The last time I saw my brother we were stalking a stuck buck through Tate’s Hell. We were breaking all the rules, beginning two weeks before the season started. There were a few boys in the clearing before the forest with their rifles mounted on the backs of their trucks. They had their binoculars against their eyes, warming cans of beer in their fingertips. They were baiting the game cops. Shep and I were thanking them under our breaths.
Shepard didn’t care much for bow hunting. He said there was too much sport in it. I never did understand him when he talked like that but he was a head brighter than I. I think, because he was fixed on joining the Marines, he wanted to handle firearms any chance he was given. But he knew we had to be quiet in the pre-season so it was all bows and bolts.
We cheated like we did because the area was being poached. The state stopped charging for licenses and, like opinions and assholes, suddenly everyone had one. You couldn’t go three feet into the brush without finding some guy in a Ghillie suit trying to knife hunt six-point bucks. There are a lot of nuts out in Tate’s Hell.
We found a few rubs earlier in the week and knew he’d been around. We set up our blind on a young pine, gnarled like a wooden fist. I climbed in. Shep stayed below. I scratched at the bark darkened with the wet morning and dabbed my thumb into the sticky resin. It smelled spicy, grassy. The scent wraps around your throat and you’ll taste it for days.
I spotted him first. He was chewing some crab grass growing alongside a broken stream. Four points—not the biggest boy in the whole world, but he’d do—and his amber-brown coat shined ruddy in the early light.
A stillness beginning in my lungs eased into my muscles. I was the blind. I took aim. I was the sight. I sucked in a mouthful of dewy air, drew back on the cable and I was the bolt.
I struck him in his left flank. I was aiming for his heart. He bucked back twice and shook his head then took off into the underbrush.
“Shit,” Shep said. He glared up at me. I climbed out of the blind and we took off after him.
Shep was crouched low to the ground, reading the broken branches and torn apart bramble bushes. He found a trail of ruby red blood on a rotting palmetto frond and motioned with his head for me to follow like I didn’t already know.
We were crossing a wide patch of creek when a rifle report echoed throughout the naked pine boughs.
“Not ours,” Shep said. “Too far away.”
“I hate this,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
Shep grabbed the sinewy neck of a sapling and pulled himself out of the bed. Still in the creek, I stuck out my hand to him. He crunched through the dry dead leaves, smelling the air, his back to me. I spat and grabbed the same sapling and pulled myself out.
Shep had his bow hooked around his right shoulder, sucking on an unlit cigarette. “Remember those church charities?” he said. “The big red funnels. We’d drop quarters in them and they’d go ‘round and ‘round.”
“I remember,” I said, wiping a trail of snot across my sleeve.
“It felt like forever they’d be circling and then they’d drop and we’d be out fifty cents. It’s like this,” he waved his arms around his waist like he was treading water. “Your entire life you watch the hole at the bottom and it never looks like you’re getting any closer then one day you drop.”
“Naw, it ain’t that.”
Something came carried on the wind, Shep raised his nose to it and dropped to a squat. “Aluminum,” he said, moving on his haunches. “He’s close.”
Shep liked to get waxy on me. Sometimes I think he sounded like one of those guys on TV, on those science shows we watched. Too smart for his own good, I’d heard. Those shows aren’t real, but my brother is, and there is always a danger in the voices of some men, bright men, like Shep.
“What is it then?” I said.
“I don’t know, Arlen, but I can see the darkness from where I am.”
I laughed, “Betcha it’s just a bunch of quarters down there.”
Shep stopped at the ridge and laid his bow on a patch of dry leaves. Before him, the tree line ceased, replaced by browning tall grass parched like no downpour could satisfy it. Three aluminum transistor towers were arranged in a row like metal giants—arms akimbo—guarding the field. They hummed with their electric magic and moved none.
One amber-brown leg laid rigid in the dirt, a black hoof pointed to the east. The rest of the body was invisible in the underbrush. Shep stood over it and spit to the side. He knelt down, pressed a hand into the buck’s left flank and worked the bolt from its flesh. I opened my knife and offered it to him. He waved me away.
Someone had blown clean the top of the buck’s head off. Parts of it laid scattered—pink and red matter, ivory skull bone stained with specks of browning blood—glimmering against the grey and paper bag brown tree-waste. Shep dropped the bolt. It stuck in the dirt by his boot. He looked away from me.
“There ain’t nothing that shines down there, Arlen,” he said. “Not even the teeth of whatever waits.”
He picked up his bow and marched ahead of me. Into the dying field. Because he knew as well as I knew, we couldn’t go back the way we came.
About the Author: Remy Barnes Klein lives and drinks in Texas. His work has appeared in Five Quarterly (forthcoming), Literary Orphans and elsewhere. Unfortunately, he can be found @remybarnesklein.
Story Song: “Noon as Dark as Midnight” by Lucero
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Clem