Day 04: The Retiree

Michael had woken early that day and switched off his alarm clock. He waited for the aching in his joints to ease up, then slowly moved his legs over the side of his bed. The cov­ers felt too heavy and he pushed them aside, grunt­ing. He slowly levered him­self up on his elbows, sit­ting on the bed’s edge and let­ting his feet touch the cold, wooden floor­boards. He shivered, but glared at the still warm cov­ers lying next to him accusingly.

The glasses were on the side table by his alarm clock, where he always left them. The room came into focus as he put them on. It was 5:18, which meant he’d stayed in bed longer than he’d meant to. The protests of his joints went ignored as he hur­ried to make up for lost time, wash­ing his face and comb­ing his hair before dress­ing: a woolen under­gar­ment, covered by thick brown trousers and a warm flan­nel shirt.

Down­stairs, he heated strong, black cof­fee in a tin pot and drank it with two pieces of toast. It was 5:38. He’d wanted to leave by 5:30, but everything took a little bit longer than he thought it should. He got the rifle out of its cab­inet at 5.45, after put­ting on his hunt­ing jacket and get­ting a wide-brimmed can­vas hat from the coat pegs. The gun passed care­fully under his eyes, let­ting him exam­ine it all over. He’d cleaned it the pre­vi­ous even­ing before he’d gone to bed, but he liked to be sure. At 5:53 he was out the door.

The forests around the house were extens­ive, stretch­ing  away for dozens and dozens of miles. It took twenty minutes driv­ing along a dirt track to reach the road that skir­ted its fringes, and Michael knew that meant he still lived right on the very edge of he wil­der­ness. His breath hung in front of them, slowly drift­ing apart in the still air. The sun hadn’t risen and the twi­light left the ground under the trees dark and shad­owed. Michael left the small clear­ing around his house and headed down a path that led deep into the woods.

It was easy going at first as he trav­elled along the fre­quently walked route. By 9:00 the path was becom­ing nar­rower, the under­growth infringing along it. Every so often thorns or brambles would cross it, or a tree would have begun tent­at­ively reach­ing over it. He stepped over or ducked under these, rather than tak­ing the time to clear the path again. Each time he had to stop and pre­pare him­self, either care­fully lift­ing a leg up and over, or grunt­ing as he bent his back.

By 9:30 the sun could be seen through the branches, still low in the sky but mak­ing the day notice­ably warmer. Michael could feel him­self breath­ing more heav­ily and sweat­ing. He opened the front of his hunt­ing jacket and stopped, tak­ing a drink from the water bottle he’d brought with him. As he wiped his lips, his eyes fell upon a broken bough hanging from a tree just off the path. He strapped the water bottle back to his belt and walked over to the hanging branch. The soft earth below held the prints of a large stag. Michael smiled to him­self and set off in the dir­ec­tion the tracks led.

He fol­lowed the tracks for an hour, los­ing them occa­sion­ally but always find­ing them again through a snapped twig, trampled plant or some gouged earth where the creature had slipped. They led him into thicker and thicker parts of the forest. Michael made sure to keep track of which dir­ec­tion he was mov­ing. People had died out here, he knew. In his younger days he’d helped search for a few of them. Now he just got phone calls ask­ing if he’d seen anything.

At 12:25 he came to a stream, flow­ing slowly through a chan­nel it had carved. He could see the stag’s prints on this side and where it had landed on the far side, los­ing its foot­ing and scrab­bling at the side of the ditch, but man­aging to climb up. He could see the trunk of a tree fur­ther down the stream, lying across it and con­nect­ing the two banks. He tightened the strap hold­ing the rifle across his back and set off towards it.

The log looked stable, if a bit mossy. Rot hadn’t set in and it stretched far enough onto each bank to keep it stable. Michael kicked it with his boots but it soun­ded sturdy. He checked the gun’s straps again, then clambered onto it. The far side was only a couple of metres, if that. He set off with his arms stretched out to either side, mov­ing them a little to keep bal­ance and care­fully pigeon-stepping along the tree. Half-way across he lost his bal­ance, wav­ing madly in an attempt not to fall. He took another step but couldn’t recover. He star­ted to teeter over but threw him­self for­ward towards the far side.

The trunk slammed against his chest, knock­ing the wind out of him, and he wrapped his arms around the tree, press­ing him­self into it in a tight embrace. He grunted and wheezed out a “Damn” between grit­ted teeth. He hadn’t dropped any­thing, but one leg was dangling over the side of the log, hanging in the air. He swung it up and crawled for­wards slowly, reach­ing the over side and tum­bling onto the ground, lying there as he fought to get his breath back, then pick­ing him­self up.

He car­ried on through the forest, aware of a dull ache in his left knee. Prob­ably a bruise, but he’d take some­thing for it before he went to bed, oth­er­wise he wouldn’t be able to walk prop­erly for a week. He thought he could hear a rat­tling from his gun, but had inspec­ted it after the fall and didn’t find any­thing wrong. Still, he reasoned, bet­ter safe than sorry. He slung the gun around and leaned back against a tree, rais­ing it up to get a closer look.

At that moment he saw it and froze. Ahead of him, not more than twenty metres, was the stag. Just its back half. The rest of it was hid­den behind a tree. Michael kept the gun still and care­fully slid his hand into a pocket in his hunt­ing jacket, tak­ing out a round and load­ing it. He brought the rifle up to aim it, sight­ing down at the stag through his scope, barely needed at this dis­tance. He noticed that his hands shook more than they used to.

He waited, hop­ing that the stag would head out from behind the tree and give him a clean shot. He wasn’t sure how long it was until he saw it move, but even­tu­ally it did. The muscles along its back stretched seconds before its rear legs lif­ted off the ground to move a few inches for­wards, one after the other. Michael noticed a limp in one of its legs and moved the rifle ever so slightly to hold the stag’s head, now clearly vis­ible on the other side of the tree, in his cross hairs. He remembered the snapped branches, the gouges in the earth, the prints scraped on the bank of the stream. He squeezed his finger.

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