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The Sugar Hunt
The Sugar Hunt Small.jpg

 

The click of the deadbolt locking the Grill on the eve of Thanksgiving quickened Ruth’s pulse as she climbed into her car and headed for home. She throbbed with the excitement of preparation and tingled with the cheer of celebration. Even though she was overwhelmed by the enormous amount of work required to properly furnish the Thanksgiving feast, tomorrow she would be elated. When the men returned from the Sugar Hunt and took their places with the family at her mother-in-law Olivia’s table, her brief but confirming moment would come. Sam, her husband and Olivia's elder son, after commemorating his father Matthew’s memory and saluting his mother, would raise a toast in his wife's honor. For one golden moment, the eyes of her family would fall upon her and regard Ruth with the gleam of pleasure and the glow of belonging.

Ruth knew that precious instant would be fractured when conversation broke into politics, farming, religion, gossip, sports and the weather. When the feast was done and family members had drifted away and the last dish had been dried and stowed, Ruth would put out the light in Olivia’s kitchen and experience the odd sensation that she was putting out her own light until the next great feast day, Christmas eve.

#

The muffled sounds of the men departing for the hunt awakened Olivia and she lay in the cold darkness of her bedroom listening as they cranked their trucks and rumbled away down the drive. In the years since her husband Matthew's death, Olivia had not grown accustomed to the Sugar Hunt commencing without him.

Matthew had started the Thanksgiving morning hunting tradition many years ago. The men of the family would hunt while the women prepared the feast. All of the game taken in the morning was later given to poorer neighbors. "When I know my neighbors will have some sugar in their pantries," Matthew had said every year at the start of their Thanksgiving feast, "then I can enjoy the sweets on my own table."

Olivia felt that Matthew was the strongest, kindest, most tender man in creation. Matthew had been the very heart of her. Olivia swept her hand across the cold sheet on the empty side of her bed and her body shook with a terrible longing for the man who had slept there. Seized by the desperate loneliness of the forsaken, she wept.

#

The soft buzzing of the alarm clock woke Cale at four o’clock on Thanksgiving morning. By the faint starlight cast into his room from fires unthinkably remote, Cale dressed snugly in his warm hunting clothes, pulled on his boots, took his bow and quiver and quietly went outside to his truck.

A sliver of moon hung over the river like a shard of conscience, marking the frosty current as profoundly right, deeply good and essentially true. Cale drove to the farm, past the dark house where his grandmother would soon rise and fill the kitchen with the smell of browning pancakes. He parked at the edge of the deep tract of thick woods that lay to the west of the farmhouse. He crept through the darkness to a stout sweetgum tree situated in dense cover on the banks of a narrow creek. After feeding in the farm fields, deer would return to the bracken jungle just as dawn broke. Cale sat and nestled his back against the rough bark and waited.

At first light, when a hunter’s eyes are almost free of darkness and the world is preciously indistinct, a hunter’s mind is most clear because all is fancy. Cale slipped into dream: cedar trees transform into bears, dogwoods derive demons, forsythia form deer, falling leaves legate ticking rain, fog foments dread, briars bristle despair and Broadus becomes dead.

Cale had survived his time in the war. His good friend Broadus might not make it. In a distant jungle as fantastic as this looming wood, Broadus could perish. Fatherless Broadus, who had grown up wild and never belonged, could lie dying now, grieving in his last moaning moments the end of his isolated, forlorn imagination. Cale shuddered and tried to clear his mind of such grim thoughts.

The world brightened imperceptibly, becoming forest again. Cale sat motionless and listened intently as creatures revealed themselves in sound: a bird twittered and a single dry leaf shook; in jerky steps, a squirrel’s claws whisked against rough bark; a rabbit moved nervously in the damp grass, swishing its fur against crumpled weeds; the hopping of tiny birds crackled in the brush. Cale waited for the blurred movement of a horizontal line or the crisp fracturing of a fallen branch. He could see the smudged ribs of the forest but individual trees had not yet emerged. He silently nocked an arrow in the taut bow string.

