Lisa Foley lives and works in Ottawa. She has been published in numerous journals and has a short story collection entitled “Secrets Untold – Stories of Love, Longing & Movin’ On”.
Nine Point Buck
I’ve been tracking deer for days and I know a dozen or so pass by this spot every morning. I can hear the rustle of dead leaves – one of the secrets the forest shares – and I draw back my arrow. * I had spent a good part of my life in a blinds and tree stands. My father, Jeb Taylor, had taken me hunting with him since I was a toddler and I couldn’t remember exactly when I learned I had to be still, but like all aspects of hunting, it was something that came to me naturally. I did remember the first time I almost couldn’t stand after a day in a tree stand. It was late fall and I only realized how cold I was at the end of the day when I tried to stand up. I was eleven years old and had gone through the first – of what would be many – adolescent growth spurts. My legs were getting too long for the stand Jeb had built for me and when I stoop up my legs were numb with cold and cramp and as the feeling came back, pain shot through my legs and feet. Jeb had told me it was just fine to be uncomfortable hunting. “It’s not great for the animal either. You keep that in mind every time you aim at something.” Standing, I felt like I was being pelted with tiny arrows and it put a smile on my face. It was a good kind of pain and I would always describe it as that, unaware not everyone understood the difference. Unaware that some people thought all pain was bad. I felt the same way the first time I had a needle laced with ink drawn across my body. And again, the first time Rune gave me what he was always meant to. For me, pain seemed to be a marker in my life. Something that marked good and bad things to remember. Opinion was divided on whether or not Despite, Quebec was the right place for a motherless girl to be raised. Some thought I should have been sent to live with an aunt in the city. Not that it mattered what anyone else thought – Jeb never concerned himself with the opinion of others and I never doubted that Despite was where I belonged. I couldn’t imagine there was a better life to be lived anywhere else. Couldn’t imagine there was anywhere more beautiful. Couldn’t imagine being surrounded by constant noise and light. How could a person ever see or hear anything important in a city? I was fourteen when I shot my first ten point buck. When we got home, Jeb carried it into the carving shed and we worked on it together late into the evening. Jeb was so proud he gave me two hundred dollars. “Go spend it on something to mark the occasion.” I knew my father was thinking about the old Weatherby rifle Arnie Arnett was selling. Arnie Arnett ran the general store and it doubled as a second hand store when people had farming or hunting equipment to sell. The smaller items Arnie often kept on hand, and the larger items were listed on a bulletin board at the back of the store. The Weatherby rifle was sitting on a shelf behind the cash, right under all the photos of the locals with their significant kills and catches. There was no trophy hunting in Despite, but there was still pride in bringing down a buck you’d been tracking for a season or more, or catching that giant bass that was close to becoming a legend it had eluded so many hooks. I understand that pride but I never understood the point in photographing it, at least not the kills. Hunters sitting beside a dead deer, moose or bear, holding it’s head up like the hunter and hunted were posing for a family photo. Like the dead animal was a family pet, still living and having its picture taken with its beloved owner, rather than the person that took its life. There were no pictures of Jeb there and there would never be any pictures of me there. We didn’t take pictures of what we hunted and neither of us had caught any fish bigger than would feed us for a few days. When it came to deer, we used the meat and the hide and what we couldn’t use, we gave to Gord Jamison and he ground it up for his hunting dogs, and lots of the hunting dogs in Despite, most of which came from Gord Jamison. No, I wasn’t interested in the Weatherby rifle, but I did want to mark the occasion. I had an uncle – on my mother’s side – who was a sailor and every time he came to visit, I’d ask about his tattoos. He would tell me stories about each one, and I could see the memories come alive in his mind. Touching the wave on his left arm, he was in an ocean storm, watching as a shipmate was washed overboard. Whenever he told that story, I was sure I could feel the spray of water on my face, just like my uncle had. Pointing to the beer stein with a gold ring at the bottom of it, he was on the island where he got so drunk one night, he woke up a married man – a mistake that ended up costing him just about every dollar he’d earned up to that point in his life. Again, I felt myself wandering around aimlessly feeling empty and sick in the head, even though I’d never had a drink let alone a hangover. Opening up his shirt to show me the picture of jade tree over his heart, he was