Mattie could not get the the contents in the porcelain to quit swirling. He felt his stomach revolting again. Gagging, he puked into the bowl. Gripping the side with one hand, he wiped his mouth with the back of the other. He slumped back to sit on his lower legs, making sure both hands were secure to the rim.
Josh finished packing. Wool underpinnings with one extra hooded sweatshirt, shirt, extra socks and pants. His hunting jacket was brought in from its station outside, having hung there for a week. He placed it, his hat, gloves and boots in the durable plastic bag filled with scrunched leaves and twigs. He put both in the back of his topped truck along with his scoped Ruger MK II bolt action .270. His grandfather’s gun. He locked the door behind him quietly not to wake the family and entered the truck.
Mattie got to his feet. He looked toward the sink and took a step in its direction, leaning to grab hold. He rested his thighs against its front edge and turned the cold water tap on. Cupping the running water, he leaned further and splashed it into his face. There was a mild jolt. He did it again and then once more. Water dripped from his scratchy stubble. He raised his lowered eyes locking them on the mirror. The water continued to run and he made slower movements, allowing it to run over his hands and wrists. The cold mildly helped. He glanced once more into the pooling sink and cupped the water to his face. He lifted his hands up, letting the water slip through his fingers and gently pushed on his temples. Relief showed some life.
Josh pulled into the apartment complex, parked, and headed to the entry. Once gained, he rang Mattie’s apartment. He let the pause linger and then rang once more. A buzzer loosed the locked door and he moved into the hallway and made his way to the elevator. Mattie lived on the third floor. It was Spartan in accommodation, a one bedroom ‘mission’ abode. Furniture consisted of two outdoor folding chairs, a T.V. table next to one and a few pots and pans with throw away dishes in the kitchen. The bedroom had a mat on its floor with a green dappled sleeping bag layered over it. A VHS tape player sat along side.
Mattie mumbled good morning as Josh entered, the door unlocked. Josh knew not to say much. A backpack, packed, sat on the floor in the bedroom. He grabbed it and flung it over his shoulder, whiffing a stale odor and waited. Mattie pulled on jeans and added a zipped fleece turtleneck, its front zipper broken half way up holding the two sides together, exposing the cotton long sleeve shirt. His baseball hat with curled brim was placed on hair trailing back. He had work boots unlaced on his feet. He brushed past Josh and reached into the closet, where one sweater and a spring jacket tottered on plastic hangers. A leather case stood in the corner. Mattie grabbed it and emerged. He moved toward the front door and grabbed his wallet from the fridge, taking a long swig from an open bottle of milk. He replaced it and looked at Josh.
“I could use some coffee.”
“Sure. We’ll get some at the cafe up the road.”
Mattie pulled some bills from his front pocket and handed Josh a fifty. Josh glanced at the red eyes during the exchange, a staleness prevailed. He pocked the money and turned to leave. Mattie followed, leaving the door unlocked.
Josh had graduated from a tier five school in an upper Midwest State, having played football, basketball and baseball; a three “ball” sport man. Mattie was from the same school, but played hooky and hockey, never at the same time! He would rather be out in the woods behind his grandfather’s farm shooting what ever was in ‘play’ at the time. His senior year he ‘came up for air’ to tender his athletic ability for the school, having sat out most of the previous two. He had been turned in for smoking cigarettes his sophomore year while parked at the feed mill. The penalty was a year’s suspension, so he missed the second half of that year and the whole of his junior year. He never questioned who or why someone had turned him in. He could have come back midway junior year but had used the time to sharpen his eye. One day, the sun shining brilliant from its low arch during February, he felt the ‘missing.’ He would return his last year.
When he came back that last year, the coach was none too excited. He had a good squad, both in temperament and ability. The last thing he had wanted was an interruption to his goal of making State. Trouble was, Mattie was that much better than the goalie who had replaced him during his absence. And the team knew it. It took seven games into the season to see that a serious run would have to come with Mattie…which it did, losing in the semi finals on the ‘big pond’ filled with screaming fans in a tight game. Mattie had been stellar during the run and on his shoulders the team tempered wins. This game was very close. Mattie heard one ‘pipe’ and had several acrobatic saves. One had gotten behind him. He felt it his mistake more than it was. They lost when a goal they scored was nullified and the opposing team scored the winning goal, with under one minute to play. It was purposely kicked in. Loyal fans were livid. Players stunned. When the horn sounded, the two teams were scrumming at center ice with the referees working to regain order. Mattie had stayed put, between the pipes and mask on. He was always in his own world behind the mask. When things seemed to settle, he moved toward the player who had kicked in the goal whose team now celebrated in front of their fans. He approached and the player turned to him. He laughed. Mattie pushed his mask back over on top of his head and smiled. He shortened the range and let go a ‘greenie,’ hitting the player right in the face. There was a rush. Mattie had dropped his stick and gloves and waited. Another player got to him and reached for his jersey. Mattie broke his nose. Now there was blood, and the teams went at it for real. No ‘dancing’ for effect. Sportsmanship be damned. One team threw hay-makers for honor, the other for pride. It did not matter. Mattie was gone after pulling away from the others. He simply turned his back and skated for the runway to their dressing room. It ended and the exhausted players entered the room, throwing sticks and gloves. It was a quick exit. No one wanted to linger. Mattie never looked up from his dressing. When they began the slow process of climbing on the bus for home, Mattie walked past and entered the passenger side of his grandfather’s Buick. A week later, as student athletes prepared for the coming Spring sports and Prom, he had not returned to school. It was hooky time. When he re entered school and served his detention graduation was not on his radar.
What was undetected by many was his voracious love of literature. As a sophomore, Mattie had a wonderful English teacher, Martin Tuttle, who brought life to ‘Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies in the class while bringing him under his wing to offer other works. Mattie had grown up with Dickens and Melville, favorites of his grandfather. This new literature, though seemingly frothy, did have merit in the understatements of their pinning and their statements on social ills and fragmentation. It was evident that societal angles were being brought to bear by the authors, much as Lewis and Steinbeck, works that he had also read. It was Mr. Tuttle who encouraged Mattie to journal. And there began his writing. He wrote what he saw, what he experienced and what he felt. No barriers nor excuses. But it was not blunt. Mattie had a lyrical style that matched his physical expressiveness. The journal was never seen by anyone. Mr. Tuttle knew of it, but was never proffered to read it. That would be up to Mattie. He never did offer. They continued to explore English during the year Tuttle was there. Then Mr. Tuttle left.
Josh had a distinguished high school career and was sought by many of the Ivies; primarily to play football. His S.A.T scores were extremely high and he chose to get an education at Dartmouth while presenting his skills on the gridiron. He left that following Fall, finishing his summer ‘ordeal’ at of the family’s warehouses. Mattie headed to Vietnam though the draft was two years away. Never took the tests. His grandfather took him to the bus station. No one saw him for the next eight years.
While Josh accumulated yardage at Dartmouth, conquering grades and girls, Mattie served 3 and 1/2 tours. The last two as a L.R.R.P; Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol. He had been in A Shau Valley prior to the battle for Signal Hill. With Hector his German Shepherd, they had been out on their own, gathering intelligence, and vectoring it back from Signal hill at predetermined times. If for some reason he could not make the call, the next calculated time came into play. The cat and mouse game drew hard on the nervous system. Constantly among the enemy, he and Hector were on alert every minute. It was because of Hector that Mattie could get any rest. Hector was killed just prior to evacuation while Mattie made it out with the use of a ‘McGuire rig,’ a long emergency rope that dangled him in ‘never land’ as the Huey gained altitude and space from an attacking force. The two of them had been compromised when Mattie had been told to siphon off a NVA general along the ‘Trail.’ It was an opportunity that he was not to let pass. It cost him.
When his first two year hitch concluded, he was stationed at Okinawa. He was offered a month off his enlistment for everyone he spent back in the bush, back to Nam. He accepted and survived, though he lost several mates on Signal Hill during that battle. He was not there. He was up north with the Montagnards. They were living and dying fighting the NVA while he prepped them the best he could. They did not lack for courage. He spent a 15 months there, 3 past what was supposed to be his mission. His superiors had forgotten him. It was an educational period. He had very mixed feelings. With these people he saw the beauty and the brutality of life in an experiential- lived way, beyond bullied and gut wrenching patrols. He left when one day he decided he was tired. It was a long walk.
Josh earned three letters while averaging about four yards a carry at Dartmouth. He became the starting halfback half way through his junior year when his teammate went down. He maintained it and a B+ average in business, graduating while beaming family watched. He had had two serious relationships while wearing the Green and White. One he broke the heart of and the other he was the recipient of his being ripped. He understood himself well enough to know he was not a roamer, but the cost this time was scarring. She headed to Europe to study Art History and Josh did hear that she married there. And there was Emma, his high school girl friend who he had “loved” during those years. For Josh love had to be in the equation of any relationship. He moved back and immersed himself in the families business. And in Emma. He began pursuing for permanency. What one would call luck, Josh just put it at as deliverance, for he was reignited in love and he brought Emma to his like thinking.
Mattie ran into Josh at a City watering hole, when Josh had come in with some clients of the family business. They had put up a sizable tab. Midway through the night he saw Mattie in the corner of the bar, having sucked down quantities of Schlitz beer and lining the empties in neat rows. Sauntering over to him they said their hellos and shook hands. Josh sat down. Beer talk ensued, though more on Josh’s part than Matties. But the ice was broken and they found mutual footing to regain friendship, limited but nice. No real guards put up though neither entered the others ‘sanctuary’ either.
On Josh’s part he found the essence of Mattie gratifying to his otherwise predictable life path. He was glad to have reconnected. For Mattie, Josh was good, respectful and he, Mattie, enjoyed his company. They moved through the next few years on paths that interdicted here and there. Josh proved to be Mattie’s only ‘friend,’ one who would pursue him and accept his isolated contentment. Josh, an extrovert for the most part, found a quietness in Mattie that he sucked in and embraced.
The Volvo pulled into the Sinclair and Josh waited for the attendant. Mattie, in languid fashion, moved from the car and walked across the street to the drug store. He nodded at the cashier and and grabbed some aspirin. He paid and crossed to the cafe. Here he purchased three 12 oz coffee’s leaving one room for cream. Josh had to have cream. He recrossed to the truck as Josh finished paying, handed him his coffee and entered the truck.
Josh had watched Mattie returning. Mattie’s sleekness of movement usually caught people’s attention…even in a slow walk. It was part of his physical make-up that allowed survival for three years. Josh smiled. He would have loved to have had that liquid gait. His style was more bullish, straight ahead! As Josh got in, Mattie reached into his sweater and took out a handful of packet creamers. He reached across his body and handed them to Josh.
Joshed indoctrinated his coffee with two and swirled the contents, then started the truck. Mattie welded his back to the seat and finished his first and took up the second. The day was beginning to solidify as they exited the gas station and got back on the Freeway, northbound. The drive would take about four hours. They were headed to Josh’s family cabin where they would meet up with another six or more family members and friends. The cabin had been in the family for at least two generations. Pa, his dad, would be there, though he did not hunt much anymore. He was now the Patriarch. The cold got to him quickly. He just enjoyed being with his family and a few friends. His life had been devoted to them and the business. His one great pleasure was to make the annual hunt. He was the designated cook along with, this year, grandson Paul. This year being his first, Paul found employment in the ‘shacks’ kitchen a must. He rode up with Pa. He was excited to be invited.
Another grandson was heading to the woods for his first hunt, alone. It was the second year he was legal to hunt. Last year he went out with Steven, his dad, and they practiced all the safety assignments. This year he was going to be able to be in a stand by himself. The excitement throbbed in the boy.
The cabin rules placed on all juveniles had ceased for Patrick. He was considered a hunter. He had graduated. He was one of the ‘boys.’
On the ride up, the two visited. Josh took the lead as usual and was happy to familiarize Mattie with his “gangs” current events; Julia now starting kindergarten, Max hyper active in second grade and Amelia knocking down “A’s” in fourth. He and Emma had started a family right away, both wanting one. Her planned book placed on hold. Max loved ‘balls’ while Amelia looked at the pink side of the world. Julia was just playful and happy. Mattie listened and gave attention, but allowed the information to flow over him like a brook over a rock. He was not really connecting. Did he ever? That was a question he had asked of himself before. He was happy for them; all of them.
“Your family seems good Josh.”
“Yes, I think so, and Emma and I are connecting well”
“You know, on the same page of parenting I’d say” Mattie thought of Emma. Was it shortly after his ban from Hockey?
