PART I (READ PART II OF THIS STORY HERE.)
One thing I love to do during the holidays is sit around and tell stories with family. It’s just such a good way to remind myself of why I love them, and why I live in another state. We told a lot of stories this past Thanksgiving, my father and me sitting at the table over breakfast, remembering what it was like back then, when I was so small and full of potential, and he was so large and full of ideas about how to kill things.
Normally at 6:00 A.M., I would be slouched over a keyboard in some darkened hovel of a café, trying to make something of myself, but my wife warned me that this was “not a week for writing” and that it was my job to “engage with the family,” mostly because if she were left alone for too long with my parents, she might “become violent.”
So I closed the laptop and enjoyed a cup of coffee with my father.
“Morning,” I said.
“Morning,” he said.
We sat there in silence for a good five minutes. I had a book. Should I open it? Opening it would have been an admission of failure, evidence that nothing had changed, that We Could Not Communicate. He sat there and stared at the wall. He had a great talent for sitting and staring at nothing. All my life, I have watched him stare. And all my life, I have wondered: Was he meditating, like the Buddha, or was he more like one of those patients whose brains didn’t work in Awakenings?
I’d seen him stare like that so many times over the years—in church pews, bleachers, trucks, but mostly on deerstands.
I spoke first. “Be a good day to hunt,” I said.
I enjoy talking about hunting about as much as I enjoy talking about new technologies in women’s hosiery, but I have very few subjects that I can discuss with my father, and those subjects are: Football, Weather, Money, Children, Children Today, Beating Children Today, and Hunting. We had not hunted together with any regularity in twenty years, and this, I knew, was a hurtful thing to him. So we talked about hunting. And like a great big mossy boulder that had been given a good nudge, Pop came alive and rolled down a hill of hunting stories.
We talked a good two hours. These were harmless stories, about cold days and elusive deer and the happy memories that I am sure Pop thinks we must share. But we do not share them, not really, largely as a result of something that happened in the woods on December 16, 1988. I made sure not to tell that story.
By midmorning, our storytelling had grown repetitive and the rolling boulder of my father came to a flat place and stopped. He stood up, and went into the living room, and turned on one of those hunting programs called Buck Blasters or Chasing Tail or Ted Nugent’s American Patriot Sasquatch Slaughter.
I sat there and read my book, but I couldn’t stop thinking about all the slaughtering I’d seen over the years, and the last thing I’d seen slaughtered up close, back on that December day when I was thirteen.
If I know anything about writing stories, it’s thanks to hunting, and to all the stories we told around dinner tables, stories about places where things might be slaughtered, and people we knew who’d slaughtered things, and things we had come very close to slaughtering ourselves, if only our slaughtering devices had not malfunctioned. Not all the stories were gruesome. Some were about lighter subjects, like leukemia, or the men my father suspected of being pedophiles.
But usually we talked about killing things.
All those stories taught me how to tell a good one. Nobody wants to hear a hunting story that goes like this: “I went to the woods, and I saw a deer, and I shot him, and it was amazing.” No, the best hunting stories are full of surprise twists and sudden reversals, such as, “I went into the woods and shot my brother, but then I learned that he was not really my brother.”
The surprise twists in my stories mostly revolved around how I would shoot at things, and they would almost never die. This can be frustrating, not only to the hunter, but also to the animal, who might now be missing an essential part of its body. It may sound cruel and unfeeling and perhaps even upsetting to the reader. And to that, I would say: it is even more upsetting when it was you who did the maiming. You should try it some time. It builds character, mostly through nightmares.
This was funny at first, my inability to kill anything very well, a sort of family joke. Ha ha, the boy missed, they would say, every Christmas. They laughed, I laughed. It was all good family fun. Occasionally, I prayed that God would send a gang of jackals into our Christmas dinner to murder them all, but mostly I just smiled.
Ha ha, you got me. And the jackals will get you.
Growing up in the country, it seemed like every little general store had Polaroids of slaughtered things on the back wall. Magazines and newspapers carried black-and-white photos of young boys posing with their very first slaughters. Most of these boys were in elementary school when they’d done it for the first time. And if you looked closely, you could tell: some of them were girls.
Who’d killed deer!
If these girls could do it, why couldn’t I?
Other boys my age had done so much, already had wives and children of their own. Did I have a bad eye? Nerves? Palsy? Or worse, perhaps I was in possession of an overactive conscience or had some genetic defect that made me have emotions about animals?
“Don’t worry, you’ll get one,” Pop said.
That’s sort of what I was afraid of.
