GRAY’S ARCHIVES: Hunting Lessons

Months later I will lie in a hospital room whose windows frame perfectly these jagged mountains. The June evening’s light will be golden and long, the hills an enchanted wet green. An elk hunt with my husband will seem like something from a distant, less complicated life.

Monitors will be stuck to my undersized belly and the doctor will speak in a troubled tone. This baby needs to come out. Even so, I will stare out the window at the glowing, sunlit hills and—ridiculously—I will be full of nothing but hope.

That day, the day I am admitted to the hospital nearly a month before my due date, will also happen to be the day they find him, the man from our town. Or, rather, it will be the day they find what remains. He won’t have disappeared, after all. There was simply a cliff, and he got too close to the edge.

By the time we reach the truck, the snow is whipping around and piling up, and the October light is all but gone. We sit in the cab’s meager heat and let the engine warm, then jockey around and start down the steep trail. Pine boughs smack the windows and mirrors, and the truck pitches—up, down, side to side—like a boat on the open ocean.

Do I feel a hint of queasiness? Not quite. Not yet. Soon. I think of that bull, split apart and growing cold.

We’re on the main dirt road, creeping along in the shocking sudden storm, wipers slashing, snowflakes swirling wildly, when we round a sharp bend and meet headlights.

The approaching truck stops. The driver unrolls his window. He’s my age, maybe younger. A woman sits beside him, shadowed in the dashboard’s glow. Over the rumble of engines, I hear only some of what gets said, but the gist is quickly clear: A young boy and his grandfather are overdue. I listen harder. It seems they’re from out of town. They were hunting, the other driver says, and must have gotten turned around, dropped into the wrong drainage.

Something. They’re wearing jeans and thin jackets, carrying only the grandfather’s lighter. They are, I hear clearly, the driver’s son and his father.

Now I see that the silent woman in the passenger seat is crying. Of course. Her son.

Tim asks if the sheriff has been called, Search and Rescue alerted, and the man says they have, although little can be done until daylight.

Tim, expert at reassurance, suggests that the boy and his grandfather will make a fire and be cold but otherwise fine. Does he believe it? I can’t tell.

The driver hunches over the wheel and nods uncertainly. We say good-bye and drive on without speaking through what can now only be called a blizzard. Just a few feet on, the tire tracks from the other truck have vanished.

One day a tiny jaundiced baby with an imperfect lung will be cut from my body. The odds will be against him, and yet for one reason or another or maybe for no real reason at all he will grow stronger. His heart, whose hummingbird patter I’ll have been hearing on monitors for months, will simply beat and beat and beat and beat and beat. It is, after all, what hearts are meant to do. When finally I get to see him I will stare down into the cradle-sized oxygen tent where he lies alone, wired and tubed, and I will marvel: You did not exist. It will be all I can think. For a time, that delicate line between existing and not existing will be laid bare, as stark as a line painted on the hospital floor, and for a time, a very brief time, I will be so aware of it, see it so clearly, that I will stumble over it again and again.

You did not exist. How can you exist? You exist.

Then, just three or four years later, something will have changed. Before me will stand a child who refuses nearly all that is asked of him, who insists, repeatedly, defiantly, on nudging his milk glass toward the table edge until it tips. Each of his baths will end in a flood, most of his meals in tears. My days with him will become a repetition of tasks—pull on these shoes, struggle this shirt over a head. With this lovely, ordinary child I will lose my patience and raise my voice. The improbable miracle of him will eventually become so layered over with the accumulation of everyday that I will forget. I will succumb to rhythm and routine and, trying simply to make it to bedtime, I will stop looking so closely, stop staring. Over and over I will stop paying attention.

It is an unbearable fact. I will forget.

But what I also don’t yet know is that something will always rise up. Some perfectly unexpected thing—the tone of his laugh, a delightful and unlikely combination of words—will rise up to remind me of that delicate line. You did not exist. One day you won’t again.

In fact, many things will rise up. Every day. Thankfully. Many, many things.

In the morning the sky is ashen and everything looks different. We cross the still white meadow and walk into the woods, wandering briefly among the transformed trees until we find the carcass, mounded with snow.

Tim peels off his gloves and saws the antlers away from the skull, then the skull and legs clean away from the body, so that what remains before us is our meat for the winter. He cuts the carcass in half across the spine, and we punch two small holes through the muscle and hide of the front end and weave through them a length of weathered rope, which we wind around a sturdy aspen branch. We do the same for the hind end. Tim lashes the antlers to his pack and, after a quick drink of water, we slip our makeshift towing handles between our legs, T-style, and start back. The carcass halves slide easily across the unmarked snow.

Fifteen hours have passed since that earsplitting, life-ending shot. Fifteen hours and a few seconds since that bull wandered, unaware, out of the stillness and quiet. Maybe it’s because we’ve left and come back, or maybe it’s just that I’ve had enough time to absorb the actual fact of the bull’s transformation, but in any case, I am able to see the bull simply for what it is now. Inside my body, that same delicate line is being crossed. A life is coming into existence. Everything looks different.

In the days and months after this hunt, I will learn many things. I will learn to separate fascia from muscle. I will learn to butterfly a steak. I will learn about the staggering amount of work involved in butchering an elk, but also about the deep satisfaction. Day after day I will cut up and package the tender red meat and begin to grow nauseated and eventually I will learn that the doctors were wrong. Later still I will learn to be a mother.

All of that is still some time away. Today, not long after we wrestle the elk carcass into the back of the truck and make our way down the slick track to the road that leads for home, we will come upon a triumphant group of searchers and a woman wrapping a blanket around her young son, and I will learn that a boy and a grown man can indeed spend the night in a snowstorm with nothing more than a plastic lighter and each other to keep themselves alive.

Of course, I will marvel—at the outcome, at how easily it could have gone the other way. I will see, clearly and suddenly, just how little it takes. It’s the lesson I will learn again and again, the one I will try to hold on to.

Stefani Farris has been awarded two literature fellowships from the Wyoming Arts Council, as well as that organization’s Blanchan Award for nature writing and its Doubleday Award for women writers. Her work appears in a number of literary journals around the country.