WHEN MY UNCLE hands me the gun, I'm not sure what to do. I rest the barrel in my left hand, the stock in my right. It's heavier than I expected it to be.
"Feels good, doesn't it?" he says, a smile creeping out at the edges of his mouth.
I nod. Last Friday he took me into his trophy room, the walls lined with his animal heads and skins. He showed me one of his rifles and explained how to operate it, how to care for it. When I got home I sketched out a diagram, labelled it with the different words I'd learned: bolt, chamber, muzzle, sight. But now, when I try to bring the image to mind, the words are all a jumble.
"You remember how to load it?” he asks. “And how to put the safety on and off?"
"I think so.”
My cousin, Jake, comes thumping down the stairs, two at a time. When he sees me he bundles over and jabs me in the side, making what I think is supposed to be a kung fu sound. It hurts, but I try not to show it. Jake is eighteen, three years older than me and twice as many inches taller. He's already wearing his gear for the trip, showing off a new coat and waterproof trousers.
"You ready, Luke?" he says.
"I think so.”
With our boots on, we walk out to the truck. A thin layer of snow rests on the roof, and the tyres are caked in frosted mud. The journey takes about half an hour. Jake sits in the front passenger seat, with me in the back, next to the rifle case. Jake and my uncle spend most of the time talking about football, or some other sport, I'm not really sure. I stare out of the window, watching the sun slowly descending under the horizon, dragging the world's colour with it.
It's dark when we arrive. My uncle parks the truck off to the side of the road, and we get out, checking to make sure we have everything we need. My uncle carries the rifle.
The land is covered with dense woodland, lines of tall pine trees which reach up and keep going. We walk without a torch, and when I lean my head back and look through the branches, past the cover of the foliage, I can see a thick blanket of stars, undimmed and uninterrupted by artificial light. I want to reach out into the sky, and pull them towards me.
The air is cold and there is a light, steady breeze, which causes the branches of the pine trees to sway gently. We walk slowly, mostly in silence. The snow crunches pleasingly under my feet. My uncle leads the way, followed by Jake. I take up the rear.
We arrive at a good vantage point, where the ground opens out into a wider view, and we take our places, readying ourselves for a long wait. Jake prepares the rifle, checking the different mechanisms before handing it to my uncle, who checks it again, nodding approvingly.
Where my skin is exposed I can feel the cold of the air, but most of my body is wrapped warmly in three layers. My uncle slides his hand inside his coat, and brings out a small metallic hip flask. He gulps a mouthful, and then hands it to Jake, who does the same. When my uncle takes the flask back, he offers it to me.
"Try some," he says.
"Mum doesn't usually let me drink," I say.
He extends the flask towards me. "Go on. I won't tell her if you don’t. And you need something to keep you warm."
I take the flask, being careful not to spill any of the liquid inside. After a moment of hesitation, I take a small sip. The alcohol shoots down my throat and I start to cough, almost dropping the bottle. Jake laughs, and my uncle slaps me on the back, grinning.
It isn't long before we spot our first quarry of the night. A single deer emerges from a group of trees, padding gently across the snow. My uncle takes the rifle in his hands, steadies himself, and prepares to fire. I clench my whole body, trying to stay as still as possible.
The gun shot rings out. I hear the fluttering of leaves, as unseen birds launch from their branches, scattering across the sky, invisible.
"Got it," says my uncle.
We leave our hiding place to retrieve the carcass. The deer is lying on the ground, still. The snow beneath it is soaked red, like the crushed ice slushies I drink in the summer. One bullet was enough. The wound on the deer's torso makes me wince, and when my uncle grabs the carcass by its legs, turning it over, I turn away. I don't want to look at the exit wound. My uncle, with Jake helping him, takes it over to one of the trees and covers it, saying we'll come back for it when we return to the truck.
We walk for twenty minutes until we find another place that takes my uncle's fancy. This time the wait is much longer, but finally another deer appears in the distance. After checking the rifle, my uncle hands it to me.
"Your turn," he says.
My mouth feels dry. I try to swallow, but I can't.
"Remember what we've talked about," he says. "Stay calm. Keep your breathing slow and steady. Wait for the shot to be lined up, and then squeeze the trigger."
I lift the scope to my right eye, keeping my left eye shut tight. I see her. She walks across the ground, stopping every few paces, nuzzling at the greenery poking up through the snow. Through the scope I can even see her breath, gentle puffs of moisture rolling out of her nostrils and her mouth. As I rest the crosshairs on her torso, she turns her face until it's pointing directly at our position. But we're too far away, too well hidden.
I hear Jake whispering by my side.
"What are you waiting for?" he says.
My finger is on the trigger. It’s damp. I'm not sure whether it's from the moisture in the air, or the sweat on my hands.
"Shoot while you have the chance," says my uncle.
I think of the deer my uncle shot, with its mangled, bloody side. I pull the trigger, but as I do so I jerk the barrel just slightly, just enough, skewing the angle of the shot. The bullet misses.
"Shit!" my uncle hisses, grabbing the rifle out of my hands. He reloads it quickly, takes aim, and fires, but the shot is impossible. The deer, alerted to our presence by my wayward attempt, has already turned on its heels and dipped out of view.
"Jesus, Luke," says Jake. 'What the hell's wrong with you? A blind man could have made that shot."
"Hey," says my uncle. "Cut him some slack. We've all missed shots before."
He doesn't sound convinced.
I realise I've been holding my breath. I exhale, and then breath in deeply. My uncle reloads the rifle, and hands it to Jake.
"You can have another go next time," he says to me, without even looking.
We don't find another quarry, and soon the forest descends into a textured blackness. We call it a day, take our torches out, and wind our way back to the truck, stopping to pick up the deer we shot earlier. My uncle loads it into the back.
On the way home, Jake makes a few more comments about my missed shot, but I hardly listen. I stare out the window, into the darkness of the forest. There's not much to see, but every now and again I pick out a shape, or some movement. At one point I see a small glint of light, like a pair of eyes watching us. I think of the carcass, lying in the back of the truck, still.
My uncle drives me straight home. As we pull up in the truck, Mum, still in her work clothes, opens the front door. I say thank you to my uncle, and walk over to her. She gives me a kiss on the head.
My uncle follows me, and he stands by the door for a few minutes, chatting. I don't stay and listen; instead I take my coat and waterproof trousers off, and pour myself a glass of juice.
I go up to bed as soon as I can. I sit with the lamp on, reading, but I can't concentrate, so I turn it off and lie on my back. When I close my eyes I see pine trees, and the snow. The clouds have moved on again, leaving the open country exposed to the stars. On the ground there are faint hoof prints, winding away beyond where I can see.
Anton lives in Durham, U.K. He writes fiction and poetry while working on a PhD in Theology, all fueled by numerous cups of tea. Find him at antonrose.com or @antonjrose.