It was going to be my first hunt of the season and I was busy getting ready. I checked my bow case, making sure that it had arrows, broadheads, and my trigger release.
I put on long underwear, wool socks, camouflage pants and my long-sleeve camouflage shirt. My driver’s license and hunting license went in my right pocket; a flashlight and a package of peanut butter crackers went in the left. This completed stage one of my preparation.
Next, I went into the kitchen to scrub bottles. I checked the refrigerator to make sure that Caroline’s peas and oatmeal were set out, along with a bag of breast milk I had pumped earlier. I laid a bib and a baby spoon on the counter next to the sink. I walked down the hall to the bathroom and folded a duck-hooded towel over the edge of the tub. I crept into Caroline’s room where she was napping and took a pair of pink footie pajamas out of her dresser. I set them on her changing table and snuck a peek at her before I went back into the hallway. She was on her back, with her hands curled on either side of her round face. Her red eyelashes pointed down to a pacifier with a bird on it that she sucked as she dreamt of whatever it is that babies dream. Milk? Colors?
Tom emerged from our room to join me in the hallway, pulling on his hunting coat. “What time did your parents say they’d be here?”
“Three-thirty. It’s three-fifteen.”
“Cool. Are you excited?”
“Of course I am! We’re going hunting.”
Tom smiled and squeezed my shoulder. “Did you leave Caroline’s schedule on the fridge?”
“Yes,” I smiled back. He had been laughing at me earlier as I wrote out the minutes of Caroline’s typical evening- 5:30 dinner, 7:00 bathtime, 7:30 story, 8:00 bedtime.
It was three-twenty. I stood by the front door, playing with my wedding ring as Tom loaded our bows and folding chairs into the truck. A cloud of dust announced my parents’ arrival as they rumbled down our unpaved driveway.
People age so much faster when you don’t see them every day. I knew from holidays and family birthday parties that my dad had a gray beard and that my mom’s skin was spotted from the sun, but between these get-togethers the two of them regressed in my mind to the age they had been when I lived at home. Their mental bodies were smooth and elastic and lean like green sticks. I watched them climb out of their jeep and felt a pang of the same fear that struck me at odd hours of the night when I would lie in bed after nursing Caroline, watching the red digits of the alarm clock change and thinking about the fact that she had already outgrown her newborn clothes.
Caroline was their first grandchild and they flew to her like raptors. My dad got to her first and threw her into the air, provoking an open-mouthed smile. Seeing the smile, he did it again and again until my mother snatched Caroline mid-toss and began to devour her cheeks with hungry kisses. Tom ambled up the driveway behind them completely unnoticed. He and I watched, exchanging amused looks between my parents’ heads.
Eventually, my dad took notice of Tom with a firm handshake and my mom remarked to me that my black-eyed susans were looking wonderful for so late in the year. We exchanged pleasantries about what a nice day it was for a hunt and Tom showed my dad how to work the remote for our TV. I showed my mom where I had set out Caroline’s things. Finally, there was a pause as my parents sat on the couch with Caroline. Tom and I stood at the door. Tom’s hand was on the knob.
“I’ll have my phone,” I offered, “in case anything goes wrong.”
“Lynette,” my mom sighed, “we know how a baby works. We raised two of them.
We were off.
I realized as I climbed into Tom’s truck that this was the first time we had been in a car alone together since Caroline’s birth six months ago. In fact, I could not remember the last time we had been alone, period. At the moment this dawned on me, Tom reached out to hold my hand. We drove the dirt road to our favorite state hunting land, through a flaming tunnel of autumn leaves. We had made this same drive two years ago, to the same piece of woods, and Tom had knelt on the snowy ground of his deer blind to ask me to marry him while owls called from the pines. I wondered if he was thinking about this too. He squeezed my hand. “Remember that one time?” he asked.
“I was just thinking about that.”
Tom parked the truck at a nondescript spot on the side of the road, then moved aside some brush to reveal the entrance to our trail. We put on knee-high rubber boots since we hadn’t been out in a while and the area was prone to marshiness. The forest was full of the smell of dead leaves, that sweet spiciness we try to mimic in our food when autumn comes. I looked up as we walked and saw a kaleidoscope of blue sky through filters of oak rust and maple red and hickory yellow. It was chilly with very little wind- just the sort of weather that would get the deer up and moving. Our chances were good.
We made our way over a small stream where Tom and his dad had laid logs to form a bridge. We squished our way through the cedar swamp, where water burst from the mud to cover our feet with every step. “Remember,” Tom said, “you’ve only shot one deer, and that wasn’t with your bow. You need to build up your confidence. If a deer comes in, shoot it. Doesn’t have to be anything big or impressive. Buck, doe, whatever. If it’s brown, it’s down!” I nodded in agreement.
