It’s a rough summer morning in Misiones, with all the sun, heat and tranquility that the season can provide. Mother Nature, open to the skies, seems proud of herself.
Like the sun, the heat, and the tranquil atmosphere, the father opens his heart to nature.
“Be careful, little one.” He says to his son, summarizing in one phrase all of the observations of what could go wrong, and his son understanding perfectly.
“Yes, papa.” Responds the young child, while picking up the shotgun and filling his shirt pockets with cartridges, buttoning them closed carefully.
“Come back at lunchtime.” The father adds.
“Yes, papa.” The boy repeats.
He balances the shotgun in his hand, smiles at his father, kisses him on the head and leaves.
His father follows him a bit with his eyes and goes back to his daily chores, gleaming with joy over his young one.
He knows that his son, taught from the youngest age proper habit and precaution when dealing in danger, can handle a firearm and hunt whatever he wishes. Even though he is very tall for his age, he’s only thirteen. And judging by his pure blue eyes, still sparkling with infantile joy, he looks even younger.
The father doesn’t even have to raise his head from his chores to follow his son’s path: already across the reddened path and walking upright to the forest past the opening in the grass field.
In order to hunt in the forest—a game hunt—one needs more patience than his young son can muster. After crossing the island of trees, the boy will follow the line of cactuses towards the marshland, looking for doves, toucans, or any kind of heron, like those that his friend Juan had discovered a few days back.
Now alone, the father smirks recalling the passion for hunting that young children share. At times they would hunt a yacu-toro or—if lucky— a surucua and return triumphant. Juan to his ranch with his nine millimeter firearm that had been given to him, and his son to the plateau with his huge, sixteen caliber, white powder, four lock Saint-Etienne shotgun.
The father had been the same. At thirteen he would have given his life for a shotgun. His son, at the same age, now had one—; and his father smiled.
Nevertheless, it is not easy for a widowed father, who without any other faith or hope in life other than his son, to educate his son like he had been taught, free in his limited range of knowledge, confident in his tiny feet and hands since four years old, conscious of the immensity of certain dangers and the scarcity of his own strengths.
This father had fought hard against what he sees as his own selfishness. It’s so easy for a child to miscalculate, put a foot in an empty hole and one loses a son.
Danger can always linger for a man despite his age; but the threat diminished since at an early age he learned to count on nothing besides his own abilities.
This is how the father had raised his son. And to achieve it he had to resist not only his heart, but his moral torments as well; because this father, of weak stomach and poor eyesight, has for some time suffered from hallucinations.
He has seen, in painfully clear visions, memories of a happiness that should have remained in the void where he has locked himself. The image of his own son has not escaped his torment. He had once seen him rolling, covered in blood, from hammering a parabellum bullet in the vice in his workshop; he had felt this despite that his son was only polishing his belt buckle.
Horrible things…But today, with the burning summer day full of live, the love of which his son seems to have inherited, the father feels happy, calm and sure of the future.
In that moment, not far off, he hears a loud boom.
“The Saint Etienne” the father thinks recognizing the detonation. Two fewer doves in the forest.
Without paying any more attention to the menial event, the man distracts himself with his work.
The sun, already very high, continues to rise. Wherever one looks—rocks, earth, trees—, the air, congested like an oven, vibrates with heat. A deep humming sound fills the entire body and saturates the atmosphere for as far as the eyes can see, a time that harnesses all tropical life.
The father takes a look at his wristwatch: twelve. And lifts his eyes out over the forest.
His son should already be back. In the mutual trust that the two give to one another—the father of silvery sideburns and the child of thirteen—there were never any lies. When his son said, “yes, papa”, he did what he was told. He said he would be back before twelve, and the father had smiled watching him leave.
But he hasn’t come back.
The father returns to his chores, struggling to concentrate on his work. It’s so easy, so easy to lose track of time when inside the forest, sitting a bit on the ground while resting motionless.
Suddenly, the midday sun, the tropical humming, and the beating of father’s heart stop in rhythm at the thought: his son, motionless…
Time has passed; twelve thirty. The father leaves his workshop, and resting his hand on the metal bench, the explosion of a parabellum bullet rushes from the depth of his memory, and instantly, for the first time in the last three hours, realizes that he has not heard a sound after the blast if the Saint-Etienne. He has not heard gravel stirring under familiar steps. His son hasn’t returned, and nature stands guard at the edge of the forest, awaiting him.
Oh, how the calm character and young confidence of the boy’s education is not enough to scare away the fatal ghost that the hallucinating father sees rising from the edge of the forest. Distraction, forgetfulness, fortuitous tardiness: none of these minute motives that could have delayed the arrival of his son could fit into the father’s heart.
A shot, he had heard one single shot, and a long time ago at that. Since then the father has not heard a single noise, has not seen a single bird, not a single person has walked through the opening in the grass field to announce that at the wire fence…a great disaster.
Distracted and without a machete, the father sets out. He cuts through the grass field, enters into the forest, follows the line of cactus without finding the slightest trace of his son.
Nature continues to stand still. And when the father had gone over all of the familiar hunting paths and had explored the marshlands in vain, he knew with certainty that each step forward would bring him, relentlessly and brutally, to the body of his son.
He could only blame himself, poor thing. There was only the cold reality, terrible and consuming: his son had died crossing a…
But where, in what field? There are so many fences, and the forest is so, so, muddy. God, so muddy. If one is not careful crossing the fences with the shotgun in their hand…
The father’s shout is stifled. He saw something rise into the air, oh, no, no it’s not his son…He turns to one direction, then the other, then the other.
Nothing could be gained by seeing the complexion of the man’s skin and the anguish in his eyes. The father still hasn’t called out to his son. Even though his heart yearns to shout, his mouth remains shut. He knows well that the simple act of pronouncing his name, calling out to him loudly, would be a confession of his death.
“Chiquito” he let out quickly. And if the voice of a principled was capable of crying, we would cover our ears with compassion from the anguish in his voice.
No one nor nothing responded. Down the sun-reddened paths, the father, who has aged ten years by now, went searching for his newly-dead son.
“Hijito mio!”…”Chiquito mio”…he clamored to his son in diminutives that rose from the depths of his soul.
Once before, in the throngs of happiness and peace, this father suffered the hallucination of his son rolling on the ground, his head opened by a chrome nickel bullet. Now, in every shadowed corner of the forest, he sees sparkling wires, and at the base of a post, with the discharged shotgun as his side, he sees his son.
Even the forces that bring a father to hallucinate the most awful of nightmares have their limits. The father feels his senses leaving him when he quickly sees his son stepping out from a side path.
From fifty meters, it was enough for the boy of thirteen to see his father’s expression, without a machete and in the forest, to make him hurry his steps with his eyes wet.
“Son” the man murmured. Exhausted, the man drops himself into the bright white sand, his hands clasped around his son’s legs.
The young one, with his legs hugged tightly, stands up, and understanding the pain of his father, caresses his head slowly.
More time has passed. It’s already close to three. Now together, father and son undertake the walk back to the house.
“Why didn’t you use the sun to keep track of time?” The father says first.
“I did, papa…but when I was headed back I saw the garzas that Juan caught and went after them.
“What you put me through, son!”
“pia pia” the boy murmurs back.
After a long silence, the father asks,
“And the garzas, did you kill any?”
Considering everything, a minute detail. Under the red hot sky, passing through the grass field, the man returns to his house with his son, on whose shoulders, almost even with his father’s, he carries the joyful arm of his father. He returns covered in sweat, and even broken in body and spirit, smiles with joy…..
Yet he smiles a hallucinated happiness…For this father walks alone. He has encountered no one, his arm supported by nothing but air. Because behind him, at the foot of a post and with his legs raised, tangled in barbed-wire, his loved son lies face down to the sun, dead since ten that morning.
His eyes snap in my direction, there is a sudden jerk of his body as he recoils from my voice, then he slumps back in his chair. There’s nothing in his eyes: no light, no emotion, no recollection. ‘Who are you?’ he asks me, his voice listless.
I’m your son, Dad, I’m your fucking son.
But I don’t say that, of course. My sister has instructed me—as is her way, not once but over and over—‘You have to remind him of who you are, you have to give him a narrative that he can make sense of.’
‘I am David. I’m your son. I’m Sophie’s brother.’
The eyes looking up at me are still blank. I resent my sibling’s use of the word narrative; I know she has gleaned it from the medicos and the social workers. I am irritated every time she uses the word, as if it contains a metallic core that whips against my ear as she says it. There’s no narrative for this old man: no illumination I can offer him, no characters he can identify with, no descriptions to orientate him, no plot strands for him to follow. I feel useless. Much worse, I think he is useless.
‘We’re living too long.’ Mick’s father is eighty-seven. He has a walking frame, has had his right knee reconstructed, his hips replaced. It takes him an age to walk to the coffee shop on High Street where he has his coffee with his Maco mates.
