Winter Hunt

Michael Jasper

 

[Table of Contents]
[Editor's Note]
[Masthead]
[Guidelines]
[Resources]

In the early morning darkness, Brad Koopman stepped into the tracks his older William made in the snowy hay field, his smaller boots fitting easily into each hole. William had taken the lead automatically, and his broad back deflected most of the bitter Iowa wind, also making it easier for Brad to move. The two brothers walked in silent gray darkness toward the trees as bands of red light filled the sky above them. Their father was deep in the woods, waiting for deer.
      "What time did he get up?" Brad asked his brother's back. The icy air of late December filled his chest, and he immediately regretted opening his mouth. It felt like his lungs were going to freeze.
      "An hour ago, I think," William said without turning around. His voice barely reached Brad's ears.
      Shifting the unfamiliar weight of the compound bow to his right hand, Brad shuffled through the crunching snow to keep up with his brother. Three inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than Brad, William was already breathing in short, fast bursts. Brad caught up to him as they left the clean expanse of the field and entered the overgrown forest where they used to hunt with their father.
      Once they were inside the protective cover of the trees, the winter wind became a rustling sigh. William stopped next to a tree stump and set his bow carefully onto the snow. Resting his hands on his knees, he exhaled long streams of air that floated around his head like the smoke from their farmhouse's small chimney. Brad leaned against a tree with dead, ice-covered leaves dotting its branches, breathing easily. The cold had relented in time for Christmas the day before, then an ice storm had hit last night that sealed the lane and the barns with a coating of clear, slick freeze.
      "How's he been taking it?" Brad asked, filled with a need to know more about his family that he had learned in his past semester away. He hadn't been home since September.
William was silent, his face turned toward the trees to the east. Waiting for an answer, Brad noticed with a strange mix of disappointment and superiority that his older brother's body looked thicker and heavier since his last visit, a thickness heightened by the bulky coveralls William wore to keep out the cold.
      "Brad, you've got to just let it drop. Mom—" He inhaled sharply, as if the word had made him lose his breath again. "She really messed with his head. Let him deal with it in his own way." He picked up his bow and blew a long burst of steamy air from his mouth before turning away.
      Brad followed him down a trail marked by William's fading tracks from earlier that week, stepping softly and slowly to avoid scaring the deer. He felt the unspoken change in William's attitude and demeanor, a tension in his brother's shoulders that marked the start of the hunt. Brad's pulse quickened and his eyes scanned the entire forest with a glance. Lifting and setting down their feet with care, the brothers walked through the brittle layer of ice from the previous night's storm, the noise of their boots threatening to end the hunt with each move they made.
      A heavy stillness hung from the boughs of the icy trees like cobwebs. William pulled an arrow from the quiver on his back and stretched it into the coiled arm of his bow. Brad left his bow unarmed at his side and listened instead to the shadowy forest. Only the sound of snow crunching under their boots gave away the presence of the two hunters.
      When he was young, Brad imagined that he could hear the earth freezing in the crisp coldness of their morning hunts. It sounded like the blood that swirled slowly through his head when he was just about asleep. He remembered when he was eight, waking up next to William in their bed at four in the morning, and he recalled the way his body had trembled from the bite of the air and the excitement of joining his father and big brother on a hunt. The two half-awake boys and their quiet, alert father would walk slowly toward the forest and wait in their treestands for wandering deer. None of them would talk, giving the entire hunt an almost religious aspect. He could recall little of the finger-numbed waiting that had seemed unendurable to his eight-year-old mind, but the memory of returning home to his mother's oatmeal and hot chocolate after the hunt was as vivid as yesterday's solemn Christmas celebration.
      Brad reached in front of him and grabbed William's green and black camouflage coveralls. He pointed at a trail of v-shaped prints in the snow leading south.
      William looked down at the deer tracks for a second, then elbowed Brad in the ribs. "Those are about a week old, dumb ass," he said in a joking voice.
      Suddenly Brad felt eight again. He blinked his eyes, watering from the cold, and watched the orange sliver of the sun creep through the trees to the east. The words slipped out his mouth before he realized what he was saying. "So have you talked to Mom lately?"
      "If I never see that woman again it will be too soon," William whispered. Behind them, a branch cracked, shaking snow and ice onto the ground.
      "You don't mean that. You can't just forget about her because she's not here anymore."
Brad glared at William's hunched shoulders, waiting for his brother to answer him. Someone in this family had to start talking. But all Brad got in return was the silence he had received since coming home for Christmas. Brad exhaled loudly and dropped his gaze.
As if on cue, William made a wordless noise of frustration. He raised his bow and pulled the arrow back in one unbroken motion. The small pulleys groaned at either end of the taut bow for half a second, then he released the blue-feathered arrow with a puff of air, followed almost immediately by a dead crack as the arrow imbedded itself into a tree thirty yards away. William lowered his bow with a guilty glance at his younger brother. Brad felt his mouth hanging open, and he closed it. William's eyes had gone flat and lifeless, and Brad had a fleeting fear that his brother was going to attack him next.
      "You don't understand what's been going on here lately," William said, his voice so calm it scared Brad. He put his hand on Brad's shoulder. "When Mom left, half the cows were sick and we had to bale all the hay before the rain came, and Dad wouldn't stop working long enough to go talk to her at Grandma's. By the time everything on the farm was back to normal, it was too late for Dad to do anything. Then deer season started." Brad could feel his brother's fingers through his four layers of clothing. "Mom's not coming back."
      Brad looked away from the weak morning light casting shadows onto his brother's face, obscuring the angry eyes Brad recognized from their youth. He walked soundlessly through the snow and pulled at William's arrow. It was lodged deep into the frozen wood, but he managed to jerk the arrow out on his third try. He threw it overhead like a spear, and it stuck into the snow at William's feet.
      "I just saw her last week," Brad said, his voice barely a whisper. "She said to wish you a Merry Christmas."

