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Return to the Deer Pasture

By Rick Bass

I had set off up the hill with my grandfather's old rifle, after everyone — cousins, brothers, father, uncle — had wished me good luck. The whole hunt I had not really been wanting an animal (which may be why I had not seen one), but now — the last afternoon — the desire had returned. For 70 years, our family's been hunting this land. It was my 25th year to hunt it, and these days I often prefer just to hike around instead of hunt.

So it was a joy to feel so sharply that yearning, and that pressure — to be forced by the last-chance nature of my schedule to stalk so quietly, so carefully, to be so alive — through the dense, dark shade of the junipers, which was where the deer would be bedded down this hot, dry, sunny, windy afternoon.

In my stalk I began to see the deer that I had not been seeing earlier, or rather, this time I was seeing them before they saw me. Beneath the low, tangled canopy of the juniper, with boughs above whipping and waving in the wind, I was seeing them at extremely close range: a liquid brown eye widening at 15 yards, the incandescent illumination of whiskers, light-filled by a thin beam of sun that somehow made it through the canopy; the lower jaw of a doe, grinding something, chewing.

They were all does. I was searching for the drama of antlers. They were all beautiful, and I knew the meat would be delicious, but I was looking for those hardened antlers of mahogany, the crown, as if that of a king.

And in part, it wasn’t even as if I were looking for a deer, but instead, as if I were just walking carefully, stalking, more intent upon preserving that desire, rather than desiring the deer, if that makes any sense.

Time seemed to double in density, slowing and then vanishing. In my mind, there was only the next step, and each step was more vital than any of the previous, for it would do no good to be silent with all the other steps, only then to crack a twig or dislodge a clattering pebble, ruining with that one act all of the earlier investment of silence. I forgot to glance at my watch, and even forgot that this was the last afternoon of the last day of the hunt. Instead, I was aware only of timelessness.

This day, I was just looking for antlers, for a hidden animal that wouldn’t see me. I’d been walking even slower, being so cautious not to ruin the afternoon’s stalk, and my wanting continued to escalate, until I found myself doing something I rarely do, and never gratuitously: asking the hills for an animal. I hesitate to call it a prayer, but truth be told, that’s pretty close to what it was like. It was a semi-clamant, yet utterly respectful asking, a Come on, please, I really want this animal. Not a negotiation — not, If I get this animal, I’ll share it with other folks who aren’t fortunate enough to have procured meat; no If I get this animal, I promise to work harder on behalf of the woods.

Rather than prayer or plea-bargain, it was more like a submission and demand both: a submission to the understanding that the animal will not be delivered to the hunter without some intervention, and a demand, an insistence, that the world (and perhaps the animal itself) hear and understand more clearly the fuller weight of the hunter’s desire.

And yet, how can the animal hear such a demand, for has not the hunter — up until this point — been extraordinarily cautious to avoid alerting the animal to the hunter’s desire and the hunter’s presence? How can a thing be two things at once, aware and unaware? Or is it in that transition of prayer — if we agree to call it such — that the animal lifts its head and turns and stares back as if into infinity, and decides, or is compelled by other forces, to agree to such a contract?

A part of you wants to reject completely such an idea. And yet, if you have gone after such animals — into the brush, into the forest — you know that this is often how it is, and that it happens so often, it cannot possibly be coincidence. Something else is happening, even if you do not quite know what.

And maybe it’s more like a yearning than a true prayer — an imploring, a heartfelt request — sometimes even a beseeching. Whatever it is, you can’t just go around doing it all the time. The moment has to be right, so much so that perhaps, in truth, the asking is not even your idea, but rather is initiated by outside forces.

Key to part of it, I believe, is that you have to have put in the miles, and be tired, even weary, and near the end of your limits, before you even consider making such an outlandish request — the life of another animal. You have to be absolutely certain you want it; you have to have been tested. And I don’t know what the other part of it is.

Earlier that morning, I had awakened around 3, had arisen and fixed coffee, and sat at the table in the kitchen and worked by flashlight on my novel. I had come to a scene in which some sojourners are traveling over a high mountain pass in the Himalayas. They’re on their way down into Burma to try to capture an elephant, and they’re starving, and one of the travelers sets out to look for a blue sheep, which is the only game to be found that high in the mountains. And in the novel, the hunter makes his little prayer, and a blue sheep is delivered to him at dusk.

If this seems like an indulgent digression, forgive me. It was a part of my 3 a.m. dream-life, and certainly was no longer on my mind. And yet surely it must also have still been within me — within my blood, perhaps — for as I was creeping down a dark, shady, narrow canyon, the pitch and plunge of the creek so steep that it formed a laddered series of waterfalls, I paused behind a tree for some unknown reason, and a few seconds later an animal came sneaking up the creek, its muscles and sandstone-colored coat and horns glinting in the light, just as I’d hoped and imagined.

