She hunts always at dawn, having followed the footpath between the tall chicory and wind jostled walls of river cane. Daylight is a perturbed omen in this first hour. Not the lusty blue of midday nor the burnt ooze of eventide. Instead, a gradual slide from granite to calcite, everything above her a kind of mineral reckoning. She covers ground, counts off her steps against a mental map, figures distance and the likely carry of the rifle’s report to her father’s trailer. He left for work long before she took his scoped Marlin and stepped into the woods, but she will not risk anything unforeseen. This is her secret, and to surrender it before its time would upend the great care she’d taken. It would profane her earned truth.
At her hip rides the small trophy purse, uncinched and open as a mouth. She had washed it clean after each hunt, but still the scent of blood lingers. As she walks deeper into the woods, her fingers play absently at the slack pouch lips. These same fingers, so light at the touch, would be enough to drag down what tenanted the sky, to kill with the absolute steadiness of hate.
She comes to the river ford, grounds the rifle butt in the sand and watches the water roll. The dam has not yet been let go and the current smooths itself over the rocky bed, clear and governed. At the bend of the river a fishing cabin above the water, but there is no one visible on the overhanging deck and the interior lights are not on. She raises the rifle above her head, like she’s seen soldiers do in her history book, and steps into the water. It needles her skin, but she warms to it quickly, moves along the flat stones, cautious of the slick edges, remembering the previous crossings and how she had once fallen in. The time the rifle had gone in too and she had scrambled after it before it was lost in the river’s quick shedding. She had turned back that morning without making it across, broken the weapon down to its bare components and salved them with a clean coat of gun oil to prevent rust.
Once she reaches the opposite bank, she slings the rifle and turns to follow the stand of mixed hardwoods buffering the paved road. She stays to the cool folds of shade, walks up the soft runners of moss, until she sees the swathe of cleared land on the other side. She hurries over the asphalt and vanishes into the leafy blackberries, the reach of white pines. With her small Tasco binoculars, she glasses the tall steel towers of the power line but sees no shapes among the high keeps. She tightens her hands to the rifle stock and waits.
Within an hour the hawk appears, crests the far tree line and lights in the drooping wire of the tower’s left branch. It rolls its scapulas once before settling into its perch like a fang upon a thin smile. Her heart rises to her temples as she lifts the rifle, anchors it in the vee of a sapling to steady her aim. Through the scope the hawk jumps into detail. The imperfection of his feathering. The sidle of his eyes. She clicks the safety off and releases her breath to still the crosshairs over the hawk’s breast.
The .22 snaps and the bird no longer lives. That simple. That complex. She stands and pushes free of the undergrowth, vines ripping, and lays the rifle at the clearing’s edge. Through the tall grass beggar’s lice attaches to the cuffs of her upturned jeans.
At the base of the tower she finds nothing. She cuts a larger circle for signs of the hawk, but he is nowhere on the ground. She shelters her face against the burning sun with the edge of her hand as she gazes skyward. Far up, in the girding, the carcass hangs, like a reprimand to the symmetry of the tower. She looks back at the road once before swinging herself up to the first horizontal crosspiece. The metal is surprisingly hot to the touch, but she wills herself to endure it so that she has time to consider each subsequent hold before committing her weight. The ground wheels out beneath her feet with each new ascension. It is its own kind of dangerous gymnastics, scaling the bright side of death.
When she reaches the hawk she is faced with the effort of dislodging it. In its fall, the bird had half entered a span of small iron guards where the power cable connected, and as she pulls at his tail the feathers come loose but the body does not. With no closer foothold, she has to reach high and pull down. Her foot slips and the fear of overbalance swings up through her belly like a sharp blow. With her pulse on the run, she fishes out her Case knife from her hip pocket and pinches open the blade. The bird’s head twists in her hands. The edge makes the neat detachment. She places the head in her blooded purse, leaves the rest for the buzzards.
Once home she circles from the brow of the hill above the trailer, seeing Evelyn’s Subaru parked in the gravel drive, the driver’s door open, one sandaled foot dangling out. She curses and backs off for the bordering hedge of rhododendron, stows the rifle and hawk’s head in the concealing arbor. Then she goes down to deal with another of her father’s serial mistakes.
