Robin Black

The Hunt

Her point wasn’t that she want­ed to kill him.  That wasn’t at all what she was try­ing to say.  That wasn’t at all what she had said.  Her point wasn’t that she want­ed to kill him – but rather that she was afraid she might.  And they weren’t the same thing.  They weren’t the same thing.  She said that to him twice.  She may have said it more than twice.  Her voice was grow­ing qui­eter, tighter and qui­eter, and he was start­ing to lose track of what she had said.  They aren’t even close to the same thing, she said view­ing him with a slight­ly wide-eyed look that might have been tak­en for pity if it hadn’t been just a lit­tle bit tough, a lit­tle more heat­ed than pity would imply.  Do you even under­stand the dif­fer­ence? she asked.  But then she didn’t pause to breathe, didn’t pause for his response but she asked with a change he couldn’t quite hear — not word for word — but that he nonethe­less dis­tinct­ly felt.  An impor­tant shift. Don’t you even under­stand the dif­fer­ence? she asked.  And the boy didn’t speak.  He just looked at the floor.  He stared down at his own sneak­ers, each pre­cise­ly fill­ing, end to end, one square of the gray linoleum floor; and he noticed that only one of his shoelaces was tied.

The girl pushed her long, straight hair back over her shoul­der, which caused the bed to bounce, her twin size dorm room bed on which they sat, and, just a lit­tle jos­tled, dis­tract­ed away from his shoes, the boy looked up at her again.  Palms down on the mat­tress, arms straight, her chin just for­ward above her chest, she asked him if he was able to fol­low this very sim­ple point.  But again she didn’t wait for him to respond, just asked him right away — as though he had admit­ted that no, no he wasn’t able to fol­low this very sim­ple point  — she asked him right away why he wasn’t able to fol­low this very sim­ple point.  She asked him why he couldn’t seem to grasp what she was say­ing.  Why couldn’t he ever seem to grasp what she was say­ing?  Why?  Why not?  She asked him both at once.  And he didn’t know what he was sup­posed to say.  He didn’t know what she want­ed from him.  What did she want from him?  He almost asked her that.  What do you want from me?  He had no idea.  But he expe­ri­enced it – he expe­ri­enced her — in those terms.  There was some­thing he was sup­posed to do.  Or maybe sup­posed to say.  Or quite pos­si­bly that he was sup­posed to think.  This much was clear to him.  But he didn’t know what.  So he looked back at the floor and he saw those two worn strings trail­ing onto it. He won­dered if he should re-tie his open sneak­er or just kick it off.  He won­dered if he would be leav­ing her room any sec­ond now; or if he would be stay­ing with her for the night.  He didn’t know.  He didn’t even know whose deci­sion that would be.  He couldn’t imag­ine, at that instant, the mech­a­nism through which such a thing would be resolved.  But the thought, those two alter­na­tives – stay or leave — began to root them­selves into his con­scious­ness, as he stared down and kicked his sneak­ers togeth­er, one tied and one untied.  She asked him some­thing else that he didn’t quite catch.  But she asked it with an unmis­tak­able nar­row­ing tone in her voice.  A tone that seemed to be hom­ing in on some­thing, a real heat seek­ing mis­sile of a tone — as if the con­ver­sa­tion might just detect its tar­get and change direc­tion then and there, take a big loopy u-turn and sud­den­ly be — as was increas­ing­ly the case these days  – a con­ver­sa­tion whol­ly about why he couldn’t fol­low what she said.  And not a con­ver­sa­tion about the hunt­ing knife at all.  His hunt­ing knife.  Not a con­ver­sa­tion any­more about her acci­den­tal­ly killing him.  About her being afraid she might mis­tak­en­ly mur­der him in her sleep.  But a con­ver­sa­tion only about why he couldn’t ever seem to fol­low what she said. Why couldn’t he ever fol­low what she said? He knew that was the next ques­tion she would ask.   But he also knew that he could.  That was the fun­ny part.  He could.  He could fol­low what she said — bet­ter even than she could.  He could fol­low her tracks, her con­ver­sa­tion­al tracks, like the hunter that he was.  Like the hunter he believed him­self to be.  He could stalk her, turn the tables on her, and stalk her like his prey.  He could antic­i­pate her moves.  So he sensed that u-turn com­ing.  He sensed her gain­ing a hun­gry momen­tum on the sub­ject of his inabil­i­ty to fol­low what she said.  And had he closed his eyes, he could have — would have — pic­tured her cir­cling around and around, in small­er and small­er cir­cles, tighter, tighter turns, zero­ing right around the meati­er issue.  The heart.  And he knew that soon the accu­sa­tion would emerge. The real accu­sa­tion. Not why don’t you under­stand this?  But why don’t you under­stand me?  So he braced him­self for that cer­tain shift with a ten­sion that stretched against the inside of his skin, his inner lin­ing strength­ened and tough­ened by the cal­cu­lus run­ning through his head: the ques­tion of whether the whole thing was worth it any more.  It.  Her.  This trail­ing every night from his room to hers; or hers to his.  This grow­ing accu­sa­tion he couldn’t quite under­stand.  This per­pet­u­al sense that he was let­ting her down, despite the fact that he seemed to be giv­ing in to every­thing she required.  He stretched this ques­tion across his entire being – stay or go? – stretched it pro­tec­tive, pri­vate and taut between him­self and the bar­rage of her voice, con­struct­ing a shel­ter of sorts for him­self, a tee-pee built for one.  For only one.  He let this ques­tion, this doubt about her con­tin­u­ing val­ue to him, this final pow­er he believed him­self to hold, pro­tect him from her words, while she asked him all these ques­tions, while she gave him that pity­ing angry look.  He stretched this skin inside him­self, this tough imper­me­able hide he believed she couldn’t detect; and he toyed with the sat­is­fy­ing fan­ta­sy of telling her just to go off and fuck her­self.  And leave him the fuck alone.  Jesus Christ.