The day I finally got one, that cold December day, started at 4:00 A.M. When Pop turned on my light, I had been dreaming. Of what? Of a childhood that didn’t involve waking at 4:00 A.M. “Roll out,” he said, and disappeared.
I had so many questions.
What day was it? What time was it? Why couldn’t I have been born with no arms? I knew, though, even with no arms, Pop would have found a way for me to hunt, rigging complicated pulley systems into trees and hoisting me up in a sack, then dropping me on the animals with a knife in each foot.
This day would be a cold one. “Arctic blasts,” the weatherman had said, illustrated by what appeared to be an angry cloud vomiting ice crystals across the Southern states. “Your plants will die.” I briefly considered how great it might be to die right now, too.
Should I play sick? I’d done it before. I’d faked fevers and nausea on many a brisk morning, but you can only fake illness for so long before your mother believes you’ve had a bad blood transfusion and are now dying of AIDS. Sometimes, I claimed to have vertigo or ingrown toenails, and occasionally both at the same time, which I demonstrated, on the eve of a big hunt, by limping and running into walls.
But today I would have to get up.
On my floor lay a host of flannel and chamois and canvas, my allies against the cold, but also the enemies of my dignity. By the time I got everything on, I would be prevented from performing necessary bodily functions, such as relieving my bladder, or actually being able to touch the place where I believed my bladder to be located.
First, the socks. Cotton. Why cotton? Because we did not understand what people who read Outside magazine understood, that cotton will absorb your sweat and then use it against you. Good socks cost good money, and Pop had more important things to spend our money on, such as prosthetic feet, since our original feet had frozen and fallen off.
Next, I pulled on a pair of waffled long underwear, also of cotton, and then a cotton union suit, and then two pairs of sweatpants with an excess of fabric in the groin region, so that it looked like I might be hiding a bulbous fruitcake in my crotch, followed by multiple sweatshirts and a chamois shirt that had once belonged to Pop and had been given to me because too many hot dryings had abbreviated its length and now it could only be tucked in with the aid of duct-tape and bungee cords, thus compelling me to pull my sweats up even higher until such time as my chin appeared to be wearing the pants.
Over these pants, oddly, I wore more pants.
Then I stuffed the whole of myself inside a pair of hand-me-down coveralls, lined in a material resembling industrial furniture pads, so that when finished, I looked like the world’s largest camouflage throw-pillow. My boots were in the den, next to the woodstove. Putting them on would be difficult, now that I could no longer bend at the waist. Even walking to the den would be problematic. Rolling would be easier, or blacking out and having medical personnel drag me on a litter.
I waddled to the kitchen.
My brother Bird was already in the den, sharpening his knife, while Pop danced and sang by the stove. Slaughtering always put him in the best mood. While singing, he would goose Mom in the bottom, and she would attempt to blind him with a spatula, and then he would sing some more. It was an odd thing to have to see at four in the morning, your mother defending herself against your father with baking utensils. But I couldn’t look away. I had lost the privilege of turning my head.
Mom presented me with a sausage biscuit in a napkin and kissed me.
“My baby,” she said. What none of us knew is that the little baby would not be coming back. I would come back a man, or something like it.
The place we drove toward in the dark was County Line Hunting Club, at the edge of the Bienville National Forest. The camp-house was no gentleman’s hideaway. It was a doublewide trailer, dog pens, a Confederate flag, the smell of old blood and rotting carcasses, a kind of romantic hideaway, if you had kidnapped your lover and planned on murdering her. Yet its woods were lovely, nine square miles of hardwood bottomland and hillocks of pine. Men with names like Foots still trapped on this land, and shot muskets. It was unclear why some of these men used such primitive firearms, but my thinking was that anybody named after a body part could probably shoot any sort of gun he wanted.
In the front seat, Pop and Bird strategized about the day’s hunt, while I attempted to sleep. “I believe you may get one today,” Pop said to me.
The probability was high. It was Doe Day again, and Pop expected fewer hunters in the woods today, even the grizzled musketeers who lived on the land. He didn’t say why. Perhaps there was a Klan rally, or a Dentists Without Borders in the area. But it was clear: on this day, I had legal sanction to shoot pretty much anything that moved.
“You know you’ll have to drink its blood,” Bird said. “Since it’s your first.”
Bird was always reminding me of this. We’d recently seen perhaps the most important film of our youth: Red Dawn, a coming-of-age tale about manhood and how Patrick Swayze fights Communism with his hair. There’s a scene where one of the young American guerilla fighters slays his first deer, and they sit around the dead thing.
