Snow crunched underfoot as Malcolm walked through the trees. These woods were familiar. He knew the paths the deer took. He knew where to wait for them.
Malcolm had learned to hunt from his father. He’d spent countless cold mornings sharing thermoses of bitterly strong coffee and small sandwiches with his old man while they waited for some young buck to come upon them. But this time he was alone. For the first time he was doing this alone. Malcolm found a good spot, a flat patch between two trees where he could lay down and still have a clear view of the trails the deer were likely to follow. He spread out a blanket and pulled his rifle out of his bag.
His thermos was empty when he finally saw it—a buck stepping gently across the frozen ground. It didn’t make a sound as it moved. In the shadows under the trees it was the same pale grey as the snow.Eventually the buck stopped walking and began to poke curiously at something on the ground. Malcolm watched it through the scope of his rifle, and tried to feel the excitement that he had felt every other time he had done this. Since he was eleven years old it had always been the same: a complex feeling like lust and calm and eagerness all rolled into one. The kind of feeling that made him forget all the responsibilities and comforts of the world that he left behind when he entered the forest. The kind of feeling that made him forget almost everything outside that moment. It was anticipation like what he had felt laying bare-chested on his bed at fifteen with his girlfriend laying beside him. The kind of feeling woke something deep, something animal—something that once Malcolm felt it, he’d known had always been there. It was a pure escape and it was the reason he was here.
In these moments before a kill there was no talking. His father would sit beside him breathing slow, measured breaths and feeling the same excited anticipation, though he showed nothing. Neither of them did. That was something you learned early on. This wasn't the place to show excitement. Everything that was about to happen had to be deliberate, and quiet. It was an exercise in patience. Anything that was going on inside had to be set aside, but even so, Malcolm could always see a fire in the old man’s grey eyes and he knew that the two of them were feeling the same thing.
There was no talking now, but it was different. He felt nothing. He imagined that he could hear the slow in-and-out of his father's breathing, the sound of slight wheeze on the exhale, and he could almost sense the electric charge, like the hum off a lightbulb, that suggested the presence of another living thing near you. Yet in spite of this, Malcolm was keenly aware of the empty space where his father should have been standing.
He remembered being ten and sitting beside his father in these woods, holding a pair of black binoculars and watching another large buck step gracefully across the ground.
“You don't go hunting once and get to call yourself a hunter,” his father had said. “Fact is: you're born a hunter, only you’ve got to spend the rest of your life learning how to do it.” Then he had handed Malcolm the rifle. Malcolm took aim when the buck stopped walking. His hands hadn’t shaken back then under his father’s expectant gaze. They had never shaken despite how anxious he had been. He bagged his first kill that day. The first of many.
So much had changed. Malcolm and his father had both grown. Time had done what time does, and now Malcolm was alone. Malcolm's father had been a smoker before he’d been diagnosed, but cancer hadn’t stopped the habit. “We’ve all got to die eventually,” he’d said, even as he slowly did.
The barrel of the rifle swayed as he watched the young buck. Malcolm’s hands were shaking. He couldn’t fix the buck in the crosshairs of his sight. He gripped the stock tighter but still he couldn't get a good aim. He was trembling, or maybe it was the other way round, maybe he was still and it was the world that was swaying.
“One,” he counted aloud, very quietly, the word falling from his mouth in a cloud of breath as he exhaled. “Two.” He closed his eyes.
“On three. Now come on, I want you to count with me, Mr. Shriver,” a nurse said as she helped his father out of a chair at the hospital while Malcolm watched. “One,” she said, and he repeated her.
“Two,” they said in unison.
“Three,” his father said as he stood slowly, swaying like a tree about to fall.
“Very good.” Her voice was kind, and that kindness, though probably sincere, somehow made it condescending.
He had looked so gaunt and wasted, that the sight of him after chemotherapy was sickening. His father’s large frame looked wiry and like it was in danger of tearing through his thin translucent skin. After a few treatments he could barely stand and he couldn’t eat, and no matter how many nurses encouraged him softly, the way they would have encouraged a child, even just walking was a challenge. He knew he was dying, Malcolm knew he was dying, the nurses even knew he was dying, but no one wanted to talk about it. Not until he died. After that, no one could talk about anything else.
“Three.” Malcolm inhaled slowly, trying to let his shoulders relax and loosening his grip on the rifle. When he opened his eyes his hands were no longer trembling.
