On Hunting and Metaphor



I need bullets, he said,

only one left in the chamber,

and headed toward the house

when by chance I spotted it

in the back field, near the woods

that drop down to Rush Run, the

creek like a vein through our farm,

and shouted to him, though a shadow

hid whether it was buck

or doe–he’d only got a permit for buck.

But Cody said later he saw the

huge rack flecked with light

shining as though by moon

rise, or sun, like something not

quite of this earth, just as

he took after it, running

into the russet of late autumn

when dusk rises early off the land

toward the sky, and bright

red hats dot the woods for five days like apples hanging after frost,

sometimes up in trees, and waiting

the hours of forever

for the creatures to leg their way

into the sights,

noiseless but for the small rustle of

leaves, their enormous eyes knowing

and uncertain at once before

the simultaneous explosion and kick

like a hoof deep in a shoulder,

then the stutter of the second shot–

or someone else’s

firing from another side: it happens,

that close. I even prayed. Please God,

let the boy get that deer, he’s only got one

bullet. I heard the rifle

and so did Mother, upstairs

in her room, and when I told her, she said if Cody got it, have him

bring it around so I can see it

up close. I asked her twice,

was she sure, Mother

having just moved in,

but she said she was.

Then Cody came back

to get the truck, all full

of himself and glory; I’ve never seen

that boy so burning happy, sweating,

flushed, breathing like a trumpeter

gone to heaven and crying how beautiful

the old buck was, how beautiful,

and I told him to bring it around

for Mother to see: the size of the hole in the neck,

the crimson on brown and the heart

convulsing on the way it does, maybe forty minutes

even if it’s taken out. Well Mother,

she fell apart

she cried and cried on me like a stone

dissolving in water and I held her,

laughing until I cried myself,

feeling her thick, ancient body on spindly legs giving

out beneath her,

the thready blue pulse in her throat

buried into mine as though all the water

were blood and running together in

Rush Run where the deer drink.


As I’ve drafted about fifty pages of a novel featuring a widow and her chickens, I’ve hunted for this: how to write the pain of an elderly woman who has suffered terrible losses while making the reader root for her crazy schemes.  Or not so crazy.  Louisa’s voice needs to most often be humorous even as she deals with advancing age.  I’ll use metaphor as a technique to let the reader see into her fears and isolation indirectly but most deeply.

The poem I’ve posted is a rough draft for a scene between a much younger Louisa and her aged mother.  She’s flashing back to soon after she brought her mother, unaccustomed to country life, to live with her (and her family) out on the farm where she now lives alone. I’ve brought her to this memory of her grandson, Cody, and the revulsion for hunting that ultimately came from killing the buck.  Old and vulnerable herself now, as she relives the moment with her mother, she understands what her mother felt.  The death of the old buck is one metaphor, and Louisa’s remembering her mother sobbing in her arms becomes another.  I don’t think Louisa will need to ruminate about herself for the reader to feel with and understand her emotionally.  Can you imagine this being effective?

You might wonder why it’s cast as a poem right now. Sometimes I find it helps my fiction to do this first, especially with a topic that I’m treating metaphorically.  It’s a way to clarify essential language and the speaker’s attitude.  Now I’ll go back and write it in full scene, aiming for a mix that captures voice, place, way of life, adds laughter to the beginning and holds the pain and pathos of the end.   In my next post, I’ll put this this up in prose.  (Or at least the beginning of it!)


5 Responses to On Hunting and Metaphor

  1. My father, who had hunted all his life, spent his last years on a multi-acred farmland in upstate Connecticut populated by the customary four-legged homesteaders. Dad had promised to bag an antler trophy for a pal. Speaking on the phone one day to a mutual friend, Dad looked out the window and spotted a buck nibbling in the north pasture. “I think I see Harry’s antlers,” he explained as he hung up, then got one of his rifles, loaded it, pointed it out the window, aimed and fired. The deer fell. Like any good hunter, Dad went outside and rushed toward the scene in case he needed to finish off the kill. The heart attack that felled father came so quickly that he didn’t have time to get his nytro pills out of his pocket, so his end was swift and merciful. Such was the symmetry of the morning: Dad got the deer, and the deer got Dad.

  2. This was enormously powerful and real … so much so that I know I will never be able to read the story. My father was a lifelong, responsible hunter which nonetheless traumatized my childhood. Others may appreciate the metaphor; my heart cannot.

    • You have highlighted something important about literature; how strongly it can take us to another place and time, and how upsetting it can be to be unexpectedly connected through language and story to some of our oldest and deepest traumas. Something literature can also do, at its best, is give us a vicarious experience by which we feel no longer alone with that trauma. By living inside a character’s mind as s/he takes the journey toward peace, we may get there too. The new book isn’t about hunting, of course, and this scene is the only one I plan to use which depicts it. Like you, Louisa’s prematurely deceased grandson, was traumatized by hunting. In fact, loving the deer was important to him. His grandfather, Harold, completely abandoned hunting–even though they used the meat–so as not to upset him. In the scene I’m working on, the underlying idea is the pathos, sadness, pain of hunting, which to which Louisa now relates. Thanks so much for commenting and sharing your experience.

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