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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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