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The narrator describes a certain type of poor, elderly woman. All country people have seen a woman like this, he says, but she is usually ignored. The narrator recalls a particular old woman who would walk past his house on her way in and out of town, laden with a heavy pack and followed by two or three large, gaunt dogs. The old woman was “nothing special,” but thoughts of her have stayed with him and he suddenly recalls what happened to her.
The woman’s name was Grimes, and she lived with her husband, Jake, and their son in a small house several miles out of town. Both men were tough and violent. The narrator recalls a time when he encountered Jake Grimes at Tom Whitehead’s livery barn. None of the men there would speak to Grimes, who left after shooting the men a menacing glance.
Jake met his future wife at the farm of a German couple, where he was briefly employed and she labored as an indentured servant. The girl quickly agreed to leave the German, who had sexually assaulted her on several occasions. The German discovered their plan, and the two men engaged in a violent fight before Jake and the girl were able to escape. The narrator wonders how he came to know these details, because the events occurred long before he was born.
The woman and Jake had a son and daughter. The narrator mentions that the daughter died but says nothing else about her. The Grimes men work little, and the burden of maintaining the livestock falls to the old woman, who is always scheming about how to get everything fed. The woman’s husband and son often go off for weeks at a time, leaving her with no money or support.
One day during the winter, the old woman goes into town with a few eggs tucked into her old grain bag. A few large farm dogs follow at her heels. At the butcher shop, the butcher, furious that an old, obviously sick woman should be out on such a cold day, tells her that he’d rather see her husband and son starve than get any of the meat he is about to give her. The old woman doesn’t speak, but she is mildly surprised at his reaction.
Exhausted and sore, the old woman makes her way through the woods with the pack strapped to her back. She follows a path to a small clearing, where she sits down to rest, eventually closing her eyes and falling asleep.
The four Grimes dogs have picked up a few other farm dogs, and after going off to chase rabbits for a while, they come back to the clearing, excited about something. On a cold, clear night, the narrator says, some old instinct might take hold of these kinds of dogs. The dogs run silently around the clearing in what the narrator calls “a kind of death ceremony.” Each dog takes turns nosing up against the old woman as she dies. The narrator says that, even though he wasn’t present, he knows what happened because years later, as an adult, he once found himself in the woods on a winter night and saw a pack of dogs act the same way.
The old woman dies quietly, and when she does, the dogs stop running. They gather around her and drag the large pack of meat and soup bones away.
The dogs do not touch the old woman’s body. When a rabbit hunter finds her a day or two later, her frozen body is so slight and narrow that she looks like a young girl. The narrator is following along on his brother’s newspaper-delivery route when the hunter comes to town with his news. The hunter and the town marshal lead a group of townsmen out to the woods to see the body. When the group arrives at the clearing, the narrator notes that the woman does not, in fact, look old. Neither he nor his brother has ever seen a woman’s naked body before. In the snow, she looks white and lovely.
When the party arrives back in town, the men take the body to the undertaker’s and shut the door. The boys go home and the brother tells the family what happened, but the narrator keeps silent and goes to bed early. Jake Grimes and his son are found and questioned, and though they could not be implicated in the old woman’s death, the townspeople’s disapproval drives them out of town.
The narrator only remembers the image of the woman’s body in the clearing. He says that somehow that scene has become “the foundation for the real story I am now trying to tell.” In a disconnected fashion, he describes how, as a young man, he worked for a German farmer whose hired girl feared him. Later, he had a strange encounter with a pack of dogs in a forest on a winter night. He recounts how, as a child one summer day, he and a friend went to the old Grimes house, which had been abandoned except for a pair of tall, gaunt dogs.
The narrator compares the woman’s story to a piece of faint music, heard from far away, which needs to be listened to slowly before it is truly understood. He claims that he and his brother were too young at the time to fully understand the point of the story. “A thing so complete has its own beauty,” he says. He ends by saying that he won’t emphasize the point: he’s only trying to explain why, so many years later, he is telling the story over again.