I steer the old pickup onto the road, heading north. The moon is full but the sky is black, pricked with diamonds where there is no cloud. The road, too, is normally black; a narrow ribbon that curls over hills and cleaves sleeping fields, but this morning it pulses with the lights of other anxious travelers. A boy sits beside me, his shape barely discernible beneath layers of heavy clothing. He was excited to get in the truck but soon he is asleep.
As the miles thrum by and the familiar road unwinds I remember the years when I was in his place. I remember my father’s hands changing their grip on the steering wheel as we turned, our headlights sweeping across an open field like a lighthouse sweeps the ocean, the uneven motion of the truck as he searched for the pedals under the thick soles of his hunting boots. I don’t remember that we talked much. I rested my head against the cold, jangling side window, watched dark trees and intersections and villages sail past like shadows in a dream.
In the early hours of November 15, the road is alive with fathers and sons, some retracing a route long remembered, some launching into the frosty black morning as on a voyage to a new world. For my boy, it is mostly new. He has hunted with me before, has even killed a deer, but this is the first time that I have seen him count the days until the season begins.
Hunting is itself a road that many sons (and some daughters) travel, an awakening into a new world of fearsome powers and independence and responsibility. A world in which, year by year, they emerge from under their fathers’ wings to enter the fraternity in which their ears and eyes and steady aim is as good as any other man.
This year, still, my son is happy to be a boy, happy to sit next to me in the woods, but he carries his own gun and soon he will long for his own space and I will feel, I suppose, as his mother did on his first day of school. For two days, we walk into the fields in darkness and watch the sky slowly brighten. We walk out of the fields in darkness, having watched the last light flee. We sit together in deer stands, the cold wind in our face, candy bars in our pockets, scanning the fields and fencerows.
Time sometimes moves slowly. As I once did, he mournfully asks why hours go by without seeing a deer. As my father did, I encourage him to be patient and prepared, thankful that we can be here at all. We speak of the danger and responsibility of his new power, of choosing a shot carefully and letting the deer go by if the shot is not there.
And then, when we have begun to disbelieve in their existence, the word that sends electricity down our spines, whispered with equal parts stealth and urgency. “Deer!” To this day, I can still hear that magical word spoken in the voice of my father and my uncles, the heroes from whom I learned this ritual. You don’t have to ask “Where?”; the spotter’s eye will not stray as he tries to quickly and quietly (though often unsuccessfully) raise his gun without banging it against something. I see where Peter is looking, see the antlers already, see that that in a moment Pete will have him in the scope. The buck is bounding across the field within easy range. I give a whistle to make him pause and, for a moment, he does. Pete’s body is a statue, locked into the firing position and, just as I anticipate the blast of his gun, the deer suddenly resumes his flight and eventually disappears over the hill. Pete is downcast, apologetic. “I didn’t think I had a good shot.”
And, so far, we have sat together in deer stands for two days, the cold wind in our face, and come home with no deer. It has been a successful hunting season.