Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Wayward Shot

By: K. Jan Harvey

The day he bought the rifle he took it into the woods to the stand by the creek between Lester Judie’s land and ours. That’s where the trees were cut when Lester lost his property. But we didn’t cut that oak, or the poplars around it, and there’s some nails left in it where the stand used to be. Iron nails grown into the tree, and still visible and unnatural. But the creek dried up. Like he dried up.

He used to say that the stand had been there a hundred years before any man in Fortune knew about it. I don’t know why he thought that, or how he would have known. He came here long after the town was founded. But we all thought we might as well believe him. He used to say a hunter once shot a minister from that stand, because he wouldn’t tell him it was justified to lust for a woman if he did not touch her. These are the lengths of atheism, he would say. So the hunter shot the minister and every year after that his ghost appeared to him as a giant white doe, a symbol of the purity and promise of a woman I suppose, and never let itself get hit by that hunter’s gun. So the hunter went mad and hung himself from the stand. He used to say the white doe saw it happen. And he said when they found his body, bullets were all around in the snow and metallic in the sun, and that there were thirty of them. Thirty bullets. He used to tell us that, and that no one ever climbed down from the stand afterwards without having killed a deer. But never that white doe. He said the stand was blessed, and that the white doe blessed it, because that white doe was holy.

That’s why he took the new rifle up there, to kill that old white holy deer. I think he felt that white doe staring him down. You see, he wasn’t an atheist, and he believed the story. That’s why he did it. Because he wouldn’t have hung himself. But also I think he wanted the same thing we all do. So he climbed up and waited for the white doe. He was watching out over what was then Lester Judie’s land, Lester Sr., because that’s where the young minister had been killed, on his way to a baptism in the creek, he told us. So he waited the rest of the day and on through the bitter night and the morning came on and his hands were cold on the pretty metal barrel of the brand new rifle and his toes numb inside his stiff frozen leather boots and his stomach empty and growling. He said he ate bark to shut it up, and then he began to think and imagine as he chewed and warmed his mind. He felt that if he killed that white doe, then from that day forward, he would never miss. He believed in that. And he’d bring the frost white ear of that deer to his girl in Fortune, as a sign of his provision, and they’d serve that white doe at their wedding supper and dance as the snow fell just before Christmas. It was all a good joke. That’s how he told it.

And of course he did marry Grandma, his girl in Fortune, but it wasn’t quite that way. As he waited out there it started to snow and then it became really cold. The dawn was coming and it was the coldest time of night because all that heat goes out and gets ready to come up all at once with the sun. In that true northern winter cold he felt his eyelids chill each other as they touched when he blinked and he couldn’t even shiver because he was so tired. So he just blinked to keep his eyeballs warm, they were all he would need until the white doe appeared. He wiggled his toes in his boots and straightened his back and felt like a mountain in that tree, stiff and aching. He inhaled the motionless air, he said like drowning in perfectly still water, and he felt it on the hairs in his nose making a tiny popping noise, and he said that’s what that old white holy doe heard to make her head snap up in the falling snow and her ears tip forward and that’s what he saw through the snow from the stand. Only he said it was not a doe at all, but a young fork buck, white as a lamb and bigger than anything in the woods, even at that distance and in all that falling snow. He could see the long muscled neck and the two forks as clear as the lines you draw with your finger on a frosty car window, and he couldn’t see the shape of a face so he knew it was staring right at him in his stand. Staring at him, as he was staring back. And then as he looked he could see that unnatural curving horizontal line that in the woods is only the body of a deer. He said it looked like a ghost in all that snow. And he said he didn’t remember being cold, but he was shivering all right, and the muscles even in his fingers felt tired and hot and they wouldn’t grip. He always said it’s the deer’s life in your hands that makes you feel that way. The deer’s life in the summer under the sun and bounding through tall grass on hidden hills that no man has ever seen and a heat of life that no man in this place has ever known and you hold that for a moment before you decide. Then it goes out of you. It goes out altogether. And you don’t feel sorry, but just one less thing.

He lifted the rifle as a leaf straightens when a bee flies off. He was a good hunter. He had heard that pastor who was killed preach once when he was a boy, when he went with Lester to church. The pastor had preached on Jeremiah, the twelfth chapter, and about a roaring lion in the forest. Now it seemed to him that words and phrases of that sermon started bounding in his mind as he aimed, and the deer didn’t move, but just stared at him, in that calm and awake way that deer look sometimes, through the snow. He ignored all that in his mind and instead thought of dancing on his wedding day with his stomach full. ‘Let me be a lion. No, I will be a lion. I will be a lion in the forest.’

