Never really knew for sure which was which.
The old hunter’s late father had called the two tall hills towering above his childhood home “Agony” and the other, “Misery.” That way, his pa could say they were perpetually caught somewhere between the two. Unless one was a marathoner—and then, maybe even if they were—most would be winded attempting the steep ascent to either hilltop.
But his father had never pointed to one hill saying, “There’s Misery! Wonder if the berries are ripe up yonder just yet?” Or,“There’s Agony! I reckon the raccoon will run there this night.”
Thus, the exact appellations for each of the two mountains remained uncertain, but the old man knew the metaphor likewise still worked, even in its ambiguity.
This sunny day—with the cool temps feeling not quite summer yet not quite fall, but rather somewhere between—the elderly hunter decided to climb to the top of Misery-or-possibly-Agony. He’d take Remmie along for the hike as man and hound were still getting to know each other, and the hill’s grade was as good for bonding as it was for exercise. Going to her kennel, the old-timer swung open the gate to let the young dog run free.
At the start, the hunter and canine took a short, dogleg jaunt to a tall, solitary shagbark hickory. Their hometown of Painted Post had of late experienced heavy rains, which sometimes brought down a few nuts early to hint at what autumn’s mast might yield. Considering over the past few years the crop of acorns and hickory nuts had been somewhere between abysmal and nonexistent in these hills, one could only pray this fall would be different.
A pleasant sight greeted them when they reached that lone hickory.
The old hunter nearly danced. “Well, lookee here!”
At the tree’s base were strewn a couple dozen hickory nuts of good size. Several of the green-husked nuts had been partially chewed, which told of squirrels already discovering the early bounty.
Kneeling, the man picked up one hickory nut and tossed it in the air several times. When he looked up, Remmie sat several feet away, patiently studying him with a curious are-you-half-or-completely-insane look.
“You’ll get used to it,” he told her, setting the nut on the ground. “C’mon. We’ve got a mountain to climb.”
And climb they did.
Having scaled this hill many times, the man took a slightly circuitous trek to the top. For his age, he was in pretty good shape. Many nights still pursuing ringtails behind a hound or two at night saw to that. All the while, Remmie ran around him in wide circles, exploring the scents and trails left by a myriad of forest-kind—deer, bear, gray and red squirrels, and raccoon.
But even so, Agony-or-possibly-Misery remained as steep as it always had, and at one point, he stopped as Remmie followed suit to watch him once again. From this purgatorial halt somewhere between the hill’s base but likewise still an appreciable way to the top, the old man could easily survey the land.
Over there remained an age-old game trail that ran diagonally up the mountainside. Like him, the local wildlife had also opted for a not-so-direct way to reach the hill’s summit.
A bit yonder in the opposite direction, he’d successfully surprised an old buck many years ago and filled his freezer that winter.
Directly below stood an ancient, hollow red oak. How many nights—from one autumn to the next—had he stood beneath that oak’s thick limbs as his hounds treed there, with the wood bandits tucked safely within that den tree’s walls?
His look turned nostalgic seeing a nearby log. He recalled sitting on that log, now decayed and covered with moss, several decades past when that tree had fallen the night before due to a violent summer storm. That time ago, he’d been young, and a pretty, red-haired girl his age sat on the same log an infinite distance away. He’d faced north while she peered south.
She’d spoken excitedly as he listened patiently, telling him of her grand schemes—all of which ended with her leaving this “sleepy little hollow” for places busier beneath bright city lights. When finished, she asked him what he thought of her dreams.
His short, polite response had been somewhere between “That’s nice.” and “Goodbye.” All those years since, the old hunter had never married. While different possible scenarios rushed before his eyes from that day till now, he still smiled content, thinking of the path he’d followed.
Wasn’t good enough for her, anyway.
Looking up, he spied Remmie studying him. Maybe he’d spoken his thoughts aloud as he occasioned to do when alone in the forest. Perhaps the small hound was simply curious—head tilted, still watching—bemused by his long delay at what her senses indicated was an otherwise unremarkable spot.
“No problems, girl. Memories and all,” he finally replied. “Let’s get going.”
With her springy step, the cur preceded the man through the woods, with birdsong filling the air.
The treescape slowly morphed from coniferous to deciduous as they neared the top. Oaks reigned here, but likewise shared the hilltop with tall, black cherry trees, gray birches, and spreading red maples, the latter just a few branches with leaves sporting their namesake shade.
Fall would soon be here, the old hunter knew.
After several more minutes ascending the tough grade, they pair reached the top. The man’s undershirt was soaked with sweat, and the dog lightly panted.
The elderly man then sat in a familiar place where the forest’s canopy opened barely enough to view the panorama, including Misery-possible-Agony to the immediate west. For her part, Remmie came near the man and rested on her haunches, likewise studying the rippling hills sprawled before them.
They stayed there a long time, neither daring to break the pristine silence but both knowing the trip here had been well worth the effort.
Sitting there peacefully, sated on a tall hill, somewhere between Heaven and Earth.