The Hunter crouched behind the bush and lifted his bow. He cocked the arrow, power coursing through his veins, grinning at the heaviness of the weapon in his hands. The bow was black, sleek, and curved like a deadly snake. He pointed the arrow at his target and breathed in deeply through his nose.
The Buck knelt its head, its magnificent horns brushing the ground as it munched on a tuft of grass pushing through the forest floor. The Hunter stared at the buck’s slender neck, at its taut shoulder muscles. It was the biggest buck he’d ever seen.
Its meat would last him a good while.
He tightened his core and squared his shoulders, pointing the tip of the arrow at the Buck’s heart; he could almost see it beating against the Buck’s ribs, perhaps knowing what was coming next, desperate to pump all its beats before it stilled forever. Silence rushed in the Hunter’s ears, shattered by his foot rustling a dry leaf as he shifted into position. The Buck snapped up its head and looked directly at the bow.
It locked its big, dark eyes with the Hunter.
The Hunter dropped his bow and it landed in the bush with a mighty crash, but the Buck didn’t move a muscle. It held the Hunter’s gaze, and pleaded.
Please. My mate awaits me. My children await me. Please.
The Hunter stumbled away, leaving his bow on the forest ground. He crashed through the brush and trees, barely noticing the branches cutting his sleeves, until he arrived at his little cabin. Shaking, he ran into the kitchen and picked up the half-empty bottle of bourbon on the counter.
He poured it down the drain.
The next morning, the Hunter walked outside, ax in hand. When he came to his wood stump behind the cabin, he found his hands were trembling too much to lift the ax. He set it down on the ground and squeezed his hands together, pushing out the tremors.
The Hunter jumped and stared into the trees. Bluebirds twittered and jumped between the branches, cocking their heads at him.
Out and about, I see.
He took down Owl’s tree yesterday, did you see? Chopped it up to pieces right in front of her.
The Hunter pressed his hands to his ears as he turned in a circle, staring at the little birds rustling in all the trees around him.
I’d peck his eyes out right now, I tell you.
Don’t. Can’t you see the knife at his belt? You’d lose a wing faster than Owl lost her home.
The Hunter gripped the hilt of his hunting knife and pulled it out of the holster. The birds stilled as he raised it toward the sun.
With a great flurry and fluttering of wings, the birds soared out of the trees and into the sky. The Hunter watched them disappear in the vast blueness. He had a sudden, inexplicable urge to leap into the air and join them.
He slid his knife back into its holster, his hands shaking worse than ever.
“What’s happening to me?” he whispered.
Grant, the Hunter’s closest neighbor, sat by the fire that evening, whittling a stick into a small statue of a wolf.
“Got any bourbon?” he asked, his eyebrows knitting together in concentration as he worked.
The Hunter swallowed. “All out.”
Grant grunted. “You alright?”
The Hunter gave a nervous laugh, running his hands through his hair. “Just been here alone too long. I feel like I’m losing it sometimes.”
Grant barked a laugh. “That’s what the bourbon’s for.”
The two men rose early the next day to prepare themselves. The Hunter slid into his hunting jacket and sharpened his knife.
“Where’s your bow?” said Grant, dressed in camouflage.
The Hunter paused. “I figured you could shoot today.”
Grant shrugged. “Suits me.”
The Hunter watched his neighbor check his gear. Grant had a thick neck and the largest biceps the Hunter had ever seen.
“Ready?” said Grant.
The Hunter nodded.
They walked for an hour through the forest, making little conversation. Grant adjusted the bow slung over his back. The Hunter touched the hilt of his hunting knife.
“Aye,” whispered Grant, holding out his arm in front of the Hunter and nodding his head toward a clump of trees to the left.
There it stood, fifty feet away, tall and unknowing. The Buck. The Hunter stared at the great horns protruding from the animal’s head and felt an immediate sense of panic.
“What a beauty. Lotta meat on that one,” murmured Grant.
The Hunter clenched his jaw. The Buck turned its head toward them.
Grant slowly lifted his bow from around his shoulder and notched an arrow. The Hunter looked at the bow; this one was camouflage, more square than curved. Bile rose in the Hunter’s throat and his hand drifted to his holster again.
The Buck stared at them.
Breathing deeply through his nose, the Hunter tilted his head at the buck as Grant took aim.
The Hunter swung his knife. Blood spurted from Grant’s chest; the man looked down at the hilt protruding from his heart, his eyes wide with surprise, the camouflage bow tumbling from his hands.
He fell to the ground in a great crashing of leaves, screaming. The Hunter slashed the knife again and the screams turned to gurgling, then to nothing at all.
The Hunter set the dripping knife next to the bow. He peeled off his hunting jacket, now splattered with blood, and stretched his bare arms in the fresh forest air.
Then he walked slowly toward the Buck, who watched him patiently.
The Hunter nodded and reached out a steady hand. He stroked the Buck’s neck. With a graceful jump, he swung himself onto the Buck’s back and marveled at the horns before him.
The Hunter and the Buck rode into the heart of the forest, never to be seen again.