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Bay of Soulsby Robert Stone
"By gad, sir,? Michael Ahearn said to his son, Paul, ?you present a distressing spectacle.?
A few nights earlier they had watched The Maltese Falcon together. Paul, who had never seen it before, was delighted by his father?s rendering of Sydney Greenstreet. Sometimes he would even try doing Greenstreet himself.
?By gad, sir!?
Paul?s attempts at movie voices were not subtle but commanded inflections normally beyond the comic repertory of a twelve-year-old boy from a small town on the northern plains. His voice and manner were coming to resemble his father?s.
The boy was lying in bed with a copy of The Hobbit open across his counterpane. This time he was not amused at Michael?s old-movie impressions. He looked up with resentment, his beautiful long-lashed eyes angry. Michael easily met the reproach there. He took any opportunity to look at his son. There was something new every day, a different ray, an unexpected facet reflected in the aspects of this creature enduring his twelvedness.
?I want to go, Dad,? Paul said evenly, attempting to exercise his powers of persuasion to best effect.
He had been literally praying to go. Michael knew that because he had been spying on Paul while the boy knelt beside the bed to say his evening prayers. He had lurked in the hallway outside the boy?s room, watching and listening to his careful recitation of the Our Father and the Hail Mary and the Gloria ? rote prayers, courtesy of the Catholic school to which the Ahearns, with misgivings, regularly dispatched him. Michael and his wife had been raised in religion and they were warily trying it on again as parents. Sending Paul to St. Emmerich?s meant laughing away the horror stories they liked to tell about their own religious education in the hope of winning a few wholesome apparent certainties for the next generation.
?I was fourteen before my father took me hunting,? Michael said. ?I think that?s the right age.?
?You said kids do everything sooner.?
?I didn?t say I thought kids doing everything sooner was a good idea.?
?You don?t even like to hunt,? Paul said. ?You don?t believe in it.?
?Really? And what makes us think that??
?Well, I?ve heard you with Mom. You, like, agree with her it?s cruel and stuff.?
?I don?t agree with her. I understand her position. Anyway, if I didn?t believe in it why should I take a tender runt like you??
Paul was immune to his father?s goading. He went for the substance.
?Because I really believe in it.?
?Oh yes? You believe in whacking innocent creatures??
?You know what?? Paul asked. ?This was a Christian Ethics topic. Hunting was. And I was like pro ? in favor. Because Genesis says ?dominion over beasts.? If you eat the meat it?s OK. And we do.?
?Yes I do,? Paul said. ?I eat venison kielbasa.?
Michael loomed over him and with his left hand put out the lamp on the bed table.
??Tis blasphemy to vent thy rage against a dumb brute,? he informed Paul. He had been teaching Moby-Dick with his favorite assistant, a very pretty South Dakota girl named Phyllis Strom. ?Now good night. I don?t want you to read too late.?
?Why? I?m not going anywhere.?
?Maybe next year,? Michael said.
?Sure, Dad,? said Paul.
He left the bedroom door its customary inch ajar and went downstairs to the study where his wife was grading Chaucer papers.
?Did he beg and plead?? she asked, looking up.
?I don?t think he?s absolutely sure if he wants to go or not. He takes a pro-hunting position.?
She laughed. Her son?s eyes. ?A what??
?In Christian Ethics,? Michael pronounced solemnly. ?Dominion over the beasts. He argues from Genesis. Christian Ethics,? he repeated when she looked at him blankly. ?At school.?
?Oh, that,? she said. ?Well, it doesn?t say kill the poor beasts. Or does it? Maybe one of those teachers is a gun nut.?
Kristin had been raised in a Lutheran family. Although religiously inclined, she was a practical person who worked at maintaining her critical distance from dogmatic instruction, especially of the Roman variety. She concurred in Paul?s attendance at the Catholic school because, to her own rather conservative but independent thinking, the position of the Catholics of their college town had incorporated Luther?s reforms. Many Sundays she went to Mass with them. At Christmas they went to both churches.
?It?s him,? Michael said. ?It?s his funny little mind.?
Kristin frowned and put her finger to her lips.
?His funny little mind,? Michael whispered, chastened. ?He thought it up.?
?He always sees you going. Not that you ever get much.?
?I get birds. But deer season . . .?
?Right,? she said.
The circle of unspoken thought she closed was that Michael used the pheasant season as an excuse to walk the autumn fields around their house. With the dog and a shotgun borrowed from a colleague he would set out over the frosted brown prairie, scrambling under wire where the land was not posted, past thinly frozen ponds and rutted pastures, making his way from one wooded hill to another. It was a pleasure to walk the short autumn days, each knoll bright with yellowed alder, red-brown ash and flaming maple. And if the dog startled a pheasant into a headlong, clucking sacrificial dash, he might have a shot. Or not. Then, if he brought a bird down, he would have to pluck it, trying to soften the skin by heating it on the stove without quite letting it cook, picking out the shot with tweezers. Kristin refused to do it. Michael disliked the job and did not much care for pheasant. But you had to eat them.
