The woods were far too quiet for the time of day. Not a single bird sang from a single tree; not a paw moved on the dead-leaf floor. It was out there, somewhere.
‘Let’s see you, then,’ I whispered, then berated myself for doing so. Any sound was too loud.
What I was looking for was something you found only by being quieter than silence itself. I stayed rooted to the spot for, oh, thirty, forty minutes, all my senses resting on the air, when I heard the slightest rustle, over to the east. I shouldered my gun and headed towards it.
‘What happened to you?’ I asked it. Again, a silent castigation.
I used to go out hunting with my son, Charles, and we frequently chatted. Doesn’t matter so much when it’s deer or foxes, but this was different. I thought of Charles and all the times we’d spent together. Then I hardened myself, reminded myself why I’d come looking for this thing, remembered the hunt.
The blackbird looked up at me with the eyes of a creature that had utterly given up. I used to see that look on the faces of creatures I’d shot that had been wounded beyond repair but had a little way to go until death, and knew it. I instinctively lowered my gun to it, but did not shoot. No noise, not out here, not now. The poor bird and I shared a moment of broken unhappiness, then it moved its damaged wings and hopped asymmetrically towards the deeper wood, where the epicentre of silence lay. I gave it a head start and then followed, but somehow it disappeared behind a tree and when I caught up, it was gone.
‘Son of a—‘ I said, and this time it didn’t matter, because crows were calling out overhead and life had come back to the wood. The hunt was over. The beast was gone.
‘Over my dead body,’ I said. ‘This house and land have belonged to my family for generations. Tell your lawyer I’ll fight it till all the money’s gone. This place is an inheritance, not something to be…’
She spoke for a while, Mary, until I cursed at her and slammed the phone down. How dare she? How dare she bring Charles into it? He was her son, too. How could she be so cold, so calculating? Bloody lawyer put her up to it, but to bring Charles into it? The house was his inheritance, whether he could claim it or not. To suggest it was me who…
No. I cleared my mind. The hunt. That was what mattered now, not this stupid squabbling over decaying property. The land was still mine, and that was where the beast lay: something older than I’d ever seen, something hidden from the world for so, so long; something detectable only by what it didn’t leave, by the lack of marks or sound or presence. Charles wouldn’t be joining me this time. This hunt was between me and the beast. Just the two of us. Alone.
This time there were starlings, more than a dozen of the things, making strange shapes between the trees with their swooping, sweeping flight. Unusual behaviour for starlings, to say the least. It was as if they were making a signal of some sort, drawing lines in the air that could only be read by eyes that knew the language. Everything else was silent as a grave. Charles stood next to me, so long as I didn’t turn my head to look at him. So long as I kept looking forward, to where the beast was waiting, I could feel Charles, remember him in the long, dark jacket he used to wear and his hat. Oh, that hat.
‘Why do you wear that idiotic thing? We’ve got money. You could easily afford something decent. You look like a hoodlum.’
Charles would just grunt when I said that, act like he didn’t care about anything I said, but Mary used to tell me otherwise.
‘You know how sensitive he is, Steven. You mustn’t talk to him that way. It really hurts him. You know he doesn’t have many friends at school.’
‘Not bloody surprised, with that hat.’
Didn’t defuse the conversation, but it did end it. Charles needed to harden up. He couldn’t go around getting offended by anything anyone said, or … There. Something moved, a dark blur between trees, a few feet above the ground (or was it jumping up from the ground?). The starlings kept whirling and diving, but sank a little lower, closer to the beast. They’d moved away so I refocused my binoculars, waiting for another sight, another sign that I should move closer, approach the beast. And then: gone. No more starlings. Nothing jumped up, nothing moved, but the starlings were no longer there, as if some great artist had simply erased them from existence. I lowered the binoculars and used my bare eyes to scan the area, desperate for another glimpse.
“Don’t be too hungry,” my father used to tell me when we went out hunting together. ‘You should try not to care. If you want it too much it won’t happen. That goes for the rest of life. Let it come to you, not the other way round.’
The sun moved in his heaven and a chill wind rustled the trees, brought a little of autumn back to the woods, and life returned. The beast was gone. I suddenly realised how cold I was; how tired. I gathered up my things and headed home.
If you want to truly savour a good whiskey you shouldn’t add water or ice; all you need is the correct glass and patience. If you just want to get drunk, you don’t need either.
‘Good whiskey, eh, Chaz?’ I said, to nothing. ‘Not that you were a fan. Too much time around your bloody hoodlum friends. Eh? Not that I minded. Not that I minded at all.’
