They Called It Shooting Then

By TYLER SAGE 

1.

He wakes from dreams of killing. Heavy timber. Shaggy forms moving through the rocks, the alpine flowers. A plane passing overhead in his sleep, in his dreams, a silver spot against the sky. He raises the rifle. He wakes and is in the night. The animals fade, the air thickens. He is alone and paralyzed, and he wakes, and she is sleeping next to him. 

He climbs out of the bed, heavily, and stands naked, watching her. The moonlight hangs in the room. He sways, listening to her husky breath. He turns and fumbles his way to the den, finds the light switch. A glass from the row on the sideboard that has been passed down for four generations. A drink, his chair. He begins to relax. There is the feel of the leather, worn and old against his skin. There is the house he built. The photos on the wall. The books he has collected his entire life, the books his father and grandfather collected as well. The rifles. The paintings. And yet he is going into the mountains again. The ghosts outside stalking the night, small clouds of dust raised as they step, firelight on flesh, the moon hanging low with its terrible timeless vision, ghosts indeed, my life as my own ghost before my death.

And in the previous century his grandfather disembarked from the train in his white suit, beneath the trail of soot and embers blowing off in the direction of the coast. The cones of volcanic rock with their bases covered in green and their naked tops black against the sky. The white hunter, Schofield, stood on the platform to meet him, serious, redpale and hearty, and past the wood and then stick buildings of the town the plains ran yellow with heat. The smell of woodsmoke. The hiss of the big boiler. Schofield was a white African, a veteran of the continent’s southern campaigns: against the Matabele, against the Nandi, slaughters never named, farms burned, barefoot tracks in the sand. Where they came at you madly and without relent, he would explain, and you killed them as they came, the earth so hot and strange it made you wonder what could love it, let alone survive there. And yet you loved it. He would say this in the feeble orange of the campfire. Whisky, the acacia spread into the darkness. He would, beneath a garland of uncaring stars and after many days of shooting, mention grinding a native spear into a native chest, the look in those eyes, the vibrations running down through the shaft. Hyenas in the darkness, the massive night. He would talk about the dead weight of the southern sun, from which he did not believe he had ever recovered.

The young man in white stepped forward to shake Schofield’s hand, aware as always of the faint challenge in the gesture. Behind Schofield stood the Indian camp manager, British colonial, managerial, used to giving and taking orders, a face bearing the vacancy of caste. Behind the Indian stood the two trackers. One was short and dark and round-faced, and the other was taller and lighter-skinned and with a thin nose. The young man focused his attention on them while he talked to Schofield. Good trip? A bad moment or two out of Mwatate, but we came through fine. That bridge can certainly be a bastard. The overarching quality to the trackers was gentleness, and yet he would come to believe that beneath this was a natural, mechanistic indifference to killing. He would come to believe that they understood the animals they tracked not as game the way he did and Schofield did but with some other understanding. As if from the inside. As if they possessed something he did not have, could not buy. They ignored him even while looking at him, watched him blankly, with no curiosity.

Quentin touches those journals, listens to the night outside his walls, a different century, a different world. And yet that other world has shaped this one, is nearly palpable, lies just beyond some thin veil. If you close your eyes and can see it, like a child, does that mean it exists? He knows history, he knows the flexing arguments of colonialism and postcolonialism, resistance movements, debates over agency, extractive enterprises, tourism, blood sport; he knows this in prose and research and implication and control. And yet all of this has failed. The small perfectly neat script of the journals tells him nothing about the man behind them.

I was as fortunate with the placement of the wound as Schofield was not. Broke a number of ribs and tore the muscles of the chest but did not penetrate. Was able to see the ribs, very white between the terrible flap of skin. Managed to kill the beast as it came back to finish the job. Made a very difficult shot. Perhaps very lucky. And it is precisely that ending that contains all of the weight I cannot seem to escape: that animal hunched over on the ground as if even in stillness still trying to propel itself forward, head stretched out to me, legs buckled beneath, frozen motion and violence, all of it without limit or leash and yet as dead as meat, and killed by my hand, and that heat among us like a presence. 

The passages tomed in at the end of one of the shelves, the endpiece of all the books that have been handed down to Quentin and that he has collected and that have been occupying him on these nights, increasing nights, unraveling nights in this strange new century during which he sits in the chair and reads and drinks or drinks and gazes at the gun case. Shooting in British East Africa. In the Yukon. In the Himalayan foothills. Madagascar. Brazil. Indochina. Montana. Siberia. Natives at your side, guides at your side, your only companions, your blood companions, not running at the charge but falling flat to the ground to give you a shot, wives and children at home just as you have something back in that distant city, a job of some sort and a life that has all the reality of a dream. Men around the fire. A madness of killing. A time outdated, outmoded, lost. And he is going again into the mountains.

 

2.

Nineteenth century? Evelyn asks from the doorway of the den with her glass of bourbon. It is towards the end of the night. She sits on the couch and tucks her legs beneath her. The atmosphere of the room, of any room, condenses around her when she enters. She is dark-skinned, as dark as his grandfather’s tracker.

Eighteen twenty-four, he says. Military expedition to the Rockies.

He showed her the endpapers in their streaked red and yellow and blue patterns. The pages thin and brittle. She is watching him. He closes the book.

It might just save you, she says. She wears a half smile and is speaking of the trip into the mountains.

Or you, he says. He slides the book back onto the shelf.

I’m too old anymore, she says, to think that you don’t have to spend some time on your knees to get what you want.

I have been there myself.

