I’m sitting in my stand. I look just below me and find my morning entertainment, one solitary little chipmunk. The little darling’s winter fluff is coming in well. He sits on a small stone nibbling an acorn. Always en gaurde, his eyes dart side to side while he takes another bite. I take the moment in, the way his tiny fingers expertly turn and twist the shell, his tiny ribs rising a falling with urgency, his little tail flip every few seconds. He is a marvel. I try to memorize every marking. The black around his eyes extends past his ears and breaks before joining the stripe on his back. His browns are almost red. There is a little patch of fur on his paw gone missing.
As cold air fills my lungs, I catalog this moment: beauty. This is hunting. This is the part I love. I love sitting in my perch and playing silent observer in a community of gorgeous chaos. I love how the wind becomes as much a character in the forest’s narrative as the creatures that breathe and the trees that sing. I love knowing that, in my silence, I belong here.
My little chipmunk friend looks up and acknowledges me. He starts to bark, and I look away. I give him his visual space, and he notices. I am no threat. In my peripherals, I see him turn his head to one side. I get an elevator glance. He pounces onto the tree to get a better look. With my Carharts, I am bulky and slow. I have no claws or long canines. The chipmunk nods and saunters to his rock to resume eating. He can take me.
The morning passes like this for the next hour. At some point, the handwarmers in my mittens get too warm. I wiggle my fingers out and let my hand take five-minute shifts in their mini saunas. Meanwhile, the forest continues to shift and move and dance, and I just enjoy doing the best I can to blend into the choreography learning as we go. I keep my gun pointed at the old coyote den where I know there will be no humans.
At about ten, a thick fog sets in. It comes on so suddenly that I almost don’t notice it crawl down the hillside, past the pond, and into the holler. In moments, I am blind again. This blindness is more welcoming. The sun hugs the curves of the suspended water bathing everything in a soft glow. Nothing is interrupted. The birds keep chirping, the squirrels keep squirreling, and the armadillos keep running into things. Dogs on the next hill let out a few brays, then, they quiet down and match volume with the other performers.
Hunting is my escape. Hunting season is the one time of year when society allows me to sit still. To perch myself in a forest and just be. The rest of the year, I am engulfed in homework and chores. Any downtime I should spend reading or watching documentaries or exercising. If I sit, I feel guilty. I come to the holler in the summers and sit with a camera taking as many photos as I can so I that have an excuse to exist, but, here in November, so long as I am hunting, I can take no shots, I can serve no purpose, and I can sit.
At about eleven, the hunting ends. A stick snaps in the holler as the fog clears and the shape of a doe emerges from behind the red oak directly in front of me. I am no longer a hunter. I am now a killer, an assassin sent to do my job for the good of my people. That stick snap yanks me through the liminal space between my two forest identities and I wince.
“Killer” is the identity that I hate most. It tears through my skin and cuts out the sensation of the cold. I no longer feel the fabric of my clothing. I no longer feel the sting of the wind. I no longer feel anything. I roll my hat above my ears so that I can hear everything around me. I bring the gun to my right shoulder and press it firmly against my muscle. I undo the safety only after the gun is aimed directly at the doe. Through the scope, I can see that she is young, only a yearling. She is legal, and we need food. I set the crosshairs just above her heart an to the left. Aiming 50 yards down a hillside, I have to account for gravity and wind. She starts to take a step, and I click my tongue to stop her. She looks up, and I press the trigger. I do not look away.
Her eyes pierce mine and killer melts away. As she falls she lets out a low grunt, and my heart sinks with her. I can see that I made a kill shot, but adrenaline is holding her in this world. I reload the gun quickly and raise it to deliver a mercy blow. She lets out a bleat, calling for friends that she does not have. I start to cry. I can tell that another blow may bring more adrenaline. I aim above her several yards and press the trigger. The bullet does not touch her, but the sound stops her heart.
The forest is silent. All of the birds and chipmunks and squirrels are hiding. I am shaking. I want to run to her. I want to hold her. I want to give her life back, but a life is a possession that, once stolen away, can never be returned.
I turn on my gun’s safety, and I reach in my pocket. I pull out the shell casing from my first hunt. I bring it to my lips. I blow down to create a loud whistling sound. First blow. “I have shot.” Second blow. “I have hit.” Silence. “I am okay.” From across the holler, I hear one blow. Help will come soon.
I place the shell in my pocket and my gun in my lap. I look forward at the lifeless body in front of me.
I am hunting again.
I let my mind wander. I imagine who she might have been, and the things that she might have seen in the year to come. I image the forest dances that she might have joined. I stop and I ask myself “am I hurting.” The answer wells up inside of me, a resounding “yes.” I know that it is safe for me to return the next year. There is a note to myself at home, a promise that the year that I hesitate to answer that question, I will hang up my gun forever.
*This work first appeared as a monologue featured at Big Muddy Shorts in February of 2019. Tori Estes was the reader.