Every morning he wakes up and says, ‘Why didn’t the damn night take me? Who wants this useless body? We’re living too long.’
Mick’s mother, Adriana, mocks him, shouts, ‘Then why the bloody hell don’t you take your shotgun and blow your brains out?’ She is ten years younger than her husband, she is sprightly, still thin, will only ever eat half of the food on her plate, and rushes from the grocers to the supermarket to the butcher without having to stop for a rest or take a breath. At Sunday lunch she hovers over all of us, making sure we have enough food on our plates, and enough beer in our glasses.
Adriana is always on the go. ‘I walk,’ she admonishes her husband. ‘I have always walked; I walked ten miles to school and back every day as a child and I still walk every evening. If you walked,’ she yells at him in Macedonian, ‘if you had walked instead of coming home and sitting in front of the bloody television, you wouldn’t need a new hip, you wouldn’t need a new knee.’
I stand next to her, helping dry the dishes, listening to her abuse her husband.
Then she will lower her voice, and whisper to me in English, ‘But he’s right. We are living too long.’
My father, who doesn’t recognise me, who doesn’t know where I fit into the story, because he has no story left beyond his nursing-home bed and the slow shuffle to the canteen where he eats, is purposefully ignoring me. If he looks at me the fear returns. So instead he sits staring out of the window to the stretch of even mown lawn beyond. The grass is such a vivid green it seems plastic, as do the beds of hydrangeas. He is dressed in striped blue and white pyjamas, like the people in Auschwitz, I cruelly think, or Mauthausen or Bergen-Belsen. My father doesn’t recognise me and I think if only I had a shotgun I would put it on his lap. He’d take it and blow his brains out. That’s what he’d want to do, that’s how he’d want his narrative to end.
I place the newspaper on the bed. He glances up from his seat by the window and then quickly looks away. I know when I have left he will pick it up and turn straight to the sports section. The news of the world, the news from Australia, also scares him. But he remembers that he follows the Collingwood Football Club. He remembers that.
‘I am your son David,’ I repeat. ‘I am Sophie’s brother. And Sophie has just had another baby—you’re a grandfather again. His name is Nicholas. Sophie has named him after you.’
The old man is still staring out the window. He won’t look in my direction.
I wish Sophie was here, I wish my mother was here. My sister talks to our father as if he was another one of her children; my mother refuses to believe that her husband doesn’t know who she is, that forty years of marriage and sharing a home and arguing and raising children and sleeping together and loving each other can be erased from memory. She tells him what their neighbours are doing, what their grandchildren are saying, what they do at school, where they went on their holiday. She stares at his vacant expression and refuses to see the panic it is masking; she doesn’t see his struggle to resist the terror of this stranger invading his room, this woman who won’t stop babbling at him. What she sees is the man she married; she sees the man she loves.
I usually make sure to visit when Sophie or my mother are there, when I can stand in the corner and watch them chatter away over him, adjust his bed, wash him, feed him. The times he gets angry, his moments of fury, when he screams at them, throws his tray across the room, shouts at them to fuck off, just fuck off, those are the times I can’t help but feel vindicated. That’s the father I remember, the father I know. He won’t play your game, I want to tell them, he won’t submit to being a child for you. He is a man; you women don’t understand that this is all that matters to my father: that he be a man.
But now, alone with him in his room, I find myself prattling, treating him as I would my nephews, or Mick’s godchild. ‘Looks like the sun will come out, don’t you think, Dad? Maybe we can take a walk outside.’ The bitter look he throws my way reflects the contempt I feel for the empty words I am saying.
I walk over to the window. The trees along the edge of the car park are spindly and denuded of leaves; spring has yet to touch them. As I pass him I place a hand on his shoulder and he slaps it away. I catch the overpowering reek of urine. Sometime after his morning feed the old man has wet himself.
‘Dad,’ I say, my voice shaking so much it ends up slipping into a higher register, ‘I am going to wash you; will that be okay?’
His head flicks towards me again but now there is relief. ‘Are you the new nurse?’
I nod. ‘Yes,’ I answer, ‘I’m the new nurse.’
All my life it was said of my father that he was a handsome man. And it was true: his was a ravishing beauty, accentuated by a virility that cleaved from it any hint of effeminacy. He was raised on the land, and even though he was only an adolescent when he came to the city to start his apprenticeship, he always made time to return to the bush. As youngsters every weekend would be spent out of Melbourne; we would follow him into steep ravines, walk for hours in the forests behind the Great Ocean Road. There were times when we walked so far, walked so long, that all I wanted was to sit down on a rock and weep. But I never did. I knew I had to be as tough as him, I knew he would never love me if I wasn’t as strong as him. So I walked: I walked with blisters on my feet, I walked in the burning sun; I walked in the drizzle, in the sleet and in the rain.
My mother, my sister and I had always lived in the shadow of his good looks. Not that my mother wasn’t herself attractive, or that Sophie and I were ugly. Quite the contrary. However, my father was the kind of man who could walk into a crowded room and draw every set of eyes to him. Wherever he was, he would be the centre of attention. There were moments when I witnessed women literally draw in their breath at the sight of him. It was also his good fortune to be possessed of a disarming larrikin charm, a natural gift for telling stories and jokes, and a speaking voice that was both melodic and of a rich baritone timbre. He entered the room and everyone turned his way; everyone wanted to be close to him, to be captivated by him.
I wouldn’t have been more than six or seven when I first became aware of the power of such beauty. It was in the middle of summer, a wretchedly hot day, and our parents had decided to take us to Mordialloc Beach. My father had taught us to swim when we were very young and one of my earliest memories was of giggling while he held me over gently lapping waves. He would often swim out far from shore, outdistancing the other swimmers, his strokes carrying him so far that my mother would rise from her beach towel and come to stand beside my sister and me to make sure that he had not completely disappeared from view, that she could still make out the faint speck of him on the horizon. A smile would spread across her face once she glimpsed him returning to us through the waves, his strokes measured and unforced, his outline slowly gaining shape and solidity. She would lie back on the sand, return to her book, and await the moment his shadow would fall across her, the sea water dripping onto her body as he stood over her towelling himself dry, his eyes ablaze with the pleasure of the swim. Sophie and I would look up to see him fall to his knees on the sand, kiss our mother’s shoulder, put on his sunglasses and lie down beside her in the sun. It was one of the most comforting sights of my childhood.
On this particular day an unexpectedly dramatic wave had run up the beach, terrifying Sophie and demolishing the sandcastle we had so carefully been building. My sister started to wail and I, confused, had looked towards my parents for guidance. My mother was upright, peering over her sunglasses and calling for Sophie to come to her. My sister had run to my mother and been swept into her arms, and I followed slowly. I might have been fearful that I was going to be punished for my sister’s distress. I was the older child, a position in the family that always felt laden with responsibility. But my father too had half risen from his towel, had taken off his sunglasses and was beckoning me to come over. He was smiling and I started to run towards him.
His right arm was raised, he was scratching the back of his head while the other hand was gently tousling Sophie’s hair as she burrowed further into my mother’s embrace. The hair under my father’s arm seemed shockingly abundant, chestnut in colour, glistening from sea and from sweat: possibly the jolt of it, it seeming so animal, so untamed, was what was so tantalising. The summer had tinted his skin bronze, his green-grey eyes were alert and shining and full of love for me. I had no language then to name what I was experiencing. All I knew was that the shock of my father’s underarm hair was blistering, that I felt knocked off my feet, that the sand and the sky and the sun were spiralling madly around me. So overwhelming were the emotions I was feeling, so ferocious this inexplicable need to touch him, to sink into him, to press myself against him, that there seemed only one thing I could do.
I walked up to my father and, mustering all the force I could, I punched him in the mouth.
The strike would have been wildly ineffectual, but there may have been a residue of fine sand on the underside of my palm, or the angle of my blow was such that a fingernail may have gone into my father’s eye; for once I struck him he let out a curse, an almighty holler, and bent over with a hand cupped to his left eye. His outrage started my sister off again on another bout of crying. Frightened, and with no idea of what I was doing, I began to run. I ran and I ran, the sand unyielding under my feet, burning my soles; but I kept running. Within moments I was conscious of my father behind me, of his shadow looming, gaining ground on me, and then of his arms scooping me into the air, holding me tight against his chest, of my mouth on his wet skin. ‘It’s alright, Davey,’ he was whispering, over and over, ‘it’s alright, son, I’m not angry.’
