H. William Rice isn’t concerned with trophy kills. In the 15 cyclical stories comprising this year’s staggering The Lost Woods, he explores the intertwined and tangled paths of two South Carolina families—the Whites and the Chapmans—beginning with a foreboding deer hunt in the 1930s and concluding with a somber meditation on sport and kinship in the present day. While each story details an outing or hunt, Rice’s interests lie in man’s mystical connection to nature and wildlife, the ties formed from sharing time afield, and the lost and damaged parts of ourselves that draw us to the woods. Just as Moby Dick is about more than stalking a whale, The Lost Woods reaches beyond bagging game to survey the heart’s most primal sentiments, both the lovely and the vulgar.
The book’s central conflict stems from the tragic deaths of Jacob and Rachel White, the couple who link the two families and fray both in their passing. The proceeding tales reveal the tragedy’s impact on the households and hunting’s role in their relationships with one another. While interlinked, the stories don’t strictly adhere to an overarching narrative but offer episodic glances into characters’ triumphs, sorrows, and shortcomings. In “My Uncle’s Dogs” (featured below), Jacob White, Jr. struggles with a troublesome Brittany after his uncle’s sudden death, while “The General” pivots between a raucous reverend and a deceptive rabbit hunter, each less entrenched in the familial drama. The construction echoes Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 masterpiece Winesburg, Ohio, which draws connections between residents of a small town, slowly forming a cohesive picture of a people and place.
As with any Southern-tinged hunting narrative, the temptation arises to acknowledge William Faulkner’s looming (and somewhat suffocating) influence. Though the Mississippian’s presence is felt, Rice relies on taut, clear prose aligned with contemporary Southern writers such as William Gay, Ron Rash, and Brad Watson. Likewise, Rice skirts drawing too heavily from the predictable (albeit great) sporting masters—Nash Buckingham, Jack O’Connor, Robert Ruark, and the like—in favor of a bleaker tone atypical to the canon of outdoor letters.
Ultimately, Rice has written a book that nods to its literary predecessors while establishing a distinctive place among them. And this proves to be The Lost Woods’ greatest triumph. Few works of outdoor writing delve as deeply into the human condition’s murkiness and mess with such a crisp yet comfortable voice—which will surely contribute to its longevity. —JR Sullivan
MY UNCLE’S DOGS
from The Lost Woods by H. William Rice
as told by
JACOB WHITE, JR.
My Uncle died suddenly, one of those heart attacks that come in midstride, blockage in the vein doctors call the widow-maker, only he had no wife to become his widow. She had left him many years before.
He fell right where he was—two feet out the back door heading out to feed his dogs—the old orange-ticked English setter bitch named Sam (short for Samantha) and the Brittany puppy Harlan. When my grandmother found him, the dogs were sitting on each side of him as silent as monks. Even after she called the ambulance and the EMTs got there and began working to start my uncle’s heart, she said the dogs stayed there, unwilling to leave him.
And then later that night when it was all over, she called from the hospital to tell Ardie Johnson, her neighbor, that Isaac had passed. She asked him to check on the dogs because she knew Uncle Isaac would want that. Ardie later said that they were still waiting right there where she had told him the body had been. But one of them—he wasn’t sure which—had been howling. He’d heard that before she called, and he’d wonder about it.
My grandmother had always been independent and capable of surviving anything: poverty, a world war, the death of her oldest son and his wife in a car wreck after that same oldest son had survived Omaha Beach. And soon after that, the death of her husband, who had been bad to drink for years before he died. And of course, she had had to raise me (the son of that same oldest son who died) after she had long since raised her own children. And now Uncle Isaac, her second born, had dropped dead, and she’d found him out there in the dark all by herself. But she would have none of me staying there to help her. She was way too independent for that. There were relatives just up the road, she said. Lots of them.
But then four months later when she told me that she was moving into town and selling the farm, something gave way inside me.
