A mild winter meant a busy first shotgun season for hunters in the rolling hills of southern Iowa. My father and I had made the hour drive from Des Moines south on I-35 to my grandfather’s land midday Friday for the hunt that night. When we arrived, the evening air was cool, but not cold, and the snow covered the ground in patches. Now I found myself finally out in a deer stand, listening to the reports of shotguns miles away.
The stand my father had suggested for me was a metal ladder attached to a metal seat that leaned against an oak tree. It wasn’t very high—only eight feet—in comparison to some of the fancier stands hunters used that made it easy to climb trees and sit twenty to thirty feet off the ground. The idea was that if you were really high up the deer wouldn’t be able to smell or see you. My stand wasn’t like that. It relied almost entirely on location. My stand was on the middle of a finger in a thickly wooded area, with deep draws on either side running down to meet a stream at the bottom of a valley. I could see a large portion of a slope to my right, a slope with a deer trail tracing its way between trees and rocks down into the draw.
The sun became blood red as it set, the silhouette of timber striping it black. Slowly it dipped lower and lower on the ridge to my west until it vanished, leaving a pink sky filled with long thin ribbons of clouds so far away I wondered where exactly sky ended and space began. My breath showed in front me for the first time that day. The warm weather had made slush of the snow and I regretted choosing sleep instead of hunting all day. When the woods started to look gray in dusk’s fading light I knew to pay attention. My father had explained that at the end of the day, hunters would be coming home for the night in trucks and on four wheelers from the public hunt that butted up against my grandfather’s land, and the noise of the engines would put pressure on the deer to make a quick getaway. The deer, just waking up during twilight in the woods and starting to forage for food in adjacent fields, would slip back into the shadows of the oaks. The trail on the slope across the draw from me was one of those avenues deer would use to jump off the main paths to escape danger and circle back around to the fields, listening for pursuit.
I opened the chamber of my shotgun to make sure I’d remembered to load it. The big gun lay across my lap, loosely held in my gloved hands. I’d never killed anything large before in my life; sure, some frogs and a few possums, but nothing bigger than me. As I stared at the cracked bark of an oak tree in front of me I wondered what it would be like. I daydreamed about shooting a big buck with one clean shot right through the heart, dropping it in its tracks. How I’d drag it back to my grandfathers house in a feet of Herculean strength and proudly hang it in the barn to be skinned and gutted by another, lesser hunter while I ate and rested. A man from the government would come out and measure the antlers. He’d measure and remeasure, always stopping to shake his head and recheck his math. Sure enough, I would take the state record. My father would stand in awe of such a huntsman, accomplishing something he had never been able to.
I could see the deer’s eyes register the gun, and then look back at me.
I blinked hard a few times and tried to keep the oak’s bark in focus. As the world got grayer the intricate cracks in the peeling bark were harder to make out. Twilight seemed like a dream place between day and night where I couldn’t trust my eyes. Sometimes they would play tricks on me when I looked around at the gnarled trees on the forest floor. One knobby bush in particular had morphed many times, from a dog, to a bear, then to a man. I wondered if twilight was playing tricks on my mind as well, making me imagine strange visions of my own hunting prowess. I slapped myself in the face a few times to make sure I was fully alert and wondered if this period of mistaken eyes and straying thoughts was why my father cautioned me to be careful at dusk.
“In the dark, things will be different,” he had said. “You will need to keep your wits about you, and trust yourself.”
I started to doubt everything. The visions of hunting prowess were replaced by missed shots and falling out of my stand. When small creatures made noise in the dark thickets I jerked up straight in my seat, my heart banging my chest. The grayness of twilight became richer until it was nothing more than a thin film of white on a dark world. Soon I wouldn’t be able to see across the draw to take a shot at a deer. I sat as quietly as I could, willing my heart still and slowing my breath to a noiseless exchange of air. Then I heard it: a faint cracking of sticks at the top of the far slope, near a dirt road. I listened to a deer slowly walk in from the road, trying to make as little noise as possible, but unable to be completely quiet as it worked through the trees to the deer trail.
I turned my body sideways in the stand and trained my eyes on the trail. The deer walked into view and stopped for a second. I didn’t have a good shot; the deer was behind too many branches. The shot to the trail was a long one at around forty yards—too far for such an amateur marksman. I trained the bead of my shotgun through a clear place in front of the deer and waited for it to walk forward. The deer just stood there, though, listening and looking around. I was afraid to move, to set down my shotgun, because if I could see the deer then it had a line of sight to me. For agonizing minutes I held the heavy shotgun still. Sweat started to bead on my forehead and my shoulders grew white-hot with pain. I wondered how much longer I could hold up the gun when the deer started walking.
I held my breath. I knew I shouldn’t but I couldn’t help it. The deer walked until it was in the middle of the shaking bead on the end of my shotgun. For a second I hesitated, wondering if I shouldn’t wait for a moment, let the deer walk a little closer. The bead on the end of the barrel kept coming and going out of focus, alternating clarity with the deer behind it in my vision. For a moment the bead would be crisp, the only thing in the world I had in my sight, then the woods would snap back into focus all around me, then the deer would be crystal clear. The moment I realized the deer had antlers I pulled the trigger.
The blast deafened me. I pulled the shotgun’s stock from my shoulder, holding the gun like a soldier at port arms while I looked around, bewildered at the sound of bells. I blinked hard, trying to get the striped imprint of trees illuminated by the blast out of my eyes. Slowly I pulled down on the wooden fore-end on my Remington 870 Express. The spent red cartridge sprung out of the chamber flipping end over end, arcing first upward, then down in a crimson streak. A sweet, acrid smell filled my nose and mouth; the gunpowder announcing its fruition to all of the senses. I slowly slid the fore-end of the shotgun up to its original position, listening carefully for the sound of a new cartridge seating in the chamber.
