Birds squawk an inconsistent rhythm and frosty leaves rustle background vocals in the breeze. It’s the first morning of a week off work and Bernhard Koenig plans to spend much of that time perched in a camouflaged hunting blind, rifle by his side.
He’s been out for an hour already, sipping coffee from a steel Thermos brand thermos. It’s mostly calm, calming further as the air shows signs of a quick chill impending. It’s the moment Autumn officially blends into winter.
Feeling the drink reach his bladder, Bernhard climbs out of the blind, stretching his legs and then unzipping next to a birch. Up until that morning, the weather has been unseasonably warm for November. Though not sure if it is reliable, Bernhard is almost certain he can smell the snow building in the clouds.
“Give me a shack and a wood stove any day,” Mike from work had said the Friday preceding holiday shutdown. Most heads bobbed in agreement, raining sawdust onto the cement floor around the punch clock. Unlike his coworkers at the factory, Bernhard prefers the cold. Fresh snow provides the perfect canvas for the crimson droplets of the hunt. Not often does a kill shot drop even a doe dead on the spot. Death overcomes in its time and no faster. Which means tracking. Which means clues.
Red on white is a treasure map to a hunter.
Additionally, again unlike his coworkers, Bernhard hunts alone—to start the week anyway. If he bags an early kill then he might consider tagging along with a group for the camaraderie. Loneliness has Bernhard in a way that hanging around with other men can’t quite mend, but it can quiet the pain, for a time.
The absence of romantic love eats at him.
Bernhard zips his fly and lets his eyes bounce lazily off the muted tones of the season. His nose is colder than the rest of his face and he thinks he might head back to the truck for some Kleenex, but later. Now, the world is still and all right, drip or no drip.
Thirty-five, strong, fit, handsome, he hasn’t had a serious relationship since high school. He tries. He dates. He has online profiles. He sticks out his neck and talks to women at markets, department stores, the break-room, and often, these women reciprocate an interest. Lashes batting, or grins spreading to smiles, or leaning in to touch hip to hip.
Beneath his bulky jacket, Bernhard’s arms are tired. Little flexes, mostly of his biceps, touch skin to polyester lining. The gym had been his first stop of the day, still dark when he put in a diligent twenty minutes of glamor muscle reps.
He met Eden Abbott at the same gym. She’s proven interesting and interested. Dinner and show are on the docket to follow a day in the bush. Bernhard smiles wide thinking about her as he watches the trees, killing time until the date.
The trees are still and solid and like wallpaper…until they aren’t.
There’s a rustling, bigger than the breeze.
He watches a tangle of limbs about thirty feet away. Orange and brown maple leaves cling like curled monkey paws to the browns and greys of the felled flora.
Bernhard squints and begins imagining shapes.
And more rustling yet.
Being as he’s out of the blind, he’s at a slight disadvantage, but cannot help himself. He steps. The leaves and needles crinkle and crackle.
Another step, quiet, but not quiet enough. The rustle has ceased, has become palpable in its calm. Bernhard lifts the bulky rifle and spies through the black scope: brown on brown on brown, that wall of dead autumn shades. Waiting. Watching. Nothing more.
He exhales a pent breath, assumes imagination mingles with anticipation. The rifle lowers. Being patient in the woods is not easy. Being patient out the woods is not easy.
“Could go for something good,” Bernhard whispers, words encompassing the entirety of his existence. “Like Dad gets.”
Father and son are best friends, and earlier that morning, Graham Koenig, had gone out to the western side of the farm and sat in a tree sipping green tea, awaiting opportunity. It came quickly and pleasantly, and he was ready. It wasn’t his best-shot lifetime, but close to it. The deer jumped, took two strides, and fell.
Graham had met Bernhard in the laneway. The man was happy, and a good hunter, but also lucky. Lucky in most things. The farm’s paid for. Married young. Happy life.
Bernhard turns away from the rustle and returns to the stand without climbing up and pours steamy coffee into the lid of his Thermos brand thermos. He spies the woods from where he leans against the blind; lonely and slow, still, at its worst, hunting beat the hell out of the factory floor.
