The summer I turned twelve, my dad shot a cat from the back porch doorway, killing it with just one pull of the trigger. I wasn’t there when he did it, but I had seen the slinky gray thing several weeks before when it first showed up in our backyard. It had taken a sudden interest in the goldfish pond hidden in a corner of the yard, enclosed by rocks and water irises. At first, it only watched the fish from a distance, its mustard-yellow stare boring a hole through the algae-ridden water. A few days later, it began alternately pawing at the water’s edge and sunning itself on one of the larger rocks. My dad chucked pebbles at the cat to scare it off, and if I caught it lurking near the pond, I would run toward it, arms up, screaming and hooting like a monkey. But on that day, my dad had peered out the back window to find it feasting on one of the giant orange fishes, bones and all. He told me about it later, how he fetched his pellet rifle and managed a shot right as the cat was stealing away, hitting its chest and the tiny heart inside.
To me, the incident seemed like a natural turn of events. I had watched my dad open the dining room window and pelt greedy blue jays and squirrels from the birdfeeder. I’d kept him company as he de-feathered plump doves and cooked their meat for us to eat as we sat on the back deck. A slew of animals kept watch over the house with their blank glass eyes—a deer, a bear, and a slender mink perched on a replicated piece of riverbed.
So it was no surprise that the cat got what was coming. There was a logic to why my dad shot certain animals—food or pest control. That reasoning followed with the cat, too, no matter if it belonged to someone. It had been somewhere it wasn’t supposed to be, doing something it wasn’t supposed to do.
“Dad shot a cat today,” I blurted out that night over dinner. We had just finished the blessing, and my dad froze with a forkful of roast inches from his mouth.
“What?” my mother said.
My dad shot me a look. “It was eating a goldfish from my pond,” he said to my mother, who had dropped her fork.
“What if someone comes looking for it?” she asked.
My dad shrugged. “I threw it far enough into the woods. No one’s going to go up there.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” My mother stared down at her plate, watching the gravy flow past its mashed potato barrier and onto the peas.
My dad looked at me and put an index finger to his mouth. When he crossed his eyes, I had to suck in my lips to keep from laughing as my mother pushed around the food on her plate.
I tried to cut the silence. “At youth group yesterday, Heather asked if pets go to heaven, and Mrs. Wilson said no. Heather was crying so much that she left and didn’t come back.”
My mother looked up at me. “I’m sure there’s a special heaven designated just for pets.”
“Well, maybe for dogs,” my dad said mid-chew.
We made no mention of the incident until the missing posters went up several days later. I found the black-and-white image of a scrawny cat stuck to the telephone pole out front with thick layers of tape. It said that Sparkles, a gray mix with white markings and a patch of fur missing from behind its right ear, belonged to Misty Meyers. I looked down the street toward Misty’s house and saw Sparkles staring back at me from every pole in sight. I picked at the tape, but it clung to the cracked wood. Running around to the back of the house, I found my dad pruning a heaving rhododendron near the pond.
“There are missing posters up for the cat,” I said.
“I saw them,” my dad said, clipping another twig from where it didn’t belong. “Don’t you worry about it.”
I stood for a minute, watching him. “Can I walk to the store for a candy bar?” I finally asked.
“Sure. Do you have money?”
“Yeah,” I lied.
I walked out front and started on the two-block path toward the grocery store, stopping about a block and a half short in front of a small white house. I scanned the overgrown front yard and the porch that hid behind it. I didn’t have to look far—any time I passed the house on my way to the store, Misty was somewhere outside. Rummaging, I called it. She always seemed to be looking for something she couldn’t find. This time, I spotted her on the porch, digging hopelessly in a play chest.
Misty was only seven or eight, young enough that we didn’t cross paths at the elementary school down the block. I only knew her by sight, although she’d say hello if she saw me passing her house.
“Hi,” Misty said. She’d moved toward the lone porch step so we could see each other. Her face, normally ballerina slender, was puffy, eyes ringed pink like a rabbit’s.
“Hi,” I echoed, frozen to the spot.
“My cat went missing,” she sniffed.
“Let me know if you see him.”
I swallowed. “Sparkles was a boy?” It was all I could think to say.
“Sparkles is a boy. He’s an outside cat, but he always comes home to play imaginary mermaids.”
“Cats don’t like water,” I said.
“Yeah, but it’s imaginary, like pretend.” She squinted at me. I was missing the point. “Please let me know if you see Sparkles,” she whined.
“I will.” I backed away toward my house.
“Bye,” Misty called, but I didn’t look back.
By the end of August, the missing posters had fainted, turned pulpy by summer storms. If I walked to the store, I’d cross the street, avoiding Misty as she set up tea parties in the too-tall grass or puddle jumped in the driveway. If she didn’t want her cat to go missing, she should have kept a better eye on it, I told myself, and that’s what I chose to believe.
The incident slipped from my mind as September marked the start of deer season. It was an event I had long awaited since taking the hunter’s safety course earlier that summer in an old brick American Legion post, one of only two girls in the stuffy room. On the first day of the season, my dad woke me and I blinked in the blackness of my room. He packed the car as I gathered our lunches and pulled on the brand new coat he’d gotten me.
