(This short story was originally published in American Way, the in-flight magazine for American Airlines. I wrote it after I published an essay about feeding the deer in our yard, which you can find here with my other essays.)
They were huddled miserably in the car, a light gray sleet hissing against the windshield.
It was 5:30 a.m., and instead of feeling the exhilaration of the upcoming hunt, Hank felt defeated, deflated. His twelve year-old son Henry was hunched in the passenger seat as far away from Hank as he could possibly get. He was staring at himself in the side view mirror. He refused to get out of the car.
Hank cast about in his mind for what he should do. He realized with some surprise that his parenting skills were limited. He didn’t know how to make Henry get out of the car. He thought of force. He supposed he could “whack him upside the head” as his own father had been prone to do.
But, the truth was, he’d never whacked either of the kids. Had never even raised his voice at them. Now he feels that maybe he should have; maybe he’d been too soft on Henry all along. Lately Henry seemed to skulk around the house with his headphones on, spinning his yo-yo, listening to music by bands that Hank had never heard of. Foo Fighters, Third Eye Blind, Beastie Boys, Green Day.
Hank looked at Henry, whose hands were clenched, eyes blinking furiously behind his glasses. His entire body seemed to say I hate you. Hank remembered the solid weight of him as a baby, when he used to walk the floor with him in the middle of the night. The wobbly, bald head, the drool, and the smile that could make the darkness of the hour vanish.
“Come on, Henry. We got up early, and we’re here. Let’s just get our gear on and walk a little, and maybe you’ll get used to the idea.”
Hank wasn’t used to resistance. He owned a software company with offices off Route 60 on the edge of Lake Forest, near where the Bears had built their new state-of-the-art training facility. At work everyone listened to him; respected him. He was in control. Hank had done very well for himself because he could solve problems. That was the great thing about computers – to most people computers were a problem that needed to be solved. Computers were scary and unknowable. But Hank understood computers. Their workings were as familiar to him as his own thoughts.
. . . . .
His father had taken him deer hunting at a much younger age; he must have been about eight. And while he never developed a passion for it, he did enjoy the rituals: getting up before dawn, the silence of the country, the rules, the camaraderie.
He’d only hunted a few times since the kids were born. It always seemed more trouble than it was worth getting off on his own on the weekends. When Henry and Jillian were small, Susan needed a break on the weekends, and now there were soccer games, Scouts, and innumerable birthday parties.
Last month a client of his had offered Hank use of his land to hunt during the white-tail deer season, and after the deer incident at home, Hank had called him to arrange it. The property was about two hours north and west of Lake Forest.
Susan had shaken her head when he had told her about the idea; the whole idea of hunting as foreign to her as the possibility of alien life on Mars. “I don’t see the point,” she’d said.
Exactly. There was no point. You just did it because you could, because it was one of the last things a man could do in today’s world that had some kind of weird connection to manliness. He didn’t really understand it, and certainly couldn’t explain it to his wife. It was more of a feeling in his gut. A feeling with no logic; nevertheless it was there.
But now, here was his son, refusing to get out of the car. Hank considered for a moment, then opened his car door. The heavy thud of it shutting did something to his heart. He opened Henry’s door and grasped his arm. The arm was strong, tensile even, considering how skinny Henry was.
“Henry, I’m going to give you one more chance to get out of the car,” he said. It was an effort to sound stern.
When Hank pulled on Henry’s arm, Henry’s whole body came with it, all of a piece.
Still, Henry refused to cooperate. His face was set in stone. He wouldn’t even look at Hank. Hank pulled harder, thinking Henry would automatically stand up. But Henry didn’t. He fell to the ground with a soft plop, and lay there.
Hank felt a terrible anger that frightened him. He walked to the back of the Jeep and pulled out his orange vest and hat, his shotgun and his backpack. The gravel of the road crunched under his feet, and he could hear the few birds that hadn’t left yet for winter.
He pulled a granola bar out of the backpack and tossed it on the ground next to Henry. “You can have that later. Stay in the car if you’re going to be a big baby. I can’t look at you.”
And Hank walked off into the woods.
. . . . .
Henry lay on the ground until he sensed that his father was gone. He could taste dirt and tears. The air smelled of fire and wet leaves. He was sorry he had cried, but glad he hadn’t given in. He was glad his dad had forced him out of the car. He even sort of wished his dad had hit him or something. He didn’t know why.
It had all started last week when the deer had appeared on the north lawn outside the dining room windows. Henry had been doing his homework on the dining room table, when he saw something out of the corner of his eye.
They had over fifty trees on their property, about a half acre near one of Lake Forest’s wooded ravines, and they did see small groups of white-tail deer fairly frequently. But this one was small and alone. He seemed to look right in the window at Henry.
When his mother came downstairs a few minutes later, she found Henry sitting on the floor, looking through the French doors that led out onto the patio. His homework was abandoned on the table. She went over to the window and saw the deer also.
. . . . .
“I think he’s eating the acorns,” Susan said to Henry. There was a virtual carpet of acorns under the three giant oaks that marked three corners of their property. The squirrels seemed to be busy carting them away, but there must have been an unlimited supply, because the acorns were always crunching under Susan’s car in the driveway.
