by Joshua Gage

Some hunters’ll tell you that what makes a good hunter is range, or accuracy, whether you can pick off a blue jay or a sparrow from a hundred paces or things like that. There’s some hunters what’ll tell you it’s how quiet you can be, or how still you can sit, just waiting for the perfect shot. But the best hunters, the ones that go deep into the woods for a week and come back with half a winter’s worth of food, the best hunters’ll tell you that what makes a hunter is when you’re sitting there in the woods, and the perfect deer–a fat, meaty buck–walks right in front of you. Right there. One shot, no sweat, something any kid with a pop gun could make, right? And that deer just turns its head and looks right where you’re sitting, hidden among the leaves and whatnot, and looks right through you. Challenging you. That’s what it all comes down to, they say. That’s when you learn what kind of man you really are.

For me, the killing was easy. It was the digging that was hard. Once I got through six, eight inches of dirt and leaves and stuff, it was roots and rocks and what not…hard work and heavy. But the killing, well, yeah, when she looked at me with those big brown eyes, I ain’t gonna’ lie to you, I felt it, felt it something fierce. But she was threatening to tell what’d happened, why she was really getting meat on them bones, and I couldn’t have that. It would’ve killed Mama, and I just couldn’t live with that. I couldn’t have nobody knowing. One quick slap with a shovel and those eyes were closed. Seriously. Like swatting a fly, and she went down like a pile of rags. But the digging, man, I tell you what…it took me most of the morning and half of the afternoon to get through that rock. I dug and dug, till the sun was getting low and the pit was up to my shoulders. Don’t want that body coming up no how. Can’t have no bear or catamount scrounging up them bones neither, no sir. It may have took me all day, but won’t nobody find her.

Still, it shook me up some. I mean, you can’t just do something like that and walk away. It’s not like gutting a pig or skinning a coon or anything like that, not like killing something what ain’t got sense or feeling. I mean, I had to do something decent, so I took out my knife and carved her initials by the moonlight, small and neat, in the black bark along the root of a tree–ALB, Anna Louise Bunton–just as tiny as could be. A body’s got to have its mark to let the angels know what to sing.

But what really shook me was Mama. First thing when I walked in the door, “Where’s your sister?” she’s asking me from the shadows of her shawl, “Oh, what’s happened to my baby girl?”

“I don’t know, ma’am,” I lied, sliding my hands into the pockets of my overhauls, “I haven’t seen Anna since this morning…”