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The Light at the End of the Tunnel: Chapter One

October 28, 2007

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The Light at the End of the Tunnel
by PERRY P. PERKINS

The End…

“That light at the end of the end of the tunnel? That’s a train.”

The punch line ricocheted around inside Cal’s head, fading in and out through a bloodred mist of pain. He thought he’d read that joke somewhere, scribbled inside some truck stop toilet stall maybe, he couldn’t remember.

“That’s a train” he croaked, licking thick parched lips, his tongue swollen and dry as old leather, and looking up at the small circle of moonlight sweeping across the mouth of the pit, high above. The pain in his legs had faded, finally, to a deep distant hum, a faraway song sung so low that you might forget it’s there unless you moved, but don’t do that.

Don’t move for God’s sake, not one inch!

Moving would bring back the fat lady, that bellowing horned diva shrieking agony upthrough your shattered legs, igniting a white-hot fire in your brain.

Twice Cal had tried to shift positions and the flames had leaped up instantly to engulf him, burning and burning as he joined with the fat lady, screaming together in an off-key duet until a merciful curtain of black oblivion fell before him.

Now he could barely feel the butt of his rifle jabbing into his lower back. The old 30-30 with the beautiful polished walnut stock had probably shattered beneath him in the fall, and he was plain lucky he hadn’t broken his back on it.

How long had he lain here? Hours? Days?

Thirst had become a constant, screeching harridan, sinking her hot dirty claws into his throat and demanding water. Cal suspected that whatever surplus of bodily fluids he many have been toting along through the woods had been lost when he stepped through the rotting branches that covered the pit.

“…bear trap,” he muttered to himself.

How long had it waited here, undisturbed? The better part of a century or two, maybe even three, dug by the early fur trappers who mapped the way for Lewis and Clark? By the Indians living in the Willamette Valley basin for untold centuries before that?

What was left of that wilderness now was mostly owned by the logging companies or confined to postage stamp lots of second growth forest and vine maples belonging to the Bureau of Land Management. Hard beaten tracks stretching between farmlands, a haven for hunters, anglers, dirt bikers, bird-watchers, and the occasional serial killer.

So how long, he wondered, had the pit lay there, awaiting the sudden misstep of Ursus horribilis, extinct from the deep pine forests of Oregon for a hundred years or more?

What contrariness of nature had contrived upon this spot to keep the intervening years from filling the pit in, or covering it over with solid earth? He had begun to fear that these same questions might someday be asked over his own bones, found long and long from now, lying
atop a few moldering scraps of green cloth and the rusted remains of a rifle barrel.

*
Back home, in Georgia, deer hunting had been a family tradition. Fathers, sons, uncles, and cousins gathered in the woods for two weeks each fall. School went on, most of the classes being attended by girls or those boys too young to come along, most under the age of ten.

Cal had learned what it meant to be a man, good and bad, in the company of hunters and rifles and wood smoke, surrounded by the smell unwashed bodies and white lightning drunk straight from quart size mason jars. The last being delivered to camp by the crate full, rattling along among the old tools and camp boxes in the back of Uncle Allen’s battered ford pickup.

This particular aspect of deer camp was never mentioned around Mother, who may have suspected but would never considered asking.

The camp was for men only, that was the taboo, no women…ever. It was this fact alone that allowed the mothers and wives of the Taylor kin to keep the tradition, knowing that it was deer their men were hunting up there in the big woods, and nothing more. Proof of his mother’s suspicions on their partaking of that demon liquor would only have lowered her already dismal opinion of his Uncle Allen.

In deer camp, however, the Taylor brother’s were gods; eldest twins of the family, and the undisputed masters of the hunt since their own father had passed on years before.

So, the women folk would sniff in disgust when their men returned, unwashed and unshaven, wrinkling their noses as they hauled week worn woolens to the back porch for hosing down before washing. Despite the eye rolling and heavy sighs, the women understood, even better than their husbands and sons did, the coming together each year in the big woods.

It was the ritual, the gathering for the hunt, a primal force deep in the psyche of all pack predators, including men.

Men who had diluted their predatory instincts with boxes and baggies and plastic wrapped flesh, reaching back into the mists, when the tribe had gathered around fires to sharpen their spears and plan the hunt. The men of Cal’s tribe understood, deep inside, that despite the momentary whitewashing of the earth that man, in his arrogance called civilization, the world was still and would always be ruled by the endless cycle of predator and prey.

Cal had grown up swimming deep in the currents of the ritual and, after four years of college found him washed up on the faraway shores of the Pacific Northwest, long down the road from the rest of his tribe, the thought of going alone into the woods, or worse, in the company of strangers, had kept him home during the cool wet mornings of autumn.

Ten years had passed. Then, with the dusty rattle of the UPS truck, just weeks ago, an unexpected package had arrived.

A long, heavy wooden rectangle encasing the well-oiled weight of his father’s old Marlin 30-30 rifle. Cal Taylor (never Calvin, always Cal) had sat a long while, running his hands slowly over the warm glow of the stock, awash in memories.

Benjamin Taylor, dead these eleven years, had hunted and killed white-tail deer with this rifle, as had Cal and his brothers. The sharp scent of gun oil and the faint lingering of wood smoke (though that may have been his imagination) transported Cal back across the miles and years, until he stood, huddled and shivering in his older brothers hand-me-down wool pants and jacket. Blinking at the light of the campfire in the predawn cold, a scalding tin cup of bitter black coffee, his first, scorching his bare hands.

Men stood around him, casting tall thin shadows in the firelight, sipping from their own cups and murmuring the hushed language of hunters, their breath fogging in the flickering light.

Over his narrow shoulder was slung the weight of his father’s old 30-30, in his pocket were the five cartridges that he would load after reaching his tree stand.

The boy took another sip from his cup, grimacing as the black oily bitterness burned his tongue, thinking it was the most wonderful thing he had ever tasted.

***

© 2006 Perry P. Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal.

Thank you for reading chapter one of The Light at the End of the Tunnel, I hope you enjoyed it! – Perry

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