Wednesday, December 01, 2004

HUNTING DAY (a short story)

[I posted this on the Schola story board a couple months back, but have done two things since then: 1) gone hunting, and 2) realized this is still how it is.]

In the silent darkness, his alarm sounds. He reaches a sleepy arm and shuts it off. As he pulls his warm blankets closer around his ears, one clear thought suddenly forms and he opens his eyes wide and swings his legs out of his bed into the chilly, dark air of the silent room. The cold floor is a shock to his bare feet.The best mornings in the year, he thinks to himself, and sits yawning on the edge of the bed for a few moments while his eyes adjust to the darkness. Then he stands, feels his way in the darkness to the chair by the door and dresses quietly in heavy wool clothing, laces his boots, and walking softly into the kitchen, opens the draft a bit on the wood stove, then sets his ready pack near the back door. He lays two logs on the smoldering fire in the stove so the house will be warm when his family rises in a couple of hours. He fries eggs and bacon and makes coffee and sits at the table in the warm, dim kitchen listening to the distant drone of logging trucks on the dark highway across the river as he sips his coffee. Then he returns to the bedroom and pulls the covers higher around the sleeping form of his wife as he would have done for himself a few minutes ago. She looks so warm, he thinks; I'm glad she's here to come home to. He looks into the other bedroom at the children and sees only dark heads on pillows. By one small head is a toy rifle, by another a stuffed bear. He purses his lips and closes the door. He grabs his pack and rifle and shuts off the kitchen light, and the hunter steps into the cold, dark November morning.

He stands on the step breathing the chill air, and thinks for a moment about those sleeping figures in the house before walking away.

The air is cold against his face, waking him fully as he walks through the fields towards the dark outline of woods ahead, but he is warm in his coat, the weight of his rifle is satisfying, and his feet feel good in the heavy boots. It's good that it's always the same, he thinks. Every autumn the good feel of cold air and warm clothes and matches in my pocket and a lunch in my pack and my rifle. This is how every autumn will be.

The stars overhead shine blue-white and icy. As he walks, he whispers the names of the figures overhead, his company every year—Orion setting in the west, the Twins following him, the Lion nearly overhead and the Dog Star low toward the southern horizon. In the east, black sky begins to fade to purple as he walks, and he can begin to make out the few remaining yellow leaves hanging on the birches in the fence row as he passes--'bare ruined choirs,' he says softly-- and the trees in the edge of the wood take on their own outlines as he approaches.

As the eastern sky brightens, he steps into the wood and his eyes must readjust to the darkness there, but he continues to walk deeper into the trees. The smell of damp logs and earth and decaying leaves and the sharp scent of moss and pine needles, and the soft sighing of the early morning wind in the tops of the trees makes him ache somewhere inside. He never knew why, but it always did.

He thinks of the animals ghosting in the late autumn trees somewhere near as they begin to move in the early morning twilight, and he imagines them stepping softly through the woods all around him.

He stops on the edge of a small clearing and watches for a few minutes, then slowly settles on a stump, partially obscured by bushes, and huddles deep into his coat and cradles his rifle on his lap with his hands shoved into the warmth of his pockets. He waits and watches. The sky overhead grows lighter as he sits quietly, and as he watches the woods become more and more clear. The muted green of the fir branches is broken by the bare limbs of old alders and cedars, dead long ago. He keeps his eyes moving, trying not to daydream, slowly turning his head from side to side. It's almost time, he thinks. The deer are moving. He stands up and moves his fingers and toes to warm them, then begins walking quietly deeper into the forest.

At the bottom of a small rise thick with aspen and fir, he hears a branch snap off through the trees. His eyes widen, then narrow, and he listens intently as he moves in the direction of the sound, carefully, stepping over twigs in his path, breathing as softly as he can, moving slowly to keep his breathing slow. He quietly pushes aside the sweet-smelling cedar branches that block his passage, and ducks under low fir boughs. He hears another snap, a little closer. It hasn't seen me, he thinks, and stops next to a large fir trunk to break his outline. He listens. In the gloom of the deep forest, he can't see far through the trees but it doesn’t matter. Every low bush looks like a deer standing still and watching him but he knows that he’ll know when it’s not a bush. His rifle is up and he aims it ahead and sights through the scope, trying to see a little better through the dimness. He hears no more sounds, so he waits a few minutes, then moves again, slowly, carefully.

The hunter climbs the rise, placing his feet carefully, working his way step by careful step around the edge of the clearing at the top. Tall yellow grasses sway slightly in the chilly air as a breeze comes up briefly, and the hunter thinks now of keeping himself downwind of the animal he is stalking. He pauses, then begins to backtrack and works his way down and around the bottom edge of the clearing. The light is strong overhead now, and the sun hits the tops of the firs, but down in the undergrowth the early morning twilight hangs on. His fancy still makes deer of bushes on the edge of his sight and his rifle is up as he stalks.

Again, he hears a twig break and he knows he is close. This moment comes every year. Days of cold air and wet woods and silences for hours and deep, slow pleasure with no urgency at all. And then this moment, a brief excitement, a climactic explosion, and the satisfied homecoming. Every year it's like this and every year it will be like this. Long hours in the cold autumn woods with no thought but silence and a slow tred and the slow deliberate pleasure of the hunt. There is another snap, and then he realizes that his heart is beating fast, and he deliberately breathes in order to slow it. He takes a few more cautious steps, staring hard between tree trunks and through brush, straining for the glimpse of tawny brown that will suddenly and quietly be there and he will be shocked, as always, at the presence of the living animal before raising his rifle.

Through the trees, bushes move ever so slightly. His heart skips and he freezes beside a tree trunk. The hunter takes a breath and raises his rifle to shoulder level. He thinks, I'll be doing this when I'm an old man, just like my grandfather. It's who he was. Not so much the shooting, but the woods, the autumn, every year, the slow expectant and infinitely unhurried life of the patient woods, and then the deer hanging from the barn rafters one evening. I'm my father, my grandfather. The discipline of the eyes, the breath, the steps, the early rising, the love of the silence and the comfortable knowledge of things around and overhead. The thoughts pass through his head as he watches the bushes intently. And as he watches he sees the movement again just where his eyes are resting. There it is! he thinks, now! His blood rushes, he gasps quietly, steps away from the tree, his gun to his shoulder, his finger on the trigger.