Now is the winter of our discontent…
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul.
—William Shakespeare, Richard III
A light vapor of fog hung in the air between the trees, a subtle graying discernible only when the man looked out one of the pickup truck’s windows but not when he glanced at his sons sitting beside him in the cab. By noon the fog would lift, revealing a woods full of leaves startlingly golden and red and orange, but those colors were muted now, the leaves heavy with moisture that dripped onto the truck’s windshield and plunked onto the metal roof like a stutter of typing from a slow-thinking writer.
A couple of times as the man drove slowly along the dirt road, he thought he detected the scent of smoke in the air, though not the sweet scent of leaf or wood smoke but with a taint of anger and bitterness, which made him wonder if the engine was overheating from being driven in low gear too long. The gauge said no, everything was fine, so he told himself that he had only imagined the unpleasant odor. The same thing happened sometimes in his home, when out of nowhere a scent of pipe smoke would be detectable, even though no one in his family smoked nor had the previous owners of the house. His father had smoked a pipe, but his father had died before the man and his family moved into that house, and sometimes at home he felt the presence of his father’s spirit, a stern and watchful presence that somehow muted the still stinging grief of loss.
It was the third week of October and the kind of autumn morning when a man remembered such things, though not unpleasantly. This was a good morning, filled with the kind of hushed excitement he had felt as a boy when alone in the woods with his own father. And now one generation had ceded and another was taking its place.
The man and his two sons, ages thirteen and nine, were having a good time cruising the unmapped roads of Otter Creek township in the family’s red Silverado. The day felt special for all of them; a rare day off from work for him and from school for the boys, and a Monday at that. The father was grateful to be able to share the woods with his sons and maybe imbue in them some of his love and respect for nature. He should have insisted on doing this years ago, should have started when his oldest boy was small. It was good for them and good for him too, rising before the sun for a change, getting away from the idiot box and the computer. He had all but forgotten the quality of light and air in the woods, the way just being there again softened his voice and slowed his movements, made him feel part of something vast and unknowable. There was no way to get that feeling in a house or office or classroom, or even, anymore, in a church. He was looking forward to getting out of the truck and walking, or just sitting on a log for a while and watching the peacefulness seep into his boys; watching the mystery quiet their otherwise noisy, clamorous souls.
And if they were successful in their hunt next month, they would also have that story to tell and to remember always. That keenly alert elevation of their senses as they crept through the woods, as alert as the animals, sniffing and tasting the air, feeling the light and the ground and every vibration of movement.
Such mindfulness did not require the act of killing, but the prospect of killing brought it on early and gave it a fine steel point. A hunter could always decide at the last moment to lift his finger from the trigger. He had done it himself many times before he gave up hunting altogether. Yet he retained the memories of walking through the woods at sunrise in a heightened state of alertness, and they warmed him often when he found himself missing his father. He hoped now to give those moments to his sons too; they would remember them through the deadness of winter, through the dim, dreary school days after the first of the new year, those two strangulating months when the world seems not new at all but hovering close to death.
He had been told there were some big white-tails in these woods. Plus black bear, coyote, maybe some bobcats too. It was unlikely they would encounter any of those predators, and the weather was too cold for the copperheads and rattlers, but the gray and red foxes would not be as skittish, nor the wild turkey, hawks and bald eagles. He wanted his sons to learn to identify them all, learn to be comfortable in the woods, not afraid of nature as so many kids were these days. “That’s what’s wrong with society,” his own father had told him. “You spend your whole life hiding indoors, you’re going to end up with a soul the size of a raisin.”
The October morning was gray and damp, with a cool mist that made the windshield wipers necessary, but the cab was warm, there was plenty of Gatorade and beef jerky to go around, and the boys, dressed in new rubber camo boots and bright orange jackets, were excited about picking out their hunting grounds for the first day of buck season. Under the Game Commission’s Mentored Youth Program, the nine-year-old was of legal age to hunt, but his father disagreed, and though he would permit his youngest to accompany them into the woods in November, he did not think it rational that an instrument engineered for death should be placed in the hands of a child so young.
He considered himself a good father and believed that only fierce love and vigilance could protect his sons from the increasing evil of the world. His single point of annoyance with his wife was that she often took her eyes off the boys at the mall and elsewhere, would try on dresses, for example, while their sons wandered off on their own. He agreed with her that boys had to be given some freedom but insisted that as parents their job was always to watch from a safe distance, to remain always alert to the possibility of harm. So when, earlier that month, the youngest boy, influenced by his classmates, had begged and begged to be allowed to hunt this year, and his mother had shrugged, his father, who had hunted with his own father from the age of twelve to twenty-three, had conceded in part, and said that he and the older son would hunt and that the younger boy would be their spotter— “an honor,” he told him, “not to be taken lightly.”
And now the truck moved haltingly along the muddy lane, the side windows down for a clearer view. The boys were scouring the trees and earth for “sign”—ditch and creek crossings, bedding areas, and buck rubs made on tree trunks, where an animal had scraped its head and antlers to leave scent pheromones, release sexual tension, and mark its territory.
