Two months after Stockton’s Dam broke—the final sign according to his sons that Hannold’s Smoked Game was officially dead—George skinned out starlings beside June in the garage. The birds were still warm, their thin gamey smell competing with June’s faint sweat and the garage’s mildew and oil. The ripping of starling skin felt right in a way that nothing had in weeks.

George was grateful to the old-timer that gave him his license back after the bust, the revoked licenses just as devastating as the $2,500 they’d scraped together for one out of season deer. The boys would still have to wait, but during the agency hearing, it hadn’t been hard to make their case based on hardship.

The girl picked up the second to last starling, shook hair that had sprung from her ponytail out of her face, thanked him, and said she could finish the last two birds. She flashed her smile before she bit down on it, keeping it for herself.

Eager to get to the river, George nodded and washed up in the garage sink. He dried his hands on a rag. The small pile of skins sloughed a downy belly feather, and he watched it blow across the cracked concrete floor of the garage. Beyond the driveway and the smokehouse, he squinted at the morning sun filtering through trees.

The girl, efficient with the small filet knife in her hand, had been a quick study. Again. She’d taken to skinning the starlings just as she’d mastered the deer, rabbit, and groundhogs. Her fingers, thin and long, seemed to have been meant for beamer and scraper. She didn’t mind mixing brain solution, enjoyed scudding hides.

The starlings were beneath her. Her fingers, speckled with fine belly feathers, were wings themselves. As she released the birds from their mechanical appendages—freed them of their pointed beaks, scaly legs, and clawed toes, so that they were all feathers and plush and down—George considered if she unleashed their bird souls. He shook his head, ridiculous, and hawked a lugee into the sink. He ran the water and watched his phlegm go down the drain.

As usual, he and his daughter-in-law said little to one another. The pile of feathered skins on the shower curtain covered folding table, the only proof they’d been there. A guy who also sold his wares in Riverview had seen June’s hides and wanted starlings for fly tying material. She’d asked, and George had been happy to kill the birds that morning, the starlings not only perpetually in season, but as raucous as any batch of hoodlums. The girl, not so much a girl now—thirty-three and splitting the difference between his boys’ ages—was just as quiet as ever, pushing her rolled up sleeves past her elbows with the whites of her underarms. Sixteen years they’d been working side by side, since ‘70. Sixteen years she’d been living in his childhood home, Lenora jumping at the chance to move from the cabin with the excuse that the kids needed a place of their own when Mac knocked June up their senior year of high school. Sixteen years ago the baby died during delivery and her damn father came to live with her. In the house George’s father and grandfather and all the Hannold fathers before that had lived and worked. In my house.

June swiped the hair from her face with the crook of her elbow and gnawed on her lip as she worked. The wren shattered the morning with his song: teakettle-teakettle-teakettle-tea. If the girl hadn’t set her shoulders so square, if the silhouette of her back hadn’t looked so much like her father’s as she stood at the table backlit by the rising sun, he might have thanked her for learning to cure hides, something his sons had never wanted.

He said, “I’m going to the lock,” and opened his tackle box.

“By yourself?” June asked, looking up from her work, her winged hands pausing.

“Just hunted your damn birds by myself.”

She tucked her lips together, bent her head to the starling in her hands, sliced the skin at its breast and said, “You were close. I could hear if you yelled.”

He humphed a response, sick of being watched by his wife and sons and now even the girl setting in on him. He grabbed his waders and pack and disturbed a small pile of feathers as he brushed past the carcasses—the dark iridescent tumble, a thing that almost stopped him it was so beautiful. Squinting at the sun as he emerged from the garage, he shook his head again, thought the stroke had softened his head, and he was glad June had nothing else to say.

He was hungry for the river, something he could almost trust, more so than his aging body anyway, his limp no worse on the riverbed than anywhere else. He hefted his gear and crossed to the bank, shocked again at the sight of his missing river, the dam’s bursting having let all of the false depth he’d always known run somewhere else.

As a boy, how many nights had he dreamt himself underwater swimming with catfish and suckers? Haunted by eels? He had loved escaping to the lock, turning off the motor as he’d angled away from the old Hardsole. He had used the oars to navigate into the still, swampy water that hugged the lock’s stone walls, once used to move boats mounded with coal downriver. He’d never seen anyone else in it during all his days on the Hardsole. Not even his father had liked to turn off into the lock, and his father had never been afraid of anything.

The river was luring George back, again, after a lifetime in tree stands and woods, after all the butchering and smoking, packaging and delivering. Suckering him in. He wouldn’t let himself think of drowning. Or drying up. Maybe that was it; the stroke the first sign that he was following the river, and now that the Hardsole had decided to flee, he too would diminish.

Halfway to the lock, he breathed in the cool, minerally spring air and felt his fingers fattening with exertion. The doctor’s warnings about doing too much be damned, though it had been stupid to put his waders on; he should have just changed into them once he was ready to cross to the lock. Muck turned his boots to anchors. Neoprene suffocated his skin, and sweat ran at his temples and armpits. It pooled where his stomach folded over itself.

What if the lock, too, was just covered in the pie crust mud that lay everywhere since Stockton’s Dam burst when it couldn’t battle the ice any longer? He couldn’t imagine that the river’s depth at the lock could also be navigable by foot, that the places he’d loved so well for so long were altered so significantly, that even the Hardsole was proving untrue.

