“This is the spot.” Pine trees and scrub oaks sway in the breeze and pine needles carpet the ground. I had asked to see this place. Jon and Kim, my brother and sister, wanted to go, too. Roy Fowler, our father’s friend, drove us into the forest to show us where our father died.
I press my palm against the pine tree. I scrape two fingers over the bark, peeling flakes as if scabs from a wound. I glance at Jon and Kim, both battling grief too big to swallow. Jon stomps the ground and stares at the sky. Kim’s fingers cover her mouth, a habit she’d carried into her adult years, to be trotted out when stressed.
The scent of tobacco spills over me. Roy stands a few feet away. He drags on his cigarette. His cheeks pull inward until the skin pools between the rows of his teeth. Deep wrinkles frame his eyes and reveal nothing.
I lean into the pine tree, my weight sinking through my palm. Could I coax the secret of my father’s last moments from the tree? Had his chest felt anything like mine, a cage filled with grief batting its wings against my ribs?
The sky peeks through the canopy of pine needles and leaves overhead. Golds and yellows pop against the mostly brown leaves, a quiet color without airs as autumn descends. A blue jay fusses about our presence so deep within the woods. Five days earlier, had he raised hell, offended by the gun fire, the yelling, and the chaos when our Dad passed without warning?
That day, the hunt club members had bumped down the sandy lane, driving several miles into the pulpwood land. They spread out along the fire lane, waiting for the big one. And that’s what Dad saw, a nine-point buck or maybe it was twelve, maybe even unlucky thirteen. I don’t recall but I know this, my father fired his gun.
Two weeks before his passing, Dad and Mom had visited my husband and me for the weekend. The last morning, we sat on the porch, soaking in the morning sun. We’d taken in two feral half-grown mongrels. Lean and wary, both watched us from the shade of the black walnut tree. My father launched into a story involving another mistrustful dog. I was stunned by his shoot, shovel, and shut up story. He’d killed that family’s dog and never told anyone. While my father and mother clenched secrets as if gems to be hoarded and hidden, my sister or brother scattered stories like I fling zinnia seeds each spring. If Kim and Jon knew he’d shot the dog, the entire town would know by night fall. There’d be hell to pay, even so many years later, because that family sought revenge in sneaky ways, often involving slashed tires and broken glass. I’ve wondered what other secrets and stories died with Dad. My mother, when asked about the past, bristles then closes like a fist.
Sunday night after Dad’s death, Buddy had stopped by my Mom’s house. Buddy grew up with my brother though I’d not met him before. Buddy, Mom, and I sat at one end of her dining table. The counter tops were buried under mounds of food and the smell of barbeque chicken thickened the air.
When Buddy heard Dad fire his gun, Buddy ran over to check on him.
“I got him, but he didn’t go down.” My father pointed. “He ran to the creek. Can you check on him? I’m going to rest a minute.” Another hunt club rented the other side of the creek. One of those hunters finished off the buck and somehow, in the aftermath, a photo of the dead deer found its way to my family. A big one indeed.
Buddy considered Dad a father figure, an elder. He didn’t question Dad’s request to look for the deer or my Dad’s need to rest. He jogged down the slope, saw no sign of the deer, and walked back. He estimated he returned in three minutes. By then, Dad’s body slumped against the base of the pine.
Surrounded by pine trees on sandy soil, Dad died on land much like the plot twenty miles away where our ancestors had settled over two hundred and fifty years earlier. I wondered if he felt a sense of the familiar, of returning home, in his last moments.
When Buddy spotted Dad, he shouted for help and started CPR. A deer hunting paramedic heard his yells and joined him in the chest pounding. The hunters were burrowed so deep in the woods, they couldn’t be reached by ambulance. The group loaded my Dad’s body on the back of a pick up to drive him out. A deputy and ambulance met them at a crossroads within the fire lanes. The deputy saw a dead body, and everyone had a gun. He stopped the procession and refused to allow Dad to be placed in the ambulance until cleared by the coroner who couldn’t be reached. They waited.
“The deputy was a real jerk. I mean, Mr. Black was in the back of the truck and that was no way to treat him.” Buddy gulped. “Mr. Fowler sat there with him the whole time, holding his hand.” Roy, who later drove us to the place Dad died.
I imagined the hour my Dad’s body had been in the back of the truck. Roy, holding my father’s hand, their decades’ long friendship ending with one fallen and the other keeping watch while the hunters milled about, watchful and tense as our feral dogs. The deputy who by God was going to see to it the law was followed, leaning against the truck, arms crossed. My Dad would have loved the drama his passing created. I pictured him spinning the tale, his face reddened and his laugh, dry and creaky from too little use, spilling out.
Finally, the radio squawked, the deputy nodded, and they gathered to hoist Dad’s body on a stretcher and into the ambulance. I’m making that up. How did they move him, a big man now dead for well over an hour? Did I need to know or was this another detail to be lost, much like his secrets?
Buddy wiped his eyes. His beard tapered into a point inches below his chin. This was ten years before beards and beard accessories were a thing. “Maybe if I hadn’t left him, you know?” His callused hand lifted and dropped onto the table, a motion full of what might have been.
My mother, newly widowed and as take charge as ever, shook her head. “There was nothing anyone could’ve done.” She spread her fingers over her forehead, the one gesture of grief she allowed. “This past month, he couldn’t get the morning newspaper because of chest pains.” She shrugged. “He was on borrowed time and he knew it.” The tension fell from Buddy’s shoulders and he cleared his throat. A truth which absolved Buddy of his guilt. A truth of my Dad’s suffering unknown to me.
Buddy left shortly after. I walked outside with him. Gray clouds blanketed the sky and the long leaf pine swayed in the wind, sounding like ocean waves before the crash upon shore. When I hugged him, I spread my palms across Buddy’s thin shoulder blades, much like I would touch the pine tree, days later. I inhaled his scent of cigarette and aftershave. He’d borne a thread of our family story, to be woven into the fabric I’d pass down to the next generation.
Lynda Black’s creative nonfiction has appeared in The Dead Mule. Her story, Full Bucket from the Creek, won the On the Same Page Literary Festival’s 2012 short story contest, and in 2017, she received a Regional Artist Project of Northwest North Carolina Grant. She is currently working on a novel and a nonfiction project. She resides in the foothills of North Carolina with her husband.