You grow up on a farm. Your body adjusts to its rhythms and somehow selling the place is like selling your flesh. This was the farm I’d known all my life. This was the farm where the father I never knew grew up. This was the farm that my great grandfather—one-half to three-quarter Cherokee—had chiseled out of the earth with nothing but will and determination. The farm my uncle had brought back to life all those years later with me watching and helping. And it was the farm where we all learned to hunt in the same way we learned to work.
I had left at eighteen, determined to make my mark in the world. I did four-years at Davidson on a full scholarship. And then I did my law degree at Boston College, graduating with distinction. I enmeshed myself in city life, becoming a junior partner in one of the near-prestigious firms in Boston in near-record time. I got a nice apartment near Beacon Hill and filled it with nice furniture.
And then something happened. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work. It wasn’t even that my drive and energy left as they do in people who are burned out. I just stopped wanting to do it anymore. It was as plain and simple as that. I’d had my fill of plea bargains and depositions and trials and discovery—the whole damn mess. It was as if an instinct as old as time told me to look forward to the next phase of my life. Only there was no next phase. I’d lost the map.
“Don’t sell it,” I exploded to Grandmother over the phone. “Not till I come home and—” I was without the right word suddenly. “And see it. Again. And stay awhile.”
A long pause on the other end of the phone.
“Junior,” Grandmother said in her most precise way, “What about your work?” And then before I could answer the question, she added, “You know that Uncle Isaac had a hard time making a go at this place and that he came here with some money in the bank he could rely on when times was tough. He made some money off’n it, but it was a hard go. And he always had money to back him up. He was real careful.”
She was a woman who never let you answer a question or finish a sentence. She thought one step ahead of everyone she talked to especially if the person was a man. She also tended to speak rapidly, throwing all she wanted to say out and letting you sort through the details and put them in order—almost in the same way that someone might throw all the clothes in the basket on the bed and let someone else do the folding and sorting. Perhaps that was why my uncle liked the silence of the dogs so much. There was his wife who left him and took his kids. The great silence of a broken heart. And then there was his mother who talked him to death.
“My work has gotten boring. It—”
“And what about Lorry?”
“We are no more.”
This time she was silent, but I could name my grandmother’s thoughts. They would be something like this: This is the fifth girl in three years. It was actually the seventh. It amazed me that a woman in her eighties could still be a damn matchmaker. But she was.
So before she could say anything, I said, “There’ll be a woman who lasts. One of these days, there will be. The truth is I just like women too much to settle on one or the other of them just yet.”
“I’m only twenty-eight,” I added, hoping to reassure her, but she was two steps ahead of me.
“You know that your uncle had cut back on the farming. He still had the cows, but he had pretty much stopped raising soybeans. And of course he grew that Egyptian wheat to keep the quail population healthy and the dogs happy. So he could hunt and all. You know it’s hard these days to keep a family farm going. Soybeans ain’t what they used to be.”
A pause long enough for me to try to think of something else to say.
“You know how much he loved to hunt. I don’t know what’ll happen to Harlan and Sam. His dogs.”
And then with no transition whatsoever, “ You know that that Angela moved back to town. The Whippoorwill’s daughter. You know the doctor you hunted with. Yep. She’s a biology teacher over to the high school. Decided she didn’t want to go to med school after all. You used to be sweet on her—you remember.”
It was this last statement that she really wanted me to hear. That’s why she held it until the end.
I knew that seeing the place for the first time after Grandmother left would be hard. What I didn’t count on was that seeing the dogs would be harder. Nothing had been closer to my uncle’s soul than hunting dogs.
Wherever he was, there was a hunting dog, trailing along behind him or lying beside him or watching to see where he was going or what he was up to. The young Brittany, Harlan, was new to me. I’d never seen him work, but I had seen him cavort around the place like a wild stallion, making me wonder if Uncle Isaac had it in him to train one more bird dog.
But the setter, Sam, was so much a reminder of Uncle Isaac it hurt to look into her brown eyes.