“You’ve got to do it, it’s the spirit of the deer,” Swayze says, filling a mug with blood from somewhere deep in the deer’s carcass.
“When you drink it, you’ll be a real hunter,” says Charlie Sheen.
Swayze hands the mug of blood to the young deerslayer, and reluctantly, the boy drinks. It’s important to remember, as they’re doing this, that they’ve all got tree branches attached to their heads.
Then Sheen says, “You know, my dad said that once you do that, there’s going to be something different about you. Always.”
Yeah, what would be different was that he would never speak again, due to the thirty hours of uninterrupted vomiting, which would destroy his larynx.
In a film full of harrowing scenes, this was the one that kept me up at night. Would they really make me do it?
Soon, our headlights illuminated a dark hole in the trees. We got out, loaded up, said goodbye in clouds of illuminated breath.
“See you boys back here at lunch,” Pop said.
We went our separate ways. I was headed to a stand not far away, a great and meandering hardwood hollow, with canopied trails and leafy vistas, the sort of place one might build a cabin, or see a Hobbit, and if so inclined, to shoot that Hobbit and then drink its blood.
"Deer Reader," 7.5" x 9.5", mixed media on index, 2013, Katherine Sandoz
The stand was old, and its platform small: basically a kitchen chair nailed to a tree three stories up. I did not worry so much about falling, owing to the excess of padding around my internal organs. It was going to take something much more aggressive than gravity to penetrate my costume.
I put a round in the chamber, in the dark. My gun was a .30-30 lever-action, a short, sturdy rifle that held eight rounds. I had come so far from the .410 single-shot of my first days in the woods. Now, I had the opportunity to miss eight times in a row.
I looked into the sky and could see nothing but Orion, my old hunting buddy, through striations of black canopy. We were doomed to hunt forever.
I sat there.
And I sat there.
And I sat there some more.
In one terrible instant, that terrible thing happened, the single most tragic experience of my, and just about any, childhood: boredom.
All childhoods are full of it. For some, it is the great crucible of imagination, those long, lonely days away from cable television and video games that lead a youngster into the undiscovered country of his own unfettered mind, where he can learn to enjoy reading and creativity while slowly going insane. They say going insane is fun, but they are lying. You hear things. You see things. You look at your watch. It is 6:45 A.M. It is dark. You decide to think. And you think some more. And then you think about what you thought, and then you think about looking at your watch, which you do, which still reads 6:45 A.M. Haven’t you been thinking for longer than less than a minute?
What time is it?
Only five more hours! Five hours is nothing. I was wearing so many clothes, that it would likely take three hours just to take a bowel movement. Which leaves two hours, which seemed like about how long it would take to chew off my own tongue.
Finally, it was daylight.
Could I see anything? Brown trees. Orange leaves. Purple sky.
Did my father ever get bored? It was his greatest skill, this ability to sit and stare and wait. It wasn’t a listless stare, pathetic and melancholy. He looked more like a farm animal in a pasture, just sort of existing, and it was hard to know what might be going on in his enormous head. His brain must have been huge, or perhaps there were other items in there, such as extra fluid or an old tractor transmission. Did he have thoughts about his thoughts? Did he ever experience that moment where you realize you’re you, and you’re realizing you’re exactly you and not anybody else? Or did he just think:
Tree. That is a tree.
Pie. I like pie.
Sit. I like to sit.
I wished I could think like that. My mind raced, ran off without me, looked around, saw that it was alone, returned to find me, but got lost, and we became separated for hours.
Time: 6:47 A.M.
It was officially day.
I was officially insane.
Still, there was something far more terrible about this whole enterprise, more tragic than boredom, and that was the horror of what we were actually expected to do to the animals once they came loping into view.
Was I the only one who became nauseous and faint at the site of a large, inverted carcass hanging from a tree, its vital organs strewn about like children’s toys, the occasional pack of hunting dogs fighting over a lung, another one looking for a quiet place to enjoy the severed head? It happened all the time and nobody else seemed bothered. People just walked up to the bloody carcasses and carried on entirely normal conversations, as though a man wasn’t standing there squeezing deer feces out of a large intestine and small children weren’t playing football with a liver.
I knew Pop would make me do it one day, when it was time, even though the sight of blood gave me the vapors, especially when it was pouring out of things. And I had heard stories of terrible things, about deer who took too long to die, who’d been shot in the eye and blinded and run into barbed wire, or shot in the gut, the green pasta of intestine spilling out while they ran, wrapping around the hind legs, causing the creature to tumble into a creek and drown.
