Footsteps in the Snow

Fiction by Matthew McGuirk

I followed a few steps behind my father, the faint outlines of his footprints in the spitting snow on that October morning where the light hadn’t quite squinted through the trees. My boots didn’t quite fit each of his tracks, but I could reach with a stretch from one to the next like hopping on stones across a river. The clean smell of snow covered the decaying leaves of fall, even though we hadn’t reached Halloween yet. I’d already picked out my pirate outfit, with my skull and crossbones hat, eyepatch and hook hand. Experience showed us which houses gave the king size candy bars and which gave out apples. The snow dressed the leaves with an even coat as we tramped through the mixed forest. Pines three people around were sparsely spaced in this section of woods, birch grew thin under their cover with the limited light and the hemlocks littered the ground after being choked out seasons ago.

It was over two hours earlier than I usually woke, but the cold air kept me awake. My dad promised youth weekend would be a chance for me to follow him out into the woods with the muzzleloader and clad in camo. I’d never been out in the woods with him on a hunt. I’d heard the stories about his deer camp with the guys. I’d seen him return to the house before I had to take off for school, but this was different because he’d asked me and we were going together. He nudged me awake and threw camo at me to take the place of my pajamas. We matched in our blaze of orange and camo and walked out of that house in the still darkness and squalling storm.

My dad had a stand and a blind, but today our lucky spot was hunkered between two large pines and waiting. He’d told me of times he stood or sat blending into nature and they just walked up, like he wasn’t even there. On our way out, he’d pointed at some scat left in the snow not long before and we wondered if they’d be back along the same path. I remember his still face in that darkness. The cool puffs of air coming from his mouth and his full winter beard hanging just above his coat. He held the gun, which glinted in the moonlight, across his lap and we waited. I thought about cartoons on television and hot eggs for breakfast; about Halloween costumes and candy; about sneakers squeaking across gym floors in less than a month and crowds cheering. I thought about everything but that silence, but I appreciated the fact that we were out there in the woods together because there’s only so much time in the day with work and hunting and everything else. I wished the deer would hurry up a bit though because my feet were already cold.

“I’ll carry the gun out, but you need to be the one that takes that shot.” His eyes lighting a bit as we spoke. I smiled and nodded, thinking about the targets littered with bullet holes he’d shown me, and how he stood behind me to demonstrate how the gun kicked back when you heard that loud pow in the air. I had fallen against him with that first attempt and improved slightly with the next couple. I waited until he went off to the bathroom to work my shoulder a bit, not wanting him to see that it hurt a little.

We waited in that silent darkness. I could only see the silhouettes of the trees, black against the sky that slit between them, and feel the numbness creeping into my toes, and the snow picking red into my cheeks. I’m still not sure how he saw that movement through the darkness, but he nudged me with his left elbow, just slightly, and nodded in the distance. Between a small clump of those birch trees and overarching pines something moved. I squinted against the snowflakes, trying to see through that darkness. Noticing that ever so slight twinge of a leg or a neck and feeling the hair run up on the back of my neck. A head looking up and testing the area for a whisper of noise; eyes in that darkness, eyes full of life and worry.

The cold of steel against my mittens brought a chill through my body. My dad reached over and helped me slide the gloves off, so I could put my finger on the trigger. Now that it was my fingers frozen on the rifle that was laying across my lap, the situation felt real. He nodded again and I imagined his blue eyes through the darkness, his full beard hanging over his coat with the bristles of grey that had appeared in the last year. His words from target practice still ringing in my ears, “raise the barrel to your shoulder, sight through your left eye and close the right one. Don’t lose sight of your target, point and shoot.” I saw four legs through that scope. They were pinned in the crosshairs after his hand pushed the barrel a little to the left. Puffs of air cut through the autumn morning in front of my face. My heart working the same rhythm it felt after my clean shot passed the goalie in a soccer game. I steadied my right finger on the trigger, pulled it and the crisp scent of gunpowder exploding in the air as I was kicked back into the snow.