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Halfway through his freshman year of high school, Brad had stopped going on the deer hunts with his father and brother. William was able to balance his love for hunting with his chores and wrestling practices by letting his homework wait until Sunday nights and Monday morning study halls. But Brad wouldn't allow himself to get grades lower than a B. Seeing the toll the never-ending work and worrying had taken on his entire family, he refused to stay on the farm for the rest of his life. He told his mother he wouldn't be able to wrestle if he failed a class, and his father had let Brad sleep while he and William went hunting. With a sudden pang of guilt, Brad realized that he had never thanked his mother for that.
      In the growing light of the forest, Brad froze in mid-step. He heard something large moving off to his left. William, making more noise than usual, walked twenty yards ahead of him and to the right, ignoring him. Breathing softly through his mouth, Brad pulled out an orange-feathered arrow and hunted for the source of the movement, but the sounds had stopped. He scanned his field of vision quickly, then his eyes moved slowly over the gray and brown landscape, searching every detail. A sour taste filled his mouth when he thought about actually using his new bow. A snow-covered fir tree, a small section of thorn bushes, a fat leafless oak, and three more fir trees revealed nothing but snow and ice. His nose began to run, and he inhaled sharply, freezing his nostrils together until he exhaled again.
      He hadn't set his arrow yet, and his bow rested uselessly in his left hand. With an involuntary shudder, he looked at the triangle of the arrow's razor-sharp tip reflecting the weak light. Something crackled ahead of him, and Brad looked up. Edging slowly from behind the leafless oak was a three-point buck.
      Moving mechanically, trying to remember his father's advice, Brad slid the notched plastic end of the arrow down his bowstring until it caught on the tiny ball that marked his sight line. He straightened and locked his left arm and pulled the bowstring with his right, his first two fingers gripping the end of the arrow. His chest expanded with winter air as he stretched the bowstring back as far as he could and held it next to his cheek. Trying not to tremble from the strain, Brad set the buck in his sights.
      The young deer scratched its coarse hindquarters on the oak tree. It stopped suddenly and looked around. Brad knew he had to shoot now if he wanted to kill it. He refused to exhale, poised to release the arrow. His entire body quivered with tension as the buck turned its head and looked directly at him.
      Three things happened in sudden, chain-reaction sequence. To Brad's right, a blue-feathered arrow bulleted through the air. In front of Brad, the buck leaped up with a sneezing sound, arcing its body over the thorn bushes, untouched. An instant later, Brad's arrow shot out of his bowstring and pounded itself into the oak tree.
      William was hurrying past him before Brad could lower his bow. He could still feel the tautness of the bowstring in his aching arms and chest. He watched William chase after the deer, moving surely as a fullback through a field of defenders. He had a sudden memory of William in the last game of his senior year, carrying the ball up the middle with crushing determination. On the plays when his brother didn't carry the ball, Brad watched William even more closely, as he blocked and carried out his fakes with the same relentlessness and grace as he followed the trail of the vanished deer.
      Crunching through the snow, Brad picked up William's arrow from a thorn bush. He tried to pull his own arrow out of the oak, but it was planted deep into the frozen wood. When he heard William noisily trudging back to him, he broke the end of the arrow off and slid the piece into his quiver.
      "You had him in your sights, man," William muttered, panting a little. "You had him, but you just stood there." He stopped to spit, and Brad felt his cheeks grow warm. "I don't know why you wanted to come hunting if you weren't going to try."
