‘Go West, Young Man…’
By Reid Bryant
First published in Shooting Sportsman Magazine Jan/Feb 2013
The phone rang in the kitchen, where the two of them were shelling beans. Hope wiped her hands on a dishcloth and started up from her stool, but Eben waved her back. “I got it,” he said, dropping a cracked pod on the cutting board, “don’t get up.”
Eben stood in the hallway for what seemed a long time. The sound of his voice was muffled, like he was speaking through a mouthful of cotton, and his back was toward Hope. She could tell, though, that his voice had gone higher, and his words were coming faster now, as they did when he got excited. At length, he turned back to face her, the phone still to his ear.
“Yes sir,” he said, looking down at the dog asleep in the corner, avoiding her eye. “The fifteenth. Yes. No, no… no problem… and thank you. You won’t be disappointed.”
Eben hung up the phone and stood for a moment in the hallway, then walked back to the table, and sat down at his stool.
“Well…? Jesus, Eb, what did he say?” She looked at him, her big green eyes wide open. “Did you get it?”
Eben looked up at her and blushed. He didn’t smile openly. His lips thinned, and he picked up a bean pod, and rolled it crackling between his thumbs and forefingers. His eyes sparkled. “They want me. A salary and benefits for the timber-frame shop, and good path to foreman if I work hard. Missoula, Hope… it’s Missoula…” His voice wavered and trailed off.
Hope looked down, and returned to her beans. She cracked the spine of a husk that was the color of mottled oat straw and dry as crepe paper. She thumbed open the sides of the pod as she might have opened a bound book, and exposed the hidden richness of a summer’s scarlet congregation. The beans were so perfect, so precise and clean and linear there in their husk, and she ran her thumbnail up under them, loosing them from the binding. She popped each into her hand, then into the bowl between them. “When do we leave?” she asked, cracking another pod.
“I start on the fifteenth,” said Eben, studying her, uncertain. “I figure we leave after the very beginning of October, and take our time driving.”
Hope sighed, and arranged a circle of beans on the table. Through the hallway door, the baby began to fuss. She wiped her hands on the dishcloth and stood up. “I’m happy for you, Eben. I really am.” She turned and walked off down the hall, and he heard a door creak open, and close again with a click. Not long later, there came the steady ‘reee-kathunk’ of the chair with the hard maple rockers, creaking back and forth on the wide-planked floor. Eben got up too, and walked out to the mudroom, and slipped into his barn boots. He opened the door, and the dog woke up from a deep dark sleep, and slipped out into the night ahead of him. Eben sat down on the top back step.
Out across the neighbor’s hayfield, the sweep of night was dappled with stars, and the summer’s end sounds breathed a heavy sigh. It was September now, and near enough the winter that the nighttime sky shone clearer, more crystalline somehow, and the stars sparkled like shards of glass as they did in the colder months. Eben looked off to the north, where the sky was darkest. He counted out the stars of the Big Dipper. He always imagined on nights like this that somewhere over the shadowed hills, God was tilting out a dipperful, spilling a little bit of heaven among the turning leaves. He imagined that all around him, tiny feathered angels were twittering down to rest upon the dark soil. By morning, in a softening world, the dog might find them there, where they probed the soil with their absurd beaks. Eben imagined them plunged to the hilt, their nervous eyes rolling back to scan the northern sky for signs of a looming winter, a winter that, this year anyway, Eben would not wait around to see.
Eben stretched his legs into the dooryard, and whistled for the dog. He came snuffling up from the thicket, and wiggled his whole aft end. He spun around at Eben’s feet, twisting in circles he couldn’t control, and bared his teeth in the smile that scared the neighbor kids.
“Montana, buddy… Montana. You keep from getting snakebit, we’re gonna learn a little something about what it means to shoot a by-god limit of birds.” He grabbed the little dog by the hips and tipped him over onto his back. “I just hope we can convince your Mama to like the idea.” The dog rolled over and straightened his feet to the heavens. Eben scratched his belly. The sound of the rocker had ceased, and the glittering sky locked the evening in silence.
There wasn’t much to pack in the little house: some pots and pans, a mattress, a couple of favorite chairs. There were boxes of books, and the photographs, and the fly rods that Eben so treasured. By September’s end the floors were clear, and the shelves held only a glass for each of them, a pair of coffee mugs, a bowl and a spoon for meals. Eben left his bird gun up on the rafters.
“You’re not hunting this year…” said Hope, noticing. It was somewhere between a question and a statement, and Eben felt like he’d been caught out.
“I might take the dog for a run the day before we leave. It’s the woodcock opener and I’ve never missed it, and besides…” he looked down embarrassed, and busied himself filling a box with folded blankets, “the license is bought and paid for.”
Hope was cutting onions on the counter, and the little girl was clinging to the hem of her skirt, placing her tiny little feet on Hope’s bare brown ones. Hope peeled another onion. “No need to kill any of those little doodles just by way of saying goodbye.”
Eben didn’t answer right off. He pulled his tattered hunting vest from the wall and put a couple of shells into the pocket. “You know I love those birds as much as you do, Hope. You know I do.” He walked over and picked an onion from the basket, and peeled it carefully.
“Just remember,” said Hope, wiping her hands, and reaching down to sweep the baby up to her hip, “you can’t take October with you.”
The sun rose over the eastern ridge while Eben made coffee. He made eggs too, three scrambled in the grease from the last of the previous year’s bacon. The eggs had come from the neighbor’s hens, and the yolks were as deep butter gold as the rising sun. He ate on the mudroom steps, and flicked a few bits of bacon scrap to the dog who sat drooling, ears cocked, in the dooryard. It was cool. The steam rising from his coffee mug was palpably thick, and the world woke up gently as he lifted the mug to his lips. Tomorrow morning, just a day away, they’d leave.
