In the spring after my sixth birthday and once the last snow had nearly melted away, we moved to an old dairy farm set in the remote countryside of northern New Hampshire. We had a long driveway that led from our house to the main road, and our backyard rose into hills covered by thick evergreen forests. Except for the occasional roar of massive logging trucks carrying pulpwood to the local paper mill, it was a quiet, serene place to live in.
A generation earlier, when our homestead was a working farm and milk cows grazed in the fields, someone planted apple trees in our backyard. Our new home was an enchanting place with a sagging barn that served as a garage for my dad’s pickup truck, various outbuildings no longer in use, dilapidated chicken coops, and a small milk shed with abandoned pasteurizing equipment ready for the scrap heap, a setting that provided me with a sense of adventure.
It was during our first autumn that the deer appeared. My mother was in the kitchen, washing potatoes at the sink as she prepared the evening meal. She had been looking out the window when she stopped suddenly, signaling to my sister and I to come over. At the edge of our backyard, by the apple trees, three young deer had stepped out of the woods, attracted by the aroma of wild apples that had fallen onto the ground, slowly fermenting in the autumn sun. We had never seen deer before, and we gazed in wonder as the animals walked with a certain grace and assuredness around the trees, stretching their long necks down to nibble at the fruit, until, suddenly, perhaps alerted by the distant sound of a truck passing by the road, they ran back into the safety of the woods.
The deer reappeared several times over the next few months, sometimes coming into our backyard, but more often, preferring to visit the larger, solitary apple tree that had been planted at the far end of the hay field adjoining our front yard. As winter approached and most of the apples had fallen onto the ground to rot, and anything that could have been eaten was buried in the snow, the deer went far away into the deep woods, and we would not see them again until the following year.
With each passing year, I grew attuned to the flow of the seasons. After the long summer vacation, I looked forward to September and the start of the school year, the shortening days and the vivid palette of reds, oranges and yellows that signaled the foliage season, and finally in late October, the reemergence of the deer to forage under our apple trees.
One autumn, the boys in my school were talking about hunting season and one of my chums told us with a sense of pride how his older brother had fired a gun the previous weekend. I remember my dad coming into the house and showing us a newly purchased hunting license. I had seen hunters before, they were the men who came into town wearing brightly colored hunting vests with their hunting licenses pinned to their caps. However, even though my dad owned two rifles, I had never seen him shoot them, so I was unsure why he had bought a license.
On a sunny afternoon that November, two deer wandered into our backyard. Mom picked up the phone and called my dad at the sawmill across the road, the lumber business that he and his two brothers built when we moved here. Dad usually drove to and fro in the old Ford pickup, but on that afternoon, he left the truck at the mill and walked home, entering through the front door that my mom had propped open. He stepped softly up two flights of stairs to the attic where he stationed himself by the window facing the backyard.
The wooden window was creaky, and Dad opened it slowly, trying not to make a sound. I did not see him do any of this because I was looking out the kitchen window watching the deer, anticipating. I imagined my dad lifting his Springfield rifle, the 30-30 model that the boys at school often talked about, and then taking aim at the deer standing broadside. I was expecting a popping sound, like the guns going off in TV westerns, but instead, all I heard was a sharp swish as the gunshot resonated down the two flights of stairs, reaching the kitchen just as I saw the two deer dart back into the woods. He must have missed, I said to myself.
Immediately, my dad’s older brother, who had been waiting by the edge of our house, chased after the deer, followed by my dad. I stared in amazement since I had never seen my dad run so fast in his life. A few minutes later, the two brothers came out of the woods dragging the dead animal, a young buck with a modest set of antlers.
They took the deer into the old milk room, and using a spring scale, weighed the carcass. My dad read the weight and recorded it on the hunting permit, as required by law. After hanging the deer from a rafter, my uncle took out a large hunting knife, and the two men got to work gutting and skinning the animal. My mom waited with white enameled kitchen pans to hold the slabs of venison that my uncle carved out of the deer. I stood by the door, watching the butchering, keeping out of the way. It was late in the afternoon and getting dark. My dad and uncle worked by the glow of a utility light suspended from the ceiling, time was of the essence, and no one spoke to me.
A few weeks later, while exploring the milk shed, I found the severed head of the young buck sitting in a cardboard box on a shelf in the loft. The dead face made me uneasy, so I stepped away from it and never mentioned it to my parents. I remember one family meal when Mom served venison. It was tough meat and I never developed a taste for it.
A year or two later, some people purchased lots down the road, installed mobile homes, and allowed their dogs to roam free in the nearby woods. From that time on, the deer came back less often, and eventually, never returned to eat our apples.
On one family occasion, my dad recounted how he had shot the deer from the attic window, explaining how he had nearly dropped the window while opening it, the sound of which would have likely spooked the deer before he could take his aim.
Many years later, I found an old picture of him from the time when he and Mom, newly married, were living in the backwoods of Nova Scotia. In a black and white photo taken with a box camera, he and his brother were pictured standing next to a freshly killed deer hanging from a tree. Then it dawned on me: in an earlier life, years before I was born, my dad had hunted on many occasions, not for sport, but to put food on the table, during those lean years after World War II when he and his brothers ran a logging camp, harvesting timber in harsh conditions, all to scrape a living together. It was no accident that my dad had taken a good shot that day and that my uncle had been so adept with the hunting knife: that hard-won backwoods prowess had become part of their very being.
When I turned twelve, we sold the mill and moved to the neighboring town south of us. Dad eventually sold his rifles and never hunted again. He never taught me how to shoot a rifle, a rite of passage that eluded me, yet one that I never missed. I remember clearing out the milk shed and finding the cardboard box with the head of the deer, what was left of it. After years of exposure to the elements, it was reduced to a gray skull with its teeth and antlers still attached. Dad kept the antlers and mounted them on the wall above his workbench in the garage, a reminder of his final hunt, one more rite of passage.
Marc Audet lives near New Haven, Connecticut, where he is self-employed as a web application developer. Marc enjoys reading literature and history, and has traveled and lived in Canada, England and Ireland. Over the years, he has kept journals and written personal essays about his travels. Recently, he has started to write short stories and creative nonfiction.