"I swear, Road, you are God's own worst shot."
Road Hungerford usually hunted alone, except for a few times he'd gone with Dennie Swopes, a friend from high school. He'd missed last year's hunt. Dennie Swopes and Bert Allred had talked him into coming with them this year, for old time's sake, on the deer hunt.
"Clo let you have a day with the boys, huh? 'Bout time," Dennie had said as he drove them up above Castle Gate into their old stomping grounds. And then, the perfect buck, seen first by Road and his by rights, and he'd sighted, fired, and missed. "Two years of marriage ruined your aim; that's what I think," Dennie said, taking his shot and cursing when he missed as well. It was too late then for Bert to take the deer.
Claudia Young loved James Rodin Hungerford, her husband the doctor, for all the right reasons. She loved his name, his full name, for its roll on the tongue, and she loved the way his hair felt and smelled when it brushed across her nose and mouth while his lips strayed along her naked chest. His hair was soft as a baby's, long as a girl's, but the face it framed was craggy and grim, except for the glint of a coming joke at the edge of his eye. She loved the strength of his arms, both tender when she needed comfort and frightening when he pounded his need into her, just on the edge of violent. She loved the gentleness of his hands when he nursed dogs and cats in his clinic or touched her lightly, purposelessly, at the nape of her neck. And she loved the way he lay his head in her lap when his heart ached after losing a patient, the way he had cried silently in front of the TV, the night after he'd put down an entire litter of unwanted puppies and been barely civil to the bitch's owner. She called him "Hun," her secret name, at home; and for her birthday he had given her a Prussian helmet, a toy, topped with a spike like a wrought-iron fence.
"I'll be your Hun," he said while she opened her other gifts, the black plastic hat half cocked on her blonde hair, "I want you to wear it while I screw your brains out tonight." Mercifully, he was kidding.
And Road loved her, more than he'd ever loved a living thing—more than he loved breath, he thought but did not dare tell her. He loved her more than he loved Klute, his geriatric Ridgeback. He loved the precise shape of her mouth, the way, when she came home from work or he found her there, coming in from a day at the clinic, it was as if a dimmer was cranked up when he saw her—the room was noticeably brighter. He called her Claudia; no one else did. He knew she loved him, and he felt sometimes like a child picking up handfuls of her love and pouring it on his head, luxuriating in the petty, warm grains of it. She loved him. And she hated hunting.
"You knew I was a hunter before you married me," he said to her as they lay unhappily side by side, the night she touched the duck. "How could you not know?"
"I didn't know how important it was. I thought I could forget about it. I couldn't believe someone who heals animals would—."
They had agreed, after the engagement, that there would be no guns in the house. He moved his cabinet to his brother's place. She had said, "I can't raise kids in a house with guns," and he'd accepted that. So far, there were no guns, and no kids. They'd only been married six months then.
But he'd gone duck hunting the previous weekend, stopping at Stu's to get his twelve-gauge and hitting the lake that night. He'd taken his limit, and when he returned, in the mid-morning of Monday, he left them on the porch, planning to dress them out before she got home.
"You eat the meat," he'd said a few months ago, frying trout he'd caught up by Fish Lake.
"I know. I know it's irrational. Meat is so abstract. I can't cook turkeys, you know, or rabbit, or even chickens unless they've been divided up in the store."
He'd meant to have the ducks cleaned and in the freezer before she got home. But she came home at lunch. He'd heard her drive up from the back yard, where he was weeding along the fence that divided private yard from the clinic, and it took a moment for him to recognize trouble coming. When he got to the porch, she had a duck in her lap, its unnatural neck across her arm. She had arranged the wings, and it lay in her arms like a child. Before he saw her tears he had said, "They have mites."
"It's dead," she said, stroking the teal blue feathers.
He gathered up the ducks, using the necks like handles, carried them around the house and tossed them lightly over the back fence. When he came back she was gone. There were flakes of black blood on the concrete. She was changing her clothes.
They talked in the dark that night. He had agreed they would not eat these ducks. After she had gone back to work, he cleaned them and put them in a garbage bag in the freezer. He planned to give them to Stu.
"It's not the hunting; it's the killing. Why do you love killing things?" she said that night.
What could he say? It didn't seem that he loved killing things. He seemed to himself a gentle man. It was something else.
"I'll quit," he said, dreading his own words.
"You can't. You'll hate me. Maybe not at first, but after a while. You'll hate me because I'm such a baby."
"I won't hate you." He wasn't so sure, though, and he thought about the thousands of dollars he had in gear, dismissed the thought as petty, and he thought about sitting at home through the deer hunt, and he admitted to himself that she was right. "I won't hate you," he said again.
"I don't know what to do."
They lay in silence, her head on his shoulder, his arm holding her.
"I just don't want to see them any more," she said finally. "If you didn't bring them home?"
He thought of the cost of a deer license, the waste of giving away the meat. He tried to imagine hunting just to make death. It would reduce it to that, he thought, if he didn't keep the meat. Couldn't she see that would be even worse?
"It would be," he said quietly, "like having a secret lover. Someone you knew about and tolerated as long I didn't come home smelling of her perfume."
"Oh, it would not!"
He was silent. It would.
"You can't just quit," she said.
The silences lengthened. Her breathing fell into rhythms he thought meant sleep.
"We could trade," she murmured, startling him a little. "I could give something up. Weaving," she added bravely, hesitantly.
"There's nothing wrong with weaving!"
"Maybe there's nothing wrong with hunting. I think it's just me."
"Then we'd both be unhappy. You love your loom. And you'd hate me, because you'd feel it was unfair, that you had given up something good and innocent to bribe me to stop killing things."
"What are we going to do?"
"I don't know."
He had skipped the deer hunt that year; he was miserable, and it was no help that she was miserable with him. They had fought over a movie neither of them cared about. On Sunday he had watched football all day. He hated football. Saturday, and again on Sunday, she made desperate love to him, offering a sad gift of sex that they both hated in silence. On Monday evening, Dennie Swopes regaled him with the adventures of the hunt. They nearly had a punch-out. Road apologized to him a week later. Dennie was still angry; on the phone he started to say a word Road couldn't ignore, thought better of it a syllable in and said "henpecked." They laughed at that.
"I won't bring them home any more," he said to her that night. "OK?"
"OK," she agreed. The corpses of deer, bass, ducks and geese lay between them like accusations. She had told him one night that she dreamed of dead things.
"I have to go with Dennie this time," he said. He wanted to say, I can't stand it, but he knew he needn't.
"OK," she said.
So he was with Dennie Swopes and Bert Allred, the three of them dramatic in their camo gear and electric orange, and he had missed his buck. He hadn't missed on purpose; that would have been stupid. It was a long shot, so long that Dennie had missed as well.
That night, while Road was down by the creek smoking a cigar, distant in deference to Dennie's nose and Bert's religion, Bert discovered he couldn't find his shells.
"I'm shooting a different calibre," Dennie said, shaking his head. "I got some at the truck, but we'd have to go get 'em. Roadie's got a box; I saw them somewhere. Take a couple of his. Yours'll turn up."
Road's gear was next to his sleeping bag. Bert opened the box of bullets.
"They're blanks. Dennie, these here are blanks."