Brian the Lion Hunter

by John Oliver Hodges

Brian built a chicken coop in Hornville and stocked his coop with chickens, but the Hornville wives complained of the smell. Worse than the chickens were the dogs. They barked and whinnied and fussed while Brian and Natalie were away at work each day. Finally Jason Horn dropped down from the big house to say the dogs must go. The Horns could not have endless plaintive cries destroying their otherwise peaceful environment, a place originally intended for artists, intellectuals, and folk musicians. How could anybody get work done with dogs barking all the time? While on the topic of unacceptable goings-on in Hornville, Jason brought up the chickens. “They stank,” Jason said, so Brian slipped into the cabin he rented from the Horns, slipped back out with his nickel-plated shotgun. He walked the planks over the mud, unlatched the coop door, stooped, grabbed the rooster that he loved, the rooster he often petted and called Conway. Brian carried Conway to the driveway, slung him up high into the air, and blasted him.

“Get the fuck out of here you sonofabitch!” Jason said.

Chicken feathers trickled down from the hemlock branches.

Brian went into the coop, strangled Conway’s harem and left their bodies in the mud beside the driveway for the artists, intellectuals and folk musicians to see. Brian chainsawed the fancy coop, what had cost damn near a thousand dollars in wood, piled the pieces in the driveway, doused the pile with kerosene, and lit it. Brian warmed his hands on the flames.

So much for Hornville.

The month before, Natalie fell off the porch, sprained her wrist. Did the Horns make a kind gesture? That would be a big fat negative.

The Horns were rude, rude were the Horns.

The Horns wanted Brian to know, Hey asshole, you don’t go have chickens and mournful dogs when a small girl up in the big house is suffering from asthma. They straight-to-Brian’s-face acted like Brian was a jerk, basically letting Brian know what they thought of Natalie, too. What? Natalie sprained her wrist? Big deal.

Brian and Natalie and their dogs moved across the Lynn Canal, plenty far away from Hornville, and continued what? Their wonderful awesome great excellent lives? Hell yeah. They were in Alaska! What more could one ask for? Brian’s longtime dream was in action and thriving, but Natalie missed New Jersey. Natalie actually missed New Jersey! Natalie had grown up in New Jersey. Natalie had friends in New Jersey. Natalie thought fondly back on the childhood she spent in a place called Nutley in New Jersey. Of Natalie Brian had asked what kind of nut Nutley was known for, but nuts, Natalie said, did not grow in Nutley. Seemed to Brian that Natalie had had a damn fine childhood.

Other than his dream of living in Alaska, Brian had dreamed, way back when he was a boy, of hunting lions in the African bush. In Alaska were bears. A plumber Brian met on a jobsite, and with whom he’d become friends, had shot a black bear with a crossbow. The notion of killing a bear bothered Brian. Brian didn’t know why. Maybe it was a preference, how some guys took dogs over cats, simple that way. Just when Brian thought of killing a bear it made him queasy. Bears looked like people when they stood up, black giants, whereas lions, though noble and equally ferocious, seemed a bit verminous for some reason. In reality it had been a mere childhood fantasy, killing lions. Perhaps Brian had only wanted to hunt the damn things, not shoot them. Brian’s plumber friend anyway skinned the bear he’d killed and draped its hide over the cot he slept on. The plumber didn’t remove the bear’s skull from the hide. As a result, a permanent crick set up camp in the the plumber’s neck. The plumber used the aluminum arrow, bent from its flight through the bear’s heart, as his TV antenna.

Brian and Natalie’s new landlord decided that four large dogs living in his townhouse with white rugs would not do—fine. Brian had been building a houseboat, what he thought of as a floating castle, on the rocky shore of North Douglass. Brian finished the castle that month and he and Natalie moved in, hey. Now they were island hoppers. They lived rent-free anchored off Shelter Island and on various shores of the Inside Passage. After three or four disasters, one in which they nearly died of thirst, they settled on a small stretch of coast within the city limits of Juneau, the Northern side. Natalie tired fast of shitting into the canal. No hot water in the floating castle. Another big upset of Natalie’s was that during one of their island excursions, Juniper, her favorite dog, was stomped to death by a moose. Natalie never lost an opportunity to rag Brian out about poor Juniper. Natalie accused Brian of negligence, called Brian irresponsible, not the sort of man she saw herself going the mile with for life.

So Natalie flew to New Jersey where she lived for two years, not in Nutley this time, but in a place called Clifton that didn’t have a single cliff to speak of, visiting Brian at Christmases and for spells during the summer. They were a couple trying to work things out, long distance. Neither Brian nor Natalie would budge regarding where they wanted to live. Natalie loved city life, while Brian could not tolerate the thought of living apart from nature.

