The Backward-Looking Deer

Adam and his thirteen-year-old son, Noah, slipped out of the house before dawn and stuffed the pick-up truck with supplies. They eased out of the driveway and rolled stealthily through the stillness of dozing neighborhoods before accelerating onto the four-lane county road.

The countryside was only beginning to stir, so traffic was sparse. Intermittent oncoming headlights from work vans and semis briefly shattered the darkness, splashing the highway with bright, white illumination until they passed. Then blackness swallowed the western Georgia landscape again. Turning toward the Tallapoosa River and the Appalachian foothills, they navigated the back roads through the last, dark hour of a starry December night. Their timing was perfect; they arrived just as the sun came up.

Noah had automatically stuffed the buds from his iPhone into his ears when his father turned on the ignition, and ten minutes into the journey he dozed off. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist in the mornings. Actually, carefree communications with his family had diminished lately. Not that Noah wasn’t affable, polite, and, from time to time, affectionate. These days, however, his mind was preoccupied with new concerns, like fickle friendships, budding love interests, and the spasmodic dance of adolescent social life.  

It was that encroaching distance between them that prompted Adam to propose this adventure, an opportunity for father-son time together. The years were slipping away too quickly, and there was so much he wanted to teach Noah; so many things he wanted to discuss.

Adam understood from his own rebellious and confrontational youth how the chasm between father and son can widen slowly and insidiously, almost unnoticeably over a couple of years. Then one day, the gaping abyss can no longer be bridged.

By the time he graduated from high school, Adam and his father seldom spoke, and neither of them ever really listened to the other. Maybe Adam had been too arrogant and disrespectful. Or maybe his father had been too inflexible and austere. Either way, their mutual intransigence ensured a head-on collision and a final, regretful argument. He left home and the fracture never completely mended. The burning recollection of their estrangement kindled the flames of apprehension. He must not let this happen with Noah; he needed to reestablish the connection between them before it was too late. Adam remembered that the only time he and his father had truly bonded was when they went hunting together. Maybe it would work with his son.

Noah felt more and more disconnected from his family, especially with his father. Their conversations had drifted into perfunctory prattle or impromptu and mutually uncomfortable life-lesson ‘talks’. Sometimes he sympathetically squirmed as his father stumbled through awkward efforts to bond. Noah reminded himself that his father was the child of another time and place, and that the well-intentioned man in his forties was inescapably bound to an ancient universe.

An amber glow trickled across the sky from the east as the truck pulled off a dirt road into a small, rectangular gravel parking area that was demarcated with unfastened railroad ties. It rocked to a stop next to the narrow opening of a path that led into the woods.

“Wake up.” He gently shook Noah’s shoulder.

“We’re there?”

“Almost. We gotta leave the pick-up here and walk a couple of klicks into the woods. Then we’ll be there.”

“You sure it’s still there?”

“I hope so.” Adam reached behind the seat and pulled out two leather rifle cases and handed one to Noah. “Remember to point the barrel down while we’re walking.”

“I know, Dad.” Noah sighed impatiently. He grabbed his Nikon camera and draped the strap around his neck. “You don’t have to worry about me.” Sliding the rifle out of the case, he threw the bolt back and inspected the empty chamber. “Okay, let’s go.” He wrapped his ear buds around his phone and jammed them into his pocket.

“Don’t you think we can go a day without that?” asked Adam.

“What if there’s an emergency?”

It was a logical challenge, Adam silently conceded. “Alright. But can you turn it off and keep it in your coat?”  

The air nipped at their faces in stinging, petulant bursts, and their boots crunched on the frosty ground with each step. The trail was lined with white pines, spruces and scattered oaks, whose limbs quivered in the crisp, chilly breeze. The terrain and foliage looked familiar, yet Adam felt like an outsider in a foreign country.

He hadn’t seen this place in twenty-three years, the winter when he had left his parents’ home. He had taken a construction job and rented a cheap and slightly dilapidated trailer. By then, he and his father had ceased speaking to each other, so he’d made his last pilgrimage to the secluded retreat alone. He had dragged a six-point buck out of the woods that day, and the venison had fed him through the winter.

That was before the new millennium. By the late 1990s, he was consumed with job searches for better pay, scratching out a living, and finally convincing an incredible woman to marry him. Then came 9/11, and by January 2002, he had joined the Army. Noah was born while he was on his second deployment.

“Is this it?” asked Noah. They had reached a half-acre clearing covered with brittle pine needles, decaying leaves, and speckled brown patches of grass. Deep ruts had been carved into the earth by ATVs spinning doughnuts and skidding across the ground.

