The smell of my peach boutique body lotion didn't mesh with stench of stale piss. I pulled the baggy coveralls over my shoulders and steamed over the fact that I spent all day finding the perfect pair of jeans to make my butt appear smaller and tighter, like an apricot, only to have the camouflage form my body into a shapeless blob like a paper doll. I pulled up the zipper and breathed through my mouth to block out the olfactory attack of leftover doe scent.
Keith didn't pick up on my frustration. Every forced sigh and huff I pushed had to compete with the low noted braying of the hounds. Keith had his back turned to me. The top part of his coveralls hung loose around his hips; as if he were shedding his skin. He pumped his shotgun with the barrel aimed at the huge moon.
“When you go coon huntin' you only have to find one good tree.” Keith said. “Then the problem is getting them down.”
truck was parked by a dirt path. We were at the back end of a pasture that the path encircled like a lasso. I was apprehensive about going into the tree line since the moonlight appeared to stop there. Keith jumped on the tailgate of the truck. His tight muscular body bent no more than the thick handle of a rawhide whip. The defined line between his bicep and tricep was the perfect place for shadows to gather. This detail stirred my juices and it reminded me that this wasn't what I meant by coon hunting. When I met Keith at some backwoods party my drunken mind leaped to sex. His tight white t shirt could have been another layer of skin with its soft crevices and its warmth from body heat. His khaki carpenter's pants held a bulge as big as a baby's elbow, and his hips were as thick as the pummel horses I saw on the Olympics. Toyota
Of course his conversation about guns and hunting was completely boring. My mind amused itself as he jabbered on about 'coon' hunting. The word evoked some dirty sexual connotation in me. The smoothness of the word like the inside of an oyster shell, and the synonyms seemed to fit my mood after a long relationship of bad sex. Coon...Poon...Cunt...Clit. Words so dirty I couldn't even say them in the dark without blushing. My hands found reasons to crawl over him during the party. I should have known we were not on the same level when we made this date to go 'coon' hunting instead of a backseat romp at the time of my drunken stupor.
Keith tugged on the collar of his overalls to loosen the wedges.
“Grab that shotgun in the seat. It's a four-ten so it won't hurt ya too bad. Once I let these dogs out they gonna spit fire into those woods so we have to be ready to go.”
I had never shot a gun in my life. When I picked it up the weight surprised me. It was much heavier than the BB guns my brother stockpiled in his closet when we were kids. The cool oily barrel smelled like my father when he came home from work at the machine shop. I couldn't associate the thing with death. The wood on it was polished as shiny as antique furniture, and it seemed like a clunky thing to carry into the woods.
The dog's barking ceased for a few seconds when Keith opened the cage door. Their nails clicked on the diamond plate of the truck bed and their jump into the woods rattled the dead fall leaves. Keith took off after them.
“Come on. Let's go.”
The flashlight attached to his gun belt kept time to the crash of his high steps. I tried to follow but my clogs constantly slipped off my feet. Keith turned back and motioned for me to keep up. My feet moved with short choppy steps, but I had to maneuver around fallen trees and brush instead of going over it. By the time I got within twenty yards from Keith he took off again to the diminishing sound of the dogs.
The report of Kieth's shotgun rang out when I caught up. The dogs circled the trees and tried to run up the trunks. A branch cracked and a raccoon scurried and jumped to a limb the next tree over. The dogs took off, and their tails wagged so hard it caused their back end to waddle.
“Head down some and try to catch him before he taps the next tree.”
Keith shot again and my ears began to ring. I wasn't sure what to do so I just followed the dogs. My feet drug on the ground and a leaf stem poked through my sock. The raccoon scampered higher up the tree, and I wasn't sure what part he would try to tap or what tapping was. I swung my gun up and laid my check into the grove of the stained wood. I wanted to make a good impression on Keith and become part of his hunter's prey. My legs were spread wide, and I held my back as stiff as I could. I tried to line up the raccoon's butt with the notch in the metal tab.
“Fuckin' dick sniffer.” I screamed
The searing heat cut through my eye immediately. I could feel a knot on my cheek swell and tighten like a water blister. A little blood ran down my face like heavy tears, and a hill of flesh formed in front of my eye. The shotgun clattered to the ground. Keith ran up to me and stared at me like I was an animal giving birth.
“You okay?” He asked. “Take your hands from your face and let me see.”
I leaned back and grabbed the coveralls where the pockets should be. Keith bit his upper lip then turned to look at my profile.
“That ain't gonna look good for a couple'a weeks. Somebody’s goin'ta think I beat on you.”
