WENT INTO THE WOODS this week on opening day of the deer season, and learned my lesson.
The waning moon lighted the way across the wide Shenandoah Valley meadow, all broomsedge and briers after a summer of drought, but made the woods seem even darker. The flashlight was out of reach in my backpack, so I stumbled around for some minutes, holding the rifle at high port arms to ward off whipping branches, before the tree stand stood out against the stars.
I always try to be in place an hour before shooting light. It lets the animals forget the noise and scent of my passage, and allows me time to try to forget who I am, and what I have to do this evening, tomorrow, next week and so on into a future that has nothing to do with what I am doing now, which is hunting creatures to whom it is always now.
Meteors punctuated the passage of time, which runs slow, slow on the morning of a hunt. An invisible deer trotted by, rustling the whitetail's syncopated rhythm in the leaves, making my pulse race. I looked for the comet that was supposed to be visible beneath the Northern Cross, but couldn't even find the constellation.
First light fooled me. It always does; as often as I have sat waiting for it, I am always surprised when I realize that things have been visible for some while. The day doesn't come, it becomes. Now above the mountain is a paleness, the beginning of color.
Shooting light. It's a half-hour before sunrise, in my hands is a rifle, and the Commonwealth of Virginia has licensed me to "reduce to possession" any one of its deer with visible antlers, under the rules of fair chase. One of the rules is no hiding behind cows. I've often wondered how one would go about doing that, and how it would help.
So many shots echo along the ridge and down the valley that it seems all the deer will be gone by noon, but it always sounds like that. In fact, the state game department says, the "harvest" in the county has been too low for several years running, and the deer population is getting out of hand. This year's mast crop -- the acorns and other nuts on which deer build the fat reserves they need to get them through the winter -- is one of the poorest on record. And so the seeming paradox: The more deer we kill, the healthier the herd.
It is cruelly difficult to remain still and stay alert at the same time. Twice in the first hour I nod off, and my head snaps up at the sound of deer passing or from dreams of deer passing, I can't tell. It promises to be a sorry season if I can't do better than that, and I try to discipline myself, scanning the woods foot by foot, looking for the odd outline or the flicker of movement that gives the game away.
Another hour passes, and I treat myself to a stretch. My hands are high overhead, the rifle hanging on a nail, when I hear a deer coming. The rustling of leaves is deceptive, and I turn the wrong way and too fast and spook it. I hear the deer come sliding to a halt, but can't see it. Moving in slow motion I reach for the rifle while searching for the animal.
Seconds ooze by while I stand in an awkward crouch; at length the deer starts trotting again, and I see it moving away toward thick brush, soon to be out of range. I raise the rifle and whistle, one of the weaknesses of the whitetail being that it tends to pause when it hears an odd sound. The deer stops. Through the scope sight I can see the whole creature clearly except for the head, which is screened by a tree.
But I know it's a buck. Has to be, with such a square, blocky body, broad back and thick neck. And it's alone; during the rutting season a lone deer is all but guaranteed to be male. In a moment it will move on, and the chance will be gone. I know it's a buck.
But the safety stays on, and I wait, trembling, anticipating the mixed sadness and fierce joy of the kill but paralyzed by a trace of doubt. The animal takes a step forward, and her antlerless head appears. The doe trots off, followed by a fawn I hadn't seen.
I sat down, thinking of the words I've so often said to my son: It's never wrong not to shoot. All my anxiousness was gone. Having been spared shame, I was content to take what came, or didn't come.
And while I sat giving thanks, along came a wild turkey; and I was given Thanksgiving.