She had met him in the hall and sat next to him on the bench. Mattie had felt something different immediately, though he was not sure what it was. Definitely more than her long dark hair, modest dress, and pleasant face. Not tall, she might have seen the underside of 5’4.” Her dress diminished her figure, which was slender and proportioned. Yes, for her to sit down next to him in a physical presence was nice if that was the ‘meat’ of it, what made him ‘tinge.’ But it was her class, her honesty in manner and generous spirit that conveyed depth to him. Depth that he found so enrapturing. They were in Mr. Tuttle’s class together and had one Math class that year, but she never saw him in that one. They became friends. Friends of such that it was like meeting on a park bench and enjoying the day in total completeness. She made him laugh, more a light smile and an exhale of mirth, but good none the less. Hers was an open mouthed rush which she would cover in such a delicate manner. They could go their separate ways, sometimes lengthy, but when together it was magical to him. Mattie had not wanted to break this “something,” smash it and take it to a new height. Emma thought Mattie could play Gatsby almost in that essence, “one of those rare smiles [that] understood you just as much as you want to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself,”(1) Excepting where Gatsby took on that persona because he wanted it, ‘it’ was natural for Mattie. Emma found herself floating in hopefulness. Mattie brought her a velvet smoothness of experience. But she also accepted the joy of the friendship as it was. For Mattie, this time ‘on the bench’ was peace. A respite from expectations. As Emma pronounced her future aspirations, she withheld any personal desire to go deeper. She found this time very special as well. He was even able to express some of his thoughts and ideas. He said how he loved literature, spoke of his grandfather and the woods. She in turn shared her real life joys, trials and dreams: She wanted to major in Art History and publish a book, Family was important to her, her best friend was her sister, she hoped for a family herself…. But this was in the future. Now was high school, where 16, 17, and 18 year old adolescents ran parallel to the world, sometimes swerving and interdicting, but for the most part channeling energy in ‘close.’ Their world would open up soon enough. Emma’s world was mostly in idle, feeling such a pull toward this quiet, slender friend who made her feel a thrill without doing anything but smile at her, or walk her way.
The placid 50’s had run its course and the 60’s with its worldly upheaval was touching the Midwest. Most did not comprehend in the Bread Belt. Isolation had its barriers. But change was occurring on the campuses of the Universities. And a place called Vietnam was beginning to show up daily in the Living Rooms of homes. Mattie saw it.
Mattie knew that others coveted her for more, a steady. Josh included. Emma refrained from such ties, but she did have fun with groups of friends doing all manner of escapades. She refrained from sex. It was not just her upbringing, though her Protestant heritage was a strong influence. It was more Mattie. He was a buffer, her feelings toward him. She would not jeopardize their friendship. It was not classical boyfriend/girlfriend. It seemed deeper, if not understandable. Emma began to see something changing in her. She was a little unnerved. It was deeply special. She never missed a hockey game that senior year. Mattie saw her there. During timeouts, he would lean against the post and look in her direction. She looked back. She sat through the scrum at State and watched the back of his jersey leave the rink as the scuffle continued. It was surprising to her but she found no judgement to restrain.
Josh had asked her to Prom that senior winter, prior to the ‘terror at State.’ She accepted, squirrely anxious inside. She knew Mattie would not be going nor asking. She did desire to go, to dress up and be special for a night in such a manner. She spoke of it with him, while on the bench and Mattie for his part encouraged her. She did not comprehend the consequence, see the barrier that would be placed between them. It happened.
They could still sit, idly talk and share stories, hers mostly, enjoying. But Josh had fallen hard for her and Mattie knew it. He took stock of the situation and thought through it. One day in the barn, after the last tit had been squeezed and he finished cleaning up, he knew. He knew himself. He knew her dreams. As he walked back to the house, his step was slower. Grandpa had put the coffee on and coughed the old truck to life to run to town. Mattie poured himself a cup and sat on a wooden stool.
He purposed a “distance.” Emma felt the change soon after. Mattie would not discuss the dance beyond the fact that he was happy that she had gone! This ‘distance’ became apparent soon after the ‘glam was off.’ She had no idea of what to say or do. Emma found him on the bench a time later. She sat and both were quiet. Banter was not what she wanted. She was straining inside and so needed to talk, to say her heart. But as she looked at him and began, he knew. She was going to say something that he could not entertain. It was not just Josh. He loved her. He knew this beyond his years. But he was not future bound to anything. She needed someone that would take her to her destiny. Mattie placed a finger softly on her lips. She stopped. What he did next displaced her equilibrium. Taking his other hand, he gently stroked her hair. Then he picked up the dark ends of natural beauty and took in a deep breath. Real sweetness. He gently pulled her closer and kissed her head, lingering for just a moment. She held still, wanting to melt to him.
A smile lit down on her as he stood to go. It was fluidly quick and she almost fell over to where he was sitting. The grey-blue eyes took in all of her. She blushed but looked up with her compassionate brown ones. Then he touched her chin lightly, turned and walked away. From that point on, she was not in his universe, excepting as a friend of Josh’s. She felt a ‘loss.’
With the distance, she slowly moved to Josh’s charm, his likableness, his drive. But she never truly became Josh’s lady though they began dating weeks after Prom on a regular basis She would come into contact with Mattie on occasion. He would politely ask how she was doing or where she was heading, but then he would smile and move away. She was left with her heart thrusting against bone. That wonderful smile and the sweetness of ‘him.’ While she frequented the bench, he did not. It was like he had sixth sense where she was and made sure he wasn’t.
“You and Emma make a good team.”
“Thanks, I think so. She takes care of the kids while I am away so much. I so appreciate her as a mother.”
“Never thought of myself as a parent.” Mattie did not question Josh’s last statement.
“You’d be good.”
“Don’t really know and not interested.”
Mattie liked how Josh’s mantra was never to label anyone. He accepted what was presented and acquired friends easily with his charm and charisma. Kept them tied in a unique fashion, that being on Josh’s terms, mostly. It was what leaders were able to do. Josh had always been that. Their friendship began the year Mattie was kicked off the team, that sophomore year. Josh never abandoned nor ignored him. A bond was struck that was never discussed nor tempered with. They did not hang out with each other. Mattie did not hang out with anyone really. But friendship it was.
Emma had been at the bus depot. She stood at the corner of the building and watched Mattie’s grandfather, in worn overhauls, flattened boots, and a blue faded work shirt topped with an old ball cap parked half way back. He stooped some. Years of milking cows had gained that posture, years in which Mattie had worked with him, even during hockey. It was Grandpa who had made the small rink in the corner of the barn and laced on old weathered skates and took shots at Mattie. He was never really praised, but he was given a hand on his shoulder when they went back to do chores. The hand told him. He always just followed his grandfather to the barn and obediently donned the aged equipment sans mask and allowed his natural instincts to be honed. He learned well. He became not just good but very good. He enjoyed it. Almost as much as the woods.
Emma saw them embrace quickly and then Mattie grabbed a satchel, in that silky smooth way of his and board the bus. She saw him look out the window at the old man, neither waving goodbye, but both watching the other. Tears ran down her face. She did not move even after the bus was lost in the darkness of the morning. She watched the old man depart the terminal. She felt that if she moved, her life would change forever. She was not ready for this. She was there when the sun began to dethrone the dark. It was then she turned.
They made the cabin shortly after noon. Josh had stopped once more to fill up prior to taking to the dirt roads. Gas was about .30 more up toward the Canadian border. Mattie had taken the opportunity to grab a smoke. He felt a smooth rush. He occasioned one more coffee from the adjoining cafe while Josh went with a bottled Coke. Both had stretched their legs and fifteen minutes later were on the final approach to the cabin.
He had made his way along the valley trails, moving to Signal Mountain, the highest place from which radio broadcasts could be made without hindrance. It stood 4,000 feet above the valley. He would check in and report. The NVA and Cong, having suffered horrifically in the failed offenses of Tet and Khe Sanh, moved to A Shau Valley to regroup. They felt safe here as the valley was socked often with cloud cover, allowing minimal air surveillance. Mattie was ordered to go in and get a nose on what was going on. There was much. The valley was a part of the northern Ho Chi Minh Trail.
They would move off quickly after each report. Coming down was always tense as there were not any escape routes. They would rest where they had route accesses. More than once a low growl from Herc, while resting, allowed them both to move quietly from detection. His natural movements payed dividends. Herc was trained to be obedient. He was not trained to love. That was the dog in him. Mattie came before everything. He lived to please him.
As they made the rendezvous point, six weeks later, NVA regulars were moving closing. They had to leave. Now. It should have been a simple extract. Mattie had been alone with Herc for six weeks when extraction became paramount. He had taken that NVA general as commanded. He found the man obscured but definitely identifiable. He could have played it safe and let him go. He laid him dead. He now became seriously hunted. The killing of the general had put him on a must kill list. The extraction timing was close. Too close. He did not have options but the incoming chopper, if it came. It did, but minutes late. As the helicopter approached, the air was too thin to land. Mattie could see the props laboring, a landing which screamed jeopardy. He had no way out but the chopper. The NVA had put a premium price on his head, literally. They were now in the midst of moving up to collect. The margin to live had become small. Mattie went into auto pilot, his instincts and learned skills became rote.
They were just short of collecting the bounty when Mattie opened his M-15 on three NVA’s that had crept into his small area. Herc had gone at one, ripping at the throat…he took two shots and went down. Mattie had turned and laced the shooter. He tried to move to his friend, but more khaki uniforms emerged over the crest. Mattie turned and ran to the extraction jump, firing.
“I can’t go to another place. Drop the long line and I”ll grab it” he shouted into the wind.
The door gunner was busy firing away with his .30 and never heard. Mattie acted as if he was pulling on a rope. Out the far side door came the McGuire. He turned quickly to let loose a spray. The chopper circled around and let the McGuire line drop to its full length. It was not close enough to grab, falling just off to the side of the mountain’s crest. There was no time for the Helicopter to make adjustments. Mattie stripped off his pack, threw the rifle sling over his back and stepped back a few feet, the gunner kept spitting the .30’s over his head at the closing enemy. With leopard grace he gained what thrust he could and launched himself to the rope, grabbing it with both hands. Bullets laced after him, tracers every tenth, cloaking him. One found his shoulder. He quickly wrapped his legs around the McGuire as the helicopter pulled higher and away. The side gunner slumped.
There was a pause in the shots. Mattie swung around and saw the faded form of Herc moving toward the cluster of fire. In unison they turned and fired into him. That brief moment allowed Mattie to be pulled beyond respectable range. Swaying over the valley floor away from torrid death, he felt loss, a feeling reached twice before, but not in such totality. Herc was vivid in his memory as he was somersaulted from the bullets ripping into his body. Mattie almost lost his grip on the rope.
They made base with Mattie having been towed aboard. A plastic wrap sucked tight on his shoulder, placed quickly as he entered the copter. The door gunner had one bullet in his abdomen and one in his arm. The other man was now working on him. Blood plasma surged in, trying to keep pace with the red spurting out. Mattie felt nothing about wounded man, the ‘medic’ nor the pilot. He did not even think on the botched extraction. He stared out the door at nothing. The return flight brought to him an absence of reality.
Emma had gone to the University of Michigan. She had joined in a few Peace Protests, but never truly embraced the movement. She thought of Mattie many times, but nothing took real shape. She had dated, but was not smitten as Josh had been. They had not kept in touch excepting some run ins during a summer when both were home. But their high school connection never completely vaporized. Two years later, just after Josh had graduated and she was finishing up summer school, the two of them reignited and became engaged. They married that Fall. It was a nice wedding.
Emma had written to Mattie during her college days but received just one letter back, saying he wished her the best and that he was fine. She followed up that letter but nothing came again. Mattie and his grandfather did correspond about twice a year, each letter simple in construction. He received a telegram two years after his deployment notifying him of his grandfather passing. There would be no home to go to. He vanished into the bush for a week. No one reported him AWOL. He returned and soon left on the next mission.
Once, before she married Josh, Emma had driven to the farm and had coffee with Mattie’s grandfather. Mattie had been gone 1 1/2 years. The old man was kind and so very considerate. In his grey blue eyes she saw Mattie. He had advised her to move on if Mattie was who she wanted. He knew his grandson and also knew Mattie would never break the trust he had with Josh. That Josh loved Emma the old man knew. Emma thanked him and, straightening her skirt, for she had dressed in a nice, soft colored outfit, stood and offered her hand. The old man moved to her with that same sweet smile she had seen many times before. He whispered in her ear as he hugged lightly, then backed away and nodded briefly, still smiling. Emma smiled quickly back and turned to leave. She brushed the tears from her eyes and drove away in her 69 Corvair. She tried to wrap her mind around the whispered expression, but couldn’t. She headed back to school shortly after. Really? But….
Neither had heard anything in the years after the marriage…and Josh never grasped any feeling but friendship between Emma and Mattie. Why should he? What had there been? Mattie’s image waned…yet she would on occasion see something simple and there he would be, that sweetness that had so engaged her. It was what Mattie had shown her. And Emma…she loved Josh. Mattie became an illusion, simple in his gone beauty.
They pulled into the lengthy drive about mid-day. Josh pushed out of the vehicle and stretched. Down the short stairs came his nephew Patrick. He moved to Josh and quietly gave him a short hug, returned with vigor from his uncle.
“You sprouted up again!”
“Yeah, I’d say a little.”
“Come here,” and Josh bulled him about. He had that inescapable way of showing love in such a brusque way. Patrick’s feet barely touched the ground. Finally placed on solid footing, Patrick faced Josh, his eyes still looking upward.
“Thought so, not here yet,” Josh put out his hand and touched the top of his head.
“Yeah well you best be shooting better than close!!”
Patrick’s first hunt…alone. He had joined his father Steven in the stand last year. This year he was allowed the ‘rite’ to hunt by himself. That he was excited would be a complete understatement.
