The Hunter

By  |  September 5, 2017
“Hemorrhage,” by Mauro C. Martinez, maurocmartinez.com “Hemorrhage,” by Mauro C. Martinez, maurocmartinez.com

Hunting season swept through my hometown with the crisp northern winds that sent leaves and trash dancing down King Street, near the Old Spanish Trail. In late fall, the town’s annual hunters’ gathering—Buck Fever—packed the county fairgrounds with guns and taxidermy and families wearing matching camouflage outfits, scents of damp hay and manure and hot funnel cakes swirling together in the cool dry air. It seemed like everyone in Seguin went to Buck Fever, and even though we weren’t real hunters, my family went, too. 

I was never comfortable at Buck Fever like I was at the Diez y Seis dance during the same season, a night of commemoration that packed the placita with gritos and laughter and kids running through the old oaks, with aunts and uncles and familiar faces from Our Lady of Guadalupe dancing together in a perfect rhythmic trance to the conjunto beat. With scents of roasted corn and barbecue and the band’s synthetic fog. With drunk, sweaty men fighting on the courthouse lawn, their wet-obsidian bodies twisting into each other and my dad’s rock-calloused hand reaching through the crowd to pull me away.

One of my closest childhood friends was from an old Anglo hunting family. Their home looked like a Spanish castle and sat on a perfect green lawn surveying hundreds of acres of land. Above the stone fireplace, among the family portraits, hung several deer heads with antlers that looked like small bare trees in the winter. The pictures of long-dead relatives and the deer heads were arranged in a way that always brought my eyes to the similarities in the faces: living and dead animals with the same fake expression of the energy of life. At my friend’s house, I’d sometimes hear hunters shooting in the distance. I was never comfortable there either.

Our house didn’t have dead deer on the walls or a manicured lawn. Our house sat on a small plot of dirt, the only one made of brick in a row of crooked wooden houses. Our neighborhood was wedged between the county salvage yard and Interstate 10, separated from town by railroad tracks that went toward San Antonio in one direction, the ports of Houston in the other.

On Harper Street, we had no expansive views of family lands, only family—and family extended beyond the walls of our little house. An electrician down the street became my godfather, his wife a second mother. On Harper Street, neighbors helped each other as they could, looking after babies while young parents worked long hours, keeping watchful eyes on kids playing in the dim-lit streets, yelling from the porch when cars screeched around the corner. On Harper Street, kids ate dirt because they had nothing else to eat. They’d press their round faces against our window at night, watching us with hungry eyes as we shoveled cheap pink beef and fideos, soaking up the brown juice with tortillas, waves of gratitude rippling across our plates. On Harper Street, gunshots broke the silence of the night, and we’d lie on the floor still as toppled statues, our faces pressed against the cold tile. But there were no hunters outside.

 

I was at my friend’s house late one night when his dad returned from a weekend hunt. In the back of his truck were multiple dead deer stacked high, their bodies covered with a tarp, their round black eyes, wide open, peeking beneath the edges of their blue plastic shroud. I stood quietly and watched as his dad unloaded the deer from the truck, tossing them into the yard one by one, their limp bodies contorting as they slid across the dewy grass. I twisted my hands together and sweat ran through the prophetic creases of my palms like swelling creeks. 

My friend’s dad kneeled down and held up a deer’s head by its antlers; its cracked dry tongue hung down, licking the grass. My friend retrieved a camera, and his dad smiled proudly. The flash illuminated the night like lightning in the distance, like a storm coming. His dad grabbed the deer by its hind legs, dragged it to a nearby tree and hoisted it up with a large hook, wounds pulled open by the subtle grip of gravity. He slashed the deer into an unrecognizable mess, leaving the leftovers there to swing in the breeze. This was an impressive buck, I was told, a twelve-pointer. He would escape the trash-pile cremation, and his hide—crumpled in the yard like a deflated balloon after a summer birthday party—would be taken to the local taxidermist. 

