The Meat of the Hunt

by David Mahaf­fey

It was my uncle Kent who first invited me to hunt with him. He and Papaw had always thrilled me with tales of their hunt­ing exploits: track­ing wounded deer by the blood glis­ten­ing on holly bushes, or dis­cov­er­ing a black bear cub in an unfa­mil­iar for­est and dread­ing the inevitable encounter with its mother, nearby and pro­tec­tive. For every story, there was a stuffed and mounted tro­phy they could point to, evi­dence used in an annual rivalry with my father and his fam­ily.

There was also evi­dent pride in prepar­ing and serv­ing the deli­cious meat of the hunt (and the atten­dant boast­ing over whose recipe was best, or who could eat the most). But nobody gets to start out hunt­ing deer or big game, and so Kent took me into the woods in search of squir­rels. They were evil, and there­fore on the short list of mother-approved prey, as long as she wasn’t the one cook­ing them for supper.

The rain had fallen heavy and often that year, and Kent’s jeep got mired in the mud about half a mile from his favorite hunt­ing spot, futile wheels spin­ning, churn­ing the red dirt road into a froth. He parked and reached into the back to pull out our equip­ment. I jumped out, over­sized boots sink­ing into the mud. He hid a mass of curly black hair under an orange cap with flaps to cover his ears. I was glad to have a thick flan­nel shirt to keep out the late Octo­ber chill. Our path took us across a meadow that would have been a prime graz­ing spot for deer ear­lier in the morn­ing. I spot­ted signs left by a good sized buck–big hoof­prints, widely spaced, sunk deep into the mud, and bark rubbed off sev­eral of the smaller trees skirt­ing the clear­ing, about six feet up the trunk.

I knew from my dad’s sto­ries what to look for. Papaw’s sto­ries were of courage and defi­ance and always ended in him impa­tient, ready to open fire on “any god­damn thing that comes by,” regard­less of what was in sea­son. Kent’s were punc­tu­ated with a lot of bad luck; he sel­dom seemed to actu­ally shoot any­thing. But when Dad told his hunt­ing sto­ries, they unfolded slow and tense, just like the hunt. He told us what he saw on the ground that let him know there’d be a buck com­ing along if he just waited long enough. And we were right there with him, wait­ing as still as he could stay in the dawn cold, knew what he thought about while noth­ing hap­pened for hours. Then—he’d stut­ter a lit­tle when he told how the buck stepped up at the exact right angle to give him a clear shot. He’d admit it if he had trou­ble hold­ing steady aim, if he fum­bled a sec­ond too long and made a poorer shot than he wanted. If he missed, he couldn’t help adding a point to the rack. He’s mod­est that way; most men added two.

Because of our late morn­ing start (I liked to sleep in), Kent and I wouldn’t be scout­ing more than one loca­tion. Kent had dis­cov­ered a spot that looked invit­ing to squir­rels, and we had a clear, down­wind van­tage point from which to aim. The ground, too, felt for­giv­ing, and I found it easy to sit still. I was a twitchy child, but for once silence came nat­u­rally in the woods.

The grey squir­rel bounded out from under the brush and froze, not ten yards from where we sat. This broke my reverie, star­ing at the pat­terns of sun­light glint­ing through the bare tree limbs. For once thank­ful for my long arms, I found my .22 in easy reach and raised it in one fluid motion to my shoul­der. Kent breathed heavy beside me, a bun­dle of pent up excite­ment refus­ing to blow my chances by mov­ing. I caught the squir­rel in my rifle scope and watched his fran­tic dig­ging for food.

His coat looked soft, except for his tail, which fanned out more like bris­tles than fur. He hunched over, pulling leaves out of his way and claw­ing into the dirt, finally unearthing his prize with dex­ter­ous hands. Nim­ble tiny fin­gers picked away the rem­nants of soil, turn­ing the acorn to exam­ine it from dif­fer­ent angles, his eyes care­fully scan­ning for any­thing ined­i­ble. I had not thought of squir­rels as del­i­cate, viva­cious, kin­dred. The ado­les­cent gaps in my own teeth felt a lit­tle less unnat­ural when I saw him pick up an acorn and nib­ble, open­ing his mouth wide. His chubby cheeks were packed, remind­ing me of my youngest brother’s Tweety-Bird face. I imag­ined that jaw, slack and life­less, hang­ing upside down from my game string. There was noth­ing in me that could pull the trigger.