What a smile she has. And when she speaks there are always layers. As there are in her eyes. Things on the surface and things below, things that may be present now and things that may have never been present at all but still have a form. He feels, when he is in her presence, the comic brevity and final terrifying length of human existence. He has begun to catch himself fearing that she is going to leave him; has flashes of himself as old and knock-kneed, crawling, alone.

They met first without speaking on the main street of this town, cow town turned tourist and college town, RVs in the summer, students with skis and snowboards in the winter. A street that played at hearing the dead song of long-buried hooves. A passing line in his book, but one which came back to him now. As they often did; as if he could not escape them. She was dressed in a dark skirt and jacket, tall leather boots, her head held that fraction of a degree too high so that no one falling under her gaze could mistake the view to which they were subjected. He saw her approaching on the sidewalk, the bars with neon beer signs, the mountain bikes chained to the trees. He looked at her steadily as she approached and she did not look away. Her lifted chin. She an anthropologist and he a native, in his old boots and his work pants, his wool jacket; the reversal was not lost on him: a black woman out here in the white West, with all of that geologic tension running just below the surface. The moment lengthened; and a week later she appeared in the park by the little river where he went sometimes to sit, cottonwoods and the shadow of the bluff and the sound of the water. She wore black: a shiny new down vest, dark jeans, a black watch cap, as if she’d come out of a catalogue shoot in some grove of aspens.

I saw you on the street, she said.

Let me try to remember, he replied, the old smile on his face.

I used to teach your book, she said. She said it as if she no longer did teach his book.

And already in that park he was pulled to her with some final flailing pull, to that haughtiness and the fear beneath it and the arrogance beneath that; to her youth and her tenderness and her edges; a product of the Middle South, a mongrel, she called herself. (Mulatto, she told her students, comes from mule, from the Latin. Always these things are couched in such high language. Miscegenation. Caste, from the Latin for chaste. They looked at her flatly, a mix of ranch kids and kids from rich families come to this college to ski, and he sat in the back of the room, transfixed as she whipped them forward. Terceroon, she said, quadroon, such linguistic precision, isn’t it?, smiling her smile.) She who held fiercely to her position in this backwater town, with that high-held chin and an aura of righteous penance. A position forced on her by some academic trespass of which she would not speak, dropped from a tenure-track line back East, finding work here because the value of her publication record, at a college like this one, overweighed the stigma of her dismissal.

It’s a moderately revolting proposal, she said on the night she asked him. Or exceedingly, depending on your point of view. But I’m making it. He sold a million copies of his last book. And he mentioned yours again today. He’s a bit obsessed.

Kipling too, I’m sure. And Conrad. All of the long list.

She took a drink and regarded him.

Holed up here in your town, she said. What? Living on reputation and cynicism and royalties? Crying because you only had the one in you? Because you are misread?

It’s not a life for the faint of heart.

Come out, come out, wherever you are, she called softly, making a knocking gesture with her knuckles.

And why, he asked, would you want to do anything for someone like Ron Copeland? Who pumps out the shit you so very much disdain? The new American history, the resurrection of the macho patriot, all the rest of it.

She leaned back, casually, and crossed her legs. I’m hoping you’ll kill him, she said. And then I can take his place.

The joke froze him, a dark finger twisted into the center of his bones. He nodded, played it off. Easy to do, he said. We’ll set it up as an accident, but I can’t pull the trigger. For reasons of suspicion and such. You’ll have to do that.

But she was done bantering. She held him speared with her eyes. I need this, Quentin. He’s working on a book, and he thinks a trip like this, with you, could be the centerpiece.

It’s absurd, he said, still feeling the touch of that murderous finger, still feeling as though something had reached down to expose him.

It is. But there are such things as gatekeepers and tastemakers. I talked to my editor. She said that with one call Copeland could have me on a morning show or a book club list. He does those comedy news shows. He knows everyone.

And when you leave, you will do so without looking back, he said.

You could come with me, she said.

He laughed, quietly.

People can still change us, she said. Isn’t that the idea? Rescue us. Can’t they?

Get on a plane, he said. They’ve got a direct flight to JFK now, one to Dallas for the tourists.

Her eyes were calm and unaffected, and it wasn’t until she was at the bottom not of that glass of bourbon but the next and then showing nothing but that deliberateness of movement, a slight sedation of that ocean-deep mind that never, ever stopped, it was not until that bourbon was in her and they were in the kitchen, rinsing glasses, turning out lights, standing for a moment and looking out at her small garden cut silver by the moon, that she was able to say,

Please do this. Please.

He had made nearly every single thing in the kitchen around her: the counters, the cupboards, the table and the chairs, beams and floor. It seemed so animate now, but only because of her presence.

You have too much, Quentin, she said. I have too much.

She did not step in close to him but kept her distance, arms crossed, her back against the table.

Come with me, she said.

 

3.

The snow in tiny wet flakes and the road leading up through the timber. Dark greens and browns. November. Not a month, here, but an onset. A darkness and heaviness, an enveloping, as if the road leads to the depths rather than the heights. The long season, the scaled bark of the pines, the deadfalls, the slide paths. The stillness. The rough gray of the firs. On one side the mountain drops steeply down to a creek invisible in the trees. At its head the valley is massive and otherworldly rock, great hollows cut out as with an axe, bare gray ridgelines, ancient cirques where the moss and snow and boulders lie exactly as they have for millennia. Behind him in the other truck comes Copeland and the photographer Tawbry.

Only he, Evelyn quipped, would write a book about the resurgence of America with a photo spread of himself as a great white hunter at the center.

