9, 2009

By Roger Emile Stouff

Somehow, I was standing at the edge of an expanse of corn stubble. I felt confused, not quite sure of myself or my eyes. But the shotgun, cracked open, lay in the bend of my elbow and there was a low mist of fog over the rows, and it was just so right.

A golden arc crested the horizon and, like dragon’s breath, set everything ablaze, golden and auburn, ocher and wheat. I thought I had never seen anything more beautiful, and when I looked behind me, the few scattered houses on the edge of the reservation were distant. I could just make out the little white schoolhouse. I was…what…? Fourteen?

Digging two shells out of a leather bag on my hip, and as I dropped them into the chambers of an old Fox BSE for which I had saved Christmas money and chore money a whole year, the nagging at the nape of my neck was slight, but persistent. I knew that off in the broadening dawn was Baldwin, but I could not see it. Corn and sugar cane fields and the errant patch of trees were all I could discern in mist slowly burning off, dropping, to brown earth and withering stalks.

I closed the Fox and it latched up tight, as always it would. The straight-stock in my right hand and the doubles over my left elbow, I worked slowly along the third row of corn stubble, wary, hoping I’d react sanely if the maddening burst of brown and white wings erupted at my feet. I reminded myself to be cool and, there in a corn row seeded with doubt, I looked for Bob yet again.

Comes the near-silent pads behind me, if not for the crackling of brittle leaf and husk, and the dog has caught up, trotting by me, sure of his duty and his intent.

"Hunt ‘em up, Shadow," I said, and there was a sting in my temple. Not much, just a pang of sadness that I couldn’t quite take a bead on.

Flawlessly, the Springer spaniel went to work, quartering the field despite the rows, and within moments he had found and pointed a covey. I crept up on them and, when they launched skyward in crazy, dipping and climbing flight, I dropped one with the left barrel and, after a split second to let the quail gain some distance, took it from flight with the tighter choke. Shadow retrieved one at a time and I put them in my old bag, a carpenter’s bag my father had donated to my pursuits afield.

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Chance, Me and Shadow
(click to enlarge)

He would stop, look at me, and the tuft of hair on his bobbed tail would wiggle delightedly, then he’d shoot off to find the other bird. And in his dark brown eyes I saw the reflection of myself, wondered at my size and my build and my thinning hair. But he didn’t give me long to ponder before he was hunting again.

I was in awe of him. He was perfect. Immaculate. With all the love and spoiling I had poured on him the old timers would have said he wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel as a bird dog. But he had succeeded – excelled even – despite my flawed training.

But there were oddities in that memory, oddities in the field as the shroud of mist diminished, but I couldn’t determine why. Why it seemed the treeline along the ditchbank where we flushed four birds and I got one (missed the other as cleanly and inexcusably as you could hope for) was thick and the trunks within so big around, and why that bothered me at all. Why, when we crossed a dirt headland road I paused, and told Shadow, "Whoa," and looked left and right, when I certainly knew the harvest was over. There’d be no tractors out that early. The farmers were resting, readying for the next plantings. But Shadow sat, and waited, and when we crossed the road, for a moment, the vanishing mist seemed to obscure him, fade him somehow.

We hunted about an hour and then, with a full bag of quail – I could already smell them cooking with onions in a gravy on my mother’s stovetop – Shadow and I sat on a small mound where farmers had cleared a large ditch and deposited the dirt. Out to the south were woodlands and more fields and I wished I had brought Kate, my quarter-horse, for the hunt, but then I remembered Kate could be very skittish, especially around guns.

I put my hand on Shadow’s head, felt the panting warmth of him, and he swallowed once and sighed. "You did good, buddy," I said. "Haven’t been birds like this…" Then it was my turn to swallow, because I wasn’t even sure what I was going to say then.

The dog lay beside me, head up, and together we watched the morning continue to unfurl. I reached into my shirt pocket and found a Punch, bit off the cap and lit it. The heady, pungent aromas of maduro leaf surprised me, and I looked at it, thinking how much trouble I’d be in if my parents caught me. But then, I was old enough, after all, to smoke a little cigar if I wanted. I had to remind myself of that, feeling surreal, confused.

He leaned over, and nudged my knee and I laughed. Those eyes sparked with such intelligence, and I took my water bottle off the strap over my shoulder and let him drink from the stream that I squeezed out. He slurped it up and tipped his head at me when he was done in thanks, a wiggle of his nubby tail for good measure.

