Michael had woken early that day and switched off his alarm clock. He waited for the aching in his joints to ease up, then slowly moved his legs over the side of his bed. The covers felt too heavy and he pushed them aside, grunting. He slowly levered himself up on his elbows, sitting on the bed’s edge and letting his feet touch the cold, wooden floorboards. He shivered, but glared at the still warm covers lying next to him accusingly.
The glasses were on the side table by his alarm clock, where he always left them. The room came into focus as he put them on. It was 5:18, which meant he’d stayed in bed longer than he’d meant to. The protests of his joints went ignored as he hurried to make up for lost time, washing his face and combing his hair before dressing: a woolen undergarment, covered by thick brown trousers and a warm flannel shirt.
Downstairs, he heated strong, black coffee in a tin pot and drank it with two pieces of toast. It was 5:38. He’d wanted to leave by 5:30, but everything took a little bit longer than he thought it should. He got the rifle out of its cabinet at 5.45, after putting on his hunting jacket and getting a wide-brimmed canvas hat from the coat pegs. The gun passed carefully under his eyes, letting him examine it all over. He’d cleaned it the previous evening before he’d gone to bed, but he liked to be sure. At 5:53 he was out the door.
The forests around the house were extensive, stretching away for dozens and dozens of miles. It took twenty minutes driving along a dirt track to reach the road that skirted its fringes, and Michael knew that meant he still lived right on the very edge of he wilderness. His breath hung in front of them, slowly drifting apart in the still air. The sun hadn’t risen and the twilight left the ground under the trees dark and shadowed. Michael left the small clearing around his house and headed down a path that led deep into the woods.
It was easy going at first as he travelled along the frequently walked route. By 9:00 the path was becoming narrower, the undergrowth infringing along it. Every so often thorns or brambles would cross it, or a tree would have begun tentatively reaching over it. He stepped over or ducked under these, rather than taking the time to clear the path again. Each time he had to stop and prepare himself, either carefully lifting a leg up and over, or grunting as he bent his back.
By 9:30 the sun could be seen through the branches, still low in the sky but making the day noticeably warmer. Michael could feel himself breathing more heavily and sweating. He opened the front of his hunting jacket and stopped, taking a drink from the water bottle he’d brought with him. As he wiped his lips, his eyes fell upon a broken bough hanging from a tree just off the path. He strapped the water bottle back to his belt and walked over to the hanging branch. The soft earth below held the prints of a large stag. Michael smiled to himself and set off in the direction the tracks led.
He followed the tracks for an hour, losing them occasionally but always finding them again through a snapped twig, trampled plant or some gouged earth where the creature had slipped. They led him into thicker and thicker parts of the forest. Michael made sure to keep track of which direction he was moving. People had died out here, he knew. In his younger days he’d helped search for a few of them. Now he just got phone calls asking if he’d seen anything.
At 12:25 he came to a stream, flowing slowly through a channel it had carved. He could see the stag’s prints on this side and where it had landed on the far side, losing its footing and scrabbling at the side of the ditch, but managing to climb up. He could see the trunk of a tree further down the stream, lying across it and connecting the two banks. He tightened the strap holding the rifle across his back and set off towards it.
The log looked stable, if a bit mossy. Rot hadn’t set in and it stretched far enough onto each bank to keep it stable. Michael kicked it with his boots but it sounded sturdy. He checked the gun’s straps again, then clambered onto it. The far side was only a couple of metres, if that. He set off with his arms stretched out to either side, moving them a little to keep balance and carefully pigeon-stepping along the tree. Half-way across he lost his balance, waving madly in an attempt not to fall. He took another step but couldn’t recover. He started to teeter over but threw himself forward towards the far side.
The trunk slammed against his chest, knocking the wind out of him, and he wrapped his arms around the tree, pressing himself into it in a tight embrace. He grunted and wheezed out a “Damn” between gritted teeth. He hadn’t dropped anything, but one leg was dangling over the side of the log, hanging in the air. He swung it up and crawled forwards slowly, reaching the over side and tumbling onto the ground, lying there as he fought to get his breath back, then picking himself up.
He carried on through the forest, aware of a dull ache in his left knee. Probably a bruise, but he’d take something for it before he went to bed, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to walk properly for a week. He thought he could hear a rattling from his gun, but had inspected it after the fall and didn’t find anything wrong. Still, he reasoned, better safe than sorry. He slung the gun around and leaned back against a tree, raising it up to get a closer look.
At that moment he saw it and froze. Ahead of him, not more than twenty metres, was the stag. Just its back half. The rest of it was hidden behind a tree. Michael kept the gun still and carefully slid his hand into a pocket in his hunting jacket, taking out a round and loading it. He brought the rifle up to aim it, sighting down at the stag through his scope, barely needed at this distance. He noticed that his hands shook more than they used to.
He waited, hoping that the stag would head out from behind the tree and give him a clean shot. He wasn’t sure how long it was until he saw it move, but eventually it did. The muscles along its back stretched seconds before its rear legs lifted off the ground to move a few inches forwards, one after the other. Michael noticed a limp in one of its legs and moved the rifle ever so slightly to hold the stag’s head, now clearly visible on the other side of the tree, in his cross hairs. He remembered the snapped branches, the gouges in the earth, the prints scraped on the bank of the stream. He squeezed his finger.