With my own eyes I’d seen a deer shot in the leg, stabbing at the earth with the other three like a hurt spider, and managing to get 75 yards in that condition, while my father offered to let me finish it off.
The deer was alive. It looked at me. What a crime to shoot it in the neck, when all it really needed was a cast, maybe a hug.
“Shoot it,” said Pop.
But I couldn’t, and he put his gun to the animal’s neck, while I pretended to see something of interest in the trees. I couldn’t watch.
And I also couldn’t watch later, when we dressed it, which, if you’ve ever done it, you know, it’s pretty much the opposite of dressing.
It hung by its hind legs, upside down, swinging by a thick cable as Bird cranked it higher and higher until its head was off the ground. Pop handed me his knife.
“What do we do first?” he said.
It had been drilled into me that the first and most important step in dressing a deer is to make sure it’s dead, because nothing will ruin the meat like watching it run away. I surveyed the hanging carcass and reasoned that, yes, it must be dead, owing to the hole in its skull. Next, with an economy of nips and one long vertical slice, Pop showed me how to peel the deer like a banana. “Like taking off a wet sock,” he said.
Sure, I thought, if you had been born with the sock attached to your body.
“Now what do we do?” he said, while we looked at the skinless deer, dripping.
My first instinct was to suggest that I have a seizure and be hospitalized, but I thought, no, that’s probably not what he’s looking for. He handed me the knife, made a line with his finger, indicating that I should open up the body cavity so that its organs might spill out. The smell was hot and metallic and fecal. Was there something that could keep the smell away from my nose? A bandana, perhaps, or a restraining order?
I cut, and then Pop took a hatchet and cracked its sternum in two and opened the deer up like a valise, revealing the horror inside: pretty much every organ ever invented. Yellow fat, blue stomach, green gut, pink lung, purple liver, and that heart, that meaty red heart, big as a baby’s head.
“Now we got to cut out its butthole,” he said.
All around America, children were cutting out paper snowflakes, while here in Mississippi, I was cutting out anuses.
I was no man.
So I kept shooting. I kept shooting, because that’s what Pop told me to do, and I kept missing, because something was wrong with me. It was like I didn’t want to hit the deer. Sure, the idea of gutting another one by myself was horrible, but I thought it would be different if I’d done the killing. When it’s yours, it’s different.
But why did I keep missing, everybody wanted to know at every Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I explained: because it was dark, and the deer could not be seen, or it was raining, and the distance could not be known, or the deer had been running too fast.
Three or four weeks before that December day, I’d shot at something.
It had been run by a beagle. I’d heard the sound a mile off, grateful for the break in tedium. I was hunting a big wide-open swale of woods, a bank of fog over the whole little valley. The sound grew. The dog was coming this way.
Today would be the day.
Where was the deer?
I watched, scanned, tried to pierce the fog, see through it, then: There, something.
The tiny beagle came into view.
Was it too late? Has the deer slipped by me undetected?
Then: a deer.
What do I do?
Every doubt and misgiving about blood and organs and membranes melted at the sight of that deer, every primal urge to slaughter came alive. The deer was running, sort of picking its way through scrub and over deadfall, not frantic. In three seconds, it would be gone.
It was coming right toward my stand. Could it be any easier?
It dashed in a strange and unwelcome vector, toward a thicket to my right, and now it was running with every evolutionary advantage. There, in the moment between its gentle sauntering toward me and its startling rocketry away, I am not sure what happened. I fired wildly, desperately, and as soon as I pulled the trigger, I knew: It was gone.
The last thing I saw was its flag of white tail vanishing into the woods, bright and erect, a warning to others that if they didn’t look now, they’d miss the idiot in the tree, who didn’t know a good thing when it was coming right at him. That tail I’d seen so many times, a friendly au revoir from the animal kingdom.
Goodbye, the tail said.
Goodbye, I said.
That was then, and this was now.
“Dear Jesus,” I prayed. “Help me.”
Let the nightmare be over, I prayed. Let me kill something, and gut something, and maybe it can be over, and Pop will let me alone, or a miracle will happen, and I will learn to like it, perchance to love it. It was a fervent prayer, long and filled with laborious King James pronouns, to awaken a more ancient Lord who liked seeing things die.
I told God I would be willing to do anything to make it happen.
“Just give me a sign, dear Lord, that you heard me,” I said.
And I said amen. And then he sent me something much bigger than a sign.
READ PART II OF THIS STORY HERE.