Tuesday
Jun142011

Bruce, or, The Whippoorwill Hunting Lodge Association For Men: A Statement of Our Dissolution

Christian Moody




We were hunkered down in a rickety rotten cabin, deep in the federally protected forest, all of us hunters who'd made it. Squished together. Stifling moans. Curled up. Swallowing our sobs. Broken-boned and bleeding. Each man attuned to the flared snorts and hoof stomps that would harbinger the bucks' return.

Someone: "Bruce!"

Through slat cracks we watched him stagger toward our cabin across a hoary field, a giant ten-point rampant on his back, its mouth a-foam, eyes herniated. Bruce tried to flex the convulsing, antlered thing off, but it gripped his flowing hair, vise-like, in its mouth. Bruce fell down and the ten-point mated him. Up or near the anus. Or at least scrambled atop of him. Then it rolled onto its back, unconscious and quivering. Bruce got up and jogged to the cabin.

"Friends," he said. Winded. Bent over, hands on knees, to catch his breath. Hair cascading, spittle-flecked.

A buck like that, we thought, in a state like that, would've felled a lesser man. And we were all lesser men.

 

At this, our final assembly—an exact two years after the events narrated above—we are at last able to argue, after a long era of silence on the matter, what it was that caused the bucks to panic. We brainstorm possibilities and write them on the chalkboard. We cast our votes. Prevalent theory is this: The Whippoorwill Brand Deer Call was at fault, the new prototype model. Forty-one percent of members favor this explanation. Some brothers, thirty-eight percent of us, insist that environmental changes must be factored in. A sub-vote in this category is split between diverse theories: seasonal shifts, pollutants, hormone therapies urinated into creeks, and general ecological imbalances caused by man-made factors. A sixteen percent minority of our lodge have heard tell of Shawnee legend that bespeaks similar frenzies, hundreds of years ago, except it is a flock of sapsuckers in one version of the tale, swans in another. Never like it was with us. The five percent remainder of lodge brothers seated at our long table of rough-hewn wood either mutter something nearly inaudible that we chalk on the board as Wrath of God, or simply shake their heads sadly, or attempt to hide their tears by pretending to cough into the pits of their elbows. Whatever the answer, there is no consensus and there remains the question of Bruce—how did he do it? And why? And how come when the panic felled each of us in the depths of our hearts it did not discernibly bother Bruce at all?

 Early that morning the day of the buck panic, the federal game warden opened up the forest gates to us brothers of the Whippoorwill Lodge for the purpose of thinning out the teeming herd before winter struck and starved them all. Fuck camouflage, we'd agreed: We all dressed in identical Safety Orange, smile-inducing and so bright it made you squint when more than three men banded together. The Whippoorwill Brand Deer Call Company—no affiliation with our lodge—took the chance to distribute prototype models of their newest buck call, free of charge. Name coincidence aside, none of us was that sort of hunter, the deer-calling kind, but etiquette and high spirits dictated we each accept a prototype graciously, and we proceeded to march high-kneed and toot away and clown around on the squawkity horns. Leaves crunched under boots. We laughed, feeling so orange, and blew into our Whippoorwills. On and on we went like that, except when hours passed and not a damn deer in sight, a melancholy glower took hold of hunters' eyes, and the Whippoorwills turned sporadic now, pensive and forlorn.

Shots!

They charged us, head-on and fearless, like the best hunting video game ever.

Barrage!

Pieces of buck jaw and buck neck chunked off and exploded, and the first wave thunked-over, slid across the bloody leaves, and stopped either just short of our feet or knocked us right down.

Barrage!

