Excerpt from 'Bay of Souls'
Bay of SoulsA Novel
By Robert Stone
Houghton Mifflin CompanyCopyright © 2003 Robert Stone
All right reserved.
"By gad, sir," Michael Ahearn said to his son, Paul, "you present a distressing spectacle."
A few nights earlier they had watched The Maltese Falcon together. Paul, who had never seen it before, was delighted by his father’s rendering of Sydney Greenstreet. Sometimes he would even try doing Greenstreet himself.
"By gad, sir!"
Paul’s attempts at movie voices were not subtle but commanded inflections normally beyond the comic repertory of a twelve-year-old boy from a small town on the northern plains. His voice and manner were coming to resemble his father’s.
The boy was lying in bed with a copy of The Hobbit open across his counterpane. This time he was not amused at Michael’s old-movie impressions. He looked up with resentment, his beautiful long-lashed eyes angry. Michael easily met the reproach there. He took any opportunity to look at his son. There was something new every day, a different ray, an unexpected facet reflected in the aspects of this creature enduring his twelvedness.
"I want to go, Dad," Paul said evenly, attempting to exercise his powers of persuasion to best effect.
He had been literally praying to go. Michael knew that because he had been spying on Paul while the boy knelt beside the bed to say his evening prayers. He had lurked in the hallway outside the boy’s room, watching and listening to his careful recitation of the Our Father and the Hail Mary and the Gloria - rote prayers, courtesy of the Catholic school to which the Ahearns, with misgivings, regularly dispatched him. Michael and his wife had been raised in religion and they were warily trying it on again as parents. Sending Paul to St. Emmerich’s meant laughing away the horror stories they liked to tell about their own religious education in the hope of winning a few wholesome apparent certainties for the next generation.
"I was fourteen before my father took me hunting," Michael said. "I think that’s the right age."
"You said kids do everything sooner."
"I didn’t say I thought kids doing everything sooner was a good idea."
"You don’t even like to hunt," Paul said. "You don’t believe in it."
"Really? And what makes us think that?"
"Well, I’ve heard you with Mom. You, like, agree with her it’s cruel and stuff."
"I don’t agree with her. I understand her position. Anyway, if I didn’t believe in it why should I take a tender runt like you?"
Paul was immune to his father’s goading. He went for the substance.
"Because I really believe in it."
"Oh yes? You believe in whacking innocent creatures?"
"You know what?" Paul asked. "This was a Christian Ethics topic. Hunting was. And I was like pro - in favor. Because Genesis says ‘dominion over beasts.’ If you eat the meat it’s OK. And we do."
"Yes I do," Paul said. "I eat venison kielbasa."
Michael loomed over him and with his left hand put out the lamp on the bed table.
"’Tis blasphemy to vent thy rage against a dumb brute," he informed Paul. He had been teaching Moby-Dick with his favorite assistant, a very pretty South Dakota girl named Phyllis Strom. "Now good night. I don’t want you to read too late."
"Why? I’m not going anywhere."
"Maybe next year," Michael said.
"Sure, Dad," said Paul.
He left the bedroom door its customary inch ajar and went downstairs to the study where his wife was grading Chaucer papers.
"Did he beg and plead?" she asked, looking up.
"I don’t think he’s absolutely sure if he wants to go or not. He takes a pro-hunting position."
She laughed. Her son’s eyes. "A what?"
"In Christian Ethics," Michael pronounced solemnly. "Dominion over the beasts. He argues from Genesis. Christian Ethics," he repeated when she looked at him blankly. "At school."
"Oh, that," she said. "Well, it doesn’t say kill the poor beasts. Or does it? Maybe one of those teachers is a gun nut."
Kristin had been raised in a Lutheran family. Although religiously inclined, she was a practical person who worked at maintaining her critical distance from dogmatic instruction, especially of the Roman variety. She concurred in Paul’s attendance at the Catholic school because, to her own rather conservative but independent thinking, the position of the Catholics of their college town had incorporated Luther’s reforms. Many Sundays she went to Mass with them. At Christmas they went to both churches.
"It’s him," Michael said. "It’s his funny little mind."
Kristin frowned and put her finger to her lips.
"His funny little mind," Michael whispered, chastened. "He thought it up."
"He always sees you going. Not that you ever get much."
"I get birds. But deer season . . ."
"Right," she said.
