“The Men Have Gone Hunting” is part of Blood Secrets, local author Nadine McInnis’s sophomore collection of short stories, published in September 2012. It is short-listed for an Ottawa Book Award for fiction. The winners will be announced on Oct. 22
By Nadine McInnis
Last evening, shots were fired in the bush around the farmhouse, although officially hunting season started this morning at dawn. They live just north of Highway 3, which runs horizontally, cutting the province of Saskatchewan in two, north from south. The season starts one week earlier in the northern half, where the forest begins, and the muskeg and the lakes that are cold even in the heat of summer. All the hunters from the cities drive just as far as this line drawn in the snow before loading their guns.
She had settled Maya in her crib for her afternoon nap when she heard the knocking on the kitchen door. Looking down on the stoop from the upstairs window in the hall, she could see the guns propped over the men’s shoulders, the bright orange hunting vests hurting her eyes against the unfamiliar white. The winter snow had come only two days before and she wasn’t used to it. She couldn’t see a truck in the yard, not even any footprints so she couldn’t tell if they’d walked in by way of the overgrown northern approach or looped around, following the caragana that swung closer to the barn.
She ducked, hoping Maya wouldn’t wake up, but heard the knocking again. Not daring to raise her head, she squatted beneath the window ledge, hoping they would go away. Norman was farther north, hunting as well, in the vast unpopulated forest reserves. He thought that only rude city folk would hunt in places where people lived. Even though he was a city boy himself. He’d taken up these opinions over the two years they had lived in rural Saskatchewan, first renting a small bungalow in Glaslyn, then a rambling farmhouse out in the country.
Last November, her first with him in the country, she’d been pulling Maya in her sled, wearing a scarlet jacket against the new snow. A truck had pulled over and the man had said to her, “You’re going to get shot walking the roads this time of year. Do you want to leave that little one without a mother?” Norman was incensed when he heard what a stranger had said to her practically in her own driveway, but he couldn’t be dissuaded from leaving her alone this year too. It’s what the men in his family had always done, even though they were now two generations removed from rural living. He told her a little self-righteously that she would have to give up her city sensitivities if she was going to be happy here.
She heard the kitchen door opening and the men’s footsteps in the mud room. Heavy steps moving into the house. A glance out the window confirmed it. The two black rifles were leaning against the door frame but the men were gone.
“Anybody there?” she called to them as she moved down the stairway, saying what they should have been calling out as they entered her house.
One of the men was rifling through the key rack near the door; the other had walked across the kitchen to the phone. The floor was wet and muddy; he hadn’t taken off his boots.
They both looked up at her without surprise.
“Hey,” the one at the key rack said. “We slid off the road. This snow’s a bitch.”
“Goddamn prairie gumbo,” the other near the phone said. “The Indians can have it.”
“You prick. If you’d just given them our booze, they wouldn’t have run us off. Those guys are probably at the car right now, cutting the deer off the roof and stealing our beer. Goddamn land claims. Where the fuck are we anyways?”
He looked at her and smirked.
“The reserve is just north of here. Where’s your car stuck?”
She wanted to make this clear because she’d sometimes been mistaken for a mixed-blood, with her long black hair and lean build. She could smell alcohol in the room, but stale so she knew they could be getting cranky as the buzz wore off.
The man by the key rack wore glasses, which made him seem more trustworthy. Maybe an ordinary guy who sat at a desk in Saskatoon, only playing at being tough one week a year. Maybe a man like her husband. She spoke to him.
“You need a phone book to call the garage in town?” And she turned away, bending to the cupboard where she kept the book, bending from the knees instead of her waist so that her backside didn’t present itself to either of them.
The other one answered, the alpha, even though he was shorter, almost hunched and had dark circles under his eyes. “You’ve got a tractor. Where’s your husband? He can pull us out.”
“Out in the back forty,” she answered, hoping that she made sense. They didn’t farm, although they lived in a farmhouse with an empty hip-roofed horse barn, a fragrant pile of silage out behind the slough. The man they rented the house from pastured cattle there, arriving silently every morning before dawn to fire up the tractor and spread silage in the coldest, darkest months. They never saw him, probably wouldn’t recognize him if they met in the Red and White store in town. She could always tell he’d been there because every morning, there was a lingering smell like rotten fruit, even on days so cold that moisture crystallized before it dissipated. And she saw tracks in the snow where he’d driven the tractor out to the silage pile and back.
“The tractor’s sitting right there. I can drive one. Which is the right key?”
Taken aback, she admitted, “I don’t know.”
“Can’t you call him?” the one with tired eyes answered although she hadn’t spoken to him.
She looked at him without comprehending.
“Your husband,” he said, a little sarcastically, as though the word was just a way of putting on airs. He held his hand like a gun to his head, thumb pointing to his mouth, mocking her.