Now she watches it all implacably, in the expedition-weight pants and fleece she bought for the trip, her expensive new hiking boots, she who has never, she’s confided, even slept in a tent before. She rides with her elbow on the rest, lost in thought. Planning, perhaps, the décor of an apartment in Chicago or Cambridge, listening to the sound of her voice on NPR. The old cattiness,
he thinks. You still haven’t lost that, at least. He looks at the darkness of the forest, the heaviness. He thinks of the high bare land above.

White. The old man had clothed himself in white suits to the end. Even after he had been released from the prison and retired to the farm at the edge of the Pine Barrens. One might have thought the prison uniforms would have broken the habit of the suits, they looked so alike. But they had not. Pressed and creased. A dark tie. Polished shoes. Collar starched to the con-sistency of thin bone.

Prison had wrecked his health and his reputation but not his defiance and there was a fractious funeral to which Quentin’s parents brought him; the farmhouse was stone and gray with a slate roof and Quentin walked out past the stables through the pasture to the woods. Damp. Loamy ground and thick dead impenetrable walls of brush. It was very dark even though it was still daytime. His hands were in his pockets and he was uncomfortable.
   The clothing was scratchy and didn’t bend right and the shoes pinched his feet. It was the first real suit he’d ever worn. His father had taken him to a tailor way up at the edge of Harlem to have it made. Money we do not have, his mother said. We’ll burn it when we get back, his father responded, and then we’ll be truly impoverished: no money, no suit, no respect. And they gazed at each other.
    A tiny cramped shop. Folds of dark cloth hanging from the dim ceiling, making a maze of little chambers. The man talked organizing with his father, unions, labor, proletarian consciousness, the words and phrases that Quentin had heard a hundred times but which held only shapes, not meanings, vague pieces of outrage and righteousness; and what Quentin watched were the man’s hands, working the tape and the chalk, the pins. In the dimness he looked like a Negro, but Quentin wasn’t sure. They talked about his father’s newspaper and about the race issue and those hands were like dancers, gliding, leaping, those hands in the dim gloom of that little shop coming to him now, walking away from the farmhouse. He was uneasy. The darkness stretching before him seemed to go on forever, and there was something of his grandfather in it. The trees and dirt and animals, sneaking around with a gun to shoot them. He was going to teach me. But he is dead now. Gone. This is the thing he told me about and I never really understood, and now I won’t ever know whether I understand it right. And they are wrecking it. They’re already drunk, and they’re going to argue like my father said they would, and he’s not even doing anything to stop it. He’s waiting for it so he can join in. In there with his eyes red and with that waiting in him the way he is when he’s at the typewriter and you come in, looking at you but not really seeing you at all, just waiting for you to leave. Money, is what he says when I ask why they will fight, and my mother says Politics almost at the same time, like the two words have always followed one another in some kind of talk they’re still having and have always been having. Quentin moved further into the heavy green darkness of the forest; when he saw his cousins, he didn’t understand at first what he was seeing. They were forms wrapped around each other like pale snakes. Or maybe they were less limber creatures in the gloom, scratching the life out of each other. They were half-clothed, teenagers, groping each other furiously, exposing soft pale flesh like rotting fruit; and the woods were transformed, no longer inanimate, that paleness full of something like the thing you felt when you stood at the end of the subway platform late at night and looked into the tunnel, the tracks falling down into some damp slippery place where there were pools of water and the cold air smelled of the thing that lives at the roots of the city, rotten and bloody like the open wound on the arm of the man you saw standing at the opening of the tunnel that day, terrible and infested and almost seeming to move,
and not even that wound as scary as his blank eyes as he groped towards you, and you fled; Quentin stared, furious, eyes beginning to flood, becoming that thing at the subway mouth himself, bursting out of the bushes with his fists windmilling.

We’ll all go down for the funeral, his father said without any pause in the pecking of the typewriter. We owe him that at least.

You’re not serious, his mother said. The master of fraud? P.T. fucking Barnum? What exactly do we owe him? A bunch of goddamn lies about manhood and the nobility of imperialism?

Peck, peck, peck, went the typewriter. Then it stopped.

The money for this apartment, for one thing, said his father.

And Quentin looked back and forth between them, beginning to hate them for this argument that they could never stop having.

Because it is not the whiskey or the shooting or the African moon. Perhaps it is not even the wound or Schofield’s body or the sight of that quick lowering of the horn before the buffalo brought it up into me. Such a dainty, offhand movement. So pedestrian. Like a man dropping his hand to pick up a briefcase. At night I lie on my bed in what passes for a hotel here, with my chest wrapped so tightly I cannot breathe, counting the days (there are two of them left) until the ship departs. I listen to the whisper of the mosquitoes and I try to understand what it is that is happening to me.

Let me be honest with myself. For once. I know exactly what it is. It is Schofield, how easily he died, how easily I was torn open. It is that lowering and rising horn. It is exactly that. It is the inanity of it, and the acceptance of it. My jealousy of that acceptance. It is the buffalo, the goddamn buffalo, packed away in his crate for the taxidermist and still out there on the ground straining forward towards me. Still frozen in movement. I detest it. It terrifies me. I cannot abide it. I wish for all of the white stone and commerce of the city to sweep through it like a wind, all of the cigar counter men and milkmen with their horses, all of the taxi-cabs, the secretaries and the silverware and the haberdashers to come thundering down on top of it. 

And yet I cannot imagine going back to all that. 

It’s like the end of the world out here, Evelyn says quietly, as they cross over the creek through the snow and round the last bend in the rutted road.

 

4.

