He had heard that a man who lived alone southwest of the reservation had antlers he’d like to get rid of. He wanted some to put above the fireplace, to hang over the fire and cast some kind of a shadow from nature in the warmth of his house. He asked his friend, a man named Billy Shields, who lived on and off the Peigan reservation as his commercial fortunes and marriages dictated, if this was true. Billy said that it was, and to come pick him up and he’d show the way. They took some plum brandy for the drive, the same as they would for hunting. Plum brandy is a spark on the tongue, a fire in the lungs.
On the way there Billy Shields told him that the man they were going to see had collected the antlers for years and had been making “horn mounts” for them – removing the horns from the skull then setting them on a beveled wooden plaque shaped like a shield. He sometimes sold them at fairs for a little extra money, sold to people who liked that sort of thing, but mostly he did it because he liked to. Billy Shields said that the man had now quit making the horn mounts. The man’s son had come back from Afghanistan and after a time being uneasy with the world the son had killed himself. The man was distressed by this, and had ceased to make any more horn mounts. He might sell the horn mounts, might give them away. Same for the horns he held as inventory. Who knows but to ask?
They got to the man’s place just short of six in the evening and the sun was still shining bright. Billy Shields made the introductions and he asked the man if he might have any deer skulls, any horns.
The old man didn’t answer, but led them out into the barn. He opened the door and there along the barn walls were hundreds of horn mounts, hundreds, taking up every space on the wall at every height up to the ceiling. In three great piles on the barn’s floor were pyramids of skulls with the antlers still attached.
How much, he asked the man?
No charge, the old man said. Just take what you want. I ain’t got no use for ‘em anymore.
The old man walked outside and left them to the sorting through the horns and skulls. He picked out two skulls, the antlers asymmetrical like nature made them but less so than any of the others. He took them back to the truck. Billy Shields got in the truck and waited. The old man was sitting on a tractor tire outside the barn.
He put the skulls in the truck’s box then went over to the old man again and thanked him for them, and once more offered to pay for them. Let me give you something, he said.
No, the old man said. You’re doing me a favor.
Sir, he said, I heard about your boy. I’m sorry. I’m not sure what to say but I am sorry for your loss and I wanted to say so.
The old man sat in silence.
He thought that he might have given some offense to the old man and wished he hadn’t said anything. He made to leave but the old man got up and spoke:
Thank you for saying that, the old man said. Thank you. People come, people go, but they don’t know what to say, so most just say nothin’. I appreciate your kind words.
He nodded at the old man.
The old man took it as a permission and continued to speak, formally, as if reciting something he’d thought about saying before and rehearsed in his mind, or maybe aloud out there in the barn among the collection of antlers.
He looked down at his boots while the old man continued to talk about his son.
Pretty much everyone will tell you he was a good boy, the old man said, everyone, and he was. He joined the service looking for something in his own self. When he come back, I asked him if he found it. He said no. I asked about the killing, because you know that can wear on a man. Ain’t everyone cut out for it. It ain’t like hunting and fishing is it? No it isn’t. He said that he never killed anyone, and it didn’t bother him to get shot at past the first time, but he’d seen a lot of dying. He said he’d walked through a burning house after the gunship grey inside in the night sky had fired a missile into it and he’d seen all the parts of people that there can be, arms and legs and hands and feet all bloody red and intestines a dull blue, but no actual people. That bothered him some. So no, he didn’t find nothin’. I think the seeds of it, of what he did, were in him before he ever joined the service, before he ever went to Afghanistan, and that there wasn’t anything there to save him from that seed. When he was done there he come back here and soon enough he was done with this world. He went down to the river and waded into the shallows and blew his head off. I imagine that he thought the river would take him and wash him away, out of the sight and mind of me and my home, but I heard the shot and I knew it for what it was. I found him there in the shallows. Everything was quiet and still. Even the motion of the water had ceased. I brought him up and I carried him out. I claimed his body but left his rifle to the river. I will never go and look for that.
He told the old man once again that he was sorry.
The old man told him that some things is just hard, always hard, and they ain’t never going to be easy. He said that he ‘preciated it, them coming by, then waved at Billy Shields in the truck. Come back if you need more antlers he said. I got lots.
The old man walked into his house without looking back.
When he got back into the car Billy Shields asked him if he’d said something to the man about his son.
I did he said, I did. I told him I was sorry for his loss.
Did he tell you how when it was all done he sat in his house for a winter of solitude with his son’s ashes on the kitchen table and then when the spring came and the ice broke up on the river he walked down to it and gave his son’s ashes to the water?
No. He left that part out.
That’s what he did. Into the river where his son had wanted to go in the first place. Like a baptism, someone else must perform the rite on behalf of the baptized. You did him a kindness though, by listening to him. I think it helps him to get by. Did he tell you how many antlers he had?
No he didn’t.
How many do you guess?
Two-hundred and fifty, maybe even three hundred, he said. That was about what he thought could be in there, based on some instinctive, informal mathematics.
More than six-hundred, Billy said. I know because he told me once. You didn’t see it but he has another barn. At one time that old man thought he might have had a thousand.
Did he get them all himself?
