Adventure, Lifestyle, Stories

Kill Shot

 

Here she is again.

Lying naked on her side, beautiful and completely still — as if sculpted by nature’s own hand and frozen in time. Her slender form, long neck, and oversized, black velveteen eyes are enough to intoxicate even the most stoic among men. I’m no exception. Approaching her slowly, I walk at a dreamy underwater pace, captivated by the moment and a deep, unrelenting desire to savor it. Though we’ve been together so many times before, in a very real sense every time is the first time. Nontheless, she’s nothing if not familiar.

As is her silence. I run a hand around her neck and down her back. My touch—on any other day—would surely excite her. But not today. Still, I feel our connection stronger than ever. That might sound strange considering she feels nothing for me. In fact, she feels nothing at all.

Not just because she’s a deer. But because she’s dead.

I suppose there’s little romance in that. No matter. For three months of every year, the normally long-distance relationship we have with these gentle creatures turns, for me, into a kind of love affair. Which is the nice way of putting it.

“Butcher” is such a heartless word.

.     .     .

She dressed out at just north of 150 lbs., and puts a little stress on the water-stained beam that runs the width of my old, tumbledown garage . Today, I couldn’t be less concerned with it. Come spring, the beam — along with the rest of the garage — will be gone, replaced by an attached 3-car with space above for family, friends or perhaps the shuffleboard table I’ve dreamed of for more than a decade. Now, in late November, the space is uniquely suited to her. The squirrels and mice have made sizeable holes where the ground meets the wood siding. So what’s normally a place reserved for oil changes and light carpentry serves as a fine meat locker.

After she was hooked and hoisted to a workable height, I carefully removed the skin that held together an appreciable winter coat — reducing her to a more manageable weight. And rendering her, even to the most seasoned butcher, nothing less than horrifying.

See her now: upside down, hanging lifeless and skinless, hind quarters splayed outward and pointing toward the sky — like an ancient tribal totem placed on the outskirts of a cannibal village, a warning that you have wandered into a place of death. She sways gently back and forth, producing a haunting, rhythmic whine of tightly wound rope twisting around dried wood. A grisly pendulum, keeping time in a nightmare.

Step closer: The floor’s pattern of sawdust and dried motor oil now resembles a surgical unit. Littered with tufts of hair, soiled rubber gloves, blood-spattered knives, and twenty or so scarlet paper towels — soaked, crumpled and strewn about a green polyester tarp. It reminds me of roses in an emerald field, stretched open wide and full to catch warmth of the sun. Except there is no sun here. Just the cold, white, blinding light of fluorescent bulbs flickering overhead.

For the record, I didn’t kill her. I’m not a hunter, and find myself generally opposed to it. In fact, I’m generally opposed to killing almost anything — unless that thing is trying to kill me. This one was shot by a bowhunter from Derry, NH, and put into my charge at some point the previous night. Tomorrow, I will return to him nearly seventy pounds of steaks, chops, roasts, trimmings, and a handful of more uncommon culinary treasures, carefully vacuum-sealed and frozen for freshness.

It’s not that I have anything against killing in principle. If I did, I’d never volunteer to do the autopsy — though, as far as I can tell, even that never made anyone complicit in the murder. It’s just not for me.

Unlike insects or fish (or the lobster, if you please — a sci-fi monster somehow at home in both categories), a deer doesn’t look alien. There is no coldness in its blood, or deadness in its eyes. A deer lives among us, breathing the same air, eating the same food, drinking the same water. If you want to get technical, I suppose you could say we’re drinking theirs, but that’s a hair that needs no splitting. In any case, you need only look at the Pink See-Through Fantasia (not at all what it sounds like) or the Squidworm (exactly what it sounds like), and you’ll soon realize the point, indeed. A deer is, more or less, one of us.

Still, I keep my knives sharp. A responsible kill demands a responsible harvest. That’s how it’s been done since forever. Since before we were an us, and the sacred holism of humans and nature was still intact, delicately—or perhaps I should say precariously—balanced. It’s only fair to honor and respect something that gives its life for you, even if it doesn’t do it willingly. Especially if it doesn’t. Or can’t.

So I’ve never really felt like I had blood on my hands. Though lately, it’s getting harder to wash off.

.     .     .

