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Authors: Robert Ashcom

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Winter Run

ALSO BY ROBERT ASHCOM

Lost Hound: And Other Huting Stories and Poems

Winter Run

by
ROBERT ASHCOM

A Shannon Ravenel Book

A SHANNON RAVENEL BOOK
Published by
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
Post Office Box 2225
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225

a division of
Workman Publishing
708 Broadway
New York, New York 10003

© 2002 by Robert Ashcom. All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.
Published simultaneously in Canada
     by Thomas Allen & Son Limited.
Design by Anne Winslow.

“Winter Run” originally appeared in a slightly different version in
Oasis: A Literary Magazine
, to whose editors grateful acknowledgment is made.

This is a work of fiction. While, as in all fiction, the literary perceptions and insights are based on experience, all names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. No reference to any real person is intended or should be inferred.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ashcom, Robert L.
      Winter run / by Robert Ashcom.
           p. cm.
      “A Shannon Ravenel book.”
      ISBN 1-56512-328-X
      1. Boys—Fiction. 2. African American agricultural
laborers—Fiction. 3. Human-animal relationships—
Fiction. 4. Male friendship—Fiction. 5. Race
relations—Fiction. 6. Hunting dogs—Fiction.
7. Farm life—Fiction. 8. Virginia—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3551.S366 W46 2002
813’.54—dc21                       2002023204

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition

This book is offered to the
glory of God
and in loving memory of
Mary Lewis Ashcom

acknowledgments

I would like to thank William Woodward for his serendipitous help; Jacques de Spoelberch, my agent, for getting me going; and Shannon Ravenel, my editor, for her insight and patience.

Contents

Prologue:
Gretchen’s Arms

Sight

The Pony

Backfire

Winter Run

The Mule Dies

Foxfire

Gray Vixen

Bobwhite

Hog Killing

Coda:
Circles

Winter Run

Prologue: Gretchen’s Arms

It was a dark day. Water glistened black on the sidewalks. The naked branches of the trees lining the street hung overhead like webbed fingers on crooked arms. Another two degrees and it would all be frozen. Everything was close, everything held tight, bare hands clenched in pockets.

There were new buildings and a lot of construction around the hospital. But I couldn’t mistake the smell once I walked through the doors. The color-coded lines on the walls were supposed to guide me to my destination. They didn’t make any sense. Finally a nurse gave up explaining and just took me to the ward.

And there she was. I would hardly have recognized her. The disease had taken her away. Who would have
ever thought that so much flesh was necessary to make a face. Hers was gone. Skin stretched taut over the bones that everyone said were the source of her beauty. Bones. People had talked about them. She was unmistakably Scandinavian. In youth her creamy white blond hair had fallen to her shoulders. She wore it that way even after it turned silver. She had been tall, willowy, with slender arms. Arms always waiting for me, reaching out to take me back. But not now. It was too late. This time I was sure. Her rings were gone. They had looked foreign on her long, tapered fingers, anyway.

I watched her. Her cool slate-gray eyes were closed, her breath rising and falling, the kind of breathing you do when you are in pain. Tubes. The whole nine yards.

All my life I called her Gretchen except in loaded moments. Then she became Mother—the Swedish orphan, raised by friends after her parents both died of cancer within a single year. The friends were Cath -olic and strict. Gretchen was expected to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. But she never had. How could one thing be three? Or the other way around? She was defiant. And so for the rest of her life she received the sacrament in her left hand although she was right-handed.

“Hello Mother.” Her body shifted slightly.

Then the idiot question: “How are you?”

“Fine.”

What do you say to the already as-good-as-dead—to one whose rings and bracelets have been removed?
I put my hand on her wrist. It was cold and very small.

“I am here. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No thank you.” In clear English.

There followed two days of tension and suspense, arguments with doctors about pain medication, about the chances of her coming back. I knew she wouldn’t, not looking like that. She knew how she looked.

I had to leave for a few days. I told her what I was doing. She came up from wherever it was she was and said, “Before you go, make a list of your choices and put it on the chair. I never approved of them—but put it on the chair.” Then she went away again.

My choices? My choices? What do you mean?

I couldn’t breathe. It was like suffocation from the dust around a grain bag when it is being filled. The dust is like ether and the world spins. And your eyes swim. You raise your head and the far wall of the feed mill looks obscured as if by rain. That was what it was like—sitting on a steel chair in that room, with my choices.

And then the world lit up the way it did once as I was leading a stallion out to his paddock on a spring Sunday morning. It happened just as I opened the gate to let him through. And for a moment everything was revealed to me. Then it was gone.

It happened again there in that hospital room. This time the revelation was a story.

Virginia in the late forties. The end of summer—days echoing with the bobwhite’s call and the
incessant cooing of the mourning doves. The honeysuckle had lost its scent, and on the real farms the corn was tasseled and high, about ready to gather. Blackberries were in, though I didn’t have the patience for them. But Gretchen made preserves, so sometimes I had to pick them. They were worse than shelling walnuts. It was the brink of fall. Soon the air would be full of wood smoke, and it would be hunting season.

The farm was huge—almost seven hundred acres. But there were no crops, just pastures mostly gone to broom sage and a couple of garden plots and the little pasture where the milk cow lived by herself except when Bat, the mule, was living at Silver Hill.

