By Kip Knott
As my father, my older brother, and I stood over our kill, we saw the first signs of smoke unraveling from the woods about a mile off.
My father and brother hefted the seven-point buck between them, hauled it back to the truck, and tossed it into the bed. I cradled their shotguns in my arms and followed behind. The next year, the year I turned thirteen, my father would give me a gun of my own so that I’d finally have the power to bring down a deer myself.
On this day, though, I laid their two shotguns between the buck’s legs. The smoke, which had just been a thread a few minutes before, had woven itself into a shroud that blotted out the frozen midday sun.
“That’s coming from the Sarvis farm,” my father said matter-of-factly. “Let’s go, boys.”
My father, my brother, and our bloodhound, Rebel, climbed into the cab. I took my place in the bed next to the guns and carcass. Even though the buck had died the instant my father’s shot tore its heart apart, steam still seeped from its bloody nose and gaping mouth. My father cranked the stubborn engine three times before it finally caught. The tires spun in the icy gravel when my father hit the gas too hard, a signal that betrayed the even tone of his voice.
Back in 1968, this far in the back-country of Ohio, my father was about the only one who obeyed the speed limit signs that popped up every couple of miles on the network of dirt and gravel roads that connected one hollow to the next. The son of a marine who survived Guadalcanal, my father had the rule of law—and the rule of his father—beaten into him until he became a galvanized man who preached obedience as if it had been handed down from on high.
But when we approached the stop sign at Sulphur Springs and Congo Road, my father never hesitated. He swung the truck hard to the left, and I shot off to the right side of the bed, grabbing the back legs of the buck to keep from tumbling out. Gravel fanned out behind us like a turkey’s tail.
Just up the road I saw it: a fire in the perfect shape of a house. I remember how every Saturday Momma would shake out the mudroom rugs in the backyard to get rid of the coal dust my father dragged home, snapping the rugs up and down until they cracked like whips and black sheets of dust flew into the air. The flames that rose up from the roof of the house fire whipped black sheets of smoke into the air in exactly the same way.
Before we even made it to the rutted, muddy driveway, I could feel the heat on my face. My father slammed on the brakes and I rolled across the carcass, landing on top of the guns just inches short of the rack my father would eventually cut up and carve into handles for walking sticks and knives.
When my father and brother threw open the rusty doors that squealed like our pigs at slop time, Rebel jumped out and hit the ground running.
My father bellowed, “Down!”
As if yanked by an invisible chain, Rebel stopped dead in his tracks and dropped to the ground.
When I began to climb out of the bed, my father yelled at me just like he did at Rebel. “No! Don’t you get out!”
And just like Rebel, I stopped immediately and dropped down on my knees. My father and brother held the backs of their hands to their faces to shield them from the light and heat of the flames.
“Do you think they’re in there?” my brother wondered aloud.
“Don’t know. I see a couple of trucks by the barn, though.”
My father and brother stood silently next to one another. Whether they were trying to figure out a plan or whether they were just struck dumb by the whole scene in front of them, I can’t say.
Even when the sounds began—horrible sounds of shattering glass, sounds like long fuses and giant bursting balloons, sounds that howled like a pack of wild dogs taking down its prey, and sounds I still haven’t learned the proper words to describe—even then they stood there and watched.
When my father looked back to see if I was still in the truck, I thought about asking what they were going to do. But I thought better of it when I saw the face of the man I had seen when my mother had died the year before.
That man had been hollowed out by loss. That man had gone from being in his prime to being middle-aged in the time it took the undertaker to hide all traces of cancer and make Momma look the way she looked during better days when we’d go to Sunday service. That man, like the man who looked at me on this day, was powerless to control his own world.
I lowered myself deeper into the truck bed so I wouldn’t have to see my father’s face anymore. I leaned back against the belly of the buck, whose fur was both soft and bristly against my neck. Warmth still radiated out from some deep place within it. I turned and pushed my face into the fur so my father and brother wouldn’t hear me crying.
After a time, my brother said, “I played ball with Jack. And Rich, sometimes, when Jack would let him.”
“How many were there?” my father asked.
“Jack, Rich, Owen, and Ray. And they had a little sister. Maggie, I think.”
“Seven, then,” my father said, after pausing for a moment to do the math.