The Great White Hunter
by David P. Ervin
Dense fog blurred the woods and wrapped Grant’s face in cold clamminess. The tree trunks stood out wet and dark against the brown and gray forest. He stopped to listen. There was silence besides the whoosh of the interstate miles away. The sweat under his jacket chilled him. He wiped condensation off his shotgun and continued up the hill.
He was edging towards the clearing at the top of the mountain on which he’d spent countless evenings after school hunting small game. Tomorrow he’d be on the Thanksgiving deer hunt with his uncle Dave. His uncle and aunt Vivian made the trip from Georgia to Vivian’s parents’, Carl and Norma, every year. Dave had hunted on their farm since he met Vivian, and for years prior to his enlistment in the Army Grant had joined him. It had become a tradition since he was old enough to handle a high-powered rifle, and it was often the only time of year he got to see his uncle. He was looking forward to picking it back up. He was excited enough that he came home from college early to have a morning to himself on his old hill to become reacquainted with hunting. It was the same hill, but things felt differently.
Being armed was strange. The orange vest he wore, loaded only with a dozen shotgun shells and a water bottle, didn’t compare to the weight of an infantryman’s combat load of ammunition and body armor. He caught himself clenching the shotgun with white knuckles at the low-ready as if he were on patrol in the Sunni Triangle.
No, he thought as he shook his head, no need to be so serious. I’m far, far away from that place. He breathed a lungful of air that smelled of wet dirt and dead leaves.
A twig snapped. He froze and pointed his ear in the direction of the sound. There was nothing but the patter of dew drops and the crackle of leaves under his boot as he shifted weight to one foot. He kept going.
He stooped under branches and skirted the briars until he crested the hill. The undergrowth thinned at the top under a stand of oaks. Past the trees to his left he could see the clearing. It appeared as a grayish white emptiness in the fog. Then he saw his tree at its head, a massive oak. He’d found it on one of his first trips up the mountain when he was twelve. A hollow in its gnarled roots formed a comfortable seat, and it offered a commanding view down the fifty square yard field. He cleared wet leaves from the small hollow and settled in, back against the tree. The sweat chilled him as he waited and he scanned the clearing for movement.
A tuft of grass at the far end of the clearing rustled. Then blades beside it quivered. He leveled the shotgun at the movement and waited. A dark brown shape bolted out of the clump and into another one. It was a rabbit – a large one. He lined up the beads of the sights on the clump and waited, steadying his breath. The sights wobbled with each heartbeat. When the rabbit emerged from it and paused, he held his breath and pulled the trigger.
The gunshot echoed off the surrounding hills and the stock slammed into his shoulder. His ears rang, and the pungent smell of gunpowder filled his nose. When he refocused he saw the rabbit thrashing in a blur of white and brown fur. When it stopped he knew he’d made a good shot.
He sprang up and trotted towards the rabbit. The wet grass squeaked underfoot. He knelt down beside the small animal, and the smells reached his nostrils. Gunpowder, blood, and the rich odor of viscera fouled the air. Faintly reminiscent of feces, it was a familiar smell.
Oh God, he thought, it’s the same.
He smelled the chemical odors of battery acid and coolant along with gunpowder. The truck’s engine popped as it cooled down. He stood beside the driver’s side door and looked inside. An Iraqi man’s head hung, his chin touching his chest. Pink fluid oozed from holes in his head. A growing, crimson stain matted his white shirt to his chest, and the flies buzzed around the blood trickling from his mouth. His eyes stared ahead, unfocused.
“Is he alive?” blared the voice on his walkie-talkie. He opened the door and the Iraqi’s arm flopped down. He reached to feel for a pulse on his neck and the body jumped to life in a convulsion like a hiccup. Grant stood still. The body shuddered again, emitting a guttural, sucking sound. He watched until the convulsions ceased.
“Negative, he’s done,” he said, pushing in the button on his radio.
“Roger that. Search him and the vehicle, over.”
“Roger,” he said into the radio.
He turned to the soldiers behind him faced out, pulling security.
“I’ll make this short, guys.”
He tried to breathe as little as possible. The metallic odor of blood and the mixture of sweetness and feces of the viscera was strong. He could almost taste it.
He slung his rifle and bunched up the Iraqi’s shirt in a fist and dragged him out. The corpse crumpled to the ground, heavy and floppy. He kicked its arms out and straddled the body. It felt warm through his gloves as he patted it down for any objects. There was nothing. He bagged up the few contents of the glove box and left the body in the dirt.
A tremble passed from his chest to his shoulders, and his legs weakened. He dropped a knee to the ground and stared at the animal, leaning on the shotgun.
Blood streamed from several hits of the bird shot and entrails bulged from a wound on its belly. He knew he had to pick it up, but he hesitated. It twitched once. He recoiled.
