The hunting cabin, closed up for almost a year. It was a long drive up here but worth it, I'd rather drive for hours then head to the nearest "Squatters Rights RV campground" where the closest thing to wildlife was the married couple in the next spot that drank too much tequila and had a fight.
When I found the light switch, I saw there was more inside, a couple of couches, covered by a tarp, a small table and 2 more chairs, a sink, though there was no running water, a small refrigerator and some cooking supplies. I enjoy tent camping, but by myself this was much better. Putting up a tent on my own entailed cursing and usually bloodletting unless it involves a Pop Up tent (oh good, tent Viagra). I'll go with the cabin any time when I'm on my own.
For it was just going to be myself this weekend, friends off with lovers and family, doing other things. There was plenty to do as I lifted my firearm from its case, the glint of silver easing the gnawing stillness of the lonely room.
I cleaned up, swept and dusted as best I could, preparing stew and biscuits to tide me over for the next couple of nights, some nut butter sandwiches and apple slices to have in my pack for lunches from the blind. There will time later for a table set with game, turkeys bewitched to a dark gold, venison succulent with the juice of life, the laughter of friends. Now is time for the gathering
There is no TV, there is no radio. I sit in still quiet, thinking back to the city, right now bustling, growing and dying, buildings lined with amber windows that only hint at their human secrecy to the observer in the streets. People rushing to and fro, the casual innuendo of work relationships, fleeting obligations, names forgotten quickly at tedious meetings. Above, the communal wafer of moon shines bright, surviving the directionless pull that is the city for some.
Soon I was settled in my cabin, far away from the city, the blind out far away in the woods, my footsteps back out just a memory for anyone watching. Before it was even 9 pm, I was snuggled down in my sleeping bag as comfortable as I could be. I was alone but I was not lonely, having found long ago that you can sleep next to the disinterested breath of another and feel more alone than on any night of solitary slumber.
In the morning, I could feel the chill in the air as I had a cup of coffee with my bacon and eggs, over a small campfire, my breath competing with its steam. There's a cold front coming in, and despite the forecast, I know there is a chance of not just hard rain, but thunderstorms. I could imagine the clouds gathering up like an angry crowd even as moonlight bloomed in the trees like faint blue flame. It would be light soon, time to get out in my blind and hope the storm would pass me by.
And possibly a thorough, cold soaking.
The storm was not supposed to be severe. The ones that effect you deeply never are. First, there was nothing but a congealed sky, the blue turning to dark the color of cold and constant night. From the next ridge line came a rumble, or maybe that was my stomach, breakfast had been some time ago. But I didn't wish to get into the pack for the real provisions, as the sky had just spit in my face, a challenge I wasn't in the mood to take on.
The animals sensed it before I had, the forest going silent. The only whitetail I had seen all day was there and gone in a blink of an eye. In just the instant before he saw me, all the light in the sky remaining gathered on him, then he disappeared into shadow. He was there, then he was only a specter of hide and hair.Then nothing but longing, followed by a clap of thunder that echoed somewhere deep inside.
I should have gone back, but I didn't want to. I only had two days to hunt. I didn't want to pack up the cabin and head back to the city. For a couple of weekends each year, the woods are mine, brief moments of time away from the drudgery of pavement and obligations. Time away from loss and explanations and time in a biohazard suit that doesn't allow me to breathe. Those moments in the woods are necessary moments stolen and taken back to reside in what, outside my home, is often a cold, windowless place.
There's nothing else like it. That unforgettable sense of openness, of hot and wet and cold and warm hands on skin, pulling off clothing, fresh flannel, hot stew, warm coffee, renewal. The profound and brooding woods, that live quietly in me as I bustle around in sterile wear, the look of the hunter in my eye behind the safety glasses, not visible to those around me, the fire hidden deep inside.
So I stayed out longer than I should and getting caught in a cloudburst was my cover charge. It wasn't a dangerous storm, even I knew well not to head out into the tall trees during one of those. It was the short squalling tantrum of a baby cumulus that would throw its fit against a tired Mother earth, then just as quickly cry itself into sleep again.
But Mother Nature is never easy, and I've camped under the open stars watching the fireflies twinkle (holy smoke! Those are BATS!), by choice and sometimes by accident. You do your best with what you have, and you hope you make the right decisions. Sometimes the decisions seem to happen by themselves, as if found at the end of an invisible chain, somethings they are long drawn out thoughts, held in the hand and dreamt of in the night before taking human form.
Even so, any thunderstorm out in the open is dangerous, so I found shelter as best I could, avoiding the tallest trees, with lightning cracking within a few miles. The poncho is quickly pulled out of the pack and donned, another to cover my rifle and gear. I settled down to wait, rivulets of water running down my face, thoughts retreating like tide, exposing a bare landscape of fire and blood, rock and water.