The tires were the worst. It wasn’t that he’d idealized what the underwater world looked like. He’d even liked knowing it would be dark, a swampy green dankness where water ran cold against decaying logs, river stones, and tangles of weeds. He’d watched his father enough to know about the trash. His dad made a living off the river and used it as a dumping ground for empty bait tubs, aluminum cans, or whatever else was on the boat. But as far as George knew, his father had never dumped tires in the river, and they were everywhere. At Rosie’s Diner, after Stockton’s burst, George and Lenora had talked to a buddy of his dad’s, who said he remembered a flood so bad it wiped out the back section of a dump, and he’d supposed that’s where the tires were from. Lenora had said, “Figures,” and his dad’s friend had agreed, and neither of them had looked at George as he flicked his eyes between their faces, waiting for something more. Lenora just as dead set against the river as she’d ever been.

He’d tried to free her from the business, had thought their move would allow her to cut some ties, but when he’d headed to the cabin to help the kids, she almost always came with him. She said June wasn’t following the recipes, or if she was, didn’t know how to tweak them for the difference between rabbit and venison, eels and suckers. Mac and Rick insisted they didn’t need the help, but, sure as shit his sons did; there was always something to do. George knew all too well how the business could suck a man dry.

And now his boys had given it all up. Not that he hadn’t felt that way when his father first died and again after the double hurricanes of ’55. But letting go now, when he thought he’d given his sons what his own father couldn’t? Guidance to make the business give back. All this time only to find out he’d been wrong. The girl the only one clinging to any of it.

George bent to a rock the size of his palm. He turned it over, hoping for some bugs, some life still on this old, wet land. But there was nothing, just darker mud, not yet cracked by the sun. He chucked the stone as far as he could, and it splashed in the middle of the new, thin Hardsole, the sound disappearing in the slight bubble of running water. Hardly running, more like limping through more current without the dam to wrangle it. George wiped the sweat out of his eyes with his thumbs and trudged to the next bend where he would cross the river to the lock. He knew he shouldn’t be hoping it was still the same. Nothing was, nor had been for a long time.

Wading the river, he felt its cool, then as he got to his waist, its cold. The current tugged at him, and his wader boots slipped over the rounded rocks. As the water rose to his second rib, he considered going down with it, letting the current have its way. He thought of his body hanging up on one of the big tractor tires so that the current would rip over him, and his body would be tossed about, beaten. He kept moving, lifting one foot and then the other, slipping with the slick muck and current, and soon the water moved down his waist, and he started to emerge, a swamp thing in the April sun.

When George found the trickle that led to the lock, it confirmed his worry that the water inside the structure would be nothing but a puddle. He stumbled on a wet slab of schist and steadied himself by reaching to the rock wall of the lock. Before he entered the rectangled room, he could smell it—mold, humus, and stagnant water. With his hand on the wall, he took a step to the threshold of the walled room and saw water still stood. It didn’t make sense. Only a thin sluice, not much wider than his stance, fed the lock. The river seemed to flow up into the rock walls, the lock cradling it.

He took another step in the murky water, and the ground underneath him lurched. He put his hands out as if he were falling on land, catching himself with his other foot before he face-planted. In water up to his waist, he laughed nervously as if someone were watching. Only as he leaned back against the wall to regain his balance did it become clear to him. Just like Stockton’s Dam had manipulated the flow and height of the water, the locks had been dug out to give barges room to advance upriver. They had to be deeper than the Hardsole itself. And while the river had easily dropped twenty feet, it was still deep enough to feed into the lock. Once there, it remained—the lock, a cavernous bed, a pool for the river to rest in. George leaned against the slate walls, trying to wrangle his breath.

During the third year that June’s father Richard had lived in George’s house, on an early Saturday evening in May, he’d gone into his boyhood bedroom. No one else was at the house besides Richard: the boys making deliveries, though maybe late enough that they stopped for a beer at the Joint, the girl at her friend’s apartment, Lenora bartering at Mayslack’s or maybe she’d finished and gone home. George had something to say. And still needed, after all those years, for Richard to know what George knew: he’d won.

He’d start by telling Richard he knew Lenora visited his room. Besides the first time, two other occasions, Lenora flustered when caught coming out of the bedroom, tucking her hair at her ear. He would never ask how many other times she’d been in there.

The door was closed but not latched. Through it he could hear a blue jay yammering. With his fingertips, he pushed the wooden door open. It swung without a noise until the handle bumped the wall. In his bed, Richard didn’t move. George hoped he hadn’t waited too long.

The room smelled sick though the window was open. He looked out the glass, and there was one of his bird feeders made from a Hill Bros. coffee can. He hadn’t noticed it was missing from the front yard. It swung wildly, and he guessed the blue jay had flown from the feeder when he’d opened the door.

He crossed the room to Richard’s bed. The man was little, hardly a man at all. The lines in his face and thin strips of hair made him look haggard, ancient. The blue-white of his skin reminded George of a sucker out of water. Richard’s mouth hung open, emanating a sour milk stink. His breath came in rasps, a fight, every one.

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.”

“Nice, Dad.”

George checked his flashlight’s batteries and buttoned his pack.

Mac said, “Mom’s not over much.”

“Nope.”

“What’s she doing?” Mac unscrewed two screws and removed the slicer’s engine.

“Tilling the yard.”

“More veggies?”

“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.

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