THE MAN stood at the water's edge, the toes of his boots in the flaked near-ice among the brown reeds, and noted that he would be remarkably lucky this morning: The great, pale-frozen full moon still hung high in the sky before him, and in less than an hour the sun would be tangential on the horizon low on the Eastern Shore flats behind his back. The temperature was 10, but it was that sullen, thick, heavy-bodied 10 that comes after New Year's on the tidal waters to the east, when the ground has been frozen deep for weeks and the autumn's warmth of land and water is a memory awaiting resurrection. Bone cold, it is called. Bone-chilling.
The man shifted the black Stevens double from gloved hand to crook of arm and waited. Glebe Creek was a sheet of ice from his toes the 500 yards across, except for the channel halfway that stayed clear and running, accommodating the tide up to the marsh and around the point, where the Canada geese snorted and talked among one another in the early darkness. The man put their number, from their noises, at about 40, and because the morning would be clear he expected them to move with daybreak and it would be a bluebird day, where, after the early flights, smart hunters would plan an afternoon of pleasures elsewhere, waiting until evening to return to field and creek for the possibility of a shot or two or 20 within the 50- yard range of the long guns.
It was a Monday, and the man was coming off a lifetime of mixed reviews and not-so-good news, and he was among the reeds at water's edge getting ready to conceal himself in a natural blind not only from the geese and any serendipitous ducks but from the batterings of ill health, self-doubt, ideas of a blown-apart romance, financial catastrophe and general bad luck, and he had outlined all of this in his mind in what was going to become the psychological thriller of them all: a best- selling book about -- about? About himself, of course.
He rubbed the toe of his boot against the ice at the edge of the creek and it ground to shattered crystals and he looked at it and knew that if all the rest of it went to hell he would at least have The Book, and that would be enough.
The book would combine the stark cold of that day with the warmth of the autumns of yesteryear, when the bees were loud in the glades and the figs of the Eastern Shore tasted of sunny fecundity; when the hunters and their companions toasted the game of the day with bright, fine wine and smiles and laughter.
It would be the late summer, with Chesapeakes and Labradors and doves and the laced-up and long-legged ladies and their gentlemen calling "mark" as the doves made darting and jigsaw flights from water to gravel to grain and back.
Then as now the dove season was the opener. Shooting could not begin until afternoon, which left the morning open for brunch, for sleeping in, or, that one bright year as the shadows lengthened along the land signifying the onset of another season, fishing with minnows for the yellow perch that run the Miles River and its tributaries in the heat of August and September. That year Chrissie laughed and tossed her hair, a mane flecked now with gray, and recounted her triumphant tour down the river as Miss Easton, or Miss Apple Festival, or Miss Something, and told how all the boys were crazy about her that summer, with long organdy dress and white linen shoes, after the fishing in the morning and the hunting in the afternoon, until sunset.
The small boys would clean the perch, which would fry quickly in egg and cornmeal, and become part of lunch, with silver and crystal and linen.
And of course the book would have to include the start of the upland and forest game season, early October, when the men would teach the small boys to clean squirrels by making a small slice across the shoulders and stripping the hide from the carcass, then quarter the meat and soak it in vinegar and water all day for Brunswick Stew.
The boys learn these things, and the old men teach them, the men who, largely, have abandoned the killing for the sense of simply being along. On the side of the Great North Mountain in Hardy County, West Virginia, one year a man named Bill, wizened by too many years and rough-throated from too much tobacco and whiskey, sat in camp and offered stories of hunts long past, telling how he earned the right to retire from the ranks of those who seek blood and game. He spoke not of killing but of flushed cheeks and numb toes and the primordial excitement of the chase.
There are an estimated 20 million hunting-license holders in the United States this year, just short of one license for every nine Americans. There is a lot of talk about "harvesting" game, and about the natural preservation of wildlife through management. And it is true that most of the money invested in hunting licenses goes into regulating the wide range of forest and wetlands activities in this country. It is not likely that many hunters will suggest, this fall, that it might be a good idea to go down and buy a hunting license, a deer stamp, a federal migratory bird stamp, and the other niggling but expensive permits so that the giant California Condor might have the wherewithal to survive another season. What the hunter likely has in mind is more elemental, killing an animal and feeding its flesh to his children, because that is what human beings have done since long before they knew about sticking seeds into the ground.
So the squirrels of October and the deer and the bear of the first frost and the wild turkeys and the pheasants in their own season, the bobwhite quail and the grouse, with the smell of gun oil and the crunch of boot on first leaves and then frost and, finally, snow and ice, will be a part of that book, along with the grotesques of living away from the water and the forest and off the mountain.
And so on that bone-cold day the hunter looked down at his toe by the edge of Glebe Creek, and the frost was hard at the edges of the water and the ice from last night's tide was a lace collar round the necks of the reeds, and he would write The Book.
And then the awful reality came over him that he might just not write The Book at all, and maybe that was just another piece of fantasy, and if he didn't write it, then what would he have left? And then the sun shattered the horizon behind him and the moon stood still and stark just before his eyes and the big old male leader of the geese up in the headwater marsh of the creek got excited and began to bark and the man could hear the water churning in the flats and he knew the geese were rising and he heard their honking and their wings; and as the first of them broke from behind the trees at the mouth of the little marsh, about 35 yards out and just off the water, the hunter knew that none of it mattered. As long as the wind blew free and the water ran from the top of the tall mountains to the sea below, the geese would move with the morning sun and none of the rest of it would matter.