As it passed through a beam of gold sunlight that filtered down through the cool, shady canopy, the animal was deer-sized, and yet it was not a deer. After my first initial surge of joy and excitement — thank you, I was already whispering, thrilled by the wildness of the gift — the animal was very close, and yet was still unaware of me, and I felt a moment of slight letdown, of imbalance. Is it a yearling bull-calf, I wondered, a feral escapee from some other ranch?

Then the rest of the herd shifted into focus: giant aoudad, or Barbary sheep, with fully curled horns, and each looking as large as an elk, and I decided that the hunt was back on.

I had seen aoudads back in the cliffs twice before. The first ones escaped from Hill Country game farms more than two decades ago, and found the rocky, arid country similar enough to their native African home that they survived and, some said, even prospered, sometimes displacing white-tailed deer.

On both occasions when I’d seen them before, I’d had no interest in shooting one, even though I knew that another hunter might not have given such a thought a second’s pause. They were not native to the landscape, and in that regard could be said to be like weeds, or pests and yet — those first two times at least — they seemed to me also to be more like strangers, even guests, rather than prey. And because they had not even been remotely in my search-image — only deer and turkey — it would have been as unthinkable for me to take one then, as to shoot a dog or a cat, a parakeet or flamingo, a crane or coyote, simply because I saw them.

Both times, I watched them clatter away, deft-hoofed, disappearing into slots between boulders, vanishing, as if in a dream. Was I still in Texas, or the Moorish Coast?

What makes a native? And how much of such a definition rests in the contract of fit negotiated between species and landscape, and how much in the eye of beholder? And how much in the eye of time?

I had not gone out hunting for wild sheep, but here, moments after asking for an animal, came an entire herd, so stealthy and wild that my desire did not wane, but was in fact sharpened, and as the entire herd moved one by one through that column of sun and then back into the shadow, with the melodic, soothing music of the laddered waterfall filling that tight little canyon, I did my choosing, and decided to pass on the larger animals, which I recognized as certain trophies, and to take a younger one, which would surely taste good. I had not asked for a 300-pound animal, and was not going to take one.

The smaller animal — a 2-year-old? — had long horns that were only beginning to curl. He was very close. I could see the sunlight in his brown eyes, could see his strange beard — and when I shot, he fell instantly, landing in the shallow little creek. The rest of the herd froze for a second, not knowing where the shot had come from. Then they saw or scented me and whirled and crashed off through the brush, cracking limbs and branches like a herd of frightened elk, and again I said thank you, not just for the gift of wild meat, but also for such a wild and beautiful hunt. I walked down the creek to where the sheep lay, some blood trickling into the clear stone creek like a sacrifice, and I said thank you again, and pulled him out of the water and up the slope into the dense forest, where I examined him then, like a scientist, astounded by such a specimen — such uniqueness, after all my life having hunted only deer and turkey on this land. And once again I felt as if I was in the midst of timelessness. I had asked for an animal, and this strange bounty had been delivered to me. It was huge and a little frightening. It got my attention. I didn’t know what it meant, but it reminded me yet again that we are not alone in the world, nor are we drifting, untended, through time.

The sun was setting red against a shoal of clouds. The music of the waterfall was still beautiful. I had been given an animal and a story. I cleaned the animal with care, washed my hands in the cold water of the creek, then rose and hiked back to camp in the red dusk, thinking things over.

The animal had been killed a long way from a road — in the farthest, deepest canyon possible — so that hauling him out at night was going to be an adventure for a bunch of middle-aged guys, and one I looked forward to. The stars were out, and the night was cold enough that he would have been fine where he was, but I kept thinking about the five coyotes I’d seen in the area the day before. And it was an incredibly sweet feeling, walking back to camp with my hands washed, my knife clean in its scabbard, and meat for the coming year, and having received the animal in such strange, wild fashion.

It felt good to be hiking out, climbing the steep rocky hills and feeling the same strength in my legs that had always been there, and feeling my lungs reach deep to fill with air. Forty-five’s not old. There are good days and bad days — a good day reminding you of how you felt when you were, say, 25, and a bad day seeming like a harbinger, perhaps, of what the body might be like at 55, or even 65 — compromised, and reduced. But today was a good day, and my relationship with thesteep hills seemed as secure as it always had been, for one more evening, at least, and I was old enough now to know to treasure that sensation, so at the top of the last hill I paused for a moment, not to catch my breath, but simply to admire the evening’s first stars.