After about a mile, we came to the natural gas pipeline, a landmark which cut a great phragmites-covered gash through the forest. This was where we would part ways.
“I’m going to go hunt my spot on the south end,” Tom said.
“Alright,” I said, “I’m sticking with my spot on the ridge.” It was a good spot where I always saw deer and plenty of other interesting wildlife.
“Good luck,” he gave me a quick kiss and turned to walk down the pipeline. “I’ll come by your spot after dark and pick you up.”
I watched his broad, strong back glide through the phragmites as he walked away. He moved in silence, with the grace of a wild predator. This was what he lived for- the cold nights of fall when he could act out what he imagined for the rest of the year. As he disappeared, I could see him coming alive. When he was gone, I crossed the pipeline and walked up the road that would lead me to my spot.
There was a pile of logs to the right of the road that would serve as my camouflage. I began to settle in. I held onto the rough bark of an oak and peed into the dirt. I unfolded my chair in the blind and cleared all the leaves away from it so I wouldn’t rustle them with my feet. I loaded an arrow and knocked it. I put on my release. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out my package of peanut butter crackers. I enjoyed them alone. The salty, savory crackers filled my mouth as I surveyed the forest below the ridge. It was mostly hickory, so it had turned yellow. Yellow was my favorite color. Peanut butter crackers were my favorite snack. Solitude at this stage of my life was more precious and difficult to obtain than a diamond-crusted suitcase of money. The only thing that could make the situation better was if I could shoot a deer.
The best part of hunting is that when you sit still in the woods for hours on end, clad entirely in camo, you end up seeing all kinds of animals that you would otherwise scare away. I hadn’t even been sitting for an hour when I heard the crashing of leaves. Expecting a deer, I turned my head slowly and slightly to investigate the noise with my peripheral vision. It was an enormous tom turkey. He strode bravely through the forest, followed by another tom and then another. They muttered to each other, thrusting their tiny heads ahead of their giant bodies. I wasn’t allowed to shoot them; fall turkey season is only for private land. I just watched, trying not to laugh at the absurdity of this morose, red-snooded brotherhood.
About half an hour after they were gone, I heard chattering from the big snag ten yards to my left. Cupped in its dead limbs, like hamsters in a pair of gnarled hands, were three baby raccoons. Left unsupervised, they quarreled and darted along the branches of the dead oak, letting out noises that are never mentioned in children’s books about animal sounds. I watched them until they filed down the trunk of the tree and scampered across the ridge in search of mischief.
I had a much better chance of seeing a deer without all the raccoons’ chattering and hissing. I looked again at the forest out in front of me, surveying the distance for approaching deer. As I turned to scan the woods to my left, I saw that a coyote had appeared. He sat on the edge of the ridge about thirty yards away, watching the land below for something to eat. I straightened one of my legs to stretch it out and he saw me. We exchanged a cordial look and I could have sworn that he nodded before he slunk down into the valley.
It was the witching hour- that half hour or so before dark when the deer are really beginning to move. The gold rays of the sun slanted through the yellow leaves of the hickories until I felt like I was sinking in a glowing yellow sea. The temperature was dropping fast; I opened a packet of handwarmers and clutched them tightly inside my gloves, savoring the heat they brought to my whole body. Squirrels and chipmunks and nuthatches ran up and down all the tree trunks, filling the forest with their chatter. I thought as I took it all in that even if I didn’t see any deer, this moment was making my outing well worth the effort. Then, I saw her.
She began as a set of pointed ears bouncing over the ridge. I blinked, unsure if I was hallucinating after waiting for so long to see a deer. Her face appeared, then her slim shoulders and spindly legs. She was a small doe, but she was thirty yards away and coming closer. I felt my heart rate spike and took some deep breaths to diffuse the adrenaline.
Moving as little as possible, I clipped in my release. At twenty yards she turned broadside, giving me a perfect shot at her vital organs. It would be a clean kill, with no excessive suffering on her part and no extensive tracking on mine. She found a clump of acorns and bent down to snack; I took the opportunity to draw my bow. I centered my sight on her heart, just behind her shoulder. I put my finger on the trigger.
Before I could shoot, the doe turned and began to walk toward me. I had to let my bow back down. Any shot I took while she was at this angle would most likely hit her shoulder bone, killing her slowly with infection or making her an easy meal for coyotes. I would wait for a better opportunity.
