I’ve only written a handful of stories, most of which aren’t very good. This one is the best. It is also the only piece of writing to come to me whole, as a complete idea. -JRS
You turn after your grandfather, the man says. He watches his son arrange his hand of cards. The boy’s movements are slow and deliberate, the father notices; in cards and in everything else. Always quiet, contemplating.
The child was like that even as an infant, the man recalls. He would cry from his cot and his mother, God rest her soul, she would rock him in the chair alongside the woodstove. The boy would look at her and look around him and go quiet, as if that was all he had wanted: a better position from which to observe, to take stock.
Pop Rose built this camp, didn’t he? the boy asks and plays a card, placing it carefully on the table.
That he did, the man says and plays in turn. And I used to come up here with him and we’d play cards at this very table. He touches the deck of cards to his left. Same deck of cards, too.
The man looks at his son and smiles. He thinks of his own father as he collects the cards and shuffles them.
The child follows his father along the trail the next morning, watching the lift and step of the man’s green boots. Eventually the path breaks into the open and the boy takes in the scene. Before them stretch lowlands, a broad barren. The sun lingers low over the horizon and clouds cling to the hills in the distance. The boy takes several steps forward and, with each step, the frosted crust of ground gives way to a soft layer beneath. The texture reminds him of sponge. He looks up at his father, smiling.
Some morning, the man says. You cold?
Nope, the boy says and takes several more sinking steps. Some morning.
The man looks at his son and smiles. He nods to the barren in front of them. Going to be a good day, he says, and adjusts the rifle under his arm, resting his hand on the stock. He looks up at the sky behind them, nods again. Might turn later, though.
The boy drops to his knees and stares at the ground. The thin sunlight thaws the frost into drops on the long grass so that the land ahead of him glitters. His father says something and they boy does not catch it. He turns. What did you say?
It’s from the Bible, the man says. And lo a voice from heaven saying, This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.
He shifts the strap of the rifle on his shoulder. Your grandfather used to say that. The man smiles again. Come along.
At the crest of a low slope they stop and stand by a rock. The boy pulls off his mitten and runs his hand over the rough surface of the stone; dried lichens crumble at his touch. The rock is much larger than he and his father and the boy thinks about that, its size. Some mighty hand brought it this far and no further.
Here, the man says and takes a knee.
The boy kneels and watches his father unsling the rifle and take a few shells from his pocket, starting at something in the distance all the while. The boy hears the click and lock of the rifle as his father loads and cocks it.
The man brings the butt of the rifle to his shoulder and sights down the barrel. Quiet now, he says.
The book looks out in the direction the rifle points, but sees nothing. Everything around him remains still: his father, the massive stone, the tall grass, the dark line of trees. The boy lifts his head and feels the sunlight warm his face.
Quiet now, his father says and the boy does not move.
The sound of the shot cracks the silence, spreads out around them and comes back from the hills and the trees. The man looks up from the rifle and stares after the shot, his hand on the bolt handle.
Missed, damn it, he says and keeps watching.
The gunshot echoes in the boy’s ears and chest as he squints at the distance. For a moment he thinks he sees a movement of brown against the light and dark green, but then it disappears and he is not sure if he has imagined it.
His father unloads the remaining shells from the rifle and returns them to his pocket. He stands and looks to the hills and up at the sky and then turns to the boy. Next time, he says. The man places his hand on the boy’s head. Come along.
They walk along the barren. By now clouds cover the sky and the wind has picked up, pushing down from the hills and across the open expanse. Scattered flakes of snow swing by and the boy feels them slap against his face and melt. He tucks his chin into the collar of his coat. It must be lunchtime almost, he thinks; his stomach churns with hunger, but he says nothing.
Soon they reach the treeline and begin the slow sweep back to their trail. At the mouth of the path, the man stops and again surveys the lowlands. He nods at his son and enters the woods.
The boy discovers their tracks from the morning, the large ones and the small. The wind has swept snow into them and the boy wonders how long they will last. His head down, he retraces his steps, placing his feet carefully into the old footprints. A moment later he collides with his father, who has stopped to crouch and stare at something on the ground ahead of them.
Look, the man says and gestures.
The boy sees animal tracks; they come out of the woods to their right and continue on into the trees on the opposite side, where they bend back towards the open.
They’re fresh, the man says and stands upright. He scans the space around them. Quiet now, he says.
Glancing upwards, the boy observes a lone flake of snow tumble in through the trees and pass in front of him, turning and falling. He holds out his hand and the flake settles onto his mitten. The boy studies the snowflake, the intricate pattern. He has heard that each one is different and he wonders how that can be when there are so many.
A sharp sound from a tree near them is followed by an echoing crack from off in the distance. The boy looks up and sees alarm flood his father’s face; the man turns to the tree and back towards the mouth of the trail and then reaches down and shoves his son, hard. As the boy collides with the ground, he sees his father’s head snap back and hears another sound like before. His father falls down onto the trail with a heavy thud and the snap of branches.