The circle of unspoken thought she closed was that Michael used the pheasant season as an excuse to walk the autumn fields around their house. With the dog and a shotgun borrowed from a colleague he would set out over the frosted brown prairie, scrambling under wire where the land was not posted, past thinly frozen ponds and rutted pastures, making his way from one wooded hill to another. It was a pleasure to walk the short autumn days, each knoll bright with yellowed alder, red-brown ash and flaming maple. And if the dog startled a pheasant into a headlong, clucking sacrificial dash, he might have a shot. Or not. Then, if he brought a bird down, he would have to pluck it, trying to soften the skin by heating it on the stove without quite letting it cook, picking out the shot with tweezers. Kristin refused to do it. Michael disliked the job and did not much care for pheasant. But you had to eat them. And in deer season, certain years, Michael would go out with a couple of friends from the university who were good shots and the kind of avid hunters he was not. He went for the canoe trip into the half-frozen swamp and the November woods under their first covering of snow. The silence there, in the deep woods they prowled, was broken by nothing but crows and stay-behind chanting sparrows and the occasional distant echo of firing. If they got lucky, there might be the call of an errant Canadian wolf at night. And there were the winter birds, grosbeaks, juncos, eagles gliding silent above the tree line. And the savor of a good whiskey around the potbellied stove of the cabin they used as field headquarters. Killing deer was not the object for him.
Kristin, though she had grown up on her family’s farm, forever borrowing her male relations’ jackets with pockets full of jerky, tobacco plugs and bright red shotgun shells, mildly disapproved of hunting. At first, she had objected to Michael’s going. He was nearsighted, a daydreamer.
"You shouldn’t carry a weapon if you don’t intend to take a deer."
"I don’t shoot seriously."
"But you shouldn’t shoot at all. It’s worse if you wound one."
"I hardly ever discharge the piece, Kristin."
But a man had to carry one, in the deep woods, in winter. It was sinister, suspicious to encounter someone in the forest without a gun. Farmers who welcomed hunters on their land in season looked fearfully on unarmed strollers, trespassing. And sometimes, if he was standing with the others and a band of deer came in view and everyone let go, he would take his shot with the rest of them. He had never claimed one.
From the living room next to Kristin’s study, their black Labrador gave up his place beside the fire and trotted over for attention. Olaf had been Paul’s Christmas puppy six years before and served as Michael’s shooting companion every fall. Michael bent to scratch his neck.
Kristin put her papers aside.
"Christian ethics," she said, as though she were weighing their general usefulness. "I don’t think Genesis likes hunter-gatherers much. I think it favors the shepherds."
"I must look it up. You always learn something, right? Reading Genesis."
Early the next morning, two of Michael’s colleagues from State came by in a Jeep Cherokee. Kristin served them coffee and handed out bagged sandwiches to take along.
Alvin Mahoney, a tall, balding historian with a rosy drinker’s face, presented Michael with his hunting piece.
"Remember this? Remington twelve-gauge?"
Michael jammed three deer slugs into the magazine and pumped them forward to get the feel of the gun.
"You can put six in there," Mahoney reminded him. "Only if you do - remember they’re there."
"Yep." Michael lowered the shotgun, unloaded it and stuffed the shells in his jacket pocket.
The third hunter was a sociologist named Norman Cevic, whom students liked to think of as coming from New York, though he was actually from Iron Falls, a tough little smelter town on the lake not far away. Norman did his best to affect a streetwise quality for the small-town adolescents at the university. He was about the same age as Mahoney, twenty years older than Michael, though he seemed younger.
"Norm went out opening day," Mahoney said. "Straight out of the shotgun. So to speak."
"Wasn’t it a zoo out there?" Kristin asked. "I mean humanwise?"
"Not if you know the territory," Norman said. "I didn’t see a soul."
"You took the canoe?" Michael asked.
"Sure." Norman Cevic had a gravelly voice that amused the students. "Had to use it to get in there. Didn’t see a soul," he told them again.
No one said anything. Paul was lurking in the kitchen doorway in his bathrobe. Norman took a sip of coffee.
"Except," he said, "Hmongs. I saw some Hmongs in the distance. Probably walked all the way in there. No snow yet."
"They need the meat," Kristin said. "They live on it."
"Roots," Norman said. "Winter greens. Squirrel. Raccoon."
"How did you know they were Hmongs?" Paul asked from his half- concealment.
"Good question," Norman said. "Smart kid. We should take him hunting next year. Want to know how?"
Paul looked to his father, then nodded.
"How I knew they were Hmongs," Norman declared, as though it were the title of a lecture. He had been cradling a Mossberg thirty-thirty in one arm while he drank his coffee. Now he put the cup down and let the rifle slip through his fingers until he was holding it by the tip of the barrel just short of the end sight. "Because," he told Paul, "they carried their weapons by the end of the barrel. Sort of trailing the stock."
