Thinking back, I guess talking Mom into it was the most difficult part. I was 15 that fall, based on the best-guess estimate of 1974 as the year I'm relating, but I felt that negotiating the rough and tumble streets of Philadelphia during the four years since my father disappeared somehow qualified me for bigger things. Mother was decidedly overprotective. I was her only child -- all she had to cling to after life had delaminated so completely. I didn't understand that at the time, of course. I simply wanted to go bowhunting, more than I'd ever wanted anything before or since. She couldn't understand I was infinitely safer in the wilds than wandering the streets of South Philly.
Perhaps I'm not giving her enough credit. When her chronically lazy son suddenly turned into a choirboy without prodding, bringing home good marks from school, she must have suspected something. She couldn't have understood the scheming that goes through a young boy's mind, though -- a three-day October weekend marked on the calendar, gear to be acquired, the careful timing of all that good behavior. I was under a deadline, after all. Did she understand that, or did she simply give in to my desperate, sobbing pleas?
What my plan lacked was transportation to New Jersey's Pine Barrens, more specifically Wharton State Forest. It was exactly two hours distant; this I'd already determined. I remember it as if it were yesterday.
It was coming on hard dark when I realized just how lonely a dark tent can be when night falls and there are no other options for retreat. Night noises came on. Late-blooming mockingbirds tuned in. Bugs zoomed and swooshed and plunked against the tight canvas.
Frogs croaked. Whippoorwills made a mournful symphony. Things snapped, crackled and popped -- and stalked by on careful feet. Nearby, an owl hooted. Well in the distance a lost dog howled, which meant (in my mind) somebody was dead. I was getting acute claustrophobia, complicated by active fright and a vague guilt for the worry I was no doubt causing Mom and Grandma.
The idea of exiting the tent and building a fire struck me, but I couldn't make myself move. The rustle I'd just heard was certainly a water moccasin, copperhead or diamondback.
I was hungry.
It hadn't been an extremely long hike, maybe a mile, or a little more. Encumbered with blanket roll and tent, iron frying pan and canteen, shingle hammer to serve as hatchet, bacon and eggs and a jar of peanut butter and such, much of it strapped to the outside of an aged knapsack of military origin, I moved through the woods like an old-time tinker wagon. Discovering the flat, dry place overlooking a shimmering creek just at dusk seemed divine intervention. I huured to erect the moth-eaten shelter that grandfather and I'd once shared, stashing provisions. I slipped my hard-used, nondescript longbow against the sloping wall of the tent beside my blankets and organized my gear into what I imagined was an efficient camp. The bow bristled with arrows held by a two-piece, snap-on quiver sans broadhead hood.
Taking stock, it occurred to me I was all alone for the first time in my short existence. I began to discern an inner turning erasing all hunger, creeping melancholy I would recognize years later, coming home to a dark house newly void of wife and children, utterly silent and empty.
Mosquitoes ultimately rousted me into action; the worst of the year, late-season hangers-on desperate for blood to perpetuate their loathsome species. Chastising myself for forgetting a flashlight, I lit some kitchen matches and managed to scrabble up some loose pine needles, which made the beginnings of a fire. In the faintly flaring light, I managed to snatch up a few dead branches, and a fat pine stump at the edge of camp yielded a few slivers of pitch-wood. With the fire flaring merrily, I was able to accumulate a few dead logs.
Well, I thought, at least I have man's first friend -- fire. I tossed some bacon in the skillet and set it at the fire's edge, allowing it to brown slowly before breaking a couple eggs over the pork belly to create a solid mass to place between two slices of crudely toasted Wonder Bread. I felt suddenly quite outdoorsy and drowsy.
Stars showed distinct and silver-twinkly, not so distant and melon-golden like those above Philly. I lay wrapped in my blankets near the mesmerizing, comforting fire, where the smoke repelled a goodly portion of the biting insects. Owls hooted some more, and there were those myriad night noises that seemed somehow terrifying without company.
