On the train, the passengers in our coach have made a pact: anyone who sees wildlife will shout what they see, and where. So, periodically we are roused from a panorama-induced stupor by shouts of, Mountain-goats left! Or Bighorn sheep right! Sometimes, Bald eagles! And 50 heads frantically turn, Where???!!!
I learned how to shoot at a cabin buried in the woods of Tionesta. Dad would set empty cans on a downed tree and crouch behind me, steadying the shotgun while teaching me to line up the target, and squeeze the trigger without jerking. I loved the thrill of hitting the can, which happened occasionally, but mostly that gun just scared the crap out of me with its loud boom and vicious kick. I wonder if there were moments he would like to have had a son, to bring home the pheasant and venison and rabbits that filled our freezer in lean years, but if so, he didn’t let on. We were better students of fishing, as he taught us to handle squirmy night crawlers, grasp a fish flipping on the line, and gently remove a hook to throw the small ones back.
Back at the cabin my sister and I would run curious fingers along the slimy tails of the keepers, and spread the dorsal fins out, peering into the still, clear eyes of our day’s catch, learning to tell a bass from a blue gill, a crappie from a stripe. Dad would take up a sharp knife for scaling while Joyce and I knelt at his side, feeling the flick of scales catch on our arms and legs, mesmerized by the appalling ritual of cleaning.
Soon we’d be chased inside for a shower, in which we attempted to rinse the scales out of our braids, and from which we’d emerge to the maddening aroma of fish and potatoes frying in great cast iron skillets. We’d set the table, urging Mom with baleful looks to hurry, while Dad, clad in a towel and fresh with soap from his own cleanse, gave voice to our frenzy: My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut! We’d finish our meal with faces nearly in our plates, and fall asleep to hooting owls and the occasional critter scurrying in the rafters. Rest. Rise. Repeat.
The cabin belonged to my uncle who loaned it as a kindness my family never could have afforded, and we adored it. There were bumps and bruises, and maybe a dislodged kidney each time we navigated the mile-long stretch of ruts that dead-ended at the cottage. Trees leaned in close along the path, and, if Joyce and I had fallen asleep, the scritch-scratch of dense hawthorns against the car let us know we had arrived.
Parked, we would race to the front door, always unlocked, until the first time we discovered desiccated mice in the traps. After that, entering first became a dare. The place smelled of mothballs and was often wildly festooned with cobwebs, like we’d interrupted a birthday party for a crowd of spiders. Dad would unload Mom first, then the car, while we chased the webs down with a broom, and set out fresh sheets and blankets. Mom loaded food into the fridge and checked the flour for mealy worms. First thing in the morning we’d take gallon jugs to the spring—a pipe emanating from a rock at the side of the road—where we’d fill up with drinking water for the duration.