• The Sky Comes November

    The president of the Old Rabbit Hunters Association likes to take his time on a dark morning in deer season. I pull up at his garage at precisely 5:15 a.m., a snout full of the unusually warm (for November), ripe air (the thermometer read a balmy 35 degrees when I left the farm) and feeling better for it. On the first day of the season, every hunter imagines a stand of pine in early light, a large rack emerging above the undergrowth, the crosshairs of the Bushnell scope sighting in, and then an echoing boom down and out of the valley. So I’m in a hurry to get up the mountain and into my stand, one that puts me almost 20 feet up a tree, a stripped-down model without arm or gun rests. You can feel the stand shudder during a blast of wind, the tree dancing with you helpless in its arms.

    But, as I said, Mr. President is not one to be rushed. He is puttering about, making coffee, laying the cups neatly and upside down on a sheet of patterned paper towels, looking for his blue bottle of liquid nondairy creamer in the small refrigerator he keeps in his well-stocked garage. The torpedo-shaped kerosene heater is backwashing like a jet engine; the four-wheeler is already on his pickup bed and strapped in; and Mr. President is about half-dressed, an old-fashioned men’s hat squarely aloft above his brow, a strip of orange hunting tape festooning its circumference. “Now, just sit down and have a cup of coffee,” he demands. “The deer can wait.”

    His son Nate shows up and we joke around a bit as I check my watch over a second cup of coffee. We talk about the benefits of silk socks for keeping one’s feet warm, the pros and cons of lined hunting jackets, whether open sights are better than a scope, and then, of course, where each of us is going to spend the morning. Nate is headed for the top of the gut behind our pond; Mr. President has a stand set up in a small clearing where there were a few good hookings (where bucks have rubbed the bark off of saplings), and I am headed for the top of it, a spot Nate has used for years with a wide view of a hollow.

    “Well,” says Mr. President, “I’m going to warm up my truck and I’ll see you boys in a few minutes.” Then he adds, “Leave the gate open for me.” He isn’t in much of a rush as I eagerly head out to my pickup.

    I start up the mountain, unlock the gate, and move slowly through the darkness, negotiating a road slick with wet leaves and thick mud. I park, punch the clip into my .308, turn on my walkie-talkie, and take out a small flashlight to find my way. I’d tapped a few lightning bug-sized reflectors into trees so I’ll know where to turn. I move through the damp woods, cross a downed sheep fence, and then the laddered stand looms ahead. I’m up and seated, as if waiting for the start of a first-run movie.

    High up in a tree on a dark November morning, I watch the details come into focus. The trees grow bark, the pattern of leaves on the ground takes shape, the woods awaken with the rustling of a field mouse just below the stand, and the aggressive nattering of a small, red squirrel calls out an alarm when he discovers the large, orange-vested trespasser staring down at him. The big, old trees, veterans, also start to show themselves, their shorn limbs choppy, their dead branches making sad, ragged profiles.

    A rhythmic walking sound starts and stops behind the stand toward the road. I listen. Then silence. Then a regular hoofbeat, a quick-footed, light padding through the woods, and a coyote appears, loping directly across the gray hollow. Then more rustling, something bigger than a squirrel, and a small flock of turkeys emerges about 200 yards away. I watch intently, although the season is now over. They prance about, moving forward in stops and starts, a few hens in the lead with the small chicks close behind.

    Then I’m startled by a noise over my right shoulder. I turn and there stands, to my great surprise, a grand buck, thick-muscled through the shoulders. He’s just 20 feet away and almost directly behind me. I stop breathing. I’m too excited to count the points on the wide, forward-leaning rack, but I can see he’s big and doesn’t see me looking down from my perch. This buck is wild and powerful, and for a split second I wonder about his secret life of finding does, surviving the lean winters, knowing where the scrub oaks are (the only ones producing acorns this year), and which sunny southern slope he prefers on a cold afternoon in January, where he can nestle down in the thick brush and stay warm and hidden. A hunter can spend a lifetime in the woods and never come face to face with a buck as fine as this. It is so startling that you forget what you think you know, as if the earth no longer revolved around the sun.

    A poet might end this story with a stanza to the divine, with the laying down of arms, but I disappoint. I stand, swivel, and sight in the buck zigzagging through the woods, now 50 yards away in the weak, early morning light. I fire three times, chambering new shells with a Winchester-style lever, and then he stops far off, behind a thicket of trees, taunting me with the only part visible, a white tail flicking casually. With one shot left I wait, but he takes off in an explosion of forward movement, and I make a poor, halfhearted shot through the trees. He wins the encounter hands down.

    November had come again with heavy, pewter skies and dawns that develop thoughtfully, reluctantly; with quick snow showers that crystallize the forest carpet, making the woods impressionable, with gusts and gamy scent from days spent in the woods, predawn to sunset, looking for the object of our desire. And I kept coming back to the stand at that wee hour, sitting and looking over my right shoulder, to refresh my memory. A hunter sits in a tree, a buck stands behind him, and the world stops to consider.

    If we meet again, I won’t hesitate to shoot. I’ve always been a hunter (but not a great one). The woods are full of life and death, of neighbors who still make it through the winter on a freezer full of venison or moose meat. There is no reprieve in nature, no intercession, just necessity. I came out of the woods at sunset that day with an empty truck bed but with something wild in my heart.

    That evening, sitting in front of the fire, Mr. President asked about the shots, and said, “Yup, I thought it was you.” Then he added, “You ought to have moved over a bit in the stand—that old buck might have climbed up and joined you for a visit!” Then he sat back and closed his eyes, remembering, I guess, all the proud-footed bucks that he has missed over the years, and a deep contented smile slowly took shape, just at the corners of his mouth.

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