Every time they came over a hill in the white van, the bright, dirty sun blinded Aaron and his dad, Karl. Dust coated the windshield, and the duck boat bounced along behind. Karl used the steering wheel to pull himself off his seat, and forward, as if he were trying to look through a peephole. His face blazed with sunlight.
Aaron, ten years old, remembered Karl’s face earlier that morning twitching with each explosion of shotgun shell on the slough, remembered the eyes and the muscles that pulled them this way and that. The boy looked at the boots on his boy feet—fluff of cattail seeds sticking to splotches of mud—then out the window at the rare farm house, silo, tractor, combine, or shell of a rusty car. They dragged the boat and trailer over the gravel road, up hills and into valleys where Karl could see into the ditches plainly. Aaron’s groggy head bobbed even with the dashboard.
A .22-caliber rifle lay on the floor behind Karl, but the shotgun, for shooting ducks and pheasants, lay loaded between the two seats.
Though it was all he could think about, Aaron did not remind his dad it was Halloween and that he had a costume waiting for him at home—the lone ranger, a brittle plastic mask with an elastic string, holsters, and shiny plastic guns with pearloid handles. They had planned to take their hunting trip the day before Halloween, a Saturday. Aaron’s mom, Martha, had woken Aaron at three a.m., gotten him dressed in extra layers of clothes, and had propped him up on a chair in the small kitchen to wait for his dad.
Karl had said they needed to be on the road by four, but four o’clock passed, and Aaron fell asleep at the table. He awoke in the predawn, his face flushed in the glow of the lamp hanging from the ceiling. He stood up, shed layers of sweaty clothes, and walked to the adjoining family room to watch Jonny Quest with its decades-old animation and Gila monsters.
Aaron generally didn’t ask his dad questions, but to avoid thinking about the costume he would not get to wear and the candy he would not get to eat and the tight safety belt he had promised his mother he would wear, he asked Karl how people spotted the pheasants they were hunting.
“Oh,” Karl said, not looking at his son, “you’ll see their head in a ditch, or you’ll see them out on the road.”
“What do you mean, ‘then what?’”
Aaron hesitated, knowing he had failed to show the proper enthusiasm, then asked, “How do you shoot them?”
“You stop the car, get out…” Then Karl lifted his hands off of the steering wheel and shrugged his shoulders as if he were trying to explain how to swallow peas or take a shit.
“Do they just sit there?” Aaron asked.
“Some hunker down and hope you can’t see them.”
Though his body and head were warm, Aaron’s hands remained ice cold. He painfully unbuttoned the flap that overlay the zipper on his brown canvas jacket with its corduroy collar. When his dad first saw him in it, he had asked if his mother had gotten it for him. Karl’s eyes had moved from collar to bottom hem and up again. “You supposed to be some kind of cowboy?” he had asked. “You think you West River or something?” Karl said Aaron’s mother didn’t know what she was doing and that he would outfit Aaron before their hunting trip, but he never did.
Aaron imagined being in the grass, not moving, looking up, wondering if his dad knew he was there, trying not to move or breathe, trying not to allow any blood to squirt through his heart. “Do you shoot them like that?” Aaron asked.
“Like what?” Karl looked at his son. “Are you watching for birds?”
“Hunkered…um…” Aaron tugged on the shoulder strap, giving him enough slack to lift his body and see outside. “Yes…hunkered down.”
“Nah, you’d blow them to shit, or catch ricocheted shot in your teeth. You kick them up so you can shoot them in the air.”
Aaron imagined trying to take flight from under his dad’s feet, cutting loose from a tangle of grass, from complete stillness without breath or blood, into the sky.
“So, you give them a chance to get away?”
Aaron considered his dad’s response, then asked, “What if they won’t get up? What if the pheasant just sits there?”
“It’ll get up. You might have to kick it, but it’ll get up.”
Aaron looked at his dad’s boots, then his own. “When you see them, do they know it? Can they tell?”
“I don’t know. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Knowing somebody with a gun sees you, and just sitting there. You’d think they’d have sense enough to get up and go, to do something at least, anything besides sit there.”
