A deer hunter pushes open the door and enters a warm, slow camp. The woodstove pings pleasantly as it accommodates a fresh charge of wood. Wet clothes hung above it shutter slightly in the heat’s convection. A venison roast, smothered in broth and onions, simmers on an antique range.
Around a table older men play cribbage beneath the yellow glow of a gas light. “Djou see anything?” one asks. It’s a more complicated question than it sounds. The hunter furrows his brow and wonders where to begin.
He’s seen a moon that hung like a tear in the black, pre-dawn sky, a wound cauterized by dawn’s light. He seen a landscape animate – a woodblock relief become a color photograph. Trees that were iron black become textured: whites and pale greens and dark greens on the fissured bark.
He’s seen cold – yes, seen it – sitting in the puddled bottom of the layer-cake air. In the hoarfrost the day before in the hemlock bog. In hair ice that sprouted from downed limb-wood, each strand 10,000 times longer than it was thick.
He’s seen the animal life around him persevere despite the cold. A deer mouse that mistook his arm for a log. The black-tipped tail of a weasel floating manically a few inches above the ground. Blue jays eating birch seeds: little flashes of empyrean blue.
He’s seen twin brooks that raced down cracks in the earth like white lightning; water that sang as it curled around boulders; water that, when he stopped to drink it, was so cold it seemed hot.
He’s seen the sky turn gray before its time, then small, fast snow that coated branches and forced even forearm-thick limbs into seasonal genuflection. Vandal west winds that painted tree trunks white and ripped the marcescent beech leaves from their stems.
He’s seen hare tracks unrolled across the snow like ghost-face stickers. Coyote tracks like a string of beads. Buck tracks like alternate leaves on a branch that lead to a buck in his bed. An ovoid depression marked by a tarsal-brown streak. Great bounds to the north as the buck made his escape. The hunter kneeling in the bed and a mingling there of two life forces – this ancient ritual that’s as old as life on earth. The driving snow already wiping away every trace.
The older men are looking at him expectantly. “Jumped a buck but couldn’t get a shot,” he replies as his companions go back to their card game. It will be enough.