Sometimes songs get lodged in my head—unbidden and fully armed with their particular breed of nostalgia. Four mornings ago, as I drove through the gum trees at the edge of the park with Mark, the song, Waltzing Matilda, came through my mind. My dad used to sing it to me before bed and it was my favorite. It's funny how, as children, the macabre and the heartsick are free of demons. A song is still just a beautiful song. Now, when I look back on that ballad, I think it’s ironic that it was what I requested my dad sing most.
After the rain, Eucalyptus trees release this intoxicating and smooth resin—like peppermint, fresh grass with a light hint of sweet flowers. Mark, his hunting dog, Toby, and I wandered through the forest of gum trees at the base of the game park. I was helping him with the deer sorting that day and I thought we were there so he could show me the lay of the land. Suddenly, we came upon a ravine. Mark help up his hand to be quiet. As I looked across the stream over to the other side of the hill, I saw a Sika Spiker—what we call the stags whose antlers don’t grow to impressive lengths but kind of lie stilted on their heads. Mark, smiling because I spotted the deer before him, beckoned me down to the earth. There I lay, holding the Sako 26 rifle to my shoulder until I found the Sika in the scope. The kill zone, as Mark calls it, lies right above the front leg, below the spine—where the heart and lungs converge. I took a deep breath and pulled the trigger.
How to describe the sound of a bullet released near your ear? It’s forceful and aggressive as if the sound was designed to embody the meaning of the object. I looked up in time to watch him tumble down the hill—a lifeless body rolling, head first, through the bush. I wish I could say I felt remorse, a moment of sadness. Instead my heart was beating so strongly in my chest I could feel the beat in my neck. Mark gave me a hug and it felt nice—I felt like I’d made him proud (one could psycho-analyze my intense need to make men who could be my father proud, but I don’t really want to go down that strange rabbit hole).
When we found the spiker we discovered that my aim was a little too high and I’d only broken his back—he was dying, but slower than he should. This is when I felt the first hint of grief, understanding that I’d aimed to end a life and while I’d met my mark, I hadn’t been true. Because of me, a creature was suffering. Mark stuck his knife in his lungs and heart to hasten his death. Then we set to work gutting him.
Mark showed me how to gut creature so that you can carry him when you’re out hunting alone and need to get him back to camp. He told me he could carry the creature up the hill for me but I don’t like to do things halfway. So I strapped the stag to my back—it’s gaping neck and gut flushing excess blood down my shirt and my pants—and I carried him up the hill. God damn he was heavy—he weighed at least as much as me. And he smelled—the pungent, ripe and musky scent of a stag in the woods but also the new smell—that of blood and the inside of a body.
For the next eight hours Mark and I sorted hinds and stags and all manner of other tasks on the station (more on that later). As dusk fell and the rain clouds descended in a thick haze, Mark asked me if I wanted to go to the Beech forest again. I said yes. Bloodlust—is this what it feels like? Who am I?
I spotted a beautiful spotted Fallow hind on a hillside about 175 yards from us. When I fired, I felt the same rush and charge singe through my body but the moment we came upon her corpse I noticed a single blade of grass between her teeth. It took me by surprise, how small and neat her teeth were. But, more significantly, the fact that she’d been mid meal when I shot her—the remnants of her last moments not fully absorbed—affected me the most.
It was my turn to gut the deer. Mark gave me his knife as well as step-by-step instructions as I slit the coat over her belly. Very carefully, I dragged his knife through the membrane separating her skin and her gut. You don’t want to cut the gut, Mark told me. Next, I reached my arms inside her body and sliced through her diaphragm, stuck my arms elbow deep in her chest, grabbed hold of her lungs, her heart and tugged. Not even in biology have I held organs in my hands—they felt soft and spongy beneath my grip.
After I’d tugged her intestines, giant belly and esophagus out onto the grass I thought, “Oh god, my worst fears are confirmed. I really am a sociopath.”
I really, really enjoyed it. Raised my grandmother and mother, both pretty firm pacifists and both terrified of guns, I don’t know where this all came from. Granted—I’m not really shocked by my behavior. I like to know how things work, I’m competitive, I like to be outside and I like to learn new skills.
Why do I enjoy killing? I think a large part of the reason is that we serve venison at least twice a week in the lodge for dinner, not to mention all the breakfast and lunches where it’s present. And the venison we serve is the venison that Mark shoots. Mark doesn’t shoot the deer just because he likes ending a creature’s life. He does it to feed the guests at the lodge—who would eat venison anyway, just venison that’s been farmed and slaughtered in that fashion.
There are no natural predators for deer here in New Zealand. They were introduced for sport—they’re not native. New Zealand is literally teeming with deer. And if deer are not hunted, their population with double in less than two years creating an environmental disaster. They’ll starve to death.
Mark isn’t this cold-blooded, harsh and threatening man. He legitimately loves animals—he loves to understand how they work, to watch and observe them from afar. You should see him out in the bush—he gets this look of quiet admiration. For a still-waters-run-deep sort of fellow, that look might as well be as public and declarative as a love song.
How much of this is justification for the fact that I’ve killed two creatures intentionally, it’s hard to say. All I am saying is, Mark gave me my own knife yesterday, I intend to use it, and I don’t feel guilty