About the Author:
Annie Proulx is the author of eight books, including the novel The Shipping News and the story collection Close Range. Her many honors include a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and a PEN/Faulkner award. Her story “Brokeback Mountain,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Her most recent novel is Barkskins. She lives in Seattle.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
On the Antler
Hawkheel's face was as finely wrinkled as grass-dried linen, his thin back bent like a branch weighted with snow. He still spent most of his time in the field and on the streams, sweeter days than when he was that half-wild boy who ran panting up the muddy logging road, smashing branches to mute the receding roar of the school bus. Then he had hated books, had despised everything except the woods.
But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river coursing over polished stones: books on wild geese, nymph patterns for brook trout, wolves fanning across the snow. He went through his catalogues, putting red stars against the few books he could buy and black crosses like tiny grave markers against the rarities he would never be able to afford -- Halford's Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, Lanman's Haw-Ho-Noo, Phillips' A Natural History of the Ducks with color plates as fine as if the wild waterfowl had been pressed like flowers between the pages.
His trailer was on the north bank of the Feather River in the shadow of Antler Mountain. These few narrow acres were all that was left of the home place. He'd sold it off little by little since Josepha had left him, until he was down to the trailer, ten spongy acres of river bottom and his social security checks.
Yet he thought this was the best part of his life. It was as if he'd come into flat water after half a century and more of running the rapids. He was glad to put the paddle down and float the rest of the way.
He had his secret places hidden all through Chopping County and he visited them like stations of the cross; in order, in reverence and in expectation of results. In late May he followed the trout up the narrow, sun-warmed streams, his rod thrusting skillfully through the alders, crushing underfoot ferns whose broken stems released an elusive bitter scent. In October, mists came down on him as he waded through drenched goldenrod meadows, alert for grouse. And in the numb silence of November Hawkheel was a deer hunter up on the shoulder of Antler Mountain, his back against a beech while frozen threads of ice formed on the rifle's blue metal.
The deer hunt was the end and summit of his year: the irrevocable shot, the thin, ringing silence that followed, the buck down and still, the sky like clouded marble from which sifted snow finer than dust, and the sense of a completed cycle as the cooling blood ran into the dead leaves.
Bill Stong couldn't leave things alone. All through their lives there had been sparks and brushfires of hatred between Hawkheel and him, never quite quenched, but smoldering until some wind fanned up the flames.
In school Hawkheel had been The Lone Woodsman, a moody, insubordinate figure prowling the backcountry. Stong was a wiseacre with a streak of meanness. He hunted with his father and brothers and shot his first buck when he was eleven. How could he miss, thought woman-raised Hawkheel bitterly, how, when he sat in a big pine right over a deer trail and his old man whispered, "Now! Shoot now !" at the moment?
Stong's father farmed a little, ran a feed store and got a small salary to play town constable. He broke up Saturday-night dance fights, shot dogs that ran sheep and sometimes acted as the truant officer. His big, pebbled face was waiting for Hawkheel one school morning when he slid down the rocks to a trout pool.
"Plannin' to cut school again? Well, since your old man's not in a position to do it for you, I'm going to give you a lesson you'll remember." He flailed Hawkheel with a trimmed ash sapling and then drove him to school.
"You don't skip no more school, buddy, or I'll come get you again."
In the classroom Bill Stong's sliding eyes told Hawkheel he had been set up. "I'll fix him," Hawkheel told his sister, Urna, at noon. "I'll think up something. He won't know what hit him when I'm done." The game began, and the thread of rage endured like a footnote to their lives.
In late October, on the Sunday before Stong's fifteenth birthday, an event that exposed his mother's slovenly housekeeping ways took his family away.
Chopping County farmers soaked their seed corn in strychnine to kill the swaggering crows that gorged on the germinating kernels. One of the Stongs, no one knew which one, had mixed the deadly solution in a big roasting pan. The seed was sown and the unwashed pan shoved beneath the blackened iron griddles on the pantry floor where it stayed until autumn hog butchering.
The day was cold and windy, the last of summer thrown up into the sky by turbulent air. Stong's mother pulled out the pan and loaded it with a pork roast big enough to feed the Sunday gathering of family. The pork killed them all except Bill Stong, who was rolling around in Willard Iron's hayloft on a first shameful adventure. The equation of sex and death tainted his adolescent years.
