In the worst of the Super 8 images he calls memories, in the one that haunts his dreams, he sees his brother Gage leap into the cab of a battered Ford pickup truck, swoop down on the glove box like a hawk, and knock open the compartment door. Gutting its insides.
Out it comes. All of it. A dog-eared map…a clump of Kleenex…a Buck knife…the crumpled letter addressed to their old man from the woman he barely knew, the bar skank Gage had, for months, mistakenly believed to be his own.
He sees the box of shells tipping over, spilling onto the floorboards, Gage snatching up two of the fat green loads, and hauling down the twelve gauge from the window rack.
He looks on helplessly as Gage leaps out of the truck cab, boots hitting the gravel with a thud. Turning and kicking the door shut with his heel.
Their Uncle Ed’s Fourth-of-July backyard barbecue and family reunion is in full swing when this bleak but comic opera begins. As festive as the fireworks that are certain to come when the sun goes down. As colorful as the bunting strung across the courthouse miles away in town.
Shouts of laughter ripple through the late afternoon heat, and the air is swollen with expectation. Gage knows this, and figures to give the unsuspecting crowd everything they want. Standing beside the pickup, he breaches the receiver and chambers both rounds. Then he stomps off in a storm of hatred, rounding the east side of their uncle’s farmhouse and hurrying into the cornfield that lies beyond.
He walks purposefully. Menacingly. Eyes darting like sparrows lighting from a naked branch. He passes into the world of loam and chaff searching for their father, whose blood he intends to shed.
A few hundred feet into the field with the leafy green husks scraping against his arms like paper, he pulls up, listening. But the sound of his own breath is all he hears.
When he hunted birds he always noted the disposition of the wind. The surrounding cover and natural breaks into which they might seek refuge. But that wasn’t necessary here. Their father isn’t about to fly. The old man, who wants this as badly as he does, is already working the field from the opposite direction, his blood up, his thirst for satisfaction insatiable.
Gage steps forward into the next row over, shouldering his way through a tall stand of corn where he pauses, silently, and waits. When he sees the old man’s black boot emerge through the thick green stalks, planting itself in the dust like some new kind of crop, his heart slams against the bones of his ribs.
The old man materializes like an apparition. Takes shape from the wavering heat like one more ghost come to trouble joy in their lives. He holds his own twelve-gauge at port arms, and smiles as if their meeting were some private joke arranged for his pleasure.
“Little different without a dog, ain’t it?” he snarls, his face erupting in a chilling grin.
“Shut up!” Gage snaps.
The old man laughs like a bawdy pirate. The nightmare who visits whimpering children in their sleep. He stands forward and spreads his legs. “Ten paces?”
They come at one another hard and unforgiving, putting their backs to the hatred that lies between them. Holding it up like mismatched bookends.
“You’d better not miss,” Earl goads.
“Don’t worry. I won’t.”
Gage can feel the old man’s back against his own, hot and sweating. He can hear the cicadas singing in the leaves. There is an unbearable stricture to the air, a stifling humidity, and somewhere in this wave of crawling heat his brother swears he’ll see their father in his grave.
They pace the distance off.
One. One for the lies they’d harbored in their hearts.
Two. Two for the two-timing bitch who’d cuckolded them.
Three. Three for….
At ten, Gage spins, dips to one knee and slaps the trigger, remembering to come across hard in the event a corn stalk should get in his way.
Earl stands where he is and returns the volley.
The reports come down, one on top of one another, so close in time each could be the echo of the other. They explode in the mote-filled air. Shatter the sky.
Gage staggers backward as a flower of bright red gore blossoms from their father’s chest, dragging the old bastard to the ground. Down into the furrow. Down to the doorstep of a cold, black, pitiless eternity. In the same instant, the pellets from the old man’s load drive into Gage’s face and neck, knocking him sideways in a clownish spin. Pirouetting through the stalks over a mound of loamy earth.
The sky turns circles over Gage’s head, and a brief darkness overtakes him and he falls to the ground. A full ten seconds pass before his sight returns and he realizes he isn’t yet dead.
He waits for Earl to walk up and finish him.
But Earl doesn’t come.
A cloud of cordite hangs in the air and the field is eerily silent until somewhere in the distance, from the backyard filled with the ghostly echoes of familiar voices, comes the sound of a gathering storm.
Women are shouting out the names of their children. Calling, hollering, and at last, when all else fails, screaming. Everything is chaos. Shrieking pandemonium. In a few moments they’ll all see the blue gunsmoke rise over the yellow tassels, drifting lazily into the sky, and when they do they’ll charge into the field, out of their minds with fear.
But Gage doesn’t wait for them.
He staggers to his feet and picks up his shotgun. Looks down the cornrow and sees the old man sprawled out on the ground, the shoulder strap of his freshly-washed coveralls shot away. His white t-shirt splattered with blood.
He breaks open the receiver, plucks the spent shell from the barrel, and drops it into the dust. Then he turns and staggers back to the pickup truck where he slumps against the bumper, his own life spilling out onto the gravel.
Their Aunt May is the first to catch sight of him, and she runs and kneels at his side. “Gage!” she cries, her eyes widening in horror when she sees the damage done to his once beautiful face. “What happened! My God, what happened!”
“I shot him,” Gage mumbles.
“Shot who?” she wails, laying her fingers delicately, hesitantly, upon his blood-spattered cheek.
“The old man.”
She looks frantically in the direction of the cornfield. Then down at Gage, whose eyes are closed.
“It’s finished!” he moans, clutching her arm. “He’s dead.”
Aunt May pulls away, out of her mind with fright. She takes a half step toward the cornfield as if she might go looking for Earl’s bloody corpse. But Gage catches her sleeve again, and yanks it. “Don’t,” he says. “Let the bastard bleed.”
Other women rush forward, clutching their skirts, squeezing in on all sides, clamoring to know what happened, and in the midst of this awful commotion a massive hand divides their ranks. Like God separating the earth and skies. The hand belongs to his Uncle Ed, who bulls his way into the midst of them, demanding, “What! What the hell’s going on here!”
“I shot Earl,” Gage sputters.
Uncle Ed fixes on him with a crazed, disbelieving look. “Shot him? Shot him where?”
Gage grins, teeth bloody. Stares the balding man through half-lidded eyes, as if he’s looking into the painted face of the woman who betrayed him. “In the heart, you stupid sonofabitch.”
The younger brother always bolts up in bed at this point, drenched in a feverish sweat. It happens every evening, like clockwork. He rifles up, chest heaving, and attempts to sooth his nerves by insisting it’s just a dream. But the comfort of the words never lasts because across the room, bathed in the cold light of a hunter’s moon, rests his brother’s empty bunk.
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"Hunter's Moon" first appeared in Chicago Literati.