The Third Deer

Skilly was a sure-shot fourteen-year-old hunter and the middle son of Dieter Johansson from up Sumberland Township way, a tick-back-in-time of a place, where the women still made their own scented soaps, the men refused to buy foreign-made automobiles, and the children understood what they were listening to during Sunday church service.

Most winters, the snows of November in those parts come with the howling and sharp winds streaming across the flats. But one hunting season, way back when, the snowfall was quiet and peaceful, like a slice of heaven had fallen from the sky. Though the deer were plenty, they were hiding, like the sun, opening-day morning beneath a gray sky. Skilly and his two brothers, Tender, the strong eldest, and Biscuit, the willowy youngest, were fanning out wide, west of the homestead with their father, uncles and cousins. There would only be an hour’s worth of daylight spent before shots were fired.
 
Many years later, the members of the hunting party would still recall hearing the slow succession of three shots, like a measured salute at some fallen soldier’s funeral. The first shot was intended for a big buck that stood, broadside, at seventy yards, like an alert sentinel. Through his scope, Skilly had seen the puff of dander and the shuttering hide of the buck as the bullet penetrated above its left-front quarter and how quickly the animal had dashed around a large elm and then lunged into a thickening of tangled saplings, passed a whitetail doe frozen in its feeding spot. Quickly sighted, the second shot leveled the doe in a tumble of abrupt finality and a soft eruption of snow powder. While the doe was falling, disappearing below the eye of the scope, a third target had emerged. Skilly equated the subtle shifts and cautious steps to that of a weak-minded yearling. At that instant, having felt both an escalating charge of adrenaline and trigger drunk, he fired yet again. His third shot had seemed to linger a long time, pausing again and again, like the shutter of a slow-speed camera, yet guided by destiny around and, seemingly, through trees leaning in all directions. His heart stopped as he heard a wincing “uh” through the stillness of the air.
 
The smell of burnt gun oil and powder had hung in the air. As he stepped slowly from the shadows of the near woods, he could hear the echoing shouts of accolades above the trees on the other side of the field coming from the others, the crunch of their boots stilled by the evident presence of the lifeless buck.
 
“Kill shot!” The shout had been from his eldest brother. “I wonder which one got it.”
 
“Biscuit’s got the patience,” he had heard his father, “but Skilly’s got the aim.”
 
Skilly had then ran toward the spot of the third shot, dropping the rifle in the snow along the way. As he wound his way through the brush, he heard more praise.
 
“Here’s another one. A doe. They must’ve each got one.”
 
Skilly had felt both sorrow and panic as he broke through the last barrier of thatch and snow drift, seeing now his little brother laying on his side, asleep in a bed of snow with a crimson pillow.
 
“What did you do?!” his father had said, over and over, while shaking Skilly by the shoulders until his son couldn’t stop his head from whipping back and forth.

Deer and brother had lay motionless across a small stretch of woods where words were lost.

Three days later, inside the cold church, the preacher spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as though one could never exist without the other two. Full of guilt and shame and anger, Skilly cursed God for making the rules unfair to those who had no choice between living or dying.

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