We passed the hand warmer around on a cold day in December. Matthew, my 11-year-old son, got creative and stuck the thing in his shoe. Rachel, who was spotting for us, didn’t like it much, but she used the hand warmer anyway. It was that cold; our fingers and toes burned.
I look through the scope of my .308 and watch a dove fly up from the tall, frosty grass near the fence line. That is when Rachel spotted the deer cautiously walking out into the clearing. There are two of them, but only one trotted out into the emerging light. I tell Matthew that this is his shot. He rests the rifle on some foam rubber on the edge of the stand. He braces himself, then takes a breath. The boom of the rifle is so loud in the breaking dawn that my ears are ringing. We watch the deer stand there, tail twitching for a few seconds, and then it ambles over into the brush near a big live oak. We can just see the tail. Matthew reloads, and we wait. Too late, it’s gone, running into the brush and away. We never see the second deer again.
We wait a little longer. Two cardinals fly by the stand and rest on a tree limb, gently swaying in the wind. I tell Matthew and Rachel that we’ll have a look-see, and we climb out of the stand and walk the ground near the fence line, around the big live oak. We can’t see any signs of Matthew having hit the deer, but we walk into the brush and down the fence line a bit. It was Buddy’s first shot at a deer. He’s disappointed, but taking a shot beats sitting there with your fingers and toes burning.
My brother Marv had shot two eight-pointers within ten minutes a week before. He thought he’d missed the first one, but it turned up when he went after the second, so he used Jake’s tag on it, which didn’t make his son real happy. Matthew says that his uncle is awful lucky. I can’t disagree with that, though I’m not sure what the difference is, if there is one, between luck and chance. All I can tell Matthew is that we’ll be back.
We walk back to the house, hoping that the exertion of hiking down by the creek bed and over the hills will warm us up. It doesn’t, but some hot coffee helps. The day is shaping up to be cool and sunny and bright. Later in the morning, we take the shotguns and walk down to the tanks, looking for dove, without any luck. I even hoped we might spot a turkey. No matter; the day makes up for it. Rachel mounts Dolly, and her cousin rides along with her on Shadow. I didn’t know it, but Marv tells me old Buck has died.
While Matthew takes off with Jake, I take a walk past the barbecue pit where a brisket has been smoking for nearly 20 hours. My brother throws some deer sausage on, too. My walk takes me around the big tank, and I remember when we all came down here to take a look at this place for the first time and drove up on a flock of turkey out past where the house stands now. I’d never seen that many turkey all together like that. Stand very still and listen; the only thing you hear is the breeze whistling past you.
I’m leaning on a fence, watching the big tank and listening for dove, when I smell a cigar and hear Marv say, “Nice day.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty today; couldn’t ask for better.”
“Better enjoy it. You can’t get it back.”
“No, you can’t.” But that is what memory is for: getting things back as best you can. Soak things up and try to remember, if only for a second or two. Remember when you have to go back to what some people call the “real world,” though it’s hard to imagine anything more real than this. No traffic jam or iPhone could ever make an impression like this, or a memory you’d want to hold on to. Old Buck has died; his carcass was already pretty far along when Marv found him. If you hit a deer and track it, it will curl up in the brush, stiffen, and die. But if you miss, you can watch it run away, a thing that is beauty in motion. And on a day like this, when you stand still and listen and watch and take in the moment, for just a second, it’s not at all hard to believe in something bigger then ourselves.
The next day, we are packing up to go when Caleb, who is fixing to be four, asks his mother and father, “Why do we have to leave now?” I walk away with a smile. That’s a question I’ve been asking my whole life.
We stop in Rio Vista for gas, and I walk inside to get a Dr. Pepper. The lady behind the counter watches as I fumble through my pockets, searching for some change that isn’t there. I have to use a card.
“I don’t have any change. None in the car, either.”
While she runs the card through the machine on the counter, she smiles. “When I’m closing out tonight, I’ll see that ninety-six cents and think of your face. I remember people like that.”
Outside, the breeze has let up some, and today is as bright and sunny as the day before. Matthew and Rachel are sleeping. It’s two days until New Year’s.