Ninth Step

Ninth Step
Ninth step photo
Photo courtesy of Alton Ross

 

Paul’s father had his hand resting on the spicket post. He was dressed in an old shirt, buckskin vest, and windbreakers tucked into two big, black leather boots. A quiver of arrows was tied to his right leg. A bow was held tightly in the non-spicket hand.

“This is a weapon,” he told his son, lifting the bow over his head. “I could kill you with this weapon if I were not to follow the rules.” He walked around in front of him, shifting his heavy feet as a man would in a pair of skis; digging into the sinking ground for support and then slowly lifting upwards, the mud making sucking noises as it released him. “There are three main rules to archery. First rule is to know and obey any range command. Next rule is to always point the arrow in a safe direction, either at the ground or at the target. And when done shooting, step back from the shooting line.” Paul watched him as he removed a whistle from the inside of the buckskin vest. “Two blasts means to step to the shooting line. Pick up your bow at this point, but under no circumstances are you to pick up any arrows,” he continued. “One blast means you commence shooting, and shoot until you are out of arrows. Then point your bow downwards. Be sure to make sure the area is clear, and then retrieve your arrows. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good.”

Paul’s father walked over to where he’d drawn a line in the dirt with the heel of his boot earlier. He removed an arrow from the quiver tied to his leg, and fitted it to the bow. Paul watched him as he sighted. His father pulled back, held his breath for three seconds. He released. They heard it enter the target with a dull thud, landing in the centre red.

 

Fresh snow crunches under Paul’s own pair of big, black boots as he carefully ducks beneath a wire fence. He can feel the sweat bead on his forehead beneath the knit cap, the heavy Bowie knife slapping against his thigh as he continues to push deeper into the woods. The walking here is easy and pleasant, moving down on the trail. But soon enough the trail rises steeply out of the wooded valley, and through the pine timber to a meadow. Across the meadow he can see another trail. He pauses to stretch his stiff limbs and to readjust the quiver of arrows. The memories, playing out in his head like old home movies, all warm and fuzzy, are all there is to distract him from the numbing cold of the valley.

Hen’s cousin Timmy had taken the first bear of the season, and Hen the second. Each was a good and worthy bear, but Paul had been determined to surpass each of them. It was Timmy’s bragging the other night that had so stoked this fire. With soft firelight filling the room of the cabin, Timmy had bragged about the killing of his bear. He’d gone on and on about how he had to track for over twelve miles before finally managing to take it down with a straight shot to the head using his uncle’s, Hen’s father’s, replica 1877 Winchester rifle. Paul hadn’t liked Timmy when they’d first met a few days prior, and he liked him even less right then. He talked too much, with too much bravado. So to shut Timmy up, he had challenged that he himself would go out the very next day to hunt with only bow and arrow, and, in this way, bring back a bear of even greater worth. Hen had told him he should take Timmy with him in case, for Timmy knew the valley very well. But pride is a bitch and had Paul firmly in her grasp, and so he refused.

‘I know how to hunt,’ he said, ‘my dad taught me how, and for the record, he taught me very well.’ The vehemence with which he’d said these words had closed the issue, and for the rest of the night they did not bring it up again.

 

Paul rubs his feet together. He takes his hands and bends over to rub his legs and stamps his feet to keep his circulation going. Of course the old man taught me well, he thought to himself. They used to get up at four on Alabama mornings, and go out with the dew still wet on the grass and the sun just starting to get going. Paul had been taught to shoot, and to shoot well. The grey shadows of the woods rise over adjacent mountains and valleys. They strike the cold trails, and crash through the undergrowth to where he is standing. This weather can all go to Hell, he thinks, it’s too goddamn much for this. He now regrets his hot-headed and obstinate nature. It has brought no bear. No retribution. Only hunger and soreness from all the trekking through the fresh, powdery snow. He looks over into the big clearing. He doesn’t even care about the bear any more. No, not even a little bit.

 

“There are nine steps to shooting a bow,” his father told him as Paul picked up the longbow. “How many are there?”

