The hunter requires a well-maintained weapon, a sure aim, and a trusting patience. To hunt, to stake out a spit of wood, to kill his prized game, he must enjoy waiting. The hunter stalks the Red Creek Pines. His trust in others has wasted away. He does trust that a shot will end his waiting.
A mournful wind whistles off the sputtering creek and permeates the Pines with whispered rumors. Leaves crisp with decay crunch under the hunter’s boots when he shifts his crouched weight. Hiding in a blind is unsportsmanlike, so he leans against a slash pine in the open. Grips his .303 rifle. He’s known these woods his whole life. He recalls every inch of bark.
The hunter cocks back the bolt to check the round in the chamber in the same way a sophisticated man pulls back a pressed sleeve to check his Rolex. The brass bullet casing is there, winks at the hunter in the hazy light. Far away, where the murky spaces between the boughs deepen from purple to blue to black, an indistinct form curls out of sight. Too large to be a deer, the hunter reasons.
On this hunt, he is distracted. His wife works for a firm in the city. The hunter pictures the train that ferries her to a big fancy high-rise. Inside, haircuts in navy blazers pontificate, a lunch cart doles out plastic wrapped carboard sandwiches, and a sophisticated man pines over his wife’s fitted skirt. The hunter’s senses tell him that she has given herself to this other man’s eloquent ways.
Ahead on the game trail, the palmettos shake tellingly. The hunter crouches in readiness as a mature buck ambles proudly onto his path. It would make for a fine kill, but the hunter is highly discerning. Only the perfect game will satisfy, so he spares this one. The whitetail bounds away through undergrowth and naivety.
There, where the buck leapt from the path, a fresh trail of boot prints winds on in the loamy dirt. These tracks are the only indication that someone else walks the Pines. He follows them onward into the darkening trees. The hunter wonders where the owner of these boots has gone. Briefly, he considers calling out after them. Every woodsman knows tales of men who ventured into the trees never to be seen again. Like the abyssal forests opened wide and swallowed them whole.
Left after right, the boot prints continue. A misty rain falls, casting the edges of everything with a spider silk-like veneer. The next boot print is strangely malformed. It stretches too long. The toe splits far wider than the heel. A deep cavity bisects the length. As if the foot were cleaving in half. The next print ruptures even wider. A few more yards, and the tracks transform entirely. The hunter squats over the altered hoofprints. He struggles to comprehend. Perhaps the man had walked backwards out of the woods, carefully retracing his own footfalls. Or maybe he mounted a hoofed beast and rode away. No explanation can account for the inhuman impressions in the mud.
The hunter gathers his surroundings. He cannot hear the creek. He doesn’t recognize the lean of the trees around him. He has charted every tract of these woods, yet impossibly, he does not recognize this part of the Pines. His trust even in himself begins to slip. The rain now puddles in the half-man hoofprints. Steam hisses and rises from them like miniature volcanic pools.
A thudding crunch sounds in the underbrush close by. The hunter cycles the rifle’s bolt into firing position. He is anxious to end the waiting. Through twisted copse, a pure white buck walks with its head down greedily chomping moss and alfalfa.
The deer stands five feet at the shoulder and ripples with muscle beneath glossy ivory fur. The hunter reckons there’s never been one so big and such albino white. Slate black antlers curl inward like a massive crown of barbed thorns. Must be a twenty-five pointer. It turns to the hunter with eyes of ruby fire. Dark drool, thick and oily, stains the fur around the mouth and dribbles in stringy threads. The deer’s slick lips tighten into an animalistic grin of condescension.
The beast’s haughty smile seems to the hunter like the conceited grin of a sophisticated man. He presses the rifle stock against his shoulder, lines up the sights. The weapon pulses with his heartbeat. The white buck stands tall, presents a clear shot for the hunter. Arrogant in the face of destruction.
The hunter exhales. Pulls the trigger. Absorbs the recoil. The thunder of the gunshot is impossibly loud.
In the instant that bullet pierces, a blinding flare of anomalous energy erupts from within the white buck. Explosive force. The forest rumbles with the echo of incredible electric discharge. The tree nearest the buck is splintered, sends pine shrapnel spinning. The beast disappears in a cloud of steam and dust.
The barrel of the .303 smokes. Burnt gunpowder is odorous in the air, blends with the scent of singed hair and flesh. The hunter drops the rifle in disbelief. He pulls the hat off his balding head and tosses it aside too. Despite the steady drizzle, his mouth is dry as cotton. He takes hesitant steps toward the smoking crater.
In a scorched hollow, wreathed in smoke, the white buck lies. Half of it. The black antlers and ruby eyes are intact, the arrogance replaced by the eternal surprise of death. The tongue lolls out. A sharp red hole in the buck’s white neck marks the kill shot. The front legs and hooves are twisted in death thrash. The torso is bisected by a cauterized line of burnt flesh and ash. The back legs and half the body are fully incinerated, scattered cinders on the forest floor.
The hunter stares into the smoking wreck of his kill for a long time. The smolders conjure maddening wispy images: a Rolex wearing wrist slips around his wife’s waistline, and a sophisticated man grins until his teeth and eyes melt like black candle wax. The misty twilight of the Pines wanes to the burnt orange and purple of evening. Darkness clings to every corner of the forest. The hunter is lost in the black. He drops to his knees before the half-corpse and sinks his hands deep into the ashen dirt. He smears blackened stripes of exhumed remains down his face. That’s when it speaks to him.
“How does the blind man kill his game?” The dead deer’s mouth moves loosely, the teeth chomping over its limp tongue. The voice gnashes like a hundred thousand years of decaying leaves heaped on the forest floor.
“I don’t know. He can’t fire a gun,” The hunter says. His voice comes out slow.
“Sure, he can,” says the dead deer. “His world may become darkness, but he still has both hands.” The tongue falls out of its mouth, severed by grating teeth.
“But how does he see his target?”
“Do you have to see a thing to know it’s there?” The dead deer lifts one twisted hoof to point at the hunter. White fur under ruby eyes droops in decay.
“I suppose not.”
“And how do you suppose he went blind?”
The hunter is silent.
“He committed the sin of trust.” The detritus voice emanates from the still-smoking crater. “For one moment he believed he was not alone, and they plucked the eyes from his head.”
“Now he has only his instinct.”
The dead deer nods its disembodied head in approval. Dried leaves and singed flesh crackle in the silence.
The hunter turns under darkened boughs to retrieve his rifle. He trudges a dark path, a shot to end the waiting ahead of him. His flesh is ivory white. His temples shine black obsidian thorns. His eyes are blood ruby fire.
Janson Cobiella is a creative writing student at the University of North Florida. He is as yet unpublished, but his time is consumed with crafting surprising fiction and harrowing adventures for his many Dungeons and Dragons players. He is submitting fiction extensively.