But they came so fast—the second and third and fourth waves—that we barely chunked off any pieces before they bit us on our faces and sank teeth into our cheeks and eyes. Through our orange hats and stocking caps they ripped our ears off. They jabbed us into the mud with antler tips. They stomped noses flat. They dragged us, shucked us, and fucked at us with slick-haired erections until we either bursted beneath their bellies and hooves or we somehow—the fortunate few of us—stabbed their eyes with hunting knives and crawled away. Blinded bucks mounted bushes and each other, and after a while they all toppled onto their backs, shivering, swollen tongues bulging. Our most vengeful brethren—hunters no longer with us—beat at the exhausted bucks with rifle butts, which only roused them back up again. We, the remaining lucky and alive, ran away. And so it came to be that all of us, the roughly one-score plus Bruce, found our way to the thinly-slatted cabin and nestled inside to nurse ourselves and think about those brothers we'd fled past, squashed and bone-splayed, screaming, opened up and red. We'd seen pods of bucks encircle the slow going. We latched shut our refuge door, as if one good kick wouldn't knock it right down.

After a while: "Bruce!"

We unlatched our door for him.

 

And so there we all were in the cabin, Bruce among us now. He breathed heavily and took off his orange flannel shirt to wipe his sweat. Burly. Big-armed. Good curl to his beard. Deep voice. Like a man in a gun catalog.

 "Bruce, how many?" someone had the guts to ask him.

Bruce took a thoughtful swig off a thermos of bourbon we were passing around for our wounds, inside and out. "You mean us or them? Killed? Alive? Or... otherwise?"

We all talked over each other, at the end of which we all heard someone whisper to someone: "How many did Bruce otherwise?"

"It was them who otherwised me," said Bruce. "I'm no fast runner. Not like the lot of you. I only made it here by getting otherwised. More times than I care to tell."

We could've heated the cabin with the shame on our faces. We'd all fled past Bruce, thinking it was him who'd get mated to death instead of us.

"A dozen at least. Maybe fifteen," he said after a while, to let us off the hook. "What I learned is... just get it done. Don't fight it or you'll snap to pieces. Be like water. Like taking a fall when drunk. Loosey-goosey." He showed us loosey-goosey with his limbs. "It's survivable," he said. "That's what I learned."

Long hush.

Later, we watched through field binoculars while three men in orange waved for help, each from the tiptop of a different tree, all three of which shook violently back and forth to the thunder of hooves. We talked for a whole hour about what we might do. We argued tactical approaches, squads of three versus four. The tall trees swayed with increasing violence. Some said we shouldn't waste any ammo except three bullets, one to give each man a merciful end. But it was too late. The first man lost his grip and toppled to the ground. The other two followed.

We'd given them up for lost, but then a severely limping but still remarkably speedy hunter burst out of the wood, into the hoary field. Ten-pointers and twelve-pointers came tearing after him, snorting and fanning out like a pack of wolves.  We were arguing and debating still, and then someone aimed and said it was his Goddamn bullet to fire at what he wanted. The field was already littered with the corpses of the bucks we'd gunned down earlier.  In that initial panic we'd hit one of our own—it was an accident and still none of us know for sure who did it—and his orange body was out in the field too. This time would be different.  The hunter who aimed at the man was a veteran of many a hunt. But his rifle trembled. He didn't fire.

Eight bucks circled around our brother, who sat down and cried into his hands. We outnumbered them almost three to one. We could've run out into the field en masse and torn them apart with our hands. We were too scared. Not Bruce. Next thing we knew, shirtless and muscles rippling, he was all over the deer, practically inserting the deer into himself before they could even figure out how to get in him. Mouth, anus, and hands all worked rapidly until all eight were sideways and quivering. He carried our injured brother back to the cabin on his shoulders.

We cheered and clapped, and then we fell silent, unsettled, and passed thermoses around and huddled together for warmth. Bruce sang a mournful hunting song in his honeyed baritone until dusk, when it turned cold, at which time we kindled the potbelly stove. We burned the cabin's single spindly chair and the lone shelf. We tore up half the floorboards and took turns sitting on that patch of frozen ground.

Outside, they amassed. They stomped and yowled their raspy half-bark, half-yodel that lends credence to the Whippoorwill Brand Deer Call theory. What kept the bucks from stampeding right through the cabin's thin planks we could only figure as animal ignorance—a psychological barrier more than anything else. 

