UNFINISHED KILL: AN UNFINISHED STORY

UNFINISHED KILL

Scott Mayo

Grey was pissed that you didn’t have any more writing to present today, announced a voice.

I know, thought Mark, And you’d think he’d realize–after eight of his classes, over the past ten years–that I always come up with good material in the end.

Yes, the voice continued, And he probably does.  But perhaps repeating, ‘Get to work, or drop the class,’ is the only method which, he believes, will motivate you.

Well, it’s not!  Mark asserted.  I’ve told him that angry professors intimidate me, and he should be sensitive to this.

He may be, actually, the voice mused.  Yet he might feel that intimidation is the only force to move you out of this rut.  Speaking of which, why don’t you write about the events which led to it–those of Sunday evening?

I can.  But it’s a hunting story–and I don’t want to fuel the ignorance-based outcries of the fools who rally for the prohibition of hunting altogether.

Grey is not likely one of these, the voice argued.  Only he will read it.

Yes, agreed Mark.  However, the chapter will be included in my thesis–and perhaps ultimately published.

So?  The voice was comforting.  If your work is accepted into the academic world, certainly many of its readers will understand that hunters possess the same graces and failures as they–some may even be hunters, themselves.  And for those who oppose this ancient ritual, what better way to prove that the hunter has a place in creation, as the hunted does; that our lives depend upon the deaths of other living things; that life and death are transient realities–dancing together in a circle?

Yes, thought Mark.  Yes, but where do I start?

Where you wish to be, answered the voice.

Of course, Mark thought . . .

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep,’ and I cannot imagine a more beautiful place in which to die.  I’ve turned off my flashlight, so the deer will think we’ve stopped looking for him.  My dad is returning to the four-wheeler to get some orange tape.  Until he ran out, he used the reflective clothespins Uncle Robert gave him.  I wait beside the last spot of blood we’ve found.  At eye-level, the shrubs, vines, and palmettos connect the trees with a layer of total darkness. Then the sky-light begins.  The stars are as thick as the forest, and I lie on my back to view them.  The pines cradle me, towering into space as if guiding my eyes toward Heaven.  And ‘Solvejg’s Lullaby’, from Grieg’s music for “Peer Gynt”, flows within my mind.  The four-wheeler rests at the edge of Food-plot #2, where began the events which brought me here . . .

Dad parked the four-wheeler in a small clearing off the road, at about 2:25 p.m. We walked downhill to the path that led to his shooting-house, at the #6 plot. There, he gave me directions to the #2 patch–which is nearest 6.  Then he disappeared into the trees, and I continued onward.

The road is unpaved, and it seems an equal measure of dirt, sand, and clay. Farther up, a crude asphalt is added–but not here, in what my Great-Great Aunt Pearl would have called, “bottom-land”.  And that’s better–the asphalt stinks.  In some areas, flat, layered rocks–obviously from the Appalachian region of Alabama, or some northern or desert state–are used for pavement.  (I’ve taken some of these to my apartment–my tarantula, Charlotte, perches on them.)  The road is nearly always covered with the tracks of ATV tires, hunters’ boots, paws of predator-scavengers, and–hopefully–deer hooves.  The larger the hoof-prints, the more promising–as long as they’re fresh enough.

Scrub oaks grow at the road’s edges, for a short distance.  Then the longleaf pines take over, some of which are harvested and replanted for lumber and paper pulp.  The deer prefer their discarded needles (pine straw) for bedding.  And there’s a lot of it on the ground, right now–so I paid special attention as I walked alongside it.  I also stepped as quietly as possible, in a method my father taught me–of placing one’s heel on the ground first, then gently lowering the rest of the foot.  I avoided dead leaves–which crackle–muffling laughter, as I pictured ‘Elmer Fudd’ saying, “Be vewy quiet–I am hunting wabbits!”

With my left hand, I carried my canvas bicycle pack by its handle–trying not to let it drag along the ground.

Previously, I’d worn it over my shoulders–but it made too much noise whenever I slid it off to climb into a shooting-house.  Mike carried his books in it when he was attending divinity school at Yale, and his address and phone number still show clearly on the tag sewn onto its back.  Now I wear it when riding my Schwinn Sidewinder long distances–such as the Highway-90 route from the Mobile city limits to the Mississippi state line (which, I must admit, I’ve only attempted once).  When bicycling, I carry my chain and lock, and an extra shirt in this bag–but up here, it contains most of my hunting equipment.  And on my left arm, I held clothing too bulky for storage in the bike pack.  I embraced it firmly against my chest, to prevent scraping.  This afternoon’s temperature was very mild–in the high 50’s, at least (terrible for hunting, since deer do not move around as often when it’s warm).  So I didn’t have to take much extra covering–just my Members Only jacket, and the big, goose-down jacket Mike wore through Connecticut winters.  I left my entire right arm free, in order to quickly position my rifle if necessary.  And I carried the gun over my right shoulder, its strap locked around the opposite side of my neck to prevent it from accidentally slipping.

