Near to Him  |  Charles P. Ries

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             The cranberry swamp was just below our farm. It was usually filled with low-lying water and an abundance of cattails. Blackbirds lived and nested there, as well as countless rabbits. It was five acres in diameter, with a murky pool at the center where muskrats built their hutches. In the dead of winter, we’d go ice skating, swerving and weaving our way in and out of the cattails and around the muskrat hutches. At the north end of the swamp was a small, wooded area filled with boxelder saplings. My father called them weeds of the forest because they grew fast and in just about any condition, including those of a swamp.
             We never walked in the swamp until it froze over in early winter. But this autumn, after a particularly dry summer, we found ourselves being able to run through it and play hide-and-seek in it. My eleven cousins, who lived nearby, and my siblings would play war by pulling off the tops of cattails and using them to beat each other over the head, sending plumes of cottony seedlings into the air. It was a natural playground with unending things to see and experience.
             Pheasant hunting season began in late fall. Most of the cornfields had been harvested by this time, and the birds were fat from dining under apple and cherry trees and eating corn dropped by the combines. It was one brilliant, clear day in autumn. The sky was bright blue, and the landscape burst with fall colors. The second round of chores were over, and, as I was walked through the feed house, I found my father loading his 22-rifle.
             “Let’s go hunting,” he said, looking up at me.
             “Hunting, in the swamp. I set up a blind. Let’s get some pheasants.”
             My older siblings had already gone into the house for the day—it would just be the two of us.
             My father and I walked to the bottom of the mink yard, hopped the guard fence, and walked another hundred yards through towering cattails toward the center of the swamp. The ground was uncharacteristically firm and easily held both of us. My father had come down earlier in the week and piled a few old, wooden fence posts into an informal barrier for us to hide behind. Along with his rifle, he’d brought a burlap bag filled with cobs of dry seed corn.
             As he settled in behind the blind, he told me, “Take this and dump it about two hundred feet up ahead. Just dump it in one big pile and get back here. We’ll see who’s hungry today.”
             I did as he told me and ran back with the empty burlap bag flying behind me, jumping over the blind and settling in beside him.
             “Don’t talk, don’t move, just watch the corn pile,” he said.
             We lay on our bellies and watched the center of the swamp bed where he had told me to place the corn. His rifle rested on one of the posts, and we waited for the birds to find the corn. I never got this physically close to my father. I don’t remember him ever hugging me or directly talking to me other than to give me reprimands or directions about work. But on this sun-drenched afternoon in the heart of the cranberry swamp, I lay perfectly still and soaked in the odor of his work clothes. I listened to the slow, steady rhythm of his breathing and inhaled the aroma of his Blue Boar pipe tobacco.
             The cattails swayed to a breeze that blew out of the southwest. The air was dry and warm, and the low hum of insects slowly lulled me into sleep, when the crack of my dad’s rifle shook me awake.
             “Got him! Hustle out there and grab it,” my father ordered in a loud whisper.
             My father’s 22 was precise and quiet. With a scope mounted on its barrel, it was deadly accurate. Unlike a 12-gauge shotgun that blew birdshot, the 22 shot small bullets. Because of its relative silence, it didn’t scatter other birds that might be hiding nearby. Rather, they’d sit tight and, once the coast was clear, begin to move and return to the pile of corn.
             I ran out, grabbed the bird, and hustled back to the blind, placing it between my father and me as we resumed our vigil. This time, I kept my eyes open. In about fifteen minutes, a few more birds appeared, circling the corn pile and feeding. My father took aim at the rooster with its distinctive red-ringed neck and nailed him, again telling me to run and get it. We recommenced our waiting, and my father soon laid out his third bird for the afternoon. By the end of our two hours together, we’d bagged three hens and two roosters with five clean shots.
             “That’ll do it. That’s pretty damn good. We’re going to be eating some pheasant. Let’s head back before your mom thinks we got lost.”
             We worked our way back through the cattails. I walked behind, carrying the five birds in the burlap bag, while my father carried his rifle. We hopped back over the guard fence and walked to the carpenter shop, where my father quickly and efficiently cleaned the birds. We then went into the house for dinner.
             At the kitchen table that evening, my father, true to form, didn’t say much about our time together other than, “It went well. We were lucky to get five birds,” before returning to his meal.
             Knowing she wasn’t going to get much information from him, my mother turned to me and asked, “Well, did you have fun with your dad, Chucky? What was it like hunting for pheasants? Was it exciting?”
             Like my father, I was taciturn in my reply and gave my mother a minimum of, “Yup, I had fun, Mom; we got five birds.” I had to fight myself to keep from saying more. I wanted to shout and tell everyone how great it was to be with my father, to lie next to him in a pheasant blind, and how proud I was to be his son. I wanted to tell them what a perfect day it had been and that I wanted one hundred more just like it, but I knew that if I said it, I would break the spell and lose him forever. I wanted to tell them I was afraid he’d evaporate like mist in the morning sun if I adored him too much. So there at the dinner table, I became nothing. I didn’t express my excitement or publicly adore my father. I tried to be silent, stoic, and numb. Like him, I ate with my head down and shoved my feelings to the floor. I strangled the ball of joy that was rising up in me. I chewed my food and concentrated on becoming like him, because I knew that if I could become like him, it would bring me more days like today.

♥ End ♥

Charles P. Ries has had narrative poems, short stories, interviews, and poetry reviews appear in over two hundred print and electronic publications. He has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing and is the author of six books of poetry. He was awarded the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association “Jade Ring” Award for humorous poetry and is the former poetry editor of Word Riot and ESC!. This story is an excerpt from Charles’ book, The Fathers We Find, a somewhat-fictionalized memoir of his growing up on a mink farm in Southeastern Wisconsin. His work is archived in the Charles P. Ries Collection at Marquette University.
             Charles has begun work on a second novel, A Life by Invitation, which will follow his rise as a mystic in North Africa and his subsequent floundering while living in Los Angeles, all of which has convinced him of the time-honored wisdom: “Wherever you go, there you are,” and, “This isn’t Kansas, Dorothy.” Charles is also a founding member of the Lake Shore Surf Club, the oldest freshwater surfing club on the Great Lakes. [Author photo by and © Amy Reed of J’adore La Vie Photography; used with permission, all rights reserved.]

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