Liana Scalettar
PROSE
 
Diana, Suffolk County

To know what it was to love solitude, to take up arms to defend it, I decided to emulate Diana, the Roman goddess of hunt.  Like her to be bathed in forest light--to be fleet, to be blanched and inviolate.

By moonlight I prepared my arrows, old arrowheads I had bought in the city. In the slurred white puddle of moon. I polished and whetted them until they rolled down my arms sharp as glass. I tied them to branches, scrub pine or juniper, and stored them in a quiver. The bow I'd made by tying fishing line to a half-circle of driftwood.  When my work was done, I slept on the porch of my grandmother's house. Sandals with brown straps winding up to my knees. Inside she was light on her back in her high bed. A crumpled tissue in her hand. My usual bed, facing a sunned poster of Nice, was smooth and unmarked, and I would be gone before she woke up. I slept soundly and, when morning came, I rose quickly. No one else was on the boardwalks as I walked to the bay.

In the sky, the moon was becoming a faint disc, the sun a creeping brightness.

An overpopulation of deer was plaguing the county. Starving and covered by disease-bearing ticks, the animals left the state park at the island's end.  They wandered through the towns, buck, doe, fawn in a line like a sweet movie. They lay in the sandy spaces between houses with melting filmy eyes.  In response, the sheriff's office was receiving angry phone calls from vacationers.

Do something, the callers said, it's not fair.

And the sheriff said, we'll hunt. It was to be a one-day affair, open to anyone with a gun and a license. I hadn't formally registered.


           
To be fleet and fast, belted, sprinting. To be quick as wind. To run from pool to pool: light to water to light.

I walked to the bay, the quiver on my shoulder, the sandals well tied. A thin gray tunic, draping right, that had been expensive on Spring Street. The bow's porous wood arched into my hand--mimosa and broom scenting the air.

A crowd had gathered outside the firehouse. The young men wore baseball caps; the old men were famous fishermen who lived in the shacks that sat high on stilts and shone with sea crusts and oils. A county official, standing off at a distance, was studying a clipboard. A pair of skinny dogs roamed the docks, and I slipped among them unnoticed.  The moon was a vanished pearl, then. The sun a handful of orange.

"Ufer," the county official said.

"Here," said Ufer.

"Serrano," the county official said.

"Here," said Serrano.

"I'm not on the list, Chief," said Serrano's cousin with his thumbs hooked into his belt loops.  The county official flicked his tongue onto his lips and shuffled the papers. His hand, like an auction paddle, went skittish, up and down.  The finding of Serrano's cousin and the reading of the list took twenty minutes, and I watched color coming back to the bay.  One of the dogs approached me, nosed my ankles and the arrows' green wood. When he lay on the dock next to me I felt as if I'd gained a companion: we would hunt together. Diana and her hounds. We would scamper and yelp.

"The rules, gentlemen," said the county official as his hand shot up and down. And the sun was a golden ball: the water below it viscous and deep. I fondled the dog's ears--the brown flaps over baby pink frills--and tried to listen. The sandals were cutting into my legs. I left them, I liked knowing they were there.

Because we would be walking to the island's westernmost end, people had come well provisioned.  The younger men carried water bottles; some were eating thick slices of bread and butter. The older men slipped flasks from the lumberjackets they wore. The flat silver sides caught new sun and sent it bouncing along the ground.

When all the rules had been read, no shooting until within boundaries of state park, we began. The crowd thinned into a ragged line, fatter at the front where everyone wanted to be with brave impassive faces. I trailed them with the dog at my side. We would be walking for several hours.

No one stopped me or spoke to me and I thought I might hunt alone at the end of the day.

The streaked pink and melon sky was opening into white.

 

To elude, to race. To know what it was to love solitude, not to cling to people as if I were some thriving parasitical vine.

 

We marched through the little towns that were strung along the island like hopes. In Saltaire, Serrano got giddy. He was one with a flask.

"Deer meat deer meat," he said. A father and two daughters were sitting in the town's gazebo. They gazed out.

"Deer deer deer meat," sang Serrano and the father folded his newspaper.

"Deer," sang Serrano, looking once at the father and away. The little girls had begun to jump up and down, their red plastic shoes were flashing. The father opened his newspaper again, holding it high before his face. Beyond the gazebo, in front of the general store's begonia-filled porch, women were eating ice cream and laughing.