Copeland is a big man. He has sandy hair and a broad chest, a workingman’s face gone soft, removed a single generation from some slag heap or die factory in the heartland. Quentin knows him without having met him. Precocious in his small-town high school and precocious at the University of Michigan or at Purdue or Penn State. Big and bluff in his pronouncements. At the front of the class and always in the seat nearest the professor, casual and easy, and in his room at night working himself to death as his father and grandfather had before him on the line. Mechanical, dragging himself through one book after another, and contemptuous of his fellows. Who had grown up with books in their homes. Music lessons. Chemistry sets. The ones with the pipes and the glasses and the affectations. And yet ending up just as shipwrecked as they, just as outdated. You are bitter, he thinks. But it goes on. Because the photographer Tawbry is the same. Quentin has not seen him in years, and what he sees now is how thin his wolfish, grinning worldliness has worn.

I’m still in the same place, Tawbry tells him. But you should see the size of the houses around me these days. Good for the property value, bad for the tax rates, you know?

Quentin can imagine. He remembers the little house on the slope above the ski resort, dingy on the inside and with the stained green carpet; he imagines that it has been remodeled by now, big kitchen and a heated driveway, and yet still ostentatiously smaller than the neighbors’; he looks at Tawbry’s face: pockmarked and sallow, the eye sockets grown deeper with everything they’ve photographed, beginning with natural disasters and civil wars and shantytowns and cinderblock hotels, banking his money and clawing himself upwards, into portraits of famous artists, the Olympics, the sharp edge of a ski against the sky, the faces in wild adulation, the long career move from terror to frivolity.

You are bitter. And perhaps crazy. You need to lance this, to drain it.

But it goes on: Yourself the same. No different.

Early morning like late afternoon in the falling snow as they climb into their backpacks. Tawbry checking settings on his camera. Evelyn moving with the familiarity he had known she would feign. He does not watch her. He knows she will get the straps right, the weight on her hips as he showed her, will play like she’s done this a hundred times.

What you got there? asks Copeland, nodding at the cloth holster on his pack.

Holland & Holland, says Quentin.

The one you wrote about. Your grandfather’s gun.

The very same.

And I’m shooting a rental, says Copeland. I guess I know my place. He shifts his pack, tugs at one of the shoulder straps. Quentin turns and starts towards the tree-covered slope. Anyone gets tired and needs a rest let me know, he says over his shoulder. The first five miles is a real bitch, and the six after that isn’t much better.

A stupid thing to say. The kind of weight he never used to have to swing, 111the fulcrum of the fact that despite themselves they wonder if he has some thing they do not, some kernel of ancient mystic natural connection to the wild, to the cave and the firelight. He mocks himself as he begins to walk. I am bitter, and full of regret. And I am terrified of going up there again.

 

5.

The old road is little more than an opening in the trees, a low swell in the dying grass of the steep meadows, carved in a different age. The withered mountain flowers under the falling snow. Men and oxen and sleds. Cursing. Voices dropping like stones, giving a single long low bounce and disappearing into the timber. In the exposed rock of the ridge above the cup where the highest mines had been, there are grooves worn by the cables they used to tow their stamp press. Deep as his hand, smooth as polished marble. And above that is the valley, and the high ridge.

In the bush, said his grandfather, there is a feeling that can come over you that is stronger than drink or even than passion.

His mother gave a little cramped sound as if she were going to speak and he turned that pale gaze eye on her. She went back to her dishes.

It was morning and the gray light and the city sounds filtered in through the open widows of the apartment. The day before he was due to report to prison, his grandfather had appeared unannounced to take Quentin to the Natural History Museum. He wore his white suit and his shoes were deeply polished and he sat at the kitchen table while Quentin ate his hot cereal. His hands were large. Spotted. They rested easily and patiently on the wood. Quentin’s mother hovered while pretending not to hover. Even before his grandfather had arrived it had been one of the mornings when the force of her strength had deserted her and she was nervous and grabby. No sarcasm, no arsenic comments about the news, just that other, inside-out part. She dried the cereal pot for the second time. Slid it onto its shelf. Began to turn to look at the table and then turned back, rubbed the towel along the edge of the sink, reached up to swivel the pot so its handle faced the other way. Began to turn again and instead took down a glass and inspected it, cleaned it and then the one behind it. Began to clean them all. His grandfather watched her. Quentin finished his cereal, as fast as he could without losing his manners.

I have been thinking that you and I, Quentin, need to spend some time in the woods together. I ought to get you out of this city. But for the moment the museum will have to do. There is a buffalo there that I shot many years ago. It nearly killed me, and it was the largest and most nearly perfect animal I had ever seen. It was a world record at the time.

Quentin’s father, passing through the kitchen, snorted audibly and for a strange moment that sound almost seemed to be able to reduce his grandfather to an old man, tired in his chair, spent, full of old man memories. Then his father’s typewriter began its song and his grandfather turned his gaze onto Quentin; and on the subway his grandfather was white-haired and white-suited and among the crowds possessed again his full terrifying dignity. Quentin imagined the jail he would be in as a kind of dungeon, his grandfather looking out through bars at the gray Hudson. The old man regarded the people around them benignly, as if they were the ones who had entenced him and he understood that they could not help either their faults or their station. And then he began to speak to Quentin. Still looking at the people and yet speaking only to him. As if even at seven and seventy years of age, with no more than a handful of shared moments between them, they had more in common than any two people in the world. He wants me to know something and I have to try to learn it. He is entrusting me. Quentin did not understand everything but he tried to remember it all, hoping that someday it would make sense: the seat on the Exchange that his grandfather was being forced to cede, the skilful way he’d acquired the old apartment building on Park Avenue where Quentin’s father and uncles and aunts were raised and the adept maneuvers he’d made in the selling of it; and then the pause, and the lowering of his tone, and the explanation of how he would have traded it all in an instant for more chances to be in the bush. The wild. Hunting. For Quentin these words were no more than storybook impressions, of wolf and frond and shadow, bravery and lurking. As distant from the subway as the moon. And yet as he listened he began to believe in them, deeply and irrevocably.