Dew soon accumulated on my blankets and my face was cold and wet with it. The fire had begun to flicker low, casting eerie shadows into my imagination. I crawled back into the dark tent. I was a big boy. I was big enough to shoot a bow. I was big enough to fistfight my way through the mean streets of Philadelphia. But I was not too big to cry, sobbing myself into a semblance of sleep and finally hard slumber.
It was just dawning when the hammering of a busy woodpecker down near the creek rattled me from a troubling dream. Looking about, I wondered momentarily where I was.
I shivered uncontrollably as I slipped into the abused fatigues I'd purchased at Frank's Surplus & Pawn with the money old man Manelli awarded me for sweeping and mopping his grocery store floor every day after school. I had the makings for breakfast but was too miserably cold to contemplate anything but motion. I shuffled toward water with the canteen, brushing through dew-chilled grass and ferns while shaking off sleep and cold.
The piercing, snorting report took me by surprise, my heart suddenly in my throat. I looked around wildly. A pair of white flags waved and bounced through the misty understory. I smiled at my own alarm, pointing and drawing an imaginary arrow in their direction, though they had already been swallowed by vegetation. I was wide awake.
I stepped dainty-footed between tufts of wet grass and scattered debris. Handled the bow deliberately. Noted deep-cut deer tracks in soft sand. Padded along in squeaky wet sneakers. Spied ball-bearing droppings nearly everywhere. Hot damn, I was deer hunting!
This realization smacked me between the eyes like a fist. This wasn't the pretend of shooting targets at the YMCA. Even when Coach Isabella put the paper deer faces up, cautioning me to aim carefully so as not to wound the leaping bucks, allowing th
em to escape and suffer, it seemed only a game. The sharp Herter's broadhead, first filed and then honed to shaving on the corner of the smooth, front step bricks of home, smeared with Vaseline to protect them from rust, seemed abruptly and virulently lethal. It was nearly overwhelming, and I had to shake if off before continuing.
Later that morning, I shot my first animal, the first with bow and arrow, my first ever.
It was only a small cottontail rabbit, a dumb soul who gawked too long at too close a range while I drew the wood bow excitedly, shaking with nerves. I missed him that first shot, zipped the arrow right over his back and into swallowing ferns. But like I said, he was dumb, and after ducking the first arrow, stood still again. I was mad about the miss, and the next arrow sliced his throat cleanly and he flopped while I watched in dismay.
There was so much blood. To a denizen of the city, blood was a symbol of something else entirely. I picked him up finally, not knowing whether to cry or shout for joy. The limp rabbit was warm and silky soft, and it occurred to me I was hungry. So instead of crying, I used a broadhead to loosen the skin and remove the entrails and decided on the spot to roast the rabbit for lunch. I would spit him over a fire, turn him on twin forked sticks pushed into the sandy soil like in the pictures in books depicting Indians.
The intestines twitched as I pulled them away. I was struck again, realizing I'd taken the life of another creature with the simple act of releasing a bowstring. It jolted me like an electric shock. A realization began to form, though I doubt I could've put it into words then. Killing's damn serious business, something that must be executed carefully and with integrity. It was something I would never forget. Never.
The following evening, I accidentally spied a pair of young, forkhorn bucks jerkily making their way toward my position at the edge of a fern-blanketed bench, possessing an air of interminable vigilance and knowing. I say accidentally as I'd been pondering a set of deer tracks, down on a knee noting their impressive dimensions. I looked up and started to rise but discovered the advancing deer, stunned they had not detected me. So far, any deer I could see had also spied me -- even when I was quite still.
