About an hour passed. Cold wind intermittently bullied anything organic and brought with it the odors of fallen leaves and dung. Light was on the wane and I was getting antsy again. Vats full of fermented minutiae were sloshed onto my frontal lobe. What’s the difference between ketchup and catsup? How many snowflakes have fallen on Earth? Why do newscasters constantly misuse the word “decimate”? Why can’t System of a Down get their shit together and release another album? Will I get laid tonight? No, no sex thoughts. Wouldn’t want to get a boner in a deer stand. Etcetera, etcetera.
My brain reacted to the anti-stimuli as though it were fighting to extricate itself from a prison of boredom. But there was Joe, millimeters separating us, with the placid countenance of a Buddhist monk. His contentment in such conditions reminded me of Yuroshka, the larger-than-life grandfather and hunter from Leo Tolstoy’s The Cossacks (albeit Joe was a far less drunken and verbose version). “What’s the good of staying at home?” Yuroshka had said. “It’s something else to go out at sunset, choose a nice little place, press down the reeds and settle down and sit there, good fellow, and wait. You know everything that takes place in the forest. You look up at the sky – the little stars are moving, you study them to see what time it is. You look around – the forest’s rustling, still you wait, in a moment a twig cracks in the undergrowth, a boar is coming to wallow in the mud.” Joe’s completely opposite reaction to our situation also reminded me that the word “Cossack,” derived from the Turkic word kazak, meant “free person.” And that’s what hunting was to Joe: freedom.
Movement came from my right. Joe gave me an elbow and some binoculars. A doe and two spring-born fawns. They crept through the flattest part of the grassland like muscled vapor. And came within a dozen or so yards of the deer stand. I lowered the binoculars. Strutting with careful grace, moments of relaxed foraging were punctuated by the stiff paranoia of prey. Ears and necks, those eyes like globes of wet tar, would ease for a cluster of seconds and then electroshock into a rigid metal born of instinctual terror. A cycle of Eat, FREEZE, Move, FREEZE, continued until they became easy targets. My nostrils flared and the pulse in my chest moved to my wrists and throat. I braced my ears for some hammer-of-Hephaestus-level BOOM. Arterial blood would spray and there would be death and…
Joe shook his head. His muzzleloader relaxed.
“Naw,” he said, breathing soft and easy, letting the three deer stroll past. “It’s a mom. Fawns’d starve. More’ll come.”
Of course Joe was right. The young deer would die without the protection and guidance of their mother. Thus it was a callous and myopic hunter who would kill such a specimen. A better quarry could be had. But I was surprised by how much I wanted Joe to shoot something. I wanted a tangible outcome for the hours of waiting, or at least some type of endpoint or climax or (even though I hate the word) catharsis. Then Joe was right again. His prophecy bore fruit. Five more deer filled the void in front of our stand.
Binoculars weren’t even necessary. A doe, a pair of button bucks (males around six months old), and two younger fawns. Joe raised his gun. Looked through the sight. I was a knot of anticipation and held breath. He let them pass like the three previous deer. Joe shrugged.
“Button buck’d be nice,” he said, smiling and devious. “Oh, well.”
“Oh, well,” I said, smiling and devious, mimicking his tone.
The willful deprivation and delayed gratification inherent in our venture started to make sense. I’m sure Joe wanted to bag a deer far more than I did, yet he allowed numerous easy shots to pass by. In conjunction with the methodical preparation and sacrifice and waiting, the Zen of hunting ceased being some occluded cataract. Before Joe let eight deer come and go, I had always found the reasoning behind hunting dubious and insufficient. Hunters would say stuff like, “I love the outdoors.” Then why not just go hiking or take up nature photography or become a park ranger or take a trip to Yellowstone? If they used the whole, “I dig the challenge” rationale, then why didn’t they follow their statement to its logical (and wholly ridiculous) conclusion by using a spear or a knife or their bare hands to subdue game? There was of course the “I provide meat for my family” argument, which always struck me as specious, considering one’s time and money could be used much more efficiently with a trip to the butcher that could easily satisfy a family’s protein needs. No, the virtues of hunting were silent, demure even. They needed to be experienced.
