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The Meadow

We are delighted to bring you this sneak preview of a new novel, “The Meadow,” by Scott Winkler ’93. These three excerpts from the coming-of-age narrative are reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

I

Prologue: April 6, 1958

Clay and I didn’t need alarm clocks to wake us.

Our parents were still in the barn milking, giving us the opportunity to covertly search for our Easter baskets. We were supposed to wait until our parents came back to the house to begin looking. Our mother loved watching us search as much as we loved finding the baskets, but we couldn’t wait. Every year, upon finding the baskets, we’d eat from their assortment of sugary treasures; not enough that our parents would notice, but enough to appease our sweet tooth before putting the baskets back in their hiding places to satisfy our mother.

Clay had always been far better than I was at hunting the baskets. His ability seemed instinctive, allowing him to munch jelly beans or foil-covered chocolate eggs before I could even get a whiff of them. Most years, he found my basket before his. The only thing that kept him from digging into my stash was my being a year older – not that I’d have roughed him up or given him an Indian burn to teach him a lesson. Clay was nearly as big as me, and the times we had tussled, he’d more than held his own before our father or mother pulled us apart. My being a year older granted me an unspoken status that kept my basketful of Easter treats safe.

That Easter, though, I beat him at his own game. Secreted away behind the 21-inch black-and-white RCA in one corner of the living room, I found my basket first, but it contained more than just Fry’s Crème Eggs and Whoppers and Marshmallow Peeps; atop the usual haul of candy was a baseball glove, tied closed around a baseball with strips of cloth. “Check this out!” I called to Clay, who was peering behind the couch.

He reached me in three steps, landing on his knees as I pulled away the cloth strips and slipped my left hand into the mitt. It was a bit large, but I didn’t care. I spread my fingers, flexing open the glove and grabbed the ball with my right hand. I brought the glove close to my face, breathing in the earthy-sweet scent of leather and the neatsfoot oil generously applied to the palm and pocket. I squeezed my fingers together, and the glove closed easily. “Lucky!” Clay said. “Maybe if you got one…” but he didn’t finish; he was already back to looking for his basket.

I studied the glove. It was stamped with an assortment of labels: “Rawlings LB10” on its heel, “Lew Burdette” and “Deep Well Pocket” on the palm, and “World Series Champ” in the pocket. I felt ten feet tall, remembering how the previous year, my father, Clay and I had listened to Earl Gillespie on the radio, broadcasting the Braves’ long march to their eventual seven-game triumph over the Yankees in the World Series. I’d never known our father to be anything but a serious man, but when the Braves won, I saw him smile a smile unlike any I’d seen him show. It made me feel something warm and surprising, and that feeling came back to me as I began slapping the ball into the pocket and snapping the glove shut around it.

I heard Clay call “Got it!” from the mudroom off the kitchen and ran to see him kneeling on the stone-tiled floor, slipping his hand into his own glove and slapping the ball into the pocket as I had. In our excitement, neither of us bothered to eat any of the candy. Instead, we moved from room to room, pounding our fists into our new gloves and imitating the radio calls until our parents came in from the barn – and we realized that we’d forgotten to return the baskets to their hiding places. I saw the look of disappointment on our mother’s face, but before she could voice displeasure, our father spoke up with the day’s second surprise: “It’s okay – I think the boys can be forgiven, no? It looks like you found something special in your baskets?”

Clay and I scrambled to speak first, and as we finished each other’s thoughts with ever-increasing speed and volume, our father winked at our mother and the unhappiness slipped away. We ate a quick breakfast before our parents returned to the barn to finish morning chores. Clay and I washed up and got dressed for church so that our parents could do the same when they returned to the house. We made quite the sight in our Easter suits as we stood in the living room for the picture our mother took each year – Clay in his three-button brown woolen coat with high lapels, me in a blue pinstriped jacket and vest, and the pair of us with our new Lew Burdette signature model gloves on our left hands. The gloves were still there when we climbed into the back seat of our car next to our grandmother for the drive into Gillett for the late service at St. John’s Lutheran. “Was ist das?” she asked, and Clay and I repeated our dueling reportage for her. What we said may not have meant much to her one way or another, but what she picked up in our voices made her smile, and from her spot next to me, she placed her arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. I felt the strength of her hand even though it was missing one finger and part of another. “Du bist ein guter Junge, Walter,” she said. I leaned into her hug and breathed in the floral scent of her perfume.