The cabin was half filled with men and gear. Others would be joining by evening time. Stands had been checked weeks earlier. Now the woods and fields stood quiet. All were arriving with their morning destinations preset. All but Mattie. Pa had been asked that summer if Mattie could join this year’s hunt and gave blessings to it. There was more land to hunt than people and over the years many more stands built, though some needed annual ‘tenderness.’ Mattie consented finally the week before the Opener. The phone call from Pa was a nice ice breaker. G’Pa had special feelings for the youngun. He had been in the stands that last game, sitting with Karl, Mattie’s Grandfather, missing Josh’s semi-final basketball game. He was there with his friend to watch his hometown team play the sport of ‘champions,’ tough relentless camaraderie to the top!! Pa loved hockey. It was what he played. He did not express his profound disappointment at the conclusion. He did watch Mattie skate off by himself. He was not surprised either by that action, nor Karl’s. The older one move out the bleachers a bit sadder. The little he knew of the lad was likable mysteriousness. He saw something back then. He wanted Mattie to come up these years later. He could not truly express why.
He stood on the porch waiting for his son. He took a draw on his pipe as the truck parked by the shed. Josh was a little more fleshy these past couple of years, but still kept a good appearance. The other shape seemed smaller, thinner in truth. The hair was a bit longer, about shoulder length, flaxen straight. The features seemed worn, but handsome in a weary way.
“Hello Matthew and welcome!”
“Mr. Hodges, good to see you.”
They shook hands while Josh was busy throwing all but the cased rifles on the ground. Food, hunting attire packed in duffle bags, a sleeping bag and Mattie’s pack. Mattie joined him after the brief hello to Pa, taking up his leather cased rifle, his pack and a box of groceries. He felt a little small not having thought to ask about groceries. But there was nothing he could do about it now. Mattie did not live in a ‘should have, could have’ world. His world had always been the one of occurrence. And he frothed out of ‘Nam’ with it. The drinking became more acute, with an occasional joint, though he found pot not to his liking. It was too restrictive on his natural instincts and did not diminish the memories. He had always been careful with his cigarette smoking, limiting to after patrol in ‘Nam. Same held true when hunting, except not quite as controlled. He had taken up smoking in eighth grade. The year suspension for his habit was stupid. But he had known of the consequences. He just did not think one day and lit up while getting into the old Ford truck at the Mill.
When he and Josh reacquainted, Josh wanted him to come for dinner. Mattie quietly demurred and they took to meeting for the occasional lunch or happy hour cocktail. Josh had told Emma that he had run into Mattie. She just looked at him with a quizzical expression and asked where? When he told her and that he had invited him home for dinner but was declined, Emma was relieved but saddened too. From then on any information she obtained was through Josh, if and when he shared. Emma wanted to ask questions, but she was true to know herself. She was happy. The kids and Josh. She ‘left the table’ as bare as she could.
That afternoon heard the occasional rifle shot as some took to the hay field next to the cabin to sight in one more time. No hunting was allowed there. All had to distance themselves from the cabin. It was about hunting not shooting. A few snapped beer tops inward and laughed with the retelling of either old stories or recent exploits. Mattie listened, sitting on the porch with a steady stream of coffee in a porcelain cup Mr. Hendricks had given him. He was shown where quantities of it were being kept warm over a fire in the fireplace, hanging from a metal ‘swing.’ He bumped into Steve on a refill mission. Steven was obviously happy for his son if not a little apprehensive. Mattie felt the vibe. He made a quick verbal acknowledgement that all first hunts were a little tough, but that he could not imagine from a Father’s perspective. Steven brushed it aside nicely saying he was hopeful that Patrick would see at least a doe, to keep interest. Mattie sensed that Steven was not sure if Patrick truly wanted to hunt or if he was just here for the occasion. And there was buck fever, where one became paralyzed when a deer came into shooting range, especially a beautiful buck. Well, he thought, they would find out soon enough.
He moved back to the porch reaching across with his right hand to his left breast pocket to extract a cigarette. Lightening one, he pulled deeply. He had learned the art of enjoying one when he could. He looked around and felt peaceful. It was common for many, but he had not had it for a while. And when he happened upon it, it shimmered his insides. But it was fleeting as well.
The afternoon was chillingly shrinking. It was November. Frost would be underfoot when a few three ‘wheelers’ were started up and took off in the morning. Others would head down maintained footpaths to various stands, some enclosed lightly enclosed and others solid but with no weather protection. The family chose by cards, excepting Pa. He had the option to always go about 200 yards north in an enclosed stand that overlooked a cedar swamp. All others were in either similar surroundings, deeper in the oak woods, or off a field or swamp in different directions farther back, each picked by the card lottery. Mattie went along with the tradition and drew a jack. The pecking order of choosing was low to high, but this was fine with him. He was not going to stand hunt.
The stands were selected. Crazy names such as ‘four corners,’ ‘dead buck lives,’ ‘Knocked knee embraced,’ were taken. Patrick was granted first choice, a tradition for first time hunts. He took one that had a nice path to it which would be of comfort in the dark morning cold. ‘Buck North,’ though it was really east. He was acting as nonchalant as possible, but Mattie could see his eagerness melted with concern too. Now stories were being told centered on bragging rights, or lack of, bucks slain over the years. Good hearted cheers and jeers. Mattie took it in. There was an inherent need to demonstrate one could hunt. Practical. What Mattie had learned was to distance himself completely from this need. It was around 9:00 when Pa said it was probably a good time to sack in. Mattie touched Josh’s arm.
“Do you have an outside water spigot?” The cabin was furnished by a well.
“Yes, on the back side.”
“You’re welcome to bunk on the one of the couches.”
“See you for breakfast then.”
“I’ll be gone Josh”
Josh was not sure of the response and turned to enter the bathroom to brush his teeth. When he returned to say goodnight, Mattie’s back was to him. He was studying the hunting map and the location of the stands which would hold hunters the next morning. He particularly noted where Patrick would be, close to his father off the east side of the cedar swamp on a ridge where oaks predominated. A good opening stand with opportunity. Mattie noted a small lake farther east that had much land between it and the swamp. No stands were marked in that area. To be sure, he turned, knowing that Josh was behind him.
“Anyone off East of Patrick?”
“No, state land, so we don’t build stands there.”
“Mind if I head in that direction tomorrow?”
“Your sure welcome, Matt, to one of the open ones.”
“Thanks, but I would like to explore some out East if it is acceptable.”
“Thanks.” Mattie turned back to the map and studied the contour lines. He found where a ridge formed near the lake. He made his mental notes.
“Goodnight Mattie, time for this guy to hit it.”
“Night. Thanks Josh. I appreciate the chance to be here.”
Josh thought quickly before answering. So little did he know of this man, yet he liked him, to be around him. He flashed a white smile, “you’re welcome.”
Snores filled the cabin with flatulent smells mingling with the aroma of the completed dinner. Mattie slept his usual four hours and was awake around 2:00 a.m. He had slept fittingly. Rising quietly, as there was a body sleeping on the other couch and another on a cot in the corner, he moved to the fire and refreshed the wood. The coffee still hung over the low embers. Pa had refreshed it before bed and it was full. The cabin was warm, the temperature kept fixed by a propane furnace. The fire for the coffee and ambiance. He poured himself a cup, using a hot pad and the steel swivel as a fulcrum. He stood in the clothes he had worn the previous day. The fire gathered life. He placed a couple of larger logs on it, squatting to watch as the flames jumped higher. He then turned away. Making his way on toes he took hold of his pack near the side door where Josh had placed it. He had left his gun case outside. During the previous evening a few of the hunters had lubricated their weapons for security of their action. Mattie had not. He kept his spotless and used a natural lubricant if any.
Taking the pack he carefully opened the door and exited. The morning chill bit. Moving to the back, he took out a small flashlight from the front pocket and looked around. Finding dry grass and brittle leaves he layed the gun and pack down. Opening the pack he took out a fresh pair of wool underwear, jeans, turtleneck and a down vest. The wool red shirt and wool socks came out last. He had two pair of cotton work gloves. The ensemble was placed on the grass well away from the faucet. Mattie stripped. He let the water run and lightly splashed. The cold took his breath away, but he kept on. Next he rubbed himself down with the with the grass and leaves. Scrubbed down, he turned and dressed unhurriedly, having used a small kitchen towel from the cabin’s linen drawer to dry with. Each article adding warmth. He took up the pack now unburdened with most of its contents, excepting a hand machete laced to its bottom, some hand-food and a water bottle. He filled it and placed it in the pouch on his belt. The other side held a small 6 inch hunting knife.
He would be walking most of the day so he did not want to overdress. The temperature would be in the 40’s, so he would have to go slow. A northerner was expected later in the day supposedly to drive the temps below freezing. If precipitation accompanied, it could be snow. But he was not concerned.
Looking around, he found a white pine twig. He removed the needles and put the twig in his mouth. Taking a canteen out of the bottom of his pack he filled this too and replaced it. Never too much water. The gun case was by the pack. Mattie moved to it and took out his rifle, a M 15, 223 caliber. Illegal for hunting. There were cracks in the stock and a name was etched in the plastic mold, ‘Herc.’ He had taken it apart and mailed the parts individually in small boxes to the Post Office in his hometown from ‘Nam, before he shipped home. Just before he left the States, knowing his grandfather had cancer, he had purchased a mail box. He was assured that any boxes received would be placed on hold until he returned to collect or after five years if he did not. They had said their goodbyes, just in case, the day before Mattie left. The trip to the station was perfunctory. Mattie loaded it and let the receiver forward noiselessly. He pressed the bullet compressor to seat the copper casing. Turning off his flashlight he began to take in the dark. He never truly liked it, but gave it great respect. He looked up at the cabin. No lights yet. His wrist watch noted 3:30. Most wouldn’t be getting up until 5. He would be east of Patrick and his father by at least a half mile before they entered their stands, thus not interfering with them. He chose to circle around by way of heading up the drive which pointed south then head east.
Josh got up to use the bathroom around 3. He heard the tap water running outside and looked out. A small light was on the ground and movement was occurring at the spigot. He was not fully awake but thought it was Mattie. He moved back to his bunk, but sleep did not come. He lay there with many thoughts. He hoped that Mattie would be successful. For Josh, it was more about being with family and friends. And a little escape from responsible reality! He did feel the great pull of togetherness that a good camp provided. He was a lucky man. Truly, he believed.
Some were stirring before the alarm. Patrick thought he had not even slept, excepting spurts. Grandpa was already up scrambling eggs, frying bacon and making toast. He had gotten Paul up to help. Each as they woke took to the bathroom then found themselves at the large table, a plate of hot food placed before them. A traditional first morning. A meal to last those who stayed a field until the designated 11:oo rendezvous back at the cabin. Not much talking occurred excepting to acknowledge preparations. As each was preparing to take their various leaves, Grandpa called their attention.
“Let’s pray. Dear God, we ask your grace upon this hunt, that it be safe, fun, and let us gather in your ‘work,’ Your Creation! If it be your will, let us be successful. Amen.”
Hats were placed on heads of some overdressed hunters. It was cold sitting still in unheated stands for hours. But they would suffer. Overheating was as bad against cold as if under dressed. But some did. Josh had his outer wear in a pack that he shrugged into. He took to the woods in long underwear, shirt covering and a pair of light pants, to be worn under the outerwear once he got to the stand. Most times in the past he had been successful in his heat control. Not always. All had some apparel of red, most of the black and red checked variety. Wool pants over cotton long-johns held up with suspenders accrued on many. Now, each moved mentally into their own thoughts after some quiet good wishes. Exiting the cabin into the dark was done quietly.
Outside, Patrick slung his iron sighted model 742 over his left shoulder. He had a small satchel off his right hip. A quick check found his flashlight in his coat pocket and he turned it on. The small bright light gave him sense of relief. The moon was obscured by clouds. He felt a pat on his shoulder. His father. Patrick smiled to the unseen face and began walking alongside, both heading out into the ‘Opener.’
Josh walked slowly, not letting perspiration build. He had suffered the consequences of such early in his hunting life and tried his best not to repeat. He made the bottom of the wooden stand in about a half hour. He was set up in a Poplar grove that nestled by a beaver pond. He shrugged off his pack, took off his walking coat and laid his rifle upon it facing away. He let his suspenders drop and unbuttoned his pants. He took out a layer of long underwear and his overcoat. After redressing with the contingent wear, he moved to a string hanging out from a rail. Here he tied his unloaded rifle and began climbing.
The pre-dawn always dropped a notch in degrees from the night temperatures. Mattie felt it on his wrists. The darkness was graying. He stood silently and watched. He had tamped down his mind when he had left that morning. He was taking in the woods and all of its elements. The wind was favorable to the direction he would glide. He could smell the drifting smells, see the various shapes taking hold in their sedentary stances. He felt good, much better than the day before. As the light guided his eyes, he brought the M15 to his shoulder and sighted. He could see a distance, maybe 50 yards. He began to walk, silently and in slow motion, casting eyes about. No snow prevailed. Tracking would be hard. He would ‘still hunt’ for the most part, weaving in an easterly direction, away from the cabin and other hunters. His walk would be excruciating slow to one who did not understand.
