By early evening,
the cold rain stopped and the skies cleared. In the hazy, soft November
sunlight the Mississippi hills looked blue and ancient. Aubrey took the .308
from behind his desk, settled down in a wooden rocker and began rubbing the
rifle's barrel with a rag that smelled of dark oil. Behind the store, in the
thick underbrush that Aubrey had not cleared out for years, a snipe whistled in
the thickening twilight. At precisely six o'clock Aubrey got up from his chair,
closed the twin doors and locked them from the inside. The large red OPEN sign
hanging from the store's front window latch was reversed to read CLOSED.
The moon had fully
risen by seven o'clock and was a milky white behind the thin clouds racing
quickly to the northeast. Aubrey flipped off the store's outdoor lights and all
of the inside lights except the single bulb above his desk. Here he sat for a
time in a small pool of light rubbing oil into the stock of the .308 and
sipping Harper's fine whiskey. Now that the sun had gone down the liquor warmed
him more than ever, and Aubrey closed his eyes and slept alone in the old
furniture store at the foot of the blue Mississippi hills. Barred owls barked
loudly while a gray fox sniffed at the store's back door looking for leftovers,
just as he did every night. Raccoons sidled down the trunks of oaks and
sycamores eager to reach town for an easy meal.
before midnight. He rubbed his eyes and pulled on his coat, for the fire in the
wood stove had gone out and the store was now cold and dark. Taking up his
rifle, he walked to the back of the store where he had made a makeshift ladder
out of old boards, each nailed securely to an oak beam that ran up next to the
old barn hayloft. Aubrey worked steadily, methodically, taking flashlight,
binoculars, blanket, coffee bottle, hard-boiled eggs and the rifle up the
ladder and into the loft. He settled himself quietly on the loose boards he'd
laid over the crossbeams in front of the large, louvered fan opening. He stood
the .308 against the wall and felt the five cartridges he had put in his shirt
pocket that morning. With the blade of his pocketknife he worked apart several
slats of the fan vent. The night poured into the store loft, and Aubrey looked
out at the Mississippi hills bathed in November moonlight. A lone mosquito, one
that winter had yet to kill, hummed in his ear. Aubrey wrapped himself in the
wool blanket and waited, looking for a long time at the wide expanse of woods
in front of him, the dance of moonlight on the surface of the stream. His eyes
began to adjust to the night, and he was able to distinguish a raccoon's bright
yellow eyes flashing from its den in the dead oak, the opalescent green of the
bullfrogs by the stream bank, the silver leaves of the wild grape, the white
throats of night honeysuckle. The plaintive song of a wood thrush kept him
company. Aubrey knew that life along the river below him and in the woods and
hills beyond was on the move, and that was as it should be.
They came first as
sounds: a rustle of dead leaves on the forest floor, a sudden splash of river
water, a dull whistle on the night wind. Aubrey drew closer to the hole he'd
made in the fan vent. The deer had come. He knew it. The sounds became shadows
on the river, running downstream with the swift water. Aubrey held his breath
as the river shadows came to a halt at the woods' edge, not far from where his
father had once kept a turnip patch. Many years later the turnips still came
up, went to seed, came up again—food for the raccoons and rabbits, squirrels
and deer, even for the gray fox when times were hard.
For years hunters
had listened to Aubrey tell his stories of where the deer came at night, but
he'd never told them exactly where, not even MacLaurin. The secret was his.
This was his place, as good a place as any on earth for a man to be on a cold
Thanksgiving morning. As he watched, the deer cautiously left the protection of
the woods and moved into the clearing now ripe with turnips. At the sight of
the deer, Aubrey's throat went dry and his heart raced like a child's, just as
it always had ever since he'd first seen wild deer coming down Mount Harmon.
What was it now, 60 years ago? Sixty-five? The feelings were the same, the best
Aubrey had ever gotten from life.
The several small
deer and does ate hungrily as Aubrey watched them with the obsessive attention
of an artist painting a landscape, taking in every detail. The years had not
diminished his awe of the grace and beauty of deer, their certainty of purpose,
their speed and courage. Once as a boy he had seen a white-tailed deer at full
gallop. He remembered thinking that the deer was the wind itself. He often
thought afterward that the deer racing through Burton's meadow that day was the
closest he'd come to seeing perfection, fundamental and unadorned.
It was nearly dawn
before the big buck came to the turnip patch. A pink haze, almost a fog, had
begun to work its way across the fading night sky. Aubrey knew the buck at
first sight. They had met at the turnip patch three years ago and again last
year. This was the deer that filled Aubrey's dreams. The buck, heavy with
winter fat and crowned with a gnarled growth of antlers the likes of which
Aubrey had never seen before, held back, a flash among the trees growing along
the riverbank. Aubrey found him with the binoculars and gasped at his size,
power, dignity. The buck's eyes were as black as a crow's wing and seemed to
take in everything. Breath rolled in clouds from his nostrils. Suddenly he
moved toward the delicious turnips. Aubrey reached for his .308 and slipped the
barrel through the slit in the fan vent. He thought about how good the stock
felt against his cheek. He took his time, putting his sight where he wanted it,
holding it and then squeezing the rifle's well-worn trigger. Click.
The buck lifted
his great head toward the store loft, then turned and dashed back into the
woods. Aubrey watched as the buck splashed across the river. He smiled.
deer 187," he said to himself.
He put the rifle
across his lap, peeled and ate a hard-boiled egg, poured a cup of coffee and
watched the morning break clear and cold. It was Thanksgiving Day, and Aubrey
gave thanks indeed that he had this place where the wild deer came to feed, a
place where he could watch and take part in their wildness and mystery.