Story by Michael Davidson
Music by William N. Underwood
Reading by Chris Graybill
I Am a Hunter
It was hunting season in Maine and the deer were out in high numbers, causing all sorts of accidents on the roads and a few others in the forest. Many had to be killed, shot from a distance, the population had to be controlled. I was a hunter, had been ever since my dad showed me how to shoot.
Because my cabin was in the forest it was important that I wear a bright orange hat or jacket at all times in order to let the other hunters know that I wasn’t a deer because if they mistook me for one then I’d get shot at for no apparent reason, at least from my perspective. Maybe the bullet would come as I was walking through the forest in search of the best spot to sit and wait for passing game, which usually meant being perched in a tree, or maybe it’d come when I went out to the well to get some water, and maybe the bullet would strike me down dead. But the bullet was sure not to come at all so long as I wore a bright orange hat or a bright orange jacket whenever I left my cabin. And it usually got to the point that during hunting season I’d wear something bright orange even while I was in my cabin just because it was easier that way and it reduced the amount of risk I might otherwise have been exposed to, a risk that some people underestimated.
Anyhow, the hunting season was getting along without a hitch until there came a morning when the fog was still low to the ground. All throughout the forest I could hear gunshots ringing and bouncing off trees, or else echoing because the actual bullet had already burrowed into the muscles of some deer and proven fatal. These successful shots might be followed by heavy footsteps and excited talking among buddies dressed in bright orange, but the gunshots rarely stopped. They were silver ocean waves crashing, always crashing, and I was somewhere in the middle of –
But to embrace the importance of this particular morning, that is, to embrace the importance of this account, you must first embrace the Stenton family, my next-door neighbors up in Maine who lived in a cabin much like mine.
The Stenton family wasn’t new to the area at all, at least the father wasn’t. His name was Joseph Stenton and he grew up in this forest, running around the backwoods of northeast Maine, playing good-fun tricks on his kid brother, Gabe Stenton, his junior by a couple years. Gabe and Joseph were only half-brothers because they had the same mother but a different father.
Joseph Stenton had a beard and curly hair, both brown and uncared for, both important to understanding the man he was. He never went to college but he was smart enough to go. He worked instead, spending the productive seasons on a lobster boat, and there’d be times when he came home with a wad of cash, cash earned down to the penny. But I could tell it was hard work for him and that he wouldn’t be able to do it for the rest of his life but it was fine for now while he still had young energy in his body. Joseph Stenton was bigger than he acted, and he was always smoking pot and thinking of some way to improve the world, always learning new things to make life better for this whole goddamn place. Joseph grew his own pot, which he kept sealed in a Mason jar, and Gabe, his younger half-brother, was always shoving the jar under guests’ noses, kindly asking them to smell the contents and waiting for their nodding approval. I was never given the opportunity to smell the collection of buds because I didn’t know the Stenton family on that kind of level, and I still don’t really know them on that level even though I did eventually smoke some with Joseph, just the two of us. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Joseph Stenton went down to Mexico seven years ago – he was twenty-five – and found himself a wife. A beautiful native by the name of Maria, with hair so black she was only an oval glow out here in the backwoods on a clear and moony night. I remember seeing her when she was no more than that glow. It was during the summer months of Maine when everyone who has left the state comes back. She’d walk outside with a jar and get water from the well, waiting for the jar to fill, keeping her attention on the jar filling with water. Maria didn’t know I was watching her during these nighttime walks to the well with a jar in her hand; however, she did know that I was her neighbor – Joseph had to have told her – and that I was a lonely man who lived on the same hill as them in these backwoods with no electricity or running water, only a cabin and kerosene lamp.
Maria Stenton. The first time I saw her she was wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, red and hooded. She had big eyes like Mickey Mouse, and her expressions were exaggerated like Mickey Mouse back when he still didn’t have a voice to talk with. Yes, the first time I saw her she was walking up the forest trail – the only cleared way to the Stenton cabin – and she stumbled on a branch covered by leaves: a strand of black hair fell over her left eye during her effort to keep herself from falling. It remained there for the rest of the walk towards her new home, tangled in her lashes, and when Joseph said something along the lines of, Well, here we are, mi amor, she left the strand where it was and paused and looked around the Stenton family cabin, which now belonged exclusively to Joseph, a wedding present from his mother, and then she did her best to smile and make her hugs and kisses sincere. But when she cleared the strand from out of her face I could tell she was thinking something else, she was elsewhere in her heart. That was about seven years ago.
And to this day I’ve never again seen a woman like Maria in these parts of Maine. It was clear to me that she was taken from her home without really wanting to leave. In her heart there were images of her family, her sister dancing and dimple smiling and Tequila drinking, the same music and heat on the street also in their house. Mexico. I had never visited the country and I had never had the desire to until I saw Maria Stenton with that Mickey Mouse sweatshirt on, red and hooded, and that strand of black hair dividing her face into unequal parts. But that was a long time ago and now Joseph and Maria already had a child, a boy named Trip with a head full of brown hair the same color as his father’s. The two parents gave Trip the love and attention a boy like him deserved, taking him on walks and showing him the Atlantic and feeding him the fresh food straight off the boats to make him grow the meat that would someday make him a prize.