I thought of my first whitetail hunt, taught the craft by those that loved me, passing down a tradition of survival and preparedness. I field dressed the animal with coaching but no hands on assistance, there in the fading light, my bloody hands consecrating to us that which was, by God's will and man's patience, accepted as a gift. I grew up that day, in more ways the one, having learned and watched and waited, until I was ready to handle my firearm, ready to use it as a responsible steward of the land, looking at the deer on the ground, the first worthy blood I had been worthy to take. Sacrifice with grace, for which we are both thankful and repentant.
The rainfall soon snubbed that recollection, memories growing quiet in the tears of the heavens.
It would be a brief outburst so I stayed still, and quiet, there under a tree whose leaves were torn fabric against the rain. I did not want to give away my position should there be any chance of a hunt once the storm passed. I simply waited, watching closely the landscape, golden leaves waving up to the clouds that gallop past, tails flicked up with the movement. I've lived long enough to know that it will pass, learning about weather from hunting, and from flying.
It's knowledge I wouldn't give up to take myself back to my youth again. For I wouldn't be twenty-something again for the world. I have no desire to relive that time when you've not gotten through all those troubles that will take you to where you can take a few weeks off from work, head outdoors and sit in a tree blind, tasting the peace and savor of freedom.
There I waited, as the sun slowly reappeared, waiting being my only option, watching a seasons worth of tracks blotted out by the unhurried Sunday shower. So many tracks gone but not forgotten there in the annealing lightning, the silent footprints of ghost deer, my shadow on what was once their bed, my vision on a landscape their eyes had already lost, hidden there under a tree.
I pull my firearm out from where it's been kept dry, for no amount of fire or rain can challenge what is stored in a hunters ghostly heart, and my firearm has seen me through both, with neither pity or scorn for the travails. We waited, the Winchester and I, and waited some more, hoping that with the clearing of the air, man's smell washed from the area, a few deer would roust themselves out before dark.
All things come to he who waits. And she.
For there, with the sun just starting to yawn and dip in the sky, a buck passed by. He was young, still with much life ahead of him. Not a fat doe, but a youth, a skinny forest hooligan, tempting fate by being out past his curfew. But I was beginning to shiver, a sign I needed to get back to the cabin, and soon. Yet, this is what I came out for, I told myself and I raised my weapon. The squirrels paused, and for yet another moment that day, the forest missed a breath, my hands coming up, shivering stopped, only blood and desire and life pulsing in my ear, my own breath waiting, trembling, held in as the my finger draws back.
And I gently released it, the little buck bolting off into the shadows. I'm hunting alone. If I taken the shot I'd get a little bit of additional venison to add to the freezer but there is a good chance with the location combined with onset of dark, that I won't be able to get help in time to get him out of there before all light was gone. Like the deer, I will run out of life that can be lived long before I've exhausted every possibility of that life. Especially if I get pneumonia again, this time from being stupid. It wasn't worth it for what at the most would put 40 pounds of meat in the freezer.
We all take paths that seem exciting at the time, as we travel the wilderness of a heart, of a landscape. Everything is as it seems to be, you're not mindful of the dangers. Yet sometimes, the sky clears, you look carefully at where you're at, and realize the wisest thing to do is to walk away, clean and with as little blood as possible.
As I headed back in to the cabin, I checked the fire I'd started that morning to cook my breakfast. I'd checked before, it only takes a spark to start a forest fire, though it takes an entire box of matches to get a campfire going. But I checked again, anyway, even though it rained, moving one of the rocks that contained it away. The rock was still warm, not enough to pull my fingers away, but enough that it possessed a luminance heat, not the sort that would burn, but a slow steady warmth that the dying fire may scorn, rain would dilute, but only time could truly deplete. I picked it up and held it in my hand, feeling it cool. Not everything of strength and density is cold. Watching a drip of water fall to the ground I thought, even a stone can weep.
They say that the waters of the Lord can wash away sins, that mountain water cleanses the earth. But what of weakness and regret? What of that one moment of pity for that we are about to diminish, there in that cracking moment when something ceases to live. That moment there between speed and splendor and the casting off of a shell casing. I live off of the land, and as such, by need or necessity, I've taken life to survive or protect. Yet tonight, I could not, for reasons beyond the logical ones.
The rain was letting off to thin drops that trailed like dew upon my brow, but it was almost pitch dark before the trail led me back to the cabin, with thoughts of warmth and food, refreshing tonic to my brain, the smell of kerosene and leather bringing heat to parts of me too long cold. I peel off my damp clothes, a strand of long hair plastered to my breast like warriors paint, hands gathering wood and tinder into flame, fingers still damp with glistening drops.
Another crack of thunder splits the night, and somewhere tonight, blood, hot and dense, bringing both pleasure and pain, will soak into the ground, starting the cycle of life again. From the woods a cry of an animal lingered long on the air, leaving on the breeze the thin echo of regret.
I pour a glass of whisky, and raise a quiet toast to the one that won't get away.