My footprint nearly filled my father’s as I followed him in the frosty woods. The sun was sleeping somewhere beyond the trees that surrounded us, the only sound the soft crunching of our footsteps. The brown leather quiver on my father’s back was filled with three red fletched arrows. He was slightly stooped as he walked, head down, choosing his steps carefully in the dark morning.
Charlie, my father, woke me at four that morning with a mumbled, “Time to go.” He was already dressed in his camouflage coveralls, but his boots were still by the door. He shuffled quietly around the trailer in green wool socks. I poured myself a cup of coffee, standing in the kitchen in my pajamas. Two scalding sips and I put the cup down, listening for the sounds of my younger sister, Laura, a sixteen year old who detested all things related to the outdoors. Then, I dressed quickly in my room, tucking my long hair down into the back of the coveralls, pulling on two pairs of socks, and lacing myself into my boots. I picked up my bow and quiver from the hooks on the living room wall, the special place where Charlie and I had hung our bows since I was eight. The only other words my father spoke to me were as we left, “Shut the door, Alana.”
* * *
I’d come home the night before at midnight, my key scraping belligerently against the cheap door handle of our 70’s era trailer. I didn’t want to come back, but Charlie’s phone call two days before had brought me anyway. He said that Laura wanted me to come home for Thanksgiving, but we both knew it was a lie. He asked me to go hunting.
Tomorrow would be Thanksgiving. My mother had died in early January, nearly eleven months ago. After she died, the artificial Christmas tree still stood in the living room where she had set it up. It was still gaily decorated in bright red bows, colored balls dulled by a layer of dust. We had moved around it, as we moved around everything. By Easter I had moved out. It was time, anyway. I was nineteen.
* * *
Charlie and I finally reached the edge of the woods. There was a deer path near us. The grass was flattened, but not worn away. There were rubs on the saplings, the inner bark revealing where the deer had scraped the soft velvet from their antlers. I followed him to a predetermined spot in the brush where we had a good view of the path and room to move around. A few rows of beans still squatted low in the dark field, brittle and dry, untouched by the autumn harvest. The deer would come here to feed. We would wait for them.
Crouching in the dark, Charlie took one of his red fletched arrows and nocked it on his bow. I reached over my shoulder into my own quiver and felt the stiff feathers of an arrow against my fingertips. I pulled it out and examined it in the dark. I hadn’t shot the bow since I left home, but I didn’t tell Charlie that. The feathers of my arrow were dark green, the cock feather black. I knocked it, the small sound seeming impossibly loud in the silence of the woods. I sat down on the hard ground, while Charlie knelt. His gray eyes stared across the field, nowhere near the deer path, and I wondered what he was looking for.
* * *
Up until my sixteenth birthday, my father was my hero. He worked at a meatpacking plant in Rocksaw, leaving home with a thermos of coffee every morning at four-thirty and coming home each evening at six with a bottle in a brown bag. My mother stayed home and chain smoked, vacuuming the carpet twice a day. She was beautiful. She had reminded me more than once that she was once Queen of the Clay County Fair. She died of cancer when she was thirty-seven.
After she died, my father took the bed out of their room, replacing it with a long, narrow couch. He built a workbench out of yellow two-by-fours and began fletching arrows beneath the yellow light of an old desk lamp. He straightened the shafts, staring down their lengths, reading the curves of the wood as some men read the curves of a woman. He stained the shafts red mahogany and leaned them up against the sky blue wall of the bedroom, a color my mother had picked to make her happy in those last months. The shafts left small brown marks on the wall when the stain was wet. When they were dry, Charlie would taper the ends, letting the tiny curls of wood fall on the carpet, heaping in tiny drifts. He put a small, red plastic nock on one end of each shaft. He fletched all of his arrows with stiff red feathers, tiny bits of them scattering around the fletch jig. When that was finished, he glued on a carefully sharpened broad head. The results were stunning; he couldn’t stop. Then he made gray fletched arrows, green and black, blue and white. He made the angles beautiful, used three, four, even six feathers on some arrows. He stained them mahogany, maple, and pine. The arrows lay in piles in the closet; in heaps by the door; a green-fletched mahogany lay near the coffee pot, a pink-fletched maple on top of the television.