"Cut it out," Serrano's cousin told him. The cousin was a large man with a tiny face, and Serrano strode to the line's very front and lifted his gun to his shoulder.

I had hung back, still, to keep my pleats in place and the dog at my side. Now I ran to keep pace with the others who had all, as if at a signal, erupted into a steady canter. Our soles on the boards made sand spray out in arcs. Our feet shook the slatted walks. As we turned a corner I looked at the girls. For a moment they hung in the air--staggered--before dropping.

 

To be striped by green leaf light. To move in patterns, like sun to shadow to sun.

 

Soon we stopped in a clearing to rest. For fear of ticks, everyone stood as they ate and drank. The flasks and bottles went from hand to hand; the younger men ate more bread and butter and the older ones smoked pungent cigarettes whose smoke curled up. Shining things in the sand caught my eye: I kicked to uncover them and they were pebbles or beads, lost bright baubles. The dog stayed close to me and when anyone approached he growled. His brown tail, long like a knife, swished back and forth otherwise. We stood at the place where the trees began, where the long grasses turned from green to dark. I unwound my sandals and retied them tighter. The men were beginning to look at the clouds and at footprints, and to frown.

"Herds," said Serrano. He had stayed in the front from the time we left Saltaire. "Little groups that go together all the time: you shoot one, then you shoot the others."

 "It's not to kill them all," said one of the younger men. "Thinning is what the county said. Thinning out."

"Yeah," said Serrano, but he was squinting towards the west with a fixed look. I decided to ask him for advice. The pleats, first. Evenly spaced, with crisp edges, they were pleasing and convincing.

With the dog eager beside me, I went over to him. From close I could see the flask square in his jacket and the mauve top of the gun.

"Yeah," he said.

"Could you help me?" I asked. "It's this." I brought the quiver around and showed him the arrows, whose shafts had dried in the sun.

"Yeah," he said. "A bow and arrows." Then, his face shut like a door, he walked back to the path and started. People fell into a line behind him, Ufer with his heavy boots, Serrano's cousin with a tipsy smile, and all the rest, and me. I wasn't discouraged. I could tell he was the kind of person who needed time to think.

We walked and ran and walked again, starting and stopping with the precision of a toy train on a track. At my side the dog kept a tender watch, and my tunic unfolded in the heat.

 

To hunt alone, at dusk, when the water was deep with pink. To hold the dim bow, pluck its strong fine string. I thought too that the smell of warm blood must be nice--the meat stuck with sorrel turning to brown.

We walked and ran and walked. In front, Serrano and his cousin. Their mouths were wet from drinking. Their guns blinding and vanishing in the glare. Behind them the rest of the men, the younger with slack faces and untied sneakers, the older without expression, cracked boots banging down. Broom fronds hung onto our path, and biscuit petals swirled down. Behind us, they left a fragile trail. Ahead the plants crowded onto the wood, with mimosa in striped drops, with pine whose baby cones were tipped with purple. I couldn't hear the ocean anymore, or children's voices. I couldn't hear anything but our feet on the boards, the faint swish of plants. Hollows under the bushes filled with green domes of shade. Far above, birds crossed the sun-spread sky.

The bow became hot in my hand; and, as we came into the state park, I thought of my grandmother sitting down to lunch. The old embroidered napkin, held to her lap by force--she feared its falling. And I thought that I'd been wrong not to leave a note.

"Hold up," Serrano said. He stood yards ahead of me with his cousin rocking back and forth at his side. "OK," he said. "Deer time deer time."

"Time," said Ufer. The crowd pulled apart into strands. In their lumberjackets, the older men walked straight ahead and disappeared. The younger men dawdled, planting water bottles in the sand. My dog sniffed circles at my feet, brushing his nose on the ground. Still, draped, straps on my legs, I waited in the clearing ringed by trees. I pulled an arrow and placed it on the bow. Where the light hit the fishing line it became a golden thread.

"Stick with me kid," said Serrano. He hadn't gone with the others. I jumped and recovered, and he motioned with his chin for me to follow. All the way into the woods I pictured my grandmother eating lunch without me. She would have started to worry. The trail was littered by blossoms and pine needles, and trees which reached my shoulder stood on either side.

