HAUNTED DEER
by Dan Cardoza

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September is blessed by nature, and named the golden child for a reason, born of Blue Spruce bows, and rusty leaves.  Born ripe on time, when the honeycomb labyrinth pulses sweet with bees. The season of the year, when the water is most pure at Beaughan Springs, zests with the essence of white spice from March storms. It’s my autumn of plenty, of rainbows of trout that cyclone the waters of rivers in knots, just to light up the headwaters of the great Sacramento, at Mt. Shasta City Park. 

September is the time of year that a young boy dreams of the rite of passage into manhood. You can almost feel the jagged roots begin their sink, take their hold. The birth of this rite of passage is seen no better than at the gun range. The season confirms what you have been told, in not so many words all your life, though this is only the beginning.

I give you the smell of Cordite, both acrid and sour, the hunters crack cocaine. The sense of smell is crucial; common is sharing the blasting of targets by high school boys in a ritual of soon to be men. Anything short of four inches from the bulls-eye, you are subject to the moniker, ‘pussy.’ And after school, the cute girl’s circle, throw shade at each other, at us; wrongly assume we are talking about them.

My passing the Hunter’s Safety test feels much better than my ‘B-’ grade I received in my English Class last May. Even though one of the hardest test questions asks, ‘Can you shoot an

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adult male deer with only a spike on each side?’ I, of course, answer ‘No!’ ‘Each horn has to be forked.’ Like all the sudden I am the expert on murdering natures revered?

While purchasing ammo with dad, for my gifted Winchester 358 grain carbine rifle, I am able suppress my revolving five-minute mind movies about how to get in the pants of all the girls. I am about to become a man after all, and right now, I  have no patience for quizzing senior boys if girls have two revolver holes or three. The answer will remain, one well kept Peachfish mystery that can wait for now. 

After football practice, my friendly black brothers taunt me about being a sociopath and ask why I can’t just purchase meat at the local town butcher shop. I point out that a few of their dad’s hunt, jack-rabbit, dove, quail, and yes deer. I receive a popping wet towel on my bare ass, when I tell them at least I hunt during the legal season. We all laugh.

I hunted with dad for many years, but just as a shotgun passenger, that is a sort of lookout while he drove. Dad religiously tags two bucks each and every season, always the ones with the most significant spread and so fat. He taught me to field dress deer, then how to skin them in his carpenter shop, hanging them high in the open rafters, above sawdust, by their sinewy hind legs, tongue out, to drain the leftover sacrificial blood. I am an expert. Of course, this is where I was first introduced to the mythology of Cordite and copper. Though back then, I had not taken a life as yet, not one totem, and thus I was not a man.

The night before the hunt, I dream of four-point bucks in meadows––no five-point bucks in stands of brilliant aspen, hiding behind the minnows of shoaling yellow and sienna leaves. They always stand still in my crosshairs of glass, the apex of course fixed over their furry hearts. Still asleep, I shape my mouth like the loud sound of a rifle shot, with the report raising limbed crows and magpies. Of course, I never miss.

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The day of the hunt, we rise at 3:00 A.M. My first thought is to pass on the rite and laze in bed like the Zen-lazy teenager I am.  After all, I feel exhausted from the quests in my dreams. But I am sixteen, and with a little coffee, and cold water in my face, I am ready to cross the Alps into Austria.

Fact: Dad has the eyes of a hawk, and can spot a tick on a deer’s ass at 300 yards. But on this day, like an eagle, I call for dad to stop.

What the hell, he grumps.

I think I saw a buck. Back up, I nervously shout, in my new timbre voice.

After halting, I bail out of the pick-up, not the least concerned that I sound like a god dammed thunderstorm in a silence factory. To my surprise, in my scope stands a small buck, a forked-horn and as far as I can tell it’s a legal buck, with a very small rack. Then before the trigger returns, and before the loud crack, I smell Cordite. The smoke wafts in my open nostrils, then onto the roof of my mouth, like a hand delivered aphrodisiac, straight from Pan’s custom mortar and pastel amalgamations. The buck drops like a gunny sack full of bowling balls. It’s then the forest proclaims silence and time reloads. I remain frozen at the age of sixteen, not a man after all.

Dad yells, get in the damn truck, now!

Why, I ask in my pretend man voice.

You killed a spike, he says. That is illegal, maybe jail time.

I leap back in the pick-up and work the rifle lever, ejecting all my left-over chambered ammo onto the floor. Dad peels out in a mushroom cloud. Soon after, he’s staring at the rear view like

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he’s speeding at 100 miles per hour on Route 66. He’s sure the game warden is following him. He eventually crosses California State Highway 99, and soon scouts a turn-out and pulls in.

Son, you just killed an illegal deer, let’s hope no one saw you. It’s getting toward 10:00 A.M., let’s have a snack.

What the hell, I say.

You shot a spike, I could tell, he says raising his voice.

No, I say. I had him in my scope crosshairs, he is legal.

Dad uses his most famed word, Bullshit!

Bullshit, I bark back. I shot a legal buck. I will go back on my own, and tag it myself. If the Game Warden busts me, then it’s on me not you.

Okay, dad says, go to jail!

Dad then creeks his door open, and exits, heads to a chair-sized rock, with his bagged lunch in hand, like he’s been asked to wear a dunce hat, and sit in the corner.  I get in the driver’s seat, wave, and peel out of the gravel turnout, head back in time, with a belly full of uncertainty, and balls the size of grapefruits. I’m off to the kill site.

After wading through an ocean of sage, I finally discover the young buck. He lays dreamlike, sporting one tiny hole in his side, just behind his front leg where it fuses to his body. The hole is the front door to his heart, the back door, death.

I am instantly teleported back in time from this beautiful September day. Back to when my beloved mother read stories and fables to me. I distinctly recall the stories that were my favorite,

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the ones she read when somehow she knew anxiety was hunting me. The ones she was sure I needed the most. I recall how the stories end in beauty and light. She would read, or recite from memory, the classics, Where the Wild Things Are, My Side of the Mountain, and of course, Tom’s Midnight Garden.

In the midst of my own high desert garden of sage, I find myself back in the Midnight Garden, a wondrous place. But I am now in a forest of lost ghosts, haunted friends, the quail I killed, the dove, and the magical iridescent pheasant, the fast and nimble cotton tail, too slow for buckshot.  I imagine myself stacking those frozen, skinned and dressed marionettes, all neatly upright in the back of my father’s snow-filled pick-up, his freezer on wheels. I remember all the game we ate, from the valleys to the mountains, all winter’s forested children, with nowhere to hide. I begin to feel the coldness of that day, but only from within.

My mother, father, both gone, and I have been an orphan for some time now. I wrap all my childhood memories around me like a warm quilt in my September of now and have no regrets.

I should say there were more hunts, and more killing, because in Northern California, that is how you feed a family. My father was our hunter. But, even though he and I hunted through my college years, I counted killing only one legal buck.

I have not hunted in many, many years. My reasoning is quite simple. My love for nature taught me the difference between my wants and needs. And the awkward notion that men don’t have to kill to be men.

About the Author:

Dan Cardoza has a MS Degree.  He is the author of two Chapbooks, “Nature’s Front Door” & “Expectation of Stars.” Partial Credits: 101 Words, Amethyst, UK., Chaleur Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, California Quarterly, Curlew, UK., Dissections, Entropy, Esthetic Apostle, Foxglove, Friday Flash Fiction, Frogmore, High Shelf Press, Oddball, Poetry Northwest, The Quail Bell, Skylight 47, Spelk, Spillwords, The Fiction Pool, Urban Arts, Unstamatic, and Vita Brevis.

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