Two deer emerged out of the thick upper woods of my parents’ farm, a place my father and brother called the Slashing. For two weeks, I had waited for this moment. Since the cold opening morning of deer season—always the Monday after Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania—I had climbed into one of three tree stands my father and brother had built from scrap lumber and pallets. For six years Greg had been hunting with our father, and in the winter of 1987 my time had come. When the two deer appeared, the numb of cold and waiting disappeared instantly in a thrum of adrenaline.
I raised my rifle, a .32 Special my father had handpicked from his collection because of its low kick and decent stopping power. I remember laying my cheek to the stock, trying to fix the muzzle’s bead in the fork of the rear sight, but unable to keep the barrel from vibrating across the clearing in front of me. I aimed for the dark spot behind one of the deer’s front shoulders, or tried to. I looked for the hollow my father had taught me would lead to a quick kill, the bullet driving through the lungs, heart, through meat and bone. But I never found the spot, nor even picked either of the deer as my target. Instead, the gun seemed to go off on its own, long before I’d settled my heartbeat, or thought to hold my breath, or do more than point the gun in the general direction of the deer.
One fell immediately, a sack of dead venison. Later, we discovered a neat hole through the spine, just below the head: a lucky shot.
In the quiet that followed the echo of the gun’s blast, I watched the smaller deer stand confused, staring toward the fallen doe. I hadn’t yet considered the kinship, doe and fawn, or that the younger animal was now alone in the Slashing, likely doomed as well, easy prey for a coyote, a bobcat, even a loose dog. In the days after the shot, my father kidded me about my choice of deer, about taking the tougher meat over the tender animal, a joke I sometimes even initiated. But in the silence that followed the shot, in the silence before my father’s deep, proud voice asked if I’d gotten one, I started to wonder about luck, and choices, and connection. As I watched the confused fawn, hardly old enough to have lost its spots, I foolishly gave thanks that I hadn’t hit the young animal. I thought the shot had been lucky on two accounts: that it had hit anything at all and that it hadn’t found fresh flesh.
Fifteen years later, my father and I stood on the top of a mountain and stared out across a different open field, the flatlands of northern Sonora. I lived then in southern Arizona with my wife, who had agreed to relocate so I could follow the academic path I now think of as the family business. Professorships run in the family: my father in biology, my brother in chemistry. I had originally come to Arizona to follow suit. But on the day my father and I stood at the top of Montezuma Pass and looked out across the dry Mexican plains, I’d given up.
The Pass stands at the edge of Arizona, the last high point before the Huachuca Mountains descend into the desert, cross under a few strands of barbed wire, and become Mexico. As mountains go, it’s an easy climb. A dirt road winds upward from the grasslands below, hugging the rock face of the pass. From there, the peak is only a ten-minute hike, a pleasant stroll along a steady grade.
My father and I walked it easily, in an awkward silence that he probably never noticed. I’d resigned a few weeks before, but had yet to tell him. As we walked, I worried, expecting disappointment and, likely, advice to reconsider. Advice came easily from my father, frequently as unwelcome as it was well-intentioned. Growing up, I’d recognized how the paths I desired weren’t always the same as his, and his advice often grated, particularly when it sought to nudge me back to the course he knew. I took it poorly, if quietly, considering unsolicited guidance an imposition. I felt the pressure not to disappoint expectations half-existent and half-created by my own insecurities.
Somewhere near the top, where the trail opened to a wide knoll and where all of Mexico seemed to lie at the foot of the mountains, I explained what had happened: that I was now a writer, and a golfer. Wind blew, and the December sun felt warm against our faces. To our left, I spotted tiny Naco, where my home golf course appeared as a block of green.
My father said little. I knew he was disappointed, perhaps not in me but for me, not understanding why I’d so quickly abandoned what he knew to be a safe and comfortable life. Shock might have edited his response, pared it down to a side-by-side viewing of a brightly lit landscape. I worried about what we didn’t share, that my decision to quit marked a heavy blow against us. As a child I’d always said I wanted to take over his office when he retired, a remark he repeated often and an idea I knew touched him deeply. We stood beside each other, each of us perhaps wondering where closeness resides when differences mount. So we avoided the topic I’d worried about, stowed it away in silent parts where we’d brood, in our ways, and never speak of my decision again.
The fawn lingered beside its fallen mother, then darted as it heard my father’s voice call out to me. He appeared from the Slashing, his orange snowsuit glowing in the gray afternoon. Together, we drug the deer into the open field that abutted the woods, where he showed me how to properly gut it. I used the knife, a young boy’s honor, to hold the gleaming steel, to press it against hide and pierce the belly. He showed me what to remove, and told me what each glistening organ was—an impromptu anatomy lab—then left me to wait beside the steaming carcass while he fetched the tractor.
I don’t know how long I waited. Likely half an hour, long enough for the afternoon to turn toward night. As I sat in the field, the setting sun blinked away. Twilight had set in by the time I heard the puttering motor of the tractor, and darkness gathered as my father and I heaved the deer into the wooden cart.
Climbing in beside the carcass marked a relief different than the shooting of the deer, which itself had been the culmination of a gathered force, the final act of a long-awaited moment. For six years, ever since my brother had killed his own first deer, then smiled giddily next to the dripping body hanging in the barn, I had wanted that moment for myself. I wanted to see myself in a picture like my brother’s. I wanted to see myself posing beside a deer I’d brought down, wanted to see the smile plastered on my face. I wanted, also, a picture like the many I’d seen of my father—a deer in the trunk of his car or a deer dead beside him in the snow. Shooting a deer marked entrance into a fraternity of men, marked acceptance into a world my father tried always to sustain.
Now, in the cold woods, I had taken the deer I longed for. The relief I felt sitting next to its bloodied and emptied body came because I was glad to end the loneliness of my wait, came as I thankfully watched the darkened edges of the woods disappear behind me. My father pulled the throttle lever, roared the tractor.
I never liked being alone in the woods, even with a gun. I always felt uneasy and afraid, even when I knew my father sat nearby. Maybe I never quite understood his proximity, which always exacted a practiced illusion of solitude. I never knew where he was, always imagined him far away from me, alone under a canopy of branches. Truly, he never strayed far, always choosing a spot out of sight but within easy earshot. One high school summer on a family vacation, I took my saxophone to the boardwalk, to play by the waves with an open case and hopes of fortune. He disappeared, leaving me on my own, but I later learned he’d only walked far enough to allow me space. He sat in the dark on a nearby bench, listening to me play, partly to share my joy, and partly to guarantee my joy would not be threatened.
So there is some irony in the way I approached the woods my first hunting year, when I leaned against a tree with a shotgun held tightly in my hands, watching for squirrels, or when I perched in a tree stand on the edges of the Slashing, waiting for deer. For me, the gun became an object of protection, just in case my irrational childhood fears proved accurate. A wolf, a mad dog, a grizzly with a poor sense of geography. Against these, I hoped my gun would pass clear and final judgment. Yet I felt alone in the woods, inferior and out of my element, perhaps aware even then of the differences between my soul and my father’s. I understood only the desire to be together with him, an emotion transferred to hunting, to shooting, to pulling the trigger and feeling pride well up. I understand now, of course, how little the pride related to hunting itself, and how much my father’s own fears likely mirrored my own. Beyond all else, his fear was of separation, of being alone in the woods without his sons, of them being alone in the woods, afraid.