"Come a long way from a pet store in the mall, haven’t we?" I asked, stroking his shoulder and he glanced at me, tipped his head again, and a chill ran up my spine. I shuddered it away. For all the bad things, and probably some true ones, they say about pet-store dogs from puppy mills, here was a liver-and-white bundle of the most extraordinary canine intelligence, gentle calm and at once atomic-powered energy the species had until then produced. While Chance, his buddy, would snap at my boys (something pricked there, like a thorn in my awareness) if they got too rowdy with him, Shadow would lay or stand in quiet tolerance as they pretended to ride him like a pony, or tugged at his ears to make his head look like an airplane, or accidentally stepped on his toes. He’d sometimes look at me with a forlorn expression of acceptance. "It’s what you do for the pups," his look seemed to say.

"Come on," I said, standing, and my knees ached a little. "Let’s take the long way home. No sense hurrying back to hearth and hold." We found a field road that made a long arc around the acreage and walked it slowly, Shadow at heel for the most part except when he saw or heard or smelled something interesting. I passed under oaks that formed an impossible canopy over my head and for a moment envisioned them uprooted and burned for development and the thought horrified me.

But I was just about to step over a small drain furrow when I saw an odd color and there, under a patch of Johnson grass, I saw a large copperhead snake coiled. It was motionless, metabolism dulled by the cold, but at the same moment Shadow saw it and leaped.

I snatched him by the collar, dragged him back and away. "No, Shadow! No! No!" I screamed, and he wanted to obey, I just knew it, but struggled for the snake, his nostrils flaring, his body taut and coiled itself.

"No!" I screamed, frantic now, inexplicably close to tears, and I pushed him to the ground, knelt into him to pin him there. He finally acquiesced, looked at me as if I had betrayed him, but I continued to yell at him in unreasonable panic, "No! Shadow! No snakes! Leave snakes alone! No, no, NO!"

I let him up, led him off, away from the snake a good ways before I released his collar then took a moment to stop myself from trembling, took deep, saturating breaths. "Come on," I said, softly, trying to soothe him, apologize all at once. "Let’s go home."

But he sat, staring at me. "Come on, Shadow," I said, but he only locked gaze with me. I went to him, knelt, rubbed his head. "I’m sorry, buddy, you just gotta leave snakes alone. Snakes are dangerous. Snakes can – you gotta leave ‘em alone."

He swallowed, and licked my cheek and it made me laugh and the laughter pierced something, some veil I had known was there from the moment I realized I was standing at the edge of the corn field staring at the fog.

I stood. "Let’s go home," I repeated, but he stood, too, and solemnly touched my hand with his nose and turned to walk away.

"No, this way," I said, a spasm of fear crawling through my gut. "Home’s this way!"

He turned once and looked at me, wagged his nubby tail and continued down the headland road.

I opened my mouth to shout again, but then I realized there were tears on my face. I pushed against something holding me in place, something soft and heavy and my legs wouldn’t move and I closed my eyes to push harder and when I opened them, red digital numerals told me it was 3:45 a.m. and the darkness around me and the little glow from the kitchen light we keep on all night made me gasp back a sob. I pushed away sheets and blankets, put my feet on the cold floor and trembled.

It had been so real, and I let a tear tumble down my cheek for the sweet innocence and lost horizon of it, and for my old friend. Again, I wondered why I have been thinking of him so much these last few months, writing about him in this column and elsewhere, and now he’s hunting quail in my dreams, across a span of impossible years in my life, from adolescence to the present, when he was only actually here to share four of them with me in my late twenties.

He had never even hunted with me, I had long before given it up. Never retrieved a quail, never heard a gun. But the terrain of my dreamscape was that of my youth, before the casino and the highway and the houses and the expansions of municipal limits and subdivisions. He had seen none of that, but he was there. Just, I guess, as he always is.

Carefully making my way through the dark, I went and found Bogie. He’s a year old now. I let him out of his kennel and he must have thought me quite the madman, because I knelt and hugged him tight. I was careful to be silent, tried to keep him quiet in his excited return of my affection. I sat on the floor, and stroked his yellow shoulder for a time, and he swallowed contentedly. Perhaps he and I were paying tribute to my old companion that I can’t get out of my head these days; perhaps there is a catharsis going on, unfinished since the day a decade ago I found Shadow dead in the yard of copperhead bites.

And we sat that way for moments I didn’t count, and it didn’t really matter, because somehow he understood that’s what I wanted, what I needed, and after awhile he went back to bed and so did I and I slept, dreamless sleep, until the alarm woke me at daybreak and I showered and clothed myself, released Bogie again and we walked out into a dawning day.