We’ve crammed the Suburban with about as many people as it can carry, driving the fence line on a section of land not far from Meridian, Texas, on a cool Sunday afternoon during deer season.  My brother left a message even before we made it home from church, asking us to come with his family to check out this piece of property.  I didn’t bother to change, as we are to meet the seller in a couple of hours, and I look a little incongruous in my Sunday best next to my brother, who is wearing a black Stetson and boots, and the seller, wearing a cap dressed up as the Lone Star flag of my native state and a plaid, pearl-buttoned shirt.

All I can hear is the kids’ breathing in my ear and the soft murmuring of the Suburban’s motor.  We are waiting for the flock of turkeys to crest the rise in front of us.  My brother pushes back the Stetson from his forehead, quietly making a count of the flock.

He counts 25 before something alarms them and they take off into the brush, bordered by a stand of live oaks and pecan trees, near the driver’s side of the lumbering SUV.  We never heard the sound that spooked them—or maybe it was movement.

My brother shifts the Suburban into four-wheel drive, and we crest the steep rise and head for the big tank in the center of the property.  I roll the window down and try to block out the voices and the sound of the motor’s humming, listening to the stillness.  

That’s what I remember most.  The stillness.  And the silence.  And the pitch-blackness of my grandparent’s place, so far off the blacktop between Bryan and Waco.  And the stars that decorated the sky like a coat of shimmering silver dust.  We carried flashlights on our morning and evening hunts, as the deep well of country darkness made it so difficult to traverse the trails, even when the moon was up.

My grandfather kept a heavy flashlight near the screen door in case anybody had to brave the winter chill and inky blackness to answer nature’s call at the outhouse.

Sometimes, I would take the flashlight and go off—keeping to the trail to avoid bull nettle—and turn the light off, just to disappear into the darkness and watch the sky.  Sound carried so far out there that I could still hear muffled noises echoing from the cabin, which stood on cinder blocks so that it shook when you walked across the floor in your boots.

When Pawps—my grandfather—and Daddy first built that cabin, there was no running water, no electricity, no TV—and no noise.  Even then, the city was encroaching on our home in greater Houston.  The roads were paved, and the traffic was growing steadily heavier.  And the sounds we didn’t notice—the lawn mowers and cars and trucks and TVs—had already dulled our senses, robbing us of the pleasure of pure, unfiltered, natural sensation.

When my grandparents had to sell that place, it was like a death in the family.

It was almost intoxicating to feel that heightened sensational awareness in the country, so I try to recreate those singular moments we all experience at one time or another, to capture that sense of life again.  But I can’t.  Everybody is talking again, and the damn motor makes too much noise.  Roll the window up, it’s cold in here!

When did I hunt last?  It has been several years, around Christmastime.  I am home, so my younger brother and I set out for the country.  We only have time for an evening and morning hunt, and then we will have to go.

That evening, I take the stand in the oat patch, while my brother heads for the big tank.  I don’t see anything other than a mess of black hogs passing through the clearing and a cardinal perching on my stand, so I sit back and enjoy the still, cold air, looking for movement in the creeping shadows.

But there is nothing there.

It’s almost dark when I meet my brother at the fence line, and we begin the hike back to the cabin.  Then, up ahead on the trail, something moves.  Slowly, with a liquid viscosity of barely perceptible movement, a shape emerges from the woods and halts, eyeing us carefully.  Then the shape takes form as a large bobcat, squatting down on its hind legs, pointy ears reaching for the darkening sky.  Neither of us heard a sound.

Then it is gone.  My brother, who had raised his rifle when he sensed the movement ahead of us, slings the .30-06 onto his shoulder.  Well, he says, it would have cost too much to mount.  We both agree that we wouldn’t want to have shot the bobcat anyhow.  

That’s not what we came for.

It’s near full dark, and the stars are already beginning to show.