And in deer season, certain years, Michael would go out with a couple of friends from the university who were good shots and the kind of avid hunters he was not. He went for the canoe trip into the half-frozen swamp and the November woods under their first covering of snow. The silence there, in the deep woods they prowled, was broken by nothing but crows and stay- behind chanting sparrows and the occasional distant echo of firing. If they got lucky, there might be the call of an errant Canadian wolf at night. And there were the winter birds, grosbeaks, juncos, eagles gliding silent above the tree line. And the savor of a good whiskey around the potbellied stove of the cabin they used as field headquarters. Killing deer was not the object for him. Kristin, though she had grown up on her family?s farm, forever borrowing her male relations? jackets with pockets full of jerky, tobacco plugs and bright red shotgun shells, mildly disapproved of hunting. At first, she had objected to Michael?s going. He was nearsighted, a daydreamer.
?You shouldn?t carry a weapon if you don?t intend to take a deer.?
?I don?t shoot seriously.?
?But you shouldn?t shoot at all. It?s worse if you wound one.?
?I hardly ever discharge the piece, Kristin.?
But a man had to carry one, in the deep woods, in winter. It was sinister, suspicious to encounter someone in the forest without a gun. Farmers who welcomed hunters on their land in season looked fearfully on unarmed strollers, trespassing. And sometimes, if he was standing with the others and a band of deer came in view and everyone let go, he would take his shot with the rest of them. He had never claimed one.
From the living room next to Kristin?s study, their black Labrador gave up his place beside the fire and trotted over for attention. Olaf had been Paul?s Christmas puppy six years before and served as Michael?s shooting companion every fall. Michael bent to scratch his neck.
Kristin put her papers aside.
?Christian ethics,? she said, as though she were weighing their general usefulness. ?I don?t think Genesis likes hunter-gatherers much. I think it favors the shepherds.?
?I must look it up. You always learn something, right? Reading Genesis.?
Early the next morning, two of Michael?s colleagues from State came by in a Jeep Cherokee. Kristin served them coffee and handed out bagged sandwiches to take along.
Alvin Mahoney, a tall, balding historian with a rosy drinker?s face, presented Michael with his hunting piece.
?Remember this? Remington twelve-gauge??
Michael jammed three deer slugs into the magazine and pumped them forward to get the feel of the gun.
?You can put six in there,? Mahoney reminded him. ?Only if you do ? remember they?re there.?
?Yep.? Michael lowered the shotgun, unloaded it and stuffed the shells in his jacket pocket.
The third hunter was a sociologist named Norman Cevic, whom students liked to think of as coming from New York, though he was actually from Iron Falls, a tough little smelter town on the lake not far away. Norman did his best to affect a streetwise quality for the small-town adolescents at the university. He was about the same age as Mahoney, twenty years older than Michael, though he seemed younger.
?Norm went out opening day,? Mahoney said. ?Straight out of the shotgun. So to speak.?
?Wasn?t it a zoo out there?? Kristin asked. ?I mean humanwise??
?Not if you know the territory,? Norman said. ?I didn?t see a soul.?
?You took the canoe?? Michael asked.
?Sure.? Norman Cevic had a gravelly voice that amused the students. ?Had to use it to get in there. Didn?t see a soul,? he told them again.
No one said anything. Paul was lurking in the kitchen doorway in his bathrobe. Norman took a sip of coffee.
?Except,? he said, ?Hmongs. I saw some Hmongs in the distance. Probably walked all the way in there. No snow yet.?
?They need the meat,? Kristin said. ?They live on it.?
?Roots,? Norman said. ?Winter greens. Squirrel. Raccoon.?
?How did you know they were Hmongs?? Paul asked from his half- concealment.
?Good question,? Norman said. ?Smart kid. We should take him hunting next year. Want to know how??
Paul looked to his father, then nodded.
?How I knew they were Hmongs,? Norman declared, as though it were the title of a lecture. He had been cradling a Mossberg thirty-thirty in one arm while he drank his coffee. Now he put the cup down and let the rifle slip through his fingers until he was holding it by the tip of the barrel just short of the end sight. ?Because,? he told Paul, ?they carried their weapons by the end of the barrel. Sort of trailing the stock.?
?Huh,? said Alvin Mahoney.
?Which is how they carried them in Vietnam. And Hmongs are very numerous in Iron Falls. So,? he said, addressing himself to young Paul, ?when I see a man in deep woods carrying a rifle that way I presume he?s a Hmong. Does that answer your question, my friend??
?Yes sir,? Paul said.
?Hmongs are a tribal people in Vietnam and Laos,? Norman told Paul. ?Do you know where Vietnam is? Do you know what happened there?? Paul was silent for a moment and then said, ?Yes. I think so. A little.?
?Good,? said Norman. ?Then you know more than three quarters of our student body.?
?Mr. Cevic was in Vietnam during the war,? Kristin told her son. She turned to Norman, whom she rather admired. ?How long was it that you spent there??
?A year. All day, every day. And all night too.? Just before they left the telephone rang. From his wife?s tone, Michael knew it was his teaching assistant, Phyllis Strom. Descended from prairie sodbusters, Kristin did not always trouble to enliven her voice when addressing strangers and people she disliked. She had a way of sounding very bleak indeed, and that was how she sounded then, impatiently accumulating Phyllis?s information.
?Phyllis,? she sternly announced. ?Says she may not be able to monitor midterms on Thursday. Wonders if you?ll be back?? There was an edge of unsympathetic mimicry.
Michael made a face. ?Phyllis,? he said. ?Phyllis, fair and useless.? In fact, he felt sorry for the kid. She was engagingly shy and frightened of Kristin.