In the waiting, in the hundreds and thousands of hours of silence and surface boredom, there was an important reverence, a reverence for the taking of life that wasn’t apparent to the uninitiated or willfully ignorant urbanite. Even the person who thanks God or the gods or Gaia or whoever for the pound of chuck in their Hamburger Helper, no matter how earnest their appeal, is merely performing a five-second rite without giving much of anything. There is depth and respect, real love, in the act of sitting and waiting and freezing and being the one who actually severs the tether of life.
A gun went off, loud as the fracturing of a leviathan’s spine. Traveling across a span of dead grass, the shot’s report vibrated clear and cold. Didn’t even see the muzzle flash. Quiet after that. No shouts or stampeding deer or additional trigger pulls. I gave Joe a rictus of a grin containing both concern and curiosity. A darkening backdrop probably did little to hide my embarrassing loss of composure. But, holy shit, somebody shot at something!
“Let’s check it out,” Joe said, surveying the horizon through a squint. “Call it a day, then.”
We climbed down and power-walked the half-mile to Brandi and Justin’s stand. There, in a clearing of composting leaves, Brandi and Justin stood solemnly over the body of a deer. Its open eyes were glossy and fixated on the tendrils of a naked canopy. The dead deer was a young doe. An aperture the size of a dime was punched through her tawny neck. There wasn’t much blood on the ground. The darkness and trees were swallowing hulks, shrouding the doe’s form. She was so small.
“Good shot, hey?” Brandi said, trying to sprinkle some glee onto my funereal aura. “Figured I’d miss. Sucked yesterday when I was shooting.”
“She come through alone?” Joe said.
“Few more with her,” Justin said.
“Yeah,” Brandi said. “After I shot her and she fell, the rest of them stood around for a few seconds all confused. Hate that when it happens. Feel kinda bad, you know? She’ll fill our freezer, though.”
“I’ll walk back. Get the truck,” Justin said, hustling through a knot of underbrush.
Death is funny like that. Even experienced hunters hovering around the corpse of a deer apparently feel what I felt. Death is the ultimate equalizer; it renders us the same version of honest but uncomfortable. We feel fake and tight and yet possess the identical visage of candid vulnerability as we mediate upon concepts of reverence, pity, and self-involved mortality. The internal struggles that accompany the taking of a life, the same struggles depicted on caves tens of thousands of years ago, were the price for filling a freezer.
After about five or ten minutes of standing around with numbed hands sutured to my pockets, Justin drove through the rough terrain to where we were standing. I did an excellent job of not looking at the deer.
“Let’s get ‘er in the bed of the truck,” Joe said, motioning to the back of Justin’s pickup.
I stayed on the periphery of the scene with Brandi. Touching the deer was out of the question. Fully embracing my role as the urban spectator/wuss, I avoided eye contact with the two men and hoped that the doe wouldn’t jerk back into the realm of the living like a horror movie villain awakening to take one last go at the protagonists. Justin grabbed the front two legs, Joe the back two. If they tried to accomplish the task of moving the dead doe with any trace of tenderness, it was lost in the shadows. The doe was just meat and weight now. Her head dragged through the cooling blood, a limp tongue trailing along.
Back at the farm, Justin and Joe unloaded the doe onto a flat piece of dirt, near the edge of the farm’s considerable driveway. Most of the lights were on inside the farmhouse. My daughter was in the doorway with my wife. They held hands.
“Keep Ingrid inside,” I said to Nicole, knowing it was about to get messy.
Joe nodded in agreement. Ingrid would be shielded from death for at least another day.
“Watch this,” a giddy Brandi said, slapping my shoulder.
Justin unsheathed a hunting knife that Rambo would be proud of. Grabbing one of the back legs, he turned the deer over, exposing its pinkish underbelly. Justin stuck the knife in with careful power, cutting a straight line from the breastbone to the anus while making sure he kept the sharp blade facing up so he wouldn’t pierce any internal organs. He did this slowly, pulling the hide apart as he went. Cutting circularly around the genitals and anus, Justin began pulling harder at the flesh around the incision, creating a soft-core sound reminiscent of carpet being ripped. The heat of the jiggling organs hit the air. Steam crept up and touched our faces. It smelled like the inside of a meat market, only cleaner. Justin then removed the bladder, a whitish sac replete with veins tinted blue, and, with two steady hands, placed it a few feet from the carcass.
