She took the milk. It shouldn’t have surprised him, since she had Toby and Mark, but it seemed an excessive gesture at the end of a process that was, on the whole, quieter and gentler than he’d ever thought something like this could be.
Emily had asked for two hours to pull together her things and the boys’, but she called his cell an hour in to say she’d need a lot more time and that her sister and brother-in-law were coming over to help, with boxes. The boys, she said, would stay at her mother’s all day. Nate, meanwhile, couldn’t think of anywhere to put himself while he waited. He couldn’t imagine being near food, so a booth at the diner was out, and he didn’t want to go over to Jeff’s or Brian’s or any of those guys’. His office key card was at the house. The library? He would absolutely not go to The Depot when it opened.
He pumped another tankful of gas in the Subaru and kept driving. After a while, he pulled in at the new movieplex. At one of the automatic kiosks, he bought a ticket to the next matinee of whatever wasn’t a romantic comedy. The purchase put him over the edge to a Regal Reward, a weirdly dot-matrix-printed extra ticket entitling him to a free large popcorn and soda. He found a pair of boys waiting in the concession line. “Here you go,” he said, and handed it over.
The movie turned out to be a bloody gladiator epic with Roman deities turning up now and then, edged in light and floating some ways above the ground. It went by quickly. The gladiator died in the end, hacked to pieces by an African giant and his semi-tame lion, and they showed you everything. Then the man’s spirit left his body as a pinkish mist, and the screen flared with a white-gold flash that hurt Nate’s eyes, followed by music and credits. He stayed in his seat for the next showing. A ponytailed staff girl with a silver horseshoe through her septum swept the floor around him without comment.
By the time he left it was dark. At home, the driveway was vacant, and Emily had left the porch light on. In the mudroom, he went to drop his keys in the key bowl, but she’d taken it. She’d left the iron-and-cedar park bench they’d found at a yard sale and heaved up the front steps when they first moved in, but she’d taken the mirror they’d brought back from her cousin’s destination wedding in Mexico. She’d taken half the pots, pans, and mugs in no pattern Nate could discern right that that moment, almost all the books, few if any old CDs, and all the plants except the cacti and a jade tree that would have broken into a million self-rooting pieces in transit. She took one lamp. She took the milk.
Her half of the closet was empty, and the absence of her grandmother’s Queen Anne dresser was marked by four circles of clean hardwood amid a gossamer layer of household dust. Nate couldn’t face walking into the boys’ rooms.
She did not, of course, take anything from the locked walk-in closet that held his three shotguns, two rifles, two crossbows, his battered flocks of duck and goose and turkey decoys, his duck calls, turkey calls, deer-shaped practice targets, arrow shafts and arrowheads, shells, petroleum-scented gun-cleaning paraphernalia, deer stands, folding stools with camouflage seats, his ghillie suit, the collapsible duck blind, and the bulk-size box of Toasti-Toes. She did not take his small collection of mounted deer antlers. She did not take the Johnny Walker.
Nate always wanted to punch people who said, “You never want a drink of water till the well runs dry.” That idea that human beings are ungrateful by nature, and they lose what they lose by not paying enough attention, it was a trap. You’d be paralyzed if you had to list everything you didn’t want to part with—every fully functioning joint in your body, every kind of fruit in the supermarket, every person you like, every moment your house isn’t burning to the ground. Right? At what point does that stop being gratitude and start being constant, total fear?
He hadn’t felt proper gratitude, and now he was down to a few isolated ghettoes of woodland and swamp. He felt overlarge and graceless in the field today, not a modest human animal moving lightly through the landscape but an ogre covering the misty land in a few ugly, disappointed strides. Toby hadn’t wanted to come with him, preferring to sleep late and then practice the piano awhile. That was fine, of course. Suddenly Nate pitied the woodcock as he’d never pitied any game animal in his life. He flushed one, which whittered clumsily but swiftly into the sky. Nate brought the gun to his shoulder but didn’t fire. Instead he unloaded, turned, and walked back over the tractor ruts and moldering corn stubble to the Subaru. He could head home to Em and the boys, he knew, but he somehow felt so homeless he couldn’t move any farther. All he could bring himself to do was fish out the bottle, press his lower lip to the smooth, blunt thread of the screwtop, and drink.
Opening day was still a few weeks off, and Nate hadn’t toured his regular spots, but he knew that, due to a glimmer of economic recovery and a change in the tax code he only dimly understood, his part of the world was in the throes of a building boom. He’d read about the new Beaver Lodge Estates and the Freshet Creek Mobile Home Park, and he’d worried—had even gone to the town hall to look at the development maps—but it took an hour of driving from one old covert to the next for him to grasp the scale of the change.
Old Teddy Wilkerson’s exquisite duck marsh was now part of a gated community, the gates of which were already fiercely up but whose community would not be unpacking its things for a while, judging by the state of the McMansions—a few still skeletal, some naked in their Tyvek. The turkey habitat at the south end of Maxwell’s dairy farm—tall pines ringing a perpetually seed-strewn and worm-riddled barley field—was churned up and graded flat for something, he couldn’t tell what. The broad expanse of industrially raked soil was crumbly and beige around the edges but still damply brown in the middle, like (he couldn’t help thinking) a bloodstain in a pair of corduroys. The deeryards were still there behind the rambling red farmhouse where the chatty lesbian couple raised their goats and made their goaty cheeses, but a new road was going in right between it and the river. Stocky men with safety-orange vests and walkie-talkies loitered purposefully beside a pile of drainage tile and pointed here and there with bottles of blue Powerade in their hands.