?I told her you?d left,? his wife told him. ?She?ll call back.? The new and rigorously enforced regulations required chastity in student-faculty collaborations, but Kristin was not reassured. She imagined that her anxieties about Phyllis were a dark, close secret.
?Do I really have to come back for this?? Michael said as they went out to the car. ?I?ll call you from Ehrlich?s tomorrow night after six.? They drove past dun farm fields, toward the huge wooded marshes that lined the Three Rivers where their narrow valleys conjoined. In about four and a half hours they passed Ehrlich?s, a sprawling pseudo-Alpine bierstube and restaurant.
?I want to go on to the Hunter?s,? Michael said.
?The food?s not as good,? Mahoney said mildly.
?True,? said Michael. ?But Hunter?s sells an Irish single malt called Willoughby?s on their retail side. Only place they sell the stuff west of Minneapolis. And I want to buy a bottle for us to drink tonight.?
?Ah,? Mahoney said. ?Sheer bliss.?
On his tongue, the phrase could only be ironic, Michael thought.
Bliss was unavailable to Mahoney. It was simply not there for him, though Michael was sure he?d like the Willoughby?s well enough. But for me, Michael thought, bliss is still a possibility. He imagined himself as still capable of experiencing it, a few measures, a few seconds at a time. No need of fancy whiskey, the real thing. He felt certain of it.
?How?s Kristin?? Norman asked Michael.
?How do you mean, Norm? You just talked to her.?
?Has she seen Phyllis Strom this term??
?Oh, come on,? Michael said. ?Think she?s jealous of little Phyllis? Kris could swallow Phyllis Strom with a glass of water.?
Norman laughed. ?Let me level with you, buddy. I?m scared to death of Kristin. Fire and ice, man.?
Mind your business, he thought. Cevic had appointed himself sociologist to the north country. In fact, Michael thought, at home the ice might be almost imperceptibly thickening. Kristin had taken to rhapsodizing more and more about her father, upon whose forge her elegantly shaped, unbending angles had been hammered. The god in the iron mask, mediator of manhood and its measure. Still alive under the granite. A man might well dread his own shortcomings in that shadow.
?Smartest move I ever made,? said Michael, ?marrying that girl. Definitely sleep nights.?
Perhaps, he thought, that had not been the best way to phrase it, for Cevic the curious and curiously minded.
The landscape grew more wooded as they approached Mahoney?s cabin, where they planned to spend the night. Farm fields gave way to sunken meadows lined with bare oak and pine forest. Thirty miles along they came to the Hunter?s Supper Club, a diner in blue aluminum and silver chrome. Incongruously attached to the diner, extending from it, was a building of treated pine logs with a varnished door of its own. At eye level on the door was the building?s single window, a diamond-shaped spy hole, double-glazed and tinted green. A hand-painted sign the length of the roof read ?Souvenirs Tagging Station.?
They parked beside the half-dozen battered cars in the lot and walked across the sandy, resin-scalded ground and into the metal diner. There were banquettes and a counter and a heavy young waitress in a checkered dress and blue apron. The restaurant itself was empty except for two old farmers at the counter who shifted themselves arthritically to see who had come in. From the bar, which sounded more crowded, came jukebox music. Waylon Jennings?s ?Lowdown Freedom.?
Their table looked out on the empty two-lane highway. Michael ordered coffee with his ham and eggs and got up to buy the whiskey at the adjoining bar.
The bar had eight or nine customers, half of them middle-aged men, burnt-up drunk, unhealthy looking and ill disposed. There were also two Indian youths with ponytails and druggy, glittery eyes. One had a round, apparently placid face. The other was lean and edgy, his features set in what at first appeared to be a smile but wasn?t. Michael stood at the take-away counter, resolutely minding his own business. Then the barmaid, whom he had not seen at first, came out from some storage space behind the mirror and the stacked bottles and the pigs?-feet jars.
The barmaid looked only just old enough to serve liquor. She had dark hair and brilliant blue eyes evenly set. She was tall, wearing black cowgirl clothes, a rodeo shirt with little waves of white frosting and mother-of-pearl buttons. Her hair was thick and swept to one side at the back.
?Say,? she said.
?Do you have Willoughby?s today??
?Could be we do,? she said. ?Like, what is it??
Michael pondered other, different questions. Could he drive out every Friday and Saturday and have a Friday and Saturday kind of cowboy life with her? But not really. But could he? Would she like poetry with a joint, after sex? Not seriously. Idle speculation.
?It?s whiskey,? he told her. He thought he must sound impatient. ?It?s unblended Irish whiskey. You used to carry it.?
?Unblended is good, right? Sounds good. What you want.?
?Yes,? Michael said. ?It is. It?s what I?m after.?
?If it?s good we mostly don?t have it,? she said.
And he was, as it were, stumped. No comeback. No zingers.
?Really?? he asked.
Someone behind, one of the young Indians it might have been, did him in falsetto imitation. ?Really?? As though it were an outrageously affected, silly-ass question.
?But I can surely find out,? she said.
When she turned away he saw that her black pants were as tight as they could be and cut to stirrup length like a real cowgirl?s, and her boot heels scuffed but not worn down from walking. He also saw that where her hair was swept to the side at the back of her collar, what appeared to be the forked tongue of a tattooed snake rose from either side of the bone at the nape of her neck. A serpent, ascending her spine. Her skin was alabaster. He heard voices from the back. An old man?s voice raised in proprietary anger. When she came back she was carrying a bottle, inspecting it.