Looking back, I think of Frida Kahlo’s painting of the wounded deer, her expressionless face on the animal’s bloody body. Every arrow that strikes her body is like a century of violence plunged deep into her being. Blood drips out, tracing delicately the contour of her form. She moves nowhere, toward nothingness, while electrical storms move toward her. Perhaps she considers diving into the deep blue ocean, into pure madness. Her strength of life is fading fast, but her face remains calm even as her body dies: only the animal in her cares. I often feel like the stag follows me, creaking the floorboards in my shadow’s wake. When I turn around to catch her eyes her face disappears and becomes a mirror . . .

In junior high, my friend wore his camouflage pants and jacket and boots to school, marching through the halls like a willing boy soldier. He beamed when he talked about killing hogs and bucks, and especially when he talked about the place he called “the lease”—such a bland name for a place he seemed to revere as almost mystical. Never before had I heard of anything like it: designated land to kill animals, a beautiful arena of death. Your family pays money to hunt there? But what about all the land your family already owns? My friend could not have answered my sincere questions even if he tried. They didn’t teach us that history. 

My friend always had stories about his weekend hunting trips to the lease, stories born from cold nights when fathers and sons crammed together in camouflaged boxes among the trees—stories anchored in whiskey and lust, in tests of masculinity—as they waited for a fine buck to come upon their corn feed. I’ll never forget the story about “the Mexican,” one my friend frequently told, about a morning he and his dad were hunting in the Río Grande Valley. They saw an object in the distance hovering parallel to the horizon. It grew into the form of an animal, some kind of desert beast. They soon realized that it wasn’t a beast but a man, his dark chest exposed against a white bandana draped around his neck like a levitating triangle, upside-down. 

“It was a Mexican!” my friend would yell, his voice hoarse with excitement and fear. Mexicans were dangerous, he would explain. Mexicans broke into their hunting cabin and stole food and clothes. In his young mind, molded like clay by the ideologies around him, Mexicans were like bloodthirsty animals roaming the land with calloused hides immune to barbed wire. 

He and his father watched the Mexican as he walked across the land, their eyes following his every step—right into the crosshairs of his dad’s rifle. 

His dad pulled the trigger. 

The man collapsed to the ground, still and silent. Suddenly, in an explosion of movement, he jumped to his feet and ran away, fast, zigzagging, home. “Fucking Mexicans,” the father said to his son. “Fucking Mexicans,” the son repeated to us.

 

My friend told the story around me without hesitation. And why wouldn’t he? He couldn’t see the Mexican in me. He could not have known that the Mexican and I were the same, connected and separated by the histories of violence that haunt the borderlands. Or maybe he did know but denied it because denial made him feel better—safer—around me. The Mexican is sometimes hard to recognize in seventh-generation Tejanos like me, who in many ways are more American than Mexican, immensely proud of our heritage and culture even as we struggle to speak its language, to embody its distinct ways of knowing the world around us. Like descendants of other colonized peoples, twenty-first century Tejanos and Tejanas are contradictory, volatile, stunning mosaics of psychocultural tensions. 

Still, some will point and laugh and call us quintessential pochos, Mexico’s lost children, permanent tourists, coconuts. The ones-with-soft-hands who dive headfirst into the violent superficiality of American dreams despite feeling the danger in our mere existence on this land. Still, we embrace the empire with our eyes shut tight, relegating its violence to darkness, its hatred to the shadows of the stars and stripes whipping in the wind.

Juan Nepomuceno Seguín, a Tejano who served in the Army of the Republic during the Texas War of Independence, once believed that Tejanos living in Texas could at the same time be proud mexicanos and loyal Texans. Then he witnessed the increasing brutality waged against Tejanos with every new wave of Anglo settlers. Even the Tejanos who fought alongside Anglos against Santa Anna’s army weren’t immune to the constant threat of the noose. By 1838, Anglos “were already beginning to work their dark intrigues against the native families,” Seguín wrote in his personal memoirs. “Could I leave them defenseless, exposed to the assaults of foreigners, who, on the pretext that they were Mexican, treated them worse than brutes?”