But, oh, they heard us and smelled us. We peeked through cracks between slats and sometimes came eye to eye with a crazy buck pupil, which would send it galloping out into the field to yodel-bark and leap high into the air, snapping its teeth, after which it would gallop back at the cabin, skidding to a stop just shy of bursting through the fragile slats. We plugged up the cracks with stove-thawed mud from under the floorboards, which helped keep in the heat. But the temperature was still falling and pretty soon we had nothing to burn but our own clothes, whatever shredded remains of orange we had left.  Our first few rounds of burning proceeded like the saddest game of strip poker, each hunter selecting one item to feed the potbelly. We burned shoes and gloves.  None of us could sleep. We could hear more and more bucks gathering. We sensed ourselves in the middle of an immense herd.

Around 1am Bruce came to the final, extended note of a long ballad about a duck hunter who, swept out to sea by a complicated chain of misfortunes, must eat his favorite dog.  Some of us managed a little shut-eye under the spell of his voice, and Bruce held his last note such a long time that it ended up just a barely audible, throaty whisper. Those of us unable to sleep just sat and shed quiet tears, imagining ourselves out on that lonely sea. The chance to cry at someone else's sad lot was reprieve from our own.  A pair of orange, insulated pants crackled in the fire. The herd outside moved and breathed like one, gigantic animal.

"We're sorry, Bruce," one of us said when the final note ended.

Bruce waited a minute to get his voice back: "What for?"

"We didn't even help. We just watched while you got..." The hunter's voice trailed off, leaving all the possible words fluttering in the air.

"Don't think of it like that," Bruce said.

"Isn't that how it felt?" the youngest hunter said. "Didn't all of us get—?"

"No," Bruce shot back. "The same rules don't apply to deer. They have a natural instinct. They don't think about it. It's different than if another human had done it. Without thoughts, it can't be... they can't have... "

 "Intentions?" someone offered.

"Malice," a hunter said.

"Evil," a third put forth.

"Right. None of that," said Bruce. "They're innocent. But look at us.  We're hunters and we know full well that if you commune with nature, nature might up and commune right back. If you go out after an elk, you might get eaten by a mountain lion. We don't blame the cat. It's the cat's house. And so... we're in the bucks' house. And so... we got mated. Don't hate yourself. Just... just be a hunter."

"It doesn't seem at all natural," a hunter piped in.

Bruce thought about it, looking frustrated: "If it's smog or bug repellent that got them this way, then that's our own doing too. It means: Don't fuck with nature. Let it be a lesson to us, as hunters."

There was a long silence. A fidgety energy moved from hunter to hunter until we were like leaves all a-tremble on a tree.

"Soon as I get home," a hunter said, "I'm going to fix me a deer burger. Pan-fry their brethren. Watch them sizzle."

"Venison stew," someone else said. "Boil their hearts."

Someone else responded: "That's right. Buck jerky. I'll rip them with my teeth."

We all muttered our support.

"We will drink these very same bucks' blood in our coffee and eat their brains for breakfast, like porridge."

Grunts of agreement—for the spirit of this revenge, anyway, if not for the actuality.

A hunter wearing only orange socks stood up, gesturing with a giant blade in hand: "Come spring, I will extricate their still-gestating offspring from their mothers' wombs with my knife and grind them alive slowly, legs first, into sausage."

There was an uncomfortable pause while everybody looked around to see if we were all done with this.

Finally, the youngest of us stood up: "I'm going to tie them up alive so that I can eat their eyeballs right off their faces and bite their tongues out of their mouths and then I'm going to take their God-damn dicks and sweet Jesus I'll squeeze those fucking buck dicks into mush with my bare hands and then I'll take that mush—" and then the voice of this youngest hunter cracked—he was in fact on his very first hunt—and he broke into sobs and tears and shook and just blubbered all over with such a God-awful noise that none of us knew what to do except place a hand on him for a moment while we shuffled him toward the warmest spot, right by the potbelly.

