Set in the fictional college town of Deaton, Montana, The Wolf Tone centers
unlikely friendship between two drastically different women. Margot Fickett is
principal cellist for the Deaton Symphony Orchestra. Eva Baker is a
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
marijuana business, the reason she wants her child support money in the first
Over the course of a tumultuous Montana spring, Margot
and Eva witness one another’s difficult, often poorly thought-out decisions. As
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
surrounding mountain ranges still slumbered under blankets of white. The night
accident, a new moon held the canyon in complete dark and Margot Fickett
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
crowd, a dozen players in their half circle gazing at one another, smiling as
plucked, and tapped their cellos. The audience was captivated; every soul in the
breathed in transcendent harmony. Once a musician felt this, knew that it was
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,
transfer of food, the male bringing dinner.
Margot sat up, pulling on a sweatshirt. Next to her, Andy
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
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
off almost to the knee. Astonishing, the absence of boy. As recently as the
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
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
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
Margot was just hearing about it though she suspected Andy might have known
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
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
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,
onto the tie, following it away from the house. The Suburban was pulled forward
she realized; she had to sidestep around its front bumper, which turned out to
Barefoot, holding the bag aloft, Margot lost her balance. Her arms wheeled madly
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
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.
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
Benji went back to school. Andy’s bluegrass band, The
Wilmas, started their tour. He put off joining them until after Margot had
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
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
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
eyes, her hand jerked and she had to restart the process. The owl’s face was
in its hostility, the feather horns like angled eyebrows and the vicious, hooked
creature appeared outraged by the invasion of privacy. Its stillness was
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
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
finale piece, one she’d rehearsed exhaustively since January.
She was out, of course—not a chance she’d play before
Bernstein’s Berlin performance, from after the wall’s
collapse, was the recording their maestro liked best, though he felt it was too
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
“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
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
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
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’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
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.
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
Dolly’s was at the front, facing Randolph Avenue. An antler
arch encased the entrance, hundreds of deer antlers wired together to create an
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
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
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
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
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
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
placed fringed lamps, lace pillows and rows of colored glass bottles. All of
this came from the
“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
out. Eva reached into a pocket and handed it to him. He turned to show her. It
was a pack of
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
her shoulder. And how was it she couldn’t remember the drive to town, all those
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
been finger pointing. Regrettable, all of it. Some kind of mix-up. Eva had the
Margot may have suggested as much, for Eva mentioned The Wilmas, Andy’s band. So
That proved nothing. Type the name ‘Fickett’ in Google and anybody could come up
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
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,
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
bedfellows, a resonant tale about the choices we make, the secrets we keep, and
misguided) expectations regarding love, children, and career. No Airbnb booking
Women's Fiction |
[Elixir Press, On Sale: January 1, 2019, Paperback, ISBN:
9781932418682 / ]
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
in bookstores and edited manuscripts, college essays, textbooks and artist
holds an MA in Literature from the University of Wyoming, and an MFA from the
College Program for Writers. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook of
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
Review. She has been honored with a residency at Vermont Studio Center and a
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
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