Michael p. mcmanus
He intended not to wake her in the hope that she would sleep and lose all interest in the hunt. But as he sat on a chair in the corner to put on his dark leather boots, she moved beneath the quilted blankets. Then she was awake.
“Hi,” she said, before coughing twice.
“Puppy,” he said, “I was getting ready to wake you.”
“It’s cold,” she said.
“Maybe you should stay in bed,” he said, hoping once more for a change in her plans.
“Don’t be silly. Go put some wood on for us.”
In the lodge room, he put dried pieces of split oak into the creek stone fireplace. The wood hissed and popped and the fire grew, making the room brighter. He was about to turn on the lights when he found her standing in the doorway. She was dressed in her long underwear. Unlike two months ago, they no longer fit tight against her. The thermals hung loose from her legs like an unsightly second skin and two tiny points marked her shrunken breasts. The shadows from the fire played over her face and the look in her sunken eyes made him want to wish everything away. But he knew none of it would go, it would keep coming and coming until, like the last quail flushed from a field and there was nothing left.
“Would you like a pain killer?” he asked. He immediately wished he could take it back. The words seemed too clinical and devoid of any empathy. Still he did not want to see her in pain. There was no need for her to be so brave about it all, to suffer before the cancer.
She turned on the overhead lights, shielding her eyes from the glare. “No. Don’t you think that I should have a clear mind for this?”
“Of course you should, Puppy. Are you hungry?”
In a cast iron skillet, he made scrambled eggs and sausage. He bought her plate and poured her a glass of orange juice. He came back into the lodge room with his plate and sat beside her on the pine plank of the picnic table. This was the gift he had bought for her forty years ago in the year that they had turned twenty-three.
She sipped her juice and picked at her eggs with her fork. He ate fast, feeling guilty because he was hungry. He was almost finished eating when she pushed her full plate to the side. She held onto her fork, tapping its tines on the checkered red and black tablecloth. Something thumped on the roof, followed by the sound it made sliding off.
“A branch,” he said. “It snowed all night and a pine branch must have broken free.”
“Do you think that there’s ever any pain?” She leaned against his shoulder. He could feel her wheezing.
“I don’t think the tree felt a thing,” he said.
“Don’t be silly. Now tell me again. You said you would tell me. I like hearing it.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, rubbing her shoulder, feeling the edge of her collarbone poking up like a broken antler beneath her flannel shirt.
“I’m sure. I’ve been sure. I would not ask you if I wasn’t sure.”
“Okay, Puppy. I’ll tell you again. When you make the shot it must be clean. There won’t be any pain if it’s a clean, well-placed shot. The best place is between the shoulders. It’s ideal to hit the lungs or the heart. And it’s never a good thing to get nervous. If that happens we might begin to shake and make a poor shot. But with a good shot it will be over fast. Then it’s on to the rest.”
“It seems too easy,” she said, “I keep thinking I won’t get lucky today, that something will go wrong. But I’m happy that you posted our land. I hate the idea of others hunting our land. At least today. Am I being too selfish? ”
“Sometimes things go wrong, Puppy. That’s part of it. But we can stay here. It will be a difficult walk through the snow. It’s always tough walking to the tree stands after a night-long snow. We can hunt other days because opening day means more people in the woods. And no, you are not being selfish. You’ve never lived a selfish day in your life.”
She sat up straight, turned in his direction, and smiled. Her face held little color and her skin pulled tight by her smile made her appear gaunter than before.
“We’re going,” she said, stressing the final word of her sentence.
“Yes,” he said, breaking into a smile to give her hope for the hunt. “Then we better get going.”
On the cabin’s enclosed porch they dressed in their insulated overalls and put on their brown Gore-Tex parkas. She put on a grey, knitted wool cap. He pulled it down over her ears. They got cold easily.
“Do you have your mittens?” he asked.
“Here.” She pulled them out of her parka. They had matching pairs, the kind with a slit where the trigger finger could be pushed through for shooting.
“Good,” he said, handing her a fluorescent orange vest.
“Is this necessary? Because it seems so unnecessary. I don’t like it.”
“It’s the law in Pennsylvania,” he replied while putting on his own vest. “The last thing we need is a game warden making this day miserable by writing one of us a ticket.”