No, not at all, Billy said. I don’t think he even hunts. People bring them to him. Anything they hunt that isn’t a big enough trophy to pay the taxidermist for, or even roadkill. He probably found half of them just walking along gravel roads. He finds them and boils them to the bone to harvest the heads and horns, then fixes them up on those mounts. Most of them wind up in a yard sale in six months or six years or some other time, I’m sure. What is exciting to one man for a long time is less so to another and for less time too – and probably neither ever to their wives.
After a few miles of comfortable silence Billy Shields looked at the skulls and antlers in the back of the truck and said that there had to be a story for each of them, a hunting story, because every hunt is a story in and of itself.
True enough Billy, he said.
Billy asked him if he’d ever bow-hunted and he said no, but that he’d thought about and might like to do it, someday.
I don’t bow-hunt, Billy said, at least not anymore.
He looked at Billy using the rear view mirror. Billy was looking out the window at the fence posts going by, at the Deer X-ing signs as they came up. All of the signs had been shot through multi-times with multiple types of rounds. Just boys having fun with their guns, like they do. There were neat circular entry holes from .22-calibre long rounds, .270 too, 30-06, and even .470 rifles. The back of the sign had jagged metal blooms from where the rounds exited, the .470’s easily big enough to put a man’s thumb through. A .470 is a man’s gun. Someone told him that once. Billy? No, it was someone else but he couldn’t remember who. Billy continued:
Twenty-four or twenty-five years ago I was hunting with another guy. Bow hunting. After a long day of nothing we come back to our camp in the late afternoon and sure enough, the camp had been trashed. A bear got into it. The signs were unmistakable. Tupperware opened, cooler dragged around, tent half-torn down. You could even smell bear. Sure enough, out there a hundred yards into the tree line, maybe a little less even, we could see a small black bear pacing back and forth, back and forth, peeking out at us here and there from the bushes. We’d walk toward it and it would back off – but never more than that hundred yard buffer it seemed to have agreed to by its instinct. We’d move away and it’d come a little closer. Back and forth, closer together then farther away we’d go, us and the bear, doing this little dance. That little black bear was just waiting for us to go again so it could come on in and get whatever it hadn’t got first time round. So we hatched a plan. I’d walk away from the camp, but keep an eye out for the bear. The other guy – his name was Abner – would hide in the tent with an arrow nocked. If the bear came back to the tent I’d shout and Abner would jump out and shoot the bear. This appealed greatly to Abner. He was that kind of guy. The bear might figure it out but probably not, bears obey only rules, those of hunger and procreation, and they don’t count so good. I walked away and sure enough that little black bear came on in. It actually broke into a run and I started yelling for Abner and he popped out of the tent and not five yards away from it shot the bear with a broadhead arrow. The broadhead entered the bear right under the chin and went in up to the fletching. Almost thirty-six inches deep. It should have been dead but it wasn’t. The bear turned around and ran like hell back into the trees and bushes. We come back and goddamn it all if we didn’t track that bear for four hours. Here and there we’d find blood, drops on the trail where it had walked, small pools where the bear had stopped to rest. It was heavy bush, all uphill, and hard labor to track it, which was alive but shouldn’t have been. Finally, a mile-and-a-half into the filthy woods and now just into the night, we found it. It had treed and was just up there thirty feet or so, looking down at us without a sound. Tired I imagine. Way too tired to move. We had our bows but neither of us wanted to risk another bow shot. Miss it there in the dark for any reason and there is a twenty-dollar arrow lost and to never be found. Abner, an ex-Hutterite who had been divorced three times and spoke all the time of latent conspiracies and looming revolutions that I couldn’t see, had a little pistol, a .22-calibre something-or-other, so he figured to shoot the bear out of the tree. I readied my bow and he shot the bear and fortunately, even with that pop-gun, the little bear fell out of the tree dead at our feet. We cut it up. Abner said he might as well have the pelt, right? Remember that I said that the arrow had gone in all the way up to the fletching. The broadhead had pierced the esophagus, gone through and collapsed a lung, then continued through the stomach and into the large intestine. The arrow missed the heart by a quarter-of-an-inch and that’s all. Had it hit the heart the bear would have died in seconds. It missed, so that bear – a female, no more than three years old, less than two-hundred pounds – ran in that condition for four terrible, godforsaken hours, a mile-and-half uphill until finally it climbed thirty feet up a tree and hoped that we might not see it. I can only imagine what kind of pain it must have been in, and its panic, its terror. No animal should suffer like that. It is right that a man hunts to eat, hunts to sustain his children. It is not right that the animal should suffer. They feel pain too. That’s why I don’t bow hunt anymore. Don’t get me wrong, if you want to bow hunt, then bow hunt. I’ll even guide you. I need the money, same as everyone. But I won’t bow hunt. Not for a trophy, and not even to eat. Not ever again.
They drove in silence. Back on the highway, in the yellow strain of the truck’s headlights, they passed the carcass of a deer that had been crudely bisected by the kinetic energy of what must have been a large vehicle travelling at a rate that would have been unfathomable to the deer. It now lay in halves; even its viscera were separated from one half to the other. Blood reached out from each corporal hemisphere, bloody fingers reaching across black asphalt trying to find each other and make a claim to being a whole again.
You see that, Billy said, that right there. If that old man wants antlers there they are. It happens almost every day here, I imagine.
Steve Passey is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short-story collection Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock (Tortoise Books, 2017) and chapbook The Coachella Madrigals (Luminous Press, 2017). He is part of the Editorial Collective at The Black Dog Review.