“A mature buck can move like a ghost,” the father told his boys, hearing his own father’s words come alive again. “If you don’t know where to look, you will never see one.”
“I see a ghost down there!” the nine-year-old said a few minutes later, and leaned across his brother to point deeper into the woods.
His father slowed the truck to a halt, leaned into his son and squinted. A wisp of smoke twisting up through the trees. “Somebody’s camp fire,” he said.
“No it’s not,” the older boy told him. “There’s something big down there.”
“We’ll have a look,” his father said, and put the gearshift in Park. Immediately the older boy sprang his door open, and he and his brother piled out, both heading into the woods. “Hold it!” their father shouted. “You boys wait for me.”
The oldest pulled up short, always obedient. But the youngest broke into a run. “I’m the spotter!”
His father called him back again but to no avail, and so jogged alongside his oldest son as they followed the youngest. Soon the object in the mist became visible. A hatchback burned black, tires melted, with a thick thread of dark smoke still wafting lazily into the treetops, a stink of burned metal and rubber and meat in the air.
The father had barely enough time to recognize a mounting dread in his bones when the youngest, who had rushed up to a blasted-out window, turned to him and cried, “Daddy!”
The father had never seen such a look on his son’s face, the disbelief and horror. Afterward, for weeks and weeks of scream-shot nights, he prayed God would wash that look and the sights and scents that triggered it from all of their dreams forever.
Jayme awoke at first light and was surprised to find DeMarco still asleep with his back to her. She thought about putting her hand against his neck and snuggling close but a part of her did not want him to awaken just yet. She eased out of bed as quietly as she could and started toward the bathroom. Along the way she glanced at the window and saw how the curtain was glowing with the first light of morning, so she crossed to the window and pulled the curtain aside and stepped up to the glass and then drew the curtain behind her so that she could hold the edge of it with her other hand and keep the light from filling the room and waking DeMarco. The curtain enclosed her and shut her off from the rest of the room. She was not ready yet to start another day or to lie down beside him again and have him open his eyes and look at her so that she had to smile and say something nice. She wanted to look out the window for a while and be left to herself.
The sun had not yet breeched the horizon but the sky was glowing a lovely orange to the east and the day was going to be temperate and clear and pleasant. They would have another pleasant day and people would go about their day as usual, and all the while all around the world women would be giving birth and pushing out babies. And in some places babies were dying and in other places they were being killed before they could be born. They were being scraped out of the womb and hacked up into pieces and in some places tiny babies were starving or suffering because of their mother’s habits or being abandoned or abused or being left in hot cars or being shaken or beaten or made to lie wailing all day with shitty diapers and rashes and diseases that could not be cured. All over the world babies were being born into a world of suffering and evil and it just wasn’t fair. Her baby would have been loved and cherished every moment of its life; would have been taught kindness and compassion and generosity and there was not a damn thing fair about any of it. And there was nothing Jayme or anybody else could do about it now. She was supposed to be sweet and strong and to keep smiling as if nothing had ever happened. As if she had not felt that life growing inside her and had not awakened in the hospital to feel only emptiness. As if some part of her had not been irremediably ripped away leaving a hole that could never be filled or healed or sutured shut. She stood with her forehead against the cold glass and her hands pressing hard against her belly, her body convulsing with the sobs she did her best to silence and contain.
Only when DeMarco rolled onto his back and the bedsprings creaked did she draw in a long cold breath and manage to hold herself motionless again. She waited for him to speak, but when he did not and was probably still sleeping she slipped out from under the curtain and into the bathroom without looking his way. She pulled the door shut quietly and turned on the tap and dabbed cool water against her face. She rinsed her mouth with mouthwash and then flushed the toilet, and after another long look at herself in the mirror, she opened the door and stepped out.
He was awake and lying on his side facing the bathroom now and smiling. She went to him and lay close to him and said, “Good morning, my love.”
“Good morning, beauty,” he said, and kissed her lightly on the lips. “We have court today. What kind of a day is it going to be?”
“Sunny and clear,” she told him. “Pleasant all around.”
He smiled and leaned close and kissed her again, this time holding it longer and laying his hand against her cheek.
“Are you happy, babe?” she asked, and stroked his hand with her fingertips.
“You make me very happy,” he said.
“But in general are you happy? I want you to be completely happy.”
“I am extraordinarily happy.”
“Are you really?”
“Really? Yes, really.”
“Really and truly happy?”
He blinked once, then stretched out his legs. “Well…I guess that depends on what you mean by ‘really and truly happy.’ What does that phrase mean to you?”
“To be content with your life. Exactly as it is.”
“Hmm. Well, in that case, I guess I’m probably not. Not exactly as it is.”
“To be satisfied with the way things are.”
“Is that even a good thing?” he asked. “I would have to answer no, I am not satisfied with the way things are. Not everything.”
“To be pleased, fulfilled, at peace with the status quo.”
“None of the above. Sorry.”
“Me neither,” she said. The ache pinched like a claw around her heart, yet she continued to smile.
“Jesus, we’re miserable people, aren’t we?” he said.
From No Woods So Dark As These by Randall Silvis. Used with the permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks. Copyright © 2020 by Randall Silvis.