?What do you know?? she said. ?Specialty of the house, huh? You Irish??
Michael shrugged. ?Back somewhere. How about you??
?Me? I?m like everybody else around here.?
?Is that right??
?Megan,? one of the smoldering drunks at the bar muttered, ?get your butt over this way.?
?George,? Megan called sweetly, still addressing Michael, ?would you not be a knee-walking piece of pigshit??
She took her time selling him the Willoughby?s. Worn menace rumbled down the bar. She put her hand to her ear. Hark, like a tragedienne in a Victorian melodrama.
?What did he say?? she asked Michael, displaying active, intelligent concern.
Michael shook his head. ?Didn?t hear him.?
As he walked back to the diner section, he heard her boots on the wooden flooring behind the bar.
?Yes, Georgie, baby pie. How may I serve you today??
Back in the restaurant, their table had been cleared.
?He ate your eggs,? Norman said, indicating Alvin Mahoney.
?Naw, I didn?t,? Alvin said. ?Norm did.?
?Anyway,? Norman said, ?they were getting cold. You want something to take along??
Michael showed them the sack with the whiskey.
?I?ll just take this. I?m not hungry.? When he tasted his untouched coffee, it was cold as well.
Beyond the Hunter?s Supper Club, the big swamp took shape and snow was falling before they reached the cabin. They followed the dirt road to it, facing icy, wind-driven volleys that rattled against the windshield and fouled the wipers. As they were getting their bags out of the trunk, the snow?s quality changed and softened, the flakes enlarged. A heavier silence settled on the woods.
As soon as it grew dark, Michael opened the Willoughby?s. It was wonderfully smooth. Its texture seemed, at first, to impose on the blessedly warm room a familiar quietude. People said things they had said before, on other nights sheltering from other storms in past seasons. Norman Cevic groused about Vietnam. Alvin Mahoney talked about the single time he had brought his wife to the cabin.
?My then wife,? he said. ?She didn?t much like it out here. Naw, not at all.?
Michael turned to look at Alvin?s worn, flushed country face with its faint mottled web of boozy angiomas. Then wife? Alvin was a widower. Where had he picked up this phrase to signal the louche sophistication of la ronde? Late wife, Alvin. Dead wife. Because Alma or Mildred or whatever her obviated name was had simply died on him. In what Michael had conceived of as his own sweet silent thought, he was surprised by the bitterness, his sudden, pointless, contemptuous anger.
He finished his glass. At Alvin?s age, given their common vocabulary of features, their common weakness, he might come to look very much the same. But the anger kept swelling in his throat, beating time with his pulse, a vital sign.
?Well,? Norman said, ?all is forgiven now.?
Michael, distracted by his own thoughts, had no idea what Cevic was talking about. What was forgiven? All? Forgiven whom?
In the morning they helped Alvin secure the cabin. His twelve-foot aluminum canoe was in a padlocked shed down the hill. Getting the canoe out, they found the padlock broken, but the burglars, in their laziness and inefficiency, had not managed to make off with the boat. One year they had found the bow full of hammered dents. Still working in darkness, they placed the canoe in its fittings atop the Jeep.
A blurred dawn was unveiling itself when they reached the stream that would take them into the islands of the swamp. There was still very little light. Black streaks crisscrossed the little patch of morning, the day?s inklings. They loaded the canoe by flashlight. Glassy ice crackled under their boots at the shore?s edge.
Michael took the aft paddle, steering, digging deep into the slow black stream. He kept the flashlight between the seat and his thigh so that its shaft beams would sweep the bank. Paddling up front, Norman also had a light.
?Nice easy stream,? Alvin said. ?I keep forgetting.?
?It speeds up a lot toward the big river,? Michael said. ?There?s a gorge.?
?A minor gorge,? Norman said.
?Yes,? said Michael, ?definitely minor.?
?But it gets ?em,? said Cevic. ?Every spring they go. Half a dozen some years.? He meant drowned fishermen.
Yards short of the landing, Michael picked up the flashlight, lost his gloved grip and sent it tumbling over the side. He swore.
They circled back, and riding the slight current got a look at the flashlight resting on the bottom, lighting the weedy marbled rocks seven, maybe eight feet below.
They circled again.
?How deep is it?? Alvin asked, and answered his own question. ?Too deep.?
?Too deep,? Michael said. ?My fault. Sorry.?
?No problem,? Norman said. ?I?ve got one. And it?s getting light.?
By the time they offloaded, the day had composed itself around the skeletal woods, each branch bearing a coat of snow. They fanned out from the river, within sight of the glacial rock face that would be their rendezvous point. Each man carried a pack of provisions, a gun, a compass and a portable stand. Michael made for high ground, following a slope north of the rock. The snow was around four inches deep. He saw quite a few deer tracks, the little handprints of raccoons, the hip-hop brush patterns of rabbits.
There were others, too, suggesting more exciting creatures, what might be fox, marten or wolverine.
He fixed his stand in the tallest tree among a cluster of oaks on sloping, rocky ground. The view was good, commanding a deer trail out of the pines above him that led toward the river. Now the animals would be prowling down from the high ground where they had passed the night, struggling only slightly in the new fallen layer, browsing for edibles. He waited. Invisible crows warned of his presence.
