Have you ever tried to write about nothing? I do it all the time. Some might think this is dangerous, but the level of danger is proportional with the number of people likely to read it. I am not in much danger, after all.
I had a good story to write, but it will have to wait for another day, because I am just short of the energy required to write it. I sat here this morning, thinking about it, composing it in my head, and did such a good job mentally that I have no desire physically to carry out the task, the mental part having satisfied so completely. When I finally get around to writing it, you too will likely think it is a good story.
We all have stories to tell. Stories about eccentric characters in our family. Stories about adventures with our brothers, sisters, and cousins. Stories about an old maid aunt’s peculiarities, or an uncle’s fishing trip. Some of those stories are likely to be first hand recollections. Others will be stories handed down through the generations, each generation adding its own embellishments until the story has grown far from the truth, but is a much better story for telling. Who needs the truth, anyway, when it comes to storytelling? Stories are not about historical recollections; they are about entertainment. I suppose the best stories are those that mix the truth with the fantastic. There are times when nothing but the truth will do. Storytelling is not one of those times.
The best stories told among friends and family are those that start out with a solemn oath of the truth to follow. Since no one remotely believes that, and no one is deceived for an instant, this sets up the most wonderful stories.
“I swear that what I am about to tell you is the truth,” said Uncle Bofus mostly for the benefit of us young nephews gathered around the fire at the hunting camp, several pairs of ears attuned to every word, one ear, turned towards Uncle Bofus on the opposite side of the fire from us, warmed by the radiant heat of the campfire, the other, turned away, bitten with the frost of a December night. The warm ear is ready for every nuanced syllable. The cold ear is ready for its turn facing the fire. Every face is warm and every backside is cold. This is the nature of a campfire on a frosty evening, which provides warmth, but only on half of one’s body at the time. There is about as much heat as there is the truth. The truth, like the heat, is somewhere in there, but getting to it only comes by fits and starts.
Then comes the story of the epic chase of the perfect buck, the one everyone has hunted for years but eluded harvest until its luck finally ran out. The buck that eluded entire packs of hounds, cleverly doubling back, that continually came to rest behind the old school bus that serves as the young boys bunkhouse, which is right beside the dog pen, causing the dogs to bark all night.
“Y’all dogs shut up all that racket!” Uncle Bofus said that Grandpa Willard had shouted, cussing the hounds for the noise that prevented him from sleeping, using words at the hunting camp he never would have uttered in his own home within earshot of Grandma Eunice. Those words may work at the hunting camp, but they would not work with Grandma Eunice, who would just as likely twist the ear of a grown man while washing his mouth out with Octagon soap as she would one of us schoolboys. There were just certain things it was not wise to do. Running afoul of Grandma Eunice was one of those things. Her tightly pulled back hair and the bun as perfectly formed as a large dinner roll adorning her head were a sure sign of her want of toleration of foolishness. Lucky for us, Grandma Eunice never ventured down to the hunting camp. What the men did there she knew better than to ask. What we men (and boys) did there we knew better than to say. Everyone was happy with the truth, provided the truth was never told.
Then comes the part of the deer story about the perfect shot, through a hundred and twenty yards of dense brush with a shotgun loaded with double-ought buckshot, that brought the trophy deer down. Many said it was a lucky shot, since Uncle Jubal, who was not really our blood uncle but a city fellow who had married Aunt Faye when she was an old maid, was not capable of a good shot.
“He was just lucky, that’s all,” said Uncle Bofus, turning his backside to the fire to warm it for a bit before continuing the story about the deer, now wounded, but not quite dead yet. He paused for a minute until his breeches started smoking. He whipped back around facing the fire, flailing on his backside to get the overheated seat of his pants to cool down before resuming.
“In the confusion of the dogs and all us folks tracking it down, that ol’ buck made straight for the camp. It ran,” he said, pointing at the skinning rack, “all the way to right there under the skinnin’ rack and began to skin itself before it died. Me and Grandpa Willard had to finish the job, of course, since ol’ Jubal didn’t know nothin’ ’bout skinnin’ no deer. He didn’t know much at all, come to think of it, but he loved Faye, and they’s both dead and gone now. I reckon we won’t say nothing bad about him now.”
