Split-second decisions can result in a year’s worth of venison – or a season of regret. Montanan Darby Smith says her father got some of each this year. She wrote this piece during the state’s deer season, which ended Sunday.
My father wounded a deer the other day.
He shot the buck from a hundred yards in the icy slough on the edge of our property. The animal went down hard. My father and his hunting buddy were sure that it was dead or dying. And then the buck tried pulling himself to his feet. His back looked broke. Hooves struck out and slipped. Blood spread on the white ground. In earlier years, my father would have immediately taken another shot to end the terrible scene. But now, my 69-year-old dad wasn't sure he wouldn't just wound the deer again, so he moved quickly on the buck to deliver the killing blow.
Suddenly, the deer was on his feet and gone. Now, this was not some happy alternate ending to the tale of Bambi's mother. The buck did not slip off into the wilderness to wisely nuzzle and warn fawns of orange vests. This was a mortally wounded animal in the Montana cold. My father searched the brush for hours. He wanted to finally give the death he had started. He didn't find the deer. At home, he couldn't stop beating himself up. I told him that he did what he thought was best; that in hunting, split-second decisions can just as easily render regret as venison. He softened and then tore into himself again.
Today, I woke up to a fresh deer heart in the kitchen sink. Early in the morning, my father waited in the brush and saw a huge buck cross through the very clearing he'd shot the other deer. He pulled the trigger and the buck dropped. An instant death.
I can't say I have black and white feelings when it comes to meat and hunting. On the one hand, it's a life snuffed out for human appetite. The warm animal moves quietly by the river, weaving through the trees. The creature has its own drive to survive and it guards its life carefully. And then it's dead, hanging unceremoniously from its feet in the garage.
On the other, I can’t separate myself from the creatures in the woods that bite and kill any more than I can remove myself from my family's tradition in hunting and ranching. When I was a child, I longed to hunt. I sucked the marrow from bones. As I grew older, our culture's squeamishness with meat and death seeped in. When the time came, I decided not to hunt and stopped thinking about what my protein came from. What's moral? The woman who ignores the reality of her diet? Or the child that has more in common with the coyotes in the fields?
Today was a good day for my father. We stood in the yard and looked down at his kill. It had been breathing and wild and running earlier in the day. Now, it was gutted and still. My dad said how thankful he was to the animal. Blood dripped into the snow in the yard and the dogs looked on longingly.
Later that evening, I overheard my father going on about the hunt.
"What a beautiful buck."
"I'm sorry I had to shoot the handsome son of a bitch."
"Can you imagine how my heart raced when he stepped into the field?"