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1953, November

Early Saturday morning. A brittle-air opening day of hunting season. Two splashes of bright red stalk through the trees and brush. No sound. No wind. Scents will not carry. Deer will not spook.

If care is taken

Before he goes to work in the mines for the afternoon shift, the forty-three-year-old father is teaching his ten-year-old son the wiles and ways of deer hunting. Both of them recognize this as a rite of passage—the first time the son carries a gun into the woods with the intent to take a life.

The shared moment is everything to the father. Making a kill is everything to the son.

They are on state forest land, legal hunting ground, land the father mapped in the father’s memory, the land where the father learned to hunt from his father. The father teaches the son how to use animal trails; the son learns vigilance. The father teaches the son how not to shoot himself or his father. The son learns fear. The father teaches that the deer’s movement will betray their presence, that their color is ideal camouflage for this time of year. The son learns to contain his energy and anticipation.

They stalk to a high point with sightlines down animal trails in two directions. The father sentries the one to the north; the son sentries the one to the west. Nothing is seen. They move on. The father leads them towards a stand of young balsam and poplar where deer find browse. The father teaches the son not to shoot before he knows it is a deer and not another hunter. The son learns fear. The father teaches the son to watch his foot placement. The son learns to look both up and down. The father stops often to scan the woods. The son learns to look to the left and right. The father teaches the son to look not only for deer but also for any other hunters in red clothing, who might not see them. The son learns fear.

The son stumbles. He looks to the right and stops. Not noticing his son is no longer with him, the father stalks on ahead. The son looks left and right, to northeast and to southwest. He sees . . . he sees . . . straight lines, two parallel lines three feet apart mounded on the ground leading off in both directions. Even at his age he doubts nature would produce straight lines. Each line is a low hump covered by living and rotting vegetation. When he stumbled over the first hump, his feet told him the mounds are soft.

The father turns to look for his missing son. He comes back to the boy and bends down on one knee to whisper to him. “Logging skidways. Sixty, seventy years ago this land was logged off, some pretty large white pines they say. They laid down logs to make these skidways and iced ’em up so horses could drag out the big timber in the winter.”

They don’t look like logs.”

After all these years they’ve rotted down like that. There’s skidways all over around here.”

This is a revelation. At ten years of age the world had seemed, until now, both ever young and permanent. “How do you know what they are?”

The father hears his son’s doubt. “My father explained them to me; course, thirty-five years ago they looked like logs, not moss. Some old men told him about them.”

The world is impermanent.

The father touches his son’s shoulder and points down the skidway. A buck stands in profile browsing between the rotting logs.

The father points at the gun in his son’s hands and nods toward the buck. The son slowly lifts his rifle and points it down the skidway. The father taps the safety on the gun. The son releases the safety, nestles the gun against his left shoulder above his racing heart, and presses his cheek against the gunstock, bumping his glasses out of place. For fear the buck will move, he fires where he thinks the buck is. Or was. In anticipation of the report of the gun, he closes his eyes and does not see the buck bound off the skidway.

The father pats his son on the back and says aloud, “We call it buck fever. I missed my first couple shots. We’ll move on, wait for everything in hearing distance to calm down. Maybe you’ll get off another shot today. We’ll come back tomorrow before church. Put the safety back on.”

They stand and look at the empty skidway. The son toes a mossy log. Things change. Things are made and rot. He notices that conifers are growing out of the rotting logs. Things die. Things are made and then rot away. Things die. He had just tried to take a life.

His father rests a big hand on the boy’s small bony shoulder.

They move on to seek the boy’s first kill.

©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017