By: Tori Bailey
Dead leaves fluttered in the air from being kicked out of frustration. Naked hardwoods loomed overhead with their bare arms. Unseen creatures scurried making eerie sounds. Norlena hated walking in the woods. She’d much rather be in her bedroom, lying across her bed, reading about her favorite teen idols, and listening to the countdown of the latest top forty hits. Norlena promised her best friend, Squirrel, that she’d record their favorite songs from the radio. She’d bought a new cassette tape with her allowance. Instead she had to be part of the great family adventure to check a loose board on her daddy’s deer stand.
The sight of Daddy’s flannel coat and tattered hunting cap brought a sense of security. The barrel of his rifle rested against his shoulder. Daddy always brought it along with him. If it moved it could be hunted. Whatever ended up on the wrong end of Daddy’s gun often turned up on the table. Today’s victims were squirrels. Yesterday’s had been a six-point buck.
Daddy’s whistling drifted through the woods. She recognized the tune from church. To her chagrin his pace was not hurried but a casual stroll. It amazed Norlena how he never became lost in these woods. Everything seemed foreign to her and unfamiliar. She knew they would not retrace their steps on their return. Daddy always said, ‘ you never come out of the woods the same was you enter.’ This logic confused Norlena.
The sound of Momma’s laughter echoed through the hollow. Norlena could not think of what there was to possibly laugh about. Momma had made it clear at the dinner table they were going to spend the day together. Norlena felt that as long as everyone was under one roof they were together. But Momma didn’t see it that way. She wanted everyone to be a family. That meant having to put up with her older brother, Scoots.
Now, Norlena was stuck at looking at his backside. The whizzing sound of a tree limb narrowly missed her head. “Hey, watch it! You almost hit me!”
“Should’a been watching where you going, Pumpkin Head.” Scoots kept walking not looking back. He enjoyed these outings and the times spent with Daddy in these woods. Scoots had learned more than hunting from Daddy among these trees and hollows.
Norlena hated her brother’s nickname for her hair. Why couldn’t he been the one born with orange hair? She didn’t understand how God saw fit to waste blonde hair and blue eyes on a stupid boy. “Stop calling me that. Momma make him not call me that.”
The nasal whine of his daughter was the last straw. “Girl, if you don’t get a move on, you gonna have more to worry about than what your brother calls you.” Daddy was tired of Norlena’s sulking and lagging behind. “Your Momma wants us to be together today and we are gonna be together.”
The tone in Daddy’s voice was worse than a whipping in itself. Norlena hung her head. Dried leaves crunched under foot announcing the increased pace of her bright pink tennis shoes. Norlena tried to not think about the old civil war soldier’s grave to her right. Instead she concentrated on watching the back of her brother’s denim jacket.
Daddy stopped. “Scoots, why don’t ya’ll walk the ridge? Let’s see if we can scare up a squirrel or two.”
“Sure dad. It won’t be hard with as much noise as Pumpkin Head is making.” Scoots grinned at his sister. She made it so easy to tease. Norlena waited until her parent’s backs were turned before sticking out her tongue. “You might want to put that thing back in your mouth. Some bird might think it’ll make a good supper for ‘em.”
Great now she was stuck depending on her brother. She hoped no squirrel would appear from its nest. They were cute and fun to watch. How could she contribute to killing something that her best friend was nickname?
“Hey dad, there’s a nest up there in that pine. I think I can pull on these muscadine vines and shake it.” Scoots already had his hand on the vines and begun to shake the tree branches.
Norlena looked up the tall pine and spotted the nest. She thought about how some poor unsuspecting squirrel was about to be evicted from its home and killed. It was probably curled up enjoying the warmth of the sun doing what it wanted. Now, its home was being shaken like a violent storm. Norlena yelled hoping it would alert the nest’s resident. “Scoots, you just wast’n your time. There ain’t no squirrel in that nest.”
“Yeah, they heard you tromping through here like a gorilla and ran away.” Scoots stopped yanking on the vine. “No luck dad.”
“Keep walking the ridge we’re almost to the creek.” Daddy continued. He reached out and took Momma’s hand.
Norlena rolled her eyes at the sight of her parent’s holding hands. Weren’t they too old for that mushy stuff? It was sickening the way they talked all lovey-dovey to each other on the phone. Momma restricted phone use on the nights Daddy was supposed to call. She didn’t want the line to busy. Driving a truck took Daddy away from home sometimes for several weeks. Momma never complained but there would be sadness about her during the long absences.
“Hey Pumpkin Head, you might want to watch where you put’n them clod hoppers. You know those copper-headed-water-rattlers love bright pink shoes.” Scoots stood at the edge of the creek.
Norlena let out a screech at the thought of a snake anywhere near her. A tree branch came to her rescue just in time. Hanging onto it for dear life, she gained her balance and footing on the bank, narrowly missing getting wet.