Grandmother’d had Ardie Johnson come in to feed them for the four days between her departure and my arrival, and I guess they expected to be fed when they heard my truck. So when I came walking around the house, they were both standing just down from the house near the barn where Isaac used to feed them.
They both knew I was the wrong guy, and Harlan was definitely spooked. He dropped back, circling while watching every move I made. He whimpered, keeping one eye on me and another on Sam.
Sam knew me. She had to, for she’d been a part of the family for at least six or more years. I had even gone hunting with her once or twice. But she was wary too. She wagged her tail slowly, growling a little bit in a good-natured way, and then finally raising her nose and letting go of a sound that was somewhere between a bark and a howl, the dog equivalent of “I don’t know about this.” Harlan dropped back even more and began barking himself. He understood her language.
I gave up and fed them, figuring that if nothing else, I could win their trust that way. But they kept their distance. Eating could wait.
After I had gone in, they ate a little bit, but not much. Before I went to bed, I looked out the kitchen window. In the light from the window, I saw them lying on the back gallery ten feet apart. Harlan was sprawled out on his side sound asleep, but Sam was still wary and tense. She was lying down with her chin on her paws, but in the light from the window I saw the glint of her open eyes. She was staring off into the dark.
I hadn’t planned to take them hunting. Even though I was not sure that I would stay beyond the three-month leave of absence I had taken from my job, I still had this intense need to put the place in order. Besides, I had never really been much of a bird hunter. I had been pretty passionate about hunting when I was in junior high school. I had hunted squirrels with the neighborhood boys. I even hunted coon with the Whippoorwill and his daughter Angela—she who had now returned to teach biology at the local high school. But I never got the hang of bird hunting.
At the time, it just didn’t seem exciting enough. I was used to the dog treeing and barking as if he would die if you didn’t get to the tree and do something. It seemed so quiet with the dog suddenly standing still as a statue until you flushed the birds. Oh I had hunted birds with my uncle, and I’d sometimes help him with the dogs, but I think he knew this was his sport, not mine.
That I had never quite taken to bird hunting was one of the many sad ironies of my uncle’s life. He thought of me as a son, and in many respects he was a father to me when I really needed one. He’d come home to the farm when I was in my teens, and after a year or so of getting adjusted, we really clicked. I guess we had both lost something we couldn’t get back.
As much as my grandmother tried, I always knew I was an orphan, always had this solitary sense that when the world started falling apart around me, I had only myself to rely on. It made me strong, but it also made me lonely. And I think my uncle had the same sense of the world. It was not that he had come up alone as I had—it was more that he had lost everything since then, and nothing would make the world quite right again. He had lost my dad—his older brother—just after the War. And then his father had died. And then his wife had left him for another man, taking his two daughters with her. He did his best to stay involved in their lives, going to see them every two weeks and bringing them to the farm every summer. But the everydayness without them got to him.
It was like he worked all day to keep from thinking about how alone he was. And then on the weekends, he hunted or worked with the dogs with that same furious energy. But what do you do in the evenings after supper? That’s when the thoughts you don’t want to think worm through and make you feel empty and afraid like the world’s going to swallow you.
I would see him out there on that back gallery, staring off into the sun as it sank into the Appalachian Mountains. He would have a cup of coffee beside his chair, but he wouldn’t drink much of it. And if you looked at him, you knew he was a million miles away, fighting demons you didn’t even have names for. And then finally about dark, he would grab the still-full, now-cold cup and say, “I guess I’ll go on up to bed.”
Well, in some ways it was similar with those two dogs of his when I came back to the farm. Their eyes followed me everywhere I went, not really imploring, not really accusing, just watching like they knew there was something missing. So one day I just said, “All right. Let up on me. Tomorrow, yes tomorrow, we’ll go bird hunting.”
The next afternoon, I found Uncle Isaac’s old over-under twenty and his bird jacket. He’d been a tall man, just a bit taller than I am, so the jacket hung a little long in the shoulder and the sleeves came down midway across my hand. I rolled the sleeves up, put the gun in the crook of my elbow, and called the dogs.
