I fell from a tree; a sapling to grow, to feed, in the darkness of a womb. The woods have always spoke to me like no other voice could. I hear their wisdom in the death throes of a hare. I receive their reprimand in the bellowing of the storm. I feel their love in the providence of winter berries. I can no longer remember the timbre of my father’s voice, or the smell of my mother’s hair. But every night I fall asleep, listening to the singing of trees.
My parents never left the woods, instead choosing to feed those trees who had given us such shelter as they had to offer. We were just so many children to be taken under their dark eaves, and I was the one gone astray. My heart never left, even as my feet walked to the tree line. I was never far from the singing of trees.
It’s simple, in the woods. Singing and silence. Walking and stopping. The wind either blows or it doesn’t. It’s why I enjoyed hunting from the moment I could lift a musket to my shoulder without toppling over. It taught me to live without expectation, or assumption, or prejudice. You sing or you’re silent. Nothing owed either way.
There’s no place for such thought outside of the woods. Civilization is debt, and I have always fought to keep my creditors at arms-length. Yet if the woods bear one weakness, they have a way of fleeing when you need them most. They’re easily startled by the grinding of machinery, the burning of forge fires. And these are more relentless than any flood or fire the woods have ever known.
But I knew. And I knew a foot must be kept in each realm; so I warmed myself by the hearths of man, even as I took comfort in the shade of old oaks.
It was often I returned to the woods to hunt. A musket, a pistol and a knife were all I carried—all I ever needed. I ate of the land’s charity, and took my shelter under the bare limbs of elders. Abstaining from fire and screaming smoke, I ate the flesh while the heart yet beat, and burrowed into the leaf litter like it was so many quilts to be drawn against the cold of night. The crawling beasts would continue their work around me, another piece of dead fall. Ants burrowed into the soil beneath my ribs, slugs dragged their perpetual damp across the fringe of my knees, and spiders came to nip at my ankles and disappear again into the endless expanse of dead leaves.
On this hunt, I rose in the closed eye of morning and continued to follow the scent of my prey’s blood into the embrace of familiar forests. For days it traveled into the bush, and I followed, footsteps blending into the chant of whippoorwills and the smoke of will-o-wisps. My prey moved like a stream between the rocks across the face of the land, knowing and not knowing that it sought to forget me, to leave me in the lowlands, to lose me in a sea of dikes and gulley’s. But the trees grew tight together here, holding the phalanx against the steady push of time, and the trail could not slip between their grasping fingers. We reached the foothills of the mountains; and there, I knew our pursuit would come to an end, as every hunter knows.
On that day, rain fell across dry wood in slow, steady drops that raised a dew on my eye lashes. The warm mist coiled in the cold air like a living thing, muting sound and dulling sight. It hid me, so that through that gray sheet I saw him before he could sense me. He was a buck, eight winters old and no younger, a bruise silhouetted in the mist. He was looking away from me, the wind pulling the stench of my humanity down the hillside. Had I wanted to, I could have closed the distance between us in a dozen strides or less and caressed his chestnut mane; I stood silent as a shadow. In his own time, he strode from the bank above me. Slowly, I followed him.
Ahead, the woods gave grace to a patch of meadowland. Here the buck made his procession, moving towards the herd drinking at the edge of the headwater. Each member of the tribe raised their head, one after another, paying homage with a nod, returning to the water that was his to seek and his to give. The buck surveyed them, his smooth hide steaming where the rain struck it, billowing like a cloak behind him. A thick, brutish neck supported the weight of the great bramble of tines that sat like a crown upon his head. In my mind’s eye, I could not only see, but feel the weight of those tines—not in pounds, but in years. Years spent shedding and growing them. Years spent brandishing them to win another harem, another litter of heirs. Years spent sharpening them to ravage those who would challenge his primacy, ravenous wolf and rival buck alike. They were weapons of war, sigils of state, his burden alone to bear; yet he held his head high, as if they weighed nothing at all.
