THE WILD HUNT
6:01 A.M. - FRED AND LESLIE’S RV
“Carlisle. We gotta get up.”
“I know. Get your ass up.”
6:30 A.M. - THE TRUCK, AND THEN NEAR THE TRUCK
I sit on my hands to keep them warm. Tom scans the fields nearby, driving slowly. He glances over at me, turns up the heat. Laughs a little. I guess I would too.
We pull into a gravel lot and suddenly the heat is gone and we are outside. Tom moves behind the truck and pulls out our gear, sets it on the ground. He stretches in the cold air and I am distracted. His body is graceful in Pennsylvania.
We are both in head-to-toe camo. Mine is baggy, because it isn’t mine. A pair of his pants and a sweatshirt. A beanie flattening my curly hair. Tom looks better, in overalls and a pullover and a ball cap. His tattoos are hidden and he looks younger than usual. After loading an arrow, he swings the crossbow onto his shoulder and I pull on the backpack. We have supplies: a knife, some rope, a flashlight. Water and a first aid kit and a Leatherman. We walk.
7:00 A.M., JUST BEFORE SUNRISE - A SMALL FIELD
We see five deer, just across the meadow. Heads down, grazing quietly. Tom whispers tiny words.
“Take the crossbow… Yeah, yeah you can take the first one. Get down.”
We lay on our bellies. The deer, unbothered, continue to graze. Later, Tom will note that they stayed in the field late. That they were closer than usual. Usually by dawn, most deer are bedded down and hiding deep within the woods. Low vigilance is a bonus for us on opening day. I scoot closer to the crossbow resting on the ground in front of me. I see a buck. He steps on a branch, startles, and the rest of the deer pull their heads up. A doe stares in our direction. I am sure they will run. Tom is frozen. My eyes dart to the side of his face. His jaw is set. I set mine too. The buck emerges from the group and walks toward us.
“Put him in your scope baby. I’ll tell you when he is close enough to take a shot.”
Softly, I let out a breath. My cheek is cold from the air and from the metal bow against it. I settle my eye into the divot and focus on the buck - his back, his skin. He walks toward us, young and brave. He stops, young and scared. So close. My fingers crawl to the top of the crossbow and come to rest on the safety. So quietly, I slide it off. Earlier, Tom told me that the sound of the safety clicking will send deer running. I am so careful. I put my eye back in the scope.
“Wait… wait. I think he may still be too far.”
Too far? Through the scope, I see his chest moving as he breathes. I see his dark eyes flitting. I see his apprehension: how gingerly he steps a foot forward. I see the trunked antlers budding from his head. He is not too far. He is so close. I wait for Tom, my finger poised over the trigger, my shoulder beginning to shake from tension.
The buck looks up, snorts, and takes off.
The group follows him quietly into the woods.
The sun comes up.
7:49 A.M. - A TREESTAND
20 feet up in the air, I shake off my sneakers and put on a fresh pair of socks. The dew on the ground has soaked my feet, and they are freezing. Next to me, Tom laments quietly to himself about this morning’s missed opportunity. I put my arm around him.
“Awh babe, c’mon it’s okay. There will be more deer.”
“Carlisle, you don’t understand. That was a golden, golden, golden fucking opportunity. I can’t believe you didn’t shoot.”
I wince internally, but don’t bother arguing.
“I think I hear something.”
My eyes narrow, and then relax. Two squirrels scamper up a tree.
Tom leans over and smears some camo paint on my face. He meant it as a joke, but I wince again. The black grease lifts my spirits anyways.
10:45 A.M. - THE PINK APPLE DINER
“Every waitress here is pregnant.”
(Reader, what you don’t know is that Tom hated kids.)
12:52 P.M. - FRED AND LESLIE’S RV
For the second time today, I am shaken awake. This time from a cruel, quick nap. Tom has been talking to Fred about the morning’s hunt, and he is ready to go back out.
“Give me a few minutes to get dressed.”
I rub the hesitation out of my eyes and look around for my gear. Leslie has offered me her son’s old hunting boots to wear, and I am glad to replace the sodden Nikes. The boots are enormous on my feet, but they are warm and dry. I double up on socks. Tom comes in the RV and repaints my camo makeup. I kiss him carefully, leaving no marks.