That same year Seguín realized he had no choice but to leave Texas, and he fled with his family to Mexico. Although many Texans have labeled Seguín a traitor, his bones were returned to Texas nearly a century after his death and buried on a hill in the town that bears his name—the town where I grew up. The inscription on Seguín’s tomb says nothing of the “dark intrigues” that forced him to Mexico; neither does the plaque on his bronze statue that keeps watch over the placita. Like the acento in his Spanish name, those histories have disappeared, replaced by something cleaner, more ideologically symmetrical, whitewashed. 

My friend could not have known that history had forced me away, too. Carried me away from the Mexican like driftwood swept out to sea by a rogue tide that never returned to shore. Perhaps it was that distance that led me to believe that I needed to be more like my white friends. That I needed to be a hunter like them. 

My dad had gone hunting only a few times with friends from church. I usually declined his invitations to join, but one day, to his surprise, I said yes. I wanted hunting stories of my own. If my friends and their families saw me as a hunter like them, then maybe my inclusion in the group would be unquestioned. Maybe I’d finally be included in the gifted and talented classes at school. Maybe I’d finally make the all-star baseball team.

When dove-hunting season came around, my dad arranged for us to tag along on a morning hunt on a ranch outside of town. The night before the hunt, we raided Walmart and he bought me everything a new hunter could ever need: jacket, hat, gloves, pants, boots—all camouflage. He gave me his old shotgun and watched proudly as I practiced over and over how to pump and reload it.

 

Aneon blue horizon sat on a blood-orange ridge in the distance. It was quiet, only the sound of rustling leaves pierced by an occasional birdcall. We huddled together for a group photograph. The sun struck the brims of our caps, sending shadows over our faces. We all bowed our heads and said a prayer for our safety, for clear skies, for a good hunt. We said nothing for the birds. 

The group walked in a straight line, slowly, a search party looking to kill. A solitary tree in the distance held my attention for most of the morning. It was like el Árbol de Teneré, once the most isolated tree in the world. Unlike el Árbol, an acacia twisted sideways by the Sirocco winds, this tree found its beauty in its symmetry. If el Árbol’s roots reached the aquifers deep beneath the Sahara, this tree’s roots might have reached the Gulf of Mexico. A dark cloud passed overhead, a gray chill covered us, and the tree took the form of Seguin’s Whipping Oak, where runaway slaves were lashed and which still sits among the placita’s walkways, or the old hanging tree that used to weep and sway in the shadow of the Plaza Hotel.

On the land where the Lipan Apache once tracked buffalo migrations across the blackland prairies, the rain from the night before had erased the topsoil like an archaeologist’s careful brush. While the hunters scanned the sky, my eyes scanned the ground for flint sculpted by dead hands—relics from their battles with the Tonkawa—for evidence of peace when the Caddo and Coahuiltecan people camped together near the springs, waiting for the buffalo to come kiss the water. 

When I was young, my dad taught me how to study the ground with focused patience, how not to fall for the mind’s trick of imposing sharp crafted angles where there are only the accidents of nature. Together, walking like hunchbacks, we found many arrowheads on the land now owned by the river authority. I ran my fingers across the rocky surface and imagined the tribes huddled in the dusty red light of dusk, only the glimmer of sweat illuminating tattooed lines crawling like black vines around their bodies. It was like they were trying to tell me something, something about origins, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

Suddenly a flock of doves flew over us, mobilizing the hunters into position. Gun blasts shocked the natural quiet. A hunter yelled in my direction, his voice drowned out by gunfire. Shoot! It was an order, and I followed it. I raised my gun and let the long barrel follow the birds across the sky. I had never noticed the perfection of their collective movement, a pointillist-mass throbbing in telepathic harmony. I froze. 

Shoot!

I pulled the trigger. 

A single bird fell from the sky and bounced with a dull thud out in front of me. I kneeled down beside it. Small burgundy dots expanded in perfect circles across its smooth gray chest. A man I didn’t know walked over and congratulated me with a hard slap on the back. He walked over to the dove, now fluttering in a circle, and pressed his boot firmly onto its head. He wrapped his hand around its body and pulled it apart with a quick jerk of his arm. He placed the body into my pouch and the head into my hand. It looked like a little moon with two craters. Was it chance or some deeper cruelty that put pellets through her eyes?

