Father had objected, but mother stood her ground. The boy could hunt alone. She was tired of objections based upon speculations borne of fear. The bone of hunger was greater. Winter had set in well and good, not just on the calendar of but for both she and Father. The old man was wise in woodcraft but unsteady in hand. Truth be told, for three seasons gone by now, he couldn’t have hit the sky with two barrels of scattershot without complaining about the sun getting in his eye.
The boy would hunt alone. All went well enough in those first weeks. Rabbits and squirrels were brought home for the pot and skillet. Stews warmed the father’s stomach as much as his heart, so much so until finally the old man’s arguments withered away.
This was why the boy was afraid to tell them. He kept secret what he had seen when alone in the wood.
The country was not what folk farther away and higher up would call mountainous. Just the same, the land ran hilly and thick with gullies and many steep slopes. In winter, as it was now, the birch trees were words on the page, a study in black and white. Or so the boy thought as he did his best not to trudge but slip through the snow. Wet in his boots and seat, he often failed. Steadfast, he kept his head up in search of game. ‘Keep your eyes afore you and your feet will find their way.’ The old man had taught him that.
Blood speckled the snow on the evening he’d first encountered the white stag. Not the stag’s blood, but from a rabbit he’d shot. Or ‘failed to shoot,’ as Father would have no doubt admonished had the old man been witness to the rushed and bungled endeavor. Now the boy struggled almost as much as the hobbled buck hare as he scrambled up and down following the smattered trail of crimson. Twice the boy was vexed when he stumbled and surged forward only to find he was pursuing a red cardinal flitting on the snow and not the blood of his wounded supper.
Hands and feet were numb with cold. The barrel of his gun had dipped into the banks and was clotted with snow and so he sat back on his haunches to catch a breath and clear his mind and clean his weapon. ‘That damn coney can wait,’ he told himself, breaking the breach to ensure the barrel was clear. As he reloaded a round of birdshot, he looked up to consider his surroundings.
It was just there. Perhaps a difficult shot away if only the barrel was slug loaded. Perfect and still. The boy thought the creature a figment at first. But then the slightest hint of steam escaped the stag’s nostril. A wisp. The boy gasped and the white stag recognized him with a stamp of fore hooves that brought snow from the bows to adorn its broad antlers. Eyes and nostrils flaring wide, the boy and the stag considered one another.
And then it was gone.
He told no one of it. Who would believe him? And if he’d seen it, then why wasn’t its meat on the table, its great rack above the mantle, its fine pelt upon the bed?
With every outing he prayed for another chance. He kept his barrel loaded with a slug instead of birdshot. In that way so many rabbits and quail ran and flew free. The house went hungry.
And this was why they argued that night on the road, his father’s knuckles white on the wheel. His father accusing him of slipping off to nap and malinger instead of being diligent in the effort to trap and hunt.
The boy was shaking his head, stirring and stoking the courage to explain. And then, as if answering for him, there it stood in the dark road before them.
The boy huddled in the hollow of his father’s still frame. Everything told the boy he should be cold, but he wasn’t. Before him was the hunt. The thing his father had said must be made.
The white stag still stood. Ablaze in headlamps askew. The boy made a gun of his fingers and sent “pew-pews” off into the night.
The air was thick with the commingling of steam and gasoline. It burned and gouged every sense. The boy scrunched his eyes as he struggled to pass the rough wool of his jacket under his nose. He coughed. A mistake. With a jerk and shake of its great crowned head, the white stag made a pirouette. Before the boy could clear his eyes, the stag had disappeared, weaving itself someplace between birch and snow.
The boy would have been sad but wasn’t. A year or two before, all he would have wanted to have done was to kill it. Kill it to prove to Father what a man he’d become. How Mother had been right. That was not true anymore. He was glad the stag had gotten away. The boy settled into the cold of his father’s shoulder to find a good place for himself; cold but growing warmer.
Comfort found him there in the twisted metal of their machine.
For just a moment, the great white stag considered the boy and the man where they huddled curiously still inside their broken steaming beast, and then it moved on, climbing the ridge to pass over the hill beyond.