Deer hunting this part of the State required that only bucks be taken. The DNR of each state regulated each year’s hunt to manage the deer population for maximization without over burdening the ‘herd.’ And hunters were needed to help provide funds. A delicate balance to be maintained. Mostly the hunters accepted the ‘tight’ tagging regulations. Though venison helped to build a families freezer and was desired, many hunted for racks, the head gear that mantled a mature deer. Out over the ears and tines that pushed high. The cabin facilitated many that had been taken over the years; head mounts of trophies and plaques with other various racks, minus head. All were dated and noted which hunter.
Josh sat quietly with the slight breeze crossing. He faced Northwest with the prevailing breeze West. He contemplated more soulfully out in the woods, before a hunt would commence, set at half hour before sunrise. He had taken his position and settled in. His thoughts ranged far as he waited.
Patrick had early shakes which were part chill, part nerves. He could not believe how excited he was. He did not think he had slept the whole night. His youth provided the adrenaline which arrayed drowsiness a distinct last. Others more advanced in the hunt culture had closed eyes for a few winks. For Patrick it was the time for his bud to burst and he harvest a magnificent Buck, to hang it on the wall with those of his family. He believed that he would take one. Pa had told him in the advance up to this day to always think that in the next minute one would see a deer and that each minute, hour, day brought one closer to seeing one. It was his youth that expected this to happen minutes after shooting light. He sighted down his rifle. Minutes had proceeded hard, but he could tell that it was close. He glanced at his watch. 10 to go.
Mattie had been in the daylight about 45 minutes when he heard a shot southwest of him.
Dark grey lightened. The morning’s chill abated with the lightening woods. Patrick launched into alert mode. His youth was unacquainted with the naturalness that comes with time spent in the hunt. His hunting had been restricted to on a gun ranges and what he had gleaned from hunting magazines. He did enjoy being outside and he continued the manly endearment of family participation in outdoor sports. He preferred the newly minted European style football, soccer. His smaller frame and quick feet preserved him which he then worked to flourish. Though not a game his Dad was familiar with, he followed his son as much as a traveling executive could, which was to say that he made parents night. A senior, the season had concluded prior to the hunt. Patrick was thrilled to be included with the jokes and banter for he had been on the fringe, protected from such while making his way up the age ladder. As a youth, if he was acknowledged in any fashion, it was a great thrill. There was an age pecking order. The youth of the family understood this. He was acquainted with what the men folk loved to do…fire away at the inadequacies of each other’s attributes…hunting especially! All in good fun but one needed thick skin to be involved. And this was a thick skinned group. They did not fire in his direction much excepting a few mild expressions more to endear than to jest. Patrick knew to hold his tongue.
The night prior to the Hunt, Patrick had kept closed mouth as he sat at the table during dinner and the inevitable cards that replaced condiments afterward. Any and all games could be played and with the number sitting, poker was the one that suited. Nothing fancy, just the stock games. No 2’s, 3’s and one eyed Jacks’ wild stuff. Straight stud poker. Its steadiness of nature helped to preserve the mind to fire missiles across the table instead of trying to remember rules! Patrick sat for an hour and then slipped away. He moved to the fire. Mattie was sitting in a cushioned chair facing at an angle toward the flames. His left forearm rested on the chair arm with a beer face up in the hand.
Patrick sat in the other chair positioned to mirror the one Mattie possessed. He sat and watched the flame for a minute.
“You are Steven’s son?”
“I’m Mattie,” he gestured with an outstretched hand. Patrick took it firmly.
“Hi, I am Patrick.”
Both caught the different height of the offering flames. Their yellowish color showing a good burn with welcomed heat. The oval arch of the hearth opening made it look as though frowning, while the mouth laughed. A fire was mandatory in the cabin. Mattie had been keeping it fed.
“This going to be your first one,” Mattie asked as he leaned forward to add a smallish log with his right hand, taking a drink of beer as he leaned back?
“My first one, yes, by myself.”
“You’ll enjoy it.”
“You are uncle Josh’s friend?”
” I am.”
“Do you know where you are going tomorrow…which stand?”
“Well, I have given some thought to it. I have decided to try some still- hunting.”
“Where are you thinking of going?”
“East to southeast, which should put me in good wind position.” Mattie had noted the ‘High’ that existed but he believed it would not last the full day. What would come with the Low was a guess. Prevailing winds would be be west to north and then reverse. The Low would come on the reverse.
“I’ll be in a stand out to the East.”
“Heard that, yes. It should be a good one for you. I hope that you have an opportunity.” Mattie had noted where Josh and Patrick letting the other ‘picks’ float by him.
Mattie smiled warmly at Patrick and excused himself. He had been socially adapting with the cabin mates. He felt at ease with the casualness of it. If he had nothing to add to a comment he kept his peace. Otherwise he allowed himself to take part. A few questions were asked but when the answers were lean, they evaporated. Dinner time found him to engrossed in eating to notice much else. When had he eaten like this recently? He ate slowly and was one of the last to leave the table. He and Pa. The two talked evenly about small events. Pa caught Mattie up on some family history to put character in the faces he had just that day met. Mattie appreciated the time and enjoyed an extra cup of coffee to maximize it. When the many began returning to clear the table for cards, Mattie had stood, gathered his dishes and set about washing them. He continued washing as others sat down. Josh came and joined him, taking a soft cloth to wipe. A cousin came and placed the dried ones in their storage areas. The three visited evenly. The chatter at the table grew louder.
“Mattie, the stand you have tomorrow should be o.k. I checked it when we came up a week back.”
“Thanks. I am not sure I am going there, if it is o.k. with you.”
“Where are you going to go?”
“I’d like to still hunt to the south of Patrick’s stand if that is o.k.”
Josh knew Mattie’s capabilities to an extent, but he asked to assure his cousin; ” you have a good feel for where?”
“Believe so…going to head down driveway south and keep going about 400 klicks, er a about a quarter mile, and then southeast. Should be good half mile down from Patrick when he climbs aboard. Farther by first light.”
“Sounds good. If you can, we gather back here around 11:00 and have a light lunch and rest. Check out the deer taken, if any. Not real sure what we are going to be seeing but hopefully someone has luck.” Josh was good about not having to be one who took a deer. Not that he would turn down the chance, but he relinquished that need. He had shot his share of ‘shooters.’ He enjoyed the success of others almost as much.
Mattie finished the last dish and began to drain the sink. “I’ll probably be a little too far but will remember. I’ll make sure I’m turned back by 2:00 to make the cabin by dark.”
“If you get one,” offered the cousin, “fire three shots in the air and we will bring one of the three wheelers.”
Mattie smiled to himself. He thought of the loud machine pushing through to pull out a deer. He would just bring it back himself. But that would come if he took one. He planned to let the day spread in front of him with no preconceived thoughts of shooting… or not. He felt no drive to shoot anything but did not feel hesitant either. He had conformed to the setting and felt comfortable. Tomorrow in the woods he would be more so.
Mattie had been moving slowly. His eyes varied their gaze forward and across his body left to right. He had not seen much sign. He followed gingerly a small scat that flushed across the middle of an incline. A doe trail, but not used very heavily nor much to say recent. As he moved, his M15 was slung in front of him at a diagonal, stock facing his right shoulder and the muzzle to the ground, almost but not quite vertical. His right hand lay behind the trigger guard with the index finger on the metal. He wore no gloves, though the temperature was declining. A shoulder strap wrapped about his neck and solidly pushed the rifle into his chest keeping the rifle in a solid position. A quick right hand upward pull would bring it to his shoulder with the left hand bringing necessary balance underneath, a righted position instantaneously obtained and very deadly in his hands.
The cloud cover abated and cracked, allowing the sun to gleam yellowish through in slim beauty. Mattie stood and looked at it. He was in no hurry even if the sign around him was old at best. Truly serious, he would have moved at a quicker pace to find some germination of ‘real time’ activity. But he was not. He glanced to his left and caught the sight of a Yellow Wood Sorrel, its short stem seemingly too fragile to hold the five pronged blossoms. The the sunlight with its yellow light, though briefly exposed, brightened the yellow-flowered petals. They caught hold of his grey-blue eyes, constrained them from wandering, transfixed on their beauty. Nature could show its magnificence in glory in quick snatches. Mattie had seen this transformation many times. Two crows overhead let themselves be known. Mattie had always been amazed at the number of sounds a crow could make. These made no alarm. More their relaxed guttural trill.
After the shot he had stopped to listen for 15 minutes. He sat down on his haunch and allowed the M15 to relax across his thighs. Cocking an ear toward where he had heard the shot, he thought a bit. One of two had made it, Patrick or his father. Mattie stood silently and assumed the position he had previous carried. When he resumed it was more easterly with the intent to cut north come noon. He brought out his pocket compass and took bearing.
Josh rested his eyes after entering his stand. When he opened them the lightness of the predawn caught him off guard. It was shooting time. He readied his rifle and looked out over the swamp. The edging had produced deer in past years and he began to concentrate his attention in that direction, taking time to survey as slowly and quietly as possible. The first hour or so keeps a hunter on high alert. Josh was no exception. Then he heard the shot. Its decibel reverberated through the various terrains. A deer was down. Josh hoped that if any, it would be Patrick.
Patrick had been straining to see through the black ilk. He so wanted to catch any movement, to show his abilities, to demonstrate that he had the skills to be…there was movement to his right. Slowly, Patrick moved the muzzle in that direction. He thought he saw a twitch.
The hunters begun trickling in around 10:00. Some hungry and restless. One had seen a tail flash. Another a doe, close. No one had shot. So the question was asked of each that closed on the cabin, ‘you shoot?’
The answer came around 10:30. Patrick came walking in. His posture had a humped slouch. His walk slow with downcast eyes.
“Son, was that you that shot?” His Father was matter of fact.
“Yes, but I missed.”
There was a general resignation of ‘matter of factness’ from the others, all having experienced a degree of such let down themselves. Steven just asked if he was sure. Patrick felt inclined to explain, to press away the guilt of coming up barren.
“It was pretty early. I saw this buck near the edge of the swamp, down through the oaks. It was moving to my right. I picked a spot between trees and got a good hold…It took off. I looked a long time for blood but couldn’t find any.”
Josh had come in and found the others in the cabin warming and eating.
“Hey, someone knock one down?”
Steven answered for Patrick. “Pattie had an opportunity, but looks like a miss.”
“Yeah, I took a bead on one but missed.”
“OK. Did you make sure to mark the spot?”
“I know about where.”
“Lets say you and I go take a look while these guys relax.”
Steven demurred to Josh’s offer but said, “I can help if you like.”
“You go and bag one, Steven, and Patrick and I will investigate. Should be good.”
“If you find it, send off the ‘message’ and I will come.”
Patrick was not sure he was wanting to go back, but was encouraged that his Uncle had proposed, It did make him feel a little better.
Josh and Patrick headed back to the Patrick’s stand. There, Patrick climbed up in it and pointed to where he believed he had shot. Josh looked around for 10 or 15 minutes with nothing to show for it.
“Climb back up in your stand and see if perhaps you can get a better angle Pattie.”
Patrick took the ladder up, sitting down and positioning himself as he had believed he was when he had shot. His beginning hopefulness was waning.
“To you right Uncle Josh.”
Josh moved off to his right and looked up.
Josh looked at the ground as he moved, in a slow walk side to side.”
“There, try about there. He might have been farther right than I thought.”
Josh stayed focused. He was not extremely hopeful, but he wanted to give the review diligence. Pa had taught the boys that. And he felt that Patrick needed to understand the hunt was beyond the trigger pull. He got down on his hands and knees, taking apart the area of Patrick’s leading. Then, on a dark oak leaf, he saw a red spot. Without touching it he bent closer. Blood. He took out a piece of Kleenex and secured it to a small sapling.
Patrick saw the action and his heart pumped a little harder. “You see something Uncle Josh?” he let out.
“Yep, spot of blood.”
Patrick came down from the stand barely touching the wood rungs. He closed fast on where his uncle stood. Josh looked up as Patrick approached. He knelt where Josh pointed but still could not see anything.
“Here,” and Josh stooped and pointed.
Now Patrick saw the dark red spot. Josh thought for a minute.
“Do you remember if the deer ran away with its tail up or down?”
“I saw white, but not sure which direction the tail was.”
“Probably up if you saw white. Did you see any back and forth movement?”
“Not that I recall.”
Josh began to sweep his eyes side to side and arc his way out from the marked blood. It was several minutes before he came across another drop. Patrick came over quickly. Josh pointed, “blood.”
They moved along for about an hour, beginning to get a picture of where the deer had headed. The blood claimed but a dim chance to find the deer. Its darkness was contingent with a muscle hit. Not a good sign. But Josh wanted Patrick to have a little hope.
Mattie had begun to work his way back. Not knowing exactly who had shot, he was not going to run into Patrick’s shooting area. He would move north and pass into that area just after shooting hours ceased, making the cabin as dark settled in. His walking style would have cramped most men, but he constantly allowed his lankiness to extend to unburden the tautness. He had found the lake earlier, taking a sweep of it from a concealed position on the ridge. He had sat for a bit, taking in the view. Small ripples swept northward. Not iced yet.
