Authors: Rick Bass
He sneered at them, wouldn't shake their hands, and instead snarled the one most cutting greeting anyone could have designedâ "
Y'all ain't country
" âthen turned on his heel and walked off.
There was no one from whom such rebuke could have been more painful. They were too young, too heartbroken, too desperately professional to do anything but smile and pretend nothing had happened and move on to their next greeting. The curtains about to lift. The biggest night of their lives.
The curtains lifting, then, to the applause. Not a single face was distinguishable to them on the other side of that wall of light, but such radiant love emanated from that place. It was only two minutes and thirty seconds of love, to be sure, but it was love nonetheless, and something else, tooânot just power and voice and control in a hard world, but some other beautiful thing that they could not quite reach or touch.
The sound pouring out of them and the audience roaring, rising to applaud their youth and originality. Giving them a welcome, an ovation, the likes of which Little Jimmy, in all his years of trailblazing, had never known.
Drinks backstage, afterward. Little Jimmy glowering, shunning them, leaving early. Able, in his fury, to see something that no one else yet could: that they were attempting to leave behind forever the place they had come from in a betrayal, a disowning, that was to him of biblical proportions. Harlots and blasphemers. He knew they were friends with Elvis, and though Elvis was not yet as huge as he would soon become, Little Jimmy knew all he needed to know about Elvis, too. Jimmy Dickens knew that once the Browns had crossed one lineâleaving Poplar Creek behind, and leaving it so quickly, and making that strange soundâthere were surely no other lines they would not also cross. The sound, once unleashed into the world, flowing downhill, spreading and pooling. Powerful, beautiful, treacherous, unmanageable. He didn't want anything to do with it, and he understood that it would destroy all that he was about.
IM AND MARY CAME
out to visit them that next November, after the northwestern tour, so that Jim and Jim Ed could go deer hunting. Jim had never held a gun before, and had been putting it off, but Jim Ed had been hounding him about it for years, and Jim saw it as a way not only to take a rest, but to reconnect with the Browns, whom Jim had not seen so much since Elvis had entered their lives, and to maybe even recapture some of the vitality that he remembered the Browns having when he had first met up with them.
Because Jim was family now, they brought him home to hang out and go hunting along the high bluffs of Poplar Creek, where the men sat in rickety stands up in the limbs of oak and hickory and ash trees and waited and watched for the deer that were the same color as the dried leaves. Jim Ed had hunted along the bluffs above Poplar Creek for all his life, as had Floyd, as had Floyd's father.
Jim Ed knew the places where the deer were likely to travel. It seemed mysterious, and from day to day, it was; but across the span of years, the movements of the deer compressed to a predictability that was surprising and yet reassuring. If you were willing to wait long enough, you would get a chanceâas if the paths of the deer, over the long haul, were governed by decisions made by larger factors.
On their first hunt together, Jim Ed gave Jim his prize spot, the stand that overlooked the central corridor down which deer passed regularly. Jim had wanted to take his flask up on the stand with himâit was to be an afternoon huntâbut Jim Ed surprised him by saying that he didn't want to do that. Jim Ed had had uncles and cousins fall from their tree stands while drinking and be killed or injured. "Plus, it's just better without," Jim Ed said. "It's great. You'll see."
"You're talking like some kind of prohibitionist," Jim told the younger man. A pause, and then a tease that was not entirely a tease. "Are you forbidding me to take my medicine up there with me, especially on such a cool autumn afternoon?"
Jim eyed his flask. The forest dark and strange before them. "How do you know we're late?" he asked.
"I can just feel it," Jim Ed said. "It's going to be a good day. Come on." Jim shrugged, left the flask on the table untouched, picked up his gun, and went out into the autumn light with the younger man, and felt immediately how right Jim Ed had been.
They walked side by side down the clay road that sloped into the bottomlands, the sky blue and cold above them, with the brayings of Canada geese overhead. They talked about little things at first but then transitioned smoothly into the larger things that lay beneath them. The road left the field and went down into the forest, past the places where Floyd and the crews had felled individual trees over the yearsâpast giant stumps in varying stages of decayâand into the area that Floyd, like his father before him, had kept reserved for hunting. The trees were immense, the mast crop plentiful. The quality of light was different, and the soil, closer to the creek, was richer from the many floods. Sounds were muted; there was a greater stillness among the big trees.