The hair on his chest is now white, and the brown knot of his belly button protrudes obscenely from his pink, fleshy belly. I strip him of his pyjama top and he steps out of his bottoms; I have to hold my breath from the stink of his piss and sweat. I fill the small basin with warm water, take the sponge and begin to soap down his body. I wash his neck, chest, shoulders, belly; I crouch down and wipe his thighs, his calves. He turns around and the soiled white underpants drop to his feet. His buttocks sag, pale as the moon. I wash him there, spread his arse cheeks and scrub vigorously between them. I run water to rinse the shit from the sponge and when I turn back he is facing me. The hair on his groin is white, sparse, as if he has gone bald down there. His testicles, bloated, almost purple in colour, hang low; his penis is wrinkled, speckles of white along the flesh of it. Carefully I lift his cock to wash under his scrotum: it feels limp and heavy in my hand, like a fillet of chicken thigh, like dead meat.
My father’s cock stiffens at the touch of my hand.
‘Alice, Alice,’ he sighs. But there is laughter in his voice, a tone I haven’t heard in years. ‘Alice,’ he repeats as he exhales, his bright eyes staring straight into mine, ‘we shouldn’t do this.’
Alice is not my mother’s name. I don’t know an Alice. But my own cock has swelled, pressing so hard against the denim of my jeans that it hurts. My hand tightens around him.
‘Do you want me to stop?’ My voice is hoarse, my skin is flushed. I am looking at my father, I am looking him straight in the eye and he is smiling; there is strength there again.
‘You crazy bitch,’ he whispers back to me, ‘of course I don’t want you to stop.’
My fist is sliding up and down, up and down. I know the door to the room could open any moment, I know we might be caught. But I don’t stop. My father’s eyes are closed but the smile still plays at the corner of his lips. He shudders, there is a groan, his jaw trembles; a thin liquid dribbles over my hand.
I grab the sponge again and wipe him clean. He is sheepish, embarrassed, the underpants still around his feet. I open a drawer in the dressing table next to his bed.
‘Lift your foot,’ I order. Obediently he lifts his right leg, then his left, and I put a clean pair of jocks on him. He lets me dress him in freshly ironed pyjamas.
When I am finished he takes his seat and watches me rinse out the sponge. ‘How’s Jimmy?’ he asks tenderly. ‘How are the kids?’
‘They’re fine, mate, they’re fine.’ I am thinking that he’s never asked after Mick with such affection, never inquired into my life with such warmth.
He starts speaking. I sit on the bed and listen to him as he starts talking about the time we were neighbours in Coburg, the house in which his son was born but which they had moved out of before Davey started to walk. He tells me how he has never found neighbours as good as Jimmy and me, how he misses the Sunday mornings he and Jimmy would go out to the bay to fish, the weekends we’d go shooting rabbits in Dandenong.
‘You know I loved Jimmy,’ he tells me.
‘He loved you too,’ I answer.
Then there is a knock on the door and a young nurse enters, all cheer and beaming smile, a small plastic container of apple juice in her hand. ‘How are you doing, Nick?’
The cheer has vanished from my father’s face. Unperturbed, she places the juice on a tray and motions for me to get off the bed. I obey and watch her strip the sheets.
‘We’ll change your bedding, Nick, you’ll have lovely clean sheets for tonight. You’ll like that, won’t you?’
Sullen, my father turns away from her.
‘I see your son has given you a wash, Nick, and changed your pyjamas. You’re very lucky to have a son like that.’
My father is looking out of the window, at the too-perfect lawn, the ugly red-brick buildings beyond, the grey sky above.
At the doorway to his room, I look back. ‘Bye, Dad.’
He offers no reply, he doesn’t look my way. The nurse calls out a farewell but I don’t answer.
Walking down the corridor, I glance through a window to the common room. An old woman sitting in a wheelchair is rocking back and forth, back and forth. Her right arm is raised and it shakes uncontrollably. She is mouthing words but I can’t hear them. Two other women, one in a pink nightgown, the other in a lemon-coloured robe, are sitting on chairs in front of the television, studiously ignoring the woman in the wheelchair.
I find the men’s toilets and walk in. I lock the door. I stand before the mirror and raise my hand. I can smell my father on me, the sour fish-sauce smell of semen. A small streak of it is drying, claggy and white, on my index finger. I bring it to my mouth, I lick at it. I taste of my father. My father tastes of me. I wash my hands in the basin, I wash my dad off me.
It’s alright, Davey, I’m not angry with you, son, it’s alright.
Holding me tight against his chest, my arms wrapped around his broad shoulders, walking past the couples and families sprawled on the beach towels on the sand, curious children peering at us, my howls seemingly unstoppable, my tears still falling, my father carries me back to my mother and sister on the beach. Gently he puts me down.
My mother is about to say something, to scold me, but my father motions for her to be quiet. She shrugs and takes up her book.
He is looking down at me. The wide black lenses of his sunglasses hide his eyes. I see a little boy reflected in each lens, pale and skinny and frightened.
I muster all the strength I have, I take in a breath and hold it, I force myself not to cry; I need not to cry, I have to show my father that I can not cry.
My father, a colossus soaring over me, a hero, a god, proffers me a dazzling smile and points out to the sea. ‘Go and play, David,’ he says. ‘Just go out there and have fun.’
At the water’s edge, the waves rushing at my feet, the gulls screaming above me, the sun beating down on me, I build myself another sandcastle.
As the train rocked dead at Livingston he saw the man, in a worn khaki shirt with button flaps buttoned, arms crossed. The boy’s hand sprang up by reflex, and his face broke into a smile. The man smiled back gravely, and nodded. He did not otherwise move. The boy turned from the window and, with the awesome deliberateness of a fat child harboring reluctance, began struggling to pull down his bag. His father would wait on the platform. First sight of him had reminded the boy that nothing was simple enough now for hurrying.
They drove in the old open Willys toward the cabin beyond town. The windshield of the Willys was up, but the fine cold sharp rain came into their faces, and the boy could not raise his eyes to look at the road. He wore a rain parka his father had handed him at the station. The man, protected by only the khaki, held his lips strung in a firm silent line that seemed more grin than wince. Riding through town in the cold rain, open topped and jaunty, getting drenched as though by necessity, was – the boy understood vaguely – somehow in the spirit of this season.
“We have a moose tag,” his father shouted.
The boy said nothing. He refused to care what it meant, that they had a moose tag.
“I’ve got one picked out. A bull. I’ve stalked him for two weeks. Up in the Crazies. When we get to the cabin, we’ll build a good roaring fire.” With only the charade of a pause, he added, “Your mother.” It was said like a question. The boy waited. “How is she”?
“All right, I guess.” Over the jeep’s howl, with the wind stealing his voice, the boy too had to shout.
“Are you friends with her?”
“I guess so.”
“Is she still a beautiful lady?”
“I don’t know. I guess so. I don’t know that.”
“You must know that. Is she starting to get wrinkled like me? Does she seem worried and sad? Or is she just still a fine beautiful lady? You must know that.”
“She’s still a beautiful lady, I guess.”
“Did she tell you any messages for me?”
“She said – she said I should give you her love,” the boy lied, impulsively and clumsily. He was at once embarrassed that he had done it.
“Oh,” his father said. “Thank you, David.”
They reached the cabin on a mile of dirt road winding through meadow to a spruce grove. Inside, the boy was enwrapped in the strong syncretic smell of all seasonal mountain cabins: pine resin and insect repellent and a mustiness suggesting damp bathing trunks stored in a drawer. There were yellow pine floors and rope-work throw rugs and a bead curtain to the bedroom and a cast-iron cook stove with none of the lids or handles missing and a pump in the kitchen sink and old issues of Field and Stream, and on the mantel above where a fire now finally burned was a picture of the boy’s grandfather, the railroad telegrapher, who had once owned the cabin. The boy’s father cooked a dinner of fried ham, and though the boy did not like ham he had expected his father to cook canned stew or Spam, so he said nothing. His father asked him about school and the boy talked and his father seemed to be interested. Warm and dry, the boy began to feel safe from his own anguish. Then his father said:
“We’ll leave tomorrow around ten.”
Last year on the boy’s visit they had hunted birds. They had lived in the cabin for six nights, and each day they had hunted pheasant in the wheat stubble, or blue grouse in the woods, or ducks along the irrigation slews. The boy had been wet and cold and miserable at times, but each evening they returned to the cabin and to the boy’s suitcase of dry clothes. They had eaten hot food cooked on a stove, and had smelled the cabin smell, and had slept together in a bed. In six days of hunting, the boy had not managed to kill a single bird. Yet last year he had known that, at least once a day, he would be comfortable, if not happy. This year his father planned that he should not even be comfortable. He had said in his last letter to Evergreen Park, before the boy left Chicago but when it was too late for him not to leave, that he would take the boy camping in the mountains, after big game. He had pretended to believe that the boy would be glad.
The Willys was loaded and moving by ten minutes to ten. For three hours they drove, through Big Timber, and then north on the highway, and then back west again on a logging road that took them winding and bouncing higher into the mountains. Thick cottony streaks of white cloud hung in among the mountaintop trees, light and dense dollops against the bulking sharp dark olive, as though in a black-and-white photograph. They followed the gravel road for an hour, and the boy thought they would soon have a flat tire or break an axle. If they had a flat, the boy knew, his father would only change it and drive on until they had the second, farther from the highway. Finally they crossed a creek and his father plunged the Willys off into a bed of weeds.