Then there commenced the curious passage into long silence, empty of event. Confronted by stillness without motion, a landscape of line and shadow that seemed outside time, he took in every feature of the shooting ground, every tree and snowy hummock. It was always a strange, suspended state. Notions thrived.
He watched, alert for the glimpse of streaked ivory horn, the muddy camouflage coat incredibly hard to define against the mix of white, the shades of brown tree trunks and waving dark evergreen. Braced for that flash of the flag. Every sound became the focus of his concentration. He got to know each tree, from the adjoining oak to the line of tall pines at the top of the rise.
Michael had come armed into the woods for the customary reason, to simplify life, to assume an ancient uncomplicated identity. But the thoughts that surfaced in his silence were not comforting. The image of himself, for instance, as an agent of providence. The fact that for every creature things waited.
He regretted coming out. Somehow he could not make the day turn out to be the one he had imagined and looked forward to. The decision about whether to shoot led straight back to the life he had left in town. To other questions: who he was, what he wanted. He sat with the safety off, tense, vigilant, unhappy, waiting for the deer. He considered the wind, although there was hardly any.
The empty time passed quickly, as such time, strangely, often did. It was late in the darkening afternoon when he heard a voice. As soon as he heard it, he applied the safety on his shotgun.
The voice was a man?s. At first Michael thought the man was singing. But as the voice grew closer, he realized that the slight musical quality there reflected pain. He came completely out of the long day?s trance and prepared to get down and help. Then, the vocalist still approaching, he caught the anger, the quality in the voice that dominated all others, the rage of someone utterly beside himself. Presently the words came ? obscenities, strung together without a breath, alternately bellowed and shrieked as though they were coming from someone walking with difficulty. It still seemed possible to Michael that someone was hurt.
He scanned the woods in front of him, then adjusted his position to take in the ground just over his shoulder. At that point, he saw the fool. A man about fifty came out of the pine cover forty yards away, slightly up the slope. If Michael?s stand had not been placed so high, he realized, the man might easily have seen him. But the man?s attention was altogether focused on the buck he had brought down, a fine ten-pointer with a wide rack.
?Oh shit,? he cried piteously, ?oh goddam fucking shit cocksucker.?
He was struggling with the odd wheelbarrow across which he had slung his prize deer. It was a thing full of seams and joins and springs. Though it appeared altogether large enough to contain the kill, it could not, and its inutility was the source of his sobs and curses and rage and despair. And as the unfortunate man shoved and hauled, pushed and pulled his burden, covering the ground by inches, the extent of his rage became apparent. To Michael, observing from the tree, it was terrifying.
And justified. Because against every snow-covered rock and log the wheels of the weird contraption locked. Its useless container spilled forth the corpse of the deer and its antlers caught on the brush. Each time, the hunter manhandled it back aboard, whereupon it fell out again the other way, and the crazy wheelbarrow tipped on its side, and the handle slid from his grasp and he screeched in impotent but blood-chilling fury. Some men were poets when they swore. But the hunter below was not a poet; he was humorless and venomous and mean.
On and on, tripping on boulders, slipping on the ice and falling on his ass, endlessly locked in a death grip with his victim as though he had single-handedly strangled the poor thing.
?Oh shit, oh goddam shit the fuck cocksucker.?
And when he stopped to stand to one side and kick the contraption ? and followed that by kicking the deer ? Michael, hardly daring to stir lest he be seen, buried his face in his sleeve against the trunk to repress the laughter welling up in him.
But now the fool, following the deer trail in his one-man danse macabre, was coming under the sparse bare branches of Michael?s very tree. Michael could see his eyes and they were terrible and his red face and the freezing spittle on his graying beard. The man was covered with blood. He was humiliated and armed. Michael prayed that he would not look up. He held his breath and watched fascinated as the man and the deer and the wheelbarrow passed beneath him in fits and starts and howlings. If the hunter below was possessed of the violent paranoid?s tortured intuition, of the faintest sense of being spied out in his ghastly mortification ? if he tilted back his head far enough to wail at the sky ? he would see the witness to his folly. High above him lurked a Day-Glo-painted watcher in a tree, his masked, delighted face warped in a fiendish grin. If he sees me, Michael thought suddenly, he will kill me. Michael slipped his shotgun?s safety off and put his gloved finger at the trigger.
Iced by fear, Michael?s hilarity was transformed into a rage of his own. Oh priceless, he thought. Bozo sits up late drinking Old Bohemian in his trailer. In between commercials for schools that will teach him to drive an eighteen-wheeler and make big money, or be a forest ranger and give people orders and live in the open air instead of cleaning shovels down at the guano mill, he sees an ad for this idiotic conveyance to haul killed deer out of the forest. No more jacklighting them off the interstate ramp or chainsawing roadkill, hell no, he?ll go into the forest like a macho male man with his nifty collapsible wheelbarrow. Folds up into twenty-five tiny parts so you can stick it in your back pocket like a roll-up measuring tape or wear it on your belt. It was shocking, he thought, the satisfaction you took in contemplating another man?s disgrace. Another man?s atoned for your own.
Finally, cursing and howling, the hunter bore his burden on. When he was gone, Michael realized he had been tracking the man down the barrel of his shotgun, every stumbling inch of the way. He shivered. It had got colder, no question. A wind had come up, whistling through the branches, rattling the icy leaves that still clung to them. When he looked at his watch, it was nearly four and time for the rendezvous. He tossed his pack, climbed from his tree and set out for the base of the granite rock where he had left the others.