They walked through the scattered remains of a campsite at the edge of the creek bank. The once pristine area was littered with plastic forks and paper plates, potato chip bags, beer cans, cigarette butts, an empty whiskey bottle, and gnawed bones from a barbecue. The rhododendron bush next to a carelessly built fire pit had been singed into a charred skeleton. The bacchanalians had tossed their toilet, a five-gallon paint bucket, into the wide but shallow water of the creek. It lay partially wedged in the silt, perpetually half full from swallowing the oncoming current.

Noah found a molted copperhead skin draped over a jagged piece of shale jutting out from the creek bank. “Even the snake crawled away from here,” he said. 

“What have they done?” Adam exhaled despondently. “Let’s just cross the creek and get away from here. The stand is only a hundred yards away”

“It’s definitely not the way you remember it, is it?” Noah consoled his father.

“No. It’s hard to look at this.”

“Then we won’t.” Noah handed his rifle to his father. “Well, not for long anyhow. Toss me the truck keys, Dad.” Adam lobbed the keys, and Noah started sprinting down the path. “I’ll be right back.”

Twenty minutes later Noah returned with a box of black, construction trash bags that Adam kept in the truck’s tool box. He walked to the perimeter of the camp site and dropped all the bags except two, giving one to his father and keeping one for himself. “This won’t take long, Dad.”

Ambivalence washed over Adam as he opened the bag. He struggled to tamp down his resentment over the unregenerate desecration of this beautiful setting. His bitterness was amplified by the irresponsibility of leaving the mess for someone else to clean up. But Noah, who had already begun picking up the trash, had neither hesitated nor complained. His response to the clutter had been immediate and unambiguous.

Adam watched his son in proud astonishment for a minute, until Noah flashed a bossy smile and motioned for Adam to get busy and keep up his end of the task. Adam began collecting the garbage, and his indignation melted into the labor.        

As they worked beneath the overcast sky, occasional frigid gusts of wind painted their cheeks pink. Before long they grew considerably warmer from their toil and the rising sun. Dragging the bags full of rubbish to the top of the creek bank, they lined them up in a neat row and then crossed the water to the other side.

At the edge of a thin copse of red oak trees, they climbed up an uneven wooden ladder to a two-man deer stand, where they had an unobstructed view of a long, narrow field. The man and the boy sat down cross-legged, side by side. 

“I think it’s time for a cup of coffee,” said Adam, pulling out a thermos and leaning against the side of the stand. “And I want to tell you something.” 

“Aw no, Dad. You’re not gonna try to explain puberty again, are you?”  

“No. Definitely not. Once was enough for me.”

“Me too.”

“No, I just want to tell you that I admire how you jumped in and got your hands dirty back there. I’m sure you know that I wasn’t in the mood to do it, but it needed to be done.”

“No worries, Dad. We made a good team . . . after you finally got to work.” Noah downed his coffee in a gulp. “This place is really cool.” He grinned and put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “And by the way, that’s gotta be the biggest deer in the whole world.”

Adam spun around in disbelief. “My God, a twelve-point buck.”

The regal creature strolled boldly down the middle of the field, flexing his powerful legs and broad chest. His magnificent crown of antlers signaled his primacy to all creatures big and small. He surveyed his surroundings: This was his forest, and he was Lord of the dominion. 

Adam furtively knelt on one knee. He raised the barrel of the rifle and nestled the varnished walnut stock against his shoulder. The last time he had pulled a trigger in Fallujah, December 2004, it was a much smaller round aimed at a far more dangerous animal.

Stop! How could that horrible thought intrude on this idyllic scene? That demon must never be released from its cage. But it was too late.

“I can’t believe he just stopped,” said Noah. “It’s like he knows what’s about to happen. And he’s not afraid.”      

“You take the shot, son.”

Noah pulled the camera to his eye and zoomed in on the animal. “He’s gorgeous, Dad.” He clicked several photos and the stag’s ears pricked up. “He’s about to walk away,” Noah whispered. “Maybe you should take the shot, Dad. I’ve got mine.”

Adam studied his son’s face and understood. He quietly laid his rifle down and gently slid the camera strap from around Noah’s neck. He raised the camera’s viewfinder to his eye, focused the lens, and traced the animal’s withers before panning to its face.

The majestic deer paused and held his statuesque pose, as though he realized that Adam now had the camera. Sunlight broke through the clouds and shimmered across the rimy field, creating an iridescent corona around the head and antlers.

Adam pressed the shutter button and then telescopically followed the deer as it ambled toward a distant pine thicket. When it reached the tree line, the stag turned his head and met Adam’s eye through the lens. It seemed to stare into his soul with a penetrating gaze that neither castigated Adam with anger nor contempt. As the noble cervine creature disappeared into the woods, Adam thought he saw forgiveness in the eyes of the backward-looking deer.  

“This is a special place, Dad,” said Noah. “Thanks for bringing me here.” 

Howard S. Carey