Thinking out of the box
Short Story Genre: - By DAVID QUAMMEN
As the train rocked dead at Livingston he saw the man, in a worn khaki shirt with button flaps buttoned, arms crossed. The boy’s hand sprang up by reflex, and his face broke into a smile. The man smiled back gravely, and nodded. He did not otherwise move. The boy turned from the window and, with the awesome deliberateness of a fat child harboring reluctance, began struggling to pull down his bag. His father would wait on the platform. First sight of him had reminded the boy that nothing was simple enough now for hurrying. They drove in the old open Willys toward the cabin beyond town. The windshield of the Willys was up, but the fine cold sharp rain came into their faces, and the boy could not raise his eyes to look at the road. He wore a rain parka his father had handed him at the station. The man, protected by only the khaki, held his lips strung in a firm silent line that seemed more grin than wince.
Riding through town in the cold rain, open topped and jaunty, getting drenched as though by necessity, was – the boy understood vaguely – somehow in the spirit of this season. “We have a moose tag,” his father shouted. The boy said nothing. He refused to care what it meant, that they had a moose tag. “I’ve got one picked out. A bull. I’ve stalked him for two weeks. Up in the Crazies. When we get to the cabin, we’ll build a good roaring fire.” With only the charade of a pause, he added, “Your mother.” It was said like a question. The boy waited. “How is she”?
“All right, I guess.” Over the jeep’s howl, with the wind stealing his voice, the boy too had to shout. “Are you friends with her?” “I guess so.” “Is she still a beautiful lady?” “I don’t know. I guess so. I don’t know that.” “You must know that. Is she starting to get wrinkled like me? Does she seem worried and sad? Or is she just still a fine beautiful lady? You must know that.”
“She’s still a beautiful lady, I guess.” “Did she tell you any messages for me?” “She said – she said I should give you her love,” the boy lied, impulsively and clumsily. He was at once embarrassed that he had done it. “Oh,” his father said. “Thank you, David.”They reached the cabin on a mile of dirt road winding through meadow to a spruce grove. Inside, the boy was enwrapped in the strong syncretic smell of all seasonal mountain cabins: pine resin and insect repellent and a mustiness suggesting damp bathing trunks stored in a drawer.
There were yellow pine floors and rope-work throw rugs and a bead curtain to the bedroom and a cast-iron cook stove with none of the lids or handles missing and a pump in the kitchen sink and old issues of Field and Stream, and on the mantel above where a fire now finally burned was a picture of the boy’s grandfather, the railroad telegrapher, who had once owned the cabin. The boy’s father cooked a dinner of fried ham, and though the boy did not like ham he had expected his father to cook canned stew or Spam, so he said nothing. His father asked him about school and the boy talked and his father seemed to be interested. Warm and dry, the boy began to feel safe from his own anguish. Then his father said: “We’ll leave tomorrow around ten.”Last year on the boy’s visit they had hunted birds. They had lived in the cabin for six nights, and each day they had hunted pheasant in the wheat stubble, or blue
grouse in the woods, or ducks along the irrigation slews. The boy had been wet and cold and miserable at times, but each evening they returned to the cabin and to the boy’s suitcase of dry clothes. They had eaten hot food cooked on a stove, and had smelled the cabin smell, and had slept together in a bed. In six days of hunting, the boy had not managed to kill a single bird. Yet last year he had known that, at least once a day, he would be comfortable, if not happy. This year his father planned that he should not even be comfortable. He had said in his last letter to Evergreen Park, before the boy left Chicago but when it was too late for him not to leave, that he would take the boy camping in the mountains, after big game. He had pretended to believe that the boy would be glad.The Willys was loaded and moving by ten minutes to ten. For three hours they drove, through Big Timber, and then north on the highway, and then back west again on a logging road that took them winding and bouncing higher into the mountains.
Thick cottony streaks of white cloud hung in among the mountaintop trees, light and dense dollops against the bulking sharp dark olive, as though in a black-and-white photograph. They followed the gravel road for an hour, and the boy thought they would soon have a flat tire or break an axle. If they had a flat, the boy knew, his father would only change it and drive on until they had the second, farther from the highway. Finally they crossed a creek and his father plunged the Willys off into a bed of weeds. His father said, “Here.”The boy said, “Where?" “Up that little drainage. At the head of the creek.”
