Well, he had a face, I’ll tell you what. Jowly like a old bloodhound dog, droopy like it was melting off him, but I never knew him young, only that last year when Quill elected me to go into the woods with him for buck deer. It was just venison on his mind at first, being long past any idea of antler trophies and boasting and such. He just wanted to field dress his kill and haul out plenty of meat, thinking about the winter and all, wind wolfing about the door, snow’s first fall and third fall and worse, blue ice, pantry food scant, everybody looking at taters like they couldn’t stand to knife into another one.
And strong still, arms on him like hams, big hands, but he couldn’t keep at it, his wind broke, his heart wore out. He had that grin, pained like, when he was about to give in, but he wouldn’t say nothing, so Quill says to me, Merle, you got to hunt with him this year. We can’t have him pitching over in the snow somewheres up on Pigeon Ridge and just going stiff and dead. And he’s good company, too. Stories. You’ll get to where you can’t get a sufficiency of his stories. I was doubtful.
We dropped all the whitetails we wanted and crossed into spring, still fording Devil’s Fork and striding Siler’s Pride with our guns, cheating out of season, but he was doling the cuts out to neighbors and still had legends to tell. At least, I reckoned, gin he fails now, his kin are few and the ground ready to open easy.
Had a rooster once, he’d say. Knew a baker who couldn’t smell. There was a woman in Spruce Pine, half Chinese, half Lungeon. A rifle gun, it’s got no conscience. Read a book about people in Egypt, slave holders, builders in stone. Lived once in a cove where you could grow figs big as peaches. And so on. He’d buck dance and laugh when he was feeling pert, made himself the butt of funny stories. The time I almost. The gal who never. He’d been in service and soldiered about with fellows from all over, all colors, too. Stories spread that way, but usually thin out. He’d lick the life back in them and you’d see sandstorms in the Mexico and whales off some Cape. He could do that, get in a rhythm. Lie, I reckon, when called for, but a time or three he’d get too coggled up to come out, like a man lost in Rip Shin Thicket. He’d just shut his mouth and go still till the wind was back in him, then pose me a question I couldn’t unriddle, head out down the path of some other yarn.
Last time was when the she-bear crossed our path on the saddle of Turk’s Hat. Had his cur Brawler with us, once a severe dog but losing a tooth here and there, color of dirty snow. It wasn’t snow time, though, but early May, and we’d seen some of them orchid flowers peeping out, tree leaves a greeny gold, jorees all a-choir. Then everything went quiet. Mayhew, he’d been rambling after a song he’d disremembered, something about a raven’s voice could file a scythe, whet a draw saw and tame a harlot, funny song, and Mayhew had commenced to jostling and hopping, cut a pigeon wing, all trying to call up the dirty words of that song, but when it got quiet, even the rocks were more stiller than usual, and that Brawler’s hackles spiked, his ears perked up and he set in to sneer but still not making a sound, lip curled back to show what teeth was still available. […]
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R.T. Smith’s stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, Esquire, The Atlantic, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and others. Smith has published four short story collections, most recently Sherburne (National Magazine Award for Fiction), and fourteen books of poems, most recently In the Night Orchard: New and Selected Poems. Three times he has won the Library of VA Poetry Book of the Year Awards. Smith is the former editor of Southern Humanities Review and current editor of Shenandoah.