In the Woods
by Curtis Smith
The cut ran fifty yards, a scar halfway up the hillside. The cut scoured by glaciers, or so the boy had been told. He climbed atop a boulder larger than a car, and he imagined the hill and all he knew entombed in ice. The boy’s steps careful as he descended into the cut, the bothering of roots and rocks. The boy tacked an envelope to a fallen oak. The wood riddled with bugs, and the boy ran a finger over the bullet holes and thought about the days his father had brought him here to shoot. The boy retreated, and at thirty yards, he unshouldered his father’s deer rifle. He loaded a single cartridge and secured the bolt. The rifle was heavier than the .22 he’d learned with, but the boy was older and stronger now. He steadied the rifle and placed the scope’s crosshairs on the paper. He didn’t love shooting, but he liked this—the sense of a world stilled, the woods breathing with him, the rocks aware of his beating heart. He rooted himself, an anchoring in his boots, his spine straight, and squeezed the trigger. The kick knocked his shoulder, and he lurched back but he kept his feet. His ears rang, and the echo pulsed between the trees before the quiet rushed back.
Their house stood in a clearing at the hill’s base. The house built by his grandfather, white clapboard, moss on the roof. Generations of settling had robbed the structure of its straight lines. Pictures hung crooked, or appeared to. A dropped ball would roll until it reached a baseboard. A gravel drive slanted down to the two-lane road, and beyond that, a longer slope that ran to the river’s edge. The boy had seen the river cover the road, and although the water had yet to reach their home, the boy knew this was inevitable. The back door slammed, and the old lab that had been his father’s hunting dog followed the boy to the yard’s burn barrel. The boy covered the barrel’s ash with a layer of cardboard and cartons. Junk mail. The bills they’d ignore until the envelopes stamped with red warnings arrived. The grass around the boy and dog silver with frost, and when the dog peed, steam rose.
The boy considered the hillside, his gaze lost amid the naked trees. The hill blocked the morning sun and shielded them from a nor’easter’s winds, but when the storms pushed from the west, the drifts grew deep. On the nights the wind whistled across the frozen river, their crooked house shook, and the boy listened to the roof’s groan and slept little, fearing collapse, a burial beneath wood and snow. He squirted fluid into the barrel then struck a match. He paused, waiting to feel the heat on his fingers before dropping the match. The flames caught, a gasp of oxygen, a pull the boy felt in his lungs. He watched the flames, his hands buried in his pockets. The dog, which had lurched back with the flames, now came sniffing to the boy’s side.
On the road, a black pickup slowed. The truck lost from sight, but the boy heard it pull onto the riverside’s shoulder. The engine killed, the doors and gate slammed. The leafless forest offered little cover to the men who set upon the hillside’s rocky path. The men stocky, black skullcaps and thick beards. They didn’t carry rifles, but they soon would. The boy wondered if they noticed him or the smoke from the barrel or the dog that offered a brief, feeble bark. The boy had seen their truck from the school bus window, its oversized tires, its decals and gun rack. Common courtesy should have directed the men to knock at their door. An asking of permission. A thanks for sharing the land. Perhaps they believed the land beyond the clearing was open despite the weathered No Trespassing signs the boy’s father had posted. Perhaps the men knew the boy’s father was gone, and they believed there was no need to seek consent from a woman and her boy. The men walked on then vanished into the woods. The boy turned to the dog. “Come on, girl.”
The boy and his mother ate long after dark. Thanksgiving leftovers and tomorrow she’d teach him to make soup from the carcass. Her late shifts at the warehouse, the ride that took over an hour on snowy days. She often returned from work dazed. The pace. The warehouse’s acoustics. The hours on her feet. The boy had always loved her, but he’d grown to appreciate her. Her devotion. Her strength and sacrifices. He fed the woodstove, and the dog curled close to the warmth. The boy hoped to shoot a deer in the coming week. They’d stock the freezer. He’d help provide. He was down to ten bullets, but he reasoned if he was patient, if he heard his father’s voice—his urgings to be certain, to breathe deep and melt into the woods’ stillness—he’d be OK. He washed the dishes, the water cold after his mother’s shower. He returned to the living room to find her asleep on the couch. He turned off the TV and covered her with a blanket. Outside, headlights, the cars and trucks navigating the dark and the twists of the river road.
The next morning, the boy woke before dawn. They used to go to church on Sundays, but that was another life. His mother gone, as she would be every weekend for the next month. The chance for overtime, and perhaps they’d even have enough for Christmas presents, although the boy assured her he didn’t need anything. The boy made coffee, savoring its warmth more than its flavor, but firing up the woodstove could wait until he came back. He bundled up. In the mudroom, he grabbed his father’s crowbar. The dog followed, its movements slow in the cold, its black eyes upon him. The boy stood in the open doorway, letting the dog have its choice. Outside, the dark of starlight, the river’s churn.
The boy crossed the clearing and entered the woods. He aimed his flashlight on the path, and the rocks and leaves passed like a stream. The cold in his lungs, and balancing it, the kindling of muscle. He thought of all the times he’d followed his father up this trail. When he dreamed of him, they were often in the woods, his father’s back to him, the boy struggling to keep pace.
The boy waited for the dog to catch up before turning off the path. He petted her, a habit he engaged in more and more, the understanding of her age and a future in which he’d miss her. He looked up. A thousand branches fragmented a sky just beginning to lighten. He’d have the dark for a while, the hill’s western shadows, a sensation that had always made him think of the river’s fish, a submersion, yet in a world so often turned upside down, who was to say whether the river was the darkness or the light above?
The flashlight’s beam passed across the branches’ tangle until it settled on the tree stand. “Stay,” he told the dog. He heard his father, his talks of doing the right thing, and the boy apologized as he grasped the first rung nailed into the wide trunk. In the boy, a balance of footing and grip. Then a deeper balance, the equaling of what was right and what was just.
He grasped the next-to-last rung. The sky above lighter, and he became the fish rising to the bait. He looked down. His dog lost in the darkness. He thought of falling, the breaking of bones. Of dying alone. He wedged the crowbar under the rung below the stand. He jerked, and from the wood, a groan. The rung pulled away in fits. He caught his breath. The sky lighter, the gray of ash. He swung the crowbar, striking the plank’s back. The thuds echoed until the plank dislodged. The dog barked. The boy stepped down a rung and went back to work.
He rose early again the next morning. He sat perched in the tree stand, and in his father’s orange vest, he felt like an exotic bird waiting on the sun. The vest smelled like his father, gun oil and grease. The perch a half-mile from the other tree stand, and the boy imagined the trespassers, their anger, their thwarted schemes. The boy lifted his chin, and his exhaled breath rose. He found peace in accepting the truth that the world owed him nothing. Below, a rustling, and the boy waited, knowing the darkness would fade.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and the WW Norton anthology, New Micros. He has worked with independent publishers to put out five story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a book of creative nonfiction. His latest novel, LOVEPAIN, was released in 2018 by Braddock Avenue Books.