By Sean Lovelace
Illustrated by Christopher Bookout
Grandmother shuddered, hung up the phone and lifted her troubled gaze to the light of the kitchen. From her mottled brow, wisps of silver hair curled; purple worry sagged from beneath her eye sockets; and deep lines forked from her cheeks and splintered from the edges of thin, quivering lips. On trembling legs, she lurched forward and placed a hand to the wall. She stared at the hand, at the curve of the bones and the transparent skin, and, for the first time, seemed to recognize her age.
Seventy years she had witnessed to this world. Her face beamed the ancient story of field and farm, of family and how to live life "simple and good." Now, those shriveled features peeked, eyes darted from beneath the billows of a makeshift shawl, a handcrafted quilt of thick, familiar cloth. Once proud and agile as an elder doe, she was now a wounded creature; one that rooted into the darkest thicket, pawed the soil and then settled into the arms of the earth.
"Stay in yellin' range," she hissed from the living room.
Vernon sighed, absently tapped his oversize foot at the corner of the wood stove and coughed. His lungs itched with the remnants of a germ acquired during recent visits to the hospital. As a young man raised on the open country, the frequent trips to the city and the poor ventilation of the medical center had worn his lanky frame to a thin, vulnerable state. He shivered in the kitchen, though he wore several layers of clothing, and the tiny room was hot and still.
From a chipped, porcelain cup I tasted the coffee and studied the busy pattern of the carpet garish, orange rooster after rooster. The Remington felt heavy across my shoulder, its weight and scent reassuring. A hint of gunpowder, polished walnut, and oiled steel were something I could hold and know, something solid.
"We don't have to go, Mama," Vernon answered. I winced.
Grandmother stood silent by the phone, and though she wasn't crying, dabbed her cheek with a crumpled, blue tissue. She had found the tissue boxes, thin cardboard relics left from when grandfather owned the general store, on a forgotten closet shelf behind a shoebox full of tobacco pipes. She'd uncovered the boxes, opened their frayed lids for the tissue to peek out, and left them scattered about the house.
Vernon offered her a clean handkerchief, but she refused. She preferred the faded tissue, the bulky quilt and the old-time rotary phone. She'd stay with what she had, with what had always worked; and as I gazed at her bent form, I knew she'd stand by her way and by that phone until the walls it hung upon these thick beams of oak a hundred years old and shaped by my great grandfather's hands fell in around her.
She looked up at Vernon, past him, then murmured, "Just stay in yellin' range."
In the fireplace a charred log of oak shifted. Embers floated upward past the screen then shed their glow in a twirling descent. She perched near the flames, on the edge of the spindly rocking chair, and snapped her eyes to the crackle of the kindling, to a portrait above the mantle, to the sharp clicking of the wall clock, and back to the phone.
Vernon frowned and looked to me, but I gave nothing and instead leaned the shotgun against the flowery wallpaper, went to the sink and washed the grains from the coffee mug. The well water, dingy and cold enough to sting the fingers, gurgled from the tap. I rinsed the cup and placed it upside down on the scratched counter top, next to a row of Mason jars. With my back to Vernon and the living room, I stood mesmerized by the water's spin into the black hole of the drain.
The back door yanked open, the house shook and cowbells clattered from the doorknob. A November wind whistled into the kitchen and rooted below the folds of the blanketing heat. As the screen door clapped shut, I turned to follow Vernon, but paused at the living room entrance.
Grandmother rocked slowly in the chair. She was humming and stroking her cheek with the tissue, her eyes fixed upon the flames of the fireplace, but head cocked, ears directed toward the telephone. I tried to soften the shut of the door, but the wood hung on the warped frame, and I yanked it tight with a bang and a rattle.
The wind whipped along the fields, stirred the loose strands of barbed wire and shook the cedar posts. I tugged the collar of my jacket, an Army surplus camouflage, tight around my neck and burrowed my hands further into the wide cuffs of the sleeves. Vernon coughed, spit into the frozen ground, and, with cracked leather gloves, held down the barbed wire for me to step over.
"Not much going to move in this wind," I said and pressed on the wire with the gun barrel. Vernon crossed the fence, coughed again but didn't answer. He cradled the shotgun in the crook of his arm, dug into his parka for a bundle of orange wool and fitted the toboggan over his ears. Like my own, his nose and cheeks were a fiery red.
