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It wasn't until I got back to the pickup after three days alone in the woods, and swept the snow off it and loaded the canoe into the bed, and loaded the backpack and the dead buck into the canoe again, and started out toward the main road, that I noticed my left eye was hurting and that I could not see out of it. The pain and the rheum in my eye, and the closeness, warmth and plastic smell of the cab, which stuffed up my ears and nose, were the first notes of reentry, of coming down.
Whoever had stolen most of the gas out of the truck had left me just enough to get home. I stopped at a tavern and ate a hamburger and became aware that there was deer hair on my wool pants and blood on my sleeves. I had had on the same pair of long underwear for three days and had not combed my hair.
At home my youngest sons ran out of the chicken coop where they were doing chores and yelled in amazement at the antlered head they could see over the gunwale of the canoe there in the back of the truck. Sean, 12, climbed into the cab and put the laurel of his hug around my neck. Reuben, 10 and an ironist already, casually said, "Cool, man."
When I first saw the buck I was skeptical. I had seen hundreds of them every day of hunting. I would squint off through the lattice of slim black trunks emerging from the gray-blue snow and detect, or rather invent, cannons, gaskins, underbellies, a head held low and, spilling forward off it, a pronged hoop of gold. Antlered deer would emerge from between rocks, out of green swamps; I would creep upon them curled in their beds. I talked to myself in the past tense all the while: "He had a few drops of the musk of deer on the soles of his boots. The buck had crossed his path and now stood hesitating. Et cetera." There were many perfectly prepared occasions when everything was materially correct and dramatic, too, except for the non-appearance of the real animal.
But late in the morning on the very last day of the season, the imagined ideal did come to pass at the ideal place and time—when all things were the way we dream they will be.
Except for winter, the seasons in the St. Lawrence valley of northern New York are sharply defined and short. You must jump up and act or the hunting season will be past for another year; the year's-end rash of indoor affairs crowds upon you. The woods are out there, rolling and still and remote. You know what it will feel like to be in them dressed in wool, walking, absorbed by a simple purpose and a few clear necessities. Part of you is already out there calling for the rest. What the hunter feels as the leaves fall and the brief season approaches is not the lust to kill, but a yearning to absolve himself of his demeaning comforts, shaming insulation, his warm-floored and false gentility.
Many hunters have a vision of fraternity—of hunting camps, hearty meals prepared lumber-woods fashion, poker, sleeping in a dark, low room crowded with double bunks and a soughing pot burner; collective hunts, in spirit like those of Major de Spain and his companions in Faulkner's The Bear. But I am selfish almost to misanthropy about the acts and sensations of hunting. I want to be far away from other hunters, learning a new wild country, alone, or with one of my sons, or a brother.
The year before, for the last three days of the season, my brother Everett and I snow-camped deep in an area of the mountains that is closed to powered vehicles. We hiked six miles from the Saab to the shore of a pond, in fairly deep snow, and hunted by studying topographic maps and making short still-hunting drives toward each other, and came back to the two-man tent and cooked over our lightweight stoves with numb fingers in the dark and went right to bed to stay warm. We did not shoot anything.
All the deadfall had frozen with much moisture in it, and we had trouble keeping a fire going to dry out our wool pants, the felt of our pacs, our damp thermals. The great luxury of our return this year was going to be having a pile of dry wood cut in advance and hidden. We would come in the summer with one of the light cedar canoes we build, and fish the brook trout and cut us a woodpile.
But the summer was one of those seasons that got away. It was already hunting season, Nov. 9, when I made my first trip in with Sean. The ponds were still open and we came by canoe partway and backpacked the rest. We were there to cut the wood. We thought we might fool ourselves and spoil all plans for a later serious hunting trip by getting a buck. We almost did. We almost got killed, too.