Josh and Patrick took a break for their strained eyes. They had proceeded a couple hundred yards for about an hour. The breeze had freshened, changed course. Josh thought of what they had found. It was not promising. Not at all. But the deer should be alright. The wound, to his thinking, was in a muscle. It seemed to have cleared any vitals. Hopefully it would seal and the deer would be hardy enough to make the winter. He looked at Patrick. The youngster needed a boost.
“Don’t think you winged him enough to do permanent harm, Patrick.”
“Guess he’s gone?”
“Yes, I would say so.” Josh stayed reasoned in his approach. Patrick sat on a stump. His jacket had been unbuttoned. He let it hang for a minute or so then buttoned it. The air seemed cold. Josh stood, a bit tired more from straining to capture sign than from physical exertion.
Mattie had pulled up and looked at the trail. His watch noted about noon. The morning had been many things…the sound of the woods; dry-wet leaves, squirrels barking and chatting, the significant and varied calls of the crows. The deer sign meter never got much off of empty, but all was good. He had breathed deeply, deeper than he had in a while. One rest after jumping one ‘tail’ allowed him 20 minutes of rest and a peanut butter sandwich, packed before leaving the apartment. An apple and some water followed, though he had learned to drink sparingly, he took it when he could. His mind went to Patrick. Nothing in particular, but more to the fact that he was hunting with his father, something he would never be able to do.
His son was over in Okinawa somewhere. He had no connection, either with the mother nor the son. But he knew he had one. A letter brought to him directly by the ‘Parson’ told him as much. The writing was sparse but real. He knew that to his core. Just as he knew that his parents never knew him. He kept it in his pack.
He could backtrack but that would lead him in well after dark. He took a compass reading and looked in the direction of the cabin. He would like to cut across country. He laid out the various stands in his head and gave himself a mental path that, hopefully, would not interfere with another’s hunt. He knew he could head back south for an hour for sure. No one was this far north. And the trail that he was looking at would be convenient. Mattie was not in a shooting mode now. Had he been? He was into breathing. Deep. Pure. Thankful. He flipped the pack up and strapped the M15 over his shoulder to his backside. His walk smoothed into lengthy comfort…his eyes continued to scan. He smiled.
Josh and Patrick deciding to make their way back. They were disappointed, and Josh told Patrick a story of his first hunt, attempting to ally the situation. But he understood. He did not feel sentimentally sorry, just a bit sad. A miss happens to all somewhere, sometime. It was just unfortunate it had to be Patrick’s first hunt, the first doggone day. But with some fortune he would perhaps get another opportunity that weekend.
“When we get back, get something to eat, and I’ll take you out to my stand. I don’t feel much like hunting the same stand. I have another I’d like to try.”
Patrick was going to say no, but decided a change of stand might be good. He had a knot in his stomach to begin with, then some relief on the blood sighting, now it just felt empty. He was not sure what he wanted to do in truth.
They made the cabin as the last of the hunters were finishing their siestas and readying to return to the woods. Josh sensed some hesitation in the young man’s continent. Pa greeted them.
“Anything?” Pa sensed. Nothing.
“Patrick got him, but seems a muscle shot. We lost sign after an hour. Looks like it will be o.k.”
“Well, a little excitement for the morning then.”
Patrick set his gun in the rack outside and entered the cabin. As he passed his grandfather he felt a brush across his back.
“It’s alright son. We all have been there, most have missed completely and multiple times.”
Patrick felt a little hungry now that the chili redolent took charge. He went to the large cauldron and scooped out a bowl, placing it on the table for his uncle. He fixed himself the same. Cornbread was stacked in the middle, with a jar of butter already half empty of its contents. Pa came over as the two sat down.
“What was he Pattie?”
“He looked large Grandpa. I saw what looked to be a tangle of antlers and a large body. It was the first shooting hour…off maybe 75 yards in the brush along the swamp.” He took a mouthful of chili and followed it with water. “Moving away. I got the bead on ’em but I guess I must have hit too far back.” Patrick began to take on the hunter speak to describe the split second action that happens most times after a long day of waiting. Here he got action in the first hour.
“A good one. Great. He should be looking for ladies soon enough then.”
” Patrick is going to change stands for the afternoon Dad, take the one I was in”
“I’d like to take a walk, mind if I walk out with you Patrick? “Where were you Josh,” asked the old man.
Patrick smiled small. “Sure Pa.”
Mattie moved smoothly along. The cloud cover had begun to darken more. He smelled the air and felt the wind shift. He remembered the river gunner who grew up on the ocean. He declared that if a person lived near an ocean all their lives, they could smell salt water on the Mississippi if the wind was right! Mattie did not doubt him. A depression was happening. Moisture would be coming soon enough, though not yet in the white form he thought. Too bad, some snow would top off the weekend. The temperature hovered around 40. He heard a rifle crack some ways off to his north and west. He stayed on course. He was not yet ready to hitch south to avoid Patrick, or where he thought Patrick was, not knowing that Patrick had changed stands with Josh. As he approached where he felt he should make such a southerly swipe, he looked at the ferns of to his right side. On one of the leaves, a red spot was distinguishable. Mattie stopped. He looked over and around the fern from his stationary spot. It was the only one he could see. He moved quietly to it, placing long fingers under the leaf and lifted it slightly. With his little finger he ran it lightly over the spot. Blood marked it. Patrick’s stand was not more than perhaps four hundred yards off. He looked intently over the leaves cluttering the ‘floor.’ It was not much, but Mattie chose to stay a while and sweep the area with his eyes and mind.
Josh had heard the shot. Good. Then there was another, closer to the darkening end of the day. He smiled, hoping that the hunters were more successful than he and Patrick had been. As the light crawled into the dark, he moved out of his stand and unloaded his gun. A sound a short distance to his east caught his attention.
“It’s alright Patrick, its me, Mattie.”
“And I’m not Patrick,” loudly chuckled Josh.
“Guess not,” as the figure came into short-sighted view. “Anything going on Josh?”
“No, pretty quiet day for me, but Patrick nicked one early this morning. Darn if we could get a lick on it though. I found blood, but it was very hard to see. We looked for maybe an hour or so and headed back. Seemed to be muscle blood, dark-colored.”
“That’s too bad. I’ll walk in with you.
The two moved along the trail toward the cabin. They heard a three-wheeler start up. The harshness moved distant. Then another popped into action. It also took off to the other side of the larger swamp.
“That’s promising,” noted Josh.
They made the cabin and Mattie walked behind to case his rifle, emptied hours ago. Pa met Josh on the porch.
“Steven got himself an eight pointer. And cousin Dan looks to have downed a smaller buck, but they have not located it quite yet.”
Just then a rifle spoke.
“Guess they found it. Good.”
Hunters were appearing as moths to a flame. Expressive greetings were exchanged. Steven returned with his buck in tow. A nice, typical eight pointer, maybe 2 1/2 years old. Good meat. Lunged it. About five minutes behind came the second three-wheeled wonder, with a spike buck dragging. Cousin Dan was thankful to have found it before too long. The dark barked at him, always making an uneasy feeling occur. Two others helped him track it. It had been a good shot, just that it ran into honeysuckle briers and it took a while to locate.
Patrick stood by his dad and looked at the buck. He believed the one he had hit was larger, but he would not know. A miss or undefined kill were bits of stories but took back row seats to harvested ones. Patrick was happy for his dad and at the same time envious. He tried not to show much.
“You got a crack at one I hear,” mentioned a voice just to the left and behind the lad, startling Patrick. He turned to see Mattie.
“I did, but not a good shot. We found some blood, but Uncle Josh and I could not find anything beyond a hundred yards or so. We looked a long time.”
“Yes, he told me. Your dad got a nice one.”
“Well boys, let’s get those deer hung and have us some dinner.” Pa was content. A couple of bucks and his boys all back safe and hungry.
Several gave hands to get the deer hung on the pole and headed in to refresh and cleanup. Patrick stood by the bucks and admired them. Mattie came up to him.
“Think you would like to join me and take a longer look in the morning?”
Patrick looked at Mattie. “You think there is any reason?”
Mattie looked at the youngster, taking in the body posture and the eyes.
“If you want to, I’ll give it a go tomorrow.”
Josh heard the exchange as he came out on the porch with a two beers, handing one to Mattie.
“You have an idea Mattie?”
“No, just don’t have reality to it yet in my mind is all.”
“Well, I can go with.”
Patrick looked at the two of them.
“Patrick,” said Josh, “it might be good to take another look if you want. It’s your call. You can head off the other direction, maybe to ‘Cardiac Hill.’ Your father can show you as it is a little hard to locate in the dark.”
Mattie looked at Patrick with calming eyes. Patrick could not really see the men’s faces as the light of the cabin was behind Josh and Mattie was still in the shadows. He looked over at the hanging deer.
Josh shook the youngster up. It was 4:00 a.m. Patrick pushed up. The second morning was always more difficult. And this one was not truly promising. They, he and his uncle Josh, were going out with Mattie. Then, if they were lucky, they would find blood and the gushes of it and at the end of the rainbow there would be a magnificent stag, laying prone on the ground waiting to be tagged! Not a reality that succored to be. He rubbed his dark tangled hair and eyes, waited a moment on the edge of the bed, then stood to gather his clothes and go put them on in the living room so not to disturb any of the loud snores in the room.
The three left the cabin with unseen clouds drawn down. Mattie felt it. If they broke loose, their quest would be all but finished. He had not given it much thought, the odds of finding the deer. He just believed that there was a greater answer than the one they had. This is what he wanted most, an answer that would give an end. They pushed straight for the stand.
“Josh, did you leave any type of sign where you two finished yesterday?”
“No, we didn’t.”
“I left a handkerchief where I found blood. It’s about four hundred yards from here.”
“400?” quizzed Patrick.
“Yeah, I had moved came upon it. I marked it as I did not yet know any of the circumstances. Just wondering if you two had pushed out further than that perhaps.”
“No,” countered Josh, “we pretty much only got a hundred yards out.”
“Probably did not bleed much if at all after your last sign,” countered Mattie, lessening the psychological load. “Guessing it bedded down somewhere between where you found blood and my spot. We’ll wait until light.”
Light came relatively soon, though the darkness ebbed much slower than the day before as the sun could not break the lowered cloud ceiling.
” I really don’t know what we will see or find. We will get some answers I believe. If you want to mark the trail, to make returning easier, please do. It might be a long day.”
No one answered but there was agreed nods. The three began to push out from the stand to where Josh thought they had left off the pursuit. The grayness of the day helped not. The blood, small as it had been, now integrated with the forest floor. They could not find anything. They moved slowly and branched out. Flashlights, which glowed faintly in the early light now became useless. They squinted, narrowing their sight to localize. Time moved slowly.
“Blood,”whispered Josh loudly.
They congregated on the spot. Mattie stooped and looked. There were three or so drops.
“Do you remember this Josh?”
“No, I don’t recall more than one spot.”
“We are maybe 15o yards out. My handkerchief should about be straight east another 250 yards. Let’s move to that and save some time, but watch as you go for anything that might tell us something.”
Patrick did not know what to think, yet he maintained interest. Josh and Mattie now became lost on the ‘track.’ Occasionally Josh looked up to locate Patrick. Mattie moved his eyes up, down, out; steering them through the woods floor. By a sagging log, on the far side he stopped. A deer bed. Good size. In it was a small pool of blood.
“Here.” He spoke softly. The other two came over.
“He laid down here to watch his back trail. He must have felt safe as the leaf compression is pretty good and the small blood pool means that the wound is a pass through. No coagulation. We have promise, but it will be an all day one to make him bleed out. We will have to push him hard, make him bleed. You up for this?”
“What if we left him alone? Would he survive?” The question was sound.
“I don’t think so. But cannot be sure until we determine, if possible, the extent of the wound. Might be that he does look sound if and when we catch up and we just turn around. Look Patrick, this is your deer. If you want to leave off him it would be a good decision. But I believe once shot, a hunter has to find resolution to that consequence he just perpetrated.”
Josh stared at Mattie. He could not recall language of such nature in all of the talks over the year. It was Faulkner! Or at least what he knew of the man! A smile lit up on his face.
“I’m with Mattie on this one Patrick, at least as long as I can go!”
Josh had some idea of what Mattie was talking about, but Patrick had none. It was just that there was a point when one had to be up to a “push,” even if it was not real fun…part of the hunt.
“Patrick, this could be hard. I am not sure I can go like I think Mattie is suggesting, but I want to try. How about you?”
Patrick was not going to say no. He was too proud to do that. He had no illusions either. The bed did give him some glimmer.
“Alright, lets just lay out a little understanding. Talk if you like, as we are not sneaking up on him. He will know we are coming. We are going to push him until he gets very weak. If and when we find see him, he will bolt off ahead of us. Don’t get discouraged. There is one factor that will produce real trouble. Rain. Don’t think it will snow, as it feels too warm. Get as comfortable as you can for walking. We have a lot of ground we will be covering.” Mattie spoke mainly to Patrick and sending a little reminder to Josh.
