Here is the first installment of a short story I’m working on:
Bumfuck nowhere, his daddy always called it. The town of Mystery Springs, Idaho, where Clayton had spent his whole life, was in the mountains right after Oregon becomes Idaho. Sheep and cattle grazed in its high pasturelands, and everyone had horses. The local high school also served the nearby communities of Addington, West Fork and Hoskumm; still, Clayton’s graduating class topped out at 51 kids. As it had been for as long as anyone could remember, the Valedictorian was a girl. Cara Treiss was also a cheerleader and basketball player, a member of the FFA, and a champion barrel-racer. Clayton envied her quietly; it was clear that to envy a girl was ridiculous, and besides, that level of achievement in a boy would have aroused suspicion that you were a queer.
What mattered in a boy, Clayton’s father had impressed upon him from an early age, was strength, honor, bravery. This meant, as far as he could tell, taking part in high-risk activities with a maximum of bravado, swallowing tears before they even started, and never shying away from killing one’s fellow creatures. Skill mattered far less than a willingness to ride that dirt-bike, crash, and get up again; to rise at 4 am to stalk deer in the bitter cold, joints locking with the effort of crouching, still, for hours; to keep a straight face while, leg smashed in a riding accident, you were driven over the long, rutted dirt road that led to the highway, and eventually the hospital.
Clayton Senior loved all things motorized. He raced stock-cars, midget cars, rode motorcross, and had blown at least three consecutive paychecks on a speed boat which he proudly towed down to the lake each summer. Clayton hated the noise and the fumes, the cyclical futility of the race-track, its monotony broken only by the frequent grisly crashes which provided his father and his buddies with war stories.
He’d been given his first dirt bike for his sixth birthday. He’d eyed it suspiciously as his father, beaming with pride and delight, motioned for him to get on and give it a try. He couldn’t bear, even then, to see his father’s features cloud with the disgust that was inevitable when Clayton refused some worthy, manly activity, so he’d clambered on, falling and shredding the tender skin of his knee almost immediately. His father had chuckled his approval when Clayton, his little-boy’s face set in grim, tearless determination, climbed back on.
And so it went. He’d learned to hide his distaste for the things his father loved, while savoring the things that, by blessed coincidence, he loved also. Hunting, for instance. Not the kill itself (though he was a renowned shot) but the hushed softness of the pre-dawn hours, the time spent on horse-back, riding through the fragrant trees, and the drawn-out anticipation of the wait for prey, hearing and sight and smell all keyed up, each sip of scalding coffee from the thermos an exquisitely furtive exercise in making no sound at all.
He’d been nine when he’d bagged his first mule deer, a fine young five-point buck. It hadn’t been a clean kill. Clayton’s first shot caught it on the left flank, and it had leapt almost vertically in its panic. His second shot had grazed its shoulder, and it had stumbled and bled as it crashed clumsily away through the brush. Clayton and his companions gave chase, and found the buck fallen in a clearing half a mile away. It lay crumpled on its knees, breath gusting heavily from straining nostrils, eyes bulging with pain and fear. He’d finished it off with a shot to the head, behind the left ear. As it shuddered and then slumped heavily to its side, its ultimate breath sending a little puff of steam into the air, Clayton understood that he had been responsible for its death. It was his shot that had wounded the deer, and his shot that had killed it. An hour before, it had been browsing on young leaves, stepping with unhurried grace through the silent trees, breathing, moving, living. Now the majestic buck was a carcass, an object; its spirit gone, it was simply a rack and a series of cuts of meat.
Clayton’s father was radiant with pride. He’d hooted and lifted the boy onto his shoulders, exclaiming hoarsely “Didja see that? My boy bagged a buck! He got ‘im, goddamnit, he got ‘im!” Even though it hadn’t been a clean kill, it was a remarkable feat for a nine-year-old, and was the talk of the tavern and sporting goods store for weeks afterwards. In those moments aloft on Clayton Senior’s shoulders, Clayton knew he should be the happiest little boy in the world. He’d be the envy of all his friends; his family would eat venison stew, venison burgers and venison jerky all winter long, and the buck’s head would hang in the living room above the T.V., a potent reminder of Clayton’s bravery and skill.
And yet he wasn’t happy. He felt, somehow, that he had been slain along with the buck, that his breath had been abruptly stilled in his chest as he struggled and writhed with the agony of defeat and death. But as he descended from his father’s shoulders, he forced a thin little smile, and his quietness on the ride home was chalked up to nerves, and to being overwhelmed with the heady success of the hunt.