NOT that I begrudge him the food that he eats and the whiskey he drinks and the oxygen he breathes in my house,” my father said. “It’s just his old crankiness that works under my skin!”
“Not that,” my mother said gently, but not put off, either, by my father’s pointed tolerance. “He’s just a mind of his own is all. He s independent.”
I had stayed in bed that Friday morning with a cold, and had an uninvolved awareness of our small household as the mildly querulous voices of my parents floated up through open doors and stairway from the big farm kitchen. The subject of their idle breakfast argument was my grandfather, the hunter Oak Davis, who lived with us and who was, I think, beloved only by me. He was bent and thin, brittle as a winter leaf. Once he had been tall, like his very name (though it was really Oakfield, my mother’s middle name), but now when he looked into someone’s face to help his deaf ears catch a word it was the strain of looking up as well as the effort of listening that creased his forehead. Most of the time, however, he kept his view down, saying little to the people with whom he lived and moving about with the almost tuneless little songs on his lips. It was a wonder, people said, that he could even carry a shotgun any more, but my grandfather was hard and strong and could walk a mile or so of woods and swamp without apparently tiring, and in our part of the county he was regarded still as a kind of old wizard with the gun. Tomorrow he was going to take me hunting with him.
I could see them in my mind’s eye, my father poised restlessly for the day’s work as he sat at the kitchen table by the west windows, my mother walking back and forth as she fixed his eggs and coffee, the two of them talking, almost out of habit alone, about the old man who years ago had come from Vermont to live out his days at his daughter’s home in Michigan, and who, partly out of his own choosing, was an alien among us still.
“He’s hardly in your way, Tom,” my mother was saying. “He’s hardly in anybody’s way. He keeps to himself.”
“Not in our way, no,” my father said impatiently. “Just there, that’s all. Just around in his old clothes and singing those hymns under his breath whatever he’s doing, like he’d never stop.”
“He’s old, don’t forget. He can’t hear. And he is my father,” she said.
“He hears more than you think,” my father said knowingly. “He hears what he wants to hear is the better way of putting it.”
“Why don’t you try to be a little more friendly? ” my mother suggested. “Make a little effort.
“A little effort!”
My father was apt to seize on an easy phrase when an argument approached hopelessness for his cause, and put an emphatic end to it. Tom Easter was the editor of the weekly newspaper in Alto, the Alto Note, and was called on frequently to make speeches at the fraternal Order of Eagles or the Baptist Men’s or the Grange, and sometimes in conversation he gave you the idea he was talking to a crowd.
Their quarrel was interrupted by the opening of my grandfather’s door and his funny voice announcing “I’m up now" to no one. for a minute there were just the busy kitchen noises, and I could see my mother putting a forefinger to her lips. In spite of my stopped-up head, I could smell the coffee. Then the door to the bathroom closed and I heard my grandfather clear his lungs and spit, and I visualized my father wincing at the common sound, then hurrying to finish his breakfast before the taciturn old man would enter the kitchen to eat his.
“And why, will you tell me, should I ‘shhh’ for him.”my father said finally, “if he can’t hear?”
The old man emerged, and was humming to himself as he felt around in the closet where the hunting clothes and guns were kept, and I heard the chair stutter along the kitchen floor when my father got up quickly.
“So he’s going hunting again.”my father said, though more gently now, “and we are being treated to hymns at breakfast.” Things were working out close to the pattern of his prediction, and he sounded pleased. “I suppose he’ll be wanting to take the boy, too.”
“Tommy has a cold,” my mother said.
“Well, just explain that to the old man, will you,” my father said. “As long as he’s home from school the old man won’t be able to figure out why he can’t go hunting. You know that.”
“He knows it,” she said. “They plan to go tomorrow.”
“Besides, he’s so old, is it safe?”
“Safe?" my mother said quickly. He had struck effectively her cold and irrational dread of guns, though he knew well my grandfather’s singular reputation was come by honestly, and for all his skill as a hunter he knew guns and handled them with respect for the rules. But this was my father’s way, that’s all.
“Oh, safe enough, I guess,” he said, “But he’s so old, how about his reflexes, and that hair-trigger cannon he shoots with?”
There was a muffled crash from the closet. I turned over in bed and put my face into the pillow with the knowledge of what had happened, yet kept an ear cocked for what would come out of the sudden silence.
But at so commonplace an annoyance Tom Easter only muttered “Damn!”