Mattie stooped and placed his hand on the bed, cold. The deer had moved on a few hours earlier. They set off for the handkerchief, attempting to find more, but did not. As they approached the white linen, Mattie circled around it at about 50 yards. He stopped several times, stooped down, continued the move. Then straight east he found another place where he found blood, a little more prominent. The deer had stood here. He looked up and off into the woods. Too open. This deer would be heading to more difficult terrain to hide, figure out what happened, lick the wound, recover, and go on breeding. He went and recovered the kerchief, nodded east and said, “Blood.”
The three looked at it and then set off at a determined pace. Mattie knew they had to stay focused on finding sign. They could not just be random. They had to stay on the markings. So they fanned and circled, focused. Staying true to the evidence. The deer had moved straight east as Mattie had surmised. The ‘bloodletting’ had not grown much, but they located more in their sweep deeper into the woods. About two hours in, and perhaps 3/4 mile back, Josh saw a flash of movement.
Mattie looked instinctively in that direction. He barely saw the movement, but did.
“Where??” Patrick had grown a little tired of this search. He had never thought that deer hunting included such monotony nor endlessness. The deer sighting snapped at him.
“Ahead and heading northwest, down toward the swamp fringes. Looked to be moving pretty good.”
Patrick’s heart collapsed. He stood seemingly alone. His first impression, that they would be losing out a day of hunting by NOT finding this deer was becoming a reality.
Not Mattie. “Good.”
Josh looked at him.
“We saw him. He is hurt and wondering what is following him. And we now know that he is more than sign. Let’s go see where he was standing..”
The three moved through the trees to an area of buck rubs and tracks.
“Mattie, he is in core area. Think he has mating on his mind and not the wound or us for that matter. I think he is going to be fine.” Josh had followed Mattie’s lead, till now. Here he had found evidence for him that this was a trailing that was going to come up empty. He could see Patrick’s face. He also could see the cloud cover and the menacing dark shade on the underside. Rain was going to be coming. Josh felt that they had done what they had set out to do. It was time to cut loss and head back, get in perhaps part of the afternoon hunt. They would want to be closer to the cabin also as the hunters would either be leaving that evening or mid day the next after a morning hunt
Mattie understood. He could smell the moisture in the air. He could also smell the deer, a musky smell from a mature buck. He hunched down. Looking at the ground, he could see the blood, much like what they had been following. Dark. Yet it was there. He could still follow it. And he had not gotten a good look at the deer to sort in his head ‘its’ circumstances. It was not just to secure the deer but to understand what would ‘be.’ He did not expect his companions to understand. Especially Patrick. He was looking for a corpse.
“Mattie, what you thinking?”
(‘”The labor is so pleasant that it is scarcely grateful in me to call it by that name.'”)(2) He smiled. “Josh, this could be nothing. Patrick, I think you should head back. I do have a favor.”
“Josh, it looks to be rain coming. You know that. And you know what it will do to any trailing. Given what we know, the good decision is to return. I ask that you give me, oh, till tomorrow morning. I give you my word that I will be back by mid-day tomorrow.”
Josh looked at him. “You’re saying that it is possible that you will be out here all night?”
“I do not have the foggiest idea. But it could happen.”
Patrick looked quizzically at this man. Really? Out here overnight? He thought about that. It certainly was not what he wanted. He had followed as he felt was required. But he was spent, more from the emotional aspect than any other. The hopes and the disillusions. Patrick wanted to return. Not just to hunt, but he had finished this one and now just wanted it to be done.
“If you get into a situation, fire three shots. We should hear them. Otherwise, I’ll see you at the cabin, hopefully tonight.” Josh did not want to make this more than it was. He was a little concerned but not being in a dramatic moment it was hard to visualize trouble. So he said what was the universal sign for the ‘lost.’ He grinned, knowing that Mattie probably felt him goofy having said it.
“Promise.” With that he turned and looked out in the direction of the deer’s sighting. He stepped off.
Josh and Patrick headed back to the cabin, Josh in the lead. Mattie had disappeared.
“I am a lone lorn creetur…everythink goes contrairy with me.”(3) But he felt otherwise. He was in his element.
The woods had been busily active that morning, given the low that was approaching. Animals and birds all sensed the reduced atmospheric pressure. Birds soared higher when the highs came and swooped down to tree level as the barometer marked lower. Animals became more active. Especially if they were instinctive of storm. Mattie had learned to feel the pressure changes more by eyesight than feel. He always liked the hunt prior to a storm. More action potential. Now, however, he was hoping the Low Front that was coming in would hold off a spell, give him time to make some tracks on the buck. He had quickly found where the buck had jumped a log, or better put moved over it. He had dragged a leg over it. The pooling of blood was fresher and more sustained. He followed down through whippings, slowing so as to not get ‘stitched,’ when he caught sight of a white object framed by the leafy undergrowth. He bent down and reached. It was a piece of bone. He stood up and looked about. None had seen the deer’s movement excepting the flash. This was the first ‘scope’ of the shot placement which could be visualized. The deer was hit in one of the legs and now a bone fragment broke off. At least this one had. Mattie moved off, dodging through the whippings, emerging on the side of a clearing. It was a clear-cut, many logs and stumps lain with what looked to be second or third year growth of saplings. The deer might seek some refuge in this mini-wilderness. Mattie was sure of it. He began to circle it and watched both the ground and the Cut. He wanted to see if there were any chance the buck had gone all the way through. It was a quarter-mile, maybe a little more, around. He worked slow but quickly. The M15 was positioned to his front. He felt beads drawing on his head. He stopped, keeping his eyes distinctly on the edge of the clearing while he took his cap off and waited to cool down a little. He pulled out his red bandanna and tied it to his forehead. He placed the hunting cap in his pack. His rifle continued to point forward.
It took him about 45 minutes to circle. The buck was in there. It knew he was following him now for sure and was taking all inherited preventative measures. Up to the last sighting, the deer was not sure what to make of the situation, excepting that it hurt and one leg was worthless. It’s last effort to spring forward having seen the pursuers cursed pain through him. But instinct was in perpetuity. Escape was its only course from this very real threat. It coursed through more whippings and made the clear-cut. It moved quickly to a downed log located in the Cut’s middle and watched its back trail. Its breathing was becoming more labored. The bullet had entered high and lunged downward, slicing through the front scapula and clipping the lung. One or the other might have been survivable but in combination and over time, infection would have developed. Being pushed exasperated the wound.
Mattie knew the buck had now become total in its hopes to escape. But time was not on Mattie’s side. The clouds were getting uglier. The crows that had been moving about were more obscure. Finding the deer dead was not going to be something he would arrive upon. It was a deer that probably would live for days. He had hours. It was time to move in. With learned coordination and his agility, he moved into the clear-cut, mindful that he might see the buck at anytime, that it was watching him from somewhere. He would have to be quick with shot, and effective.
It happened fast, to his left, a harder side shot given his right-handedness. The rifle slung up as he caught a grey horizontal movement quartering that direction. He swung on it and let loose two shots. He thought he heard tree on the first and deer on the second. He moved forward, anticipating the ground and watching ahead. He kept his eyes scanning. When he felt that he was where the deer had been when he shot, he stopped and looked slowly around. He heard a squirrel bark up front. Disturbed. He stood for a good five minutes. The squirrel stopped. Quiet followed. It was only then that he began to look to the ground. It was not long. He found more blood and another piece of bone. It was splintering. He wanted to end this as quickly as possible. But he understood. The deer wanted to live. It did not know it was going to die.
Patrick and his deer became spectators in Mattie’s mind. It would have been nice to have been fortunate to have found the deer and have Patrick claim his first. But to Mattie it had been about the deer. It was a wounded animal, wounded my them, and he wanted clarity. The deer deserved it. All creatures he had taken had not wanted to die. He had made them. He accepted this excepting…when he came upon the wounded robin from a BB pellet of his he found understanding. No one had to tell him. He only hunted from then on for the food qualities. Random killing ceased. Target practice ceased to be the living and he shot the crap out of cans, stumps; what ever was convenient to give him feedback on his shooting skill. He saved the marksmanship to bring home food.
There had been three places where Mattie found peace. While hunting, on the bench in high school, and behind his goalie mask. None was the same in circumstances, which he did not attempt to analyse. He just welcomed them.
The time with Emma became marked by the bench. What was it about that place? They were almost always left alone. No one joined them when they were there. Funny when he had thought on it. She brought out such a liking that he was fully trusting of her. He remembered debating the merits of Melville and Dickens with her over the contemporaries. She loved them and argued the merits of societal integration. He liked being on Ahab’s ship chasing that whale. Damn the consequences. Her lilted laugh brought contentment.
Behind the mask, he was alone. And contentedly peaceful. It was him, there, standing or better yet crouching between two metal pipes. No matter the action he felt such a calm spirit encased. He had seen some of the first ones that the Pro’s used. Terry Sawchuk had introduced the first on which he had marked places the mask had saved him from a cut or worse. It was filled with black lines. Mattie had used a framed type which extended down to cover his eyes and nose. He had used Plaster of Paris to form a mold around his head. The wire was embedded in it. A foam rubber chin covering protected that part. He topped it off by painting it orange and green, not even the school colors. It was ugly. But behind it he was alone, safe, and peaceful.
And hunting, field, stream and woods. Why those three places he did not question, but he loved when he could be in one of them.
Rarely did thunder come in the Fall. But did on occasion. Mattie heard a distant broiling. The Fronts were at war. Time was shortening. He cradled his rifle and pushed through the clear-cut, following the blood trail that now was more evident. He had hit it. As he emerged on the north side, he found another piece of bone. The deer was disintegrating its leg. He followed. He was brought to a sumac tangle and could see where the deer had entered it. He stopped for a few minutes and thought of his next move. Another flank attack arched in the heavens. He glanced up. He had thought about marking the spot and going back to the cabin, to come back in the morning to see if he could pick up the trail and find the deer bled out. But the heavens now dictated that he continue, for the rain would wash away blood. And it would be rain. Sleet more likely. He looked at his wrist watch. He had been alone now for over two hours. It was just pass 3:00. Dark was 4:30. He headed into the Sumac. As beautiful as it could be in Fall, the woody vines were treacherous. He watched himself and protected his face. There was blood showing now about every thirty feet or so. Still not in great measure but much easier to follow. Getting a shot off would not happen. He had to clear this tangle.
The deer could feel its insides changing. It moved out of the sumac and headed down a trail running parallel to a swamp, one with open water purposed by beaver. Options were running out and the deer was beginning function poorly. It moved through the cattails which were heavy and began to swim laboriously to an island in the middle. A beaver hut, old, was stationed on it. It pulled itself up and bedded behind the hut, looking back. Its breath was ragged and its energy was draining.
Mattie worked his way through the vines and continued. He made sure that there was no backward movements from the deer, trying to throw him off. It had done that earlier when it began to evade in earnest. Mattie had circled each time and found the direction taken. Now the deer was heading straight for something. Had his shot been fatal? He knew the deer was dying. He just would settle for sooner rather than later. He crested a knoll and saw the swamp. The blood line seemed to run horizontal with it. At least in the beginning. Mattie waited a time and scanned the area. Open water. Would the deer move around this swamp? He could see the beaver hut/island, but nothing was out of kilter, nothing seemed out of place. A usual mound with dirt on the wood base. It was an old one, as there were willow shoots sicking up like porcupine quills. Mattie looked about the edges. The sky was really beginning to roil. He looked at the blood. A mature deer has 8 pints of blood in it. A loss of about 35% would weaken so that standing would be impossible. Most hunters make the mistake of thinking a deer that is not bleeding too much is not losing blood. But they could be filling up inside before spilling outside. This deer could have been going for a long time with the first wound, but Mattie was sure he had got one in the liver. The blood flow was demonstrative. He measured his options, the deer’s condition, and continued to scan. Finally, he moved down and followed the blood. It stopped going along the edge. Mattie looked out at the cattails but could see nothing, not even the island now. But he knew. It had to have. Gone out to the beaver island. He knew it in his bones.
Mattie decided to take all but his inner insulated shirt off. Boots too. He took out his hat and put it on, placing the M15 on top held by one hand. He entered the water and coughed at its coldness. The muck sucked on his feet. He began to dog paddle through the cattail fronds. When he cleared the outer edge, he was about 35 yards from the beaver island. He watched it continuously as he paddled closer. Still nothing. Was he wrong? There was not much to hide behind, ‘cepting the hut. He caught the edge and pulled himself to it. As he gained his footing, he saw it.
It was laying on its side, head partially up, eyes open. Mattie let himself establish position on the harder ground. He did not realize how tired he felt. Was it truly his own exhaustion or the finding of this deer, an animal that had done everything to evade death, and now was looking at it momentarily. It was a buck, perhaps in the 2 1/2 year range. The antlers were eight points just jutting past ears. The tines were short. But it was still a good first buck. Patrick had been correct, though it was not as big as he had thought.
