December 23, 2018
You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen, simply wait. You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
~ Franz Kafka
Hundreds of eyes glow green on either side of the road as the beam of the dusty headlights sweep crookedly over the cropped turf of the Koele golf course. The eyes stare patiently back from the darkness as the Jeep rolls down the small hill and eases into a contended idle in the trough at the bottom. There’s a moment of still silence underlaid by the gentle vibration of the engine and the emerald eyes just keep staring back at me occasionally bobbing, as if swaying in the gentle breeze. Then there’s a sudden hustle of movement and the herd turns in synchrony and trots away towards the dark tree line lurking at the edge of the manicured valley. The rustling sounds like the swishing of bustle skirts in the darkness and it feels like a wordless reprimand from a prim matron. I was late and I had disrupted breakfast. Rude.
At 5:15 a.m. I know the sky has already started to glow a dusky blue-gray shadow and the birds begin to move in the trees on the open expanses of Manele. This is not Manele. Koele is higher ground, wooded and nestled in the mist of the mountain. I can still see the shadow of the sun edging up into the far side of the moonlit clearing as I drive through the golf course, but the woods are still and black. With literally hundreds of deer staring mutely back at me, it’s tempting to take a literal shot in the dark, but that would be irresponsible and unethical. There’s nothing worse than a bad shot on an archery hunt, and the luck is nearly always with the deer. I park on the grass under the looming edge of the forest, and shut off the ignition. Out of habit, I freeze when I turn off the car so that the overhead light won’t show movement, but I sit frozen for a few minutes longer, even after it shuts off, steeling myself to emerge into the darkness. Here there is no more friendly glow on the horizon. The trees are thick and solemn, and the absence of all light feels like a heavy blanket, muffling sounds and making the air thick and viscous. I’m 28 years old, and I’m still afraid of the dark.
With that many deer on my way in, I’ll be walking through a minefield as I pad barefoot up the muddy road, waiting for the piercing bark that marks my location, my species. The anticipation makes my throat tighten as I creep forward. It’s the feeling of waiting for the sting of a needle when you get your flu shot. The alcohol cools your skin in the air-conditioned room, and you feel your hair stand on end as the goosebumps form. You turn your face away and brace yourself for the sharp pinch of a needle sliding into your flesh and the deep ache as the vaccine seeps into your deltoid. The wind is brisk and muffles my sound, but it also blows my scent for a few hundred yards into the forest behind me. I know the deer are there and it’s only a matter of time. The piercing bark pinches my chest and I freeze in the darkness. I know they can’t see me any more than I can see them in the black velvet night, but I’ve been marked all the same. I wish I’d been earlier, quieter, sneaker. Regret aches deeply, and I hope I haven’t ruined my chances this morning.
The tree stand is set in a beautiful strawberry guava at the top of the hill maybe 200 yards from the road. I came in yesterday afternoon to check it out, and my feet carried me up the deer paths toward it by some subconscious memory alone. I’ve sat in this stand for a dozen mornings or more over the last two years and it feels like a friendly face in the clearing dappled with the afternoon sun. The platform is gone and the stand is just two 2x4s in a V, screwed into the smooth wood of the towering waiwi. There’s a hook and a string a little higher up, a crude dumbwaiter for your bow so that you have two hands free to climb the tree. The bark is smooth and cool in the predawn stillness, and the branches cradle me helpfully as I swing up carefully into position. Standing with one foot on each 2×4 and my back against the trunk, I belt myself to the tree before hoisting my bow up and hanging it on the hook.
I have been afraid of the dark for as long as I can remember. There was a Bambi night light in the room my brother and I shared as toddlers. The warm orange glow would tinge the ceiling above my bunk bed a dusky tangerine every night. Bambi’s dancing shadow, carved into the painted wood of the stand, looked up at me if I peered over the edge to check the floor for monsters. When my parents split up, I moved to Pioneer, California with my mom. Bambi stayed behind and in the darkness I imagined cougars climbing up the pine outside my window, bursting through the glass and devouring me while the rest of the house slept. My four-year old self made sure that my entire body was hidden under blankets so that any lurkers outside wouldn’t see me and decide that I looked like a tasty supper. Over time fear of the dark faded into discomfort, inconvenient but not debilitating. I always have a bedside lamp that I turn on before I turn off my overhead light at night. Then I’m safely in bed when I turn off all the lights to sleep. There’s a night light in the bathroom. When camping, I listen long and hard for bears before venturing out to relieve myself in the middle of the night. All of that changed when I first went hunting with my new bow. Chasing deer gave me a purpose and a reason to brave my fears and venture out alone into the blackness. The heft of my bow as I walk in the dark makes me feel confident, grounded. Before, my imaginative brain would conjure zombies, monsters and rabid or supernatural creatures around every corner. Now all of my senses are occupied listening for the very real, warm-blooded deer that slip softly through the woods around me. Bambi is still here with me, helping me face my fear of the night in another way.
