Camille Pissarro

The Simplest of Sounds

         The rifle is heavy in my right hand as I traverse the narrow snow-covered trail. Stars twinkle in the black slate above. Up here, near the tree line, they seem almost within reach. Up here, they gleam brighter and shine more vivid. Up here, everything is clearer.

         By fading moonlight, I follow the elk tracks in the inch of fresh crystalline powder. Just as I never know where my majestic game will lead me, I never know where my thoughts will wander.

         From the forest below, a mountain lion’s mournful cry pierces the night. The haunting sound echoes among the trees and boulders, and although the hairs on my arm stand on end, I am not afraid. I have experienced far more terrifying sounds than those nature can provide.

         The big cat’s call dies in the pine-scented air as my feet carry me into a thick aspen grove. My mind travels back to another place, that until now, I have purposely chosen never to revisit. To a time when the simplest sound filled me with fear and shame.

         The clink of ice hitting the bottom of a glass. The gurgle of whiskey being poured. The heavy thud of my father’s work boots in the hall. The sobs of my mother -- whimpers of my little brother. Those are the things that made up my nightmares. Fueled my dread.

         As the sun set on my thirteenth birthday, I knew what I would do. Shedding the fear, I prepared to shake free of my shame and become a man.

         The sound of my chukkas crunching in the frozen ice brings my focus back to the stalk. Here, among the thick stand of trees, there is no fresh powder to cushion the sound of my travel. I can only hope the sounds will not carry to my quarry’s ever-alert ears. Leaning against a moss-covered boulder, I pause to catch my breath and admire the rugged eastern horizon, which has now transformed into a deep, uneven purple line. I close my eyes and allow my thoughts to drift back nearly two decades.

         Listening to the soft, uneven breath of my little brother on the bunk below, I hear my father’s key scrape the lock. I still wonder if he knew it was my birthday. Did he care I was older? Braver?

         As every other night, I prayed for my father to pass out before he decided my mother or one of us boys needed to be punished. I pulled the cotton sheets up under my chin and listened to the noises drift down the hall. My heart pounded my chest like a boxer’s blows on a heavy bag.

         The freezer door creaked open. Ice crackled under my father’s violent grip. I pictured his thick hands, coarse with yellow calluses, curled around the glass. I could almost smell the Lord Calvert on his breath. I waited.

         On the good nights, he plopped down in his easy chair and waited for the booze to wash over him. His raspy snores--my cue that it was safe to fall asleep. All too often, the nights ended another way.

         If he dropped the ice, or spilled his whiskey, or stubbed his toe, a string of “goddamns” sloshed down the hall. Other times, his anger poured out without reason. Provoked or not, his agitation splashed out on one of us.

         You might think I hoped to avoid his heavy hand, but I preferred the bruises to my mother’s sobs and my little brother’s whimpers. The guilt far outlasted the physical pain.

         I’m certain my mother felt the same. Once, she gathered us up in the dead of the night and we fled, but our Buick shuttered and died in the next town and my father found us at the ratty motel that very afternoon. Her face did not heal for weeks. Sometimes, I close my eyes and still see the swollen yellowed bruises.

         On the edge of the next clearing, I stop to catch my breath and to allow the sun to spread more color upon the shadowy landscape. I want to have enough light to shoot when I come across the herd. A cow elk’s soft bleating rises in the misty dawn. Knowing my prey is close, I resume the stalk, but my thoughts remain in the past.

         I had carried my shame for thirteen years, and I was determined not to bear the burden any longer.

         “Kiss my ass.” My father’s words boiled down the hall.

         The soft breathing from below stopped. My brother was awake. I prayed his whimpers would not lead our father to his bed.

         “Who put this shit in here?” The angry words ricocheted down the hall.

         I closed my eyes and whispered to myself, “It will end tonight.”

         “Goddamn ice cream.” He slammed the freezer door. “Look at this shit.” Something crashed to the floor.

         His hard steps echoed in the quiet house.

         I wiped the sweat from my palms and pulled the pistol from beneath my pillow. A sudden burst of light spilled from below my mother’s room. She would be his victim. She had assured as much by clicking on the lamp. A shadow sliced across my doorway.

         “I don’t work all damn day to pay rent and come home to a filthy house.”

         “Please, Tony.” My mom’s voice quaked. “We had a birthday party. I’ll--.” I slipped out of bed when I heard the impact of his meaty fist. My father’s pistol shook in my trembling hand as I crept forward.

         “Don’t go.” My brother’s muffled voice came from below a pillow.

         “Shhh.” I looked back over my shoulder. “Lay down. And keep your head covered,” I whispered.

         “I’m scared.”

         “Cover your head. Now.” I moved out of our room.

         “How -- many –- times -- ” A sickening smack, and a grunt followed each of my father’s words.

         I tried to hurry, but my feet would only inch forward.

         My father raised his red knuckles high above my mother’s cowering body. I leveled the iron sights on his broad back.

         “Stop.” I wasn’t sure the word escaped my lips until he turned to face me.

         A sneer spread across his stubbled face when he spotted the big Colt. “Boy, don’t ever level a gun on a man unless you figure on squeezing the trigger.”

         My aim steadied, but my gaze wavered to my mother’s swollen lip. Eyes wide with terror, she shook her head. I looked away from her, and focused on my father’s hard, unblinking stare.

         He said, “Put the gun down before you do something you’ll regret.”

         As I top a small rise, I spot the herd of elk no more than a hundred yards ahead. They are well within the range of both my shooting ability and my trusty old Winchester, yet I choose not to lift the firearm to my shoulder.

         Instead, I stop and lean against a Ponderosa pine and spy on the large caramel-skinned animals while they scrape the snow with their hooves and forage. I watch the animals as they silently drift away through my binoculars. I make no attempt to follow as my father’s last words continue to echo in my head.

         “Put the gun down before you do something you’ll regret.”

         I consider the meaning behind that statement. I think about my mother, living in Idaho with her second husband, a peaceful and quiet man. My brother, a high school counselor, married, with a rosy-cheeked baby girl. I see the round faces of my own twin boys, and I conclude my father was right. I do have one regret. Not for the one life that I ended, but that it took me so long to save so many others.

Travis Erwin is a native Texan. By day he toils between the cinderblock walls of a Government establishment. The rest of the time he devotes to telling the multitude of stories filling his head, and pursuing the dream of living a writer's life full-time.

© 2007 Underground Voices