The deer now tried once more to gain its feet. Mattie’s eyes went ‘distant’ and he saw a black dog with brown markings lunging, snapping at the invaders. He saw its blood, the terminal wounds, and he began to weep, a slow anguished sob, throttled down in his throat. He placed his hand to his eyes, and looked again. His eyes were full. He cleared them. The head lay still, only the chest showed breathing, and blood. The right leg was mangled. The deer quieted and lay still. Mattie had been leaning with his rifle stock for support. He pushed up and moved to the deer. He shot three times. It was momentary, but Mattie was lifted beyond himself. Bending, he stroked the hide. A wall of containment broke. He kneeled, head drooping and let a wail trill through the darkening woods.
It was dark as he dressed on the hard ground. The deer lay next to him. He knew he was a good mile to mile and a half away from the cabin. In the dark, there were not many options. It began to rain. How it had held off this long was another wonder of this end; this beginning. The deer was ‘dressed’ out and pulled over a log split legged, to allow cooling. Mattie thought of the drag that was presented, one that was out to the road or back to the cabin. The road was farther but no matter how he veered and moved, if he kept south he would find it. The road ran east/west. The cabin by his reckoning was half again as far. but it was going to be hard to make unless he had kept his bearings. He took out his compass. He was cold. Better to hump the deer out in the rain, the leaves and ground slicking to the moisture. The drag would indeed warm him. A night out, even if he got a fire going seemed extreme. He could get home. It would take some time was all. Time he had.
Mattie uncased his small hand machete from the pack. He looked about and found a four inch sapling and cut it to a measurement that would allow him to grasp it with inches to spare on either side. A 1/2 inch rope slipped over the base of the antlers and then looped around the nose. The other end was placed in a small groove Mattie had quickly carved in the middle of the stick, now about 8 feet from the deer. It was just enough to get the nose off the ground, away from is feet. He reached around behind centering the deer middle back, he facing forward. He set course east. Cabin bound.
The rain began to come down harder. The ilky silence outside was offset by the crackling fire inside the cabin. About half of the entourage were there, including Pa, Steven and Patrick, and Josh. Two of the three successful hunters and their riding partners had packed up midday and taken off with salutes from all. They wanted to be on the road before the rain came. Patrick had gone out for a while, but came in before legal hunting was over. He had felt that he had left something he should be doing to a stranger, though no one thought other. His father, a congenial son-in-law to Pa told him that he had done the right thing. Patrick did not say much Josh had not gone out. He waited to say goodbye to the departing ones. He also waited for Mattie. As the darkness descended he thought of firing a ‘hey,’ but thought better of it. It would be too early for Mattie to be close enough to hear, especially with the rain, now coming down increasingly harder. He helped Pa and Paul clean the cabin. There were two weekends left, but the group would be much smaller, if any came at all. It was the Opener that brought them all together. Work and other family obligations tended to garner traps to hold back returning. So with the end of the weekend came the restocking of the wood box from the pile outside, the general cabin clean up and preparation to depart. Most would be leaving that night. Josh was uncertain. Steven wanted to get his deer loaded and on the road. Patrick was hesitant. His dad understood why, but there was a time to cut loss and get moving. Patrick had just come up short. There would be other days, other hunts. Pa busied himself to finalize the clean up. He too wanted to wait, but he had his grandson with him and school waited on the ‘morrow dew. Darkness descended hard.
The rain was steady, working on nerve endings stretched tight from the weekend hunt and all of the activity that fell out of the ordinariness of daily life. Steven and Patrick were ready to head out. Steven stood and said his goodbyes to the others. Pa looked at Patrick and knew he wanted to stay…that his hunt was not yet over. He was able to get aside with Steven for brief talk.
“Steven, I was wondering if you would consider taking Paul home for me and let Patrick stay a little longer. I’ll call you from town when we get ready to be on the road.”
“He has school tomorrow Grandpa and I told his mother we would be back at a decent time. As it is we won’t hit the drive till maybe 10 ish. Sorta late.”
“I seem to know your wife. How about giving me the chance and I’ll make it right with her.”
“How long you thinking of staying around?”
“I can’t be certain, but that is a friend of the family, of your brother-in-law out there and I sure would feel wrong if something were to happen to him and I was not here.”
“I thought he was some kind of war scout.”
“Might have been. Never really discussed it. Fact never talked about it at all.”
Steven never had the old man come up on him before with a contradictory notion and it caught him surprisingly dumb. He did not have a real good reason other than what he said, and that seemed flimsy standing here with Pa at this moment.
“O.K. But please try and have him home before midnight.”
“I can try but cannot promise. It is with Mattie that the timing of all will come.”
“Pa, why do you think he went after that deer?”
“To get it I suppose.”
“Doesn’t sound like it was going to be got!”
“Don’t know either way really Steven. He just went. Sent your son home, so that was a good thing I believe.”
“I wish it was Patrick’s deer in the truck.”
“Yes, but it’s not. You did fine. Venison for the family when we were not sure we would be able to even see much this year; and here we cultivated two.”
“Yeah. I’m good taking Paul. Will you please call when you leave the gas station?”
“Paul, get your things and put them in Uncle Steve’s truck. He will need you to help him get home. Patrick is going to stay with me for a while.”
“Can I stay too?”
“Paul, please do as I asked.”
Patrick did not know what he felt, perhaps an equilibrium of thankfulness for the time to wait. He just was grateful and took the hand his father offered.
“See you at home.”
“Yep, thanks Dad.”
Mattie was sliding east, preventing as best he could from hanging the buck on logs or tangles. He encountered a mass of buck thorn which ripped lines of red on his cheeks. Some snow on the ground would have given ‘grease to his trailer.’ It just kept raining. Water slid off his cupped brim. His pack was not waterproof so keeping any clothes in it to stay dry was out of the question. He had put everything on but his jacket, which he tied to his waist, secured by his belt. It would provide insulation when he stopped to catch his breath. A mile was a long way to pull 135-150 lbs, his estimate of the deer’s weight after gutting out the insides He took the heart. He was not sure why, but he wanted it for himself. The blackness kept him alert to his compass readings. As he pulled, he numbed down his mind, to purpose a mechanical activity which would not be subjected to the hardness of the activity. All but what he needed to know of his destination became submissive. He knew the big swamp would be to his north, so that was a blessing. Once he did hit a jutting and the spongy ground stopped him. He took a reading and a breath. The wool shirt was soaked, but he was warm. Setting the rope down, he took off his backpack then rifle, which the pack kept snug while cinched tight. Mattie flexed his arms high. He took out a banana and ate it slowly, followed by a dram of water. He eliminated himself and once more settled in. He moved east, passing away from the spongy ground and then turned right. He rightly understood that the reason people moved in circles when lost was from pushing harder with their ‘off’ leg and leading with the dominate one, eventually directing the circle. He had learned to use both legs and solidified his compass readings, preserving route integrity. He was not worried. It was a process. He was behind the mask, all sounds but the rain eliminated and his focus on anything but what was just in front of him never wavered. He had been on the drag now for two hours, keeping as steady as he could.
Josh and Pa sat by the fire. Josh drank a beer and his father coffee. Patrick was sitting at the kitchen table. It had been two hours since Steven and Paul had left. The time past 7. Josh stood up and went to get his gun. The rain was releasing at a harder rate he felt. He was not terribly worried, yet. But he felt it was time to fire the friendly ‘here we are’ shots. He did not want to do so with others around as for some reason he felt it might have embarrassed Mattie. Now he realized how silly that was. It was dark, as dark could be, raining hard, and his friend was not back yet. He went out on the porch and fired three shots.
Mattie heard some ‘cracks,’ three in quick fashion. More north than he was. That meant that he would hit the driveway south of the cabin. That would be better than changing direction and going astray heading north. He was on ‘target.’ He did not relax nor stop to fire the ‘all good’ sign. He was good in motion and he wanted to push on. He should be able to be to the cabin in 45 minutes or so. Josh did good. The rifle sound was comforting.
After the shots, Josh looked and listened. Nothing. He was not sure if the shots would be heard as they seemed suffocated the weather. Pa stayed by the fire. Patrick came up.
“Think he heard them?”
“Well, I think he is o.k. and that is better.”
“Did you hear anything back?”
“No, but I’ll fire again in half hour or so. Believe me, Mattie will get back, Patrick.”
“Yeah…” his voice trailed off.
Pa poured himself another coffee. “Want some Patrick?? Here, I’ll put some milk and sugar in it.”
“No thanks Grandpa.”
“I’d like you to try some and join me at the fire.”
“Alright.” Patrick took the proffered cup and sipped. It was not entirely unsettling, but still bitter. He took the cup and joined his Grandfather and Josh at the fire, Josh having a cup now also.
Mattie hit the sand of the drive. He left the deer to one side and began walking up it toward the cabin. Pools of water formed in the depressions so he kept to the edges. He made out the soft glow of a window. He kept up his walk and made the porch. Grabbing a pole he lifted himself silently on to it and moved to the door. Then he remembered his rifle. He went around and grabbed the case he had placed under the propane tank. He did not want to put it away wet. He carried it in his hand and returned to the door.
The door swung open and the rain sounded closer, making the three at the fire turn toward it. There stood a be-soaked form, carefully taking off his accouterments and placing them on the floor. They saw him lay the rifle on a leather case and a pack on the rug off to the side. He pulled out a chair and sat, nothing more. Pa gathered himself and bent over to pour a cup of coffee. He brought it to Mattie. Josh rose and came near. Patrick stood behind.
“Took a ‘back’ road did you”
Pa just looked at the thin form. “Would you care to put on some dry clothes?”
“I would. Any wheelers still here?
“Oh, yeah, they are in the shed,” answered Pa. He smiled. He was looking at Mattie’s Grandfather for a minute.
“You need a wheeler,” Josh found to say?
“It would be nice.”
“How big is it, asked Pa?”
Patrick just began to see the meaning. For the first time all day, his emotions began to be highlighted.
“Nice one, especially for a first.”
“Where is it,” asked Josh.
“Down the road maybe half a klick.”
“You stay put and let me and Patrick go get it.”
They were out the door soon enough and Mattie put on a large wool shirt and some jeans a size up as well. He then moved to his rifle and took it toward the fire. He ‘borrowed’ two kitchen towels and took out of his soaked pack a small bottle of lubricant. He went to the chair vacated by Josh and sat down. He picked his head up slightly at the sound of the 3 wheeler heading down the road. Pa came and offered him a beer.
“No thanks Mr. Hodges, but another cup of coffee sounds fine.” He began to shudder besides himself. Pa threw an ‘afghan’ over his shoulders.
He commenced work on drying and cleaning his rifle. Pa came and handed him the coffee. He sat down in his chair, settling in and watched Mattie work. The M 15 was broken down and each part dried and slightly ‘oiled,’ just dappled mainly and then spread evenly. Mattie stopped only to take a drink of coffee. Nothing was said between the two for many minutes. As Mattie finished putting the rifle together, he got up and went back to place it by the door. He did not want it too close to the heat. He returned to find his coffee cup emptied and refilled. He took a longer swallow and held it with both hands. He rolled up the sleeves of the shirt, his veins protruding length-wise down sinewy arms. They were hard pressed to hold the cup steady at that moment. He turned and looked at Pa. He smiled. Mr. Hodges looked back, his eyes tender, and touched his shoulder. The same touch of Mattie’s Grandfather. It was nice. Both were relaxed before it, taking their time and choosing words selectively. Mattie warmed, outwardly and inwardly. It was a time of meaning and for Mattie some reflection. He spoke of hidden adventures for the short time he had with Mr. Hodges. Pa let him talk, not looking but at the fire. He was immersed in remembrance while he listened to Mattie. One was lost in spare talk and the other in thought. The opening of the door brought Mattie up silent. Pa stood up.
“Well, what did you get Patrick?”
“Eight pointer Grandpa.”
“It’s a nice buck Dad. Real nice one.”
“Good, good , good.’ Well I think we had better prepare to leave. You go and put some dry clothes on Pattie. Josh and I will take care of the deer.”
Mattie stood up.
“We got it Matthew.”
The two put on rain gear and went to load the deer, put the wheeler away and ready the outside for departure. Mattie gathered his wet things and found a plastic bay to place them in. He kept the rifle outside of the case, instead wrapping it in a ‘borrowed’ blanket. He would give it to Josh when they were home. Patrick came up as he was wrapping it.
“My pleasure Patrick.”
“Was he dead?”
“Yes, he was dead.”
Josh had returned from the trip tired but content. He dropped off Mattie and got home early morning. A phone call had alerted Emma that he would be coming about that time. He went, kissed the kids and slipped into bed. Emma felt him near and reached her hand over to touch him. He leaned and kissed the back of her head. He was up a few hours later and off to work before the family arose.
Mattie slumped in his chair and flipped off a cap. The cold beer felt good going down. He still wore Pa’s clothes. He sat staring down at the floor for a long time, taking much time to drink the malted barley.
Pa went inside when he brought Patrick home. Steven and his wife were there, waiting.
“Dad,” said his daughter kissing her father.
“Patrick, was it good?” She did not mention the lateness of arrival.
“Well son, let’s take a look at this buck!”
It had quit raining a few hours before the two had arrived home. The family went out and all harbored good feelings for Patrick. The shine of the hunt had dissipated some, but the results were there to see and Patrick was happy. Pa offered to take the deer to the processor in the morning, thereby no reason to off load it. But Patrick wanted to hang it with his dad’s and just look at them for a while. After it was hung, Pa kissed his daughter and shook Steven’s hand. He went to Patrick and gave him a soft hug.
