Through the scrim of sepia-colored memory, two ghosts walk across a ridge and drop down into a canyon. One is a man in his thirties, working class, with a stocky build. He wears a red wool shirt, jeans, and steel-toed boots. Slung across his back is a heavy-gauge, lever action hunting rifle. He also carries a canteen of water, a bone-handled hunting knife, and a snake bite kit. The other figure is a ten year old boy wearing a heavy coat and jeans. He, too, carries a canteen of water and a silver referee’s whistle on a lanyard around his neck. He is the man’s son, and he shivers with nervous energy. This is his first hunt.
They make their way in the cold morning darkness to the outcropping—a bit of soft earth beneath a large, mesquite bush overlooking a deep canyon where the older man has come every fall of the year since his childhood. They settle in to wait for the deer.
“So I blow the whistle?” the boy whispers.
“You blow the whistle.”
“And what will that do?”
“The deer will stop running to hear the sound. Then I can get a clean shot.”
“Why do they stop?”
“They just do,” the man says gruffly. “Now be quiet and watch.”
The boy pushes himself into a better position, loosening a cascade of small stones down the slope.
“Stop!” the man hisses.
They sit in silence, watching the sky fly through a progression of moods and tenses to arrive at daylight. Far down the canyon, a dog barks incessantly. A cabin materializes in a stand of scrub oak in the distance, and a tiny figure emerges from the shadows and walks to the woodpile. He swings his ax which catches the rising sun with a flash, but the sonic impact of blade on wood arrives a long two to three seconds later, the delay of sound across time and space.
The sunlight cleaves the cold. The boy flexes his hands to keep the blood flowing, picks up his binoculars, and scans the surrounding hillsides for movement. The dog below continues to bark. Time is elliptical in this moment, circling back on itself, and in the silence of the burgeoning dawn, the man and his son become primordial hunters of a thousand years ago, or travelers from another continent on a voyage of discovery, and then they come back to themselves again, two of a modern world acting out a script written in DNA. But they are obsolete, moving through time and space to a future where there will be nothing left to hunt and no reason to walk these hills looking for prey. For now, they sit under their mesquite cover and wait for what is to come.
“There,” the man whispers.
Two hundred yards away, a deer enters a clearing. It is a female, a doe, and the man knows his license and tags only allow him to hunt adult males. They freeze, the boy and man, barely breathing, watching the animal move toward them unaware of their presence. The man chopping wood down in the valley has returned to his cabin, and the dog is silent. There is just the wind, the new sun, the doe, and the two hunters, watching.
Behind the doe a buck emerges from the brush. His rack of antlers contains at least three points, making him legal game. The duo move up the hill toward them, grazing in the sunlight.
The man eases his rifle into position and snaps off the safety.
“Get ready,” he breathes.
The boy puts the whistle to his mouth, careful so his rapid breath does not force a sound.
One hundred fifty yards and closing. If the deer continue on their present course, they will walk right up to them.
The man sights down the barrel, coolly targeting the buck’s broad chest. The boy shivers almost violently, biting the whistle with his teeth.
The buck stops and raises his head, wary. He stares up the narrow canyon right at the hunters. Then, he lowers his head and continues up the hill. The doe has disappeared.
At about a hundred yards, the man prepares to fire, bracing his body against the recoil of the gun. “Ready?” he whispers to the boy.
The man fires.
There is a barely perceptible flash in front of the buck who shies away.
The boy releases all his nervous tension into the shrieking whistle.
The buck is running, loping through the air, seemingly floating down the canyon.
The man fires again.
The shot hits farther down the canyon, kicking up a hail of stones.
The buck turns and mistakes the impact for the hunter, and whirls around to head back up the hill.
The man fires a third and final time.
The buck dives into a thicket and disappears.
The man lowers his rifle. The air around them is charged with the blue light of gun smoke. After a moment, he reaches over and takes the whistle out of the boy’s mouth to stop the sound. Only then does the boy realize he cannot hear anything. The blasts from his father’s gun have obliterated his hearing and left him temporarily deaf.
The two gather their things and begin the hike down the canyon to where they last saw the buck. His father strides with determination, but the boy has trouble controlling his legs; they wobble and shake, and his breathing is labored. Colors seem too bright.
About twenty yards from where they think the deer fell, the man places his hand on the boy’s chest in a motion that means to wait. He moves forward alone toward the thick brush. The boy loses sight of his father, but his hearing has returned enough that he can detect him thrashing around in the thicket.
