By David Luntz
Scene I. Cabin. Farm and woods. Late October.
Beyond my porch, a violent gust scatters leaves toward the afternoon light. The last train of butterflies flees south. A lone hawk rides a thermal, spiraling upwards. The sky spreads over us, as if just yanked from infinity, still bleeding from its blue umbilicus. Straggling bands of cirrus cinch the wound.
The shot came from four hundred yards away, past the stream, up in the trees. I hear the dull thud of a bullet punching through flesh. The hawk dips slowly into the wind. From that height, it would see who took the shot: bolt action, hollow point, 33 grain, fifteen pounds of recoil energy. I’ve been around enough guns most of my eighty years to know.
The shooter was going for the heart but misjudged the spin drift. I stumble down the porch steps, cursing. I can’t be doing this. My hip is busted. I wonder, Why’d he do it from so far away? Fucking amateur. I stagger through a grove of spruces. Spider webs sway from their gibbets. Some stick to my face. Husks of blowflies sprinkle the ground, like pistachio shells tossed from idle spectators at a hanging. There’s a maple tree up right ahead, a blazing loom, spinning gold leaves. Each step I take to it is discovering some new land in an uncharted world of agony. At last, I gasp against the tree, shaking. My daughter is buried below it. I mouth a broken prayer to her. I’m not sure why. I talk to her all the time.
A bear claw has left a two-inch gash in the trunk. I smooth the bark around it, trying to mend the deformity. I lick my fingers. They taste like quinine, medicinal. It doesn’t help my pain. Beneath the bear gash, though, swims a sweet sap, as sweet as the inside of a hummingbird’s throat. Like hope buried beneath a thick rind of despair. I dig my nails into it, trying to scratch my way to that sugar. I’ve been trying to do that my whole life. But there’s no time now. Forty yards away, more like forty miles, I wobble over to the woodshed. My body is going numb. On the floor, a cratered bee hive conceals the rusted spoke of a wheelbarrow. A shovel and a twelve-inch serrated blade sit in its cracked tub. I reach down for them. Time to bury mistakes.
Scene II. Fields. Hilltop clearing. Late October
Outside again, another wave builds up far away. I feel it in my knees. The ebbing away of air, the sudden drop of pressure, exposes a jagged shore of beetled carapaces choking up ruts in my fields. I am crawling over them. I have no strength to stand and walk. In my chest, hoofbeats gallop over crooked ribs, down a warped plank of spine. The pain is so bad I roll on my back for a moment to scream. I am drenched in sweat. The hawk is still up there, absorbing everything. Space suspends into stillness, as it does during an eclipse. I sense the air, like an invisible sleeve, getting turned inside out, summer’s dead skin slipping away. I am passing through one season into another, getting turned inside out too, belly sliding now up a hill, dragging the spade behind me with one hand, clawing the earth in front with the other, the sharp metallic taste of steel clenched in my teeth.
The summit has a clearing where they always come to die. With a final push, I sliver through the undergrowth to the open ground. There it lies. Just as I thought: the hole four centimeters away from the heart. Not clean. Large black eyes plead with me. They are confounded by existence. I sense we are approaching each other from different universes, but will converge on the same thought. I sit up and cradle its head in my lap. I stroke its neck. Its eyes are like my daughter’s beneath the blazing tree.
I sing it a lullaby, the same I sang to her every night. Its wheezing slows down, as if it’s going to sleep. Maybe the song earns my trust. Maybe it understands my pain too. Maybe it’s too tired to care. For a moment the three of us are together. My mouth tastes like salt. My eyes burn. The creature goes still. The knife won’t be needed.
The wave breaks and showers us in leaves. The ground here is brittle and crusted like old scabs. The shovel will help me to stand up. I know it will break when I dig the grave.
Scene III. Woods. Hilltop Clearing. Late October
There is a crack, like close thunder. There is pain with no previous memory. There is panic. There is a place I must get to. There is a dark cloud of flies who smell my blood. There is sunlight going cold on my back. There is a hawk watching from above. There is a hill and the baked scent of earth. There is a clearing where I can now go to sleep. A shadow crawls over me, panting and groaning. It smells sickly. It grips my head and howls as my children do when they are lost. It weeps into my mouth. The tears carry something sweet, something I have sought my whole life but never tasted. The water that flows deep inside the tree whose leaves turn to fire when the days grow short.
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