Chapter 1 Excerpt: Reprieves

This is my favorite scene from this chapter. A young Jason hunts with his grandfather, killing his first deer. When Jason becomes overwhelmed by the enormity of killing for the first time, his grandfather (a WWII veteran) shares with him his wisdom regarding life, death and human nature that he treasures into adulthood. Please note, this scene is unedited:

The humid wind whipped past my face, rustling my hair and the trees, carrying the scent of dirty leaves and wet pine. Storm weather was approaching, and quickly.

I frowned at the thick, dark clouds as they billowed to the west, knowing this last hunt would be cut short by rain. My stomach sank with disappointment at the thought of leaving Tennessee so soon, of returning home for school and chores. It would be so long before I could come back here; so many days full of teachers and assignments, of dumb rules about shoes on carpet and elbows on tables.

With only one day left before Mom came for me, I’d wanted this last time out with my grandpa to count. All summer he’d taught me how to be a hunter like him. I knew how to hold this gun, how to aim, and how to be really quiet when the deer approached. I’d hoped to show him his time with me had been well spent—that I listened and learned everything he taught me. That I could have my own gun next year. I wanted to make him proud.

But I couldn’t now, and summer was over. I didn’t want to pout, but the sadness of leaving without shooting anything lowered my mood.

Then a twig snapped.

Alert, my eyes darted from the sky to a small deer suddenly in my path. My heart began to race, heat and excitement of opportunity flaming my cheeks and chest.

The doe sniffed the ground gracefully, minding its own business, still unaware of my presence. It was brown and soft-looking with a furry white tail. For a brief moment, I wondered if God had sent the deer, answering my semi-prayer.

I fumbled for the gun, never taking my eyes from the animal.

“Grandpa,” I whispered as quietly as I could, seeking guidance despite all of his instruction. He already knew. I could feel his presence; smell his faint scent of leather and spice.

“Quietly…raise…aim…” he instructed in a whisper, stepping behind me. I steadied my shaking hands, wanting to show him that he was right and my father was wrong. I wasn’t too young, I wasn’t too small; I could do this. Remembering our practice, I raised the gun steadily, placing the butt firmly against my shoulder.

Peering down the sights, I aimed for the deer’s front like he taught me.

“Steady and on my mark…” he whispered, the tension of the moment hanging over us as I narrowed my focus.

“1…2…3…” The thumping of my racing heart was all I heard before firing the shot. The kick of the rifle butt knocked me in to him as the sound echoed around the forest…

Grandpa moved from behind me as I lowered the gun to the ground, watching in awe as the deer scampered a few feet before its legs gave out. Once more, it tried to run, that final attempt its last movement. It had all happened so quickly, but I had done it on my first try! Mesmerized and feeling pretty good, I stepped forward through the brush, replaying the whole scene in my head until we stopped.

It’s face was almost cute, with big black eyes staring up in fear. The deer’s legs kicked, startling me, driving me backward a few steps as my grandpa bent to calm it. I wanted to touch it, too. To bend down and pet it, but it was dying. Because of me.

My chest grew heavy as I watched the deer open its mouth in a strange way, twitching again one last time.

Last Sunday’s sermon in Vacation Bible School came back to me. Killing was murder; they were the same thing. That was a sin and sinners go to hell.

I didn’t want to cry in front of my grandpa, because only a baby would do that, but I couldn’t stop the tears once I imagined him cutting its skin open. Embarrassment made my tears fall even faster. I huffed to push that feeling away, but couldn’t stop staring at the big hole of skin and flesh, muscle and bones.

And I knew what came next. We must dress the deer immediately. My job was to help remove the guts for the coyotes. But I couldn’t move, transfixed by the dead, black eyes. “Jason,” my Grandpa said, turning at my sniffle. His straightened jaw was set, his white hair blowing gently from the weather. “Are you upset about what you just did?” he asked sincerely, surprised by my reaction.

“It’s wrong to kill…” I threw out my main concern.

“But, we are hunters. This is what we do,” he replied in his matter-of-fact style.

“The preacher said killers go to hell, though. I don’t want to go to hell.“

“That’s the Sixth Commandment, but life is never simple that way. This animal is a gift from God, for our survival,” he explained. “If we don’t kill them, they get sick, right?” He raised his thick white brows with sure wisdom.

I nodded, remembering his words about herds and quality. I knew that was true, but still. I stared down at the sad, lifeless deer, shame still heating my face. It was alive and well just a minute ago, but now its eyes stared into nothing.

“Have a seat,” he instructed. I hadn’t moved an inch, but I sat down. “I’m going to dress the deer like we talked about, so other animals can eat. I’ll take care of it this time, but it’s your job on our next hunt, okay?”

“Okay,” I agreed weakly, satisfied he had referenced “next time“.

With the precise movements of a younger man, he began the dressing process he’d explained at least a dozen times. The glint of his knife caught my eye, but I stared into the trees. Maybe I was a baby, but I didn’t want to watch.

“You know…the preacher might not tell you this in your Sunday school, but kindness to animals is obedience to God…yet you can read the Bible front to back and not find a word from the Good Lord on this. Why do you think that is?” he asked, the sound of slicing flesh making me shiver.

Answerless, I shrugged.

“Think about it. It feels wrong to hurt animals, right? If you saw your friends being cruel to an animal, would you stop them?”

“Yes… Bobby Norris kicked his dog to show off once and I stopped him.” Remembering the way that nice dog yelped made me mad all over again.

“That’s what you should do. But God also wanted sacrifices. Why’s it feel wrong?”

He chuckled at my frown. “How ‘bout phrasing it this way: it feels wrong to be cruel to an animal, because they can’t defend themselves, right? But if that’s not in the Bible, where’d that feeling come from?”

“I don’t know…from God?” I asked in return.

“It’s in your heart and soul. It’s your will, or the instinct that pushes you to do what’s right.”

“Oh…” That made sense and I felt stupid. “Sorry I cried,” I apologized.

He smiled, chuckling, his old laugh raspy from years of cigar smoke. “That’s alright. What you felt was guilt over committing what you thought was a sin, which is good. It’s wrong to intentionally hurt those who cannot protect themselves, and there is no shame in realizing that. It’s what separates the best from the rest, the good from the bad. Some men don’t have that conscience, you see. You never, ever want to lose that.”

“I won’t,” I promised.

Glancing down, I saw the lifeless body of the deer, lying deformed and open now. It was gross, but I could take it.I realized I didn’t feel good about killing the deer, but I wasn’t feeling so bad anymore, either. We were hunters and Grandpa had said they’d starve if we didn’t kill them first. At least this was quicker.

He always had the right answer. “Grandpa, how do you know so much?” I blurted reverently.

He laughed again. “The world is a mystery, son. Thinking over how it works has answered many questions for me, and perplexed me about ideas I thought were true. God put wonder in us. We just gotta use it. When you’re a man, you’ll look around and see things your own way just like me.”

“When will I be a man?” I wondered aloud, seeing a good opportunity to find out for sure. Hopefully he would give me a better answer than ‛years’ like everyone else had…

Concentrating on the carcass, he chuckled again. “Don’t rush it, son… men don’t have the place in the world they used to.”