In my Dad’s house there are many trophies and mounts. The oldest is a mount passed down from my great grandad, Howard. That’s my Dad’s, Dad’s, Dad. There are a pair of pheasants mounted to drift wood, frozen in the first moments of flight, along with a few ducks, similarly stuffed and nailed down to pieces of driftwood. There are two mountain goat heads, a mule deer whose stare is unshakable and two more sets of mounted antlers—these with brazen skulls, bleached white. There are plaques of achievement, photos of mountains conquered, memories of success and tokens of attainment to wealth and reputation. But there is one trophy missing— its absence is marked by the blank spot on an antique wooden crest. It looks as if a work of art had been removed from a dusty wall, leaving behind a clean flat emptiness. The empty mount hangs on a wall where people hardly ever look. It doesn’t draw much attention to itself because, let’s face it, there’s nothing there to look at. But if you ever saw it, you would know what it feels like to look into a black hole. That feeling you get in the forest at night, when there are no stars and the last flame of the lantern flickers out. It is the abyss that floods into that moment, making your own hand invisible, though it’s right in front of your nose. Yes, it’s a black hole. And like those cosmic whirlpools, the empty mount sucks you and everything else into its crushing center. But instead of a collapsed star beyond this event horizon, there is a collapsed heart, a crushed spirit, a vacuum where the soul once lived.
Though grandad Delwyn only died a few years ago, I think my Father has always been fatherless. I have often thought maybe that’s why he is so inattentive to his own children. Maybe it started with great grandad Howard, a wealthy man who frequented the speakeasies that dotted Tacoma in those prohibition days. He was apparently also the type of man who consorted with women much younger than himself. And that’s how, somehow, my grandad Dell was adopted into the gene pool—under less-than-forthright circumstances. So was great grandad some kind of womanizer? Or did my great grandfather only shoulder the poor reputations of others, whose brokenness was too heavy for them to carry? I’m not quite sure what to believe. Honestly, I may never know whether it is adulterous half-blood or unsung virtue pulsing through my veins; pulsing through my Father’s veins. This is because the gleam of brass cups is not the only thing refracting through the halls of my Father’s house. There are also memories of joy, echoes of adventure, and an undeniable kinship with the forest and the rivers and the creatures that dart among the ferns. My Father’s house is bristling with life. He introduced me to the trees, the lungs of the earth, blowing wild and free in the wind. And he acquainted me with the animals, in dirt and water, whose untamed footfalls often syncopate with the beating of my own heart.
When I was a boy, my Dad would take me hunting. I cannot remember if it happened many times or only once. But in my heart it is always happening. He would give me a gun and guide me for a few miles. Then would come that unbearable moment; the time to part ways.
“You take that ridge and I’ll come around this one,” he would whisper, “We’ll meet on the other side.” So he would go his way, and I would go mine. In the years that followed I have asked him what it was like to be in the forest alone, to be near the end of the hunt, closing in for the kill. Dad called it “buck fever”. Your hands get sweaty and your adrenaline pumps. You’ve got to be careful not to get too shaky. Otherwise you could throw off your aim and miss your target all together. It always sounded exhilarating when he would describe a successful hunt. The listening for hooves, chasing them through hollows, creeping closer to the crest of the hill to get a clear shot. And after the trigger is pulled, the loud crack of the gun echoes awhile. The animal flops down. The gutting. Blood is unavoidable. Then the haul out, followed by the campfire stories and the euphoric drive home. The taxidermist or the bleach will get the nitty-gritty work done. Then on the wall it goes, a marker for memories. For my Dad, it was all a grand adventure, like having the most exciting dream ever, then waking to discover your dream has come true! Later he quoted Neil Young, saying that that dream was like a memory looking for a place to stay. And he was always eager to give those memories a home on his wall. They help keep the thrill of the chase alive. But nightmares may find shelter in the shadows cast by dreams unnaturally preserved.
For me, taking my ridge was like taking a deep breath and then holding it for hours. At first I relished the sound of the breeze. My eyes would dart expectantly between the trees. I would find a bluff with a beautiful view, or maybe a gully with gorgeous ferns and moss-covered trees. But slowly the thickets would become too thick. My eyes began looking for fearful things. The noises between bushes became terrifying to me. Eventually, when I could stand it no more, like a dreamer remembering to pinch himself, I would remember the assurances my Father had made.
“Just whistle and I’ll come to you.” So I would whistle. But my Dad would not come. I would whistle again as I walked along. No sight of my Father in the wilderness. Then I would start reminding myself of the other things he said.
“You’ve got a gun. You’re the most dangerous thing in this forest.” But my Dad’s words fell flat even as I recited them to myself over and over again. Alone in the woods there is one thing more grizzly than a grizzly bear, more ghostly than a mountain lion, and more piercing than a bullet. The most dangerous thing in the forest alone is one’s own imagination. And that’s when I would abandon the hunt to find my Dad. Just a glimmer from his sunglasses, or an echo of his trademark “yoohoo” whistle would have calmed my nerves. So I would whistle and whistle until my lips were chapped. I would put two fingers in my mouth to do the really loud kind of whistle, trying to drown out the terrifying noises that filled my mind! But my Dad was nowhere in sight. He must be near enough to hear me. No response. Why doesn’t he answer? No reply. Why not a whistle to let me know he’s near? Silence. Has he abandoned me for the hunt?
