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.
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.