I learned my uncle’s trade — and my grandfather’s, before him — while in college working nights at a local supermarket. It paid for my first car, (which I needed little aside from going to and from work) and for my first date, which eventually led to marriage, a home, three kids, and all the trappings of adult life that accompany them. At the time, I thought the money was okay. For a college kid, earning enough to pay for subs, booze and the occasional road trip north to Plymouth or Portland was even better than okay. But looking back, the work felt far too industrial. There’s a good deal of craft — but not a lot of art — in commercial meat cutting.

I’d heard legends about my grandfather trudging through a floor strewn with blood and sawdust, carrying a side of beef on his shoulder. He would begin every day searing small slices of well-marbled meat on a makeshift grill in the back of his store, creating an aroma that would waft through the “Better Food Market”— bidding customers to make their way toward the meat counter, having become carnivores whether they entered that way or not. He would place the meat into the soft, still-warm pocket of freshly baked pita, hand them out, and sell his case empty by mid-morning. But this image of a meat cutter was, like my grandfather himself, a relic of a past now gone forever.

Or so I thought. You have to understand, this was long before the “craft, artisanal, lumbersexual” renaissance, which revived so many of life’s finer things—including classical butchery—to help fill menus (and hipster bellies) in bespoke gastropubs without number.

A decade after I graduated, right around the time that movement was gaining steam, my best friend—a consummate hunter and outdoorsman—suggested I try my blade at his most recent trophy. A buck, who had wandered down the wrong path. Or the right one, depending on your perspective. Even though this was an impromptu job with dull knives on a non-sterile table, I found this style of butchery to be more intentional, and of course, romantic. I had felt, for the very first time, what I grew up believing about the passion of my bloodline.

Not that taking apart an animal of some size with an industrial band saw doesn’t have its advantages. Doing it by hand is a primitive kind of thing. There’s not as much blood as you’d think; immediately after the kill, the majority is sprayed out in large, gushing jets by the final beats of a dying heart, painting a crimson treasure map along the forest floor. But there are, as would think, copious guts—that somehow smell as warm as they do foul. Later, the sounds of stretching skin, cracking bone, and the sweep of steel slicing through cold, lean flesh. Can you hear it?

(Stretch, crack, cut, repeat)

Primitive, indeed. But at the same time, sublime. I’m not talking about anything so mystical as — dare I say — enlightenment. But it has a certain appeal. Some people find it in knitting, the potter’s wheel, or casting a fly rod into a shimmering pool, hoping to awaken a sleeping monster.

(Stretch, crack, cut, repeat)

Yes, there’s something beautiful that happens when you give yourself in to the rhythm of repetition. From it, I’ve learned that if you want to find the truth in anything, you need to do it over and over again. The first morning in that cold supermarket meat room didn’t make me a butcher, no more than my one and only time hunting made me a hunter. You don’t get a lot from doing something once.

But sometimes, you get a hell of a lot more than you asked for.

.     .     .

I shot her nearly three years ago from a tree stand at the edge of my property, overlooking a deer superhighway that connects a vernal pool to a hundred or so acres of conservation land.

In the summer months leading up to hunting season, the idea of going hunting came quickly and without warning. And with it, what can only be described as the inextinguishable curiosity of a child. You believe them perfectly well when they tell you the stove is hot, but you touch anyway, don’t you. Because you want to know what it feels like. You want to know for yourself. At 33, I suppose I should have known that curiosity had killed the cat. Though this time, it had spared the cat for a much larger prize.

There also comes a time in the intellectual life of any responsible person to challenge deeply held beliefs. In this case, the belief that I simply wasn’t the sort of person who could kill a deer. Butcher it? No problem. But the killing just wasn’t for me. And when you get right down to it, testing a hypothesis is always a win-win: if your beliefs stand up to the onslaught of objections, then they — and you — are all the stronger. If they fall down, then…they fall down. And you are stronger still.

First things first:“If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right,” I insisted. The stake was in the ground. But not without firm and undisguised awareness that that was a sizeable “if.”

I began educating myself on the finer points of hunting deer in New Hampshire. The whitetail variety. And then applied my knowledge to the lay of my particular land — an L-shaped plot that forms a natural corridor between deep woods and water. Plenty of four-legged critters frequented the pools that formed along the border, so getting a deer to show up wasn’t an issue. Getting a largely secretive and nocturnal animal show up when it’s light enough to shoot and stand still while I decide whether to do it? Now that was a deer of a different color.

