A chapter from Hill’s A Hunter’s Fireside Book, available from Sporting Classics.

 

I didn’t think much about it. It wasn’t the first time I’d shared a duck blind with someone I didn’t know—by name or face. In fact, the first time I really tried to see who he was, was when he started to talk to me. There was no introduction. He never asked me my name or told me his. We were just sitting there in the pre-dawn night, two men, total strangers, sharing only the common emotions and inclinations that led us to be in the same place at the same time.

As I look back on it, I think it was the remoteness of each other, the un-identity we shared, the feeling of a mutual isolation that started it all.

“Do you know me or what I look like?” he said.

It struck me as a strange question, but I merely said, “No.”

“No matter,” he answered. “I’m a middle-aged man in excellent health. Are you a doctor?” I said that I wasn’t. “I’m extremely fit. I do not wear glasses. Women, much younger than myself, find me an attractive male. I am quite successful in business. My wife and children are happy, healthy, and charming. To the outsider—or even a close neighbor—I am an envied man. I have all the outward things. And the things I have are fine. But for one.”

Here he stopped, and I could sense he was debating whether or not to continue. I remained quiet, my curiosity so complete I was hoping that some miracle could delay dawn for at least a little while since I was convinced (and later this feeling proved to be right) that he would contrive some way to prevent me from ever knowing who he was by sight.

“The one thing that bothers me, amidst my beautiful garden,” he continued, “is that no one knows me, or even wants to.” As he spoke I paused to light a fresh pipe. “My wife doesn’t know me. My children don’t really know me. Needless to say the people where I work know even less. And it seems that no one really cares to know more about me. But there are things I fear and things I love. I have my dreams that are never to be. No one knows me.

“No one knows how I fear death. No one knows how much I love life. I watched a deer feed on water weeds the other day and I was so struck by the simple magnificence that I sat and cried. I cried that there was so much to do and see that I will never do and see. I live in a world where my words are only words. I cannot speak of passion. I cannot tell them what I feel about the last flight pitching in as the sun sets. Or how much I still love to put a leaf in a brook and walk beside it down the stream just to see how the water works. I want someone to know that there is a man who feels so deeply about his little world that he could only speak of it but once. And that he needed a total stranger for an ear. I’ve talked about myself before. To hunting dogs. To geese. Sometimes only to the wind.

“I am almost through my life and no one has ever asked me what I felt about the lunge of a bass, the flush of a grouse, or the sudden appearance of a deer. No one will ever know, but you, how much I still miss my dogs that died. Or how hard I wish for the dream to live a special day or so all over again. Or how much I like to be alone. They don’t understand why I have lined a wall with guns that I almost never use. Why I save old boots and hats and hunting clothes. They don’t understand that what is just an old coat to them is a memory to me. They see a man who is getting old . . . surrounded by old things. A worn-out man . . . wearing worn-out boots and covered by a worn-out coat.”

He paused to fill his pipe and sat completely still. He made me feel as if I had suddenly, surprisingly, gotten near some wild creature that I didn’t want to scare away. But I think, in a way, he had forgotten I was there. He seemed to watch the way the morning clouds were changing shapes and then went on.

“Is there anyone left that could share the meanings of a favorite path along a brook? Or see the time and wind and sun it took to shape a birch tree so exactly right that its shadow in a silent pool is art? I think I could write the words to the song of the goose. The shrill, explosive voice of the loon makes my blood remember when someone like me lived in an ancient cave. And when the leaves turn in the autumn it is a signal that a year has passed which I feel was largely lost.

“They don’t seem to smell what I smell when the tide comes fresh. They don’t listen to the snow or taste the flavors of the wind.”

He was about to go on when I felt, more than heard or saw, a pair of teal against the pink of dawn. I turned and shot and scratched one bird down about a hundred yards away. When I got back to the blind he was gone. No evidence that anyone had ever been there except for several burnt-out kitchen matches.

Shortly before lunch the pickup came around to take us back to the lodge. I sat down and looked carefully at every face. I recognized nothing. No one even glanced at me with more than a passing nod. Who was it among us that “no one knew”? Who was it that told me that the sudden, unexpected presence of a deer could make him cry? Who was now hiding behind the ordinary small talk of a duck lodge drink?

I suspected each of them—for a moment. Then none of them; I was almost ready to put it down as some pre-dawn dream of mine when outside I heard the selfsame voice and through the window I saw a man alone walking toward the marsh. He had just lit a pipe. And thrown the burnt-out wooden match away. For all I know, it could have possibly been you.