The Deer Hunter

Chad Tracy

“C’mon Timmy. Wake up. Time to go.”

Timmy was rocked awake. The smell of germs and alcohol on his uncle’s breath. The faded cloth curtains stained with nicotine. The cheap wood paneled walls of the trailer blurring into view. He rubbed his eyes.

“You think them deer are still wearing their pajamas?”

His uncle sat on the edge of the built-in sofa, scratching a five-day beard with his fingernails. A sound like the scrape of wooden matches. His uncle already dressed in jungle fatigues. A shadowed pattern of forest green, brown, and black. A hooded one-piece with a vest and long johns beneath it. The air outside the sleeping bag was frigid. Timmy could see his breath. He wanted, more than anything, to go back to sleep, cocooned in his own body heat.

“Where’s my dad?”

“He’s already gone. You’re coming with me today.”

Timmy shuffled out of his sleeping bag, pushing with his feet. He stood on the cold linoleum floor in his socks and long underwear. It was still dark outside. The wind moaned at the windows. He shuffled toward the tiny bathroom in back. Inside it was colder still. A thin film of ice in the toilet bowl. His piss steamed. He carved patterns in the ice.

His uncle was waiting at the kitchen table, a can of Pabst in one hand. He showed no impatience as Timmy dressed, but Timmy sensed that beneath the calm veneer his uncle was wound tight as a belted tire. Dark brown eyes, the same eyes as his father, the same as his own. Eyes that had watched men die half a world away.

“Where are we going?” Timmy asked as he struggled with the zipper on his snowsuit. Unlike his father’s or uncle’s, Timmy’s suit was orange with black patterns of camouflage like Maori tattoos. It was the only concession his uncle and father made to the conventional wisdom that all hunters should wear blaze orange during gun season, in order to keep them from shooting one another. But on this land, four hundred acres bought by Timmy’s grandfather in 1942 and surrounded on all sides by “No Trespassing” signs, his father and uncle figured that as long as they knew where the other man was hunting, they would be fine. It had been years since they’d had any trouble with poachers, and when there had been trouble, it was with the kind of men who hunted at night from the back of flat bed trucks using spotlights to stun their prey. Timmy loved the suit. Wearing it, he could pretend he was a tiger.

“The back forty. In the blind near the cornfield. Snowed last night, so we can look for tracks on the way. You ready?”

Though he was hungry, Timmy knew better than to ask for breakfast. Breakfast would be a Snicker’s candy bar and a handful of sunflower seeds eaten when they reached the blind, washed down with a thermos of hot chocolate. When he hunted with his father they shared a thermos. Today he would have to carry his own. What his uncle stored inside his thermos was not for kids.

Timmy felt through the layers of his snowsuit for the hard bulk of his pocket knife. It had been a present from his father for his ninth birthday, two days before they made the trek up to the woods from Cross Plains. The wooden handle had a silhouette of a deer’s head burned into the wood. When no one was watching, he liked to practice opening it with one hand, holding the edge of the blade and flicking the handle open like they did in the movies. Closing it was more difficult. It took careful pressure from his thumb to release the lever on the back of the handle and fold the blade shut. There was a crisp clicking sound the knife made when the blade locked that for Timmy was proof of its value. He was not yet allowed to carry a gun, but with the knife he was one step closer. He was armed.