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Photo by Alex Andrews from Pexels

“An Aging Hunter Remembers the First Kill”- an original poem by Jeff Newberry

What do I know? This leafy view,
this leafy perch. The pre-dawn
silence amplified in long leaf pines
and sweet gum trees still dense

in summer foliage. The twelve
gauge’s mouth is open like a well,
and I’ve sent enough wishes
down it—wishes and prayers

to see a twelve-point buck
emerge silent and majestic,
his wet nose as black as a gun’s
sleek barrel, his brown eyes

all age and wisdom. He’s come
before and watched me raise
the Mossberg to a steady shoulder.
Then, he’s gone like early mist,

the speculation, perhaps, of a tired
old man with tired old dreams.
Better I fell asleep in the stand
and dream the kill. Better

for the world to awaken without
me, without my odious grunts
or cigarette coughs that hush
the forest and scatter the birds.

ii.

When I was a child, I named
each tree on my family’s
land and loved the way they
changed each season, even

the towering pines, green
all year. I told myself I never
wandered because I knew
every dogleg and cut-off,

the map like the lined palm
I never considered, the whorls
on the tips of fingers I never
thought would molder

in soil under a tombstone
I never tried to imagine.
The winter I killed my first
buck, my father and I hung

the carcass from an oak
limb. I drug a knife blade
down its belly and drained
its guts without ceremony.

It wasn’t my first death—
I’d seen great-grandmother
close her eyes and a week
of rattled breathing as she

lay in her bedroom. I’d
skinned rabbits and squirrel,
scraped the scales from bream
and threw their tangled

innards into the river,
but the steam rising from fresh
blood stuck in my mind,
an image I still see,

now, after five decades.
A day later, wandering alone
deep in these woods,
I found a hoofprint

not twenty yards from where
I’d felled the buck. I knelt
and ran my fingers through
its divot, not from regret—

it wasn’t the kill. We ate
and never let an animal
suffer. The buck had been
and then wasn’t, erased

like a school blackboard.
When we buried my father,
I stood graveside and remembered
that hoofprint like a tiny grave.

iii.

Now, a barred owl hoots.
I can smell wood smoke on the wind.
It’s a long trudge back to my truck.
I think I’ll stay a while longer

even though the sun is more
than a hint now. Once, I could
look at the moon and tell you
how many hours until dawn.

This much is certain: light,
shadow, the cycle of seasons.
The certainty of morning
even if it seems so far away.

Just now I see him in the brush.
The buck dips his head,
a bow, perhaps, to memory—
this ancestor of my first kill.

He may catch my scent,
but he doesn’t bolt. The angled
antlers dip once, twice,
and the forest swallows

his brown fur. I can’t see
him, and then he’s there again.
I raise the Mossberg, site him
down and hold my breath.

The stand creaks. He bolts.
Far beneath this oak, my boots
left prints you could follow,
indentions I’ve left behind.

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