By Tim Wynne-Jones
There is over two feet of fresh snow outside, a veritable winter wonderland. Having effectively missed winter last year on the road in Europe, it’s good to have a really Canadian Christmas-card type holiday. When the snow was not quite so thick on the ground two weekends ago, my wife, Amanda, and a friend of hers walked deep into our property down the old logging road, across the wild meadow out to the far pasture along the old railroad bed, where there are ramshackle barns caving in a little more each year. In the freshly fallen snow Amanda noticed vehicle tracks leading into the bush and followed them to a sturdy tower, newly constructed.
On our land.
Her friend knew exactly what it was: a bow-hunter’s blind.
Every year during the deer cull, hunters ask if they may hunt on our acreage, and every year we say no. We made an exception for one gentleman down the road, for reasons I won’t go into here; a whole other story, as they say. But we had only meant that he could hunt for the one week of deer hunting in November, not build a tower, for goodness sake. If in fact, it was his doing. We felt as if we’d been duped. Taken advantage of. We were gearing up for full-fledged indignation.
Sunday morning, getting up our courage, we drove to the fellow’s house to beard the hunter in his lair, as it were. I hate confrontations of any kind, especially the kind where I feel out of my element: a city dude living in the country having to challenge a died-in-the-wool good old boy. A large good old boy. But we did it. And he was courteous and remorseful without making a big show of it. He admitted he should have told us. Said that bow hunting season finished up at the end of the December, that the tower came apart easily and he would get it out of there right away, if we liked. He was so nice about the whole business that we said it was all right to leave it until the thirty-first. And with handshakes, we said our goodbyes, glad that it had gone so smoothly.
Mostly I had been afraid that with any kind of aggressiveness on his part, any reluctance, I might have lost my composure and become righteously snippy, or worse, babbled incoherently, my voice quavering into its upper register, and come off looking like a real goof. It’s happened before. I do red-in-the-face resentment really badly. But it didn’t go down like that and we put the incident behind us. An interesting anecdote to tell our city friends.
Yesterday afternoon, the twenty-sixth, as we were preparing for our annual Boxing Day extended family dinner party, the hunter came around to wish us a happy holiday. As I mentioned, he’s a big man; filled the entrance hall. He was dressed in camo gear. He wanted to explain that with the snow now so deep he might have to leave the tower up until he could get a vehicle back in there, if that was all right with us. Noting his clothing, I said it was okay once he had assured me that he wouldn’t be using it for hunting any more. He shook his head, looked down.
“No, we’re finished,” he said, with a finality that I didn’t at the moment understand. We shook hands again but as he turned to go, I sensed that there was more he wanted to say. He looked thoughtful, stopped with his hand on the door handle. Then he turned and what he said was the last thing I would have expected.
“You see, my son has cancer.”
I made one of those sounds that isn’t quite a word; several syllables but no consonants to give it any shape. An inarticulate outpouring of surprise and sympathy. He nodded, held up his hand. He wasn’t looking for sympathy.
“He’s thirty-three, eh. And he’d just… he’d kinda hoped, just once, to actually bag a deer.”
“But no luck?”
He shook his head.
There was nothing to say that would have made much more sense than the shocked and shapeless utterance I’d produced before.
“Anyway, thanks for understanding,” he said. I muttered something about how horrible it must be for them, how sorry I was. He told me a little about the prognosis. We shook hands again and I wished him a good new year, though from what he’d told me, it wasn’t going to be.
How does a story like this end? It is a sad story at a time of the year when sadness is determinedly pushed aside, and yet I don’t want to push this aside. The part of me that wants a story to fold into meaning, somehow, spent a long time searching out the meaning of what we call Boxing Day in Canada. Apparently, it started as an old English tradition of putting a metal alms box outside the church on the day after Christmas for folks to make a special offering to the poor in the name of Saint Stephen. I looked up Saint Stephen, wondered if the lyrics to Good King Wenceslas might have a verse I could borrow from to bring my story around to some tidy conclusion. Nothing. Apart from the obvious pathos of the hunter’s story, there is something in it about always needing to know more, to push through stereotypes and displace an all too easy impression with another more vivid and more human perception, some moment of insight. I wanted the solace of that.
Later that evening, after our dinner guests had gone and we were cleaning up, someone saw deer at the compost in the garden happily enjoying a midnight snack of leftover sweet potato, cranberries, red cabbage. And watching them, I found myself thinking inevitably of that tower, empty now, on the other side of the dark woods and these two men, a father and son, who had silently been looking out over the bush. Silent, because they were hunters. Silent, because there was nothing to say.