His father said, “Here.”
The boy said, “Where?
“Up that little drainage. At the head of the creek.”
“How far is it?”
“Two or three miles.”
“Is that where you saw the moose?”
“No. That’s where I saw the sheepman’s hut. The moose is farther. On top.”
“Are we going to sleep in a hut? I thought we were going to sleep in a tent.”
“No. Why should we carry a tent up there when we have a perfectly good hut?”
The boy couldn’t answer that question. He thought now that this might be the time when he would cry. He had known it was coming.
“I don’t much want to sleep in a hut,” he said, and his voice broke with the simple honesty of it, and his eyes glazed. He held his mouth tight against the trembling.
As though something had broken in him too, the boy’s father laid his forehead down on the steering wheel, against his knuckles, for a moment he remained bowed, breathing exhaustedly. But he looked up again before speaking.
“Well, we don’t have to, David.”
The boy said nothing.
“It’s an old sheepman’s hut made of logs, and it’s near where we’re going to hunt and we can fix it dry and good. I thought you might like that. I thought it might be more fun than a tent. But we don’t have to do it. We can drive back to Big Timber and buy a tent, or we can drive back to the cabin and hunt birds, like last year. Whatever you want to do. You have to forgive me the kind of ideas I get. I hope you will. We don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.”
“No,” the boy said. “I want to.”
“Are you sure?”
“No,” the boy said. “But I just want to.”
They bushwhacked along the creek, treading a thick soft mixture of moss and humus and needles, climbing upward through brush. Then the brush thinned and they were ascending an open creek bottom, thirty yards wide, darkened by fir and cedar. Farther, and they struck a trail, which led them upward along the creek. Farther still, and the trail received a branch, then another, then forked.
“Who made this trail? Did the sheepman?”
“No,” his father said. “Deer and elk.”
Gradually the creek’s little canyon narrowed, steep wooded shoulders funneling closer on each side. For a while the game trails forked and converged like a maze, but soon again there were only two branches, and finally one, heavily worn. It dodged through alder and willow, skirting tangles of browned raspberry, so that the boy and his father could never see more than twenty feet ahead. When they stopped to rest, the boy’s father unstrapped the .270 from his pack and loaded it.
“We have to be careful now,” he explained. “We may surprise a bear.”
Under the cedars, the creek bottom held a cool dampness that seemed to be stored from one winter to the next. The boy began at once to feel chilled. He put on his jacket, and they continued climbing. Soon he was sweating again in the cold.
On a small flat where the alder drew back from the creek, the hut was built into one bank of the canyon, with the sod of the hillside lapping out over its roof. The door was a low dark opening. Forty or fifty years ago, the boy’s father explained, this hut had been built and used by a Basque shepherd. At that time there had been many Basques in Montana, and they had run sheep all across this ridge of the Crazies. His father forgot to explain what a Basque was, and the boy didn’t remind him.
They built a fire. His father had brought sirloin steaks and an onion for dinner, and the boy was happy with him about that. As they ate, it grew dark, but the boy and his father had stocked a large comforting pile of naked deadfall. In the darkness, by firelight, his father made chocolate pudding. The pudding had been his father’s surprise. The boy sat on a piece of canvas and added logs to the fire while his father drank coffee. Sparks rose on the heat and the boy watched them climb toward the cedar limbs and the black pools of sky. The pudding did not set.
“Do you remember your grandfather, David?”
“Yes,” the boy said, and wished it were true. He remembered a funeral when he was three.
“Your grandfather brought me up on this mountain when I was seventeen. That was the last year he hunted.” The boy knew what sort of thoughts his father was having. But he knew also that his own home was in Evergreen Park, and that he was another man’s boy now, with another man’s name, though this indeed was his father. “Your grandfather was fifty years older than me.”
The boy said nothing.
“‘And I’m thirty-four years older than you.”
“‘And I’m only eleven,” the boy cautioned him.
“Yes,” said his father. ‘‘And someday you’ll have a son and you’ll be forty years older than him, and you’ll want so badly for him to know who you are that you could cry.”
The boy was embarrassed.
“And that’s called the cycle of life’s infinite wisdom,” his father said, and laughed at himself unpleasantly.
“What did he die of?” The boy asked, desperate to escape the focus of his father’s rumination.
“He was eighty-seven then. Christ. He was tired.” The boy’s father went silent. Then he shook his head, and poured himself the remaining coffee.
Through that night the boy was never quite warm. He slept on his side with his knees drawn up, and this was uncomfortable but his body seemed to demand it for warmth. The hard cold mountain earth pressed upward through the mat of fir boughs his father had laid, and drew heat from the boy’s body like a pallet of leeches. He clutched the bedroll around his neck and folded the empty part at the bottom back under his legs. Once he woke to a noise. Though his father was sleeping between him and the door of the hut, for a while the boy lay awake, listening worriedly, and then woke again on his back to realize time had passed. He heard droplets begin to hit the canvas his father had spread over the sod roof of the hut. But he remained dry.
He rose to the smell of a fire. The tarp was rigid with sleet and frost. The firewood and the knapsacks were frosted. It was that gray time of dawn before any blue and, through the branches above, the boy was unable to tell whether the sky was murky or clear. Delicate sheet ice hung on everything, but there was no wetness. The rain seemed to have been hushed by the cold.
“What time is it?”
“How early?” The boy was thinking about the cold at home as he waited outside on 96th Street for his school bus. That was the crudest moment of his day, but it seemed a benign and familiar part of him compared to this.
“Early. I don’t have a watch. What difference does it make, David?”
After breakfast they began walking up the valley. His father had the .270, and the boy carried an old Winchester .30-30, with open sights. The walking was not hard, and with this gentle exercise in the cold morning the boy soon felt fresh and fine. Now I’m hunting for moose with my father, he told himself. That’s just what I’m doing. Few boys in Evergreen Park had ever been moose hunting with their fathers in Montana, he knew. I’m doing it now, the boy told himself.
Reaching the lip of a high meadow, a mile above the shepherd’s hut, they had not seen so much as a magpie.
Before them, across hundreds of yards, opened a smooth lake of tall lifeless grass, browned by September drought and killed by the frosts and beginning to rot with November’s rain. The creek was here a deep quiet channel of smooth curves overhung by the grass, with a dark surface like heavy oil. When they had come fifty yards into the meadow, his father turned and pointed out to the boy a large ponderosa pine with a forked crown that marked the head of their creek valley. He showed the boy a small aspen grove midway across the meadow, toward which they were aligning themselves
“Near the far woods is a beaver pond. The moose waters there. We can wait in the aspens and watch the whole meadow without being seen. If he doesn’t come, we’ll go up another canyon, and check again on the way back.”
For an hour, and another, they waited. The boy sat with his hands in his jacket pockets, bunching the jacket tighter around him, and his buttocks drew cold moisture from the ground. His father squatted on his heels like a country man, rising periodically to inspect the meadow in all directions. Finally he stood up; he fixed his stare on the distant fringe of woods and, like a retriever, did not move. He said, “David.”
The boy stood beside him. His father placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. The boy saw a large dark form rolling toward them like a great slug in the grass.
“Is it the moose?”
“No,” said his father. “That is a grizzly bear, David. An old male grizzly.”
The boy was impressed. He sensed an aura of power and terror and authority about the husky shape, even at two hundred yards.
“Are we going to shoot him?”
“We don’t have a permit,” his father whispered. “And because we don’t want to.”
The bear plowed on toward the beaver pond for a while, then stopped. It froze in the grass and seemed to be listening. The boy’s father added: “That’s not hunting for the meat. That’s hunting for the fear. I don’t need the fear. I’ve got enough in my life already.”
The bear turned and moiled off quickly through the grass. It disappeared back into the far woods.
“He heard us.”
“Maybe,” the boy’s father said. “Let’s go have a look at that beaver pond.”
A sleek furred carcass lay low in the water, swollen grotesquely with putrescence and coated with glistening blowflies. Four days, the boy’s father guessed. The moose had been shot at least eighteen times with a .22 pistol. One of its eyes had been shot out; it had been shot twice in the jaw; and both quarters on the side that lay upward were ruined with shots. Standing up to his knees in the sump, the boy’s father took the trouble of counting the holes, and probing one of the slugs out with his knife. That only made him angrier. He flung the lead away.
For the next three hours, with his father withdrawn into a solitary and characteristic bitterness, the boy felt abandoned. He did not understand why a moose would be slaughtered with a light pistol and left to rot. His father did not bother to explain; like the bear, he seemed to understand it as well as he needed to. They walked on, but they did not really hunt.