That first time, Jim Ed directed Jim to climb up into his favorite blind, a platform nailed to the fork of an oak tree thirty feet above the ground. Dry leaves blanketed the earth, with only a few red and brown and gold leaves still clinging to the branches above. If anyone had looked up at the fork in the tree, they would have been able to see Jim sitting up thereâbut the deer never looked up, keeping their eyes alert only for threats down at eye level, and the blind was high enough up that any currents of human scent were carried farther away.
Jim, as sober as a judge, climbed up the crude plank ladder to the favorite tree and nestled in, pleased with the world and the time of day, and feeling like a boy again, a boy in a tree fort watching the horizon for pirates or dragons.
Jim Ed walked quietly along the ridge that led to the next tree stand, passing through shafts of copper light. He could sense he was a little late, that already the deer were moving, but he could tell also that everything would turn out all right: that things were just as they were meant to be. Some days were like that, and when they were, they resonated within him so deeply that it was as if he heard a voice speaking to him, assuring him of how things would turn out: that his wish, his desire, would be granted.
He found the tree he was searching for and, slinging his rifle over his shoulder, climbed carefully up the board ladder, each step a single slat nailed to the trunk. The steps had grown slick with moss since the last hunting season, and he had not had time to check any of the boards for rot or mildew. Even as he was ascending, one board pulled free in his hand, leaving a gap in his climb that made his reliance on the next board all the more critical. When he finally reached the security of the platform above, his heart was beating quickly, and he sat there, still and silent, for some time before it finally slowed.
He looked over and saw some hundred yards distant the hunched shape of Jim up in his tree, as motionless as a gargoyle.
Jim Ed looked farther out then and saw the buck long before Jim noticed it, even though it was coming straight at Jim. It was as large a buck as Jim Ed had ever seen. Its antlers were dark brown, burnished by polishing them against saplings, sharpening their tips for battle, though one of the tips was broken off from such battles. The buck's coat was already winter dark, and he was fat from eating acorns. His face was streaked with gray and latticed with scars, and yet he was still muscular. There was a white patch around each of his eyes, a perfect O of snow whiteness, giving him a look of permanent startlement.
The deer's neck was swollen thick with November rut, and when he stopped from time to time and looked around, searching for a doe to breed, his breath came in puffs of vapor cloud if he paused in the shadows, though when he was in the mild slants of sunlight, no such breath-clouds arose.
It was Jim's deer, coming straight at him, but Jim did not see it; to Jim Ed, it appeared that Jim might be asleep.
Now the deer paused again, as if it had been seeking a rendezvous with some mysterious stranger in this approximate place and at this approximate time, and, finding no such appointmentâlooking carefully everywhereâdecided to abandon that interior directive, and turned and began drifting instead toward Jim Ed's tree stand; and still Jim gave no sign of seeing the great deer, or of even being awake.
The deer was close enough now that Jim Ed could hear the rustling of dry leaves as it strode through them, coming like a gift, and still Jim Ed waited and watched, from the corner of his eye, to see if his guest might stir and yet take this deer.
The deer was almost too closeâonly thirty yards out, so that any small movement by Jim Ed might be seen or sensedâand now the deer stopped again, as if dumbfounded that here, too, the appointment toward which he had been summoned had failed to materialize. The deer stood there waiting, and Jim Ed understood that the gift was his, not Jim's, and that, as he had come hunting in search of a deer, to scorn or reject such a gift now would be disrespectful.
Jim Ed lifted the rifle carefully and put the crosshairs of the scope just behind the deer's left shoulder. The deer was so close that it filled the scope. Jim Ed waited for a moment, and then squeezed the trigger as he had on so many deer before.
In the echo of the blast, the deer hunched its back and hopped as if bee-stung, then whirled and galloped off like a racehorse, its tight-tucked tail the only indication that it was injured.
