I hunt in the morning, because the world makes sense when you watch it beginning.
The woods, they wake up like my 5-year-old, Emma. Kind of slowly, fluttering, then suddenly it’s all action everywhere all at once and you can’t keep up. The trees and bushes light up from inside, and then the sun peeks up and you realize the glowing was just the light rays racing faster than the sunrise and sticking themselves to everything they hit. Then the squirrels start up trees and before you can take it all in it’s the day already.
This October morning, I bring my ten-year-old, Heathcliff, along to the woods. It’s his first time hunting. Tessa took a picture of us in front of my truck, him in his camo clothes and neon orange hat and shaking like an aspen leaf from excitement. The flash of the camera left black splotches in my line of vision for half of the drive out here, to the woods where I hunt. We didn’t talk during the drive, because mornings are a time for quiet peace, and Heath knows that, too, I can tell.
It’s a cold dark, and I can feel my breath turn wet on my lips when I breathe into my collar. Heath’s eyes are wide, probably so he can see better, and he picks his feet up high to get over the corn stalks sticking out of the frosted field. It looks like he’s got tapetum in those dark eyes – tapetum’s the iridescent pigment layer in a deer’s eye, the part that glints when they run in front of your truck and your headlights shine at them. They’re eyes like his mother’s, when they glint at me. Like when we were on our honeymoon, and went swimming in the ocean at night. Wait, she’d said when I waded away from her. Be careful. There might be a current. The moonlight had flashed off her eyes and her pale shoulders.
We get to the hunting blind. Heath sits on my stool, and it grinds against the floor when he sits on it and makes a noise. He widens his eyes again. He’s a wide-eyed kid, whether here or during action movies or on his first day of school every year, though each year I remind him that he’ll be just fine, like my dad used to, but I also add that I love him and I’m proud of him, which usually my dad forgot. I smile and nod at Heath to let him know that it’s okay that he made a noise. The deer aren’t awake yet to get spooked. He smiles back, and we look out of the hut window and into the clearing. It’s still early enough that everything’s grey, smudged like a charcoal drawing.
We wait while the world wakes. The morning is serene, and there’s something kind of magical about it today, like all the trees are reaching out and anticipating the day. It’s a morning I’ll remember for a long time, and him too. He’s a good kid, quiet like I was when I was his age. My own dad never took me hunting—he wasn’t a hunter, really—but my older brother let me tag along. My brother and I, we were close, because our parents weren’t around too much.
Tessa loves the kids like a bear, fierce and strong. And I make sure I’m around and take time, because even though I got tough quick growing up on my own like I did, I don’t want my kids to remember me like I remember my dad—even when he was there, he wasn’t really there with us.
We’re still as oak for an hour or so, and then a few doe and a two-pointer come across the field in front of us, nosing for leftover corn. “The middle one, the button buck,” I whisper to him. “You’ve got a good shot. Take your time.”
He holds his muzzleloader to his shoulder, squints his left eye, and presses his right to the scope. His finger over the trigger trembles. The barrel’s unsteady. “Take your time,” I breathe again, but he aims for less than three seconds before he shoots. His shoulder recoils, punched by the gun’s backfire, and he drops it like it’s got an electric charge.
We’ve been practicing at the shooting range and on the decoy at the back of our field, and his aim is great for a kid his age, but he’s nervous just now. I was too, the first time. I remember my brother saying steady, steady while I aimed. I’d had a clean shot, no wind interference, and the doe had barely gotten a hundred yards before she dropped.
Heath’s shot is off. He hits the buck too far away from the vital organs, near the back. The buck crumples downward, a dropped puppet, then jolts up and runs across the field behind the other doe.
“You got him, bud. Let’s go track him.” I ruffle Heath’s hat, even though I’ve tensed up. A few years back, I shot a doe and missed her vitals. If you get them through the lungs or heart, they only get a few hundred yards before they’re done, but if you get them anywhere else they could go on for miles and might not ever drop. This doe, I got her in the upper shoulder, and she didn’t bleed too much. I followed her trail for hours, almost giving up before I’d find a ruby drop on a leaf or some torn-up soil and would keep on for another half hour. Eventually it was too dark to follow anything. I came back the next day and looked another four hours, but nothing. So I had to just picture her out there, wounded, maybe alive, maybe not. That happens sometimes, but I think it got to me because wounding is worse than killing, at least in nature. They’ll die eventually if they’re hurt, but it’ll be a more painful process than a quick shot.
This trail’s different, and I relax. It’s a red carpet across the snow, rolled out for us. Heath must’ve hit an artery. The boy’s white as the clean snow, and I put my hand on his shoulder and squeeze as we’re following the trail.