I’d need the all proper equipment, which, in the simplest iteration, really comes down to a good bow and razor-sharp arrows. But then there were the accoutrements — ranging from the proper camouflage to a sensible tree stand, to all the smaller items that make the inherently awkward process of shooting a deer from up in a tree little more manageable. And—rather critically—I’d need to learn how to shoot.

.     .     .

In the days leading up to my hunt, I became deadlier than I ever intended to be. A target was set up against a pyramid of hay bales in the yard, keeping stray arrows from finding their way through a silvering split rail fence layered with welded wire — perfect for keeping our dog (a fawn-colored hound mix) in, and other large animals out.

I practiced relentlessly

(Stretch, crack, cut, repeat…stretch, crack, cut, repeat)

until I could reliably hit a bullseye — just about the size of a deer heart, from 20 yards or so. Eventually, I would shoot from a lawn chair, leaning forward awkwardly over the armrest, preparing for the physical reality of shooting from a deer stand in a sitting position. I could try to stand, but why invite one of many possible deer-frightening sounds that might arise with me? With a little practice, I mastered this too. But as I did, every bad shot became a harbinger of some doom just over the horizon. Raising the stakes, and the pressure, which was becoming more substantial with every passing day. It felt like a rope cinching around my chest and making it harder and harder to breathe with every gasp.

The reason was simple enough: I was trying to squeeze a lifetime of hunting experience and knowledge into just a few months. Had to, really. For one thing, being calm under pressure (and thus more accurate) seemed like the only responsible course of action. Not because I was afraid of missing if I actually decided to shoot (I probably wouldn’t). But because I was afraid of almost missing — injuring instead of killing. “When it comes to hunting,” the Consummate Outdoorsman had said, “the only thing worse than a bad shot is a kind-of-bad shot.”

.     .     .

The day arrived without ceremony, like so many do at the edge of summer. I loaded up my gear and made my way into the woods beneath a thick canopy of pine and a sunless, gunmetal sky. It was mid-afternoon still, so chances were excellent that I would find myself alone. Still, I waded carefully as if through murky water — taking slow, lurching steps — careful not to dislodge too much of the sweet, decayed aroma of forest floor. Had I been hunting wabbit, I’d have made a perfectly serviceable Elmer Fudd.

I arrived at the old pine that held my new tree stand — a welcome island refuge in a sea of deer-frightening twigs and underbrush. It leaned slightly, (the tree, and thus the stand) allowing me a reclined position to await oncoming prey. “How luxurious,” I thought. Positioned with a perfect sight-line between two saplings, I would be able to shoot well obscured — yet unobstructed — toward a strategically placed heap of grain that hadn’t yet been disturbed on this day.

A word about the tree stand: in this particular model, the downward force created by the weight of the inhabitant secures it in place. Once seated, not even a charging bull (or buck, if you like) could knock you loose. In other words, it only becomes safe once you’re in it. And that actually getting in is the only real dangerous part — except, of course, for the daredevil feat of getting out in the dark. As I began to climb, my normally steady heart took a few uneven beats— its pace rising higher with every rung. At the time, I was convinced it was because I’ve never been fond of ladders. And because, deer or no deer, I was out here playing the world’s oldest and deadliest game of hide and seek. Such things have a way of dialing you up, especially when you’re both the hider and the seeker.

That was what I told myself then. Later, when I had time to examine the phenomenon, I would realize my anxiety had been mounting for quite some time. Long before I walked into the woods.

By the time I reached the top and began working myself into the stand, my heart pumped hot inside my head like the feverish beat of a tribal drum. My eyes, burning from the assault (a-salt?) of dripping sweat, were reduced to visionless orbs. And then I felt the carabiner on the safety strap. I fastened it to my harness and awkwardly made my way into sitting position. I was in: bow now loaded and laid gently across my lap. Every inch of me camouflaged. And perfectly still, save for the pounding heart inside a chest still rising and falling far too conspicuously. I closed my eyes — a decision both a logical and absurd when you’re 20 feet off the ground— and waited for it to subside. It eventually did.

Now what?

