• Creative Writing •
• Fiction •
• Literature •
ORbits¬†presents a selection of stories which made the shortlist¬†of the Oxonian Review Short Story Competition, 2012. We finish with Jed Foland’s ‘The Hunters’.
‚ÄúYa‚Äôll come back with an elk,‚Äù said Ma. ‚ÄúI‚Äôll wash the cutting board.‚Äù
It was still dark when The Boy crawled out of bed and into the pickup truck. Pa and his friend Jim tossed their packs in the back.
‚ÄúAre you sure you don‚Äôt want to come with us Ma?‚Äù asked The Boy.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve got church,‚Äù she said.
‚ÄúGod‚Äôll understand if you miss Mass to go hunting. God isn‚Äôt a vegetarian.‚Äù
‚ÄúThere won‚Äôt be room in the truck with the three of you and the dog.‚Äù she replied, ‚ÄúSo ya‚Äôll come back with that elk.‚Äù
‚ÄúWe‚Äôll see,‚Äù said Pa, ‚Äúwe‚Äôll see.‚Äù Then to the dog, ‚ÄúGet on up in thar!‚Äù The mutt leapt into the cab of the truck. ‚ÄúWe probably won‚Äôt see elk: too many wolves now.‚Äù
‚ÄúGoddamn wolves!‚Äù said Jim as he climbed into the pickup. He spit a wad of tobacco out the window.
‚ÄúIf you see a wolf shoot it,‚Äù said Ma.
Ma kissed his father goodbye on the cheek. ‚ÄúWhere you going to go?‚Äù she asked.
‚ÄúGospel Ridge where he shot the first one.‚Äù
She exchanged a glance with The Boy.
‚ÄúWell it‚Äôs steep up there,‚Äù she told Pa, ‚Äúso don‚Äôt let The Boy fall off.‚Äù
‚ÄúWe‚Äôll be fine Ma,‚Äù
She waved the three men away.
The sun was an hour from rising as they left the trailer park and rode along the canyon. Then they climbed up into the snow line. It would take hours to clear Hell‚Äôs Canyon, skirt the Seven Devils, and make their way to the Gospel Mountains. The Boy still delighted in those names: no doubt, the whim of some religious pioneer a century ago.
‚ÄúGot yer license Boy?‚Äù
‚ÄúKeep the bolt open. Pistol?‚Äù
‚ÄúIn the pack.‚Äù
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs one under the seat too,‚Äù said Pa, ‚ÄúGot yer knife.‚Äù
‚ÄúYer Pa gave you that knife,‚Äù said Jim, ‚ÄúYou should carry it with you all the time. I don‚Äôt go nowhere without mine.‚Äù
‚ÄúThey won‚Äôt let me take it on the plane.‚Äù
‚ÄúHow about bullets?‚Äù
‚ÄúOn the plane?‚Äù
‚ÄúNo, right now.‚Äù
‚ÄúI‚Äôve got four in the magazine.‚Äù
‚ÄúPut two more in your pockets, just in case.‚Äù
They rode side by side: The Boy and the two old men. Their seatbelts were lost somewhere under the cushions. Pa droveand Jim kept watch from the passenger side spitting tobacco out the open window. The Boy in the middle, as always, his place since birth. The dog, whose name was Dog, watched him enviously from the floorboards. The Boy didn‚Äôt mind his place‚Äîeven though he was squeezed tight and his Pa had pushed the gear shift dangerously close to his groin‚Äîhe didn‚Äôt mind at all. It was nice to be near one‚Äôs Pa.
The rifles rode alongside them with the stocks at their feet and their muzzles pointed upward between their legs. This used to terrify The Boy: the thought of his seven millimeter suddenly discharging into his face. Now it didn‚Äôt bother him. He had missed the smell of gun oil.
Jim reached over the Boy to pass Pa a can of tobacco. The Boy had never chewed when he was younger so the old men didn‚Äôt offer any to him. He stared at the fingers of his right hand. They weren‚Äôt yellow yet. Could they tell that he had become a smoker? Pa and Jim could smell fresh elk piss three miles upwind; they could probably smell tobacco even though the Boy hadn‚Äôt smoked in a week, not since he stepped into the terminal at Heathrow.
‚ÄúGod I want a cigarette,‚Äù thought The Boy and he tried to remember England and his college and the French girl, Nicolette.
Jim yawned, ‚ÄúYer Pa tells me that yergonna be a doctor.‚Äù
‚ÄúOf philosophy,‚Äù he thought.
