[Table of Contents]
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
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
"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."
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
"She took me out to lunch last week,
as a sort of early Christmas present, I guess. I think she felt guilty,
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,
"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
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.