      "I had him," Brad said. "But you threw me off." He held out the blue-feathered arrow to his brother. William took hold of the arrow and looked at Brad for a handful of seconds, the arrow between them like a slender bridge. William pulled the arrow from Brad's hand, breathing slowly.
      "So when did you see Mom?" William asked.
      "She took me out to lunch last week, as a sort of early Christmas present, I guess. I think she felt guilty, you know?"
      William shook his head as he nocked the arrow back into his bow. "You always were her favorite, you know that, don't you? Even when I was wrestling varsity and placing in all my tournaments, she always made sure she came to every one of your freshman matches. Figures she wouldn't want to see me before Christmas."
      "That's not it. She's just..." Brad searched for the right words. "Mom happened to be in Iowa City for a few hours, so she stopped by to see me. She wanted to see you, too, but—"
      "But what?"
      "She was afraid you wouldn't want to talk to her." Brad paused. "And that's just how you would have acted. You said just now that you don't ever want to see her again."
      "Maybe," William said, stretching the string of his bow tight and releasing it slowly, his gaze locked on the shadows of the distant trees. He let go of his bowstring and looked at Brad with his blue eyes wide. Brad flinched at the unfamiliar expression on his older brother's face. "You know what? I haven't talked to anyone about all of this until now. I guess that's no surprise, huh? I'm just like Dad, and I don't think I can change that."
      "Yes you can," Brad said before thinking. "Dad doesn't realize how he's acting, but you do. He's as angry and confused as we are. He just won't admit it."
      William lowered his bow. "I'm worried about him. He's almost stopped talking, period. He works in the barns until nine or ten, then he drinks himself to sleep in front of the TV. Then he gets up and he hunts. If it wasn't hunting season, I know he'd go nuts."
      Brad looked at the new compound bow in his hands, the only gift his father had given him yesterday. When he had opened the box, Brad had been speechless, knowing how expensive the bow was and how little he would use it. There weren't many opportunities to hunt at the university. He had thanked his father again and again and promised to go hunting with him as soon as possible.
      "There's nothing to do," William continued, "but keep on working and try to forget, I suppose. Maybe Mom was right to leave."
      "Why do you think that?" Brad had thought the same thing, but he didn't think William had noticed their mother's eyes growing distant, or her warm smile fading a little bit more with each winter.
      "It's this place, I think. She never liked the cold, and she didn't like us hunting with Dad. And then once you left, I think she realized it was going to be just her and Dad someday, and that scared her. Maybe I should've done more. At all those supper tables when the three of us just sat there, nobody talking or looking at anyone. But it was too hard. They were too loud just sitting there being quiet, you know?"
      Brad nodded. He thought of his father's face, hidden behind his winter beard, when they had exchanged presents yesterday. He had seen him smile now and then, but all day his father looked dark and troubled, like afternoon sky overwhelmed by early nightfall. "We'd better get going, I guess," he muttered. "Dad's going to be wondering where we are, and we're already late."
      In the trees around them, the shadows were breaking up and dissolving. The best time to hunt was now, Brad could hear his father saying, since the deer were out looking for nuts and berries. He would be leaving his treestand soon to go back and start milking the cows. They walked around a line of evergreens and down a sharp incline.
      "Shh," William said and pointed. "Dad's treestand is right up there. He'll be pissed if he doesn't shoot something this season. Let me go first."
      Brad nodded. William took the lead, and as they stepped lightly through the trees, Brad's mind returned to his mother. When he had met her a week ago for lunch, she was wearing a light blue dress under her thick jacket, a dress he had never seen before. He surprised himself by admiring her figure, which had always been hidden in baggy work jeans and modest church dresses. Her gray and brown hair was permed and brushed away from her forehead in a style that highlighted her blue eyes.
