Dad and I had each of us shot a buck and back at the truck we shared with quiet abandonment how it all had gone down. We were leaning against my grandpa’s Ford. Grandpa came up and congratulated me. Patted me on the head, ruffled what he referred to as “the curls.” He clunked his bow down onto the back of the truck like he was done for the night, but I hoped he’d come tracking with us. I needed him. Dad being new to this he couldn’t say what his deer looked like, how many points. He knew he hit it, he said. Knew it had antlers.
“You got your arrow?” grandpa said. Dad said no.
We were still talking, Dad and I, figuring out where to go in, when I heard grandpa reaching back into the truck, digging around for his bow.
“You get one too?” my father asked him. Grandpa shot the tracking light across the length of the marsh, beamed it thick and clear and white. Then turning to me, he said, “You ready, son?”
Hours the three of us searched, tracking in the cold with headlamps shining, our shoulders and necks steaming gray and dark like ghosts. I thought on the depths to which a wounded animal will travel, worried for what little blood we had going for us. And happy as I was having dad with me, his first and what would be his only time coming with, it was grandpa I needed. Here, all I had learned I had learned from him, the folded blades of grass and the circling of the blood. I’d turn back to him, longing for him to lead us. But back he stayed, spotlighting.
Those days I had the energy for it. Being who I was, how I felt about things. I was a fourteen-year-old kid, a child really, already with two arrowed bucks to my name. If asked who I was, I would have liked to have said a bowhunter. Wisconsin, public land, bowhunter.
We searched for dad’s buck, for grandpa’s buck, and finding neither I worried they’d maybe hunted too close to one another. When dad was out of earshot, grandpa said, “Buck fever for your old man is my guess, son, I’m not sure he saw what he said he saw.” Grandpa said nothing about his buck, how it looked, where he’d hit him.
I took a detour to recover my own buck. Forty-five yards he went, right where I left him, no blood until the end. I dressed it out, showing dad how. I still kept the mesh stomach lining back then, and cutting it off the deer that night I explained to dad why and how we’d wrap it around the heart. “Worth the effort?” he asked me. Of course, I told him. We dragged my buck to the truck. Then we crossed back into the woods, zig-zagging past dad’s stand, past grandpa’s stand, and were about to start tracking, searching for dad’s buck, for grandpa’s buck, when it began to rain.
Frustrated, and with all of us about ready to give up for the night, I did as grandpa had taught me. I returned to first blood. I searched, picking at random clumps of windfall and brush.
And there it was. A second buck, in a brush pile.
I shouted for them. Out of the darkness came my father. And I caught a glimpse of our growing similarities. His shy big teeth and smile, his complexion darkened in the rain, that much darker than my own, the reserve in his gait, how he held his back, his tall, handsome, broad shoulders.
We were close to dad's stand, and we all knew it. This was before cell phones, when the maps were in your head. Excited, I watched my father approach. It was his buck, I knew it, his first buck, and it was a beaut, and to have gotten it done in his first night out. I had no thought of a third buck just then or of anything else.
There were coyotes yipping. But they were a ways off.
I heard grandpa’s boots sweeping through the marsh, he was behind my father still, but close, suddenly. He stopped and stood quiet in the dark shaking his head, his bow at his side. I saw he’d nocked an arrow. I waited for him to say something, but he didn’t.
I watched and waited. In my mind I jumped to the part where I could tell my mother the story. Dad, grandpa, and me cozying up at the woodstove in that beat-up shitbox of a trailer where we stayed when we hunted. But that isn’t what happened.
Sometimes hunting I would be at the trailer with uncles and visitors grandfather had invited to come with. I was a natural bowhunter, they would say. Sort of special. Different.
Late October, early November weekends, or September scouting and contending with ticks and skeeters and the like but seeing sign, I would be met with their surprise and confusion. Remarks on how I was maybe not yet a part of my father, who was black, and where did I therefore come from? These talks I was long familiar with, silenced by at school and elsewhere, not black enough and not white like my mother. It was enough for me to want to be alone. At the trailer, in the woods, I could be alone, and the talk would seamlessly slip into hunting and technique, secrets of where to find’ em and how to track ’em and how big and wild with bears and wolves and the like, and all the adventure. I tolerated it all so long as it ended with me in the woods. Hunting. In nature.
Who grandfather was, that this hateful, fearfulness was a part of who he was, and that what he held against my father he did not so much hold against me was a thing I’d known all along. I hadn’t wanted to deal with it was all. I was only fourteen.