Now Brian has driven Natalie to the Juneau airport after her June visit. Brian returns to his floating castle, and talks to the three dogs. He lights a Camel. From the porch Brian watches salmon jump. All around the castle they flip up out of the water, and act weird. In a month they will be dying all over. Natalie especially hated spawning season. It was like living in a pit of bleeding writhing agonizing human bodies—a house afloat in a boiling sea of anguish. Natalie took on nightmares. For Natalie, New Jersey was a nightmare-free zone. For Brian, New Jersey was a fair description of Hell. He’d seen the pictures of the endless buildings, “six-family houses” they called them, shoved side by side for blocks on end. He’d heard Natalie’s stories. New Jersey seemed like a place where you could get lost without ever setting foot outside the house. Every direction was the same, so what reason could you even have to live? Brian was familiar with the Bob Dylan song where Paterson, New Jersey is a place where decent men get blamed for shit they never did, jailed, or killed. In Alaska, a guy could think, could look around, make sense of the world and his place in it, even if weird shit like dainty wives complained of getting chicken shit stuck to the bottoms of their pastel flip-flops now and then. Brian rips the seal off a new bottle of Jack.

The fish in Brian’s front yard, in his moat, call it, are Humpers, nothing to eat, but he grabs the line, slings out the treble hook, a hand-rolled American Spirit between his lips, and reels, at once remembering why he doesn’t do this more often. He always catches a fish. This fish is a fine Silver, not overtaken yet with whatever disease plagues them. Brian clubs it dead, filets it, hibachis it and he and his dogs chow down, the happy family, his new chickens pecking the bones.

Brian had thought that Natalie was his answer. For a while Natalie had made Brian happy, but Natalie’s visit to the floating castle this time had sucked so bad. Brian ended up driving Natalie to the airport three days before what they’d originally planned on. Natalie paid a ton to change the airline ticket. Brian wouldn’t have her stay, not after what she told him inside the castle—forget it! She’d been seeing some New Jersey dude for six months, hadn’t mentioned him once throughout all their hundreds of phone calls. Hadn’t they agreed to be faithful? Hadn’t they agreed not to lie? Natalie, she’d waited until after they had sex three times before saying, “I’ve been dating.”

The dogs anyway loved Brian. That was special, don’t even try and knock dogs. Dogs were the cheese of the world!

Brian hit the Jack, smoked a joint, passed out. Woke up on his belly with an arm hanging over the deck all the way from the shoulder, as if he fell asleep while trying to pull up a drowned woman. Brian’s arm was bloated, wrinkled, looked as if fish had nibbled it for hours. Brian’s arm was asleep, too, so at first he wasn’t sure how bad things were. Brian stood, fell, found a chair, wiggled his arm and warmed it and found the Jack and saw it empty. Amazing. Brian wasn’t gonna ditch another workday over this. He’d taken enough days off for Natalie, so Brian went and cut tiles. Brian placed the tiles with his usual expertise. To the contractors who asked after Natalie, Brian said, “She fucked me over, dude.” Brian was never one for withholding information. Already Brian missed Natalie. Natalie’s visits, at the very least, were releases of long-suppressed lusts and emotions, especially self-doubt. Brian’s body and spirit felt better afterwards, but these three particular lovemaking sessions turned sour in Brian’s mind. The hundreds of times he’d jacked off into the Lynn Canal, the fishes rising to the surface to swallow his sperm, were better. Just all to hell with fucking unfaithful women! The Jack was better! To the awwwws of his fellow workers Brian smiled, and was glad to see his workday end.

Brian drove home, home drove Brian.

On Brian’s drive home he picked up another bottle of Jack, not to drink, but to save himself some trouble should he decide he wanted to drink some later. How dumb to go back out after you’d passed three liquor stores on the drive home. It happened all the time. He’d say no drinking tonight, and yet later his mind would change, how embarrassing! Right now Brian just wanted to feed his dogs, run fingers through their fur, lie down and go the fuck to sleep.

Only driving up the lane a battered drag-ass truck parked at the turnaround dirtied his eye. Had to be the guy, the guy who’d been dumping fish guts on the rocks not but fifty feet from Brian’s castle. Like twice a week Brian would return from placing tiles and what with having rock dust in his nostrils from the Wetsaw, and plus the ringing in his ears, the smell was a helluva welcome. This had gone on for above two months in early spring, a time that each year found a special place in Brian’s heart being it was then that he’d met Natalie at the Sweet Bean coffee shop in Seattle. Ever since then, he’d called Natalie Sweet Bean. To hell if he’d call her that again!