His angle didn't really matter to me at the moment. I wanted to roll my eyes, but I was afraid of the consequences. I knew I would sound like a baby if I suggested we leave. My bad eye cried alone.
“We gotta keep moving. If we don't catch up to the dogs then we will have to sit here all night until they come back.” Keith said.
“Go ahead. I'm right behind you.”
His run had a slight march to it. I traced the bump on my cheek and it felt like lightning run through me. I picked up the shotgun and walked in the direction Keith had trotted. The dog's barks echoed from another county, and moonlight leaked through the branches.
I walked for twenty minutes before I realized I didn't know where I was going. Keith's shotgun boomed like a transformer exploding, and I switched directions toward the sound. Eventually I just stopped. Every tree I passed looked like the one before and after it. The moon's light only illuminated my next step, and I feared if I went in any farther I would be totally lost. As I headed back Keith's shotgun rang out twice more. The sound of the dogs faded away as I made my way, hopefully, to the truck.
After walking a while, I worried when I hadn't reached the field. My check pulsed with its own heartbeat, and the coveralls caught in the briars. The sound of the hunt died away when I found a break in the trees. I wasn't sure what part of the pasture I would end up in, but it wasn't where we had come in at. A deep gully separated me from the tree line. It wasn't wide, but decayed limbs, half-rotted couches, and old rusty appliances lined the bottom, making a maze for small critters. I scanned to see if there was a better way to cross because it looked like the dam had burst at the trash dump and a river of junk flowed through the trees.
A couch shored itself up to the red clay of the embankment. I nudged it with my foot to test the sturdiness, and it didn't move with a few good kicks. The cushion on its far end was just a couple of feet away from the other edge. When I stepped on the first cushion I eased my weight onto it like an Eskimo checking the spring ice. The fabric ripped when I had both feet planted in the center. I baby-stepped to the middle with a quicker pace and the couch began to teeter.
My plan was to jump off the arm rest safely on the other side, but as I tried to compensate from the rocking the couch rolled and dumped me in the ditch. I landed on a pile of brush that cracked after each movement. As I was about to gain footing something furry stroked my ankle and a rat scurried away to a washing machine. One of my shoes was missing in the dark brush pile and I ripped the coveralls on a branch when I tried to get up.
The edge of the embankment was up to my eyes, and I looked out like a soldier from a foxhole. The moonlight gave the grass blades a blue tinge and something wet absorbed into my sock. With the shotgun thrown over the ledge, I tried to pull myself up. The heads of tree roots ducked into the earth like giant worms. Each toe hold I found crumbled at the slightest pressure, and I struggled like a fat kid trying to crawl out of the deep end of a swimming pool.
My breath was labored when I leaned back against the tree on the bank. I wanted my shoe but I wasn't going back in there to get it. When I stood up the shotgun's heft was useless in my arms. The opening for the pasture was just ahead of me, and I limped toward the finish line feeling beaten and abandoned.
The sound of crashing leaves broke me from my stupor. Whatever it was that came after me was low and quick as it zigzagged through the brush. I raised my gun, but this time I aimed by approximation. The kick of the butt landed on my shoulder like a solid punch. My shot was meant as a warning, but the brush rattled and then waved to the side as the animal's head slid to a stop. It took me a minute to figure out what it was. The face was torn open, and an ear looked ripped from the seam of the head. The wheezing sounded like a broken kazoo. My heart thumped hard enough to hit the wall of my chest. I wasn't sure if I should shoot the dog again or try to find Keith. Then I wasn't sure how Keith would react if he found out I shot his dog. We still had a long ride home.
I sat the gun down and walked around the spot for a minute. The dogs wheeze passed in fainter shallow breaths. To any onlooker I would have appeared as a witch getting loosened up to cast some spell as I circled the hound’s body. The looming conflict played itself out over and over in my head. I pictured the crease in Keith’s forehead as he pushed his eyebrows together, and then I drew a blank. I hadn't known him long enough to judge whether he would swallow it in silent disgust, or blow up and yell at me like a hurt parent.
The dog’s tail felt slick in my hand. It didn't work well as a rope to pull his weight. The back legs caught on every stick and stone, and as I crouched my head pounded from the effort. When I got him to the side of the ditch I had to push him in with my grip on his belly. His head lulled as I let go of his collar. Then he slid slowly down the wall of the ravine and rested against the door of a refrigerator.
When I finally stepped into the tree line I was walking backwards. My shotgun barrel bobbed at the dark woods in case something else came for me.
“Deandre.” Keith yelled.
He waved like a survivor of a plane crash at the truck on the far side of the field. When I cleared the distance Keith pointed the flashlight in my face. Black spots floated in my eyes like helium balloons, and the pressure I put on my eye by closing it too tight opened the cut like wet tissue paper.
