The Hunting Grounds

photo: freeimages.com/@Domenic3

Dawn had not quite broken when Dad shook me awake. He stood over me in his camouflage coverall. “Get on up,” he said and sat on the side of the bed. He gathered me up. Pulling hunting clothes over my pajamas. After he pulled on his boots, he zipped me into my clay brown hunting jacket. His hands were steel hard and his fingers too large for the small zipper. He fumbled with it and cursed quietly. I could see the top of his cap, the one that hung by the door. There were dark brown stains on the brim. A dull hard stench mixed with the Vitalis he used to slick his hair.

Hunting wasn’t something I liked to do. To hunt with Dad was rare. It took concentration and, above all, silence. Kids, especially me, simply couldn’t keep their mouths shut. There was an argument, though, in the kitchen the night before. Mother nagging Dad on fatherly responsibility. Mostly on his not spending time with his children. Something about his son did turning soft.

We only exchanged a few whispers and a grunt or two. The house was asleep, and the sleeping expected it to stay that way. One of the guns was taken from the rack on the wall. The one below the mounted deer head. Buckshot shells were gathered in silence. They were colorful: red and blue and yellow. Grabbed in handfuls out of their Remington boxes. They were bigger than my seven-year-old hands and heavy when loaded into pockets.

A few clanks of pans. Grandma cooking as she had done all her life. Preparing men for the hunt. The smell of percolated coffee and griddle toast brought us to the kitchen. At a small table Grandma slathered the butter-soaked toast in crabapple jelly. My fingers dripped in butter.

Dad didn’t eat. Only looked out the kitchen window beginning to fill with a soft blue light. Gulping a swig of black coffee, he tossed the rest in the sink. Then, without warning, he grabbed his gun and walked out the door. This was his world and in it he set the pace. Keep up. This I knew. Grandma said, “You better get.” So, I did. Even so, by the time I got to the door, he was already at the edge of the yard.

The Northern Florida cold was bone chilling. A humid fridge. This morning frost was on the ground. White tufts of sleeping Centipede grass. I ran fast across the yard to catch up to him. My breath clumped in clouds of steam and my lungs stung. On the horizon, a hard line of red had started to seep.

He waited for me, and we stood on the edge of our neighbor’s field. October had left it harvested and spent, not much was left but hilly plow rows. Any corn stalks left behind drooped dead and heavy. Cobbs, long stripped by birds, were scattered here and there. Rows of naked mounds lay in stripes. We had to hurry and cross the field. Catching a buck on his way back to his bed made up a small window and it was closing.

Ahead a line of pine trees stood straight green. The insides darker. A black wall. As we crossed the plowed fire line, the air was now dimming. Entering a windless library, we tread carefully. Sound forbidden. The balance of hushed rushing was a hard one for a small boy to maintain. Every crack of a stick led to Dad’s jerking gaze of contempt. “Shhhh…”, he said. “I’m telling you. You better be quiet”. The crunch of pine straw was now the only sound. Muffling any tread of our hunting boots.

We walked alongside the fire line until we came to a barbed wire fence. It stretched in a symmetry. Denoting a hard property line. Climbing the fence would place us on the other side of the ordered world. Dad placed his gun on the ground. He transported a gun as carefully as an egg. Instead of climbing, he squeezed through the wire. Once on the other side, he slid the gun through. On my belly I tried to crawl under, but the barbs grabbed me. I bucked and started to strain which seemed to make the fence want to hold me more. Dad simply pulled up the wire. The fence let me go.

Dad stopped and seemed to sniff the air. He came alive in the woods. As if someone had thrown a switch. His body turning like an arrow on a compass. He knew these woods well.

The tiny trail set before us now had been made by animals. These were traces of years and years of their movements. Fresh tracks and warm piles of blueberry shaped dung. Dad kneeled before them. Poked at them. Sniffed the air. Made sure the wind was not behind us.

We were now well past the slash pine groves that were regularly planted and harvested. The little trail turned into a small trace. Now we were amongst heartier trees. Hardwoods of scrub oak and magnolia. We walked until we got to a canebrake. A thick grove of cane drew a tight curtain across the old trail. A small spring burbled somewhere inside it.

Dad heard something else and so we stopped. His ear was set to a frequency of high alert. Something only, he could hear. I turned my ear and strained its focus but heard only the trickle of water. Then came a splash.

Dad brought down his steel arm in front of me. We lowered ourselves. The pact of silence was strong. We strained to hear another splash, but there was only a sigh at the tops of the trees from a breeze tangled there. Then, finally a sound of crunching came. Something was in the canebrake.

I stood a little. I could see it. A bit of brown moving. Flecks of white from what must’ve been a large rack of antlers. It was a deer, still thinking he was unseen. Downwind, our smell must have not yet hit its nose, so nonchalantly nibbled at the greenery.

We stood still for a long time. Dad was right. I was no good at being still. However, this time I was determined to prove him wrong. I had seen people on television pretending to be statues. Now I tried to be one. One made of marble. I held my breath only made me want to catch air more. I couldn’t hold it. When I blew out the air, I sounded like a deflating balloon.

