When the three hunters walk, the moon follows as if it’s been wired to their lantern, and when they hurry, it comes dancing behind at a frightening clip. They pause to listen to the hounds, and it hangs in the crook of swaybacked mountains. Like them, the moon wants to rest a spell from the chase. Their breath rises to it in ragged spirals. Early on, a plain full moon—the color of clean bone—drifted over Fenwick Mountain, only to be snuffed by the clouds. They miss that wholesome body, now that this red hysteria has been revealed.
Oren likes his heavens nailed fast. “Nothing less than strange,” he says. The blue bulb of a match-head flares, struck off his thumbnail. He lights a cigarette, and the cherry gleams like a flake chipped from the red moon above. The galloping thing fills him with dread. He isn’t sure why. It’s too far away to hurt him. It’s just, well, foreign. Through black branches, just above the earth’s curve, the moon throbs the color of a banked fire. At first they thought it a hilltop barn or a church burning in the distance, until they crested the ridge and saw it for what it was.
The chase nears its second hour. Dogs color the night with sound. Wilder animals—bobcats, screech owls—watch from the trees with interest, claws tensed on the scalloped bark of cherries: the sight of men wandering the mountain so late at night, far beyond the province where God granted them dominion. Lounging gray foxes smell the rank, yellow sweat of the human body. Any deacon could tell you that when He sheared light from darkness, He gave the black husk to the disfavored. Or maybe night things prefer the night. Oren supposes so. Maybe they feel sorry for us, and the bright busy world where there are no secrets. Oren doesn’t know. Secrets worry him.
Lantern light cants up as Oren fiddles with the window, silvering trees about them. Two old men and a boy, there they stand by a shelving rock. Chamois-soft ferns. Greenbriers sharp as cat’s-claws. Oren starts a horrible coughing jag, like change being rattled in a tin-cup. His lungs try to clear out thirty-five years in the mines. Levi—Oren’s grandson—winces at the sound.
Oren wipes at his lips. “My God,” he says.
“It ain’t a harvest moon,” his cousin McClatchy is saying. “Much too dark. Casts a lot of light, though.”
“Yes. You could fish by it.”
McClatchy’s silver hair shines like a Roosevelt dime. He tries to whistle back the dogs, but the Blueticks and Treeing Walkers run on in a frenzy. The hunters shout themselves dry-throated and give up, finally, committing themselves. They are chasing a matched pair of coons that craze the dogs for five miles, six and seven. They are clever things, old mean boars—fifty pounds of flesh between them, they don’t get that big by being stupid—with hoarfrost hides and eyes garish enough to rival the working girls of Commerce Street. They drag hunters crotch-deep through Tory Run and into throat-grabbing barbed wire. The hunters don’t know who owns the land underfoot, but fences are climbed, fields crossed, property trampled—night is governed by a shadow set of laws. Nothing can be owned there. By day, Westvaco and the Haymaker Mine claim the timber rights above and the mineral rights below.
“Mostly a bright night’s bad for coons, cause they don’t move so much, usual,” McClatchy tells Levi, and the young boy nods in an exaggerated way.
Levi carries an iron-sighted .22 slung with a length of baling twine. His hands sweat and make the snub-nosed rifle hard to hold, it tries to leap from his grasp. He shifts it shoulder-to-shoulder. The dead leaves underfoot are broad as hands.
Oren kills his cigarette and places the butt in his shirt-pocket with care: no fires here. A flung funnel of light collects all manner of broadwing moths: Io and Luna, Hawkmoth and Blinded Sphinx. They bat false eyes and parchment wings. The hunters drag themselves uphill with handfuls of brier, rousing animals in the pines. Nocturnal eyes swing after like rifle-sights.
“Favoring east,” McClatchy says, tuning his ear. “Heading to Foxtree.”
“Are you sure?”
McClatchy says, “I’m not following. That place is messed up.”
“Oh, it’s not a bad place to hunt. Just hell to walk through. All that dead timber. Your dogs will kiss you and love on their daddy.”
“I don’t want to see that place.”
