Fall 2015, Volume 19

Fiction by John Brantingham

The Water Hunter

When Mary wrinkles her nose at the dinner table, her mother tells her that things are going to be different now that her father has gone off to basic training. They won’t have enough money, and she doesn’t know when he’ll be back. She doesn’t even know whether he’s going to Germany or Japan yet. They’re going to have to make their own way.

Early the next morning, Mary goes into the shed where her father keeps his hunting rifle and shells in a big oak box. It’s padlocked, but she unscrews the hinges and takes it through the forest to the other side of the reservoir where no one ever goes.

It’s the wrong kind of rifle for ducks. She knows it is, but she takes her time sighting a big white one floating near the shore. On the way home, she gets a rabbit too. She sees a deer and aims knowing that she won’t pull the trigger because it’s too big to carry home on her own.

Two years ago, when her mother told her how to plant potatoes, she cut up one for seed and planted it kind of as a game on the bank of the reservoir. She’d forgotten about that until now, forgot to see if she’d played her game well. It takes her a while to find her plant because the reservoir is low, but after some hunting, she finds them. They’ve mostly been gnawed apart by animals or bugs, but there are a couple worth taking, and maybe more under the ground.

When she comes home, her mother asks her where she got the duck and the rabbit. “I took dad’s gun. He spent all last year teaching me how to shoot and clean it.” She shrugs. “I thought I could help out a little.”

Her mother frowns at her. Not angry. Thinking it through. “I don’t know that your father would want you to do that.”

“He told me I could if I wanted to. He said that if things start to get rough I should use it. That’s why he taught me to shoot.”

“You don’t have a permit.”

“I’ll go out back through the woods so the police won’t see me.”

“You don’t point it at anything until you know it’s an animal.”

Mary nods.

Mary gets smart, decides to spend a week figuring out the patterns of the patrolmen in the area. She and her mother are way back and out of town, so the policemen don’t usually drive out this way, but she finds out the big yellow-haired cop drives the reservoir road at eight in the morning most weekday mornings, and the brown-haired cop with the moustache drives by at five in the evening.  

It’s easy. Another game for her, and her father has enough shells in his oak box for months and months. Her mother begins to hum again when she’s fixing dinner. Mary takes the gnawed bits of potato out of the grounds and replants what she can, thinking they’ll have a crop in a few months. In a couple of weeks when the rains come again, she replants them higher on the hill. There’s no knowing how full the reservoir will get.

Most mornings, Mary goes out to the banks of the reservoir before dawn to watch the sun come up. She sits in the tall grass watching across the water, waiting for the yellow-haired cop to drive by. When he does, she smiles because she’s won her game for the day. She picks up her father’s rifle to find what she can.

It’s five months before the soldiers come to tell Mary and her mother that her father has been shot by a German. “Where?” she asks.

The soldier narrows his eyes. “I don’t know, but it was fatal.”

“No, I mean where in Germany?”

“Oh,” the soldier smiles at his misunderstanding and then becomes grave again. “In the countryside in France. A lot of men have died there.”

After they leave, Mary’s mother lies on her bed to weep, but Mary takes her father’s gun, her gun, and walks to the reservoir. She sits on the shore all night watching the birds flitting about. She draws a bead again and again but doesn’t shoot.

In the morning, she’s still awake, and she’s forgotten all about the yellow-haired cop, but there he is in his patrol car, driving across the water from her.

Mary sights him, and follows him with an invisible line between her eyes, her barrel and the side of his head. She breathes out as she aims, just as her father told her to. She thinks about the French countryside and the pictures she’s seen of it in the library and the newspaper. She thinks about how much her father would have loved to see those French fields. Because her father would have wanted her to, she says, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, amen.” She keeps her aim until the yellow-haired cop turns the corner, and she knows that she doesn’t believe in God any longer.

When he’s gone, she lies the rifle down on the ground in front of her and walks up the hill to tend to her potatoes. She leaves it there when she walks home.

All that winter, it snows up hill in the mountains. All that summer, the snowmelt fills the reservoir. Mary watches the water creep towards the rifle she’s left every morning as she takes care of her potatoes. She plants squash, beans, and onions too. By the time she is sixteen years old, the rifle is hidden down under the waves, a secret that only she and the water know now.




BIO: My work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, and I have had hundreds of poems and stories published in magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. My newest poetry collection, The Green of Sunset, is from Moon Tide Press. I am the writer-in-residence at the dA Center for the Arts.