And that’s when it came down. The whole stand came down. He didn’t hear it break, but he was on the ground in the snow. The whole bough had given way, like it was cut off at once with an axe, and he came down with the stand into the snow and broken sticks and the new rifle came down with him. He didn’t have time to let it go in the air and it fell against his finger and fired into the night with a noise so loud, he said, it made the snow stop altogether and the bullet went far off into the woods, without hitting a tree, and dropped beneath all that snow and nothingness and frozen dead meaninglessness of winter. Then his leg hurt and it was broken and even though they waited until spring, he still couldn’t dance at the wedding and she danced instead with Lester Judie and the others that were there. But on that night when the stand fell, he bit his lip as he used to do in his last days when he’d get up out of a chair, and he stood up on that broken leg out of the shattered branches and saw the buck was still there, like nothing he’d ever seen, white like breath and as warm and calm, like a pearly lily dried and pressed in a book, he used to say. And it stared at him.

So he lifted the rifle and fired again. And he always swore there was dirt in the barrel, or snow, because he never missed. But he saw that bullet break a scar in a tree to the left of that white deer’s simple shape. And then it was gone and no one’s ever seen that white stag again and no one rebuilt the stand because of course it wasn’t blessed anymore.

He never let up on telling that story. It was precious to him, but I think it bothered him too. And he always insisted it was absolutely true. And it is true, because the rifle came down to me. It never shot straight and still never will, but it always shoots just to the left, no matter how careful you aim. Not once has it shot straight, except maybe once, when a wayward shot might have hit what I aimed it at.


Her name was Emily Ulalume Judie. She was Lester’s youngest daughter by his second wife and my mother always said she was simple and the boys at school all said she was stupid. She didn’t go to school, but the boys told stories. Some said they’d seen her in the soybean field taking off her clothes and dancing and that her father ran them off with his World War II machine gun and then started beating her. But that was a lie, because those boys said a lot of things. Also I knew that Mr. Judie loved Emily Ulalume, very dearly.

Of course the boys made fun of her name, but I always thought it was perfect. And Mr. Judie’s second wife, Beth, kept her maiden name with a hyphen, Judie-Azelle. It just made her name ugly. But the girl’s. Emily Ulalume Judie-Azelle. And she was beautiful. Like the young bride of Solomon.

All this occurred to me later. At the time I was just a boy. I was young and very much afraid of what other people said. Of course, you never really grow out of that, but when you’re young you don’t think about hiding it at all. You just try and try not to be small.

It happened on the day before I moved away, so it wouldn’t have mattered if I had been small. But of course it did. Three years before, I had been given the rifle as a present and I had made good use of it since then. The first thing I shot was a possum, which I figured wouldn’t be blasphemy. Of course, I didn’t believe in all that that my grandpa had said, but since I’d heard his story and saw my mother look over her shoulder from the stove as he told it, I thought it would make me feel better about the whole thing to kill a possum and set the rifle right again. And it did.

I killed lots of things with that rifle, and even two deer. I learned to shoot it well, aiming the crosshairs in the old scratched scope just enough to the right, depending on the distance, to put the bullet where I wanted. I was a very good hunter.

There were four of us that evening. Edgar, Frank, Allan, and myself. They all knew about my rifle and they always wanted me to let them shoot it, but I never did. Of course I didn’t. We were hunting rabbits that evening. It was getting near dusk when we should have been going home and Edgar started talking about ghosts. He was the oldest, and he was often cruel. I didn’t believe in ghosts, but I think Frank and Allan were getting scared. He told us about the ghost of an old, old man that lived in shadows and in snow and beneath floorboards, because that’s where he’d been buried, not underground, and he bit off the feet of people who stepped on him so they’d fall and then he’d whisper evil things in their ears until they went crazy.

“No way.” Frank said. “What do you know? Ghosts can’t bite they don’t have any teeth.”

“Yes they do too. Teeth is all they have.” Edgar said. He was walking just behind Frank as the sun started down behind the trees. “That’s how they i.d. dead people. By their teeth. My uncle’s a cop and he told me. And if you mean that they can’t bite things that are physical because they aren’t physical, then how come we can see them?”

“I’ve never seen one.” Frank said.

“I have.” Edgar said.

“No way. No you haven’t. You’re making that up.” Frank said.

Then Edgar stumbled and he yelled, a short sudden burst of noise into the dusk. Frank’s body jerked rigid and he jumped a few steps forward quickly, weaving like a rabbit runs. But he stopped and turned around when he heard Edgar laughing on the ground.

“It’s saying something to me.” Edgar said. Laughing. “It’s saying—it’s saying Frank’s mom’s a whore.”

Frank went over to him and kicked him hard. I had to break them up because Allan just stood there quiet, but first I put the rifle on the ground. It took a while to break them up too, because Edgar’s glasses had come off and he was mad about that. They weren’t broken, but he said they were cold from the snow. When I looked up I saw Allan hadn’t even been watching. He was looking out across the field towards where the stand used to be, where the big oak is in a clump of poplars. The sun was just behind the horizon now, and it was that time in the early night when you can watch it getting darker and darker, but you always miss when it goes black.