Maybe they know they’ll get shot, Aaron thought, very easily imagining sitting there, being seen, knowing what would happen should he move, and not moving.
“Sometimes you can see their heart beating through their back when you’re next to them,” Karl said.
They climbed again into the dazzling light of the sun, were blinded, and struck something on the road.
Aaron clutched both armrests, which were almost as high as his shoulders, and looked around for a hole in the roof, or the floorboard, or the door, some evidence that the terrible sound had penetrated the van, but there was no sign that anything had happened.
The van settled where a little water had collected and frozen. Hills lay ahead and behind, lumpy and dry. Karl sat facing forward, both hands on the steering wheel. Aaron looked up at him, waiting for a sign.
His eyes not straying from the gravel road that stretched out before them, Karl said, “Get out and see what it is.”
Aaron looked at his father’s lips, thin and dry; his eyelashes, sparse and transparent; and his eyebrows, two or three rogue, gray wires at attention in a bed of black.
“Go on,” his dad said. The van was idling near the ditch. “If it’s a farm dog or what,” he said. “I’ll watch for pheasants.”
Aaron prayed to Mary, mother of Jesus, that it wasn’t a dog. He and his little sister wanted one, but their parents wouldn’t allow it. He unbuckled his seatbelt, and as soon as he pulled the latch, the wind caught the door and blew it open. Whatever warmth the van had amassed was sucked out into the vast prairie.
“Shut the door for Christ’s sake,” his father yelled at him.
It was as if the van had broken through ice, and water was rushing in, and the longer Aaron waited to make a move, the deeper the van sank, and the lake was deep as the cold October sky.
“Dear God, don’t let it be a dog,” he said quietly, hoping the bullet train of wind would carry his prayer more quickly to God’s ears in heaven. He got out and walked around to the front of the door and used his whole body to push it shut. He didn’t want anything else to be dead that day. Though, if it were alive, it would be wounded, and his dad would want to kill it mercifully.
The firing began immediately when the ducks came in, three shots at a time, a moment to reload, then three more shots. Empty shells skittered into the boat, into the water, onto the muskrat hut on which they’d moored, and onto Aaron. He scurried away from the explosion of lead shot into air heavy with duck flesh, feathers, and feet. Splash. Splash. Splash.
Aaron did not see to where the ducks floated off. He only saw that some were dead, some were half dead, and some with broken wings were swimming away. Far off, he saw flocks that had landed take off, all at once, their white under-wings flashing like the leaves of a cottonwood in the wind. In their place, he saw other flocks land. The ducks looked as if they were not moving at all during those last moments before their splayed toes touched the cold water.
Before grabbing a handful of shells, Karl would unzip his outermost sweatshirt or loosen the top buttons of his down vest or knock the insulated and camouflaged hat from his head. His eyes swung left and right and up and down to find a target. You had to pick one out, he had said. Your eyes had to flash from one edge of the flock to the other until one duck emerged from the rest, not because it was closer or bigger, but because it was the one, and that’s the one you shot.
Every time Karl fired, a piece of sky fell.
One time, Karl aimed the gun straight up, and Aaron followed the line of the barrel into the brightness above them. From the flock that appeared too distant to suffer damage, a duck fell like a helicopter seed, spinning and spinning and spinning. It fell for ages because one wing had spread enough to resist the downward rush, and because it fell slowly, the wind was able to push it away, before it even hit the water. Karl then appraised other flocks, other inevitably emerging targets, and the firing continued, but Aaron watched every inch of the duck’s slow descent. It fell through the flight paths of other ducks, spinning like a figure skater. Aaron imagined the duck’s edges to be sharp as skating blades, cutting the sky into shreds. And when the duck at last crashed into a clump of cattails near the far shore of the slough, he thought of all the ribbons of sky curling down to make a heap on top of it.
“Aaron,” his dad said.
The boy turned. Karl swung the highly lacquered and polished wooden stock of the gun toward his son, guiding the barrel away from his own face.
“Take it,” he said.