"Huh," said Alvin Mahoney.
"Which is how they carried them in Vietnam. And Hmongs are very numerous in Iron Falls. So," he said, addressing himself to young Paul, "when I see a man in deep woods carrying a rifle that way I presume he’s a Hmong. Does that answer your question, my friend?"
"Yes sir," Paul said.
"Hmongs are a tribal people in Vietnam and Laos," Norman told Paul. "Do you know where Vietnam is? Do you know what happened there?"
Paul was silent for a moment and then said, "Yes. I think so. A little."
"Good," said Norman. "Then you know more than three quarters of our student body."
"Mr. Cevic was in Vietnam during the war," Kristin told her son. She turned to Norman, whom she rather admired. "How long was it that you spent there?"
"A year. All day, every day. And all night too." Just before they left the telephone rang. From his wife’s tone, Michael knew it was his teaching assistant, Phyllis Strom. Descended from prairie sodbusters, Kristin did not always trouble to enliven her voice when addressing strangers and people she disliked. She had a way of sounding very bleak indeed, and that was how she sounded then, impatiently accumulating Phyllis’s information.
"Phyllis," she sternly announced. "Says she may not be able to monitor midterms on Thursday. Wonders if you’ll be back?" There was an edge of unsympathetic mimicry.
Michael made a face. "Phyllis," he said. "Phyllis, fair and useless." In fact, he felt sorry for the kid. She was engagingly shy and frightened of Kristin.
"I told her you’d left," his wife told him. "She’ll call back." The new and rigorously enforced regulations required chastity in student-faculty collaborations, but Kristin was not reassured. She imagined that her anxieties about Phyllis were a dark, close secret.
"Do I really have to come back for this?" Michael said as they went out to the car. "I’ll call you from Ehrlich’s tomorrow night after six."
They drove past dun farm fields, toward the huge wooded marshes that lined the Three Rivers where their narrow valleys conjoined. In about four and a half hours they passed Ehrlich’s, a sprawling pseudo-Alpine bierstube and restaurant.
"I want to go on to the Hunter’s," Michael said.
"The food’s not as good," Mahoney said mildly.
"True," said Michael. "But Hunter’s sells an Irish single malt called Willoughby’s on their retail side. Only place they sell the stuff west of Minneapolis. And I want to buy a bottle for us to drink tonight."
"Ah," Mahoney said. "Sheer bliss."
On his tongue, the phrase could only be ironic, Michael thought. Bliss was unavailable to Mahoney. It was simply not there for him, though Michael was sure he’d like the Willoughby’s well enough. But for me, Michael thought, bliss is still a possibility. He imagined himself as still capable of experiencing it, a few measures, a few seconds at a time. No need of fancy whiskey, the real thing. He felt certain of it.
"How’s Kristin?" Norman asked Michael.
"How do you mean, Norm? You just talked to her."
"Has she seen Phyllis Strom this term?"
"Oh, come on," Michael said. "Think she’s jealous of little Phyllis? Kris could swallow Phyllis Strom with a glass of water."
Norman laughed. "Let me level with you, buddy. I’m scared to death of Kristin. Fire and ice, man."
Mind your business, he thought. Cevic had appointed himself sociologist to the north country. In fact, Michael thought, at home the ice might be almost imperceptibly thickening. Kristin had taken to rhapsodizing more and more about her father, upon whose forge her elegantly shaped, unbending angles had been hammered. The god in the iron mask, mediator of manhood and its measure. Still alive under the granite. A man might well dread his own shortcomings in that shadow.
"Smartest move I ever made," said Michael, "marrying that girl. Definitely sleep nights."
Perhaps, he thought, that had not been the best way to phrase it, for Cevic the curious and curiously minded.
The landscape grew more wooded as they approached Mahoney’s cabin, where they planned to spend the night. Farm fields gave way to sunken meadows lined with bare oak and pine forest. Thirty miles along they came to the Hunter’s Supper Club, a diner in blue aluminum and silver chrome. Incongruously attached to the diner, extending from it, was a building of treated pine logs with a varnished door of its own. At eye level on the door was the building’s single window, a diamond-shaped spy hole, double-glazed and tinted green. A hand-painted sign the length of the roof read "Souvenirs Tagging Station."
They parked beside the half-dozen battered cars in the lot and walked across
the sandy, resin-scalded ground and into the metal diner.