In those first few months that I lived at home, he did not come out of his room to eat, at least not when we were there. Laura and I ate alone in the small kitchen, leaning against avocado-colored counters, both of us avoiding the empty chairs at the table. Charlie would come home from work, go to his room and not reappear until it was time to leave for the plant. Finally, I began leaving plates of food in front of his bedroom door. Sometimes he would empty them. Other times I would find them still there when I went to bed, the macaroni lumpy and congealed and the fish sticks cold and soggy. On weekends he would disappear into the woods, his quiver on his back and his bow in his hand. But always, on those other nights, he made the arrows.
* * *
The wait was cold. My coveralls were getting tight; I’d had them since I was fifteen. I’d filled out since then, grown breasts and wider hips. I studied my boots, traced the tread on the bottom with my mind. My father was silent, still staring away from the deer path. The sun was rising, burning pink at the edge of the earth. The beans stood dark and black against the fluorescent sky. Then, a small movement near the deer path caught my eye. There he was. A beautiful eight point buck, just like my father had told me on the phone yesterday. I could follow the movement of powerful muscles in his tawny hide, highlighted by morning sun. The buck stepped cautiously from the woods, his delicate nose sniffing the cool air. We were downwind from him, careful to come up that way so that he’d not catch our scent. He trotted out to the bean patch, nosing the plants before he before he began to eat. There was no need to move; he was perfectly positioned, his body perpendicular to mine. I looked over at Charlie, his graying hair peeking out from beneath his stocking cap, his eyes not unfocused as before, but studying mine. He gave me a nod. I could smell the coffee on his breath.
I kneeled and raised my arm, holding the bow as Charlie had taught me when I was eight. Grasp it along your lifeline; not too tight. I placed the meat of my first three fingertips, protected by my leather glove, on the bowstring around the arrow. I found the deer, aimed in his kill zone. Pick a hair out of place, a spot. Aim small, miss small. I found it. A tiny fleck of brown in his kill zone, where his lungs should be. Pull back, elbow up, but not too high. The pull of my muscles burned; it had been too long since I had shot the bow. Fingertips to lips, kiss the arrow goodbye. I released, jerking up a tiny bit at the last moment, following the green fletching through the air, knowing it would miss, hating myself for it. Before my arrow landed in the field behind the deer, Charlie was already pulling back his bowstring, releasing his arrow. The deer heard my arrow land in the soft dirt, raised his head from the bean patch, but it was too late. The red-fletched arrow seared through the air, embedding itself in the kill zone. A lung shot, I was sure. Charlie always made a clean kill; a quick kill. The deer jerked, ran four steps and fell down in the dirt.
“You haven’t been practicing,” Charlie said. His voice was tight and rusty, unused. He did not require a reply; he was stating a fact.
I was glad I missed completely. If I had hit the deer too far back from the kill zone, Charlie would have been disappointed, even more so than now. A bad hit was a slow death, painful. The deer would run away, wounded and panicked. A good hunter would track him for miles, finish him off. A bad one would let him go, wait for another deer.
Charlie seemed to be reading my face, “Good thing you missed,” he said, his voice a bit more oiled this time. I knew he was thinking of my mother when his gaze slid away from me, back to the deer.
I nodded, ashamed of my aim. The sky was biscuit-colored now, warming up slowly in the heat of the sun.
* * *
I had killed my first buck when I was twelve. It made the local paper, the Rocksaw Gazette: Alana Tucker Kills Six-Point Buck with Traditional Bow, Father Proud. Just like that, Father Proud. We were together on the front page, me holding my bow upright, kneeling behind the buck. Dad was holding the buck’s head up so the camera could get a good shot of the antlers. A double-lung shot. He’d bragged to my mother, “Alana can shoot as good as any man. Better. My little hunter.” He had looked at my sister Laura with disdain. She was a small girl in a pink sweater twirling in jerky pirouettes beside him as she tried to get his attention. Anyone’s attention.
