Photo by January Lark.
It was October, the first weekend of deer season, and they were headed south on 23. Occasionally, her father took a drink from the Budweiser between his thighs. Margaret watched trees along the highway – their leaves illuminated with colours that belonged in a tackle box.
‘What happens if I have to pee?’ she asked.
‘There’s an outhouse at the cabin. Otherwise, it’s drop and squat.’
They both laughed. Her father was different when it was just the two of them, and she was glad that she’d come. He was a clean man, an accountant, and always managed to smell like soap. Every day he wore a finely pressed shirt and a limp tie that hung dead around his neck like a snake’s skin. But now, with a flannel shirt and baseball cap to hide his baldness, he looked younger and happier.
When he’d first mentioned the trip, the three of them were having dinner, and her mother was in one of her moods.
‘Do what you want,’ her mother had said. ‘Slay the beasts of the earth. She’s fourteen. In many cultures, they learn to kill at a much younger age. They don’t have the same thirst for blood if they learn after the age of ten.’
‘You’re making too much of this,’ he’d said. ‘It’s two nights in a cabin. We sit in a tree stand all day.’
‘The beautiful hunt,’ she’d said. ‘The gentleman hunter.’
Her father had set his fork on the table. ‘Enough. She’s coming with me.’
‘I never said she wasn’t, sweetheart.’ She’d smiled at the two of them, but the rest of her face was loose, her eyes bright and emotionless.
Her mother had been unhappy for as long as Margaret could recall, and Every day he wore a finely pressed shirt and a limp tie that hung dead around his neck like a snake’s skin. Margaret was tired of trying to make sense of it all. She was indifferent to the idea of hunting, but she welcomed a weekend away. Her father had brought home a deer once. She remembered how its eyes looked through her from the back of the station wagon; its chest cavity stuffed with bags of ice; the small rack a misplaced Christmas decoration. There was a difference between seeing a dead thing and being the source of a death, though. She understood this much.
They stopped at a diner in Chillicothe. The diner was on the ground floor of a narrow three-story building, and as they looked at the menu, she heard footsteps above and what sounded like furniture being moved from one side of a room to the other, people coming and going.
Her father ordered for them: two hamburgers each with pickle and mustard, and a bowl of bean soup.
‘Trust me,’ he said. ‘These aren’t your usual burgers. They’re small as coasters.’
Then he said he wanted some whisky and walked out of the restaurant.
She watched the waitress behind the counter. With an ice cream scoop, she removed a ball of ground beef from a tray and dropped the meat on to the grill. She did this three more times, and then flattened the beef with a spatula.
‘This is the first time I’ve seen you,’ the waitress said. She brushed hair from her eyes and leaned on the counter with both hands. ‘You really are beautiful.’
It was odd the way she said it, but Margaret smiled and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. ‘We’re going hunting.’
‘I know,’ the waitress said. ‘I wish I could go.’
‘All you need is a license and a gun,’ she said.
The waitress laughed the most beautiful laugh Margaret had ever heard. It was like a bird singing. Margaret thought that she must have practiced it for years, and strangely, it reminded her of loves past.
‘It’s not that,’ the waitress said. ‘It wouldn’t be proper.’
She winked and turned to the grill, flipping the patties gracefully and smashing them down with the spatula.
Her father returned just as the food was served.
The waitress gave him a smile, and then they ate. Before every bite, they dipped the burgers in the soup. The warm buns, glazed with soup, were soft in Margaret’s mouth. She was reminded of the fact that there were many things she still didn’t know.
‘This is good,’ she said. ‘Really good.’
They finished the meal in silence, and when the bill came, he gave her the keys and told her to start the car.
It was nearly dark outside. A rim of light hung above the hills in the distance, and the air smelled like a rest area bathroom. Her father said the smell came from the paper mill. Margaret started down the sidewalk and couldn’t remember where the car was parked. Everything seemed to have changed with the dark. Cars full of strange figures passed with their headlights on. A dog barked somewhere. She could hear someone walking towards her from the alley. Then a man appeared. He was too tall with sharp shoulders like the corners of a box and arms, which seemed to hang by a thread. They dangled. The man looked at her, raised an arm and saluted.
She went back to the diner.
Through the window she saw her father and the waitress pressing close across the counter, their fingers intertwined in a weird embrace. Their noses touched in a sad, lovely sort of way. The muscles in Margaret’s body tensed like they were trying to push their way to the sidewalk. She backed away and leaned against a newspaper vending machine.
