Definitely a He. Not a She. Not an It. Belleza hadn't any notion why, except that all her trespassers had been He-s. This one joined a long history of He-s.

Belleza approached the trees. They were empty, complicated and serene. Tatters of left-over snow lay on the hard ground. Snow had pressed the fallen leaves into flat, brittle mosaics. She saw no evidence of a creature having fled this way.

So many He-s! Four sons, grown and scattered. Two husbands, the first incidental, the second dead. An unloved father who should be dead but lingered in a nursing home. Twin brothers, in far countries. A series of male bosses, bureaucrats, middle-managers. Even her cat, a used-to-be He.

Henri_Rousseau_001.jpgBelleza entered the woods at the path. It began next to a cluster of vigorous saplings that had sprung up around a fallen oak. Three years ago, when she moved to this place, the path had been a whisper. Since then she had redefined it with constant walking. The trail looped maze-like through forty-some acres of neglected land, most of which she did not own.

Her son Gerald, the academic one, the one who lived closest, had poked about at the local library. He'd learned that during the Civil War the property belonged to an abolitionist Quaker. The man was a radical. He planted cotton and corn and paid free blacks for their labor. The war ruined him. Among other misfortunes, he lost his crops two consecutive years because of skirmishes fought on his land. They were brief but deadly encounters, unmarked and mostly forgotten.

Belleza could reasonably assume that ghosts roamed the woods grown up over the Quaker's fields. That comforted her. Now, as always when she walked, Belleza kept an eye out for soldier boys. She expected to meet their spirits one day. It would be the sign she was waiting for, the sign that she was dead.

Even my angels are He-s, Belleza thought.

The trail turned downward into a ravine. Snow lingered on its northern slope. At the bottom lay the rocky bed of a wet weather creek. Here the temperature dropped, and the air grew stony.

Belleza heard the creature first.