For the next several days the deer appeared in the late afternoon, near dusk and always alone. Hank had been out of town on business, as he usually was during the week, so he didn’t hear about the deer until late Friday night at dinner.
“There’s been a deer here alone every day, and Henry’s become quite attached,” said Susan at dinner after the kids had eaten in their customary ten minutes and run off.
“Great,” said Hank. He’s probably eating everything I planted last spring. What have you seen it eating?”
“He’s mostly feeding on the acorns, but I saw him yesterday around those new shrubs you put out on the north side of the house,” said Susan. “Actually, it’s kind of cute – Henry keeps trying to feed it. He chopped up some raw carrots and put out some apples on the grass.”
“He’s got to stop that. The deer are overpopulating this area, as it is,” said Hank. “I’ll call the City first thing Monday.”
On Saturday afternoon the deer came again, to the same spot of the lawn, and poked its face along some bushes looking for stray berries and leaves. Hank had expressly told Henry not to feed the deer, so Henry moped about shooting him moody glances, trying to make him feel guilty.
Susan tried talking to Henry too. She explained to Henry that most cities on the North Shore were actually trying to thin out the deer population, and that anyway a deer that young would never make it on its own. There were the railroad tracks, speeding cars, starvation and disease to consider. Hadn’t he learned about natural selection in science class last year?
That night when Hank and Jillian came home from the video store, they pulled into the driveway and the car headlights shone brilliantly on a huge deer with a full set of polished antlers. It paused, frozen in the light, and then took a tremendous leap into the night. Hank thought he saw other dark shapes running into his neighbor’s yard.
In bed later he thought of Henry and how he seemed to be slipping away. He thought of the deer’s eyes. In that split second, from his car, he had looked directly into the big buck’s eyes, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d seen into its soul.
. . . . .
Ridiculous, he thought, as he moved quietly and slowly through the trees, going in deep. A deer doesn’t have a soul any more than a mouse or a ladybug. Yet still, he couldn’t seem to forget those eyes.
He let his thoughts turn back to Henry. He tried to pinpoint just when Henry had started to change. When had he gone from a rosy-cheeked eleven year-old who collected baseball cards and hung on every pronouncement from his father’s mouth, to the sullen, slouching boy with the headphones surgically attached?
He had talked to Susan about it. He was concerned about these mindless activities of Henry’s. Susan seemed not to worry about Henry – she said television and music were his way of relaxing. After all, he always got all A’s, and never gave them any problems at school. She was the one who suggested that he and Henry do something together.
Once he thought of the idea of taking Henry hunting, it seemed like the perfect father-son outing. Henry would learn firsthand about the proper balance of nature and man; it would be a good learning experience for him. It felt right to Hank. He could pass along his knowledge of gun safety, his hunting skill and a sense of the outdoors. Things Henry had never learned, and wouldn’t, growing up in Lake Forest.
It’s funny how things slip away, thought Hank. Just in one generation, fundamental things could be forgotten. He wondered how far back the men in his family had hunted, and passed that lore down to their sons. Now he had mixed feelings about the whole thing. Obviously Henry wasn’t interested, and Hank even felt strange that he was taking his son, but assuming his daughter wouldn’t be interested. He’d have to tell Susan about that one. She was always trying to be careful about limiting the children due to gender.
In his father’s day, there had been no question. The boys went hunting. It was a rite of passage, like football and your first beer. You certainly weren’t out on the lawn feeding apples to the wildlife.
Hank had been walking through woods for about thirty minutes when he came to a clearing. From experience, he knew that deer like to graze in a clearing where the forest gave way to brush and field. Deer liked to graze on the low shrubs in the meadows and fields, but they also liked being close enough to the trees in case they needed to make an escape. He sat down on a damp log, balanced his gun across his lap and waited.
In about twenty minutes a buck with a good-sized rack of antlers walked cautiously out into the clearing. It stood there as though it were in thought, and then lowered its head to graze. Hank had the gun in his hand. The deer looked straight at him, but Hank knew the deer couldn’t see him, probably couldn’t even smell him. All he had to do was point the gun and fire.
He heard his father’s voice in his head. That’s it, Hank. Don’t think about it, just react. If you think about it, you lose your chance. Think only about the kill – the sport of it. It’s the way it’s supposed to be. The natural order of things.
Hank let his gun rest across his thighs. He reached slowly into the backpack and felt for the disposable camera that was there. He drew it out of the pack with infinitesimal care, while the buck munched on its browse. It seemed that it took ten minutes to raise the camera to his eye. But he thought of Henry as he did it, thought of how surprised he would be. He took extra care.
When the shutter clicked, the buck’s tail went up. As small a sound as the camera’s click was, the buck knew it wasn’t a sound that occurred in nature, and it bounded off into the trees.
Hank remembered a presentation Susan had dragged him to put on by the Lake Forest Historical Society. A historian had talked about the quaint old days in Lake Forest – electric cars, horses galloping through streets of mud. And herds of deer, fifty or more,
that moved back and forth between the Skokie River and Lake Michigan. He would like to have seen that sight, the magnificence of that simple natural occurrence – gone now forever.
Hank sat there a few minutes longer, thinking of the buck – the gray brown of its thick winter coat, the polished antlers. He thought about the logic of computers and the mystery of his son. He carefully put the camera in his jacket pocket and headed back to the car.