My dad grinned as I opened the passenger door. “Camouflage suits you.”
I smiled back and climbed in. We wound our way out of town, through the yawn of darkness that seemed to swallow up everything except us. The land eventually opened up on either side of us, ushering in cornfields and expanses of pine and oak. The car came to a stop by a lone red house, and as we clambered out a man greeted us—one of my dad’s many hunting buddies, names and faces of which I couldn’t keep track.
“Hey, Jerry,” my dad said. “Thanks again for letting us hunt out here.”
“Don’t mention it. The neighbors down the road said they’ve seen a big buck wandering around their part of the woods the past couple weeks.”
“How big?” my dad asked, opening the trunk to unload his crossbow.
“At least an eight-point, if not more.” Jerry looked down at me. “Your first time?”
“She’s not shooting today, but we’ll have her out for rifle season,” my dad said.
“I hope we see that buck today,” I said.
Jerry laughed. “If I see him, I’ll flush him right to you.”
The dusty light of early morning filled the deer blind where we sat. The wooden structure wasn’t much bigger than a port-o-potty and smelled similarly as the stench of mouse pee permeated the air. We sat, unmoving, for what felt like hours until the sky lightened enough for me to make out the green of oak leaves past the window.
“Do you always have to wait this long when you’re hunting?” I asked.
My dad snickered. “The day’s just started, kid. Could be hours ‘til we see anything, and it might be that we don’t see any deer. You have to be patient.” He patted me on the back.
“Well, I hope we see something.”
When we emerged from the blind later that morning, all we’d managed to spot was a fat gray squirrel. It had warmed up considerably, and I shed my coat as we wandered through a field behind Jerry’s house. My dad stopped at a bank overlooking neighboring farmland, and we sat, the sun warming our backs.
“What do you say to an early lunch?” he said.
I nodded. My stomach had been grumbling for the past two hours. I opened the bag containing our lunch—turkey sandwiches and a sleeve of mini candy bars. We gobbled down the sandwiches, smushed in their plastic wrap, and polished off a couple of candy bars each.
As I stuffed the wrappers back into the bag, my dad reclined back, removing his hat to wipe sweat from his forehead. “We won’t be seeing anything if it’s hot like this. Deer don’t like moving in the heat,” he said. “We can take a little rest.”
I hadn’t known deer hunting involved naps, either, but I wasn’t going to argue. I lay back and closed my eyes against the noonday sun. I slipped in and out of consciousness, the ever-present scream of cicadas keeping me from falling asleep completely. My dad snored on, and when he finally rustled awake beside me, I sat up, pushing the frizz of my hair down with my neon cap.
“We have a few more good hours,” he said, gathering his crossbow and supplies. “Might as well check across the way.”
We traveled back past Jerry’s house and crossed the road. The pines here towered above us and grew so thick together I wondered how they had room to breathe. My dad found a path into the woods and forged ahead. I followed, head down, trying to keep pace and not trip over my boots. We trekked so far in that the sun couldn’t follow, finally stopping behind two oaks that drew double the width of my dad. Underneath the trill of wildlife, all I could hear was our breathing, a steady in and out, and a ringing in my ears. A line of sweat inched down my back. I scratched at it and willed my breath to slow. My dad took a bottle of water from his pack, swigged, and handed it to me. I emptied it and gave it back.
“Ready to keep moving?” he asked.
I nodded. My legs tingled from the hike, as if someone were plucking a hundred rubber bands against my skin.
We kept walking, stopping periodically to observe our surroundings. My dad pointed out wayward twigs and piles of leaves to avoid, like a game of Hot Lava I would play at recess. When he stopped for the final time, I nearly barreled into him. He shushed me as I overcorrected and tripped backward.
“I spotted him,” my dad whispered. I peered over his shoulder in time to see the flick of a white tail and tawny hindquarters disappearing into a clearing beyond us.
“The buck?” I asked.
He nodded. “Looks like a ten-point.”
We crept along in its wake. My heartbeat drowned out any surrounding sound, and I found myself wishing that I had my gun, that I was the one out front, stalking. The pent-up energy from the day’s inactivity surged through me, threatening to make a break from my body. We moved toward the clearing, and my dad halted behind a tree, peering out, confirming.
“Don’t move,” he whispered. He looked through his scope and I held my breath, each second that passed sparking a tiny fire inside my chest. He aimed the crossbow, leaning against the tree to steady himself.
I couldn’t make out anything past him, but I heard what came next: the bolt surged out, making my heart start as it hurtled through the silence toward its target. A thwack in the distance. The crush of dead leaves and legs faltering. A scream—the adrenaline—escaped my throat.
We chased after the buck, following it into the field past the woods, where I saw it clearly for the first time. A scruff of brown a hundred feet ahead, stumbling on the flat land. Antlers swaying as its front legs gave way first, kneeling, surrendering. We ran toward it, past the trail of blood left as it fell completely, resting on its side.
“You got him!” I said, bounding after my dad as we came up to the animal.