“Hey, Winter,” Evelyn says, twisting out one of her hand-rolled American Spirits. She licks the paper once and seals it with an expert slide of her pinky finger. She holds it out. “You want one?”
“I’m not old enough to smoke,” Winter says, watching this woman through a filter Evelyn couldn’t understand, coming as it does at the end of so many similar episodes, the long refracted history of mother figures, each new issue a cheaper counterfeit than the last.
“Hell, girl. You’re sixteen. I know I was into plenty by the time I was your age.”
“I don’t want cancer anyway. You go ahead.”
Evelyn makes an attempt at a smile but fails. She sits a while, smoking and finding no place easy to set her eyes.
“My dad’s at work. He won’t be back until after three.”
“Yeah, I know. I told him I was coming up here to look in on you. Maybe have a little girl time. With school out and all, I just figured you might get bored. Want to get out and do something.”
Winter goes up the three short steps of the deck and moves some of the tomato plants into the morning sun patch. Evelyn clumps up behind her, blowing smoke. In the hard light Winter can see the shadows drifting across the stained boards like thin abstractions.
“I guess I could use some shoes. These are starting to look a little ratty.”
Evelyn smiles like her teeth are too precious to be covered, just pleased to be in Winter’s good graces. How predictable they always were, thinking that if they could get into favor with the daughter, the father would follow.
After checking to make sure the trailer is locked, Winter climbs into Evelyn’s Subaru, nudges aside a Ziploc bag of CDs and a couple of James Patterson mysteries checked out from the library. The dash is pale with dust and she can smell the fulsome scent of patchouli. Evelyn gets in beside her, plays a minute on her smart phone, then cranks the engine. It squeals in need of a new fan belt, though Winter doubts Evelyn has the first idea what that is or how she might fix it.
They drive into town and park on Main Street a few spaces down from the front entrance to Peeble’s department store. It is an old place full of second rate clothes and lawn furniture and the inside smells like a grandparent. Winter had hoped for one of the tourist driven shops with Colombian sandals, fleece hoodies, and The North Face backpacks draped from wall hooks, but clearly Evelyn is bound to a stricter budget. They go straight to the back, dig through the bins of water shoes, flats, and hooker pumps that look like they’ll bust a heel if you stare at them too hard. Winter picks up a pair of spangled stilettos with cherry bows, swings them loosely by the strap from her fingertips.
“Honey, don’t you want something a little more…”
“What?” she challenges. “Less trashy?”
Evelyn crimps her mouth. “I was going to say practical.”
“These are fine. I like the way they look.”
“Don’t you want to try them on first?”
She glances at the sole and then starts for the cashier. “Naw, they’re my size. Let’s go.”
She doesn’t wait to see if Evelyn will follow.
Outside, the air is heavy, unseasonably hot. Despite the morning hour, middle-aged women and men donning jean and khaki shorts stand on the sidewalk, gazing past their own reflections in the glass facades of antique and curio shops. Some slurp at Styrofoam cups of lemonade or sweet tea. Tourists descending on the self-conscious quaintness of Canon City, a township no one would ever mistake as urban despite its moniker. Winter clutches her plastic bag of shoes under her arm and surges past them.
“Hon, where you going? The car’s back this way,” Evelyn calls.
“I need to eat,” she says, not troubling to turn her head when she speaks. If this woman could keep up with her, that was her own goddamn business.
They turn in at a diner with a chainsaw carved bear set on a pedestal out front. Still too early for lunch, the few customers sit over plates of eggs and toast, drinking coffee in steady markings of time. A booth full of sunburned men in brand name fishing shirts and caps glance up when they enter. Winter feels their eyes slide past her skinny body and light on Evelyn, taking her in like potential recreation. All tits, tan, and bracelets, a kind of maternal porn fantasy come into the real world. Maybe that’s what her father saw too, just a body to fill an appetite, though even as she thinks that she realizes it to be untrue. Not him, not the man that chases after truth and meaning like they are important creatures on the edge of extinction. Not The Idealist.
