Hunter 1283 968 Justin Briley

She is serenity. A portrait fixed with a face like the Middle Pacific; cold and beckoning. As the frosted dirt cracks beneath my small feet, beneath layers of dead corn and pine needles, her breath comes in ragged waves. But her black eye, fixed on me, is pure serenity.

I kneel. I lay hands on her long, tawny neck and feel the slowing beneath the skin. She doesn’t object to my presence. Her insides spill across the frozen earth between her splayed legs, and she only breathes and gazes into my face. I am five years old, it’s November in Alabama, and this gut-shot creature is the first thing I’ve ever seen die.

Somewhere outside this image, more crunching soil, the sound of a truck door left open, the smell of cigarette smoke and chaw spit. Palsied hands shake as the shooter sips an RC Cola and waits. I don’t think she ever sees him. I rub behind her jaw and ears, like a dog, and she is silent.

“Move.” The smoking man comes, hammer in hand. The yellowed ends of his fingers are loose around the haft. This is the first time the smoking man has brought me here, to see the subjective violence eating implies. “You won’t like it,” he stops in front of me, but all I can see from the ground are his well-worn blue Dickies, and the hammer.

“Come here to me,” the shooter says from the truck. He is so old. Old enough to be both permanent and ethereal, like a dead-fall pine. Even to a five-year-old, his long life and imminent passing away are implicit in the bones of his face. He holds out another soda.

I stay put. The evening frost has melted into the knees of my jeans, but she is warm. Her black marble eye reflects the smoking man and the hammer’s black iron head, but I know she sees only me. Steam rises where her warmth waters the field. Then there’s a sound. Like popping a coke can, only wooden and filled with blood. She shudders under my pink fingers, and she sees nothing else.

Header photograph © Christopher Nielsen.

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