Short Story: Song of the Little Gray Bear

Time travels in but one direction, past each of us and, sadly, in the opposite direction. So we, as hunters, must take every moment available, seize it, and while knowing we must indeed let it fly on toward those gone forever yesterdays, squeeze from it the juices of joy until it finally has to speed away, albeit dry to the very core.

There’s something almost addictive about a breeze rustling the leaves of the gray birch, the smell on the wind that defies description, and the silent “call” that seems to always come from yonder mountain to the porches of a hunter’s ears. His wife hears it not, but with undiluted certainly she knows her man has. He acts funny; he paces in front of the den window, looking out at make believe herds and coveys. And her sterile abode takes on the celestial smell of her man’s magic potion – Hoppe’s No. 9.

She watches his eyes as they, almost overnight, take on the appearance of a man searching the Rocketts chorus line from the front row. His cheeks become the color of over-ripened peaches, and even without his top denture in, he’s able to whistle Beethoven’s 5th without missing a beat. He shows not the smallest wince when, during one of his gun cleaning sessions, she beckons him to the basement to examine an 18-year-old washer that has decided to retire. And with each and every cuss word after bumping his head – all of which were rated for general audiences, for a change, – he’d simply rub his graying head and whisper from deep inside the washing machine, “I’m fine, Dear.”

Hunting season was yet a week away, time enough for the tender cranial bumps to heal, and to get a part in for the washer from Yagottabee, Alabama. And there seemed to be plenty of room to replace it way back there in that deep, dark spot that was a full arm’s reach from the more convenient front of the machine. “Don’t worry, Dear. Shucks, I can get two fingers back into that spot where the part has to go. It’ll be done in no time.” She couldn’t believe his subdued resignation during this time that he would normally refer to as a preposterous catastrophe.

“Popeye,” she said, (she called him Popeye because that’s how his puffed cheeks made him look when he didn’t wear his upper denture) “How long were you sniffing the gun solvent this afternoon?”

When the washer part finally arrived, it seemed awfully small in proportion to all the noise and trouble it was causing, and the nuts, bolts, washers, O-rings, lock washers, bushings and mounting screws weighed more than the part itself. Undaunted and steadfast as the Titanic prior to clipping the iceberg, he smiled at his wife as he swung open the door to the basement and said, “Worry not my Queen Bee, thy laundering shall be lily white by morning and hanging to dry in the glory of a splendid autumn sun. Then, I, the master of wildlife lore, will head to the “Valley of the Little Bears” and scout for my first day of making fools of the little gray hickory gatherers.”

The valley he spoke of seemed forever abundant with mast and alive with squirrels. There he always took a limit of one of his favorite wild cuisines: southern fried squirrel. It was there, too, he learned of the pungent taste of the bitternut hickory, and got an understanding as to why the grays shunned them – or so he thought – for they always seemed untouched. This hickory, sometimes referred to as the swamp hickory, always produced a tremendous crop of thinner shelled hickory-type nuts, and he wondered why it grew on this sidehill, and wondered, too, why the squirrels didn’t take advantage of the annual bumper crop. Then one day he cracked one open and tasted it. His mouth puckered so that he would have made Louise Armstrong look normal when blowing the trumpet. “Whew,” he said aloud, “these things could permanently deform a guy’s cheeks and lips.”

The man knew wildlife. He knew wilderness and he knew this hollow full of gray squirrels like the back of his hand. It was the atrium of his most favored asylum, his personal hideaway, his “church” without parishioners. There had always been an overwhelming sense of peace when he entered into its hallowed boundaries, and nearly every species of Pennsylvania wildlife had crossed his path under the canopies of The Valley of the Little Bears. He learner there, submissive to the lessons of everything wild, that the grays ate corn, but only the germ at the very base of each kernel, and he discovered that not only do ruffed grouse enjoy the gray berries of the dogwoods, so too, do the grays.

