We walked to the stand under the beam from headlamps, the slivers of light inconsequential in the vastness of predawn dark. It was heavy overcast after a night in the black of a new moon. There was no smudge of dawning to the east, only the ocean of dark in the woods around us. Above, the wind moved the trees and the sighing of branches in the breeze was a constant. We walked slowly but deliberately. We had time.
The air was heavy. The ground was damp; leaves did not crunch underfoot.
To the north and east, distant, a shot, twenty minutes before the season opened.
“How can they see,” Ted asked.
“They can’t,” I told him. “Had to shoot over a light.”
It was opening morning, a time of mystery and optimism, of questions and no answers. Say what you will, hunting, all hunting, has at the core of it questions seeking answers. There is no certainty. There are possibilities; there are probabilities; there are options and plans well made. But at its center hunting has no certainty. At its most basic are questions looking for resolution. In the day of the hunt the questions asked before the hunt are resolved, over time, in the field. A hunt starts with questions. The day, the hunt, brings answers, slowly, grudgingly, inevitably.
We did not know how the deer would move. We did not know if they would move at all. We had no way of knowing the unknowable, of discerning the vague and mysterious world found in the woods and field. We did not know what was ahead. All questions.
The day started slowly. Darkness held sway beyond the time of opening. The view from the tree stand was of dark and shadow, of indistinct shapes that only slowly took form and substance. The overnight cloud cover held tight as if the night was holding back something secret from view. Only slowly did the dark and shadow world come to definition in dim light under the gray November sky.
The landscape in what passes in early morning daylight is an austere palette; somber greens of pine, tawny grass and rusted fern, russet oak leaf, undertaker grays of tree trunk and branch, umber and Sienna and watercolored blur. It is a landscape at rest; the exhausting surge of greenery is gone to the dusty calendar pages. The fireworks of fall color are memory now. All that remains is the sere colors of late November.
The day is a slow starter as if it is still in slumber and awakes only reluctantly. We hear sounds of distant rifle shots. We wonder of them. We question them; did they end in success? Failure? There is no resolution, questions only.
In the years we have hunted this stand we have seen deer early on the opening. Today, none. Today, no movement: no deer, no birds, no squirrels. Nothing. So we wonder, the two of us, of the why and the why nots of it all. Questions. No answers. Not on this morning. In front of us a twisted cherry tree stands, its branches turned and looped and resembling nothing more than a question mark.
Mid-morning a doe moves to our east, hidden in part by pine and oak scrub. But a doe; no question. An hour later a small buck, a spike buck that had we not used binoculars would have passed for antler less. The antlers were short and pointed, the size of your pinkie finger. Perhaps not a spike as much as a spikette. But nothing else.
I hunt until ten and then walk to the shack and make coffee, bacon and eggs. Ted hunts til noon. No deer. We talk about the morning over coffee. The wood stove brings heat. Questions; no answers. Then back to the hunt.
The afternoon unfolds as the morning had. All is quiet save for the sound of the wind. The temperature drops and we hunch deeper into the layers of clothing, all topped by the garish blaze orange. We do not see deer. We wonder why. It’s been a bad acorn year. These woods have oak that, if the crop is good, bring deer to feed. This year is a poor one. Is that the reason we do not see deer?
We wait. If you do not wait well you will not hunt well.
The doe comes first; a snap of branch broken, the beat of hoof to ground, then the doe at full run at a hundred and twenty five yards off, angling toward us on the edge of the field. Then Ted says, “Buck!” And in that instant I see him.
He is very big and he is running very fast chasing the doe. He follows the doe, running at full bore, antlers high, covering ground. I watch over Ted’s shoulder as the rifle comes up and tracks the buck. It all happens fast; the doe, the buck, the rifle swinging in pace with the buck.
There comes a time when all the questions of the hunt come to this: Take the shot? Or not? That is all. That is the decisive instant of the hunt. Shoot or not? That is all.
The buck is in full out sprint, Ted’s rifle is marking him, the moment is now. It is time.
The buck runs into the cover of woods and Ted pulls the rifle up. The question is answered. The shot is not taken.
The line was wrong; the buck angled toward us, the vitals hidden. The buck was running in full. The point of it all, when you get to the heart of it is this: Can I make a clean shot? The point is not to hit the buck, the point is to make a single, killing shot. The shot, the one good shot, was not there. The odds of hitting the buck were good. The chances to kill it clean were not.
That buck will be with us for a long time. I have the memory as a photograph, the big body, the high rack, heavy and full that gleams as if ivory. The buck in full. The buck of dreams and of hopes and now, of memories. Ted says, “That’s the biggest I’ve seen in years”.
The buck runs hard to the north. We see him for an instant in a gap in the trees. Then gone. Silence. The cool air of November comes down around us. The leaves on the trees begin to wave in the breeze.
In our minds we imagine the buck running north, over the next ridge, down the far side, over oak leaf, past the gray trunks of silent trees that stand as sentinels to it all.
Then to the north, not far off, a shot. It cracks the air. The sound of the shot reaches out into the cloud and the gray sky and the November air. The sound becomes echo but on the return there is no sound, only a final question.