Editor's Note (October 2016): Natural Instincts

THE FIRST TIME I saw a deer in the woods, I raised a single-shot 20-gauge and took aim. I was nine or 10 years old and had a half-decent shot after a few months of target practice in the woods behind our house. My father, uncles, and older cousins were great hunters. Every Thanksgiving weekend, they’d all come back on Saturday evening, hauling deer of various sizes in the beds of their trucks. They hung the deer by their legs in a line in our garage, and Dad cooked up a big pot of “shack stew,” which consisted of meat from small game—squirrel and dove and, yes, even crow—mixed with potatoes, green peppers, and onions. The room smelled like black pepper and kerosene.

“That’ll clear your sinuses,” I remember Dad saying as he handed me a bowl.

They were the men I knew, which made them the men I wanted to be, so on my first day of hunting alone I sat in the stand for hours waiting to see deer. I heard them first. Their walk was more purposeful than the foolish squirrels that had been shuffling in the leaves all afternoon. My heart beat faster than their trot. I raised the 20-gauge against my skinny chest. To tell you the truth, it hurt when it kicked, but I wouldn’t dare say that back then. My hands trembled as I found them in my open sights, dropping the dot on the end of the barrel into the center of the bridge that rested in front of my eye.

The first doe passed.

And then the second doe passed.

I completely froze. I couldn’t do it. Soon they were gone, never knowing I was there, and I felt like a failure. I went home and dunked a Nerf basketball in my room all night, wondering if I deserved my last name.

My younger brother didn’t have the same problem. On his first hunting trip by himself, he spotted a buttonhead buck and unloaded four shots from a .410 shotgun, missing every time. The foolish young deer didn’t move, though, so the foolish young boy took his gun by the barrel and held it over his head. But just before my brother threw the gun at the deer, our father hollered through the leaves—“Put that damn gun down, Kenneth Frederick!” It was like that with Dad; he was there even when we didn’t know it. The little buck trotted off.

You might say these were three lucky deer, the two does I was too scared to shoot and the young buck my brother couldn’t hit. You could also say lots of other things, about people and nature, about fathers and sons, about identity. This month, we have several stories about our relationships with our instincts—from writer Leigh Ann Henion’s attempt to understand the coyote who stole her chicken, or natural resources coordinator Don Seriff’s quest to keep Charlotte’s bird population diverse, or even meteorologist Brad Panovich’s effort to navigate social media and scientific facts. We also have one of the most powerful stories you’ll read this month or any month—the story of Mitchell, who was born a girl but never wanted to be, and now is a transgender man fighting breast cancer.

In the years after I froze, I shot a few deer and hung them alongside the others in our garage. But I stopped hunting altogether in high school in favor of hanging out with friends. Then I went to college and started a journalism career. And before I knew it I’d become a grown man who doesn’t hunt and doesn’t even have a gun in the house. I scoop up spiders on pieces of paper and take them outside, where they can either eat or be eaten, whatever nature wants. And I have a red Solo cup labeled “Cricket Cup,” for the safe removal of crickets.

Four years ago, though, I went home for Thanksgiving and my father, in poor health after a series of strokes that spring, told me he didn’t have any deer meat in the freezer. He asked if I would fix that for him, in the same way he might’ve asked me to get him a cup of coffee.

That Saturday, just as the sun started to set in the woods that surrounded my childhood home, a doe walked toward my stand. She faced me, head high, and with the pull of the trigger and a quick red flash, I sent a slug through the middle of her throat. She died instantly. I sat there for a bit before hearing more shuffling in the leaves. Out of the shadowy branches walked two fawns. They looked down at their mother, then at each other, then down again.

They stayed there until after dark, and so did I, all three of us wondering where in the hell we go from here. I felt awful. But then I heard a yell from the house, “Mike?” Dad hollered. “You get one?”

Michael Graff

Michael Graff is executive editor of Charlotte magazine. Email him here, or find him on twitter @michaelngraff.

Also by Michael Graff:

Mustang Green: A Season of Hope in a Segregated City
Editor's Notes (Feb. 2016): Originals, Remastered
Charlotteans of the Year 2015: Cops & Barbers
Editor's Note (Oct. 2015): Lord, We Climbed a Mountain

This article appears in the October 2016 issue of Charlotte Magazine

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