They left the meadow for more pine, and now tamarack, naked tamarack, the yellow needles nearly all down and going ginger where they coated the trail. The boy and his father hiked along a level path into another canyon, this one vast at the mouth and narrowing between high ridges of bare rock. They crossed and recrossed the shepherd’s creek, which in this canyon was a tumbling free-stone brook. Following five yards behind his father, watching the cold, unapproachable rage that shaped the line of the man’s shoulders, the boy was miserably uneasy because his father had grown so distant and quiet. They climbed over deadfalls blocking the trail, skirted one boulder large as a cabin, and blundered into a garden of nettles that stung them fiercely through their trousers. They saw fresh elk scat, and they saw bear, diarrheic with late berries. The boy’s father eventually grew bored with brooding, and showed the boy how to stalk. Before dusk that day they had shot an elk.
An open and gently sloped hillside, almost a meadow, ran for a quarter mile in quaking aspen, none over fifteen feet tall. The elk was above. The boy’s father had the boy brace his gun in the notch of an aspen and take the first shot. The boy missed. The elk reeled and bolted down and his father killed it before it made cover. It was a five-point bull. They dressed the elk out and dragged it down to the cover of large pines, near the stream, where they would quarter it tomorrow, and then they returned under twilight to the hut.
That night even the fetal position could not keep the boy warm. He shivered wakefully for hours. He was glad that the following day, though full of walking and butchery and oppressive burdens, would be their last in the woods. He heard nothing. When he woke, through the door of the hut he saw whiteness like bone.
Six inches had fallen, and it was still snowing. The boy stood about in the campsite, amazed. When it snowed three inches in Evergreen Park, the boy would wake before dawn to the hiss of sand trucks and the ratchet of chains. Here there had been no warning. The boy was not much colder than he had been yesterday, and the transformation of the woods seemed mysterious and benign and somehow comic. He thought of Christmas. Then his father barked at him.
His father’s mood had also changed, but in a different way; he seemed serious and hurried. As he wiped the breakfast pots clean with snow, he gave the boy orders for other chores. They left camp with two empty pack frames, both rifles, and a handsaw and rope. The boy soon understood why his father felt pressure of time: it took them an hour to climb the mile to the meadow. The snow continued. They did not rest until they reached the aspens.
“I had half a mind at breakfast to let the bull lie and pack us straight down out of here,” his father admitted. “Probably smarter and less trouble in the long run. I could have come back on snowshoes next week. But by then it might be three feet deep and starting to drift. We can get two quarters out today. That will make it easier for me later.” The boy was surprised by two things: that his father would be so wary in the face of a gentle snowfall and that he himself would have felt disappointed to be taken out of the woods that morning. The air of the meadow teemed with white.
“If it stops soon, we’re fine,” said his father.
The path up the far canyon was hard climbing in eight inches of snow. The boy fell once, filling his collar and sleeves, and the gun-sight put a small gouge in his chin. But he was not discouraged. That night they would be warm and dry at the cabin. A half mile on and he came up beside his father, who had stopped to stare down at dark splashes of blood.
Heavy tracks and a dragging belly mark led up to the scramble of deepening red, and away. The tracks were nine inches long and showed claws. The boy’s father knelt. As the boy watched, one shining maroon splotch the size of a saucer sank slowly beyond sight into the snow. The blood was warm.
Inspecting the tracks carefully, his father said, “She’s got a cub with her.”
“Just a kill. Seems to have been a bird. That’s too much blood for a grouse, but I don’t see signs of any four-footed creature. Maybe a turkey.” He frowned thoughtfully. “A turkey without feathers. I don’t know. What I dislike is coming up on her with a cub.” He drove a round into the chamber of the .270.
Trailing red smears, the tracks preceded them. Within fifty feet they found the body. It was half-buried. The top of its head had been shorn away, and the cub’s brains had been licked out.
His father said “Christ,” and plunged off the trail. He snapped at the boy to follow closely.
They made a wide crescent through brush and struck back after a quarter mile. His father slogged ahead in the snow, stopping often to stand holding his gun ready and glancing around while the boy caught up and passed him. The boy was confused. He knew his father was worried, but he did not feel any danger himself. They met the trail again, and went on to the aspen hillside before his father allowed them to rest. The boy spat on the snow. His lungs ached badly.
“Why did she do that?”
“She didn’t. Another bear got her cub. A male. Maybe the one we saw yesterday. Then she fought him for the body, and she won. We didn’t miss them by much. She may even have been watching. Nothing could put her in a worse frame of mind.”
He added: “If we so much as see her, I want you to pick the nearest big tree and start climbing. Don’t stop till you’re twenty feet off the ground. I’ll stay down and decide whether we have to shoot her. Is your rifle cocked?”
“Cock it, and put on the safety. She may be a black bear and black bears can climb. If she comes up after you, lean down and stick your gun in her mouth and fire. You can’t miss.”
He cocked the Winchester, as his father had said.
They angled downhill to the stream, and on to the mound of their dead elk. Snow filtered down steadily in purposeful silence. The boy was thirsty. It could not be much below freezing, he was aware, because with the exercise his bare hands were comfortable, even sweating between the fingers.
“Can I get a drink?”
“Yes. Be careful you don’t wet your feet. And don’t wander anywhere. We’re going to get this done quickly.”
He walked the few yards, ducked through the brush at streamside, and knelt in the snow to drink. The water was painful to his sinuses and bitterly cold on his hands. Standing again, he noticed an animal body ahead near the stream bank. For a moment he felt sure it was another dead cub. During that moment his father called:
“David! Get up here right now!”
The boy meant to call back. First he stepped closer to turn the cub with his foot. The touch brought it alive. It rose suddenly with a high squealing growl and whirled its head like a snake and snapped. The boy shrieked. The cub had his right hand in its jaws. It would not release.
It thrashed senselessly, working its teeth deeper and tearing flesh with each movement. The boy felt no pain. He knew his hand was being damaged and that realization terrified him and he was desperate to get the hand back before it was ruined. But he was helpless. He sensed the same curious terror racking the cub that he felt in himself, and he screamed at the cub almost reasoningly to let him go. His screams scared the cub more. Its head snatched back and forth. The boy did not think to shout for his father. He did not see him or hear him coming.
His father moved at full stride in a slowed laboring run through the snow, saying nothing and holding the rifle he did not use, crossed the last six feet still gathering speed, and brought his right boot up into the cub’s belly. That kick seemed to lift the cub clear of the snow. It opened its jaws to another shrill piggish squeal, and the boy felt dull relief on his hand, as though his father had pressed open the blades of a spring trap with his foot. The cub tumbled once and disappeared over the stream bank, then surfaced downstream, squalling and paddling. The boy looked at his hand and was horrified. He still had no pain, but the hand was unrecognizable. His fingers had been peeled down through the palm like flaps on a banana. Glands at the sides of his jaw threatened that he would vomit, and he might have stood stupidly watching the hand bleed if his father had not grabbed him.
He snatched the boy by the arm and dragged him toward a tree without even looking at the boy’s hand. The boy jerked back in angry resistance as though he had been struck. He screamed at his father. He screamed that his hand was cut, believing his father did not know, and as he screamed he began to cry. He began to feel hot throbbing pain. He began to worry about the blood he was losing. He could imagine his blood melting red holes in the snow behind him and he did not want to look. He did not want to do anything until he had taken care of his hand. At that instant he hated his father. But his father was stronger. He all but carried the boy to a tree.
He lifted the boy. In a voice that was quiet and hurried and very unlike the harsh grip with which he had taken the boy’s arm, he said:
“Grab hold and climb up a few branches as best you can. Sit on a limb and hold tight and clamp the hand under your other armpit, if you can do that. I’ll be right back to you. Hold tight because you’re going to get dizzy.” The boy groped desperately for a branch. His father supported him from beneath, and waited. The boy clambered. His feet scraped at the trunk. Then he was in the tree. Bark flakes and resin were stuck to the raw naked meat of his right hand. His father said:
“Now here, take this. Hurry.”
The boy never knew whether his father himself had been frightened enough to forget for that moment about the boy’s hand, or whether his father was still thinking quite clearly. His father may have expected that much. By the merciless clarity of his own standards, he may have expected that the boy should be able to hold on to a tree, and a wound, and a rifle, all with one hand, He extended the stock of the Winchester toward the boy.
The boy wanted to say something, but his tears and his fright would not let him gather a breath. He shuddered, and could not speak. “David,” his father urged. The boy reached for the stock and faltered and clutched at the trunk with his good arm. He was crying and gasping, and he wanted to speak. He was afraid he would fall out of the tree. He released his grip once again, and felt himself tip. His father extended the gun higher, holding the barrel. The boy swung out his injured hand, spraying his father’s face with blood. He reached and he tried to close torn dangling fingers around the stock and he pulled the trigger.
The bullet entered low on his father’s thigh and shattered the knee and traveled down the shin bone and into the ground through his father’s heel.