Back in camp, they could tell something was up. Supper was already cooking, and when someone comes in late like that, it’s usually because they were out longer than expected, cleaning an animal. They inspected my hands and knife for blood, but found none. They had not heard the shot from down in the slot canyon, but somehow, they knew, and when they asked if I’d gotten anything, I said that yes, I had, that it was just a spike, that his antlers had no tines, but that he was a big one, and that I was very happy with him, very fortunate to have encountered him.

I don’t know how they could tell something was up, but they could. After all the years of jokes and stories, the successes and failures, we can read each other like the blood kin we are — as if the shared blood still communicates, despite being housed in separate vessels. It was my cousins’ opinion that I had shot a huge buck and was only pretending it was a spike, being coy, so that they would be surprised when they saw it. Even as I insisted that this was a fine animal, a really big one, they refused to believe I’d shoot a spike.

Cousin Rick — well versed in the ways of pranks and larceny himself — was working hard to get to the heart of the matter. He knew I wouldn’t lie to them, but they all knew somehow that I was holding a secret, a surprise.

“Okay, Richard,” he said, attempting to wade to the bottom of it. “Look at my hand.” He held it up vertically like the needle on some calibrated scale.

“This is the bull detector. Now: Did you shoot a spike?”

Yes. Said firmly. The hand wavered but did not tilt.

“You bushwhacked way to the back side, and that’s where the animal is still lying?”

Yes. No wobble.

“The animal is not a trophy buck?”

No. Again, no waver.

“Is there any bull associated with this story?”

Pause. Yes.

Rick laughed and shook his head. “You see?” he told his brothers. “The meter works.”

They frowned, then protested. “You didn’t get anything out of him that he hadn’t already told us.”

Rick shrugged. “But now you know it’s the truth.”

“But your last question — he himself admitted it was bull.”

Rick just shrugged, laughed again. “But true bull,” he explained.

“The worst kind,” I added.

We sat down to our big blow-out dinner, the kind that will likely be outlawed by heart surgeons in twenty years: big grilled steaks, big baked potatoes with real butter, real sour cream, real bacon, real cheese.

After dinner, Rick and my father were the only ones sporting enough to sally out in search of the animal. The plan was for my father to stay with the jeep with the headlights burning, and Rick and I would bushwhack up the creek, find the animal, and then triangulate out in the shortest, most direct route toward those headlights, dragging and carrying the animal through the brush. We had not gone more than two minutes into the brush before the glow of the jeep’s headlights disappeared completely.

Still, we pushed on, climbing small cliffs and descending half a dozen or more little creeks and canyons, thrashing and struggling through eye-level juniper boughs, spitting out bark and berries, dropping our flashlights and stumbling and tripping, veering north then south, east then west, as I tried to recognize individual trees, individual rocks in the darkness. After about half an hour, I seemed to recognize a change in the familiar melody of the creek, and shining my light on the ground I saw a spot of blood where the animal had fallen, and a few loose hairs from where I had dragged him up the hill away from the creek.

Rick was sweating and stumbling too, about to give up the faith, I could tell, but when I called him over to look at the animal, he was properly excited, and understood too, I think, that it was as if we were witnessing some strange cleaving, a Part One and Part Two in the history of our family’s relationship to this place and to the hunt. Across nearly seventy years, we’d killed hundreds of deer, but never anything like this, and he, too, knelt, and with the curiosity of his examination, gave the animal his own respect.

Back in camp, there was, to my way of thinking, appropriate marveling at the appearance of such a strange creature. We understood that 50 or 60 years from now, our own sons and daughters and nieces and nephews — if they still care about such things and about this place with even remotely the same intensity as we do — might be curious as to when and how, roughly, this first animal was taken. It seemed significant to us, a reflector of the natural history of the place, an artifact, already, and a story, which we were sure we would pass back and forth, shaping and re-shaping.

A hundred years ago, save for a few smatterings, even the juniper upon which the animal browsed had not been here. Beneath the millennia of wind and fire and running water, everything changes, even the shape of the hills themselves. It was not a huge animal, hanging there next to the deer in camp, with its strange dark stripe down its back, its long crenulated horns, its odd tail and its circus-beard. But it felt huge in a way we could not quite place.

I think each of us suspected that one day, looking back, we would be able to come closer to explaining it. But that night, and the next morning, as we cleaned our animals and packed up to leave, all we knew to do was to make it, and the rest of the hunt, into another story, or stories, and to pass them back and forth, shaping them already, even as we also knew it was more the tellers themselves than the stories that were being shaped.

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