My grandfather once more had tipped from its place on the closet shelf the German helmet, pierced by a bullet, which my father had borne proudly home as a souvenir of Château-Thierry. It always fell to the closet floor with a shocking clatter; shocking when you considered what it was.
“Good morning!” my father shouted as they met at the bottom of the stairs. “You’re going hunting again?” My grandfather probably answered him. but I didn’t hear him.
“You dropped something?” my father said. It was another question, but now not really a question, and I imagine that my grandfather didn’t even bother to turn around as he replaced the helmet and continued sorting out his hunting things from the racks. I heard his nearly voiceless little song begin.
“Maybe you’ll shoot yourself today, eh?” my father said, just loudly enough for my mother to hear. She said “Tom!” before the front door closed, and I knew my father was on his way to his newspaper office in Alto, six miles away, where the climate was more agreeable, where he was respected as someone of great importance, where he truly was the voice of the people. “Throw out the lifeline, O throw out ...” I heard the old man softly singing. “Someone is drifting away.”
I turned over to gaze at the ceiling of my bedroom. and I remembered the time a year ago that I had surprised Oak Davis grinning into the bathroom mirror, my father’s helmet comingdown almost over his fuzzy ears, and he had stuck a finger impishly into one of the bullet holes which once had made of the helmet such a heroic conversation piece in the columns of the Alto Note. When my grandfather saw me laughing at him, his face sagged into an expression of great gravity, and he lifted the helmet slowly from his head and replaced it with innocent ceremony on the closet shelf. I thought now of him warmly, and plotted to go hunting with him that very day instead of waiting.
I might just run out of the house, and take him a pint of whiskey.
I heard him go into the kitchen, where my mother greeted him in her kindly if perfunctory way and fed him breakfast.
“Tommy is sick — he has a cold, upstairs in bed,”she said. Probably she pointed upward after the last phrase, like an interpreter. I heard him answer in his rather high slow voice, but couldn’t make it out.
“You think you ought to go out there alone again today?” she asked him.
I knew he would not bother to reply to such a question, but after a while he would muse on the only subject that really interested him. He would say that the grouse would be “out on the feed a morning like this one"; he would surprise them on the sunny slopes, and shoot as they flushed in the direction of the poplars, and that would be answer enough to my mother’s solicitude. I thought of the soft brown birds who fed on the wintergreen berries of a frost-crisp hillside, and of how they would fade to trembling, hiding at the footsteps of the old hunter, then explode into flight with a wingbeat to make your heart stand still.
“Bring another bird home,” my mother said, “and I won’t have a place to put it ‘less Tom starts giving them away.”
The back door closed against her mild complaint, then opened again as she told the old man loudly to be careful. I could watch him now, from my bedroom window. At her voice, he turned around politely, but with his curious reserve, to acknowledge her before continuing on his way. He knew I was watching him, but he would never wave to me. He was cold and indifferent in the opinion of most people, and never effusive toward me, not even after I had killed my first grouse under his tutelage one morning a year ago, but I believe that this was part of why I liked him so much. When he did things or said things, they were accomplished without waste or excess, and in my memory this gives him an original sort of grace. Down the lane he walked toward the orchard, this morning a diaphanous green against the late October sky, a thin small man from the back walking carefully, as if studying the ground immediately ahead, his once-Sunday felt hat square on, with the brim turned up, and the gun, the lovely Parker double, crossways in the crook of his arms.
He would be singing absorbedly, I thought, “We will meet by and by,” or another of the old gospel favorites of my family’s church, not so much to blaspheme the hymn as to mock my father, whose pew was in the middle of the third row and who sang, as he talked and as he wrote in his newspaper, with authority. My grandfather would be smiling, too, partly in anticipation of what he loved most to do in this world and partly in mischief: he knew that the eyes ol this small boy were watching him and that this boy’s heart, on such a morning, was reaching out after him.
IT TURNED out that I joined Oak Davis that day without any special guile, but that I regretted having joined him then for the rest of my life.
I was sitting in my pajamas at the kitchen table later in the morning, looking hopelessly at the woods out beyond the pasture hills and thinking that it might have been better to go to school than spend the long day in the house waiting for the next day, and even that one in doubt. For uncertainty of weather haunted me as a youngboy, and I did a lot of bargaining with God, trying to match up the fair days in my prayers with the importunate and elaborately fragile projects of youth. Today, alas, was a fair day.
My mother said suddenly, “He’s forgot his lunch!”