‚ÄúSo tell me boy, how do you get on with all them socialists out there?‚Äù
The Boy thought for a moment and said, ‚ÄúWell the English commies ain‚Äôt so bad; it‚Äôs the Frenchies you have to look out for.‚Äù
‚ÄúGoddamn French!‚Äù Jim slapped his leg over the rifle, ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs goddamn right!‚Äù
Somewhere, near the bridge, Nicolette was waiting.
Pa shifted gears.
‚ÄúSo what yer doing out there Boy?‚Äù
Pa rolled his eyes.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm a historical anthropologist,‚Äù The Boy replied. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm writing a thesis on the depletion of indigenous culture in post-colonial Africa.‚Äù
‚ÄúOh,‚Äù said Jim flatly.
‚ÄúOh,‚Äù thought The Boy.
‚ÄúSo you‚Äôve been to Africa?‚Äù Jim continued.
‚ÄúThis Boy‚Äôs travelled all over the world,‚Äù said Pa, ‚ÄúEngland, Scotland, Ireland.‚Äù
He had never actually been to Africa.
‚ÄúSay, um, have you travelled much Jim?‚Äù
‚ÄúOh yeah? Recently?‚Äù
‚ÄúRound-bout your age.‚Äù
‚ÄúReally? Where did you go?‚Äù
They rode again in silence.
The sun still hadn‚Äôt risen and The Boy couldn‚Äôt help dozing. The truck engine whirred as they began the ascent. He drifted off to the sound of his father saying ‚ÄúStay awake Boy. Stay awake.‚Äù
He couldn‚Äôt help himself.
He was back in college with a cigarette and a martini in his hands. It was a week ago during the winter Ball. He had stepped outside to escape the dancing and smoke. Stealthily, he set out towards the bridge on the other end of college, but a friend, William, emerged from the ballroom.
‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs the matter? Don‚Äôt know how to dance?‚Äù
‚ÄúMore or less.‚Äù
‚ÄúStrange, you‚Äôve been here longer than I have,‚Äù said William. ‚ÄúStill not used to the lifestyle?‚Äù
‚ÄúToo many rich kids.‚Äù
William fidgeted with his bow-tie.
‚ÄúHere let me do it,‚Äù said The Boy. ‚ÄúI thought all Englishmen knew how to tie a tuxedo tie.‚Äù
‚ÄúNicolette tied it for me but it came undone.‚Äù
‚ÄúShe did a lousy job.‚Äù
‚ÄúOh, I took it out on purpose. That‚Äôs why men need women mate: if you ask nicely they‚Äôll do a whole lot more than tie a bowtie. All the other tossers in there have to snog whomever they can get. No offence.‚Äù
‚ÄúNone taken,‚Äù said The Boy.
William continued. ‚ÄúAnd nothing compares to a French bird in bed. It‚Äôs a shame they don‚Äôt like Americans. You‚Äôre all too fat.‚Äù
‚ÄúYou‚Äôre women crazy Will: you‚Äôre like an elk in rut.‚Äù
‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs a rut?‚Äù
‚ÄúSomething my old man taught me about back home. It‚Äôs when a bull elk goes in heat and starts to chase after lady elk. They get stupid. That‚Äôs when we hunt them.‚Äù
‚ÄúYou shoot elk?‚Äù
‚ÄúI did. I don‚Äôt like doing it, of course.‚Äù
‚ÄúOf course,‚Äù replied William. ‚ÄúSpeaking of hunting, have you seen Nicolette?‚Äù
‚ÄúI haven‚Äôt,‚Äù said The Boy. ‚ÄúThere. Your tie looks better.‚Äù
‚ÄúTa,‚Äù said William as went back inside.
The Boy waved goodbye and looked down at his own shoes. He could almost see his reflection in the patent leather. Would she notice?
‚ÄúWake up Boy.‚Äù
The Boy found that he was still squished between the two old men. The sun was rising. It was legal to shoot.
They were crossing the River of No Return onto Gospel Ridge. He wanted to be asleep again. He wanted to be back in college, to finish his cigarette, to find Nicolette. She would be standing on the bridge in her golden ball gown.
‚ÄúI have a boyfriend,‚Äùshe had said.
‚ÄúHe doesn‚Äôt have to know.‚Äù
‚ÄúYou still with us Boy?‚Äù asked Pa.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm awake. I‚Äôm, awake.‚Äù
‚ÄúYou remember this spot?‚Äù
‚ÄúOf course,‚Äù said The Boy.
‚ÄúThis is where you shot your first elk.‚Äù
‚ÄúYou were thirteen.‚Äù
‚ÄúI was thirteen.‚Äù
Thirteen was a year too old for a first elk. The legal age was twelve.
‚ÄúWhere did you shoot him?‚Äù asked Jim.