Now nothing. Being content with doing nothing is something of a requirement in hunting. As is doing it without moving a muscle. So I let my eyes wander with the freedom my body lacked. They were the eyes of a sentinel gargoyle, oscillating in stone sockets, scanning a densely wooded plain in search of the slightest movement. Here, I took stock of my surroundings with a new perspective on the woods and the world — and saw everything with heightened detail:

Here are two chipmunks, having a spat over this or that. A wisp of a squirrel’s tail spiraling up the trunk of a large pine. The lush summer fern and daffodil that line the shaded water. A silkworm, dangling like a hanged man from the branch of an old maple. And a murder of crows.

How fitting.

.     .     .

I grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts — a picturesque place nestled quietly among the Berkshire hills. Mine was a town known for Norman Rockwell, Tanglewood, Alice’s Restaurant, and leading the nation in absolutely nothing. Deer, like the summer tourists, were not uncommon. Our house was situated in the central valley of a 4-acre property, surrounded by densely wooded hills. It was generally a quiet place, but the deck that wrapped around the country-modern home built in 1983 had endured too many New England winters to be completely silent.

(Stretch, crack, repeat)

Guests of the our-legged variety would wander in often, so I had to be content to gaze at them through a panoramic fishbowl of hand-crank windows. And awe-struck eyes. I am there again. A small herd of deer, so close I can almost touch them, make their way over a swatch of dying grass dappled with red, orange and yellow. Through this window, opened to some distant corner of the universe, I watch without movement—not wanting to disrupt the delicate scene and see them whisked away never to return.

There were plenty of times, of course, when I did venture out. The majority of my childhood was spent in those woods — fighting dragons, casting spells, and learning the ancient wisdom of the tree with the eyes, an omniscient forest deity (masquerading to the nonbeliever as a dead pine, riddled from top to bottom with woodpecker holes).

Every so often, on the advice of my father, I would place nuts and any wild berries I could find on an old stump behind our house. Though generally wary of the outdoors himself (his self-professed idea of “roughing it” is a penthouse on Park Avenue with 5 bathrooms), he romanticized the human connection to nature with an odd mixture of transcendental reverence and superstition — one part Whitman, one part tribal shaman. The stump was always empty the next morning. To this day, I don’t know whether the deer had taken the offering, or if —

.     .     .

 

(Snap!)

“Now what the hell was that?” I screamed (without screaming). The trance of fond remembrance hadn’t been just broken, but shattered. Not a deer, certainly. Just squirrel? Who knew. Along with an uncomfortable spike of adrenaline, and that pounding chest I’d only recently curtailed, something else came: a palpable reminder that there had been very few, if any, sounds up to this point. And the light was fading.

More seasoned hunters might shoot later into the evening, but this was the limit of my comfort. It had to be half-past six by now. Full darkness would come soon enough. Then I’d descend, relief washing over me. I was actually already starting to feel it. I’d feign disappointment to my friend. And to my wife: “Maybe I’ll see one next time.” If there was going to be a next time. I highly doubted it. I wasn’t going to see a deer today. And that was just fine.

With only my eyes uncamouflaged, sitting under the canopy of pine, I didn’t feel the drizzle begin, nor could I see it in my darkening field of vision. The tiny droplets found their way to the ground and softened a hundred years of dead leaves and underbrush.

It made her approaching footsteps virtually silent.

.     .     .

She appeared in much the same way they always do — which is to say, without warning. And then she was…just…there. Probably forty yards away, slowly moving into the frame. It was like watching a movie with no sound, giving it a surreal, dreamlike separateness. That probably contributed to my fervent belief that this couldn’t be real. But it was, whether I believed it or not.

Meandering from branch to branch, leaf to leaf, she nibbled. It took her all of five minutes to find the fallen log with a the purposely inconvenient pile of grain heaped on the other side. In fulfillment of the prophecy handed down by the Consummate Outdoorsman, she elected to go around instead of over, and positioned herself perpendicular to me. I was seeing in reality, what I had seen in a thousand waking dreams: I now had a textbook broadside shot, a mere 22 yards away. She lowered the head at the end of her long neck and began to eat a meal of corn, wheat and sunflower seeds.

At some point — I couldn’t tell you when — I decided it would be her last.

