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Winter 2002, Volume 19.2

Essay

 

Brian AmesPicture of Brian Ames.

The Bones of Elk


Brian Ames writes from the Puget Sound area of Washington state. His work appears, or is forthcoming, in American Jones Building & Maintenance, Glimmer Train Stories, The Massachusetts Review, RE:AL, South Dakota Review, Snow Monkey and Wisconsin Review, among others. He is currently working on a novel, Salt Lick, which is situated in his elk-hunting country in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Early, pre-dawn. I've just climbed, muscles still stiff from yesterday's exertions, out of the passenger side of my uncle's mud-spattered Jeep. We've agreed that I'll hunt down the ravine here, and he'll drive up the road a mile or so and hunt the opposite ridge. We'll meet back here at 10:30 to break for lunch back at camp.

He pulls away, his big tires crunching in the mud and gravel of 1600 Road; the crunching goes on and on, then fades to an occasional pop as he rounds a corner and his one working taillight slips from view. I stand there for a minute, looking around in the dark, blowing steam, looking up at stars. It's cold, about 22 degrees.

Still standing by the side of the logging road, I remove my wool gloves and stuff them in one of the oversized pockets of a red hunting coat. I take out a box of shells and, balancing my gun on my forearm and in the crook of my elbow, open the bolt and feed them into the magazine. One, two, three, four. Sliding the bolt forward a bit to avoid engaging the fourth shell, I place a fifth shell—a 7-mm bullet my dad reloaded almost 30 years ago—in the chamber. I push the bolt forward to fully engage the shell, snap the bolt down with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand, and in the same fluid motion, click the safety on with my right middle finger.

Sliding my left arm through the sling, I hoist the rifle onto my back, then dig into another pocket for a can of snuff. Packing a substantial bolus of tobacco between my lower lip and gum, I slip my gloves back on and work the snuff around in my mouth with saliva. I look around again in the dark, taking in the shadows, the stars, the absolute lack of further sound. My eyes grow accustomed to subtle diversity in the play of starlight over different surfaces, different albedos. Starlight reflects from a fallen, bleached limb, and the pre-dawn retina records this. Starlight reflects from a stump covered with moss, the distinction between the two clearer as moments pass.

Above me, to the north, the road-bank rises sharply twelve feet and flattens out in a thirty acre clear-cut. Below me, south, the forest drops away at 100 feet every 70 yards or so for three quarters of a mile, until the grade terminates in a ridge above a clear-cut where my step-dad shot his first elk, a spike, a few years back. I'll hike down to that ridge over the next hour and a half, pausing every two-hundred steps for fifteen to twenty minutes, so game will know to be on the move. Then I'll wait at the ridge, looking down on the clear-cut and back up into the woods, for an hour and a half, then hunt up as I return to this spot. It's a good strategy, and it could work.

The first step into the woods is always a struggle of decision.

Here, on this logging road, I know where I am. I know that in four and a half hours my uncle will return, and we'll go back to camp and start a campfire, have lunch, and debate where the best hunting will be in the afternoon. I know that if I follow this road, 1600, back down out of the hills about 20 miles I'll be at the Nile River Road, and if I take a left at that intersection and follow the Nile River Road two miles I'll come to the intersection at State Highway 410. I can take another left there, drive a little less than a hundred miles, crossing the Cascades at Chinook Pass, and pass through Enumclaw and arrive safely at home.

If I step into the woods, I step into uncertainty.

I could walk in and get turned around and wander in this immense wilderness until my ghost took up residence with the ghosts of other hunters who have made the same mistake. I could shoot an elk in the absolute bottom of one of these ravines, but shoot it badly, and track it for miles, losing my way so comprehensively that no compass built by man could ever guide me out. I could slip on a fallen twig and fall so that my hand would tangle with the safety, click it off. In tumbling, fighting for balance, my own rifle could betray me—one shot to the head. My eyes would be wide and dismayed.

Resolved, I take one carefully measured, quiet step off the road onto forest duff. And another. Down, ten, twenty, thirty yards in the dark, soundlessly. Frozen patches of snow are here and there; these I avoid. At about step number seventy-five, I miss seeing the faint white of a fallen section of limb—even though the earth has spun and light is rising a bit. A crack fills the woods as my boot snaps the stick, and I instantly stop, listening for indication that I may have spooked game. There is no further sound but the hammering of my own heartbeat in my temples.

I realize I'm standing near where two seasons ago my uncle found the carcass of a five-point bull, shot but not tracked, abandoned, bleeding to death, fighting off coyotes in the night with its last breath. The wild dogs had eviscerated the bull; by the time my uncle brought me to see the abomination, torn hide stretched across the bones of elk and odor were all that remained.