Finally Nate headed north to the Talcott estate, where he had a standing invitation to hunt. Bob Talcott would be yachting with his family and business managers right now, Nate mused. More money than God. He wouldn’t let anything happen to his handsome forest kingdom. But when Nate got out of the car and ducked into the trees, he saw yellow tape. Not all over the place, but in corners, around the edges, even here.
He shucked the pack basket off his back and detangled the thick steel chain inside. A big white oak stood between a bog and a steep hillock where the firm bottomland narrowed to a funnel; the deer should walk right under him, provided the air channeled his own scent away as he suspected it would. Around the tree he wrapped the chain, which threaded through a dozen long wooden blocks like a string through beads. It bit satisfyingly into the bark. He pulled himself up on the first block and stood there nose-to-nose with the oak like an overeager middle-school dance partner. Wrap, bite, step; wrap, bite, step. When he was as high as he wanted to go, he climbed down, shouldered the heavy, awkward tree stand, and wrestled it up into place. When that was all set, with his laminated name tag attached, he descended once more to rummage through the old camo duffel.
It was still there from last season, and still full, the flask he’d inherited from his alcoholic grandfather. It wasn’t the old man’s best flask; that one had gone to a wealthy lawyer-cousin of Nate’s in California. Nate’s flask had a stylized pheasant engraved on one side and a deep dent in the other, as if this slim silver-plated vessel, tucked in a breast pocket, had once stopped a bullet, saved his grandfather, and permitted himself and his sons to be born. He carried it in his duffel for a nip on chilly mornings, especially when he was hunting with a buddy. It was traditional, convivial. He wondered if the whiskey would still taste right after untold months in the closet. Back up on the high tree stand, he made a valedictory toast to the fragments of land that were about to be lost to him.
It was Toby’s second morning. Nate carefully opened the door to his room and watched him sleep for a moment in the fairylike LED glow of the nightlight. The boy breathed through his mouth. The blue neckband of his Spider-Man pajamas was wet where he’d chewed it in the night.
Toby’s first morning, the previous Saturday, they hadn’t gotten anything, and that was as Nate wanted it: keep the expectations low, enjoy the marsh at dawn, and don’t risk any trauma by actually shooting a turkey. From the time he could walk and talk, the little guy had loved stroking the ducks and birds his dad brought home (and he accepted how in hunting language a duck is not a bird). He once burst into tears when he learned Nate had butchered a goose without him. Even so, despite all that preparation and all the little boy’s precocious talk about some creatures dying so other creatures can survive, really watching a living being turn into a dead one could be a serious thing. Even with the cleanest kill, there was always that violent lurch in the animal’s trajectory, physical and spiritual, when the bullet or arrow hit—a smack, a shock, and a crumple and fall.
It was more reality than Nate wanted for his son the first day out, and although he didn’t try hard to shoot badly, he didn’t try hard to shoot well either. If Toby still wants to hunt after three fruitless, silent hours on the cold, wet ground, he thought, maybe he’ll be a hunter for life.
“Hey, buddy. Time to get up. The turkeys aren’t gonna wait for us.”
The night before, after packing up the Subaru (Toby carried the old green Therm-a-Rests and other nonlethal equipment), Nate upped the ante by teaching Toby how to make double-thick night-before cocoa. First, fill the kettle. When it boils, pour it into the Thermos and put the lid on. Eyeball the right amount of milk into a pan, sprinkle in three packets of Swiss Miss. When it’s hot, pour out the water and pour in the cocoa. Close tight. Now, in the car, they ate peanut-butter-on-toast sandwiches wrapped in paper towels, washed down with sips of sludgy chocolate. By the time they arrived at Maxwell’s, Toby was so amped up he couldn’t sit still. He rolled down the window and shouted at the leggy dairy cows, “Moo! Moo! Moomoomoomoo!”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting all my noisiness out now! MOO!”
The sky was thinning to a brighter shade of blue-black when they reached their spot at the field edge and began silently unpacking. Toby chose a big pine for the two of them to rest their backs against. Back at home, Emily would still be asleep, angelic in the pink plaid pajamas she wore only on cold nights. Little Mark would be asleep too, crowded in bed by his bears and the multicultural Barbies he’d lately fallen in love with. It would be hours before they stirred and sought each other out for company in their strangely quiet house. Toby unscrewed the valve on a Therm-a-Rest but didn’t get many lungfuls in before handing the job over to his father. Fog drifted in swirls and waves. Nate decided not to ask his son if he was warm enough; best not to raise the possibility of discomfort. The air was freighted with the wholesome funk of clay stream banks and overwintered leaves. An owl asked who, who, who cooked for them. Somewhere a woodpecker beat a tattoo, a reveille, on something long and hollow. A daddy longlegs made its delicate way across the leaf litter, disturbing a few edges with a rustle Nate could almost hear. He was aware of the depth of the soil, and below it the gravel-and-boulder glacial moraine, and then bedrock, and everything down to the liquid heart of the good earth. He was simply the most recent layer, and the thinnest. He waited.
Gillian Burnes lives in central Maine and works as a freelance magazine copy editor. Other stories of hers have appeared in Glimmer Train and Split Lip, and she’s putting the final polish on a novel about a public radio reporter.