The autumn I am twelve, I am invited to go deer hunting with my uncles on Thanksgiving Day, the uncles no doubt prompted by Grandmother and the aunts. I am not, so far, a hunter, but the prospect of spending the day outside, watching the James River slip like quicksilver through the sycamore trees, pleases me. We will be hunting on the farm in Buckingham County where my mother grew up. My brother and I have spent our summers there since our father got sick, running free through field and wood, well-fed by Grandmother no matter how spare the larder. They say I am her favorite and I might have noticed.
My mother tells me to listen to my brother, who’s been hunting with the uncles before and knows what to do. The first Saturday in October, Robert takes me to Tom Smith’s Hardware Store to buy a shotgun. We look at the double-barrel and pump action guns, but they’re expensive. We choose a Stevens twelve-gauge, single-shot shotgun. It costs twenty dollars, the sum total of my lawn-mowing money from summer. It’s handsome—walnut stock and gray steel barrel with a silver bead for sighting. When we get home, Robert takes out his box of shells and gives me five #8 squirrel-shot shells, a few #6 turkey shells, and two double-oughts for deer—or bear, which I’m not planning on seeing. We put the shells in the pocket of the red-plaid, wool jacket I will wear and stand the new shotgun in the back of our closet next to Robert’s.
Saturdays, when Robert gets off work, we go to the abandoned coal mine outside of town for target practice. We use a 22 rifle because the shells are cheaper, and we shoot at the Campbell’s soup cans our mother has saved for us. I’m determined not to disappoint; I listen carefully to everything my brother says.
Sundays, as always, we visit Dad. We sit in the pale green community room at the VA Hospital, us in wooden chairs, he in a wheelchair, and talk about our week. He wants to know everything we’ve done. We listen patiently as he asks the same questions, more slowly and less distinctly each visit. I work to keep my legs from jiggling and my eyes from wandering to the window. I want to check the weather for the possibility of backyard baseball later. I dream of becoming a professional ballplayer. I’m training my body as he loses control over his.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Robert drives us in Mother’s 1950 Ford sedan to our grandparents’ farm where the family gathers for Thanksgiving. The journey feels different this year. Half-bare trees along the road seem to be raising their arms to the darkening sky, cheering me on. My grandmother, now a widow, lives out of two rooms on the ground floor of the old frame house. She will open all the rooms for this gathering, fire up the woodstoves, and sweep away the cobwebs. Card tables covered with cloths will be squeezed into the dining room alongside the old oak trestle table. Family will come from all over the county for the day, many to take part in the hunt Thanksgiving morning—fathers and sons. She’ll have made up the bed in the little room behind the kitchen for me. It’s where I’ve always stayed. My brother and the cousins sleep on cots in the dormitory upstairs.
I’m already salivating as we pull up to the wide front porch. I know the kitchen will be crowded with women, my grandmother and whichever of the aunts have so far arrived, the kitchen sideboard laden with food for tomorrow. There will be cries of delight when my brother and I step through the door, a flurry of hugs. Just so, my grandmother meets me with a piece of fresh-baked ham, tender pink and crusted with her brown-sugar glaze.
“It’s good, Grandma,” I tell her—it always is. Our mother has told us about the hard years when the migrant workers showed up daily at the farm. How Grandmother never turned anyone away. She’d scrounge for last year’s potatoes in the garden, dandelion greens in the yard, or one of her precious hens if the roosters were all gone. Tonight, the smell in the kitchen approaches heaven; they’ve been baking pies. The caramel scent of baking apples in homemade pastry lingers.
When the uncles and their sons arrive, we sit down to a meal of ham, beans, coleslaw, and my grandmother’s biscuits. The uncles don’t talk much, except to make jokes about what I’m likely to bag on the hunt tomorrow: a possum, the neighbor’s dog. I assume they are intent on getting to bed early in order to get up before the sun, but then they never do say a lot. So far, I’ve avoided these big, gruff, tobacco-chewing men, preferring instead to hang around my grandmother and aunts, who can always be found in the kitchen running into each other, chattering, laughing, and cooking wonderful things which they enjoy feeding me because I am always hungry.
