The Quiet Rolls In

sitting in the trees right before dark, and listening

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

Things calm down right before dark. Out in the woods. Yes, things are already pretty calm, but when you’ve been out in the woods all day, kind of just sitting around, you tune in to the gentle bustle of the wilderness. The small but explosive chatter of animals the size of your fist. The clattering of dark tree branches and the creaking of their trunks as they sway against a blurry grey sky. The wind in the dead yellow grass.

But the sun falls away and the quiet rolls in. Birds stop skittering their talons across the cold, brittle tree bark. The occasional thrum and rush from cars on a nearby county highway, it all fades out. The squirrels up and vanish.

For me, there’s a tension in all this calm. Like I’m sitting in a dim room, listening to my chest rise and fall, waiting. Waiting for the door to bang open.

I move slowly. I think about each movement. I plan every little thing before shifting my feet, before pushing my stocking cap back and forth to itch my scalp. I’m in a forest full of invisible giants, and they’re falling asleep together. I’m so nervous I’ll startle them awake. I could bump something with my big boots, tip it over. I could knock the wall of my little plywood hut with my elbow or my knee or my gun.

The barrel of my rifle is colder than anything else around me. If I press my naked fingers against the metal, they leave a queer, rainbow print behind. Oil from my warm skin. You can watch the faint colors quickly dissolve as the chill air pulls the heat away. You can’t have that, it says.

Right before dark, I expect the deer to come, meticulously picking their way through the gloomy tangle. Frustratingly slow for someone accustomed to eyeing up a flat glass screen, swiping past dull pictures and headlines and armchair commentary. I expect to see the deer before I hear them, pushing through, nose first, their heads bobbing low and wary. Pausing. Pausing. Pausing. They always look small. Their legs are so skinny. Bones and fur and pointy hooves.

But the deer rarely come as dusk begins. Not for me, not usually. I’ll be waiting another 20, 30 minutes, if they show up at all. You imagine something brown, but they’re more grey in late November. They match the dingy scrub sprawling around the trees, especially if there’s snow on the ground, clinging to the twigs. Yes, they are like ghosts at this hour. You snatch glimpses. And then, they are here.

My grandfather died during hunting season. Not while hunting. He was driving my grandma to Thanksgiving dinner. The heart attack waited until he had parked his pickup truck at a stop sign. My grandma got help, but there was nothing to be done about it.

Almost 10 years have gone by. Just a few weeks ago, grandma asked my mom if she’d seen him. Grandma said she’d spied him through a window earlier that day, working outside. Where was he? Hours later, she remembered.

The last place my grandpa hunted with any regularity was in a nice little shack in the woods behind my parent’s house. It’s easy to get to. It’s comfortable. It was his spot. Early in the morning the day after he died, my dad walked out there to sit in the dark. He didn’t bring his gun. The sun rose up over the hill. The birds and the squirrels came out. And as always, the silence pulled away.

I never see deer in the morning. I expect to, but I never have. It’s disappointing, but I still go out there each year, and I wait. I wait all day. Sometimes I just sit there, listening to the rustling and the scratching of all the tiny creatures. I think the woods are a tremendous, magnificent mess. The wind rakes through the old dead leaves. From over the treetops I can hear the humming of cars and trucks on a nearby county highway.

And right before dark, things calm down.

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