The Squirrel Hunter (May 2011 Story of the Month)

by CS DeWildt

He followed Everett through the hills and hollers, down steep limestone embankments of clacking rocks that served as the path for the heavy rain that would spill out into the flood plains below. He followed the man through patches of paw-paws and young birch, past old hollow oaks that vibrated with huddled bats in wait of dusk, up the next rise where their heavy breath flattened the land again, leading them among primordial ferns and moss-pillowed stone.

Everett carried the twenty-two rifle in his giant mitts. Breath came like smoke and the man chewed the end of his home-rolled cigar. Billy watched him and the man seemed to him like a silver haired bear. The man would often stop and talk of the plants, to Billy, but also to the air itself, spilling the words for the forest to gather unto itself, as if educating the very place on its true nature.

"These are wild onions," he said squatting, knees popping like the rocks. He pulled up the thin scallion and chewed the bulbous root. Billy did the same and sucked the flavor from the green fiber. He chewed the sprout, letting it dangle from his lips like Everett's cigar.

"These berries are edible," Everett said. "I don't care for them myself, bitter. But in a pinch." And he plucked two from the small bush and popped them as if to prove the point. Billy did the same and yes, they were bitter, but they complimented the onion flavor and Billy memorized the look of the bush, the stubborn give of the berry's skin between his molars.

It was cold and the ground spouted forth smoky steam from the pockets and caverns below. Billy pointed out each breathing hole he saw and Everett marked its location on the topomap.

"Most of these are connected. Or will be." Everett said. "Might just open up into some great chamber. A place untouched."

Billy noted the marks on the map, simple red exes laid out over the paper landscape, each one a ghost of the vents pocking the land around them.

Everett paused and Billy knew he'd spotted a squirrel by the change of his breathing, a feeling in the air as if the man had sucked up all the oxygen in some great ecological communication as master of the world. Billy massaged the canvas bag between his fingers, wanting the moment to remain with him in all its manifestations, tactile and olfactory. He smelled the cigar on the onion on the berry on the cold morning. He saw the man take a knee, another pop of the joint, a click of the safety next to the trigger, the pop and soft echo from thick greenery. It fell from the tree, hobbled, bounced and flopped, became a gray mass.

Billy came upon it first, went to his knees and spread the frosted ferns that wet his fingers numb. The squirrel did not appear. Billy cocked his head like a robin searching out the slow crawl of a worm and in doing so the gray mass popped from the rocky background, burning itself upon his retinas. He felt the squirrel, the warm radiating death soothed his cold fingers. The tick, a young instar was slightly swollen behind the squirrel's ear. Billy plucked it free, a small tag of flesh still in its mouthparts. He rolled it in his fingers before crushing it, slicing it in two between his thumbnail and the hardened bed of his index finger. It bled squirrel blood and fell to the ground, left to new purpose among the miraculous and unseen perpetuators of the cycle.

The squirrel moved, barely, and Billy thought it still alive. There was a hole in its midsection and Billy realized the pulsing was not due to the animal's blood flow or breath, but to squirming life within its womb. The bullet had opened up the placenta and among the messy potpourri of innards and fluids, a small wet pup was exposed to the world prematurely. Billy watched it move and take life upon itself the best it was able, the cold invasive air, light and sound. It searched for the comfort that had been stripped away with the layers of tissue.

He felt Everett over his shoulder, smelled the cigar and felt his breath. It warmed his neck and Billy said, "Will it live?"

"No," Everett said. "It won't."

Billy took the squirrel by the bush of its tail and dropped it into the bag among the others. Everett marked the map with another double stroke of red and Billy scanned the landscape, searching for the place his father had just created.

CS DeWildt is a liar. He wants to hurt you. His work has appeared in a variety of print and webzines. He is the author Dead Animals, a collection of short stories and flash, as well as the crime novella Candy and Cigarettes. Please visit CS at http://csdewildt.com