“Nine.”

“Yes. Stance, nock, set, pre-draw, draw, anchor, aim, release, and follow-through.”

Paul looked down the field to where the target sat. It was only two hay bales stacked on each other, with a bit of paper stuck to the front. Yet it was daunting for the ten-year old. He knew he wanted to make his father proud of him. His father knelt down next to Paul. The boy appeared miniscule beside his robust frame.

“First position your body parallel to the flight of the arrow, like this,” he said, moving his son into the positions. “Stand comfortably, keeping your feet shoulder’s width apart, touching your toes to the imaginary line that leads to the center of the target. Stand up straight, make sure to keep your weight evenly balanced on both feet, and look directly at the target.” He looked over him to make sure all was proper before nodding his head in approval. He went over, picked up his own bow from where it leaned against the spicket post, and removed another arrow from the quiver lashed to his side.

“Now, nock the bow by laying the shaft of the arrow with your free hand onto the arrow rest. Then nock the notched end onto the string at the proper point. Make sure the odd-colored feather is facing away from the bow.” The old man’s eyes followed his son’s movements to make sure he did as he did. “Keeping shoulders level, place your other hand comfortably in the handle of the bow, lightly holding it with its weight against your thumb and index finger. Avoid an overly tight grip because it will choke the bow’s natural action. That’s fine,” he said. They hadn’t much in common, him and his son, but this could be one of those things that they did have; and a few were far better than none. ‘’Place three fingers on the bowstring, index above the arrow and middle fingers below it. The string should rest in the first joint of all three fingers; your hand should be forming a hook on the bowstring. Raise the bow until the arrow is pointing directly at the target, rotating your elbow downward so it won’t be in the way of the string on release; your other hand should be holding the handle of the bow and the elbow of your drawing arm near the level of your nose.”

 

It is either a small pine or fir with the bark and limbs stripped clean; a bear tree they call it, used as a back scratcher. Hen has told him how the bears like coming through this part of the valley in the early fall. There is a forest of young oak trees, and there, an autumn crop of acorns lying ready for them to fatten up on for the long winter sleep. Paul is so cold now that he loiters again for a few minutes, deciding on whether or not to turn back. He looks at the trail with some eagerness, but soon begins to shake his head. With the continual fall of snow, he figures on the trail being no good. Paul imagines the smoke coming out of the cabin’s chimney. Thinks of Hen and Timmy warm and comfortable. He looks back on the trail behind him and into the oncoming darkness. He has no fear of missing his way, for he’s marked a tree with a deep, gouged X every five hundred steps. But he’s had nothing this far in, and it’s useless to stay any longer with the wind blowing colder all the time and the snow coming faster. He still tells himself he cares nothing for a bear any more, but with his body sustained only by misplaced hope and powerful ego, he finds he can’t quite give up. So he shoots that hope against the wall of that graying sky, praying the dice are loaded, and takes off down the beaten-looking trail.

 

“Extend your arm fully, keeping the shoulder down, and draw on the bow steadily, moving your elbow straight back. Keep in mind about your anchor point. This is where your hand and the bowstring should be touching the face at a full draw, serving as the rear sight. As you reach full draw, your head will come to rest on top of your hand.’’ Paul could hear his father moving next to him, the mud squelching under his boots. Go ahead and choose a small aiming spot on your target. With the arrow fully drawn and anchored, raise or lower the bow until it is in line with the eye and the aiming spot. Once you’ve established the sight, come to a full draw and hold the sight dead centre.” Paul did as he was told, and brought the string all the way back until it just touched his cheek. But he was still a boy, and the pulling of the bow took strength. His skinny body shook with the effort to keep it drawn. His father noticed all. “Make sure the anchor is solid. At full draw, look past the string and you will see the target. One or the other will be out of focus. Concentrate; and when you feel comfortable, and the sight is steady on the bull’s-eye, hold your breath for three seconds, then release the arrow.” Paul held his breath, and counted to the three. He released the arrow and it went whizzing past the target, and buried itself in the wet ground just behind.