“Come here,” his father calls. There is something wrong in his voice. The boy is startled; he cannot understand why his father sounds different. Then it hits him like an electric shock. Fear. His father is afraid. He has never heard fear in his father’s voice. Carefully, he moves forward. He can see his father’s red shirt through the scrub. He bursts through the brush into a clearing to find his father standing over a body, his face ashen. This deer has no horns, and is much smaller than the boy imagined.
“I killed the wrong one,” his father says. “Somehow, I shot the wrong one.”
The boy stares down at the dead animal. It is a fawn, less than a year old.
“He must have gotten between the buck and me,” the father says.
His father begins working his way out from the dead fawn, searching the brush for any other bodies. Nothing.
“Why can’t we take this one?” the boy asks.
His father ignores him and continues searching frantically. The boy stares down at the deer, black blood draining from a chest wound into the earth. The eyes are vacant and glassy. Flies are already at the blood.
His father gives up the search and returns to the boy and the dead deer. He rolls up the sleeves of his woolen shirt, unsheathes his hunting knife and plunges the blade deep into the animal’s neck with the practiced precision of someone who grew up on a farm. A rush of blood drains down into the earth and forms rivulets that trickle away from the animal.
The man rolls the deer onto its back and plunges the bloody blade again, this time into the animal’s chest. He rips downward to the genitals. He splits the gut and steam exhales from the cavity into the too bright morning. The man shoves his hands into the animal in a bloody, horrific violation, and with a few quick jerks and slashes with the knife, rips out the intestines and nameless organs from the body and tosses the detritus under a nearby bush. The boy watches the flies attack, impervious to the steam rising from the awful pile. He realizes there is a profound stench.
Suddenly, his father is in front of him. Bits of meat and tissue cling to his bare arms, and his red wool shirt is soaked with blood and sweat. He tries not to touch the boy, but he cannot help himself. He is frantic to get the boy’s attention. He demands his focus.
“I cannot do this,” he says to the boy. “This one is illegal. If we get stopped going down the mountain, I could be arrested, fined at the least.”
The boy stares into his father’s florid face, horrified by the stench and blood.
“We need to get rid of the evidence.”
His father turns back to the deer and drags the oozing body into the brush. He frantically throws rocks and scrub on top of the carcass, burying it in leaves, stones, and dirt.
The boy watches his father lose himself in panic and heap more rocks and dirt with his bare hands onto the cairn. He has never seen him so shattered, so out of his head with fear. Then the boy glances down at himself. Blood covers his shirt front and dots his shoes. He tries to wipe off his shirt, but the blood smears in partially coagulated streaks. His coat sleeves are soaked. He is tainted; he is marked. He is now part of his father’s sin.
“Come on,” his father tells him, picking up his rifle and canteen. “We need to get out of here.”
His father almost runs up the hill to the ridgeline, and the boy struggles to keep up. He is afraid his father will leave him behind, lost in the wilderness, and he will face the same fate as the deer at the hands of coyotes attracted by the blood.
His father reaches the ridge first and disappears, and the boy begins to cry. When he crests the hill a few moments later, he sees his father at the truck unloading his gun. They throw their stuff into the bed and open the doors of the vehicle.
“Take off your coat and shirt,” his father commands.
Both take off as much of the blood-stained clothing as possible and still remain clothed. The boy shivers in his undershirt and jeans. He watches his father pull an old paper grocery bag from beneath the seat and stuff all the bloody clothing into it. He wedges it back under the seat, and they leap into the car.
“Don’t say nothing to no one,” the man says as they are rocketing down the dirt road back to the highway. “Don’t say nothing if we are stopped. Don’t tell your mother. Don’t tell your friends. Don’t tell your grandparents, your uncles, anyone.”
“What about the clothes?”
“I’ll take care of those.”
The truck bounces onto the highway and lurches toward home. The boy stares out the window at the trees flying past. At first they seem to float by, but then they become all twisted and skeletal, and the boy feels a heave in his throat.
“I think I’m going to throw up.”
“No you won’t. You will not throw up.”
The boy fights down the nausea. He closes his eyes tight to block out the swirling trees. He tells himself it doesn’t matter. It didn’t happen. When he opens his eyes, he turns toward his father, driving purposely home to civilization. His jaw is tight, his hands grip the steering wheel. He is calm again, focused. He is determined.
The boy stares down at his own hands and sees a smear of coagulated blood across his fingers. It is dry and black and flaky.
All that he knows, all that he believes about his father, his life, has vanished like a wisp of smoke in an azure sky.