My cousin Randy and his seven-year-old son, Nathan, had driven up from Houston to join me on a deer hunt in the Hill Country and had brought the ingredients for our version of a New Year’s Eve revel: no fireworks, no cases of whiskey, but big, fat, organic steaks, ears of roasting corn, butter, green olives, baking potatoes nearly the size of junior-league footballs, eggs, cream, sugar, coffee. Arriving at the camp, Randy had left the gravel roadbed and tried, inexplicably, to take a shortcut through the woods, where he quickly became stuck, sunk not just to the axles—the usual barometer for such mishaps—but to the frame itself, so that he had to roll the window down and climb out, unable to shove the door open against the force and mass of so much mud, which had been rained upon almost ceaselessly for the past week.
Even from a distance, I could see the big blue truck—or the top half of it, at any rate—when I came walking through the cold, gloomy woods later that afternoon. I’d been out hunting. Randy stood, wielding a shovel, up to his ankles in slaughterous red mud. He had been working for hours. Each shovel of slurry he pitched away was replaced within seconds by the porridge-like flow of new material from the freshly opened perimeters of his excavation; worse, he could see none of his work, for the entire operation lay beneath the surface of the slowly broadening milky-red lake of his making. He heard the gravel and mud scraping against his shovel and felt the leaden weight of it each time but could ascertain no progress. When he saw me come slogging up through the rain and gloom, a smile cracked his mud-streaked face, and, wordlessly, he handed me a second shovel.
The sides of the big truck were smeared with mud, as though it were a wild animal that had been chased there before finally being brought to bay. Through the rain-streaked windows Nathan peered uncertainly, his face bathed in the blue glow of the little portable DVD player with which he traveled. (I later learned that during the ordeal Nathan had screened Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so many times that he ultimately soured on that old favorite.)
Trying to use my little sled of a rental car to pull the truck free was completely out of the question. So was calling in a tow truck from Johnson City, seventy icy miles away on a fast-gathering New Year’s Eve. Indeed, the nearest pay phone was almost twenty miles away. It was root hog or die, and strangely, I felt a sudden sense of pleasure. My life had a focused and immediate purpose. It grounded me in the moment, allowed me to escape for a spell the grief and absence I’d been feeling all autumn and winter, in that first year after my mother’s death.
Being at the lease, a place intimately familiar to me since childhood, had clarified my loss yet again. The reality and permanence of it had continued to come upon me as I walked around, searching for deer, focusing on the hunt, or focusing on not focusing, which is sometimes the best way to hunt. She had loved this place, and it was a strange and deep ache to realize, to begin to realize, that from now on I would be seeing it, seeing everything she had loved, for her.
By the time darkness fell, Randy and I were working in concert. Our strategy was to dig out a new lane, like the exit ramp from a subterranean parking garage, up and out of which we might one day be able to drive. There was also, deep down in the mire, a jack, with which we were attempting to hoist each wheel free of the muck’s embrace, just high enough to place a flat stone or a laddersticking of branches beneath the tire. So deep-sunk were the wheels, however, that we were having to kneel on all fours to reach beneath them, and even then found ourselves working in water and slurry up to our necks and then our chins and then our noses, tilting our heads sideways, straining to shove a flat stone into the breath of space between tire and temporary bottom-muck.
It was getting colder. Hearing us thumping around beneath the truck, Nathan looked down anxiously and studied without comment the assemblage of various-sized sticks and branches that kept popping to the surface and floating all around us like so many circling alligators. Randy pulled out his ever-trusty Coleman lantern and, with shaking, frigid fingers, pumped up the pressure and then grubbed a match crookedly against the matchbox, Jack London—style. The match caught, and, shivering, Randy shoved it up into the glass globe, where that tiniest taper of flame found the serpent-hiss of compressed gas and blossomed into a magnificent burst of light that captured and encompassed immediately the cast of all our work.
A scene of ruination surrounded us, and although it cheered us to have light, there was an awkward period of transition in which we had to accustom ourselves psychologically to the new reality. At this we were not initially successful. The lantern’s throw of bright light possessed a peculiar trajectory, fading quickly from an incandescent whiteness to a softer tone of yellow before finally, at its farthest reaches, dissolving into fairy dust pixels of barely illuminated drizzle; and because it was to these farthest reaches that our work extended, it gave us the perception that the entire world was a swamp—that, for all our eyes told us, it might as well have stretched to the horizon.
At least the rain appeared to be lessening. It was a freezing drizzle now, plastering our hair to our skulls and running down the backs of our necks. There was nothing that was not soaked, and we’d pause from time to time to stand before the lantern, steaming as if burning, to milk a moment