About the Author

Rick Hillis

Rick Hillis was born and raised in Saskatchewan. After receiving his B.Ed. from the University of Saskatchewan, he went on to attend the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. His previously published works include the poetry collection The Blue Machines of Night and the short story collection Limbo River, which won the Drue Heinz Literature prize. His work received many accolades in Canada and the United States, appeared in many literary journals and anthologies and was read on CBC Radio. Willis taught at Stanford, UC Hayward, Lewis & Clark, Reed College, DePauw University and the Iowa Summer Writers Festival. He died October 6, 2014.

Books by this Author
The Coming of Winter
Excerpt

Blood had dried to his hands by mid- morning, thin streaks of blood on his fingers and knuckles. He cradled his rifle, walking slowly over wet gully leaves, his jacket opened, his blond hair in sweaty knots. The stench of a headless yearling partridge, foot- strung and dangling, a splatter of its dried blood on his pants. He walked cautiously, almost awkwardly, hearing thin sounds in the quiet, sounds that became audible because he was alone and silent.
 
He hoped nothing would catch his scent or the scent of the bird. Another partridge perhaps fanning in the side gravel, digesting as he supposed this one had, uncertain whether to fl y or straighten, and so sitting startled waiting. He hoped for a spikehorn late to the spring, insensible to the conditions of survival. He hoped for a fawn, easy and tender, easy to ground.
 
A warm sun over the slanted coloured birches and a fresh autumn sky. A perfect Saturday. Not a stir. The wind only slight on his face bringing all the day to him, the cleanliness and purification of the season, rotting spruce cuts along the side of the road, the road twisting and overgrown. He concentrated, peering into the shaded growth with a pang of excitement, wishing, wanting something, knowing that something might be there watching him.
 
He moved from the path now moving toward the spring, hearing it before he reached it, and then crouching when he did, crouching and resting his rifle on the stones. The spring water numbed his hands, the cold clear spring, its pebbles and mud that he sank his fingers into. When he raised himself the tightened thigh muscles ached. He stroked the back of his neck, feeling the wetness of his fingers.
 
He stood there with his rifle once more cradled, with the dead bird once more bleeding in small drips. And he stood there watching. Maples on the top slope swayed. He looked past them because the day was so unclouded, the sky clean. Moments elapsed, erased themselves before he began to move again.
 
When he did, he noticed how stiffened his small kill had become. No longer a bird. Only some stiff cold thing. Earlier its warm breast to the sun, neck turned, feathers ruffled. And only the one. By now, late morning, he was unlikely to spot another. There would be little until dusk, and then he’d hunt the path again, slowly over the leaves and dead roots, watching the limbs of trees.
 
He moved uphill very quickly, his boots and pantlegs soaking from the water. But once the water warmed in his boots he would feel comfortable again. It was easier to wade the brook than walk the dam, he feeling unsure and clumsy on his feet. He hunched as he moved, grabbing limbs for support, decayed spruce gum sticking to his palms, frightened for his eyes, yet forever watchful. And once or twice he thought he heard a fanning, felt a pressure in his ears. He would stop to rest looking back over his shoulder, looking to right or left.
 
Stop to rest hearing only his heart, his breathing.
 
Once uphill he moved more slowly so that his breathing slowed, and at the edge of the density peered into the field. If only it was dusk and a buck standing close to the shadows in the other corner, or a doe feeding. He slipped between the wires, tilting the ancient fence logs, and stood in the open. It was a useless empty field even on this day. Enclosed by a dark quarry, the long greyish brown weed and hay unkempt. It had nothing of the colour or smell of the gully.
 
He moved to its middle and sat down. The dry October weeds. He sat down to the musty smell of weed and brownish turned- down grass. Deer had lain here the night before, moved with the dawn downhill to the brook, fed and watered and now were somewhere in the back woods lazy and fed and hidden. He noticed the half- fresh droppings. He unlaced his boots, taking them off to pour out the water. He wrung out his socks, leaving them off to dry. It felt good to have his feet naked to the slight breeze. And it was Saturday; he did not wish to think of lifting crates, nor did he wish to think of Sunday when there was never anything to do but wait for Monday’s shift. So for a while he thought only of the breeze, the white wrinkled skin of his feet.
 