I settled my musket barrel across the crook of a bole some yards away, wood grain grinding against dead bark as I aligned the end of the barrel towards the buck. I didn’t reach for the trigger. In silence I watched as the great crown of tines observed the grey misted meadow with quiet vigilance, before dipping gracefully down to the water’s edge. I removed my hat and held it to my chest, ignoring the heavy drops of rain that ran through my locks and raised shivers across my arms. In that moment, I felt as one of his supplicants. My knee crooked into a bow as it had never bowed before man or god, and sunk softly into the damp earth. I did not, and have not known this part of myself again. I have not met another lord of his like.
A crack of gunpowder, a flash of lead lightening and great droplets of blood fell to the earth with the rain. The buck crumbled to the ground, his kingdom fallen. The herd scattered as one, vanishing into the thicket, leaving no trace of their culture behind. From the opposite tree line a figure appeared, smoking musket still in hand; a man as beautiful as the creature he’d so harshly judged more fitting to die.
His smile was like dappled sunlight coming through a beard the color of molasses, and his eyes darted with the quicksilver excitement of brook trout. He was dressed as any man of means dresses venturing into the wilderness; yet he walked effortlessly through the thigh tall grass, his actions thoughtlessly graceful, and I realized he was at peace here, taking shade under dark eaves. He stared after the retreating herd, listening intently to the muffled thunder of a dozen frightened hooves fading into the distance. Then he took a moment to admire his prize; won, finally, after days of wandering through untamed wilderness, hours spent on frustrated trails and false leads under the glare of a cold sun. Now he’d come, to rest in the court of the king himself. Reverentially he knelt, laying a hand upon the carcass he’d created, the great crown he’d toppled to the earth. He tossed his head back and closed his eyes at the sky. His breath plumed into the cool, moist air; a prayer, a libation. Thanksgiving for a death that was not his.
My hand fell to the stock of my musket, and my fingers slid to the familiar grip of the trigger. The iron was cold in my grasp, slick with dew. I leveled the sights, watching in my mind as the recoil shoved the barrel towards heaven, sending the musket ball unseen on its flight through the roiling, damp air of the meadow. As my finger squeezed the trigger, I shivered again, and the sights dipped below their mark. I summoned another crack of gunpowder, another bolt of judgement, and in the span of a breath, my prey fell beside his own.
It was a short walk from the bole to the bodies. Red tendrils passed me in the stream, and the familiar scent of dying brushed my nostrils on a crisp breeze. I could hear the man wheezing, half hidden, squirming in the tall grass. I knelt a pace away and felt the cooling hide of the king he’d felled. Its pelt had been so supple, a royal robe—and now, it would be little more than fringed garb for a woodsmen. A branch of his tines had shattered, cracked against the earth, soaking in his own noble blood. His throne had been toppled, its mantle lost to the dust. And who would mourn its passing?
I would have stayed, and stared into the glassy nothing of his eyes; but my task remained unfinished. So I stood from my musing, and drew the pistol from my belt. The beautiful man, blood caking his lips, quicksilver eyes darting around in his head like rabbits, had drawn his knife. It was a short, stocky blade, built for skinning hide. He rolled on the ground like a turtle, the knife lolling feebly in his grip as he struggled to breathe through his own blood. His eyes savaged me with loathing, hatred, trying desperately to hide from me the fear they could not. I struggled to find the words I knew I should say.
“I’m sorry. It was a poor shot.”
I raised the pistol and pulled the trigger. The soil turned a deep crimson beneath him, blood seeping down with water to feed the roots of the field. I wondered to myself if his blood would one day feed another; if this meadow would one day become a field, a homestead, made rich by his death. The sigh of the earth told me this was true.
I tucked the pistol away and faded with the mist. The trees were silent around me, as they always are in the presence of death, and I missed their song. It was a lonely journey back, and in truth, my payment at its end hardly felt worth their silence. Yet I had earned my place by man’s hearth for another year. My debt was paid.
I have found that men create many reasons to return to the woods. And while my employers send me with grievances, philosophies, and ideologies, the casus bellis of civilization, I return because I will always return to myself. In truth, all men seek the shelter of dark eaves. But I alone have found it.
Harrison Hurst is an undergraduate English student from Chattanooga, TN. A writer for most of his life, Harrison Hurst is dedicated to the refinement of his craft, and finds inspiration and standard in the spirit of writers such as Barbara Kingsolver, Tim O’Brien, and J.R.R. Tolkien.