The rifle is a Remington 30-06, with a mounted scope.  It is actually my father’s–he lets me borrow it when we’re hunting.  His own rifle is of the same make and model, but with less varnish on the wood.  I don’t know what “30-06” means–only how to pronounce it, and that it is some kind of measurement.  The cartridges are over three inches long.  Their gunpowder casing is brass, and their projectiles are lead, with a copper finish almost to the tips.  My father doesn’t know this–but I keep one of the unspent bullets at my apartment, as a souvenir.  Right now it’s on my dining table, and I frequently place my eyes at table-level and gaze upward at it–like those protohumans wondering at the monolith, in “2001: A Space Odyssey”.  Sometimes I even shake it, and listen to the powder inside–which is slightly foolhardy.  However measured, this cartridge–when propelled by the gun–is sufficient to kill a whitetail deer of any size, instantly–and probably an elk, a moose, and even a large grizzly.  I had loaded my rifle before we left the camp-house.  When loading, one slides a single bullet into the main hold of the barrel, then inserts the clip underneath it.  The clip (or “magazine”) holds four more cartridges.  This is a semi-automatic rifle–it fires each time one pulls the trigger, until all five bullets are discharged.

It’s always eerie when I’m hiking alone to a shooting-house.  Everything seems more quiet than usual, as if awaiting an explosion.  Leaves rustling in the wind, calls of birds, and barks of an occasional squirrel are all muffled.  And the loudest sound is probably my own breathing–whose volume and tempo fluctuate as I become less or more tense, and as the terrain gets higher or more level.  I try not to breathe through my nostrils at all–they’re always congested (as are my dad’s), thus noisy with passing air.  Instead, I exhale and inhale through my mouth–still regulating each breath for a moderate tempo.  Lately, I hadn’t been working out at Pro Health–and I had to stop myself from whispering, “Damn,” as I realized my lack of endurance caused heavy respiration.

Because a deer’s hearing is better than a human’s–and its sense of smell even better than that–my father says it is very unlikely I should encounter one on the way to my stand–but possible, nevertheless.  It has happened before, to hunters other than myself.  Thus ceaseless vigilance is required.  One’s eyes must be constantly, yet gradually, scanning the horizon–as if a buck will appear, in any second.  It was a little frightening, somewhat thrilling, when I imagined a twelve-point–his weight at least half that of my own–plodding onto the road ahead. There he stopped and turned, as if personally challenging me to shoot him.  I recalled an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, stating that the largest deer ever to exist on earth–which became extinct several million years ago–was over nine feet high, at the shoulder.  I fancied a small herd of such deer still existing in this forest–and my killing of its largest buck, forever establishing my fame among hunters, scientists, and the general populace.  I considered a short story I’d proposed–about a parallel universe in which deer are carnivorous.  The protagonist is trapped in his shooting-house by a buck underneath, with bloodstained antlers.  It continuously watches him, sporadically growling and baring its fangs.  The hunter attempts to follow this encircling beast with the tip of his rifle, knowing he must kill it before stepping down the ladder.  And I thought of ghosts–which deer so resemble whenever they materialize out of the woods in silence.  I remembered learning about Virginia Dare, the first American born to English parents.  By 1590, she had disappeared–along with all other inhabitants of the Roanoke colony.  Yet a myth remains–that she was transformed into a silver doe, by a native medicine man, and cursed to roam the wilderness.  All these things I pondered, as I held back from whistling an old Irish slip jig, called, “The Strayaway Child”.

Dad had told me #2 was alot farther down the road–nevertheless, I began to wonder if I’d passed it.  I looked at my watch, and slightly gasped–only seven minutes till 3:00.  I’d planned to be in the shooting-house before the hour, and hadn’t seen it yet.  Any house is discernible from the road, until sunset.  Each one is several feet above ground, and just off a food-plot–thus it initially appears as a blotch, among the pines.  Still, it can be easily missed.  On the outside, its plywood walls are painted in a green, camouflagic design.  Although deer are color-blind, they can distinguish variations of light–and a large image of a singular shade will alarm them, until they’ve become accustomed to it.  Hence the camouflage, which allows the occupant to wear monotone clothing–like blue jeans–since it’s hidden behind the walls.  But the dark multicoloring of the shooting-house–further complicated by surrounding trees–can obscure it from the hunter, as well.  And for all I knew, it was a quarter-mile away.