“It’s all right,” his father told him, “It’s only your first try. Pick up another and do it again.”

They spent the entire morning out there in the field, shooting arrow after arrow. Many of Paul’s did not hit the target. They fell next to it or behind it. Some would even graze its edges, but not one arrow hit that target with the dull thud that every one of his father’s arrows made when they hit. Paul was crestfallen. He was supposed to be a man. To be strong and able, yet here he couldn’t even shoot an arrow properly. He felt a firm hand alight on his shoulder.

“It’s all right, boy. Not everyone is good when they first pick up something. I certainly wasn’t,” his father laughed. “Hell, your grandfather used to say it would take a shotgun for me to ever hit anything, and even that’d be a miracle.”

They walked together down the range. Paul went about picking up the arrows that had landed on the ground, as his father removed the ones from the bale. He noticed as he picked up his arrows his father looking at one of the arrows he held in his hand as if studying it. He looked at it some and turned it round in his hand, and then looked up toward the sun. Paul just watched his father looking up at the sun and back to where their house was. And then the old man turned to him and waved for him to come along. They did not talk on the walk back to the house.

Later in the evening, they had a lovely meal of breakfast pork chops, loaded mashed potatoes, and fresh green beans from the garden. The dinner was a good dinner, and it was later on that night when Paul’s father shot himself.

He was finishing the book he’d been reading, Agatha Christie’s ‘After the Funeral’. The woman, that ladylike murderer, had perturbed him as he read of her slowly going insane, planning one tea shop after another in the coldness of her cell. It was then Paul had heard the shot. He thought it had been a book falling off a shelf.

A week after the funeral, Paul got up in the early morning with the dew still fresh on the grass. He set up the bales, pasted on the target, and walked back to the line. He picked up his father’s bow, picked up an arrow, sighted, and let it fly.

 

Gradually ascending, the trail leads through a pass continuing up the valley. The snow is deep . Five to eight inches deep, spread over most of the ground, but here it’s more than a foot deep. It reminds Paul of the mud. Even watching for the firmest of footings, he still sinks down into the snow. There are large cedars overhead. A delicate stream to the right, frozen and beautiful; its fresh waters will become a pretty little thing in the summer thaw. Shivering in the snow more than a foot deep, and stiff from the cold wind, Paul keeps up his journey in the face of a country seasonally embittered. The going is slow and laborious. Through the naked trees and large cedars, the valley still gradually rises. The air is dark with the falling snow. It weighs down the tufts of grass which show above the snow. It weighs down the trees, and the big, bulky figure moving through the open.

            Paul turns down an off path, climbing down into a gulch. The sky is opened some, revealing winter stars all a-glittering and they and the moon carve a path out before him. The flakes drop through the pines, pushed diagonally by the winds. They come circling and twirling, and are thick through the pines. Paul feels the brushing of the bushes against his legs. He feels the weight of the knife against his thigh, and that of the quiver on his back. He pauses again to readjust and to warm himself as best he can, when, there in the snow, he spies fresh bear tracks. His excitement gets caught in his throat as he bends down to study the tracks. “They are fresh”, he says to himself, “They are fresh, and by my judge, he shouldn’t be far.”

With whatever stamina is left to him, Paul begins to lightly scamper along the trail. Gone for the moment are all his fatigues and his doubts and his failures. The quiver and the knife bounce at his side as he jumps and pulls himself over a ledge. He slackens his pace, listening for any sound whatsoever from his prey. From the southeast he hears something. Paul isn’t sure as to what it could be, for the snow muffles things so, but he strikes off in that direction.