But then the next word that came to him was sex.  That improb­a­ble word flew rip­ping from his con­scious­ness, tear­ing clean­ly through the tough­ened hide.  Sex.  And he felt the shel­ter fail.  Because that was the point of this, wasn’t it?  There was a point to this.  Sex.  That was what they were doing.  Wasn’t it?  That was a word for why he was here.  And it wasn’t a vul­gar word that came to him — not fuck­ing, not pussy, not cunt — but sim­ply “sex.”  A child’s word actu­al­ly, a word that exists only to be out­grown and replaced by some­thing more inti­mate, more per­son­al, dirt­i­er, juici­er, riski­er, less gener­ic.  Better.  More true.  But this was his word: sex.  A place­hold­er of a word, good enough for starters per­haps, but real­ly only until the gap between lan­guage and expe­ri­ence can be closed.  He, how­ev­er, was still years away from that. And in fact, this boy might just nev­er close that gap.  So he used – even in his own head, even when entire­ly alone in that hide­bound shel­ter of soli­tary thought – he used the word that teach­ers and par­ents use, at least in part to hide the truth.  The word of sanc­tioned instruc­tion man­u­als.  The first word he’d learned, when he was just a kid, for what it was they did togeth­er.  He and this pret­ty girl.  Sex.  An almost mean­ing­less word, so dis­tant is it from what it sig­ni­fies; though as it hurled itself into his stream of thought, the boy believed it key to this moment — which it may well have been.  But not just the word.  And all he had was the word.  Sex.  Just the word.  Just a word.  Not much good at all – except as a clue, an impor­tant clue, a crit­i­cal win­dow onto the boy’s default inno­cence, his actu­al igno­rance about why he was sit­ting in this dorm room, unable to grasp pre­cise­ly what was going on.  A clue to his all too real inabil­i­ty to under­stand.  As his girl­friend told him she was afraid she might just mur­der him with his own hunt­ing knife.  So could he please hide it from her?  Please?  Could he put it some­where where she wouldn’t be able to find it?  Just in case while sleep­ing one night an uncon­trol­lable, weird desire comes over her.  Because until he did, she wasn’t stay­ing in his dorm.  His pret­ty girl­friend with her long straight hair.  She wasn’t stay­ing in a room with a knife that big and sharp.  She was afraid of what she might do.  Without mean­ing to, of course.  But she was afraid some­body might get hurt.  Somebody might get killed. Sex. That was why he was still here.  He tried to focus back in on what she’d asked.  What she was ask­ing now.  He looked direct­ly at her, ready­ing him­self to assert that he wasn’t as clue­less as she clear­ly thought he was.  That he did under­stand her.  That he did love her.  And that he knew she didn’t mean to hurt him.  Knew that she would not.  He braced him­self for the exchange he was absolute­ly cer­tain would come next.  The accu­sa­tion, just moments away, he believed.  Why don’t you under­stand me? It was only a mat­ter of her artic­u­lat­ing the words.