Settle. Settle in the comfort of the darkness. Do not move, but also don’t forget to breathe. Snapping of brush underhoof. Vague white shadows move in your peripherals. The central cone cells of your retina can’t see them in the predawn light, so when you turn to look directly at them the deer disappear into the black. Your eyes strain to make out the shapes. Antlers moving as he browses on tender green leaves in front of you. Only twenty yards away. Too dark to shoot. Be quiet, be still. Breathe.
This is hunting. There is a oneness that can only be experienced when you are alone with the world. “How many did you catch?” is a frequent question. My answer is almost always, “none.” There’s a reason I go hunting. I do not go killing. This is a walkabout, seeking that transcendence that comes when you leave the expectations and norms of society behind. Standing motionless in this tree makes the ideas of professionalism, punctuality and productivity into alien concepts. Nothing matters here. No one else can lay claim to my mind, my time or my body. I go where I want, when I want, dressed in anything I choose. I am fully present, here and now. Those fears that the tame, productive, successful Erica imagined melt away into the mist, dispersed by the same drive that keeps me coming back here year after year. The freedom of solitude is exquisite, and I’m not sure that I can adequately describe it to you if you have never been alone in the woods. This is hunting.
Birds are trilling as the sun rises. An indignant clucking heralds the arrival of the yellow rooster, moments before he stalks by on the exposed path in front of me. I idly watch him march along with his chest puffed out and his head regally bobbing as he watches the world with beady orange eyes. Too late, I register that there is a doe following him, docile but wary. The white-spotted red of her coat freezes still mostly hidden by the bushes as her big dark eyes spot the movement of me reaching for my bow. She’s savvy. I think I’ve seen this doe before. Last year and the year before that. Always a few steps behind that yellow rooster. Always wary and watchful. She dashes off past me, scaring Mr. Rooster into flight over the tall chain-link fence.
Sigh. Settle. Wait.
Dry leaves protest weakly under meek footsteps under the canopy down the hill and to my right. My head cranes around as if of its own accord, pulling my shoulders with it, and I remind myself to be quiet, be calm. The damn deer is directly under me. I freeze for a moment, and as his head drops to snuffle at the leaves on the ground, I shift my weight so that I can turn and shoot from my left side when he enters the clear space. My bow is in position, but I’m still leaning heavily against the trunk. I have to get my weight under me to draw and aim downward. My feet creep, but his head swivels and his big floppy ears perk up. He’s tiny, with a dishevelled red woolly coat. A small wet nose sits perched at the end of his long skinny face, reminding me of an anteater as I watch him from above. I could literally jump onto his back, and then carry him home to be a friend for Jaeger. It might be more effective than trying to use my bow at this point. The fawn is dumb and he stands under me for a few minutes more, sniffing for grapes in the leaves until the wind finally shifts and blows my scent down to him and he dashes off awkwardly into the bushes.
His mother may very well have been shot from this stand, and I wonder idly whether he misses her. Do deer grieve? For the most part, the axis deer here move in herds, but I often see loner deer off by themselves, doing strange un-deerlike things, like following roosters through the woods. Are those loner deer socially awkward outcasts because they lost their mothers too young and did not have time to learn the intricacies of herd etiquette? Will this little fawn spend the rest of his life creeping around the periphery of this clearing, and wondering why his mother hasn’t come back to reclaim him?
Settle. Settle your mind. “You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked.” Breathe.
Sunbeams dapple the clearing now and the sun is cresting the treetops to my right. I feel the bright warmth slip under the brim of my hat and caress my bare cheekbone. The ray of light warms my skin and I feel the feathered gradation of its intensity shadowing and outlining the hollow of my cheek, the curve of my jaw and the tip of my earlobe in a proprioceptive chiaroscuro.
A flock of small birds chatter excitedly, indignantly, with vibratory energy before darting out of the bushes and following the sunbeams across the clearing. I gather myself and tighten my grip on my bow, waiting for a glimpse of the interloper that disturbed them. A few tight breaths pass before a slender, young buck appears on the upper trail, his silhouette trimmed with bright golden fur and shrouded in a gilded cloud as the sun highlighted every particle floating in the air around him. I am fully illuminated and exposed from where he stands above me. Even as I wait breathless, motionless, he stops suspiciously, searching the foliage for predators. We are frozen like relics in the golden dust motes of time.
The stillness is suffocating. The adrenaline in my veins is making my heart beat fast and hard, fighting against the shallow breaths I’m forcing myself to take. The stillness is heavy. My muscles ache with desire, the urge to run, fly, dance and leap. I am energy that longs to coil in anticipation and release explosively, brilliantly. The stillness is paralyzing. CO2 is filling my blood, trapped in my lungs by the hypocritical, timid breaths I’m taking, and I feel it building my chest like oily smoke, trying to smother my fire. The stillness is dispelled. As if the mountain is trying to breathe for me to relieve my pain, a sliver of breeze whispers past my ear and stirs the wisp of hair against my cheek before blowing onward to carry my secret to the slender young buck. His nostrils flare and his head jerks backward in a fluid motion that carries him silently off into the bushes, leaving me shaking like a leaf in my tree. The air is cool and sweet as it fills my chest.