When Trip was old enough to walk he always went looking through the forest. I used to watch him running around and bending over puddles after a hard rain to look at his reflection mottled by dead leaves afloat. He was a beautiful boy with the Mickey Mouse eyes of his mother but the shape of his face was from his father. He had a square face, lean against his cheekbones, and a jaw line that made him look like a predator. And sometimes I mistook him for a predator as he pranced through the forest with the speed and agility of an all-pro running back, dodging low branches and skirting between tightly packed trees. He was only six. I didn’t exactly envy him in his present form but I did envy what he was going to become. I myself used to navigate my way through this forest with the same talent when I was his age. But my talent was squandered because my dad didn’t know what to do with it; however, Joseph, even though he wasn’t a hunter, would see the predator in Trip and he’d sure as hell know what to do with it.
That’s not to say that Joseph hadn’t been a hunter; no, he shot his share of deer in his time. Him and his younger half-brother, Gabe, had gunned down plenty, and I even remember seeing those two when they were still boys dragging a healthy buck back to their cabin and me thinking that they had just won themselves a supply of venison for all the winter months. I’ll never forget the smiles on their faces – practically jumping off their faces – when their mother came out of the cabin and saw what they had brought home and gave them each a pat on their shoulder and took off their bright orange hats and ruffled their hair.
But as a husband and father Joseph Stenton had abandoned his hunting days. He was more concerned with saving the world now and getting his big house in Mexico as compensation for saving the world rather than having venison all winter long; he was more concerned with making love just him and Maria on the second-floor bedroom he had built by himself while his son, Trip, slept downstairs when he was already old enough to sleep alone, without the comfort of his parents. Yes, I saw Joseph and Maria make love on many nights – silent mouths gaping – through trees and darkness. I saw them undress each other and kiss each other and stay warm inside each other, and it always started out the same way: with a shot of Tequila.
Maria. She was the source of happiness in that cabin. She was the sun with two planets orbiting. And I might’ve been the third had she offered. But she never did and I kept on being the lonely man in the woods, perhaps the feared man in the woods because no one bothered to get to know me and that was nobody’s fault. So when hunting season came along I went about my hunting like I always did, staying perched on branches for hours at a time, nothing moving unless the branch I was perched on moved.
Then there came that morning I already told you about when the fog was still low to the ground and the ocean waves were crashing. On this particular morning I listened from my branch perched high, and it was typical for my mind to be more expansive than my constricted surroundings in the early dawn-fogs of Maine so my mind went on imagining things that weren’t really happening in my line of vision because it needed to free itself: I was staring into this leaf storm swirling around me. I was in the passenger seat of my dad’s truck. My dad was driving and it was nighttime and the roads were empty except for all these leaves that kept curling down from the branches that hung over the truck’s roof. They were different colors of dirt and sometimes sun. Long stretches of road were paved out of leaves and the double-yellow line wasn’t visible as we drove on. I stared into the leaf storm and then there were deer running next to the truck, along both sides.
I didn’t know what to look at, where to focus my attention, so I kept one eye on the storm and the other on the deer. Goddamn there sure were a lot of them, but there was one that kept a few paces ahead of us, no faster or slower, always the same pace, a beast of a creature, a buck. There was no doubt in my mind: I knew this buck always existed without having been born – it was here when The Clock started – yes, it was timeless with antlers that knotted their way up into heaven, and goddamn I had to have it. I reached for my rifle positioned between my dad and I – propped against the stick shift – and I kept my eyes on this creature running just a few paces ahead. The leaf storm wasn’t important anymore. All that mattered was me and this buck and a barrel bridging the gap between the two of us. I never had an easier shot.
Down went the beast. I alighted from the branch I was perched on and walked through the fog thinking how I just won myself a winter’s supply of venison. My footsteps were heavy with accomplishment and I would’ve filled the forest with excited talking had I been hunting with a buddy. But I was alone, just me and the –
That’s exactly where my thoughts stopped when I got to the spot where the buck fell and saw that it was Trip, Joseph’s son. I didn’t think anything else as I knelt beside the boy and touched his brown hair, his father’s hair, and worked around the bullet hole. I didn’t know what to do – the poor boy wasn’t wearing any bright orange – I didn’t know what to do so I ran back to my cabin and closed the door behind me and breathed hard with my back against the door and my rifle in my hand but I held my rifle like it was an enemy but not just any enemy it was an enemy that repulsed me. I stood like this and let time pass with my eyes open and my heart beating and my lungs breathing and nothing more.
Then the fog had suddenly lifted by itself – I don’t know how long this had taken – when a movement beyond my window pushed me into desperation. It was a red dot in the distance and I knew right away what that red dot was without having to think about it: beautiful Maria in her hooded sweatshirt. But none of that registered then; all I saw was a dot, and the dot was red, and the red dot couldn’t stumble upon Trip lying dead, it had to be stopped: this much I knew when I went outside and pressed the scope against my eye and felt the rim bring coldness into my skin.