He learned of the utter silence of a great horned owl in flight, and upon examining a flight feather he’d found one morning, noticed that the very ends of it were made of the finest silken-like hairs, so the air would pass through without making a sound. Too, he learned of the ravages of mange, relatively common among both red and gray foxes. It bothered him to imagine the suffering they must endure with this skin disease. Today, he would walk the valley and see what the upcoming season might bring. He loved, as much as hunting whitetails, stalking grays in autumn, using a .22 rimfire topped with an old Weaver K-4 scope.

The hollow flow upward on one side while the other side drifts slowly downward, blending with an immense stand of birches and immature oaks. Considerably damp year-round, which may account for the many bitternut hickories in the hollow, spring seeps are everywhere as he steps into the comfortable familiarity of his ethereal fragment of heaven on earth. The dampness is what draws the ruffs I so love, he thought.

He makes it to a slight bench on the sidehill, overlooking a cluster of shagbark hickories heavy with mast. He builds a small fire of pine cones and oaken tinder then adds enough small, fallen hickory branches to get a small cooking fire going. A rock next to the glowing coals is warm and ready for the small teapot he carried along in his daypack. An oatmeal cookie his wife packed will go well with the lemon-laced tea. Then he will relax and listen for the sedating songs of the little gray bears. The early evening sun appears like a prairie fire on the sleep-inducing horizon. The hunter is sleepy, at peace with himself and the world, and in short order his eyelids weigh heavy and finally close out the falling sun.

In his slumberous state he thinks of how full he felt just being there in his special hollow, how not yet hearing any grays was irrelevant, because he knew it was but a matter of time and patience, and how any adversity was God’s way of truly testing character and inner strength.

Bustling leaves brought his eyes to halfstaff, one more open than the other. With one eye tightly closed and the other open wide, he scoured the area before him, especially several nearby large hickory trees. Counting one, two, three – whoa, look at that big old male in the crotch of that tree – four. The count continued until he reached 19. after a while he decided to move, down to an old cabin site, sit for a bit, get another head count and go home. All in all, from just two positions, he saw 31 grays. Enough for two men, he thought, but he doubted anyone else would be hunting, including his son, Justin. He brushed off his woolen pants and headed for home, relaxed, tired and of a full heart.

At home during supper he told his son of the squirrels he’d seen. “Thirty-one grays today, Partner. Imagine 31 within a hundred yards of my first stand. Why those little gray bears were singing up a storm, so many at one time a guy would’ve sworn they were harmonizing. You gonna go with me opening day?”

“Don’t know, Pop. I may just hold out for your first grouse hunt.”

“Come on, did you see those targets I shot with that new ammo I bought?”

“You mean those cheap things you picked up at Tim’s? I can never understand why you always go for the bargain, Pop. Why, those things are about half the price of a premium cartridge, and they can’t be nearly as accurate.”

The old man went to his office, took three shot-up targets from his cabinet and returned. “Lookee here, Mr. Skeptical,” as he held out a target shot by a so-called premium cartridge.

“What’s that? Geez, that group’s all but disgraceful. How far did you shoot that thing, 100 yards?”

“Don’t be funny. I shot it at 25, and for your information it’s the target I shot with premium cartridges. Here, take a look at this baby.” He held out a target with a single hole punched through it not much larger than a dime.

“Now that’s a good group! How far, Pop?”

“I did this one at 25 yards,” he held out a second target, “and this one at 50 yards. Both targets were shot with the cheap ammo.”

“I’m impressed, Pop. That’s sure more than good enough for squirrels.”

“So, ya gonna hunt with me opening day?”

“We’ll see. If I do, I’ll likely take my Colt Peacemaker .22.”

“You won’t be adding many to the southern fried squirrel dinner with that.”

“I might just go to prove to you I can hit ‘em, Pop.”

Plans were made. The father and son team would hunt the hollow of the little grays on opening day.