His father fell, and the rifle fell with him. He lay in the snow without moving. The boy thought he was dead. Then the boy saw him grope for the rifle. He found it and rolled onto his stomach, taking aim at the sow grizzly. Forty feet up the hill, towering on hind legs, she canted her head to one side, indecisive. When the cub pulled itself up a snowbank from the stream, she coughed at it sternly. The cub trotted straight to her with its head low. She knocked it off its feet with a huge paw, and it yelped. Then she turned quickly. The cub followed.
The woods were silent. The gunshot still echoed awesomely back to the boy but it was an echo of memory, not sound. He felt nothing. He saw his father’s body stretched on the snow and he did not really believe he was where he was. He did not want to move: he wanted to wake. He sat in the tree and waited. The snow fell as gracefully as before.
His father rolled onto his back. The boy saw him raise himself to a sitting position and look down at the leg and betray no expression, and then slump back. He blinked slowly and lifted his eyes to meet the boy’s eyes. The boy waited. He expected his father to speak. He expected his father to say Shinny down using your elbows and knees and get the first-aid kit and boil water and phone the doctor. The number is taped to the dial. His father stared. The boy could see the flicker of thoughts behind his father’s eyes. His father said nothing. He raised his arms slowly and crossed them over his face, as though to nap in the sun.
The boy jumped. He landed hard on his feet and fell onto his back. He stood over his father. His hand dripped quietly onto the snow. He was afraid that his father was deciding to die. He wanted to beg him to reconsider. The boy had never before seen his father hopeless. He was afraid.
But he was no longer afraid of his father.
Then his father uncovered his face and said, “Let me see it.” They bandaged the boy’s hand with a sleeve cut from the other arm of his shirt. His father wrapped the hand firmly and split the sleeve end with his deer knife and tied it neatly in two places. The boy now felt scaring pain in his torn palm, and his stomach lifted when he thought of the damage, but at least he did not have to look at it. Quickly the plaid flannel bandage began to soak through maroon. They cut a sleeve from his father’s shirt to tie over the wound in his thigh. They raised the trouser leg to see the long swelling bruise down the calf where he was hemorrhaging into the bullet’s tunnel. Only then did his father realize that he was bleeding also from the heel. The boy took off his father’s boot and placed a half-clean handkerchief on the insole where the bullet had exited, as his father instructed him. Then his father laced the boot on again tightly. The boy helped his father to stand. His father tried a step, then collapsed in the snow with a blasphemous howl of pain. They had not known that the knee was shattered.
The boy watched his father’s chest heave with the forced sighs of suffocating frustration, and heard the air wheeze through his nostrils. His father relaxed himself with the breathing, and seemed to be thinking. He said, “You can find your way back to the hut.”
The boy held his own breath and did not move.
“You can, can’t you?”
“But I’m not. I’m not going alone. I’m only going with you.”
“All right, David, listen carefully,” his father said. “We don’t have to worry about freezing. I’m not worried about either of us freezing to death. No one is going to freeze in the woods in November, if he looks after himself. Not even in Montana. It just isn’t that cold. I have matches and I have a fresh elk. And I don’t think this weather is going to get any worse. It may be raining again by morning. What I’m concerned about is the bleeding. If I spend too much time and effort trying to walk out of here, I could bleed to death.
“I think your hand is going to be all right. It’s a bad wound, but the doctors will be able to fix it as good as new. I can see that. I promise you that. You’ll be bleeding some too, but if you take care of that hand it won’t bleed any more walking than if you were standing still. Then you’ll be at the doctor’s tonight. But if I try to walk out on this leg it’s going to bleed and keep bleeding and I’ll lose too much blood. So I’m staying here and bundling up warm and you’re walking out to get help. I’m sorry about this. It’s what we have to do.
“You can’t possibly get lost. You’ll just follow this trail straight down the canyon the way we came up, and then you’ll come to the meadow. Point yourself toward the big pine tree with the forked crown. When you get to that tree you’ll find the creek again. You may not be able to see it, but make yourself quiet and listen for it. You’ll hear it. Follow that down off the mountain and past the hut till you get to the jeep.”
He struggled a hand into his pocket. “You’ve never driven a car, have you?”
The boy’s lips were pinched. Muscles in his cheeks ached from clenching his jaws. He shook his head.
“You can do it. It isn’t difficult.” His father held up a single key and began telling the boy how to start the jeep, how to work the clutch, how to find reverse and then first and then second. As his father described the positions on the floor shift, the boy raised his swaddled right hand. His father stopped. He rubbed at his eye sockets, like a man waking.
“Of course,” lie said. “All right. You’ll have to help me.” Using the saw with his left hand, the boy cut a small forked aspen. His father showed the boy where to trim it so that the fork would reach just to his armpit. Then they lifted him to his feet. But the crutch was useless on a steep hillside of deep grass and snow. His father leaned over the boy’s shoulders and they fought the slope for an hour.
When the boy stepped in a hole and they fell, his father made no exclamation of pain. The boy wondered whether his father’s knee hurt as badly as his own hand. He suspected it hurt worse. He said nothing about his hand, though several times in their climb it was twisted or crushed. They reached the trail. The snow had not stopped, and their tracks were veiled. His father said:
“We need one of the guns. I forgot. It’s my fault. But you’ll have to go back down and get it.”
The boy could not find the tree against which his father said he had leaned the .270, so he went toward the stream and looked for blood. He saw none. The imprint of his father’s body was already softened beneath an inch of fresh silence. He scooped his good hand through the snowy depression and was startled by cool slimy blood, smearing his fingers like phlegm. Nearby he found the Winchester.
“The lucky one,” his father said. “That’s all right. Here.” He snapped open the breach and a shell flew and he caught it in the air. He glanced dourly at the casing, then cast it aside in the snow. He held the gun out for the boy to see, and with his thumb let the hammer down one notch.
“Remember?” He said. “The safety.”
The boy knew he was supposed to feel great shame, but he felt little. His father could no longer hurt him as he once could, because the boy was coming to understand him. His father could not help himself. He did not want the boy to feel contemptible, but he needed him to, because of the loneliness and the bitterness and the boy’s mother; and he could not help himself.
After another hour they had barely traversed the aspen hillside. Pushing the crutch away in angry frustration, his father sat in the snow. The boy did not know whether he was thinking carefully of how they might get him out, or still laboring with the choice against despair. The light had wilted to something more like moonlight than afternoon. The sweep of snow had gone gray, depthless, flat, and the sky warned sullenly of night. The boy grew restless. Then it was decided. His father hung himself piggyback over the boy’s shoulders, holding the rifle. The boy supported him with elbows crooked under his father’s knees. The boy was tall for eleven years old, and heavy. The boy’s father weighed 164 pounds.
The boy walked.
He moved as slowly as drifting snow: a step, then time, then another step. The burden at first seemed to him overwhelming. He did not think he would be able to carry his father far.
He took the first few paces expecting to fall. He did not fall, so he kept walking. His arms and shoulders were not exhausted as quickly as he had thought they would be, so he kept walking. Shuffling ahead in the deep powder was like carrying one end of an oak bureau upstairs. But for a surprisingly long time the burden did not grow any worse. He found balance. He found rhythm. He was moving.
Dark blurred the woods, but the snow was luminous. He could see the trail well. He walked.
“How are you, David? How are you holding up?”
“We’ll stop for a while and let you rest. You can set me down here.” The boy kept walking. He moved so ponderously, it seemed after each step that he had stopped. But he kept walking.
“You can set me down. Don’t you want to rest?”
The boy did not answer. He wished that his father would not make him talk. At the start he had gulped for air. Now he was breathing low and regularly. He was watching his thighs slice through the snow. He did not want to be disturbed. After a moment he said, “No.”
He walked. He came to the cub, shrouded beneath new snow, and he did not see it, and fell over it. His face was smashed deep into the snow by his father’s weight. He could not move. But he could breathe. He rested. When he felt his father’s thigh roll across his right hand, he remembered the wound. He was lucky his arms had been pinned to his sides, or the hand might have taken the force of their fall. As he waited for his father to roll himself clear, the boy noticed the change in temperature. His sweat chilled him quickly. He began shivering.
His father had again fallen in silence. The boy knew that he would not call out or even mention the pain in his leg. The boy realized that he did not want to mention his hand. The blood soaking the outside of his flannel bandage had grown sticky. He did not want to think of the alien tangle of flesh and tendons and bones wrapped inside. There was pain, but he kept the pain at a distance. It was not his hand anymore. He was not counting on ever having it back. If he was resolved about that, then the pain was not his either. It was merely pain of which he was aware. His good hand was numb.
“We’ll rest now.”
“I’m not tired,” the boy said. “I’m just getting cold.”
“We’ll rest,” said his father. “I’m tired.”
Under his father’s knee, the boy noticed, was a cavity in the snow, already melted away by fresh blood. The dark flannel around his father’s thigh did not appear sticky. It gleamed.
