*Image: “Decrepit Dinos #3” by Jennifer Lothrigel, Photograph
Whacking a Doe
by Alexander Barbolish
It took three shots to kill my first deer. The first bullet hit at the base of her lungs and exited out the left shoulder. With awkward, halting leaps, the doe bounded forward about twenty yards and then stopped. I rose from the weeds along the tree line and walked out into the field, focusing on the dark hole in the middle of her side. It was not a gaping, gushing wound, but neat and round. She didn’t bolt as I approached. I stopped and continued staring at the bloodless entry wound. This is not how it is supposed to happen, I thought.
There was supposed to be a bang—one shot—and the deer would fall. That’s how it had happened in my mind, just before I fired. Bang! Dead. I hadn’t thought about missing. My movements took concentration. My hands shook as I worked the bolt: buck fever. It hits hunters the first time they shoot a deer. Usually, they freeze and can’t pull the trigger, or they forget to take the safety off. It’s pure nervousness, and most often affects kids their first time hunting. I was nineteen, and my reaction embarrassed me. I tried to convince myself it was only the cold.
The doe watched as I approached. I avoided her gaze, like a child who knows he’s done something wrong. It wasn’t just the shot that was wrong; it was everything. For weeks, I’d imagined walking up the old logging trail, and right where the little brook cuts the road as it tumbles and gurgles its way down the mountain, I pictured coming upon the buck. I would freeze, and he would look right at me, not with dumb animal curiosity but with haughtiness. I would start to bring the rifle up, then stop. We would stand like that for some time, two magnets set close enough to feel the unseen pull—an unspoken connection, some primitive understanding between man and animal. Then the buck would turn, and I would watch him saunter away into the brush.
Instead I was looking at a wounded doe in a damp hayfield. This deer was not regal or majestic, but small and scared. There was no primal connection, only a doe with a hole through her lungs, and a boy with a rifle who realized he hadn’t thought about pulling the trigger. I could already hear the old men at the hardware store, where I worked part time. Didja get one, they’d ask, leaning against the worn wooden counter, gnarled hands clutching Styrofoam cups of steaming coffee. What would I tell them?
My second bullet went straight through both lungs and clipped her heart along the way. It was moving at three thousand feet per second—over two hundred miles an hour— when it slammed into the doe. She fell straight back, as if hit by a freight train and not an inch-long piece of metal. I ejected the shell, picked it up off the ground, and made a fist around the warm brass tube. This is what the old men never talk about, I thought, the shot itself. The deer is alive and then it is dead, and the moment in between is just a sentence in a rambling story. I whacked a deer this morning, they’ll say, as if deer just stand around waiting for us to kill them.
They sometimes talk about war the same way, as if killing something—someone—is simple. That’s how Mr. Jones had made it sound, when he told me how back in Nam some buddy’s buddy shot a Viet Cong sniper in the eye. Shot the damn gook right through his own scope, across a river maybe two or three hundred yards wide, he’d said, gesturing with a brawny, tattooed arm, as if all the man did was point his rifle and pull the trigger.
In theory, I guess it is that easy. Squeezing a trigger is an uncomplicated action, a simple crooking of the index finger, involving fewer muscles than it takes to smile. But there is more to it than that, isn’t there? Otherwise, why the big deal?
Killing is like sex, I realized, as the empty shell cooled in my hand. There is no way to explain it to someone who hasn’t done it, except reduce it to the mechanics, the act itself, when it is much more than physical. That’s what makes us uncomfortable. That’s why we joke about it, throw it around nonchalantly. It’s easier than trying to express the emotional impact of the act.
The old men know this. They know it, and that is why they never talk about the shot except in passing. They know that killing is not something you can understand unless you’ve done it. Taking a life takes something out of you, not in the moment of the act itself, but later, when you see the deer—or the man—lying there, and ponder what you’ve done. The irreversibility of it.
The deer was still moving when I walked up to her, all four legs kicking, galloping like a mechanical toy knocked on its side. I put the muzzle of my rifle to her head and pulled the trigger; the last shot went straight through the doe’s brain and buried itself in the dirt. In books they always talk about watching life fade from the eyes as something dies. Instead, the doe simply stopped moving; her eyes stayed the same—dark and wide open. I had a sudden urge to close the eyelids, but I didn’t.
I looked from her glassy stare to her legs. Her hooves were small and dainty. I remembered earlier in the week, when I sat with my back to the big pine at the corner of the field and a doe, perhaps the one I’d just killed, came walking by, so close I could’ve touched her. You never see deer walking. They are either standing still—brown shapes against the green of a field as you whiz by in the car—or they are running, leaping away from the road just as you pass. The doe didn’t see or smell me; she walked, unhurried, like the buck in my fantasy, delicately picking her way between the saplings and brush. I sat there while she walked by, gun in my lap.
That sedate image clashed sharply with the one before me. From the first shot to the last, no more than two minutes had elapsed. That’s what shocked me most—the speed of it all. As quickly as I could snap my fingers, shade, spirit, soul—whatever it is that animates a body—evaporated. Life would flee my own body just as quickly, I realized, were I at the other end of the rifle.
This was not the link I expected to find when I imagined connecting with nature through hunting, but nevertheless, it is the truth. Killing exposes that lie we tell ourselves, that life and death are polar opposites, that if we are alive, we must be far from death. The truth is we are never far from it. That is something all other animals seem to apprehend, but we willfully ignore, as if the ability to kill from a distance means that we can always point death away from us, hold it at arm’s length.
We are the only creatures who choose to kill, and maybe that’s why it’s hard for us to see that link. Squeezing a trigger takes not instinct, but conscious effort. It’s an action that demands accountability—but it is easier to take a life than to acknowledge what you’ve really done. That’s why it sounds so easy to shoot an enemy soldier in the face, when you’re not standing on that jungle riverbank. That’s why, the next morning at the hardware store, when Mr. Jones asked the inevitable—Didja get one?—I didn’t think about it; I just nodded, and the words tumbled out of my mouth. Yeah, I whacked a doe yesterday.
Illustrative Imagery by Jennifer Lothrigel
I spend a lot of time visiting places off the beaten path because of their rich stories. This series features photos taken in Apple Valley, CA of decaying dinosaur sculptures believed once to be features in a miniature golf course, although strangely situated in a private neighborhood.