The gloves didn’t leave our hands until our father insisted we take them off and leave them in the car before going into the church. Having worn it almost non-stop since finding it earlier that morning, my hand felt naked without the mitt. Clay and I both fidgeted through the service. It didn’t matter that all the stops were drawn on the organ or that the congregation sang full-throated versions of “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”; it didn’t matter that Rev. Stubenvoll thundered from the pulpit in the tones he reserved especially for church holidays; nor did it matter that our father reminded us unruly boys would be sent to visit “the church man” in the basement – something we didn’t realize, until we were older, was the clunking of the boiler in the furnace room, not the tragic punishment of rowdy children in a dungeon.

The gloves went back onto our hands as soon as we returned to the car and stayed there until we sat down to Easter dinner shortly after getting home – though I kept mine on my lap during the meal. My mother had put the ham and her scalloped potatoes into the oven before she and my father had milked the cows that morning, and by the time we returned from church and she placed the entire meal on the table – my grandmother’s potato rolls and bowls of green beans and carrots they’d canned the summer before, to go along with the ham and potatoes and black forest cake for dessert – the ham was falling off the bone.

Though it was all delicious, and though we ate more than our fill, Clay and I couldn’t get away from the table fast enough. Upon being excused with a nod from our father, we dashed to our bedrooms, lost our Easter suits, and jumped into clothes more conducive to the moment we’d anticipated since finding our baskets. The day was cold. The yard was still frozen in patches, soggy in others. Most of the snow had melted, with the exception of the dirty banks on either side of the driveway dwindling away in the slow advance of spring. We didn’t care about the cold or the brown lawn or anything else. Clay and I felt nothing but excitement as we began tossing the ball back and forth. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to catch with my new glove, my first glove. Clay and I had both used gloves before – the old, cracked monstrosities from the bucket at Apple Orchard School we snagged before the older boys, given our spot nearest the coat racks in the school’s single room – but they were nothing like the glove now on my hand. In our minds, we became Red Schoendienst and Johnny Logan, Eddie Mathews and Joe Adcock, Henry Aaron and Del Crandall, Lew Burdette and Warren Spahn. We re-enacted what we’d heard Earl Gillespie call over the radio, the distant springtime sunlight transformed into an August glow we felt in our cheeks. 

Our game moved throughout the yard, back to the orchard behind the house where the branches of the apple trees were still bare, to the grounds between the box elder that shaded the house in the summertime and the corn crib filled with ears from last fall’s harvest. It finally wound up in the side yard. As we passed by the front porch, our father stepped out to tell us we’d need to go to the barn for our afternoon chores in five minutes. Clay sprinted back toward the old outhouse, and I stood by the lilac bush. Our long tosses arched through the air, and after each throw, we took a step closer to one another. 

As we drew closer, our tosses leveled out and sped up. Clay’s arm was impressive. Even as a first-grader, he clearly threw faster and more accurately than boys older than him during our improvised games at recess. His throws to me that day were crisp, some even popping in my glove as I caught them. And as the distance decreased and velocity increased, the time between throws shortened, each of us seeking to get the ball out of our gloves and back to the other as quickly as possible. I was proud of being able to handle Clay’s precise throws – some of the boys at school couldn’t, and some didn’t even try, fearing the consequences should their reflexes prove inadequate – so he started to make things more challenging for me; rather than delivering the ball at chest level as his throws had arrived with an almost mechanical regularity, he picked his spots: one at my knee, the next at my ankle, a third at my forehead. I knew from the look in his eye that their placement was intentional, though I couldn’t tell if the satisfaction there came from my being able to handle what he delivered or from his being able to target apparently at will. I’d like to believe the former.

His final throw was the only one I didn’t catch cleanly. I’d just snagged a low throw an inch above the brown blades of grass and returned it from the same bent-low position. Clay’s return throw was so rapid that I didn’t have time to set myself. The ball caught me in the chest, and for a moment, it took my breath away. Clay looked surprised, but he said nothing as our father came out to the porch. “Time for chores,” he said. 

