She laughed. Her sons eyes. "A what?"
"In Christian Ethics," Michael pronounced solemnly. "Dominion over the beasts. He argues from Genesis. Christian Ethics," he repeated when she looked at him blankly. "At school."
"Oh, that," she said. "Well, it doesnt say kill the poor beasts. Or does it? Maybe one of those teachers is a gun nut."
Kristin had been raised in a Lutheran family. Although religiously inclined, she was a practical person who worked at maintaining her critical distance from dogmatic instruction, especially of the Roman variety. She concurred in Pauls attendance at the Catholic school because, to her own rather conservative but independent thinking, the position of the Catholics of their college town had incorporated Luthers reforms. Many Sundays she went to Mass with them. At Christmas they went to both churches.
"Its him," Michael said. "Its his funny little mind."
Kristin frowned and put her finger to her lips.
"His funny little mind," Michael whispered, chastened. "He thought it up."
"He always sees you going. Not that you ever get much."
"I get birds. But deer season . . ."
"Right," she said.
The circle of unspoken thought she closed was that Michael used the pheasant season as an excuse to walk the autumn fields around their house. With the dog and a shotgun borrowed from a colleague he would set out over the frosted brown prairie, scrambling under wire where the land was not posted, past thinly frozen ponds and rutted pastures, making his way from one wooded hill to another. It was a pleasure to walk the short autumn days, each knoll bright with yellowed alder, red-brown ash and flaming maple. And if the dog startled a pheasant into a headlong, clucking sacrificial dash, he might have a shot. Or not. Then, if he brought a bird down, he would have to pluck it, trying to soften the skin by heating it on the stove without quite letting it cook, picking out the shot with tweezers. Kristin refused to do it. Michael disliked the job and did not much care for pheasant. But you had to eat them. And in deer season, certain years, Michael would go out with a couple of friends from the university who were good shots and the kind of avid hunters he was not. He went for the canoe trip into the half-frozen swamp and the November woods under their first covering of snow. The silence there, in the deep woods they prowled, was broken by nothing but crows and stay-behind chanting sparrows and the occasional distant echo of firing. If they got lucky, there might be the call of an errant Canadian wolf at night. And there were the winter birds, grosbeaks, juncos, eagles gliding silent above the tree line. And the savor of a good whiskey around the potbellied stove of the cabin they used as field headquarters. Killing deer was not the object for him.
Kristin, though she had grown up on her familys farm, forever borrowing her male relations jackets with pockets full of jerky, tobacco plugs and bright red shotgun shells, mildly disapproved of hunting. At first, she had objected to Michaels going. He was nearsighted, a daydreamer. "You shouldnt carry a weapon if you dont intend to take a deer."
"I dont shoot seriously."
"But you shouldnt shoot at all. Its worse if you wound one."
"I hardly ever discharge the piece, Kristin."
But a man had to carry one, in the deep woods, in winter. It was sinister, suspicious to encounter someone in the forest without a gun. Farmers who welcomed hunters on their land in season looked fearfully on unarmed strollers, trespassing. And sometimes, if he was standing with the others and a band of deer came in view and everyone let go, he would take his shot with the rest of them. He had never claimed one.
From the living room next to Kristins study, their black Labrador gave up his place beside the fire and trotted over for attention. Olaf had been Pauls Christmas puppy six years before and served as Michaels shooting companion every fall. Michael bent to scratch his neck.
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Stone. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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