“I suppose you’re right. You’re the expert here.” She coughed into her right mitten as he slung the rifles over each shoulder.
Outside it continued to snow and it made a series of soft tapping noises falling through the branches. They stood a moment listening to the sound of snow. They could hear down to the steep bank where the creek gurgled in places it had not frozen. It was dark and eerie with the cabin lights turned off. The cold air surprised his lungs. He wondered what she felt as he watched her exhale. He wanted to ask her, but she did not give him the chance.
“Come on,” she said. “It will be light soon.”
“Not for an hour and a half.”
“Stop dismissing me. Please, don’t do that. Okay?”
He pulled her close, aiming the flashlight ahead in the woods. The cylindrical beam shot out and highlighted in its tunnel were pines, the bare hardwoods, rhododendrons bent close to the ground. The week before he had placed fluorescent strips on the trees, spacing them so one strip would never be out of sight of the other.
They went into the woods, following the strips, making slow but steady progress. Three times she almost fell. Three times he caught her by the back of her arm. He showed her fresh deer tracks and she went to her knees to study the split the hooves had made in the snow. She had difficulty standing back up, but she came up laughing, holding his leg as he lifted her under the arm.
“I’ve never seen it so dark,” she said.
“We’re almost there. See?” He pointed the flashlight beam ahead of them.
In five minutes they reached her stand. He had built it three feet off the ground so it would be easy for her to get into. Once she was in it, she would have a good view of the clearing with the heavy woods behind her and nothing but open field in front.
“Watch this,” he said. He pulled a white piece of rope hanging from her stand, and the top half of a snow-coverd tarp lifted to expose the wood floor.
“You think of everything, don’t you?”
“Stop patronizing me,” he said with a chuckle.
She laughed before beginning to get into the stand, first one knee, then the other, her body steadied by his bare hands on her hips. She slid across until she could lean her back against the pine trunk. He removed her rifle, checked the safety, chambered a round, and then checked the safety again.
“Here,” he said, handing her the rifle.
“You better get going,” she said, letting the rifle rest on her lap, the barrel pointed away as he had taught her. “It’s going to be light soon.”
“Not for forty-five minutes.”
“Oh, stop it. You know everything, don’t you?”
“I know that I love you, Puppy. I’ve always loved you. It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done or known.” He leaned forward, kissing her mouth. Her chapped lips made him remember that he had failed to bring any lip balm.
“Let’s hope that this goes well,” she said, pulling away so he could see how much that statement meant to her. “Now you better get going. I carry your love here.” She touched her heart, and, as he walked away, she waved goodbye until she could no longer see him.
He had built his stand one-hundred and fifty yards away on the far side of the clearing in the place where the woods grew heavy again. After he pulled down the tarp he climbed the wooden rungs on the pine tree trunk. His stand was ten feet high with a commanding view of the fields and beyond.
At first light, the snow stopped falling. The land around him came into focus in graduated moments, rising up through the gray dimness. When the light had grown brighter with the new day, he began to shake. He looked out across the clearing, shouldering his rifle, clicking off the safety, nervous in the new light. He bumped the scope above his eye. Get a hold of yourself, he thought.
He relaxed on the second shouldering, making certain to control his breathing. Looking through the scope, he swung across the fields. It took a moment, but the orange vest made it easy. She was looking in his direction, moving her lips in a kind of prayer.
He made up his own, praying for a clean shot as he centered the crosshairs on the place where she carried his love. He had never felt so alive or alone as he feathered the trigger.
Moments after his ears stopped ringing, the biggest buck he had seen in his life walked out into the clearing.
Michael P. McManus's poems and short stories have appeared in numerous publications including Chicago Quarterly Review, Louisiana Literature, Mallpais Review, Texas Review, Atlanta Review, Rattle, Prism International, The MacGuffin, Pennsylvania Review, The Dublin Quarterly, Burnside Review, and O-Dark-Thirty, among others. He is the recipient of an Artist Fellowship Award from the Louisiana Division of the Arts. His poetry has received Pushcart Prize nominations as well as The Virginia Award and The Oceans Prize. Michael attended Penn State University and the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He is a Navy Veteran and service-connected Disabled Veteran.