“Happy for you son.”
Pa backed out of the drive as the three entered the house.
It wasn’t a rush of understanding for Mattie. He went back to his carpentry job, a finisher for a large construction company. As there was not much happening during the winter, he kept bar at a local Pub. He never perplexed over what it is he should be doing. But that winter he kept feeling a pull. At first he was not sure what it was. Gradually, he embraced it and the nudge became a thought which grew into an action. Come Spring he was ready.
It could have been straight out of Casablanca, the proverbial love triangle finalized on the screen with darkness shrouding the airport; Ilsa, Victor and of course Rick. But the sun was shining and the three never were together when Mattie left.
It was Josh who broke the news to Emma over a cup of coffee. He had lingered a little longer that morning rather than rushing out the door per his normal. It wasn’t because of Emma. He was contemplating, digesting the morning. Mattie was leaving midday and Josh was caught in thought. Not nostalgia, just thinking on the passing of time and friendship. He was fully ‘happy’ with his situation as it was, family, business, travel, friends. He just was getting his thought around this friend who was leaving. In a month’s time Mattie would be a distant memory who on occasion might be thought of. He was not sure why he lingered, standing there looking out the patio door. He had not thought of Mattie all those years before when he had been gone. It was something that caught Josh off guard. Perhaps it was youth or that Mattie was gone before anyone knew that first time. He finished the second cup when Emma came in.
“You’re still here?”
“Ah, you caught me. Two cups of coffee!!”
Emma poured herself one and moved to a chair.
“Mattie is leaving.”
“Oh, where is he going?”
“To find his son.”
“Yeah,” said Josh. “That was my reaction. Seems he has a son overseas.”
Emma was not fully awake, but the words drove deep. Her emotion was one of surprise more than any other.
“He leaves sometime today. Guess he’s taking the bus, though I’d think he would catch a flight instead. But he wants to I guess. Well hon, got to go.”
Josh reached down and kissed his wife on her cheek. She lifted a hand to the side of his face.
“See you tonight.”
“Love you too.’
And he was gone. Emma’s coffee became cold. Then she heard rustling in the bathroom. She went to take a sip, moved to the sink and tossed it. She went into autopilot and began the morning preparations, grabbing cereal boxes from the shelf and placing them on the counter. She extracted the milk and orange juice from the Fridge and then poured herself another cup. She had a couple of grace minutes left. She looked at the floor. The sun streak was beautiful.
“Hello Mattie, please, come in.”
He had settled his debts, rent and now had one more thing to do.
“It is good to see you. Last time was by the fire at the cabin.”
“Oh, yes, at my age they all get long. I should be going south with my friends, but it is hard to give up the business completely. Maybe next year.”
“Have a feeling it will be a little longer than that sir.”
“Mr. Hodges, I wonder if you could keep a few things for me. I am heading back to Southeast Asia and haven’t a clue when I will return.”
“Sure thing son.”
“Well its not much but it all means a little to me.”
Mattie handed over his old pack. The M 15 was broken down inside, cased in plastic bags with oil lubricant around the metal parts. There was a book of Dickens signed by his grandfather as a birthday gift to him, his grandfather’s Bible and his high school journal. A few other trinkets of no real value completed the mix. Mr. Hodges did not ask what was in it.
“I’ll keep it here until you get back.”
“I’d much appreciate it. Honestly, I cannot say I will be coming home. But it would make me feel sound if I knew you had it, the pack.”
“Consider it done.”
They shook hands and Pa watched the lad leave. He was walking. It occurred to him that Mattie might not have a car.
“You want a ride?”
“No thanks, been walking for years,” he said over his shoulder.
Pa watched him until the boulevard trees obscured the image, then went back into the house.
Emma got the children off to school. She was in the habit of taking them herself. She wasn’t ready for them to go on the yellow bus. She wasn’t sure she would ever be. She drove to the grocery store and idly looked at the produce. It was not a trip needed taking. She realized that she was trying to capture her thoughts, perhaps feelings. It was not clear. The Mattie she had known was an 18 year old kid. Much time and distance had provided change, for all of them. She picked up an onion and then replaced it. She looked at the ripeness of the tomatoes and sacked six of them.
Mattie was at the at the terminal early. The bench was still there. He had purchased a larger pack. Moved up in the world, he thought, his smile soft. The sun lengthened its stride, extending higher. A car pulled into the lot. Mattie was unaware. There were others now joining him around the bus stop. He was conscious of movement. Then the man sat next to him.
“I stopped to say goodbye. I never got to tell you what nice burial we had for your grandfather. It was sweet, really. Fit him well I think.”
“Thank you sir. Appreciate it.”
“You been out to see him at all?”
“No, he’s not there.”
“I thank you for it. It gave me peace that it was done”
“He and I were very good friends, just lived in different worlds. You can be that way also, live in a different world and keep your friends.”
“I believe that, yes.”
“Will you write?”
“I’m not much of a writer.”
“Well, if you can, I wrote down Josh and Emma’s address and mine too.”
“Thank you Mr. Hodges.”
Pa placed his hand gently on Mattie’s shoulder. Tears formed in Mattie’s eyes. Pa was looking straight ahead and seemed not to notice. Mattie was not sure why he teared up, but there was a sense of leaving that seemed permanent. And this man was dear to him, even at a distance. And his grandfather, who he loved, and him not being there to say goodbye. He felt a hurt deep. He remembered Herc. And Emma. And Josh. All young, with young thoughts. It was like a cascade of distant dreams coming at him all at once.
Pa glanced at Mattie and saw moist eyes. He moved his hand to Mattie’s neck and kneaded it between his fingers and thumb, lovingly.
“Mattie, if I should ‘go’ before you return, who do you want me to give the pack to?”
“If he will take it, Josh.”
“Oh, he will take it.”
“That would be much appreciated. But there is one item that I would prefer Emma to have. There is a journal, wrapped in a paper sack. A school notebook really. If she would like it, please give it to her.”
“O.k. But in truth I hope you just come back and pick it all up yourself.”
“That would be nice.”
The bus came into the station. Chicago bound. Mattie stood. His eyes were clear now. Pa looked at them, standing too. The grey-blue eyes of his old friend.
“Goodbye Matthew. God’s best for you.”
“Thank you Mr. Hodges. My best to your family.”
He was gone. Pa watched the diesel scarred back end of the bus depart and pull out toward the interstate. He watched until it was out of sight. He turned and left.
Mattie never found his son. He became engrossed in the orphanage that was located in Okinawa for mixed race children. He took nursing classes and became a nurse. He had written, but the rhetoric was mundane. He just wasn’t a letter writer. They stopped after the first year.
Pa died five years later. He was mourned by almost a thousand people that day. His belongings were dispersed to the many family members and friends.
Patrick went abroad. He joined a safari outfit and spent ten years as a big game guide. He took his share as well. It was dangerous, but he loved it. He purchased a camera and fell in love with the capturing of images. He ‘traded’ his rifles for the camera. His pictures were beautiful and were sought by many. His photographic career was successful.
Josh took possession of the pack. For as ‘ratty’ as it had been, he could tell that over the years someone had made sure to rub oil in the leather, to keep it from cracking. It was soft in texture. The ‘Will’ had spoken about the pack, that Josh was to have it. When Josh claimed it, he took out the contents and smiled. Of course the knife and compass would not be there, nor the hand machete but there was the M 15, all ready to be put together. He looked at the books, a cross necklace, and other small objects that could mean only something to the owner. On a paper sack was the simple word ‘Journal.’ Josh set it on the counter. Emma had gone to get the kids. She could look at it when she returned. He did not have a clue where Mattie was, so sending all but the rifle to him was not possible. He would maintain it until Mattie could claim it.
When Emma returned, Josh was gone. He had headed back to work, now more hours than he cared for but with Pa gone he was much needed. She saw the sack. She looked at it for a minute. It had Journal written on the outside. A note adorned the outside.
‘Emm, Pa kept this pack for Mattie. I looked through the contents and took the rifle which was disassembled and put it in the locked hunting storage. I am not sure what you want to do with the other things. Mattie left a journal! I didn’t know he wrote! Love you.’
Emma looked at the note then at the pack. She too went through the things, handling them gingerly, as if an old friend needed care. She moved to the journal. She began to unwrap it, but stopped. She couldn’t. She closed her eyes and squinted hard, then as hard as she could, pushing her forehead down. She put her fingers on it and massaged, deep. She sighed. She re-wrapped it. Gently and in a loving manner she placed all back in the weathered pack and placed it in Josh’s hunting closet, closing the door softly and turning the key gently.
Josh died fifteen years later. Pancreatic cancer. He and Emma had been married for 30. He was 56. The children all had completed their various preparations for their ‘own’ lives. Two were married. Emma was a grandmother twice over. They had moved twice since the first house. The pack flowed along with each move. As Emma was working through her grieving, she began to pack away Josh’s things. She made sure the children took whatever they wanted. Then she prepared to give the rest away, most likely to Goodwill. She kept a few things. Josh’s wedding band she placed in a small box in her jewelry drawer. Josh had been a good provider. Most everything was in order so the decision process was not cumbersome.
The day came when she knew she needed to go through the hunting closet, which each house they lived in had. It was time to release those items to family members who desired them. From time to time over the years, she had thought of the pack. When she opened the door, her eyes swept over the contents. It was resting on the shelf. She reached high and pulled it down. It seemed to have not been disturbed, though she harbored no reason why. She sat on a shell box in the corner and unwrapped it. It was an old cardboard bound notebook with three rings to hold paper. It was filled. She opened the cover and there in faint ball point was the name Mattie Rensek, 1965 -1968. That would have been their sophomore, junior and senior years. the high school age! She opened to the entry pages and saw that each was marked by date and page. She quivered a little. Then read on.
Her back ached as she sat straight to stiffen it. Almost 2 hours had gone by and she had found herself captured with the content. A few times her eyes became moist, the mention of names, hers and Josh’s. It was Mattie for sure, describing life on the farm, with his grandfather, the animals, hunting, snow shoveling, Mr. Tuttle….Emma had to take a break. She was becoming breathless. Time warped back. She left the closest and found to her amazement darkness had descended. She left the journal on the bed and went to care for her cat and make sure the house was ready for bed. When she returned she showered and covered on the bed.
She read into the early hours, caught some sleep, made some coffee and returned to an easy chair with the journal. She kept reading. Here Mattie offered his thoughts on the particulars of a given sport, the nuances of faking being ill, etc. This was not only a flowing story but a mortar and brick conception of life as a 16, 17 and 18 year old understood it. Emma found many places where she was engaged in the rhetoric. It was satisfying to see and read. Mattie did not go deep the first half, but began to draw on his soul more as they journal moved along. She was mesmerized at his amazing ability to see people, himself included. He did not hold back from firing at himself nor hardening the light on some who were not as accepted. Many things she read brought recollections of their friendship. It brought tears when Mattie described Josh and his respect for him as a friend. Then she began to read more…he was opening up about her.
Emma went slowly, immersing herself in the liturgy of Mattie Resnick. She was spell bound. And he did have deep feelings for her, even love he called it, though he was so thorough to state that he was not sure what love was then. He loved much, the outdoors, his dog, hunting, Grandfather, and now he positioned Emma in this category. He questioned it as well, the scarring false love left, unrequited love, unappreciated love, selfish love. And as Emma turned to the last page, she almost could not it through her tears; for Josh, for herself and children, grandchildren, and for Mattie. And there, it struck her so hard that she sucked in her breath: ‘You say you love? Will you love me when we bury our children, when I drink too much, when I make stupid statements? Will you love me when I love you too much? Will you trust yourself to love me when you don’t want to? Will you love me when I drool…?’
She never got to find out with Josh. Good, lovin Josh. She trusted him. They built a life and he was gone. Emma was no annual but a perennial. She understood life’s pulse, that it never favored all the time.
“Will you love me when I drool…??”
She had made her mind up to work on the book that she had ledger-ed together over the years. She wanted to complete it for herself. She delighted that she could interact with two of the children and some of the grand kids on a consistent basis. The other she would take a trip and visit once a year. This is how she wanted the next years to roll forward. She let a germ of an idea float in her mind on occasion, to see if it ever found roots.
Emma’s daughter took her to the airport. All were a little concerned that she was making this trip on her own.
“Don’t be silly. I could fall outside on the driveway and be in wheelchair.”
“Yeah, but we would be here to push you. Do you have everything now? Don’t forget to phone!! Please keep in touch. Are you sure the people you contacted are ready for you? I know, I know….”
“It is time for a bigger excursion, dear. I will be fine. Emma had packed pretty light. A woman her age did not need the fancy. She was excited but controlled. She laughed to herself. ‘Yes, I think I have the ability to love in all capacities.’ And she harbored no false pretenses. But she would try. She wanted to try. She was going to try and find him.
Yes, I can love when you drool.
1. University of Pennsylvania Gazette Jan/Feb 2015
2. David Copperfield; chapter 60 (first edition)
3. David Copperfield; chapter 3