Heads down and thoughts buried with the warmth of our bodies, we tramped along the firm dirt, past a lonely grain silo and then the catfish pond, its surface icy in swirls of white. A mourning dove cooed from the brambles bordering the water, a long, sad cry on the shifting breeze, neither near nor far.
The pasture, brown and tattered with flecks of frost, ended abruptly at the edge of the forest. The woodland was unique in that it had no undergrowth giving way gradually to larger trees, but rather was a sudden mass of mature hardwood. A towering wall of beech, hickory, and oak loomed above our heads, and as we entered a winding deer trail, the morning light surrendered into darkness.
Not twenty yards down the trail, Vernon halted and pointed toward the spot we were to hunt, below a large hickory.
Yellin' range, I thought with disgust. We won't be able to hunt the walnuts where we saw the cuttings, where we saw the fox squirrel nests. And then I cursed myself. What was I thinking? Who was I to think like that, now?
We sat on opposite sides of the giant tree. At ground level the trunk was big enough around for three men to stand with arms outstretched and fingers barely touching. I peered past the filtering dawn, upward through the chaos of the gnarled limbs, and then started. A pattern emerged and a memory tumbled forward. My heart fluttered as I realized where we were.
"The hickory tree," I whispered.
Vernon's first hunt was here. He had asked his father my grandfather where the squirrels would be, and he'd told him to come here, to sit and be still. My first hunt was the same, on the same soil, but with Vernon as my guide. In the opening months of the season, late summer and early autumn, the tree was heavy with hickory nuts and an excellent site to hunt; but now, in the grip of winter, it held no fruit and attracted no squirrels. The limbs were gray and bare and empty. This was no place to hunt, but to remember.
Clouds appeared, swept the sky and smothered the dawn in a dark curtain. The air turned colder still, and with a sudden gale, the forest groaned and limbs cracked. A rotted pine dropped with a thud. From a distant hollow, a frightful moan echoed. The forest rose with the coming storm, and the earth carried the mood of the wind, the way a body reveals the workings of the soul.
Scanning the swaying treetops, I shivered, then looked away; and there, pawing the leaves directly in front of me, stood a majestic whitetail buck, his ears cupped and alert, antlers spread in a winding splinter like black coral, and nostrils flared to taste the wind. My eyes widened before such a beast. He stamped the ground, his powerful legs sprung from polished marble, the hair swirling with ashen bristles and flashes of chestnut. He stamped again and snorted. A billowing jet of vapor curled about his head and antlers, expanded in a haze, and then enveloped the creature until he seemed a ghost stepped from the primeval mist of the forest.
I turned away, hoped to glimpse Vernon and that he would witness the deer, but there was nothing but the jagged bark of the tree. I looked back to the clearing, but it was empty; the trampled dirt, the edges of the opening, the hardwood alleyways barren and quiet. The leaves were at rest, the wind whispered away. An eerie silence enclosed the forest, and not a plant or animal stirred.
"Verrrnon . . .Verrrnon."
The call rolled along the valley, entered the forest and shattered the silent spell. Vernon coughed, and leaves shuffled as he arose. He stood above me, and I stumbled up from the trunk of the tree. Our eyes locked for an instant then he turned away. I lowered my head and trailed his heavy footsteps along the passage, out of the timber and into the field.
With daybreak, the clods of dirt thawed to mud and the brittle cornhusks crackled beneath the slippery path of our hunting boots. We passed the pond, its edges popping and silver, and continued by the silo and the rustle of the pigeons at roost. A crow circled lazily overhead.
Vernon hacked and his chest trembled. In the mire, he stumbled to one knee, cursed and dropped the shotgun. He put his hands on his knees and turned to me, his face pale, but cheeks flushed with his gasping and the cold. I held out a bandanna, and he took it silently, wiped his mouth and stuffed the rag into his back pocket. I picked his gun from the slosh, and he grunted as he gripped its filthy stock. Once his breathing slowed, he ratcheted upright and shifted the gun's weight on his shoulder.
"We're coming, Mama," he wheezed and hurried the pace again. I followed directly behind, in the shadow of my uncle's bowed head, and squinted into the harsh sunlight scattered over the top of the farmhouse.
Back to Contents
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.
Buy Literary Magazines Here