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Of what use, then, are the bow and the arrow and the target?
—ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY
READY YOUR BOW.
Mercy Carr raised the sleek longbow in a silent salute to her grandfather. He’d designed and built this bow himself, hand carving the black bears on its riser out of red maple with the help of his own grandfather while he was still a young man himself. Before he was killed in the line of duty in an arrest gone wrong.
Grandpa Red bestowed the bow to her upon his death, but she’d never had the heart to use it. When she came home to Vermont from Afghanistan and bought the old cabin, she retrieved her grandfather’s bow from storage and hung it in a place of honor over her flagstone fireplace. On the mantelpiece below stood a Kenyon Cox sketch of Diana, goddess of the hunt, her bow in one hand and a staff and a quiver of arrows in the other. A thank-you gift from her billionaire neighbor, for catching the thieves who tried to make off with his art collection a couple of months ago.
The memory of Martinez hung there, too, along with the bow and the picture. Her fiancé had been a champion archer—one of the many ways in which he reminded her of her grandfather—and they would hang out in his hooch with his bomb-sniffing dog Elvis between battles with the Taliban playing archers in Final Fantasy.
Before she got shot and Martinez got killed and Elvis got PTSD.
Mercy pulled a thin blue arrow from her quiver and brought it over the bow. Just playing target practice now, safe at home in her own backyard on a crisp and clear Saturday morning in October. Aiming not for terrorists or for deer but for a twenty-four-inch poster mounted on a bale of hay and emblazoned with the Olympic pattern of bright concentric circles. White, black, blue, red, and finally, the yellow bull’s-eye.
She could feel her cheering section watching her. Amy Walker at her side, an eager Katniss Everdeen in the making. Her grandmother Patience with Amy’s baby, Helena, up on the deck behind them. Brodie McDougal, Amy’s latest male admirer, who spent more time at Mercy’s cabin these days than she did. Muse, the adorable Munchkin kitty they’d rescued over the summer, hiding under her grandmother’s chair. And Elvis, the handsomest Belgian shepherd in the world, in his classic Sphinx pose at Patience’s feet.
She drew the string back with her gloved fingers to kiss the corner of her mouth. She wasn’t used to having an audience. When she came home from the war, she’d escaped into a solitude broken only by Elvis and her grandmother. But then she and Elvis discovered the baby in the woods, and before she knew it Amy and Helena were living with her. Mother and child had drawn Mercy right back into the flow of humanity. Like it or not.
She eyed the bull’s-eye a mere thirty meters away, aiming right for yellow innermost circle of victory. She’d hit every other circle on the target but this one, and now that she was warmed up, she meant to nail it this time.
This was the most critical part. The inhaling and the exhaling. The honing in and the letting go.
Mercy let loose the string. The arrow flew. Seven pairs of eyes traced the arc of its flight.
The arrow hurtled toward the hay bale, the autumn sun glinting on the steel field point. Pierced the yellow center of the bull’s-eye with a solid whop.
“Perfect!” Amy studied Mercy. “You are such a good shot.”
“Even better with a gun,” said Patience. “Best in her graduating class at Fort Leonard Wood.”
“She was a soldier.” Brodie shrugged. “Of course, she’s a good shot.”
“My turn.” Amy reached out for Grandpa Red’s bow.
Mercy handed it to her. Corrected the girl’s stance, eased her gloved fingers closer to her lips as she pulled back the string, told her to breathe.
“Grip it and rip it,” said Brodie.
“Let her concentrate,” said Mercy. “Take your time. Focus.”
Amy squinted her eyes at the target. Breathed heavily. Took her shot.
Missed by a yard.
Elvis raced after the wayward arrow. The Belgian shepherd loved this game. Especially when Amy had the bow, because she missed as often as not. For him, this was a variation of find-and-fetch. Whether he was sniffing out bombs on the battlefield or playing this bow-and-arrow game, he was busy. Busy was happy for Elvis.
Amy’s bolt had landed at the foot of a burning bush, ablaze in autumnal glory. The dog scooped it up dead center with his mouth, turning to show off his prize. His dark muzzle marked the midpoint of the arrow’s shaft, with the point on one side of his nose and the fletching on the other.
As if his elegant head were the heart shot through by Cupid’s arrow itself.
“Here,” said Mercy, but he ignored her command. Apparently, there was little joy returning the fancy feathered stick to her when a worthier recipient was close at hand.
Elvis bound across the lawn and up to the deck that stretched behind the length of the cabin. There in a white Adirondack chair sat Patience, holding Helena on her lap. Amy’s baby was nine months old, and she’d recently mastered the art of clapping. She blinked her big slate-blue eyes at the dog, slapping chubby little hands together in congratulations.
The shepherd gallantly dropped the arrow at her grandmother’s feet, and the baby squealed with delight, all smiles and cheeks and dimples.
“Good boy,” said Patience in that soothing singsong veterinarian’s voice that endeared her to all her patients.
Elvis raised his head, as if to accept her praise as his rightful due, then sat back on his haunches. Wagging his curlicue tail, he cocked his large triangular ears at little Helena. The baby reached forward to pat his nose.
Mercy watched. Elvis was having more fun than she was. He could enjoy this picture-perfect day—the kind of day that proved all the tourist brochures right and brought out the peepers in force. He was not thinking about hunting season, which began in earnest today with the opening of bow-and-arrow deer hunting. A season she had once enjoyed, but now felt deeply ambivalent about. She’d seen enough of death. And once you’d seen it, there was no unseeing it. No forgetting it. All you could do was acknowledge its terrible dominion. And keep on living.
“I don’t get it.” Amy stood with her hands on her narrow hips, a frown creasing her heart-shaped face. “I should be better at this by now.”
“It takes practice,” said Mercy. “You’ll get it. You’re just trying too hard.”