“How far is it?” “Two or three miles.” “Is that where you saw the moose?” “No. That’s where I saw the sheepman’s hut. The moose is farther. On top.” “Are we going to sleep in a hut? I thought we were going to sleep in a tent.”“No. Why should we carry a tent up there when we have a perfectly good hut?”The boy couldn’t answer that question. He thought now that this might be the time
when he would cry. He had known it was coming. “I don’t much want to sleep in a hut,” he said, and his voice broke with the simple honesty of it, and his eyes glazed. He held his mouth tight against the trembling. As though something had broken in him too, the boy’s father laid his forehead down on the steering wheel, against his knuckles, for a moment he remained bowed, breathing exhaustedly. But he looked up again before speaking. “Well, we don’t have to, David.” The boy said nothing.
“It’s an old sheepman’s hut made of logs, and it’s near where we’re going to hunt and we can fix it dry and good. I thought you might like that. I thought it might be more fun than a tent. But we don’t have to do it. We can drive back to Big Timber and buy a tent, or we can drive back to the cabin and hunt birds, like last year. Whatever you want to do. You have to forgive me the kind of ideas I get. I hope you will. We don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.” “No,” the boy said. “I want to.” “Are you sure?”“No,” the boy said. “But I just want to.”
They bushwhacked along the creek, treading a thick soft mixture of moss and humus and needles, climbing upward through brush. Then the brush thinned and they were ascending an open creek bottom, thirty yards wide, darkened by fir and cedar. Farther, and they struck a trail, which led them upward along the creek. Farther still, and the trail received a branch, then another, then forked. “Who made this trail? Did the sheepman?” “No,” his father said. “Deer and elk.” Gradually the creek’s little canyon narrowed, steep wooded shoulders funneling closer on each side. For a while the game trails forked and converged like a maze, but soon again there were only two branches, and finally one, heavily worn.
It dodged through alder and willow, skirting tangles of browned raspberry, so that the boy and his father could never see more than twenty feet ahead. When they stopped to rest, the boy’s father unstrapped the .270 from his pack and loaded it. “We have to be careful now,” he explained. “We may surprise a bear.” Under the cedars, the creek bottom held a cool dampness that seemed to be stored from one winter to the next. The boy began at once to feel chilled. He put on his jacket, and they continued climbing. Soon he was sweating again in the cold.On a small flat where the alder drew back from the creek, the hut was built into one bank of the canyon, with the sod of the hillside lapping out over its roof. The door was a low dark opening. Forty or fifty years ago, the boy’s father explained, this hut
had been built and used by a Basque shepherd. At that time there had been many Basques in Montana, and they had run sheep all across this ridge of the Crazies. His father forgot to explain what a Basque was, and the boy didn’t remind him. They built a fire. His father had brought sirloin steaks and an onion for dinner, and the boy was happy with him about that. As they ate, it grew dark, but the boy and his father had stocked a large comforting pile of naked deadfall. In the darkness, by firelight, his father made chocolate pudding. The pudding had been his father’s surprise. The boy sat on a piece of canvas and added logs to the fire while his father drank coffee. Sparks rose on the heat and the boy watched them climb toward the cedar limbs and the black pools of sky. The pudding did not set. “Do you remember your grandfather, David?”
“Yes,” the boy said, and wished it were true. He remembered a funeral when he was three. “Your grandfather brought me up on this mountain when I was seventeen. That was the last year he hunted.” The boy knew what sort of thoughts his father was having. But he knew also that his own home was in Evergreen Park, and that he was another man’s boy now, with another man’s name, though this indeed was his father. “Your grandfather was fifty years older than me.” The boy said nothing. “‘And I’m thirty-four years older than you.” “‘And I’m only eleven,” the boy cautioned him.
“Yes,” said his father. ‘‘And someday you’ll have a son and you’ll be forty years older than him, and you’ll want so badly for him to know who you are that you could cry.” The boy was embarrassed. “And that’s called the cycle of life’s infinite wisdom,” his father said, and laughed at himself unpleasantly. “What did he die of?” The boy asked, desperate to escape the focus of his father’s rumination. “He was eighty-seven then. Christ. He was tired.” The boy’s father went silent. Then he shook his head, and poured himself the remaining coffee.