Over the next rise, there, pushing against the limb of a great tall fir is a black bear. Not the largest he’s ever seen, but one of good size and possibly of a greater size than that of even Timmy’s or Hen’s. Paul crouches behind a curtain of brush, viewing and assessing from behind the branches. His breath is uneven from the strain of the cold and of the sudden movement, but Paul takes no notice of this. The bear must be only forty or so yards away, and it is beautiful. Coal black fur reflecting dully in the moonlight; the teeth as white and piercing as the snow. Several minutes passed in which Paul struggles with whether or not to kill the bear. He was lean with the anticipation on first spotting him, but now not so much. He’s never been one anyway to kill. It is one thing to kill for food, but another entirely for sport or for pride. But it is so dark now, Paul thinks, that only by the light of the moon can one see the flakes blowing past and through the pine trunks. It makes him feel lonely, and this loneliness makes him feel the burning hollowness of his hunger. It is true, then, that’d he’s not eaten for hours and had failed in killing any of the few rabbits he’d spotted earlier in the day. These are the thoughts that pass as he crouches behind the bushes. In the end he decides that it is best to take the bear.

The black bear has not heard him. He sets his pack quietly down and pulls a shaft from the quiver. Paul nocks the arrow into the bow. He brings it up and pulls back on the string until his gloved hand touches against the nakedness of his cheek. He sights and takes aim. Holding his breath, he counts to three and releases.

Paul hears the arrow hit and quickly follows with another that melts into the bear’s body. The bear gives a quick roar, and bounds off down the trail. Paul gets up and goes running. Through thickets and sliding down another gulch, and through the woods he gallops with his heart on the verge of collapse. He catches up to the bear. It has managed to climb up a small oak tree that sways from the unexpected weight. It’s wounded badly, and roars in its pain. The black, beady eyes seem to glare at Paul with anger and misunderstanding. Paul runs in and shoots twice more into its swaying body, the shafts again slipping through like magic. The bear falls from its perch, falling backwards and landing with a muffled thud on the ground. Paul watches it as it lies on its side, breathing heavily and laboriously, yet by the time he reaches the body it is already dead. From a combination of fatigue and nervousness, Paul unsheathes the Bowie knife and plunges it into the dead animal’s throat.

He leaves the knife planted in the throat, and slides down to slump against the body. The fur is still warm. Paul’s breath comes out as ragged bits of frost. He scoops up in his gloved hand a little snow. This he puts in his mouth, letting it melt. Once it has done so, he swallows the freezing cold water. Laying his pounding head against the body, Paul looks up into the clear night sky. Killing must be a very great sin, he thinks. It is done too lightly and too often without necessity, and there is very little penance to be done over it. It is done for the littlest of reasons, like the murderess in the Christie story; killing for the sake of recreating her teashop. ‘A chance to recreate the Willow Tree’ had been her excuse, and it wouldn’t be a true killing if there were no excuse behind it. But no, I won’t think any more about the killing. I do not understand it. I do not understand why so many prayers are to be offered to persons whose lines are always busy; and I do not understand the killing. I do not understand, what with families and loves to be with, why we should even wish to kill; but then I do not understand the killing. I do not understand the killing, and why we must kill to have a basis for living. No, I do not understand the killing, and am only sorry for the killing. I miss the prayers, yes, and the crackling of the fire, and the warmth of friends. I miss the summers on back patios drinking and smoking. I miss the very same nights doing the very same things. I miss much and I guess for that, too, I am sorry. Paul scoops up another handful of snow and places it in his mouth. He lays his hand across the soft black fur.

“To you too, I am sorry.”

There is a crashing through the trees, accompanied by voices. The last thing Paul remembers are flashlight beams, like golden rays of light, shining through the bear’s fur.

About Alton Ross

With a cold bead of sweat running down the length of his back, you'll find Alton sitting in his two-bit motel with a one-bit whore; smoking a broken Red, writing away in his notebook. The stories are complete shit, but that's alright with him. Most life stories are. It just depends on how well you write them.

With a cold bead of sweat running down the length of his back, you'll find Alton sitting in his two-bit motel with a one-bit whore; smoking a broken Red, writing away in his notebook. The stories are complete shit, but that's alright with him. Most life stories are. It just depends on how well you write them.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *