Eric Barnes: Grouse Country (Fiction)

The trees and brush ahead of us would come slow then fast then a blur.  The road was like the bottom of a deep canal, the high trees the walls of the oncoming dark corridor.  The old VW bounced hard on the narrow, dirt path, branches and leaves scraping against the hood and doors and sometimes catching inside the windows, the engine’s easy drone echoing back from the woods. 

We were forty miles into the forest, seventy from the nearest town, one hundred and twenty from Tacoma.  And it was like I could feel every mile of that distance.  Could look around, could feel the air, and knew how separate we were.

Kyle kept the car at about thirty-five, the Bug vibrating and shaking from the engine and from the pits and bumps in the road.  The air poured in through the windows, swirling wet and cool across my arms, pushing lightly against my face.  Rain from the night still covered the forest, the water seeming to spread the green.  Green so dark it was black, green so bright it glowed.

I leaned my head and chest out the window, raising my body part-way into the wind and the passing leaves and I looked up at the thin band of blue sky above the road.  Blue between the tops of trees moving slow and fast. 

So blue.

Back in Tacoma, there were also cool, wet winds and branches and brush and green.  But it wasn’t at all the same.

We drove on a logging road somewhere in the valley of the Cispus and Cowlitz Rivers.  Down to the southwest was Mount St. Helens, far up to the northeast was Mount Rainier.  Kyle and I were at the Cispus camping for a few days.  We were sixteen.

I dropped from the window, falling back into my seat.  Something wet and soft glanced off my shoulder.  I raised my arm to block my face, grabbed a branch from near my feet and threw it at Kyle, hitting him in the ear, water and dirt splashing across his hair. 

Kyle and I had been taking branches and dirt and wood that had somehow gathered in the car over the past few days and were throwing them at each other.  It’d been going on for about fifteen minutes. 

Kyle grabbed the branch and flung it back at me, hitting me in the mouth, then threw a handful of leaves at me.

I found an old newspaper and threw it at him.  Kyle had been looking at the road and couldn’t block the paper.  It covered his face, the sheets rattling loudly in the wind.

“Bastard,” I could barely hear him yelling.  “Bastard.” 

Kyle threw the paper back at me and it covered my eyes.

“Oh no,” I heard Kyle say.

“What?” I said, not able to see him or the road, still struggling to push the paper from my face.  Finally, the paper flew into the back seat and I saw a mud puddle wider than the road and nine car lengths long.  A cupcake bounced off my cheek.  “Big puddle,” I said.

Kyle yelled, “Truce Brian, truce,” and I stopped myself from throwing the handful of dirt I was holding, Kyle pressing hard on the gas pedal and down-shifting to speed up the car.  He was leaning forward, both hands on the wheel, staring at the puddle, his dark hair blowing off his face and eyes, the point of his jaw working steadily, teeth gnawing so slightly.  The engine was whining and I looked at Kyle and yelled, “No truce, no truce,” as the car hit the puddle.  I launched the dirt and two branches at him as the Bug slowed in a wave of brown water, the entire puddle seeming to pour over the hood, water spraying past the open windows, barely touching the insides of the doors.  I threw a handful of small pebbles I had gathered in my lap and the front of the car was veering slightly to the left.  The pebbles slapped against the windshield and Kyle’s arm and face and the car was turning a little more, more, so that now the wave was pouring through my window.  The water covered my ear and neck and shoulder and
I had to lean against Kyle to get away from it, steam spreading across the inside of the windshield and Kyle with one arm pushing me back toward my seat.

We reached the far shore of the puddle, the car shooting toward the left side of the road.  Kyle was yelling, “Oh no oh no oh no,” braking hard, the tires grinding loud as we slid across the dirt and rocks.  We bumped head-on into a tree and I smacked my forehead against the windshield, fell back into the water on my seat.

Kyle was hitting his hand against the steering wheel and laughing without making any noise.  I was laughing and holding onto the dashboard and door to keep myself above the water on my seat.  Half an inch of it, brown, covered the metal floor.  My arms were wet and my damp shirt clung to my side.

“Bastard,” I said, still laughing.  The engine had stopped and I could hear my voice echoing in the woods.  “You turned the car, didn’t you?” I said.  “In the puddle, so the water would come through my window.  You planned that didn’t you?”

Kyle rocked in his seat, forward and back, his hair falling across his face, laughing.  “Yes,” he said, beginning to laugh harder and more quietly.  “But I didn’t think it would work.” 

I was still holding myself in the air, clinging to the dashboard and door.  I leaned against Kyle’s head, pressing hard on it with my hand as I picked up a handful of leaves from the back seat, wiping off my face and then my seat.

“Oh my god,” Kyle said, looking at me, the laughing starting again.  “You’re bleeding.”

I put my hand to my forehead.  Blood covered the ends of two fingers and Kyle laughed harder.  I found a dry leaf and held it to my head, sitting back now in my seat.

Kyle was still laughing.

I leaned out the window to see if we had put a dent in the car.  I could maybe see a small crease in the hood, but I wasn’t sure if it hadn’t already been there.

I heard Kyle drinking from a beer.  I turned.  He was looking out his window, staring at the bushes next to the car.  He had stopped laughing.  But, apparently, he had no intention of leaving yet. 

I found a bottle in the back seat.  The glass was cold against my lips and the beer was so cold it didn’t have any taste.

I stared at the tree in front of us, holding the leaf to my head.  The fir tree in front of us was extremely tall.  Even leaning forward in my seat, I couldn’t see its top through the windshield. 

“So now,” Kyle asked, his voice echoing quietly in the woods around us, “do we go grouse hunting?”

“I think we are grouse hunting,” I said.  I took a drink. 

A moment later, Kyle nodded.  “True,” he said.

He leaned his head against the side of the door, staring up into the trees above.  “Grouse hunting has always been a very difficult and precise process,” he said.   “A small, wild, undomesticated cousin of the chicken, the grouse is very smart.  It avoids all noise, almost never comes near the roads and, in most cases, ventures out only at dusk.” 

I drank again.  Kyle drank again.

“That’s why we hunt in a Volkswagen with a bad muffler,” he said, “combing the logging roads in the middle of the day.  Trick the enemy.  Be smarter than him.” 

I nodded.  Could hear the sound of my neck against my shirt collar as I moved.  Could hear wind in the trees.  Could hear water dripping from the sides of the car onto the damp ground below us.

“What is this place?” I asked.  “I mean, who owns this land?”

Kyle’s voice was distant.  His whole head was out of his window now.  He was looking at something above us.   “I don’t know,” he said.  “I’m sure it’s not a park,” he said, “and I’m fairly sure it’s okay for us to camp around here.”

I heard a clicking sound outside.  A bird, I thought.  Kyle maybe.

“The state?” Kyle asked, voice still far away.  “Maybe they own it.  Or the feds.” 

I drank again, the beer now tasting like something more than cold.  I pressed back in my seat, raising my feet to press them against the dashboard.  I was still holding the leaf to my head.  I moved it now, finding another dry spot and pressing again at the cut.

In a moment, I heard Kyle say, “Probably a logging company.”

“Yes,” I said.  Nodding.  Turning to look at him and hearing my voice in the woods.  “Probably a logging company.”

I saw a pint of bourbon in the water at my feet.  We’d been drinking from it the night before, on the drive out here.  I opened the wet bottle and swallowed, the whiskey warm and like smoke in my mouth and then very smoky, very warm and burning in my throat and chest. 

I took a drink of my beer, holding the wet bottle of bourbon out to Kyle.  It was a moment and he looked my way, saw the bottle, me.  He took a drink.

After another minute, he looked out the back window, then front windshield.  “Right,” he said.

The engine started, loud, and I moved the leaf, trying to find a new dry spot to press against my head.

Kyle slid the gearshift into reverse and backed us away from the tree.  He put the car in first gear and we started forward.

“We’re moving,” I said. 

“I’ve decided we’re not quite there yet,” Kyle said. 

I nodded.  The car was moving faster now, the trees forming a blurring tunnel again.  “Not quite where?” I asked.

Kyle’s voice drifted in the wind now moving through the car again.  I heard him say, “We haven’t found grouse country.”

A small white tree was bent across the road.  The Bug passed under it, branches scraping against the hood and windshield and then the thin trunk hitting the roof.  The car was up to speed, shaking and bouncing again.  The road turned and the trees were low and stood away from us, the corridor of forest opening.  Far ahead, I saw the dense green of a tall hill of fir trees, the slope leading down to the lake nearby. 

The road turned, the walls forming around us again.

“Grouse country is not a particular place,” I said, voice half lost to the sound of the driving car.  “It’s an uncommon mix of field and bushes and trees.  There’s got to be a feeling in the trees and bushes.”  I took a drink.  “It’s in the place and what you see in the place.” 

Kyle was nodding and down-shifting, thin body leaning forward, just slightly hunched over.  He looked at me, eyes colorless in the shadows of the forest.  “That’s pretty good,” he said. 

I leaned toward the open window and took a drink from the new beer, dropping the leaf now and seeing it fall, then catch in the air, swirling once with the wind and then out the window and gone.  The wind hit my face and twisted my hair, the beer heavy against my teeth, and I swallowed again and the drink was pushing farther through my mouth and neck, swallowed again and the heaviness spread and filled my chest.

We climbed along the river’s ridge.  Through the trees on my side I saw the Cowlitz a hundred yards below, the water blue and flowing and in some places shimmering with the sunlight.  Across the river I saw three deer along the bank, standing.  Above us in the band of blue, the sun was bright and through the branches and tree tops it laid patches of yellow on the road and reflected in flashes off the wet hood.  The flashes were bright and warm on my face, seeming to fill my mouth and nose and eyes.

“Someday we should drive to Alaska,” I heard Kyle say.  “Get work on a boat.  Drive back before winter.”

I nodded.  It seemed very far away.  I remembered I was with Kyle and it was okay to say these things.  I said, “It seems very far away.”

He turned to me, light flashing across his face as it broke through the leaves and branches.  He smiled some, turned back to the road.

I took a drink and a drop of beer fell from the edge of the bottle onto the door.  The drop slid toward the arm rest, riding along the water still covering the door, disappearing before it reached the handle.

“Not so far,” I heard Kyle say.  “A couple days.”

“Being eighteen,” I said.  “Leaving.  That’s what seems far away.”

He nodded, drinking from his beer, the other hand barely touching the wheel and the light now moving so fast, not rushed, just fast as it slid across the windshield, through the car, over both of us.

It was not so good at home, for either of us.  With bad jobs and the big silly school and with his mom the way she was and the way my dad was.

Kyle turned to me and smiled again.  “Not so far,” he said.

Getting hit was the least of it.  Eve though that’s the part you’d talk about, if you wanted some sympathy or if you were making a joke of it.  The worst parts you couldn’t describe.  Because you didn’t have words for meanness and sadness and not caring.  Those were words you’d figure out later.

My hand was out the window and it caught a wet, whole leaf, feeling smooth and cool in my fingers.  I held it, drinking from the whiskey, the label soft and wet and sliding across the glass, the whiskey smoky and burning on my tongue.  Bright light on the windshield, and in the sudden bursts I saw dust in the air and the reflection of my face in the glass. 

“Okay,” I said quietly.  “Okay.” 

“Not so far,” he said.

And I drank again, among the flashes, sudden light so close, the dust on the glass, the trees and road ahead and my face, my face there that I hadn’t seen in days, that I felt warm light against, light holding my jaw, pressing on my eyes, seeing the river to the side still bright and my hand out the window in the leaves, the road ahead and beside and behind, all moving slow then fast then a blur.

•    •    •

It seemed like there was music then.

And I was looking around the car and I could see flashing lights from the sunlight outside and the insides of the Bug’s very flat windows and it was like I was still remembering and couldn’t stop and in the reflection I could see Kyle’s face, in the driver’s seat, and I couldn’t remember how long Kyle had been there.  It’d been days, but I couldn’t remember that, even though I knew it, and I thought it was because of the music.  It’s the music and the lights and this small car, I thought, and I turned to Kyle and saw he had his eyes closed and his face was lifting to the ceiling and the music I thought I heard was getting louder, an approaching cloud around me.  And I felt myself swallow, watched Kyle and his face so stiff and hard, his head dropping slowly, mouth and eyes frozen shut, face falling and stopping only when he did open his eyes, when he had to look up at me at an angle, seeing me in the reflection of the windshield in front of us, and I saw the black-black pupils in white staring past the hard curves of his brow and Kyle, mouth open, lips barely touching as he formed words, said flatly and not that loudly but in a voice that carried through the music, “I’m getting drunk.”  And Kyle stared from just a few feet away, a distance doubled in the space of the reflection, and I reached and found an empty bottle, held the hard, smooth glass tightly, softness spinning in my mind, Kyle still staring without a blink, voice drained of any turn, “Took a while, Brian,” he said.  “I’m not drunk.  The acid just took awhile.”

The air was cool and good in my nose and mouth and I breathed deeper, took more in.  It was better now.  An hour later, and we only felt good.

We were seventeen, in the winter, out near the Cispus and Cowlitz Rivers.  Kyle and I had taken acid a few hours ago, driving the hard frozen roads in his old Bug, finally stopping now when Kyle said we needed to stop.  The car had slowed and I was turning to him wondering why and he was smiling slightly and his eyes were wide and he took his hands from the wheel.  “I think I need to take my hands from the wheel,” he said and we stopped.

I saw Kyle with his .22 now, walking a few feet to my left, standing.  The woods were very quiet and the ground was soft under my feet and the tops of the trees were a ceiling over us that let through only streaks of sunlight, light in the air around me and in front of me and beyond it all, close and far away, there were the trees in shadows, trees in bright light.  Forty miles into the forest, seventy miles from anywhere, grouse country, shimmering. 

Grouse hunting on acid was new, and not really a great idea, given the guns.  But we’d hardly ever shot the guns in four years of grouse hunting.  The guns were just so loud.  And we’d never shot a grouse.  Had only ever seen them from the car, darting from one side of the road to another.

It had always seemed more likely that we’d run one over.

We were walking through a dense line of trees now and came to a fallen fir.  It was five feet thick and was somehow held a few feet in the air and I was putting my gun on top of the tree, slowly climbing, the wood soft and wet even though the ground was frozen.  The damp and green and black moss covering the bark was breaking off under my hands and chest as I slid then rolled over the trunk.  I dropped to the soft ground on the other side, landing and bouncing and feeling very light.

I turned to look up at Kyle and he was whispering, “Wait.”

He was crouching some as he stood on the trunk.  He was pointing forward.  “Grouse,” he said.

I turned, stared into the woods.  There were few trees and little brush in the thirty yards in front of us, patches of sunlight on the ground, shining through the ceiling of branches.  At the edge of the thirty yards, where the trees were dense and shimmering hard, I thought I could see a bush moving slightly.

“Grouse?” I heard myself whisper.  “You saw it?”

“Yes,” Kyle said.

I crouched down, feeling myself breathing very carefully, feeling myself trying to make all my movements smooth and controlled.  I looked back at Kyle. 

He was smiling, starting to laugh very quietly.  He put his gun on the trunk.  He was trying to talk but couldn’t.  This went on for awhile.  Finally he put his hand across his face and looked at me, staring, eyes wide.  “I’ll flank left and take up a point at the end of this tree,” he said quickly.  “From my position I’ll then fire a volley of shots into the bush.  When it comes out,” he said, now looking at the bush, “I’ll shoot it.” 

I had to lean over, hands and knees on the ground, eyes wet.  Laughing.

After a long while I nodded.  I got to my feet, crouching.  I put bullets in the gun.  I checked that the safety was on, three times I checked.

I looked up at Kyle.  He started to move down the log.