I strained to see where the buck had fallen on the path. The slope struggled to focus in my vision while I tried to see through fluorescent blue stripes left by the trees lit by the blast. I caught sight of the buck as it staggered back to its feet on wobbly legs. I fired again, and again as it bound a few yards down the path. I pumped the shotgun quickly this time like a piston. Each time the woods would light red, the trees leaving yellow and blue negatives in my eyes, the ringing sound around me so complete I existed in reverberation. The third time I fired the buck fell forward on its chest while at a dead run, sliding a few feet face down in the slush before stopping. I stood with my mouth open.
Holy shit, I actually killed it, I thought.
My hands shook badly as I tried to fumble ammunition from its pouch into the shotgun’s feed. I kept dropping the cartridges. They fell to the ground to join the spent ones in the mud, little red spots in the dark. I managed to reload the shotgun and was slinging the gun to climb down the ladder when I heard a strange sound, a quick crashing through the undergrowth. The buck was moving through the woods like some kind of creature I had never seen, using its back legs to propel the entire body over the ground on its stomach. I stared in complete disbelief for a second, then raised my shotgun to track its course down the slope to the draw.
KA-BLAM, cha-chunk, KA-BLAM, cha-chunk was the sound of my barrage as I fired and pumped the shotgun.
The deer worked its way down the slope like something out of a nightmare, jerking into the underbrush, head twisted to the side as its antlers caught the undergrowth. Only its back legs moving it, sliding on its stomach. When it reached the bottom of the slope, crossed the draw and started up the slope of the finger I was on I panicked. I don’t know if I thought the creature was coming for retribution or if I doubted the lethality of my weapon, but I started firing wildly, frantically jamming new cartridges in the gun like my life depended on it. I lit the woods up like strobe light, firing again, and again, not even sure if the bead lay over the fuzzy form of the buck—just firing.
The buck propelled itself up to the top of the finger thirty yards downhill from me, got tangled in a thicket, and lay still. I stood in the stand for fifteen minutes waiting to see if it would reanimate until finally I mustered the courage to climb down. I carefully slung the shotgun over my shoulder and descended the metal ladder, grasping the rungs with hands that trembled, until I felt the slush under my feet. I pulled a headlamp out of one of my pockets and put it on, its small white light showing the ground in front of me. As I walked around my stand I heard a noise come from the thicket, a strange ethereal sound that started as a high pitched cry and ended as a gentle moan.
“Oh my God,” I said.
Training my weapon on the thicket I slowly walked toward it. I tapped the safety off and kept my finger on the trigger; afraid the animal would rise and charge, I clung to the shotgun like a life preserver. The weapon made a rattling sound as my hands shook. I squinted through the fog of my breath. I didn’t know what I would find in the brambles, what kind of thing had moved across the ground in such a grotesque manner. When I got to the thicket I cast my headlamp’s light on the buck. One of its antlers had snagged on something during its descent of the slope and snapped off. The front legs sagged off its body and lay on the ground; I’d shot through its front shoulders, the slug obliterating bone and severing sinews. The buck’s back left leg was now a bloody stump six inches above where a hoof should have been. Several other entry and exit wounds oozed onto the deer’s shiny coat.
The buck looked up at me.
I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The deer was supposed to get shot and then die quietly somewhere, either on the trail or off in the woods a little ways. The bloody, barely alive buck missing an antler in front of me bore no resemblance to anything my imagination had conjured. I vaguely remembered my father telling me if I downed a deer and needed to finish it off not to shoot it in the head. A deer with no head was messy and hard to hang by the neck in the barn.
I leveled my gun at the buck’s neck, right in the middle. I could see the deer’s eyes register the gun, and then look back at me. I pulled the trigger. The deer’s body convulsed in a whipping motion as an ounce of lead slammed through its neck. I pumped the shotgun, sending a red cartridge spinning off into the brush. I broke a twig in half and pressed the sharp end to the deer’s eye to see if it had died. I thought this act important, to make sure the buck had passed beyond misery. If the deer didn’t blink then it was dead. But the deer blinked when I pressed the sharp end of the twig into its eye. I jumped back and stood stalk still. The deer lay on the soft carpet of grass, mud, and slush in the thicket. A puddle next to its shoulder was slowly turning black like an oil spill.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
KA-BLAM, cha-chunk, KA-BLAM, cha-chunk filled the woods as I shot the buck twice more in the neck. Blood sprayed up onto my clothes.
I sat near the thicket on a downed oak and collected my thoughts. I’d come to the stand with twenty-five slugs and now only had six left. I’d shot the deer to pieces. The buck only had one antler now and it hadn’t crossed my mind to count the tines. I gutted the dear, felt the warmth of its innards in my hands, cut its heart out and held it like something precious. Eventually I walked back to my grandfather’s house in a trance and used a four wheeler to retrieve the animal.
My father laughed and called me a bad shot when he saw the condition of the deer.
“We thought all that shooting was three guys who’d been walking together and kicked up a buck,” he said. “What were those last few shots, at the end, all close together?”
“It wouldn’t die,” I said. “I had to finish it.”
My father fell silent.
“At least you got one,” my grandfather said.
I didn’t say anything.
I think of the first time I killed a deer a few times a year, whenever hunting is in season. Someone will ask me if I hunt, and I’ll say no. I’ll say I haven’t been hunting since I got back from Iraq and that usually ends the conversation. But I think about it for days afterward. I think about the deer lying there, the little bit of life left in its eyes when it looked up at me. I don’t have it in me anymore, what it takes. I worry if anything looked up at me like that again I’d throw my gun down and start walking.
I’d never come back.