In the Summer of Ninety-Three the woods in Brown County were pregnant with all variety of deer. The pests swelled out of the trees and into neighboring yards and roads and ate and fornicated over all manner of things. Does with new offspring harassed the elderly and puffed up against windows and snorted with rage and contempt for anybody unlucky enough to cross their paths. Put four people in the hospital in a two week span. Crops were ruined and the natural order of things upset. Newspaper announced not long after that the DNR was calling for open season under a headline that read Carry What You Can Kill.
Soon every idiot with a twenty-two and a pocketful of shells descended and got to killing. You couldn’t blame them. Not really anyway. It was free meat, the chance to store up for a few years. That’s what I had in mind anyway. My brother Joe worked at the rent-to-own place on Bethel and I had money down on some freezers. With his discount it would’ve been dumb not to buy a whole garage’s worth. Seemed like the economical thing to do, butcher up some meat and keep my family in venison and sell the rest for profit.
Before I left I told my wife I loved her and took care to let her know she needed to get my son under control by the time I got back. He was willful, a degenerate comprised of rage and hatred and just enough know-how to do some damage. Ten years old and he’d already held a pair of scissors to my oldest daughter’s throat and threatened to cut until his arm wore out. The two of us had had our fair share of rows and I’d grown tired.
Get him straightened out, I said to my wife, or he’ll be on one of those hooks.
She knew what I meant. Out in the garage I had a whole system of hooks and hangings in place to drain the blood from the deer. Called it the Butcher Shop. My wife, as sensitive in her ways as my son was cold, hated to venture in there.
It’s barbaric, she said, tugging at the fabric of her white linen dress.
One person’s barbarism, I said, is another’s art.
When I left the first morning with Trigger, my best friend from childhood, the boy was looking out the window. He’d lost a chunk of his cheek in a fishing accident and the scar was bubbling with infection and redness. His adam’s apple bobbed crazily up and down his neck while I threw the truck in reverse. Our eyes locked and I knew better than to take my gaze from his.
Weakness was not a trait either of us tolerated.
At the woods parking was at a premium and all the hunters sat in the back of their trucks, drinking beer and cleaning their weapons. The air smelled of fire. It smelled of oil. Someone that morning had jumped the gun and got a stud in a thicket and dragged his body to the parking lot. It lay there on the gravel, flies swooping in and out of the cool air and landing in the emptied chest cavity. The stench rose up and mixed with the fire and oil. Children in orange hats poked its hide with the muzzle of their toy rifles and smiled while their father’s snapped pictures with disposable cameras.
Fuck, Trigger said to me. We’ll be lucky if we get out of here alive.
He had a point. From my count there were at least six dozen idiots in the parking lot and most looked like hobbyists, the kind of amateurs who would unload both barrels on anything that moved.
Knowing that most would prefer to stay within a half-mile of the parking lot, I told Trigger we’d go deep. It seemed like elementary reasoning, penetrating into the heart of the woods and setting up camp where few dared to go.
Bucks’ve already razed it, Trigger said. Probably nothing left but some sticks and a few blades of grass. Fuck all, he said.
I looked into the eye of the woods and saw the trees multiplying into the distance. At the center of it all was green, lush canopy and the chittering of birds and squirrels. There was life there, and when I told Trigger as much he shrugged his shoulders and unloaded his favorite shotgun and a bag full of pistols.
Pistols won’t kill a deer, I said.
Of course they won’t, he said and gestured at the others. Ain’t for the deer.
At the stroke of seven a.m. they unleashed us. Bobby Piggsley, the DNR officer we all called Hog, strolled out from behind the wheel of his pick-up and said we had seventy-two hours to do whatever we wanted. Hog wasn’t one to mince words. No tagging, no bagging, he said. Clear those motherfuckers out and we’ll go home and have ourselves a time.
The rush was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. We were shoulder to shoulder for the first hundred yards and already there were crowds of game darting through the trees. Looking back you could still see the cars and trucks in the lot, Hog standing there sipping coffee out of a styrofoam cup, and yet there they were: deer. Emaciated, desperate, wild-eyed deer. Bobbing between trunks and rushing down and into the valley of the forest floor. Down there: more deer. A swarming like the cloud of gnats above that hollowed-out carcass. Bashing into each other, slipping and falling and being trampled.
