THE SNOW WAS COMING DOWN HARD AND TIM WAS BEGINNING TO LOSE TOUCH WITH THE COLD BUT HIS FATHER HAD TOLD HIM NOT TO MOVE. Through the thick stuff bud, that’s what his father had said, across the road now, in a stand of his own. Dogwood and thin maple trees, where only half of their bodies will show. And don’t look too fast. You won’t hear them, not in this snow. There will be a brown flash and your heart will jump and at that moment you must be still.
Still. His finger checking without cease the bolt of a new rifle. If seated improperly the gun would not go.
Don’t turn fast, his father had said. Like this, waiting for the boy, displaying with a grace of motion how a hunter must move. Tenderly. A helmsman wishing to stir not a soul, navigating a glass sea.
But the sky beat the boy continuously. Shots of ice penetrated deep, took from him the last bits of held onto warmth. Stores from his lower back, his face and thighs, the normally forgotten places. A frightening loss for a boy alone in a world intricate and unfamiliar still.
Should I move? he thought. Get down? His toes would curl but each time more slowly. The snow came no longer in flakes but as a sheet. Thick. Like water or a heavy breeze. He could feel its weight bearing down on the tree.
Stand, he thought, pressing the rifle tight against his lap, rising covered, shedding in waves the product of five hours of being as still as a boy could be. Piles grew around Tim’s boots. He knew he was wet and was surprised with the amount of protest given by a body told to simply stand. Parts of him had become lost. It took the boy several tries to shoulder the rifle and afterwards his arms groped numbly, wanting for purchase against the rough bark of the tree.
One step, he said, eyeing the ladder, testing legs that complied with the smallest of shifts but when asked to lift, shook, much heavier now than before.
Descending carefully and planting himself in the snow Tim gave his muscles a chance to firm before risking a walk. A blizzard from over the eastern hills had arrived. Slanted snow turned his face, reduced Tim's vision to a few meager feet, but if he traveled slow enough, walking and warming, circling back because he was not sure how far to go, flakes would stay clear of his cheeks, only sometimes resting lightly on his nose.
And it was not long before the shaking started, shaking and the realization that his body had been far more than simply cold. A return of life, painful at first, springing from fingers and toes and working inward as his blood heated and thinned, flowed. It was a wonderful sensation, to regain color among the grayed features of a forest buried beneath an endless white. A bank of creekstone. A fence barbed but with many sections fallen, freed. And Tim was soon much improved, packing freshly fallen layers tight into already walked through tracks, hearing his father's warning voice, reminding him that remaining exposed would allow his temperature to rise only so far.
Underneath the stand again Tim rested a hand on the ladder and took a chance with the east. Weather unrelentingly strong battered his face. He squinted to see. He’d left the rifle shouldered but felt right then that at anytime it could be lowered with ease. Clean the scope. Set the bolt and make the shot, he thought. But in reality the boy’s fingers remained uncertain, forgotten. His back was wet and as he took a knee and swung the gun to practice he lost the weapon beneath the snow. It sank out of sight and he dug quickly but there was little difference between frozen ground and a synthetic stock and when he did raise his rifle all the open parts waited full. The scope lenses had condensed and Tim began to dig for a cloth.
Both front pockets were empty. He reached around to the opening of his coat’s game pouch but stopped because it was taking too long. His father had said to keep the scope clean. It’s important so you don’t lift and have to lower already set eyes. One chance. No more.
In a rush Tim blew out the filling snow. He used a corner of his coat in an attempt to wipe clear the glass. But anytime he peered through his breath left behind a fresh fog. It flared hotly over the actions steel, dissipating in rainbow hues, fighting hands growing uncontrolled and frantic as each attempt to clear failed, wanting desperately to stay. Something was approaching along the fence line from hills or maybe the field it was difficult to see. The boy didn’t know. Just a shadow? A touch of light replaced now with steady snow?
He raised the rifle and panned and saw through the distilled glass a definite brown. He lowered and found the movement with his eyes, gripped tight the fore stock and clearing the closed breach with a thumb set the bolt for sure in preparation to wait.