I drew a deep breath and retrieved the ball from where it had rolled before we went in to get into barn clothes. As I changed in my room, I lifted my T-shirt and studied the spot where Clay’s throw had struck me. A red welt was growing just to the left of my sternum. I could even see the faint stitches of the ball on my skin in a darker, more severe red. The mark would become a bruise by the time I took a bath that night and metamorphose through various shades of purplish-green and yellow in the days ahead. The bruise hurt for a week and remained sensitive to touch beyond that, but the mark would endure much longer.


II

I didn’t see much of my father or Clay during my recovery. They were both locked into the daily routines of the farm – including covering the tasks that had always been mine – as well as the draining work of baling hay and straw. Some of the lack of contact, though, must have been deliberate. Neither made a point of seeking me out, and when our paths did cross, generally at meal time, my father had difficulty making eye contact with me. Any conversations, though civil, were blanketed by threatening clouds, and the right – or wrong – words would have prompted a downpour. At times, I almost missed the confrontations I had with my father earlier in the year, the feeling of aliveness that accompanied pulling no punches when each of us defended our positions with every ounce of our conviction.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t know how to read Clay. Like me, my brother possessed a significant inner life, but his was built upon a foundation far different and more mysterious than mine. His loves, as far as any of us knew, were baseball, hunting, fishing, and his dream of one day joining the 101st Airborne. He worked diligently on the farm and passably in the classroom, and though he stayed out of the arguments between our father and me, his body language and facial expression clearly indicated which side he was on. 

When Clay came home from twice-weekly games in the Dairyland League that summer, he immediately showered and made a beeline to his room, except for the night of August 10, Gillett’s final game of the season. Meg had already gone home for the night, and my parents had gone to bed. I was reading Ginsberg’s Howl in my room, my window open should a nighttime breeze decide to stir. The headlights from Clay’s ride home came over the hill on our lane and flashed briefly across the far wall of my bedroom. Gravel crunched beneath tires as the car pulled up to our house. The car door closed with a solid kachunk, and the low rumble of the car pulling away faded as Clay’s steps carried him to the front porch. 

I continued reading. Clay, instead of grabbing something from the refrigerator and showering as I was accustomed to hearing, came straight upstairs, his feet on the steps an odd counterpoint to Ginsberg’s ecstatic anger. But instead of turning to his room, Clay came to mine. My door opened quickly, a welcome whoosh of air momentarily chasing away the close humidity of August. Clay stood at the edge of the jamb, his feet shoulder-width apart, his arms thrust straight down toward the floor and his hands clenched in fists. His eyes reminded me of our father. I didn’t know what to say. The muscles in his forearms tensed, dancing beneath his russet skin, a stark contrast to the mottled whites of his fingers no longer balled into fists. I finally broke the silence. “So …” I said tentatively, “how did the game go tonight?”

Clay’s brow furrowed, and I imagined a pressure gauge on his forehead, the needle climbing toward red. “We won,” he said. The needle retreated from the red, but only a click.

“Good,” I said, uncertain of what he’d say next.

The silence hanging between us was more than awkward. “I’m sorry,” Clay finally said.

“Sorry?”

“Sorry,” he said, “about your knee.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. 

“It was me,” he said. “I botched it on the Fourth, the double-play.”

I half laughed, half snorted. “It’s okay,” I said. “That night answered my prayers, Clay. Christmas in July. ‘Independence Day’ took on a whole new meaning.” I missed playing ball, but I’d be going to college in January, not sloshing through the sweltering jungles of Southeast Asia. I’d be reading books for classes and writing papers for grades as my mind expanded – not studying an infantry handbook to learn the fundamentals of my platoon’s standard operating procedures and trusting proper field discipline to keep me alive. 

I glanced down the length of my body. My white cotton T-shirt clung to my torso in the humid air. My right leg was bent at a 45-degree angle, climbing from beneath a pair of blue plaid boxers. My left leg was stretched out straight away from me, encased in plaster. I felt an itch beneath the cast, but I didn’t reach for the reconfigured coat hanger at my side. “So I’ve got a bum knee,” I said, “but it’s on the mend. The cast comes off in September, and I’ll be down in Madison come January.”