Before the season opened, my dad marked each path by tying a strip of bright, orange tape to a bush or small tree at its entrance.  It was this for which he’d suggested I look when attempting to find the #2 stand.  I scanned for the tape and the house, simultaneously–but soon decided to concentrate on the orange strip.  I’d forgotten to ask whether the path started on the left or right side of the road–so I watched both (though I was almost certain it would be on the right, because #6 was).  Each time I noticed my breathing had become more rapid, I inhaled deeply, and exhaled as slowly as possible.

Shouldn’t panic! I thought, realizing my pace had quickened.  At worst, I’ll never find the stand, and will have to settle down at the woods’ edge.  Then I’ll simply wait out the hunt, returning to the four-wheeler at nightfall.

But this is my final chance to get a deer!  Dad’s not hunting tomorrow–and the club won’t allow me to hunt next week, since it’s the last of the season, and I’m not a member.

True . . . However–since deer frequently cross the roads, and sometimes even use them as thoroughfares–I may yet kill a buck, right here.

I’ll be at a disadvantage, though–my plain-shaded clothing, human scent, and unavoidable sounds will give me away.  Furthermore, no buck is going to graze along the road, when there’s a patch full of does nearby–if I see one, he’ll be a rapidly moving target, and I’m not that good of a shot.

It was in the course of this pointless debate that I finally caught sight of an orange ribbon, and stopped.  The shrub upon which it’s tied is almost barren right now–and I probably wouldn’t be able to identify its species, were it even adorned with summer foliage.  The tape has obviously been there a while, because it’s not even a foot off the ground.  I’m certain it was originally placed higher–but its tender, supporting limb was apparently lowered by heavy rain, drought, some curious animal, or snow (which is rare, even this far north).  Yet I saw no trail. Then I peered into the forest–no shooting-house either.  Once more, I surveyed the area nearest the marker.  To the right, there is the remnant of an old path. But pine and oak saplings, as well as fresh undergrowth and pine straw, have reclaimed it so that it’s almost beyond recognition.  Thus I concluded that another, more recently created trail probably lay ahead.  If I would’ve taken this one–although it was the first encountered–I might have ultimately lost perception of its outline, and wasted thirty minutes or more, deciding where it resumed (as when mowing a section of my parents’ lawn where the grass is not quite high enough).  So I continued down the road–memorizing the location of this orange tape, in case I were to find no other.

The ongoing terrain seemed more and more repetitive, until I questioned my strategy.  How much time should I devote to this?  And I employed a simple method I often use when trying to locate one of those rural schools at which I apply as a substitute teacher.  The digital face of my watch showed 3:03–and I resolved to go back to the original marker at 3:15, if I hadn’t discovered a fresher path by then.

Well, I was rather surprised when I did come across another orange strip.  It looked new–and its supporting bush held it proudly above the road, like a tom turkey displaying his chest.  The path–directly behind it–was so clear that I could glimpse the margin of the food-plot at its other end.  To further validate this find, I looked for the shooting-house.  I sighted it almost immediately.  It was only twenty-five-percent visible among the trees–but appeared forsaken, as if in need of my company.

I started down the trail–glancing from side to side, yet focusing mainly ahead.  As the field got larger, I scanned it–and its surrounding woods–intensely.  I came upon the shooting-house earlier than expected.  It was just to my right–disappointingly exposed and low to the ground.  What’s worse–the food-plot was uneven.  The back third of it sloped downward–therefore any deer on that end could not be seen from the house.  Stopping short of a sigh, I moved on toward the ladder.

Pine needles! I thought, when I reached the bottom step.  (Because their fragrance is so strong, yet such an ordinary part of a deer’s environment–they are an ideal mask for human scent.)  Gently, I dropped my bike pack–then looked around, until I found a three-feet pine sapling.  Securing the tiniest branch with my thumb and index finger, I pulled the needles from its tip–then crammed them into my left, front jeans pocket.

Back at the shooting-house ladder, I peered into the grass again.  (Various cereals–including rye, oats, and wheat (but excluding corn, which is prohibited)–are sown to attract the deer.  Winter rye is the primary choice of this club.)  I laid my jackets on the ground, and set the rifle on top of them to protect its barrel and scope.  I was relieved that the shooting-house entrance was in the back wall–rather than the floor, as in some of the others.  A door of this location offers more room for the hunter and his equipment, thereby reducing scraping noise.  I picked up the bag, and began ascending the ladder.  The steps, as well as their frame, are two-by-four sections of pine–not intended to support a three-hundred-pounder like me.  And the legs of the house are several years old–in need of reinforcement.  I became nervously aware of these facts, as each rung wobbled, and the entire structure (no larger than a Fotomat booth) shook.  Perhaps the grip of my right hand–the arm of it being my only support–got tighter, as well.

