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The Woods, November

by Catherine Harnett

You teach me how to kill; there are different kinds of shots: heart-shot, shoulder, lung-shot, neck-shot. The woods in fall. A place wide open for men like you. Who have killed before.


When you shoot through the neck, a deer drops quickly. It falls right away when you shoot it in the lung or shoulder, and most times is dead before the hunter reaches it. A deer shot through the heart runs, spilling lots of dark blood, like paint from a can.


I am listening, imagining. How it will feel when you do it.


When it’s shot through its hind quarter, a deer runs through the woods on three legs—sometimes a long way. Eventually it dies, too far from the hunter to matter. And sometimes it cannot be helped, a muscle shot—a trail of blood through the woods. It may not die, deer can live a long time with the bullet still inside.


Is this is like the war, waiting to shoot at just the right time? I will not ask you that. You might think I have come to care about you.


That would make my mother happy. She says you are my family now. She was all mine, till you.


You raise your rifle, and squint. It seems like forever before you shoot. The sound, when you do, will never go away inside my head.


Son of a bitch, you say, loud enough for me to hear.


I guess you missed. It seems forever again while I wait for you to shoot again.


A good clean one, to the neck. You smile. Sudden and painless.


I cannot imagine how the deer feels nothing. There has to be something that hurts between being alive and dying. I watch you drag the deer by its antlers, the sounds of leaves underneath, you, breathing hard. I didn’t know how heavy a deer was dead. They move so fast in the woods, you would think they are made of air.


You take the hunting knife and slice the belly open. Steam comes out against the cold. I see you kneel and scoop the insides out, and toss them aside. You are up to your elbows in blood.


Never strap a dead buck onto the roof of the truck, like some hunters do.


You say that it is impolite to make a spectacle of what’s been killed. It is quiet as we drive. You smell like outdoors, like fire, like the fall; like blood. The dead deer lays in the back of the blue Chevy. I am tired, and cold, and mostly glad. Having you all to myself as we drive in the freezing rain, two hours, home.

Author's Note

I grew up in Deer Park, Long Island, where no deer lived.


We drove upstate to Hessian Lake, and from the windows of our white Dodge, watched deer congregate; mothers and babies, and occasionally, bucks. They were gorgeous and indifferent.


I saw one up close at the Catskill Game Farm. Loud flies circled around its pretty head. Deer were not meant to be penned in.


For some reason, my parents populated our house with deer. They had a huge picture above the couch; when it was plugged in, a deer bounded in a forest, over and over again. At Christmas, a family of knick-knack deer, atop fake cottony snow, decorated the cabinet; now mine, they emerge on cue each December.


A man I cared for talked about deer-stands and venison, and hunting season which began Thanksgiving Friday. It turned my stomach, but I grew to understand his urge to disappear into the woods and wait for the kill.


On the evening of my father’s death, I drove home on an unlit Loudoun County road. Something told me to stop, and I did; four young deer crossed in front of the car, calm and unhurried. It was my father’s doing, I am sure, a message to his four children.


Using these deer in a poem or story would be considered easy, sentimental, sappy metaphors. But they appeared in real life. The truth is metaphors and symbols surround us, and it is up to the writer to make them into the messy work of writing.

Catherine Harnett is a poet and fiction writer living in Virginia. The Washington Writers Publishing House (WWPH) has published two of her books, Still Life and Evidence which was selected by Henry Taylor. She received her MA from Georgetown University, and her BA from Marymount College of Fordham University. For over thirty years, she worked for the Federal Government in a variety of positions on Capitol Hill, the Department of State and the Department of Justice. During her public service, she traveled to many developing countries, providing assistance in public education and outreach programs. She retired in 2007, and is writing fiction and poetry on a regular basis. She lives in Fairfax with her daughter.

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