Oren gives Levi a grand horse-wink. “You won’t see it. It’s dark down there.”
McClatchy didn’t want to come. Hunting reminds him of his grandsons overseas, where they learn tigers, napalm, red mud. He just sits at home, waiting by the telephone. Every time it jumped and rang on the stand this week, it was only Oren. Just the thought of hunting made McClatchy go sour in the stomach, but he owed Oren some stupid favor from back in the Kennedy days, from the Primary Election, when they maybe passed on some Kennedy money to the sheriff, when McClatchy was high up in the union, when they maybe bought the votes of ten-thousand dead people in Mingo County. The trouble is, Oren’s always demanding payback. He put himself “at awful risk.” Again and again, Oren’s been repaid, but he always forgets. No other, he said, should have the pleasure of taking out his finest grandchild. Levi deserved it! Oren called three times a day until McClatchy muttered, “Quit deviling me, I’ll prime the dogs.” McClatchy’s an old-school hunter—many’s the night he spit in a carbide lamp to get himself home—and that’s why Oren pestered him so.
But now that he’s back on Fenwick Mountain, McClatchy can’t deny he loves being among hounds. Rooty smell of fur, the rosebud pucker of their backsides. Hasn’t run them in better than a year. It would be the best night, a homecoming, if not for the sky’s poor aspect.
Hounds. Trails dogleg and double; slate floors vanish underfoot; rusty spirals of hog-wire jump at their collars. Leaves clutch scent, mapping the world. Noses to the ground, floppy ears billow the boar-stench like sets of sails. Cross Tory Run, paws slash creek-water silver. Past the wreckage of abandoned lumber camps and wildcat mines: piles of rusted Peavey heads, glinting puddles of coal. Skid-roads, bottle-glass.
The three hunters top the ridge, consider, descend.
The moon follows. Moonlight is nice, Foxtree a dark hollow, but the darkness doesn’t bother Oren or McClatchy. They spent their lives in the Haymaker Mine chipping coal from this mountain. Roamed its innards with the spitting flames of carbide lamps fixed to their helmets, flames as slight and forked as copperheads’ tongues.
Trouble is, Foxtree is cursed ground, and like all curses, it fascinates. Since before anyone can remember, the bitty creek called Foxtree Run divided the hollow with a murmur, changed gently with the seasons, and gave the place a name. Oren and McClatchy fished it with rods of Tonkin cane, wire hooks, and tails torn so freshly from the hind-ends of crawdads that the plain things still quivered with life. But the Haymaker Mine loosened the ground underfoot, and Westvaco clear-cut the head of the hollow. The earth couldn’t hold its water. Foxtree flooded when seven inches of rain fell in an hour’s time. Heaving and groaning, beaver-dams plugged the glut until they buckled and burst. Water surged down-hollow with the sound of a highballing train. Boulders crushed, scattered like gravel. In less than an hour, the creek was scoured off the earth. Two families living up there were not seen again. A crew scavenging timber found a muddy low-cut dress. It was wrapped about the post of an uprooted mailbox.
Now a lifeless trickle. They tell it again, but Levi’s heard it a hundred times. Levi senses the ghosts of trout swimming Foxtree. The moon draws them up and they chase ghost-nymphs, ghost-hellgrammites, drifting like silt in the current of air. Water run no more than ankle-deep and dies into a broad fan of rubble, Queen Anne’s lace rising through a latticework of broken sycamores and chewed greenstone. A hell for hikers; a paradise for grouse and rattlesnakes.
The lantern clanks and swings in brisk arcs, lighting the remains of the creek-bed. The rocks are stained a violent orange with mine acid. Raw yellowboy stands in stagnant puddles. Levi stumbles and Oren jerks him up by the suspenders. Keep from that.
“The paper says a flood like that happens every thousand years,” McClatchy says, “but I don’t see nobody rushing back to settle.”
They grin. They know better than to trust a newspaper. They know fire and flood firsthand. Cocking heads, they listen to hounds scurry through troughs of leaves.
“If them sons of bitches are running deer, I’ll choke the both of them. This is getting to feel like work.”
