Back to Issue Forty-Six

The Hunted



The second week in July, after a month of bearing silent witness to my teenage idleness, Dad finally snapped and confronted me during Tuesday night dinner.

He threw down his fork and glared at me over the potato casserole, and I knew then I was really in for it.

“You’re fifteen, Jack,” Dad hissed. “And I’m not letting you live in this house a day past twenty.”

Dad went on to outline my many failings: my mediocre grades; my poor posture; my bad table manners, my untied shoelaces; my disinterest in political news; my seemingly baseless discomfort around steak knives; and, most pressingly and most damningly, my possession of a vague, overarching personality defect that he defined abstractly as a lack of manly willpower. I had not, in essence, cultivated the life skills he might have reasonably expected by this point. I was not, he claimed, going to survive the “real world.”

“You are going to end up starving on the streets,” Dad said. He wrinkled his nose. He sighed. “Or run off and become gay.”

After his rant, my father maintained a tense silence for the next two days, and watched, disapproving, as I continued to slump my shoulders, forget to tie my shoelaces, and generally hang around the house like the useless and stupid waste of space I was admittedly becoming.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I simply did not know how to make myself useful. I simply did not have the tools to forge my own masculinity. Dad decided he needed to fix me at once.

The solution came to him on Friday. For one week, he proposed, we would camp out at Real Whitetail Outfitters, this forest park four hours outside Houston. He would teach me how to hunt deer. I would sleep on the dirt. And somewhere between the dirt and the deer I would undergo a rapturous, Earth-shattering epiphany.

“Trust me,” he grunted, squashing four duffel bags full of camping equipment into the trunk of our pickup. “This is exactly–exactly what you need.”

Dad was a man who found great comfort in physical movement. He had been a linebacker all through high school and college and claimed he only missed the NFL because of reverse racism perpetrated against white players. Even after his muscles liquefied and he threw out his back carrying a television upstairs, he still clung to all his old physical urgencies. His guns were his most important possession, and he maintained them obsessively. They stood thin and tall in a cabinet in the basement, stacked together like metal rib-bones.


This was not the first time my father had tried to fix me. We had gone hunting once before, when I was six. Dad had driven us out into the wilderness. He had pitched a tent. That night, watching the stars blink open, he had permitted me to tuck under his arm.

“You excited, kid?” he had said.

“Yeah,” I had said back, softly.

The next afternoon, we had wandered into the vast, ugly forest. Dad had brought his guns. We spent a lot of time silent. Then we saw a deer. I still can’t remember what Dad did. All I remember was the deer was alive, then dead. I had watched her fall, tangled, to the ground. Her knees were fat. Her eyes were open.

“Jack,” Dad had said.

But I had just cried. My tears were hot and impatient. I looked at her, the poor, tangled little girl, and I had felt sick and sad.

Dad had carried me back to the truck. I had cried into his shirt, producing a damp spot. My snot went into his hair. When we reached the vehicle, Dad had opened the door with one hand, and with the other he had deposited my soft, limp body inside.

I had looked at him, blurry. He brought two fat fingers to my baby cheeks and spread away the wetness. Then Dad had looked at me with the cold, sad eyes of a father whose son had failed.

“Christ,” he hissed. “Kid, why the hell are you crying?”

He had meant to sound irate. Instead he had just sounded miserable. I had looked into his glassy eyes, and I had realized that he wanted to cry with me.

Truth was, both Dad and I drove back that night as failures. I had failed because I had felt too much sympathy for an animal. Dad had failed because he felt too much sympathy for his son.

For years, Dad refused to bring me hunting again. He only went with his friends – grown, whole men who knew how to peel the skin casing off a deer without damaging the meat inside. But I guess I had irked him for the last time. It was time, now, for us to confront the forest and the beasts that lingered, and reclaim the masculinity we both had lost.


We left the next morning.

When we climbed into the car, the sky was dim. Dad started the engine, turned on the radio, and fell quiet. He drove quickly, his hands jittery at the wheel, like we had somewhere to be. I stared out the window and watched suburban houses clip past me in small, shadowed bits until everything started to mush.

Some hours later, Dad signaled, and we exited down a ramp. We passed onto a thin artery road that widened into a four-lane street. He turned right. The streets started narrowing and then turned to dirt.

Dad parked the car in a muddy pull-out and cut the engine. He rested his hands on the wheel.

“Okay.” Dad looked at me. “We’re here.”


We spent the afternoon setting up camp. We carried our supplies a half mile North. We dumped them on a flat patch in the dirt–sleeping bags, Sierra bullets, bottled water.

Then we pitched the tent. Dad showed me how to maneuver the stakes. He demonstrated, pushing one neatly into the dry dirt so that only its metal keyhole head stood above the ground. I took a few and attempted to stumble on them. I was inept. My stakes ended up staggered. Dad frowned as he watched my fumblings.

“God,” he sighed. “You’re useless at this.”

