23. Hunters in the Snow
This is day Twenty-three of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.
Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite short story writers. His story In The Garden of the North American Martyrs is one of the best pieces of short fiction ever scribbled out.
I remember one time, years ago, he was giving a talk at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of the Arts & Letters Live series. Well, I’m poor and can’t afford the full price ticket to these lectures, but, for a pittance, you can attend and sit in an auditorium off to the side where the lecture is beamed in on a screen. I was sitting there, waiting with a few other people (the main room was packed) when I looked up and there was Tobias Wolff, walking between the rows talking to us. He said he didn’t think it was fair that we had to sit in the other room and had arranged for an extra row of seats down across the front. We all marched into the big room and saw the live lecture, thanks to the author.
It was better that way.
I’m afraid today’s story is one that I had read before – but had forgotten until I was about a third of the way in. That’s not surprising… I guess Wolff is another writer that I have read, if not everything, then almost all his output.
At any rate, it’s a good story, with a few differences from similar modern realistic tragedies. First, the origins of the story is pretty obvious. First, there’s the eponymous painting by Pieter Bruegel.
The tone of the story is different from the balanced and optimistic winter scene in the painting. A more accurate source of the story is an old joke about a man asking a hunter to shoot his old dog for him, as a favor.
That’s what is so odd and interesting about the story is the juxtaposition of the realistic horror of the situation and the humor that laces the story. It’s an odd combination – sort of like the three stooges, but the blows actually hurt.
Some juvenile delinquents had heaved a brick through the windshield on the driver’s side, so the cold and snow tunneled right into the cab. The heater didn’t work. They covered themselves with a couple of blankets Kenny had brought along and pulled down the muffs on their caps. Tub tried to keep his hands warm by rubbing them under the blanket but Frank made him stop.
They left Spokane and drove deep into the country, running along black lines of fences. The snow let up, but still there was no edge to the land where it met the sky. Nothing moved in the chalky fields. The cold bleached their faces and made the stubble stand out on their cheeks and along their upper lips. They stopped twice for coffee before they got to the woods where Kenny wanted to hunt.
Tub was for trying someplace different; two years in a row they’d been up and down this land and hadn’t seen a thing. Frank didn’t care one way or the other, he just wanted to get out of the goddamned truck. “Feel that,” Frank said, slamming the door. He spread his feet and closed his eyes and leaned his head way back and breathed deeply. “Tune in on that energy.”
—-Tobias Wolff, Hunters in the Snow