Alvin Mahoney was already waiting, hunkering down out of the wind. He stood up when Michael approached.
?No deer. I did have something to watch, though.?
Norman Cevic came trudging up from the direction of the creek, his red-banded felt hat low over his eyes.
?So, I didn?t hear any firing, fellas. Nothing to report??
With all the suppressed energy of his long solitary day, Michael spun out the story of the sorry, angry man and his wonderful device. ?Didn?t you hear the guy?? he asked his friends.
Norman said he had heard nothing but crows and wind in the trees.
?Poor bastard,? Alvin said.
?You?re lucky,? Norman said. ?Lucky he didn?t look up and shoot you. A local. Probably needs the meat.?
Michael wiped his lenses with a Kleenex. ?You?re breaking my heart.?
?Revenge on the underclass,? Norman said. ?Nothing like it.?
?Oh, come on,? said Michael. ?Don?t be so fucking high-minded.?
?We all enjoy it,? Norman said. Then he said, ?You know, more game wardens get killed in the line of duty than any other law-enforcement officer??
For a while they talked about populism and guns and militiamen.
They had fallen silent in the dimming light when Alvin put a delaying hand on Michael?s arm. Everyone stopped where they stood. There were deer, four of them, an eight-point buck and three females. One of the females looked little older than a yearling. The deer were drinking from the icy river, upstream, upwind. The three men began to ease closer to the stream, where a bend would provide them a clear line of fire. The deer were something more than thirty-five yards away. Michael tried shuffling through the snow, which was topped with a thin frozen layer, just thick enough ice to sound underfoot. He stepped on a frozen stick. It cracked. One of the does looked up and in their direction, then returned to her drinking. Finally, they came to a point beyond the tree line and looked at one another.
The target of choice would be the big buck. If they were after meat, the does, even the youngest, were legal game. The buck was splashing his way to the edge of deep water. In a moment all four of the deer tensed in place, ears up. A doe bent her foreleg, ready to spring. There was no more time. Everyone raised his weapon. Michael, without a scope, found himself sighting the shoulder of the buck. It was a beautiful animal. Magical in the fading light. Things change, he thought. Everything changes. His finger was on the trigger. When the other men fired, he did not. He had no clear idea why. Maybe the experience of having a man in his sights that day. The buck raised his head and took a step forward. His forelegs buckled, and he shifted his hindquarters so that somehow his hind legs might take up the weight being surrendered by his weakening body. Michael watched the creature?s dying. It was always hard to watch their legs give way. You could feel it in your own. The pain and vertigo.
?If he falls in that stream,? Norman said, ?he?ll float halfway to Sioux City.?
But the animal staggered briefly toward the bank and toppled sidewise into the shallows. The does vanished without a sound.
?Did you take a shot?? Norman asked Michael. Michael shook his head.
Examining the kill, they found two shotgun wounds close to the animal?s heart.
?Guess we both got him,? Norman said.
?He?s yours,? said Alvin Mahoney. ?You shot first.?
Norman laughed. ?No, man. We?ll have the butcher divide him. Three ways.?
Michael helped drag the dead deer by its antlers out of the water.
?Anybody want to mount that rack?? Norman asked.
?I don?t think my wife would live with it,? Michael told him.
?I wouldn?t care to myself,? Norman said. ?Anyway, it?s not trophy size.?
They were only a short distance from the canoe, but it was dark by the time they had hauled the deer aboard. Paddling upriver, they came to the place where Michael had dropped his flashlight overboard. The beam was still soldiering on, illuminating the bottom of the stream.
They secured the buck to the hood of the Jeep and set out for the state highway. This time they did not stop at the Hunter?s Supper Club but drove all the way to Ehrlich?s to get the deer tagged. When they had finished the forms for Fish and Game, they went into the restaurant and sat down to dinner. Mahoney was the designated driver and abstained from drink. He would, Michael thought, make up for it at home. He and Norman had Scotch, but it was not nearly as good as the Willoughby?s. Then they ordered a pitcher of beer.
The menu featured wurst, schnitzel, potato pancakes, noodles and dumplings. There were deer heads and antlers with brass plaques on the dark wood walls and scrolled mottos in gothic script. A polka was on the jukebox and the place was filled with hunters. At Ehrlich?s many of the hunters had family members along. There were women and children, even babies. Happy couples danced. The entire place rejoiced in an atmosphere of good-hearted revelry.
?Boy, is this place ever different from the Hunter?s,? Michael said. ?It?s not just the food.?
?Know why?? Norman asked.
?Different people,? said Michael.
?Different folks,? Norman said. ?This is Prevost County. They?re Germans here. They?re peace-loving. Orderly. You gotta love ?em.?
?Sure. Whereas the Hunter?s is in the fucking swamp. Harrison County. Irish, Scotch-Irish, French Canadian. They?re poor and surly. They?re over at the Hunter?s getting nasty drunk and selling one another wolf tickets. While here, hier ist fröhlich.?
He spread his arms and with a cold, false smile enacted a parody of gemütlichkeit.
?Maybe we belong over there,? Alvin Mahoney said.
Michael and Norman looked at each other and laughed.
Norman raised his beer glass. ?Here?s looking at you, Alvin,? he said.
Alvin laughed. He was nervous, drinkless. It might be safer driving, Michael thought, to let him have a belt.
Michael was aware of Norman watching him. ?You didn?t shoot today,? Norman said.
