In September, Black Lawrence Press will release Jill Stukenberg’s powerful, timely, and haunting debut novel, News of the Air, which won the 2021 Big Moose Prize. Please enjoy the excerpt below.
Excerpt from News of the Air
It was a different kind of rich entirely that you didn’t have to be home to have guests.
Though there wasn’t much daylight left, Cassie helped herself to one of the ATVs parked outside the luxury hunting cabin’s garage, the weekend party continuing around her. She took a lap down the driveway for a feel of the machine. She was just coming back when she heard it—when they all heard it, even those who’d been inside by the snack trays—a gunshot in the woods to the south and east.
“It’s them again,” said someone.
Now the people who’d been aiming for the straw bale targets in the long lawn were unstringing their bows, unloading their rifles. This was to prepare to mount ATVs, to ride out to see.
“Don’t forget lights,” someone said. Helmets from the peg in the garage were gathered, keys tossed.
Then Jess’s voice was in her ear, Jess climbing onto the back of Cassie’s already-running ATV. “Hey,” someone was shouting, and Cassie understood Jess had not unstrung her bow but only slung it over her back—a violation that had to do as much with form, with politeness, as safety. You didn’t count a crib out of turn and you stowed weapons properly, the law observed by people who shot animals for sport, who knew the rules around here.
At Jessica’s direction Cassie took the ATV trail in direction of the shots.
She could feel Jess watching with her, over her shoulder. Already it was too dark to travel at this speed, and on a trail she didn’t know. The headlight bounced from rock to tree; it actually made Cassie’s vision worse, rendered everything outside its small orb darker. She pulled it off.
Then the sound of the ATVs behind them changed—their thrumming fading.
“They’re going the wrong way,” Jess said in her ear. “They remember last year. They caught some man in Jim’s deer stand.”
They came to a pond and dismounted, Cassie glad to be rid of the engine noise—though just as suddenly the sounds of the forest at dusk filled her ears. Creaking, rustling, small scurrying. An odd distant tapping.
“I thought the shot came from this way.”
“It did. I was taking aim.” Jess replied with such surety, Cassie had to think about it. At the moment of the shot, Jess had been aiming her bow, eyeing the straw targets, all of her senses on, like a superpower.
They began to circle the pond on foot. Now Cassie could see in the falling dark. A low hum came into her ears. Her mother believed that trees talked to one another, communicated by fungal networks, electrical impulse, even sound frequencies created by slowly moving their roots.
Her nostrils were taken up: moss and mold, rust, a decaying animal body.
Jess saw something and pointed. The two of them rustled and crunched. Cassie wondered if the trees could hear themselves over the din she and Jess were making.
What she hadn’t considered was whether the trespasser would be dangerous. When they came upon the person who had shot the bear, who was standing over it, she leveled her gun at them.
She wore clothing that could have been any human’s, thick pants, boots, a solid coat. The woman had her eyes on Jess’s bow and Jess put her hands in the air. Cassie did too.
Most bear hunters Cassie knew of tracked with dogs. She looked around, her eyes and ears and nose still tuned as if to a new channel. Only a spilled bag of mushrooms lay at the woman’s feet.
“Are you okay?” Cassie asked. These were the first words her dad spoke to people who came in from the water or out from the woods after some incident that had spooked them. The question was a reminder to feel their relief.
The woman nodded. She’d been trying to remove a leg from the shot animal with a hunting knife—slow going, Cassie thought. Also, that her father said bear meat wasn’t tasty. People of the world only ate it for two reasons: for spiritual practice or because they were hungry.
“Some men will be coming,” she said.
“You need to get out of here,” Jess said.
The woman looked down at the bear.
“Maybe you’ll be able to drag it with our ATV,” Cassie said. Talking about the bear afforded Cassie the ability to smell it all the more—its blood and fur. The woman’s smell too. Had something changed forever inside her nose?
“Didn’t know I was on anyone’s property.” The woman finally lowered the gun. She was moving and thinking slowly, like a person who was cold or a person who was hungry.
“Everything is somebody’s property,” Jess said, lowering her arms. She looked at Cassie, motioned to her to get the ATV. “I think we can get that thing on there.”
“Fifty pounds of head,” the woman said.
Cassie heard their conversation as she walked, as she started the ignition. Instead of anyone coming she heard insects scratching leaves and pine needles dropping, denting the ground.
They did it with a rope from the ATV’s kit slung over a branch, Cassie and Jess hanging with their combined weight to haul the bulk of the bear the three feet off the ground while the woman butted the ATV underneath. She’d still be half-dragging it if she managed to get it out of here.
When she was gone the girls stood, rubbing their rope-burned palms.
Now they’d helped steal an ATV—given away what didn’t belong to them.
“Last year they shot at the person they found, the poacher. At his back as he ran.”
“Did they kill him?”
The moonlight caught the gold of Jess’ necklace, thin against her collarbone, glinting.
Cassie understood. You could drink a man’s booze all weekend, burn his specially purchased kiln-dried firewood, but there were limits. Here they were.
© Jill Stukenberg 2022
JILL STUKENBERG’S short stories have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, The Collagist (now The Rupture), Wisconsin People and Ideas magazine, and other literary magazines. She is a graduate of the MFA program at New Mexico State University and has received writing grants from the University of Wisconsin Colleges and has been awarded writing residencies at Shake Rag Alley and Write On, Door County. Jill is an Associate Professor of English at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point at Wausau. She grew up in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and has previously taught in New Mexico and in the Pacific Northwest. She lives in Wausau with the poet Travis Brown and their eight-year-old. Find her online at https://jillstukenberg.com/
Photo by Emma Whitman