One time, in a panic, I almost shot a black cow ranging in the mountains, because my mind transformed it into an enormous bruin rummaging in the sage brush. My Dad had a similar experience as a child. His dad instructed him to take his ridge alone, in search of a wounded black bear. The only difference between him and me, is that while he said “No” with his lips, I only knew how to say it with my eyes. So off we went. Every creak of a branch or flutter of a bird became the throat-clearing of a demon to me, or the charging fury of some beast I couldn’t see. Finally, as my nerves became worn to their ragged edges, my Dad would step out from behind a tree. How did he get so close without signaling his approach? No mention of what took him so long. No assurance that he had heard my signal and changed course. No discussion or acknowledgement of the dark cloud enveloping my head. My Dad never could read my eyes. I don’t think he ever tried. His eyes were fixed on the prize. His heart, consumed by a passion to fill that empty mount in that forgotten corner of his house.
For my part, I learned to ignore the empty mount. I avoided that corner, visited that house less and less often, and eventually forgot the shape of that wooden crest. By the time I moved out, I thought I had rid myself of the hunt forever. But like a man with split personalities, I didn’t even realize it when I stole that empty mount for myself, and with it, the unquenchable desire to make the shot, get the kill, and hang its head on my wall. When I became a man, I hung it in my own room, in my own apartment, in my own city. In secret, I sought to fill it with a very different kind of trophy. The empty space my Dad tried to fill with flesh and bone and fur, I endeavored to fill with faith and Bibles and fiery passion. I filled my house with the commendations of holy men. I covered my walls with scripture, penned by saints with unshakeable eyes. Spirit-filled memories, I nailed down to the pages of my journal. Dreamy images of brazen altars filled my heart as I tried and tried to bleach it white. But like my dad I could never seem to find the right prize. No matter how many dreams came true, none of them rang true. No tribute was adequate to fill that empty mount. Nothing fit its peculiar shape. I had become a hunter, like my Dad. Although, it wasn’t all bad. Like my Father, I found myself at one with the wild. Like him, I was endowed with a nobility worth mentioning. But like my Dad and his Dad, and his Dad before him, I couldn’t quite shake the suspicion that the loathsome rumors about me were true.
Perhaps it was that sneaking suspicion that sparked the fire. Or perhaps it was the spark that ignited my doubt. I can’t be quite sure when or where the match was lit, but when I turned the corner on a quarter century, the flames came into full view. The inferno was undeniable. Onlookers shielded their eyes. Neighbors stepped back from the heat. The authorities sounded the siren, but help was still a long way off.
I could hear the shattering windows, like the pop of a gunshot in the wilderness. I would never look out through those tinted panes again. I could see the crumbling studs, engulfed in raging red torrents. I would never walk safely through those halls again. I watched as the smoke lifted shingles into the sky. In my mind they are still frozen there, in the first moments of flight. In the crackle of the flames I heard the cackle of hell,
“No more hiding away like a hermit in your house. Exposed to the elements, you’re a vagrant now.”
As the walls disintegrated, and all became ash, I realized my trophies were gone forever. Nothing but black and white, hot and dry. A naked foundation is all that was left. But in the midst of my horror and shock, I have to admit, there was very little surprising about these events. I had stashed a carton of sin-marked matches. I had stowed away tinder in a box labelled lust. I had stuffed the walls of my house with sheep’s wool, and lived there as a wolf in stolen garments. I can only imagine how a wolf might feel at the sight of his forest ablaze. As the lungs of the earth shrivel and suffocate, wrapped in ribbons of furious flame, and light incarnate devours the stubble, what can a wolf do but run or die, or both? If only a wolf could bury himself, taking shelter under the earth. If I could have, I would have called on the mountains to cover me. But all I could do was stand still like a deer in the headlights. I let the tongues of fire hypnotize me like the lamps of an oncoming truck. They drew me in and swallowed me whole like a collapsing star, caving in so that not even light escapes. I died that day. A shot rang out. The animal flopped to the ground. Blood was unavoidable.
There is always something left when a forest fire passes. Fertile soil. With my Father’s help I have been rebuilding my home. This time with no wool in the walls. I have sometimes caught myself looking for that empty mount. I have to empty my tinderbox frequently. I am flushing down books of matches daily. But then I look at my Dad and I remember, neither of us were ever able to catch that uncatchable quarry. I think that’s because we were both looking for a Father who just won’t fit the mounts we make for him. God forbid that I ever hang that curse in my house again. I have abandoned the hunt for the sake of the Father I’ve found. Let me never again go chasing ghosts. May I never again find a flammable trophy in my cross-hairs. Father prevent me from taking to the ridges for the rush of buck fever. When my hands get shaky and my adrenaline pumps, slow me down and bring me back to the ground. Plant my feet, like roots in the soil. Teach me to breathe deep like the trees do. I am grateful to have a Father who helps me rebuild. More than that, he has abandoned the hunt to find me.
My Dad’s house continues to fill up with trophies. That dark corner remains a black hole. He is getting older these days. With an injured knee and gray hair, I wonder if he could survive a fire like mine. Though I found freedom among the flames, dare I wish it on him? It’s not for me to wish in that direction anyway. My Father is a hunter. He will catch his quarry someday. I think he would prefer to whistle, but I cannot put it past him to burn the forest down, for the sake of the son he loves. He did it for me, but I was not the first, nor will I be the last child lost and frightened in the forest alone.