 

Nearly twenty years later, I still think about that morning hunt. The city is a mirror of nostalgia for the placita, for the land. Black smoke billows, imposing dark shadows over my window, erasing the sun. Broken birds on the sidewalk are symbols of the memory’s haunting. And while I know that to be human is to be haunted by memory, I can’t help but yearn to understand the meaning of the guilt, the deep shame I feel twist into me like a screw jagged with truth every time I recall myself in the image of a hunter. It arises slowly at first, as if coming to a boil, then grows rapid, furious, consuming my body with heat and weakness. Sweat runs down my face like plastic tears melting down the mannequin of Buñuel’s Lavinia, thrown into the fire by the jealous Archibaldo.

That morning hunt has come to represent everything I’m ashamed to have been and fear to become again, the wound of mimicry that Octavio Paz describes as a “wound that is also a grotesque, capricious, barbaric adornment. A wound that laughs at itself and decks itself out for the hunt.” This wound neither bleeds nor festers but scabs into a deep scar. Even as I try to scratch it off. Even as the ones who came before tell us to heed the wisdom in wounds, the knowledge in scabs, and the axioms in scars.

It wasn’t until I encountered the writings of queer Chicana philosopher Gloria Anzaldúa that I began to truly understand the guilt. In her poem “Cervicide,” Anzaldúa tells of a young girl, Prieta, and her pet fawn, Venadita. Prieta finds the fawn when it is just a few hours old, after a hunter has killed its mother. Prieta nurses Venadita back to life, cares for the fawn as if it were her own. But even this is not to be tolerated. La guardia, the town’s Anglo game warden, is on his way with his hounds. Prieta fears he will put her father in jail if he finds Venadita.

In the shed behind the corral, where they’d hidden the fawn, Prieta found the hammer. She had to grasp it with both hands. She swung it up. The weight folded her body backwards. A thud reverberated on Venadita’s skull, a wave undulated down her back. Again, a blow behind the ear. Though Venadita’s long lashes quivered, her eyes never left Prieta’s face. Another thud, another tremor. La guardia and his hounds were driving up the front yard. The venadita looked up at her, the hammer rose and fell. Neither made a sound. The tawny, spotted fur was the most beautiful thing Prieta had ever seen.

La guardia drives away, and Prieta’s family stays together another day. The young girl is not possessed by the land’s evil spirits or seduced by the Devil’s calling light. Prieta understands that Venadita felt every single blow. She knows what would have happened if la guardia had imprisoned her father: the land’s memory is in her. As Prieta swings up the hammer, one sees in the shadow of annihilation an act of love, an act of resistance.

Anzaldúa has compelled me to look deeper, beyond the kill, to the archeology of the act itself. Hunting is no longer a sacred dance of silence and secrets, of life. The hunter kills not for the sustenance of human bodies but as a sacrifice to the human god he has manufactured out of his own skin. Caressing the gun’s trigger, a strange euphoria consumes him. He feels supreme over nature. Believes he embodies the power to kill without guilt. Adorns himself with the sovereignty of the colonizer.

Becoming a hunter was much more than a transgression against my history and culture: it was an act of violence against history and future, bodies now and coming.

On that land, not far from the fields of Geronimo where my grandmother picked cotton as a girl, I was like an actor on a stage; the mesquite trees, dry brush, wild rabbits, and snakes, its props. In a picture from that morning that still sits on my father’s desk, I am kneeling in the brush, looking toward the sky. My shotgun rests against me, safety off, trigger ready. I was decked out for the hunt. I was posing for the camera. I was guilty of betrayal.


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Gabriel Daniel Solis is from a small Texas town. When he’s not writing about history, culture, and philosophy, he works as a post-conviction mitigation investigator on behalf of death-sentenced defendants and runs the Texas After Violence Project, a restorative justice organization that documents the impacts of violence and trauma on families and communities. He lives in Austin.