Later he had mounted the rack, and presented it to me on Christmas morning. My mother made a face when she saw it, her nose wrinkling up in disgust, the same face she made when the raccoons had gotten into the garbage. Charlie ignored her. He usually did. I stroked the antlers with one finger and Charlie smiled.
The rack had hung in my bedroom until I was sixteen.
* * *
We waited a few minutes until we approached the buck where it lay in the dirt. The arrow was two-thirds of the way into the buck. The red circle of blood around the shaft was frothy, a lung shot as I had presumed, though the way the deer had fallen so quickly indicated that Charlie must have pierced the heart as well. Charlie pulled the arrow out with a small grunt. It came out well, the broadhead still attached. He sunk the arrow into the soft ground. He motioned for me to move to the deer’s hindquarters. We lifted the buck up together so that his legs were up and he was lying on his back. Out of his small pack, Charlie pulled a knife with a curved hook on the dull side of the blade. I held the hind legs steady. The rough hair caught against my gloves. He slit the deer up near the sternum, then turned the blade over and split the hide with the hook, ripping down to the deer’s genitals. Steam puffed out from the carcass as the heat from inside the body hit the cool morning air. Charlie worked quickly, cutting out the esophagus and rolling it out. The shiny, purple organs and entrails pooled in the dirt. We would leave them for the raccoons and coyotes. Charlie reached into his pack again and pulled out a blue tarp. He laid it out, and together we dragged the deer carcass onto it. We each took a side, and we pulled the carcass back toward the truck.
After we brought the carcass home, Charlie and I brought it into the shed to cut it up. He unstrung his bow and gave it to me to hang on the hooks in the living room. I left him out there while he was de-boning the deer, cutting out steaks for Thanksgiving dinner. I was not particularly fond of deer meat. Neither was Charlie, but we always ate what we killed. I’d long ago learned that it was the hunt we loved; the killing was merely a necessary end to the process, a chore that had to be done.
Laura had not yet risen, or at least had not left her bedroom. But this was not out of the ordinary for her. After our mother had died, Laura had adopted an old keyboard our mother had picked up for me at a garage sale when I was eight. My mother had vowed back then that I would be some kind of musical prodigy, but I was not. Laura unearthed the instrument from our mother’s closet and took it back to her room. There, she began quietly thumping on the yellowed keys, willing them to make sounds they were incapable of, oblivious to me, to Charlie, and the Christmas tree in the living room.
I hung Charlie’s bow in the living room on the special hooks he’d made, but took mine back to my old bedroom and leaned it against the bed with the bag of clothes I’d brought for my short stay. I stared at the empty space above my door where the rack of antlers from my first buck had once hung. Then, I wandered back down the narrow hall to Charlie’s bedroom to see what he’d been up to. The room was overflowing with arrows, lined up against the wall and filling countless leather quivers hanging on rows of hooks. But the fletch jig on the workbench was empty. There were no taper shavings on the floor, no wisps of feathers scattered about. He had not been fletching arrows for a long time, it seemed. These were leftovers, gathering dust. There was a narrow couch in the corner where he slept, an orange and brown afghan thrown over it to cover the stains of age. My mother’s clothes still hung in the closet, but they did not smell like her anymore.
* * *
When I was sixteen, I skipped school and drove out to the recreational vehicle trails in my beat up four-wheel drive Chevy. Most high schoolers came there to make out or shoot bottles in the clearing before the woods, but I’d come to check out a deer trail I’d seen. There was an open field behind the woods, and in the winter, when the off-road trails were empty, the deer crossed through here on their way to the field. Mr. Bailey, a local farmer, left a row of beans at the edge of the field to tempt them for that purpose. He and my father had set up a deal; my father would process Mr. Bailey’s deer at the plant for free if Mr. Bailey would let us hunt on his land.