Bernhard screws the lid back on the Thermos brand thermos after finishing his cup and imagines a deer. He takes aim. He makes a tiny blast sound like a child with a toy and then half-turns at a telling sound.
From the corner of his eye, he spots a doe. It’s suddenly on the move, hooves punching the dead forest floor in a way that reminds Bernhard of Corn Flakes. He can’t help himself. He’s impatient. He loves Corn Flakes. He chases.
Glimpses of a tail, of an eye, a leg, flash ahead amid the autumn palette. Bernhard quickens his steps beyond a jog. He needs this one good thing to work, this little bit of immediate satisfaction to tide him over in case—he doesn’t was to think it—but in case Eden works out like the rest.
The animal recognizes danger’s chase, finds its overdrive gear. Quickly, it’s out of sight and the atmosphere feels devoid of life. Bernhard’s breaths puff before his face as he half-spins and scans for life.
“Where are you?” he says.
As if in answer, a tail flicks and Bernhard slinks low, inching, lucking onto a route where the leaves are too soggy for frost and silent. Twenty feet. Fifteen. Ten. Bernhard leans against a tree, levels his scope. The pale morning plays well into the lenses within. He exhales and squeezes.
The deer screams. Its white tail is on the move, jittering and bouncing, visibly scared and pained by the strike. Bernhard starts to rethink what he’s done. That scream sounded almost juvenile, abnormally so. Stomping forward, already working out an excuse if he’s shot Bambi, he’s ready to put the beast from its misery.
The rustling begins again and there’s hope. Bernhard’s breath puffs steady like a steam engine. The cold has become a blanket as the sun rises higher—a reversal of norms.
He’s breaking as quickly as he can, an image of jungle running like a Vietnam soldier comes to mind and leaves almost as quickly as his feet move. Bernhard is smiling inside. If the animal wants it, he will gladly chase. A chase suggests size and strength.
Another scream echoes amidst the stocky grey trees. It’s sickening and small, maybe forty feet away.
A pool of blood has formed and trickles an easy enough trail to follow. Wordlessly, Bernhard prays to the hunting gods that this deer is bigger than it seems. Bigger than it sounds. His head bobs between blood and the trail ahead, like a texting driver checking the road.
The deer is gone from sight, but that’s okay. It’s left breadcrumbs.
Big and shining, the amount of blood shows a pace not that much faster than Bernhard’s; he’ll be on the deer soon. Surely. He forces himself to move quietly, tries to move quietly.
The blood stops and Bernhard skims, holding his breath. No prey. Only trees. The scope rises to his eye and he scans the landscape.
Brown on brown on brown.
Brown on brown on brown.
Red on white on brown.
The beast leans into a tree taking long gasps and exhaling in great puffs. Bernhard exhales a great puff of his own and straightens his rifle. The animal has suffered enough. Bold and strong, respectful of nature and Her gifts, Bernhard stares into the deer’s eyes.
Those bulbs are different, odd, unlike any deer he’s ever seen, they are green, bright green, and menacing. He approaches. It’s smallish, but on an angle, so difficult to judge exactly how small.
Too much, he looks away and points, glad nobody can see him falter from strength.
The animal screams again. Bernhard juggles the noise. That close, it doesn’t sound adult, but it doesn’t sound juvenile either. He’s still inching until the muzzle touches something pliable. He squints and aims for the beast’s head.
His eyes close tight.
“How come?” the deer whines.
Shaken, Bernhard drops the rifle, staggers backwards, and falls to the forest floor.
Blood pumps from her breast, the soft brown fur gone for an off-white, wool pea coat. “It hurts.”
“I didn’t…oh no, please, no.” Bernhard covers his eyes.
“You shot me.”
“Eden. What are you doing here?” Bernhard crawls. Blood blooms a wide flower on the front of her coat like a November poppy. “I think it went through. Maybe it’s okay. Let me get help.” He gets to his knees.
“You can’t leave. I’m cold. Don’t leave me.”
“Right, god…I’m so sorry.”