At the far end of the ridge, there was a rustle in the leaves. I looked up to see a bigger doe, poised by a tree at about forty yards. She had already been watching me for a while. I could see her looking at the smaller deer, then at me, then back at the smaller deer. She took a step toward us, then seemed to reconsider and backed up to her place by the tree. I knew as I compared their sizes that the deer coming toward me was a fawn; the doe at the end of the ridge was her mother.
The fawn was now fifteen yards away and coming closer. I was going to get a comically good shot. There was no question of whether I could hit her- I had practiced with a target in the yard that was twenty yards away and had hit it pretty consistently.
“I need to build my confidence,” I thought to myself. “If a deer comes in, I should shoot it. Buck, doe, whatever. Doesn’t have to be anything big or impressive- if it’s brown, it’s down.” The fawn came in to a distance of less than ten yards. I could have run up and spanked her. She turned broadside and began to parade in front of me from right to left. The mother deer, still forty yards away, began to stomp her foot. She was hoping that her fawn would feel the vibrations through the ground and know that it meant she was in danger.
The fawn’s head was behind a tree. This was my chance. I drew my bow. I had to get her in my sights if I was going to get a shot. One last time, I looked at the mother. She was staring at me and my drawn bow, stomping her foot. I let my bow down.
The fawn ambled away from me, across the logging road and into the forest on the other side. The mother left in the same direction, staying a careful forty yards away. The farthest pin on my sights was set for thirty yards, so there was no way I could shoot her. In less than a minute, both deer were gone.
There was only about ten minutes left of shooting time. I stayed in my blind mostly as a formality- it was already difficult to see my sights in the fading light. I zipped my coat all the way up over my chin. In the distance, I heard the call of a barred owl: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Over and over I re-lived my encounter with the fawn, wondering if I had done the right thing. We would only be able to get a babysitter a few more times over the course of the season. I probably wouldn’t get another shot at a deer, and definitely wouldn’t get one that easy. I wondered if I was anthropomorphizing these deer. I remembered a story my mother-in-law had told me about a mother deer behind her house, chasing her fawns away from a pile of apples so she could eat them all. Did the mother deer I had seen really care if I shot her baby? I thought about her unblinking stare and that cloven hoof of hers, driving hard into the sandy soil of the ridge.
A strong hand gripped my shoulder. I jumped.
“Hey,” Tom said, “Earth to Lynette! Did I scare you?”
“Yeah, sorry,” I laughed. “I was thinking about something that happened during my sit. Have I got a story for you!”
Our flashlights bounced in the dark as we walked down the logging road side by side. I looked at the swath of sky between the trees overhead and saw the familiar “W” of Cassiopeia. There was a full moon; it bathed us in blue light. All the birch trees in the woods became ghosts, emanating a blue glow as their bark reflected the moon.
I told Tom about what had happened. When I got to the part about the mother deer watching me, he laughed.
“How do you even know that was her mom?” he asked. “How do you know it wasn’t just some random deer? If I were you, I would’ve shot it.”
I shrugged. “I would probably have shot it,” I said, “if it were last year.”
Tom nodded. “Well,” he said, “I don’t want to hear any complaining that you didn’t have a chance to shoot a deer.”
“I won’t complain,” I promised.
When we got home, my parents were on the couch watching the highlights of the football game. “She went right to sleep,” my dad assured me. “Drank her bottle, cried for maybe two minutes, and was out like a light!” my mom said. I peeked in through Caroline’s cracked door and saw her curled under her Winnie the Pooh blanket. The round lump of her body rose and fell as she breathed.
I went in the kitchen to put dinner on the table. I had kept venison stew simmering in the crockpot all day so I wouldn’t have to cook after the hunt. I set out my favorite yellow bowls. I sliced bread and set out a stick of butter. I poured water into the mason jars that were our “company glasses”. Taking the lid off the stew, I could smell the simmered flavors of carrots from our garden and meat from the forest. My mouth watered.
We sat around the table and Tom said grace. The warm gravy of the stew flooded my mouth and I looked out the big picture window in our dining room. I saw the full moon shining on the trees outside and I thought about the fawn and her mother, who were probably out having their own supper. I imagined them feasting on acorns beneath the stars of Cassiopeia, painted blue by the light of the full moon. It was a romantic vision, a complete anthropomorphization, and I didn’t care one bit. I savored it along with the stew.
Lynette Schinke is a writer and proud mama who lives with her husband and daughter in Ortonville, Michigan. She loves hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, backpacking, and anything else that gives her an excuse to be in the woods.