside the creek near where he’d first confronted the carnivore. But the forest understory got too low for his horse, and he got off to slog through the snow on his own, stooping underneath firs, sequoias, and incense cedars for a hard, wearying morning.

With no hint of the catamount, and with his toes and fingers aching from frostbite, Hiram gave up at noon. “And don’t come back!” he yelled as a joke before turning around and following the sloshed signs of his galoshes back to his horse. And then he was jolted to recognize that inside each of his deep boot prints were the cougar’s paw-prints as well, and that all the time he’d been walking he had been ever so silently and patiently stalked. I could have been killed, he thought.

Another flurry of snow fully disappeared his property underneath a white gauze, and he lost his way. Warily, he relaxed the hold on the reins and his horse ploddingly finally found the red barn. Even then his house was so whited out that Hiram strode forward with his hands outstretched and feeling in vain for objects and interference until a sheet of snow flew by and he briefly saw Aiko in front of the porch in her raccoon overcoat, his Winchester rifle hoisted awkwardly against her shoulder and a finger snug on the trigger as she faced him with vengeance.

“Aiko,” he yelled, “it’s me!”

Without warning she fired, and he foolishly ducked even as there was a sudden scream behind him. Hiram spun to find the cougar just a pace away, shot in mid-leap. Blood oozed from the head and slurred pinkly into the snow.

Aiko put the rifle down and ran to Hiram, crying and shrieking in Japanese. She seemed at once haunted, scared, sorry, relieved, and overcome with love for him. She kissed him half a hundred times, as if she were giving him back his life. But he again turned his scientific attention to the Puma concolor that was, without necessity of examination, most certainly dead. Shot between the eyes.

Aiko said in English, “You boo-ry now?” Inside the question was an insistence.

“Bury it? Right now?” Stinging snow was still flying sideways on the wind.

“Yes, you need. You boo-ry right now!”

The ferocity was new, and somewhat terrifying. With a meekness he disliked, he went inside the barn for a pickax and shovel. The farm’s former owners had left behind a toboggan, and he rolled the mountain lion onto it.

Just the first few inches of earth were frozen behind the barn, the farthest he would stray in such a blizzard. He dug down only far enough to roughly cover the animal, for he was feeling the overexertion, and then he hoisted the sled into a tilt that forced the cougar into the grave.

And yokai it was, for he shoveled his pile of dirt until the cougar was fully covered and Hiram was forced to rest, panting, on the toboggan. In that gap, however, the earth moved and the far-gone cougar struggled up from it. He shook off sure death like rainwater, snarled a farewell at Hiram that was all fangs and menace, and then walked regally away until he vanished behind a curtain of snow.

Shock had frozen Hiram. Such things do not happen. Was he tired enough to invent them? His heart was hammering as he trudged to the house, seeing a koi pond of blood that was now brown as tea in the snow and was proof of at least … what?

You can imagine the emotions, the questions, the uncertainties, the willies oh so common with the uncanny and the occult. His foreign wife was even more upset than he was. There was so much to say yet neither owned enough Japanese or English to make themselves fully understood. But it was in his scientific nature to talk and puzzle things out, so Aiko filled a saucepan with water and put it on the stove as she listened to him go on, and then introduced his ice-cold, stockingless feet to the hot water for their restoration as she clasped his cold hands inside her dress and against the soft heat of her breasts.

And then he heard Aiko waking him with, “War-um now?”

“Warm?” he asked. “Hai.” Yes. “I drifted off. Confusion, exhaustion. Reacting to the too-muchness of all this.”

She was kneeling in front of him. She got up. “Ranchi?” she asked. Lunch?

“Oh, I shan’t eat, I don’t think. I’m too stirred up.”

“You eat,” she insisted and went to the icebox.

But she fell. She crumpled. She was upright and then, just like that, lifeless on the floor.

“Aiko!” he cried as he threw off his blanket, sloshing water as he rushed to her in his wet feet.

The girl’s eyes stared upward at nothing. His fingers felt for a pulse at the carotid artery and, failing that, the wrist. He got a matchbox from a kitchen drawer, scraped fire, and saw that the yellow flame did not flutter or waver as he held it near Aiko’s nose, her mouth.

Hiram hurried upstairs for his stethoscope. Her skin was cooling, and wherever he placed the chest piece, his sweet wife’s heart was completely without sound. He was kneeling. He sat back on his calves, his hands at his sides. His torso jerked and shook as he wept. There was a wild, keening sound from him that he identified with his own infancy.

An hour may have passed in that way. Aiko just lying there on the floor finally seemed indecent, so he laid the girl on the cherrywood dining room tabletop, where he sat beside her, his hand on a hand, mourning her for a full and terrible afternoon.

And when it was dark, Hiram heard the feline on the prowl, caterwauling, the noise of him seeking a mate was like a scratchy, high-pitched child’s cry, anger in it but nothing lion about it.

With his loss and in a rage, Hiram got his Winchester and went on a hunt for the marauder. In the high snow, each forward step was a hard lunge and a fight. He wore himself out scouring the yard and paddock and coop but found no sign of the cougar, and the falling snow was quieting the night. So Hiram went back toward the house lights, and while he was still outside, he saw the front door was wide open, and he heard the high yowl of an animal in the worst sort of pain.

And inside the house, he found the cougar was again dead, with injuries identical to those of the calf they’d lost. And his lovely wife was upright and alive in the kitchen, cooking sweetmeats in a skillet. She smiled innocently when she saw him there.

There’s more strangeness in this world than most people realize. And so Hiram lifted up a tipped-over chair, wiped away the snow wet of the cat’s paws on the cherrywood, and he just watched Yokai with a patient kind of reverence, pleased to be waiting for whatever would happen next.


Ron Hansen is a Nebraska native and the author of 10 novels — including The Kid, Mariette in Ecstasy, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion — and two short story collections, among them She Loves Me Not.

Reprinted by permission of SLL/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Copyright by Ron Hansen 2023. First appeared in Narrative Magazine.

This article is featured in the May/June 2024 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. This is one wild story Mr. Hansen; full of surprises (to say the least), from beginning to end.


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