An early morning in Indiana, across the road the remains of a cornfield, small predators scurrying within the maze, seeking prey. To the east, the sun pulls itself up to the horizon, as the stars above melt into the liquid night. Off in the distant, a small rise of hill behind an old farm, pine trees bunched up a tilted slope, hidden and expectant.
I start some tea, slice off a chunk of homemade bread, nurishment for the morning. I turn on the TV to check the weather but get a channel where some guy wearing nothing in the way of a natural fiber is expounding on why every reference to wine in the Bible really meant "grape juice". I turn it off. and checked the weather on the laptop. Thank you Lord, for this day's bread and especially, the Internet.
It's 6 in the morning. It's a weekend. But it makes it easier if the bat phone decides to go off tomorrow at 4 a.m. Early mornings are nothing new to my family. Dad loved to go fishing and would get up at 3 in the morning to get ready and make the drive to where the deer and the steelhead played. Mom would get up with him, make him a hot breakfast and then go back to sleep until the kids awoke.
A friend heard that story and said "my wife won't get up early with me" before his hour and half commute each way to the city. One day, 30 minutes out, he realized he forgot something and went back, expecting the house dark and quiet. But the kitchen light was on, there were shadows of someone in the kitchen, there was the sound of laughter. He walked in, not knowing WHAT he'd find and there she was, his wife of 22 years, frying an egg, for their Labrador Retriever. He said "you don't get up to make me breakfast but you get up early to make the DOG breakfast?" She said, "well he likes his egg in the morning".
But not every one is a "morning person". Some, even with chances to go to bed early, finding they need a pot of coffee and perhaps a taser to get them moving in the morning.
As a youngster, I'd gone bird hunting a few times, and even whitetail hunting when I got my first shotgun, but my experience with large animals as I dove into adulthood was limited to some of the lifestock I'd have to drive around when traveling on missions in strange foreign lands. You know those places where you go into the nicer restaurants and on every menu there is "lamb". But you've not actually SEEN a lamb, let alone sheep, in the entire country. So you ask someone about the lamb.
He says "do you like goat?"
"Well don't order the lamb".
Many of you have been in such places, countries where lifestock roam freely and you soon learn that although you can mauenver through a herd of three dozen goats and not put even a small (it'll buff out) dent in one, you can NOT drive through a cow. They refuse to yield, and nothing will make them change their mind, not horn honking (the Egyptian brake pedal), swearing loudly in Norwegian or having the natives whack at it with brooms"Oh blessed, scared cow, please remove thy self from our lane of cheap antiquities, yes we take American dollar". That cow is NOT moving, until you swerve to avoid it, at which point it can drop down into the lane directly in front of your bumper faster than Tony Stewart.
But I wanted to go hunting again someday. But with a new husband that didn't approve of hunting OR firearms for women, it wasn't to be. He'd go, but not I. Taking care of a farm (I am really learning to dislike cows) while continueing to fly all over hither and yon, the only vacation I ever got was if I was sick. So the call of a loon was nothing more than a deep keen that would be released from my soul in sleep, the sound sometimes awakening me.
Then, seemingly, a lifetime later, a call. From friends a couple of states away who had included me in their gatherings at holidays so I wouldn't be alone, with a question. "Do you want to go whitetail hunting with us? The answer was not just "yes" But "$(# Yes!"
And it started. We were serious in our hunts. We scouted and built blinds and checked for rubs and scrapes, long before the season started. The night before, we'd have a meal and perhaps a cocktail. Most imagine the meal before the hunt as being gentlemen sipping whiskey outdoors in front of a "bed of glowing embers" on which a pan of trout gently sizzles, like something out of a Hemingway novel. I have to tell you from experience, 'bed of glowing embers" is as elusive to the average hunter as that 14 point buck.
No, for us it was running through waves of heat to fling a few burgers on the roaring conglagration that was our "gently glowing embers" from at least 10 feet, then retreating, hoping that rum cocktail that someone "whipped up" didn't spontaneous combust. The dinner was sometimes burned, it was sometimes raw in the middle, but if you could cut it without the chainsaw or poke it and not have it fight back, you figured it was good to eat. But we had friendship and we had stories. and we told the stories that the naive and the young don't know, but hunters tell, myself simply listening, as I thumbed through the old photos of previous generations.
In those photos of the men from generations past, faded and dog-eared from time, the pride is clear on their face. They look leaner and more of the woods than photos I've seen in some fancy hunting catalogs now. Men who counted on their hunt to feed their families. They look into the camera with eyes a hundred years old, there in the glare of the camera bulb, the courage, the restless heart, too strong for the indoors. There it is, captured in that brief flash of light, then disappearing into the darkness, home with their kill.
The men in the photos were all dead and gone. But at least they weren't dead and gone while still drawing breath, trapped in thickets of suburbia, all the instincts of their fore bearers watered down to tasteless existence. Food from the store, health from a tanning bed, and dreams trickling down a drain in a house that saps all your money and energy.
We sat up until the fire died down, an ember jumping free of the flame and lighting on one of the old photos. I quickly jumped to brush it off, realizing too well that a 1/4 inch cinder is longer than time, and the flame it can start is larger than remembrance or grief. I've found out the hard way that burning wreckage is, unfortunately, stronger than both courage and will.
Sleep was a sleeping bag on the floor. Everyone else could roll their up until it was the size of a loaf of bread. No matter what I did mine was the size of a round bale of hay. But with the fire finally winding down and deer camp quiet, I slept, dreaming of hunters long ago, a toast to their days, peace to their ashes.