Scoots let out a loud whoop at the sight of his sister. She was such an easy target. “Hey Pumpkin Head look there’s one right over there.” Scoots pointed to the end of a limb bobbing above the water’s edge with the current..
A squeal followed by a splash echoed through the woods. Norlena landed bottom first into the creek. Arms and legs flailed in different directions while she tried to stand. She eyed the end of the tree limb just sure that a copper-headed-water-rattler was going to be the cause of her demise.
“Scoots! Don’t just stand there help her out of that water. She’s gonna catch a cold for sure now.” Momma scolded her oldest son. Under her breath she muttered a prayer for patience. She had about all she was going to take of her offspring’s inability to enjoy an afternoon of peace and harmony. “I am ashamed at the two of you. All afternoon, Norlena you have done nothing but pout because of you have to spend time with us. I could ride to town on that bottom lip of yours.” Momma’s attention turned to Scoots. “And don’t you stand there looking all innocent. You haven’t helped matters with your constant teasing of your sister. You know good and well there ain’t no such thing as a copper-headed-water-rattler.”
Scoots reached down and gave his sister a hand. He hated seeing Momma upset. “Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.”
Norlena stood next to her brother. “Momma, I’m sorry.”
“You two ought to be. Christmas is only a few weeks away and with the way you two are acting, I can just about guarantee there will be nothing but a bunch of switches under the tree for you.”
“Well, momma don’t you think we need to get a tree first?” Scoot’s asked.
“Son, don’t be smartn’ off at your Momma.” Daddy spoke. He knew when Momma got her hackles up everyone was fair gain for her ire. She’d been making rumblings about him not getting a tree since he came home.
Momma turned and glared at her husband. “He’s got a point. Christmas is three weeks away. When you plan on going and gettin’ us a tree?”
“You know with me gone all week drivin’ the truck I haven’t had the time.”
“You’d think as much time you’ve spent in the woods hunting you’d find us a tree.”
“My time in the woods helps put food on our table.” Daddy saw the tears of frustration in Momma’s eyes. He didn’t mean to sound as sharp as he did. “I will get us a tree. Come on, we are almost to my stand. Let me fix that loose board and then we’ll look for a tree.”
The foursome continued. An air of guilt hung among them. Norlena tried to ignore the wet clothing, seeking warmth from the sun’s rays filtering through the trees. Scoots walked beside his sister. Daddy slid his arm around Momma’s waist pulling her close to him. Each of them thought about how much this one adventure had meant to her. In their own way, they had brought disappointment.
Daddy stopped at the cluster of trees. He propped his gun against one of the trees before making the climb up to the wooden platform of his deer stand. Norlena was the first to break the silence. “Momma, I’m sorry I got you mad.”
Scoots looked down at his shoes. “Me too, Momma.”
Momma looked at her son and daughter. They were good kids. “Thank you. It’s not often your Daddy ain’t leav’n on Sundays. ” She knew her children didn’t understand the importance of taking advantage of these rare moments. She hoped that one day, as adults, they would look back at these times with fond memories.
Daddy made his way back to the ground. Hearing his kids’ apologies confirmed that he and his wife were raising good kids. He picked up the rifle. “Come on, let’s go find Momma her Christmas tree.” Daddy took the lead continuing the expedition through the woods.
Somehow, he had to figure out how he was supposed to cut down a cedar tree without a saw.
The woods thinned into a small clearing where several cedar trees stood. Momma instantly spotted the one she wanted. “Daddy, this is it.” She walked over and stood next to the bushy cedar that was two feet taller than she was. “It will fit nicely in the corner next to the fireplace.”
Daddy stood looking at the tree and back to Momma. He knew when she set her mind on something there was to talking her out of it. She was right the tree was a good choice. It would need a little trimming and shaping. He could already envision Momma and the kids decorating it.
“Daddy, how are you going to get it down?” Scoot’s question re-echoed earlier concerns.
Daddy walked over to the tree and looked at its trunk. Then the idea hit him. He stood and looked at his family. “Momma, you and the kids go stand over there.” Daddy pointed to what he thought was a safe distance for his family.
The three walked to the spot Daddy had pointed. Each curious as to what solution he had found in cutting down the cedar. Neither of them spoke or asked questions. They knew not to bother Daddy when he was working on a problem.
Daddy laid his rifle on the ground. The small Barlow pocked knife was fished deep from the jean’s pocket. It had been his granddad’s knife. He hoped that trying to trim the lower branches would not ruin it. Daddy lay on the ground and reached under the tree. He began to cut through the first of the lower branches. Slowly, one-by-one a branch was remove exposing the trunk.
Scoots watched his dad. Surely, he was not going to use his knife to cut through the trunk of the tree. The sun was beginning to sink to the horizon. He thought about Norlena and how miserable she must feel from her fall into the creek. Now, he wished he had not scared her. “Sorry, I scared you and caused you to fall into the creek. Are you cold?”
