The world was mostly empty
In the new novel by David Vann, an 11-year-old boy on a hunting trip with his father, grandfather and a family friend sets off a horrific chain of events. Following is an exclusive extract
DUST like powder blanketing the air, making a reddish apparition of the day. Smell of that dust and smell of pine, smell of doveweed. The pickup a segmented creature, head twisting opposite the body. A sharp bend and I nearly tumbled off the side.
Kneeling on a mattress tied over the pickup bed, all the camping gear beneath. Northern California, 1978. Gripping through lurches and bends, the metal hot even in morning. Switchbacks up the mountain. I had a shoebox of rocks, and when we hit straight sections of road I’d grab a rock and huck it at a passing tree. The fling and bend, the stone thrown to the side, a thrumming sound, turning and chopping through thick air but swept forward by momentum. Forced off course, bent into an arc, swept forward beyond intent.
I had a feel already for that arc, prefiguring it, aiming well behind. Pumping a fist into the air whenever stone bit into flesh. The heavy thud over the growl of the engine, perhaps even a glimpse of bark torn free.
The sky coming down closer, the day heating, the air doubling and doubling again, pressing the smell from all things. Metal, exhaust, oil, dust, weeds, pines, and now a long stretch of dry yellow grass, a valley with sugar pines, a valley that meant we had entered a new land, away from the lake. Every fall this hunt, every fall this return.
We stopped at Bartlett Hot Springs. Pulled over into the momentary twilight of our own dust, my father not waiting for the air to clear, opening his door right away, stepping out a shadow tall and thin, shouldering his rifle. My father etched and luminous even in shadow, a thing set off from the rest of the earth, overly present.
From the other side of the cab, my grandfather stepped out carrying the lemons, and then my father’s best friend, Tom, who had been crammed in the middle, always there from my earliest memories, same as family. Wearing glasses that caught a reflection as he looked up, even in this oblivion of dust. We’re here, he said.
I hopped off my father’s side of the pickup. Reached into the cab, behind the seat, for my own rifle, a .30-.30 Winchester lever-action carbine with a peep sight, cold metal, not yet heated by the day. No shoulder strap, so I carried it in my hand as I walked up toward the springs. The way I had been and always would be, I thought, hiking with this rifle low in my right hand, barrel tipped downward. Tilt of a needle, that rifle, tilt of the planet itself, sending me forward. MY grandfather sat heavy against a low concrete wall overgrown and nearly invisible. A small spigot caked with white mineral. Ready for a taste? he asked me.
My mouth pinching without meaning to. The water would be sulfurous. Yep, I said. My grandfather enormous, a wide inflation of belly beneath a brown hunting shirt and jacket. Always wearing this jacket, even in the heat.
He’d brought a glass, cut the lemon and squeezed two slices as I watched, opened the tap and let the rust run brown then clear. I was always first to taste, and I wondered whether something could have changed since we were last here, the water become poisonous, not only in taste.
Bartlett champagne, my father said, one corner of his mouth in a grin. Long cheeks, like my grandfather.
All three of them watching me now, amused but trying not to show it. The glass filled and sparking in the light, the water moving on its own, the lemon rinds dissolving. Smell of it in the air. Sulfur from deep in the folds of the earth.
I took the glass, cool in my hand, though I’d imagined it warm, radioactive, and I sniffed the top, coughed and regretted that while the men chuckled softly. Then I drank it down fast. The earth’s fart, gassed and concentrated through miles of crustal rot and cavern.
Their eyes moist with tears from trying to hold in their laughing, but I could see that. Go on and laugh, I said. I know you’re laughing.
My father taken over by it, eyes closed and mouth puckered, but I could see his chest and gut in convulsions beneath his dirty white T-shirt. The squeaky sound of Tom’s laughter held back, his face turned away. Sorry, he finally said. It’s just your face.
My father put his hand up mouth.
Like a frog trying to swallow a horse, Tom said, and turned to look up toward the heavens with his lower lip stretched in a grimace.
My grandfather lost it and let out a snort, his belly jiggling as he tied the plastic bag of lemons.
What are you doing with the lemons? asked. You all still need to take your turn.
My father’s eyes squeezed shut with how funny this was, and I saw that no one else was going to drink. Fine, I said, and grabbed my rifle and walked back to the truck.
I climbed up on the mattress and kept my rifle with me, because from here on out, any buck we saw was fair game, and I felt ready to shoot something.
I LOOKING for bucks now. Curved antlers in the dead dry branches on a hillside of scrub, or a brown patch of hide standing under a sugar pine, or lying in the shade. Only so many shapes and colours a deer could be, and all the rest was background. Eyes trained to let background fall away, eyes trained to disappear the world and leave only a target. Eleven years old now, and I’d been shooting this rifle for two years, looking for bucks since before I could remember, but this hunt was the first time I’d be allowed to kill. Illegal still in age, but old enough finally by family law.
The world was mostly empty. I knew this already. Most of the land held nothing. A desert. But my father told stories of ducks everywhere on the lake, game everywhere in the woods, and there were photos that showed dozens of ducks laid out, dozens of fish on the lawn, grouped according to size and type, photos of my father and grandfather and Tom and their friends all posing in a group with their bucks, two each, 10 deer in a weekend, with good racks.
David Vann, left, has written a dark tale about a deer hunt