“You know, phone?” mincing on his small feet. She broke eye contact, studied the pattern in her linoleum, the water that had gathered along the indentations, one of their boot prints that had dried almost white against the red. “Doesn’t he carry a cell?”
“Cell? There are no cells here. No coverage outside the city,” she answered as she flipped through the slim phone book looking for the number of the garage.
“Coverage! No coverage! Don’t wet your panties about it,” he said.
“Hey, hey, no need for that,” his friend told him. “If you could call the garage then.”
When the garage didn’t answer after she had dialled the number over and over for five minutes, she left a message and then called her neighbour, Harold, who had a woodworking business he ran from his house three kilometres away. She tried to look neutral as she listened to him berating the uselessness of hunters, clamping the phone close to her head so that they wouldn’t overhear.
“If they’re stupid enough to ditch their car, they can hitchhike back to the city as far as I’m concerned.”
“Yes, yes,” she murmured, which only spurred Harold on.
“They come up here, get drunk and shoot cows in the pasture because they don’t know any better and then they want to be bailed out.”
“They’re here in my kitchen,” she said softly, almost warmly, as though she was so happy to have these unexpected visitors. “All they need is a little push or a pull with your truck and they’ll be on their way.”
“I wouldn’t waste one millilitre of gas on those buffoons.”
“They’ve been sitting here, just waiting. The garage is not answering. If you could just come over, please. Norman’s gone hunting up north,” she said, realizing too late that she’d revealed that she was alone. And hoping she didn’t sound too pleading, too desperate.
“I don’t run when hunters call. Sorry,” he said, and then again, more gently, “Sorry.”
She could tell that he was still feeling badly about yelling at her when she had the chimney fire last winter and had placed Maya in the snow wrapped in a big comforter and gone back in to throw pails of water on the smoking wall. He was ranting about city people not knowing anything about living in the country. Hadn’t they cleaned the pipes? Why was Norman always at work when these things happened, making big bucks teaching while his neighbours had to scrabble up a little work building cabinets for those people who owned cottages that sat on the best land.
After telling them that her neighbour’s truck was in the shop and that they should try the garage again, she left the kitchen and went down the cellar steps to put more wood in the furnace, but once she was done, she sat on the woodpile thinking of what to do next. Maybe she could stay down here and they would eventually leave. But Maya was two floors above her, sleeping lightly in her three-year-old way. A girl now, not a baby. A pretty brown-eyed girl. She wasn’t in a crib anymore and might wander downstairs on her own, trailing her striped blanket behind her, if she woke up.
She heard movement upstairs. One of them was still wearing boots, probably the short one, she thought maliciously. Isn’t it always the short one? She could also hear a creaking of the floor joists moving in the other direction, almost as though a ghost was up there protecting her, blocking the stairway going to the second floor. Then her heart started pounding hard. The other had obviously taken off his boots and was moving furtively. Was he about to go up the stairs? Why weren’t the two of them together? She stood up, listening from the bottom of the cellar stairs. She heard drawers opening and closing in her kitchen. They were obviously looking for something. She heard a rustling sound like paper crinkling and more cupboard doors being opened and then gently closed. The two men were moving methodically around her large kitchen. She could sense one of them standing at the base of the stairs leading to her daughter’s room. She took a deep breath and headed up from the cellar.
They must have heard her coming because she heard their footsteps quickly move toward one another and a secretive conversation too low for her to make out. She was sweating down her back even though the basement was cool and the woodpile conducted the temperature of the frozen ground into the house. As she reached the top of the stairs, the phone rang. One long ring, then two short ones—her ring. Even though the men wouldn’t have known that, one of them answered the phone. She stood at the door of the kitchen, hoping it was the garage calling back so they would go and wait beside their ditched car. The taller one was on the phone while the shorter man wearing boots sat at her kitchen table. She saw a box of crackers lying open on the floor.
“Yeah, she’s here,” he was saying. The person on the other end was talking for a while and she thought that was strange. What could the man at the garage have to say to this stranger? Then he started describing the buck tied to the top of his car.
“Four point antlers. A real stud. Not an easy kill either. He was a smart bugger. Jumped a fence from standing and hid near a slough. Knew enough to keep that rack low in the willows.”
More silence and she felt disoriented. She looked out the window, not entering the kitchen completely until she understood what was going on. Hoarfrost had grown on all the tangled branches of the caragana and now the days were too cold to burn it off by afternoon. The windbreak was once again opaque as it was in summer, impenetrable. From the road, only the side of the barn was visible. The house would be completely hidden again, after a brief bright period of sunlight in the shortening afternoons. The barn’s faded red paint looked like old blood in the white light of early winter. And the rolling prairie behind the house almost blended into the sky, seeming to go on forever. She felt a bit dizzy, as though she were lost on a vast, still, white ocean. Two by two by two—they were trapped together, but there was one too many. She was the odd one out here even though it was her house.
The man was laughing. “Bugger,” he said. “My buddy lost his boot in a sinkhole of mud. Smelled like hot springs. He’s got a wet foot and I told him to keep his boots on. Who needs that stink?”