watching his only sister slip away shortly after she’d given birth to a baby girl. I knew I wasn’t imagining things when I heard a baby wailing only the way a baby can and when I could feel my own little hands and feet waving around in the air, looking for someone to hold onto. That memory and that pain was mine. I never told my uncle the things I felt, but the way he looked at me when I traced my finger around his tattoos, I had a hunch he knew. “Did they hurt?” “The pain is part of the appeal, little Miss Jade. I can’t explain why, but it is.” My uncle didn’t need to explain why – it made perfect sense to me. I stopped outside the parlour on a Friday after school. I had walked past the place many times and always looked in the window to see who might be getting a tattoo. I never once saw anyone in there, just Rune Pallesen, sitting behind the counter, head down, reading one of many books scattered around the shop. I sometimes thought the place might double as a second-hand book store, there were so many books in it. I’d seen Rune around town, but he never looked at me, never seemed to notice me at all. In Despite, all the families knew each other but when Rune came back to town after finishing university, he acted like a stranger, an outsider. I had overheard a conversation between Jeb and Arnie Arnett about Rune, and Arnie was talking about how smart he was. “Boy got some kinda scholarship to a fancy university in England and he turned it down. Came back here to open a tattoo parlour that will see about five customers a year. If all he wants to do is read books, why he wouldn’t wanna do it at school?” “Oxford isn’t for everyone and I think he came back to help out Anders. Nothing wrong with that, Arnie. If all our kids went away and never came back, what would happen to Despite?” The sign over the window said ‘Ink’ and I never knew if that was supposed to be the name of the place, or just an indication of what one went there for. A bell over the door rang when I opened it. Rune glanced up for a second before going back to his book. “You’ll need your father’s permission.” “I’m sixteen,” I said. “No you’re not. You’re Jade Taylor, Jeb’s daughter and you just turned fourteen.” “How do you know that?” Rune looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time, even though he obviously knew who I was. “Everyone with a gun or son knows who you are.” “I don’t want one anyone can see and I wouldn’t tell Jeb you did it.” “I’m not touching you anywhere your father can’t see and since I’m the only tattoo artist for a hundred miles ‘round, do you think he might figure it was me?” And then he smiled a smile that changed everything about him. “You’re too young for a tattoo. If you’re serious about it, you’ll change your mind a thousand times before you’re twenty. Unless you want a small star on the base of your back, and I’ll bet that’s not what you had in mind.” “I’m not one to change my mind and I want a ten point silhouette right here.” I pointed to a spot just above my left breast. “That’s where I shot him – in his heart.” Rune came out from behind the counter. “You don’t think your father’s going to notice antlers sticking out of your heart?” “I’m not expecting it to the actual size of my buck.” He walked toward me, turned me around to face a mirror, putting his left arm around my waist and with his right hand, he drew an outline on my ribcage just below my breast. Rune was big, broad and had shoulder-length blond hair. He had a haircut like nothing anyone in Despite had seen. It was shaved on the left side up to his temple, with a small braid hanging down. He had a beard – another thing not common in Despite – but Rune’s beard suited him and it always looked perfectly groomed and there was another braid that came straight down his chin a few inches. When he touched me I closed my eyes for a second and I felt an eagerness, a happiness, but it had some darkness to it. It caught me off guard and took my breath away. “If and when you get your buck, it should go here. It will be just for you and…” Rune looked at me in the mirror. “Your family hunts, so you can’t have any sentimental idea about killing things.” “I used to hunt, I don’t anymore, but no, it’s not that. It’ll hurt more and I think a mindful hunter would appreciate that.” “What makes you think I’m a mindful hunter?” “Jeb Taylor wouldn’t have raised you any other way.” It took a year of cajoling, but I got my buck on my fifteenth birthday. Rune bandaged it up and said I’d see it in two days. “Why only nine points?” I asked when the bandage came off. “Nine points will remind you that something is missing from this world by your hand.” I looked in the mirror and ran my fingers over the ink where my skin was still raw and scabbing. “That sounds like sentiment to me.” “Not sentiment. Acknowledgement. There’s a difference.” On my sixteenth birthday, Jeb gave me a bow. “It’s getting too easy for you,” he said. “Come to that, it’s always been too easy for you. I probably should have done this when you were fourteen.” Jeb was right – life had always been easy for me. I knew people felt sorry for me never having a mother, but