by Charles C. Cole
Walt Tanager had once been told by two visiting ex-wives at the same funeral: “Your problem is you don’t breathe; you coast on autopilot.” As if to prove them wrong, weeks after the unfinished argument, he took in an uncharacteristically deep breath followed by another and a third, something typically reserved for encounters with his palpating physician. The action didn’t hurt, particularly, but it took effort, feeling suspiciously like work.
Tanager was cursed with a withered ability to express his true passions. He loved art and nature, but with the Yankee farmer’s stoic forbearance of his father. So, literally rising to the occasion, in T-shirt and pyjamas, he stood on a dining room chair and soaked in the late November view of the Maine woods outside. He resisted the urge to beat his chest like a gorilla. This rewarding moment of reflection, along with the unexpected severance packet he’d received to make way for cheaper twentysomethings, was why he’d retired from his dream job delivering blood products around the scenic state. He could pause now.
The crushing congestion from the summer lake-going crowd was a distant memory, mostly. The drive-by leaf-peeper craze, when out-of-state buses foraged for bright splashes of early autumn, had peaked. Fewer leaves meant a rare view of Duck Pond, twinkling and inviting, across the valley. Except for the occasional gunshots of desperate hunters in the final days of deerstalking season, this was the calm before winter. Blink and miss it.
A solitary four-point buck appeared, wandering tentatively, around the forty-foot blue spruce Windom’s father had planted 22 years before, while celebrating his son’s building on a corner of family land. The buck turned suddenly at a noise, which is when Windom noticed the blood trail down the right side of its chest, then it bounded quickly away. A silver-haired female hunter in blaze orange arrived shortly in hot pursuit. Her face was slick with sweat. They were close enough to talk with two tin cans and a string.
Tanager opened his window. “Private land, clearly posted with purple blaze on nearly every tree on the property line.”
Breathlessly: “I shot it before. Been following it. Don’t want it to suffer.”
“Maybe it’s a flesh wound,” he suggested.
The hunter curled her lips and shook her head; she didn’t need to say aloud what he knew she was thinking. She gulped her breath. “I only shoot what I’m aiming at. If it goes back in the woods, it’ll curl up and die slowly, maybe get ripped apart by coyotes while still alive. You want that?”
Tanager refused to be baited.
“Let me finish what I started,” said the hunter. “You can have half.”
“Vegetarian or Bambi-phile?”
The hunter turned back the way she’d come, toward the woods.
“Private property, like I said. The road’s easier.”
“Then I’d have to trespass through someone else’s property, to get to my four-wheeler. Wouldn’t want to upset the other neighbors. One’s enough.”
If she’d been a man, he would have dug his heels in, gone chest-thumping territorial, but the violent coyote imagery toyed vividly with his mind.
“I bet I know where it went. My great-grandfather’s hired hand had a still and a tarpaper shack back in the day. After he died, my grandfather left supplies in there, for the apocalypse I think, then died before he could use them. The roof’s collapsed and one wall pulled away. The critters seem to like it, I swear, because it’s a symbol of mankind’s inadequacy to defend against nature.”
“Until they learn to shoot back, I think we’ll be okay. Point the way.”
“Let me draw you a map.” Tanager dropped the directions out the open window. “I’d rather you get it than the coyotes.”
“I promise to kill it humanely.”
To distract himself, Tanager decided to mow the lawn, not that it needed it. About a half-hour later, there was another shot, a foretoken of a freezer filled with fresh cuts of venison.
Tanager stepped inside for some iced tea. He locked the door behind him, then thought better of it. “It’s not like she’s going to force-feed me,” he said. He washed his hands in cold water and patted his hot face. The doorbell rang. He thought about ignoring the visitor, but didn’t like the look of the pale homeowner cowering in the mirror. “Let’s get this over with.”
She had already given up and walked back to her truck when he opened the door.
“How’d it go?” Tanager called.
“The butcher’s going to have her hands full.”
“You usually wait this late in the season? You almost missed your mandatory cut-off.”
“Couldn’t be helped: I was busy divorcing my husband. An unplanned time-suck, let me tell you.”
She was late-forties with red hair and freckles that said she had an unabashed appreciation for sun sports. There was a dark smudge on the side of her nose that was probably smeared blood. He pictured her in a life-or-death wrestling match with aggressive coyotes, using nothing but her bare hands and teeth. He smiled.
“That funny to you?”
“Nope. Been through it myself. Twice. Still scarred.”
“Why the smile?”
“Just thinking how much easier it is to deal with nature than civilization.”
“You got that right. What’s your name?”
“I’m Bettina. I owe you a case of veggie burgers or Tofurkey. You pick.”
“Bettina, I want to apologize. I know hunting is a family tradition in these parts for some. I’d never seen a woman with a gun before, except in movies.”
“In twenty years, my mom never ended the season empty-handed.”
“I get what I want, but it takes me twice as long; I’m too nice.” She smiled.
“For what it’s worth, I didn’t call the cops,” he offered.
“For what it’s worth, the chief’s my brother.”
As Bettina drove off, Tanager noticed a tick climbing his pantleg. “Welcome to Maine, friend, where we tolerate the good with the bad. The way life should be.”
Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole