‘forty yards’ (tuesday; revised)

‘forty yards ahead, not forty yards above’

by roland jackson

 

I don’t remember when the water settled, exactly, when it went back down the red rock shore. Hours before that sun eclipsed the canyon wall I would think of bullets breaking sound barriers but in the moments after the point of kill I didn’t hear the shot atrophying between tall mesa walls because it was clear that the lion was not coming back. What I felt, and this was what brought me to, was the wind, watched it pull back yellowed and brown cottonwood leaves. Since moving west I’ve come to attach great significance to the wind, something Mona, my wife will likely never get, something I imagine my father somehow understood. I admire those after-the-fact moments when you can remember how something invisible has character. It’s life or life giving. Sometimes I track time that way, heeding the points between a dulcet tone of wind and pealing silence.

Ten hard feet below the lion stayed put and I thought how sometimes an image is vivid to the point of entirely possessing an idea. Fear. Outstanding predicament. Distance. Retrieve, remedy, put back.

“High Yellar.” It was what I’d been thinking but in saying it out loud I did not feel better. I was only that many shades darker than the lion.

Beforehand, part of the lion stayed behind the red bolder. The laps of fur were folded neatly about its shoulders and its muscles at the bends and joints were like that of an outdoor cat. But all of that shrouded the fact of violence and that was not what I needed to see. I lay prone and was adjusting my shoulder when it finally scaled the far canyon wall forty yards ahead, not forty yards above. Then it stopped and we were level and I had one in the chamber. In that early portion of the afternoon the thermals picked up and half a dozen gusts petted past each of us before I put one bullet in its mouth. It ended in the pool.

The wind couldn’t push the beaten lion beyond the center of the pool and I had nothing to do but stare and breath it in.

*

I started hunting just before my father died and in terms of my own hunting career, my father’s death was simple: an elk in Colorado, a deer in Wisconsin. Then he was gone. My old man, my father, he never hunted, but he’d done a lot. For example, he’d gone to war, two tours with the Marines in Vietnam. He volunteered. The handful of remaining telephone conversations between my father and me involved my handling of the rifle: “How’s your shoulder? How’s your cheek-weld? Tell me how you are breathing.”

When he was a very young man he visited our myriad cousins in Mississippi and watched black and white Westerns in the balconies of segregated cinemas. He lived long enough to see so many of those coveted Westerns made available on DVD. Maybe it was hearing him talk about those cowboy-and-Indian films that got me OK with the west.

That and my wife’s appointment. Like my father, she’d studied and recently succeeded in becoming a hired, mechanical engineer. That brought us to Phoenix. Mona was a sought-after graduate and had offers to work in the social luxuries of Tulsa, Oklahoma and Florence, Alabama. As an electrician, I could work in most states. Toward the end of our tenure in Wisconsin it got to where we were waiting for her to graduate and by the time she did my old man was gone. Then it was just a matter of agreeing on mild winters and dry heat.

Like my father I didn’t have other wives or women on the side. I had some schooling, not as much as my wife, and the scale of good work I had made for myself now outweighed the successful winters over the tough ones where I mostly hoped to break even. I’d finished the technical degree I’d started and taken two courses toward an Associate’s: African American Thinkers in U.S. History and They: Race in American Literature. But my wife made more money.

 

A pot of wind blew down from the northern mesa and fondled against the cliff before connecting onto the pool’s surface. In my time as a novice hunter I knew a little something about those lions: the vertical leap of over twenty feet, that it’ll hug and gut its prey with its hind legs while pawing its prey, the upper torso and head. There are films of hunters filming bears, steady, and seeing the lion makes the camera hand shake. Regardless, one hunter on one single occasion had said it that way and since then I could not disentangle the two: lion, not mountain lion.

I decided then that she was a lady. She is the cat’s mother. The lion did not stir. I thought of the work ahead and of my laborer, a liberal white heavyset dread, whose short shins manage to carry good weight. He’s still a good worker, young; he still works for me, not at me. When he’s not sorting wires and running ground he yaks Hendrix riffs and pumps on about nature and the Tao. “Once you name it, you’ve lost sight of the way.” He had one about talking: “Those who know do not speak,” he said. I nodded that one and tossed a bundle of hardwire at his neck. For three days of this hunt I watched the wind ripple the large pool of water and break away all but the reflection’s dominant color. Canyon red. Black-blue from the sky above. Brown from my own face. And for three days that lion had to have been there, watching out of sight, perhaps thinking just as I had. Certainly, in this lonely red-rimmed canyon it wanted just as I did: elk and quiet. At night I made fires and drank bourbon and in the morning before things settled into the afternoon relief I poured myself cups of scolding black, cowboy coffee. I had no doubts the lion had seen all of this, my attempts to bag the bull and quietly nurse hangovers. This was quiet. In Phoenix you oscillate between begs for wind to come through without sand grit, something to push out the heat. In Phoenix the air coming through feels like the hot breath of a morning wino. North of Phoenix is different but I don’t usually have work up that way. I listened to the wind’s bastard translations.

But for all that philosophy the problem was she needed to be removed. Had I left her there, nothing awful would have happened. Nature inevitably responds. That whole adage of never leaving a wounded animal to die is useless. A dying deer will be had. Coyotes and turkey vultures live for it. You suffer every morning under the threat of natural malfeasance; hell, be thankful to have a bullet help you end the morning worry. The problem was moving her.

High angled sunlight exposed dark cracks in the rock and I felt warm. I kneeled in the juniper’s shade. I thought badly about future movements, how I didn’t need her coat, that I had already considered how I would fill her into our freezer back in Phoenix. It’s a bad line of thinking to parse out what you’re going to do with the thing before you have even touched it.

I knew two things and granted myself a generous assumption: the night would be cold, I would need a fire with stocked wood; I would get out of the water with the lion on my shoulder. Probably, I would use the rope from the tarp and maybe the tarp itself. She would be heavy. Chinks in the rock would be scarce. Hours or less than half of one hour?

First, fire, I thought. I walked and began gathering kindling. Broken acorns were scattered about a short series of gamble oak. Dry branches abandoned at the afternoon shade. I thought of my wife and how she’d been engaged once before to some joe-black-dandy fellow. He would not be here. Five or six months ago Mona and I ran into him on one of her birthdays at some new Phoenix restaurant. She’d spent the day itself at a Southwestern Engineering conference and toured us alongside “Phoenix Black,” the city’s sponsoring black professional network. The conference pulled in engineers and professional folk from as far out as Baltimore, Maryland. He was there speaking on flight duration, “Flyable objects from a very large height. Simply put,” he told me. “Phoenix, my man, has ample room for study.” Before they split they’d been together for years and I figured he had to have recalled her date of birth. Perhaps they both felt the call to Phoenix fashion. As with all things in that city the restaurant was new and entirely out of context. To my mind, newness in Phoenix equated to more plastic, more and consequently less water, a shift in hired brown hands. Going around all of them that night I got the sense that she’d loved him quite dearly. That or she’d loved the idea of him. The guy wore a maroon bowtie and sounded perfectly adequate. He too had the light skin. Maybe that was why she found me, easy. I was the adventure, perhaps the only whim my wife, the mechanical engineer had ever taken.

The trail from the water feeding into the pool had a curve eighty-five yards directly in front of my line of vision and in the trail there were downed trees and tall, grey barked cottonwoods. My options included going upstream to the place where the lion fell. I was no in rush to get in that cold water with that dead female. Maybe I could leave it for a day, sleep on it. Just gather wood, I thought, and I did so back and out again and again.

In the quiet afternoon hush between winds that ached down broken branches and curled over the pool water I thought of that damned city, how it was not like we hadn’t tried places out of Phoenix. So often Mona agreed to hike out with me. But when we’d summit a mountain in Flagstaff she’d suggest we go right back to the base as if we’d gone up simply to go down. When we’d drive out to see the sunset she’d talk about what I was thinking or just talk normal or point out the things she was looking at or just look away from the clouds. She seemed entirely uninterested in the clouds, cut red by sunlight, coaxed into color before turning white and then dark again. Nothing wrong with that. I’d  told myself nothing wrong with that. After awhile, you wonder if it’s enough to squabble over. The people I knew were not asking when they said, “You wanna break it up? Drop Mona, the mechanical engineer?” So, you get through the night and things get quiet and it all becomes familiar. This is familiar: dead air, a breeze, a dead animal, the work to come. When we went to Mona’s church in Wisconsin and later her church in Arizona, there were always old folks, folks of my Grandmother’s generation who would smile and compliment my wife and I for holding jobs and not having out of wedlock children. During sunsets when she would ask me, “What are you thinking?” or break the silence another way, with a statement about the sky, stating, “Look at the sky,” I felt content giving it all away. I soon had stacks to last another three days.

 

That was it then. Two ricks of dried oak and kindling from that alligator juniper and what looked like Arizona Cypress. This was New Mexico but the same cypress grew out here, I figured. Carefully, I arranged twigs and dry duff into a teepee, log cabin combo. Everything was shaded. The sun was evidenced but all direct light was gone. It boiled over the western rim appropriately. Down the north end of the canyon the last lights of day faded, and stretching shadows splayed over the red rocks and intermittent greens of sage and juniper. I wiped dust from my hands and started the fire. The fire was warm.

Like most men, I got no answers from my father. I don’t blame him for that. I often rolled back what I knew of him, as all men do with their father as though it were a broken wristwatch you could fix by simply tapping enough times to make it tick properly.

When my old man fell ill and had the first leg removed, my mother, siblings, and I had those DVDs for him and we watched them with him as he lay in his bed. Mona had met my father and because she was kind enough to my mother, my mother absolutely enjoyed her. I suppose it was just by meeting my old man that Mona had a mind to care for him and I guess we stuck to that caring. She could see what it was doing to me. His slow bout with the illness allowed us not to consider where we were going. He was on an upswing when Mona and I got engaged. But his condition didn’t last and shortly before the wedding he relapsed and had the other leg taken above the knee. When he died we didn’t have him to care for anymore. My old man had said to take care of your mother, and my brother had vowed to do so, to stay in the home with my mother. Panes baulked by the wind outside wagged the window’s plastic seal like a nervous afterthought and I remember opening the window.

In the fall, Mona graduated and a month before she did so I got my second deer. Then we left and took the job to Phoenix thinking it as a change of scenery, a way out from another Wisconsin winter.

 

I stood naked by the fire for a last bit of comfort and cradled my rifle at the same time for the same reason. The clothes and backpack were stayed by the organized tinder and woodpile. Then, opting to do it sober, I rested the loaded rifle barrel up against a familiar manzanita branch and stepped to the cliff and thought how I hadn’t heard other hunters shooting that day and that a thirty-aught-six, or a two-seventy windmag, or my own a seven millimeter zero eight, will sound across a canyon and echo and unless you are close you are fenced in to the sensation that something is out there, flying ahead of sound, and you cannot tell its direction.

At the cliff’s edge I saw my face distorted on the water. Flickering spots of brown, the dark above. Fragments. I saw her laying there, floating.

I went into the pool and at the entry I kept me head above water. I had to think of my wife. This was why you don’t hunt alone; this is why you are here. Two weeks prior to my intended departure she and I were at some damned “First Friday” event and this guy Ray Ray and his wife, friends of Mona, were kind enough to suggest a dinner and football date. When they asked what I had planned for the game I said, “Nothing.” Then I retaliated against my own self, quickly, that is before Ray Ray or Mona could and said I wouldn’t be able to make the game on account of elk season. The three looked at me like adults who know better and for whatever reason I made an effort to indulge the conversation. Maybe it was to please Mona.

            “Those elk are in a rut. Swinging dicks. Only mine is metal.”

            “And black,” my wife said.

            “And tiny,” added Ray Ray.

I turned to go back for my knife and then I thought I wouldn’t do good. I didn’t have to climb out yet. I looked up. No sun. Smoke. There was at least that. I told myself that I’d made the fire and that rocks encircled would keep the warmth and fire and that it would be there. I moved in again a few feet further than before and stroked across and could not reach the bottom of the pool and as I made breaststrokes across the water, I counted them.

Being in the water did not warm much. The wake was my own. My heart wouldn’t slow. I had to order that. I slowed with full breaths and felt my extremities turn numb and cold. I moved further in.

From the vantage cliff’s edge the lion had looked manageable and at other times massive. From there is seemed to depend on the angle, how nature’s soft current turned her about. Now I could touch her and what I saw now was a prodigious iceberg, brown and as is true for sailors and ships, problematic. Her tail was obnoxious, an add-on.

“You think that matters!”

I said that to her. I treaded beside her back and pushed water up her face. I shuddered out profanity and tried to keep warm.

Briefly treading beside the back of the lion, pushing water against it, trying to somehow look over it to see more of it and feel sure, raised thoughts of inadequacy, depthlessness, uncertainty as to how anyone could linger. The blood had not trickled out too far. Iron in water. There was the fur and, finally, flesh to grab. She was cardinal red and brown. Black gums, dull blue eyes. In one direction the coat was like velvet, crossed over, and turning the fur in the other direction felt out of order. I thought, you’ve never had any of this. Here’s this, a shaken caress. I had her now. I punched a line up her taut belly and hit that apex where all ribs meet. I held her and laughed and thought irresponsibly ironic thoughts like a child that laughs in the face of a predatory parent. I thought of Dr. King, his loss in Chicago; that my Grandma had been there in Chicago when Dr. King suffered that loss; that she’d been there for the riots responding to his assassination. She knew Dr. King by way of that city, not Phoenix, and now I had freedom as a bitch lion in a cold southwestern pool.

Dr. King. The day he died people reported fog, rain, and drizzle. A slight wind of 22 knots. It had to have been a cold April. When he gave that “I have a dream,” that cursed legacy, there couldn’t have been much air. D.C. August. A humid Phoenix. “I have a dream,” I said to myself. I spoke as he did and swam with her. “…That one day…little black boys and black girls will join hands…hunt lions…who are otherwise known as mountain lions…” Neither Arizona nor New Mexico received an honorable mention in that speech. He did not take a stand on New Mexico and I had to figure he knew better than to try Arizona. But somehow he knew about Colorado. He had a fine way of saying “Colorado.”

We were closer now to the cliff wall but I left her to get my head and breath back. With the second round of pull she gave in quickly and now it was a matter of taking it back. Now it was counting one-armed backstrokes, finding the hold, looking to the lion then back to the shore. I was blinded by fatigue and cold. The rhythm was off. It wasn’t working. The chill in the pool became more apparent. In the cold pool and with the dead lion with only a few strokes left to make it back I repositioned my hold entirely and held her with both hands and swam backwards, frog-kicking, once kicking the back limbs of the limp, soft fur. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t. I have to. We swam on and it was as though we were a couple, leased in an abhorrent fall, sideways, dancing slow.

            For a while at the tall cliff it felt like the rope and tarp would be enough. I picked at the chinks and holds in the rock and kept her on my shoulders. I had a hunter’s sense that it was working. She’d have to go. I would sit still by the fire and know I had made good time. I wouldn’t think what else would have happened, if I had had to go to sleep.

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