Thursday, November 21, 2013

The hunting shack

A coming of age tale, Part I

The hunting shack looked a little different each time Avery saw it. The first time, he remembered, was many years ago as a young boy. He was with his father, one of the last memories he had of him. It was a good memory, father and son, an initiation for the young boy into the ancient tradition of manhood known as deer season.

“The guys are gonna try and play tricks on you,” his father told him as the dim lights of the tiny cabin compound came glaring through the smudgy truck windshield that night. Through densely packed hardwood and balsam trees, the truck rolled up and over roots and rocks in the narrow driveway which twisted its way up a gentle hill to a series of low-slung buildings with heavy, sagging roofs. Surrounding the main structure were smaller, saggier out buildings and flood lights grouped together atop tall poles. They illuminated everything. Those bright beacons were hard to forget, shining every which way into the woods, as if there was an imminent attack from bears or wolves.

Inside the truck cab, Avery pulled nervously at the fingers of his gloves. The dim dashboard lights emitting a quiet glow of safety from the unknown. The metallic clang of brass and nickel keys a familiar comfort as they slapped against the steering column of the truck.

Back then he was a bashful boy. Now though, Avery road up to the shack not as a boy, but as a man - or so he hoped. Now he visited with his uncle, taking up the tradition. Success in this year’s whitetail gun hunt would prove his maturity into the masculine inner-circle. It would prove he could scout out the right spot, recognize sign from big bucks versus little bucks, and plot out exactly where to be and when. It would prove how well he could shoot, how well he could track, and his endurance to withstand wind, rain, sleet, and snow for hours, even days, on end. It would prove he could eat and drink his own weight every night, wake early every morn, and piss straight into the wind at will.

They will test me, all of them. The men, the boys, the deer, the weather. I will be challenged at every turn, and if I flinch, I will fail.

His hands placed palms down just above his knees, he kept an even face as the shack lights brought the truck into view of the men inside. His jaw was set; he let the anticipation boil just under the surface of his skin, let it simmer until it was only a dull roar, and then, quiet. I will master my fears. He pulled at the hairs on his chin.

Men began to pile out of the shack, adorned in brimmed hats with ear flaps, wool pants, and orange coats. Some of them were already stumbling, while others were determined not to. Avery did not know all their names, these were his uncle's men. They were from a different generation, when men sprouted from the earth full of spit and vinegar, made of oak roots and red granite. They were hard men, relentless in willpower and stubborn in thought.

“Amos, we thought you’d decided to stay home this year,” said a tall and lanky man with a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He stooped a bit, as he reached up to handle the stogie and take a puff.

“You know how it goes,” said Uncle Amos. “Always scrounging for gear the last minute before season opens. The boy was more prepared this year than I was. Maybe he’s finally listening to my old man ramblings.”

Ever since he was young, Avery had been told he had big shoes to fill. His father had been one of these hard men. The hardest, in fact. He had been feared and revered not just as a hunter, but as one of the true pioneers - men fluent in the ways of the wild, squeezing a living out of the very land they tread. Even now, gone from the world, his influence loomed large.

“Aye, the lad’s come up the spitting image of his old man. What with that crazy red mane atop his head. Even looks to be a wisp of beard coming in there.” The lanky old stogie-smoker lurched forward with a dirty hand outstretched to pat Avery’s head. And so it begins.

The rest of the hunting shack men welcomed Amos and his nephew with big-handed handshakes and growling hoots. As tradition dictated, Avery began to haul in the guns from the back of the truck. A few of the younger boys hurriedly came out of the hovel to help with the haul of luggage and supplies, and before long they were all crammed inside the dimly lit cabin.

Outside it was bitter cold and the world was covered in a thin veil of snow. Inside was just the opposite. The potbelly wood stove kept it hot, and the creaky wood floor was covered in wet boot treads and dry sand. It was swept constantly, but the feet of nearly 20 guys coming and going all day and night was hard to keep up with. The gas stove was lit, and on it was the greatest pot of chili Avery had ever seen. A massive crock, filled to the brim with a boiling red stew of every vegetable imaginable, venison hamburger meatballs, and enough black pepper, chili powder, tabasco, and onions to choke the heartiest man alive. That, or whoever lost at dice.

On the dented metal table aside the stove was a pile of various breads and an equal sum of butter sticks. There were cut and uncut loaves of every variety - buns, rolls, biscuits, and even donuts. There were multiple sacks of potatoes lining the floor below the table, and to the other side was the fridge, presumably filled with more butter, eggs, and lots of meat. Of course the rest of the shelves were occupied with liquor, moonshine, beer and all manner of things useful for sleeping at night.

In fact, every inch of the shack was covered with something. Every wall, every slumping rafter, every support beam had antlers hanging at some angle or another. Memorabilia ranging from worn out camo hats, to empty bullet shells, to newspaper clippings, to faded polaroid photographs, to the all-important plaque of buck-pool winners by the door. Every hunt from every year was chronicled by these intimate details, these tangible artifacts of times and people in the past.

Avery picked the only open spot he could find in the cramped space - a broken chair between the potbelly stove and a drafty window patched up with duct tape, cardboard, and some old pieces of what he figured was once a sweatshirt. He was both freezing and burning up at the same time. Someone passed him a bowl of what they all called lava chili, and nervously he tried to choke it down quick while nobody was watching. Promptly, he was nothing but burning up.

“Tomorrow we’ll be the first to rise, and hopefully, the first to shoot our deer.” Uncle Amos leaned over his nephew’s shoulder, a hand on the back of the rickety wooden chair. Avery knew his uncle had a more serious and focused mind than he oft let on to. When it came to understanding advantages, choosing battles, and defying the odds, Amos always rose to the occasion. “These guys get pretty competitive, and because of that they’ll talk a lot of smack. Don’t listen to any of that, it’s just a distraction. Stay focused tonight on sleeping well and tomorrow on being alert and observant.”

As the night grew darker and colder outside, inside the shack the liveliness grew. Some of the men played cards, some told stories, others plotted points on maps and gnawed on bread. Some smoked, most drank, and everyone smelled bad.

Avery took part in the camaraderie where he could. He did not know most of the men or any of the boys. Those men he did recognize were kind to him, but he was not much for conversation. He decided his uncle was right, best to slink away and claim a bunk early. He had packed earplugs and would try to find something in the back room, away from all the racket, to get some sleep. His belly full of lava chili, Avery lay down in a top bunk in the back. Rolled up tight into a blanket cocoon, he stared up at the ceiling just above his head. There he stared at the playing cards stuck to the ceiling by throwing darts. Maybe it didn’t mean anything, but something about the five card hand seemed odd to him. It was a straight, a low, unsuited straight - 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, but the six was a heart from a different set, and the rest were spades from the same set.

“Strange…” he thought, drifting off to sleep.

See you out there,

A woodsman in training.

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