“I won’t abide a dog running deer. Just won’t abide it. Can you hear them, bud?”
Levi, who secretly hates the way men hit their dogs, who feels sweat stinging the cuts on his hands, answers vaguely, “They down over back?” He has no idea.
“No, no, buddy, they’re breaking at the point.” Oren laughs wickedly at him. “You’re not exactly a living compass, are you?”
A horned owl lifts from a stump on horrible angel’s wings. Guard feathers brush Levi’s cheeks, stiff as a bottle-brush. He throws out an arm and the gun-barrel pitches wildly.
The pale awesome thing breaks toward the sky. The owl glances across the moon—red, white, and black—an emblem.
“Stop.” Oren’s chest heaves. “Thing about give me a stroke. You all right, bud?”
“I’m okay.” Levi can feel the imprint of feathers on his cheek. It feels like a favor. It keeps his mind off his embarrassment. He won’t have to blush and cry, because someone he loved laughed at how dumb he was. Levi was always giving the wrong answer. His grandpa could be cruel, like a schoolteacher, and be kind, like a schoolteacher. You just never knew.
They take a breather.
Panting, McClatchy gets on his haunches to roll a cigarette. Black lung, black lung, and cigarette smoke. When the clinic doctor fanned out the charts, they covered an entire table.
Suddenly McClatchy seems crazed. He dances a little jig, even puts away the tobacco, cups his mouth and hollers, “Pin them up, Ring! He got them treed. We’re good, son. Pin them up, Ring!”
The tenor of the yelping peaks, finally, and shifts in pitch, as if their voices are being pulled through a pipe. Foxtree, a bowl of howling.
Kerosene sloshes and sizzles. The rancid smell of burnt metal, it’s enough to twist the nose off your face.
Oren’s feet give out from under him. A stump cracks his elbow on the way down. It is, precisely, the sound of two bricks clapping.
High yelps gave way to a steady bay, so the others don’t even notice his distress. Oren sulks behind, nursing his elbow and the singing bone. A slick pile of leaves was his undoing. He runs fingers through his hair, which has gone all cattywampus from the fall.
The moon harries them on, and they billygoat one-by-one, watched and dismissed coolly by animals in the brush. Eyes of bobcats dish the light, but the hunters don’t see them.
The moon floats into view.
McClatchy stops short. “Mark where the stars are. Them bright four.”
The hunters take thirty eastern paces, turn. McClatchy points to the sky. “Don’t you see?’
The moon doesn’t chase them; they follow the moon! Just a trick of the earth’s curving, really, but they don’t see it that way. It led them from pastures and cemeteries; past the abandoned tipple and County Road 5; over the inky backbone ridge where larches shed needles of a fall and turkeys roost. They give in to a conceit, that the turns they make might not be their own. They have no choice, they are dragged along.
Damn the sky, they want shut of this, want to warm themselves by the truck-heater, sleep in houses, slip hides from the coons’ bodies like dirty shirts.
The lantern throws a tattered halo of light. Hounds bawl and dervish about the tree, stiff tails whipping. They stand with forepaws on the trunk, muscled haunches straining, nails hooking. They yap and bay, worry and bawl, leaping sets of eyes. If the coons fall, they will be torn to hissing rags.
But that night, the coons want to hold onto their shirts. They cram themselves up in the den-tree, a lone shagbark rising from the waste. A covey of flying squirrels flush into the darkness. They glide over the cone of light.
Levi checks the safety.
“Jubal! Honey!” Thumping heads, McClatchy unknots the hounds and reaches into his satchel. The hatchet’s gleaming edge, it comes out and shines.
He strikes the dead trunk with muffled, worthless thumps. Too dry and leathery, cured by the weather. It refuses to give as living flesh will. McClatchy works himself into a dangerous lather. Might as well try and chop down a courthouse. His lungs tingle: feathers and needles.
Levi can hardly control himself. All the fear, all the worry ebbs away. He wants to curl his finger, pull that silver trigger.