But the boy was wrong. Not about the poten­tial for that con­ver­sa­tion­al turn; that poten­tial had been there sure enough, right there swelling and pres­sur­ing the girl along, pres­sur­ing her from some­where deep and hol­low and sad and even doomed inside her­self; but still he was wrong.  Wrong because just at that moment she changed her course.  It was some­thing she saw in his face.  As he watched her, and she watched him.  It was the look of earnest con­fu­sion on his face that stopped her in her tracks.  A look that seemed to be invit­ing her in — toward, not away — a look she liked.  The way his glis­ten­ing eyes nar­rowed, the soft round cheeks rais­ing up, and the way his low­er lip drooped open, slight­ly damp.  The fact that he seemed a lit­tle puz­zled, a lit­tle con­fused.  She saw this expres­sion on his face.  She found this expres­sion on his face.  Found it as though she had been seek­ing it all along.  This puz­zled, mixed-up look.  So instead of fol­low­ing the ener­gy, the rhyth­mic, reg­u­lar, puls­ing ener­gy of her own words, she sim­ply stopped.  Stopped talk­ing.  And watched the boy.  Pushed down the momen­tum, pushed away this long­ing inside her­self, this crav­ing to get through to him in some new way, to be heard, to be under­stood.  Stepped away from this need in her­self for what they did togeth­er, their rou­tines, their exchanges, this need in her for it to be some­how bet­ter.  More urgent.  More intense.  More per­son­al.  More about her; though of course she nev­er put it that way to her­self.   Or  — obvi­ous­ly — to him.  But more about her, in fact.  Much more about her.  And more painful too.  More about shar­ing pain.  She left all of that behind.  She stopped.

And then she began again, more gen­tly.  More ten­der­ly.  She began again to explain about the knife.  She repeat­ed the cen­tral theme to him.  Got back to that.  Her the­sis.  She reit­er­at­ed it.  It wasn’t that she actu­al­ly want­ed him dead.  It wasn’t at all about being angry at him.  Or wish­ing him ill.  Because she wasn’t angry at him.  Not one lit­tle bit.  How could she be?  She loved him.  She loved him so much.  But still, she was afraid she might com­mit the act — by mis­take.  Maybe in her sleep.  Maybe in some kind of fugue state.  Definitely with­out mean­ing to.  And not because there was any­thing wrong between them. She told him all this.  Once again.

But she didn’t tell him every­thing. She didn’t tell him how easy it was for her to imag­ine how it would be, this act.  The col­or of it.  The red.  The sight of his flesh gashed like that.  She didn’t tell him how well she could envi­sion what one might do with a hunt­ing knife.  How her arms could already feel the moment at which flesh resists blade.  And then noth­ing.  Nothing at all.  Nothing.  Nothing.  And then grad­u­al­ly, from that noth­ing, the sen­sa­tion of seep­ing warmth.  She said none of that.  She dis­owned it as they spoke, dis­owned all of that cer­tain knowl­edge, that imagery per­sis­tent inside of her.  She just told him mat­ter-of-fact­ly, as if it were a mat­ter-of-fact thing to dis­cuss, that she was afraid she might mur­der him by acci­dent.  That’s all.  As if by this trick of casu­al con­ver­sa­tion she might just con­vince him that this was no big deal.  It’s no big deal.  She was sim­ply afraid she might take that knife of his and with­out mean­ing to, with­out any actu­al intent, she might do him harm.  Simply that.  And he nod­ded.  As if he real­ly did under­stand.  And as if he agreed.  As if he agreed that what she said made any sense.  Though he didn’t.  He emphat­i­cal­ly did not.  Not at all – because the fact was that either you mean to hack away at some­one with a knife or you don’t.  That seemed indis­putable to him.  Either you mean to do the things you do, or you do oth­er things.  You do oth­er things that you do mean to do.  You just don’t do things that you don’t mean to do. Really.  That is what this poor, belea­guered boy believed.  What this inno­cent boy still believed sit­ting there, nine­teen years old, and in way over his head.  You don’t do any­thing that you don’t mean to do.  That was one thing of which he was sure.  One thing he was cer­tain that  he knew.