I knew the gun would get their attention. Harlan was in the truck bed almost before I lowered the gate. He slid on the liner and tumbled into a heap in the upper corner of the bed. But Sam was hesitant. She wagged her tail halfheartedly and stood behind the truck. But when I called “Kennel,” she just looked at me.
“Kennel,” I said in a loud voice, even though we both knew she heard me the first time. She sat down on her haunches and whined a bit. And then she put her nose in the air and gave me that howl/bark again: “I don’t know about this.”
I leaned my gun against the truck and swooped all sixty pounds of her up and placed her beside Harlan. “Get in there, you bitch!”
It was one of those resplendent October days when the trees are just beginning to reach full color and the sunlight has that soft, amber color it gets in autumn. The air was cool, but not quite as cold as it should be in October. It would have been a perfect day for hunting if Uncle Isaac had been here. But without him, it just made me sad.
Seeing the old fields that Uncle Isaac and I used to work made me wince, but this was what I bargained for. I wanted to see it all again, to be there for what perhaps would be the last time. I had taken a leave of absence to do that. Well, I had to look at it even if it hurt. It would have helped if the place had been run down or overgrown, if Uncle Isaac had allowed the fields he stopped cultivating to go back to woods. But Uncle Isaac was an engineer from Clemson—he was way, way too neat for that. The place was as pristine as it had been when I left home at eighteen.
I drove on down dirt roads beside fallow fields until I reached a wooded area just beyond the last cow pasture. I stopped the truck, got my gun, and let down the tailgate of the pickup. Harlan was gone in a flash, hitting the woods as if nothing else could really matter. I watched him run breakneck into the tall brown grass between the trees, holding his head up. I imagined his nostrils flaring, taking in the scents with that wonder you see in a young dog.
Sam held back with me, her dark eyes looking after Harlan, her nose twitching a bit.
“Quarter,” I said, hoping that she would contain Harlan before he flushed every damn covey in the county. She trotted into the woods, disappearing into the grass just after Harlan.
People always say that teaching a dog to point is arresting an instinct. The dog wants to stalk the birds, and you teach her to stop in mid-stalk, to wait until you can come in and prepare to shoot them. Well, that may be true, but Uncle Isaac always doubted it. He used to tell me that the dog understands a whole lot more than we think.
“The dog,” he used to say, “has never been asked about the matter. The miracle is that the dog lets the hunter go at all. The best dogs teach you to hunt. You just have to let ‘em do it.”
Sam collected the wild-ass Harlan simply by walking into the woods, and when she finally pointed, he fell in behind her. She locked down real hard with her tail erect, and as I began to creep in, I kept an eye on Harlan to see if he would honor her point.
Just as I was thinking he knew the routine, Sam seemed to relax a bit, an infinitesimal lessening of the tension in her legs, and Harlan ran right through the covey scattering them to hell and back before my gun even reached my shoulder.
“Harlan,” I yelled, “Bad dog.” I felt like throwing a rock at him, but I was too old and educated for that. Besides he was my uncle’s last dog, and just as a quail dog honors a point, so I would honor Uncle Isaacs’s dogs even if they did bust the covey.
And then I was struck by the embarrassing truth. I had forgotten to utter the most important word in the bird hunter’s vocabulary: “whoa.” They were waiting on me to say the magic word, to hold them on point with it, but I had forgotten.
The quail were surprisingly plentiful, up and down the far side of the pasture and even over the rise at the edge of the lake property where I had spent many an afternoon fishing. So the problem was not finding quail, it was working with the dogs.
I should have just put the gun down and watched them work because they really had their own system going. But I was fool enough to think that they needed me. So I kept following them.