He walked and I walked behind him, and the dog followed and sometimes ran ahead. I carried the bow and arrow and thought in this way I was ready. Serrano studied the ground. His head tilted forward. He stopped all at once, his thumb scraping the barrel, and said, "listen." I heard the forest creaks and, in the silence, the sound of falling flowers.

"That's a buck," he whispered. I froze. My feet seemed stuck to the ground; my arms and hands were taut; my eyes widened. I felt myself staring at him and couldn't stop, and went on staring while a white sheet spread across my mind and sight. I'd never shot anything before.

Serrano lifted the rifle to his shoulder. At my feet the dog stood panting. Petals fell, and cones. Juniper berries, smoke blue, hung from wavy bark like water.

I was still as the gun sounded and the smoke dissolved. My eyes became larger and rounder, and my hand clamped the bow as if I too were made of driftwood, as gray, as inert. I was still as Serrano stalked through the low trees to where the animal--a buck with new furred antlers--had fallen. The dog ran with him and came back with a bloodied tongue. I was still and turned at the waist, the tunic twisted around my legs, my legs and arms headed in opposite directions. The braids and curls in my hair had all come unpinned.

 

            To love to be alone.

 

The note I hadn't left began to weigh on me as I stood, waiting. I composed it again and again in my head. Dear Grandma, please don't worry about me. See you at dinner. Dear Grandma, I went to Robert Moses for the deer thinning. I had a bow and arrow and a classy silver dress. The dog jumped around my ankles with a steaming mouth--he wanted me to come and see. The blood had sent him into a revel. I stayed twisted and ready to flee, and the sun ran up and down the fishing line in bright rays. The sky, spread like a white cape, drew up the scent of blood; the dog leapt from Serrano to me with outflung ears. When my shoulders started to hurt, I twisted at the waist. I could examine the deer’s body better. Its large black eyes were covered with a milky film.

Serrano drank and, with the back of his hand, wiped the two lines of brandy that had trickled down his chin.

The dog's eyes shone more deeply as the buck's dimmed, so that it seemed as if life were passing from one to the other in a hot fast way.

Serrano crouched, wiping his palms over his cheeks and forehead. I'd not moved closer to him or to the buck since arriving, but had stood modestly and quietly, waiting for him to tell me what to do.

Things were not working out as I'd planned.

Most days my grandmother and I would make lunch together--push hard-cooked eggs through mesh, arrange toast in a fan on a chipped aqua tray. We would sit side by side at her small table. It was easier to touch that way, and to murmur as we each tried to give the other the best food from our plates.

All around the forest was turning a brilliant bright green. The pinecones glowed and the fallen needles, the berries--each violet, copper, and blue piece distinct and hard. The creaking and the dropping blossoms grew louder, and voices sounded, jubilant shouts that vanished as soon as they'd begun. Serrano rose to his feet.

"That's them," he said. "They've got some too." I nodded.

"Sorry," he said, and he gestured with his hand along my length before turning. I nodded again. He bounced the gun end on the ground as he walked, lightly, as if it were a cane or an umbrella.

I repinned my hair, the two broad braids marking my forehead like bunting. I undid and retied the sandals, tugging hard at the straps to make them burrow into the channels they'd made. I would be alone, and sun-swept and leafed. I would wander and shoot small rabbits for lunch; I would save the deer for dinner. I would find a forest pool whose depths were brokenly green and mossy. The moon, when it rose, would paint me a silver cameo. Somehow the thought didn't please me. I waited until he was out of sight and then, clicking my tongue for the dog to follow, I began to make my way home.  The mimosa touched me as I passed, and long sprays of broom; and then I was again on the walk that bisected the island and could retrace my steps. The two girls were running in circles around the gazebo. Their translucent shoes thudded in the sand, their faces opened and shut with ecstasy. I stopped and swung the quiver down. The arrows had started to splinter. But the fishing line still flashed a colored ladder and I unknotted it from the bow.

They eyed me with suspicion.

"Look," I said, turning the line in the sun. Rainbows fell onto the sand. They grabbed the line then and tugged at it until the stronger one ran off. She held it aloft like a kite string and colors dropped at her heels.

At home my grandmother stood on the porch with her hands on her hips. She was looking at the neighboring houses, at where the horizon line would have been.

 


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