Brian slowed. A skinny old dude got out of the truck. The dude dropped his tailgate then carried two buckets onto the boulders leading down to the shore of the canal. Brian floored it, drove up screamingly, slammed the brakes, de-vanned with another slam and jumped over to the edge. Brian said, “Oh hell no you don’t.”

The guy turned and looked up at Brian.

“You take that shit somewhere else, Mister.”

The old guy’s face looked burned from sun exposure, though Brian didn’t know where he could’ve got that, being it rained all day in Juneau damn near to every day. Must be got cancer, he thought. Plus, one of the old guy’s eyes was cherry red, like all of it, not just the white part. Guy sort of looked at Brian with his mouth drooping open in one corner like a spawning Coho. He’d probably had a stroke of late. Old guy dropped one of the buckets and the guts spewed over the boulders and into the crevices.

“You clean that up,” Brian said.

Old man cleared his throat.

Brian said, “What?”

“Can’t do.”

“I’m not asking,” Brian said.

Guy dropped the other bucket. More intestines and fish heads gushed out over the rocks. The guy tried to straighten his posture. He looked up the declivity at Brian, arms hanging dead from the shoulders. This was another thing Brian didn’t care to contemplate. “I’m not gonna tell you again!” Brian said.

The guy mumbled something about his son. Brian grabbed up a driftwood stick and chucked it at the old fart. Why was it everybody had a history they wanted to tell? The stick knocked flat against the guy’s forehead, took off like a rocket then swan-dived into the water behind him, where the dying fishes swarmed around it. The old man teetered and fell backwards against the boulders and fish slime. Didn’t cry out. Blood seeped from the man’s elbow. Guy tried to stand but slipped.

Maybe now the dude would understand that dumping fish guts all over the rocks near Brian’s floating castle would get him in trouble. Maybe now the man would find some other way to dispose of his guts. Brian went back to his van, grabbed the 750 ml Jack bottle, then went down to the shore where he got in the dinghy and pulled himself to his castle. While petting his dogs Brian took the seal off his bottle and took down a healthy gulp. Outside the window Brian saw the old guy trying to get up. It was a sore sight, and Brian felt bad for the guy. He’d never done anything like that before, throwing a stick like that, it was just so unpleasant. Brian pulled down the shade to block the sight of it, and drank until he forgot all about Natalie the cheater and the good times they’d shared, her New Jersey fetish, and the old dreams like having a child, a boy that would grow up and be treated right. Natalie had always said Brian would make a great daddy, and Brian had looked forward to it, one day, but Natalie had to . . . no, it was too horrid to think on, what Natalie had done, taking her clothes off and doing stuff with another guy. Brian couldn’t help but to picture Natalie going down on the guy, who was blond and worked in Television, Natalie had told Brian that much, unbidden. He’d had to tell her to stop, don’t say more, just shutup for godfuckingsake.

Brian’s thoughts turned to Jason Horn’s little girl, Sunny. Sunny was blond. Sunny won hearts through the sound of her voice alone, even though she was barely past the baby stage, about three. Sunny’s asthma had started right after Brian and Natalie and the dogs moved into Hornville. Doctor couldn’t explain it, why it had started, what she was allergic to. The asthma led to a life-threatening case of pneumonia. When the kid’s health returned after Brian and Natalie moved out, people put two and two together, and started saying it was Brian and Natalie’s fault that the kid got sick in the first place. Brian had heard the smears through the Juneau grapevine. Just fuck Brian up a tree, why don’t you!

Brian woke up, up woke Brian.

As Brian had done the morning before, he checked the Jack for the damage. A half a bottle left—good! Brian eased down the ladder from the loft and rolled a smoke and lit it and went on the deck and gazed across the canal at Satellite Mountain. Sunny today, no rain. In the canal two large Japanese fishing boats held arms aloft, nets dangling down like wet wings scooping out the Humpers nobody else in the world wanted. Brian blew smoke. No shades on. The sunlight with its valuable vitamin D might help Brian climb out of this depressed muck, so Brian relaxed in his pathetic chair, the sun falling all over his bare legs and feet, tingling on his arms, sort of blowing against his face like a great wind that had traveled over hills and through forests, all the way from Seattle, to comfort him.

Natalie was over, over was Natalie.

Brian could date now.

