Out by the Fire

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June 12, 2010 by The Citron Review

Joseph Koehl

He wore his camo jacket against the cold. The night wind whispering through the blue pasture. He was thinking about the land, but about other things also. After a while Roland came running up the road, the slaps of his boots flat, without echo.

“Joe,” Roland said, dancing the beam of his flashlight. “Hey Joe.”

The hunter met Roland halfway; they conferred briefly, then turned. They crunched down the sand and gravel road. A black night ahead; no moon. A half-football-field later they found the man collapsed by the gate. A damaged boot scraped against the parched grass. The man lay still.

“Only in America,” Roland said.

The hunter wrung his fingers.

“Only in America,” Roland said. He cut the flashlight. The highway murmuring in the distance. Somewhere a strange bird crying.

The hunter separated his hands and put them in his jacket.

“I should’ve moved him,” Roland said.

The hunter was thinking about the man, but he was thinking about other things also. The soft sad sweetness of that spring evening when Dolores appeared. The odor of honeysuckle, the softest hint of Vol de Nuit on her bare and pallid shoulders. The shiver of leaves. Hints of some higher realm beyond this vanquished world where in sacred courtyards leaves twist and fall over entranced lovers, passions heightened by silken light. And the first time they had kissed — so inexperienced, mere children almost: how unlike the concurrent dream-images each held of the other. He remembered that once he’d come to know her, the phantom-Dolores had forever retreated; sometimes he yet wondered who that other-Dolores was, that Dolores whose voice was so unlike that of the woman he now lived with.

They let the police in at the gate. The ambulance. They stood in the flickering blue and red that attends all emergencies, and the hunter thought how the light colored the dirt just as stained-glass colors a patch of light. There were two policemen now; they stood with their hands at their belts while the two paramedics inspected the man with flashlights. Then the police were talking with Roland. The hunter imagined the man’s journey. Crouched in the back of some truck, jarred about like boxed produce. But he would not die, the paramedics said. He would survive to become the old man.

The man was young in the light; twenty at the oldest. He had a marriage ring that glinted, went dark, glinted and went dark. A thin mustache. The hunter tried to imagine the man’s wife. The young bride. Got up in a colorful dress, ruffled, secret ribbons woven into her delicate lingerie. In the grass the boot thumped softly. The medics were lifting him. But the hunter wished the man would die.

There came a great clattering in the sky. Dust stirring into the air like incense to dead gods rising out of some vast and ruinous temple. He could see the morning when the man left Cuautia or Ahualulco de Mercado or wherever it was (the hunter had never been past the border towns, these names he’d snatched from torn and frayed deer-camp maps); rows of squalid shacks, an air of roasting corn, the man harboring a more pure — was it Dantesque? — view of God, of the moral order.

The helicopter landed.

The man was still the young man. The hunter had of course been the young man before, but it was hard to remember. The man who believed in things. He thought of the truck he’d flipped in a different pasture in a different place, a pasture now divided into ranchettes. He thought of land and how he’d once been a student studying Blackacre and Whiteacre, but now he was a man and he knew soil was more laden with blood than anything else. The man was smiling now, weakly but smiling. Yet the man should not be smiling. The hunter put his hands in his jacket.

The young bride’s mystery would fall about her like her dress on the wedding night. Whatever intrigue the man held for her would die also. They would still have the sort of love respectability preaches, but not this other kind. Not the wild beastliness in which pupils dilate and nostrils flare. For only in secret and in mystery, through misinterpretation, can love’s initial intrigue thrive. And Roland’s wife, Jo. Hacking up blood. Only a short time ago she’d been one of the Girls of Spring and Summer. Hacking up blood. To live through that. The rusty speckling of her Burano lace. O, to die at mystery’s height …

They had strapped in the man now and he was ascending. Everyone was covering their ears, yet the noise was deafening. Squinting into the lights, he knew the man was smiling. Thinking he’s tricked fate or whatever else. No, thought the hunter, he has only missed the best time to die. Already the ceremony, the Kissing of the Cross. Ahead the descent. Now he will scuttle across this dying land like all the other shades. He will cry out in dementia with bedsores, a catheter stabbed inside him. He will see his son die.

But he could see the man ascending. The thumbs-up sign. He could feel his smile. Perhaps the problem was in him. Perhaps he needed sleep.

The hunter put his hands in his jacket. He walked down the road. The wind did not pick up again.

Joseph Koehl’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cantaraville, The Foliate Oak, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Avatar Review, The Houston Literary Review and Proper Gander.

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