‚ÄúYer first elk.‚Äù
‚ÄúIn the head.‚Äù
‚ÄúA six point.‚Äù
‚ÄúWe didn‚Äôt get the antlers mounted,‚Äù said Pa, ‚Äúbecause the skull was too damaged.‚Äù
The Boy had spent the following year practising his aim in the gravel pit after school until he became a perfect shot, but he had never shot at another animal since.
Pa pulled the rig over. Jim opened his door. The dog tried to leap out. Nicolette was waiting on the bridge.
The Boy took his rifle and stretched.
Pa held a little plastic bottle in his hand. He whispered: ‚ÄúSpray this on your boots.‚Äù
‚ÄúWhat is it?‚Äù
The boy did as he was told.
‚ÄúJim, go and circle around the ridge. The Boy and I will wait on top. If there‚Äôs elk down there, kick them up to us. If we hear you shoot, we‚Äôll come to you. If you see a wolf, shoot it too.‚Äù
Jim wandered off into the trees.
The Boy and Pa walked single file to the ridge top. It was steep country.
‚ÄúDon‚Äôt make so much noise when you walk,‚Äù said Pa. ‚ÄúElk‚Äôll hear twice as good as you and see twice as much.‚Äù
Carefully, they climbed over boulders, under fallen trees, and through brush.
Pa held up his nose. ‚ÄúI can smell elk.‚Äù
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs probably my shoes,‚Äù whispered The Boy.
They found a lone tree in the clearing and sat beneath it for cover.
‚ÄúNow we wait.‚Äù
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a shame Ma isn‚Äôt here,‚Äù whispered The Boy.
‚ÄúShe doesn‚Äôt have to be.‚Äù
The Boy knew not to say any more. He stared into space. Snow and frost had turned the bushes and fallen trees white. He shivered.
‚ÄúStop fidgeting,‚Äù said Pa.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs because you‚Äôre too skinny. You need to eat more over there.‚Äù
‚ÄúI‚Äôm still cold.‚Äù
‚ÄúHere then.‚Äù Slowly, the old man put his arm around The Boy.
An hour passed.
The Boy began to fall asleep again but was awakened with a squeeze from Pa.
‚ÄúI hear something.‚Äù
They had waited on this exact spot then, those years ago when Ma had been with them.
‚ÄúPut your gun up,‚Äù said Pa now, ‚ÄúUse your knee as a rest.‚Äù
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt see anything.‚Äù
The Boy remembered Pa saying the exact same thing before, during the first hunt with Ma. He remembered seeing the bull elk lumbering among the trees. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt have a shot,‚Äù he had said again and again, ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt have a shot.‚Äù He recalled it all in flashes tempered by the years. He remembered being terrified as the elk climbed towards them, a fine six-point, all the while his father saying, ‚ÄúNow! Do it now!‚Äù and he remembered hesitating, then firing a shot into the air, killing nothing more than a tree branch. The elk startled and ran down the hill. ‚ÄúDamnit!‚Äù his father cried. His mother fired after it, breaking its back with a single bullet. They ran down the slope where the elk lay writhing, moaning. Quickly, his father grabbed the gun out of The Boy‚Äôs hands and shot the creature through the head.
When it was finished, Ma had put The Boy‚Äôs tag on the elk. ‚ÄúIt was your gun that killed him,‚Äù she had said, and she left it at that.
Now another creature was coming through the bushes. A brown giant.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs a bull! That‚Äôs a bull!‚Äù Pa whispered, excited.
The elk bugled a long deep cry.
‚ÄúTake your safety off.‚Äù
Slowly, without moving more than his thumb, The Boy slid the safety trigger forward.
He peered through the rifle scope and saw trees, fur, then trees. Steam rose off the animal‚Äôs hide.
‚ÄúShoot it!‚Äù Pa commanded. ‚ÄúBefore he smells us.‚Äù
‚ÄúI can‚Äôt! There‚Äôs too much brush in the way.‚Äù
The elk‚Äôs head was down. He could not see many antlers, only two little horns through the thicket of bushes.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs only a spike.‚Äù
‚ÄúA spike will do,‚Äù Pa whispered. ‚ÄúShoot it anyway. Shoot it!‚Äù
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt have a shot.‚Äù
‚ÄúI‚Äôll whistle,‚Äù said Pa, ‚Äúhe‚Äôll lift his head up for just a moment before he runs away. When he does, you shoot. Shoot him in the neck or the head; you‚Äôll have only a second. Shoot him.‚Äù
Instinctively, the bull raised its head.
‚ÄúNow!‚Äù said Pa. ‚ÄúDo it now! Shoot it. Shoot it!‚Äù
Jed Foland¬†is¬†a member of Wolfson College, Oxford.