“Well, I will then,” cried Uncle Eustice, rising from his perch beside the fire, his overalls just smoking from the heat, and him stomping around trying to get the fire in his breeches to settle down. He spit right into the fire with a sizzle. “That bastard owed me six dollars. He never did pay it. I would’t say nothin’ to Faye about it after he died, but I’m still out the six dollars. It’s as gone as they are, now.”
“You oughten not hold no grudge like that, particularly not against yore dead sister’s dead husband,” said Grandpa Willard, poking the fire with a stick. “Jubal never hurt nobody, and the way I recollect, that six dollars you say he owed was your share of a Walker hound y’all bought in cahoots together. You shoulda knowed that Jubal didn’t know nothin’ about no hounddog.”
“Well, he said it was a good’un, and I give him the six dollars fair and square based on his word. The way I figure it, when that hound run off the first time we run him and never did come back, Jubal owed me that six dollars I was out,” said Eustice. He crossed his arms and looked stern, perhaps thinking about all the other things he might have done with the six dollars rather than wasting it on a bad hound dog on Jubal’s recommendation. Eustice was disgusted with himself, since Grandpa Willard was right. Nobody said anything for a while. We all just shifted around trying to get the warmth of the fire into each part of our body without letting any part get too hot.
“Anyhow,” said Uncle Bofus, “If y’all will let me continue my story without all the interruptions, that deer damn near had hisself skint before we got up there. We finished the job and took the backstraps and fried them up that same evening, but not before we smeared some deer blood on ol’ Jubal. He sat there eatin’ up that fried deer meat and grinnin’ like a jackass eatin’ briars he was so proud of hisself and that lucky shot.” We all thought of the horns hanging over the mantle in the main hunting camphouse. Thick, heavy-tined antlers, nearly a thirty inch typical spread sporting twelve points. No one before or since had killed such a deer at the family camp. Uncle Jubal, the mysterious dog-foolish city fellow who had married our Aunt Faye, who we would never know, was the champion hunter of the family. We wondered how someone so unlike ourselves could have that distinction.
Uncle Bofus must have read our minds. “Luck,” he said, “Pure dee luck.” He shook his head. Uncle Eustice Shook his head. Grandpa Willard shook his head. We all started shaking our heads since they were shaking their heads, visions of self-flaying trophy bucks presenting themselves at the skinning shed, knowing that this was not very likely, but not daring to give voice to our doubts, since this was a magic place, and this was a magic story, one that belonged to us, to our family…not for outsiders who wouldn’t believe it for an instant, since they didn’t know about the magic of stories by the campfire.
We all packed off to bed in the school-bus bunkhouse, and dreamed dreams of trophy bucks we shot a miraculous distances, but in our dreams, the effective shots we made were from skill and woodcraft; in our dreams, we were the masters of all we surveyed, except of course, we were outskilled by Grandpa Willard, Uncle Bofus, and Uncle Eustice, who were the most savvy, woods-smart people who ever lived in the history of the world. At least, in our dreams, we were more skilled and savvy than the unfortunate Uncle Jubal, who was just lucky, after all.
After we dreamed of that, we then settled in to a deep sleep where we dreamed of nothing at all, except of the warmth of a campfire that warmed us one side at the time. Perhaps it was the coldness of the school bus bunkhouse that led us to dream of that. After a while, the dogs started a howling that woke us all up. Grandpa Willard raised the window of the camphouse and shouted, ““Y’all dogs shut up all that racket!” We knew that the son or the grandson of Jubal’s buck must be out there. We heard Grandpa Willard hark and gaggle, and spit out of the window before it closed, the dogs now silent, curled back up in the doghouse. They knew not to mess with Grandpa Willard.
“Maybe tomorrow morning, one of us will kill a buck bigger than old Uncle Jubal’s,” I whispered to Cousin Floyd.
“I doubt it’ll be you,” harrumphed Floyd. “You couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle.” We both laughed at that, knowing that if Grandma Eunice heard such a thing come out of our mouths, it was Octagon soap for us; but this was the hunting camp where the men were allowed such liberties, and we were counted among the men folk, here.
“You know, Floyd, I don’t have to be a good shot,” I said, “I just have to be lucky.”
And there, amid all the snoring, grunting, and stink of sweaty clothes, hunting boots, and the smell of wood smoke on a cold December night, was the creation of a vivid story of a future recolletion of an adventure that was about nothing at all.