“And remember,” he said, lifting his gun, “if it charges, stand your ground.  You cannot outrun it.”

I was back on my knees, eyes wet, trying to stop.  Breathless from it all.

When I finally looked up again, Kyle had made his way out to the end of the log.  I noticed again that it was suspended in the air and for a long time I wondered how.  Then I put my hand across my face and started to walk forward, crouching, watching the bush.  The bush was not moving and I thought maybe the grouse had run away. 

I was wanting a last sip but didn’t have a beer.  I was wanting that taste that gives you focus, the last cold, clean drink that finishes it all, sets you on even. 

I kneeled in the damp needles, brown and green under me, the smell sweet and pine, and I raised the gun to my shoulder.  I was in a spot of sunlight and things outside the light were much darker than before and there was dust floating in the bright air around me.  I turned to look at Kyle, saw his rifle was raised, and I turned back to the bush, could hear myself breathing and could feel the wood stock of the gun cool and smooth against my face. 

I squeezed the trigger twice, the shots so loud and the gun twice kicking lightly against my shoulder.  A round brown animal was running from the bush.  I swung my rifle and could hear the crack of Kyle’s gun and I squeezed the trigger twice again, the rifle kicking against my shoulder. 

I saw the grouse fall. 

“Oh my god,” I said loudly.

I lowered the gun, my ears ringing, an echo of the shots still disappearing into the woods.  I walked to the grouse, was standing above it and watching its legs and wings jerk, seeing it again and again try to stand.

It was a fairly horrible thing to watch.  I stood wincing, staring, the bird jerking, jerking, blood flying off it as it moved, spraying small drops across the needles in the forest. 

There was a shot and I looked and was realizing Kyle was next to me and he’d shot the bird and killed it.

We drove more then, and I tried not to think much about the grouse.

We talked and it was hard.  Not what we talked about, but the words, making sentences, forming sounds from the thoughts moving so quickly in our minds.  Acid took away your speech, which was okay, just different, and there was so much else going on anyway.

I can’t remember a lot of what we said.  But it was good and I liked Kyle and it didn’t matter that we couldn’t remember what we said.

I looked at Kyle then, it seemed like a few minutes after he’d spoken.  I looked at him because I’d realized something.  It was gone already, lost in flashing lights of cold sunlight through the windows, of cold air in the car, but I’d realized something.

I remembered I hadn’t answered a question.  It wasn’t what I’d realized, but I’d remembered that I was supposed to answer a question.  “I don’t know,” I said to Kyle.

The car followed the hard narrow road to the left, sliding some on the gravel, and we were only driving these roads, not sure where we exactly were, but we drove, the car downshifting on a hill, following a curve, the deepest green, still rising along the road, through trees, trees.

The road opened onto a clear cut.  A few square miles without anything.  Only black, burnt stumps and branches. 

The car was slowing.  I think I knew it before Kyle.  He was leaning forward, over the wheel, staring out, eyes moving across it all.  He’d shut off the engine, or it had died, and we were nearly stopped.  It was so quiet, and black, and you imagined there’d been a lot of people here and large machines and a roar of engines and the smell of diesel and the force of it, not the cutting, but the force of the machines pulling, ramming, pushing at the trees, that’s what you imagined.

Kyle had been talking.  I wasn’t sure what he’d said.  His voice was quiet and I’d been staring at the black embers that covered a stump near my window.  “When we fish,” he was saying, “we do a lot of killing.  All those fish, and the seals and porpoises that get tangled in the nets.  I fish with guys who like all that killing.  Even though on the boats you never say that, never say that, today, I killed anything at all.”

I took a drink from a beer I was holding.  The bottle was cold in my hand and the beer cold on my face where it had spilt from my lips. 

“Bad to have killed that grouse,” I said.

“Just a bird,” Kyle said.  I turned to him.  His face was light and moving.  “More though,” he said, nodding some, and smiling, “right? More?”

And I felt myself nod.  And I heard him breathe deep.