McClatchy lets the hatchet go limp at his side. He coughs and hacks. “This tree will not be cut. Them old boars are sewed up tight. Tonight ain’t your night, son.”
But Oren can’t bear disappointing the boy. “You don’t got a pair of climbers on you?”
“I left them at the house,” McClatchy says. “My knees can’t take it.”
“With all the bark wore off, I don’t think you’d climb it anyhow.”
“You could burn them out,” Levi says, remembering a dozen stories. “That’s how you used to.”
Oren looks at McClatchy.
“I don’t know,” McClatchy says. “That’s an awful lot of effort.”
“Why not?” Oren asks mildly, but his eyes say: You owe me. You won’t make this boy die of disappointment, cry in the truck, embarrass me.
A favor is a favor.
McClatchy answers slowly, as you uncoil a rusty chain: “I haven’t done it going on twenty years. But let’s try her. ‘Get out your lucifers,’ like dad used to say.”
They craft a tent of kindling in the tree’s hollowed base. Oren pulls paper from his wallet. Ads for auctions, outdated fishing licenses. He wads them into small lanterns. Hounds surge about them, in fresh jags of yelping and pagan colors.
McClatchy lights paper with a flick of his lighter. Wind steals the meager blue flame, so he builds it a chapel with his hand, trying her again. It catches with a whoosh. The fire treats the tree like a flue, climbing slowly and steadily up to the dead heartwood.
Levi shoulders his gun. Light blooms from cracks in the tree.
The coons come boiling and screeching from the busted crown, their fur crackling blue. The .22 barks twice. Levi misses cleanly, and though the coons fall twisting, they hit the earth running and cloaked in orange. Two maverick stars, they dive into the night and carve twin trails in the crackling leaves. Hounds race after, trying for mouthfuls of fire.
The hunters back away, but flames romp through the brush. They cuss the sky, they can’t run fast enough, they scramble on with the lantern clanging. It has been a dry, dry year. The hollow wants to burn. Fire comes leaping into the world.
A night smeared with heat-blur. Their skin tightens like drumheads, fire licks their calves. Throats full of cinders, and stars of black leaves sucked up to heaven.
Their world is bounded on all sides by fallen timber, busted rock, and not only that. A noose of fire cinches itself around them. The only place the fire can’t seem to reach is the high red moon, still as can be, that twins the blazing earth, the way a mother gazes down into the face of a favored child that is so, so pretty.
Matthew Neill Null is a writer from West Virginia, a winner of the O. Henry Award, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Ploughshares, PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories, Baltimore Review, and West Branch, among other journals. He has received writing fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, and the University of Iowa.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Maybe I read too many of those Calvino stories with their galloping moons.
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: Well, I seek out NOON because I’m fascinated by Lish and his disciples, and it seems to be carrying the torch. It’s all about the sentence. I can’t say I write in that style, but I like to see where those writers—Dawn Raffel, Christine Schutt, Gary Lutz, etc.—are traveling from their early work, which is so Lish-infused, and how they try to escape (or not escape) that influence. I also have a thing for Oulipo and books like Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa. I’ll never write a book like that, but it gives a nice jolt to read work that is language for the sake of being language. Realism is taken too seriously. You can’t treat it like some precious delicate thing, like the last panda bear. Toss it around the room a bit.
Was also cheered to see NOON publish the forgotten Peter Altenberg, who is remembered more for that awesome, nervy Kokoschka painting than for his own writing.
Q: What would your ideal writing day be?
A: Quiet morning. Get up in the dark, 4 am or 5 am, and finish by 10 or 11, before anguish floods the room. Get it all over before I have to think too much about it. Then the mysterious stranger calls with an offer to pay off my student loans.
Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?
A: There are a couple deer in the field and birds in a dead tree. It’s early, so the animals are on the move before the heat sets in. I live in a cabin on a piece of ground that my family’s had for a hundred years now. It used to be a working farm, but rocky WV isn’t precisely America’s breadbasket, so we’ve let it go back to forest.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A fleet-footed novel of West Virginia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It looked bad for a while, but I think the patient is going to live.