Grandpa tapped the buck’s dead, open eye. Laid his bow across the belly of the buck and bent beside it. Raised its head, stroking its neck. He manhandled the antlers, marveling, counting. “Eight. Nine. Ten. And would you look at these brows,” he said. To my father, that is to my father’s boots, he said, “Now, you don’t have your arrow. Is that right?”
I realized what was happening. I stayed beside my father, behind him.
What had been for me in other circumstances and at other times, kind and nurturing teaching moments—my grandfather kneeling, explaining to me with depth and admiration and a manly kind of joy how arrows take flight and function, and what mass and speed will do to a deer when hit properly and talking about lung blood, the physics of the bow and arrow recurve, lessons in life and death, how things work—these things were shared now with my father, only the tone was off. The purpose different, I sensed.
Grandpa opened the buck right quick, dressing it as if it were his own.
“No, you’d remember this one,” he was saying, his face towards the deer. He was up to his elbows in the thing, reaching, pulling. He made the final cut and stripped away everything that had been inside.
“Sure it wasn’t smaller?” he said. “Sure you even hit it? Because again, without that arrow,” he said, leaning onto the deer, “a lot of this is, well, speculation.” Dad shot a three-blade, 125 grain broadhead. Grandpa, a heavier two-blade. Had dad missed cleanly and found his arrow, we’d of known. Had his arrow passed through the deer and we found it bloodied with hair and heart, that would have been evidence that this was his buck. Grandpa was right. Without the arrow, there was cause for debate. What was available was inside the cavity. A slit or a triangle at the exit hole. The cavity, as I had been taught, would show what was what, and I tried to peer inside it. But grandpa waved me away. “Nothing to see here.”
I suppose I can see how he might have seen things. Maybe he felt outnumbered. I watched the whites of his eyes. His knife.
“We’ll pick it up tomorrow,” he said. He stood before me and my father. Muttered about the rain and the blood. “Blood is thicker, sure,” he said. He grasped my shoulder. “But it’s gonna wash out.” Then he said, “Alright, son. Time to get these boys home.”
And that has stuck with me till this day.
When you hunt deer in Wisconsin, hunt deer, period, when you bowhunt, whether with the compound where I’d started and Dad started and finished, or the traditional recurve and longbow, you learn things. You gain an intimacy with nature. Before bud break, before the maples leaf-out and catch sail and while the grounds are still frozen, you hunt for sheds. Where their bedding areas are. Whether to hunt back, further and further back, or to hunt closer to the road, the spots right below the proverbial nose of other hunters. How to dress properly, and keep your heart steady and not sweat. Whether to start in half naked so as to not sweat, and how to service your boots, weather them properly, and bow maintenance, and dampening the metal along the tree stands you carried in. Scent management. Wind checks. Waking up, and checking the wind, and only then saying, okay here’s my plan. The pines for creeping in quiet and the smell after a rain. The edge of a marsh. A funnel. The drama of the snap of a broken branch, knowing “Deer!” A sixer, or an eight, ten-pointer, a spike wary in its approach, staggering through oaks and acorns and the rattling fallen leaves. Savannah. Re-gen. The phases of the moon, and which to follow.
All of it I had loved and lived for.
I did try and talk with grandpa about it. He couldn’t remember what antlers were what, he was saying. This was on the drive up, in his truck. He’d pulled me from school that morning, spoken to the school principal. He met me at my classroom and simply said, “You ready or what?” One of those crisp fall mornings, peak of the rut, and where the oaks had turned, a cold snap in the forecast, and how could I not be? Another year he said outright he didn’t want to talk about it. He adjusted the dampener on the woodstove, and marched us out that morning with the chamber too wide open instead of shutting it halfway, the way he’d taught me for such-and-such weather and for x amount of hours left for hunting still. As if to spite him I shot a ten-pointer that afternoon, my fifth. Drug it home to a cold grumpy trailer. The last time I talked to him about it, confronted him about it, I was eighteen and a year away from leaving the state.
We were on the porch of the trailer, drinking beers when I asked him whether it could have been dad’s buck that we found, and that maybe what he’d taken didn’t belong to him, and would he even consider the possibility of this. The back of his hand shot right up in front of me. Him eyeing me, that familiar look of where I was wrong. Like what I was saying was wrong. Like who I was, was wrong, like I was some thing before him.
