It all seemed right and fine back then, the last year of high school, the coming of fall and winter. I’ve often tracked back to that time as a period that changed what I wanted to do in life. If you were to listen to my family they’d have likely been unanimous in wailing that “I don’t know why he’s a-doin’ this, he’s gonna give up all that hard work, and for what? Traipsing through the woods? Ugh.”
Well, there was a little more to it than that. I was reminded of those times early this morning, in a fragment of dream that played out and finally woke me up, that rewinding of the mental tape, with a wondering grin.
Me and Brad couldn’t have been much more of two opposites who were assigned seats next to each other in English 12. Me, with the 3.9 GPA and old Brad puttering along with a 2-oh, at best. Seemed like a barely concealed attempt to stick the strugglers with the brainiacs to all concerned as cheerleaders were ripped away from boyfriends and seated next to thin chicks with glasses, chatterboxes with gloomy poets and so on.
I was tagged to be on the fast track to a scholarship, the writing was there (in some ways it was a damned improvement on what I attempt to do now), I was doing extra credit work at college level and the future looked bright. Brad was fixated on getting the hell out of school and the sooner the better.
I don’t remember how it all got started, maybe I helped him along with a project or something, chances are good that I whipped up a string of sentences for his book review or something. 17 year olds are nothing but helpful when it comes to wanting to show off for their peers.
But we were sitting there in the classroom one fine November day, half listening to the drone of a lecture on Hawthorne when Brad whispered, “Hey. That paper, the Man gave me a C on it. Keeps the parents happy, you know?”
I nodded a bit, looking out at gray clouds and cold, using the ageless whispering in class technique of communicating without noise.
Brad waited for the teacher to saw chalk on the board and leaned in again. “I’m gonna hit the woods after school, wanna ride along?”
Now, for whatever reason, I liked the guy. He was popular in the way of being a big man on campus without grades, but a sweet left handed swing at the plate which made him much sought after when baseball season rolled around, a bevy of girls who giggled after him in the hall. An easy going way about him like he’d accepted his lot in life, and was not known for overdoing the whole teenaged angst that afflicted most of us. An adult in painters pants and flannel, you might say.
I didn’t have many girls giggling after me. I’d given up the locker room liniment after JV basketball. And teenaged angst? I was writing sonnets about it.
I shrugged. “What woods are you talking about?”, I whispered.
He passed a hand over mouth as the teacher turned. “The one’s that look gamey, man.”
Gamey. Damn, I hadn’t heard that in years. Since my grandfather had passed a .22 rifle to me and allowed that those open fields full of rabbit looked pretty gamey, son, in fact.
We were seniors. We got out early, and Brad was waiting by the front door, shrugging into a worn field jacket and jerking his head. “C’mon, want to go?”
What the hell.
I followed him out to his ride, an ageless F-100 with coffee stains on the dash and a gun rack on the rear window. An interior that smelled of dogs and tobacco, some sweet cherry scented smoke. “It’s my Dad’s,” he volunteered as he hosted himself behind the wheel. “He took Mom’s car today. Said I could use it as long as my grades stayed up.”
He gave me a long look out of the corner of his eye as he rolled out onto the road. “Reckon English kinda helped that, you know?” I got it, the swapping of favors. My written words, his truck. Pretty straightforward. It was silently understood that there would be no more mention of it. We were two boys wanting to be men, and men didn’t speak of such things, and believed that men seldom do. Sitting quiet was good enough, Brad with a hand slung with practiced care over the wheel and me, sprawled in approved fashion on the passenger side.
We drove. For a long time, we drove. Swampville really was a village in those days, a tight enclave of metro area surrounded by long flat tracks of Southern roads leading to water in all directions. Once clear of the houses and traffic we wound down country roads and watched farmland and marsh roll by until we got to his house.
His parents lived on a road that could be called farm country without having a farm at all. But a long reach of trees rolled endlessly behind it, a gamey stretch of trees, leaves piled at their base and gray branches above. “Just let me get my boots on, we’ll be ready,” he said, crunching down the driveway toward the garage. “In here.”
It was a garage of the South from long ago. A boat on a galvanized trailer, pegs full of hunting jackets and pants, a rack of oiled firearms and boxes of shells. A young Springer Spaniel bounded up from a corner and attacked Brad with happy barks and much jumping, ignoring me altogether.
“Down Sam!” yelled Brad, and he grinned at me for a minute. “Dog thinks he’s gonna go with us today. “Usually does, if I’m goin’ for birds. Hell, you ain’t exactly dressed to go messin’ around in the ‘bean fields like that,” and he scrutinized my button down shirt and khakis. “Fix you up. Here.”
He tossed me a field coat identical to his own and toed a pair of tall boots over to me. “See if those fit ye.”