Two, maybe three, hundred yards away, the buck’s thrashing at the edge of a soybean field. He’s getting weak, his kicks like a flashlight beam when the battery’s out of juice, and he strains his neck away from us. I know he’s not got long, so I shrug my gun off my shoulder, step so Heath’s behind me, and shoot the buck in the back of the skull, quickly, to put him out of pain. I turn to Heath.
“You got him in the femoral artery, see? That’s why he bled so much.” I’m explaining because Heath’s not moving. Standing like a cornstalk. “I’m going to take care of the deer now, okay? He’s got to be gutted and then we’ll pull him back to the truck. Then I can make the sausage and steaks that you like. And we’ll tell mom that you brought home the meat.”
I’ve got a lot of work to do today, skinning the buck and trimming and grinding and processing and packaging, so I get right to it. My knife, with the gut hook, unzips the underside, groin to neck. Guts spill out, steaming, and I pull out what’s left, then lash the front hooves together and turn to let Heath help me pull him to the car.
He’s retching, bent at the waist. After vomiting, he sniffs and wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. His eyebrows remind me of his grandfathers’ when he stands up, daring me to say anything.
In the truck, he’s quiet. I put on the radio to break the silence, but he turns it down. “I don’t really like country,” he says, looking at his knees. This shocks me, because he’s never said anything. I wonder how long he’s thought that, and I wonder what else he doesn’t like that I thought he did.
Emma’s waiting at the back door when we get home. Her hands have smeared maple syrup on the glass pane.
“Didja? Shoot a deer?” Emma’s a head shorter than Heath, and she cranes her neck and looks at her older brother. Her pigtails are lopsided, one sticking to the side and one sticking up.
Heath stands taller in his camo. “Sure did.”
Then Tessa steps into the mudroom, drying a fry pan. “My men! How was the hunt?” She’s smiling, and her sweater is wrinkled and her hair is falling out of its braid. Even when she doesn’t try, she’s beautiful. We made love last night for the first time in weeks—not because we’d been fighting or anything, but because she’s usually so tired at the end of the day that I feel bad turning to her in our bed and asking more of her.
Heath clenches his teeth, and his eyes fill, and suddenly he’s vaulting towards her. She wraps the pan around him in a hug and looks at me, a question, maybe an accusation, in her eyes. Heath sniffles into her sweater, his corn husk hair sweaty from the hat he’d shed in the car. She kisses the head and tightens her lips, says “Shh, shh, honey, you’re okay,” and I wonder how she knows what to say and why he can cry to her and not to me.
I wonder if she’s disappointed in me, like I am for not knowing he didn’t like country music or maybe isn’t a hunter. You’re a good dad, she says sometimes, when I take work off to go on a field trip or when I fix their bicycles. Now, I watch her turn her body so she’s between me and Heath, like a mama bear stands between her cubs and danger.
I wonder if she’s thinking that she told me so, because a couple of days ago she asked if Heath was old enough to hunt and I said of course he was, because I was even younger when I started. Maybe she didn’t mean old in terms of years.
“He was great,” I say.
I spend the rest of the Sunday in the garage, skinning the deer and trimming the fat off of the meat, wrapping the back straps in parchment paper for steaks and grinding the flanks for sausage. The sun’s bright, and dust particles are suspended in beams that shoot through the garage windows.
Heath comes out in the evening. He’s changed out of his camo. My matching men, Tessa had said this morning when we left all geared up. I remember my mom saying that, once, when my dad and I both wore suits to a family wedding. I remember the collar was stiff and my tie was too tight.
My boy shifts on his feet at the edge of the garage. The air smells like blood, a rusty iron smell, rich and thick. He’s seen me cutting a deer before, but he watches at the flesh now, eyes narrowed, as though really noticing it for the first time. I look at him, noticing him, too, a mix of flushed and pale. Josh Turner is crooning on my radio, and I go over and turn the knob down. There’s blood under my fingernails.
“You know, you don’t have to listen to it just because I listen to it,” I say.
“I know.” He’s not looking at me but at the head of the deer. It’s lying sideways on a table because I was going to saw through the skull to mount the antlers for Heath. My own antlers are mounted along the wall of the garage on wooden plaques of coated red oak. I had thought Heath that maybe would want his mounted and hanging in his room, even though it’s only a two-point.
The buck’s eyes are like marbles, wide open and glassy and black. My son and the deer hold unbroken eye contact, and in the fading evening light their tapetum looks the same.
Hannah Ford grew up in Coldwater, Michigan. She graduated from Hope College with an English degree, a heap of book knowledge, and a gnawing dissatisfaction with her own writing ability. For the next three years, in an effort to satisfy that dissatisfaction, Hannah will be attending the University of South Carolina to pursue her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (Fiction). Hannah has been published in The 3288 Review, Lipstickparty Mag, and Opus. She has been awarded for her writing in both fiction and nonfiction.