2:24 P.M. - THE WOODS BEHIND THE HOUSE
I startle at every step I take. The borrowed boots are heavy - they crack branches and crunch the dry forest floor. Stepping lightly is impossible. I am sure the deer are scattering, but Tom says they aren’t. He says because the forest is so quiet, our footsteps seem louder than they really are. We see nothing for an hour.
I find a suitable patch of ground and convince Tom to take a water break. He sets the crossbow down carefully and reaches for my hand. We lean into each other for a few moments, relaxing and enjoying the scenery. Wyoming County is the most beautiful part of Pennsylvania I have ever seen. Maybe the most beautiful part of the east coast. The forest is dense and October has already forced many of the leaves into brilliant swirling fires: oranges and reds and purples. The ground is rotten black and dead brown. It smells like honey. I finger a stem on the ground, twirling it back and forth slowly.
I met Tom outside. We laid next to a dying fire, wrapped in blankets in his relatives’ backyard. His cousin, my college roommate, was sleeping feet away. The next morning she asked me if anything had happened, and I lied. Maybe because of the wine. Maybe because of her tone. Maybe because of the 7-year relationship that Tom was still in.
A few months later, we started dating. And a few years later, we started ending, right here in the woods. Side by side trying to kill a deer, right back where we started.
“Time moves so quickly out here.”
Tom nods in silent agreement and we start to walk. In the quiet, I hear the beat of my prickling, fickle heart.
3:49 P.M. - A CLEARING
From 100 yards away, Tom spots a doe and her baby. He motions for me to come closer and I follow his hand through some brambles, to the left of a tree. Standing in the shade, there they are. The doe is big. I am bigger.
“We gotta get closer. Come on.”
We move excruciatingly slow. I step in the exact places that Tom’s boots step, darting my eyes from the back of his legs to the doe’s position in the clearing. I wrinkle my nose when a spider web brushes my face. I do not speak. The crossbow digs into my shoulder. After a few minutes, we are 50 yards away.
I crouch behind a small hill and place the crossbow on the ground. Neither the doe nor her baby has spotted us. We are within shooting distance, about 45 yards away. Tom kneels beside me without taking his eyes from the deer. I lay behind the crossbow and try to focus the doe in the scope.
She is much farther away than the buck was this morning, and her position is partly blocked by a thicket. Each time I blink, I lose sight of her. Tom says nothing. He trusts that I will know when to shoot. My heart thumps against the ground below me. I try not to think about the doe’s baby. Tom waits.
I click the safety off, and move my finger to the crossbow’s trigger. The scope’s target is in the center of the doe’s chest. A perfect shot.
I should take it.
I should take it.
I should take it.
I should take it.
Suddenly, the doe begins stomping with one hoof. The target falls away from her chest. Her baby darts into the woods and after a few moments, the doe follows. I curse my hesitation. I curse my relief.
5:46 P.M. - ON A HILL
“We’ll give ‘em until six. Then call it a day.”
Tom and I sit on the edge of the forest, elevated and in perfect view of the sunset. An evening breeze rustles the tall grass around us. He holds the crossbow in his lap while his eyes scan the horizon, still focused after 9 hours of hunting. I am less alert and take to plucking small flower buds off of a nearby plant and squishing them tiny-flat between my fingers. Earlier, when the doe and her baby ran off, we followed them through the woods for two hours. We never found them. If Tom is still disappointed in my performance, he does not show it.
When the sun sets, we stand and walk back to Fred’s farm.
When the year ends, Tom has moved out.
7:38 P.M. - TODAY
Maybe, if I didn’t grow up in lonely, pavemented suburbia, if instead, I grew up in a forest, with freedom, with quiet respect for dirt and fur, with survivorship: maybe then I would have understood the interminable joy of the hunt. The concept of killing a deer (of not killing a deer) would never have lingered and haunted me for years: it would have just been something to do, something we did, to exist. Maybe everything would have been easier.
But I wasn’t born in leaves, like him. I grew up on a beach, in a house. Spread out on a blanked, baking in the sun. Hidden and protected like a neophyte moon. I have to work to love nature. It does not come easy.
I heard from his family that Tommy is having a baby soon. I think of all the forests the baby will know. I think of the deer, of her own baby. I can barely picture the face of the man I once loved. I can’t remember his hands.
But I haven’t forgotten the weight of the crossbow, strapped to my back, unused and afraid.