By David Lee Caudill*
I never got to hunt with my father. As far back as I can remember I would watch my father, along with his brothers and their father, come home from a hunting trip. They would show off their deer, explaining every detail that led to the kill. Then they would describe how the deer felt, how far he had run after the shot. I was never there for the fall, the shot, the first step into the woods before the sun sparkled on the frostbitten fields of tall grass and dormant wheat. But I was always there when they came home.
I would wait by the front door for hours, and when I saw the truck coming down the street I would run as fast as I could, coatless, bouncing through the snow, to throw myself into his arms and watch them wrap around me as I looked at the deer blood that was smeared on his camouflage coat sleeve. “Got me one, son,” he would say. Or, “Not this time. Maybe next year.” Either way, his grin was on display and the embrace was just as powerful. My father was never more alive than after returning from a hunting trip.
He had said for years that he wanted to take me hunting. From a very young age, I was good with a gun, especially a shotgun. I could hit any target, still or moving. Clay birds never landed wholly after flight, falling piece-fully to the ground a split second after I yelled ‘pull.’ But hunting, I never did. I was always working toward some sporting event or athletic scholarship.
Still, hunting was more than a sport for my family. We lived in Dayton, Ohio, where my father worked in a paper mill, and though industry was more present than nature, we relied on them equally. Often times, a deer meant that my family could eat through winter. I would ride to the butcher with my father to pick up our venison, and on the way home we would stop at the houses of friends and family, sharing what we had, offering as much as they desired. I wondered how we would have any left after giving so much away, but there always seemed to be just enough to get us through the winter. It was my father who provided this, to us, to others. I never wanted to be more like my father than during those moments.
By the time I was 14, my father couldn’t hunt anymore. Walking was a chore for him, therefore hiking was impossible. He couldn’t handle the cold seeping into his degenerating joints, his knees locking up as if in a vice. I tended to post-surgical wounds and listened to his cries in the night. In the morning, he would reach for the window sill near his bed, pulling with all his might just to get himself upright before hobbling to the bathroom and then the living room. But somehow, he was at every baseball game, every school event. His pain stopped him from living in every way, except vicariously.
The year after he died at the age of thirty-nine, I finally went hunting. I was twenty-one. I went with two of my dad’s brothers, Dan and Dwight, as well as my two grandfathers. We decided to go to my father’s favorite hunting place in Fallsville, Ohio, about 90 minutes southeast of where we lived. We stopped at the same Citgo station I had heard of so many times, getting a cup of coffee, a biscuit, extra hand warmers just in case. I thought about my father’s hands touching the same coffee pot I was pouring from. I touched the metal rack that held the biscuits, just in case my father’s hands had grazed them as he passed by over the years. Then I went to the truck and began drinking my coffee and watched my uncles and grandfathers as they walked out of the station, and I pictured my father walking with them, his wide-eyed anticipation of the hunt. When they reached the truck, I imagined his wraith sitting down beside me, grabbing my knee with a strength he only knew in his youth, in moments of bliss. Then I realized I had simply taken my father’s place in their adventure, and if only for one day, I became my father.
When we reached the gravel road that parted the woods, uncle Dwight turned off the headlights, let his eyes adjust to the darkness, and then continued to their favorite parking nook and slowly pulled off the road. We got out quietly and let our bodies get used to the cold, and as we reached for our coats we heard a stirring in the distance. Ahead, we saw a buck and five doe following behind him. It was the first time I had ever seen a deer while sharing the woods with them. I watched their white tails bobbing as they entered a thicker set of woods, and into the darkness.
“Davey,” whispered Dwight, “those deer are headed straight for where we are going. This is going to be a good day.”
I pulled my hunting pants over my jeans, laced up my boots and reached for my father’s camouflaged coat, the blood from his last deer still visible on the sleeve. I put on my gloves, my orange toboggan, and reached for my father’s shotgun. It was a Remington Wingmaster. “This is the Rolls Royce of shotguns,” my father used to say. That was a stretch, but it was his favorite nonetheless.
We started to walk into the woods slowly, letting our feet make contact with the ground before shifting our full weight to the leading foot. I walked between my grandfathers. I looked at my mother’s father in front of me, his white hair reaching just below his orange toboggan, blending with the snow falling lightly. I looked back and saw my father’s father, and he nodded slowly, as if to tell me everything would be alright. These are the two most beautiful men in the world, I thought. My grandfathers had no intentions of shooting their guns that day – I could see it in their eyes. They were simply there for me, to see their grandson’s first hunt, his first chance at bringing a deer home to his family.
We walked for maybe 20 minutes, reaching our desired location at first light. It was a beautiful spot, atop a hill that led straight down to a creek, then a field beyond. The trees were bare, still. The ground, covered with a light dusting of snow, was crisp under our boots and offered the only sound of the morning. Dwight pointed out a log to me and said, “That was your daddy’s favorite spot. Maybe he’s still close by and can send you some luck.” I sat down on my father’s log, watched Dwight walk away, and for the first time, I realized what it felt like to be alone in the woods.
As the sun began to rise toward the cloudless sky, the woods awoke. I could hear the creek below as if it had just begun to flow, and I heard a squirrel in front of me, bouncing in the snow looking for a lost nut or a forgotten friend. Beyond the creek, I could see the field of dry wheat stalks and paths from hunters past. The field seemed endless, and I wondered if my father had walked those paths, if it was the end of the woods or the beginning of the rest of the world. Sitting on this log, did he think of me as I thought of him then? Did he imagine me smiling as I saw his truck coming down the road toward home? Did he think of nothing at all, as if this very spot was his escape from the world of bills, from heartache, from arthritic deterioration? His wraith had reappeared, and I could hear his voice. He said, “It’s the rest of the world. Out there, beyond the field. That world is yours, whatever it may be. You just have to want it.”
Suddenly I heard a splash from the creek. I had only been on my father’s log for a few minutes; it couldn’t be a deer. I clutched the Wingmaster to my chest and as I looked down towards the water, I saw the doe as she crossed, reaching the base of the hill and starting to climb upward, toward me, toward my father’s log. She climbed the hill as if it were no hill at all, as if it was flat ground. She reached the top of the hill, still running full speed, and as I stood and clicked off the safety to my gun she heard me and stopped. She was broadside, maybe ten yards in front of me, completely motionless.
As I raised my gun, I heard my father as if he was looking over my shoulder: “See where her front leg meets her chest? Six inches to the right. You can’t miss. Bring her home, son. Nice and easy.” I thought of how he would have already fired, but I was patient, just looking at the doe, looking into her eyes as she looked into mine. She turned her head and looked around, pondering her next move, but I kept her in my sites as my finger caressed the trigger and readied for the shot.
Then I watched the doe as she slowly turned away, took a step, then two, and burst into a sprint. And when she was no longer in sight, I sat back down on my father’s log, his wraith long gone, and I smiled, for I had just been graced by the miracle of one of God’s creatures. I thought of my father being angry that I didn’t take the shot, but I was pleased that I didn’t. Somehow, another death just didn’t seem necessary.
* David Lee Caudill resides in Canton, Ga., with his wife and children. He currently works as a mortgage underwriter and is an author of one book of poetry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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