Queer­ing the Game

My enthu­si­asm for fam­ily hunt­ing sto­ries was muted after that. For a while, the tales of the chase were as fresh and excit­ing as ever. I was impressed by their abil­ity to stalk their prey, to enter the wild world with­out dis­rupt­ing it so much they star­tled its inhab­i­tants. I did not begrudge them their vic­to­ries, but when the sto­ries turned to the killing moment, my reac­tion was vis­ceral. I winced and caught my breath at each gun­shot, each loos­ing of the arrow from the bow.

To avoid those accounts, I even­tu­ally took refuge in the pas­tures and hills sur­round­ing our house. I eased myself out of the con­ver­sa­tion and slipped into dusk, fol­low­ing my favorite trail toward a tree I had dis­cov­ered years before, soon after mov­ing into the new house. I was home from col­lege for Thanks­giv­ing, the first break after I left home in August. It was only a two-hour drive, but I hadn’t been home more than a cou­ple of times all semes­ter. I missed my tree more than I missed my par­ents then, and I’d had all the fam­ily I could stand. The moon lit my way, but I had walked these hills so many times that my worn black Reeboks could have car­ried me on their own.

A light from the under­brush caught my eye, and I wanted to inves­ti­gate. The back pas­tures were usu­ally lit­tered with artifacts—old mat­tresses, win­dow frames, even an intact chim­ney from a house that burned down years before. I wanted to see what had turned up in my absence.

I saw a glint of light again, com­ing from just inside the for­est. The moon could not pen­e­trate far, and shad­ows obscured most of the ground. Moon­light seemed to be reflect­ing from the edge of a shal­low pud­dle. There was some­thing unquiet about the light glim­mer­ing in the small pool. Its reflec­tion of the moon was too clearly defined, the liq­uid too still against the night breeze to be water. The pud­dle was opaque, its con­sis­tency too thick. I dipped three fin­gers into the wet dark­ness and imme­di­ately with­drew from the shock of cold. My fin­ger­tips glis­tened. They smelled like salt.

I shifted my weight from left foot to right, which caused my moon­lit shadow to move with me. Out of the newly lit under­brush a doe’s head grinned up at me, the moon flash­ing in its open eyes as it had in the pool of blood. I jumped back, spooked, but I couldn’t turn away. Her head had been chewed from her torso and the stump of her neck was ragged, most likely man­gled by a coy­ote. I was thank­ful for what aspects the moon’s muted palette had not yet revealed. Her muz­zle had been slit, reveal­ing teeth halfway between a snarl and a gri­mace in a face that looked more weary than dead.

She’d prob­a­bly been shot, and run until her heart stopped, drip­ping bright bread­crumbs some­one failed to fol­low well enough to end her suf­fer­ing. Another preda­tor found her where she fell, and scav­engers had fin­ished the job. This was far from the ster­ile, method­i­cal butcher­ing that took place in the hours after a kill. I’d seen ani­mals strung up to bleed out, laid on a long table, and carved into steaks and roasts for the freezer. That was clean, some­how, com­pared to the vio­lence done to the doe hid­den in moon shad­ows. I had never been out at dawn or dusk when the shots were fired, and never traced the path from dying ani­mal to tro­phy on the wall. Maybe every time some­one came home with sto­ries instead of sup­per, it had gone like this.

Fawn­ing

My par­ents have a Super 8 video of me, six years old in our front yard, play­ing with a tame fawn. The footage is faded and grainy, and there is no sound, but I remem­ber watch­ing the lit­tle boy run up to pet the deer, hug it, and run back to his father. Its spots have already faded because it is about six months old, and the nubs of its horns are grow­ing under the vel­vet skin. It is late Novem­ber, and a wide red rib­bon around the fawn’s neck warns hunters not to shoot him.

In the video, Dad’s grin is as wide as mine, his eyes full of the same won­der. I don’t remem­ber what hap­pened to the fawn, but I read The Year­ling, so I can guess. Today, there is still a child­ish awe in my father’s voice when he calls every­one over to see the deer he spies in the pas­tures around our house. When I visit now, I am still first to join the fam­ily at the win­dow, but I won­der some­times whether we all see the same things out there.

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