Thinking back on these moments, Quentin would begin to see in his grandfather some sort of larger arc, falling just short of comedy. An upstate long-toothed country boy come to the city and working his way relentlessly upwards through some indecipherable combination of acumen and luck and fraud, ascending from huckster to comer to force; embarking to shoot in East Africa, publicly pronouncing his need to battle with the ultimate and returning with a world record, to national fanfare, headlines. The Man-Killing Buffalo—Was This Animal the Most Dangerous On The African Continent? And still ascending, his capacities and appetites and hunting trips becoming the things of legend; and yet all of it skewed, unknowable, one impossibly profitable speculation after another, one sordid rumor after another, until it was far more than a few too many; ruined, a fraud, released from prison and still clinging to the tissue of the old stories. And the highest comedy of all, Quentin thinks now, was that I believed him. Cleanly and purely. As only a sad, scared little boy can. And perhaps I still do.

The subway shuttered to a halt. The people climbing aboard were dark-suited. His grandfather watched them nobly, disdainfully, patiently, enduringly.

There will come many moments in your life, Quentin, in which you are called upon to be weak. This is the nature of being alive. A thing will come to you and will say, Please, be weak, just this once. Forget this one time what you know it means to be alive. But you must never give in to that thing. Because if you do, if you see what takes strength and you instead give in to weakness, then you are doomed. Even once. You can never recover.

In the falling snow they come to a ghost town. Collapsed cabins and silver splintering boards and in the tumbledown face of the biggest building there are panes of glass bent like funhouse mirrors. The old mining moraines have the look of spilled and calcified innards. Quentin pauses to let the others catch up, feels his wind and his mind coming back. Tawbry is breathing raggedly and shooting photos. Evelyn gazes at the collapsed buildings without speaking. Her skin is ashen with the cold. It is only Copeland who, after standing for a long time leaning into the weight of his pack and then drinking from his shiny stainless-steel bottle, has this to offer:

Silver miners. Different men then than now.

In his distant squint is visible the fact that he knows that this is a tricky bit of blazoning; also visible is the fact that he knows he cannot keep himself from saying it, just to hear himself say it in this setting.

Boom lasted a decade and a half, and the average life expectancy was just over thirty-five. They had twelve-year-olds working up in these camps. Took out somewhere in the vicinity of eleven million dollars. Then the government repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and shut down the whole party.

They look at the dried ancient wood. No one replies.

Above is an old sheep trail. Always up on this trip, up and always up. Traversing back and forth across the slope where the trees end and the scree begins. The thinking passes away and Quentin’s knee starts to ache and he can feel the muscles of his calves and thighs and ass grinding and popping against the bones. He goes slowly but steadily against this feeling. Age. The rocks with their moss. Snow in the crevices. Evelyn stays with him and he can hear her breathing straining against all her mornings in the gym, and as a young man he had decamped to the mountains carrying only his rifle and a handful of bullets and his knife and a ten-pound bag of rice. He would strip himself of that vision of manhood, that dense unapproachable thing laid out beyond the circle of firelight by the old man. He stripped and stripped. And there he was with his bullets and his bag of rice and at seventy-three days he had realized that he could go on forever like that. There was nothing to find. There was nothing to lose. He’d pushed further. Tomorrow I will wake and be a blank. There will be no romance, no darkness, there will be only the animal mind, removed from what it has known. And yet he could not quite seem to get there. And when he returned it was the beginning of the end of his marriage. He wrote the book for the next five years and he could not even for many years understand that book, his own, written in savage clarity and darkness. A treatise on shooting, on the relationship with death in the wild, written in the exact moment those things began to pass from being comprehensible. In the exact moment that the paradox of mystery and not-mystery began to be reduced to mechanism, to data. He had not then understood his own extinguishing, himself and his beliefs and his battles with those beliefs all faded from the world, although that was what he had written. But he understands it now.

Showing us all who’s in charge? asks Evelyn when they reach the top of the ridge without stopping their long plodding pace. Her breath runs fast and shallow. He hands her the water bottle. Around them are high peaks, cliffs, and smooth rockslides of prehistoric color, orange and yellow, brown, blue, all being blotted out by the snow. He watches her drink. She has that thing in her that some women have, that his wife had had, a forthright refusal to accept any weakness that is a result of a lifetime of that strength being doubted.

It’s nice to see him put in his place, she says, looking down.

Copeland and Tawbry are far below, coming slowly up out of the trees. Both men are leaned forward doggedly, their hands locked into the straps of their packs near the shoulder.

I didn’t think that was what you were interested in.

She hands him the water bottle and looks out at the peaks and does not reply. The wind bursts up over the ridge, driving the snow. He cannot read her eyes. He does not know if the look there is of defiance hiding shame or of innocence hiding calculation.

 

6.

You can’t really get the measure of a man on an animal like a gazelle, of course, said his grandfather, but you can get an idea of how he shoots, and how he handles himself in the bush.

Behind the glass were gazelle, plants, a few birds, a pair of cheetahs lounging in the grass. There were yellow hills painted onto the walls and a blue sky.