We finish supper and say goodnight. I go to my little room in the back of the house, and my brother joins the cousins upstairs. Once again, I check my gun and count my shells. I lay out the wool jacket, waffle-weave shirt, flannel-lined jeans, and new boots we had to buy because I no longer fit into my brother’s cast-offs. I crawl between cold sheets, pull up my grandmother’s quilts, and fall instantly to sleep.
When I wake, sunlight is streaming into the little room and I know it’s late. I hurry to the window. The uncles’ trucks are gone. I dress as fast as I can and rush to the kitchen where my grandmother and the aunts are stringing beans at the table. They look up at me, then out the window where the trucks used to be. I open my mouth but can’t speak. I swallow again and again as heat rises from my chest and up my neck.
“Tell me they didn’t forget him,” Aunt Roe says.
“Oh, Billy,” Aunt Lee says, and once again, I am five years old, sitting under the ironing board while my mother irons sheets. Enfolded by panels of white cotton smelling of fresh air, playing with my hollow-lead soldiers, listening to the whoosh and whump of the iron on the padded board above my head. My father has begun to unravel. Soon he will have to move into the hospital and my mother, who’s only ever wanted to keep house and raise children, will have to go to work.
“Eat your breakfast,” my grandmother says, placing a bowl of oatmeal on the table. “Then you’ll head out.”
I’m still gagging, as the aunts bring me plates of eggs, sausage, biscuits, and blackberry preserves, all the while talking about the merits of a good breakfast before hunting. When I finish, my grandmother tells me to get my gun. She’s old and she’s kind and I love her, but this is more than pitiful.
“Go get it,” she says again, hands on her hips, looking me straight in the eye with her faded but still steely blue eyes. She’s probably shorter than she once was—I’ve heard she and Grandfather were fur trappers before they could afford the farm—but she’s still big enough to mind, so I do what she says. My shotgun stands by the bed where I left it. I consider leaving the shells behind. I am a joke. They’ve left me for good reason, I believe. I’m not like them.
Back in the kitchen, Grandmother steers me to the window and points to a stand of woods bordering the small field just behind the house. “Billy, if you go out there to the corner of that field and are quiet, I think you’ll see a deer,” she says.
I step outside. The sun is higher than it should be, well past nine in the morning. The grass is free of frost, except where it lies in shadow. The air is crisp, sharp with the edge of winter and very still, good for hunting, my brother has said. I walk a few hundred yards into a cut cornfield, stepping over strewn stalks and debris, then down into the bottom area of waist-high grass and up again to the woods where the tops of the red oaks are on fire with sunlight. Just inside the woods, I spot a squirrel shuffling about. Quietly, I take a #8 shell from my pocket and ease it into the chamber of my shotgun, all the while keeping sight of the squirrel. He scuttles here and there, barking and chattering, then scampers up a tree and is gone.
When my father first got sick, we didn’t know what was wrong. There was a ride in the car, the four of us, it must have been summer because it was hot. Dad was chain-smoking, something he’d recently started doing. I was in the back seat with my brother, carsick—nauseated from the smoke—when out of the blue, our father let out a string of expletives we’d never heard before, and certainly not from him.
“Joe! Joe!” My mother said, looking from him back to us.
Yanking the steering wheel, he pulled the car to the side of the road, put his head in his hands and sobbed. Right there in front of Wilson’s Cleaners. Wilson’s Cleaners! the sign screamed at us while we waited.
“What is it, Joe?” Our mother laid a hand on his shoulder and leaned closer. “Oh,” she said.
At home, she shooed us out of the car and into the house ahead of him, but not before we’d seen the wet patch spreading across the seat of his Saturday khakis.
“Nervous breakdown,” the doctors said. It was another year before he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
In the woods, I crane my neck and search for the squirrel. I don’t see him but I hear something else: the snap of a twig, the tic of a hoof against a fallen log. Something bigger than a squirrel is moving through the thicket a few steps at a time. I open the chamber of my gun, release the lock, and take out the #8 shell. I feel for the double-ought in my pocket and ease it into the chamber. “Always use enough to kill; wounding is unmerciful,” my brother has said.