Jim awoke with a shout and watched the deer sprint past, its wide tall antlers bobbing. To him, in his grogginess, it looked like a deer running through the woods with a chair tied upside down above his head. If he had been able to fire a shot at the sprinting-away deer, he would have, but he was too disoriented; he could only watch the strange dream, then the half-dream, and then the deer was gone.
Figuring that the hunt was overâdusk was but an hour or so away, and he could not imagine any more deer coming through after the uproar of the shotâJim climbed down from his ladder and began shuffling through the leaves toward Jim Ed's tree stand. Jim Ed frownedâit was his habit after shooting a deer to sit quietly for half an hour, so that the wounded deerâconfused and not knowing exactly where the shot had come fromâwould, if unpursued, run only a very short distance and then lie down to bleed out and die. Left untended, a hole in the heart would not heal itself, and the deer would die quietly, sinking back down toward the same soil that had briefly animated it.
Even now, Jim Ed heard a faint crashing in the distance, and knew that his deer had already bedded down and was looking back, watching to see if the hunter might be stirring. And upon seeing Jim sauntering through the forest, the deer had leapt back up and plunged down into the ravine.
They set off to look for the deer. Jim Ed searched a long time for the first drop of blood and the first sprinklings of hair.
It was slow going, reading the deer's last history drop by drop, and grew harder still once they entered the ravine. They soon ran out of light, but Jim Ed had brought a flashlight, and they continued on. Jim Ed could not help but think that if Jim had stayed in his tree stand they would already have the deer cleaned and hauled out and would be back home, maybe nursing one of Jim's beloved whiskeys, but he was too polite to let Jim know of his mistake. He wanted to build an enthusiasm for the hunt in Jim, and so he pushed through the brush without comment or criticism, intent instead only on finding the tiny drops that would lead them to their trophy.
In older times Jim Ed had carried a lantern, the dull but democratic glow of which was ideal for casting an equal light that served well the search for the anomalous spatterings, the red drops drying to brown and splintering already into little fissures and fractures, like mud cracks in a dried-out pondâeach speck of blood on each random leaf but a single drop, and nothing that seemed capable of killing the deerâbut he had no lantern this evening, only the flashlight with its narrow beam, and with so much darkness on either side of that beam. It was slower hunting, and they walked carefully. It was always Jim Ed who noticed the next drop, and the next. Jim was just out for a walk.
When they finally came to the end of the blood trail, the giant deer was piled up like an accordion at the very bottom of the ravine, and somehow not looking like quite the same animal. Huge, and powerful, but not quite as vital.
Jim Ed cleaned the deer, fastidious as everâwhen he was done, he washed his hands in the trickling creek beside which the deer had diedâand then the two men took turns pulling the heavy animal up the long hill. Jim congratulated Jim Ed on the size of the animal, and how strange it was that the deer had almost walked right up to Jim Ed.
"I've always been lucky that way," Jim Ed said, panting. He knew of no harder work in the world than dragging a big deer uphill.
Eventually they reached the clay road and left the deer thereâits antlers seeming even larger in the scan of the flashlight than they had in the daylightâand they walked to Floyd and Birdie's house in high spirits. Back at the house, everyone was excited to hear that Jim Ed had shot a big deer, and they all climbed into Floyd's truck to go see. A Saturday-night outing, an event of great festivity.
All the time in the world was theirs, suddenly; the world slowed to a creep, in hunting season. Timelessnessâafter having been gone all the preceding yearâreturned.
Hanging the deer from the ancient pole between the two oaks, beneath which they had always cleaned their deer. Butchering the deer the next day in the autumn sunlight, perfect temperature, cool enough to keep insects away, but with the workers able to feel the warmth of leisurely, attentive work to a task. It would be hard to call it work; it was just a life.
Bonnie and Maxine played guitars on the porch and sang, as did Norma, still just a child. The girls baked pies with Birdie, put them on the windowsill to cool. It could easily be said these were the happiest times of their lives. That week, Jim Ed and Jim did not stop with hunting deer but went after ducks, too, walking along the banks and bluffs of Poplar Creek, jumping the flamboyantly colored little wood ducks, which were the best-eating duckâthe birds' breasts swollen from a diet of acornsâand later in the day walking back home with a burlap bag of the iridescent birds, each as fantastically colored as a parrot.