Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Hunter

It’s been a hard, cold winter so far. Unrelenting. The snow keeps falling, sometimes just a few flakes throughout the day. But other times it’ll snow for 24, 36 hours at a stretch, an inch every couple hours. The city has already run out of money for plowing the roads. They didn’t budget for this kind of winter. Well, no one plans properly for disaster.

Last night I fell into bed with a girl I met at the bar. She was drunk and I was bored so I figured, “What the hell?” But someone must’ve called my wife because when I got home a little after 1 am Lucy was sitting in her chair waiting for me.

“Where you been?” she asked.

“Out,” I replied, trying not to lie.

“Doing what?”

“Drinking a couple beers.”

She looked at me hard, then stood up, walked across the room to where I was taking off my boots and spit in my face. I wiped the saliva off my cheek and rubbed it on my jeans. We just stared at each other for a moment.

“I know you’ve been screwing Jimmy,” I said, finally. “I’ve known it for awhile.”

Jimmy and I worked at the garage together. I’d seen him and Lucy talking lots of times when Lucy’d come by to pick me up after work. And I saw how she flashed her eyes at him and how he grinned back at her. Eventually, Carl, our manager, took me aside and told me what I already knew. He said he’d fire Jimmy, but I told him to let it go. By then it’d been going on about three months.

A look passed over Lucy’s face that I can’t really put a name to. Then she called me a coward. I started to walk away but she grabbed my shoulder and held me back.

“You pathetic son-of-a-bitch,” she hissed. “Some guy is fucking your wife and you won’t do anything about it. You’re disgusting.”

She took a step closer and dropped her hands to her side. “Hit me,” she said. “Let’s see if you’ve got any man in you at all.” After a moment she twisted up her mouth. “You’re so goddamned weak.”

I started back toward the bedroom. I grabbed my green canvas duffel off the chair on my way down the hall. Lucy followed me.

“What if I told you how he fucked me, huh? Would that piss you off? What if I said he was better than you ever were? If you knew what I let him do to me…”

She said some other things as I put my clothes in the bag, but I wasn’t listening. The next thing I knew she screamed something and hit me in the side of the head. I put a hand to my temple and walked fast to the front door. As I was putting my boots back on she threw a picture at me. It was the one of us on vacation in Hawaii a couple years ago. The picture hit the door jamb and the glass went all over the dirty carpet. I could still hear Lucy screaming as I got in my truck. A few minutes later I was down the road a fair bit.

I decided I’d go to the cabin. I’ve never been able to afford a house, let alone a cabin in the north woods, but my dad’s family had it since way back and it got passed down to me when he died. It’s not the only thing I inherited from him, but it’s certainly been the most useful. The sun was coming up by the time I turned off the state highway. I put the truck in 4-wheel drive and hoped the roads wouldn’t get too bad. I don’t think a plow had been through in some days, but the snow was compacted by plenty of traffic. I don’t know what most guys are doing out here in the dead of winter, but it’s not deserted, that’s for sure. Maybe they’re doing the same thing as me.

There was no way I could drive up to the cabin, so I pulled off the road and walked the quarter mile down what was the driveway as near as I could guess. It was a hard walk and the duffel didn’t help. Sometimes I sank up to my thighs in the snow. I was sweating when I unlocked the door. I got the wood-burning stove going to warm the place up, lay down on the bed and fell asleep with my boots still on.

It was mid-afternoon when I woke up. I got a beer from the mini-fridge and just sat there, trying not to think of anything at all. Eventually I realized I was going to need some food. I had some cans in the cupboard and I could always drive back down the road to the convenience store, but I decided to go out and try to find a deer. I’d seen plenty of tracks on my way in. So, I got my rifle out of the safe in the bathroom closet, put on a few layers of clothes and went out.

It was cold. A few flakes drifted through the air, but it was too cold to really snow. I kept moving and the effort of getting through the snow soon warmed me up. I came into a stand of pine trees bowed by the weight of the snow and saw a deer about 20 yards away. He was stone still, sensing danger but not yet sure of its nature or direction. I lowered my gun, got the deer in the sight and was just pulling the trigger when a pine bough snapped. The deer started as I fired. It took two steps and went down. A moment later it was back up. I could see that I’d hit it just behind the neck and it was bleeding badly, but it stayed upright. It began to move off, slowly at first, and then it took a couple tentative leaps. I walked through the trees to where the deer had been. There was plenty of blood and I figured it wouldn’t be hard to track. I doubted the deer would live long.

I followed the bloody snow for over an hour, longer than I thought I would, although I guess I didn’t cover much distance because the snow made it such slow going. The forest had become denser and I had to duck under branches now and then. The sun was already starting to dip toward the western horizon. I was getting cold and was far enough from the cabin to be unsure if I could get the deer back before nightfall.

I was about to turn back when I entered a small clearing and there, on the other side, maybe 15 yards away, was the deer. It stared at me and lowered its head. Then it bellowed and charged a few feet before stopping. It was a buck, an eight-pointer, well-fed and strong. Again it bellowed and then stomped a foreleg heavily. I lowered my rifle as the deer charged to within about 30 feet. It backed up a bit and I could see blood running from its nose. It reared up on its hind legs and then slammed its front hooves into the snow. I took aim and the deer charged again. I realized that the deer wanted to kill me. This wasn’t a grizzly or a mountain lion that wanted me for its dinner. The deer couldn’t use my body for anything at all. It wasn’t defending a mate or its offspring. I don't think it was even defending itself. It just wanted me dead. All at once I was struck by the power of the moment. Nothing in the world had ever wanted me dead before. Lucy might wish me gone in the abstract, but she would never actually do the deed. This deer, however, could not act against its instinct.

The deer came and this time it did not stop but reared up right in front of me. It stood taller than I did. I could’ve gotten a clean shot off, but I hesitated and didn't pull the trigger. Instead, I turned slightly to the left and the deer’s hooves caught me in the ribs on my right side. I fell to the snow and the hooves came down again, this time across my back. I heard a crack that seemed to come from inside my head and I saw the deer stagger and fall and then everything went black.

When I woke it was getting dark. I could move my arms but not my legs. I couldn’t feel my legs at all. I wasn’t in any real pain, but I knew I was not getting out of these woods on my own. A few feet away lay the deer. I could see a trickle of blood running from its mouth into the snow. Using all my strength I pulled myself to the animal, telling myself that the warmth from its body would be good, but, really, I think I just wanted to be close to it. As I drew near it heaved and its black eye seemed to come alive. It made a strange noise, an exhalation that seemed part fear and part resignation. I put my hand on its bloody neck and it did not move.

Slowly, I pulled my entire body closer until I was nestled along the deer’s belly, my head resting on its shoulder. I could feel its heat, though it was nearly dead now and would not retain that warmth for long. For my part, I knew I was going to freeze to death before morning but I suddenly felt that this was the most right—-maybe the only right—-thing that had ever happened to me. We live unnatural lives. We die unnaturally, too. We remain plugged into machines long after we’ve ceased to be of use. We even eat ourselves to death. But for most of human history you got taken out by an animal or fell down a ravine or simply couldn’t make the journey to the wintering grounds again. Now, me, here, in these woods, with this deer, the snow drifting out of the trees on the slight evening breeze, this is good. I only hope I can stay conscious long enough to watch the full moon rise over the pines, the snow sparkling, the reflected yellow light making it nearly as bright as day, the silence of these woods and this animal beneath me slowly becoming my own.