Amy was determined to learn archery. She’d joined the archery club at Bennington College, where she and Brodie were both freshmen. He’d signed up with her. They said that archery helped balance the time they spent at the computer. But Mercy suspected it was more a by-product of their love for all things Hunger Games and Game of Thrones.
So here she was, heirloom bow in hand, trying to teach them the finer points of the sport. Wherever Grandpa Red was now, he was laughing.
“Let me try again,” said Amy.
“You can do it.” Mercy grinned at her. “Be the arrow.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Yes, you do. Think of it as yoga with a bow and arrow.”
“I don’t see how.”
“It’s, like, Zen,” added Brodie.
“Martinez used to tell a story about two groups of student archers,” said Mercy. “Each group had its own master teacher. One group bragged, ‘Our teacher can even hit the bull’s-eye blindfolded.’ And the other group answered, ‘Our teacher is better. He can even miss the bull’s-eye with his eyes open.’”
They all laughed.
“Be the arrow,” repeated Mercy, and handed Amy the quiver full of arrows. “Keep practicing.”
She sat down in the Adirondack chair next to Patience and the baby. Brodie hovered nearby. They all watched as Amy shot arrow after arrow at the target—and missed every time. Elvis ran back and forth, fetching them for Helena with grace and good humor.
“Maybe Amy would be better at stump shooting,” said Brodie after Amy missed yet again. “She’s not a soldier, but she’s a good hiker.”
Stump shooting was target practice in the woods—using stumps and logs as targets.
“That’s a good idea,” said Mercy. “It may be easier for her to relax out in nature.”
“She can read the woods just like you do,” said Brodie.
“I can hear you, you know.” Amy put down the longbow and gathered up the arrows at Helena’s feet and put them back in the quiver.
“Your game warden must be a good archer, too,” said Amy. “He can read the woods, too.”
“He’s not my game warden,” Mercy said.
Amy and Patience exchanged a look.
Amy was referring to Vermont Game Warden Troy Warner. He and his search-and-rescue dog Susie Bear had helped Mercy and Elvis solve a murder over the past summer.
“Troy’s like a Ranger,” said Brodie.
“D and D,” translated Amy.
Brodie’s other passion, besides Amy and archery, was Dungeons & Dragons. Most of his conversation revolved around these three obsessions. Mercy didn’t understand half of it; it was as if he were speaking in Orc.
“Why don’t we try it again, together this time,” said Mercy, eager to move the conversation away from her and Troy and what may or may not develop between them and back to archery.
Mercy handed Amy the bow and stood behind her, shadowing her movements as she settled once more into the proper position. Feet shoulder-width apart. Limbs relaxed. Left arm outstretched, holding the bow. Eye on the target. Right arm drawing back the string. The kiss at the corner of her mouth.
“Inhale,” she whispered as she gently steadied Amy’s stance.
Let it go.
Be the arrow.
“Exhale.” She’s got it this time, thought Mercy.
“I heard Madeline Warner’s back in town,” said Brodie.
Mercy flinched, jostling Amy’s elbow just as she released the string. The arrow flew straight over the target, past the lawn’s edge, and right into the forest. Elvis sprinted after the blasted bolt, disappearing into a blaze of sugar maples.
Well, in that hit you miss: she’ll not be hit with Cupid’s arrow.… Forget Zen, thought Mercy. Shakespeare nailed it every time.
“Brodie!” Amy rolled her eyes at him. “Way to go.”
“Her mother is having knee-replacement surgery,” Patience told Mercy.
Whatever, she thought. The subject of Madeline Warner would have to wait. “Elvis shouldn’t be in there.” She whistled—a sharp, penetrating trill that would grab the ear of any New York cabdriver, designed to order Elvis back, pronto. She and Amy collected their equipment and joined Brodie and Patience and the baby. They all waited for the shepherd to streak back into the yard and up to the porch and bring the lost arrow to Helena.
“He’s not wearing his hunter orange.” Patience rose from her chair, baby in her arms.
“He knows better than that.” Mercy whistled again, and waited. No response. She held her breath. It was hunting season. No dog or human should be venturing into the woods without the protection hunter orange could provide.
“Maybe he’s having a hard time finding the arrow,” said Brodie.
“Impossible,” said Patience.
“Maybe he’s chasing turkeys,” said Amy.
Wild turkeys often roamed the front yard, and Elvis loved playing with them. The Belgian shepherd protected the property from most two- and four-legged creatures with a fierce aggression, but he liked the turkeys. The big birds visited most days, gobbling along, headed for the crab-apple trees fronting the forest line, while Elvis ran around them in circles. It was like herding cats. The wild turkeys would ramble on, pecking at insects and nuts on their way to the apples. Elvis would escort them to the edge of the forest—but he’d stop there. Eventually, the turkeys would go into the woods.
Where the hunters were.
Elvis would not follow them; he knew his job was to guard the perimeter unless and until Mercy said otherwise. She’d posted NO TRESPASSING and NO HUNTING signs on her acreage, but in the forest beyond her property, hunters were looking to bag their Thanksgiving dinners.
The Malinois was not doing his job now.
“This is taking too long.” Mercy shook her head. Something was wrong. This wasn’t like Elvis.
Her grandmother shot her a look. “It’s open season on bear and deer and turkey. All kinds of hunters with all kinds of weapons will be out in force.”
As if to confirm that, they heard a couple of faint booms coming from the forest. Gunshots. Hunters.
“I’m going after him.” She couldn’t let anything happen to Elvis.
“Change your clothes and your shoes first,” said Patience.
“At least take your pack and the vests.” Patience handed the baby to Amy, and then turned to Mercy. “I’ll get the pack. You get the vests.”
Copyright © 2019 by Paula Munier