"We are but one thread in the web of life." That's what Rose once said to me as we made our way through a frozen field surrounded by dense forest at midnight in the dead of winter. A vast sprinkling of bright stars and an almost full moon lit up the night sky. It was silent except for the crunch of our footsteps as they landed on ice-covered blades of grass.
"What do you mean by that?" I remember feeling annoyed and wanted to tell her to shut up, but I knew from past experience that this would just fuel one of her many rants. The sooner I encouraged an explanation, the sooner I could get back to focusing on what brought us out there in the first place.
"Well, Chief Seattle said that humans didn’t make the web of life, we are just one thread in it,” Rose said, “and whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
I looked at her and shook my head. Our teacher had given us a list of Native American proverbs to read over the Thanksgiving holiday, but I hadn’t even looked at them. Rose, on the other hand, could recite them plus everything else the teacher had ever given us. She liked to say she had a “photographic memory.” I never bothered to tell her that was not what photographic memory meant. I also didn’t remind her that the teacher later told us the quote was misattributed to Chief Seattle. Rose believed what she wanted to believe.
I went back to concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other to avoid stepping in the holes made by the boars we were tracking. We had studied this field and the woods around it for a few days and it was clear that, although there weren't many boars, there was a pack in the area. Trails leading in and out of the field were freshly trampled, and corncobs we left along the trails each night had disappeared.
“Take wild boars, for example,” Rose said. “If we were to cut down all the trees in this forest then there would be no nuts or berries or bark or roots for the boars to feed on. And if they don’t come here to feed then we—”
"Why would we cut down all the trees?”
"Oh, Jesse, you just don't get it, do you? Everything is connected. That's all I'm trying to say."
"Then just say that and stop—"
"Shhhh!" She held her finger up to her lips and motioned for me to move slowly. By this time, we had entered the forest and were approaching the area where we had been leaving the cobs. The filtering moon gave just enough light to see her directives. As we inched forward, we heard the loud smacking noise of a boar chomping the corncobs.
Rose had been my best friend for six years, since we were nine years old and my family bought the property bordering hers. It may sound terrible to say you hate someone, but, the fact is, I hated most of Rose’s family. Although they were the stereotypical uneducated drunks, this is not why I hated them. I hated them because they were mean.
Rose’s brothers were known all over the county for their boar-hunting skills and as soon as she reached an age when she could hold a knife, Rose started preparing for her first hunt. She eavesdropped on all their pre-hunt plans and post-hunt chatter, practiced stabbing her old stuffed animals, combed the swampy lowlands learning how to track herds, and begged the men to take her out with them. Her father raised his hand and let loose a slap across her face. "Don't be a damn fool. No girl of mine is going hunting. So stop asking. I'm tired of hearing it."
But the sting from the slap didn’t stop her. She enlisted me to be her secret hunting partner. I agreed, because I pretty much agreed with everything she asked me to do.
Rose pulled a knife from a leather sheath fastened to her belt, crouched as low as she could manage, and crept closer to the wallow. It seemed crazy that we were armed with only knives, but that was the Riley tradition: no guns, no dogs. Our plan was to get as close as possible for me to grab its hind legs while Rose simultaneously stabbed it in the side of the neck. I would then flip it over onto its back (or try to, at least) and Rose would deliver the deathblow with a second knife.
Boars have a great sense of smell as well as acute hearing and this one, though smaller than average, was alone. It looked to be only about a hundred and fifty pounds, but was confident enough to go feed without the protection of the herd. Rose whispered all of this to me as we inched forward. I don’t know how we were able to get as close as we did without its detecting us, but when we were about eight feet away, Rose signaled for me to go for it, and I lunged forward from my crouching position, half slamming myself onto the ground and half sliding across it. I was able to latch onto the right hind leg with both hands. Rose rushed up by the left flank and plunged the dagger into the boar's neck, but not before it had slashed her knee right through her pants with one of its tusks as it jerked its head to the left. It was now thrashing on its side and making a loud screeching noise that pierced the hushed forest. Rose, gasping for breath and writhing in pain on the ground, looked down as the blood soaked her pants leg and started to form a puddle on the forest floor. She looked up at me.
"Jess, you have to finish it off."
"What? I don't know how to do that!"
