by Chris Poole
She scatters clothes over him as she wrestles the drawers from his dresser. He fills the bag, as he is told, while she upends the drawer and tosses it aside. She moves down the dresser in this manner until she is crouched at his own height, and there he can join her, shoveling socks and underwear into the swelling trash-bag.
Then she stops. She plants her palms into the carpet as if to calm the digging itch in her fingers. He stuffs the bag and only looks over once he feels her gaze laid on him. In the dark, he cannot separate her shaggy hair from the shoulders they cover, but he can make out a single lock that swings from cheek to cheek.
“We’re moving, okay, Sweet?” she babbles. “Little Darlin, yeah?”
She reaches for him, but the bag is in the way, so he pulls its plastic handles and cinches it up as he has done the trash so many times before. He pushes the load away so that it sags back into her knees. She shakes that lock. She lifts the bag and rises, and the handles snap immediately, spilling the clothes over him one last time, but he ducks under the tide and throws himself against her thigh, expecting a shriek, hoping to contain it. She hardly even sighs. She wraps an arm around him, groping unsteadily over his neck and face, and with her free hand, she grabs the rifle from the top of the dresser.
She chants until she coos, “Darlin, Darlin, Darlin,” and she steers him from his bedroom and down the hall. At the end of that passage, he can see the open door of her bedroom, where the man lies somewhere beneath all that darkness. She must steer him nearer and nearer to reach the stairs, but soon enough she rushes down, tugging him with her.
She says, “Darlin, Darlin,” and her grip relaxes until she just plants her hand on his little head. “We don’t need to bring a thing with us.”
She jogs them both out the door, and outside, though every creature might be bedded down for winter, there is still some sound more than the silence that followed them out of the house. That silence had filled the place like a cloud of poison, expanding until it seeped beneath his door and stuffed his ears and swallowed whole the thunderclap of the rifle, the rushed padding of his mother down the hall, the flurry of packing.
She says, “Just keep up, and I’ll tell you a story,” and a breeze knocks a breath of cold into him and carries the silence from his head.
“We’ll camp out in the woods. Our woods, I mean. The land around here was settled and claimed by my daddy’s daddy’s daddy’s daddy, who was my great-great-granddaddy and your great-great-great-granddaddy, you see? Just yours and just mine, and that’s all, by blood.”
The woods roll out just a few yards from the back porch and down the easement. He can recognize a hickory and a few variants of evergreen by sight, though he’s spent little time learning the outdoors. He knows and likes the hemlocks best, for the tiny pine cones they drop and because they are the first trees along the line, and thus the ones he scrambles up whenever the man and his men chase him out of the house.
They pass under this line, and he leans down to snatch some shed cones. She tightens her grip, but then stops and stoops down with him. She plants the rifle into the dirt and leans against it, and he recognizes it as a truly foreign object. He knows how to hold it, how to shoot it, but he has never shot, only loaded, and the final give of its stiff trigger seems so removed from the shot that sounded from the man’s room and the silence after.
He tries to find her eyes behind the scrub of hair and the darkness. He thinks she is looking back to the house, and he turns to look as well, and then he feels her eyes on him again. They’ve only been on him. She takes his head and turns it.
“We’ll not look that way.” And she marches him into the woods and he feels or simply imagines that, behind them, the trees are leaning into one another like fingers interlacing and cupping around them.
She sets a steady pace, and they pass a mile or so without stopping. She tries to speak to him along the way, though her jaw chatters around all the words she cannot quite catch, and she often settles back into her hum of “Darlin, Darlin.”
She begins to lean on the rifle like a walking stick. He watches it land each time, waiting for it to go off. But it makes a decent crutch, so she exaggerates her steps, jabbing the barrel of the gun again and again into the earth, and she chatters and Darlins until her voice matches the rhythm of these landings. Then she can speak.
“This great, great, and great granddaddy of yours, he kept a gun but never took it from its place at the mantle unless he meant to hunt mountain lions, and to him they were only lions, no different from anything in Africa or India or any other home of lions. He knew them by their wail, and he knew when they were safe in the mountains and when they were ranging into our valley, because the wail took on this echo that bounced down to his cabin ‘til it landed right in his lap. The wail would get caught in the little bowl of the land and it had to ring all around the bowl before it could rise out.”
He listens, but they alone rustle the calm of this night.
“We aren’t going to wail, right? There might be men coming around soon enough.”
He knows these men, the ones who chased him up the hemlock, the ones who would appear in his home at odd hours, never expected, but simply there waiting around corners or laid flat along a doorframe, waiting for sport or for their man, the head of this household, to call for some hunt — boy-sport more often than not.
They would never lean on a gun. They would thrust it out like a reaching arm.
He lays his head on her flank, tired at first, but then he pushes and they pick up their pace. Soon she begins to lean sideways on the gun, so he tugs her to a halt and stretches out both arms for it.