I sit down on a nearby stump and wait for the light to rise a little more. Up through the limbs of pines and Douglas fir, aspens, maples, I can discern the rising of light. Like watching the hour hand of a clock, if I watch with focus and intensity, over time, I can detect the evolution of dawn.

Animals around me are waking up and moving. Squirrels and small birds start to pip, infrequently at first. The spans between their sounds grow briefer, and light sloughs darkness away from east to west. As I wait on the stump, morning blooms in full on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. A chipmunk scrambles up a fallen Douglas fir trunk, spies me, and begins to scold me for my intrusion. I scope him with my rifle, but he continues in his ill-informed arrogance. There'd be nothing left of you little brother I telepath to the rodent, perversely, then get up and move on to let him know everything's all right, to quiet him. This, after all, is his home and I'm just passing through.

I switch shoulders with the rifle and hike slowly down in a little further into a small clearing. As I emerge from shadow, it's clear elk were bedded down here under the trees near the edge, the mountain grass pressed flat against the frozen ground. Their sign is everywhere, tracks and droppings, fur and odor. I close my eyes and imagine them, making soft sounds as they sleep in the moonlight, fog of their breath rising toward Sirius.

Only moments ago, they may have risen and moved off through the clearing into the opposite woods. Did they hear the careless snap of a twig an hour ago and wake with a start? Or were they dreaming wapiti dreams, waking leisurely in the cold before moving off to graze for moss and aspen bark?

Crossing the clearing, I enter the forest again, hike another twenty minutes and come to the final ridge. It plunges three-hundred feet to the clear-cut below, not impassable with intense physical exertion. Road 1608 is a half a mile across the clear-cut, and one night we dragged my step-dad's year-old spike elk out of there in the dark. The thrill of that night rushes back to me, the four of us pulling and grunting with ropes, breaking our lantern so we had to finish in the dark. We pulled his 600-pound chassis a mile and a half uphill to the trucks; somewhere about halfway up the road I put my back to him and, even dead, one of his spikes gored the calf of my left leg, clear through my jeans and thermal underwear and into the muscle. Later, back at camp we strung him up by his hind legs high between two trees and cut his head off with a chain saw. "That'll fix ya," I said, lifting the head by the prongs and speaking into his beautiful face, my calf throbbing. His eyes stared back without acknowledgment, having faded to dull black.

Selecting a wide stump to wait and watch, I slide my rifle off my shoulder, remove my gloves again, unzip my coat, slip in another wad of tobacco. From the stump, I survey the area, down into the clear-cut, up and around into surrounding woods. Before long, the cold creeps up from the stump into my buttocks, numbing them, then spreads into my guts and torso and out through my capped head. Feet and hands get cold too, as heat is exchanged for frost. I'm longing for the moment the sun rounds a stand of trees curving out to my left and falls full on me.

Viewed from across the valley that spreads below me, over the fold of another ridge that reaches its bottom at Nile Creek, I'd appear a red dot in the greens, whites and golds of the autumn ridge. I've seen other hunters from these distances, and one is reminded of the immensity, sometimes the enormity, of the land.

I sit and quietly wait for the ungulate sounds of approaching elk. My mind wanders across variegated, unrelated topics.

I think for a moment about tonight's campfire. We'll sit around listening to Hank Williams, eat like kings, tell jokes and laugh, spit tobacco in the fire. My campmates will drink bourbon and beer; I'll drink diet cola. We'll watch the characteristics and maturation of fire in the pit, pondering its properties in poignant silence. As the fire consumes fuel, we'll wander off at times and look at stars. I'll chart the constellations again for my step-dad, show him the nebula in Orion's sword through field glasses.

Thoughts come unbidden about the exigencies of the real world at home.

In my career, have I sold out hawking my company's products, telling half-truths and obfuscating reality while becoming more and more ensnared in the web of interoffice politics? I think of people there with power over me and evaluate where the boundary is between hard work and sycophantia. And come up with no answer at all.

I've traveled throughout the world in my work. My favorite place is this stump, right here, right now.

There's a woman I run across from time to time, an acquaintance, prettier than my wife, who is pretty herself. This other woman has sent certain signals that she is available. Should I make love to her, once, twice, and pretend that I haven't when I come home? These are my thoughts, sitting on the stump with images of this woman, moving like a cat in and out of my brain stem.

I look down at my rifle. It's a Winchester 7-mm Remington Magnum with WesternField optics, the gun handmade in New Haven, Connecticut, in the United States of America. I bought this gun from my father, and in it I imagine I can feel him, his strength, his discernment, his authority. The grain of its stock is beautiful, even with a few scratches. Its barrel and muzzle mean business. It smells of gun-oil, a good odor.