When I reached the door, I braced my knees against it.  I took the large key ring out of my right, front pocket, and thumbed to the smaller, attached ring–which contained the keys to the cow-pasture gates (though Mr. Williamson had recently sold his cattle), the camp-house, and the shooting-houses.  I unsnapped and removed the Master lock, then pulled the door open.

“What the hell?” I whispered, as a swarm of gnats flew into my face.  Of course they were feeding on something, and I first suspected it was an animal carcass. Then my imagination strayed where I did not want it–and I pictured a rigid human corpse, its teeth clenched in frozen pain, and its eyeballs fixed directly ahead–as if it cursed me to remember that visage in nightmares.  Yet the smell was moldy, at worst–and no flies or roaches accompanied the gnats.  So my breathing slightly calmed, as I waved through them, and let my eyes adjust to the forgotten darkness.

Bits of yellow foam, torn from the seat cushion, littered the floor–along with loose pages of various outdoors magazines and catalogs.  A Ziploc bag, thoroughly smudged with food grease, lay unsealed beneath the chair.  But most blatant was the wide-open, plastic kitchen garbage bag, hanging by two pushpins from the left wall–lined with chewing-tobacco spit, and finished off with apple cores, potato-chips bags, and Vienna Sausage cans.  Ironically, the down-turned caulking bucket–by holding this masterpiece of refuse above the floor–further exposed its contents.

“That son of a bitch!” I said, against the one who had last occupied the house–whoever it was.  Dad had recommended that we go to the #2 and #6 stands because they hadn’t been taken for a while.  But he didn’t know about this mess–nobody did, except the bastard who’d left it behind.  Leaving garbage at a stand is perhaps the worst offense one hunter can commit against another.  It introduces a strange, human odor to the environment.  If whitetails regularly encounter this intrusion, without consequence, they will accept it into their ‘safety zone’.  However, the adjustment is gradual–requiring more time than that between human occupancies.  For a few weeks, the deer will maintain extra caution around the house–some even inspecting it before they graze. Furthermore, insects drawn to the scent annoy the hunter–thereby distracting him, and causing him to move his arms, head, and torso as he brushes them away.  (Although a deer’s vision is poor, in contrast to a human’s, it can easily detect motion.)  When I return to camp, I’m going to backtrack through the roster, and identify the last occupant of this shooting-house.  I think I know who it is–but I’m not certain enough to name anyone yet.

I climbed onto the plywood floor, and leaned my bike pack against a rear corner. I surveyed the open garbage bag, once again–and held my breath (to keep from inhaling gnats), as I ripped it from the pushpins, then grabbed its top edges, and rolled it into itself.  While holding this wad in my right fist, I lifted the bucket.  It was empty.  So I shoved the bag into it, and resealed it against the floor.  Then I exhaled.

As I descended the ladder, I watched the food-plot between rungs.  (One’s prey is indifferent–it can emerge at any time, whether convenient or not.)  I picked up the rifle by its leather strap–then worked my hand to the link at the tip of the forearm, and gently slung it around my right shoulder.  Next, I took both jackets from the ground, by their collars.  I double-checked the area, making sure I’d left nothing behind–then climbed the steps.  And as I oversaw the patch once more, I thought of driving through a yellow traffic light–wondering if it will turn red before escaping my field of vision . . .

If you quit now, warned the voice, you will probably never finish it.

Mark switched off the lamp, and clumsily held the blinds aside.  The clouds over Crestview were pink.

Same at sunrise, as at sunset, he thought.  And he saw a girl strolling along the boulevard in front of the Eiffel Tower–wearing a red-purple-pink, frilly dress, flowing up and down–as she danced in circles, smiling skyward, waiting for him. The plastic strips knocked against the window’s edge when he let go.  Cliche.

You haven’t even settled down in the shooting-house yet, the voice said.

Last night I added one sentence to the story, he replied, it took me seventeen minutes to do that.  (A languid, Old World violin melody–from some television commercial–would not cease, no matter how hard he tried to stop it.  Accept it.) I can recall the music to which I listened on my Walkman, the unexpected behavior of the various does and bucks, even the agony of that wasteful, misplaced shot. But I cannot experience any of it–too much time has passed.

You got an ‘A’ in Grey’s last course–you have nothing left to prove, there.  But this chapter might not stand on its own, against the glare of a thesis committee.

So be it, he said.  At worst, I’ll have to cut the scene from the novel, and transfer this last page to Chapter 1.  Life is haphazard and disconnected, remember?

1997

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