“You want it?” she asks. “Can you use it?”
The man had shown him how several years back, but no, he probably could not use it when he needed it. She may know this, but she still sets the gun down into his hands.
“Hands steady,” she says, and she hoists him up onto her back, gripping his ankles while he settles into that mane along her shoulders.
She says, “Keep an eye out for lions or bad men, okay?” And so he tries.
He tries to fit his arms to the rifle. He’s still short, but better fitted than he was when the man first took him out to the woods. He tries to look straight down the sight and ahead, but his eyes are drawn down to her slow-step and the nettles and cones she kicks.
The man told him to nestle down into the earth, to lay flat like he was nothing. He had to be nothing until he made the shot, and then he could be a man or at least a boy again. He’d never wanted more to be swallowed whole than when he was on his belly, with the man kicking nettles around him and hollering out for the cats to come.
The man used to roar at them, that there were still lions to be found. The man said he would track the last one down, that he would set the panthers loose from the zoo in town, that he already had. The man had planted him in the dirt and hollered, but no cat answered.
Now, far enough away from that spot, she continues on about their ancient daddy and the cats he caught and the skins and meat he made of them. She has names for them all — Quint, Crickspit, Croucher, and then Gwerner, and Hwerl, and just Graal. As the list goes on, these lions begin to feel more like kin than the storied old man of his own blood, so he counts each one she names and builds a retinue of ghosts to travel alongside them. With his eyes closed he can sense them padding nearer, their steps measured at first, until dozens have gathered to join the march. They make no sound, only a pulse of movement that he can feel shaking up his legs. They are all a single step through the woods, and no one hears the footfall, but it is there. This presence, this hunger, not even their names can be scrubbed from this place.
He opens his eyes, and no lions have joined them. She speaks no more of them, so they may be at rest again in their stories, but something of them lingers, mostly in the tensing ache in his muscles and the tremble beneath his jawbone.
She carries him on her back for a few miles more until they hear, somewhere behind them, the backfire snap of dry wood caught underfoot. She pauses mid-step and then lurches into a run that nearly topples him from her shoulders. She squeezes his ankles. He tries to turn.
“Don’t move,” she says, and he obeys. He curls over her head like a cap and lets the gun droop over her shoulder. He does not want it anymore, but she will not take it.
Anything might have made that sound, though it is sure to be the men, always at someone’s heels. No large creatures are left in these woods. They’ve all been hunted down to nothing over generations of greater and greater daddies. That was the first story she told him, back when he was tucked away but still frightened, she said, “There’s nothing out there to come for you. Enough men and time have killed them all up.”
Now she bounds through the woods. The smooth ripple of her steps roll up from her forefoot to her shoulders to his dangling legs, which rest upon them. She darts through trees, not panicking but leading a pursuer, and all the way she shatters the grace of her movement with so much chatter that he can feel a murmur rising from his own lungs.
She says, “I know who’s coming. I can tell you who’s coming, but I won’t give them names. Not one. They can try and catch us. Just try and I’ll have them lost and starved.”
He wants her to hush, but she keeps on and on, and he cannot even stop the rattle that has risen into his throat.
She says, “They’ll know now if they’ve seen him.”
“They’ll know now if they’re coming here.”
“Do you know what I’ll do to them?”
“You keep your gun. I’ll sink my teeth in them.”
She spits venom, and her voice rises to answer the growing rustle and grunting behind them. The clumsy noises spread out as they move, adding more muffled voices, a wider range of stumbling, and beams of light that strike the lines of trees. But she keeps adding to the distance between them. Still, more lights, louder calls, and she stops, finally, at a little lake that sits between them and the rise of the mountains. Her chest heaves, and the force of it knocks at his feet.
She says she is not tired. The men are gaining ground behind them, but she wades slowly and deliberately on and down into the lake, as if she does not sense the men’s progress or feel the icy water that seeps into his shoes and bore their needles into his skin. All the while she is speaking. She no longer heckles the men. Now she speaks only to him.
“We’ll nestle down here and wait, just us, and you can say if we wait or pounce. My teeth itch. My nails hurt. I have not been satisfied. Drop that gun. I’m tired of daddies’ daddies.”
He tangles himself into her hair and they sink. The water clings to him, holds him. With his arms around her neck, he can feel the buzz of her voice, which continues on even with no air to feed it. He drifts in the hum, in the hold of the lake.
Across the shore the lions lie in wait for hapless hunters, but here he drifts between the cats and their prey. Here he can lure, scatter, or ruin. The lights range over him and the awkward steps of these strangers disturb the still water. The gun is long sunk. He readies his claws. He lets out his wail, and the lake enters him.
Chris Poole is from Harrison, Tennessee and graduated from the University of the South in 2011 with a degree in English and Russian. He has had one story published in the Fall 2012 issue of Waccamaw. He will begin his first year at Emerson College’s graduate creative writing program in the fall.