three of us leave the truck and walk toward the woods: you in the lead, then your
brother, then me. The trees are tall and broad, their bare limbs a child's brown-crayon
scribbles against white overcast. I tarry, stepping deliberately, allowing heels,
arches, toes to memorize the soft red earth and leaves beneath my boots. In years
to come, when we are sometimes apart, I will awaken from my restless dreams, feel
this sensation in my feet, and it will calm and comfort me nearly as much as your
presence. You cross the ditch and reach the barbed-wire fence. I sniff the crisp
December air. You slide your fine new shotgun under the bottom wire, then slither
through the fence with all your native grace and ease, one boot stepping on the
bottom strand, one thumb stretching up the middle wire. May nothing ever snag
You hold the wires open for your brother. He moves through more slowly than you did, with a certain caution that is not part of your nature. Once he's through, you release the wires, shoulder your gun, and move off. He, in turn, holds the wires for me, but I am lingering behind, still looking. I wave him on.
The two of you enter the woods side-by-side. He is taller and leaner than you, working his legs like a deer. Your gait is firm, leonine. You both wear orange vests and orange caps. Below your coal-black hair, your neck is the color of sassafras root. You are holding your gun aimed high. Wrist-thick vines, dead or dormant, dangle like parachute streamers from most of the trees. You stop, peer up, then point to a tree; your brother walks over to it, lays his gun down, and tugs on a vine, three, four, five times. A rustle of dead leaves spills down around him. "Anything?" he asks, but you have already relaxed your arms, lowered your gun a bit, and are looking elsewhere. "Try that one," you say. "There's a nest up there."
I am crawling awkwardly through the fence, barbs snagging at the set of your old fatigues I'm wearing, when I hear the first blast and the sound of something heavier than leaves falling through limbs to the ground. "There you go, there you go," your brother says, and by the time I have disengaged myself from the last barb, grabbed the shotgun your brother borrowed for me, and scrambled to my feet, you are holding the squirrel by the tail. Your brother is grinning. Your face is as impassive as it was the night we met. I thought you stoic then. That's partly what drew me to you, coming, as I do, from a family of Norwegians and Danes. Your impassiveness was familiar, comforting. By now I know you are not stoic in the least. Far better: you possess yourself; you are complete.
"Here," you say, and hand me the squirrel. "Put this back there." You turn around and I slip it into the game pouch zipped onto the back of your vest. Already your gun is raised again, your neck craned, your eyes, I imagine, shifting their focus from tree to tree.
When I met your brother three days ago, I saw in his eyes a certain grief far nearer the surface than you would ever allow to a stranger, and for this I liked him immediately. "You're the favorite brother," I said to him. We shook hands a bit longer than is usual. "And you're the friend," he said to me. We grinned. You had been drinking Crown Royal miniatures while I drove the last hundred miles down here, and looked perplexed at how easy it was between us. Of course what we all understand will remain tacit. Did you think I would not apprehend the manners of your native land?
We walk through the woods, cross two small streams, see one rabbit which we all shoot at and miss. But this is a lie. You and your brother, intent on the rabbit, do not notice that I shoot at a tree trunk. I didn't lie when I told you I had hunted before, for deer and moose, when I was a boy. I didn't lie when I told you I once had an accurate aim. What I did not tell you was that I shot only tin cans and pop bottles. I've never intentionally killed anything larger than a spider. In my dreams I am a shape-shifter: now a raven, now a coyote, now a man; perhaps, someday, a rabbit or squirrel.
By now you have five squirrels in your game pouch, your brother has three in his, and the sunlight is beginning to fade. I have had a fine time in the woods, walking, breathing the pure country air, tugging vines for one or the other of you, shooting while pretending to aim at nests, watching the two of you shoot, usually twice, and once four times, before bringing a squirrel down. You have given me up as a hopeless shot. I don't mind. You'll think what you will of me, regardless: city-bred, bookish, somber; I've heard it all from you already. I don't mind, in part because it's all true enough -- I've given you reason to think and say such things -- and in part because you make such categorical judgments simply to cope. The everyday chaos of the human heart frightens you; that's the thorn in your paw.