I eased the truck slowly down the road in the woods, testing out the four-wheel drive. “Use it or lose it,” my father had advised me when I bought the truck. When I got out to the field, I studied the rows of beans for a while, sitting quietly in the cab. I marked the deer path with my eyes, judged the open distance between sheltered path and bean patch to be about fifty yards. A doe came out of the woods. It was rutting season. If I waited long enough, I would see her mate. The males followed the females, unwilling to let them get too far out of their sight. I waited, and waited, but no male came out of the woods. I shivered, wishing I could turn on the heater. The doe nibbled at the bean patch and paid little attention to my stationary vehicle. I was careful not to move or start the engine until she had been gone for half an hour. I didn’t want to scare her away from the area.
I drove slowly back down the hilly, curving road in the woods, glad that the mud was frozen solid. When I emerged from the woods, I was not surprised to see my father’s pickup parked there. He, too, would want to scope out the area for hunting. What surprised me was seeing two figures standing near the trees. My father had his arms around a woman, showing her the proper way to hold the bow she was limply grasping. She wore a brown jacket and her bright red hair whipped around in the wind. I could see his mouth moving. I imagined his words, “Grasp it along your lifeline; not too tight. Pick a hair out of place, a spot. Aim small, miss small. Pull back, elbow up, but not too high.” His hands grasped the bow with hers, helped her pull back the string. I could feel the burn of her muscles as she strained to pull back the bowstring, her arm shaking with the tension. My father helped her reach a full draw. From that distance I could only imagine the way his fingertips brushed her lips. “Kiss the arrow goodbye.” The arrow, a red-fletched mahogany beauty, raced through the air, missing a cluster of orange and red bittersweet by three feet.
“She missed,” I said to no one in particular. Charlie let his hands slide down the length of her arms, lingering too long, taking the bow from her. When her face was turned to him, I could see that she was smiling, saying something, a confidence shared. She turned in the direction of my truck, said something to Charlie. Charlie looked back, too. He saw me. He started to walk forward, but stopped. The bow in his hand was made for a smaller person, a woman. It was my bow.
That afternoon, my mother came home from the doctor with test results. Cancer. A couple years left, she said. Maybe longer. She did not sound hopeful. My father retreated to the shed. I tore down the antlers from my bedroom wall.
* * *
Charlie threw the steaks in a frying pan on top of the gas range. I sat in the living room, watching him from his worn blue recliner. The television set separated the two rooms, and I pretended I was watching the Colts game. The sound was on low. The Colts were losing. The Christmas tree lights were plugged in, but only half of them worked.
“We’re going to have a nice family dinner,” Charlie said.
I didn’t reply.
“A nice one.” He seemed to be asking for permission.
I looked at the dusty Christmas tree. “It’s your house.”
* * *
The secret had hung between us, as cloying and sickly as the scent of my mother as she lay in bed, day after day. The two years that she hung on were painful for all of us. She would get chemo, be sick, seem to get better for a few weeks, then go downhill again. Charlie kept saying we had to try anyway. I could see the guilt gnawing at him with dull teeth as he held her hand, sitting at her bedside. They had not held hands for years before then. Charlie was not one for shows of affection. He stroked her hair, but his eyes always watched out the bedroom window. She smiled at him, pleased with the attention, even if she was only getting it because she was dying. I stayed away.
Charlie, who had once been a proud man, would no longer look me in the eye. We avoided each other, hunting separately now. Laura noticed the change, but said nothing. Instead, she cornered Charlie in the bedroom with our mother, brought him photos of dresses she’d cut out of magazines, drawing heads above the dresses after she pasted them on notebook paper. Laura sat by the bed with the pictures, spending hours telling Charlie and Mom about the dresses. She filled Mom in on what the rest of her own life would be like. She had a prom dress, a dress for graduation, a wedding gown, a maternity smock. All the stages of her life were there, mapped out for Mom to experience.
I broke the shafts of my arrows while practicing. I would not ask Charlie to make me new ones. I put the bow away, this time underneath my bed. The bow did not feel the same anymore when I held it. My aim was always off now. I wiped it down with a soft cloth, but I could still see the woman’s fingerprints on the shiny wood.