After the tent was pitched, Dad cleaned his guns. It took him from six to seven o’clock. I sat across from him and watched him work. He had large fat hands, big enough he could balance a watermelon comfortably on his palm. But he handled the gun gingerly, like it was a strange, shy creature.

Then it was time for me to learn to shoot. Dad gave me his favorite gun, newly cleaned, his baby, this walnut American Standard Rifle he bought at auction when he was nineteen. He put it in my hands, and I cradled it. It was cold and heavy but not entirely unpleasant.

He maneuvered me into position and then began to instruct.

“It’s simple,” Dad said. “Hold it tight, then point and shoot.”

I brought the gun up so it hovered at my shoulder, and I guided the barrel so I could see a tree a few paces away in the sight.

“Watch for kickback,” he said.

I looked at the tree. Its bark was peeling in wet, fibrous clumps like wads of dark hair. I pointed. Then I pulled the trigger.

It was like the gun exhaled. The walnut butt bucked into my shoulder and the bullet thwacked into the tree. It hit the dead center of the trunk and sank deep and bloodless into the rotten wood.

Beside me, Dad made a small noise. I turned to him. He was looking at the bullet in the tree. Then he turned to me.

“Christ, kid,” he said quietly. “You’re a natural.”

He said this quietly, but I could hear his satisfaction.

I looked at Dad. His face was set passively, but pleasantly. And when he turned away, I realized that this, this moment right here, was the closest I – the slow, sad, disappointing son – had ever come to earning my father’s approval. I swallowed and felt this new knowledge run through me like a small, abrupt blade.


We woke up the next morning, early. We had slept in the tent in thin sleeping bags, backs pressed against the ground. I was numb. It was something like five o’clock.

For breakfast we ate instant oatmeal flavored like apple. We brushed our teeth and spat into the ground. By the time the sun came up, we were ready to leave. Dad gave me a camo jacket to wear. It was old, from back when he was a teenager, and it pooled loose over my chest like a dress. I could smell his old sweat in its collar.

“You ready to go shoot some deer?” Dad chuckled. He spat a wad of toothpaste, foamy and leftover, into the dirt.

We spent the first hour trekking through the forest with our duffels slung across our backs. Dad led the way. We had to walk cross-wind, so the deer wouldn’t sniff us out.

Suddenly, Dad stopped, and I bumped into his back.

“Don’t move,” he hissed.

I followed his gaze into the underbrush, and there they were. Two twiggy, jittery deer, brown and knock-kneed. They stood flapping their ears in a small clearing ten paces away. Dad and I walked to them quietly and very slowly. We had to take a minute pause between steps. I could hear Dad swallowing his breath.

Dad put his hand on my shoulder.

“Stop,” he said, quiet.

I guessed he was telling me I was close enough to shoot. I carefully pulled the walnut American Standard out of the duffel and rested it on my knee.

“She’s all yours,” Dad said to me, his breath right up against my ear.

I hesitated. There were two. I didn’t know which one to kill. I wondered if the choice was supposed to be obvious. Crouching, I positioned the gun on my shoulder.

The deer were exactly the same.

I swallowed. “Wait—” I whispered.

“What?” Dad hissed.

“Nothing,” I said.

I paused for another half-second. Dad exhaled out of his nose, quick. He narrowed his eyes.

“The hell are you waiting for, Jack?” he hissed. “Divine intervention?”

I looked back at the deer. One of them, the skinnier one, twitched minutely, and without another thought, I shot it right in its head. Then I loosened my grip on the gun.

The bullet had hit the deer square between its glossy black eyes. For a moment it wobbled. Blood dripped into its eyelashes. Then the deer fell. The identical partner had long since scampered away. Now the animal was alone.

Without speaking, Dad and I walked over to the corpse.

By the time we reached the clearing, the deer was already dead. The animal lay ungracefully, legs tangled together. There was clumpy dried blood on its forehead, blackberry jam, from where the bullet had squeezed into its skull.

I had really killed it.

Dad paused, studying the animal’s sad, limp body. He poked his toe into the deer’s distended belly.

“Next time, go for the heart,” he said, amused. “Don’t shoot the damn thing in its head. Christ.”


Our camp was three miles West of the clearing. We trudged back slowly and painfully. Dad held the deer’s ankles, and I held its front legs. We stumbled along, taking big, lumbering steps. When we moved, the deer’s body swung side to side like some kind of perverted hammock.

The deer was one hundred pounds of deadweight. My arms burned and Dad grit his teeth as his back flared up. The sky was gray and gummy. All around us, the air was fat with moisture.

We had been walking for twenty minutes when the first drop fell. It rolled down my neck. More drops followed. Dad frowned at the sky. As the rain continued without pause, Dad slowly realized it was not going to stop. He clutched the deer by its haunches and looked to me.

“Hurry up,” he hissed, eyes wide and white.

But we were too late. The rain came swift and cold. In five minutes, the trickle developed into a downpour. Rain beat down on us and the deer corpse. Soon we were drenched. I felt drops of water slide down my bare back and tuck into the seam of my underwear. I couldn’t feel my nose.

