I slowly exhale the air from my lungs, and for a moment I am completely still. I see the warm breath evaporate in front of me as it contacts the cold air around me. I feel my heart pound against my ribcage and worry that the rhythm will shake me apart from the inside. My father’s whisper beside me cuts through the sounds of the forest birds
“Now gently squeeze the trigger”.
He had woken me at around 6am, as we’d arranged the night before. The night of my 14th birthday, when my father had presented me with my first rifle. A Harrington & Richardson Synthetic Handi-Rifle, weighing 7 lbs with a 22” barrel, firing .243 caliber rounds. Not that I understood any of it as he listed the specifications. It was a gun. And it was mine.
I had known for a while that hunting was a tradition in the family – it was no secret that my father and his friends would go away for long weekends with some of the other dads from the town. When I was 10 years old I’d asked my parents if I could go with them. Dad had laughed. Mom had strictly forbidden it, and had given Dad a thorough telling off once she thought I’d gone to sleep. But now it seemed that she had relented. Dad could be tenacious when he wanted to do something and nobody was going to tell him he couldn’t take his son hunting with him.
It was bitterly cold as we parked the car and stepped out into the forest with our rifles in hand. It was sunrise now, and occasional shafts of light pierced the canopy of the forest, then reflected back off the snow that covered the ground to give a soft and pleasant brightness despite the earliness of the hour. Our boots made a pleasing crunch sound as they compacted the couple of inches of snow onto the fallen leaves and sticks that covered the floor underneath.
“I remember the first time your grandfather took me out hunting. I was younger than you, of course, but we weren’t so concerned with political correctness back then.”
A dig at my mother no doubt, but I let it pass. I was sure he was right.
“He had just come back from the war in Vietnam – he was a fantastic shot. A real marksman. He’d have loved to come with us today.”
Grandfather had died when I was only seven years old. I didn’t remember him much, but my father talked about him so much that I felt I knew him more. Decorated war veteran, one of the most popular men in the town, owner of the local hardware store which he had sold when he retired in order to buy a house for my parents when they married.
I said nothing in reply, apart from the occasional “Yes Dad” or “Yes Sir”. Dad liked it when I called him Sir. He said it showed respect and we were in danger of losing that aspect of our culture. He wasn’t strict about it, but he liked it when I remembered and today was clearly important to him, so it seemed a good time to make sure I was on my best behavior.
“This is a great American tradition son… Father and son hunting together for the first time. Just two men and the wilderness… Now it’s important that when you hunt, you remember that we’re fair chase hunters in this family. That means the animal has to have a chance of getting away. We don’t use traps. We don’t shoot an animal that’s helpless… But when we shoot, we shoot to kill. We don’t just spray bullets all over the goddamn place, y’understand?”
We walked further into the wood, the light dimming slightly as snow began to fall. All of a sudden my father grabbed my shoulder and pointed to a clearing ahead of us. Two deer were before us, a buck walking in a circle around a calf which was sitting.
“Look” he whispered sharply, “see the buck there?”
I nodded and we lowered ourselves into the prone position, weapons drawn. My father reached into his pocket and produced a cartridge for me to load into the rifle, as he’d shown me the evening before. He talked me through it slowly and patiently, and gave me tips as we went along. The deer were unaware of us, though they must only have been twenty feet ahead. Once the rifle was loaded I looked along the its sight and trained my eyes on the buck again.
I had been accustomed to seeing deer my whole life, but in this position I felt I was looking at one for the very first time. All in a moment I marvelled at it’s magnificent horns and the dashes of white on its tail and belly.
“Now aim at the head” my father whispered, and I obeyed.
“When you have it firmly in your sight, cock the rifle – slowly, so it’s quiet”.
As quietly as I was able my thumb pulled back the cocking handle, but the deer heard the click of it locking into place. The buck turned to face me, but stopped moving. I could sense its thoughts. It seemed unsure if it had heard anything, but knew enough to be afraid. It turned back briefly to it’s calf before staring in our direction again. It was an instinct obvious to anyone; to protect its young.
My father stayed silent for what felt like a full five minutes, but in reality was probably thirty seconds. The snow continued to fall, and birds intermittently chirped and sang. The noise of the wind in the trees, and of our breathing, seemed to fade out until there was nothing but my father’s voice.
“Now gently squeeze the trigger”.
I didn’t. My rifle still pointing at the buck I looked at the calf. A calf that was soon to be fatherless. Who knew if the mother was anywhere nearby. Was she even still alive or could she have been a previous victim of what my father called a sport?
“What are you waiting for? Shoot”.
I couldn’t tell if it was a suggestion or an order, but quickly realised my naivety. This is why my father had brought me here. To prove my manliness by killing an animal that couldn’t possibly defend itself. Just to say that we had. Just for a selfie.
“I can’t Dad… I can’t”.
“Yes you can – shoot it”. Very definitely an order this time, with a hint of anger. If I wasn’t going to do it, I knew he would.
“Fine”. He said, his voice breaking above a whisper and his hands loading his own rifle.
I fired. The shot shattered the silence of the forrest and the recoil of the gun punched me in the shoulder. The bullet flew from the gun and over the head of the deer. I had pulled up just enough as I fired that I was fairly certain that I’d miss. The deer didn’t hang around to see if I wanted another attempt, they bolted away with impressive speed. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my father raise his rifle and follow, but he didn’t shoot immediately, the deer had made it to the edge of the clearing and now benefitted from the cover of trees impeding the line-of-sight.
My father jumped to his feet and although the deer were gone, he fired anyway. I can never forget the look on his face, coupled with the noise of the rifle. His was larger and louder than mine, of course. He turned to me with a piercing glare and pulled me by my jacket to my feet.
“Did you mean to miss?” he shouted, no longer concerned to keep our presence covert. I didn’t reply, not formulating an excuse quickly enough that would placate him.
“Did you?” he repeated, screaming. I managed to make a sound that had the potential to turn into a word before his hand connected forcefully with my face. I dropped to my knees, crying from the pain and the hopelessness of the situation. Time stopped as I realised that there was nothing I could ever say to my father that would make what I’d done okay, and I would never forgive him for killing these animals this way.
He looked down at me with unconcealed contempt and I briefly wondered if he was about to leave me there, alone in the middle of nowhere.
I knew from that moment onwards that I could never trust him to care for me anymore. I had loved him as a dutiful son, idolised him. Now I realised that I didn’t know the man I was looking up at. All the love I had for him had left me, and fear had taken its place.