"Just stab it under the armpit. If you don't, that thing is going to get up and kill us both.” She was strangely calm.
Rose’s bloodied knife had landed on the ground a few feet from where the pig thrashed. In a daze, I ran and picked it up. By the time I spun around, the ugly beast was up on all fours, staring directly at me, popping its jaws and foaming at the mouth. Fear and adrenaline pulsed through me as the boar and I locked eyes. And then, for no detectable reason, it turned and trotted off.
As we arrived at the Riley home, the sun was just peeking up over the horizon. A sunrise in Bell County, Kentucky, is a stunning sight. When we first moved here, my mom would wake me up at the crack of dawn and together we would go wake my dad. Having stayed up all night unpacking box after box, my mom would already have coffee made, and each with a hot steaming cup, we would walk up to the clearing behind our house and sit in silence, in complete awe of what unfolded before us.
I stopped and looked toward the sun, the gold filtering through the valley fog, High Knob in the distance, and for a moment I forgot that Rose was beside me, struggling to stay upright, growing fainter and fainter. I grabbed her around her waist and trudged on.
We did our best to get up the porch stairs without making noise, but as I helped Rose pull off her muddy boots, her mom swung open the screen door and it banged against the side of the house. That was enough to awaken Rose’s dad and the next thing I knew, her mom was screaming and trying to tend to the deep gash that was still oozing blood, and her dad was demanding to know what had happened, all the while pulling her by her hair into the house.
“Jesse, I think it’s time you headed home,” said Rose’s mom, with a tinge of disappointment in her voice. “I just got off the phone with your mom and she’s worried sick.”
I didn’t want to leave Rose. She was in a heap of trouble. That dad of hers treated girls like they were helpless idiots when it came to most things, but had no problem whacking them upside the head like they were grown men when he got angry. I walked back out to the porch and down the steps. Rose’s mom was still trying to calm her husband down as I started across the field toward home.
I tried to get some sleep before breakfast, before I had to explain myself to my own parents, but I couldn’t get the images out of my head. The boar standing there, staring me down. The deep gash in Rose’s leg, blood gushing out. The fear in her mom’s eyes. The cold in her father’s.
Spending time with Rose was always an adventure. When I first moved there, she took me under her wing and showed me all the secrets of the surrounding hills and valleys. She’d never lived anywhere else and knew the landscape like the back of her hand. When not in school, we went nonstop from dawn till dusk, traipsing across creeks and streams and up and down the gnarly chestnut trees, rubbing ourselves in sassafras leaves to repel mosquitoes. Rose taught me how to make a slingshot, skin a squirrel, and play a harmonica. And, now, how to take down a wild pig.
I like to think I offered her something as well. I helped her with her math homework, let her listen to my Walkman on the school bus, and laughed at all her ridiculous jokes. But I don’t think she needed me like I needed her. I couldn’t imagine not having her in my life. There were times, however, when days would pass before she returned my calls.
“Why haven’t you called me back?” I whined.
“I needed some alone time, Jess. Everybody needs some alone time.”
After a deep sigh, she would change the subject. Part of me thought her independence, her self-reliance, was a front, a way to endure her father’s beatings, the family’s poverty, and the loneliness of being a young girl with three brothers. But another part of me thought that was just the way she was born.
I managed to escape any serious punishment from my parents, and a few days after the boar hunt, when I went to see Rose, she was still laid up in bed. The gash on her leg had become infected but her father said they didn’t have the money for a doctor. “Toughen up, little chick. You’re the one that wanted to play like the big boys.”
Rose did her best to mask it, but I could tell she was in serious pain. Her mom slathered all kinds of home remedies on the oozing wound, all the while cursing her husband under her breath. “I oughta slice him open with a dirty knife, see how he likes an infected leg. Just watch, one day I’m gonna pack us all up and get the hell out of here. Never look back…”
But that day never came, and so she kept on with the comfrey poultices, the Epsom salt soaks, and the foul-smelling lard and pine tar salve. Finally, after about ten days, Rose was able to walk again. And the first thing she wanted to do was go finish off that wild pig.
Rose convinced me to join her, again, by appealing to my conscience. “When a pig is hurt like that, they’re even more dangerous. And imagine the pain it must be in! We have to put it out of its misery, and, just think, how would you feel if it attacked someone we know? It would be our fault.”
