by Daniel Massett
As autumn became winter, the deer hunter wondered whether he’d ever return home. The first snow began to fall as he set a new mousetrap by the cast-iron stove that provided heat for the camp. His clothes clung to his body like melting plastic clings to a stick; they seemed to have grown in the time he had been away from his wife, and he would have to wear extra layers to account for the fat he had lost, but he was determined to face the cold and catch a deer. He had not shot a deer in years. He felt as though they had fled from him, leaving him to exist alone in the cabin.
He had purchased the camp as a young man. That younger version of himself had needed a getaway, a place of respite for himself, his brother Tom, and his friends Gus and Ray, who needed time away from their beloved wives, their rosy-cheeked children. The camp itself was small, but the men didn’t care, so long as it provided them a place to sleep and hunt and play cards in the Adirondack woods, and it did these just fine. They would awake in the morning on hunting trips and make muddy coffee and smoke cigarettes and fry hash browns from a can. During the day they would hunt. Butch had learned from his father the skillset of deer tracking—how to tell the freshness of a dropping, to look at a urine spot and its position in relation to the tracks and tell if it was female or male, to look for scratches in tree bark where an agitated buck might try to shave his horns. In his mid-30s he had shot and killed the largest buck ever hunted in upstate New York, a 26-pointer. Its head had hung on the wall in his house downstate ever since, despite protests from his wife.
Watching the snow fall, Butch thought about how the sight used to bring him great joy. Tracking conditions were perfect with the ground covered in snow. Those winter nights, alone, miles from camp, a freshly killed buck on his back, were the place Butch was most comfortable. He could pass long hours walking in the dark before reaching camp, and never did he make an unsure footfall. He was comfortable there, with the white carpet of snow, the furniture of felled trees, the radio static of a trickling brook, and when he returned to camp, it was to the cheers and praises of his brother and friends. He’s done it again, they’d say. Old Butchy.
But he had not killed a deer in some time. He sat at the kitchen table in the camp where many card games had been played and tried to count the years on the table’s cracks but found that he could not. It felt as impossible as counting the hairs on his face. He could not remember where either had come from, but they piled on as evidence of a life lived too long, of looking out long past the point where friends died whom he should have joined. He feared he would live forever.
Butch went upstairs to put on his winter gear. The cabin was two stories. The downstairs was a small living room, a kitchen sparsely furnished, a side room where they hung freshly caught deer, and a window looking out onto the forest. The upstairs was a single room with a gabled ceiling and some bunk beds which slept Butch, Tom, Gus and Ray, and anyone else who cared to join them. Butch put on a sweater, a white coat with a blurry tree branch design, a pair of gloves, and a black stocking cap folded around the ears. He picked up his two compasses from his bedside table, checked to see if they were in unison, and put them in his coat pocket. Downstairs, he removed his slippers and put on his boots, took his gun from beside the door, and went outside.
The snow had fallen silent and heavy that morning, and already it coated the earth and wrapped like a shawl around the trees. He didn’t lock the door, as the only threat was a black bear breaking into the house, and that would get into the cabin whether it was locked or not.
Butch walked a mile to get into the hunting area. His father, a plaque maker, had never owned a camp in the north, though he had always wanted to. But his sons and his wife had come first, and there wasn’t much money to be had after a mortgage and tithing and car payments and Catholic school tuition, so hunting had been relegated to trips up to the camps of his friends. Butch had recognized as a child the pain this brought to his father, to have no place to call his own in the great forest, and he had resolved then to not share the same fate. In fact, he thought, he had missed his father’s fate in several ways. He himself had the camp but no sons; his father’s relationship with his mother had been one of strong, silent companionship, while Butch’s with his own wife had been one of silent entropy, a relationship marked by a quiet, nearly imperceptible slide into disorder.
He stopped on the path to get his bearings. To the right was a stream he had taken to calling sparrow stream after the day he had seen a dead white-throated sparrow carried by its gentle waters. To the left he spotted a large tree with bark torn away from the trunk at about shoulder height. Butch didn’t need to get much closer to tell it was a buck with a significant rack, certainly not his 26-pointer of record, which had been an anachronism compared to the typically smaller bucks of the Adirondacks, but nothing small either. He looked around for tracks but could see none and figured the snowfall had covered what tracks there had been. But the image of the buck had formed in his mind, and he looked for spaces in the trees that would be large enough for the buck to fit its antlers through and went.
