I lost my wife to these woods.
That probably should have kept me away from them, but it didn’t. Not long anyway. Sure, I moped around at home for a while like any man, but I had a son to raise, and I had to get myself together whichever way I could. This was my way.
But this time I brought our son. He sat beside me, barely able to contain the grin on his face. He had waited so long for this chance, to carry a rifle and be a man. Like me. I wanted to tell him that there was more to being a man than going into the woods alone and coming back with food to put on the table. Heck, a guy could do this for years and not amount to much of a man.
Jeffrey probably knew that. He was a smart kid, one who brought home better grades than either his mom or I ever did. We stopped being able to help him with his homework by the time he hit the fifth grade.
I know there’s more to smarts than schoolin’, but Jeffrey’s pretty rounded all around. It’s a thing I can’t quite put into words. You just have to see him grow. That’s what Beverly always told me. I tended to shrug her off in those days. I saw him plenty, I figured. I only hope she knows that I do see him now. He’s grown so much in the past two years.
We both have. I may not be able to etch my progress in the door frame near the garage, but I can see it in the lack of beer cans in the fridge. I feel it when I wake up in the morning with recollection of what happened the night before.
I wish I didn’t have the memories, but now I’m brave enough to face them. It scares me facing something that my gun is powerless to help me against. Sometimes I cling to it, hold it close, too close, knowing the entire time that this weapon can’t offer me victory, only an instant escape.
If it weren’t for Jeffrey, I would have run away.
“How long do we wait?” Jeffrey asked in a whisper.
“As long as it takes,” I replied, quicker, more dismissively than I wanted to. The smile faded from Jeffrey’s face, but only for a moment.
Hunting consists of a lot of waiting. We don’t move. We don’t talk. Deer can see and hear better than we can. They can smell better too. So it doesn’t do us any good to go trouncing about, bombarding their senses and telling the whole forest that we’re here.
The long stretches of waiting, of sitting alone far away from any sign of the outside world, were what drew me to hunt so often. Fights were easier to deal with during hunting season. I had a way to get out and give Beverly her space. It was my way of calming things down. During the rest of the year, we would fight out the whole fight. Then I’d drink. Well, drink more. In those days, I always drunk.
Hunting was something I did alone, and that was reason enough to feel hesitant about bringing Jeffrey along. When we lost Beverly, that just made it harder. But it meant a lot to him, and there wouldn’t be many chances where I could do something that would mean so much. Better I not squander this one away.
Throughout the next couple of hours, Jeffrey squirmed about more often than he should, occasionally scooting his feet and shifting leaves. Then at some point, he saw one. How he saw it before me, I don’t know, but he saw it alright, and he wanted me to know. Not knowing what to do, he said something.
“Huh?” I grunted.
“Right there,” he pointed, and I followed his finger just in time to see the buck scurry off. Over the next few hours, we didn’t see another one. We could wait longer, but as hunger hit us, there was a good chance everything could hear us whether we talked or not.
“I’m sorry, Pops,” Jeffrey said after we exited the woods.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“Does it often go like this?”
I looked at him, edging him on.
“You know, not getting to shoot anything.”
“Sometimes, yeah. But we’ll try again tomorrow.”
Jeffrey was all grin as he started to unload his things into the truck. This brought the briefest of smiles to my face. It faded as I turned back towards the woods.
I could still hear Beverly’s voice, asking why I had spent all day squatting between trees, insisting that I didn’t go back out again the next day. We have a family, she would say. We have a son.
Then one day she tripped going down the stairs while carrying kitchen supplies from the attic. The fall split her head open, not in a splat, but enough for her to die right there.
Only old people die from falling in their own homes. How could this have happened?
If I hadn’t been out hunting that day, I would possibly have been home to get her immediate help. If I came back sooner, there’s a chance I could have done something in time to make a difference.
But by the time I pulled into the yard, buck in the back of the truck, calling for someone to come see, her body was already cold.
I couldn’t bring myself to go hunting after that, not for a while. But at the end of the day, hunting was the healthiest way I knew how to cope with things. I couldn’t stay drunk, not with a boy in the house. I couldn’t keep getting into bar fights and having run-ins with the cops. I had to man up. I had a son to raise.
I only hope Beverly can see how hard I’m trying.