I recalled an 8-pointer nibbling leaves at the edge of a meadow and how I'd belly-crawled through wet ferns, soaked and shivering cold, mustering all the caution I could imagine necessary. I'd not earned anything approaching bow range, even if I'd been a better shot and my equipment more modern and efficient like the grown men I sometimes observed with awe at the Y. I was still a good 60 or 70 yards from the buck when the urge to peek become overwhelming. When I did, not only was he looking at me but stomping irritably, his head bobbing side to side, ears cupped severely. I couldn't imagine it was possible for him to detect me. I couldn't imagine how I would ever get close enough. I had a lot to learn, foremost the importance of unconditionally heeding the wind.
Killing entered my mind again as the young bucks drew closer. It was inevitable I was going to be tested. I was simultaneously thrilled, worried and utterly terrified! The deer continued, as if seeking me personally. I began to shake and breath in raspy jerks. I couldn't believe the bucks hadn't seen me, sensed the twitching and uncontrolled thoughts that coursed my mind. I began to remember the rabbit's writhing intestines, and my nerves seemed to settle.
When the lead buck reached rock-throwing distance, I tugged the bowstring back in an unbroken, swift movement. The buck bolted, never looking directly at me, running a short distance and stopping again abruptly to jerk his head wildly. The buck that had followed him -- a spike-by-fork I could see now -- bolted in unison, but as he paused to seek the source of the alarm, he showed clearly through a gap in the pines.
I saw his gaunt ribs heaving excitedly and the arrow spinning away until it was simply there in his side as if it had always been so. Both deer were sprinting with abandon, smashing dead wood, out of sight in seconds but still plainly obvious by the racket they left in their wake.
There was a larger crash and then nothing at all, except the harshness of my own breath whistling through an open mouth. I was unable to think, trying to hold my breath and hear more. I'd never heard a more absolute silence.
I ran to where I had heard the last crash, dead branches tearing at my togs, tripping over vines and intertwined brush, and finally, my deer. He was on his side, eyes glazing over and unseeing, frothy crimson foam percolating from a clean slit between two distinct ribs.
I released an involuntary war whoop fit to raise the dead, holding the battered bow over my head and dancing in circles. Finally, I fell to my knees and stroked the sleek buck's elegant neck and fingered the hard protrusions of bone on his head. I remembered I had no knife and no idea how to actually field dress an animal so large. I would have to rely on a broadhead again. It'd worked on the rabbit.
That night, sprawled beside a fire, stuffed full as a tick with roasted venison, the night and all its sounds seemed so much less terrifying. I was so tired, and it all seemed more comforting than scary now. There were still the hoots and twitters and unexplained cracks and swooshes that caused me to jump occasionally, but I'd come to accept them as friendly surroundings, like one assimilated to the loud, clanking "El" trains that rumbled through Philly at night or the wailing sirens echoing against brick row homes and down dirty streets.
An icy edge seeped into the air, and even the mosquitoes had taken the night off. It was with great solace that I sought the dark, musky tent and slipped beneath the blankets permeated by the perfume of moist earth and pine needles. The following day would present the dilemma of freighting both gear and deer to the road where Mom would retrieve me near noontime, after she'd finished the midnight to 8 a.m. shift at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, driving against rush-hour traffic to temporarily leave the ugly city behind.
I couldn't wait to see Mom -- tell her all about it.
This is what I think about, standing beside the fresh scar of earth torn into the neatly clipped grass between the grave markers. The preacher is rambling on and I have not heard most of it, standing with what few friends of mother's remain, stoop-shouldered and wizened under the fresh-washed spring sky.
For them, it is just another in a long procession of funerals they have attended in recent years, those still standing left to attend the dead. I can only feel a vast relief that Mother can finally gain peace, that the cancer that for so long gnawed at her, twisting her loving face when the pain arrived in waves, w
ill pass with her.
And I find it curious that I should think of Wharton Forest under these circumstances, more than three decades later. But it comes to me that it was the peace I remember there, and my mother's happy face when her rusted Plymouth rounded the bend and found her happily-tired son waiting, so animated and bursting into unrestrained jabber, wanting her to hear it all at once. She listened quietly, glancing away from the road occasionally, tired but awake and full of pride. For just that short period, she could be truly happy.