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Notes from the Small Pond... Dearly Hunting

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columns Cloquet, 55720
Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

What could possibly go wrong? Predawn. Five layers of clothing. Sleep-Groggy. High-powered rifle in mittened hand. Climbing a tree. Wet and icy. Blood sugar somewhere south of 50 mg/dl., gobbling an overdose of carbs to be regretted in an hour. Good times. Once in the stand, the world settles. The trees stop swirling and the wind stands still. The sun pinches, then spreads, over the Eastern horizon like an orange, swollen blessing as the carbs kick in and make things sane.

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Thirty minutes later, the silence presses in. Heartbeat pounds against the skull as glucose thickens the blood. Shiver in a sheen of cooling sweat. Beating wings of a crow hiss overhead with a sound like air coming out of a tire. Things wake up. Things move. A red squirrel sounds like an elephant and I raise my rifle and put it in my sights.

"Yer dead," I whisper. "Ka-boom."

Then I lower my gun and repeat. Because it's boring as heck otherwise once the novelty of communing with nature and thinking big thoughts wears off.

Everything I hear all day isn't a deer and neither is anything I see. In the afternoon, the sun slants downward on the other side of the woods and the light through the trees in the swamp seems colder than no sun at all. Waiting for the dark like a superstition, a heavy dose of self-convincing that the dusk will make a difference and bring something magic. Which it doesn't. No amount of darkness or stealth or buck-scented slather is going to make a difference. The emperor is simply naked. There ain't no deer moving 'round here.

Back at the shack, things are warm, soaked in soft, yellow light. Dust motes float and jostle in the mingling air currents made from the laughing, cajoling, gesticulating liars sitting around the yellow Formica table. At the stove, the cook cooks. The sound of grease splattering. Food that sticks to one's ribs. Black coffee. Someone's home-made fudge. Country music. Laughter.

I retreat to my cot with my harmonica. Shenandoah. Like I played it when my kids were little and they cried at the sad sweetness of it - the words I made up - and I swooned and they slept and I swooned some more, just watching them be.

"What're ya doin' over there? Bein' anti-social?"

"No, being perfectly social. Just being by myself."

"Anti-social."

"...No...anti-social would be something like me grabbing up that Buck Knife over there and separating you from your esophagus...This, on the other hand, is just me lying here fooling around with my harmonica while you guys do your best to convince yourself you're going to shoot something tomorrow."

"I'll say it again: Anti-freaking-social."

"Whatevs, Dude....hand me that knife."

By 7 p.m. it's dark as a coal mine outside and three of the four of us are snoring. I talk to myself like a mental patient.

"Man, it gets late early out here." And, "Never should've have had that coffee." And, "If I don't see anything tomorrow, I'm outa here." And, "Do I even like venison?"

The night flows past like a dark, warm river. Salvador Dali dreams, interrupted twice to check my blood. Perfect.

"Must be doing something right," I say to the room.

"Quiet," someone says back and rolls over with a fart.

In the morning, it's the same as the day before, minus the hypoglycemia. At 8:30 someone shoots. At 9:30 I'm elbow deep in gore, surprisingly fascinating and barely a stench.

"I feel like Jeffrey Dahmer."

"You don't look like him."

"Look at all the birds - waiting to dive in."

"Chickadees and Canadian Jays."

"Waiting to dive in."

"They're after the fat."

"They can have it."

"You're pretty good with that knife - like you've done this before."

"Never on a deer."

"Anti-social."

"Anti-idiot."

"Same thing."

"You've never been wronger."

On the way home, alone in my car, I drive with the radio off, listening to the tires on the pavement, rolling and rolling and rolling. Just rolling. At the side of the road, legions of deer stand and tease, flipping me off, busting a gut.

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