He'd brought a glass, cut the lemon and squeezed two slices as I watched, opened the tap and let the rust run brown then clear. I was always first to taste, and I wondered whether something could have changed since we were last here, the water become poisonous, not only in taste.
Bartlett champagne, my father said, one corner of his mouth in a grin. Long cheeks, like my grandfather.
All three of them watching me now, amused but trying not to show it. The glass filled and sparking in the light, the water moving on its own, the lemon rinds dissolving. Smell of it in the air. Sulfur from deep in the folds of the earth.
I took the glass, cool in my hand, though I'd imagined it warm, radioactive, and I sniffed the top, coughed and regretted that while the men chuckled softly. Then I drank it down fast. The earth's fart, gassed and concentrated through miles of crustal rot and cavern.
Their eyes moist with tears from trying to hold in their laughing, but I could see that. Go on and laugh, I said. I know you're laughing.
My father taken over by it, eyes closed and mouth puckered, but I could see his chest and gut in convulsions beneath his dirty white T-shirt. The squeaky sound of Tom's laughter held back, his face turned away. Sorry, he finally said. It's just your face.
My father put his hand up to cover his mouth.
Like a frog trying to swallow a horse, Tom said, and turned to look up toward the heavens with his lower lip stretched in a grimace.
My grandfather lost it and let out a snort, his belly jiggling as he tied the plastic bag of lemons.
What are you doing with the lemons? I asked. You all still need to take your turn.
My father's eyes squeezed shut with how funny this was, and I saw that no one else was going to drink. Fine, I said, and grabbed my rifle and walked back to the truck.
I climbed up on the mattress and kept my rifle with me, because from here on out, any buck we saw was fair game, and I felt ready to shoot something.
I could hear their laughter up there, but they stopped as they came close, climbed silently into the cab, and we were off again. The wind chill because I was wet with sweat, my T-shirt damp. Palms flat on the cab, rifle pinned under one leg.
Looking for bucks now. Curved antlers in the dead dry branches on a hillside of scrub, or a brown patch of hide standing under a sugar pine, or lying in the shade. Only so many shapes and colors a deer could be, and all the rest was background. Eyes trained to let background fall away, eyes trained to disappear the world and leave only a target. Eleven years old now, and I'd been shooting this rifle for two years, looking for bucks since before I could remember, but this hunt was the first time I'd be allowed to kill. Illegal still in age, but old enough finally by family law.
The world was mostly empty. I knew this already. Most of the land held nothing. A desert. But my father told stories of ducks everywhere on the lake, game everywhere in the woods, and there were photos that showed dozens of ducks laid out, dozens of fish on the lawn, grouped according to size and type, photos of my father and grandfather and Tom and their friends all posing in a group with their bucks, two each, ten deer in a weekend, with good racks. And so it did seem possible that this desert had once been populated, and that I had been born too late. In tens of thousands of years of humans, I had shown up just twenty-five years too late, and I was angry about this, even at eleven years old, angry at my missed inheritance.
The wind hot now, my T-shirt dry, and no way to know elevation. We were up in mountains but in a valley, the air hot and thick. And though I had seen this road every year, parts of it still surprised me, stretched farther than I remembered. It would take two hours to reach our land, and that was a lot of territory to pass through.
Excerpted from Goat Mountain by David Vann. Copyright © 2013 by David Vann. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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