Then there was silence again, punctuated by laughter.
“A clean shot, my buddy thought. But it must have missed the bone, went sailing out into the air. Could that buck run! Holy fuck, I never saw anything like that, a real buck Olympics. Right over the fence.”
Silence as the person on the other end talked.
“ … the white flag down. A smart bugger. ‘Where’d he go?’ my buddy says. ‘Too much beer for breakfast,’ I says. Then we see him bounding across the field, making a flying leap into the willows around a slough. ‘We got him,’ I says, but to be safe we came from two different direction.”
“I says, ‘Don’t you shoot me by accident. Watch where you aim.’”
A story was being told on the other end, she could tell, because the man on the phone cradled the phone on his shoulder as he scratched his neck with pleasure. He was grinning.
“How’re you going to get them out of the bush?” he asked. “Better not run into the law. No law shit up there. Maybe we’ll head up next weekend.”
The back and forth of conversation continued.
“Hey, raise a cold one for me, buddy. I could use a bit of your luck.”
“Yeah,” he said. “We slid off the road. Had to move over for a big truckload of Indians. The buck on the roof should give us traction but my buddy’s tires are pieces of shit. City road shit.”
More silence, then he was back to telling the story of the kill.
“Yeah. I told my buddy, ‘Don’t just aim and fire. I’m coming in from the other side. We’ll get him. All it takes is patience.’ And there he was, hiding his head in the willows. Smart bugger. But we flushed him out and his head’s going to look real good on my wall.”
The man in the boots sitting at her table was following along even though he, too, couldn’t hear the other half of the conversation. He was grinning and even pointed his finger at the man on the phone and narrowed one eye as though he were aiming a gun when he was describing for the third time how they surrounded the buck hiding in the willows.
“Then we got him, clean. He was all worn out and fell on the spot. A clean shot. Didn’t even bleed that much.”
Then suddenly, the conversation was over and the man on the phone looked at her and said, “Barb?”
She was shocked. How did he know her name?
He held the phone out to her and she hesitated, then moved into the kitchen, aware of the man sitting at the kitchen table, his eyes level with her breasts.
She took the phone, trying to avoid touching the man’s hand. The phone was warm against her ear, making her feel a bit queasy.
“Hey, Barb. You’ve got some excitement there, don’t you?”
“Norman! Where are you? Are these guys friends of yours?”
“No. No, Barb. Just the fellowship of hunters.”
“Are you coming home?”
“No, Barb. I’m calling from a gas station. We walked half the night and spent the other half sitting in the doorway, waiting for someone to show up. When we got back to the truck last night, all the tires were flat. Someone slashed them, way out here, in the middle of nowhere. It’s the strangest thing. And we had three deer—two does and a buck. Over our limit, I know, but what a day it was, until the truck. We had to hide one in the forest, under some brush. Maybe we’ll get back … ”
She cut this off, this story that had nothing to do with her situation right now, at that very moment.
“The garage doesn’t answer here. And Harold wouldn’t come. He wouldn’t help.”
“Harold’s a jerk.”
“That may be true, but I have a kitchen full of strangers with guns.”
Too late she realized that they were listening to her end of the conversation. Norman seemed to know this before she did because his voice was suddenly warning, low, as though coaxing a bear to back off and let them go. That had happened once, when they were walking through the poplar forest near the community pasture. A bear came out of nowhere and he put himself in front of her and Maya, talked slowly, carefully to the bear. The bear snuffled from side to side, sending whiffs of its oily fur to her, so that it seemed to be even closer. Then it moved over to a tree, stretched to its full length, and clawed the bark. She had wanted to run, but Norman continued talking gently, slowly, as though trying to hypnotize the bear to turn away.
“Listen carefully, Barb. Smile and give them some food. They’re cranky with the hunting, the high of the kill, then the frustration of sliding off the road. Things can happen at a time like that. So smile and give them some coffee.”
“You want me to play happy hostess?” she almost spit this at him as quietly as she could.
“Careful, Barb. Don’t let them see your fear. Or your resentment.”
“A little late for that.”
“You can do this. You can smile as you’re talking to me. You can send them the message that I’m welcoming them into my home. That I’m there even though I’m not.”
She was silent now, considering, her eyes surveying the kitchen, the lump in her throat rising when she saw that they had taken in everything that she’d said. The tall one was looking down, avoiding her eyes, but the short one was sitting at her table with his boots on, legs splayed so that she could see dark bloody stains on the thighs of his jeans. He was watching her, almost sneering. His hand was resting palm up on the table, the illusion of ease. But she could feel something in him coiled tight, ready to spring. She looked away and concentrated again on Norman’s voice coaxing her, cajoling, intimate in her ear.
“Smile. Pretend I’m telling you about the first doe I shot. Give them something to eat. Listen to me. Don’t talk, just listen.”