As they were waiting for the check, Norman said, ?I have to ask you something. Over at St. Emmerich?s, what are they teaching my friend Paulie about abortion? Me, I don?t think there?s much wrong with the world that doesn?t come from there being too many people.?
Michael poured out the last of the beer.
?I?m sorry,? Norman said. ?You?re the only person I know to ask.?
For the second time Michael was annoyed with Norman. Of course, sociology was the man?s job. And he had never been subtle or discreet. He had been to Vietnam. He owned the big questions.
?They don?t talk about it,? Michael said. ?Not at that level.? He put a paper napkin to a tiny puddle of foam on the table before him. ?They talked about hunting the other day.? What he said was not exactly true. Paul was being taught that life began at conception. The rest, of course, would follow. But Michael was not in the mood to defend the theses of St. Emmerich?s Christian instruction. Embarrassed, he flushed and hid behind his beer. He felt besieged. As though they were trying to take something away from him. Something he was not even sure he possessed.
Because I believe, he thought. They know I believe. If I believe. But faith is not what you believe, he thought. Faith was something else. A blond waitress with a pretty, wholesome smile came over to them but she did not have the check.
?Is one of you guys Michael Ahearn?? she asked.
?Me,? Michael said.
?Sir, you got a phone call. Want to take it in the kitchen??
He followed her across the room, resounding with polkas, laughter, the rattle of plates and foaming schooners. In the kitchen three generations of women, the oldest in her late sixties, the youngest a little older than his son, worked purposefully. The warm room smelled of vinegary marinades. His wife was on the phone.
?Michael,? she said. Her voice was distant and, he thought, chill. It made him think of the woods. Or of the light shining at the bottom of the freezing stream. ?Paul is not accounted for. He was at the gym and then I thought he was going to Jimmy Collings?s. But he?s not there. And his school books are here. And Olaf is missing.? She paused. ?It?s snowing here.?
He remembered the deer at the edge of the stream. Its life ebbing, legs giving way.
?I suppose I called for moral support,? she said. ?I?m afraid.?
?Hang in,? he told her.
He walked unseeing back through the noisy room. Alvin and Norman were paying the check. Michael went into his wallet, took out two twenties and threw them on the table.
?That?s too much,? Norman said.
?Kristin is worried about Paul. He?s out late.?
It was snowing on Ehrlich?s parking lot when they got to the Jeep. Alvin checked the lines securing the carcass of the deer. Michael took a back seat.
?You know,? Alvin said, ?kids are always getting up to some caper and you get all hot and bothered and it?s nothing.?
It was the last thing anyone said on the ride home.
The snow came harder as they drove, slowing them down.
Michael watched it fall. He thought of the man with the deer in his wheelbarrow. By gad, sir, you present a distressing spectacle. If he could make it up somehow. His thoughts had all been mean and low. What he did not want in his mind?s eye now was his son?s face, the face on which he so doted. But it was there after all and the boy under snow. Hang in.
?Did I pass out?? he asked them.
?You were sleeping,? Norman said.
How could he sleep? He had slept but forgotten nothing. His boy had been there the whole time. Prayer. No. You did not pray for things. Prayers, like Franklin?s key on a kite, attracted the lightning, burned out your mind and soul.
When, hours later, they drove into town there were dead deer hanging from the trees on everyone?s lawn. The lawns were wide in that prairie town. They supported many trees, and almost every bare tree on almost every lawn in front of almost every house had a dead deer or even two, slung over the low boughs. There were bucks and does and fawns. All fair game, legal. There were too many deer.
A police car was blocking Michael?s driveway. Norman parked the Jeep on the street, across the lawn from his front door. Everyone got out, and when they did the young town policeman, whom Michael knew, whose name was Vandervliet, climbed out of his cruiser.
?Sir,? Vandervliet said, ?they?re not here. They?re at MacIvor.?
MacIvor was the tri-county hospital on the north edge of town.
Norman put a hand on his shoulder. Michael climbed into Vandervliet?s Plymouth cruiser.
?What?? Michael asked the young cop. ?Is my son alive??
?Yessir. But he?s suffering from exposure.?
And it did not sound so good because as they both knew, the cold, at a certain point, was irreversible, and all the heat, the fire, the cocoa, hot-water bottles, sleeping bags, down jackets, quilts, whiskey, medicine, nothing could make a child stop trembling and his temperature rise.
?Your wife is injured, Professor. I mean she ain?t injured bad but she fell down trying to carry the boy I guess and so she?s admitted also over there at MacIvor.?
?I see,? Michael said.
?See, the boy was looking for the dog ?cause the dog was out in the snow.?
On the way to the hospital, Michael said, ?I think I?m going to shoot that dog.?
?I would,? said Vandervliet.
At MacIvor, they were waiting for him. There was a nurse whose husband ran the Seattle-inspired coffee shop in town and a young doctor from back east. They looked so agitated, he went numb with fear. The doctor introduced himself but Michael heard none of it.
?Paul?s vital signs are low,? the doctor said. ?We?re hoping he?ll respond. Unfortunately he?s not conscious, and we?re concerned. We don?t know how long he was outside in the storm.?
Michael managed to speak. ?His body temperature . . . ??
?That?s a cause of concern,? the doctor said. ?That will have to show improvement.?
Michael did not look at him.
?We can treat this,? the doctor said. ?We see it here. There?s hope.?