Please, I’m thinking. Just this once.
Another twig snaps and I see brown fur coming through the brush. And antlers, at least eight-point, which means I can shoot it. Heart thudding in my ears, I put the gun to my shoulder and cock the hammer till I feel it lock into place. The deer is ten yards away and moving toward me at ninety degrees; it’s a perfect shot. I sight him down the barrel, his left shoulder, and pull the trigger. The sound is deafening—shatters my ears and silences the forest. He drops and does not move. I walk over to him, bend down, and touch his neck with his black, glassy eye upon me. His fur is warm, but there is no pulse. I am not prepared for what I’ve done.
I prop my gun against a tree, grab the forelegs and pull. The deer doesn’t budge; he probably weighs twice what I do.
I run back to the house and in the back door.
“Got one! Grandmother! Aunt Roe! Aunt Lee! Anyone!” I yell. They’re all in the kitchen, four or five aunts now, crowded around the oven, basting turkeys. They turn and stare. “I couldn’t get it out of the woods!” I say, and they laugh as they pull on coats over their aprons.
Back in the woods, we each grab a leg, the two aunts, Grandmother, and I. It’s slow going, dragging almost 200 pounds of deer through the woods and across the field—even I am red-faced and out of breath. We stop often to rest and every time we do, someone chuckles and the rest of us join in, sending frosted plumes of laughter into a clear blue sky.
After that, I pretty much just watch. I watch the neighbor who stops by looking for Uncle John get talked into field dressing my deer in return for a hindquarter. I watch him take his hunting knife and slice open the belly from jaw to pelvis. I watch him cut free the intestines, so the organs spill out, putrid and steaming in the cold air. I help him hang the carcass by the antlers from a branch of the elm tree out front, and then I wait for the uncles to come back and see it.
Soon, family, friends, and neighbors arrive for the Thanksgiving meal, and the driveway is crowded with mud-spattered pickups and aging sedans. Thirty or more, they wear pressed Sunday shirts and blouses under well-worn winter coats and quilted vests. They greet each other, introduce new babies and ask after those who couldn’t make it—it’s been a year. I stand by the window, sampling bits of turkey, and watch for the return of the hunters. When they finally roll in, they barely pause to look at my deer before shedding boots and jackets on the porch and ambling through the door.
“Who got that?” Uncle John says, waving a hand toward the shadow hanging from the tree outside. They’re ruddy-cheeked and tired-eyed, with cap-creased hair from standing out in the cold for almost six hours, positioned 100 yards apart along a dirt road, waiting for the dogs to drive a deer their way, which evidently hadn’t happened. There’s something rankled about the air they bring in with them.
“Billy got that,” my grandmother says.
“Got it out back,” Aunt Roe says and winks at me.
They have no answer to that, but I know some of them can’t stand it. My brother claps me on the back a few times, and that’s nice.
Over dinner the uncles joke about how I shot Grandmother’s pet deer, and the aunts enjoy reenacting my exuberant arrival in the kitchen—how I bagged a buck but couldn’t get it back. This is fine with me; there’d be no deer without these women and I already know I won’t be hunting again.
After dinner the deer is let down and skinned, and the meat divided into portions. The pieces of meat are wrapped in brown paper and stacked on the front hall table. It’s hard to believe that my deer, my eight-point buck, has been reduced to this—a stack of brown packets.
It’s getting dark. My grandmother beckons me to her side at the front door as people prepare to leave. They file by slowly, the women hugging and kissing goodbye, the men forecasting the weather: a hard frost tonight, snow before Christmas.
“Help us with all this, won’t you?” Grandmother says to certain ones, offering packets of venison until it’s all gone. As always, she seems to know who needs it, or will. Most hands reaching for the meat are rough and reddened, the arms longer than the coat sleeves. I almost miss the quick nods aimed my way.