The first time I killed, I ran to the twitching body and knelt over it, weeping. It wasn’t a couple hours before I plucked its heart out like a grapefruit and painted my face with its blood. But now as these leaping white hills glisten all clean and pure before me, I feel that smooth sweet sorrow of fledgling regret rise up on behalf of my prey. His great antlers rise above his head like the hands of a puppeteer, pulling his thick silvery neck to and fro to survey the land in his patient and meticulous way.
Here, I am known; I am reflected. I go by little glassed ponds in my stalking that look like the eyes of the world, always perceiving me. I come to the edge of one and jab at it with the butt of my rifle, but it makes no fracture in the hard ice. At the top of a nearby hill I set my pack and rifle against a tree. I sit on the hillside and watch the elk give pause and saunter off past the far ridge. A wrathful breeze swoops through the stillness to bite my cheeks as I turn to watch the watching pond back. The red plunging sun hops off the glassy iris into me, and I am known.
After a hunt, I usually have a drink at a bar in town that seems to be situated in the exact upper left-hand corner of the world and in which everything looks, sounds, and smells like the color brown. Though I’ve never liked it for much other than catharsis, I order bourbon on the rocks and listen to gossip from the round-headed bartender. Gossip in Cheyenne isn’t like gossip in most places. The rain ain’t feeding the ground this year like it did last. Coyotes just get bigger and craftier all the time, don’t they? Won’t have an egg to show for the summer if it goes on like this.
Tomas Cassidy isn’t that way though. Like me, he isn’t local. He was drawn here by the bigness of the place, and also like me, he wouldn’t ever admit that the romance of the West was part of what drew him to Wyoming. Tom is the kind that has read just about everything worth reading, but you can’t picture him reading, and come to think of it, you’ve never seen him do it either. He’s also travelled all around the world, which is less dubious because he pulls out a dusty little photo book from time to time to prove it. Though Tom is full of stories, he doesn’t tell any more than any of the other regulars at the brown bar, and when he does, you might think he’s talking about the bean crop this year if you didn’t pay close attention.
“You ever been to Holland?” he inquires.
“You know, I’ve never made it out that way,” I say, not looking at him.
“Believe it or not, there’s a few Sufi temples there. There’s one looks like a great garlic bell in the middle of a field.”
“Have you taken to Sufism Tom?” I say sardonically.
“Ha. Hardly. But I always like to observe how people try to commune with the divine. Tells you something about them, shows you something too.”
“I can’t sort it out.”
“See? Says something about you.”
“I’d say so.”
“But those Sufis, dervishes they’re called, I couldn’t quite make out what their rituals said about them. It was a different way than I’ve seen before.”
“Do tell.” I order another bourbon.
“I don’t know. It’s been on my mind a good bit lately. In my dreams too. It was ’74 when I went. I remember feeling strange about going in, so I watched the meeting from a window. Thinking back, I’m sure they would have had me if I’d asked. They meditated, and after a while started dancing. It was the strangest thing. One of the dervishes just pulled out a dagger and shoved it into the head of another. Like it was nothing.”
I grip my glass tight and rub my finger in a circular motion across the condensation. Little beads lock together and shoot like veins down the side as I make a radial path just above the surface of dark amber.
“Dan, you wouldn’t believe it,” he continued, “they started doing all kinds of violence to themselves. One put razor blades in his mouth and chewed on them. Another was getting himself hit in the legs with a bat. Then they just sat right back down and kept on meditating. Like they had just gone for a light jog or something. Can you believe that?”
“Ha. It’s strange what you’ll find in the world if you poke around long enough.” He closes a meager tab, pats me on the back, and leaves.
The cabin I’m living in now sits on the edge of a deep gorge through which an icy river snakes. They are simple quarters, I don’t think of it as much more than a bed and a kitchen- a holding place, a final place. Somewhere I can be alone. There’s always a little something to suck up from the bottom of the glass. Sometimes you just have to move the straw around. Maybe you’re just addicted to living, the basic pleasure of sensory input. Maybe you’re like me- drawing out the joke because the punch line isn’t funny.
Spare the elk- keep your world in motion a little longer. But the river will freeze right down to the bottom eventually. No blood ever really goes unspilled.
I wake up the next morning and curse the cold, but brace myself against it nonetheless and place a sable kettle on the stove. As I eat a dull breakfast, I try to remember my dreams. Swaths of vague colors swirl somehow into sound, bounding the walls of my mind only to slip into the dark center, again unavailable to me. I pack up my hunting equipment and a few other essentials and head out into the rolling whiteness to decide if today is the day to kill.