      When she hugged him, Brad felt like he was putting his arms around a stranger. She smelled like lilacs and Ivory soap. There were tears in the corners of her eyes when she pulled away.
      During the meal, they talked about everything but his father. Brad told her about school and his plans to go home for the winter break. She talked about why she left the farm. How one morning last winter the pipes had frozen and her car wouldn't start, and she had felt trapped and abandoned on the farm.
      "Everyone was gone," she said, "hunting." She said the word like she was swearing. She had gone back to bed and slept the rest of the day, because she couldn't find the strength to get up. This fall, after all this time, she'd finally found the strength.
      Brad had wanted to leave before his meal was finished. The mother of his memories wasn't the same woman sitting across from him. This woman was already on the road to a sunny, warm place that had no cows or snow or iced-over barns. He fell silent, pushing his food around on his plate, until she asked about William. She wanted to know if he ever talked about her. Brad didn't know his brother well enough to answer her questions. His family had become a group of strangers.
      Following William between two bare trees, Brad inhaled the sharp air again. He thought about the buck that had been in his sights earlier, leaping without effort over the thorn bushes the instant it heard William's arrow cutting the air. Brad wished he could leap back over the past few months and make everything right again. He wished he could talk to his father and tell him what he should have done to avoid all this. And, despite his anger and disappointment, he wished he could have told his mother he loved her before she left him at his dormitory last week.
      Ahead of him, William stopped in the middle of the trail, staring into the trees. Brad looked up and saw what had grabbed William's attention. It was their father, standing twenty feet above the ground, unmoving.
      The rising sun silhouetted his body on the narrow tree stand. His legs were shoulder's width apart, and his back was slightly arched. Drawing back his bowstring, he aimed down into the undergrowth. Brad followed the angle made by his father's bow and found a twelve-point buck almost forty yards away. The massive buck chewed the bark from a tree, its flank moving ponderously with each steamy breath. Its rack would have weighed down a smaller buck's head, but this one carried its weight with ease. Brad glanced at William, who watched their father with eyes full of awe, a mirror of what Brad felt on his own face. Brad turned back to their father.
      He adjusted his bow one final time, raising it a fraction of an inch. Everything was still. The buck stopped chewing and lifted its head toward the risen sun. Brad felt fierce pride well up inside of him, and he felt close to understanding both the man standing next to him and the man in the treestand above him. Their father held the bow without shaking as he pointed at the buck, waiting. The silence in the trees lasted for three full seconds. Then, with a tiny movement of his fingers, at the end of a fruitless and bitter season, Brad and William's father released his hissing arrow across the forest.

 
 

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"Winter Hunt" originally appeared in The Stirring.

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Michael Jasper is from the American Midwest, but he left in 1994 and hasn't looked back since, though much of his writing is set there. He has written a mainstream novel set in Iowa and a fantasy novel set in past and present Chicago, and he has co-written a horror novel that takes place in Nebraska. He is currently working on a science fiction novel that just happens to be set in various locations in the midwestern region of Canada and America. His short fiction has been published in Asimov's, Writers of the Future (vol. 16), Strange New Worlds IV, Strange Horizons, Future Orbits, NeverWorlds, The Raleigh News and Observer, The Pedestal Magazine, PIF Magazine, and O. Henry Festival Stories 1998, among others.