His grandfather went on, moving from one diorama to the next, listing animals and where you shot them, break the shoulder and obliterate the heart, try to find the spine with the probing finger of your bullet. He explained how Schofield had worked:

With each shot he moved us closer and closer, further into that relation. Nearer to the place at which the advantage you have over them in the form of the rifle is nearly balanced out by their physical attributes, their cunning. Closer to the heart of the matter, if you will. I didn’t understand this at first. Not until the second month I was there, when I shot a big tom leopard from the blind and it raised itself from feeding just as I squeezed the trigger. Down it went like liquid, shot through the gut. The stand of brush around that tree was higher than our heads, a place in which we would be able to see perhaps five or eight feet in any direction and in which the leopard would be able to move nearly as freely as he did in the open. And we would have to go in there to kill him, and he would try to kill us. As we prepared, a feeling came over me that I did not understand until much later. Maybe not until these last years of my life. A feeling not of fear but of kinship. A reduction to the same level as the things we were hunting. This is the relationship, Quentin. This is the relationship between man and animal, between man and savage, between man and man.

Quentin looked at the leopard. He saw the curl of its lips and the heavy jagged teeth, the bunches of muscle beneath the soft fur, heard the thing in the old man’s voice that he could feel but not yet understand. He felt the truth there. Just as, years later, he would feel the prevarication. The twinning of truth and lie, of knowledge and unknowledge, his grandfather speaking of things he knew and at the same time lying about things he did not know but wished, desperately, that he had known. That voice seemed to touch everything in the museum. Everything in the world. As if he had killed one of every animal on the earth, as if it was in that killing that his grandfather truly lived.

Did you kill it?

I did, Quentin. I did.

Under one precisely trimmed thumbnail had bloomed some deep purple stain; the skin running away from it was papery, and Quentin would remember those hands for the rest of his life; he sees them in the journals, in that cramped neat handwriting, on the stock of the rifle with which he too has hunted his whole life, in his own hands on which the spots are appearing, slowly, inexorably, as if that confusion of strength and the lie of strength is what will always win in the end.

 

7.

They do not camp in the old spot. Two years ago when this had all begun Quentin had shot a large bull elk a quarter mile from his tent there and it had taken him six trips down and back in seven days to get it to the truck, caped and quartered and the head for a friend who dressed them. It had been taxing, but not past the extent of what he had left. And yet on the morning facing the final trip he had woken to a faintness. The blue fabric of his tent seemed a great distance away, a strange field through which he wandered. He made it out to the ashes of the fire, dressed but weak, watched the twigs tremble as he put them into place. He could not work the lighter. He sat on the log slack and shivering. There were no aches in his body, no overworked muscles or ground-down joints; there was simply nothing. A great vastness. He woke slumped in the dirt and pine needles. The sun on him brightly. The lodgepoles silent against the sky. An ant working its way along the edge of a firepit rock. Starting the fire, heating water for coffee and rehydrated food, packing his gear and his rifle: all of this was a step-by-step exploration into the vague gray plain. It had no boundaries. A floor of ash and a sky of salt. The trail down was the same, such that it might have taken days or weeks—he did not know. He did not remember.

But the following year he went again. What else was there to do? The flatlands of the town had gentled the experience. The climb upwards felt fresh and strong. A week of Indian summer, of sickly unseasonable warmth. But coming through the last of the lodgepoles was coming back to that failing weakness, the old small firepit that as far as he could tell had not been visited in a year, the gap between the large rocks and the roots of the pine where he had pitched his tent for as long as he had been hunting there. He stood in that overwarm sun and looked at the far steep wall of the valley with its high bare backbone, at the round stony cup at its end. He looked at the bed of needles and the silent trees, and at the heavy grass along the stream, the carpet of fragile flowers there. He made his camp slowly and precisely.

The following morning the elk appeared as if they knew. The bite of the cold air, a layer of frost in his lungs, the rifle tight against his shoulder, the shaggy coat and bunched muscle, he had watched them in the wild for so long that he understood not how they thought because that was incomprehensible but how they moved, and when, and what it would look like. The first sun touched the meadow, turning it from purple to gold. The grass was dark and wet around him. He saw the gray plain of a year ago, woke again on the ground next to the rocks of the fire ring, felt the gentle squeeze of the trigger. Took the slack out until the hammer was exactly poised. The firm release as it fell. The straight hard run of the bullet. The bull at the head of the line staggered, leapt forward in that terrific start to flight, stumbled once and buried its shoulder into the ground; there was a frantic scrabbling of hooves and breaking of branches and he worked the bolt and found another surging body, brown and powerful, and he fired, gently; and even as this body was lurching off into the trees he was swinging the barrel, working the bolt, guiding himself easily onto another shoulder and then up onto a long strong head straining rhythmically forward as the cow climbed, an easy shot, the neck bent over by the impact like the stem of a flower in the breeze; working the bolt, reloading without awareness, and again to a calf, and another cow, whatever came into the line of his sight, and he had known, perhaps, it was not clear to him, that this was coming, but now there was only an energy, a free-flowing stream of frantic life directed outwards, that finger touching each animal, the absolute imperative moving him from one to the next, touching them all down, the failing of that light hard fast delicate powerful stride. That blurring speed brought to rest. Heavy-coated tan and brown. Those big soft eyes and twisted necks and splayed legs,something barren and yet with a presence, some growing feeling. Something like knowledge, perhaps. I do a disservice trying to describe it. And still I have a day to wait.

He walked back to his camp and sat at the smoking ashes, still in the morningshade of the high ridgeline. Broken branches and trampled brush and bodies scattered up the steep hillside. And as he drank his coffee a second small herd was there, impossibly, in the long gap of the meadow across the valley, floating up along the edge of the trees, tempting him, taunting him, offering themselves; he watched them grimly, holding off something approximating fury, and then prepared food that he did not taste and put out his fire and took up his rifle and his canteen and began to hunt in earnest, or to dream in earnest—there was no distinction.

He did not keep track of how many he killed. His shoulder ached with the recoil. He woke or believed he woke. He did not remember sleeping.