But after a moment he calmed himself. The red in his face draining away. He chuckled then. And with a sniff said, “You people are something else. Everybody-owes-me-a-living, more like your dad, I guess,” he said as if to himself. Then held out the beer in hand, gestured, and said, “Or maybe more your mom.”
He had otherwise not been a monster. Or so I often told myself.
The night dad, grandpa, and I went hunting I called my mother. I was pained to find how right grandpa was. She was drinking. Drunk. Repetitive in her speech. The child in me didn’t know what her drinking meant or where it came from, or even if I had to bother with it, really, and I opted not to tell her what had happened.
I closed that chapter in my life as a thing that was done and over with.
But I kept hunting.
I hunted Colorado, Montana, lonely white towns in big lonely white states, chasing elk and hunting mule deer, and between college and work I felt no clue as to when or if I’d return to hunt the flat, near driftless lands of my youth. When dad passed, I came home but not to the trailer. And when grandpa passed I did the same.
Had my mother not come to visit me out west I’m not sure if anything would have changed. She was sober then, for that visit, and was about to leave for the airport. She asked me then, and I told her. About dad. About the buck. About grandpa.
“You’re upset for something that happened, something that you think happened ten years ago?”
“Mom, it’s more than that.”
“It is what it is, son. You know your father,” she said. “You know your grandfather.”
Ten years had passed since grandpa stole dad’s buck, six years had passed since I’d broken free from grandpa. The four years I’d hunted with him still and knowing full well who he was and what he was capable of, that part was past also.
Truth of it was I was beginning to feel like I’d never go back there.
A week later my phone rang, a call in the night, so I knew it was my mother. I knew better, but I picked up anyway.
“You know, when I was younger, he used to make me walk home from school? And there were these five, or six big ugly farm dogs. Used to terrorize me.”
“Mom. It’s late.”
“Gave me a stick, your grandfather did. And he told me to deal with it. Anywho, I’m calling to let you know that I’m selling the land. Unless you want it. I’m done with it.”
Once, before I was old enough to move away, I had tried for the late season bow, what is sometimes called “second rut,” and listening then to my mother still talking and maybe or maybe not drunk, my mind instinctively knew that this was where we were in the Wisconsin archery season and I began plotting.
Late season bow is a cold, harsh season. Lonely, isolated. It was a season I had come to on my own, before leaving the state. A season I used to break free from grandpa. He couldn’t hunt it, he told me. Couldn’t believe I was going out for it. Too cold, he said. The deer were too hard to pattern there, and his shoulders were bothering him. He looked confused, and lost. He asked couldn’t I come up and hunt with him. Like old times. I said nothing, and turned away.
I told my mom I’d let her know soon about the land. I said good-bye and I pulled out my old Bear recurve, and set the bag up in the garage, thinking it through. Timing for the late season was challenging. Luck was always a factor. The right place and the right time.
Dead center, shot one, and a clean release. Twelve yards. A second shot at twenty, split the shaft of the first, and I called it good.
I knew where I was going.
I thought it might end there. Black man, early thirties, bowhunter, loner, resolves to go back to where he came from. Shoots a deer. Drags it out himself, and so on.
I pulled into the frozen drive and saw the trailer that I remembered somehow still standing. The haunts from the past. I had been thinking about dad, grandpa, thinking about mom, distracted. I still needed tags, a license. Always grandpa and I had gotten the tags together. This was when you got them from a store, proper. I checked the phone. No service.
I had to get my bearings. I had to get the fire started. The tags for buck and or doe I would purchase later. In person. Who was going to say otherwise.
I knew it was more than deer and hunting. All through the long flat cold drive through Nebraska, into Wisconsin I had remembered. As always, I was here to not think about things, to get a deer, and to not freeze to death while doing so. I was here as well for my mother. Or wanted to be. I wanted to try to understand. How she and my father had managed as a couple. How she’d tolerated grandpa. How could she not have known all along?
She hadn’t sold it, the real estate agent told me. But it was going on the market. And yes I would need to make a decision soon, dude told me. Then he shared with me about my grandpa. Kept me on that phone, telling me how great he was.
“Many a fond memory of that man, a tall man” he was saying. “He ever tell you how we used to go hunting together?” he asked me.
Late season was going to be bad. Historically bad. A cold-snap of straight, brutal negative-forty-five degrees. I didn’t know if the deer would go into second rut or not. But move they would have to. For food. Fleeting comfort. Winter kill. Their days of hiding all day in a sit were over.