In the end, it is your brother's disappointment I cannot bear. This, our last afternoon here, is his gift to us. While you were showering this morning, he called people here and there in different parts of the county to find the place with the most abundant game, arranged for licenses, planned dinner afterwards. I want to apologize to you for what I'm about to do, but that might make it worse. Better all round, I think, if it appears to be a stroke of luck. I carry my shotgun in two hands, with the safety off, aimed up, and I am scanning. You and your brother are talking, guns shouldered. We are not far from the place where we entered, walking three abreast, about ten feet between each of us. I see it scampering from the end of a long limb toward the trunk. I fire; as it drops, I glance over at you. You look so bewildered that for an instant I fear I've made a grave mistake. But your brother grins a magnificent grin and pumps a fist in air. "You got one!" he says. And now your eyebrows are raised and you look bemused, as if you had been told a secret. I adopt your impassive expression, eject the spent cartridge, and walk over to my kill: a fat male. The shot was clean. I pick it up by the tail, notice crimson drops on the leaves where it fell. You take it from me; I turn around, and listen to your low, slow chuckle as you open my game pouch.
I wake at quarter to seven and walk into the kitchen, where your brother is cooking breakfast. You are moving about in your room, probably packing; I packed my things last night. I sit at the table and watch him fry catfish and bacon, simmer grits, scramble eggs. How does he sustain a life here, alone in this large house, a widower whose two daughters have married and moved far away? Mornings, you talk too much -- you with your exquisite voice, now husky and throaty, now smooth, and your laugh -- sudden, sonorous as a tenor sax. Your brother isn't afraid of silence. As we eat, I wonder what I've killed, what I've let live, and what -- tell me this much, sing it to me in my dreams tonight when we're back home, narrator of nearness and distance -- what's been undone now, what will adhere.
I put on jacket and shoes, and go outside to smoke. It's chilly; there was a soft frost last night. What do I hope to find out here? An omen, a clue, a secret revealed? I walk to the truck. The tailgate is still down, iced-over where you hosed it off last evening, after we all skinned and disemboweled the squirrels. We did not sever the heads, at your insistence, and while you were out here cleaning up, I went with your brother into the kitchen to help with the saltwater soaks. We packed large Ziploc bags with two squirrels each, filled the bags with fresh water, sealed and put them in the freezer. I walk to the side mirror on the truck, as if whatever may now be different could be visible. But I see only the usual half-opened morning eyes, unshaven cheeks, placid and slightly derailed expression of the same face you knew yesterday morning, and the morning before. Here is my omen. I grin with relief.
My gun shoulder aches, yet I like the sensation. I rub it and walk around back, to the goat pen. The three goats scurry toward me, as if I had come to feed them. They shiver and bleat. "Sorry," I say, and show them my open hands. In a little while, they lose interest and prance away. I wander over to the vegetable garden, where there are still collards up, and then around the side of the house. There is an old-fashioned park bench there, facing the house, with a raised bed of ornamental kale before it. I sit down and look at the vivid purples and greens. I see you through a window, packing clothes. The sky is clear, and the low winter sun is turning frost to dew. When your brother walks over to me, I'm not surprised in the least. I take the mug of coffee he hands me. He sits down with his own mug. You pause, your back to us, a folded shirt in hand. Then you drop the shirt into your suitcase, bend down to the floor, pick up your new gun. As you wipe it off with a tee-shirt, I think of the three days it took you to choose it, our trips to sporting-goods stores and gun shops, how you balanced dozens of shotguns in your hands, squinted along their barrels, tested triggers. You love guns and are careful with them, so when you aim up at the corner of the room and squeeze the trigger, I know it is not loaded. You eject the imaginary cartridge and stand for a moment, staring at the ceiling. Then you tuck the gun under the bedspread, a gift for your brother to find after you and I leave. He clears his throat quietly. You pick up another shirt and begin folding it. We sit together in silence, sipping our coffee, watching you.