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Right Before Dark

sitting in the trees and listening

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Shannon Sorenson

Right before dark, things calm down. Out in the woods. All day long out there, you get used to it. The small but explosive chatter of animals smaller than your fist. The clattering of tree branches and the creaking of their trunks as they sway against a blurry grey sky. The wind in the dead yellow grass. There is noise. Everywhere.

But the sun falls away and the quiet rolls in. Birds stop skittering their talons across the cold, brittle tree bark. The occasional thrum and rush from cars on a nearby county highway, it fades out. The squirrels up and vanish.

For me, there’s tension in the calm. Like you’re sitting in a dark room, listening to your chest rise and fall, waiting. Knowing a door is about to bang open.

The barrel of my hunting rifle is colder than anything else around me. If I press my naked fingertips against the metal, they leave weird little rainbow prints behind. Oil from my warm skin. You can watch as the colors quickly dissolve, as the chill air pulls the heat away.

I move slowly. I think of each action. I plan every little thing before shifting my feet, before pushing my stocking cap back and forth to itch my scalp. I try as best I can. I try to join the forest in its calm. I could bump something with my big boots, tip it over. I could knock the wall of my little plywood hut with my elbow. Or my knee. Or my gun.

The barrel of my hunting rifle is colder than anything else around me. If I press my naked fingertips against the metal, they leave weird little rainbow prints behind. Oil from my warm skin. You can watch as the colors quickly dissolve, as the chill air pulls the heat away.

You can’t have that, it says.

Right before dark, I expect the deer to come, meticulously picking their way through the gloomy tangle. Frustratingly slow for someone who’s more accustomed to a shiny glass screen, swiping past pictures and headlines and armchair commentary on a whim. I expect to see the deer before I hear them, pushing through, nose first, their heads bobbing low and wary. Pausing. Pausing. Pausing. They always look so small. Their legs are so skinny. Bones and fur and pointy hooves.

But the deer rarely come right at dusk. Not for me, not usually. I’ll be waiting another 20, 30 minutes, if they show up at all. You imagine something brown, but they’re more grey this time of year. They match the dingy scrub sprawling around the trees, especially if there’s snow on the ground, clinging to the twigs.

They are ghosts in the grey November light. You snatch glimpses. And then they are here.

My grandfather died during hunting season. Not while hunting. He was driving my grandma to Thanksgiving dinner. The heart attack waited until he parked his pickup truck at a stop sign. My grandma got help, but there was nothing to be done.

Almost 10 years later, grandma asked if my mom had seen him. Grandma said she’d spied him through the bedroom window earlier that day. Working outside. Where was he? So strange.

Hours later, she remembered.

The last place my grandpa hunted was a nice little shack in the woods behind my parent’s house. It was easy to get at. It was comfortable. Very early in the morning, the day after he died, my dad walked out there to sit in the dark. He didn’t bring his gun. The sun rose up over the hill. The birds and the squirrels came out. And, as always, the silence pulled away.

I never see deer in the morning, not usually. It’s disappointing, but I would still go out there each year and wait. I’d wait all day. Sometimes I’d just sit there, listening to the rustling and the scratching of all the tiny creatures. And I’d think about how the woods are a tremendous, magnificent mess. The wind rakes through the old dead leaves. From over the treetops I can hear the rush and thrum of cars and trucks on a nearby county highway.

And right before dark, things calm down.


The original version of this column appeared in Volume One in 2015. It was featured on WPR’s Wisconsin Life in 2016.