She picked up the little bundle of sandwiches which he had wrapped in last week’s Note and bound with a rubber band, and which he generally carried in his hunting vest.
“He’s getting so forgetful,” she said mournfully, looking out the window of the back door. “I wonder where he went to.’
I jumped up Irom my chair and snatched the package from her hand.
“I’ll take it to him!” I said. “I know just where he went, where he always goes in the morning. Oh please, please let me take it to him!”
My mother was startled at my enthusiasm, then settled down sensible, and reminded me of my cold and didn’t I want to be completely well so I could go tomorrow with my grandfather? Besides, he would come back for his lunch when he got hungry and discovered he had forgotten to put it in his pocket. Better yet, she would take it to him herself.
“Oh, you could never never find the place; not even if I told you, you couldn’t find it.’ I said. “And even if you could find it, you couldn t walk through some of the stuff. You d get all scratched.”
“Well,” she said with a pursed expression which I recognized as the edge of surrender, “we’ll just have to leave it here then. He can come home when he wants it.”
“Isn’t that sort of mean?” I suggested after a pause. “It’s pretty far. You can’t even see it from the top of the orchard, the hill over there.”
I kissed her, and ran to get on my pants and shirt and boots, then walked down the lane in the direction my grandfather had gone, his lunch and a couple of cold apples in my jacket. I wanted to run, but didn’t. I had thought of getting my own gun out of the closet, but gave that up. Also, there had been no way to get his whiskey. I was lucky just to be going, even though I had been told to return home as soon as the mission was accomplished.
FALL where we lived is a swift and golden season, with both the perfection and transience of a spell about it, and although I seemed to run about heedlessly in my boy’s world I was dogged during those autumns by a nameless urgency. Here was a casual errand, when you look at it. I was taking his lunch to my old grandfather, who being somewhat forgetful had set out without it, but as soon as I had reached a point past the barn, where the lane branches off to join the Alto road, I broke into a run west across the field, startling larks and sparrows and finches from the brown weeds and, later, a blue heron who croaked miserably as he rose from the pasture pond ahead.
I found him about noon, when in October the day already is beginning to turn old. He wasn’t hunting in the relatively open country of what we called the slopes — the middle ground between swamp and woods — but sitting under a big gray beech on the very edge of the woods themselves and facing somewhat toward them, away from me. I surprised him, and that is unusual because my grandfather in spite of his deafness seldom permitted himself to be surprised. Not even — or perhaps I should say especially — by the grouse, which he spotted almost unerringly when they plunged into flight. He felt them rather than heard them, he once told me.
I hesitated before running into his view. His head was tipped back and he took two swallows of whiskey while I watched, then rested the lithe flat bottle on his lap. His gun lay alongside him in the yellow carpet of curled beech leaves. I was breathing hard from the long flight from the house, and I felt that he would turn and see me at any moment. I angled off on an arc to approach him more head on. more honestly, but I got quite close before he seemed to see me. Perhaps he dozed, or perhaps he was just getting me into focus. Then his head moved slightly, his eyes brightened in welcome. He smiled, but said nothing. I reached into my pocket and pulled out his lunch and one of the apples.
“You forgot,” I said.
The old man took them from my hand, then moved the gun to a position across his lap and motioned for me to take the place beside him against the tree. We sat together for a little while, letting the breeze wash us with speckled, uncertain sunshine. I knew that I should go back. He capped the bottle and put it in his pocket.
“I meant to bring you that, too,” I said. “I didn’t know you had it.”
In exchange, from the back of his hunting vest he drew two birds, and winked at me merrily, like a magician. I held them, still warm, tenderly, and stroked the mottled feathers which have the colors of lichen clinging to a rotted log in the autumn woods, and gazed down at the bills, stiffened agape, and at the sad dead eves.
“You’re not going to mourn for them, are you, boy?”
I handed them carefully back to him. “Why are their mouths open like that?” I asked. “Are they open when they fly, before they die?”
He patted my knee and looked up through the branches. “Did your mother let you out of the house to fetch my lunch, or did you run away from her?”
I stood up, full of mingled wonder, of him so old whose big gun was such certain death and of those birds back now in the dark of his pocket, scarcely to be counted in this game he played so flawlessly.
“I better go back now,” I said. “She’ll worry. And you better eat. She’ll ask me if you ate.”
My grandfather stood, too, wincing with the effort, and put a thin hand on my shoulder. He was just my height. “I was thinking,” he said, “she might not worry too bad if you was to stay for a little bit.”
