By Douglas Bootes
Old Man Jenkins mumbles, “First day of season,” as he chips the plastic seal of a Jack Daniel’s fifth with a yellow, black-seamed thumbnail. Call it ritual, medicine, or tradition, whiskey’s the way. He’s taken the first buck in Shamokin Valley twenty-three years in a row, and this one will be no different.
“Look at you,” his wife admonishes. “Sun’s barely up.”
As he fumbles to peel the black strip separating his lips from a luscious burn, she continues. “Doctor told you, a few more of those and your heart calls it quits. I’m making food for a man already decided he’s dead.”
Tuning her out, he finally liberates the bottle from its constraining seal. He sniffs the contents before tilting it to his creased, purple lips, its reflection twinned in the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses. Half-bent legs wobbling ecstatic, he swallows mouthful after mouthful of sour mash until his eyes drop to the worn walnut floor.
Cut and joined those floors himself with his dad and brother, Will, fifty years ago when they built the two-story house where the couple would raise three children. Would’ve been four if Ben, the firstborn, hadn’t gone and hung himself with doubled-up baling twine in the cellar one empty night in ”˜63. Because nobody was listening.
Can’t raise the dead, Old Man grumbles any time Violet even references the tragedy. Over the two decades which have dragged by since that night, his mood and sun-splotched face have become as dark and unreadable as the oiled hardwood beneath his hunting boots.
The Hunt has become his vacation, his pride, and as Violet can’t help but notice, his only real joy.
Whiskey burn now a distant memory clouding his wire-rims, Old Man gazes across the frost-glistening meadow spilt from a blue grey shroud. Almost nightfall and he hasn’t even set sight on a deer. Remnants of a recurring dream gnaw him from inside.
The magnificent buck stands at the tree line, golden in the setting sun, proudly lofting the biggest rack Old Man has ever seen, and even though he takes a clear heart shot from less than thirty yards, the rippling brown mass refuses to acknowledge the carbine’s retort. Just stands there watching.. Looking through him”¦
Old Man shakes the numb from his head, chest stiff as the near-frozen hands gripping the stock of the rifle. The same Winchester .30-.30 gifted him on his eleventh birthday. Returning from an unproductive first hunt with the new rifle, his dad joked to his uncle that the boy carried it like an old man carrying eggs from the henhouse on a rainy day, and that was how he was known from then on. Even as a child, Old Man suited him more than Gene.
As the meager light source buries behind the western ridge, his beetle eyes flick across the brown meadow stiffening in rain becoming snow. Where nothing but grass stood a moment before, an immense form materializes.
“There you are, you son-of a-bitch,” he exclaims aloud to a silent audience of black tree trunks.
The monstrous buck’s eyes follow his as he raises the rifle to his shoulder. As if granting a wish, the deer turns, exposing his flank. Old Man squeezes the trigger, absorbs the recoil, and then opens both eyes to watch the deer drop.
Nothing. He pumps the lever action, sights again above and behind the still exposed shoulder, fires.
The buck doesn’t flinch. Watches him as he fires round after round.
Six center fire rounds fired, not one finding flesh. Old Man stares in disbelief as the buck casually walks to the south end of the meadow and turns to face him, remaining within forty paces.
Old Man coughs, spits yellow phlegm onto the white-crusted mud, reloads, and again raises the rifle to his bone-cold shoulder. No way in hell he’s going home empty-handed.
He empties his rifle three more times, each shot sure, each having no effect as the buck moves from south to east and then to the north, where it lopes into the trees after the twenty-fourth round fails to pierce its hide.
Despite gripping cold and darkness settling in, Old Man reloads and follows; follows a dream crashing through underbrush, evaporating into leaden snow blanketing the land.
One minute he’s pushing through bramble, then he’s walking down cellar stairs, stairs of their home. To say goodnight to Ben. But it isn’t his son he finds at the bottom of the stairs, or even his ghost. It’s the deer, and when their eyes lock, the animal does the impossible.
Old Man fires three shots into its back as the deer scrambles up the trunk of an oak big around as a car. Then three more into the wind.
No way he missed thirty close-range shots. No way cellar stairs appeared in the middle of dense woods. No way, no way, no way. His back against the leafless oak towering into the moonless sky, Old Man stops shaking long enough to retrieve a pouch of Bugler tobacco and crease a paper. No way in hell he’s going home empty- handed.
His gums click as he sucks spit to wet the glue, and it takes a decade to strike a match on the side of the box without it breaking. Inhaling sulfurous smoke, he feels his body becoming part of the frozen earth. He looks up. The buck levitates, motionless, unsettlingly parallel to the tree, looking straight down at him, as if watching him from the top of a gigantic gun barrel. The sight twists his guts into a knot.
Old Man exhales, a cloud hangs between them. No cloud exhales from the deer’s flaring nostrils. Not deer. Ben, hanging. Spinning slowly in the wind. Body shot full of holes. Not deer. Ben.
The hunter clutches rifle to his chest, raises bottle to his lips, and vacuums the last of the amber fluid. Burn revives gut, time reels backward. He’s a new father, watching the scene through Ben’s eight-year-old eyes. Tossing a baseball. Watching dad become more and more frustrated at the boy’s inability to catch the ball, yelling, Catch the fucking ball, stupid!
Old Man cringes at the sight; a shriveled ogre, a missing husband and father. Thought he could harden the boy, toughen him up. Never meant to break him. Ben-deer’s bullet ridden hide ripples, walnut-indigo eyes widening to sky. No way in hell he’s going home empty-handed.
The hunter pumps his last bullet into the chamber, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt it will find heart.