“Yeah!” His voice cut through that echoing crack of the gun. “Got him!” He was already on his feet, but the pain shot through my shoulder. I winced a little, but pushed that back noticing his smile even through the darkness. “Come on, he’s getting away!” His voice ran hard against that slanting snow, now collecting in his beard and along his cheeks. He held out a hand, I took it and embraced the warmth of his gloves and he pulled me to my feet. He took the gun from my hands and we were off running together on that October morning.

He pointed out the trail as we jogged along. I stumbled a few times, trying to climb over logs that were a little too big for me. There were dark spots against the white snow in the fading moonlight, a few drops here and there and then the trail picked up. The wide strides in the snow shrunk and then worked to a drag, even against only a couple inches of snow. We worked passed trees and followed those dark droplets on the now whitening snow as the sunrise peeked through those trees. We stood at the top of that bank and saw that brown fur and red blood against the white snow. The antlers and hooves pressed hard against the packed powder where he fell and those gasping breaths heaved the great body in the winking light of early morning. My dad and I slid down that bank and came up on the deer, still life in the eyes and sharp breaths pushing through the mouth. I shut my eyes to the blood around its midsection. “He’s suffering, we need to finish him off.” My dad pulled the gleaming hunting knife out with its stark black handle and blade glimmering in a reflection of the sun cutting through the trees. I looked at him and his eyes waiting with anticipation, then looked back at the deer gasping for air.

I shook my head. I couldn’t do it.

He made another plea and I declined again. Finally, he turned toward the deer. I looked away as he bent close, but heard the gasp from the deer as he ran the blade across its throat. I turned back and saw the red in a wash across the white snow and the lifeless eyes. He trudged out of the woods, pulling the deer in heaves followed by a red streak painted on that white snow.

Often, that day comes to mind as we walk through the woods. I print my own tracks in the freshly fallen snow and he follows, needing to stop here and there to let the plumes of air from his mouth slow. The sun sparkles off snow in a wash of constellations caught in a glimpse before our fleeting eyes are shielded. I’m no longer a boy; age has caught up with me now and in New England the snow doesn’t stop for anyone. It’s deeper today than on that October morning and our boots threaten to get sucked off our feet with each subsequent step. We walk past pines with heavy wrinkled bark, birch trees with smooth white skin and buried carcasses of hemlocks along the way. We pause sometimes to look at tracks or a loose feather, but a word doesn’t pass between us. Sometimes, those footsteps I traced in the snow behind him in these same woods on snow covered days, come to mind. We carry less than we did on that day and I wear the same thick beard he did then. Mine is now speckled with the same grey and I wonder if my eyes sparkle in the same way his did in the darkness of that morning. His figure is still strong, but the full beard is an iron grey now, but still hangs over his winter coat; his back seems to have a bit more of a hump as he presses his hands to his knees to catch his breath and his eyes are fogged with cataracts, but I still see that sparkle on days like this.

The bank still looks down over a thin cut river covered in ice and snow, where that wash of red came over the white that day. In the glittering midday sun, a familiar sight appears, but this time the antlers are upright, the fur is unblemished and the eyes still dart one direction and the other when a sound dances across the air. My dad stands by me silently, the words didn’t have to be said because they’re still with me as I raise my hands, “don’t lose sight of your target, point and shoot.” The shutter of the camera goes off, perfect shot and I smile.

<strong>Matthew McGuirk</strong>
Matthew McGuirk

Matt McGuirk teaches and laughs at his puns by day and scribbles somewhat coherent words nightly. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. BOTN 2021 nominee with words in Bear Creek Gazette, Daily Drunk Magazine, Outcast Press, Purple Wall Stories, Sledgehammer Lit, Versification and others. Twitter: @McguirkMatthew Instagram: @mcguirk_matthew.

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