But they’d been togeth­er for more than a year by now.  And it didn’t ever pay, this kind of argu­ment.  Arguing with her.  It wasn’t much good.  So he just nod­ded and said, I think I under­stand.  Which didn’t have the girl the least bit fooled – in part because his low­er lip hung there, loose and damp, and his eyes hadn’t yet regained their full size.  So she knew he was still con­fused.  And a part of her liked him a lit­tle bit con­fused.  A part of her liked him to be just a step or two behind.  She want­ed that.  It was why she had been thrown so far off course by that slack-jaw expres­sion on his face.  She want­ed it.  A part of her, at least, want­ed that.  Confusion in the boy.  But more urgent­ly, more impor­tant­ly, right now she want­ed the knife hid­den away.  Hidden away from her.  Because she was gen­uine­ly afraid she might kill him in her sleep.  So with what felt to her like patience, she tried again.  She tried a dif­fer­ent approach.  I just don’t under­stand why you have a hunt­ing knife at school, any­way, she said.  What if I just tell you it scares me?  It just scares me, hav­ing that thing around.  I’m afraid of it.  Why do you have it here, any­way?  And the ques­tion – which was meant to be rhetor­i­cal – was the first she had asked that the boy could answer.  The ques­tion, which real­ly wasn’t one at all, set the boy on some­thing close to sol­id ground.  Because he knew pre­cise­ly why he had brought the hunt­ing knife to school.  Or at least he thought he did.  He had brought it because it had belonged to his grand­fa­ther, who had left it to the boy.  And the boy, who didn’t have much of a father, not a father he could admire, not very much at all, had great­ly admired his grand­fa­ther.  And the grand­fa­ther had left the boy his knife — with a piece of mask­ing tape wrapped around the rough black han­dle, and the boy’s three ini­tials writ­ten there.  An eleventh hour lega­cy, com­mit­ted in the shaky, waver­ing hand of a very old man, a man who at near­ly a cen­tu­ry old, decid­ed he wouldn’t leave this sym­bol of man­hood to his dis­ap­point­ing son.  A ges­ture more about skip­ping this mid­dle gen­er­a­tion, than about believ­ing that his grand­son should have a hunt­ing knife.  A last sec­ond impulse of an ancient dying man; the old­est mem­ber of a line of waver­ing men who put domes­tic­i­ty off well into mid­dle age, skep­ti­cal and resis­tant to com­mit­ting in their youths.  A line of men who found it all too easy – or arguably just easy enough – to stretch that taut fibrous hide across their inner selves at crit­i­cal moments, at poten­tial turn­ing points.  Men who bought and then returned rings they thought bet­ter of offer­ing.  Men who left short notes on pil­lows at dawn, and drove away.  Men who could stare a woman down and pro­fess their love for her, while hear­ing the clock to depar­ture tick­ing down.  Stay or go?  Men who nev­er knew until they had done it which it would be.  So hav­ing well out­lived his expect­ed lifes­pan, the man left his eldest grand­son a knife, while leav­ing pre­cious lit­tle to any­one else.  No mon­ey to speak of – wealth hav­ing come and gone and come again through the gen­er­a­tions in not uncom­mon swells and gul­lies of famine and feast.  The boy’s father a mon­ey mak­er, a saver, a prac­ti­cal man – but the grand­fa­ther not.  But a scraper.  He’d scraped in one way or anoth­er through­out his life, much the way this boy also might, as the years passed on.  Might find accu­mu­lat­ing wealth, accu­mu­lat­ing secu­ri­ty of any kind, a dif­fi­cult task.  As had the old man who willed to him the knife.  Black han­dle, steel blade.  The very knife with which the grand­fa­ther had hunt­ed, four and five and six and sev­en decades ear­li­er.  Hunted and killed.  Adventures grad­u­al­ly ren­dered both vivid and invis­i­ble by all the years that had passed.  Phantom lega­cies of cold weath­er stalk­ing through gray­ing November woods.  Carrying a knife.  A knife with which he skinned and sev­ered prey, deer, hare, maybe birds as well  – the boy wasn’t clear on the prey.  Deer for sure, though.  Beautiful and strong, that gold­en brown skin on which the hairs lay smooth and shined glossy, close in to the haunch­es, spread ridged across the pow­er­ful chest.  Shot through with arrows, felled and cut, blood red against the drained fad­ed land­scape.  Cut with the same knife that now lay beside his own dorm room bed, just next to the tiny German alarm clock and the itty-bit­ty book light he had for­got­ten to pack and his moth­er had mailed to him.  A knife.  A hunt­ing knife.  His knife.  Meant for spilling blood and carv­ing the use­less away.