“We did it, all right,” he beamed.
“I can’t believe it.” I broke past him and stood before the buck, taking it in. The hulking creature lay there motionless, glassy black eyes staring up at me. Its antlers engulfed its head, a knotty crown. Its fur was sticky and matted around the hole in its chest. The deer’s mouth fizzed with pink bubbles, its snout a wash of red. It pushed out a breath, and I jumped back involuntarily.
“It’s almost dead,” my dad said, stepping forward. The buck exhaled again, a low moan. My dad waited a few seconds, then prodded one of its eyes with the back end of a bolt. It blinked, and my dad cocked the crossbow.
I had seen so many deer in my short lifetime—trotting across the road, stuffed above a mantel, bloated or crumpled on the side of the highway, depending on the weather. This thing before me was nothing like the others and close up, it reminded me of something—a mix of horse and dog. It tried to exhale again, and I felt the energy boiling inside of me, unsure of whether I wanted to reach out to pet it or run.
“Watch out,” my dad ordered.
I pushed backward, and he took aim. This time, no sound followed the thwack of the bolt, none of the dramatics from before. The deer was gone, my dad standing over it, beckoning me forward. He motioned for me to hold its front legs as he made an incision near the tail and started cutting upward. I leaned away from the sight and the earthy smell below me. Its legs were limp in my grip, the hooves grazing the soft underside of my forearms.
“Hold tighter,” he said.
I kept my eyes on a tree ahead until my dad told me I could let go. He had pulled out its guts, a bloody purple slop that littered the grass.
“This here’s the stomach. Look.”
I watched as he pricked one of the organs. A muddy green mess streamed out, and I backed away, putting a hand to my nose to stifle the sulfurous stench.
My dad laughed at my response, the sound echoing out into the field behind us. “I’m giving you an anatomy lesson. I thought you’d be tough enough to handle a little gore.”
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at a white mass near the organs.
My dad picked it up and threw it near my feet. “The ball sack.”
He laughed at the disgust on my face. After helping him turn over the deer to let the blood out, I nearly tripped over myself running back to the red house where Jerry and his four-wheeler were waiting.
That night, I sat on the back deck as my dad hosed off his boots. He’d disappeared into the basement with the deer when we got home late that afternoon. I hadn’t followed him, instead retreating to the bath, scrubbing at the dirt crusted under my fingernails. I’d heard my mom call him up from the basement. A conversation I could only hear pieces of when their voices picked up.
“What?” My mother.
“. . . joke! It was funny . . . had a good time.”
“What is wrong . . . doesn’t sound funny.”
I heard the hose turn off and saw my dad round the corner of the house. He plopped down in the chair next to me, the smell that wafted from him an echo of the last few hours. I shifted in my seat.
“Did you have a good time today?”
I nodded. It was cooling off, and I hugged my legs to my chest. Images flashed behind my eyes. Bloody bubbles frothing and popping at the snout. The deer’s neck limp, the thick muscle and tendon useless as it gawped up at me. Its hollowed body secured to the four-wheeler, us following as it bobbed along. I thought of Misty’s cat, probably nothing but bones now somewhere behind our house.
“You cold?” my dad asked.
“I’m OK.” I unfurled my legs and propped my elbows on my knees.
“Your mother thinks I scared you today. I told her we had a good time, didn’t we?”
I nodded again.
“Oh, come on now. You’ll have to get used to a little blood and guts if you’re going to be hunting this year.”
“I guess I didn’t think it would be like that.” I looked over at him, the dying light making his features fuzzy.
“That the deer would still be alive.”
“That happens sometimes if you can’t get the perfect shot. But I put him out of his misery. He wasn’t suffering for long,” he said. “It’s all part of nature. It’s how I get the venison we eat.”
There was a sense to his words, and I clung to it as the images revolved in my mind, getting murkier as I realized how tired I was. Night settled around us. A frog chirped from the pond. Cricket song enveloped my ears, replacing the cry of cicadas for the evening. A blip of light hung midair, vanishing several feet in front of us. Another blip, closer this time.
“It’s awfully late in the year for those.”
I stood and cupped my hands together, as I always did when I saw a lightning bug. I opened my hands, the insect lighting up the lines of my palm yellow-green.
“Will you get my bug jar?” I asked.
“Where is it?”
The lightning bug’s wings flared up, and I clasped my hands around it. “On top of my bookshelf.”
My dad headed inside, and I sat down with my new pet, opening my hands slowly at first and then fully when it made no attempt to escape again. The yard was still, no other flashes of light. I wondered if this lightning bug was the last of the season. Or maybe the others had moved onto another yard without him, and he’d been on his way to find them.
I walked out into the yard, the grass cool on my feet. The lightning bug crawled across one of my fingers, and I lifted out my hand. I didn’t stop it when it rose from my palm, glowing once more before blending into the darkness with ease. The next time its light flashed, it was across the yard. I stood for a minute longer as peepers sang out from somewhere far away.
My dad returned seconds later with the jar. I couldn’t see him at first until I walked toward the glow emanating from our house.
“It got away,” I said.