Between our splayed fingers, the deer was a wet, sludgy dead thing. The meat had begun to rot.

We waded through sloppy mud. Dad trudged, taking wide, slippery steps. Our sneakers were coated in brown sludge. Dad cursed and panted. I looked down at the deer. Its white eyes bulged out of its skull.

“Christ,” Dad whispered suddenly, the word pressed through teeth. He paused. “Jesus Christ.”

We stood before our campground. It was a mess. For a moment we both hesitated, hovering in the rain, clutching a dead deer and taking in the carnage that lay before us. Our tent had slipped into the dirt and collapsed like a punctured lung. Our gear was scattered or buried in the mud. This was no longer a place we could live.

“Jack,” Dad said. He turned to me. “Hold the deer.”

I paused. He thrust the deer corpse into my chest.

“I—” I stuttered, incoherent.

Dad narrowed his eyes. “Hold the damn deer,” he said again.

He spoke violently. I didn’t know what to say. I let Dad thrust the whole corpse onto me. I leaned back with the weight. I held the carcass awkwardly, its legs slipping into the mud. It was too heavy.

Dad sprinted to the tent. He pulled at the stakes, pushing them in with the butt of his shoe. He shook the poles.

“God dam– shit!” Dad shouted as the tent folded into itself. He fiddled with it desperately and manically. But the tent was already dead, gone. Even from where I stood, I could see that.

“Shit!” he said again, louder. I stood still. Dad released the tent and kicked it into the dirt. He ground his heel into the spikes until I heard something snap. The tent’s spine collapsed into the mulch.

Then Dad turned to me slowly, panting. We faced one another.

“Jack!” he hissed. Dad had a terrifying look in his eyes. I looked back at him helplessly with my arms full of dead animal. “These–goddamn–stakes!”

Ruthlessly Dad dug his fingers into the sludge and pulled a stake out of the mud. He stood panting with the stake in his hand, muddy, point out. He waved it at me like it was some kind of proof.

By this point, I could feel the muscles in my arms ripping to ribbons from balancing the deer’s bulk.

“How many times?” Dad said each word carefully and sharply, like he was measuring its length. “How many damn times did I tell you about–these–goddamn–stakes?”

Dad threw the stake violently into the ground. It stuck in the dirt.

“Now look what you did!” he bellowed into the rain.

I looked at the tent, collapsed and ruined. I looked at Dad, bloody and furious. Then I looked at the deer. I couldn’t carry it anymore. I knew that much. It was nothing more than physical reality. I felt my arms wobble, and the deer slipped out of my grip. Just like that–slipped–and then it fell to the mud. Its body broke into the ground. I looked up helplessly. For one small and terrifying moment, Dad and I stood silently. The deer sunk, useless, into the mulch.

Then Dad moved quickly. I blinked and he was in front of me. Then I felt something blunt thwack into the bridge of my nose. My chin quickly flopped to my chest like my head was on a hinge. I felt my hands come clumsily to my face.

With my head down, I was facing the deer. Its hind legs were twisted around its neck. Its body was just a wet open curve. It was truly broken now. I looked at it, and then I tasted my own blood. It spilled slickly from my nose onto my lips. Slowly, I pulled my hands away from my face, and blood dribbled down my chin. Red drops splattered across the deer’s disfigured coat. I looked at them like they were something foreign.

Across from me, Dad was still and silent. My nose throbbed. Now blood had pooled between my gums. There was just too much of it.

And somewhere in the forest, another deer, exactly the same as the one that lay mutilated under me, was running. And if the rain hadn’t started, Dad and I would probably have been hunting it down right now.

But instead we stood here, slick and silent.

I swallowed, and I felt blood slide into my throat.

I looked up and I met Dad’s eyes. He stood silently in the rain, drops sliding from his hair down his cheeks. He watched me bleed.


We packed quickly. Twenty minutes later, we were in the car. Dad turned on the engine. He jacked the heat up. For a moment we both sat, soaked to the bone, as the heater started to purr. My jeans were wet cloth. My nose throbbed again. Rain splattered violently across the windshield.

Dad turned on the wipers and started to drive. We drove away. I held the sleeve of my jacket to my nose to catch its warm, new blood. Every few minutes, Dad threw quick, tense glances in my direction.

“You good?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

That night, we drove home as victors. We felt no sympathy. I had murdered a deer. Dad had broken my nose. Nobody had cried. We walked out of the cold, dead forest with the knowledge that the enemy we had beaten was ourselves.

Kaya Dierks is a first-year student at Yale University. Her fiction appears in The Adroit Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Fractured Lit, GASHER Journal, and other places, and was long-listed for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions of 2022. Kristen Arnett selected her work as a Finalist for the 2020 Adroit Prize for Prose. Find her on Twitter @kayadierks.

Next (Jake Lancaster) >

< Previous (John Haggerty)