Ola from the bar was all right. Brian knew Ola could be his next woman, tattooed Ola of Eskimo origin or ethnicity or whatever, and twenty-one to Natalie’s twenty-eight. Ola was hot chocolate, as were the others he’d used Natalie as a shield to repel. What these chicks liked about Brian was his sense of humor. He bought them drinks, lots of drinks at the bar, told great stories, and treated them with great respect. Not once had Brian cheated on Natalie, even though the opportunity had been there many times. So a new woman ought to be something to look forward to. Ola had very nice tattooed boobs that were on the large side. Variety is good for a guy, Brian told himself. Brian felt a strong need to cry. He pictured Natalie opening her mouth for the guy, but he would not cry, so help Brian to God.

Still, he had loved Natalie. He loved her still, she who had helped erase the pains from his past. Now that she was gone, Brian again looked back upon that boy who at ten had entered the foster home system in Seattle. Brian’s dad was in prison for gangster shit—heroin and shotguns and shattered glass windshields in cars that Brian had been in at the time they shattered, glass all over his lap. His dad was crap. He’d never visited the guy in prison and didn’t know which prison he lived in anyway, not anymore. Where Brian’s mother was was any fool’s guess. They both had let Brian down. Those lying-ass Horns of Hornville had let Brian down! “The lion hunter,” they called Brian behind his back. Oh yeah, he’d heard Jason Horn call him that while talking with some folk musician friends. The musicians had laughed, and had repeated what Jason said, “The lion hunter, ha ha ha,” so fucking funny, right? They had all let Brian down, and Natalie, too, tall Natalie with the long flowing hair.

That’s what Brian got for sharing his old dream of hunting lions in Africa. Was there something wrong with such a dream? Was it not “artistic” and “intellectual” enough? Why did the Horns have to go make fun of it?

Disgusted, Brian went back inside the castle, and thought he’d light the stove now to fry eggs, but first he opened the shade. The man was out there still, on the boulders. The man, who actually had looked like his dad in some ways, was on his side on the bank in the fish guts. Brian felt horribly sick. He ought to go out there and do something, it was the compassionate thing to do, but he fried eggs up. Brian ate the eggs. Brian petted the dogs. Brian the Lion Hunter ran fingers through the fur of his awesome dogs and fed them snacks. Brian talked to his chicken. Brian said, “How’s it going there, little partner?” The chicken pecked at the seeds Brian set out. “Good chicken,” Brian said, and said, “You’re a cool-ass chicken.” Brian thought of Conway, the Rhode Island Red he’d blasted with his shotgun after Jason Horn came down and said they had to go. Just why were there so many assholes in this life?

Brian wished he had been able to withhold his anger, not blown Conway away. Brian wished the stupid little Horn kid had never had asthma. The Horn kid being sick had made Brian seem shallow and insensitive, and maybe, goddamnit, he was. The Horn kid nearly died from the fucking pneumonia, so how dare Brian think Natalie’s broken wrist was worth getting upset over? Brian had no leg to stand on, so rolled a cigarette, lit it, smoked some, and in the smoking of it got in his dinghy. The guy on the rocks might need help. Brian wished he’d been nicer to the old fart the day before. Brian tied down the dinghy. Brian went up to the road then circled around on over to the where the guy was, and the guy pretty much looked dead. There were flies on the guy.

“Shit,” Brian said.

Brian looked over at the floating castle, where the phone was. It was Brian’s duty to call an ambulance or 911 or something. 911 would be easiest, but his phone was way the fuck over there. He’d have to cross water to get it. There seemed to be no rush. As Brian had had the good sense to bring his tobacco pouch along, he sat on a rock and rolled one and lit it and smoked, and said to the man down there, “If you think I’ve got a thing to do with any of this, think again, Mister. I’ve smelt it every time you’ve dumped it there. And there are bears out there. I don’t need no bears sniffing around my castle.”

The guy, the way his body was shoved down between the crevices of the boulders, looked mangled. Brian watched the water. A seal poked his head up. Seeing nothing of interest, the seal continued his swim in the direction of the bay. Brian inhaled smoke. Brian looked out at the mountains on the other side of the canal. It was weird how when awful things happened to you, the day could still be beautiful. Eagles coursed easily through the sky.

The guy coughed, his body of a spasm of a sudden, legs and arms working around for balance until he righted. Still shoved down in the rocks there awkwardly, his legs were raised up and spread apart like a woman’s.

Brian dropped his cigarette and went down and offered the man his hand and helped him stand and helped him up the rocks to the rusty truck parked at the dead-end roundabout. The tailgate was down from when he’d pulled his buckets of fish guts out of there. Brian helped the man sit, and said, “You got some water up there?” The man shook his head. The man said, “My boy,” and Brian sensed that in a minute here he’d be listening to the old guy talk on and on, telling Brian things he had absolutely no interest in. The man’s head slumped down between his shoulders. Drool seeped out.

