RYAN R. LATINI
Art © by Carol McCoy (Hope)
BACK THROUGH THE RIFLING
It was predawn and the blackness of the woods was darker than the surrounding night. I had never been aware of shades of black, but there they were. There was a three-mile dirt road off the highway into State Game Land 127—25,000 acres in Monroe County, PA. I realized I was very much a passenger in Tim’s truck, but I had gone to worse places with worse people.
I was sober for about a year and a half when I started hunting deer in the fall of 2014.
The tires cracked and popped along the road. Nerves and my layered clothing summoned steam to the truck windows. Would I be able to kill a deer?
I remembered a frog from my youth.
A nocturnal storm had ground over the town, summoning earthworms like sexless Lazaruses onto the sidewalks. I was eleven. I remember crouching in the August steam of asphalt and ozone, looking at the frog’s rear quarters smashed to the street by a bicycle or car tire. I remember putting a sewing needle through the head of the frog. I don’t know why I was going about town with sewing needles, and I don’t remember seeing a frog in town before or after that day, but the image is still easy to conjure—the front three-quarters of the scrambling frog with its back quarter smashed and fused to the street, swimming in place, toward and away from something.
I think it was a mercy kill, but I don’t know. Reasons aren’t helpful once the needle is pushed by little-boy fingers, thimble-less (I do not remember having a thimble), through the frog.
Needles came and went in other forms after boyhood rainstorms gave way to adulthood torrents—deluges of indulgence through which I whirled, ever grasping for reasons. Reasons, again, aren’t very helpful once the plunger of the needle is pushed down and the flash flood rumbles through the washes of the veins.
The twelve steps that I’ve embraced over the last two years hinge on a higher power, and I could not relate to the God of my childhood sitting in the clouds with a clipboard checking off boxes each time I masturbated or erasing checks each time I helped an old lady cross the street.
Perhaps I was God. God, though, probably never had to disimpact feces from his own rectum—the texture of tree bark—because his opiate-saturated, but otherwise desiccated body had been constipated for days.
Godlike? No, but I had not lived like a human for years. I was not even an animal. I embodied many things—appetite, desire, hatred—but humanity was not one of them. I wanted to get close to what it meant to be alive—again, or maybe for the first time.
The wonder I have toward the indifference of nature is undeniably something higher—not divine, not magic, not mystic, just fantastic, terrifying, and beautiful. I made peace with the God of my childhood, and went looking for a bigger God out in the woods.
The woods are not scarce in Southern New Jersey. Twenty minutes east or south will land you in bogs, Pine Barrens, and disused, overgrown farmland. This part of the Garden State is a residue of an ancient inland sea, but the part that I knew was suburban, more of an offshoot of Philadelphia than cranberry bog. The skyline and the towers of the Walt Whitman Bridge glowed during the night.
There was a patch of woods, a few acres of mange, that filled in an old, manmade gully dug in 1906 for a rail line—The Westville Cut—but if those few acres were still full of kids like me, I figured I should stay out of the gully, especially if I wanted to avoid a drink or a drug.
If I wanted woods, I would need a guide. I didn’t know God’s neighborhood, so I sought the guidance of my older cousin, Tim. Tim, I am fairly certain, does not know God, but he knows woods, bows, bullets and whitetail deer.
In the months leading up to the hunt, God looked a lot like a hand turning a kaleidoscope before my eyes. After speaking about hunting with Tim, there were things he kept reiterating, so I noted these as “rules”:
1. No Baiting—that is not hunting, it’s shooting. Mere target practice.
2. Do not take a shot you’re not sure of. No gut shots. Heart / lung shots. We are not in the business of wounding deer.
3. Be quiet walking in and quiet walking out.
4. Unload rifle / discharge arrow before moving.
5. Don’t “fuck about.”
I pushed the steamy, frog splattered street of my youth from my mind and looked at the steam on the truck window. The steam was only on my side. The windows on Tim’s side were clear. It was 5:30 in the morning and we were heading for Brady’s Lake.