As Stong grew older, he let the farm go down. He sat in the feed store year after year listening in on the party line. His sharptongued gossip rasped at the shells of others' lives until the quick was exposed. At the weekend dances Stong showed up alone, never dancing himself, but watching the women gallop past, their print blouses damp with sweat under the arms, their skirts sticking to their hot legs. At night he walked through town seeing which ones left the window shades up. He went uninvited to church suppers and card parties, winked out juicy tales and stained the absent with mean innuendo. Often his razor tongue stropped itself on the faults and flaws of his dead parents as though he had come fresh from a rancorous argument with them, and at other times he called them saints in a tearful voice.
Stong caught Hawkheel with petty tricks again and again. After Hawkheel started farming, once or twice a year he found the mailbox knocked over, water in the tractor's gas tank or the gate opened so the cows got onto the highway. He knew who'd done it.
Still, he kept on buying grain at the feed store until Stong told him about Josepha. Stong's eyes shone like those of a greedy barn cat who has learned to fry mice in butter.
"Hell, everybody in town knows she's doin' it but you," he whispered. He ate Hawkheel up with his eyes, sucked all the juice out of his sad condition.
It was cold in the store and the windows were coated with grain dust. Hawkheel felt the fine powder between his fingers and in his dry mouth. They stared at each other, then Stong scurried out through the chilly passageway that led to the house.
"He's got something coming now," said Hawkheel to Urna. "I could wire him up out in the woods and leave him for the dogs. I could do something real bad to him any time, but I want to see how far he goes."
Stong had sour tricks for everybody. Trade dropped away at the feed store, and there were some, like Hawkheel, who spat when they saw the black pickup heading out of town, Stong's big head turning from side to side to get his fill of the sights before the woods closed in.
For a long time Urna made excuses for Stong, saying that his parents' death had "turned" him, as though he were a bowl of milk gone sour in thundery weather. But when Stong told the game warden there was a summer doe in her cellar she got on the phone and burned Hawkheel's ear.
"Leverd, what kind of a man turns in his neighbor over some deer meat he likes to eat just as good as anybody?"
Hawkheel had an answer, but he didn't give it.
A few years after Josepha left, Hawkheel began to slide deep into the books. He was at Mosely's auction hoping the shotguns would come up early so he could get out of the crowd and take off. But it dragged on, hundreds of the old lady's doilies and quilts going one by one to the summer people. Hawkheel poked through the boxes on the back porch, away from the noise. A book called Further Adventures of the One-Eyed Poacher sounded good and he dipped into it like a swallow picking mosquitoes off the water, keeping one ear on the auctioneer's patter. He sat on the broken porch glider and read until the auctioneer, pulling the crowd behind him like a train, came around to the back and shouted "Who'll give me five dollars for them boxes a books!"
Surrounded in his trailer by those books and the hundreds he'd added to them over the decades, Hawkheel enjoyed his solitude.
Stong, too, was more and more alone up at the store. As he got older, his trade dwindled to a few hard-pressed farmers who still bought feed from him because they always had and because Stong carried them until their milk checks came in. Listening in on the phone wasn't enough now; he interrupted conversations, shouting "Get off the line! I got a emergency."
"You ask me," said Urna to Hawkheel, "he's funny in the head. The only emergency he's got is himself. You watch, they'll find him laying on the kitchen floor some day as stiff as a January barn nail."
"When I get through with him," said Hawkheel, "he'll be stiff, all right."
Stong might have fallen to the cold kitchen linoleum with an iron ringing sound, but in his sixties his hair turned a fine platinum white and his face thinned to show good bones. It was a time when people were coming into the country, buying up the old farmhouses and fields and making the sugarhouses into guest cottages.
"Bill, you look like a character out of a Rupert Frost poem," said the woman who'd bought Potter's farm and planted a thousand weedy birches on prime pasture. The new people said Stong was a character. They liked his stories, they read morals into his rambling lies and encouraged him by standing around the feed store playing farmer -- buying salt blocks for the deer, sunflower seeds for the bluejays and laying mash for the pet chickens they had to give away each fall.
Stong set his tattered sails to catch this changing wind. In late life he found himself admired and popular for the first time, and he was grateful. He saw what the summer people liked, and to please them he carried armloads of canning jars, books, tools and other family goods down from the house to the store. He arranged generations of his family's possessions on the shelves beside the work gloves and udder balm. He filled the dusty window with pieces of old harness, wooden canes and chipped china.
