Honouring the dead

by LW Oakley
(Kingston, Ontario)

The greatest and most moral homage we can pay to certain animals on certain occasions is to kill them with certain means and rituals.
Jose Ortega y Gasset from Meditations on Hunting

When you see a deer while hunting your first thought is, “It’s a buck” or “It’s a doe.”
If it’s not looking at you or bounding away you immediately say to yourself, “It doesn’t see me.”
You instinctively remain still. You don’t breathe. Your heart pounds not just in your ears but in your throat and through your arms and down your legs. Its beating so loud you don’t hear the click of the safety being released by your thumb.
As the deer lowers its head to smell for the scent of danger you raise your rifle.
Then you see the deer with one eye and a single thought while looking down the barrel of your gun. You ignore his antlers and find that big patch of brown hair behind his front shoulder.
When he lifts his nose in the air to sense if something is wrong your finger curls around the trigger.
He is doing what he does best – trying to stay undetected. He is living his secret life as he always has so he can have his secret death. But you will soon deliver death to him and it will be a terrible surprise.
He does not know what a gun or bullet is even after he hears the BANG and feels death inside him. He only knows he wants to stay alive.
When you pull the trigger you don’t hear the BANG either or feel the gun jolt against your shoulder. You only see the deer.
Your lives collide in that moment but have been connected from the day you began your search to find him. You pursued him not just because he didn’t want to be found but because he is so good at it. To be successful you must do better what he does best. You must remain undetected and see him first.
When hit hard a deer can run a long way on a last breath and final beat of its heart. I shot a buck that ran hundreds of yards after he was hit. He was still alive when I found him. He was unable to stand but his four legs thrashed wildly at me. He raised his head and grunted beneath my stare. I could see that he wanted to kill me for killing him. He had the right.
When he released his final breathe back to the woods there was a soft sigh. Then his tongue relaxed and slid from the side of his mouth. He did not close his eyes.
Only then was it safe to touch him.
Most hunters spend a long time alone with a buck that they have killed before others in their hunting party arrive. They will ponder what they have done and at times speak in a quiet voice to the dead deer.
They usually thank the deer and say, “I’m sorry.”
But they’re not sorry for long and they’re not sorry ever again except until maybe the next time.
Mostly they’re very excited and happy. Hunters call it, “The Rush.”
The buck is dragged from the woods where he lived his life. The part of him that remains behind on the ground disappears within hours. Death always attracts a crowd. It’s no different in the woods. By morning no trace remains that he even existed.
Hunters often return to a kill site the way people return to the gravesite of a loved one. They come for the same reason – to remember and honour and respect the dead.
Any place a hunter has been successful will be tried again. They return and wait and hide in that same place. They relive and remember the details and discover new ones as they see the drama unfold again – always with the same outcome.
Sometimes another buck appears and another story is added to your treasure chest of remarkable memories. You can recall the feel of the wind, the smell of the swamp, the lay of the land, the last shreds of light and the first sound of an unseen deer approaching death. The same death that waits for us all, no matter how it happens.
You realize that over time you think of these deer more than anything or anyone else; even more than loved ones.
Then one day you realize the deer you just killed is a loved one.
You have your picture taken with it and put your arm around it to show everyone it belongs to you. You keep that picture in an album with your other family photos.
Sometimes you frame and cover the picture with glass and hang it on the wall. You may even pay hundreds of dollars to try to keep the memory of that deer alive not with a plaque or headstone but by having its hide tanned and mounted and hung on the wall in a place of honour complete with eyes and ears and antlers.
You may even take the time to sit and think and write it all down and send its story to a magazine or newspaper if you want to keep that deer alive forever. That’s because you know only the written word can defeat death.

LW Oakley lives in Kingston, Ontario and is the author of Inside The Wild.

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