He pats his pocket for a cellphone, knowing he’s left it in the truck. Always does while hunting. Frustrated, terrified, and confused, he snuggles tight and takes Eden’s hands in his.
Snow falls and he rocks. She’s breathing in his ear, on his cheek, hot and tinny smelling. “I wanted to,” she hacks, a spill of deep red liquid pours from her mouth, “surprise you.”
Bernhard squeezes her hands tight, but gently.
“I really like you, you know? I was scared you wouldn’t ask me out, but you did. I was so excited I wanted to do something spontaneous. I wanted to surprise you.”
Tears roll down her cheeks. Bernhard holds her tight. Words fail him. He fights tears of his own and kisses her forehead.
“I think we would’ve been good together,” Eden says. “It isn’t easy for me.” She coughs a mouthful of blood that continues to trickle from her lips as she speaks, bubbling and trailing sticky strings. “Single men in their thirties are such jerks, it’s no surprise—”
“Shh, please. We need to get you inside.”
“I don’t think it will help.” More coughing. More blood. “I can’t feel my legs. My chest hurts too much to move. Just stay with me. Stay with me. I want to be next to you, you’re so warm.”
Tears burst from Bernhard’s eyes. Eden gasps several times, hacks, spilling a deluge of crimson, and then she slumps.
The snow falls and Bernhard doesn’t move. He can’t move. He’s killed a woman, a woman he’d hoped might become his…in a way she has.
The air grows so cold so fast that the snot dripping from his nose and the tears running on his cheeks freeze before having a chance to dry.
“I’m so sorry,” he says into her scalp.
Four-thirty. The sun no longer fills the sky and Graham is worried about his son. Hunting can be dangerous. He rides out to Bernhard’s deer stand. It’s vacant, but the Thermos brand thermos, extra boots, and ATV remain.
“Bernhard, Bernhard, you out there, boy?”
No answer, he drives on.
He dials his son’s cell, doesn’t get an answer, knows Bernhard leaves the thing in the truck, but desperation is setting in.
Wheeling around, shouting out, he finds nothing.
“Where are you?” he whispers to the slate grey skies.
At a quarter past five, he comes upon a scene.
“Wake up.” He nudges his son’s shin with his snow-freckled Sorel boot.
Bernhard opens his exhausted eyes. The head of a deer leans against his chest and a hoof lay in his hand. He leaps to his feet. The dead deer rolls sideways.
“I, I, it was…” He wipes crust from beneath his nose onto the sleeve of his jacket. The full power of the chill in the air hits him. He shivers.
Graham looks at his son, the expression, the shock and mystery, and then he looks at the deer. It’s smallish, but not bad, the kind of thing a body might shoot during the latter days of hunting season if they didn’t get anything better before that.
“Let’s get her in.” Graham pats his son’s back.
Bernhard stares at the deer, unmoving. “No, it was—”
“You need to get ready for your date.”
“It was… I shot…” He tries again. He’s soaked with blood. Imprinted blood kisses stand out in stark contract on the deer’s white fur between its eyes.
Graham pulls his boy close, shoulder to shoulder, father to son. “You know, I shot your mother three times before I had the courage to ask her out.”
Bernhard’s eyes remain on the deer that was so much more than a deer.
“Two coyotes and a doe. I was so scared, I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her, but then…I had to ask her out.”
Bernhard turns at this, looks at his father.
“Three times… It’s like destiny’s call. Come on, you’ve got a date.” Graham’s smiling at the memory.
About the Author:
Eddie Generous is the author of the forthcoming novel “Radio Run” (from Severed Press), the collection “Dead is Dead, but Not Always,” and the novel “Camp Summit” (coming 2019 from DB Publications). He is the founder/editor/publisher/artist of “Unnerving” and “Unnerving Magazine,” and the host of the “Unnerving Podcast.” He lives on the Pacific Coast of Canada with his wife and their cat overlords. www.unnervingmagazine.com
Story Photo Credit: Chalermchai Thamol
Originally appeared Dec 2018 issue Books ‘N Pieces Magazine