It’s easy enough to lie when there’s no one around to hear it. Of course I minded, and I told him so. I told him all the time. He never listened, because: teenager. We were all that age once, but I’m sure I gave my father more respect, more attention than he ever gave me. I had to demand his attention, and that’s something a father should never have to do. Not that I minded. Not with Chaz.
‘Why’d you do it, boy? Why’d you do it?’
‘Because of you,’ Mary had told me. ‘You. You. You.’
The woman was in hysterics at the time so I shouldn’t blame her. But I did. Do. She found him, so she had the right to make a noise. She should never have said that, though. Nobody should ever say that to a father.
I raised another glass to Charles, who didn’t touch the stuff. He just stood by the fire and watched me with the silence that only the dead can own. He knew about the hunt. He knew what I was up to.
‘Won’t be long now, Chaz. No hunt lasts forever. Shame you won’t be joining me on this one.’
No, it wasn’t. This was not a hunt for two people. Charles never enjoyed hunting, anyway. Just another way that he wasn’t like the rest of the family. Like me, or my father, or my older brother, Tom. He was still my son; still my soul.
‘I love you, Chaz,’ I told him.
Better late than never… Not really; No.
Only a trail this time. Blood and scraping. A dash of orange fur caught on some brambles: fox. Heavily wounded by the look of it. I checked for prints. Definitely wounded.
No sign of it, but the woods were still silent as a cocked gun, finding its mark. The trail ran cold, as if the fox had simply vanished into cold, biting air. I wasn’t surprised this time. I was learning its ways now; learning the secrets of a creature that could never be found. I shifted my gun to my other hand so I could wipe the sweat on my thigh. Something moved in the shadows, but it was early afternoon so the shadows shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It was watching me, this untrackable thing that lived behind the world and took only those that wished to be taken.
We stood at opposite ends of a great, deep chasm; one false step would result in a plunge from which there could be no return. The hunt was nearing its end, but not yet. I wiped my gun hand again, tried to steady it, tried to stay focused. Then silence flew up and away, and the world came back to life. The beast was gone, back to the shadows or whatever lay beyond them. I shifted my gun and headed for home.
‘Listen to me, Mary. Just listen. The house: you can have it. Take what you want. Just leave it in. Just keep it in the family, alright? Don’t sell it yet. Yes, I know. I know. I know he is. But I don’t want it sold. Not yet. Just wait until I’m… Just wait. Okay? Just wait.’
I hung up before she could answer and unplugged the phone. I wiped my cheek and walked around the old house for a while, straightening the paintings, touching the portraits. Dust. Never mind the dust. Too late for dust. It was silent outside.
‘Time to go, Charles,’ I said. I pulled on my boots and jacket. I picked up my gun and stroked it for a moment, then put it back in its cabinet and locked it tight.
‘Don’t like guns, do we Charles? Don’t like guns, no.’
The words bubbled in my throat and stuck there. Guns! I left the house, didn’t lock it behind me. The whole world was silent: it had come right to my doorstep. It had come to me. Not here, though. Out there, in the depths of the wood. That’s where the hunt would end. That’s where it would be waiting.
‘What was wrong with the starlings?’ I say to the wood, which says nothing in reply. I hear only the snap and rustle beneath my feet. Even the clouds have stopped moving in the sky. ‘The fox and the blackbird I could understand, but the starlings? They looked fine to me.’
Still nothing, but in that nothing I sense the answer: they were too long in this world. Their pattern, their shape, had reached its conclusion. Their weave was complete, so they took themselves to the beast, allowed the hunt to end.
‘I’m ready,’ I tell it. ‘You found me. The hunt is up. I’m ready to go.’
I turn to see Charles standing beside me, holding his gun and looking as out of place as a mouse in a cattery. Why did you have to bring the gun, Charles? We don’t like guns, anymore. I smile at him but he doesn’t smile back. The dead can’t change.
An old, broken blackbird; some starlings that had used up their time; a fox that was wounded beyond fixing; and now me. The shadows part and it steps out, fully visible now in the morning light. It’s bigger than I expected, and I expected it to be big. It’s about the same size as me. It doesn’t look like anything recognisable. It looks like him.
‘The hunt is up,’ I say again. I fall to my knees, like I swore I never would. Some beasts can’t be fought, can’t be outrun. I wonder if it will hurt, but it is gentle, like the wind. Charles watches and waits, still holding that damned gun.
‘I’m sorry, Charles,’ I tell him, tell both of them. ‘I’m sorry for letting you down.’
The hunt is over, and the beast takes its prey.
Bio: Owen Smith is 39 years old enough to know better, and divides his time between Wales, England, India and the strange worlds that he invents for himself (depending on where it’s raining least at the time).