And it was just about silent again, except for the herd and the boy's last few sniffles. We were all happy when Bruce sang another song.  We were all weary of hunting songs—perhaps tired of feeling like hunters—and Bruce either sensed this or had just run out of material because he sang "Over the Rainbow," and it was even better than if Judy Garland has been there herself because Bruce's voice was so deep and rich, and Bruce knew how to put a bluegrassy twang to the lyrics.  It put us at ease, so that we could curl up under the few jackets and garments we hadn't burned yet, so long as Bruce kept singing. And Bruce must have made up some of his own words, or repeated the song dozens of times, because he sang for a long while and his voice lifted us up out of the cabin, over the herd, where our troubles melted like lemon drops, and we floated above the tree tops, to sleep.

At first light, we woke up to Bruce standing naked in the wide-open doorway.  Outside, everything had frosted, full of sparkle and glitter. We could see all the bruises Bruce bore on his back, the clear stamp of individual hooves on his skin. He surveyed the empty field. We whispered among ourselves. Some guessed the chemical stink of insulated orange clothing had routed the herd.

"We safe now?" someone finally asked him. Bruce put a finger to his lips to shush us. He cupped his ear.

"Hear that?" he whispered. "Birds."

We couldn't hear it.

"Quick!" he shouted. "Stoke up that fire!" We tossed our few remaining garments and jackets into the potbelly except one orange poncho.  We chucked in the Whippoorwill Brand Deer Calls, which didn't burn so much as melt and spew forth a billow of smelly black smoke. Balancing carefully on the tin roof, the whole cabin shaking and creaking under his weight, Bruce used the orange poncho to send up distress puffs of black smoke in Morse Code.

 We were nervous and shivering. And then we heard it: whup-whup-whup. Soon enough, two choppers landed in the field.

We came running out at them like a zombie attack, naked and bruised and limping, and they almost pistol-shot us right there until we stopped and shivered and asked them to please not do that, our hands in the air. There were only a handful of rescuers, barely armed, and we all waited nervously while they prepped our most injured. They had no idea what it was we'd been through, and we had no wish to tell them.  They were still strapping in the injured when one buck, then two, then a half dozen came tearing out of the woods into the field, grunting and yodel-barking. The rescue team froze up, agitated less by the charging deer than by the way we hunters were screaming and crying, clambering into the choppers in a mad panic, half-trampling the strapped-down injured. We all looked to Bruce, who was far off in the field trying to retrieve the stiff, orange hunter who we'd accidentally gunned down. The first buck reached a chopper and leapt right inside, slobbering foam everywhere and tearing us up. Right before the other bucks reached us, they stopped short, jerking and snorting, scratching at the ground.  The frothy buck stopped goring us and leapt out of the chopper. We human hunters couldn't hear it over the chopper blades, but we could see what it was: Bruce had taken the Whippoorwill Brand Deer Call out of the dead hunter's orange vest pocket and was tooting on it something fierce, and sure enough all of the bucks, after leaping excitedly several times and bark-yowling, went galloping after Bruce.  We lifted up, choppering away. Bruce started to run. And God was he slow. He chugged along, getting ever more distant and small as we flew away, and from our perspective we could see what looked like the whole herd running behind him, pouring out of the trees like a locust plague. The old vets among us flashed back to the Fall of Saigon, and the rest of us flashed back to our lodge's war movie marathon night and Willem Dafoe's final scene in Platoon.

We saw the first buck leap onto his back, and Bruce wrestled it down and mated it with his hands. Then another, which he took into his mouth. Then another. Within seconds Bruce had several bucks quivering on their sides. We thought we saw him look up at us. He put his whole self into it, bucks falling left and right, until they enveloped him, a swarming, writhing pile, Bruce invisible beneath them.

