Written by Clarke Wainikka
She stood between the trees. Her head and chest lifted, flakes of snow falling onto her torso and covering her in a blanket of white softness. Her terracotta fur matte against the forest foreground.
Her black ears twisted as a boot crunched in the snow. They twisted again as the shotgun raised.
The gun pressed into his shoulder, struggling to balance against his thin arm.
The cold was unforgiving. Biting at his already shaking fingertips. His father leaned over and clicked the safety off. The boy peered over the wood and metal, he felt his father’s cloud of warm breath surround the back of his neck.
There was no sight on the gun, only the open air, bare trees and the doe beyond the small metal bead at the end of the barrel. He gripped the stock, his fingers flush against the tungsten-iron. The adrenaline rushed up and down his body, resting finally in his pounding heart. It hammered against his chest like an erratic beating drum desperate to stay in time. The dark hairs at the back of his neck raised as a snowflake fell down the open collar of his jacket.
A bead of sweat ran down the side of his face that was feverish and red from the winter wind and sun. The light touch of his father’s glove wiped away the sweat.
“Next exhale,” his father whispered, his voice lingering in the silence of the dead forest for several moments.
He inhaled, the breath bated in his mouth, filling him with hot stagnant air. He exhaled.
The shotgun fired.
The doe dropped.
His father yelled.
The animal fell with such grace and dignity, the boy immediately felt overwhelmed with a wave of nausea.
“You’re all right now,” his father said, he clamped a strong gloved hand onto his shoulder and shook him. “You got her.”
The relief settled into his bones and then, reached his still-pounding heart. They crossed through and under the trees, their tracks quiet but present. When the trees broke, and the doe came into view, he choked back dread.
The doe was spread out over snow, her legs sprawled and encompassed by red and white. She was steaming, wisps of life escaped from every orifice and strand of fur. Her half-white tail quivered and then lay still against the icy layer beneath her. The blood spread out of her chest and underneath her motionless torso creating a carpet of red on the bleached forest floor. A snowflake fell into her open glossy eye. He almost expected her to blink it away but instead, the snow melted and pooled on top of her black iris.
He stood still; the snow and wind picked up and encompassed him in a tunnel of numbness. He stared at the bleeding doe, acknowledging the creature and her life. He dropped his head to his chest and closed his eyes. He pictured the deer as a faun, travelling through fields of mud and tearing off pieces of bark from birch trees. He imagined her running across the freeway, causing cars to honk and steer around her. He saw her with her own faun, cleaning and bathing her kin with affection in a bed deep in this forest.
“How do you feel?” His father asked, he was standing next to the doe, next to the edge of encroaching blood. He stared at his son with his chin and chest raised.
“Sad,” the 12-year-old boy replied, paused and then said, “and proud.”
Both the boy and his father, heaved, sighed and grunted as they tied the steaming doe to the ATV. They slipped the brown bloody body onto the plastic sled. The body was open and empty, the line down the middle of her torso still fresh and stinging from field dressing.
The doe’s innards lay behind them as a pile of food for hungry bears and badgers. His father let him watch the field dressing, it started with a cut around her rear; his father had tied her rectum into a knot. He cut around her reproductive organs and ran the knife up her torso with a sickening tearing slice that still echoed in his ears and throat. He had let him cut the trachea, his father guided him as he put his fist into the warm dead body of the doe and grabbed the wet tube. It sliced with difficulty.
His father then deposited the organs, the heart, the liver, the gallbladder, everything he had learned about last year in health class, onto the snow in a balmy pile of grey and burgundy sludge. Left behind for nature to care for.
The body was heavy, heavier than he ever would have expected. Her full limp weight rested on the sled and when his father began to drive, the doe slipped off the sled and rejoined the snow and broken sticks that littered the forest floor.
His father swore. The word he had been warned about for years, it hung in the air between the trees but disappeared as quickly as the slug from the shotgun.
He leaned his shoulder on the rump of the animal and pushed. He dug his feet into the ground, kicking up snow and the grass and dirt beneath it. He pushed harder. She resisted him with every ounce of weight left in her open torso. He exhaled with frustration and lugged her body back onto the sled.
He collapsed back down onto the snow, his temples pulsating and his stomach heaving. He began to question the value of the doe, the value of hunting.
His father nodded and turned the keys, the ATV hummed back to life. And then, they began to drag. They dragged the body of the doe for 2 kilometres. Her legs and ears bouncing with the sled over every mound of snow; blood trailing behind them like a punctured paint can.
When they arrived at the shack, the snow and wind had grown into a blizzard. Ice whipped at every movement and latched on to every open patch of skin. The shack leaned and cried with squeaking wood, the pine two by fours threatening to snap at every frozen gust.
His father left him alone as he loaded the wood stove with birch and oak. The doe was now covered in a thin layer of frosted crystals that clung to her fur in patches. The wound in her chest thickened and coagulated until it was plugged with its own fluid. He sat down beside the doe and curled into the hood of his winter parka. He waited there until his father yelled over the blizzard.
The two of them unhooked the deer from the ATV and dragged her inside the shack. He was hit by an immediate wall of heat so desired that it felt unfamiliar.
His father strung the clattering chain and gambrel over the beam that ran across the ceiling. His father handed him the knife, its wooden handle and steel blade light in his pre-pubescent hands.
“Punch a hole between her knee and her rear tendon,” his father said as he gripped the handle of the knife and leaned over the sled and the corpse of the doe.
“Wait!” His father put out his hand, his tanned gruff fingers in front of his face. “The tarp, the tarp first.”
He pulled the plastic blanket from underneath the cot in the corner of the shack; he laid it down by his father’s feet. He could feel his forehead and hands start to moisten in the heat from the wood stove.
His sweat beaded and fell onto the doe as he dragged her onto the blue plastic of the tarp.
“Close the door.”
He slammed the wooden door shut, the blizzard still reverberating in every corner of the building. The wind whistled through the wooden planks that made up the walls of the shack.
He bent down over the doe; she began to seem less and less like an animal.
As he punctured her legs, they turned to slabs of flesh and meat. As his father secured the gambrel, she became tonight’s sustenance. As his father prepared her hide to be pulled away in one continuous piece, her life and fur shed and fell to the shack floor. As he watched his father tear away the last of the muscle from the skin with the edge of the knife, she became better than she was.
They removed the head together.
The shack filled with the aroma of seared meat. The sizzling of the pan on the wood stove almost overpowered the howling of the blizzarding winds. The doe hung in the middle of the room, its shadow casting over his face when his father handed him the plate of deer tenderloin.
The deer carcass swayed as the shack creaked. It sat half-butchered with one large cut taken from its back like it was a puzzle missing an essential piece.
And upon putting it in his mouth, he knew how the deer lived. He knew where it died. And he knew that he gave it a better death than it could have ever hoped for.