The impact has kicked the wind from the boy’s body and he gasps for breath. When his lungs again function, he pushes himself up into a sitting position. Pain climbs up his back to his neck and his teeth and jaws hurt. His right hand stings with cold; his mitten has come off and lies on the ground behind him. He reaches back, picks up the woolen mitten and slides it on.
The boy stares at his father and takes long, laboured gulps of air. With some effort, he calls out to his father and waits. The man does not respond. Again the boy calls and waits.
He stands, steps forward and sees that half of his father’s face is dark and red with blood. The boy calls to him again, his voice louder now, shaking. Kneeling, he pulls his hand free of the mitten, places it on his father’s forehead. He feels the warmth of the skin, the slick spill of blood. He watches the red run out and stain the snow on the ground below.
The boy’s body heaves as he sobs. He looks down the path and sees movement at the mouth of the trail, a dark smear against the blur of grey light. The indistinct thing stops momentarily before moving on. The boy wipes at his eyes and looks again but sees only the trail and trees and light. He turns back to his father, rests his head on his father’s shoulder and weeps.
The boy wakes to realize has fallen asleep, kneeling there. He lifts his head and looks about. Above, the clouds have darkened and the wind has shifted; the trees bend in time to the blunt gusts and snow spins down the trail to settle against a rock or the roots of a tree. The light has also changed, the boy notices; he knows that darkness will soon come. He wants to stay and wait but he does not know what for and thinks that his father would be angry with him if he did.
Again he pulls his hand free of the mitten to touch his father’s face. The flesh now feels cold; the boy’s fingers stick with the tacky, drying blood. He opens the breast pocket of the man’s jacket and removes several rounds, placing them in his own pocket. He drops back into a sitting position and shakes the numbness from his legs. When he feels able, he stands and takes a faltering step, his hand against a tree. He stoops, picks up the rifle and slings it over his shoulder.
The boy takes a final look at his father and heads off down the trail.
The woods are dark by the time he reaches the camp, the snow a radiant blue. Inside, the boy closes the door and stands still until his eyes adjust and he can discern one shadow from another. He locks the door with the hook and leans the rifle against the wall. Stepping to the counter, he pulls open the drawer and inserts his hand into the black space, hauling it out quickly when he feels a sudden, sharp sting. He puts the tip of his finger into his mouth and tastes the mineral character of his blood. With his other hand the boy removes the knife from the drawer and places it on the counter. He reaches back into the space, searching until he hears the rattle of the matchbox.
In the soft light of a burning match the boy surveys the space. He notes the kerosene lamp on the table, but does not know how to use it. There are candles on the shelf above the counter, he recalls; he heads in that direction, his hand cupped around the tiny flame he holds.
When the match goes out, the room blackens, becomes much darker than before. He does his best to remain calm as he strikes another match.
Now a candle offers the camp its dim glow. The boy places the candleholder on the floor next to the woodstove and crouches, staring at the black iron box. He tears pages from the newspaper near the woodpile, crumples them and places them in the stove. Next he adds a stack of narrow splints and puts a match to the paper. The fire takes; the flames gather and grow. The boy’s face and hands sting in the intensifying warmth. Eventually he places a larger piece of wood in the stove, closes the door and walks back to the table.
The camp has light now, and heat. The iron stove ticks and groans as it adjusts to the rising temperature. The boy sits down at the table and stares at the deck of cards. His hunger has returned, but he does not move until his hands and feet no longer feel thick and numb with cold. He then pulls bread and butter from the cupboard and eats at the table, staring at his solitary reflection in the black window ahead of him. He thinks about his father and feels sorry for having left him alone out there in the dark.
The boy adds more wood to the fire and steps back to admire his work. His father would be proud, he knows; a momentary rush of joy fills him at the thought. Removing his jacket and shirt and the rest of his clothing, he lets his body soak in the warmth.
From the table he collects the candleholder and walks to the washbasin. He leans towards the dusted mirror, staring at the dark smears on his face. Wetting a washcloth, he wipes at his forehead and cheeks, the cold water sharp against his skin. It takes some time to remove the dried blood.
When he has finished, the boy pulls clean clothing from his bag and dresses. He stands next to the table, staring at the woodstove, and does not know what to do.
The boy wakes in the night and turns in bed to see his father sitting at the table. His father is alone and his face is clean and he plays cards, laying them on the table in slow, purposeful movements. The man does not look up from the table. The boy lies there on his side and watches his father and does not feel afraid.
When the boy opens his eyes again the windows glow with pale light and the air in the camp has a damp, frigid edge. The chair at the table is empty and the deck of cards lies in the same place it had been the night before. The boy thinks about that. He gets up, pulls on his snowpants and jacket and tugs his boots onto his feet. He puts on his hat and bag and picks up the rifle.
At the table the boy takes the stack of cards and is about to place them in his pocket when he stops and returns them. He runs his hand over the smooth wooden tabletop and then walks outside into the cold light.
More snow has fallen overnight; white covers everything. The footsteps from the previous day are no more. The boy stares down the trail where he knows his father lies and then looks in the opposite direction, where the path continues on to the highway. He adjusts the rifle strap on his shoulder.
Come along, he says and starts walking.