Gingerly and at a controlled pace the deer picked its path, growing quickly to a size similar to that of the boy. Its nose low to the ground, more of an apparition really, a trick of the light, features hidden from a boy searching for antlers through many levels of wood and snow.
He would raise his gun without a thought of sound or speed. Focusing ahead, searching for a nice shoulder shot, lowering, concentrating hard, cursing his vision and his luck and beginning to feel an unexpected relief set in. It was obvious there would be no shot. He went so far as to shoulder the rifle and just watch. An action physically calming, allowing the world to return. He noticed in several high up places leaves, curled and brown, holding tightly to the tips of branches otherwise bare. Snow twirled gently in the air. He thought that it really was a pleasant experience, to witness the deer leave.
His knee complained of wetness and as he stood his body made it apparent that not moving had stolen much of what had been recently gained. The shaking had returned. It was difficult for Tim to brush from his shoulders patches of snow and in the midst of his trying he would glance towards the deer, traveling in its unperturbed, purposeful way, turning, making for a place where the fence had lain down. A path descending into a ravine lined with fur trees kept from the wind. Searching for shelter on an inhospitable day.
Fortunately, Tim knew of such a place too.
He picked out the largest of the pines and crawled under and on the dry needles sat. Directly before him spread a field and a hedgerow and beyond that a frozen up swamp. Rearranged continuously, the fields top most layers rose opaquely, mostly swirling, not touching the boy sheltered below his tree, settling and from time to time allowing for a moment of crisp sight. A land in focus, shed of unsure skeletons and blurred whites. Times when he saw deer, running down the line, not there, easy to see, a handfuls worth at that distance with flashing tales and backs brown and light. Dreams relating an experience that had never been. And even with the white veil returned it remained a beautiful feeling and a beautiful place to be and he wasn’t sure why but he thought it might be because his father would be on the way. Just not yet.
In an hour Tim set out a fire. He broke into small enough pieces the dry branches common to the underside of evergreens and laying them in a pile placed underneath several tissues. He lit a waterproof match that went almost immediately out. On the second attempt he began much closer and managed to set the edge of a tissue alight. He coaxed the flames with his breath, placing in an even pattern more kindling as the cold wood caught. And with the fire tiny but crackling, appropriately sized for homes under a pine tree, Tim removed his gloves and set them aside. He cupped red, puffy fingers close and watched rise through them a gunsmoke haze collecting thinly overhead, trapped for a moment under the first patch of green before being drawn up and set free. The air smelled of pine and there was very little to be heard beyond the spit of the fire. Plenty of dry wood remained. He was warm and turned slightly on his side, watching the swamp for deer still. He could grab easily his rifle and make the shot. It was truly as fine a day in December as he had ever had and he would tell his father so.
He’d rested comfortably and woken after enough time had passed for the woods to darken and the snowfall to thin out. With the fire dimmed, some cold had returned and Tim thought it a good idea to walk. To hold the rifle and to pause beside large trees.
Untangling himself from the embrace of the pine he emerged crawling and stuck with needles, ready to start in the direction of the swamp, towards a place where the slope of the hills came together to form a bowl. Where his father had said deer often bedded down.
In time the boy found a game trail which he followed comfortably into the swamp, walking a full hour before stumbling upon another man. An approaching figure wearing not orange but brown and dragging. His head bent in struggle and shoulder wrapped with rope and the boy having no experience with others outside of his father in the woods, fled. He hid behind a grounded tree and watched with eyes only. The man had a ponytail and argued with himself. His coat was brown wool and course. He often wiped his palms along the front when he stopped. The gun along his back was a Marlin 30-30 lever action. It had no scope. The trigger guard was a patchwork of rust. He coughed into his hands and wiped them on his coat and adjusted the drag rope. He had done all this without stopping or taking any notice of the nearby boy hiding quietly.
The animal’s front legs had been lashed through its antlers and the drag rope looped high around its neck to prevent any unwanted friction. The antlers were well built with a wide spread. Symmetrical. Its tongue was dark purple and dipped sometimes into the snow.
