The breeze carried a taste of prairie winter the first time Mark and Sofia passed the business with barred windows. It was just down Princess Street from their favorite Exchange District restaurant, Deer + Almond, where they’d consumed morsels of braised lamb shanks and smoked wild sockeye, followed by Ontario icewine and caramel salted chocolate cake.
In a brick building with limestone facade, the store seemed a throwback from another era. The thick iron bars on the windows reminded Mark of those at Lower Fort Garry that had kept supplies, pelts, and munitions safe from marauders in the 1800s.
Suppressing an urge to peer beyond the bars, he backed away from whatever security cameras or motion detectors might be waiting to entrap him. The police headquarters was right down the street. Mark had never been arrested and didn’t want to start now.
Sofia had no such fear, even though she was walking around with an expired tourist visa. Her tangerine-tipped fingers clenched the security bars as she pressed her face closer like she was trying to kiss the glass. He’d once admired her fearlessness. But now that things between them were disintegrating, the bravado seemed like reckless disregard.
The Exchange District was sketchy, a place where you could buy illicit drugs, underage girls, and stolen merchandise on one street, and the next block over enjoy some of the city’s best art or gourmet food. Suspicious characters skulked in shadows of storefronts, conducting shady business. But as Sofia reminded him, the neighborhood was tame compared to the Rio favelas where she grew up.
Excited by whatever was beyond the bars, Sofia let her bright wrap fall. Mark felt her shivers as he rehung it over her bare shoulders, but she didn’t seem to notice she was cold or him trying to warm her.
A vaguely orgasmic sigh escaped her lips. “What is it?” he asked.
She made the sound again, a cake of sweet longing iced with unrepressed desire, and his chest softened. “What?” he asked again.
“Look at all those fur coats,” she said. “I want one.”
He glanced in the window, and recoiled in disgust. Instead of coats, he saw forest creatures turned into luxury garments, heavy security cables threaded through their sleeves, the horror of lynxes, foxes, raccoons, and minks being clobbered or electrocuted with anal probes and skinned while still alive.
“But they’re…” He stopped himself, unable to say the word “animals.”
When they met on that Amazon tour last year, it was Mark’s first trip after the divorce. He wanted to see the rainforest before it disappeared. He was staring up at a strangler fig entwined in a giant kapok, when Sofia slipped up behind him, her voice joining the chorus of birds, frogs, and howler monkeys. She was a sinewy vine in pink shorts and tank top, a languid river flowing in his direction.
When she spoke to him, he couldn’t believe his luck. She knew everything there was to know about the Amazon. She seemed to like him. And so, after the trip, he invited her to visit him in Canada.
“What’s it like there?” she’d asked.
“Cold,” he’d said. “But not that cold until winter.”
Inviting her was an impulse, just like the trip to the Amazon. He didn’t expect she’d answer. He’d been telling friends he wanted to change his life. Had some vision of turning from a predictable financial analyst into a fun-loving adventurer. His friends were too kind to call it what it was—a midlife crisis.
At first, being the man she’d met on vacation wasn’t difficult. Her desire made him feel alive. But as time passed, he felt like he couldn’t relax. Like if he revealed himself, she’d find him boring. He’d expected Sofia to stay a week or two, but it had been two months and she showed no sign of leaving.
They’d spent summer weekends at his friends’ cottages, waterskiing and swimming—Sofia modeling her extensive collection of bathing suits—and his friends, even the women—found her irresistible. She was enthusiastic about everything: the wheat fields, the muddy rivers, even mundane things like clothes dryers, lawn sprinklers, supermarkets. Him.
With winter’s approach, she became moody and distant. When she looked at him now, her eyes skittered away, rendering him invisible. He felt the disappointment of opening an ornately wrapped gift and finding an empty box.
He wondered if, after she left, he’d remember the purple-and-red orchid shawl more than the body it had adorned. The bright wings of fabric flapping behind her as she sauntered around the apartment. The wrap’s hypnotic swirls revealing glimpses of tanned breast as she sat at his table drinking coffee.
When she wore it on the streets, she looked like an orchid blooming in a wheat field. She was a head-turner in her three-inch heels and three-hundred-dollar jeans, sparkly bling, lots of makeup—making Mark in his earth-toned sweaters and corduroys feel dull by comparison.
Her longing for a fur coat persisted. November gave way to December, subzero temperatures and talk of Christmas gifts, but no talk of her leaving. Her shivering became more pronounced, exaggerated even, in the second-hand wool coat he bought her. She mocked the nylon puff parkas people wore, saying they looked like bubble wrap, and increasingly spent entire days staring out the window at the freezing river, flipping through fashion magazines.