“She might be mad,” I said. “She might even say I couldn’t go with you tomorrow. I’m supposed to be sick, see.”
“I was thinking,” he said again, stooping to pick the gun up out of the leaves and reaching into a pocket for a couple of shells, “there’s a little piece the other side of those trees. Willow and thornapple mostly, and thin, but the leaves are down from it, and there’s berries in there, too. I think a fat partridge might be just setting there waiting for you.”
He squeezed my shoulder. “You ever shoot this before?” he asked. “This’s a Parker,” he said, not looking at me at all but away off through the trees, toward the cover he had described, as though not to lose track of it, and then I had the big gun in my hands and I was walking slowly beside him, his hand still on my shoulder, and already the private little song was on his lips and he was giving none of his concern to my filial responsibilities, but all to the tangled willow copse at the foot of the next rise, where the grouse hid. “We will meet by and by,” the old catfooted hunter murmured under his breath as he urged me along the leafy path. “We will meet on that beautiful shore.”
We found the cover where he said it was, but as we approached, the gun felt suddenly heavy and unwieldy, and I was afraid of it.
“You shoot first,” I said. “I’ll watch.” I handed it to him quickly, then fell in behind him, in the old way. Almost at that instant a grouse clattered up out of the leaves, here mostly rusty oak, on the near side, directly in front of us, and died as the big gun still roared in my ears.
OAK DAVIS shot with a grace which you saw only if you happened to be looking right at him. Most of the time your eye was on the flushed bird, and you looked back at the hunter only after the bird crumpled in the air and fell. But I had walked behind my grandfather like this often, and I saw this small man, stiff with age and deaf for as long as I can remember, kill many birds. I had carried a gun, a single-barreled 20-gauge, for the first time the year before, and had killed a partridge with it, too.
When we hunted a piece of cover together, one on a side, my grandfather was apt to stop his intent little song as we approached a likely spot of brush, and he would say some soft low word like “now” or “here,” as if to himself, and I would take my eyes from the ground ahead to watch him. When the bird tore out of the thick stuff, the old man seemed sometimes to wait forever; then there would be this beautiful spare upward movement so quick I could never tell exactly how it went. At other times, I would be behind him. like this, as we pushed our way through some particularly heavy cover, and even when a bird flushed unexpectedly ahead, my grandfather waited him out. I remember that from behind I could see that he lowered his head ever so slightly to meet the gun coming up, all in the one movement, and through his vest that the thin shoulders knotted into lumps as he swung along the line of flight.
He walked on into the brush to retrieve the bird he had shot, and I found the big Parker in my hands again. I turned the old weapon in the sun. Dull arrows of light glanced along the barrels. Behind them the receiver glistened with oil. When this hot odor, like burned spice, floated up I raised the gun tentatively to my face. I pressed on the oily steel with my thumb, feeling over the worn grooves of engraved ivy. Then the gun burst again. The recoil slammed it against my cheek.
I looked down in numb horror where it lay in the leaves, smoke curling up from the muzzle. Then I looked at Oak Davis. From the middle of the thicket he was holding the bird up for me to sec. as a prize, with a smile on his face that I could see through the lacy tangle, but in that moment he dropped the bird, reaching around and behind him for his other hand, his right one.
I screamed and plunged toward him. Before 1 reached him the old man seemed to bow, and his hat tumbled off. Then he pivoted slowly lower as he sought the wound with his one whole hand, and, finally and inexorably, collapsed gently within himself in a small faded heap.
When I reached him I fell to my knees. I did one of those things which in retrospect are appalling but which in that frenzied exigency seemed altogether right. I put his hat back on his head. His head, with the breeze wafting his white hair as he lay there in the woods, had been more unforgettably vulnerable than what I had not yet seen, the shredded right hand and the blood from it spreading into the cloth of his clothes. With that he looked up at me. His eyes seemed to search my face. He smiled and said, “Thanks.”
I dragged him to a place near a tree, where with his left hand he managed to claw himself into a sitting position, and it was then that I saw all that I had done to him. Nausea racked me before I could speak or act to help; then with vague intuition I pulled the bottle from his pocket and handed it to him. It was while he was holding it that I became conscious of the bemused everlasting song working under his breath, and I knew that his mind was clear and practical. Then he said, simply and seriously, “Maybe you better take the cap off the bottle,” and when I did that I felt a little less tragically unnecessary there. He took two long pulls, then poured some of the liquor directly on his butchered hand while I watched. He raised the bottle up and squinted hard as if to appraise the liquor’s quality. “Time you get back here,” he said, “this’ll near be used up.” Then he looked quickly at me and said, “Now, boy, you got to run. You got to run all the way.”