Clay’s firmly planted feet now shifted. He was struggling. “But still – I’m sorry that you’re injured,” he said, balling and unballing his hands, flexing his fingers. “I blew that play. I double-clutched. But it’s more than that.”

“Cut it out, Clay. It’s okay. I mean, come on; we both know I never wanted – ”

“That’s just it.” Clay cut me off. “What you want doesn’t count for shit when your country needs you. It’s like Dad’s always taught us. I’ve taken away your opportunity – ”

“My what?” 

“To serve. Your opportunity to serve. I’m sorry.” 

Jesus Christ. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “Right?”

“I deprived you. By preventing you from fulfilling your obligation, I’ve done a disservice to you and to our country.”

“You can’t be serious.” His words hadn’t completely registered. I had difficulty processing his apology, if you could call it that, and I didn’t want to follow whatever twisted line of reasoning that led him to say what he had.

“You haven’t heard a thing Dad’s taught us, have you?” Clay asked.

“Give me a break,” I said. “The old man makes damn sure he comes through loud and clear, but that doesn’t mean he’s right. I’m not obligated to agree with him. Neither are you.” Now that Clay had finally shown his cards, I didn’t know whether to feel sorry for him or hate him; what I did know, however, was at that moment he should have been grateful that I still had a cast on my leg. If I hadn’t, I’d have been on him so fast and hard that my blows that would have knocked him back to the Stone Age. I had to settle for flinging my coat hanger at him. Clay’s reflexes took him out of its path, and the hanger struck the doorframe, gouging a jagged scar in the white-painted molding. I heard my parents’ feet hit their bedroom floor downstairs, then move quickly through the living room and kitchen.

“It’s not that complicated, brother,” he said. Clay was no longer flexing his fingers. He’d extended his arms, gesturing with open hands as though he pitied me, but something else was in his eyes, too. He’d crossed a threshold, had found his voice, and I’d lost any shred of hope that my brother might come to see things from my perspective. “The world’s a rather simple place when you think about it – you farm and hunt and fish to put food on the table for your family; you stand up for what’s right – democracy good, communism bad; you serve America when she asks because she gives you freedom – and it’s your obligation to defend the country.”

The door at the bottom of the staircase opened, and my father’s bare feet hammered the painted hardwood as he climbed the stairs. I groaned. I loathed the air of condescension in Clay’s voice, how he embraced our father’s perspective and parroted his lines. I loved them both, but at that moment, I tasted venom. I’d resigned myself to fate and rationalized that dreams were strong enough to protect and sustain me, but Clay’s blunder ended the need to rationalize. It reanimated my dreams. My wish had come true, and if my knee was mangled, I didn’t care; I cared even less that my injured knee deprived the United States Army of a grunt. The emotions Clay had revived were shredding serious psychological scar tissue, and their impact was only compounded by seeing my father behind Clay, his hair a mess and his face a mixture of fear and confusion as he stood in the hall in his T-shirt and boxers, breathing heavily.

“What the hell is going on up here?” he said. He slipped past Clay and into my room, standing between us, demanding answers sooner than later.

“Ask him,” I said.

“Clay?” he asked, turning his attention to my brother. “What’s your brother talking about?”

Clay still stood in the doorway, and his eyes shifted from the floor to me as he answered our father in a low voice. “I came by to apologize.” My mother stood beyond Clay in the half-light of the hallway, hugging herself and wearing a look of fear.

“Apologize for what?” our father asked. I snorted, and he shot me a looked that would have stripped wallpaper. 

“I caused Walt’s injury in that game. It’s been bothering me, and I never rightly apologized to him.”

Our father frowned. “Mistakes happen,” he said. “But apologies shouldn’t be a reason to wake us in the middle of the night. If a man feels compelled to apologize, he should. I don’t see the issue here.”

“That’s not all,” I said. “Ask Clay about what else is bothering him.”

“What’s your brother talking about, Clay?”