“Have you seen Rusty?” Keith asked.
“You mean your dog?”
“Yeah. That one is Biscuit and the missing one is Rusty. Rusty got'ta tracking a deer and runoff.”
I couldn't tell him the way the tail felt oily like a duck's feather. The way the body formed on a rock, limp, like a hot water bottle. I didn't even know the dog's name, but I never forgot the way the dirt caked up in the blood-matted wounds as I drug him to the gully.
I unzipped my coveralls to my belly button, and freed my hair from the clasp. My top, undamaged, bellied under the soft curves of my bra. I wanted to feel somewhat sexy as the heel of my only shoe drug the ground. When I placed the shotgun in the seat of the truck I felt a burden lift from me as my killing rampage finished.
“No, I haven't seen him. It's been tree after tree, and then the damn gully I had to pass through to get out of the woods.”
“He'll come around in the morning when some of his energy wears off. What happened to your shoe?” Keith asked.
. Keith held the shotgun like he was escorting it, and the tip of his eyebrow placed emphasis on my slowness like a tilde over a Spanish O. The wood of the gun wedged under his armpit and the barrel lay over his forearm like a date's spindly appendage. He threw a sack onto the tailgate as the surviving dog sniffed the blood around his shoes. The soft dead flesh from the bag caused a thud. The tip of a raccoon’s black tail flopped out of the mouth of the burlap bag, and the thought of eating the poor creature made my stomach roil. Keith whipped out a knife and the locking mechanism ticked. Light flashed as the blade tilted in his hand.
“Hold the light for me.” Keith said.
“What are you going to do?”
The tip of the knife punctured the fur around the raccoon’s neck like an embryonic sac. The blood started with a drop, deep as a ruby, then flowed out of the skin black. Keith's fingers soon became coated with it. I turned my head as the acid built in my throat, but the bouncing flashlight beam warranted disapproving grunts. Rivulets of blood splintered into different streams as it trickled through the diamond plate of the truck bed. The raccoon’s skin curled away from its body when the knife filleted it from the muscle. Around the hard cartilage and skinny bones the metal blade scrapped with the sound of a file. Once the back hide was removed the rest of the red lump looked rotted with the patches of skin and fur as mold.
Keith flipped the creature over. The buck knife whittled away between the poor animals legs. The black circles around its eyes like a mask placed on it before being tortured. I wasn't hip on animal anatomy but I knew the general area Keith was cutting.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I'm gonna cut the pecker bone out and put it with my collection.”
Keith's rough hands wouldn't do for a successful Mohel. He twisted the knife handle like he was coring an apple. The sick glow of the flashlight gave the slick blood on his hands the hue of iodine. When he pulled the desired piece of meat away from the carcass the sound had a suck to it like opening a jar of pickles. Wet flakes stuck to the top of the knife hilt. I swallowed trying to push my stomach down.
“You collect dick bones? As a hobby?”
“Well. I keep what I can. Tomorrow I'll nail the hide on the side of barn to let it cure and dry.”
It took a few minutes for it all to process. Keith shoved the animal carcass into a bucket, and then carved away at another. Blood had gotten on my top and I stared at the pile of guts thinking of Keith running through the woods, neutering all the animals. When he finished he had to drag the other dog away from the mess. It whined as he stuck his nose to the closed cage door.
“Let's go. I'll drive back in the morning to pick up Rusty.” Keith said as he wiped his hand on a rag.
When I sat in the seat my body throbbed like one mass pinched nerve. Keith handed me a beer from the cooler, and the cold beads of water stung the cut on my cheek as I pressed it to my swollen eye. He clicked the tab, drained it in one long gulp, and threw the empty into the grass with all the other leftovers from his kills.
“Do you mind taking your coveralls off so no blood gets on the seats?” He asked.
My feet wobbled as they touched the ground. The cool air drew goosebumps across my arms as I peeled off the coveralls, but I felt relieved to be rid of it. The ammonia smell of doe scent hung to my clothes like cigarette smoke.
“Here.” Keith said as we shut the doors. “This is the raccoon pecker I keep in my wallet.”The porous thing felt like it was made of ceramic and chalk. I twirled it in my fingers as we made our way to the main road. Near the tip it curved, and the slenderness of it reminded me of a melted birthday candle. The thicker end looked like the clasp of a hinge, or the unlucky end of a wishbone. I laughed and laid my head into the seat. At the start of the night all I wanted was a little bit of dick, and now it lay in my hand. My body was sore, but not the way I wanted it to be. I realized I handled this whole situation wrong, and gutless prey is all I ended up being.