Aaron had shot a light .22 at empty cans on fence posts. He’d never handled a 12-gauge shotgun. He blew into his hands, then slid one to the grip and pulled the gun toward him, catching the barrel with the other hand when it slipped through his dad’s outstretched fingers. It was heavy.
“Prop your foot up on the seat there, Aaron…Now rest your elbow on your knee.”
Aaron did as he was told, his bicep and shoulder and back muscles all straining to lift gun weight.
His finger could barely reach the trigger.
“Pick one out now,” his dad said.
Aaron was shaking. Ducks continued to fly above, around, and in front of him.
“Here’s one coming right into our decoys, Aaron. You see him?”
Aaron nodded his head.
“Okay, nice and easy now. Lean into it. It’s going to kick.”
Aaron clenched his teeth, as if pulverizing a toothpick or a tongue depressor.
“When you’re ready, follow the bird with the bead, squeeze, and keep on moving.”
Aaron narrowed his eyes, kept the bead on the bird like his dad had said—he was good at following directions—and pulled the trigger. The kick knocked his hands off the gun, and the steel barrel fell to the metal gunwale. Aaron’s head turned quickly to see the look on his father’s face.
“You got him,” his dad said, not looking at Aaron or caring about the dropped gun but watching the duck fall. “You got him.”
Aaron believed his shoulder had been separated from his torso.
Aaron did not respond, did not hear the question, or, more accurately, did not understand it.
Aaron said, “Yeah.”
“Your first duck, Aaron. Floating right in front of the boat. A head shot. You okay?”
“Yeah.” Aaron had to support himself with his good arm, his jaw quivering with pain. He had not held the butt tight to his shoulder, and the gun had glanced off his jaw before squarely jamming the socket.
“You see the duck you shot, Aaron?”
Aaron blinked his eyes and looked out over the slough. He couldn’t look at one duck. He could only see the many dead or dying birds floating on the water.
“You see it?” his dad asked. “You see it?”
“Yeah,” Aaron said. “I see it.”
“You want to shoot another one?” his dad asked.
Aaron put his hand on his face to control the trembling, wished he had his lone ranger mask to conceal the tremors. At home, when he was alone in his bedroom, he would pull the delicate rubber string over his head and practice spinning plastic pistols on his fingers.
“No,” he said.
“No,” Aaron said.
His dad was silent.
Aaron knew his dad was looking at him, but he didn’t want to turn and see the disappointment or the anger.
Finally, Karl said, “Okay, give me the gun.”
Aaron pushed himself away from the edge of the boat with his booted foot, used his good arm to lift the stock toward his dad.
“You okay?” his dad asked.
Aaron looked the other way.
Aaron sniffled loudly, and his body shook.
“You want to go home?” his dad asked.
Aaron turned around. His cheeks were wet.
“You want to go home?”
Aaron’s lips tightened and he nodded fiercely. “It’s Halloween,” Aaron said.
“Yes,” Aaron said.
In the shadow of the low hills, Aaron took small, slow steps, speeding up and stretching out only while passing through the exhaust. He kept his eyes on the road until he stopped, turned ninety degrees, looked into the ditch, saw nothing, and repeated.
Toward the top of the hill behind the van, Aaron emerged from shadow into low sunlight, and what bothered him most when he finally saw it was the natural pose of the disabled deer. Aaron had seen dogs lie like this before, on their side, legs straight out from them, head lying peacefully on a carpeted floor. He thought the deer should have been contorted, nearly unrecognizable, forehooves gesturing impossibly, head lifted as if to explain the taste of clover to a fish or hawk.
Aaron stood still there, at the top of the hill in the sinking sunlight. He glanced sideways at the gravel road, the dust from the van still settling. He could go back to his dad in the van and say he saw nothing. They could then continue south to their warm home and maybe Aaron could still go trick or treating with his mother and sister.
Aaron hoped that when he looked back into the ditch, the deer would be gone, carried away to where Aaron would not have to imagine her lying in the ditch, forever freezing like the water in the valleys between the dusty hills. If Aaron told his dad he had not found anything, he would still know in his bed, when he was waiting for sleep, that a deer—maybe dead, maybe alive—was lying in the ditch where the pheasants waited to be found, flushed, and shot.