The world was just slightly more illumed when Cale heard heavy footfalls in the shrouded forest. He turned his eyes toward the creeping sound but did not move his head. Two small does cautiously approached the creek, deftly stepped across it and passed into the tangled underbrush. Cale slowly brought his bow up to resting position and waited for the buck that would be trailing the does.

He loved the feel of the weapon in his hand and the sense of earnest purpose it gave him. With bow or rifle he could both sustain his life and defend it: in that fundamental skill of provenance and survival, Cale knew that a wedge of liberty lay between him and raw fate.

"I don’t make war on deer," Cale thought. "I don’t conquer them or subdue them or rule them; I don’t destroy their homes and break their spirits. When I leave the woods, the deer are the same as they always were—only their number is less until spring, when it will be more again. The deer are not changed, the deer are not less free. Broadus should not be in that jungle where his killing will kill spirits, will destroy families, homes. He should be back here on the river, where killing removes but does not destroy."

Cale suddenly thought of his grandfather. Matthew had gone to his terrible war as a dispirited orphan and returned as a man determined to put some light in the darkened world. He had built the farmhouse with his own hands, grown the finest yellow corn and loved himself into everyone and everything around him. The Sugar Hunt was Matthew's way to keep the fires of kindness burning brightly and his sons and grandsons rekindled the blaze each fall.

Cale saw the buck as it approached the creek. The heavy deer, its neck swollen by the rut, had large spiny antlers and moved confidently along the path of the does. When the buck's massive head disappeared for an instant behind an oak tree, Cale silently pulled up his bow and drew. The buck stepped into view and stopped to smell the wind.

Cale gently released his grip and saw the arrow streak forward and strike the large buck just behind and below the top of its front leg. The deer bolted a few yards into dense brambles then fell to the ground.

Cale remained perfectly still. He now had his contribution for the Sugar Hunt. "I made a kill," Cale thought, "but I did not make war."

#

The men returned from the hunt in the early afternoon, shed their bloodstained clothes, cleaned up and began arranging furniture in the parlor for the big meal. Olivia’s settee and upholstered chairs were moved aside to make way for the sturdy kitchen table and the two wooden card tables which would flank it on either side. Chairs were taken from every room in the house and Matthew’s precious encyclopedias were pulled from their shelves and piled on Olivia’s bed so that the empty shelves could serve as a sideboard.

Over the long surface the men had fashioned, the women laid tablecloths and napkins then filled the improvised sideboard with serving bowls, casserole dishes, breadbaskets, cakes and pies. When the glasses and eating utensils had been properly arranged, Olivia placed several iron trivets in the center of the table to hold heavy platters of game meats.

Olivia summoned everyone to the parlor and was seated at the foot of the table by Sam, who then settled at the head, in Matthew's place. The feast could not begin until the hunter who had been judged most successful on the Sugar Hunt rose and gave Matthew’s tribute to the feast. When the last of the children had been quieted, Cale rose to speak.

“Our neighbors will have sugar in their pantries for the winter,” he began solemnly, “so our Thanksgiving will be even sweeter.”

#

Olivia bid farewell to her sons and their families with cautious joy. She was happy that, once again, they had belonged within the timbered walls Matthew had framed. The spirit of Matthew had lived among them while they reveled. But for most, she sadly knew, it would not last. For most, the sublime preciousness of life was only a feast day apparition. Before many of her guests had reached their homes, the gold that Matthew's Sugar Hunt had put into their hearts would grey and seep into the myriad channels of ordinariness that consumed them.

For her and her grandson, Cale, Olivia knew that every day was a feast day, every hour was met with bountiful spirit. Matthew would walk and talk and sit with her every day. Some days he would envelop her with warm content for the life they had known. Other days, he withdrew from her into his death and she cried because he lay in his grave.

Olivia went to the window and looked out at the stubble where Matthew's magnificent corn had once stood tall. She saw him standing there, holding his rifle and peering into the woods. "Matthew gave us the Sugar Hunt," she thought, "to remind us that we don’t belong because we live, we belong because we love."