There was also the four-acre fenced lot where the hogs were kept. There were huge oaks in the enclosure, and in the fall the hogs could live off the acorns. The rest of the time Matthew fed them the leftovers from the house and commercial feed from the coop. The hog lot was completely surrounded by the broom sage field above the pond. The hog lot was like a fortress in the middle of the field. It had been tightly fenced and refenced over the years. The fence was thick with honeysuckle and multiflora rose. Deep in the middle was a spring coming out from under a rock. The spring flowed its muddy trickle to the fence and then down the hill to the pond, carrying the hog waste. We didn’t know any better in those days. Even in a drought, the place was always muddy. It had become a sinkhole.

Paradise trees and cedars had grown up to the point where you couldn’t see into the place except where the hunt club had put in chicken coop jumps—those paneled A-frames that straddled the wire fence, allowing the huntsmen and horses a safe jump into the hog lot if that’s where the fox and hounds led them. It took a special horse to jump into that place, with the mud and slop. Horses hate hogs. So what usually happened was the riders stood next to the fence, listening as the hounds gave tongue in the frantic way they have when they are close. Add to that the oinking and squealing of the hogs and the horses hating the smell and refusing to stand still, and it was mayhem. But thrilling.

That August, on the first day of foxhunting—called cubbing—the hounds were brought to the farm to hunt. I had a pony and would ride with the hunt later that year, but on this day Matthew and I stood above the lot and watched the whole thing from the burnt-out summerhouse yard. Sure enough the fox had run into the hog lot, with the hounds in hot pursuit. I kept looking up at Matthew saying, “They’ll kill him! They’ll kill him!” Feeling awful for the fox but cheering for the hounds in my mind at the same time.

“Be patient, Charlie,” he said. “Quit your jumping up and down and watch. Be still, Charlie. Be still!”

Around and around the hounds went, now coming to our side, then straight toward the jump on the other side. I was sure the fox would come out and take off in the open. Crescendo after crescendo. The hogs
were squealing and running—apparently with the hounds, the whole huge group in pursuit of the fox. It was outrageous and wild, as if something from time beyond memory had been turned loose, broken loose from whatever shackles time could have contrived for it—the sound and the hounds—and our wild imaginations. I could feel the tension in Matthew next to me, too. What was really happening? After twenty minutes of unbearable suspense, the huntsman decided to go in on foot and round up the hounds, and to hell with this mess. So in he went, blowing the horn and hollering for the hounds. The whips stood around the enclosure cracking their whips and hollering, “Get to him!” at the top of their lungs. I wanted to go in, too, but of course Matthew wouldn’t let me. Finally the huntsman emerged, covered from head to foot in mud and hog slop. The hounds were behind him. They were also covered. They were panting and shaking their heads and tails and looking thoroughly satisfied, in contrast to the huntsman who was thoroughly furious and told everyone so, including the Master.

I pulled on Matthew’s arm, “They killed him, didn’t they? They killed that fox in there? Why did the huntsman let them go in there?”

“Charlie, be still,” he said again. “Be still and watch!”

So for twenty minutes we squatted next to the huge poplar and watched. The last hound had come out, covered in mud and glory, the whips hollered, “Pack up!” and the hunt left to find another fox. Still we
watched. Then Matthew pointed to a patch of honeysuckle, as a darkening shadow emerged. I held my breath and gripped his sleeve. The fox stopped as he came into the open. Looked around.

He was covered in mud also. He looked like a half-drowned cat. He shook himself, and as his coat dried, he became twice as big. Then he trotted off, his ears pulled back to hear if anything happened behind him.

“Now Charlie, if we wouldn’t of been down wind of him, that fox would of smelled us and never come out until we were gone. Do you see, Charlie? Do you see?” He always questioned me. Did I see?

Yes, I saw. Because the breeze was in our faces, we could have smelled the fox, had we been able, but he couldn’t smell us. Yes, I saw.

I
had
to get into that place and see how with all that hell going on, with the hounds roaring around, the hogs squealing and running, and mud and slop everywhere, that fox had got out of there in one piece. How? I would find out.

For a moment the reverie ended. Is that what it had been all those years ago—the fox and the mud? Or was it the darkness and mayhem and the sounds … the darkness?

“Charlie, are you listening?” Then his hand was on my shoulder, and he pulled me around so he could look straight at me. “Charlie, quit! I know what you’re thinking. You know that old boar hog is in there and would eat you alive.”

“But—”

“But nothing. No!”

The big brick-and-clapboard house at the top of the hill was 175 years old and home to only Professor James and his wife. They had no children. A middle-aged black couple, Matthew Tanner and Sally, his wife, looked after the Jameses. Matthew milked the cow and took care of the gardens and, increasingly, drove the old professor where he needed to go. Matthew was a hunter and the Jameses loved wild game. In the fall each year Matthew killed a buck, even in the days when they were really scarce. He also killed a tom turkey each spring. Sometimes he was the only one in the community to accomplish this feat, the turkeys were so few and shy. He knew the woods and fields. He fit into the land and its moods and seasons like black hands into the brown cloth work gloves we all wore.

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