My pulse had already dropped to a steady, rhythmic throb. And my hands were moving. The killing ritual, which had become an almost involuntary second nature, was underway. There was no stopping it. Later, I would realize that this had really been the case from the moment I saw her. Once I had, I’d never once considered not doing it. Some blind imperative, lying dormant inside a million-year-old brain, had awoken hungry and hellbent on dispatching its prey with cold-blooded swiftness. I leaned forward slightly, drew the bowstring back to it’s locked position and began to sight her down, my finger hovering over the release. As I found my way to the kill zone, all motion slowed to a blurred, underwater pace. I could see everything. Hear everything. Feel everything. I had her.

(Wait)

I exhaled deep and long, purging any unsteadying air from my lungs. Now perfectly still, my finger dropped to —

(Wait)

Some sound, small and weak, was struggling to be born amid the thunderous drone of a primitive death machine…the tiniest Who down in Whoville, screaming to be heard:

WAIT!

The one detail I hadn’t planned for shot through my mind like…well, like an arrow. I had practiced for months shooting on the same vertical plane as my target. Under such conditions, shooting straight through the kill zone was pretty simple. But now, I was almost 20 feet in the air. And the math — geometry, in this case — was also fairly straightforward. I’d have to aim higher if I wanted the downward angle of my arrow to tag both of her lungs. I had a bigger problem to deal with: my killing ritual was broken. In its place came a flood of fractured lines pointing from every angle toward organs now floating mid-air inside a living deer diagram. Where do I shoot? How high is too high? Where are the lungs again? What if I paralyze her?

Yeah, the math was straightforward, wasn’t it. Months of practice don’t add up to years of experience. And the number of ways to royally fuck up a process so tenuously put together? There were plenty. I was in a landslide. A small pebble was kicked loose, and now I was losing my footing on ground crumbling beneath me. Breathing so heavy my bow quaked from the force of the avalanche. My eyes begin to blur from the sear of dripping sweat. And I thought to myself, “this probably isn’t how you should take your first shot. Or any shot, for that matter. Don’t shoot. Just don’t shoot.”

But the arrow was already gone.

.     .     .

PSA: the image of an arrow sticking out of an animal after it’s been shot is largely bullshit. In the old days? Maybe. But at 400 feet per second, a razor-sharp broadhead goes in one end and out the other. Even in the fading light, I could see the arrow there sticking out of the ground.

I waited for an hour or so in the tree stand. Waited for whatever I had just done, to be done. She was gone — launched away like she was standing on a spring, and would either be running free, dying, or dead. In the first and last cases, waiting wouldn’t hurt. In the second, it could only help. Spooking a dying deer only increased the chances of never seeing it again. The rain was more appreciable when the Consummate Outdoorsman arrived and began to wash away the trail of blood she’d left behind. I guessed “running free” was no longer an option. He picked up the trail easily enough — and had to continue pointing it out to me as we tracked her through the woods, marking each splotch and spray of red with small lengths of pink caution tape. They are still out there, hanging from the branches, leaves, and ferns, like hanged suicides.

We searched, backtracked, re-searched, split up, and searched some more. How far could she have gone? For two and a half gut-wrenching hours, under the full dark of night, we found nothing. Even with a pair of military-grade thermal goggles he’d “liberated” from the defense contractor where he once worked. I assumed the worst. It was impossible not to. But I trusted my friend, and he was confident we’d find her — or at least he projected confidence. Either way, it helped me keep going. Which is, after all, what friends do. They help you keep going.

We decided to go back to the house, get warm, get dry, and venture out one more time. At around midnight, behind a giant fallen tree (and thus hidden from thermal imaging), we found her, just 40 yards from where it all went down. It was like stumbling on a crime scene. Not just because of the body, but because of the red jungle that surrounded her. Judging by the stiffness of her body, the Consummate Outdoorsman was certain she’d been dead for quite some time — more than 3 hours for sure. And she hadn’t laid herself down gently, either, as if accepting her inevitable fate. One of her forelegs was badly broken. She’d crashed to the ground, dead as a doornail, having fainted mid-sprint. A final inspection during field dressing revealed no hole in her heart, but two gaping, cross-cut holes through both of her lungs. She couldn’t have been running for more than a five or six seconds.

