[This is Part I of a Garling Files Short Story. You can find the PDF version here. Note: if you are reading this from an email/RSS feed this link often breaks, please click on the link to this web page first.]
When Avery Hall saw the low form across the sash of distant trees, he knew it was pure wolf. Softened by man’s harbor, dogs waste movement. They lean, they bounce, their hindlegs extend too far, they waddle, their tongues loll, their eyes fail. Time is their only predator, a bowl near the pantry their only prey. However, the cold indifference of the woods keeps the wolf’s arrowpoint sharp.
In the early light and across the morning mist of the meadow, Avery watched it stalk against the trees, the spine a sleeve on an infinite wire. He squinted ahead to find what it hunted. The trees only held a couple finches, also watching, in boughs too high. He scanned the trunks for an oblivious squirrel and saw nothing. There were no deer, elk or moose calves grazing the meadow. Then, in a short pile of rocks with wet wildflowers at their edges, just off the bisecting stream, he saw the slight bounce of a shoulder—a rabbit, nibbling low to the ground with its ears tucked down. The wind picked up and it blew across the rabbit’s back, then across the gray wolf’s face. One of the finches cried out in an unspoken allegiance of prey—the wolf stopped, one foot bent in step—but the rabbit did not translate, still poking and nibbling the rich grasses leeching life from the mineral flesh.
Avery put his hands over his small fire, rubbed them together and sat back. He’d been without a companion voice for almost two weeks; his entertainment came in short doses, yet a sense of shame and compassion flushed through him. He jerked forward and stopped, unsure of his own intentions; then, spasmodically, he grabbed a stone and hurled it across the meadow. The projectile, sailing in a strong arc, almost covered half the distance to the far edge of the trees. But its thud and bouncing rampage through the grasses alerted the rabbit anyway, and it picked up its ears and stood on its hindlegs. It sensed, then saw the approaching wolf.
Though a predator stalks in order to leave a quick, if not instant, pursuit and kill, they will always set a critical distance to the prey. Should the prey catch a scent or sense them and flee when outside this distance, the predator will pick up its head and lightly trot away, searching for the next hunt—the chances of a kill were not strong enough to expend the energy of the chase. This distance is not wrought from formal calculation, but derived from the whispers of ancestors, calibrated by the toil of life. But if the prey senses the predator inside this distance, then the terrified alert is nothing more than the explosion of a starter’s gun.
The wolf bounded into the field with savage alacrity, swirling and snapping teeth in the ancient dance—the rabbit, switched this way and that, cutting at the behest of whispers from its own ancestors, the thin filament of lineage that had learned to make teeth snap in failure. The finches squawked in the excitement as chatter from the surrounding trees came alive like a Coliseum. But the great dances of prey and predator are always measured in seconds, and with enough slipping in the morning grass, the wolf soon tired. The rabbit continued at full pace and disappeared into the woods. The chatter subsided and the gray hunter, passively defeated, subconsciously recalibrating, flopped down, rolled onto its side and let its heavy breaths slow and the normal pace of life return. It then sauntered to the streamside and drank from the icy mountain water.
Avery sat down.
From the corner of the wolf’s eye, sensing the motion, it looked to him. It had, no doubt, known he was there from the start—smoke does not go unnoticed by the woods—but with the nonthreatening distance across the meadow, and man’s unclear role in the wild, the lone wolf had taken no interest in him. A wolf also lacks man’s proclivity to explain the apparent, so it would not generate an angry link between the thud of a stone and his lost prey. But Avery saw the steel irises turn towards him from the streamside. They did not see prey; they did not exhibit a hate; they acknowledged him evenly, as if simply saying: “Okay.”
The void of emotion left Avery cold around the heart. But in the next instant the wolf picked up and trotted smoothly into the distant woods. The finches flew away as it passed.
By the time the sun had desiccated the grasses, Avery Hall had broken camp and continued north. The term “breaking camp” can evoke images of packing tents, chairs, clothing, food and cooking utensils, but he merely rolled his lonesome blanket and fastened his frying pan to his pack. His knife, he kept on his belt; his rifle, he’d keep in his hands.
