The sound came from the darkness, a foghorn, groaning without ceasing. I woke from a savage dream, a werewolf chasing me. It's a nightmare I've had since childhood that arises after long days and spicy food for late supper. We all have had nightmares that arrive in that abyss between dusk and dawn, riding chill currents that make us shiver in those lonely, dark places. Why can't tonight have been a dream of a cabana boy named Buck Naked who arrives on the pathos of a glass of wine and and a good day?
No spicy food late, ever again, I'd promise myself, if I could form a cognitive thought.
It had been a nightmare that disrupted both rest and sense. The creature's breath had been hot on me, claws shimmering in the dark and in my dream I picked up a can resembling bug spray, to ward him off, looking at the label to read "WEREWOLF B-GONE". I'm asleep and I know that's not going to work.
Never moon a werewolf. That's my advice to you, waking OR sleeping.
As I woke, there was nothing but that bellowing sound in the distance. Elk? Foghorn? Where was I? I looked around. I was on the ground, my bed was a sleeping bag. Large bodies of water are hundreds of miles away. I'm in deer camp and that is no fog horn off in the distance, that's Og.
Having lived on the road most of my life, I'm used to waking up in strange places with that sense of dark disorientation as consciousness alights, on a cot in a lab, in a truck cab, in the back of a C130. If tired enough, I can sleep anywhere.
I remember a hotel in Ireland, waking at dawn to walk long, silent mornings among old churches, afternoon in labyrinths of alleyways that spoke to the ghosts of the dead. I'd turn in early, the sounds of the Irish dancers in the pub below, beating a staccato whisper on my brain as I fell happily asleep.
I remember Christmas Eve as a small child. I'd sleep on the trundle bed that was normally underneath my big brothers bed. Mom would tuck us both in while Dad went to "do some last minute chores" (probably cursing up a storm during the assembly of the Barbie Dream House). We'd lay there in the dark, my brother, from his grown up bed, speaking to his baby sister in that soft whisper of childhood, under the glow of big 1960's Christmas lights outside the window. We'd left cookies and milk out for Santa, though Dad suggested he'd prefer pretzels and a Budweiser. Then we tried to stay awake as long as we could, hoping to hear his arrival.
The clock ticked later and later, the house quiet. "Do you hear it!" my brother would quietly exclaim, but the clattering sound we heard was not reindeer on the roof, but the dog's toenails on the hardwood floor as she patrolled the hall, checking on her two legged pups.
There are still too many nights in hotels, conversations with my best friend before sleep, waking in the middle of the night to the ping of an elevator, the hollow thump of a suitcase in the hall. I'd wake, cold, wishing I'd not forgotten my pajamas. I don't really want to get up, but I needed to, calculating the movements that would get me out of bed and to the bathroom, without bumping a toe on furniture that is not where it's supposed to be.
But then there are those good mornings, such as hunting trips, where even if my bed is hard and there is a demented air compressor sleeping a couple of sleeping bags away, life is good. We arrived the night before, chowing down on some spicy beefy/cheese dip that was so good we couldn't stop, raising our glasses in a toast to deer camp. A toast, not to the blood which will flow, but to the humble wish that in our years, we've acquired the strength and the skill to do some justice to the game. Then to bed early, sleeping bags arranged like some odd, lumpy crop circle there on the land.
But now it is morning. Morning being a relative term only in that it was past midnight. I glance at my watch, it's time to get up. I wake the others with the covertness of a nocturnal predator, a hand on their their shoulder, a flash of white teeth, an expulsion of breath. Time to get up, we're at the top of the food chain and the forest awaits. I am no different then the men that I hunt with, the eagerness of the chase in me, a taste like brass in my mouth, the pounding of vein and blood with the draw of my firearm. Yet, like them, though they would be loathe to admit it, I still have that sense of tenuity against the infinite wilderness, even if the beast we were after was not some creature of lore, to be dispatched by silver bullet, but a mortal animal of silent cunning and soundless hoof.
Breakfast is assembled quickly, washed down with strong coffee that has the faint taste of woodsmoke. Time for just one last gulp that washes away the last drowsiness in me, leaving only the aroma of clean air and the succulent bite of cold that rushes in the door as we head on out.
We drive my truck down a few miles of road, parking it for the long walk in, the darkness all encompassing. There's a path in the corn that's barely visible, leading off into broad fields dotted with the sentient soldiers of battle weary corn stalks. The landscape in the dark is without perspective; the few trees a diorama against the flat earth, the chilled expanse of a southbound Canadian Clipper filling our morning with frost and the sounds of falling ice, ringing like bells in the distance.
It was cold, it was ungodly early, but there was an intentness in us, a kind of implacable transport as we moved deeper into the fields, mindful neither of cold, or burrs that drew blood, or the stalks that slapped our legs. We moved surely, a flashlight in one hand, a Marlin in the other, gaining rapidly on that which we did not intend to leave without.
As we walked deeper in, my hands were feeling the cold, snow clinging to eyelashes that rimmed green eyes that still remembered sleep. I thought back to a warm sleeping bag, the luxury of more coffee. My feet were already growing cold, my breath speaking in the finality of a lover's abandonment, cold, impersonal, disappearing, even as I long to hold it back in, to keep me warm
"Do you hear it"? comes a voice from ahead, in the same tone as my brother that long ago Christmas Eve. And we did, the huff of a buck from the trees. From the darkness it came again. That glorious, sonorous grunt, the sound hanging motionless among the wavering shadows, the light beginning to prick the fabric of the landscape, illuminating much.
We split off into separate fields, having mapped out who will hunt where, so not to shoot across areas in which one of us might be moving. I settle into the corner of a field, the tracks and trodden ground showing where deer were moving from one field to another.
As light increases, so does the sound, slowly sustained, not as a rush of of noise, but as water gently rising, lapping at consciousness, even as it settles into background noise you don't really hear. There was no movement at all, but for the flexing of my toes, trying to keep them warm in my boots. I can see little of the dark pools of distance in which my friends sat and as my body grew colder I thought of a warm bed and a mattress that doesn't have rocks that bite into my tender backside like army ants.
But my body begins to get used to the temperature, my fingers still comfortable and I sit and wait to see what the morning brings. Way off in the distance, a muffled shot. The deer are on the move, the world is awake.
Somewhere out here is the form of which we hunt, not as big as in a dream, but as big as can be grown in the corn dappled fields of the Midwest. In these fields, where cold and sun collide like weather systems, it moves, as aware of my presence as I am his, stopping to lift his massive head and take a deep breath, trying to get a fix on my location there in a white and windless morning.
So I sit as still as I can, the dark thoughts of bad dreams long gone from my head, alert and watching from a bed of cold leaves until I will hear again that retort of rifle that lingers intact in the cold streaming air. In that instant, there is no cold, there is no fatigue. A bullet cleaves the air, one blinding glimpse of the absolute revealed as it passes, only an echo remaining in its wake. In that instant, the form of a whitetail leaps and falls, pulled into that absolute which, as well, is darkness.
And there you will find riches on your pillow you never expected, a taste, a touch, things that warm your very soul; things you would have missed had you drifted too long with your eyes closed.
Back home everyone is sleeping, being loathe to shake off the drowsiness with which they forget. I am here, with my dearest friends, happy to have slept on hard ground, waking to cold clarity.