I’m at my first residency for Pacific University’s MFA and enjoying it thoroughly. We’ve gotten a few writing exercises that force us to stretch our writing boundaries a little. Below is the result of one of them.
Somewhere in the woods, a twig cracked. Ryan held his breath. He lifted the gun and waited. And when he heard another crack coming from the west edge of the forest, he scanned the trees for any sign of movement. He heard leaves rustling, an unmistakeable shuffle and pause, shuffle and pause. Snow was beginning to fall, the first one of the year, and it was coming down in icy flakes that crinkled against the papered forest floor. He could smell the snow, smell the decaying leaves and his father’s minty aftershave, probably lingering on his jacket from the other day, when they were out here together practicing their sighting from atop the tree stand. Ryan tucked the butt of the gun against his shoulder, rested his cheek on its cold metal barrel, and felt for the safety. He tickled it but didn’t turn it off yet.
The leaves rustled again, a slow, punctuated wishing noise that came to another full stop. Only deer move like that. Especially in late November when the trees and shrubs are bare of their foliage. They’re scrounging — that’s the word his dad had used — trying to find anything to fill their empty stomachs. They eat the stems of honeysuckle and hemlock, sumac and poplar. They don’t look up. They never look up. And Ryan knew this was true because he’d seen them walk right underneath the tree stand just the other week, before the season had begun.
He peered through the scope, but kept his left eye open; sometimes, they’re not where you think they are. He flicked the safety off. “You’ve got two triggers. Safety’s your first one,” Dad had said. Halfway there. Any second now, the deer might emerge from between the trees. In the woods like this, sometimes you only see a sliver of its body. But sometimes that’s all you need.
He touched the trigger. “Be patient,” Dad had said. He felt his pulse beating hard against the steel barrel. He had to calm down, but in order to do so, he to put out of his mind what it would mean if he got his first kill alone in the back woods. It could actually happen!
And then it was happening. As the icy snow was slicing into his cheeks and casting a ghoulish haze over the leafless woods, he heard the periodic shuffle, saw the body emerge, its light brown fur appearing in the narrow column between the parallel trees. He exhaled, tightened his hold on the trigger, lined the crosshairs on what little body he could see, and fired.
The animal dropped. The forest resounded with the crack of the gunshot, an echoing snap in an empty space. Every shot is the shot heard round the world, the clap of Thor’s thunder. Every shot struggles to take ownership of the future, to be the God of gods. Ryan emptied his lungs of breath, releasing into the air a cloud of vapor like the saunas of Old Scandinavia. He’d done it! Dad would be so proud.
But then he heard Dad, his shrill whistle cutting through the forest like the icy snow. He was shouting something. Something that had the vague rhythm of the cardinals that would begin to sing on warm days in March; a rising pitch followed by a sharp descending tone. At first it sounded like “Rye en. Rye en.” But as Ryan’s adrenaline-induced breaths slowed and the vapor of respiration dissipated, he heard his father’s calls, which were not for him but for their labrador retriever, Lacey. “La-cey! La-cey!”
Panic rushed through him. He squinted into the misty forest, peered again through his rifle scope at the fallen body obscured by trees. Lacey had rested her head on his lap, had greeted him after school with enthusiastic kisses, had interrupted his impromptu games of soccer in the yard. Had he shot Lacey?
Dad’s footsteps became audible; his blaze orange coat cut through the dim woods. Ryan froze, waited for the world to fall, considered leaning forward and letting himself tumble from the tree stand.
But then Dad’s voice cut through the air. “Holy shit! You did it, boy! You got one!”
Lacey came running from the paddocks, panting in that way that made her seem to be smiling.
He had done it. He had pulled a trigger, taken a life. And for a brief second, he had felt united to the forest in some inexplicable way, bound to his kill by some wordless pact. But he had pulled a trigger. And as his dad informed Lacey that the boy was now a man, Ryan saw how helpless he really was.