So, that’s how I found myself back in that same field, at the same time of night, following the same trails. It was just as cold and the ground was still rock solid. The only difference was the sky was not as clear and bright and Rose was armed with a rifle instead of knives. I didn’t question her about this. I didn’t care about the Riley tradition.
Because it had been ten days since Rose stabbed the razorback, I personally doubted that it had survived. The possibility, however, was all Rose needed. We made our way back to the wallow, and the stench was more than overpowering. It assaulted every inch of me, burning my nose and turning my stomach. Tears welled up in my eyes and my bones ached. Having had no fresh rain or snow in the past ten days made the odor worse. But it also meant there could still be tracks to follow. Careful not to step in the muck, we circled the wallow, fanning out our flashlight beams.
“I’m pretty sure it went that way,” Rose said, pointing to the left.
“No, it went that way.” I pointed straight ahead.
“How can you remember? You were freaking out!” Rose stifled a laugh.
“Fine, go whichever way you want,” I said, annoyed.
Rose rolled her eyes, but she headed to the area straight ahead and started inspecting the ground. I watched her as she searched. She walked with a limp. Suddenly, I wanted to cry. I didn’t understand. Anything. I didn’t understand how her father could let her suffer and I didn’t understand him hitting her and I didn’t understand how Rose never once cried during any of it. Had she closed her heart off while mine was ripping open?
I walked up beside her. “Is your leg okay?”
“How do you put up with your father?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, he hits you. And your mom.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do?”
I didn’t know how to answer so I didn’t. She lifted her gaze from searching the ground and looked me in the eyes. “I just stopped expecting him to not hit me. I stopped expecting him to be a good person. I stopped hoping that one day I would come home and he wouldn’t be drunk.”
“That’s really sad, Rose.” I felt the tears welling up.
“No it’s not. It makes me free, completely free!” She spun around with her arms and the rifle in the air with a smile turned up to the dark sky. Around and around she spun until she got dizzy and stumbled backward, falling. Stretching out on her back and still looking up to the sky, she got a pensive look on her face.
“I’m not gonna live my life feeling like I need to escape from it.” She jumped to her feet and took off half running, half limping, through the trees. I took off after her, not quite understanding why she was running, or where.
“I’m pretty sure I heard something up this way,” she whispered as she slowed down a bit. Her whisper was more like a hiss, trying for that delicate balance between being loud enough to be heard but not quite so loud as to be aloud. As we moved deeper into the forest, a muffled presence of emptiness between the trees dulled our words, making it harder to hear each other.
I helped Rose over a downed tree and under an old rusty barbed wire fence to the top of a hill where we stood looking for any movement against the backdrop of the trees. Not seeing anything, we headed back to the wallow. As we neared it we heard movement. Rose brought the butt of the rifle up to her shoulder and used the trees as cover to continue moving closer. Keeping her eye to the sight, she crouched down to her knees and pressed her cheek to the stock and, although I couldn’t see it, I knew she was pulling her trigger finger back just a bit to take out the slack because, like so many other things, she was the one who taught me how to fire a rifle.
Several minutes later, when she was still on her knees in the same position, I got curious about what the boar was doing so I got down on my hands and knees and crawled up behind her. The patches of snow still left on the forest floor and piles of old damp leaves soaked my jeans through to my knees and made my already cold hands wet. When I got to a point where I could see what she could see, I let out a small gasp and felt a dull thud in my stomach. I looked at Rose. Her gaze never faltered. Standing beside the wallow with his back to us, swaying with an unmistakable drunkenness, was Rose’s dad. The muzzle was pointed straight at him.
I’ve never really wished someone dead but right then I felt an overwhelming sense of relief as I pictured him riddled with bullet holes, his hands no longer able to clench into fists and his vile words trapped forever behind his swollen, lifeless tongue. I was torn between telling Rose to put the rifle down and telling her to go on and pull the trigger. I said nothing. Trying not to move or make noise seemed to amplify every sound. The creases of my jacket rubbed against each other with every breath.
After a few more minutes, Rose lowered the rifle, stood, and walked away. When I caught up with her, we trudged in silence until she turned to me. “I think I’ve had enough hunting for a while. Wanna start a band?”