We slipped our gear on, attached the quiver to the bow, and set off into the waning night. We crossed an earthen damn that holds the south end of Brady’s Lake. Brady’s Lake was manmade, constructed in the 1890s to accommodate the ice industry. After a quarter mile, we were on the other side of the lake. We followed an old logging road for another quarter mile away from the spillway of the dam.
We turned off the logging road, followed the tree line along the edge of a field, and entered the woods. A few hundred yards later, clipping bright eyes to branches as we went, Tim signaled, cupping our headlamps so we didn’t blind one another, and I saw from his gesture that this was to be my tree—the tree from which I would hunt. I watched his headlamp recede into the night. There was the occasional snap of a twig in the distance, but Tim was remarkably lithe and quiet for a six-foot three-inch man.
I looked at my tree.
Isaac Newton apparently had great realizations beneath trees. The Buddha had a few things click beneath the Bohdi tree.
Now I was beneath a tree.
The tree was limbless for at least fifteen feet from the base, which is necessary for the type of tree stand I was using—a “climbing tree stand.” Sporting goods stores sometimes refer to this style of tree stand as a “self-climber.” I secured the platform of the tree stand to the trunk with a notched steel cable and locked it around the tree. I angled the base upward twenty degrees or so because as you climb, the tree tapers and the angle of the platform changes. You cannot adjust the cable once you are up there because it is holding all your weight. I stepped up onto the platform, put my boots in the stirrups, and began inch-worming up the tree.
About five feet up the tree, I realized I hadn’t cocked the crossbow. The 200 pounds of force it requires would be difficult to generate up on the 20 inch by 28 inch platform. I climbed back down and cocked the bow.
I began inch-worming back up the tree, got to about 13 feet, and set up. I clipped the linesman rope to the back of my harness and secured the other end around the tree. I screwed my hooks into the tree, pulled up the bow, and hung it. I began pulling up the rope with my gear, but it felt very light, and without needing to adjust my headlamp and look down, I realized I had forgotten to tie the other end to the gear.
Back down the tree.
Finally set up, I undid my bundle of cloths to add a layer as I was sweating and growing colder the longer I sat in the October predawn. When I loosened the cinch, my clothes fell to the ground illuminated by my headlamp.
My gear, hanging from some scrub brush at the base of the tree, looked like the hastily shed clothes of a man about to make spontaneous love. I didn’t want to climb down now that daylight was coming through the autumnal canopy. Tim was a hundred or so yards to my south. I didn’t want to disturb the silence. That’s not true. I didn’t know what to do.
So I sat with my crossbow across my lap. I remembered my last night “out there” as they say in the rooms of recovery.
I had been drinking at a West Philadelphia bar, Queen of Sheba, and sniffed the last bit of the last gram of cocaine that I bought earlier that day. I had been awake for seventy-two hours. I attempted to drink away the fact that I was out of cocaine; it never worked. I tried anyway. I still had my last sixty dollars and, not remembering where my car was, I couldn’t drive to the familiar places to get what I needed, so I set out on foot and walked west down Baltimore Avenue into Kingsessing. I did not know the neighborhood in the way I needed to know it—where the right corner was if there was indeed a corner to be found. My best efforts would yield something—anything would be better than nothing.
A man could tell I was looking for The Man. I knew I was getting robbed before I got robbed. He looked homeless, so I knew he didn’t have a gun (he would have sold the gun and not robbed me); but this was not my side of the Delaware River and, shot or not, stabbed or not, I would likely die anyway. I didn’t have a fight. I didn’t have a hope. A moment later, I didn’t have my sixty bucks.
I walked down Baltimore Avenue toward University City. I needed money—well, I needed drugs, but money was step one. My cell phone was dead. It had been ringing a lot. Back across the river in New Jersey, I owed quite a bit of money. I found some college kids in front of a gas station and asked to use one of their cell phones. I had two hundred and fifty dollars remaining on my last credit card’s credit limit. I would call for a cash advance. At this point in my life, I had never used an iPhone, so I had to have the kids help me. They wanted to leave. My chubby, inexperience fingers mashed the screen, and for the third time, I typed in my credit card number incorrectly. I begged them for one more try, but they were drunken, rowdy college kids, and I was an emaciated, blind-with-sleep, freshly-robbed junky, so I forfeited the phone.