Aaron took a cautious step toward the body, paused, felt the arid plains peeling away from him like drying mud; he took another step, and the deer jerked back to life, wailing with one big eye pleading for escape, its other eye crushed to nonexistence, the flow of blood seemingly staunched and accelerating at the same time.
Aaron wheeled in the prairie-grass and sprinted down the hill into the shadows. Throwing the door open to the wind like a sail, Aaron found his dad as he’d left him, hands resting atop the steering wheel, his face intent on what lay ahead.
“It’s a deer, dad, and she’s alive.”
Karl nodded once, looked up through the windshield as if to predict the fault line of high and low pressure. He reached behind the seat for his rifle, got out of the truck, and marched dutifully up the hill with his son.
The deer laid her head back in the grass. When she opened her eye and found them standing as they had been before, she stared into their blackness and bleated a plaintive cry.
They stood for a time, leaning into the roaring wind, not doing anything. Aaron finally asked, “Are you going to shoot her?”
Karl nodded, then shook his head, then nodded again.
The sun went down. The wind calmed. The deer rolled to her good side, propped herself up onto her knees, and twisted. She lost her balance and moved to catch herself with her damaged leg.
Aaron lunged into the ditch as if snatching a baby from shallow water. He wanted to lift the deer onto his shoulders and carry her back to a land free of automobiles, back to sunlight and open prairie, but he couldn’t. He looked back at his dad, who—still standing on the side of the road—towered out of focus behind the tiny hole at the end of the barrel.
Behind Aaron, the deer rocked forward, took a deep, obstructed breath, and by a string that connected the backs of her knees to her pelvis to her heart and the bridge of her nose, she rose.
The barrel moved away from Aaron’s heart and pointed at something over his left shoulder. Aaron turned around and saw the deer standing. She ascended the shallow ditch and turned her head as if searching for the sight lost from her crushed eye. The son and his father retreated before her.
All three were on the road now. Walking backwards, Aaron could feel the rifle level again between his shoulder blades, knew he was the only thing between the deer and death. The deer fell left and right, but all downhill, so she stayed on her hooves and gathered speed.
Dizzy from the loss of blood and the damage to her bones, she was coming for them, and Aaron knew to run from her as if running from a phantom in a dream, and he wondered how he and his father would ever escape. They could not stop to hide. There were no thick rushes or tall grass. They were exposed on a gravel road and could not evade the awkwardly prancing hooves.
Looking back, Aaron saw that the face and eye had not been crushed so much as scraped away, for the face hung from the deer’s jaw like a long, billy-goat beard. He turned and ran.
At the van, Aaron stumbled to a halt, caught the door handle, and looked to see the deer slowing down and wavering.
He got in, and the van pulled away uphill. He buckled himself, and in the side view mirror saw her bottom out in the shadows where the water was frozen solid.
Her run was over. She sputtered and turned a few circles before falling on her forelegs, her hind legs strong and stubbornly holding her rump and soft tail aloft. Already, Aaron, too, who moments before was prepared to sacrifice his life that she may live, wanted to put her out of her misery.
The van rattled along. Dark fields passed. Hills rose and fell beneath them, and after a while, Aaron said, “We should go back.”
As if he’d had these words in his head for a long time, Karl said, “I could have shot you.”
Aaron didn’t know what to say.
When they found a crossroads wide enough to accommodate the 180-degree turn of a van and boat trailer, they turned around, but when they got to where the doe was, Karl left the guns in the van and took with him only rope.
The boy got out, but there was nothing for him to do. She lay prostrate now, offering no resistance. Karl tied her hooves together, hoisted her onto his shoulders, and climbed the ladder on the back of the van to tie her to the roof. The only sign of life was the soft rise and fall of her chest.
They drove with her alive on the roof for about twenty minutes before Aaron asked, “When are you going to kill her?”
“I thought you didn’t want me to kill her. Isn’t that why you threw yourself in front of her, ready to take a bullet? Like some kind of hero, swooping in to save the day, and die? Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“No, I…” Aaron had not wanted to die. He had seen what he had seen. “She’s suffering,” Aaron said.