When her father finally came out, he didn’t see her at first. He pulled a can of snuff from his pocket and ran a thumbnail along its edge. Then he popped off the lid, grabbed a pinch and put the tobacco in his lower lip. She tapped her hand on the machine.
‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you start the car?’
He looked frightened.
‘I couldn’t remember where you parked.’
‘Seriously?’ he said. ‘OK – give me the keys.’
She followed him to the station wagon. He started to unlock the door, stopped, and looked across the roof at her. He held up the snuff can. Its silver lid glowed beneath a streetlight. ‘I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything about the tobacco to your mother,’ he said. The tobacco muffled his voice – made it more secretive, solemn.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I won’t.’
The cabin was a large room. There were two cots on opposite sides, and two more propped against a wall, out of the way. There was a table with four chairs – one was missing a leg – a fridge, and an oven. Everything ran on propane, and the entire cabin smelled like gas. An old yellow couch with a sagging cushion leaned against another wall. There was also a sink but no faucet, and beside the fridge were five one-gallon jugs of water.
‘This is it, chiclet,’ her father said. ‘The real deal.’
He settled down at the table and opened a whisky bottle. The gas lamps cast a pale light across the bare wood floor. Her father looked thin in the light, like a dryer sheet. He was less a parent and more a stranger, and she figured that if she closed her eyes just enough, she could understand him.
‘Man with a capital ‘M’ has gotten away from the essence.’ He drank straight from the bottle, his lower lip swollen with snuff. ‘We weren’t meant for suburbs or mini-vans. We’re animals on chains.’ He took another drink.
‘What about mom?’ she asked. ‘Is she like us?’
‘We’re all like us,’ he said. ‘We’re human.’
‘What have we gotten away from?’
‘I told you – the essence.’
‘But what is it?’
He leaned across the table and parted his lips. His mouth looked ready to receive something, and she couldn’t tell if he was serious or just drunk. ‘The connection, the sacred core. We were all once the same.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense,’ she said.
She’d heard her father talk like this before. Her mother called it ‘rummaging’. Margaret used to like its abstraction, the absolute vagueness, but now, it all made her tired. She needed something she could be sure of.
‘It will,’ he said. ‘Just you wait.’
They rose early in the morning and ate fried egg sandwiches. The roads all looked alike, and from time to time her father slowed the car, turned on to another road, and accelerated, kicking gravel into the vehicle’s belly. Margaret thought the outside world was asleep or dead. The woods around them looked worn out or crushed, like dead animals at the roadside.
Her father pulled a flask from his jacket and passed it to her.
‘This should wake you up,’ he said.
She took it from him and pursed her lips around the small metal mouth.
‘A person shouldn’t always be so cautious,’ he said. ‘It leads to regret.’
By the time they parked and headed into the woods, her brain felt as if a little breeze was blowing around inside it. The path was worn. She couldn’t feel any wind but the leaves rattled. At one point, they passed through an oak grove. Their branches, up high, seemed to hover over them, and acorns poked the soles of her shoes. She felt like she was stepping on someone’s knuckles. With each careful step, she heard the sound of breaking bones.
‘We’re almost there,’ her father said.
The tree stand looked more like a tree house. It was big enough for the two of them to sit comfortably, and it was roofed with a thin, camouflaged fabric.
‘Hand me that thing,’ she said, and motioned to her father’s jacket.
He produced the flask once more.
‘Don’t make yourself sick,’ he said. ‘Your mother wouldn’t be pleased.’
‘I want to live without regret,’ she said.
He winked at her. Margaret considered what it would feel like to punch him. She was nervous and drunk, and she could smell soap. Where had he found soap?
The flask was empty by the time the sun peeked above the tree line. The world managed the day’s fall and lift. She looked at her father. His eyes were closed. She could picture him Margaret saw the bone-white antlers first. Its head was lowered to the ground. nodding off and falling out of the stand, which was something that had happened to a classmate’s older brother. The classmate, a girl Margaret didn’t know very well, missed school for the funeral, and after she returned, everyone seemed to avoid her. Eventually the girl and her family moved. Margaret didn’t understand at the time, but now, it was clear that knowledge of any kind altered perception. She imagined her father dead, wearing a shirt and tie, still smelling of soap. She felt like a tiny egg on the verge of hatching.
‘Did you hear that?’ her father whispered. His eyes were still closed.