My nose started bleeding. I didn’t have a hanky. I wept. The morning was seeping up the horizon. I always cursed the sunrise and the ensuing birdsong—it meant another day of doing what I do to exist the way I exist.
I wept and bled and smoked cigarettes on a bench in Clark Park. I was in rehab a week later.
The sun rose. I looked at my clothes at the base of the tree and hoped that the sun would warm me. There were still leaves on the trees catching and throwing the October light to the forest floor—stained glass throwing light to the chapel floor.
God was an arsonist setting fire to the sky. I tried to catch the day, to find the threshold where night walked past day, the pair tipping their hats to each other as they changed shifts.
God was a black bear that ran out from a thick dome of scrub brush about two hundred yards from where I had set up thirty minutes after the morning broke.
My delight gave way to shivering. With my clothing on the ground, I began to experience the chill of the October day. It was in the high 40s, but with only a layer that is meant to whisk sweat from the body and allow air through, the 40s began to feel like subfreezing temperatures after hour two in the tree.
I suddenly existed solely in my cold legs. I couldn’t perceive anything except cold. The cold brought me somewhere else—somewhere beyond the neural cage behind my eyes. It didn’t end there—it couldn’t end there. I felt alive, chilled through, like the boughs of the tree holding me, the mountain holding the tree, the cosmos’ bed of space and time holding it all.
If an army of goose-stepping deer came through selling cocaine that morning, I would have missed them.
It the midst of this existential dilemma, the cold disappeared, the shame of the past was off somewhere with the chill of my legs, and three hours, it seemed, passed in the time of a breath. The sun had moved across the sky without my focus or attention—amazing.
Did I just hunt? Was this hunting?
Tim did not see any deer that day either. On the ride home, I told him it only took me fifteen minutes from arrival at the tree to being set up in the stand ready to hunt. I truly believed this. He said it was closer to an hour: he could see my headlamp going up and down the tree.
* * *
In my addiction, I had become a liability. I was failing physically and emotionally. Legally, there was a crescendo growing around me. For the last five years “out there,” no one would come close enough to touch me.
So it was baffling the next week when Tim called me to hunt again. We went each Saturday throughout bow, muzzleloader, and rifle seasons.
On a snowy Saturday in December, during firearms, a fog rose to meet the sun. The thin spires of the treetops rose around the clearing over which I was set-up. The bare branches crosshatched the squinting dawn—a bloodshot eye peeking through on the patch of woods.
I now had a few Saturday hunts under my belt, so I set up much faster these days. This Saturday morning, because of the snow and the fog, I did not feel the usual dynamism of the woods. Everything was frozen, muffled, and hard to see due to the sun summoning the fog from the frozen ground.
Later that morning, I was flanked by a group of six or seven does. I did not have a good shooting lane on the large doe and, due to the muffling snow, I hadn’t heard them approach, so they were in too close to position myself for a shot without spooking them. One doe lingered in my line of sight, but it was so small it would have looked like I was carrying a briefcase out of the woods if I shot it. The larger one behind me was over my right shoulder and getting a shot off without spooking it would have been impossible.
Despite the cloak of fog, I could feel Tim’s eyes on me, imploring me to take a shot at the briefcase doe. I just sat and watched it walk back behind me, silently, no leaf crunch in the deadened snow, off into the fog. When I turned back around, I saw why they had run off. A tank of a buck was coming into the one-hundred foot by one-hundred foot clearing. I raised my rifle. He was quartered towards me at about sixty yards and I could see his snout and antler, but his body was blocked by a large tree. I kept the crosshair in front of the tree where I thought he would emerge if he continued walking. I looked at Tim, and he looked at me as if to say, “Why is your goddamned rifle raised? Are you fucking about?” He had not yet seen the buck.