“Piss in there,” he said to me, smiling. “So don’t step on it.”
Back inside the split doe, Justin rolled out the rest of the innards. Organic hues of sparkling red and healthy pink slopped onto the dirt. I recognized most of them: lungs, liver, stomach, intestines. They looked like they were created using Jell-O molds. I straightened my back, trying to infuse my posture with stoic nonchalance in order to hide any trace of the fear and sympathy I felt.
“Barn cats’ll finish those up quick,” Joe said, staring at the organs. “Crows might get some, too.”
The doe was reduced to a hull of rib cage, limbs, and limp neck. Brandi was right; Justin’s precision with field dressing was surgical in nature. There was never a fumbling of the knife or a tentative disdain for the gore; only a diligence concerning the task at hand. Alien and detached from my unaccustomed viewpoint, sure, though Justin simply did what had to be done. He finished and cleaned the blood from his knife with a fist of cloth.
A headlight attached to diesel-fueled rumbling came from one of the barns. I didn’t know much about candlepower or wattage, but the light’s emissions reduced my corneas to slag. After rubbing away a white pain, Joe was cleaving through boundless galaxies of nocturnal farmland in some type of tractor/backhoe. The machine huffed its way next to the doe, stamping the dirt with industrial tread. Joe lowered the vehicle’s hydraulic arm. He parked it, got out, and fastened a nautical-grade noose around the deer’s neck. Oil and exhaust erased the odors of the dead animal. Joe tied the rope to the vehicle’s arm and reentered it.
“We’ll hang ‘er up for a while,” Joe said, putting the tractor/backhoe in gear. “Let the blood out. Dry a bit.”
The hydraulic arm, sluggish and impassive, rose up, pulling the doe off the dirt and into the air. So many winking stars, surprising me like they always did in the country, blushed the suspended deer with a minimalist recognition of sorts. Nothing maudlin, certainly not a eulogy, but they bestowed just enough of a humble flash to let me know that they were present, there to nod at the transition from life to death. Joe drove into the dark and the deer looked like a hanged child more than anything else.
Justin and Brandi made their way to the door. Joe, ever the busybody, stayed behind. There must have been dozens of more tasks that needed attention. An odd slurry of reverence and heartbreak fused with the cold in my bones. I let it all in, maybe said a prayer for the dead deer that I would never admit to, and tried, just for a second, to embrace the Zen of hunting, that intangible virtue attached to the killing of another animal. The penultimate paragraph in Sherry Simpson’s Killing Wolves filled the void in my skull as I tried to locate my elusive quarry: “Some people draw near to the wilderness, into a harder but truer place. They kill animals to eat them or wear them or sell them, never looking away from what they are about to do. By acknowledging the death that arrives through their own hands, surely they secretly wonder if they can’t somehow master the way death will come to them.”
Standing in a cold, rural flatland, I sought the essence of the hunter, of what it was to be fully aware and present without being bogged down by the surface concerns of modern civilization. I wanted the hunter’s pure thought and polarized viewpoint; envied them for it, even. Pure consciousness, pure existence. A oneness with the natural surroundings of the world. In the Zen of waiting, of silence, of deprivation, of unencumbered calm and freedom and release, there was an undefiled ingot of truth. I knew it existed, like the glorious burn of an unseen comet that was more than the faint track of tail dust I recognized. Guess you have to pull the trigger to fully understand.
“Come inside, hey,” Brandi said to me. “It’s cold.”
She turned to go inside. I followed behind, having had enough of the frost and death. And then Brandi spun around to say one last thing.
“Just don’t write that the deer was small, okay?”
Special thanks to Joe Kral, Brandi Pankratz, and Justin Hacker for letting me chronicle their hunting adventure. As always, I appreciate the love and support.
Check back in two weeks for TWO new pieces: And God Can Count the Shades of Red, the harrowing story about the birth of my first child, and a NEW feature, Dumb Wednesday Man Thoughts, a weekly series of short essays on the foolish thoughts harbored by those with a ‘Y’ chromosome. CHEERS!