Sam worked methodically, quartering the open woods, keeping her nose high, then getting down low and sniffing the ground. Harlan seemed to calm down when he kept her in his vision, staying beside her or behind her, watching every move she made. She pointed again in the old hollow where I had built a fort as a child. As I headed in, watching Harlan carefully and preparing to say “Whoa,” I saw the ruins of the fort, pine boards I had pulled off an old barn. The whole structure was lying there in disarray. I got too close to the covey because I watched the fort and not the dogs. The birds exploded in every direction, and Harlan ran after them with an enormous burst of pent-up energy. Sam just walked in where the birds had been, smelling the ground with that philosophical look that all old setters seem to have.
She pointed six times, and from all those opportunities I got two shots, missing both times.
I finally sat down and called the dogs to me. Harlan looked at me sideways, the whites of his eyes showing, his tongue hanging out of his gaping mouth like a red rubber sock. He paused for a moment, sat on his haunches, panted deeply, licked his lips several time, and then trotted off, looking for more birds. Sam came over. She let me rub her head while she panted. Her brown eyes looked over beyond me, and it was then that I realized what an imposter I was and how the dogs must have known it from the first. In my uncle’s coat with my uncle’s gun, trying to hunt in the same way that he had hunted: what arrogance. As if you can become a bird hunter just by picking up a gun and following the dogs. I looked at Sam’s brown eyes again. What was she thinking? Was she missing him in the same way I was?
I didn’t have answers to any of those questions, but as I drove the truck back over the roads with the dogs in the back, I remembered my uncle’s words, “The best dogs teach you to hunt—you just have to let them do it.”
It took many tries, but now as December settles in, I believe the dogs and I might make it after all. They will sit with me on the deck in the warmth of the midday sun. And when we hunt, they seem to tolerate my mistakes.
There is a rhythm to bird hunting that I never knew before. I wish I had understood it before my uncle died. But I take comfort in the fact that I have begun to understand it now. Perhaps it’s his legacy to me. It has to do with understanding the dogs, sensing the rhythm of what they’re doing and letting yourself go with it. Perhaps the birds are even onto it—I don’t know. It’s like so many other rhythms that I have discovered on this place since I’ve come home.
Sometimes after we have hunted, I will call the dogs to the truck, and we will sit and watch the late autumn sun set across the pasture. The dogs seem to know that it is now time to rest, and they will go to sleep as I let the farm come back to me like someone I used to know. I can’t understand its language just yet, but maybe someday I will. I just know that it is talking to me some place deep inside, creating meanings where meanings need to be, giving me back something that I lost long ago. I feel very close to my uncle at these moments. And now I know why he came back. He lost a lot in his life, but he didn’t lose the woods. The dogs made sure of that. They reminded him of what was left after it seemed that everything was taken away.
I resigned my position in Boston this week. My savings will run out in six months, and I will have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Right now I think I’ll stay here, for I have discovered that something of this place is in my blood. But my grandmother is probably right. I can’t really expect to make a living on the farm. Besides if I have learned anything, it is that my uncle knew more than I do even though like most engineers, he could not find the words to tell me. He just tried to show me—how to hunt, how to get through hard times and loneliness some kind a way. In some strange sense, he was like the silent rain that comes in the night. You never hear it. You just know it’s been there and brought things back to life. And perhaps in that way he was my father, perhaps in that way he spoke for the father I never knew.
Yesterday I saw a law job advertised in the local paper: county attorney. I am sure it pays nothing like the job I had in Boston. But I would get to stay here and let the world happen around me. Since I don’t have a map anymore, I’ll just have to see what develops.
I have also started seeing Angela, my old coon-hunting friend. It has gladdened my grandmother beyond description. But I have learned not to try to predict the future or to answer too many of my grandmother’s questions about my intentions with her. I guess we will just see what develops. +++
H. William Rice is the chair of the English Department at Kennesaw State University. An avid outdoorsman, he has written stories about the outdoors that have appeared in many publications, including Gray’s Sporting Journal, Big Sky Journal, and Sporting Classics. He is the author of two books and many essays on an array of subjects. The Lost Woods is his first book-length work of fiction.