Clay looked from our father, to me. I couldn’t read exactly what lay behind his eyes. It may have been regret or anger, distress or resentment, or some combination of all of them. He stood with his mouth open, but no words came out. 

“Clay?” our father asked again, the timbre of his voice a half-click higher and more insistent.

Clay shook his head. The corner of his lip rose almost imperceptibly, and a sound came from his throat, part laugh, part snarl. When he spoke, that swirling cloud of emotions I’d seen in his eyes was swept away by an even stronger storm – a tempest of condescension – though I couldn’t be certain how much of that gust actually came from Clay and how much I imagined. “Well, I can’t rightly apologize to President Johnson or General Westmoreland, now, can I?” he said. 

“What are you talking about?” Our father was puzzled; the intent of Clay’s remark hadn’t reached him. In the hallway, though, I could tell that Clay’s comment had registered with our mother. She shook her head, and even in the low light, I could see she was afraid.

“For doing our country wrong,” Clay said. “Haven’t you been teaching us certain lessons ever since we were big enough to listen? Duty. Honor. Obligation. You answer the call, right?” 

Clay was becoming more and more animated, punctuating his words with gestures, his eyes growing wide to accentuate the immensity of the point he was trying to make. “I’ve denied our country of my brother when she needs him most – and I’ve deprived my brother of an opportunity to do right by the country that gives us our freedom.” 

Somewhere in his mind, I knew Clay must have been hearing the inspirational score to one of the guts-and-glory Republic Pictures classics that aired on Channel 2’s Sunday Matinee, but I saw that our mother heard anything but that. Outside my door, she sagged beneath an invisible weight. She looked older than I’d ever seen her, and tired. 

My father’s response surprised me, if simply for the fact that I didn’t know how to read it. As Clay spoke, I saw part of him swell with pride at his teaching having taken root with one of his prized pupils. He thrust his chest and pulled his shoulders back; he probably heard the same soundtrack as Clay. But as Clay delivered his clincher about depriving me of an opportunity, a bit of the air left my father’s chest, and his shoulders drooped. The earnest pride on his face became tinged with disgust and what, on any other person, I’d have read as fear, but having never seen it on my father before, I didn’t know what it was. He clamped his mouth shut and drew a deep breath that made his nostrils flare.

“You,” he said, pointing at me, “lights out. And you,” he said, turning to Clay and stepping close enough to punctuate what he said with a stiff poke of his index finger to my brother’s chest, “get to sleep. Those cows won’t milk themselves in the morning.”

Clay looked down at his chest as if expecting a mark where our father had touched him. “Yes, sir,” he said. He gave me one last look, a mix of pity and disdain, before walking past our mother toward his room.

My father sighed and stepped through the door to stand next to my mother. With the side of his index finger, he raised her chin and looked into her eyes. His lips moved, but I couldn’t hear what he said to her. She nodded and clenched her jaw before she turned with my father, his arm how encircling her waist, and together they descended the stairs.


III

We walked to the spot in the field where I approximated the deer had been when I shot. We both studied the dark, tilled soil, searching for a spot of red or a tuft of hair, but against the muted palette of Wisconsin farmland, neither showed itself.

“And he headed east?” Clay asked. They would be the last words he would speak to me for some time.

“Yup,” I said moving toward where the buck had jumped the barbed-wire fence.

When the deer had leapt, it appeared graceful, its jump an elegant parabola, a momentary escape from gravity. I told Clay about its stride when running, that I sensed something out of the ordinary. He nodded, motioning with one hand for me to lower my volume, his eyes never looking at me, but instead sweeping the ground before us. I kept an eye on the field as well, but before long, everything I scanned in my proximity blurred together.

Clay stopped at the fence, and bending at the waist, looked at the rusted barbed-wire. He motioned for me to join him. Now crouching, he pointed at the sagging top strand of the barbed-wire. Barely visible on the rusted braid was a small, scarlet drop, and a tuft of no more than five or six white hairs. I’d hit my target, but if the sign we’d found were any indicator, I hadn’t hit it well – or I’d made the dreaded “gut shot,” which meant the deer could go and go and go before expiring, leaving scant sign of its path with the lack of snow compounding the difficulty of tracking. Clay reached into his duffel and tore off a square of toilet paper to impale on a barb near blood and hair before handing me the roll and motioning for me to follow him.        