Winter sits with her back to the wall under a television where CNN silently scrolls the news via subtitles. She consults the menu, speaks her order to the waitress when she comes, then sits for a few silent minutes, glaring. The food comes.
“So, you planning on marrying Dad?”
Evelyn tenses, places her fork across the thin edge of her plate.
“You like to bite, don’t you?”
Winter shrugs offhandedly.
“Just asking a question.”
“No, I think you’re doing a little more than that.”
Within a few minutes of pushing around at food she has no appetite for, Evelyn raises her hand to attract the waitress’ attention and sends her away for the bill.
“What, you not eating?” Winter asks, feigned innocence.
“No, I’m quite done.”
On the way back out to her father’s trailer Evelyn doesn’t try to engage Winter in conversation. The silence agrees with Winter. She is happy to make Evelyn pay for wedging herself into her life, into their lives.
Once home, Winter watches the Subaru grind out of the drive, flipping stones, ripping tails of dust. In the silence that follows, she closes her eyes and builds up her surroundings by memory, erects the shaded dimensions of the woods, invests them with light, heat. Perhaps this is a kind of meditation, though Winter prefers to think of it as an anchoring, sinking herself into the particulars of where and when she was to keep this place as hers for a while, removing the threat that living could so slyly exact, moving, as it did, without remorse. When she opens her eyes the sun soaks back in. She remembers then what she’d left undone.
She goes out to the hedge and retrieves the rifle and trophy, brings them both up to the porch where she sits under the bench umbrella where it is cool. She wipes down the rifle with a rag and places it back in her father’s bedroom closet, catches sight of herself in the mirrored doors. She likes the way she looks holding the rifle, serious and ready. She turns to profile, hoists the stock over one shoulder, then faces back, drops it in a horizontal line across her waist. Not so skinny looking now. Not so plain. She thinks of Cal.
She goes back to her room and sets the new shoes and the trophy purse on her dresser. At her desk a laptop is open. She sits down and stirs it to life with a keystroke. She pulls up Facebook for a minute to check messages from friends out of state. There is nothing new, so she clicks over to Cal’s page and looks through his same five pictures, the most recent of which was uploaded six months ago. It is of him standing cross-eyed beside a street sign that read SLOW CHILDREN PLAYING. She stares at the image for a long time, trying to see past the teenage posturing. She has had glimpses of the real person beneath that counterfeit when they’d walked the trails behind his house, his “keep” he liked to call it. He was always concerned that she be at ease around him. If there was a single thing that Cal couldn’t tolerate it was that others be uncomfortable, physically or otherwise. That was the reason for his continual stabs at humor. Winter had learned to study people’s habitual actions, how to sound out the parts of them they believed best concealed. Perhaps it was a survival tool, but whether acquired or innate, she was expert at reading another’s obliquities. She knew that Cal was shy about the privilege he’d been born into–generous and loving parents who were well-educated and successful, free of the petty country resentments and judgments she had so often seen and despised in the many small communities she and her father had fled from over the past decade. His consideration had surprised her, frankly. When she had moved in to this new place she had wanted to loathe everyone for their pettiness and prejudice. Instead, she’d found that the more she understood others, the less she could predict what made her want to be loved by them.
She closes the laptop without sending a message, opens the trophy purse and carefully lays the bloody head of the hawk on a doubled over sheet of newspaper. It begins to draw its own thin pattern across the print: a figure half realized. She narrows her eyes, pulls the head away and slips her fingertips through the spotted gore, traces a grotesquerie she could call familiar. Then she wads it all up, carries it outside to the plastic garbage can and hides it all under the stew of leftovers, broken down cardboard. The shoes too she carries out, shoves them past the gummed carrots and decapitated head.
All excess that needed to be carried off.
Charles Dodd White was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in both the city and the woods. He has been a Marine, a fishing guide, and a journalist. He is the recepient of the Jean Ritchie Fellowship, an individual artist grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, and is the author of the novels A Shelter of Others (2014) and Lambs of Men (2010), as well as the story collection Sinners of Sanction County (2011). He is at work on a new novel called Hurt River. He teaches English at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee.