A Rite of Passage

Two days, already. Two days out in the woods, squatting patiently in the underbrush, and Malcolm had yet to bag a deer. Hadn’t even bothered to raise his rifle yet, let alone actually fire a shot, despite Henry’s having spotted several healthy, prime specimens for him. His son seemed more interested in observing the animals than anything else. There had been a bit of a row, back at the house, when he forbade the boy from bringing his camera along on the trip. “The men of this family are hunters,” he’d said, pressing the rifle into Malcolm’s hands, “and hunting is how we become men. It’ll toughen you up, teach you things about the world. When you’re older, you’ll thank me.” 

Henry could still remember his first hunt, his excitement at finally being brought along on the men’s activity. He remembered the smell of the rifle, and how the stock jolted into his shoulder as he pulled the trigger, for the first time not at a paper target, but a magnificent, twelve-point buck. That shot had gone wild, the buck sprinting away, and Henry remembered too the thrashing his father had given him for letting such a fine animal escape. He knew that beating had kept his rifle steady for the next one. He’d made his father proud, then. 

But after two days, Henry was starting to suspect Malcolm was made of different stuff. Twelve years old and raised right, named for his grandfather even, yet somehow the boy was a riddle that his father just couldn’t parse out. Oh, Malcolm took to camping like he was born to it; he could pitch a tent, build a fire, read a compass, and dig a latrine with the best of them. Better even than Henry could, honestly. 

So where then was the boy’s killer instinct? In the evening, when the two of them retreated around the campfire, while Henry heated the cans of ravioli and sipped from a bottle of whiskey, Malcolm descended into a copy of The Call of the Wild he’d somehow smuggled along. If the boy understood that nature was a cruel thing, only survivable by strength, why did he not embrace that call himself? 

His own father would not have wondered these things, Henry knew. His father would have snatched the book away and tossed it onto the fire. His own father would not have tolerated two days without a kill, and certainly not a third. 

Neither would he. 

Henry woke Malcolm early that morning, and marched him off into the woods without breakfast. For two hours they’d hiked, until Henry was sure the knot of hunger was well taut in the boy’s belly. They took position just outside small glen nestled amidst a copse of trees, the area crisscrossed with fresh game trails. Henry spotted recent scat, and knew they would not have to wait long. “If you don’t kill something today,” he told his son, “then you don’t eat. That’s nature. Simple as that.” 

His son kept his eyes downcast at the rifle in his hands. “I don’t want to do this, Dad. It doesn’t feel right.” 

Henry glared at the strange, unfathomable creature he called his son. “The man you’re named for would be ashamed of the man you’re turning out to be,” he said, “and so am I.” They settled in to wait, and Henry tried to ignore the expression on the boy’s face. 

They did not have to wait long. Sometime around noon a buck wandered into the glen and began to graze. It was a young animal still and a bit short in the antler, but fine enough for the boy’s first prize. “Shoot something today, and make me proud,” Henry whispered in Malcolm’s ear, “or walk back to camp without your boots.” 

Malcolm nodded slowly, and swallowed. Good. He understood. Moving quietly and staying downwind, the boy crept off into the bush towards the glen’s far side, so as to get a better shot. To Henry’s satisfaction, the boy had the instinct for it; he moved like an Indian brave from the old stories, and was soon out of Henry’s sight. The buck, happily grazing, betrayed no notice. Henry turned his attention back to it, his own rifle at the ready. He was ready to see what kind of man his son proved out to be. 

He felt the thump in his chest just before he heard the report of the shot. The impact pushed the breath from his lungs, the air emerging with a ragged wet sound, and he teetered back onto his rear. He was aware of the buck, startled but unhurt, galloping past him, but his own hands felt so far away. And then there was his son, standing over him, the rifle at home in his grip as though it’d always lived there. 

Henry looked down at his chest. A red flower blossomed against the reflective orange hunter’s vest, and inside, so did the pain. Pain, and something else. He smiled. It was a good shot.

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