?Thank you,? Michael said. Above all, he did not want to see the boy. That fair vision and he kept repelling it. He was afraid to watch Paul die, though surely even in death he would be beautiful.
?We?d like you to talk to . . . to your wife,? the doctor said. ?We?re sure she has a fracture and she won?t go to x-ray.? He hesitated for a moment and went off down the corridor.
At MacIvor the passageways had the form of an X. As the doctor walked off down one bar of the pattern, Michael saw what appeared to be his wife at the end of the other. She was in a wheelchair. The nurse followed him as he walked toward her.
?She won?t go to x-ray,? the nurse complained. ?Her leg?s been splinted and she?s had pain medication and we have a bed ready for her but she won?t rest. She won?t let the medication do its thing.?
Kristin, huge-eyed and white as chalk, wheeled herself in their direction. But when Michael came up, the nurse in tow, she looked through him. There was an open Bible on her lap.
The nurse went to take the handles of Kristin?s wheelchair.
Michael stepped in and took them himself. Do its thing? He had trouble turning the wheelchair around. The rear wheels refused to straighten out. Do their thing. He pushed his wife toward the wall. Her splinted right leg extended straight out and when its foot touched the wall, she uttered a soft cry. Tears ran down her face.
?There?s a little trick to it,? said the nurse. She made a sound that was not quite a laugh. ?Let me.?
Michael ignored her. The wheelchair resisted his trembling pressure. Oh goddam shit.
?Take me in to him,? Kristin said.
?Better not,? the nurse said, to Michael?s relief.
If he could see himself, futilely trying to ambulate his wife on wheels, Michael thought, it would be funny. But hospitals never had mirrors. There was a discovery. In the place of undoings, where things came apart, your children changed to cadavers, you spun your wife in wheelies, no mirrors. The joke was on you but you did not have to watch yourself. When they were in the room she said, ?I fell carrying him. He was by the garden fence ? I fell in the snow.? He could picture her carrying Paul up from the garden, tripping, slipping, stumbling. He took her icy hand but she withdrew it. ?He was so cold.?
?Lie down,? he said. ?Can you??
?No, it hurts.?
He stood and rang for the nurse.
Kristin took up the Bible as though she were entranced and began to read aloud.
??Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in thee: yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge.?? Closing his eyes, he tried to hold on to the words. Listening to her read in her mother?s strange featureless tone, he could imagine Luther?s Bible the way her mother out on the plains must have heard it from her own parents. A psalm for fools in the snow. Really expecting nothing but cold and death in the shadow of those wings. Odin?s raven.
??Until these calamities be overpast, I will cry unto God most high.?? Michael sat listening, despising the leaden resignation of his wife?s prayer, its acceptance, surrender.
??My soul is among lions,?? she read, ??and I lie even among them that are set on fire.??
His impulse was flight. He sat there burning until the nurse came in. For some reason, she looked merry, confidential.
?I think we turned a corner,? she said. ?Michael! Kristin! I think we turned a corner.?
Then the doctor entered quietly and they got Kristin into bed and she went under the medication. Even unconscious, her eyes were half open. The doctor said you responded or you didn?t, and Paul had responded. His temperature was going up. He was coming up. He would even get his fingers and toes back and his ethical little Christian brain going, it appeared. The doctor looked so relieved.
?You can have a minute while we get the gurney. We?ve gotta get her x-rayed pronto because she?s got a broken leg there.?
?You can see Paul,? the nurse said. ?He?s sleeping. Real sleep now.?
The doctor laughed. ?It?s very exhausting to half freeze to death.?
?It would be,? Michael said.
While they got the gurney, he looked into Kristin?s half-open, tortured, long-lashed blue eyes and brushed the slightly graying black hair from them. With her long face and buck teeth she looked like the Christus on a Viking crucifix. Given her, he thought, given me, why didn?t he die? Maybe he still will, Michael thought. The notion terrified him. He had stood up to make his escape when the orderlies came in to take Kristin away. Michael rubbed her cold hand.
The chapel was down at the end of the corridor. It had a kind of altar, stained-glass windows that opened on nothing, that were inlaid with clouds and doves and other fine inspirational things.
Michael had been afraid, for a while, that there was something out there, at the beginning and end of consciousness. An alpha and an omega to things. He had believed it for years on and off. And that night, he had felt certain, the fire would be visited on him. His boy would be taken away and he would know, know absolutely, the power of the most high. Its horrible providence. Its mysteries, its hide-and-seek, and lessons, and redefined top- secret mercies to be understood through prayer and meditation. But only at really special moments of rhapsody and ecstasy and O, wondrous clarity. Behold now behemoth. Who can draw Leviathan? Et cetera.
But now his son?s life was saved. And the great thing had come of nothing, of absolutely nothing, out of a kaleidoscope, out of a Cracker Jack box. Every day its own flower, to every day its own stink and savor. Good old random singularity and you could exercise a proper revulsion for life?s rank overabundance and everybody could have their rights and be happy.
And he could be a serious person, a grownup at last, and not worry over things that educated people had not troubled themselves with practically for centuries. Free at last and it didn?t mean a thing and it would all be over, some things sooner than later. His marriage, for one, sealed in faith like the Sepulchral stone. Vain now. No one watched over us. Or rather we watched over each other. That was providence, what a relief. He turned his back on the inspirations of the chapel and went out to watch his lovely son survive another day.
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Stone
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