“’Evenin’, Milt, Jed.” The thick voice drifted against the trees and they murdered its echo with heartless glee. Every sound was deadened, flattened.
“’Evenin’, Billy Ray,” Daddy said, and he stood up, lifted his old felt hat between his thumb and forefinger and scratched at his hairline with his other fingers. “Somethin’ you boys need?”
I saw the other stern-faced men then, sitting in the beds of the pickups and in passenger seats, and spotted the barrels of hunting rifles poking up like spears of war times past, dark wooden stalks and gleaming oiled barrels hinting ominous things to come.
“Hear tell there’s another issue down t’the hollow,” Billy Ray said.
“Seen it m’se’f,” someone called from the back.
“That you, Irving?” Granddaddy craned his neck to see the man, who stood up now in the back of another vehicle.
“Yeah, Milt, it’s me,” Irving answered, and he spat a thick wad of brown tobacco juice into the underbrush beside the drive. Then he dipped his head to Ma. “’Evening, Minnie,” he said, but didn’t smile.
“Hello, Irving. How’s your mother, sweetie?”
“She’s jus’ fine, ma’am, just fine, thank ya fer asking.” He turned back to my father. “Thing is, I seen … something … down by the Ebberson bend of the crick, Jed. Didn’t get a good look, though, so cain’t swear t’nothin’, but I seen it, black an’ all like we –”
“That’s all right, Irving,” Daddy said, and I saw Irving shift his eyes to me. “You don’t have to explain. I think I understand. This the same as last time?”
Granddaddy stood up beside my father and they watched the men. Irving gestured to another, heavy-set man in a red flannel shirt, who stood up and steadied himself in the back of an ancient International Harvester with no top. “I lost six sheep an’ a couple chickens just t’other day, Jed, and saw the marks.”
My father faltered a moment. Just an instant, then he regained himself. My mother folded her arms across her chest with her lips pressed tight and pursed, then skulked into the house, let the door bang closed behind her. My Granddaddy clapped his hand over my Daddy’s shoulder, and his eyes were dark and sunken, like he aged ten years right then. They exchanged a look, and I opened my mouth to speak, but my father cut me off.
“I need you to stay here with your mother,” he said, “and make sure you keep inside. We might have a … critter we need to catch.”
I knew he was lying through his teeth and I opened my mouth to say so but he silenced me again, his face firm. “I’ll explain it all when we get back — God help me, I never thought I’d have to, but seems I do. Don’t ask an’ know I ain’t tellin’ if ya do. I’ll be back soon as I can.”
I heard the door open and Ma was there, her face red and blotched. I could see the marks from where she’d torn the tears from her cheeks with savage swipes. She leaned my father’s rifle against the porch timber, and leaned Granddaddy’s next to it. She gave them both a long look, one I’d never seen before, and then she went back inside. My father watched after her for a long time before Billy Ray coughed. “We … don’t have much light left, Jed.”
My father nodded. He strode to the porch and brought back the guns, handed Granddaddy his. Then he turned back to Billy Ray. “Got ammo?”
Billy Ray gave a grim nod. My father sighed. “All right, then, let’s get it over with.”
The men began to pile out of the trucks, clambering over the sides and through the doorless bodies, and ambled to the right of where I stood dumbfounded, staring agape as they went.
And one by one they squeezed through the opening to the hollow and vanished into the fog. Finally, my Granddaddy and Daddy turned back and smiled at me, gave me a wave, but I saw those smiles slide off like melting snow dripping from a sagging tree limb. They exchanged that look, one I’d seen years ago, when I was a child, and only then. It might’ve been fear, or resignation, or despair, or something, but it was there. In a flash it vanished too, and following my Granddaddy into the mist, my father gave me one more look. He didn’t smile then. He just gave me a knowing look, nod, and then he moved into the foggy hollow and out of sight.
Now I’m ready to follow after him into that hollow. I’m ready to go down the way he went. He and Granddaddy and Billy Ray and all them left yesterday afternoon and haven’t been back. Ma didn’t hear no gunshots, no shouts, nothing. A quiet, dark night is all we had, but she didn’t sleep. She stared out the window and watched the moon drift across the diamond-shaped panes, hugging herself and leaning against the counter in the kitchen. She was still standing there, eyes red and puffy when I woke up the next morning. She didn’t say anything. She looked at me, silent and solemn, and turned back to the window, then shook her head slow and mournful.
She’s still leaning against the counter, for all I know. I left her. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t do much in the way of chores. Something in me tells me they all went down that second branch in the path, the one spewing the fog, the one my Daddy hurried past those long and many years ago. I don’t know what’s become of them, but I’ve got my own rifle, for all the good it’ll do. I don’t know what the story is, and I don’t know what they feared when they left, but I have to see about my kin. They’re down there, somewhere, in the hollow’s misty path.
I set one foot down on that peat-matted, needle-carpeted, leaf-buried path, and then another, and I feel that same, shuddering, hurry-up sensation I did as a child. And just like I did when I was seven, I’m staring into the wispy, dancing fog, moving wraith-like and shifty as it oozes and crawls over the path, the ghosts of tree trunks and thorn bushes and brambles waxing and waning into view below.
I clutch the rifle closer to me, and my sweaty palms slide over its gleaming oiled surface. I try to swallow, but I can’t.
I guess the walk to the creek with my Daddy didn’t make me feel better about that path after all.