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George set his eyes on the swaying bird feeder and recalled the emaciated deer he’d found as a teenager. The doe had been clipped by a train just beyond the house, but only its back legs were crushed. He’d traced the scattered leaves to see that she’d drug her body nearly twenty feet from where she must have first landed. But that had to have been days before because it had rained since she’d done it, the bare dirt smoothed instead of upturned. The doe’s eyes had tracked him when he’d moved around her body, but by the time he kneeled to her, laid his hand on the outline of her ribcage, she stared into something he didn’t want to see. Kneeling, the denim of his jeans grew damp at the knees, and he felt a chill come up his spine from the ground, checked his arms for the goose bumps he knew were there. He heard her breath: shudders like wind in the tops of birches. How was she still alive? Flies circled her hind quarters. George swatted them away, first with just a flick of his hand, but soon he waved his whole arm over her backside. He didn’t look any closer, guessed maggots might already have started, and so he turned in his crouch so he only saw her neck and head. At her neck, he watched her pulse. He unsheathed his knife for a kill he wouldn’t take home, no salvageable meat on her. He laid his hand on her throat, grit his teeth, and sliced her neck. She didn’t move. Blood oozed from her, and her eyes stayed on the faraway place until they looked at nothing at all.
Richard groaned. George stared at him, couldn’t understand how a body that had played high school football could become this. A body that had commanded such adoration. He looked at his own hands. One of Richard’s forearms lay on the far side of the bed. The hand bent in on itself, like a twist of metal George cut away from his coffee can bird feeders. Trash. Useless.
He put his hand on his Buck knife, the same that had killed the deer at the tracks.
He backed out of the room, closed the door.
Eleven years since the man had died—still he haunted.
In the lock, George kept his body pressed against the stone wall, still trying to gain his breath, his legs roaring from wading and stumbling. The cold of the rocks through his shirt at his shoulders cooled his steaming skin. George quieted his ragged breathing to listen. No fish swirled, no bugs hatched. Against the wall, he waited for his own ripples to flatten.
He was still his father’s child from all those years ago, still tantalized and terrorized by the echo of his own movements in the chambered room. With his back to the entrance, he was surrounded. He felt his boyhood self, the rock walls much taller since the water level had dropped dramatically. The ivy that hung in eerie braids along the walls no longer spilling into the water. Even the spiders had not yet begun to draw their webs down in the new corners where water had once stood.
George felt the sun angling to warm him. He hinged his head to it, closed his eyes, then bent his neck back towards the water and blinked. His image, lit by the sun, was a streak of light in the murky mirror. He smelled the sulfuric muck he’d disturbed with his steps and felt the cold quartz in the rocks against his back. Again he leaned his head back against the wall, looked above him, and saw the trees rupturing buds, some leaves fully open, a kind of roof over the top of the lock. Though they swayed in the breeze above, in the shelter of the lock, the wind didn’t invade. The sky, framed by stone walls, was his own pocket of firmament. A perfect square of clouds and sun, a space controlled by him alone. Just as he had when he was a boy, he called to the walls, “Hello,” and they called back, giving him strength, talking back to him, telling him to push on for whom and what he loved.
Mac, with his head bent, came to the garage to talk to George a week after he’d been to the lock. Out of season, the kids were nervous. Though the girl’s skins were selling well, the boys were anxious, still repairing only a few motors a week. Since the hunting had to be done out of season, Mac had no reason to ask George. Any one of them would have been taking a risk. George took the request for what it was: an olive branch. Mac said he guessed his parents could use some meat too while they waited for June and Lenora’s vegetable gardens to start producing. Sure as shit could.
“It’s running hot,” said George, pointing to the electric slicer he’d begun to take apart. The smell of the engine still reminded him of the trains his dad used to take him to see every Christmas at the Woolworth’s in Riverview.
Mac, studying the slicer asked, “How you feeling?”
George opened a box of shells and added three to his hunting pack. “Fine, fine. Just need people to leave an old man alone.” He zippered a side compartment of the sack and opened the main flap.
Behind him Mac said, “Did you want to do this forever?”
“Not forever. I’m gonna die.”
George checked his flashlight’s batteries and buttoned his pack.
Mac said, “Mom’s not over much.”
“What’s she doing?” Mac unscrewed two screws and removed the slicer’s engine.
“Tilling the yard.”
“Flowers.” Of all things. Something she’d never done when they lived at the cabin: a hobby he never knew she’d want—too frivolous for her he would have thought.
“Maybe you want a break—”
“—Nope. Gives your mother a break from me. And vice versa.”
“I know what you mean.”
George grabbed his gun and said, “No you don’t.”
Out in the woods, his gun slung over his shoulder, George stooped to examine a fair size track left in the spring mud. He remembered being out here with the boys, the way they looked at him as if he were some god when they were still learning what scrapes and rubs meant. He should have seen it coming when they started to find scat on their own, should have known that kind of reverence wouldn’t last. He stood and scanned the area for thin saplings that had been eaten down. No other signs revealed themselves.
In the sycamore stand by the river, he waited. The tree fanned her broadening leaves at him, and he studied late sun rupturing the clouds against the tree’s bone white trunk a few feet above him. The air off the river was cool silk. A chill ran through him, and he tasted Lenora’s stew that would be waiting when he got home. They’d eat at the kitchen table and look out at her garden, ordered with rows of seeds and sprouts: peas, potatoes, lettuce. After dinner, they’d study her sprouting clematis, and she’d breathe that new breath that plied her shoulders, loosened her hands and fingers, her nails rich with dirt under them.
The sun vanished again, and for a long time, it was just choked afternoon light and bird calls.
