Around here, November is a symphony of grays, its clouds hanging low and clutching the landscape by its throat, suffocating the color from the trees until they are as gray and lifeless as the sky, its winds too icy cold to breathe any life into the dead leaves that cover the hard and barren ground.
For fifty years, since he was fourteen, the fourth week of November meant deer hunting, on the same eighty acres of woods, first with his father and brother, later with his son, and for the past few years now, by himself. His joints, arthritic and aching, creaked loudly as he walked the trail that bordered the northern edge of the property, and leaves crunched noisily under each slow and heavy step. It was the last hour of the last day of what he sensed would be the last year. He hadn’t seen a buck the whole season, and it had been five days since he’d seen the last doe.
He found the old five gallon oil bucket on top of the ridge at the end of the trail that had marked his spot for longer than he could remember. He sat on the bucket and waited, like he had countless times before. He was never fond of tree stands; they weren’t popular when he learned to hunt, and with his arthritis and balance issues, climbing up in a tree was a painful and risky proposition. He knew he was old fashioned, but it was how he hunted, sitting on a bucket on top of a ridge, his dad’s 30.06 cradled in his arms, scanning the underbrush for movement, for solid patches of gray that stood out amongst the network of branches and twigs, listening for the distinctive sound of a branch breaking that the wind was incapable of making. It was a style of hunting that at one time served him well, as he pulled in his share of bucks and does, although he never shot a buck bigger than eight points. There were other hunters who seemed to nail a ten pointer every year, but that had always eluded him. The past few years had been a complete drought, and as he took his seat on the bucket, he tried to calculate how many years since his last deer, a T-Zone doe. The best he could come up with was that it was somewhere between five and seven years ago, well after the last time his son had hunted with him.
It was cold when he started out that afternoon, in the mid teens, and as he sat there, the wind picked up and the late afternoon shadows lengthened, and it started to snow, first big flakes falling gently, picking up momentum and growing smaller and denser, until they were blowing sideways, giving color to the wind. It pelted him in the back of his neck, and he turned his collar up, and after fifteen minutes, not only was he cold and aching, he realized the wind was blowing the wrong way, at his back, into the nose of any deer within range of where he sat watching. Screw this, he said to himself, and he decided that he was cold and achy enough, it was too late in the season, and that he was done. He stood up and started down the trail to the west, when he heard a snort and then, just over the edge of a knoll ahead of him, he saw a mass of gray against the fresh white backdrop silently bound away from him, dipping into a slight draw behind the knoll and out of site. He couldn’t be sure but he thought he saw antlers. His heart started pumping the familiar adrenalin that was always, since the first time he experienced it as a kid, his favorite part of hunting.
The snow had accumulated enough to coat and dampen the leaves, making walking quieter, and he slowly and silently walked the trail until he came to the tracks where the deer had crossed. He stood still, following the tracks as far as his eyes could see, then looking up past them to the south, he saw the deer, stopped, frozen, looking back at him, not moving. It was a buck, not the trophy that had always eluded him, but a nice buck, at least six, maybe eight points. He slowly raised his rifle, but before he could get it to his shoulder, the buck was off, to the south, and all he could see was the white of its tail as it silently disappeared over a small hill.
He waited a second and then, without thinking, started tailing the deer, following the general direction of its tracks but flanking it a bit to the west, where he knew the bigger hills rested, where if he moved quickly and quietly enough he might get in position to catch enough of a glimpse to pull off a shot. He moved silently over the snow covered terrain, and he became aware of the lost grace he’d suddenly found, and how for the first time in a long time his knees and ankles were free of pain.
He came to the top of the first rise and, just as he expected, he saw the buck, running away and over the next rise, towards the big hill, the hill where first his father used to sit, then later, his son. He was unable to get a shot off; the buck was running faster now. His only chance was to make it to the top of the second rise before the buck got around the bottom of the big hill; he didn’t have much time, so he ran. He started running, not even realizing that he hadn’t run, not this fast or this far, for years, yet there he was, sprinting through the woods. He was halfway up the second rise when the still of the woods was shattered by the deafening boom of a rifle, nearby, from the top of the big hill. He finished his ascent to the top of the second rise and looked to the bottom of the big hill.
There, the buck laid, lifeless in the opening at the bottom of the hill, blood dripping from his mouth, leaving a small red dot in the snow. He looked to the top of the hill and he saw the unmistakable figure of his son, fifteen years old again, standing in the white snow, wearing the same hooded blaze orange sweatshirt he used to wear, his lever action Marlin .3030 in his arms, beaming from ear to ear. His eyes moistened, he closed them, and when he opened them again, the top of the hill was gray and empty. He looked to the bottom of the hill, where a moment ago the buck lay dead, bleeding in the snow, and there was only dead and dry leaves.
The wind howled through the still and empty woods, icy and cold against his neck in the darkening November gray.