It was nearing New Year’s Eve when my mother asked us to go to town and rent some movies. She was bored. “Why don’t you two go together?” she asked. “You’re always with me now, Charlie. It must be hard for Alana.”
Charlie and I stood in the doorway to her room. It was happenstance; a mere passing of bodies in the narrow, paneled hallway as we led our separate lives. Charlie looked at me, shrugged, and without another word, went outside and started the truck.
I sighed, leaning against the doorframe of their bedroom, listening to the sound of Charlie’s diesel engine warming up in the driveway. “I’ve got a lot of homework, Mom,” I complained.
“When I go, Alana, take care of your father.” My mother fell to this kind of talking when she’d been drinking. I wondered if there was a bottle underneath her bed. Sometimes she kept one there.
“Make sure he finds someone else. Okay?” She was drifting back to sleep.
I wanted to tell her that he already had. I mouthed the words silently to the room as she closed her eyes.
In the truck, Charlie and I sat, each unwilling to speak the first words. The radio whined an old country tune, and the searing heater air dried out my eyes, making me blink hard at the blurry world past the windshield. I always looked for the same thing when I went out now: the red-haired woman. I stared at the people in other cars when I was in Rocksaw. I studied the waitresses at cafes, the women weighing produce in the grocery store. The woman was somewhere, waiting. Waiting for my mother to die, I supposed.
“I’ll tell her, if you want me to.” Charlie’s eyes watched the road, the curves of gravel snaking through the hills as we headed to town. The cab of the truck filled with heavy, smothering silence as Charlie turned down the radio. The quiet made me nauseous. His fingers on the knob of the volume had blood dried along the nail beds from field dressing a deer that morning.
I hated him for putting the decision on my shoulders. It was not my guilt to carry, but there it was, like a quiver on my back. After awhile I said, “Why would I want to kill her? She’s already dying.”
Charlie’s shoulders dropped a little, like he was relieved. He turned the radio back up again.
I turned the radio completely off. “Don’t ever see that woman again.”
Charlie’s grip tightened on the steering wheel. He said nothing, and this time the silence felt good to me.
* * *
Laura chose this moment to emerge from her bedroom down the long hall. “This trailer is fucking freezing,” she whined. At sixteen, she had discovered that Charlie found her adult enough to use profanity.
“Watch your mouth,” I muttered.
Laura’s blonde hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail, and her eyes were rimmed with dark, smudged eyeliner. She wore sweatpants and a t-shirt with no bra. She eyed my jeans and camouflage sweatshirt with disdain. “What are you wearing?” She perched on the arm of the sofa, the only other piece of furniture in the room.
Someone knocked at the door. Laura bounded up to answer it. A cold draft seeped into the trailer as Laura held the door open. I assumed it was one of her many boyfriends, so I ignored it and her and turned my attention back to the Colts game. They appeared to be making a comeback.
“Trina!” Laura exclaimed from behind me. Laura’s girlfriends rarely stopped by. Laura made no qualms with the fact that the trailer embarrassed her and she didn’t want anyone to know she lived there. More than once, Charlie had suggested she move out if she didn’t like the living conditions, but she stuck fast.
The woman who walked confidently into the kitchen was not a sixteen year old. She was a tall, red-haired woman in a brown leather jacket. Laura was tailing her, like a little dog whose owner had finally come home. They passed in front of the television, briefly blocking out the game. Trina went to the special row of hooks on the wall and hung her coat next to Charlie’s bow and quiver. “Hello, hon,” she said to me. Her voice was lazy and slow. She went into the kitchen, squeezing past the counter, with Laura almost pressed against her. Together they all filled the small kitchen.
Charlie turned and Trina kissed him lightly on the lips. “Smells great,” she said, presumably referring to the deer steaks. Charlie smiled. I hadn’t seen him smile in over a year. I’d been away a long time. The lights on the upper half of the Christmas tree began to flicker. It smelled like the dust on the tree was burning.
I got up, padded down the hall in my green wool socks. I went to my old bedroom and came back, carrying my most prized possession. “This,” I said, holding the bow in front of me like a shield between me and everyone else, “This is mine.”