He remembered his father lying in bed the night he died. He had had a hard time breathing, a hard time doing anything unassisted. Despite chemotherapy, which he had only undergone at the family’s demand, the cancer had worsened. In his final days it had left him looking withered and leathery, unrecognizable. He complained of the constant pain and exhaustion he felt, and even his eyes had lost their fire.
Malcolm wondered if his father had felt the same kind of anticipation as he felt now on the night he’d died. Malcolm knew the old man had known. That night, for the first time in a long time, his father’s eyes had been bright with purpose. One final purpose. “We’ve all got to die eventually,” he had said as he’d asked Malcolm to hand him a cigarette. “And this is better than suffering,” he said as he lit it. Cigarettes were not, strictly speaking, allowed, but indulging him was easier than arguing. He had sat there with his cigarette in his hand and told Malcolm to go get some sleep. “Buck season’s coming. We’ll be out on those trails soon, when I’m feeling better,” he’d said as Malcolm left him and they both knew he was lying.
Malcolm’s breathing was coming faster, and he could feel cool beads of sweat on his forehead. He tried to aim but his hands were shaking again. His breathing was heavy and loud, his breaths coming in shuddering gulps. Finally, he tore his eye away from the scope and cursed, letting the rifle fall to hang limply at his side. The buck heard him and disappeared as silently as it had come.
The walk back empty-handed was terrible. Malcolm walked and walked, sure he was going the right way but also sure that he’d been walking for too long. His face was slick with perspiration and his jacket felt leaded and stifling. His breathing had returned to normal, but he still felt a little sick.
Out of the quiet gloom of the trees Malcolm heard a low growling. He stopped walking and listened. All was quiet for a moment but then he heard it again, a canine whine and the sounds of something thrashing on the snow. Before he could stop himself he was moving through the trees looking for the animal. He sped up, stepping quickly over the snowy ground. He was running now, searching for the noise.
The coyote was snarling, saliva dripping from its mouth. Its body was twisted in pain, and its head thrashing round, jaws snapping in a white blur, ready to tear, to bite, to kill. Its grey eyes were bloodshot and bright. In them was a wildness like nothing Malcolm had ever seen, a cold savageness born of desperation and pain.
Splintered bone had ripped through the skin that covered its hind leg. The leg was caught and broken. An old leg-hold trap had snapped closed on it, not just breaking the bone but nearly blowing it to pieces. Once ensnared, the animal was trapped and the limb was useless. If treated quickly the animal might survive with amputation, but Malcolm could tell that it was too late for that. Already the skin around the wound was beginning to blacken and the gash stank with a humid smell of rot.
The coyote snarled at the trap and began to bite at its own leg. Blood ran through its sharp yellow teeth and down its muzzle. The sounds it made were vicious and wretched; violent snarls interspersed with the shrill, mournful yelps of a dog in pain. The kind of noise that tore through the heart. The kind of sound that meant helplessness.
Malcolm stood a little way back from the coyote, watching. As the animal tore at itself, Malcolm closed his eyes and turned way from the horrible sight, but he couldn’t stop from hearing it. His stomach tightened with every loud crunch and whimper. He opened his eyes took a step nearer. The coyote stopped biting at itself and raised its head to look at him. Its eyes glowed and its fur bristled. The animal bared its bloody teeth and lurched forward, ever a predator, forgetting for just a moment about the metal trap that had bitten nearly through its leg. Over its fierce barks Malcolm heard the sound of its leg as it finally gave way, a splintering crack, like a piece of wood that has been bent too far. The coyote's body tensed, and for a second it quieted. The light in its eyes was extinguished in pain.
Malcolm sniffed and steadied himself. Breathing heavily he unzipped his rifle bag. “One,” he counted, as he raised the rifle gently, keeping his grip firm and letting his shoulders relax. “Two.” he said, his hands as steady as they had ever been. The shot was louder than any noises the coyote had made. “Three,” he said exhaling and lowering his rifle.
A red spray fanned out behind the coyote’s body, over the thin early December snow. New blood pooled over the old, a little fresh red on black. Malcolm walked over to it and pried apart the jaws of the trap to pull free what remained of the animal’s leg. It did not look regal in death, with its leg twisted and half chewed away and its body damp with blood, but nothing ever did. Malcolm’s ears were ringing slightly from the gunshot as he looked at the body, but the ringing slowly faded. The silence that followed was heavy, but a relief for them both.