 

Rangers retrieved the bodies of all missing brothers except Bruce. Before the funeral ceremonies, before the dead were even released to kin, the Whippoorwill Hunting Lodge Association for Men met with the Federally Protected Lands attorneys and mutually agreed, in accordance with the wishes of the families of the deceased, that it would be best if the frenzy never happened at all, not in any documented, or public, or especially media-covered sort of way. Which is not to say that it did not happen in our dreams every night. Which is not to say that a single man could endure the amorous caress of a loved one's lips. It was not until now, at this meeting of our dissolution upon the two-year anniversary of the panic, that we are able to brainstorm a list of the myriad, painful ways that we acted out in those months following our trauma. Not a one of us sizzled a deer or stewed any venison hearts, but 65 percent of us secretly turned vegetarian, unable to stomach any thought of blood, sinew, or bone. Twenty-eight percent of that group eventually turned full-bore vegan. One hundred percent of us experienced sexual malfunction—all of us presently celibate for the longest period since adolescence. Prior to this, eighty percent of us endured a period of sexual promiscuity, with more than one of us paying a male prostitute to wear antlers and walk on us with stiletto heels, with more than one of us also offering ourselves up in similar fashion. About .05 percent of us took to "rescuing" road kill, wrapping it in linen shrouds, and burning it on ceremonial pyres—a ritual that became such an obsession that this .05 percent of us swerved his truck to the roadside so often, and therefore missed work so many times, that he lost his job. One hundred percent of us were employed before the panic and all of us are presently without work and not even interested in looking for work. None of us know what to do now.

In the weeks after the event, our bruises yellowing beneath the plaster cast around our broken limbs, we made a shrine to Bruce in the lodge—a glass-framed photograph surrounded by smaller photographs of his hunting kills. We glued a Whippoorwill Brand Deer Call to each corner, affixed American Flags and ribbons all about, and behind it all pinned a fabric field of Safety Orange. A Coat of Arms, if you will.  Maybe it was the color, maybe it was his soft mane of wavy hair, or our memories of his sculpted muscle mass: none of us could look directly at the shrine. One night an errant beer bottle cracked the glass. We turned up the sports on TV and decided we didn't hear the smash. Later, when a wayward—or else very accurate—eight ball knocked the shrine off its perch, flat on its face, we winced and remembered the fallen, but overall we were thankful that those eyes were gone and could accuse us no more. Bruce's corner of the lodge collected cobwebs, dust, and leaves blown indoors by the wind.

For an entire year we didn't so much call meetings as persist in a group effort to drain every bottle behind the bar. Then, early morning on the first anniversary of the panic, none of us planning it, we all knew we had to meet at the lodge, the only place any of us could think to go that day. An eye-patched stranger was there with a circle of chairs. The Colonel was a POW veteran and counselor who had intervened in the spiraling life of one of our brethren who, like the rest of us, had lost livelihood and family. The Colonel did not know our exact story, but he had gathered that something tragic had befallen us, something requiring an ear, and counsel.

We sat there quietly in the circle for a long while, but there was something about The Colonel's one eye, the way it burned beneath his grey flat-top haircut—it seemed that, like Odin, he could pierce our souls, like he already knew it all.

"Bruce," someone said.

The Colonel nodded. His eye knew it all.

What about Bruce? We did not tell our story to The Colonel, not out loud, but today we are finally able to retrieve our feelings from exactly one year ago and chalk them up on our green slate board. We hated Bruce for having survived—or at least for not having clearly died with a tangible corpse we could put to final rest. We hated him for having saved our lives without leaving us any kind of life we knew how to live. Bruce, after all, appeared to have felt no pain—perhaps even liked what he felt, and maybe even took it up the ass from the whole herd until he finally expired in peace, tongue swollen, satiated down to his very soul. And at the same time we loved Bruce, and we missed him something fierce. He had been the best hunter among us, winner of the most trophies, the very man who earned our lodge the respectful reputation we enjoyed. If there were one real hunter among us, it was Bruce. And we had left him there, our brother. We had mourned the others, wept over their bodies and buried them with ceremony. But Bruce, he haunted us. Where was Bruce? There had to be at least a shred of the man left, something more than our collective memory.

