This is a story of great excitement, with joy and power thrown in for good measure. But it is also a story of death and fear. So that, almost inevitably, you must know that this is a story of the Divine. My world feels full of such sacredness, and I have had no experience more full of the divine presence than that of which this story speaks.
When I stood by the bed where my father lay, his body ravaged by the cancer that killed him many years ago, we spoke of the giant tree outside his window and of the divine power it seemed to embody looking over him, embracing him in his final hours. This is our experience of the woods.
The Hunt (for jack rabbits)
When I was twelve, my father took me hunting. Two of his buddies from work came with us. And, of course, there were the dogs — three dogs, three men, three shotguns, and me (out from behind my books).
I was familiar with the innards of the 30/06. My fathered cared for his religiously and I had often seen it on the kitchen table spread out in pieces, moist with oil. I knew also how, no matter how gently you might squeeze its trigger, it would still try to knock you to the ground with one giant kick in the shoulder. But my father’s men were big men and their guns obeyed them.
Their dogs were more precious than new born children. Harley Pentford Wellington III, commonly know as ‘Flash’, was a Beagle, and his line was the best of hunters. He was owned by my father, but he lived with me.
Always after supper we lay sprawled out on the diningroom floor in the embrace of the cool hard oak. Flash, the trained hunter, dreaming of the hunt, back there, lying between my legs. But he was not the best hunting dog we ever had. That honor belonged to Peanuts, who was dead — hit by a car, when I was six. Flash knew he was The Best in my heart, though I did love Peanuts, a lot. And I know my father missed him.
It was August and I was covered in bug spray and sweat and the dogs were jumping at their leashes. The men were full of stories, shotguns cradled in the crooks of their arms, cigarettes dangling from their lips. There were two fried egg sandwiches in my pockets — by six in the morning you are already hungry in the woods.
The trees, if they may be called that, were scrub oak; the brush was nearly as high. The burnt edges of scattered limbs testified to the fire that had downed them in days gone by. We grew silent amongst them; dog noses searched the ground. An unheard order required their release, and they charged off before us, racing down trails to destinies we could not follow. Old holes sprang up to view around us where fox or gopher once had lived. The sandy earth crunched beneath us. Leaves rattled in the breeze, when it came, bringing life from distant elsewheres and, then, moving on.
When the dogs began their frantic ritual of yips and darting here and there, they spoke a language no one could mistake. And hunter eyes scanned the brush for other signs of the life we knew, now, must linger here. The men were as keenly into the habits of our prey as were the dogs, and they worked as a single team in harness.
The oldest among the dogs took charge — shaking off the lesser scents, turning away from false trails now grown cold. This was no junior high lark. Matters of life and death were in our hands and in our senses.
And, then, suddenly, they were off! Tiny yips became great howls of excitement. Dogs tore madly through the underbrush, falling over their short legs, leaping more than running, crashing down long hillsides on their bellies. And we, tall monsters, thundered after them, though every step found us falling farther and farther behind until their cries were but a distant map of progress in the chase.
After some time the trail they ran moved off to our left. “They’ve turned him,” the men agreed. We were moving in a tight little circle that emulating the larger one that rabbits run in, when they fear for their lives. Dog voices had grown faint, but, now, suddenly, they grew louder. “They’re heading back!”
The men broke for a clearing directly in the path the fleeing rabbit must surely run. This time there was no time. No Time. There would be no chance for little rabbit tricks, no doubling back, no running in purposeless circles, no distracting our trained hunters from their deadly errand.
We stood silent at the clearing’s edge. The dogs’ cries were frantic, and coming closer. “Arw, arw,... arw, awr!” They were running straight toward us! The gun leapt into my father’s hands. Someone shouted. “Blam!”
I don’t know who fired. Men were running. The jack was down. Dogs were everywhere. A hunting knife flashed in the light. A head flew into a pile of leaping dogs. They were ferocious; their ecstasy almost too great to bear.
Eventually, the day drew gray, the first rain drops rustled the leaves, and we men headed for the cars. But the dogs were still off — too far away. Owners whistled and shouted out names. But only two came back. Our Flash was still on the trail.
The other men drove off after a long embarrassed wait. Rain rattled hard on our car’s hood, but we sat in silence peering out past the rivers of water now running down our windshield. My father got out every once in awhile and whistled and shouted, but Flash never came back. “Damn. He‘s got a deer.”
And in the end we had to go home without him. “We’ll come back in the morning.” And in the morning light Flash was there, bedraggled and exhausted, lying by the roadside where we had parked. My father wrapped him roughly in a blanket and he slept in my lap all the long journey home. “You were a naughty boy,” I whispered, but he paid no mind. Instinct guided him as it guided me, and I huddled over his frail figure with my back as a shield against the fire in my father’s eyes.