Voices: Fall harvest at ridgeline

Voices: Fall harvest at ridgeline

By Michael J. La Due

The Vermilion River runs low, sluggish and cold in late November. The banks are firm, exposed, the mud more like slick clay than the sucking mire it was in September. You must step carefully. Our hunter spent two years building his rifle, he makes every effort to keep it out of the mud. He could have bought a suit for the cost of the stock alone, a carving from precious burled wood he shaped by hand to fit his southpaw's shoulder.

It is an 18th-century-style flintlock with a percussive hang time requiring the forethought, commitment and calm to fire just once. The ritual to prepare a second shot can take a full minute. Each balled lead shot was hand poured. The lead-pot had been heated in the same fire that cooked the venison stew, while bullets were formed in their mold on the hearth. As they cooled, deer meat from an earlier hunt was savored.

Looking up from the river through the wooded rise, cradling his flintlock, he chooses his steps with care, and stops behind a tree. Three does stand at ridgeline in the distance. They raise their heads wide-eyed, still, silent, listening for the least sign of danger, a slip on a wet leaf, a twig giving way. The hunter sees, suspended with them in stillness.

Hunter, deer, the river and the woods hover in a moment shared, still as though suspended, waiting electric, every sense straining. A puff of wind stirs the rare leaf still hanging from a dormant limb to semaphore. Perhaps the deer hesitated at this.

Silently emerging, lowering his weapon from behind the tree, the hunter aligns his vision with the barrel, peering into the trajectory of the ball he would release into the largest of the three deer at ridgeline. Methodically, gently, the fleshy sensitive pad of his index finger molds the solid, cold hair trigger. The hammer is released. A hand-knapped stone grates against a jointed file called the frizzen. A shower of spark in a shallow pan of powder smokes the worms into the hole through which the charge ignites a small explosion behind the lead bullet. Spinning once, it hurtles toward the largest deer.

She may have flinched; too late. The shot is true. The hunter, a contained explosion felt against his left cheek, did not flinch. He couldn't count the times necessary to master that urge to flinch at this moment. Perhaps neither he nor the doe blinked in that instant. Their eyes may have met as the bullet coursed toward her. Because his was a practiced hand, the doe's life ended almost as quickly as that trigger pull.

The other two deer bolted in great, graceful arcs before her falling body settled to the ground they had just shared. The crack and echo of the shot had settled to the ground as well. All that could be heard was the low, gentle river mumbling at the hunter's back.

He had held stillness too long and felt muscles strain at aching joints in damp late November air. He saw his breath in the exertion. Arriving at the doe he had made his, he was thankful, glad she had not suffered. He was mindful of life, of chance, and of its swift passage, mindful of his own fragility. Suddenly, he realized his hands were still with cold. He warmed them against the belly of the deer.

The hunter made his way back to the lodge further downstream. He suspended the lifeless deer from a tree. He withdrew a curved, short knife from a deerskin sheath sewn with gut. He had made it from an old file, handled with a section of crown stag deer antler harvested from a buck taken several seasons ago. In "Moby Dick," a tale of a very great hunt, Ishmael offers to Queequeg the observation that the Pequod's tiller and cleats were fashioned from the bones of her victims. So it was with the hunter's knife. And so it was with reverence that he reached into the creature to find the trachea through which its final breath left it. To embrace it in the warmth and dark of this creature, his hands, felt though unseen, working together as in prayer.

The entrails disengaged with an economy of movement. Over the bank of the river he placed them. On other cold nights in the woods he had heard the conversation of the coyotes and knew their love of sweetmeats. They wasted nothing. Neither would he. Having taken life, he would not risk ingratitude. He and they would share and live.

There was to be no locker for processing. There would be no wondering about packages in white butcher paper, bound commercially with tape on conveyors. His doe was his responsibility, his taking. His knife, sheathed and handled in vestigial deer, shaped and honed by hand, would section her, each cut and parcel, every fiber parted in a state of grace and balance. There is reverence in all things for those posed to see and know, as three deer were seen, and one known, in late November, at ridgeline.

Michael J. La Due, a member of the Champaign City Council, writes both poetry and prose.