"We have to get Bruce," someone said.

The Colonel nodded. He explained that vets had returned to Nam with good results, but that was not after only one year's time. We would need more counseling, more mental preparation. But we didn't listen, and he couldn't stop us. One by one we stood and suited up in Safety Orange.

The Colonel came along for damage control, he said, to help us deal with the consequences of our poor decision. An early snow had fallen. The formerly hoary field was now shockingly white, and we stood in the middle of it like a blazing orange bonfire.

"Why don't we put the rifles down and talk about our feelings," said The Colonel.

We loaded our rifles almost in unison, click-clack, chik-chuk—as if to say feel that, The Colonel. Feel that.

We walked off together, in search of Bruce, leaving The Colonel alone in the field, unwilling to participate any further, his eye going dim in the cold.

We kicked down the rotten cabin. It took but a minute. Using our collective intuition as our sole compass, we walked deep into the winter wood of the sprawling, federally protected forest. We walked among trees encased in clear ice. We crossed a frozen lake so wide that we spent a night camped on its hard, creaking water. With rope tied to each waist for safety, we traversed the horizontal trunks of giant trees across seemingly bottomless crevasses. We clambered among rocks and inched our fingers and toes up sheer cliff faces. We crossed hoary field upon hoary field, following the tracks of nine young deer with one man, until, in a starry clearing, we found him. By this time we were skinny as hell, and mean, and no longer vegetarians.

With a twitch of his head and a burst of breath from his nostrils, he skittered his fawns to safety. Tufts of molted fur and clumps of fallen leaves were his only clothing. He'd affixed antlers not just to his temples but also to his rump, shoulders, elbows, knees, groin, and chest. He looked not exactly like a deer, or even a deer-man, but maybe like a deer crossed with some kind of woodland sprite, or nyad, dryad, or whatnot. Or even like the great god Pan himself. He crouched in a wide stance, his palms held out to either side of his head. We left our cover and approached him in the clearing from all sides, slowly tightening our noose while Bruce spun in his own circle. When we stood shoulder to shoulder, our guns all raised, cocked, and aimed, Bruce stood straight up, like a man. Each rifle tip shivered in expectation.

We'd gone into the woods to save him, but he must have seen it all over us: We were going to kill him. Sixty-five percent of us think we decided this in the moment. Forty-four percent of us think that we had intended this all along.

For what seemed like a long time, our rifles wavered.

Then Bruce took a step forward and put his mouth around the end of a gun. You couldn't hear any breathing, but you could see our breath and body heat rise up from the pack like evil spirits made of smoke. Bruce slowly dropped to his knees, holding on to the barrel. This first hunter began to cry, and Bruce unzipped him, pushed aside the gun, and took the hunter's penis into his mouth until the hunter moaned and crumpled.  Bruce placed his right hand on the man who lay there shaking while he fellated the next man, now in front of him. Bruce used his other hand to unzip, touch, and prepare the man on his left, the one who would be next. He made his way like this, counter-clockwise, around the circle of brothers he had saved, brothers who had come to murder him, brothers who now all cried and then moaned, until we all lay there on our sides, fetal, shivering in the snow, and Bruce was gone.  

After that, we each rose and went our own way into the federally protected forest, and some of us have lived in its hollow trees or in caves behind waterfalls for this last year, lost in thought, while other brothers kept walking until we reached foreign lands where we learned new ways of seeing, thinking, and being. And then, perhaps by the same impulse that stirs lobsters, geese, and penguins to make their great journeys, or by the power of electromagnetic currents that steer sea turtles to tiny islands hidden in vast oceans, each brother left his tree, mud hut, cavern of ice, or distant yurt in just enough time to be back here at our former lodge on this day, for the very last time, to write this statement. And now that we are done, having chalked these hazy white words upon our green slate board, we have unanimously voted to go our separate ways again, henceforth disbanded and dismissed, a brotherhood of hunters no more.