By Jamie Danielle Logan
She stirs with the movement of the sun. Dawn stretches over the horizon, and she searches for motion amid the brush. Her world appears in shades of gray, with bursts of blue and violet. She cannot see the orange of my vest or the green-brown pattern on my coat, but she can smell my breath in the air. She startles, bounding once, twice, before the breeze decides her fate. It shifts and she pauses next to the lone pine tree, the one that is seventy yards from my small wooden stand. She has just lost the spots of fawnhood. I pull the trigger.
The hunt is humane, my uncle tells me. The population of white-tailed deer in Mississippi is estimated at 1.75 million. It is the highest density in the nation, and only Texas has more deer. In some areas, the herd is still above capacity. A study done in Wisconsin revealed that starvation, non-human predators, and vehicle collision are the top three causes of death for deer, afterhuman hunting. Of these three, none are painless. A bullet to the heart is.
I was sixteen when my uncle first built a deer stand on family land. Deer had begun to appear on our property with increasing frequency. An outdoorsman, he eagerly anticipated teaching his three children this new skill. He convinced my father, his younger brother, to join him. It was decided. My cousins, my brother, and I would learn to hunt. My uncle taught us how to shoot in the summer when the earth was green. We aimed for slabs of cardboard, our mantra ringing louder than the echo of the gun. If it’sbrown, it’s down, we said. We did not think of race when we said it, just of victory.To kill, we must obtain a license. This happens during a short Saturday class in which a large, white man tells his captiveaudience about the time his home was burglarized. He handed his wife the shotgun, because women shoot to kill. We laugh. Only later do I realize that the joke is not funny. The instructor means to imply that women are smarter. He suggests that men overestimate their skill, aiming for appendages when they shoot an intruder, for the moment they will hand the suspect over to the police in exchange for validation. I sit alone in a darkened house years later. I contemplate the glass back door, so easily broken. I understand why women shoot to kill. If an intruder comes, I will aim for the biggest target, the surest shot. Validation is a luxury I cannot afford.
I pass the class with little difficulty, as do the children in the room. At the end, we are given a multiple-choice test on ethics and responsibility. Several adults take the test alongside their children, but I am among the first to finish. At sixteen, I love the taste of venison. It has the texture of beef but it’s leaner. No fat masks the flavor of game. I have my doubts about the course and the instructor, but I don’t question my family. I do not know that it is possible to reject what I am told. I do what they say. I always shoot to kill.
The white-tailed deer runs up to forty miles per hour, jumps nine-foot fences, and swims thirteen miles per hour. Her tail is the same brown as her coat, the color of the teddy bear I slept with as a child. She is named for its white underside, flashed as a warning to other deer. Danger is near.
I rest the butt of the gun against my shoulder. I aim, I breathe, and in the space between heartbeats, she is dead. Or so I think. My uncle and I trail her for two hours. We follow broken sticks and fresh blood, but no one wins against a gutshot. We never find her.I bite the inside of my lip until it bleeds. She will die slowly and painfully. I am at fault. My mouth tastes like dried chalk andblood.
We hunt again; my uncle, my father, and I. We return to the house in Carthage where they spent their summers as children. The house was built in 1947. It belonged to their grandfather, Ruf. Nostalgia floods their voices when they speak of him, and he becomes more character than man. In their stories, he is a hard-edged Southerner so in love with his wife that he died of grief when she passed. To paint him this way, without sandpaper skin, ignores the casual cruelty of an angered man. Ruf called my uncle the son he never had. He had a son. But his son did not meet his expectations of manhood, so my uncle filled that void.
I recall another story, from 1981. When greeted with a room full of black, female bank tellers who did not immediately serve him, Ruf set his shoulders and announced that there were “too damn many” black people in the building. He did not, of course,say black. My father, then in high school, left the building ashamed. Around his brother, he laughs uncomfortably at the memory. Telling me, he doesn’t laugh at all.
I recall Hilton Als, who suggested that this word represents a slow death. For Als, it is the metaphorical lynching before the realone. Where we hunt, the numbers of both are painfully high. Between 1882 and 1968, Mississippi had the highest rate of lynchings of any state. During that time, 581 people were murdered. All threatened the white ideal in some way. I wait for my father to point out the danger of the word to his brother, but when it comes to family, he too is silent.
On my second hunt, I don’t miss. The doe’s heart keeps beating for all of three seconds before she drops dead ten feet frommy stand. Her tongue is pink as mine. It protrudes from her tight-lipped maw, and a fat tick sucks at her neck. Her hooves are delicate, her coat beautiful. I seize up when I realize what I have done.
“Let’s take a picture,” my father suggests. I pose, I smile, I accept congratulations. The picture is still on my Facebook page, buried beneath six years of newer photos. I crouch beside a dead doe. The carport we have dragged her under is wet with her blood. Some of it is smeared on my cheeks. I hold her head up, Kleenex separating her fur from my skin. In the next image, I stand alongside her body, which is strung up by the feet. My father stands next to me. I can tell he’s proud.
We dress the deer, and I wonder at the irony of language. The act of dressing calls to mind femininity, childhood tea parties. The intestines in my hands scream masculinity, death as sport. We discard them. They are of no use. The word, like my world, belongs to men.
Together, three of us cleave holes in her ankles and string her up. I do not handle the saw that severs her head from her body, but I vibrate with the blade. My uncle hacks at the hide with a sharpened Buck knife, and I slip my hands into the slits he has created.I grip tightly and begin to pull. I peel back the skin, inch by inch.
The grass is dark with blood by the time we separate muscle from bone. I carve into her left shoulder. I rip the leg from its socket, and it comes away easily. It sounds like the tearing of cloth. I feel the blood that has dried on my hands like a tight, darkscab. A sweet, metallic pungency seeps into my throat. I try to view it as an experiment, as scientific, but my ribcage shrinks along with her body. To kill is easy, but this work is taxing.
In August of 2015, the Mississippi Wildlife Commission voted unanimously in favor of baiting deer. The proposal allowed hunters to place corn feeders in direct sight and to hunt deer while they eat. Since the last deer was mine, it is now my brother’s turn. He, our uncle, and our father come to take advantage of the change in legislation. They leave their homes in the suburbs of Jackson before dawn. They drive for an hour to reach the deer stand on our family land. They pull up to Ruf’s old house, only to find the light already on. A shattered lamp sits under the carport and trash litters the yard. An unfamiliar man has made our house his own.
My uncle tells the story of the squatter. He busted the back window and made his bed on the couch. He emptied the contents of the refrigerator under the carport. He stabbed a hole in a can of air freshener and used it to get high. He singed the pillows with cigarettes. My uncle discovers the piss-filled toilet. My father finds seventy-five years of tattered memories. He collects illegible birth, death, and marriage certificates. He tries to reassemble ripped photographs. None of the documents can be saved.
What bothers my uncle most about this violation is the smell. “It smelled like that and tobacco,” my uncle tells our family, gathered for my brother’s birthday. He uses the same word as Ruf. My chest compresses, and I fight for calm. I appraise my family, hoping one will defend the intruder, not for his actions but for his humanity. No one seems bothered. Some do not agree, but this takes me years to learn. I test the waters first with my parents. I tell them that word has been used to justify treatinghuman beings as something between animals and property, that it kills as quickly as a gun. I am surprised when they agree. I watch their faces the next time a slur bubbles from someone’s mouth. Disgust flashes, but just as quickly it is gone. Others have the same reaction. They also think he is wrong. But they value family above truth. No one is willing to speak.
On this particular day, my brother turns seventeen. I am nineteen, a sophomore at a private university a state away. I am home forthe holidays, gone by the time my uncle receives the news that the squatter will face no charges beyond a short stint in aninstitution. The sheriff confides that the man suffers from severe mental illness. He knows survival, but not society. We had guessed this much, at least.
The antlers of the buck are the fastest growing mammal tissue in the world. As many as one in every 65 or as few as one in 4,437 female deer may grow antlers, depending on the region. The growth is triggered by high rates of testosterone, often corresponding with infertility. My kill is the rule, not the exception. I begin to wonder, which am I? My hormone levels are steady, sure, but when it comes to gender, how does my family see me? In this place, there is no spectrum. There is only masculine and feminine, and I have chosen the former.
Six years pass after I shoot the first deer in the stomach, but guilt persists. In time, I realize that I hunt in search of agency. From the time that I was five, I took taekwondo lessons. I do not like the idea of being protected, and I see only one other option. There was a flash of something when I pulled the trigger. A rush of pride when I discovered I was a better shot than my brother.
Shame smothered that pride quickly enough, but it could not mask my need to belong. I liked that my father and my uncle did this for me. My father didn’t enjoy hunting. He was an accountant and a musician. He always said that he liked numbers because they were easier to manipulate than people. Numbers didn’t talk back. But he did this for me and for my brother. Every time I tried to explain my problem with the violence we committed, with the way that it made other acts of cruelty come easier, I returned to my father’s love. To reject hunting was to reject a way of life. It was a way of life in which he himself had never been comfortable but one we all lived anyway.
There are two types of them, my great-grandfather would say. He used that word again, said that type of person never made a good hire. “But blacks,” he would say. “Blacks make good workers.”
My uncle witnessed the moment when Ruf used that word in front of a room full of black women. He left the room with my father. I wonder what has changed for my uncle. I want to open his chest, peer inside, examine his still- beating heart. I ask myself why this single word feels like betrayal.
It smelled like that and tobacco. “Well, it did smell like a black person,” my father agrees. My ribcage shrinks. These men taught me what it was to be moral. If they are hypocrites, then what am I? It occurs to me that my uncle is hurting. My father too. They feel as though they have failed to protect Ruf’s memory. So much of their past is gone. The next day, they will burn remnants found inside the house, papers containing memories of the great-grandparents.
I will never meet, because the remnants are beyond repair. They speak of loss. I want to show them the loss they have caused.
The intruder is released, and disappointment hangs heavy on my uncle’s shoulders. Two months later, the house is burglarized again. The same man is apprehended. He becomes a felon. He will not do well in prison. He will never learn what society wants.
I kill four deer before I falter. All of them are female. My heart thrums with each pull of the trigger. This will be the one, I convince myself. When she dies, so will my powerlessness.
I bite my lip and taste the blood. I slit the deer’s abdomen from hip to hip. The organs, red and wet, slide into the gut bucket at my feet. “Leave it for the birds,” my uncle says when we are done. I empty the bucket behind the barn and stare at the strips ofskin and tissue. By the time we leave, the remains have already begun to rot in the open field.
Jamie Danielle Logan is an MFA candidate at the University of Memphis. Before moving to Memphis, she graduated with honors from Tulane University where she received the Studio in the Woods Fellowship for Creative Writing. She writes about Mississippi, myth, and gender, and she serves as managing editor of The Pinch literary journal.