He looked toward the buck and in one seamless act, like a swinging sickle, raised his rifle and shot. I couldn’t see the deer, but there was a mess of snow and leaves kicking from behind the tree. Tim—the sickle still swinging—pulled out the bolt and cycled through another round. His second shot stopped all the movement.
God, this morning, was a transfer of energy.
Tim lowered his rifle, sat back on his pad in the tree stand, laid the rifle across his lap and slipped his hands back into his muff with a simplicity that said, Send another one my way and I’ll drop him too, but for now, I am letting go of the moment.
We inspected the deer’s massive body. Tim handed me his glasses and began gutting the deer while I hiked my gear out to the edge of the woods near the logging road a few hundred yards away. I went back for his gear and hiked it out while he finished dressing the deer. We dragged the deer out to the clearing. Tim asked for his glasses back for his return to the truck where he would piece together a small gurney-style cart, hike it back a half mile to where I’d wait with the deer and gear, we’d load the deer, and then hike out together.
But I couldn’t find Tim’s glasses.
I hiked back through the bloody bobsled track of snow to where he gutted the deer and found his glasses smashed into one of my boot prints. I knelt down. Maybe this was someone else’s boot print. I suddenly felt a spasm in my gut. I didn’t take the shot on the briefcase doe—it wasn’t much, but it would have been mine. All those hours in the woods, and I would have had something to show for it. I didn’t have a line of sight, no more than an antler in my crosshair, on the behemoth Tim shot. If the deer had walked a little faster, then maybe I would have had the drop on him. He would have been broadside. He would have been mine.
If I didn’t get robbed that night—my last night “out there”—would I have bought just enough to push me over the edge into oblivion?
None of this mattered, because it didn’t happen that way.
I looked at Tim’s glasses smashed in my boot print. I couldn’t complete the task of holding his glasses without destroying them, so how would I ever bring down a big buck? How am I going to stay sober for the rest of my life? I begged air back into my lungs, walked back out to the clearing, and showed Tim his glasses.
God was frustration kneading my gut like dough. I had four rounds in my magazine, but it wouldn’t be enough to shoot down the sun, to shoot down the fog, to shoot down the past.
That night, Tim and I butchered the deer in the garage of my uncle’s house. Beneath the bare light bulb in the garage, I cut into that deer, following every membrane, along the bone, separating still-warm groups of muscle, cutting out vein and fat and tendon. There was nothing behind the muscle. Nothing behind the bone. The deer was not hiding anywhere in the pile of meat and bone. There was not much to any of it.
Tim’s shoulder bumped the hanging bulb in the garage as we were cleaning up. It was a metronome. It was keeping time. I thought of Brady’s Lake, carved and flooded by man for a purpose that was long dead. Off to the side of the logging road, there was still a stone block foundation of an ice house stacked beneath the vegetation. The bulb swung and I thought of the Appalachian Mountains and how hundreds of millions of years ago they were as high as the Alps—eroded and blown away like the men and horse teams pulling ice blocks from Brady’s Lake.
I had only been sober for a year and a half. Maybe God is just time?
I remember thinking.
God was a broom ever sweeping dust. God was a broom that swept a piece of dust from the threshold of dark and light back into the light where it could whirl about (“fuck about” among the trees with its cousin) for a bit longer and delight in its existence. God was a swinging bulb in a frozen garage on the top of ancient withered mountains.
I think of the threshold I saw each Saturday morning—saw but couldn’t pin down—when night yielded to dawn, and I just don’t know. I don’t know why Tim asked me if I wanted to hunt with him next season. I don’t know why I said yes.
Ryan R. Latini is a freelance and fiction writer living and writing in southern New Jersey. He received his M.A. from Saint Joseph’s University where his fiction appeared in The Avenue. He is currently on the editorial staff of The Schuylkill Valley Journal. When he is not copy writing for other blogs, he posts on his own: The Narrative Report (ryanlatini.com). Follow him on Twitter @RyanRLatini, or contact at firstname.lastname@example.org