Eben finished his coffee, and rinsed the mug, and dried it. He left it for Hope on the table, and underneath it a perfect, brilliant, sugar maple leaf. The leaf was aflame in color, almost incandescent, and precise in every vein and capillary. He put his gun into the truck, and the dog clambered up behind. He reversed and turned east, and drove into the now-risen sun.
Eben had known since that very first night of the job offer how he’d say goodbye to this place. He’d say goodbye to the garden as he’d done each year, letting it grow fat, then sag, then droop back into the soil. He’d say goodbye to the house without hanging on too hard, to the room where he’d loved his wife, watched his tiny daughter fall asleep for the very first time. He knew how he’d say goodbye to the circuitous route that led him past the coverts of his young adulthood, past the alder runs and popple thickets and overgrown orchards that, like brothers and sisters, had grown up alongside him. The roadside ragweed and goldenrod swept past, and he slowed here and there to look off over the pasture edges into wooded corners of memory. And he imagined he heard, as he traveled that corduroy road, the whispering wings of Autumn.
Eben pulled into the barnyard of the Blackmer place and drove down the rutted single-track behind the barn. He pulled to a stop, and opened the truck door, and grabbed the little dog when he tried to sneak out. “Patience, now,” said Eben, fastening a bell to the Brittany’s collar. “We’re saying goodbye, and we have to be polite.” He lifted his vest from the passenger seat, put it on, and took his gloves from the pocket. Everything was slow, ritualistic, and he savored the well-worn grain of a lifetime’s worth of October mornings. He pulled the gun from the case, and opened the breech, and looked at it closely as if for the first time. It was a battered old LC Smith, bought by Eben at a fanciful time when he thought the partridge and woodcock deserved at least the consideration of a fine double gun. Hope had heard the story of the hard-earned money, and she held her tongue at the absurd price. But Eben loved the gun as he loved his dog, and his coverts, and the promise of a New England October, though in recent years the paucity of birds had kept the old Elsie quiet. And the woodcock, the delicate favorite, had arrived in such numbers as to warrant no shots. “We’ll find ‘em today, though, right buddy?” said Eben, opening the door and giving the Brittany his head. “But hunt close, my friend, and find me one more bird.”
The old Blackmer place tumbled off a ridge that sheepishly exposed years of neglect in its passage from pasture to forest. In among the almanac of years there were stone walls and overgrown apples, and springs that moistened a rich black soil that, in autumn, was dappled with chalk. Eben closed the gun before he closed the door. He’d more than once been caught unaware by partridge thunder in the alder bottom just feet from the truck. The dog swung a wide ellipse through the pasture, sinking hock-deep in ooze. Eben whistled him up. “Birds in here, buddy,” and the dog got businesslike in a hurry.
The Blackmer alder bottom was a cool, forgotten place that rose in an L of crumbling pasture walls. The alder stems interlaced there, and broke and bowed to the moist soil. Eben’s boot prints were the only ones to ever show there. But that October morning, the ground was a virgin carpet of silver-green alder leaves, worm castings, and hummocks of stunted grass. While the rest of the farm went crisp and parched in the Autumn drought, the alder bottom held on to moisture like a sponge.
In woodcock coverts, the dog always slowed to a near halt. He tiptoed silently just yards ahead of Eben, snaking under low-slung branches. He moved cautiously, and his bell fell silent, but he never got far ahead. Eben followed the little nub of tail. He bent once to admire a thick splotch of white chalk on the soil, and the litter of drill-holes that radiated out from it. He looked long enough to see the faint track of tiny bird feet in the mud, and then he touched the chalk, lost in thought. It came away like half-dried paint on his fingertips. He rubbed it dry and crumbly onto his palm and then looked up and listened. The dog had stopped moving. Eben stood up. Between the tangle of alder stems, not twenty yards away, the dog was locked on point. His head craned back and his forelegs splayed low, and he quivered all over like a spoonful of plum jelly. His chest was in the mud, and his nub of tail stood steeple tall. “Whooooaaa” said Eben, soothing him. “Whoooooooaaa.” He stepped over an alder stem, and snagged his pants in a clump of bramble, and tore himself loose. The dog rolled his eyes back pleadingly toward Eben as he came close. The temptation rose, as it always did, to search for the bird on the ground. Eben battled it back. He walked up the dog’s flank, whispered to him, and moved on past. A lone white pine, just an adolescent, stood out on a hummock, in line with the dog’s pointed stare. There were needles on the ground, rusty and soft against the soil. Eben took a step forward, tucking the Elsie’s comb up under his armpit. He looked back at the dog, the direction of his nose, and stepped forward one more time.
When the bird flushed, Eben shouldered the gun. Over the barrels, the world became silent, save for the tinkling wingbeat. All else froze in that moment, and the little bird rose like a butterfly to the alder tops. It hovered there among the reaching branches, framed against a blue-sky morning. The whole world became the voice of crystal bells, of an October hymn, of angels. Eben covered the bird, blotted him out, and closed his eyes.
The bird continued to rise. He banked left, shifted momentum to forward, and twisted off over the hillside drop and into the overgrown orchard. He was headed west, just like Eben.
Eben turned and released the dog, who tore off after the bird. Eben heard him thrashing the brush, heard his bell recede, rising and falling through the morning. Eben let him run. He’d come back, Eben knew; he’d bust the rest of the covert, but he’d come back. ‘He’s got to say his goodbye, too’ thought Eben, cracking the gun. He pocketed the shells. They’d keep, sure enough, for some Montana Sharptails. Eben stepped forward, pulling his barn boots from the gripping muck.