In the days that followed, I broke her down with surgical precision — processing the meat and creating a cache of coyote bait from her pelt and bones. That was delivered to a local farm and dumped in a field to make easy pickings of the menacing canines that stole sheep, chickens and created other mischief. The packages of steaks, chops, roasts and ground venison went to my chest freezer. It took nearly a year for our family to go through it all.

My older son — too young at that time to know (or care) where his food was coming from — devoured it with 3-year-old greed.

As did my daughter, but in a more contemplative way, as it sat on her Peter Rabbit plate. She was 5.

My wife, for her part, seemed to approve. Her father was a bit more than an occasional hunter, and this brought me one step closer, I think, to satisfying some part of a traditional male stereotype that he so well embodied and she certainly finds appealing.

And by so many others — including the Consummate Outdoorsman— I was lauded as a living legend, having accomplished a feat of nearly mythic proportion. I had done something unheard of. To most, unthinkable. I had killed a deer my very first time hunting. And with a bow, no less.

Didn’t matter. None of it did. Because for all the flesh my arrow took, it wasn’t was enough to fill the hole left behind.

.     .     .

I suppose the arrow of time is equally merciless. It flies in but one direction, and can never be pulled back again — no matter how badly you wish it could.  In other words, you can’t go home again.

“And at the end of it he knew, and with the knowledge came the definite sense of new direction toward which he had long been groping, that the dark ancestral cave, the womb from which mankind emerged into the light, forever pulls one back—that you can’t go home again.”

– Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

Because time marches on. And when you try to go back to that which once comforted you, so much has changed that it’s no longer home.  That’s at least a half-truth. Perhaps the wisdom of the ancient Greeks had captured it a little better.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river… and he’s not the same man.”

– Heraclitus, derived from the River Fragments

Old Heraclitus seems like he was onto something there. Because it’s not just that things have changed, and it’s no longer home. It’s that you’ve changed, too. And you’re no longer you. Or maybe, you never were.

That’s what creeps in when it gets dark outside. When it gets dark inside. What seeps through the small, unsealed cracks of a fractured mind: I killed a deer. But it wasn’t the man I became who killed her. Not some new, updated version of myself who had emerged at the moment the arrow flew. No, it was his accomplice! He’s the one you want, your honor. The man who was already there.

Do you see it, now? How could I kill a deer if I wasn’t already the kind of person who would?

I suppose a man’s actions don’t change who he is, not really. More often, they reveal it. In my case, killing a doe on a warm September day, beneath that darkening gunmetal sky, changed more than the man I was going to be. It changed the man I’d always been.

“Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there!
He wasn’t there again today, Oh how I wish he’d go away!

Hughes Mearns, Antigonish

This isn’t a simple case of you can’t go home again. Nor is it a case of a man changed forever. Yes, the man I thought I was, was gone—but not simply replaced. He was, worse, erased by the man I actually was. The man who could never—would never—kill a deer? Just a wistful fantasy of a man I wanted to be, who was never really there. Something put on to hide from a true self I had never really met, and don’t like all that much now that I have. Kind of like a costume.

Or camouflage.

.     .     .

I lower her off the hooks and lift her onto the table, and my fingers sink into the thick patchwork of milky white fat that covers much of her crimson flesh — a sign, no doubt, that she was well-prepared for the impending New England winter.

The first snowflakes of the season are falling.

Time to get going. I take my cleaver for separating bone, my small fillet knife for skirting around it, and my larger utility knife for the bulk of the cutting. The rest of the work — a surprising amount, really —will be done with my hands alone. Today, in this old garage beneath the eldritch glow of fluorescent light, the sharpening only takes a moment. But in it, short as it is, I dream.

I dream that her time isn’t over, and that I don’t have to take her apart. That maybe, just this once, I can be the one to put her back together. And feel whole again.

See her now: crossing some farmer’s meadow beneath a sleepy cluster of foothills, the only passenger on a freshly-fallen blanket of snow. Bounding over gullies and frozen streams, as if time itself had frozen with them. There she goes… headed toward a curtain of slumping branches, leaving behind a twisting trail of delicate, half-set images that tell the story of her life. My heart fills with joy, as it did when I was young and never will again. Because in this moment, her shadow dancing on the sparkling white is the only darkness I can see.

My knife drops. And the blade sinks in.

(Stretch, crack, cut. Repeat.)