In autumn he laid in ammunition for the summer men who came back for their week of deer hunting. The sign in his window read GUNS BLUE SEAL FEED WINE ANTIQUES, a small part of what he offered, for all his family's interests and enterprises were tangled together on the shelves as if he had drawn a rake through their lives and piled the debris in the store.
"They say," said Urna, "that he's cleaned out everything from kettles to cobwebs and put a price tag on it. You know, don't you, that he's selling all them old books his grandfather used to have. He's got them out there in the barn, higgledy-piggledy where the mice can gnaw on them."
"Has he," said Hawkheel.
"I suppose you're going up there to look at them."
"Well," said Hawkheel, "I might."
The Stong place was high on a bluff, a mile upstream from Hawkheel's trailer as the crow flew. To Hawkheel, every turn of the road was like the bite of an auger into the past. He did not remember his adult journeys up Stong's driveway, but recalled with vivid clarity sitting in the dust-colored passenger seat of their old Ford while his father drove over a sodden mat of leaves. The car window had been cranked down, and far below, the hissing river, heavy with rain, cracked boulders along its bottom. His father drove jerkily, lips moving in whispered conversation with invisible imps. Hawkheel had kept his hand on the door handle in case the old man steered for the edge and he had to jump. It was one of the last memories he had of his father.
The Stong place, he saw now, had run down. The real-estate agents would get it pretty soon. The sagging clapboard house tapered away into a long ell and the barn. The store was still in the ell, but Hawkheel took the old shortcut around back, driving through the stinging nettles and just catching a glimpse through the store window of Stong's white head bobbing over a handful of papers.
The barn was filled with dim, brown light shot through like Indian silk with brilliant threads of sunlight. There was a faint smell of apples. On the other side of the wall a rooster beat his wings. Hawkheel looked around and saw, behind the grain sacks, hundreds of books, some in boxes, some stacked on shelves and windowsills. The first one he took up was a perfect copy of Thad Norris's 1865 The American Angler's Book. He'd seen it listed in his catalogue at home at $85. Stong wanted one dollar.
Hawkheel went at the boxes. He turned out Judge Nutting's nice little book on grouse, The History of One Day Out of Seventeen Thousand. A box of stained magazines was hiding a rare 1886 copy of Halford's Floating Flies, the slipcase deeply marked with Stong's penciled price of $1.50.
"Oh god," said Hawkheel, "I got him now."
He disguised the valuable books by mixing them with dull-jacketed works on potatoes and surveying, and carried the stack into the feed store. Stong sat at the counter, working his adding machine. Hawkheel noticed he had taken to wearing overalls, and a bandana knotted around his big neck. He looked to see if there was a straw hat on a nail.
"Good to see you, Leverd," said Stong in a creamy voice. He gossiped and joked as if Hawkheel were one of the summer people, winked and said, "Don't spend your whole social security check on books, Leverd. Save a little out for a good time. You seen the new Ruger shotguns?" A mellowed and ripened Stong, improved by admiration, thought Hawkheel.
The books had belonged to Stong's grandfather, a hero of the waters whose name had once been in the Boston papers for his record trout. The stuffed and mounted trout still hung on the store wall beside the old man's enlarged photograph showing his tilted face and milky eyes behind the oval curve of glass.
"Bill, what will you take for your grandpa today?" cried the summer people who jammed the store on Saturdays, and Stong always answered, "Take what I can get," making a country virtue out of avarice.
Stong was ready to jump into his grandfather stories with a turn of the listener's eye. "The old fool was so slack-brained he got hisself killed with crow bait."
Hawkheel, coming in from the barn with book dust on him, saw that Stong still lied as easily as he breathed. The summer people stood around him like grinning dogs waiting for the warm hearts and livers of slain hares.
Stong's best customers were the autumn hunters. They reopened their summer camps, free now from wives and children, burned the wood they had bought in August from Bucky Pincoke and let the bottle of bourbon stand out on the kitchen table with the deck of cards.
"Roughin' it, are you?" Stong would cry jovially to Mr. Rose, splendid in his new red L.L. Bean suspenders. The hunters bought Stong's knives and ammunition and went away with rusted traps, worn horseshoes and bent pokers pulled from the bins labeled "Collector's Items." In their game pockets were bottles of Stong's cheap Spanish wine, faded orange from standing in the sun. Stong filled their ears to overflowing with his inventions.
"Yes," he would say, "that's what Antler Mountain is named for, not because there's any big bucks up there, which there is not" -- with a half wink for Hawkheel who stood in the doorway holding rare books like hot bricks -- "but because this couple named Antler, Ja...
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