Long before daylight on opening morning the old man was up and rummaging around. Stuffing things into his pockets he’d likely never need. His son teased him relentlessly. “Yessirree, Pop, you’re sure gonna need that huge knife out there this morning. Never know when a water buffalo might attack. And those high boots? Geez, ya gonna do a little trout fishing later on?”

“Don’t be funny. It’s wet in that hollow, and for your information, it’s difficult to cut off a squirrel leg with a smaller knife. You know darn well I like to skin ‘em out and get ‘em ready for cooking before I leave the woods.”

“And look at your pockets for cryin’ out loud. What’s in them?”

“Those, dear offspring of mine, are my cartridges. One pocket has 38-grainers, and the other 32-grain ammo. I was torn between the two, so I’ll just mix ‘em up in my clip.”

“How about the face make-up, Pop? You look like the commanding officer of a jungle commando squad. And the pants? Good grief, there are enough pockets in those things to make a compulsive shoplifter excited.”

“Never mind the pockets. I take a lot of survival stuff with me. You never know when you’ll get turned around in the woods and this stuff will come in handy.”

“Severely turned around, Pop? We’re gonna be 200 yards from the doggoned house.”

The old man waves off his son’s disregard for precautionary measures and says as he walks away, “I may just walk a little farther up the mountain.”

Under the remnant of a full moon the two leave for the woodlot across the road. His son whispering, “Geez, Pop, you look like the Pillsbury Doughboy with all that stuff in your pockets. Shoot, you may sink into that soft ground up there in the hollow. Then what? If you’re up to your eyebrows in mud you won’t be able to get at anything in your pockets.”

“Yeah, right. And if there’s some sort of problem, you’ll be the first to come cryin’ for help.”

“I’ll probably be crying for a long time then, because by the time you get to me, rigor mortis will have set in.”

“Never mind big shot with a handgun. Tell ya what. I’ll bet you a steak on the grill I get more grays than you do. You win, I buy and cook. I win, vice versa, okay?”

“Fine with me, Pop. Last of my worries right now, though. I’m just wondering how in the world I’m gonna drag you out of the woods with all that junk in your pockets.”

The two shook hands and separated just after entering the hollow. His son decided to hunt an adjacent hollow just over the mountain. As he left his father, he looked back, shook his head and, smiling ear to ear, waved goodbye.

Daylight filtered in with shafts of misty sunlight spearing down through the forest canopy. A gray fox bounced through as though it was riding four pogo sticks. The old man whistled softly, and the fox stopped. From one of the multitude of pockets, he took out his camera and carefully raised it to shoot a photo. The fox, looking in the other direction, turned just at that second and the old man got off two photos. Soon after, the other grays awoke, gradually beginning their songs. Chattering came from every direction, and the old man began to spot grays in the trees. He didn’t like shooting them from limbs, because a miss would allow the long-ranging bullet to fly to parts unknown. He waited for them to feed on the ground.

He wanted six grays and knew almost certainly that the hollow would provide them. And after hunting for only an hour he had four, all head shots. Then a wind kicked up and the songs in the hollow ceased. He waited another 45 minutes, but the squirrels had apparently called it a morning. Four was the good beginnings of a southern fried supper, so he decided to head home. His son was to meet him back at the house by noon. No doubt I whipped the hotshot with the revolver, he thought. Confident, he got up from his seat against a large tree, brushed off his pants and headed home. Down at an old spring he took tobacco from his pocket, and after digging a small hole in the earth, he gently placed the tobacco in it. Take from Mother Earth, give a little back. Smiling, content and tired, he left the woods.

His son was already home and in the bathroom sprucing up. The old man went to the basement and saw hanging on a wire line, six plump, skinned squirrels. He placed his four on the wire, and as he was taking off his “survival pants” he heard his son yell to him.

“Porterhouse, Pop. Medium rare.”

“How do you know you beat me, Hotshot?”

“Pop, don’t I always beat you? Shoot, I had the best teacher a guy could ask for.”

Little did the young man know that by beating his father he had made the old man’s joyous day fuller and more memorable. Medium rare it was.

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