The clouds here seem higher and grander, but closer too, as if I could reach up and pull the cottony web down over my face. The thin, crystalline air stretches every moment out in front of me, each a little eternity within itself. And so as I lift my eyes to see the soft pink light of dawn brush the splayed web of cloud, I realize it’s easier to be a nihilist inside than out. The pines leave low a meandering sweetness, gravel crunches soft and intricate under my rhythm, and a lone knife of light comes singing over the horizon down the side of the valley and cuts down into the frozen river to reveal its hidden bloodlessness.
It’s midday before I realize I’ve been walking inattentively for miles in the vast planes, a planetary speck in a great universe of snow. Soon I come up on a wooded hillside and make my path to border it. Ducking into the woods for a moment, I sit on a fallen tree and eat a small lunch. On a thin branch that reaches a few feet from my face, a cedar waxwing lands. Her body is a gradient of rusty orange to periwinkle, and a rakish black mask is draped over her face. Flecks of brilliant red and yellow adorn the bottom of her wings and tail feathers like a mythic tree bearing all kinds of wild fruit.
“Who are you?” I say. My rattling voice is hardly able to break the dense silence of the place, and I wonder if it has traveled far enough even to reach the bird. She twitches and turns around, but not in any apparent response to my presence.
The small wild fruit on the tall stalk. Was this not always my true style? A brotherhood of four winds. Can you mistake us?
She dips off the branch and glides through the trees like a lightning bolt without a cloud, and I remain sitting and stare after her. I pick up and continue on to the ridge from the day before. I pass by the pond again and it doesn’t look into me this time. I hope to go unknown for a while longer. The noon sun has swung down a little since I sat with the waxwing, and it winks at me with the passing of a cloud. O forsaken earth grant me one holy moment of anonymity in which to reconcile some single alluvial thought! River of fire cleanse every particle of sedimentary gold broken boat rounded stone right down to the bony bed. Then will I know?
I crest the hill and see something moving in the distance toward a presiding spine of cloud-headed mountains. I look down my scope and confirm that I’ve spotted the elk. I follow his trail for the next few hours, and end up at the foot of a great mountain where he is presently rounding low at the shoulder nearest me. I follow his slow methodical movements and watch him move into a ravine on the other side.
At the top of the shoulder, I pull out a map to check where I am. The river in the valley below me is the same that runs below my cabin back towards town. It’s a wider section of the river where the water runs wild in the summer when it’s free. Rounding the mountain, I find that the range has commenced and the country has become rocky and treacherous.
The elk has paused by a collection of brush by the river, so I find an outcropping of rock to position myself behind and climb up to the edge. I peer through the riflescope at my prey, who looks up at me with solemn and humanlike eyes. The thin air stretches forever between us. The patches of snow around him where the sun touches down are unbearably light unbearably heaven unbearably death diving madly bouncing into me reflecting into me like a terrible king with terrible power river of fire from his side from his mind into mine.
A fractured shaft of light cross-sections his antlers, which shift their reach from sky to horizon in variation as he searches the ground. My thin crosshairs scan and settle on his heart. I gather a slow breath of cold air and hold its light tight inside myself. My finger is caressing the trigger, up and down, waiting to be told what to do. My body tenses up entirely and I begin to press down on the trigger when suddenly I hear a crunching in the snow directly to my left. I release my finger and look up.
It takes a moment of looking around before I see him. He is wearing billowing tan cloths draped over his shoulders and down around his waist, where they are fastened with a honey-colored belt. From the belt hangs a black sheath holding a curved sword with an ornate silver handle. His head is bald, but his face has a great black beard and beady, brooding eyes like gathering storms.
He crouches for a moment, surveying me intently. He stands, looks around past me, and walks away. O alchemy, O shining star, do not stay silent! Speak terror into me that I may sit in the court of the beloved. Whatever is, you are. Whatever is, whatever is, whatever. I set aside my rifle and climb down from the stone to follow the prophet. He looks back over his shoulder at me from time to time as if to warn me of the horror of light, the brightness of revelation. Not all can bear it! He walks into a cave. I stand at the mouth in silent awe, waiting. Could I be swallowed by the blackness of heaven? I step slowly inside, and I am filled with an overwhelming reverence. My body becomes warm, my mind is burning. A river of fire floods into the cave and paints its huge ceilings with vicious bloody light, spinning in storms above my head. I look forward into the continuing abyss and the prophet emerges. The fire flees from the ceiling into his eyes and the storms gather there once more.
His lumbering figure comes to me, and he strikes me down with one harsh blow. The air prickles my exposed jawbone and I let loose a great laugh that bounds absurdly through the cave. In the fire of separation I am burning. I can feel myself coming loose from my body and lowering into the final place. The prophet and I now understand each other. I gaze into him, and he sees my request. He draws his blade ceremonially and holds it above me. The moment my head opens, brilliant light and sound explode in unimaginable ecstasy, and I slip away.
The bear dislodged its claw from Daniel’s cracked skull and proceeded to pick apart the kill. Tom sat in his car trying to get it started so he could head to the bar and get a few drinks in before close.