To look at the rifle is to view an underestimated object, I think. Three and a half feet long, it can fire a projectile the size of a small rock at two thousand feet per second into a paper target and make a precise hole three-eighths of an inch in diameter. Or it can fire a bullet into the body of a thousand-pound Roosevelt bull elk, pierce the hide, glance off a chip of bone and ricochet around inside the animal at incredible velocities, the pressure of its flight liquefying flesh and organs into jelly.

Thinking in clichés for a minute here on this stump, I consider, surgically, the process of taking my own life with the rifle. Clicking the safety off, inverting the gun, putting the muzzle into my mouth and reaching down, remembering to push, not pull, the trigger. Lots of people have done it. Thinking about the mechanics, the process of it, seems otherworldly. Five seconds from now I could be gone. It's seductive, disturbing, preposterous.

Training the crosshairs of my scope on a jetliner passing overhead, I think of the possibilities.

I hear the thwap thwap thwap of a raven's wings generating lift before I see it, floating then straining against light mountain currents as it surveys its kingdom for prey. Jet black, it reminds me of the helicopters of Armageddon, which brings to mind God, or the ferocious articulation of the vengeful and righteous God of my youth, who still is there in my head. It means that I am still a sinner, and always will struggle with the stark fence between right and wrong, always will wrestle with faith.

I hope a bull elk will rush out of the forest and present his chest to me, fifteen feet away, like happened last season. I was sitting on a rock outcrop below 1706 Road about two miles from here and heard a crashing in the woods above and behind me, from the west. He'd been jumped by other hunters and emerged from the trees, drawing up short and staring at me full on. I was unprepared, facing the opposite direction, sitting with my legs crossed under me, rifle across my lap. We both were absolutely still. If I moved, he'd bolt. So we waited for what seemed like minutes, but was only seconds.

Slowly with one hand I clicked the safety off, then in one fluid motion turned to my side, brought the rifle up and around in a great arc, and fired at him. He turned and fled. Carelessly, I fired two more rounds at him, but he was gone. Jumping up, I leaped off the rock onto the ground and followed, sprinting through the forest after him. By the time I had run twenty yards he was two ridges over. I looked around for signs I'd wounded him, and through the hammering of adrenaline, heard myself say shit and damn over and over again. There were no signs of blood anywhere, and I knew I'd missed anyway, and I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity blown.

I hear a rodent up in a tree a few feet away from me gnawing on the sweet flesh where a pinecone attaches to a branch. My gaze follows the trunk up and sees him, and the cone separates and is falling, falling, falling, then hits the ground with a small pop and rolls downhill for four or five seconds and comes to rest. I am reminded of the end of all things.

Glancing at my watch I see that it's 9:25; I'm supposed to meet my uncle back at 1600 Road in one hour and five minutes. So I gather my rifle, hoist it onto my shoulder, refresh the chew in my mouth, and begin the climb out. As many times as I have done this, I never recall that one of the laws of the hike out is that, since you've been there before and you're not really quietly hunting and surveilling, it takes about one-third as much time as the hike in. So at 9:45, I'm bridging the rise directly below 1600 Road, and at 9:46 I'm standing there on the gravel again.

I have almost three-quarters of an hour on my hands, so I decide to climb the rockpile next to where 1600 switches back on its final approach to Little Bald Mountain. The rockpile comprises loose chunks of shale, feldspar and granite, with alpine vegetation struggling here and there. In summertime, it would be full of rattlesnakes, but in late autumn, risk is in the shifting of a loose stone under boot. So my ascent is careful, and each step is a process of selection for foundation and evaluation for stability.

Ten minutes to the top, at 5,465 feet above sea level, on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington state, part of the Ring of Fire seismology network that surrounds the entire Pacific Ocean, on a planet called Earth, third from a yellow star in an arm of a galaxy that forms a molecule in the universe, which may be one of a zillion universes, all of which may be neurons firing in the mind of the Most High; one is prone to hyperbole, hove to on a large boulder at the summit, gazing out for miles and miles and miles, breathing clean air.

From here, the land stretches out, where God could sleep. His green comforter unfolds in ridges and canyons of blanket, stopping where the golden sheets—bare, rolling hills flowing off the east slopes—begin. If God reclined here on the Seventh Day, his head dreamed, nodding on the future site of Union Gap, his toes in Commencement Bay, left arm laid out with his hand on Spirit Lake, right arm running up Umtanum Ridge across where Ellensburg is, into the North Cascades. If he came back here to sleep, his Tahoma belly would rumble as villagers below shook in fear.

I know that God is watching me here, now, and is around me and above, below, to all points of the compass. At every degree of every axis I look and see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This morning is an oracle of the omnipresence of the God who provides, redeems, judges, reconciles and spins the cosmos.

I hear noise below, the opening of a door. It's my uncle, arrived at the Jeep, which is hidden around the bend just barely out of sight from where I am now. Again, shouldering my rifle, I rise from the boulder and head down the rockpile, back into my own small life.

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