He stepped over the sagging fence and went on, silently and deliberately moving through the forty-foot wide wooded border between field and railroad track. I went with him, ten feet to his left and a step or two behind him, looking, as he did, at the ground, littered with leaves, hoping to spot another tuft of hair or drop of blood, but to no avail. Clay, however, upon reaching the spot where the ground dropped away in a steep slope higher than either of us were tall, surveyed that drop-off in longer and longer sweeps until he found it – a smear of blood no larger than a quarter on a brown-speckled yellow birch leaf. I placed another square of toilet paper at the spot on a naked, pencil-thin branch above the leaf and looked back at the first marker. The deer, in moving toward the tracks, had begun drifting northward – angling toward water, I thought, as Spiece Lake lay three-quarters of a mile to our north, fed by Christy Brook, whose waters moved swiftly enough to fend off frost. Clay and I descended the embankment to the tracks, moving along the imaginary line suggested by the two faint signs my brother had found. 

We continued our search in that fashion for nearly three hours. I diligently sought any sign of the wounded animal’s path, but with no luck. Always, it was Clay who spotted the pin-prick of blood and I who marked the spot. At times, we might go for a quarter- or half-hour without finding anything, prompting us to return to the last marker and strike a slightly different trajectory than we’d imagined the deer taking, and invariably, Clay’s instincts proved correct. We moved carefully, stepping lightly. I feared that my next step might obliterate whatever scant evidence of passage the deer may have left. More than once I was ready to give up entirely, my sense of apparent hopelessness outweighing the guilt I felt at imagining a magnificent creature I’d wounded dying somewhere and having to share such a humiliating story with my father, Mr. Grzesch and Meg. To have kept such a story to myself or to have my brother relate it to his friends and have it find the ears of those who mattered to me would have shamed me more than telling it myself. 

Clay, though, was dogged. His movements over a varied landscape were efficient and silent, whether we moved over unplowed fields or through patches of scrub forest, along the bed of the Chicago Northwestern rails, or through the partially frozen lowlands that occasionally gave way beneath my weight but which held for Clay’s lighter tread. For as terrible as I felt, I grudgingly came to admire what my brother was doing, to respect that what I was witnessing was as much a gift as his talent on the diamond. 

The only time I found myself unwilling to defer to him was when the deer’s route seemed headed toward the meadow. My brother’s every instinct had been correct, had been the sole reason we’d kept finding spare signs of the deer; whether I instinctively knew that the animal couldn’t have crossed into the opening of the meadow or I was merely hoping against hope, I wasn’t about to let this journey go there. Clay had reached a fork on a deer path we were following and had taken his first step down the left branch, the branch that would have, in fifty feet, spilled into the meadow, when I hissed his name. He paused, then pivoted to meet my stare. I shook my head and mouthed no. Clay raised his eyebrows, questioning me. I again shook my head, more emphatically this time, then tilted my head toward the right branch. 

Clay silently mouthed, are you sure

I nodded, and my brother motioned for me to take the lead. For a moment, I felt a sense of relief and sent a silent thank you to anyone eavesdropping on my thoughts. I looked back through the naked branches and caught a glimpse of the last toilet paper marker we’d placed, barely stirring in the breeze some hundred feet back. I took a deep breath and exhaled before I stepped down the right branch, a branch I knew from my walks would soon bring us to a creek feeding Christy Brook. 

I drew from an imagined well of fortitude to re-up my focus, and at the spot where the trail began to veer away from the meadow, on the moss-covered base of a maple, a patch of frost had encrusted the delicate frilled edges of the moss, and in the middle of that patch was a single red drop. I paused, astonished at my good fortune, and tore a square of toilet paper from the roll.

Clay, now standing beside me, also saw the spot and gave me a congratulatory clap on the shoulder. A few feet further down the path was more blood, a larger smear the length of a loaf of bread, and several strides beyond that, another smear against the trunk of a tree, and I knew.