I stockpiled firewood. Fired up the woodburner, put the dampener on, proper. Then, searching for phone bars outside in the cold, quiet, I called my mother.
“Christ, son,” my mother said, “you’re there already?”
No one lived up there, certainly not after the holidays, and the town proper was eight miles south of the woods. What houses were here were cabins. Hunting shacks. There were no parks or water parks, no industry. Just fifty square miles of sparsely managed wilderness. “Just,” my grandfather and I used to joke. As if this were all just nothing.
Most of that first day back I drove the roads, backtracking if they were too snowed in. Whenever I got out I felt the winter sun. The quiet, the beauty of it. None of that had changed. I was driving to where dad, grandpa, and I had met at his truck, the place where everything in my life had still felt possible. I somehow got turned around, went too far south. Turning back towards it I reasoned out loud, there wasn’t anything left there anyway. No deer. No resolution.
I was still driving, searching for a new block to hunt, staring at rows of dead big ash trees and trying to figure out my next moves. I needed to purchase those damn tags where that good for nothing eye-balling son-of-a-bitch behind the counter maybe still worked. When my mother called me, I pulled over.
“The first dog I wacked. Right on its snout. And can you believe it,” my mother said, laughing, “it ran off?!” After a while she stopped laughing. She asked me if I had caught anything yet.
“No,” I said, “I haven’t caught anything.”
“You should just sell the place, you know. Be done with it. Or keep it, if you like. I don’t care.”
“I have to get my tags, Mom,” I said.
“Oh, but what about the other farm dogs, I haven’t told you the rest. Okay, next time.”
I was drinking at the trailer, stoking the fire when I began practicing the speech. I had been working on it. It went like this: I call my mom, wait for her to pick up, hoping for sober. Tell her I’m here for a reason. That it’s different now, or can be different now, now that both grandpa and dad are gone. If you could call me sometime when you aren’t drinking, if you felt like you could do that—without the booze?—I’d appreciate it. I’m hoping you can understand, mom. Where I’m coming from, I would say.
But I wasn’t going back out into that cold. Not yet.
At night when she was drinking, my mother would call me. Forgetting what we’d talked about and how I preferred it if she didn’t call me while in such a state, only now that I was at the trailer and was much closer to home it was different. And sometimes at night me drinking as well, having braved the damn cold all day and seen nothing, who was I to judge? The cell phone service was weak, inconsistent. Out where I split wood, I could pick up service. A buzz from my chest. “PHONE CALL MISSED!” and “VOICEMAIL!” I would not call her back at night. Nor would I accept her calls too far past noon. In the mornings, driving out, north and west towards the refuge, to scout or if chance permitted to hunt, I would call her. An excuse to thaw out, I’d tell her, if she picked up. Always in the mornings.
Day three I drove over close as I could to the block where dad and grandpa and I had hunted. Here as promised was that negative forty-degree temperature. The road was snowed in something horrible and no tracks. A ditch, I knew, lined the perimeter of the block and the last thing I needed was a tow truck driver eyeing me. Asking me what my business was out there. I parked and got out and walked it.
At the edge of the block an elevation began. Just twenty-five feet. Enough to keep me from seeing what was coming. Where dad had hung his stand, where grandfather had hung his stand. Where I’d stood by, just a kid. There would be no tracks other than my own. I could measure the distance. I was cold, curious.
What I found, cresting that hill was a clearcut. Saplings blown down with how many feet of snow. No evidence we’d ever been there, hunted there. As if nothing had happened. For a while I walked back over it, thinking. I turned back. Spotted a line of fresh tracks. My heart jumped but my energy was waning. I cut out for the day. In the truck I took my shelter.
I knew why grandpa stole my father’s deer—he both hated and feared my father. But I wanted to know what my mother thought. In the truck I called her.
The line on the other end went quiet. Eventually mom said, “I know where you’re going with this. And son, I’m just not going to go down that road with you. Understand?”
I didn’t need to call her back to know what she was doing. What I was doing.
The wind shifted that next morning. And there was fresh sign beside the tracks from earlier. Further back I found beds. Steaming beds, dead brown grass in the snow. Chasing tracks. I could smell’em!
I climbed up onto a stand and waited. Not ten minutes later a doe came out. Walking slowly in that terrible cold. Head up, searching, weary, head down. Then another doe. A third one after that.