“Quiet.” Allan said. He pointed. His shoulders shook a little.

We all looked and Edgar pushed his glasses on. Across the field on top of a small rise in the ground and outlined against the black trees was a white shape, moving. It was not moving one way or another, unless it was coming towards us, because it only seemed to sway back and forth slightly. It was small and indistinct. Just a shape, but unnatural against the trees.

“It’s a ghost.” Allan said. I watched the breath come out of his mouth as he whispered. He was really afraid. Not the fear of being embarrassed by someone older than you, but real fear. I’d never seen it before. He started shaking, more than you would from being cold. Then I was afraid because he was, like you would be if a faithful dog curled up under the bed while a robber took your life away.

“It’s not a ghost, jerk, it’s better than that. It’s that old white buck.” Edgar said. He had heard the story. Everybody had. “Look, see, that’s where the stand was. In the oak. Only it’s your land now—” he touched my shoulder with the back of his hand and he said my name, “—you can shoot it.”

“No.” I said. “We can’t even see it.”

“Yes we can. I can.” Edgar said. “C’mon and shoot it. Quick, before it goes.”

“No.” I said.

“Let’s just go back, guys, it’s getting dark.” Frank said.

“No, pussy, we can’t let it go. Shoot it.” Edgar said. His glasses were foggy from his breath. He took them off and wiped them and he said my name again in a loud whisper in my ear.

“My dad says you shouldn’t shoot at something you don’t know what it is.” Frank said.

“Shut up.” Edgar said. He hit the back of Frank’s knit hat. Then he leaned very close to me and he whispered in my ear, so Frank and Allan couldn’t hear him.

“It’s staring,” he said, “isn’t it—” he said my name again, “—staring right at you, just like he said. It’s staring you down. You have to shoot it now. Do it. Don’t be stupid.”

So I knelt down and ran the bolt in the chamber and heard the bullet come up into the rifle. I saw Allan was still shaking, staring. He was still afraid. I tried not to be. Then Frank started to panic.

“No, don’t do it. We’ll get in trouble.” Frank said. “Edgar stop, we have to get back. Please, let’s go. You don’t even know what it is. It could be anything. Let’s go. What if it’s—”

“It’s that deer.” Edgar said. “That white deer.” He whispered. “That buck that no one could kill and it’s staring you down. I’ll tell everyone you couldn’t. That you had the chance and didn’t do it. Or here, why don’t you just let me?” He said.

He touched the rifle and I pulled away. I put it to my shoulder, forcing his hand away with my elbow. I aimed. I put the crosshairs exactly on the white shape. I didn’t want to shoot it, so I aimed right at it. Edgar was kneeling next to me like a father would teach his son how to shoot. Frank was lingering over us making a lot of noise. I put the crosshairs exactly on it.

“Shoot.” He whispered. “Shoot.” I aimed exactly precisely on the shape.

Then Allan sobbed. It was an enormous sound in the silence. A great inhalation of freezing cold air, unnatural and sharp, catching and rasping somewhere in his throat and building towards a hot bubble of tears from his eyes and nose that never came. But the sound just took in all that silence and it was like nothing you’d hear in the woods in winter and in all that snow, and the rifle fired.

I had seen the shape in the crosshairs then. In that moment, I had recognized it. In the heat of my mind I figured it out and knew what it was. It was her. It was Emily Ulalume Judie. A little girl in winter clothes. Emily Ulalume. And I had seen her in the crosshairs of the rifle. She was smiling, like she always smiled because she was simple. Smiling, but not at me. Not at anything. Just smiling, as if from inside.

But when I lowered the rifle from my cheek, feeling it unstick and feeling the extra cold on my cheek where it had been, I couldn’t see the shape anymore. There was no movement, no white shape above the snow, nothing but the black poplars and the big black oak and the black black black northern sky.

I heard Allan stop crying. He probably felt like I did. Deaf and breathless from the noise of the gun and shaking everywhere inside but stiff on the outside and feeling too much cold on our faces. Edgar stood.

“You missed.” Edgar said. “You missed like everyone else. I saw it run back into the trees when you shot. That old white buck got away again.” He turned and started walking away. We all followed him, but my knees felt like they were melting in my snow pants and Edgar got far ahead of us. He kept laughing in the darkness like a ghost might laugh, to scare us. But we just walked like children walk when they’re going to be punished. That’s the length of a person.

But I know I didn’t shoot her. I know now it’s okay. She may have run off behind the rise in the ground or into the trees like Edgar said. I don’t know. I didn’t see. But the rifle always misses and she was exactly in the sight. The rifle always missed, since that day he fell from the stand. I know it missed. Of course I don’t know, because I didn’t see. And I never went back. But some things are unnatural, like heavy weights that somehow don’t sink in the snow. And I think I saw her once, much later, with her father, in Minneapolis.