They didn’t, I swam in the coat and the boots were loose around my feet. But fashion sense wasn’t what we were after. “Yeah, they’re fine, man.”
He pulled a 12 gauge Mossberg from the rack and handed it over with barely a glance, selecting an identical one for himself, and shook out a handful of shells for me. I figured I’d find out how to load the thing eventually, slipping shells into the jacket pocket. A 12 gauge pump is significantly different from Grandpa’s single shot .22.
“You set?”, he grunted. “Sam, you stay, get back in there.”
“Yeah, I reckon.”
I hadn’t rolled across open pasture in a long time. Hadn’t ever took the timed steps across a Southern soybean field with its raised rows of now dormant stalks. It was a timeless thing, the loose kneed hunters walk, cradling a walnut stock of a gun so that the barrel swung away from Brad, giving him five paces of lead and automatically quartering the left side of the field as he scanned the right. A single quail broke cover ahead as we walked and Brad did a snap to shoulder, tracking the speedy bird in flight with an empty gun, following it right to the woods. “Place is lousy with bird,” he grinned. “Sam woulda been all over that single.” He fished in his pocket and pulled out three shells. “Reckon we better load up.”
Male bravado being what it was, I wasn’t going to let on that this was a first for me. He probably knew it anyway, his loading motion was slow and exaggerated and simple enough for me to copy. Three in the chamber and slide the pump. “Safety’s behind the trigger guard on these, man,” he said. As though I handled them everyday and was merely trying out a new model. Oh, is that what that is?
We slid into the woods and I was immediately glad for the boots, loose or not. The ground was spongy soft with swamp water, the oak and occasional cypress showing rootballs above the surface. The ground made for quiet walking, a dark forest of tall trees, the occasional patch of volunteer growth brushing against legs. We went in about a hundred yards in utter silence.
A large fallen tree appeared and Brad, with hand motions, indicated this was the spot for me. “Couple hours,” he whispered, “squirrels be all over this place. I’m over there,” pointing vaguely. He traipsed off another fifty yards and settled behind another big oak, occasionally snapping a branch which echoed loudly off the wall of woods.
I sat on the wet and mossy tree trunk that spanned over the forest floor for a long way. I sat and listened. I sat until after 10 minutes I could hear my own heart.
For ten thousand years I sat, the woods coming alive around us as small birds grew brave and flitted out to have a look at the large animals sitting by their stumps, the still forms clad in brown cloth. It’s a hard thing to do for a man, to sit absolutely still and wait in the woods, to keep feet and ass from dancing about, to keep hands warm in a November breeze. I’d look over carefully at Brad from time to time and it seemed as if he was praying, head bowed and gun pointed toward the treetops, hands clasped together around the stock for warmth. Listening. Waiting.
You sit and you ponder, and a 17 year old can ponder many things while smelling the wet leaves and the wood smoke from a borrowed jacket. Life can run slowly in the woods, an abrupt sound making the eyes dance right or left to watch a bird hop away, the sun appearing briefly between the clouds with a quick splash of warmth. The feeling of chilly air as it passes through a red nose.
There is no rush of motor, no screech of laughter, no clatter of feet or telephone there. Only the silence, and you wonder if it is always this way, even when you’re not out there sitting on this fallen tree, you close eyes and hear whispers of sound and wind, imagine a deer that might walk through these woods at night, feel yourself small and exposed as the intruder who is foreign. You dream slowly but are still awake with ears that begin to filter and remember.
And darkness starts to grow, the sun getting low and a hunger pang rumbles loud enough for you to hear, wondering if anything else does, too. It is sleepy sitting without being really asleep at all. It is the downing of life and entrancement and an eager touching of something you know not.
A scrabbling sound, something not far away, something above. How did anything get that close without alerting you? Eyes move and the head does not, searching the tree 20 feet away and a shadow moves. A busyness of teeth against a shell and an empty husk falls to the leaves. Claws grasping bark, a chattering. You hear more of the same from another tree farther away.
It happens suddenly, it is ever so. A peek of a head, a soft plop! of weight on the forest floor, a twitch and a rustle. There suddenly is no chill, there is only the mild thumping of blood in your veins. Arms still for so long move slowly, ever so slowly to raise the walnut to cheek and a thousand pin pricks dance along your hands as they come to that ache of a grip on the underside of the barrel.
I slipped the safety to the left with a tiny sound and swung the Mossberg a hair to the left, a hair up. The wind breathed into my face, I was upwind, gun nearly level, the little gold sight a blur as I squinted one eye shut and willed a finger to trigger.
A slow exhale and I squeezed the trigger as if caressing a feather that had puffed errantly from my bedside pillow, feet jammed hard to the ground in someone else’s boots and an oversized coat nearly covering fingers. I looked upon time under a November dusk and the walnut roared and kicked into my shoulder.
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