It though he might turn, but Dad was still. His ear was on the canebrake. Waiting for the deer to give a signal that he was on to us. This was the game. To wait until predator or prey gave up the charade. Now, suddenly, a thrashing. Stalks of cane swaying. The deer tangled in the cane. Rutting and snorting. Small plumes of steam exploding from its nostrils.

Dad grabbed my arm and brought me down. Pressing me hard into the ground. He pressed a finger violently against my lips. It hurt and I tasted blood. Then he lifted his rifle and slowly clicked the safety off.

A large burst of energy detonated in the air over us. The shot’s echo spread through the woods. When I turned my head in the direction that the sound had fled, my mind went with it. The moment made me dizzy in its slowing down, so I wasn’t ready for the second shot. My ears filled with a piercing sting. The air drained and a steel smoke drifted. The hairs stood up on my arms. A sweeping hand pushed me, and I fell back. Dim smoke was above. I could taste gunpowder.

Dad burst through the canebrake. I quickly got off the ground and stood. All I saw were flashes of his cap. Bobbing up and down through the green cane. He was already yards. There was nothing to do now but run after him.

I struggled in the cane. The green stalks seemed basket tight. Pushing through it, I saw blood. It seemed to fly from the stalks onto my hands. This scared me and suddenly I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t my own. Finally, I pushed out into another grove of scrub oak. A floor of palmetto. Just in time, to see Dad’s back disappear into another dark clump of cane.

The chase was on, and I ran as fast as I could down the sloping bluff. Vines like trip wires caught me and I fell and crawled along. Doing my best to follow the torn path of my dad and the dots of blood from the panicked animal. I could still hear branches snapping ahead. Could hear his heavy grunts as ran ahead. I flew now. Running towards him.

The thrashing sound went, and the ground suddenly went black and soft. Cypress knees like little gnome hats appeared. They meant one thing to me. Swamp. We were going deeper in towards the still black waters. Swamps were full of snakes. Alligators, too. And webs that held spiders the size of a hand.

I had no choice now, but to follow. I screamed, but nothing came back, but the bounce of it. The woods were nowhere to be seen. The black was all around me now. I tried to trudge on, but the mud began to fill my boots. The ground sucked on me and came up to my thighs. Here it was. Swamp. I screamed and screamed. This time no echo came back to me, and my screams fell into the velvet. All had gone quiet.

The more I moved, the more I was pulled down into the muck. It took me a moment to realize that I was no longer moving. I was stuck and felt that like that deer I, too, might soon disappear here. Looking up at the cluster of branches above, I could a woodpecker thudding like a heartbeat.

The mud was up to my thighs, and I curved myself back like a sipping straw. I laid in the cold wet. Here it was, I thought. It was over. Chill was already creeping up my legs. There were no trails here. No markers. It might be hours or days or months before they found me. Things were already watching me. It would only be a matter of time before they got their courage up. Everything was settled now.

I then heard, “Oh, Jesus!” I couldn’t see him but knew that Dad was behind me. He grabbed he underneath my arms. Pulling me hard. Heaving against the mud that wasn’t easily giving me up. My boots were stuck down deep. He worked until my feet finally slid out of them. In my bare feet I crawled over him and tried to run. Catching the back of my jacket, he sat me down hard. When I tried to hit him, he raised the back of his hand and stopped me.

We both lay on the ground for a while. Panting and staring up at the branches. He rolled over and held me for a moment. We were locked. Animals in a trap. I only looked at him until he locked into my gaze. “You left me,” I said.

“It’s all right,” he said pressing me to him. “Oh, hunny, it’s gonna be all right.”

I jerked away. I hated him. My tears ran as I said, “Why don’t you go and get your deer?”

He grew quiet; then finally said, “That deer is long gone, son”

My bare feet were ice now. I limped a little, so Dad hoisted me up onto his back. He carried me like that until we got back through the cane. There, under the pines, he set me down.

I walked on well behind him. Now it wasn’t because I couldn’t keep. I simply didn’t want to. My little feet were tender. Many times, I had to stop after I stepped on a sharp stick or root. Up ahead he would wait for me, but I would stop until he walked on ahead.

At the barbed wire fence, I got stuck again. This time I unzipped my jacket and slid away from it. Then I jerked the coat away ripping a hole in the sleeve. “Stupid fence,” I said. I looked up to see him watching, but then he walked on.

Ahead I saw light coming back through the trees. Once I got to the edge of the field there he was. He was kneeling and smoking a cigarette. Puffs of smoke wrapped his head. I joined him there. Now instead of sticky mud, my chilled feet came ankle deep into the dry dust of the field. We both stood silently looking towards the house.

“I wouldn’t have left you,” he said.

I wanted to look at him but looked down at the grey earth instead. Could feel a large weight pulling me down. Tears plopping into the dirt.

“What about my boots?” I asked.

“You won’t need them anymore,” he said. With that he threw his cigarette down and tried to crush it out with his boot. Then he walked on, but the butt still smoked.

Ahead he got smaller and smaller until he finally disappeared into the house. I stayed where I was in the middle of the field. The sun now full in the sky. I turned in my stalk and felt the full light on my face.

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A southern boy raised by wolves and angels. Stories are based in truth, but bent for entertainment

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Waylon Wood

Waylon Wood

A southern boy raised by wolves and angels. Stories are based in truth, but bent for entertainment

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