Though in real­i­ty, the hunter he was – the hunter he believed him­self to be – had no true under­stand­ing yet of blood, fresh blood, sinew and innards spilling out in still warm spurts and pools.  And so the boy used the word knife as he used the word sex; in absolute inno­cence of the truth.  With an enor­mous, leaky, empti­ness between his lan­guage and the truth. I brought it because it reminds me of my grand­fa­ther, he said, think­ing this might some­how end the whole thing. But she only nod­ded, a lit­tle dis­tract­ed­ly now.  Because she didn’t real­ly care about why he had the knife – though she had asked him that; and in oth­er cir­cum­stances she would have liked to hear about his grand­fa­ther, of course.  About loss and sad­ness in the boy.  She would  – in anoth­er sit­u­a­tion – have wel­comed the chance to have him open this wound of his up to her.  This grief.  She would have very much liked — anoth­er time — to have him con­fide in her about how upset he had been.  How he missed the old man.  Usually – but not now  — she would have encour­aged this type of talk, her own instincts being that this kind of open­ing, this shar­ing of pains and wounds was what bound them clos­er togeth­er.  That this was where their hope for a future togeth­er lay.  Her well-formed opin­ion being that this was what it was real­ly about.  All of it.  Love.  A series of expo­sures pulling you toward each oth­er.  That rela­tion­ships, real­ly, weren’t they noth­ing more than a series of scars?  Like scar tis­sue build­ing up?  You tear at each oth­er – you don’t even mean to, but you do – you tear at each oth­er, some­times at your­self, you have a fight, you have a cry, you share some­thing bad; and out of that grows strength.  Hurting.  Arguing.  Even fuck­ing.  Even fuck­ing, she believed — she con­scious­ly believed — was like build­ing a tough, unbreak­able scar tis­sue that stretched between your­selves. Opening, let­ting go, giv­ing your­self over to it all.  Giving up.  Giving in – though not to him. Never giv­ing in to him.  Using him.  Using him while he uses you.  To jump off that cliff.  Any cliff.  Though not into any kind of free fall jump.  Not in an airy, clean dive.  Not a smooth, pre­dictable fall.  But a rough, angry ride from that ini­tial jump.  Fucking.  A tough ago­niz­ing descent into one­self.  Down, down, down, down.  Until you hit noth­ing, the noth­ing inside. That place of absolute still, of soli­tude, of plea­sure.  Here and gone.  Split sec­ond death. And then back to life again.  Until you find one anoth­er.  Don’t you?  Struggling and strag­gling back into your skin.  Beaten up, shat­tered.  Aren’t you?  But togeth­er again.  More togeth­er.  Together more.  Scarred.  Scarred into each oth­er.  Even fuck­ing, she thought, was final­ly, ulti­mate­ly anoth­er kind of shar­ing of one’s own pain.  Binding your­selves togeth­er by rip­ping your­selves apart. And lov­ing, well, lov­ing was just press­ing your ragged edges togeth­er and find­ing strength in that.  Wasn’t it?

But the boy wasn’t done. He real­ly want­ed me to have it, the boy went on.  It was impor­tant to him.  He thought I could be a hunter too.  Like he was. And the girl got snagged, her atten­tion spiked by that.  But could you be? she asked, her voice ener­gized again.  Could you be a hunter, too?  She was star­ing now, right through him with her hard, flinty eyes.  But then when he said yeah, yeah, I think I could, she looked away because all the girl could hear was that enor­mous gap.  That leaky, drafty dis­tance between the words the boy spoke to her and the truth.  Please just hide it from me, she said to him then.  Done try­ing to explain.  Done try­ing to explain her­self to him.  Please just don’t leave it lying there.  Just lying there, like that.  And he shrugged.  He shrugged with what she hoped was his assent.  With what she thought must be assent.  With what had to be assent.  It had to be assent.  And after just a moment, she lift­ed her gaze again from where it fell, and viewed the boy.  And this time there could be no mis­take.  There was pity in her eyes as she picked one hand up off the bed, draw­ing it toward his face and pressed it there, soft against his upper cheek.  Pity in her eyes as she lay her hand across the tran­si­tion from smooth skin to downy stub­ble, grow­ing in.  Pity, as his eyes nar­rowed, his low­er lip regained its con­fi­dent line — the look of con­fu­sion replaced by anoth­er kind of open­ness to her.

With the back of her fin­gers she stroked toward his jaw, just traced that down­ward curve, the bare­ly rough down­ward curve on this boy, this boy of hers, from sol­id bone to sinewy neck.  Down, down, down that neck until the sparse whiskers dis­ap­peared, and all she could feel was his soft, youth­ful skin.

Just hide it from me, she repeat­ed, lean­ing in to kiss his mouth; and the boy kicked his open sneak­er off.

~

Robin Black’s col­lec­tion If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (Random House, 2010) was a final­ist in the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. She is at work on her first nov­el and will be the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bryn Mawr College in 2012.