Karl slammed on the brakes, the van skidded to a halt, and the deer slid forward off the roof. The torn side of her face smeared against the windshield; her nostrils roared. Ropes tangling her neck and limbs held her in place like a hung criminal.
“Yes she is,” Karl said, pointing at her head through the windshield. “You can see now, can’t you? This is what happens when little boys care too much and miss their opportunity to do what’s right.”
Aaron looked intently at the windshield. The sky was so black now that he could not tell what he was looking at. It seemed to be a sea of death and crushed deer skull that faded and extended infinitely before him.
“Little boys feel sorry for the poor wounded birds and the hobbled deer. So they put their guns down and pout. They want to go home. Or they get shot by throwing themselves in front of loaded rifles.”
Aaron generally managed to avoid crying in front of his dad, no matter how sad he was, but now he lost control.
“You’re goddamn right it’s sad. Look at her. How would you like to get hit by a van and have your face torn off? Get tied to a roof and go chugging through the night in the freezing wind, only to slip out from under your restraints to land faceless on a windshield and have the little boy that was responsible for it all sit there and stare at you and start crying because he wouldn’t let his dad pull the trigger?”
Aaron buried his face in his hands.
“That’s right. She wouldn’t be suffering right now like she is if you’d stayed where the fuck you belonged. But no, you had to play savior to the world.”
Karl pulled Aaron’s hands away from his face by their wrists. “Look at her,” he yelled, but Aaron squeezed his eyes tightly shut.
“No matter how much she wants to die, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how horrible it all is to her, she can’t will herself dead. The air comes in, and it flows through the blood to her brain, the brain that counts the pain all over her body and that longs for death. How’s that for a fucking predicament?”
Blubbering with halted sobs and trembling lips, Aaron said, “Why—don’t—you—shoot—her?”
Karl paused, took a breath, and lowered his voice. “That’s what I was going to do, but you got in the way.”
Still barely able to speak, Aaron said, “Why not now?”
“There are windows of opportunity,” Aaron, “and they are open for a limited amount of time, and when they close, they close forever.”
Aaron opened his eyes and saw that the universe had not relaxed its hold on the deer. It pressed her against the windshield as if pressing a dog’s face into the mess it’s made on the carpet, and Aaron reached down and picked up the shotgun, looking to take aim at the deer through the windshield. He would end it now, he thought, but when the muzzle clinked against the glass, he was relieved of his weapon, ushered out his door, and handed the rifle.
“That’s it. There you go,” said the voice. “Easy now. Let me help.”
Karl left Aaron in the road, rifle in hand, still shaking, and the next thing Aaron knew, his father was on top of the van with a flashlight stringing a rope like a horse’s bit through the deer’s mouth to lift her head from the truck’s roof.
“Move in close now, Aaron. That’s it. Closer. You’re the only one who can do it now. Move in close,” Karl said.
Aaron could see only the deer’s head in the flashlight’s beam, teed up. Still the nostrils widened and narrowed. Still she suffered a great suffering, and it was now within Aaron’s power to end that suffering, and the great voice from beyond Aaron’s seeing confirmed his beliefs, and Aaron now swam in a current older than the flow of oxygen through mammal lungs and blood and nostrils, and what he did was not his doing, but was the will of the universe, and it felt so right and true and inevitable that Aaron, helpless in its wake, knew it was wicked.
“Go ahead, Aaron,” Karl said. “Pull the trigger. Put her out of her misery.”
And Aaron pulled the trigger, and he saw in the lifeless light of a battery powered flash light the gray blood burst forth, the rope slacken, the head come to rest on the windshield. The beam swung to Aaron’s face without heat. He saw nothing, and in the white light, the someone-else-he-would-become made his entrance into the world, like a baby falling into the latex hands of a stranger in a cold, brightly lit room, but Aaron did not cry out, for he was not a baby, and he now knew that no matter how loudly he wailed, though he may rattle the windows of the white van with his screams, though they may shatter from the force of his lungs, that there was no one to hear his pleas for help, that whatever change was to come in the world would come through his slowly numbing fingers.