Nearly five years after the dead baby, the morning June gave birth to Izzy, George had been at the house as usual. He hadn’t realized the girl wasn’t there until he’d gone inside after hunting and butchering two rabbits and adding chips to the coals in the smokehouse. He’d needed to check the kitchen refrigerator to see if there was brine already made up. He called to her, but there was no answer. He wouldn’t have thought anything of her absence, though he should have. But from the kitchen, he saw his old bedroom door swung wide open. The girl always closed it behind her. His wife did the same. Her dirty little secret.
He phoned Lenora. Before even saying hello, she said, “Mac called.” Lenora said Mac was on his way back from a festival in Pittsburgh. The girl maybe already had the baby, but Lenora didn’t know. She was upset. “We should have sent Rick to Pittsburgh. She’s so early.” George said nothing. “Come home,” she said.
“I’ll be there soon,” he said and hung up.
At the threshold, he stared at Richard. It had been almost six months since he’d glimpsed the man. It was as if he’d been butchered, all the meat and tallow and organs taken from him, as if someone had chopped off some bone too because he was shorter, shrunken. The same butcher that took his muscle and tendons, had started turning his skin to a hide. Richard’s skin had gone slack where there was once muscle, but at the joints, across his nose, at that stubborn chin, it was wrapped too tight. The hide partially worked—it had been rejected and laid down over this skeleton. This skin did not belong to this man. “Richard?” asked George, and his voice came out husky and raw. He cleared his throat and said, “Richard.” The man didn’t move, his mouth open, and George watched his chest for breath, his neck for pulse. Nothing. He walked to the bed, took a breath and laid his hand at the shriveled neck. His skin was cool. There was no pulse. He dropped his hand by his side and looked out the window. A chickadee nibbled from the feeder and sang its call. George echoed it in his head. Chick a dee dee dee.
Would Richard really give up on the girl as she was having a baby? What kind of father couldn’t hold out for a grandchild?
George took a step back. A handkerchief on the floor. He bent to it, picked it up, and in the motion of the rising cloth, he smelled something. He cocked his head, brought the handkerchief to his nose, smelled. He yanked it back, held the linen at the end of his arm.
She’d done it.
She needed space for a baby. And she’d taken care of him for so long.
Killed her own father.
He studied Richard: clavicle protruding, lips nearly gone, eyelids mere tissue.
She’d been right.
He looked at the handkerchief.
By the woodstove, he set the white linen square on the coffee table and opened the top door of the stove. With the poker, he arranged the burnt down logs to contain the heat they had left, adding a piece of kindling and blowing the scaled sides of the wood that went red in his breath. A slow flame rippled, went out. He blew again, and the flame came back to life. He wouldn’t build the fire up too much, unsure of when Mac would be back. He added a single log, closed the door. Waited.
It was the handkerchief then, that could provide his relief. A small, tiny act. Cowardly. But something.
Maybe even something to help the girl. A way of claiming her in some way. Make her more his own, than Richard’s.
Out the window a chipmunk had climbed up the tree to eat at a feeder he’d made from one of his father’s Prince Albert tobacco cans. The animal filled his cheeks. The cuckoo clock ticked.
The fire flamed and snapped. George lifted the woodstove’s lid and dropped the handkerchief. The flame wooshed at the ether-ed linen, singeing a few hairs on his hand, forcing George back. The lid clanged against the stove. The noise too loud for the house. He kneeled down to the glass doors. For several more seconds, the blaze flamed in jolting kicks. And then it burned down, a slow licking.
He checked behind him. Maybe he was helping her. No one would ever know. Maybe he was winning this girl over. Or at least winning. Either the hunter or the hunted.
From the sycamore stand in the woods by the river, the sun set, and he watched as a buck, a good buck, moved in. He nibbled a low beech tree branch and moved onto a scrubby hemlock that deer before him had whittled down. He moved closer as he scavenged, and George put his hands on his gun, held it vertically, waiting to see how close he’d come.
The buck raised his nose, and George watched as the deer sniffed him out, stomped once, watched for his slightest move, but then dropped his head again, still foraging. His antlers, velveted and growing, were broad at the base. They could make for a hefty rack; the would-be points, bulbous, energy mounting, and he thought of Lenora’s budding irises. George willed him closer, and the deer took two more steps towards the tree stand.
George leveled his gun, clicked the safety off, and sighted the buck. He exhaled, and the deer raised his head. George squeezed, and his ears rang, and the buck took off. It was a clean shot. He wouldn’t run long.
His tail flashed through a small stand of birches, and the deer followed the river. George sat tight, breathing deeply, trying to control the adrenalin and shakes that raged his body. He couldn’t give this up. Could never live without this.
While the sun fully set, the air went sharp. He heard Lenora’s words when he’d finally confronted her as she put on a necklace for Richard’s funeral. “I married you, George. I chose you.”
He tracked the buck in the silver light of the three-quarter moon. He had only run a hundred yards. When George laid both of his hands on the deer, a palm at his neck, another at his chest, the buck’s warmth traveled up through George’s wrists, into his shoulders. Thank you. With his knife, he cut the buck’s belly open and harassed himself that after all these years of gutting deer, this was still what made his stomach heave, his mouth water. He clenched his jaw to keep his own guts from knotting up. He emptied the cavity of the buck’s organs and innards and tied the rope to begin to drag him back.
Standing above the deer, his hands bloody even after he wiped them with the rag from his pack, the granite moonlight falling on the buck, he saw himself giving the skin to June, saw her bitten lip smile as if he’d tricked her into happiness, and George felt strong and sad and hoped that when the next stroke came, it would be in a moment like this.