His father instructed the boy how to open the cub with the deer knife. His father stood on one leg against a deadfall, holding the Winchester ready, and glanced around on all sides as he spoke. The boy used his left hand and both his knees. He punctured the cub low in the belly, to a soft squirting sound, and sliced upward easily. He did not gut the cub. He merely cut out a large square of belly meat. He handed it to his father, in exchange for the rifle.
His father peeled off the hide and left the fat. He sawed the meat in half. One piece he rolled up and put in his jacket pocket. The other he divided again. He gave the boy a square thick with glistening raw fat.
“Eat it. The fat too. Especially the fat. We’ll cook the rest farther on. I don’t want to build a fire here and taunt Momma.”
The meat was chewy. The boy did not find it disgusting. He was hungry.
His father sat back on the ground and unlaced the boot from his good foot. Before the boy understood what he was doing, he had relaced the boot. He was holding a damp wool sock.
“Give me your left hand.” The boy held out his good hand, and his father pulled the sock down over it. “It’s getting a lot colder. And we need that hand.”
“What about yours? We need your hands too. I’ll give you
“No, you won’t. We need your feet more than anything. It’s all right. I’ll put mine inside your shirt.”
He lifted his father, and they went on. The boy walked.
He moved steadily through cold darkness. Soon he was sweating again, down his ribs and inside his boots. Only his hands and ears felt as though crushed in a cold metal vise. But his father was shuddering. The boy stopped.
His father did not put down his legs. The boy stood on the trail and waited. Slowly he released his wrist holds. His father’s thighs slumped. The boy was careful about the wounded leg.
His father’s grip over the boy’s neck did not loosen. His fingers were cold against the boy’s bare skin.
“Are we at the hut?”
“No. We’re not even to the meadow.”
“Why did you stop?” His father asked.
“It’s so cold. You’re shivering. Can we build a fire?”
“Yes,” his father said hazily. “We’ll rest. What time is it?”
“We don’t know,” the boy said. “We don’t have a watch.”
The boy gathered small deadwood. His father used the Winchester stock to scoop snow away from a boulder, and they placed the fire at the boulder’s base. His father broke up pine twigs and fumbled dry toilet paper from his breast pocket and arranged the wood, but by then his fingers were shaking too badly to strike a match. The boy lit the fire. The boy stamped down the snow, as his father instructed, to make a small oven like recess before the fire boulder. He cut fir boughs to floor the recess. He added more deadwood. Beyond the invisible clouds there seemed to be part of a moon.
“It stopped snowing,” the boy said.
The boy did not speak. His father’s voice had sounded unnatural. After a moment his father said:
“Yes, indeed. It stopped.”
They roasted pieces of cub meat skewered on a green stick. Dripping fat made the fire spatter and flare. The meat was scorched on the outside and raw within. It tasted as good as any meat the boy had ever eaten. They burned their palates on hot fat. The second stick smoldered through before they had noticed, and that batch of meat fell in the fire. The boy’s father cursed once and reached into the flame for it and dropped it and clawed it out, and then put his hand in the snow. He did not look at the blistered fingers. They ate. The boy saw that both his father’s hands had gone clumsy and almost useless.
The boy went for more wood. He found a bleached deadfall not far off the trail, but with one arm he could only break up and carry small loads. They lay down in the recess together like spoons, the boy nearer the fire. They pulled fir boughs into place above them, resting across the snow. They pressed close together. The boy’s father was shivering spastically now, and he clenched the boy in a fierce hug. The boy put his father’s hands back inside his own shirt. The boy slept. He woke when the fire faded and added more wood and slept. He woke again and tended the fire and changed places with his father and slept. He slept less soundly with his father between him and the fire. He woke again when his father began to vomit.
The boy was terrified. His father wrenched with sudden vomiting that brought up cub meat and yellow liquid and blood and sprayed them across the snow by the grayish-red glow of the fire and emptied his stomach dry and then would not release him. He heaved on pathetically. The boy pleaded to be told what was wrong. His father could not or would not answer. The spasms seized him at the stomach and twisted the rest of his body taut in ugly jerks. Between the attacks he breathed with a wet rumbling sound deep in his chest, and did not speak. When the vomiting subsided, his breathing stretched itself out into long bubbling sighs, then shallow gasps, then more liquidy sighs. His breath caught and froth rose in his throat and into his mouth and he gagged on it and began vomiting again. The boy thought his father would choke. He knelt beside him and held him and cried. He could not see his father’s face well and he did not want to look closely while the sounds that were coming from inside his father’s body seemed so unhuman. The boy had never been more frightened. He wept for himself, and for his father. He knew from the noises and movements that his father must die. He did not think his father could ever be human again.
When his father was quiet, he went for more wood. He broke limbs from the deadfall with fanatic persistence and brought them back in bundles and built the fire up bigger. He nestled his father close to it and held him from behind. He did not sleep, though he was not awake. He waited. Finally he opened his eyes on the beginnings of dawn. His father sat up and began to spit.
“One more load of wood and you keep me warm from behind and then we’ll go.”
The boy obeyed. He was surprised that his father could speak. He thought it strange now that his father was so concerned for himself and so little concerned for the boy. His father had not even asked how he was.
The boy lifted his father, and walked.
Sometime while dawn was completing itself, the snow had resumed. It did not filter down soundlessly. It came on a slight wind at the boy’s back, blowing down the canyon. He felt as though he were tumbling forward with the snow into a long vertical shaft. He tumbled slowly. His father’s body protected the boy’s back from being chilled by the wind. They were both soaked through their clothes. His father was soon shuddering again.
The boy walked. Muscles down the back of his neck were sore from yesterday. His arms ached, and his shoulders and thighs, but his neck hurt him most. He bent his head forward against the weight and the pain, and he watched his legs surge through the snow. At his stomach he felt the dull ache of hunger, not as an appetite but as an affliction. He thought of the jeep. He walked.
He recognized the edge of the meadow but through the snow laden wind he could not see the cluster of aspens. The snow became deeper where he left the wooded trail. The direction of the wind was now variable, sometimes driving snow into his face, sometimes whipping across him from the right. The grass and snow dragged at his thighs, and he moved by stumbling forward and then catching himself back. Twice he stepped into small overhung fingerlets of the stream, and fell violently, shocking the air from his lungs and once nearly spraining an ankle. Farther out into the meadow, he saw the aspens. They were a hundred yards off to his right. He did not turn directly toward them. He was afraid of crossing more hidden creeks on the intervening ground. He was not certain now whether the main channel was between him and the aspen grove or behind him to the left. He tried to project from the canyon trail to the aspens and on to the forked pine on the far side of the meadow, along what he remembered as almost a straight line. He pointed himself toward the far edge, where the pine should have been. He could not see a forked crown. He could not even see trees. He could see only a vague darker corona above the curve of white. He walked.
He passed the aspens and left them behind. He stopped several times with the wind rasping against him in the open meadow, and rested. He did not set his father down. His father was trembling uncontrollably. He had not spoken for a long time. The boy wanted badly to reach the far side of the meadow. His socks were soaked and his boots and cuffs were glared with ice. The wind was chafing his face and making him dizzy. His thighs felt as if they had been bruised with a club. The boy wanted to give up and set his father down and whimper that this had gotten to be very unfair; and he wanted to reach the far trees. He did not doubt which he would do. He walked.
He saw trees. Raising his head painfully, he squinted against the rushing flakes. He did not see the forked crown. He went on, and stopped again, and craned his neck, and squinted. He scanned a wide angle of pines, back and forth. He did not see it. He turned his body and his burden to look back. The snow blew across the meadow and seemed, whichever way he turned, to be streaking into his face. He pinched his eyes tighter. He could still see the aspens. But he could not judge where the canyon trail met the meadow. He did not know from just where he had come. He looked again at the aspens, and then ahead to the pines. He considered the problem carefully. He was irritated that the forked ponderosa did not show itself yet, but not worried. He was forced to estimate. He estimated, and went on in that direction.
When he saw a forked pine it was far off to the left of his course. He turned and marched toward it gratefully. As he came nearer, he bent his head up to look. He stopped. The boy was not sure that this was the right tree. Nothing about it looked different, except the thick cakes of snow weighting its limbs, and nothing about it looked especially familiar. He had seen thousands of pine trees in the last few days. This was one like the others. It definitely had a forked crown. He entered the woods at its base.
He had vaguely expected to join a trail. There was no trail. After two hundred yards he was still picking his way among trees and deadfalls and brush. He remembered the shepherd’s creek that fell off the lip of the meadow and led down the first canyon. He turned and retraced his tracks to the forked pine.
He looked for the creek. He did not see it anywhere near the tree. He made himself quiet, and listened. He heard nothing but wind, and his father’s tremulous breathing.
“Where is the creek?”
His father did not respond. The boy bounced gently up and down, hoping to jar him alert.
“Where is the creek? I can’t find it.”