Several times, she’d visited the furrier’s website, with its lusty women in plasticky red lipstick, rubbing wild animal skins against their naked flesh.
“Don’t you think killing an animal for its fur is a little barbaric?” he asked.
Sofia stared at him, blinking false eyelashes and biting her plump lips in puzzlement. “Is killing them to eat any better?”
If he’d had an answer to his own hypocrisy, maybe he could have maintained some moral high ground and ordered her to leave. But he didn’t.
The next time Sofia suggested Deer + Almond for a late lunch, he balked, thinking she’d drag him to that horrible store. “Wouldn’t you rather go to Carnaval and have steaks and caipirinhas?” he cajoled.
Carnaval was down by the Red River, a long walk from the furrier. She insisted on Deer + Almond. This time they had fried Cornish hen and coffee-crusted tenderloin, and because it was a cold day, shots of small-batch bourbon.
He’d parked on Ballantyne, away from the fur store, but when he headed in that direction after lunch, she tugged his sleeve. “Let’s look at the furs,” she said. “I just want to try one on.”
Mark grimaced. “I’m not buying one. Those coats cost thousands—and besides, I can’t support wearing animal fur.”
“Chill out,” she said, eyes flashing with the power of using a phrase she’d recently learned. “I just want to look.”
Her disdainful tone startled him, and he thought about telling her it was over right there. But he didn’t want to make a scene in public.
It was just past three, but already the sky was dimming in preparation for another long winter night. Golden light leaked from the fur store’s barred windows. A discreet sign advertised: Sydney Glaserman Furs. Western Canada’s Oldest Furrier.
Sofia pressed the security buzzer beside the gray metal door, and smiled into the surveillance camera’s red eye like she was posing for a selfie. When the door buzzed open, the rancid smell of animal hides assailed Mark’s nostrils.
A gentleman with silver hair rose from his chair and buttoned the jacket of his charcoal suit with exaggerated formality. “Looking for anything in particular?” he asked.
“Just looking,” Mark said firmly. Then added: “Many people buying fur these days?”
The man fixed him with narrowed eyes. “Some are settling for faux fur, but natural fur is still the best choice for both beauty and warmth,” he said, sounding like a flack for the Fur Institute. “And fur is more eco-friendly. We use renewable resources—and no endangered species—while faux, made of nonrenewable petroleum products, only clogs landfills.”
The furrier pinioned Mark with a cold stare before his eyes drifted to Sofia. His back-and-forth glance seemed to ask: How did such a mediocre guy land such a magnificent creature?
“So what kind of fur is the lady interested in?” he asked, picking up the heavy key ring to unlock the cables securing his expensive merchandise.
Sofia gazed at the racks of fur coats and jackets extending to the back of the store. “Something warm. Where I’m from it doesn’t get this cold.”
“And where is that?”
“Brazil,” she said.
“Ahh yes. The land of thong bikinis.” He smirked, shaking his key ring.
Mark fumed by the window as the furrier unlocked coat after coat, slipping each one over her shoulders, moving up in price range from rabbit to raccoon to fox.
Several times Sofia called out, asking, “How does this look?” But each time Mark just said, “Fine,” so she eventually gave up.
He stared out the window at the darkening sky. The day waning, only a few people were on the street. Every now and then, he caught Sofia smiling as the furrier ran his hand down the length of a coat. When he slipped the lynx over Sofia’s shoulders, she moaned with pleasure.
The streetlights came on. Something about them made Mark think of his kids; being warm and cozy on a cold winter night. He hadn’t seen them since the lunch with Sofia, when they signaled their obvious disapproval. His daughter ran a dog rescue, had been vegan for years. His son was a veterinarian. How had that happened? Of course both Mark and his ex-wife loved animals.
Mark remembered hearing about how in the Northern Territories and the Yukon, packs of wolves circled the metal traps howling. Even though the traps were buried under snow, the wolves could sense them. Besides the stories of animals gnawing off their own legs to escape, there were tales of wolf packs attacking trappers, ripping off their fur parkas and leather leggings, leaving them to freeze to death.
Sofia gasped as the furrier slipped another skin over her shoulders. It looked like golden chinchilla, an animal from her part of the world. She stared into the mirror glassy eyed. From Mark’s vantage point, she looked like a rodent standing on its hind legs, sniffing around for food.
Mark looked at her one more time as he stood up to leave. Saw rising fear in her eyes as she tried to pull away. But it was too late for that now. The furrier had her by the arm and refused to let go.