I ran all the way. I was sure that Oak Davis, lying still and small, would die without a word and before I ever saw him again.
He didn’t die. Not then. But that was the start of an almost endless year during which I thought he might as well die — no right hand to shoot with and so the golden hunting days ended, then for a long time having to be fed like a petulant infant because he refused to eat with his left Out of the hospital just before the holidays, he was put to bed in the spare room upstairs. Out of the way. But, my mother reminded, he’d have a nicer view, and when the F.O.E. and the Baptist Men came with their Christmas prayers and presents it was a nicer place to talk.
At first I avoided him with elaborate care, but after they let him get up and wander about the house and yard I felt drawn to him more than ever. When he was in his room I would hurry past the open door, but look in always to search the sad ambivalent face for its lost smile. Beyond his chair and bed was a dormer window. I longed to catch him looking that way, just as I longed to hear the sound of his small song again, for the window looked out on the same cherished aspect my window did: north, where the barn stood across my mother’s snowy garden and, beyond, where bare orchard and pasture rolled out, and finally where the dark woods started and the grouse hid.
Spring and a long summer passed. Another hunting season, observed in our household by an almost holy silence, had come to Michigan and very nearly passed, too, when I decided suddenly one afternoon to go hunting by myself. I was thirteen. The months had been doing their slow work of softening my guilt. When I announced boldly that I was going, my mother stopped her sewing and looked at me, but she said nothing.
“The season is almost done,” I said then, and opened the door of the closet under the stairs.
It could have been the first time that door had been opened since the accident, since they burned my grandfather’s old vest and carefully replaced his boots and hat, and the long-barreled Parker next to my gun, then sealed these things off by shutting the door for perhaps all eternity; and there until now they had been undisturbed, along with the fierce helmet of the Hun, gathering the dust of disuse, and discomposed now only because this day .suddenly had seemed to me mysteriously precipitate, as if something had signaled an end to their tacit inviolableness.
I acted quickly, took his own, the Parker, gun from the rack next to mine and a handful of 12gaugc shells, slipped on my hunting coat and boots, then shut the door again. I left the house quietly and did not look back. Now I know that I was watched.
It was a changing November day with the feeling to it of an anxious winter, and here and there the dry ground held a dust of snow. Weeds in the field yielded stiffly to the wind, and the leaves on the floor of the woods moved fitfully as I approached. It would be difficult to hear in the woods. A bird could get up quite close to you, but if a gust came throwing the leaves he’d be out of range before you got a shot off. Oak Davis said partridge know how to take advantage of the wind. They flushed wild on days like this. You had to feel them.
Reluctant to enter the uneasy woods, I hunted along familiar middle ground for an hour, hoping to jump a partridge off the slope for a goingaway shot, but nothing happened until I had angled off on a shallow course among the first trees, then, with dusk turning the day deeper gray, begun to circle to a point near our fields. A grouse flushed that I never heard get up, but saw out of that part of the eye which catches and recognizes only when it is turning away. It flushed close by from a clump of scrub oak which still held its brown leaves and would all winter, then flew quickly into taller hardwood where I could see it ghosting faster and faster among the file of tree trunks, but could see it plain and close for that long instant when every feather seems etched on and you move, if you move at all, as if in a dream. I felt at the moment of firing I had hit clean, knew it by the right place on my shoulder that the recoil bruised. The bird folded up and slanted down into the leaves.
Then, as I broke the gun and shucked the two shells, I knew he was there somewhere, watching.
I spun around, not really believing. He stood, draped in an old overcoat and bareheaded, on a little rise twenty yards away, just inside the first line of trees, shadowy and preternatural, a figure weird enough to send a boy flying in panic, appearing as it had in the dimming and windy woods, out of nowhere. “You!" I whispered. I stared hard, then knew I would cry.
My grandfather was smiling, but a smile to dissolve at a stroke any possible sorcery, or even any doubt, and I had to turn away frorn it.
He spoke, now from quite close by.
You going to pick up your bird, or you going to leave it behind for the foxes?”
I put the bird in my coat and hefted the big gun across the crook of my arms. We walked side by side for a little: then die path which led into our pastures narrowed, and I fell in behind him, in the old way.