“We crossed the meadow and I found the tree but I can’t find the creek. I need you to help.”
“The compass is in my pocket,” his father said.
He lowered his father into the snow. He found the compass in his father’s breast pocket, and opened the flap, and held it level. The boy noticed with a flinch that his right thigh was smeared with fresh blood. For an instant he thought he had a new wound. Then he realized that the blood was his father’s. The compass needle quieted.
“What do I do?”
His father did not respond. The boy asked again. His father said nothing. He sat in the snow and shivered.
The boy left his father and made random arcs within sight or the forked tree until he found a creek. They followed it onward along the flat and then where it gradually began sloping away. The boy did not see what else he could do. He knew that this was the wrong creek. He hoped that it would flow into the shepherd’s creek, or at least bring them out on the same road where they had left the jeep. He was very tired. He did not want to stop. He did not care anymore about being warm. He wanted only to reach the jeep, and to save his father’s life.
He wondered whether his father would love him more generously for having done it. He wondered whether his father would ever forgive him for having done it.
If he failed, his father could never again make him feel shame, the boy thought naively. So he did not worry about failing. He did not worry about dying. His hand was not bleeding, and he felt strong. The creek swung off and down to the left. He followed it, knowing that he was lost. He did not want to reverse himself. He knew that turning back would make him feel confused and desperate and frightened. As long as he was following some pathway, walking, going down, he felt strong.
That afternoon he killed a grouse. He knocked it off a low branch with a heavy short stick that he threw like a boomerang. The grouse fell in the snow and floundered and the boy ran up and plunged on it. He felt it thrashing against his chest. He reached in and it nipped him and he caught it by the neck and squeezed and wrenched mercilessly until long after it stopped writhing. He cleaned it as he had seen his father clean grouse and built a small fire with matches from his father’s breast pocket and seared the grouse on a stick. He fed his father. His father could not chew. The boy chewed mouthfuls of grouse, and took the chewed gobbets in his hand, and put them into his father’s mouth. His father could swallow. His father could no longer speak.
The boy walked. He thought of his mother in Evergreen Park, and at once he felt queasy and weak. He thought of his mother’s face and her voice as she was told that her son was lost in the woods in Montana with a damaged hand that would never be right, and with his father, who had been shot and was unconscious and dying. He pictured his mother receiving the news that her son might die himself, unless he could carry his father out of the woods and find his way to the jeep. He saw her face change. He heard her voice. The boy had to stop. He was crying. He could not control the shape of his mouth. He was not crying with true sorrow, as he had in the night when he held his father and thought his father would die; he was crying in sentimental self-pity. He sensed the difference. Still he cried.
He must not think of his mother, the boy realized. Thinking of her could only weaken him. If she knew where he was, what he had to do, she could only make it impossible for him to do it.
He was lucky that she knew nothing, the boy thought.
No one knew what the boy was doing, or what he had yet to do. Even the boy’s father no longer knew. The boy was lucky.
No one was watching, no one knew, and he was free to be capable.
The boy imagined himself alone at his father’s grave. The grave was open. His father’s casket had already been lowered.
The boy stood at the foot in his black Christmas suit, and his hands were crossed at his groin, and he was not crying. Men with shovels stood back from the grave, waiting for the boy’s order for them to begin filling it. The boy felt a horrible swelling sense of joy. The men watched him, and he stared down into the hole. He knew it was a lie. If his father died, the boy’s mother would rush out to Livingston and have him buried and stand at the grave in a black dress and veil squeezing the boy to her side like he was a child. There was nothing the boy could do about that. All the more reason he must keep walking.
Then she would tow the boy back with her to Evergreen Park. And he would be standing on 96th Street in the morning dark before his father’s cold body had even begun to grow alien and decayed in the buried box. She would drag him back, and there would be nothing the boy could do. And he realized that if he returned with his mother after the burial, he would never again see the cabin outside Livingston. He would have no more summers and no more Novembers anywhere but in Evergreen Park.
The cabin now seemed to be at the center of the boy’s life. It seemed to stand halfway between this snowbound creek valley, and the train station in Chicago. It would be his cabin soon.
The boy knew nothing about his father’s will, and he had never been told that legal ownership of the cabin was destined for him. Legal ownership did not matter. The cabin might be owned by his mother, or sold to pay for his father’s debts, or taken away by the state, but it would still be the boy’s cabin. It could only forever belong to him. His father had been telling him Here, this is yours. Prepare to receive it. The boy had sensed that much. But he had been threatened, and unwilling. The boy realized now that he might be resting warm in the cabin in a matter of hours, or he might never see it again. He could appreciate the justice of that. He walked.
He thought of his father as though his father were far away from him. He saw himself in the black suit at the grave, and he heard his father speak to him from aside: That’s good. Now raise your eyes and tell them in a man’s voice to begin shoveling. Then turn away and walk slowly back down the hill. Be sure you don’t cry. That’s good. The boy stopped. He felt his glands quiver, full of new tears. He knew that it was a lie. His father would never be there to congratulate him. His father would never know how well the boy had done.
He took deep breaths. He settled himself. Yes, his father would know somehow, the boy believed. His father had known all along. His father knew.
He built the recess just as they had the night before, except this time he found flat space between a stone back and a large fallen cottonwood trunk. He scooped out the snow, he laid boughs, and he made a fire against each reflector. At first the bed was quite warm. Then the melt from the fires began to run down and collect in the middle, forming a puddle of wet boughs under them. The boy got up and carved runnels across the packed snow to drain the fires. He went back to sleep and slept warm, holding his father. He rose again each half hour to feed the fires.
The snow stopped in the night, and did not resume. The woods seemed to grow quieter, settling, sighing beneath the new weight. What was going to come had come.
The boy grew tired of breaking deadwood and began walking again before dawn and walked for five more hours. He did not try to kill the grouse that he saw because he did not want to spend time cleaning and cooking it. He was hurrying now. He drank from the creek. At one point he found small black insects like winged ants crawling in great numbers across the snow near the creek. He stopped to pinch up and eat thirty or forty of them. They were tasteless. He did not bother to feed any to his father. He felt he had come a long way down the mountain. He thought he was reaching the level now where there might be roads. He followed the creek, which had received other branches and grown to a stream. The ground was flattening again and the drainage was widening, opening to daylight. As he carried his father, his head ached. He had stopped noticing most of his other pains. About noon of that day he came to the fence.
It startled him. He glanced around, his pulse drumming suddenly, preparing himself at once to see the long empty sweep of snow and broken fence posts and thinking of Basque shepherds fifty years gone. He saw the cabin and the smoke. He relaxed, trembling helplessly into laughter. He relaxed, and was unable to move. Then he cried, still laughing. He cried shamelessly with relief and dull joy and wonder, for as long as he wanted. He held his father, and cried. But he set his father down and washed his own face with snow before he went to the door.
He crossed the lot walking slowly, carrying his father. He did not now feel tired.
The young woman’s face was drawn down in shock and revealed at first nothing of friendliness.
“We had a jeep parked somewhere, but I can’t find it,” the boy said. “This is my father.”
They would not talk to him. They stripped him and put him before the fire wrapped in blankets and started tea and made him wait. He wanted to talk. He wished they would ask him a lot of questions. But they went about quickly and quietly, making things warm. His father was in the bedroom.
The man with the face full of dark beard had telephoned for a doctor. He went back into the bedroom with more blankets, and stayed. His wife went from room to room with hot tea. She rubbed the boy’s naked shoulders through the blanket, and held a cup to his mouth, but she would not talk to him. He did not know what to say to her, and he could not move his lips very well. But he wished she would ask him some questions. He was restless, thawing in silence before the hearth.
He thought about going back to their own cabin soon. In his mind he gave the bearded man directions to take him and his father home. It wasn’t far. It would not require much of the man’s time. They would thank him, and give him an elk steak. Later he and his father would come back for the jeep, he could keep his father warm at the cabin as well as they were doing here, the boy knew.
While the woman was in the bedroom, the boy overheard the bearded man raise his voice:
“He carried him out,” the woman whispered.
“What do you mean, carried him”?
“Carried him. On his back. I saw.”
“Carried him from where?”
“Where it happened. Somewhere on Sheep Creek, maybe.”
“Eight miles? How could he do that?”
“I don’t know. I suppose he couldn’t. But he did.”
The doctor arrived in half an hour, as the boy was just starting to shiver. The doctor went into the bedroom and stayed five minutes. The woman poured the boy more tea and knelt beside him and hugged him around the shoulders.
When the doctor came out, he examined the boy without speaking. The boy wished the doctor would ask him some questions, but he was afraid he might be shivering too hard to answer in a man’s voice. While the doctor touched him and probed him and took his temperature, the boy looked the doctor directly in the eye, as though to show him he was really all right.
The doctor said:
“David, your father is dead. He has been dead for a long time. Probably since yesterday.”