“I’d thought you’d had a stroke or some shit,” Brian said. “You were just drunk, right?”

“My boy,” the man said.

“What about your damn boy? Are you gonna tell me all about your goddamn boy? Why I gotta listen to it? Is your boy my problem?”

“He was attacked,” the man said.

“Well, okay,” Brian said. “In my life, I happen to be going through some shit too.”

“You got something to drink, partner?” the man asked. He licked his lips.

“Yeah, sure, come on over to my castle,” Brian said, and the two men got in the dinghy and Brian ferried them over. Brian helped the man onto his deck, sat him down on the bench and poured him a tumbler of Jack. “I’m Brian,” Brian said. “People call me Brian the Lion Hunter.”

“I’m Gaylord,” the man said. “I once ate a cat, when I was starving one winter, but other than that I wouldn’t want nothing to do with lions. Them bitches is crazy.”

“I hear’ya,” Brian said, and the men knocked glass. Brian said, “My troubles began in Hornville,” and shook his head. He was about to lay into the Horn wives and their chicken shit flip-flop complaints, and lay into Natalie, and the people who’d let him down all throughout his whole life. He was about to get some things off his chest, but Gaylord cut in with, “What I was trying to tell you, Brian, when you so rudely interrupted me yesterday, is that my boy was eaten by a bear. All that motherfucker left was a shoe!”

“Them sonsofbitching Horns!” Brian shouted.

“Did you just hear what I said, Brian?” the old man asked. “You have no idea what I’ve been though. I’m trying to tell you something important here.” The man gripped Brian’s arm and stared at him. That red eye was too much.

Brian yanked his arm back. “Why don’t you first tell me why you thought it was acceptable to dump those fish guts near my castle. Why have you been doing that?”

“Hell, I had to put them somewhere,” Gaylord said, and held out his glass for another drink.

“What makes you think you can come onto my castle and boss me around?”

“Just gimme a drink, partner.”

Brian filled Gaylord’s glass. The guy took a swallow, and cleared his throat. “As I was saying when you so rudely interrupted me, all that motherfucker left was a shoe. Don’t you wanna know what happened to the foot inside the shoe. Brian?”

“Not really.”

“Hey Brian,” Gaylord said in a hushed conspiratorial tone, “I see through the window you got a blaster in there. What say we go kill us a bear?”

“I only hunt lions,” Brian said.

“You mean because lion rhymes with your name?”

“Bears are too much like human beings.”

“Ha ha ha ha!” Gaylord cackled. Gaylord continued cackling and Brian’s face turned red, which made Gaylord cackle more, but suddenly Gaylord’s laughter came to an abrupt stop, and he leaned over and said, “Listen, Brian, you could just as easily be Brian the Bear Hunter. You don’t have to go around being Brian the Lion Hunter all your life. Don’t you think it’s time for a change, partner? Let’s hunt a bear. I mean I’m serious, I want me some bear blood. I’ve got to kill me a bear and I think you’re the one who’s gonna help me out on this.”


“That’s right, you’re thinking about it, see, cause you know I’m right. I tell you what, Brian, let’s head up into the forest with that bottle and the blaster and catch us a bear. You do this for me and I swear to God you can tell me all you want to on them, uhhh—”

“Horns,” Brian said.

“Yeah, them Horn.”

“And Natalie,” Brian said.

“Yeah, that fucking bitch, Natalie! I want you to tell me all about her and after we kill the bear, we gonna eat the sonofabitch, all of him but for the foot, you hear me. and you know what we gonna do with his foot?”

“What?” Brian said, amazed by the guy’s sudden burst of energy.

“Send it to Natalie, ha ha ha!”

Brian pictured Natalie getting her mail in Clifton, New Jersey, where she now lived, and where there were no cliffs to speak of—no cliffs! Brian watched, in his mind, Natalie open the package. He saw her eyes light up at the sight of the bear’s foot sitting there in the cardboard box, all nasty-smelling and bloody, and the look of horror come out on her face. It made Brian giggle. The giggle quickly turned to a laugh, and the two men laughed together, out of control, spit and drool coming out of their mouths and noses and eyes. Brian was warming up to the idea. Gaylord was right. There was no reason in the world he couldn’t switch over from being Brian the Lion hunter to Brian the Bear Hunter. And besides, Brian really did need somebody to unload on. Brian said, “Let’s do it!” and the men shook hands.

John Oliver Hodges wrote The Love Box, a story collection that won the Tartts First Fiction Award. His writing has appeared this year in Black Scat Review, Fictive Dream, Big Other, Molotov Cocktail and Thin Air Magazine. He lives in New Jersey, and teaches writing for the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.