Many years ago, when I was a dangerous age – only thirteen, but almost fourteen – I fired an arrow as straight and as high above my head as I could. Nor was this just a blunt field arrow. It was the Black Arrow of Death – a dark shaft tipped with a triangular black head, silver along its honed edges, a true hunting arrow that I’d found in a wonderful way – plunged at eye level into the sappy heart of a white pine, fired by some adult hunter at a fleeing buck, who knows when, but still twanging with the adventure.
I’d only fired this arrow four times before. Three (different) times at a woodchuck that had his (or her) hole near the edge of the hay field, and once at a rabbit, after which it took me a panicked half hour to find it, even in the white snow. I had never fired the Black Arrow of Death at crows in the field, at squirrels scrambling up trees, or frogs on the edge of the fire pond. For those shots I used ratty old arrows.
My favorite game, at that age, was to hunt imagined enemies up in the hay field. I’d sneak through the orchard, to the edge of that field, and if there were no black crows dotting the grass, or woodchucks nibbling along the edge, I’d pick out a clump of dirt or a dark tuft a hundred and fifty yards out and pretend it was a hooded assassin. I almost always selected distant targets, because I loved the way my arrow strained into the upper reaches of the sky, adored seeing it balanced, deliciously, at its apogee and, sighed with aching relief when it made an exhausted turn, and plunged, deliciously, down toward the soft earth.
I’d shoot for hours on end, picking one imagined enemy after another, but my final attack always had the same target. There was a knoll in the middle of the field, eroded on one side, like a wave about to break. I’d placed a half-rotten birch log up there the first year, and for me that was a rare, white fox, with paper-thin skin. The next fall – when I was thirteen – I carried up a pumpkin, and that was the plump head of the Evil King.
Instead of firing at the King from out in the distant field, I always attacked him from up close, below the underside of the hill, on the theory that his archers couldn’t hit me in the defilade below the ramparts. The problem was that to strike from that odd angle I had to fire my arrows almost straight up, dropping them in like mortar rounds. That was tricky. And dangerous. Too great a safety margin, and my arrow would fall harmlessly onto the soft side of the hill. But if the trajectory shot was too vertical, a gust could push an arrow back down at my own blonde head.
Out of respect, I would only fire only one round of five arrows at the Evil King, and it wasn’t until the near the end of that season, when the trees along the edges of the field were mostly bare and an early snow had confectioned the field, that I managed to slay him with an almost perfect shot. The winning arrow had come down straight and true and buried itself up to its feathers. I admired that sight for a good ten minutes, feeling immensely proud, but also sad, because this moment seemed to mark an ending.
I turned to head back toward the orchard. But then froze. Because there was a deer – a young buck, with only a couple points – by the apple trees, barely visible in the dusk. The deer probably knew I was there – it may have even heard me whoop when I slew the Evil King – but it probably thought I was out of range. However, from the top of the knoll, with a soft breeze behind me, and the added length of my best arrow, I might just reach it. And wouldn’t that be something. Even if I was just close, wouldn’t that a way to end my season!
I slid the Black Arrow of Death out of my quiver, and nocked it carefully and quietly. The deer continued eating fallen apples. I took a deep breath and raised the bow, with my left hand. But the moment I began to draw the string back with my right, the young buck looked up, then bounded into the shadows with a flick of its white tail. So there I was, with my weapon loaded and my heart pounding. And that was when another idea whispered to my heart.
I was a careful young man, and this was not something I ever would have ever planned. But once this thought had leered at me, it would have cost me too much pride to walk away. I knew I shouldn’t do it. But I had to. Just once. And so, standing on top of the knoll, witnessed by the sullen clouds of a gathering winter, I raised my bow not 60 degrees, or 75, but a dead 90. I aimed straight up, directly above my own fair head. I reassured myself that the odds of a direct hit were microscopic, or even less, since I’d just nailed the Evil King. But at the same time, the closer the Black Arrow of Death came to landing at my feet, the higher would be my reward. And if I were to feel the whoosh of it past my face – wow! – I would be a man.
My arm strained with the unnatural angle and the length of the shaft, then settled into position. I released half my breath into the greater air, blinked once, and then gently relaxed my thumb and forefingers. The arrow twanged free, taking the boyish me with it. I watched it only long enough to confirm the trueness of its flight, as it dotted the sky above me, and then closed my eyes, bowed my head as if I were about to be knighted, and listened for the whistle of its return.
But I never heard that whistle, nor the thamp of the Black Arrow of Death into the hardening, November ground. It didn’t brush my nose, and I didn’t hear it strike just past my shoulder, or anywhere nearby. I heard nothing, absolutely nothing, and the longer I waited the less I heard.
Finally, I opened my eyes. Because the field had had its second haying, the grass was as short as a Marine recruit’s hair. My arrow should have stood out, even though the sky was darkening by the moment. But I didn’t see it. I searched the area in widening circles, telling myself that there had always been something strange about this arrow. It didn’t have the cedar smell of my other wooden arrows. And it seemed to absorb, rather than reflect light. Some hunter had lost it in plain sight, and I’d had trouble finding its dark shaft, even in white snow. Yes, there was something other-worldly about this arrow.
I slept fitfully that night, and went out the next morning and searched again, in the frosted grass. I continued searching even after I heard the school bus rumble up to my stop, wait a few moments, and then rattle off. I searched for hours, and when I still did not find my arrow, I could only think of two other possibilities. One was that my final shot was absolutely perfect. The Black Arrow of Death had raced straight and true into the heavens, fallen back directly through its own slipstream, reabsorbing its own sound as it went, and, true to its dark destiny, penetrated so deeply into the center of my pumpkin head that I’d died before I knew it.
The other possibility was that the sky itself had taken back the Black Arrow of Death. At least for a time.
Werner Low lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His stories and poems have appeared in a good many journals, including “Bateau,” “Falling Fountain,” “The Journal” (of Ohio State University), “Lily Literary Review,” “Literary Laundry,” “The Literary Review” (of Trinity College, Hartford), “The Pedestal Magazine,” “Slow Trains,” “Spot Literary Magazine,” “The Square Table,” “Taj Mahal Review,” “Terrain,” and “Void Magazine.” A new novel, “Don’t Worry, Dandelo,” is looking for an agent, a publisher, or just a friendly face. Please visit www.WernerLow.com.
© 2014, Werner Low