By the time they offloaded, the day had composed itself around the skeletal woods, each branch bearing a coat of snow. They fanned out from the river, within sight of the glacial rock face that would be their rendezvous point. Each man carried a pack of provisions, a gun, a compass and a portable stand. Michael made for high ground, following a slope north of the rock. The snow was around four inches deep. He saw quite a few deer tracks, the little handprints of raccoons, the hip-hop brush patterns of rabbits. There were others, too, suggesting more exciting creatures, what might be fox, marten or wolverine.
He fixed his stand in the tallest tree among a cluster of oaks on sloping, rocky ground. The view was good, commanding a deer trail out of the pines above him that led toward the river. Now the animals would be prowling down from the high ground where they had passed the night, struggling only slightly in the new fallen layer, browsing for edibles. He waited. Invisible crows warned of his presence.
Then there commenced the curious passage into long silence, empty of event. Confronted by stillness without motion, a landscape of line and shadow that seemed outside time, he took in every feature of the shooting ground, every tree and snowy hummock. It was always a strange, suspended state. Notions thrived.
He watched, alert for the glimpse of streaked ivory horn, the muddy camouflage coat incredibly hard to define against the mix of white, the shades of brown tree trunks and waving dark evergreen. Braced for that flash of the flag. Every sound became the focus of his concentration. He got to know each tree, from the adjoining oak to the line of tall pines at the top of the rise.
Michael had come armed into the woods for the customary reason, to simplify life, to assume an ancient uncomplicated identity. But the thoughts that surfaced in his silence were not comforting. The image of himself, for instance, as an agent of providence. The fact that for every creature things waited.
He regretted coming out. Somehow he could not make the day turn out to be the one he had imagined and looked forward to. The decision about whether to shoot led straight back to the life he had left in town. To other questions: who he was, what he wanted. He sat with the safety off, tense, vigilant, unhappy, waiting for the deer. He considered the wind, although there was hardly any.
The empty time passed quickly, as such time, strangely, often did. It was late in the darkening afternoon when he heard a voice. As soon as he heard it, he applied the safety on his shotgun.
The voice was a mans. At first Michael thought the man was singing. But as the voice grew closer, he realized that the slight musical quality there reflected pain. He came completely out of the long days trance and prepared to get down and help. Then, the vocalist still approaching, he caught the anger, the quality in the voice that dominated all others, the rage of someone utterly beside himself. Presently the words came obscenities, strung together without a breath, alternately bellowed and shrieked as though they were coming from someone walking with difficulty. It still seemed possible to Michael that someone was hurt.
He scanned the woods in front of him, then adjusted his position to take in the ground just over his shoulder. At that point, he saw the fool.
A man about fifty came out of the pine cover forty yards away, slightly up the slope. If Michaels stand had not been placed so high, he realized, the man might easily have seen him. But the mans attention was altogether focused on the buck he had brought down, a fine ten-pointer with a wide rack.
"Oh shit," he cried piteously, "oh goddam fucking shit cocksucker."
He was struggling with the odd wheelbarrow across which he had slung his prize deer. It was a thing full of seams and joins and springs. Though it appeared altogether large enough to contain the kill, it could not, and its inutility was the source of his sobs and curses and rage and despair. And as the unfortunate man shoved and hauled, pushed and pulled his burden, covering the ground by inches, the extent of his rage became apparent. To Michael, observing from the tree, it was terrifying.
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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