Illustration by Anna Chamberlin

In the gray morning light, I walked through the forest behind my father. I dragged my hands across the moss that grew up the sides of trees while stepping over stones and logs. The barrel of my father’s rifle bounced atop his shoulder with his stride. I had no gun and preferred it that way. I possessed a serenity, then, only possible until one’s parents are rendered fallible. That first look of fear upon the face of one’s mother or father is the wellspring of all uncertainty.

My father had come into my room earlier that morning, and pulled a hunting cap onto my head while I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Wear two pairs of socks, he whispered. And lace those boots nice and tight. In the kitchen, I watched him fill a canteen from the sink. He turned to me and said, We’re gonna shoot ourselves a deer. I fought to hide my smile. My father crossed the kitchen and pulled my cap down over my eyes. You’ve got a mean look about you. It’s a bad day to be a deer. I laughed then, and the smile remained.

Once we left, I faded in and out of sleep as the headlights of my father’s truck cut a bright path through the dark. He woke me to watch the sunrise. We looked out in silent awe as the truck cabin filled with orange light. You were up before the sun, he told me. I slept once more and awoke to my father closing the driver’s side door. Around us, tall trees were steeped in pale light. I hopped out while my father drew his gun from a long green bag. Then he slung it over his shoulder and we trudged deeper into the woods.

With a furrowed brow, my father tracked us a deer while I collected sensuous facts; he inspected the trees, and I caressed them. After an hour of walking, we reached the edge of a clearing. Golden sunlight illuminated the morning fog which hung just above the grass. My father knelt and I did the same. He extended a finger down towards a mound of black pellets. Deer droppings. He then brought that finger to his lips. I nodded. He rose from his knee but remained crouched, sliding the gun from his shoulder into his hands. We crept along slowly, eyes peeled for a deer.

After a moment of hushed prowling, my boot fell upon something with a crunch. Lifting my foot, I shrieked and quickly covered my mouth. Amidst the clearing, a deer’s head lifted above the grass. It turned to face us and vanished in three bounds. Between my boots, there lay a twitching little bird, its wings cracked and jagged. My father approached. Ah, just a baby. He lifted my chin with his hand. My eyes met his, but he kept on lifting. I followed his other hand, which pointed towards a nest in a nearby tree. Three chicks sat with their small beaks open towards the sky. Above them stood a larger bird looking down. Must have fallen from there. Go and grab me a rock. I looked to him in terror; he set his jaw and nodded. I fetched a rock and turned my back as he took it from me. I felt his hand fall gently on my shoulder. I was taught this is merciful. You may disagree, but it makes no difference unless you’ve seen for yourself. I turned back around slowly.

He raised the rock overhead. The little bird twitched below. He brought it down hard with a grunt. I winced. A limp wing protruded from beneath the stone, utterly still. Peace in exchange for life. Though the peace was ours to enjoy, which disgusted me. I heard chirps and squeaks from the nest above. Did you see where the deer ran off? I pointed in the direction I had watched it flee. My father hoisted his gun back onto his shoulder and we continued tracking.

Moving for some time through the woods, we came upon the freshly mauled carcass of a deer. It was laid haphazardly to rest against a mossy tree. I retched on my hands and knees at the sight of it. My father stood at my side until it ceased. I looked at his face; even then, his jaw was set and his eyes stared straight ahead. How about we head home? Today isn’t our day. I nodded, feeling my shirt wet with cold sweat against my back. He handed me the canteen and I drank greedily, still on my knees. I’ve got some food in the truck. Should make you feel a little better.

We retraced our steps, and I watched my father looking around as we walked. He moved with subdued haste, so I had no time to touch the trees. I only remained at his heels with great effort. The morning haze waned now, and the forest stretched itself awake. Animals rustled in the brush beside us and birds sang in the trees above. The day was kind to me and offered many sensations to distract from thoughts of the deer. Sunlight reached us with greater conviction, illuminating the once shaded path we had walked. In places where the ground was soft, I could see our footprints pointing opposite the way we now went.

I lagged at the sight of our own tracks. My boot prints looked so small next to my father’s. I found it odd how big I felt in my own body. I moved to continue walking and saw my father many strides ahead. I hastened to catch up. Hearing my footsteps, he looked back over his shoulder. Our eyes met for an instant. Then out from the trees, a hulking brown mass swept my father to the ground. His gun fired as he landed, causing the beast to flee. I ran to my father, who lay sprawled on the ground—a red mound atop a bed of lush green. I forced my eyes to meet his. They were open and frantically alive. His face was as I had never seen it, wrought into a look of pure, desperate terror. I crumpled to the ground. He made shaky wet gasps for air. I listened to that sound, until I could take it no more.

My father’s rifle laid beside him. I crawled to it and clutched the woodgrain tight. Rising to my feet, I reloaded the gun as I had seen him do many times. I leveled it to his face and looked down the sight. Not even a wince from the barrel leveled between his eyes. I looked once more at his mangled torso, then back to his face. I shut my eyes tight and pulled the trigger. Click. Nothing. I tried again. Click, click. It wouldn’t work. I threw the rifle to the ground. My pulse beat deafeningly loud in my ears. Falling to my knees beside my father, I took his blood-soaked hand in mine. While the sun crept across the sky and his grip became faint, I stared into his fear-stricken eyes. When the strain had left his face, I released my father’s hand and stood. Following our path through the woods, I walked back to the truck. 

Gavin Guerrette is a junior Humanities major in Branford College. He is Co-Editor in Chief of the Yale Daily News Magazine and a Photography Desk editor. Gavin previously covered faculty scholarship and breakthroughs for the University Desk.