Tim wondered where the man was going, if he would stop. He grasped his rifle in the military fashion and judging the man to have covered enough distance stepped from behind the log to follow. And each time the man appeared to be readying for a turn Tim would hide completely and imagine showing himself. Stepping out and saying that’s a very nice deer you have. Talking the way hunters do.
But he couldn't. He brought himself so close that he counted, agreeing on ten, pausing and continuing the count much longer than anticipated. Following childlike through the snow.
Eventually there reached Tim the sound of an engine idling. Faint but growing, and if he looked past the man, who’d set the deer to rest in a kind of clearing, he could make out what looked to be the washed browns and whites of an old truck bed.
There were two men now. The newest short and thick and wearing a dark knit cap. His hands, stuck in cheap work gloves, lifted his bulk over a back tire and into the bed. Tim approached until he could just hear. They were arguing. The man in the truck was pointing to several deer stacked beside the cab window. He kicked at them and a pair of stuck up legs shook. One of the hooves bent inwards at a joint. There’s already too many, he said, and the man in the snow turned away. He wanted to know why the hell he’d spent his time dragging this thing then. He asked again, but the other man didn’t much care, and saying so stepped over the carcasses to where two large drums were secured. He worked the top off one and lifting out a mallet tossed it into the snow. Get to it, he said, watching the man on the ground drape a thick cloth over the truck hatch and walking over to the deer use a straight knife to unceremoniously cut the legs free. He cleared the head of each and went back for the mallet, which he wrapped in the cloth and when satisfied with the job returned to the deer and placed a foot on its neck. He lifted its head by an antler and with the mallet knocked that side free. He turned the deer over by its legs and removed the remaining antler in much the same way, having that second time to swing twice.
It had been quiet, a few wooden tapings, far away, but Tim was frightened and did not understand. He turned away. He was trembling and could do nothing to stop. He was afraid of being seen and called upon to produce answers unavailable to him. Wide and with much space between its roots, a tree accepted gently Tim's back as he shut his eyes to listen and to pray. He wished desperately for the men to leave, and after some time they did.
Approaching slowly Tim stopped beside the animal. Its eye was like a black marble or stone. It did not bleed from where the antlers had been. A patch spread alongside the mouth in the typical way. The mouth was open slightly showing teeth but the tongue remained hidden on the opposite side.
The patch was burgundy, not red, not bright in the snow. Shaped like a fallen leaf. The spots of bone atop its head were smooth and unblemished and he bent and felt one to be sure.
He took off his glove, felt closely the coldness of bone, similar in texture to glass, an unyielding surface dirtied with fine white hairs that came away readily each time the boy’s fingers began to lift. Which he wiped off before zipping fully his coat. There were brown rings in the snow where the tires had been. Bits of swamp. It had never once ceased snowing and Tim shook off his hat. The pickup truck was gone. He held his rifle one handed looking to the trail and back to the deer and decided it best to head back and leave everything be.
It’s okay Bud, the father said, shaking warmers to get them started and placing them in the tips of Tim’s boots before recovering the boy’s feet. They were both under the tree and his father had been amused by the remains of the fire.
I’m proud of you for staying out so long, the father said. What a tough day. After warming awhile we’ll get dinner in town. Good idea?
Tim agreed and they began to talk about what each had seen. Tim explaining the first deer and the thickness of the snow and how he’d come about the evergreen tree.
Caught sight of him after I got down, so much snow, maybe was a buck, I think I noticed antlers but it was very hard to tell. And after I’d been here for a while, he motioned to the needles and touched the tree, a group came by, four or five. Ran right along the edge there and into the swamp past. My fingers were so cold I couldn’t get the safety off and anyway it wasn’t long before they were gone.
The father had turned towards the field to check for himself.
It was really great Dad, the son said, really great to see five. Running across the field and into the swamp like that. And one was big, a doe in front, twice the size of the rest. She had stopped at the edge and looked back over the others as they passed. I probably could have shot. The father nodded and said again how pleased he was with the day. He talked about what he had seen, which was at the same time not much and a lot. He smiled afterwards and was for the most part quiet while the boy sat working his feet and the both of them waited for the snow to thin out some before standing to leave.