In the moonlight one night he surprised a bear that had come in to feed on one of his killing fields. He looked at it and it looked at him and his mind was a blank; neither of them broke the silence. The bear bowed to him. And still the elk appeared, small insistent herds of them, and he woke at times in his tent from the feeling of time, of immortality, and he felt himself observed: jays, deer, a lone coyote, a loose herd of sheep watching from a shoulder of rock. And what is real, and what is a lie? He killed mule deer. He took a very long shot at the coyote and missed. He woke. The sheep on the far rocky slope. And finally the goats. The sun impossibly bright. Saying something to him. Shining white among the high shale, those animals that he had always seen as the strangest and the wisest, which he had stopped killing long ago because of the sad wisdom of their faces. He believes he went out on his belly to crawl close among them in those final days of that season with a knife in his hands, hearing them feed, hooves clicking, closing his eyes and seeing how he would catch his fingers in one of those coats and bring that knife to bear When I looked at them lying there, man and buffalo, I had some idea of what happened when they died. This came to me last night, in a particularly bad reliving of the moment. I was feverish and tore down my mosquito netting to get at the night and suffered even more as a result of that bit of stupidity or weakness on his chest in the rocks among those goats on the high shoulder of a mountain, hearing their hooves and bowels, hearing his own, closing his eyes, listening. He sprang to his feet and stumbled at them and they shied a few steps back but did not flee. They stood and waited. Looking at him. He held the knife in his hand. Those long faces and tufts of beard, those white coats. The sun in the sky. The curve of the earth.

He returned to his camp and packed it and walked down in the dusk,
in the night. His truck was as he had left it. He counted his shells. He saw his father lost and demented at the end of his life, crawling on bloodied knees for the bathroom he could not find. He heard that final phone call, the confused insistence on fascist takeovers. He had fired many, many rounds.

He kept it in his chest and walked around as a normal man. He asked Evelyn to give up her own place and move in with him.

 

8.

So he does not take them to the old campsite. This one is small and unlevel, the space broken by trees and rocks. They pitch their tents where they can as the snow lets up and the purple high-altitude dusk slides into the valley. He expects to see bodies in the trees, bones, mossy scraps of hide or tendon. He does not. They heat water and eat the rehydrated food. They sit at the fire and listen to Copeland’s enthusiastic bombast. Quentin waits for something to happen, but nothing does.

And in their tent at the end of the night he can feel her curl up slightly in her new bag and he can feel her looking at him.

I can taste how thin the air is, she says. I’ve had a headache all afternoon.

How bad?

Very slight.

Keep drinking water. As much as you can. If it gets worse or if you get nauseous, let me know.

She is quiet.

It’s like being in a different medium, she finally says. Like some opposite of swimming. Don’t worry, I’m not delirious. It’s just very strange out here.

How’s your stomach?

Quentin, I told you. The headache is very slight. I did plenty of research about all that.

Of course you did.

I don’t hate it here, she says. I can see what it does for you.

Tomorrow or the next day you can kill something, if you want, he says.

And gut it, she says, and carry the head back to my office. Become cold and grim and Teutonic, like Copeland wants to.

He is on the border of the dream. He sees that she is not taunting him, that she may have known all along what was going on inside him. He knows again what he has known all along: she has stepped lightly on his shoulder and another step will take her up further and away. He says: Venture, one might say, into the heart of darkness.

Massa Conrad, she says, I don’t mean no disrespect, but I seen darker than this.

He chokes out a laugh.

Some weight has come off of you, she says. You seem so much more free out here.

Maybe it’s the peace that comes with the acceptance of impending death.

Jesus Christ, she laughs. You’re an idiot. She speaks lightly, as she would to a friend or a younger brother, and she turns her back to him and prepares for sleep.

A faint wind passes up the valley, sighing in the trees, and then it is still again.

 

9.

He checks his watch and begins to dress and outside the tent the stars seem very old. The snow a thin layer of glass. With his breath flooding white and the rifle in his hands he stands looking at the shapes of the camp, hearing the sleeping bodies behind their nylon. He thinks of the joke about murdering Copeland. Is it true that there is no such thing as an innocent joke? He stood looking, too, at the Cape buffalo. It towered over him with a malevolence, dark fur, face like an anvil and a huge thick boss like something fossilized, bent far downwards on both sides with age. His grandfather talked on. And Quentin believed. He believed with his entire heart. He stood at the glass and the animal was as close as a nightmare. And yet his grandfather killed it.

He makes his way up the valley to the chutes where he believes the herd will be moving up and out of the valley in the mornings, and when he returns the sky is gray and a fire is burning and the others are up. He tells Copeland how they will go about taking his elk, amazed that they cannot hear the fracturing in his voice.

You’re not going to get one for yourself? Tawbry asks.

No. Evelyn can take my tag if she wants. If not, you can.

You’re not losing your enthusiasm, are you? asks Copeland.

I suppose that’s one way of putting it.

Brought that old gun all the way up here for nothing?

You never know.

Copeland does not hear him. He stands with his weight on his toes and a mug of coffee in his hand. He is looking up the valley. At the edge of the pocket of his lightweight pants his other hand flexes into a fist and then relaxes. An hour later they climb straight up the slope until the trees begin to give out and then work their way carefully to the head of the valley. They will not shoot this morning. The elk are already gone for the day. This is simply to get them accustomed to the land and to show them the positions from which they will begin the following morning. They watch the sunlight creep across the floor of the valley and already the snow is melting, and he explains to Copeland the way the animals may come up the slope and about how the biggest bulls will most likely be at the head of the line; he suggests that he be familiar with the view through his scope so he doesn’t put his eye to it and find himself lost in the trees. Copeland nods with an indulgence meant to show that he already knew this, had read it.