a person can’t miss something they never had. I sometimes wondered if I’d had mother, would my life be full of the drama and emotion that filled lives of the other girls at school. Family disagreements over what young girls should or shouldn’t be doing, concern over looking pretty, crushes on boys that parents disapproved of. My life was nothing like that. I took an arrow out of the quiver and held it up in the air on the tip of my index finger. It felt like a feather. “Won’t it be much harder to kill with this?” “I suspect it will be, but I trust you’ll know how to use it before you aim it at a living thing.” On that same birthday, Rune gave me himself. Afterwards, he laid his head on my chest. “I’m going to enjoy watching the antlers grow and stretch as your breasts do.” There was a strange familiarity to the heat of Rune’s body. Familiar, because I was used to the heat of my prey when I carried it home. Strange, because I knew this heat wouldn’t slip away. Not ever. “Now we have two secrets to keep from Jeb,” I said. I wasn’t used to keeping secrets from my father. “This won’t surprise your father at all – he knew the first time I came by your house. And so by extension, I doubt he’d be surprised by the tattoo.” “What did Jeb know the first time you came by the house?” “That I understand your mystery, or that I will when it finds you. I think most fathers would take exception to a man in his twenties dating their teenage daughter, but your father knows what we are and he knows the age difference doesn’t mean anything.” “What do you mean ‘my mystery’?” Rune used his fingers to outline the small profile of the buck on my ribcage and the delicate antlers that curled up around her breast. “There is mystery in your eyes, your heart and your soul. Mystery hovers around you somehow, Jade Taylor. It’s like there’s something looking for you and I want to be around when it finds you. When it does, you must tell me about it.” “I already tell you everything.” Rune rolled onto his side and put his forehead against mine. “No you don’t. You always hold something back at the last. Something you’re seeing or feeling that you think no one would believe. I would and I will.” “Sometimes I feel things that don’t belong to me. Sometimes I have memories that aren’t mine.” “Like I said, something’s looking for you.” “And since when did you know we would be together?” “That day you came into the shop. The moment I put my arm around your waist. Something happened at that moment, but I couldn’t explain what it was. When did you know?” I knew at that moment there would never be any point in holding anything back from Rune. “Maybe that day. Maybe today.” My birthday being in February, I had lots of time to practice before deer hunting season. I would paint pieces of hide with circular targets and place them on snow banks, or hang them between trees. As my aim improved, I looked for live targets and that meant hare mostly and soon I was bringing home three or four a day. I already knew how to read the forest, but having a bow made that easier. The silent sound of a bow matched the wind and since I was used to listening to what the wind had to say, it was easier to hear all those secrets. I didn’t hunt deer that spring, perfecting my skill with the bow instead. The bow made me look at the woods differently and I saw things I had missed before. History and mystery tucked behind every tree, under every rock. * It’s dawn in early October and I had already been in the stand for a couple of hours. The sky is bleeding yellow as the sun struggles to come up through a fog that’s crowning treetops like a veil. I’ve been tracking deer for days and I know a dozen or so pass this spot every morning. I can hear the rustle of dead leaves – one of the secrets the forest shares – and I draw my arrow back. They are walking about twenty feet from the stand and as always, I am amazed at their grace. The one I know is for me, the one that always seems to stand still when I take aim, stops ten feet away when he sees me in the stand. We lock eyes for a moment and then he turns his head to the side as if to say “now”. I’m about to let the arrow loose when I notice, when I start counting, one, two, three. When I’m finished counting at nine, I lower my bow. I hear the echo of two hearts beating in unison and I can feel blood tracing its way through the outline of my tattoo. Without looking, I know my own nine points are lit up in red and I feel heat filling my body in a way it shouldn’t, in a way it never could, on an October morning. In my mind, I’m catching glimpses of the forest floor, sights and sounds that are not mine to remember are racing through my mind. I know what it’s like to walk through freshly fallen snow on small, hard hooves. I know what it’s like to stand at the river’s edge on a hot summer day and dip my tongue into the water. I know what it’s like to walk through dried leaves on a fall morning with some sense that there is danger in this. I know what it’s like to look a hunter in the eye. The buck glances at me again and then without hesitation or warning, he leaps away and is out of sight in seconds.