No doe tag, but no one to tell me no tag either. But not if I didn’t have to I wasn’t going to do that. Two hours I sat, waiting for a buck. I was where I needed to be. But I also, desperately, needed to come down and warm up.
Finally, shivering, quiet as I could, I got myself off the stand, careful not to fall and lose myself.
In the truck I blasted the heat. Thought about the tags. Thought I’d do it later. I called my mother to tell her, yeah maybe I would keep the land, but she didn’t pick up. I changed my socks. Ate a sandwich. Called her again, no response.
On my way back to the stand I bumped a devil buck but it didn’t blow out. With a commanding view of all the glory below me I waited. Fresh oily scat, a scrape not far off, and the terrible wind in my face. This was it.
The buck that came in, was different, wounded. From fighting, maybe, a bad shot during rifle, bow, or muzzle.
An eight on one side, an awkward branch on the other. I had an hour of light to work with, and was shaking for the cold. For a long a time it hobbled towards me, circling me, curious of the one low long roar I’d laid down for it. It came closer and closer. Its curiosity getting the better of it.
It presented broadside, twenty yards, and I saw its mouth, awkwardly open, its eyes bulging, the limp in the hind legs. At ten yards I felt confident in my ability to shoot it in the neck and drop it.
Maybe it was sick, the meat spoiled, but I could at least saw the rack off, a skull-mount, why not? In any case, put it out of its misery. Grandpa would have wanted me to do it. It felt like the right thing to do. I didn’t have my tags. It was the only deer I’d had in range.
I drew back, slowly coming to anchor, steady, I was saying no to myself. No and just maybe, no, and why not. Then I said it out loud. “No!” Loudly, and to the deer. It stopped in its tracks but even then it didn’t pin me. It didn’t know, didn’t want to see the danger, the man in the tree at full draw. I felt anger and wanted to blast it. But I didn’t. Instead I scared it good. I hollered at it to get the hell away from here. With what strength it had left, it turned, limped away, and was gone.
Mom had a point. “You know your father. You know your grandfather.” As a kid, I wouldn’t have been deterred from grandpa’s woods had they told me not to go there. My parents had let me go because what choice did they have, and maybe dad had come with that one time to show me the hopelessness of it, I don’t know. They had avoided the talk of it because they were incapable of talking about it.
That night I sat in the truck, listening to the wolves closing in. That deer was done for. Soon they’d track it down and kill it.
I thought on the next day, another grey and too cold to snow day, thought too on the next season, returning to hunt for its remains. Get my skull-mount that way, legal. There would be other deer, other chances. I’d let the trailer go. Too many memories. Too much to fix. The land was a different thing though. It was a changing thing. I’d keep the land. I’d pay for it and it would be mine. I’d have all of the greater parts of this state, far as I wanted, me and the elements, license in hand, within range.
In the truck, the cold outside was piercing my neck and shoulders. One of the wolves let out a good one. I was eager to hear’ em once more. To see one. Mom, I would visit. But I understood that for as long as my mother and I failed to communicate, there would be no getting anywhere with any of this. I would be alone this. I cut the engine and the lights over that stretch of snow and old grey woods went back to what they’d been before me. I was listening for one more cry, their ghostly howls, and for a long time, instead of driving away, I put the window up, and waited.
Always my interactions with hunters and while hunting public land have been warm, generous, and supportive. But I also know something about resentment, the human heart, and how otherwise good men can fail. The racism of this particular grandfather is familiar to me. So too is the dismissiveness of feelings shown by both the narrator in the beginning, the grandfather throughout, and the mother in the end: our Midwestern “it is what it is; it could be worse.”
It might have been easier had I set the story during rifle season, where folks are sometimes “burning a box” just to get the opener started. Here the phenomenon of whose buck is whose and how things can get lost is more common. A hunter makes a poor shot, the deer runs, wounded, and another hunter shoots the same deer, and claims it belongs to them. It can happen with the bow and arrow, though not as easily. And given how intimate bowhunting already is, it’s a far more sinister and deliberate theft.
Black people do hunt, though we’re not often shown doing so. I know for me, and for this narrator, there is something both terrifying and thrilling to walk into a wooded area, armed. People have been murdered for far less. There’s an inherent tension to it all, peaceful as it is.
Ten years ago I started writing this story and I have gone through innumerable drafts: drafts centering the father of this story, drafts showing more of the grandfather, drafts focusing on the mother and how she tolerated the grandfather, drafts on the narrator and how he came to be. For now, this is where I’ve come to with it.