Notes for a Story About My Grandfather

[Story by Mark Kissler & Paintings by Arthur Shilstone]

It will be about hunting. About the goose blind, the nylon-net camouflage that broke up the corners, the plywood walls, the frozen ground, the kerosene stove. Tire tracks crusted like fossils in the dirt. Pulling on Papo’s coveralls, thick gloves, our shotguns leaned on the board in front of us. On a bench, together, not moving much.

I was younger then, maybe twelve. I would strap on the boots from the army surplus store, black and rubbery, an order of magnitude too large. My collar smelled like men coming in from the cold, who carried ,in the folds of their coats, air that spilled down to the floor. I smelled like gunpowder, like rust.

We would wait in the quiet of the morning, breathing out our steam. It was a wordless communion.

It occurred to me then that hunting was not about killing, but waiting; a wait impossible without the chance of a kill. It is the anticipation, the learning of the earth’s rhythms, of one’s own rhythms; of finding deep down a patience, a calm, and a steady attention; an endurance of time and cold and discomfort. It is a deep knowing: relating without speech, without expression; united in will and in space and in time.

It’s the kind of cold you can feel in your nose as a constriction, as if your membranes are trying to keep it out of you, to warm it before it cascades over your lungs. It’s the type of cold you can smell, that reaches down through the layers of synthetic fibers on your hands, and seeps slowly through the seat of the coveralls—but is warded off by good layers of old down and canvas. The morning is still, the quality of light and the quality of sound somehow tied, unified.

The pads of my fingers would sometimes go numb. The kerosene heater warmed us specifically, not generally—until it turned off, and then we realized how much it heated the whole blind. But somehow that uniform cold was different, easier to hunker into than the uneven semi-warm cast from a stove, as much as we were grateful to have it. Sometimes we brought packets of hand warmers and kept them in the pockets of our coats. Those made a big difference, always keeping our fingers just on this side of pain.

There were times in the blind, especially as I got older, that I hoped the geese would never come. I didn’t want the hunt to end with its inevitable conclusion, to have to wring the neck and see the tears forced out of the corners of the eyes, to see the flapping and the descent of the tangled bird, so beautiful, so large, so serene.

I remember the first time I shot a goods, not long after we began our hunt, one day down at a crook in the road by the field. They came through low, and I shot more in front of me than up—it was smooth, focused, it was just right. My grandfather turned to me and was thirty again, his young son learning to walk. That was the purest, the most real time. It was different when the boys across the street hunted from their field full of decoys, their dead-eye shotguns, when the popped up out of their sleeping bag covers and peppered the air with their steel. But that all same much, much later, after our hunting days were already almost done.

We smootheed ourselves into a relaxed presence, all attention. A perception of the movements of the world. The incredible significance that started to emergeL watch for the ways that the organize themselves in the flock. Shoot one, and see the mate circle back, later, looking, alone.

No pressure to fill the space with anything but out bodies; how real that was, how important. Knowing the sounds we made were never as important as the ones we heard. To hear the flock above and hope, hope they were close—because if they were too far, it was not good to shoot, you might just wound one, you might miss altogether, scare them away. To hope that they were coming in to land, to circle back over the top.

The gentle rustling of wind, the way the sun slowly losses its rays, the wondering if you want to go in and the knowing you don’t but you do and you don’t and the way that your thoughts spread out over the whole scene, not absorbed by it, but expansive, large, unpunctuated.

Mark grew up in the Front Range of Colorado.  His grandfather lives in Pueblo, Colorado.