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  • Mates
  • Matthew Neill Null (bio)

The deer’s haunch shivered in the crosshairs. The hide was winter’s gray, and the air didn’t feel like November. Cold had come early this year, indifferent as the sharpest scythe.

The haunch moved: a doe. Crosshairs swung after.

Revealing the white under-throat men never see, she balanced artfully on hind legs to pluck the wine-dark fruit hanging in the sumac. Her weight tugged off a fist of berries. Each bone-colored limb quivered in the air. Snow sifted down, snow that would be gone by noon.

Sull Mercer eased the .270 into the cleft of his shoulder and took a rest off one knee. His rifle was scoped with a 3 × 9 Leupold — an expensive piece of equipment — but Sull would have told you it was anything but a luxury. It found that tuck behind the doe’s shoulder, the corridor to heart and lung. When she passed into a notch between shagbarks, a chance would flicker. For three decades now, this rifle was comfort in his hands — the bolt worn smooth of its checkering, the burled walnut dark with weather and age. A twig popped under his shifting heel. No more than the crack of a finch’s bone.

The doe stamped a foot. Moments ticked by. She performed an elaborate dance, dropping her head and bobbing it up, then back down again and on and on, ears switching, goading him to move. She was an old doe, barren now, and knew threat by its first name. If the flag of Sull’s face rustled in the greenbriers, she’d crash through the brush. He held.

His wife craved the liver. He pictured the doe bearing it to them in her body, a gift.

She took a step, with a slight slew-footed twist of the foreleg. Sull flinched. He knew this deer! Before his son Eric went to the penitentiary, Sull helped stalk her at the abandoned quarry, where she’d bedded with a lone fawn. This dance had saved her life then. Eric was young, impatient. He tossed four careening shots as she ran. A wild clean miss, each one. It was everything Sull told him not to do. All three sons had learned it over the years, a psalm: One cartridge, one kill. The rest is just slop. In a voice chilly as springwater, Sull told him, “You work that bolt like an automatic, don’t you? Maybe they drafted the wrong one of you.” [End Page 34]

Eric didn’t speak to him after that. It made Sull bite his lip to think it now. But Sull was calm, even as the doe’s stormy eyes slid over his body. He’d killed enough deer to hang every hook in a slaughterhouse, and few things excited him now that his children had gone on. The doe put forth a tentative hoof. The crosshairs leapt and a peal of thunder rattled the woods. Wrens vanished from the sumac into that pure balance: receding echoes, an expanding silence.

A fox had taken five of the Rockinghams Sull raised as a crib against lean winter months. They didn’t need the hens, really, with the grocery selling them on the cheap, but he nursed their absence like a blister. The thought of a deer hanging — the lactic acid breaking down, the meat’s surface curing to a glossy black rind — made him feel confident in his sustenance.

She didn’t travel a yard. The bullet had ripped a wet socket through the heart, and the doe collapsed as if her knees had turned to stove ash. Hind legs kicked convulsively, brooming leaves. Sull kept the scope on her as she seized, then thumbed on the safety when death was sure. Approaching, he checked his pocket for the familiar heft of the Schrade. She was hoary with age across the muzzle and shanks. Nicked, scalloped hooves. Her muskiness drifted up. The body had a catatonic beauty, a still life. The exit wound, a slight red star, told a perfect shot. Shame no one else would see it. Marion would be happy for the liver, though, and maybe the twins...


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pp. 34-49
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