For an instant, I forgot about embarrassment and shame and trepidation. For an instant, I felt I’d done something right. For an instant, I imagined my father’s praise, and an energy coursed through me, enough to allow me to find the deer I was now certain had given up the ghost and with my brother’s help, drag it back to the field. From there, we’d tromp home for the tractor and bring it to hang from the rafters of the garage, where it would chill and firm overnight, allowing us to skin it with relative ease the next afternoon and quarter the carcass before boning and trimming the meat, as we all stood around the kitchen table. For an instant. 

Then I heard the snort and the thrashing.

Clay and I moved toward the sound. In a shallow depression ringed by scrub cedars lay the deer. When I first saw him, he again took on the ghostly qualities I’d witnessed on the field, but as my eyes took in the sight, my brain processed the scene. He lay on his side, his head rising on his swollen neck, and despite every effort he made to gather his legs beneath him and stand, he couldn’t; he flailed, his breath coming out in short, violent bursts that became clouds of vapor in the cold air. My shot had clipped his stomach – not a wound that produced much external bleeding, not a wound that killed quickly. It was enough of a wound to bring him to the edge of death, to let his own strength and the tragic beauty of his own instinct and locomotion hasten his demise.

The wound was almost enough, and I’d caused it. 

As he’d headed toward cover and water, the combination of his own movement and the force of gravity pulling on his bowels had opened the wound further. He’d probably bedded more than once over the course of the looping trek he’d taken, and I’m certain we had – or more accurately, I had, as Clay may as well been a phantom moving along the route – stirred him from those beds, pushed him further, until, in reaching the depression where he now writhed, nothing could hold. I saw his bowels spilling onto the ground, the milky gray stomach and coiled intestines with the burnt orange flecks of fallen, dried cedar greens clinging to them. My own stomach lurched, and a gorge rose to burn the back of my throat with the taste of wood smoke.

And though I managed to choke it back, I could not prevent my heart from dropping a third and final time that day when Clay spoke. I couldn’t make out everything he said; it came in snippets, but the longest phrase I recall was clear as a bell, perhaps because it echoed a voice in my own head: “You know what to do.” But while I now know it was my brother’s voice, that day, in that moment, in the wash of white noise filling my brain, I couldn’t distinguish between Clay and my father. I froze. Single shot, the voice said. To the neck. The deer’s head swung toward me, and we briefly made eye contact – maybe for a second, maybe for several seconds, but it felt like ages compressed in an instant, as though someone or something were trying to speak with me through my brother or the animal. Whoever or whatever it was, it was broadcasting on an existential frequency I couldn’t locate in my heart. End it, the voice said.

I felt my consciousness floating outside my body, bearing witness to my actions, or lack of them, watching me at the same time it tried to will me to act, to raise the rifle to my shoulder, to align peep and post and swollen neck of the deer, to slip my trembling index finger through the trigger guard and flick the safety to off with my thumb, to squeeze the trigger and mercifully end the life of the handsome creature flailing on the ground, its very self spilling out before me – Walt? – and I felt as though I were being watched, watched not only by some part of myself and by my brother, but also by my father and mother, by Meg and her parents, by Rev. Stubenvoll and Mayor Lambrecht and Thomas Lindow, by every teacher I’d ever had, from wrinkled old Mrs. Melchoir on up to Mr. Grzesch himself – Walt! – by Mark Raddatz and Eilene Ehlers and a toddler I’d never seen, a young girl in a Winnie the Pooh jumper with an inquisitive look in her bright, brown eyes, and though they all watched me and willed me to act in some fashion, to walk away from either the task I knew was right or the one I felt was right.

I couldn’t do either one. I froze.

I stood in one place, my rifle half-raised. I felt a cold bead of sweat trickle down my rib cage, and my feet felt like they were encased in concrete. My hands and arms wanted to move, but something inside me held them in check. I wanted to at least turn my head away, search for sunlight flashing through the cedar boughs, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t give any indicator of hearing or heeding the exhortations, real or imagined, hurled at me – but I could see my brother to my right, his expression somewhere between placidness, disgust, and pity as he raised his rifle, took aim, and fired the killing shot.


March 14, 2016