“Some.” Norlena tried to control the chatter of her teeth. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms for warmth.
“Here take my jacket.” Scoots took off his jacket and offered it to his sister.
Daddy looked over at his family. The sight of his son offering his jacket to Norlena brought reassurance of what a fine young man he was becoming. Daddy folded the pocket knife and put it back into his jeans pocket. He hoped his plan would work. “Okay, ya’ll don’t move from that spot.” He picked up his rifle, thankful that he had loaded it and had brought extra ammo. With careful aim, he pulled the trigger expecting the recoil. The shot hit its mark-the trunk of the cedar. The air filled with the acrid smell of gun smoke and bits of flying cedar bark. Daddy looked over at his family and was met with a look of horror on their faces. At least, they were safe from any ricochet. He turned his attention back to the tree and continued to shoot the trunk. After several shots, the tree began to lean making it hard for him to aim at the weakest area of the trunk.
Daddy looked back at the group and focused on his son. It was one thing to put himself in danger but to ask the same of his son was another issue in itself. Was having a tree three weeks before Christmas that important? There were some families that put theirs up on Christmas Eve. Trying to convince Momma to change her traditions was an argument he chose to let pass. He would just make it a point to go next weekend and get Momma her tree.
“Daddy, you need me to hold it straight?” Scoots asked. Momma did not like the idea of her husband shooting the tree. With each shot she held her breath and prayed for his safety. Now, her son was about to be put in harm’s way. Before she could say anything Scoots was holding the tree. He saw the worry in Momma’s face. “Don’t worry Momma. Daddy’s a good shot. I’ll be safe.”
Daddy looked up at his son. He was proud of the confidence his son placed in him, but did not want to take the risk. “Son...”
“Daddy, it’ll be fine. How many more do you need?”
“About two and then I can finish it with my pocket knife. But…”
“Come on, Daddy. The sun’s getting low. If we gonna get Momma’s tree then let’s do it.”
“Okay.” Daddy picked up his rifle. “Come stand next to me on this side.” Daddy waited until Scoots stood next to him. “You ready?”
Norlena watched in horror. Her brother could not be the sharpest tool in the shed at times and this was one of his moments. In spite of all the grief he gave her, she loved him. She knew she would miss him when he left in the spring for the Navy. “Be careful, Scoots.”
The sound of worry in his sister’s voice caught him by surprise. Rarely, did Norlena show her emotions. He knew it wasn’t because she didn’t have them but the opposite. She was sensitive and soft hearted. Despite her brattiness at times, she was okay for a girl.
Daddy gently squeezed the trigger sending another bullet into the tree. He watched in slow motion as the tree fell away from him. For a fleeting moment he was sure that Scoots had been hurt. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his son’s signature black and white tennis shoes. He looked upward and welcomed the sight of a huge grin on Scoot’s face. “Daddy, I think you killed it. I bet the Game Warden never thought of putting a hunting season on Christmas trees.”
Relief was replaced with laughter at his son’s comments. “Yeah, think I need to tag it?”
“No, but you might want to consider stuffing and mounting it.” Scoots walked over and picked up the tree.
Daddy laid his rifle down and inspected the trunk. “You are right son. I think it’s in the bag for sure.” He pulled the pocket knife out of his pocket and finished cutting through the trunk. Wiping the cedar sap off the blade onto his jeans, Daddy folded the knife. He picked up the rifle from the ground.
Scoots held one side of the tree with Daddy on the other side. “Momma, I shot and killed it. Now you get to clean and cook it.”
Norlena looked at the picture on the mantel of her fireplace. It was one of her favorites of her family. All four of them standing in front of the Christmas tree that Daddy had shot. It amazed her how thirty years later things remained the same. Brothers still teased sisters unmercifully. Mothers muttered silently under their breath for patience when children pushed the limits. Daddies tried to be the family heroes.
Her kids were always going in different directions. Just to have a family meal with everyone at the table was impossible. Then there were the distractions of cell phones, computers, texting, and video games. Having a conversation without looking at the top of a bowed head was a rarity. She would feel the need for a walk in the woods with her family every once and a while. Norlena walked to the bottom of the stairs and yelled up to her son. “Samuel, get your sister and bring your grandpa’s rifle. We’re going hunting for a Christmas tree.”
A native Georgian, Tori Bailey grew up in a small southern town where she developed a love of books, horses and a fascination with flying. After graduating from Brenau College, Tori pursued an aviation career while working for a Flight School located at Athens Ben-Epps Airport. She continued her passion for horses becoming an accomplished rider in both English and Western. A die hard Georgia Bulldog fan, Tori, lives in the Athens area with her husband and four cats. She enjoys writing about growing up in the South and her home state. Her debut novel, COMING HOME, was released earlier this year. To learn more about her up-coming novels visit www.readtoribaily.com.