Hunter takes his stand. He leans back against the double birch. The bushes he has pushed aside close back around him. Though it is still night, he can feel the sun rising ahead.
“Too cold,” he had thought when his father had pressed his shoulder and hoarsely summonsed him into wakefulness. Now he feels the wind biting his face and knows that it is colder than “too.” The sun cannot come soon enough. The sense of ice cuts his freezing fourteen-year frame. He blows on his fingertips. They poke out through the cut-off woolen gloves.
Hunter holds his rifle lightly: Remington twenty-two, single shot, bolt action, v sight. Inadequate for the job; but it had been his father’s, given him by his father, now passed – father to son – in expectation and tradition.
It is a Tuesday. Hunter should be in school. It is not even the first day of deer season – perhaps an excuse, at least a rationale. No, this is a family thing, the anniversary of his father’s first buck. Just as he had received his rifle – the rifle – on the anniversary of his father’s birth. On his father’s tenth birthday, Hunter’s grandfather had given his eldest son his first rifle, this rifle, the one Hunter holds now. The one that Hunter’s father had finally, sternly, perhaps reluctantly passed to him.
They have spent many hours: The old man watching and grumbling in his judgmental way. Hunter pinging cans and cleaning and oiling – caring for the weapon as if it were a loved woman. They have searched this stand, this spot in which the boy waits for his first deer, his first kill. His father’s expectations weigh heavily. He shivers in anticipation.
It occurs to him that the rifle is unloaded. He fishes a shell from his breast pocket, pulls back the bolt, chambers the bullet, closes the bolt, and carefully releases the safety. He is now lethal.
Standing, shivering, watching, waiting: The hunt is a lonely vigil. Even as the first rays break the cloudy sky, even as the first shadows of tree and bush can be seen, even as swallows start to do their darting hunt: the boy feels his aloneness and his discomfort.
Hunger comes – short twisty pangs. He wishes that he had eaten more, perhaps another biscuit, maybe … He feels in his left jacket pocket. The jerky is there.
Perhaps a bite?
No, I’d best wait. It could be a long time. He takes his empty hand out of the pocket and looks at it, rubs it on his pants, lets it dangle by his side.
Hunter leans against the birch and holds his rifle. He waits.
He sweats. Under the layers of clothing, the flannels and parka, the wool watch cap, the heavy socks: he feels the sweat and it, too, makes him shiver.
I hate this.
I hate him. Why does it have to be his way? I don’t want to hunt. I don’t want to kill no deer. I don’t want to kill nothing. Hell, I don’t even want this old gun.
He waits longer. The sun is now about its arc. t casts long shadows.
Six or so. Damn, I’m hungry.
He takes a piece of jerky from his pocket all the while telling himself that he should wait, that patience is the hunter’s friend. He bites into the spicy sinewyness, pulling away a chaw. The rest is returned.
Hunter chews and waits. He waits and he watches the clearing.
Across the clearing, in the wood, there may be movement. He isn’t sure.
Hold on. I hope it’s one so I can … Shit, I hate this. I’m never going to make my kid …
He peers at the other side of the clearing and sees shadows. They seem to move. He holds his rifle just a bit more tightly. He sweats just a bit more heavily. He shivers just a bit more strongly. He watches just a bit more keenly. The moment burns.
The animal moves quietly into the clearing. A beautiful buck. A head worth mounting. A body of many meals.
Venison for the winter. I have to! Now there is a new sweat. He doesn’t want.
God damn, I have to.
Hunter wants to miss. He wants to kill. He wants to jerk the shot. He wants to shoot true. He wants …
The deer is now fully there. No shadows, no questions. He turns towards Hunter – full face, head up, ears moving in search of something the magnificent animal cannot know.
Hunter doesn’t want to kill. But there have been too many hours of practice under the watchful eyes – too many carefully squeezed moments. He closes his left eye – not too tightly. Carefully he sights. He makes a lollipop of the handsome sternum.
Just a little to the left - a clear heart shot.
Slow squeeze. Slow, slow squeeze.
In slow motion he hears the bark of the rifle, feels its ever so gentle kick, watches the animal look in surprise and then fear. The knees buckle. The buck tries to run. A step, a misstep. The knees buckle again. He goes down.
Hunter watches. Tears come to his eyes. Damn, it’s cold, he tries to tell himself. He knows it’s a lie.
The buck is still alive, still trying to rise – futile, valiant, natural.
The boy opens the bolt. The shell casing jumps out. Still watching his prey, Hunter stoops to pick up the small piece of brass. He puts it in his pocket. Momentarily, he considers another shot, an end to suffering. Instead he moves towards the dying beast.
If I have to.
Moving forward, he touches his hunting knife. He has helped dress deer. It is something he hates. He hates the smell of blood and its warm-stickiness on his hands.
Now he is close. He studies his prey. Watches for movement, a sign of life. There is nothing. He reaches forward with the rifle’s barrel and nudges at the animal’s neck. Nothing.
Is it safe? Even in the throes of death the animal can do him serious harm. He nudges again. Still, no response.
Hunter waits until he can wait no longer. Carefully leaning the rifle against a rock, he unsheathes his knife. It is time for the butchery.
The tears are flowing more freely. The boy blows his nose into his arm. The scratch of the parka’s fabric. He looks towards the sun.
Eight maybe half-past.
“Damn.” He speaks into the air and knows not what it means.