And he probably has. He has done his research, just like Evelyn. He believes he knew what kind of initiation this would be. The kind he is not supposed to talk about at the faculty parties except in sociohistorical terms but cannot deny that he still yearns for. As they all do, in one way or another. And do I? If I told them the things I have done, even Evelyn wouldn’t believe me. He explains the difference between shooting downhill and shooting uphill, should the elk appear there instead. Explains that if the elk do not appear they will have to move up and along the ridge to find them. Copeland nods distractedly.

I don’t want you there when I shoot, he says. I want it to be mine alone. I’ll have Tawbry with me to get some photos.

It’s your party, says Quentin.

We came down out of some low hills, his grandfather said, to a low place that was like a maze of brush and acacia, and we had been following this bull for several days. This one, who stands here looking at us. The air was very dry, and it held a charge, Quentin, like static electricity, and it was very hot. And it was the moment I would move into my first and last relationship with the great dark thing of the world. I was not able to feel this at the time. I lacked the capability. I only felt that I was approaching something, I did not know what.

He never even killed that buffalo, I bet, said Quentin’s father. They sat in the apartment on one of the last occasions he was coherent enough to talk. It was a dead, horrifying space, unwashed dishes and piles of books and magazines.

He knew we were hunting him, said his grandfather, and when he caught our scent he came at us from not ten yards away and we both put bullets into him and might as well have been shooting into a locomotive. Do you see, Quentin, that power in him? It is not a mirage. We later found that one of our initial shots had nicked his heart, which meant that from that moment on he had already been killed but refused to acknowledge it. The adrenaline, the willpower, drove him. He tossed me aside with his horn like you would bat a crumpled piece of paper and he took Roger Schofield full in the chest. Killed him instantly. And then he saw me again, perhaps now knowing that he was dead, perhaps now with that final knowledge all the way through him, and still coming to kill me. I managed to get my rifle up with one hand. The bullet passed through his throat and severed his spine. A perfect shot. It was pure luck. Pure grace. His legs went soft and he came to rest nearly touching my feet and we lay there together.

Years later Quentin received a letter from a man in Tanzania. He was Roger Schofield’s grandson, and a game ranger, and knew Quentin’s book. He’d found several boxes of his grandfather’s papers, and among them were the reports filed by the Tanganyikan Game Authority regarding the incident involving Schofield’s death and the buffalo in the museum. Would Quentin be interested in copies? He was. And he knew what he would find. Neither the papers filed by the Game Authority nor the taxidermist’s report mentioned a final, killing shot. The buffalo had been hit in the heart during the initial charge, had wounded Quentin’s grandfather and killed Schofield and then collapsed.

And one of the best jokes among the many, Quentin has thought many times, would be if he had fired his last, heroic shot, and missed clean but honestly believed he killed it.

 

10.

There is still no light in the sky when he leaves Copeland and Tawbry and Evelyn in their places and begins to make his way upwards. The rocks like the bones he expected to find. The gentle bend in the earth past the old familiar gap at the end of the valley. He climbs higher, past trees kept small by the thin air, carefully through the big boulders, around the back of the mirador of rock, stepping quietly along the mossy ledge to this perch he found many years ago. The whole valley laid out beneath him. The stream a line of darkness down the center, slants of willow, meadow grass that would glow yellow in the sun. A garden. A paradise. When the grayness comes into the world, he sees the herd. They are taking a different line than he expected, are, as ever, unknowable. They will pass a hundred yards behind Copeland and Tawbry, and Evelyn as well. Unless he goes down now and retrieves them, they will sit all morning in what they believe is a deserted patch of forest.

In his scope they are dim shapes, resolving themselves as the light grows.
He can see the collar of Copeland’s jacket half up and half down and the shooting crook he’s found for his rifle. He can see the absolute stillness in Tawbry, who has sat with his camera through many moments like this. He can see how Evelyn has her legs bent under her in a way that cannot be comfortable, how the set of her back indicates the direction and intensity of her interest, waiting to see what will come up through the trees. His finger lies close the trigger of the rifle.

In the dark gray of predawn Quentin stopped to indicate to Evelyn where she should sit.

Quentin, she whispered as he began to turn away. In the meadow behind her the rocks were silvered against the night. She was a shape and a voice. There was the deep silence of the mountains. He turned back and waited for her to speak.

Do you think he’ll get a shot?

He smiled and knew she could not see it in the darkness.

Who can tell? he said.

He looks down at them all. He sets the scope on each one of them in turn. The faintness comes over him. The dream. The joke. His finger at the trigger like the urge to step into the wind from the top of a high building. He feels himself set the old rifle in among the rocks and walk up and over the ridge and down into the next valley, and the next after that. Teeming with animals. Quentin Shearing, he thinks, was that his name? He opens his eyes and looks at his hands, the skin thinning, papery, blotched. And he would like to look upwards at the unbroken sky, but there is an airplane far above him. A moving point of silver. People looking down at him as he is looking up at them, climate controlled and stewardesses with peanuts, music playing, businessmen on spreadsheets, and he looks down and the elk have begun to trail up out of the trees, and they are not crossing the saddle and dropping into the next valley as they should be, but seem to be moving towards him, plodding, willing, joyous, laughing, offering, eyes up and looking exactly at the rocks where he sits.

Tyler Sage lives and teaches in Baltimore. He has recent work in Barrelhouse, Story-Quarterly, New South, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Listen to Tyler Sage and Leigh Newman discuss “They Called It Shooting Then” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.

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