A gag arose, catching in his throat and forcing his shoulders to heave. He reached down again but stopped short. He stood. His hand wiped his face, pausing near his chin, drawing the skin down from his cheeks. Steam rose from the rabbit.
His mind raced as he wondered what to do. He had to get rid of the rabbit. The thought of skinning and cleaning it was horrifying and inconceivable. He wanted it gone. He hustled over to the tree and dug a small grave for it. The dirt was cool between his fingers.
He walked to the clump of grass where the rabbit lay. Its fur was now matted with blood. He didn’t want to touch it. He took off his vest and placed his hand under it, using it like a glove, to pinch the rabbit’s front foot. It hung stiff and weighty when he lifted it. He took it to the hole, deposited it, and pushed the dirt over it with his foot. After unloading the shotgun he tramped down the hill, crashing through the leaves –away from the dead animal, away from the horrible sight. After crossing a creek and going through a neighbor’s yard he was on his street. In no time he was opening his mother’s front door.
I hope she’s still asleep, he thought. She’ll be able to tell something’s up. Get it together. It was just a rabbit, but it smelled just like…them.
He took a deep breath and turned the doorknob. His mother was sitting in her favorite chair just inside. The house was warm and smelled of coffee.
“You better not have left a dead critter on my front porch, young man,” she said with a smile as she looked up from the newspaper. Her short, salt and pepper hair was tousled from sleep. The clock on the mantel ticked.
“I didn’t get anything,” he said. He bit his lip and stood in the doorway for a moment.
“Oh. I thought I heard a shot,” she said.
“I missed,” he muttered.
“The great white hunter missed? Say it ain’t so. Well there’s coffee in there if you like. You hungry?”
“No, thanks. Let me put this away real quick,” he said. He stood in the den after putting the gun in the cabinet and sloughing off the vest. His breaths came in short gasps. He squinted and slowed his breathing.
When he returned to the living room, coffee in hand, his mother smiled at him again. He lowered himself into the couch and sipped the coffee.
“This is pretty good stuff,” he said. His voice shook.
“Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Her eyes were narrowed in concern. It was the same look she gave him when he was sick as a child.
“I’m fine. Just a little tired, I guess,” he said. He looked away and felt her eyes searching his face.
“You came in here all wide-eyed like a bear chased you out of the woods or something.”
“I just didn’t sleep well last night,” he said, staring at the rug.
“Talked to Dave this morning. They’ll be out at Carl and Norma’s by about three. Figured we’d head out there around seven after they’ve had dinner. Dave said Carl’s been seeing some big bucks. Hopefully y’all will be lucky this year. Wouldn’t that be a great welcome home?”
Grant’s heart dropped.
“Yeah. I, uh,” he began. He scrunched his face and scratched his head. “Yeah, looking forward to it.”
I’ll just go out there and not shoot anything, he thought. But what if Dave does? What if I have to help him drag it? They butcher it themselves up there, too. That’s no rabbit – that’s buckets of blood and heaps of guts.
“There somethin’ wrong with that rug? Starin’ at it awful hard,” his mother said. He glanced up to see her peering at him from above her reading glasses.
“What? No, just zoned out a minute.” I never want to tote a rifle through the woods again, he thought. I can’t disappoint them, though.
“You should probably lay down for a nap. That grandfather clock of theirs always kept you up. Lord knows how they sleep through it.”
“I think I will,” he said. He rose from the couch and stretched. His body was tired but his mind was roiling.
He lay on the couch in the den, but he did not sleep.
The night was clear and cold when they departed to see his uncle. He listened to his mother talk about the broccoli casserole and green bean salad she was making for the next day. Her voice was bubbly like it always was when she was going to see her brother. Grant stared at the road and listened.
It was boisterous when they arrived. He could hear the talking and laughing from the porch. When they stepped inside it was warm. The smell of wood smoke and food were the same as it always had been. His stocky, bespectacled uncle’s raucous greeting hadn’t changed, either, although he seemed grayer. Then he saw his aunt’s bright red hair in the living room. Her face was more lined than he remembered. In the living room, Norma and Carl sat in their chairs. Carl was quiet as usual, hands clasped over his belly, his round face fixed on the blaring television. It was always loud. Carl couldn’t hear because of the bomber engines in WWII and the sawmill after that. Norma rocked in her chair and smiled as everyone settled in. Her big round eyes were like his aunt’s. He’d stepped into this scene many times before.
Grant sat by the fireplace and the embers warmed his back. Norma and Carl were like his grandparents, and they treated him as such. He told himself to act happy and smile, didn’t want to act the part of a sulking child and spoil the reunion.
They shot questions his way in between the parallel conversations of the men and women of the family. How was school? Did he like his new apartment? It looked like he was putting more weight on compared to the pictures of the war, was he eating well? Career plans?
He was flustered and fielded the questions with polite but abrupt answers. Dave glanced at him when the conversation lulled.
“Well, Grant, let’s get on outside right quick so I can show you where this buck’s been rubbin’ on a tree. It’s a tall one. Janice, I’m stealin’ him for a minute,” he said to his mother as he stood. He’d picked up more drawl than twang down in Georgia.
“Yep, big ole buck runnin’ round out there. Ate up all my corn this summer,” Carl’s gruff voice boomed. Everyone hushed for a moment, unsure if the man of few words had more to say.
“We’ll get him this year. Heck, Grant here probably learned a thing or two about shootin’ when he was gone,” said Dave. He walked to the side door off the kitchen and Grant followed. “Grab us a beer, too,” he said over his shoulder in a low voice. Their secret beer had been a tradition for a long time, too.
The cold buffeted Grant as he stepped outside. The darkness was deep. Grant followed his uncle’s flashlight beam through the yard and into the taller grass near the edge of the woods.
“It’s right up here,” said Dave. The bare treetops were black against the deep blue of the sky. The grass was already stiff with frost and crunched under their feet.
This is my chance to say something if I’m going to, thought Grant. What can I even say? He cracked his beer. It already numbed his hand.
Dave stopped ten feet away from the treeline and shined the flashlight all along it, mumbling about how he’d recognize the sapling when he saw it. When the light rested on a sapling stripped of its bark, he stepped towards and it and whistled.
“Man, he’s a big one. If he took the bark off that high on the tree he’s got to be a monster.” The flashlight bounced and Grant heard the pop of a can. “Man, oh man, a monster.” He turned to Grant and held up his beer. “Cheers, buddy.”
“Cheers, Uncle Dave.” The cans clinked.
“Excited for tomorrow? I sure as heck am,” said Dave.
“I actually went rabbit hunting this morning.”
“Oh yeah? You get anything?” He shrugged his shoulders in an exaggerated shiver. He turned and took slow steps towards the house. Grant followed.
“I don’t think I can go tomorrow,” blurted Grant. He knew he had to fill the ensuing silence. “When I went out this morning,” he took a deep, shaky breath. “It just brought back bad memories. Like a lot.” He could feel his eyes widen as he thought of the convulsing corpse.
Dave nodded but was quiet. He cleared his throat.
“Well. I ain’t gonna pretend to understand,” said Dave. “but I could probably see where that comes from. I had a few buddies who went to Vietnam. They didn’t hunt after that, either.” He stopped walking.
“It was, just, different. After all that,” Grant stopped and took a long drink. “I guess I just don’t have the stomach for it anymore.” A breeze rocked the trees on the hillsides. They creaked and leaves rustled.
“Well,” said Dave. He scratched his head. “It’s never been about the huntin’ when you come out here, anyway. You know that.”
“You tell your mom?” said Dave.
“God, no. I don’t want to worry her.”
Dave nodded. “You alright?”
“I’m okay. I’m sorry. I know you must be disappointed,” Grant said. His face felt full and his eyes tingled.
“Nah. Don’t worry about it. Let’s get on inside.”
They strolled to the house, finishing their beers on the way. They were quiet. They heard laughter when they walked into the house and shed their coats. Dave joked about how the older people got, the hotter they kept their houses. Grant didn’t smile. His mind was busy searching for a way to couch what he had to say.
“The great white hunters return,” said his mother. She beamed. She always did when everyone was together. Grant took his seat by the fireplace again. The television blared.
“It’s too cold for me, I think. Just not used to it anymore. Pretty tired, too,” said Grant. The television blared. He feigned a smile and pressed his lips together. There were blank expressions from his aunt and Norma. The sadness returned to his mother’s eyes.
“Can’t say I blame him,” Dave said. “It’ll be freezin’ tomorrow. I’ll probably wish I hadn’t gone after a few hours in that doggone tree stand.” He chuckled. His mother gave him the same expression of helpless worry she had that morning.
“I knew he was tired today. I can always tell when he’s tuckered out. It’s those hollow eyes he gets,” she said.
Grant stared at his feet. No one said anything else about it. Grant didn’t participate in the conversation unless asked a question. As it grew later he eyed the clock. When he noticed his mom doing the same he knew they’d leave soon.
After a while, she said it was getting late and they’d better go home. It took them a long time to say their goodbyes as they finalized the plans for the next day.
His mother put the keys in the ignition and sat still for a moment.
“Is it the war?” she asked.
He turned toward the window and clinched his eyes shut.
“Just tired, mom,” he said as he exhaled.
She was silent. She started the engine and reversed down the long driveway. Once on the road, Grant pretended to doze off, but he could still see the Iraqi corpse. He wondered how long he would.
David Ervin is an Army infantry and Iraq War veteran. He is a graduate of West Virginia University and author of Leaving the Wire: An Infantryman’s Iraq. He is Editor-in-Chief at Military Experience and the Arts, Inc., and writes short fiction, non-fiction, and web pieces exploring the veteran experience.