He could feel sharp blades of undergrowth so he resituated himself once or twice, lying down finally and taking out his knife. The blade glinted in the sun, the sun with its faint autumn strength, and he severed in two some of the tall stems that rose around him, whistling to himself as he did. It was a poor kill for a morning’s hunt.
 
By noon he was up once more, retracing his steps over the pathways connecting the small irregular- shaped fields toward his truck, thinking that perhaps he might move from his position to hunt somewhere else, farther in perhaps. The day was turning cloudy, the breeze stronger, sharper on his wet pantlegs than before. But the tree colours seemed no less distinct, the day still carried in its breath all cleanliness and purification. He passed familiar morning markings, empty cartridges on the wet pathway, bootsteps at the edge of listless puddles. The squirrel he had shot lay belly down on a spruce stump, cold now, tail cut off. He inspected it again, its bloody head, gatherings in its pouch, and threw it aside into the alders and undergrowth.
 
Then he stopped, silent, stiffened. No movement, not even shouldering his rifle, not even that. And his pulse, he could hear his pulse as it rushed everything through him. The deadened pale excitement of his face. Everything at that moment was weightless, his whole body, the one step lightly on the tinted leaves, now the one step closer to the alders, as if he must see, as if it had to be there. That instant he craved for it to be there, noticing nothing of the day, the field in view, but only the brown hide of the animal, the black heaviness of it through the thin twigs.
 
He heard the sharp sound of his rifle before he realized he had fired and then he heard its sharp painful sound again, twice to the head. The smell of powder mingling with other smells that he did not notice. And he knew that it was a cow, not a doe. The thickness of a cow’s frame in the field bellowing and whining, not dead. He had realized it all before he had shouldered his rifle and now the rifle sounds were fading in his ears, replaced by that of the cow. At once he cursed himself for firing but he knew that it did little good to curse. And now it was bellowing, trying to stand again as if standing would heal the shot wounds, make the day as it had been before.
 
It was unexplainable but he knew he couldn’t help firing. He also wished the day to be as it had been. He must kill the thing, must kill it! And he was very afraid now, felt the heaviness of his body, and could not shoulder his rifle again, wished to run but knew he couldn’t. Couldn’t stand the sick whine of the animal.
 
He cracked the limbs, the twigs with his heavy body, stumbling with his heavy boots uncareful of where he trod, his eyes fixed on his destination, a flicker of angry desperation on his face.
 
He stood in the open field, the wind at his back, the brightness of the coloured day surrounding him, the strong flavour of autumn once again. The cow lay on its side, trying to jerk upright every so often, falling to its side again, kicking its thick hind legs. It was bleeding very little. Perhaps it didn’t notice he was there. Another cow stood a short distance away watching, not venturing any closer, its enormous eyes watching. He felt sick as he fired, shaking, uncertain of his aim.
 
And he fired four times rapidly and then only live nerves twitching in a dead hide and everything was quiet. He cursed and he could not stop shaking, could not stop feeling sick. But he felt he must leave it there, forget it. And then he laughed nervously as he turned away.
 
He turned to walk along the field- path to his truck, but as he did he noticed that someone was watching him from the shadows near the opposite edge of the field. The man came no closer yet but only watched him as the other cow did with its lazy morbid eyes. He stood still and his sickness was replaced by a throb of terror. If he turned to run he would have nowhere to go. He thought of running, thought of hiding in the gully. But of course the man must have seen his truck. Yes, how could he ever reach his truck if he ran? And the man seemed to be staring past him, staring at the carcass, or staring at everything at once. The man seemed very calm; everything in fact seemed very calm now.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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