Avery hailed from Montana. Though romanticized by its big sky, as a boy he learned that the daily journey of the sun smiled upon a corresponding big country. The wide plains and towering bookend peaks made for a long view, and with that, made for a long shot. With a toss of grass in the wind and a moment to watch the distant treetops, Avery had once shot a paper wad from the center of a washer his father had hung 300 yards away. When game hunting, he’d needed two shots exactly twice in his life to bring down his target. The first was the first time his father took him for deer. The errant bullet hit the doe in the shoulder, and even then, the second shot cleared a smooth hole at the base of the fleeing skull. The second time was years later. His father’s heart had failed while setting a gate on the edge of their property. He’d tried to stumble home, but Avery found him slumped over a rock about twenty yards from the back porch of the house and carried him the rest of the way on his shoulders. His cousins had taken him hunting the morning after the funeral, and his hand had shaken during the first shot. The buck lifted up in a fury at the grazing sting in his foreleg and in that moment, an iron focus obliterated the sad tremor in Avery’s hand. The second shot passed through two chambers of the beast’s heart and the great animal fell still.
The trail Avery now followed, rifle in hand, led him north through the Singing Winds Forest and towards, what he believed to be, the conclusion of the path at Anoterra Lake. He had no map on him and worked from a memory he’d gained by a quick glance at a map displayed under the plastic counter of a gas station. The trail itself, he remembered, worked along a thin seam of streams and lakes, through two parallel folds of mountains and pointed almost true north the entire way. Other trails branched, joined and braided at various intervals, but the central trail never deviated from its heading. As he walked and the sun began nestle into the western peaks, the pitch on his right fell to a thin lake. He did not remember the name. As he wound around at the head by the inlet stream, voices approached from the bend of thick trees. He ducked into the shadows of the tall pines and shrubs.
“There’s no sense in worrying about it,” a lower voice said calmly. “You can’t change the way he is.”
There was a brief, pregnant silence, then a second voice piped up, much higher, “He’s just annoying.”
“Well, the best you can do is not be annoying back.”
“But dad, he shows off every fish.”
“I know, and you’re more grown up for not.”
They stopped and through the brush, Avery could see the father rest his hand on his boy’s shoulder and look down the short pitch to the lake. “I see two rainbows cruising. Why don’t we see if we can show that Mark how it’s done?” The boy nodded and they walked down to the water.
Quietly, Avery took off his pack. He undid his belt and removed his knife, stuffing it in the bottom, then he cleared some space to one side and stuffed in his rifle as well. The tip pointed out and he wrapped it in a handkerchief, both to keep out dirt and defray the aggression of the poking barrel. Finally, he removed the box of shells from the side pocket and stuffed it with a pair of socks, also burying the now-silent container in the bottom of the pack. He crept back downtrail through the woods, then returned to the trail and began walking north again, his hands open and free in front of him.
The father saw him approaching and waved. “Howdy,” he called kindly. “Good, clear afternoon we got.” The son didn’t turn and continued casting and reeling.
“It is,” Avery said returning the friendly tone, then searched his glance uptrail. He could make out a yellow and a red tent through the trees. “I assume you guys are set up around the inlet stream?”
“We are. My buddy and his two boys as well.” His eyes flickered to the peeking barrel, but it didn’t alter his gaze or tone.
Avery nodded. “I don’t suppose you’d mind—if I kept my distance—if I set up camp nearby? I think it’s another three miles until a reasonable patch of flat ground with water close by, and the—”
The man waved carelessly. “We’d appreciate the company.”
Avery tipped his hat, “Appreciate that. I’ll see you up there.”
“Sounds good. I’m George, by the way, and this is my boy, Reid.” Reid closed one eye to the sun as he turned and gave an obligatory wave to the stranger.
“Nice to meet you, George. And Reid. I’m Mike.”
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at