Walking through the forest, Butch thought of his famous quarry. Gus had been there on Butch’s record hunt. Gus wasn’t able to grow a beard during hunting season like the others, and his face would turn cherry red through the long days in the wilderness. Together he and Butch had tracked the deer, Gus watching in awe as Butch examined the trees and tracks, telltale signs of the giant buck they were hunting. When Butch was on a trail, it was best that others simply let him do his work. When they came upon the deer, spotting it from about twenty yards away and to the left of where the tracks had been leading, Butch propped his gun against his shoulder. The deer was lying in its bed. It had hooked around from its path and settled upon a small hill overlooking the area. Butch had zeroed his scope at the beginning of the day, and looking through it, he squeezed the trigger. The deer jumped up and ran off away from the direction the bullet had come. They walked to where it had lain to find spots of blood, and more blood dappled the snow alongside the new tracks the deer had made. They followed the tracks for about half a mile and found the buck motionless on the ground. They were about ten miles from camp. Without a word, Butch and Gus began to field dress the deer. Gus packed the innards into plastic bags and put them in his backpack, then Butch hoisted the deer’s forelegs over his shoulders, the deer warming his backside, and they began their hike to camp.
Butch kept on the trail of the buck. Night had begun to fall. He figured he had about an hour of light left. He always said that the forest at night was the same as the forest at day, but the cold had already begun to bother him, and he wanted to find the deer quickly. The snow had stopped falling some hours before, and animal tracks were beginning to show. Butch had followed scratches in the trees and instinct up to that point, but he finally saw deer tracks, which he could follow. The stride was longer than a typical deer, and the stagger wider, and Butch’s mind formed a stronger image of the deer. He crouched and saw that the tracks were deep. It was fresh-fallen snow, so this was not unusual, but the whole hoof-print was visible, confirming the significant size of the deer, as something that heavy would walk on its entire hoof instead of its toes. Butch stood and followed the tracks.
There was a celebration that night at the camp after the men had hung the record deer in the side room and completely removed its interior. They were playing cards, each dealer picking a new game with a set of modified rules. They were familiar enough with each man’s style of cards to follow the constantly changing games and rules without a hitch. They had brought enough liquor for the weekend to fill a sink. During the game, the conversation revolved around the hunt, the snowfall, the waning deer population, and Butch’s kill.
“Will be a lot of doe missing that one’s company,” Gus said, gesturing toward the side room where the deer hung. He dealt the cards around the table.
“Women are happy when the men are away,” Tom said, pulling from a cigarette. Tom was by far the largest of the men, and Ray, the smallest, always hovered close to him like a moon in orbit. “Hell, he’s probably happy he’s away.”
“What happened to women missing their men?” Gus said. “When my old man was off in Germany, my mom missed him like hell. Cried every day. Some days I’d see it, sometimes you could tell by looking at her eyes.”
“But he came back,” said Tom. “What happened then?”
“Well, the tears stopped for a while, then they started again.”
“See?” said Tom. “She was happier when he was away.”
“What changed?” said Butch.
“He didn’t come back,” said Gus. “He stayed in Germany in his mind. That was his home.”
“Raise twenty-five cents,” said Ray. Ray had a nasal New York accent, and his voice was pitched about an octave too high, making his words come out of his mouth like air out of a balloon. Everyone threw in a coin one at a time.
“He did some bad things, my dad,” said Gus. “He killed a lot of people.”
“He did it for his country,” said Tom. “He was a war hero. I fold.” He pushed his cards facedown toward the center of the table and put out his cigarette and lit another. “Your bet, Gus.”
Gus looked at his cards. “I fold.” He put down his cards. “Let me get us another drink.” He uncorked a bottle of whiskey and topped off every glass.
“My dad wasn’t no saint,” said Ray, tossing two quarters into the middle of the table. “Drunk every day. Hit my mom once or twice. You be the man your father couldn’t be,” he shrugged.
Butch looked down at his cards and matched Ray’s bet. They both set their cards on the table face-up. Ray smiled. “All the luck in the world today, Butchy,” and Butch pulled the pile of coins toward himself.
“But your father fought too, Ray,” said Tom. “He was a hero. You two talking bad on your old men, both heroes.”
“You didn’t see my mom,” said Ray.
“And I didn’t need to. They cared for the greater good, and we’re here thanks to them instead of in New Germany or some shit. Your deal, Butch.”
The table quieted as Butch dealt, and Gus poured himself another whiskey and refilled everyone else’s. “Two German soldiers came to check on the battlefield,” said Gus. “My dad had parachuted onto the ground and lain there as other men were shot down. The two Germans roll him over, he’s clutching his pistol, kills ‘em both.”
“See? A hero,” said Tom. There was a pause as Gus decided whether to continue his thoughts. The liquor carried him through.
“I think he’s in Hell,” said Gus.
“Now, why would you say that? Why in the hell would you say that? My father never fought in a war, never did anything great,” said Tom, cigarette cherry tracing patterns in the air as he gestured.
“Tom,” said Butch, “don’t say that.”
“Why not? It’s the truth.”
“He killed people, Tommy,” said Gus. “Christ wouldn’t have killed anybody.”
“Christ wasn’t in the war; He was in Jerusalem. There was no war. There was no anything. We’re men. We kill things. We all kill things,” said Tommy.