Then came the shots. Weapons unleashed, the series like that of a thousand M-80s meeting their fuse. It blistered my ear drums and yet I found it in me to pull my trigger as well. Someone somewhere let loose an arrow and it sailed through the air above us. I watched it hit a buck in the shoulder and the buck stumbled and burrowed its rack into the dirt. Another arrow came. Another. More shots. Powder from the next man over burned my eyes.
I found Trigger. He had stayed back a ways, shouldered his gun. Blood caked his hands and he was smoking one of the small cigars he loved so well. I’ve already got more than I did the whole of last season, he said.
We’ve been here five minutes.
I know, he said and I followed his gaze. The herd was flowing in and over itself in the panic. Like a nest of newborn snakes humping one another in their blindness. A wave of men was rushing them, their knives drawn, stabbing wildly at whatever came near, some of the bucks twisting in their agony and baring their points. The men started whooping and hollering, saying nonsense things, shouts about their childhood and places gone and things seen. Then the words turned to sounds, grunts and hisses. My stomach, Trigger said, is a boiling pot of water. But I can’t look away.
The air smelled of powder and copper. The blood drenched the ground and formed puddles and it got so bad you had to watch your step as you climbed down into the bowl of the valley to collect your kill. We gave up responsibility, choosing instead to grab whatever buck or doe was nearby and dragging it out by its neck and up onto higher ground. Men patted each other on the backs, leaving dark red prints on their camoed jackets. One here or there rubbed a blood-streaked hand across his face and let it dry to war paint. The heart of the bowl was a stumbling, steaming mess. We threw our cleanings there and the pile grew so large it almost shouldered us out of the valley altogether. All the small creatures of the forest gathered at the edge and waited their turns. The children who had come with their fathers frolicked and took potshots at the squirrels and raccoons and grabbed them by their hides and bashed them together.
It reminded me of my son. The one and only time I had taken him hunting had been a mistake, a bad exercise in brutality. When he saw a fawn drinking from a stream he had dropped his rifle, the one that’d belonged to his grandfather, his birthright, and taken chase. It wasn’t a quarter mile into the line of trees that he’d caught it, wrestled it to the ground, and gouged out its eyes and shoved his hand into its slit of a mouth. I tried to pry him from the poor young thing, fumbling at the same time to draw my weapon so I could show it mercy, but my son, only seven at the time, was already mess of feral muscle. He strangled the fawn, beat its head against an outcropping of stone, and dug his nails so deep into its hide that they burst through. Before burying it beneath a pine on the other side of the creek, I had to beat the boy until he left it alone. There was anger in him though, a lust that’d been woke, for he leapt at me and crawled up the front of my jacket and butted his head against my chin. I sensed that he aimed to kill me as well so I threw him as hard as I could to the ground and worked the heel of my boot against his tiny throat. Son of mine, I said, life is snuffed out so easily.
That night Trigger and I made camp a good two miles in. There were still deer poking about, their eyes wide in terror. Trigger had taken to firing pot shots at them, warnings. Occasionally he’d hit one and it would whimper and then sprint away. We had a basic tent pitched in a clearing and we cuts lengths of steak and cooked them over a small fire. In the distance we heard the whooping and the cheering of men. The occasional rifle shot that soon coalesced into a storm of discharges.
Trigger was quiet as he cut his steak with his hunting knife. He was glaring into the heart of the fire. I asked him what he was thinking and he shrugged. You ever reckon you’d see something like this?
A young buck shouldered up to the fire and smelled our plates. He wasn’t the least bit frightened or intimidated. I could tell he was from the new breed of animal that’d taken hold, the ones that sprinted into the neighborhoods and attacked anything unlucky enough to exist in their path. The ones that seemed in full-awareness of death and all its intricacies, and yet seemed unimpressed.
Shoo, Trigger said to him. Go on and shoo.
The buck snarled his lip and puffed out of his wet black nose.
Trigger retrieved his pistol from under leg and leveled it and cocked the hammer. Now, he said, his voice growing firmer, you go on and shoo.
The buck lowered his head like he might try and gore Trigger and then, as if the thought had only occurred to him, shifted and trotted off into the woods at a calm pace. There was another symphony of fire not far off. A lone man chuckled and soon the chuckle infected his party and they stood laughing like pleased dogs.
Only thing that seems to matter anymore, Trigger said, dumping what was left of his steak in the fire, is that a man can feed himself and only himself.