Then she heard something big wading through the brush, parting the branches with its weight, the sound of caution and patience. Over the next few minutes, the animal moved closer. Her father raised the gun, and they waited.
Margaret saw the bone-white antlers first. Its head was lowered to the ground. Slowly, the buck emerged step by step, its body white as the inside of her arm after a bath. She couldn’t be certain it was real. Now in the clearing, the buck rooted for acorns beneath the fallen leaves. Its white body stood out against the oranges and browns and reds.
‘What is it?’ she whispered.
Her father held up a hand as the buck paused and sniffed the air.
‘A ghost,’ he said.
She was looking at its red eyes when the gun went off. She was surprised that the sound didn’t come to her at first, only silence. Then a window seemed to open, and the sound of a tree quickly snapped in half remained in her ears.
The buck danced, drunkenly, found its bearings, and headed for the undergrowth. Just as it was about to disappear, however, the animal stopped. It turned and looked up at them, and then settled down to rest.
Her father shouted something that sounded like, ‘How now!’ He scrambled down the ladder first.
By the time she reached the ground, he was approaching the buck with a stick in his hand. He stepped tenderly behind the deer and poked its eye, but it didn’t blink.
‘That’s it, chiclet,’ he said. He knelt beside the animal and put a finger in the wound. His hands trembled, and she noticed a tense look on his face, as if he were trying to form a smile, but his muscles would not cooperate. ‘Come closer,’ he said. ‘It’s OK.’
She knelt beside him and felt the deer’s coarse hair. The body was still warm.
‘Hold still,’ he said.
Her father lifted two bloody fingers, and she felt the blood smooth across her forehead and cool almost instantly. He did the same to himself. Two bars of blood streaked across his forehead.
She saw how his nose hooked the same as hers. She recognized the sharp jaw line and the same gray eyes. Then he hugged her, pinning her arms to her side.
‘You did this,’ she said.
‘No,’ he said. ‘We did this. It was the both of us.’
I’m not like you, she wanted to say.
She watched her father unsheathe a knife and cut a slit along the animal’s underside, and the swollen guts steadily introduced themselves, steaming. They smelled like copper and rotten lettuce. She felt herself slowly coming out, and she wanted to be back in the tree stand still waiting to hatch. She tried to wipe away the dried blood but it only came off in crumbles.
He got drunker than usual that night. The white deer lay in the back of the station wagon under a heavy blanket, tagged and stuffed full with bags of ice. Every time he offered the whisky bottle, she accepted it. She held the small sips in her mouth until the burn seemed bearable, then swallowed.
‘I don’t understand that woman,’ he said. ‘She’s like road salt – disintegrating. Promise me you’ll never be like that.’
‘Like what?’ she asked.
‘A woman like your mother,’ he said.
Margaret nodded. She wasn’t agreeing to anything. She imagined her mother She glanced back at the wrapped up deer . . . all she could see were the antlers and the pink inside of one ear. at home reading a book with a blanket across her lap. Margaret wondered whether her mother was actually reading or thinking about the waitress and the way her hands turned the spatula. She wondered if her mother even cared. There was no sense in it, not in the two of them. What made people so horrible, she wondered.
‘You are beautiful,’ her father said. He stood up and wobbled to the table and knelt before her on one knee. He touched her cheek. His hands were soft as balls of cotton, and through the tobacco and whisky, he still managed to smell clean. ‘One day you will be another man’s beautiful wife.’
He started to cry and placed his head in her lap. It felt dead, unusually heavy. She was afraid to touch him.
‘I wish you could understand,’ he said. ‘I really do.’
Her father lifted his head and looked at her for a moment. His eyes got big, and she knew he had figured it out. That she had seen them in the diner. He must have thought he could go without ever mentioning it, slowly burying it with time. He opened his mouth as if to speak. Then he spewed a brown stream of hot vomit into her lap.
Margaret looked down. The vomit dripped down her pant legs and started to pool on the floor.
‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. So, so sorry.’ He waved his hands as if the contents of his stomach would magically go away.
Something rose inside her all on its own – a blooming laughter. It seemed to come from a place she’d never known before. It seemed to reach out and touch everything in the room. It felt so good and kept on going.
She put a finger in the vomit, and her father looked with horror as she touched his forehead.
The next morning, they went without breakfast. She tried to remember the roads that led back home, but the trees – her only markers – had shed their leaves in the night. Branches reached up to the sun. She glanced back at the wrapped up deer, but all she could see were the antlers and the pink inside of one ear. She stared ahead. Winter was coming. ■