The alarm went off so very early and we were on our way out well before it got light. I'd given up perfume weeks before and I had an assortment of hunter friendly products to wash up with. I could go out with a body wash that smelled like "dirt" or unscented. I went for the unscented, headed outside, dressed and ready, my eyes bright from excitement, not from a pencil or a pot of glittery shadow.
I was a "probie" when it came to hunting really, it had been so many years. But they figured that out when I took a deep wiff of the "new and improved" Tinks with "what does THIS now smell like?" WHOA! But I could handle a firearm well, I was strong, and I was not afraid of much of anything except spiders, vending machine sandwiches and blind dates. I was ready. Or was I ? How would I do out alone in the cold and the dark, the elements around me reminding me again, how alone I really was.
But Adrenalin and pride pushed me out the door, eager to rush into something I'd wanted to do again for years, leaping into something I'd known would happen, that feeling that somehow lovers and suicides both grasp in that instant when it's too late. The fact that it was spitting snow with temperatures in the minus area, did not even slow me down. I was going to hunt if I froze to death trying, I muttered under my breath, a begger's prayer to the wild.
We weren't carrying any walking talkes or any such gadgets. If I made they heard a shot, they'd send someone as I would need someone to walk me through the field dressing,. If I had to, I could whistle. If I sing, cats gather on the porch but I can whistle like a longshoreman.
From the woods behind us, came a deep seated grunt. A primordial huff from inky nothing, letting us know, that not only that he was there, that he knew WE were there. Deer don't get to be enormous by not being wily. We split into 4 lone hunters, walking a couple miles, widely spaced on the 500 acres we were on. We walk through trails barely visible in moonbeam, avoiding the deer trails so not to leave scent or sound, taking back brush filled routes into out spots.
Where I now wait. Alone. This was different than sitting solitary in a home. There I just felt lonely. Here, it was something else, the not quite believing, not quite awakened sense of isolation that was fully alive. The breathing spell of ancient verbiage of desire and newly found need. Hearing the celestial hush of a world hurtling through space, the small tiny rustle of a tiny creature worrying only if he is prey before daylight. I was up in a mid-level blind, nothing more than a small platform from which I'd climbed up simple stakes set into the trunk. Cautious as to the final silence of night that would envelop me if I fell out if it headfirst, I lean around cautiously, feeling my shoulder hang there just for a moment in space, so I knew where my best balance was, counting my backbone as it lay up against the trunk that was my only support.
The woods came alive. If you hunt or camp, really camp, you know what I'm talking about. When sound by sound you become aware of life around you, the chirping of birds and a chipmunk mocking the deep episcopal purple of the night. I sat, flexing my feet in their boots to keep them warm, clutching my weapon to me like a newborn babe in arms, ears picking up every little sound, eyes scanning my world for what I sought. The sounds themselves flexed, continuously rising, then falling to silence, life, then death, a sharp cry in the underbrush a small joy, or a sudden end. The woods were alive, as am I, a small figure in a tree blind, a wet seed on the hot, seeing ground, waiting for something.
The day goes so fast, yet time passes in slow motion, the woods trembling with shimmering forms that flash before my eyes, glimpsed for only a moment as they blend into green as the dawn slowly melts into view. Leaves caress my check, as a small storm moves in. From where I sit ,I can see if for an hour, not encroaching closely enough I needed to seek a safer spot, but flirting with a small spot of land, distant artillery flashes against a the sky slowly bleeding into brightness.
This was a day alone hunting, not boredom or despair but listening to the sound of the world as I dream of gods and mere men, blackpowder and black labs, men in kilts, prime rib and everything in between. I saw no deer but I was occassional heckled by squirrels including one that was so short and fat he may have actually been a disgruntled hamster. I tried to ignore them, pulling my gun up, finger off the trigger and occassionally saying "bang" at them to see if they'd leave. They did, if only to go harrass someone else.
I simply sat and waited, looking upward into the deep veined richness of space. Any lingering doubt I had as to my ability to be in this spot, at this time, stops, as my heart jumps at the shadow on a 12 point buck entering my view.
It was almost dusk when he came forth. From a small ridge line marked by sentient rows of corn, he moves quietly, stopping, listening, smelling. Seventy-five yards away, one movement on my part as he looks my way, and he would be gone before I could pull up and aim. The moment is there in between a heartbeat, a sound, a sixth sense and he begins to dart away. Thinking back to something that came from one of the previous evenings old stories, I put up my fingers to my mouth, tasting the earth, tasting myself, and I whistle. One brief, sharp sound that breaks the lie of silence. The buck stops for just a moment and my shot rings out.
He didn't go far, the bullet going through his heart, one leap toward the heavens and he was down, providing in that moment, a closure of a cycle for both he and myself. With his life, giving sustenance for the upcoming cold winter, I stand in respectful silence for a moment over his body, thankful for what we will have on our table this winter. A prayer of thanks that comes on the edge of a sharp knife.
Soon, someone would come, hearing the shot, but for now there is only deathly silence, the woods giving up no living sound, the darkness simple an echo of that that went past today, snorts and snuffings, the chatter of squirrels, the smell of warm breath, cooling flesh, scarred hide and strong bones within which there still lay secrets that even the darkness is reluctant to reveal.
I look up the trail at the sound of a small four runner, looking with eyes hundreds of years old, an esoteric glance, not of this world, but of one newly found.
And I give thanks, for friends, for the woods and a wake up call I really needed.