The sun rose and began its languid trip around the sky. Its light stretched among the woods, finding hidden spaces, covering others in new shadows. Dawn’s warm yellow light didn’t capture the way the frigid air stopped your breath, or how on really early mornings if you didn’t keep the air in your mouth for a little while it would sting your lungs. On November mornings, the world was still quiet.
Their footsteps crunched in the old snow. He stepped on one large fragment of ice, hidden under the snow, and one sharp crack emanated from under his small boot. This brief interruption of the unearthly silence made them stop for a full minute. His grandfather turned, keeping the rifle slung over his shoulder, and brought one finger to his lips. He mouthed sorry.
The shadow shrank as the sun rose higher in the sky. Unable to keep silent, the boy rode on the older man’s back while he carried the rifle. He surveyed the forest and tugged on the strings connected to the old man’s hunting cap. The woolen ties bounced with each of the man’s steps.
The boy smiled a secret smile. This is what he wanted to do. He remembered his grandfather touching him gently on the shoulder last night after grandma had put him to sleep. He asked if he wanted to go. He nodded. He never wanted anything so bad.
“You’ll have to miss school,” his grandfather said.
“I don’t care,” the boy said.
“I didn’t think you would.”
They had to keep it a secret. Grandma would never have let him come. He was too little, she would say. Besides, he really should be in school, she would say. Grandpa told him he would take him to school today since it was too cold to be waiting for the bus. They gathered in the old blue Ford. Its time on the road and life in the woods painted the truck with a thick layer of mud, so deep it was hard to tell the original color. They smiled and waved to Grandma and drove to the corner. This was the moment of truth, if his grandpa turned right, then they were going to town and he would spend another day staring out the window at school. But, the old truck swung left and they made their way deeper into the woods. The old man pulled over near a trail and they got out. Because of their ruse, the boy was still dressed in school clothes, but his grandpa had snuck outside in the middle of the night to put his hunting clothes outside. The boy changed in a hurried manner, trying to keep the cold out.
They trudged through the snow, the white expanse covering the forest floor and leaving a road map of the visitors from last night. There were squirrel tracks, dotting the snow between the trees in hope of trying to find their winter stores of food. Rabbits had traced a maze through the forest. They paused when his grandfather found a deer track. The boy was still on his back and he peered over grandpa’s shoulder as the old man pointed out the dent in the snow.
“It’s just a little fella,” the old man said. And they continued.
Finally, they found the blind. It was an old wooden hut placed ten feet high in the trees. The boy went up first, his little boots causing the ancient wood to squeak. The inside was simple just a wooden bench and one open side, the point from which they would hunt. The old man followed up the ladder. He set the rifle down in the corner along with bag he was carrying.
He watched the little boy stare outside, his eyes taking in the wonder around him. He looked out over the expanse of forest before him. The leaves had fallen and now all that remained were the tree’s skeletons draped in the late autumn snow. It was then that he knew he had done the right thing keeping the boy out here. School could wait, he thought, there were only so many years for his little mind to see these things. Before they were ruined. He reached down and adjusted the boy’s hunting cap. It was a hair too big for the boy, but it was once his father’s and after hearing that, the boy refused to wear anything else.
They sat, letting the still morning air bathe them. It was one of the best times of the year, both of them thought at the same time.
It was cold though, even with the rising sun, it felt as though the temperature was still dropping. The old man could feel the frigid air seeping into his bones, and it made it hard to move. He looked at the little boy, he could tell he was cold but the boy refused to admit it. He had moved away from the opening and was sitting on the pine boards. Even with their heavy clothing, and stout boots, and wool hats, it was cold.
“Come here,” the old man said and the little boy did as he was told.
His grandpa reached into the bag and pulled out a thermos inside of which contained his grandma’s homemade hot chocolate. Every year she made it for his grandpa. They took turns sipping from the cup and letting the liquid warm them from the inside. The old man smiled and so did the little boy.
The old man reached into the bag once more and pulled out the brown bag. Inside were the sandwiches his wife made for him. He pulled one out and took off the wax paper, delighted to see the peanut butter and jelly slathered on white bread. He pulled out another package and handed it to the boy. He peeled the paper away to find a mangled plain peanut butter sandwich with the crust hacked off. The old man smiled as he thought of his handiwork, trying to put together the sandwich in the middle of the night with the lights turned off, so as not to wake his wife. He didn’t want to alert his wife to his plans. The boy thanked his grandpa; he hated jelly and quietly nibbled on his favorite sandwich, glad his grandpa made the special trip to the kitchen in the middle of the night.
They sat for another hour in silence, trying not to let the forest know they were there. Chickadees chirped in the tree next to them, and they could hear the intermittent pats of squirrels running through the trees above them.
Before long though, the old man knew the quiet beauty of nature would only hold the boy’s attention for so long. Again, he reached into his bag and from it pulled a deck of cards. The boy smiled, delighted to have a small pause from the tedious task of searching the forest for moving shadows, and rustling limbs. At this point, the only card game the boy knew War so the old man delighted the young boy with hours of the card game until the repetition bored both of them.
The old man was putting the cards in his pocket when he saw it. Perhaps thirty yards from the blind, something walked through the forest. The old man held a finger to his lips and pointed, and watched the boy’s eyes widen as he watched the beast lumber through the tangle of trees. Soon it would cross into the sight lines they had cut a few weeks ago.
The deer stepped out from the shadows nibbling on a tree branch. It was large; the old man saw at least eight points. It moved with such grace for a large animal. It no longer had the bright brown fur of a summer buck but it had changed to the more muted brown, almost gray tone to help it blend in with the naked winter forest.
The old man and the boy watched for ten minutes, neither of them thought of the rifle in the corner of the blind, and content to watch the beast roam the forest. Finally, a stick broke and its sound resonated through the woods. The deer heard it, and it immediately stood still before it bounded into the safety of the deeper woods.
The old man sat with his arm around the boy, “that was really cool,” the boy said.
“Yes, yes it was,” the old man said.
“I’m glad you didn’t shoot it,” the boy said.
“To be honest, that rifle doesn’t even have bullets in it,” the old man said.
They had to return earlier than either one of them wanted to, but in order for their charade to work, they needed to be home at the boy’s regular time. He quickly changed in the truck, “Thanks, grandpa,” the boy said.
“You’re welcome,” the old man said.
Just before he slid out of the truck, the boy asked, “Grandpa?”
“Yes?” he said.
“Did you used to take Dad when he was little like me?” the boy asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Did you ever shoot a deer with him?”
For years the boy was confused. There was a joke around town about how his grandpa could never get a deer, but at home, his grandma told he was the best hunter she knew. He thought he knew what she meant.
“Grandpa,” the boy said.
“Yes,” the old man said.
“I miss Dad,” the boy said.
“I miss him too,” the old man said.
The triumphant hunters walked in the house to find the grandmother. She was busy cooking in the kitchen.
“What are you doing home so early?” The old man asked.
“Well,” she said, “ I figured you two might be hungry after the day you had.”