Trigger lifted himself off the forest floor and dusted off his pants. There was blood caked in the thighs of his jeans and whatever joy had been on his face that morning seemed forgotten. He excused himself to the tent and I stood watching the piece of meat sizzle in the flames.
Not long after I joined him and found him fully awake with his hands under his head. I found my spot and between his shallow breathing and the far-off shots, I found peace enough to slip under. It was a fitful sleep full of starts and lulls, but sometime in the night I found my way to dream and I dreamed of that buck that had wandered into our camp. I saw him in the company of his herd, his mouth boiling with spit and taste for a new meat. He lowered that new rack of his and set forth butting and piercing with wild abandon, goring until his neck couldn’t stand the impact anymore and he was forced to rear up and then continue with his sharp hooves. All around him were the cries of his own and they snapping their heads to and fro and looking to each other in dumb wonder as to how such a massacre could ever visit them.
In the middle of the night I woke with a start. I had sweated through my clothes. Trigger was still awake, still staring at the steeple of the tent. Trigger, I said.
I know, he said. Go home.
As fast as I could I slipped on my boots and hurried off in the direction of my truck. Just a ways off was the pile of bounty I’d procured. They lay in twisted heaps, surrounded by starving animals. What was left of the glint of the fire played off their black eyes and I saw specks of light dance and then die. Under my breath, I apologized and sprinted through the woods.
The first mile was quiet, the sky overhead a muted ink-blue and the trees illuminated enough so that I never had to break stride. Then I came to the eye of the woods and the world became black. Good sense told me to stay, to wait for the hint of dawn, but I knew I had to get home. It grew quiet until the quiet grinded at me and then the quiet broke as a bullet hissed by. A tree only three feet away welcomed it and I heard the pulp of the wood sigh as if in relief.
Not a deer, I yelled. Not a deer.
There was the sound of a pair of men conferring. Then laughter. Laughter like a child’s. Doesn’t matter, one of them said. Doesn’t make one lick of a goddamn difference.
I took off full-bore and held my hands out at a distance so that if I came across a tree I’d at least have a chance of surviving. There was one more shot, a wild one that missed by at least a dozen feet. There was more laughing, more conferring. And then nothing.
The parking lot was still alive in a limping manner. There were men stretched from car to car, their backs against the doors, makeshift fires dying at their feet. Everywhere there were piles of bodies stacked like loose and rotting bricks. Hog was leaned against one of them, drinking coffee and bullshitting. I tell you, he said as I rushed by, I could get used to this shit.
Sitting at the bumper of my truck was a group of men drunken and mumbling. One of them, a white-bearded man, the sleeve of his right arm folded and pinned up by what was left of his bicep, looked up at me with cataract eyes. Morning, boss, he said to me. Morning.
Home was twenty minutes away. I made it in ten, the cab of my truck stinking of blood and when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror it was like a glimpse of man come home from war.
As I carried my rifle out of my truck, I found the first of the bodies in the front yard. My middle-daughter. She had been fond of paper dolls, of playing out scenes with her characters, her children she called them, and by her mutilated hand lay the one she was fond of most of all. Peggy, she called it, a young girl with short hair colored red by crayon.
A few feet from her was the oldest and then the youngest, lain out like boot prints and discarded like litter.
My wife was slumped on the bottom of the stairs. The white linen dress she’d been wearing that morning soaked through like an amateur had tried to stain it. Next to her, on the stair, the pair of scissors the boy had taken a liking to. I kicked them away and they went skittering down the floor. The sound must’ve roused him as I heard movement just past the door that led into the garage. I put my hand to my beloved’s cheek and felt the cold already sunk in.
=n my garage I found him sitting with his naked heels pressed together, the glimmer of his sweat-soaked body shining in the soft light from the moon. The nest of hooks and chains swung softly overhead, their metal playing a tune of discord and violence. He was staring up into them and smiling like a child filled with the most innocent of wonder. They rustled, seemingly on their own accord, and the pink gash that had grown from his cheek to trail and infect most of his face, winked at me in the dark.
Father, he said, you’re home.
Jared Yates Sexton is a born-and-bred Hoosier living and working in The South as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University. He’s the author of three collections of stories, a crime-novel, and is currently covering the 2016 Election for Atticus Books. He tweets at @jysexton.