“He could have killed them all on that hill,” said Gus. “He could have struck them all down. He had control over life and death. He opened His arms and held them there.”
“Gus,” said Butch, putting his hand on Gus’ arm. “You don’t know where your father is. You can’t know.”
“He shouldn’t have killed those people. He shouldn’t have killed anyone.”
“If I had known you were a coward, I would have never had you up here,” said Tom. “I would have told Butch to leave you behind.” The men had forgotten about cards.
“Tom, calm down,” said Butch.
“I’m not a coward for following Christ,” said Gus.
“I think you are, and I think you’re a coward for talking bad about your old man when he isn’t even alive to defend himself. I’m glad he fought in the war instead of a coward like you.”
Gus set his drink on the table and looked Tom in the eye. “I go home after work, Tom,” he said. “I’m not the one who runs away from my family every night.”
“Hell,” said Tom, and he got up and swung at Gus. His fist connected with Gus’ jaw, and Gus fell from his chair onto the floor. Butch stood and put his arms around Tom, and he got an elbow in the stomach for it. Butch then hooked Tom’s arms behind his back by the elbows and yelled for him to calm down. “Get off me. I’m done,” said Tom. Butch let him go. Tom grabbed his coat from the rack and shouted to Ray, “Let’s go.” Ray looked at Gus and Butch apologetically, then he too got his coat, and the two of them walked out the door. Butch went outside for snow to put on Gus’ chin.
Butch led Gus up the stairs to a bed. Butch lay in the dark, turning over on his mattress. The alcohol upset his stomach, and he rose and walked downstairs and pissed outside the front door. When he laid back in his bed, he saw Gus sitting up on his mattress. Gus turned his head and looked over at Butch. Butch couldn’t see his eyes, but there seemed to be a plea in the way Gus faced Butch. Butch turned his head away. He could sense that Gus was still looking at him, hadn’t heard the creak of the bed that would signify that Gus had changed position and lain down. Butch had his back facing Gus, and he fell asleep after some time. When he awoke in the morning, Gus was gone.
Now Butch was alone on the hunt. Gus had died some years back. Butch hadn’t seen him much after that weekend, and he left quickly after his funeral. Tom was still around but had grown distant, and Ray died from cancer. Butch was alone, but found himself returning to the camp often, always sleeping in the same bed, and at some point, he had stopped leaving.
The deer tracks led to some warm droppings, and Butch could see the deer in his mind. He wanted the deer badly. He again tried to call to his mind the last time he had seen his wife. She had left a few years after Gus’ funeral. Butch hadn’t told her what passed between the men that night, hadn’t even mentioned the fight between Gus and Tom. Tom’s wife had told Butch’s wife, but by then their relationship had gone silent, and the point was never brought up in conversation. But still some deep hurt had been transmitted at Gus’ funeral. Butch’s quick exit from the graveyard had sown something into his wife’s mind. It was the only time he had revealed any emotion to her in some months, and it was not directed at her, but at a friend who Butch went on hunting trips with. But she did not question Butch about it, and Butch never confided in her. It was simply the final blow that knocked the two out of sync.
Butch looked ahead to see the deer, its back to him. It hadn’t yet found its way to a place of rest. It looked exactly as he had pictured it. Its antlers stood high. He raised his rifle. The deer turned its head. He was far from the place he had shot the record buck, and even farther from camp. He pulled the trigger, fresh snow parted, the deer leapt up, and the trees inclined as if bowing toward a sacred ritual. Butch had hit the deer in the chest, close to its heart.
He followed the frantic tracks a few hundred yards and came upon the deer. The forest felt like a perfectly furnished room. He approached the deer but did not take out his knife. He crouched beside it, and its eyes looked toward him, and its great chest heaved. Butch didn’t look away. He patted its body; its fur was long and coarse, and he saw the place where the bullet had entered. The deer’s eyes were frantic, pleading for help. Butch looked it in the eyes. He put his rifle in the snow and laid down beside the deer with his head low enough to escape the antlers and put his arms around it, and they stayed that way long after night had fallen.
Daniel Massett is a Catholic school teacher in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
One thought on “The Deer Hunter”
What a deep and beautifully written story! It was depressing in a way, but it was an honest look at the sorts of things people struggle with in a broken world – broken marriages and parent/child relationships, poor father figures, fights between friends that create wounds that never heal. I see some themes of death in this – with the dead sparrow in the creek, the killing of the deer, and the conversations about war. I’m wondering if this story has a pacifistic theme: killing in war is bad, deer hunting is bad. I feel like Catholics tend to be more pacifistic, so it could be, not sure. Perhaps as the deer is dying at the end and the hunter lies down with him, the hunter realizes that the killing had been wrong and regrets it. Perhaps the hunter dies there in the snow, meeting the fate he brought to the deer. This is such a deep story, I don’t know if I interpreted it right. I found to be incredibly well written. Very professional. Thanks for sharing!