“There’s other kinds of killing,” he said and I knew if I looked at him I’d see that he was staring at me. 

I nodded. 

“No one dies,” he said, “but still.”

I nodded.

“It’s funny to think that your dad, my mom, they’d probably rather we weren’t ever born,” he said. 

And I nodded.

He smiled and again and he was crying some.  “Funny to know that,” he said.  “Funnier to say it.”

And I nodded.

“It only ends when we leave,” he said.  “Because then it doesn’t matter.”

We were outside of the car now and it had gotten very cold.  We’d seen a pond in the middle of the burn.  Sitting quietly at the edge of a frozen pond, the burnt remnants of the trees here coated with a layer of ice, the two of us sitting on the frozen ground, near the edge of the ice.  Looking out at the broken reflection of the blue falling to orange sky.  And when the sunset started with all that gold and pink and distant, dying winter light, Kyle and I were without realizing it watching dead branches creak slowly, watching cold white air blow out of our mouths like tall summer clouds.  Hearing the ice in front of us seize and shift.  Feeling our hearts pushing blood in easy, easy thumps.  Laughing quietly, in a steady, stretching calm, after I said, It’s wonderful.  It really is.

 •    •    •

I’d come down to the port to find Kyle, parking in the weak yellow light of the parking lot, getting out of the car. 

It was a night without temperature.  Early summer, not warm yet but not cold. 

I had to climb a metal fence and swing down to the ramp strung across the quiet, thick water of the waterway.  I followed the ramp toward the old warehouses that were mostly unused now, passing through the narrow alleys between buildings and through open doors of tall wooden roofs, moving up and down stairs, turning sometimes to look at the ceiling, spinning farther and I had a glimpse of my face in the metal siding of one wall.

Face giving a slow flash of a smile.

And I walked past what I thought was another vacant warehouse and I saw Kyle in the white light of a single bulb.  Still in his clothes, on a mattress on the floor.  Asleep after two weeks working on his father’s old boat.

Pale light.  A pile of tools.  Kyle’s duffel bag of work clothes for Alaska.

Kyle had been working to fix up his dad’s old boat, the gill netter his dad had used for twenty years and that he’d left to Kyle when he died but that Kyle had only now taken ownership of from his mother.  A 24-foot boat, all wood, with a wheelhouse and cabin in the bow and a back deck and stern that were open now, without nets or any gear.  Kyle and I had spent the last two weeks sanding and painting and cleaning.

I turned from Kyle on the floor, down a hall, outside to the docks.  The moths circling the bulb on top of a cracked wooden pier.  Seagulls for a moment screaming as they launched themselves from a nearby oil tank, then silent as they flew away.  There was Kyle’s dad’s boat, wooden and damp and slick to the touch.

I saw my duffel bag already on the boat.

I remembered that smile, my smile, just to be here.  Just to be getting here.

Kyle was coming down the ramp now, rubbing his face, carrying his bag.  Smiling too.

Later, when I thought about that day near the frozen pond, I would remember only that Kyle and I had sat quietly staring at the sunset shining through the ice in the branches, the gold light turning the trees white and silver and brilliant in the ice.  And I’d only remember driving, pouring through the woods in that old Bug.  Touching leaves with my hand out the window in the air. 

Later, a part of me would wish I could be there again, everything still, blown through too, gold light shining.

For years I’d remember it that way.  Away from that time, working the North Slope, and the Aleutians and now in Bristol Bay.  The end of the day, a sunset, something that would happen that would remind me of those trips. 

It was better now.  But never quite as good as you’d wanted. 

And so sometimes still, I’d wish.

Eric Barnes is the author of the novel Shimmer, an IndieNext Pick from Unbridled Books and has been a reporter, editor and publisher in Connecticut, New York and now Memphis. Years ago he drove a forklift in Tacoma, Washington, and then Kenai, Alaska, worked construction on Puget Sound, and froze fish in a warehouse outside Anchorage. He is now publisher of three newspapers covering business and politics in Memphis and Nashville. He has published more than 20 stories in a range of journals, including one that was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2011.

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