At the intersection of the perpendicular lines I saw what I had expected: Mickey Mouse. I traced the path that Mickey Mouse was following and when I saw the brown hair and the bullet hole lying on the ground not more than fifty paces ahead I swallowed hard without saliva and hurried back to Mickey Mouse walking towards the bullet hole nestled in brown hair and I didn’t think about anything at all; I simply knew that my only duty in this world was for that cartoon face with its big eyes and black ears to never see what had become of that boy. It was my duty to keep that face away from hurt.
So you see: I was a hunter not a killer, my bullet’s aim was to do good not bad. I had never hunted anything but deer in my entire life, deer and a single moose that had it coming. Nothing more. I hadn’t even thought of hunting anything more. But now I had hunted man and I didn’t feel like I had done wrong; in fact, I felt as if I had done what any rational person would’ve done in my position. There was no guilt weighing on me for the lives I had taken away because I knew that I had made the best of an unfortunate situation – my bullet did good – that could’ve been avoided had the Stenton family not underestimated the importance of wearing bright orange during hunting season. Yes, this was the way it had to be, and it wasn’t over yet.
Joseph Stenton came home later on that day, after the sun had set, and he was tired from working on the lobster boat, tired and hungry. I had destroyed his family but he didn’t know this as he walked around the cabin, calling their names, whistling a tune. He didn’t bother searching for long; he must’ve figured that Maria and his son had gone for a walk and would be back soon. So he sat down at the table and brought out the Mason jar. He packed his glass pipe with pot and took a hit. He brought out a notebook and started scribbling hard, brushing back his brown hair as the pen continued to move from left to right. I wanted to know what he was writing, I wanted to understand the way he thought before I did what only made sense, and maybe that was why I put my rifle away and walked over to the Stenton family cabin for the first time in my life.
Joseph answered the door after I knocked three times. He looked at me as if he had been expecting to see me. “Mr. Berwanger,” he said, and then he moved aside to let me in, looking into my eyes and then at the table where he had been sitting, inviting me to join him. I sat down across from where I had seen him sitting, his notebook within reach. He packed his glass pipe anew and handed it to me along with a lighter without saying a word or asking for my opinion on how the pot in the Mason jar smelt. I covered the hole and burned the outside corner of the buds as I inhaled as much as I could and I held the smoke in my lungs and then I uncovered the hole and a renewed rush of smoke, reservoir smoke, filled me up. I didn’t cough. I held the smoke in and passed the glass pipe. Then I opened my mouth and let the smoke leave my insides however it wanted to, snaking its way towards the ceiling, slipping through laths and finding its way into the second floor bedroom where Maria, denuded, would no longer be sleeping with Joseph. “Mr. Berwanger,” he said again, and his tone was high pitched because he was talking and trying to keep the smoke in his lungs at the same time. I smiled and took another hit.
In this way, there wasn’t much conversation between us, only passing and passing back while struggling to keep the smoke inside us. And I don’t know how long this routine went on, but it went on long enough so that my body became flaccid and my eyelids followed form, dropping heavier each time, until there was very little blinking. Finally my chin rested on my chest and I let myself move into another state as Joseph stared out the window, passed the kerosene lamp and onto a patch of leaves and soil in the distance.
When I came to it wasn’t on my own accord; no, a deep scream awoke me and it hurled towards me from the farthest corner in my mind, starting out small and growing until my ears beat in pain and my head throbbed. I looked around the cabin and I was disoriented, feeling it was necessary to run my hands over the table, feeling it was necessary to make contact with an outside object, give my senses something to process. Then there was writing in my hands: I was holding a notebook, Joseph’s. I read what had been written in his own hand and had to refresh my eyes because I was reading words that should’ve been only mine, that probably were only mine but somehow became someone else’s: I am a hunter not a killer, and that boy wasn’t wearing any goddamn bright orange. I am a hunter not a killer, and Mickey Mouse could never live with such a great hurt. What kind of pot had I been smoking? Did I really say all that in my lapse? I felt like my umbilical cord had been overlooked when I was born and as a result had never been cut off and Joseph had taken advantage of this mistake and plugged it into his own bellybutton and all my secrets were now his; they were secrets no more. I squeezed my gut and settled into a new position that told the world I was confused.
Then the door creaked open and I didn’t want to be where I was. I thought about going back to sleep and letting life go on without me but a pebble in my shoe nagged me into understanding that if I went back to sleep – even if it was a false sleep – I would never wake up, or I would wake up a dead man which is the same thing. So I stood on my own two feet and met Joseph halfway to the door. He wasn’t bigger than me and he wasn’t older than me but there was a shaking in his eyes that made his power stretch beyond his skin. He knew. I looked around the cabin for his rifle. There wasn’t one. I looked at Joseph’s hands, afraid. He was holding my bright orange hat in one hand, the only bright orange item on him, and his rifle in the other. I looked at myself, at the way I was dressed in nothing but khakis: I was a buck. The choice was his now, all his, and in silence I waited for his decision, waited as Joseph weighed this life that stood before him against his own.
“Mr. Berwanger,” he finally said, sounding Almighty, and then he gave back what was mine and moved aside, letting me leave. On the way out I looked into his eyes to find a reason to change his fate but when I met them, their hurt only reconfirmed my duty.