Hunting With His Dad was published in the August 21, 1988, edition of the Toronto Star. It was a Judge’s Choice in the Toronto Star Short Story Writing Contest:
They’d been hunting on the big island all week, just the two of them, making runs as best they could, but without any luck. When the buck showed itself at the edge of the field, Tom knew it was too late in the day to shoot, with the long walk back to the boat and the storm coming on, but it looked like a clean shot, so he took it. By the time he and his dad downed the deer and cleaned it out, it was dark and the wind was blowing an icy snow hard off the lake.
They decided that Tom would drag the deer to a sheltered cove a few hundred yards away. His father headed out along the trail that ran the length of the island back to where they had left their boat, to bring it up to the shoreline to meet him. In daylight, it would have been a 20-minute walk.
The route Tom took was flat and lightly wooded, but in the blackness he found himself tripped up by anything that lay in his path. Low-hanging branches whipped his face and the dead deer caught on rocks and wedged itself between trees. It took him almost two hours to reach the lake. He threw himself down on a moss-covered hill, exhausted, wet through with sweat and as thirsty as he’d ever been in his life.
He looked out over the cold, black expanse of water. Where was his dad? Four-foot waves were smashing up over the rocky shore. He could see a few points of light, diffused through the steady snow, on the mainland almost a mile away, but no lights from a boat. With the howl of the wind, he could not have heard the boat’s motor even if it were there.
Still, he couldn’t bring himself to believe that his father might be in trouble. His dad had hunted and been on the lakes all his life. He remembered when they had hunted together, back when Tom was in his teens. His dad had never carried a compass, always knowing where he was in the bush and the exact direction to take to get out. And he’d seen him handle a smaller boat in worse conditions than these.
Then he realized that the man he was remembering was his father of 20 years ago, the last time they’d hunted together. It had seemed strange to be hunting with him again, after so many years apart. His dad, getting on in years, had wanted to hunt with his son again a few last times while he was still able. Tom had children of his own now, and his dad was . . . what was it? Sixty-three? It was hard to believe.
Tom left the deer and followed his tracks back where he’d come. By the time he got to where he’d killed the deer, the tracks were covered with fresh snow. He started along his father’s route – across the field through the young pines, over a maple ridge and around the edge of a big alder swamp. From there the trail was less well-defined, going up a hill, along a ridge to a hydro cut. Twice he took a wrong turn and had to get out his small pocket light until he was back on the main path. He called out to his father as he walked, but in the howling wind, his voice wouldn’t have carried more than a hundred feet.
At last he made it back to the boat tied up at the dock of an empty cottage. There was no sign of his father.
He hasn’t even made it this far, he thought. He must have gotten lost or fallen and broken a leg. Or worse still, he might have had a heart attack.
Tom was scared now. He got the big heavy electric lantern from under one of the seats of the boat and headed once more through the trail – along the hydro cut, ridge and swamp, through the maples and to the field – looking into every bush and hole, expecting each time to see his father’s body. But he found nothing.
Earlier, he had seen a light in a cottage not far from where he had left the deer. Now he headed for it, running and stumbling through the rough, wooded terrain. He went straight to the lighted kitchen and banged hard on the door. He heard noises inside, but no one came. He banged again, harder and with more urgency. A bearded face appeared at the window.
“What do you want?”
“It’s my father. He’s hurt. Have you got a phone?”
The man hesitated. “Just a minute.”
The door opened and Tom entered. The man motioned to a corner.
The operator connected Tom to the provincial police and he told them his story. They said they’d be there as soon as they could find a boat big enough to make it through the storm.
Tom hung up and looked at the floor, trying to collect his thoughts. After a minute, he raised his head and looked about the interior of the little house. The table, two chairs and kitchen counter were piled high with oily rags, old work gloves, dirty dishes and beer bottles. The ceiling was smoky yellow, badly cracked and water-stained. One wall was partly drywalled, with fibreglass insulation showing out between the bare studs. The grime on them showed that the repair job had been abandoned for some months now. In the living room there was a partly disassembled snowmobile.
The man came down some narrow wooden stairs carrying a bottle of whisky. Only now did Tom take a good look at him. The man appeared to be somewhere between 40 and 60 years old. His wiry beard was a dirty, gray-brown color and his long hair was tied back behind his back. He wore slippers and an old, oil-stained snowmobile suit. He picked up a cup, wiped it out with an old shirt that was hanging on a peg on the wall, poured in some of the whisky and handed it to Tom.
Tom took it and drank it back. He thanked him; then he said, “The police told me I should fire three shots into the air. He might hear it.”
THE man shuffled off into a corner and returned with an old bolt- action rifle with the heaviest barrel Tom had ever seen.
“Use this one,” he said. “If he’s still alive, he’ll hear it.”
Tom went out and up a hill and fired three thunderous explosions. The first shot nearly knocked him flat.
When he got back, there was a bowl of hot stew and more whisky on the table. The man was working on the snowmobile. Tom tried to thank him, but the man made it clear he didn’t want to talk.
He ate the stew in silence, now and then sipping on the good whisky. It warmed him through and he found himself thinking of years ago when he was a boy and of his dad, as he had been back then.
He remembered his father coming home worn out every day from the store, and their mother telling them to give their dad some peace. A lot of nights he’d come in and head straight to his room, and their mom would say how bad things were going at the store, and that dad’s ulcer was acting up again, and they’d all sit down to eat without him, everyone feeling uneasy and helpless. Then the store was gone and his father’s nerves were bad, and things were worse than before.
His father started to see everything negatively and he hardly talked to them any more and, when he did, it was to say that the world was in a mess and things weren’t going to get any better, and he criticized everybody and everything until Tom didn’t think he could stand it any more. As he got older, he fought a lot with his dad, and he was happy when it was time to go off to college in the city.
He took another slow sip of the whisky and, as it went down, warm and strong, he thought of the time he had the mumps and sat on the sofa with his dad’s arm around him and they’d watched The Adventures Of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn. At the end of the movie, he, only seven or eight at the time, said they don’t make movies like that any more, and his dad had laughed and messed up his hair.
He remembered the time, when he was 10, when they’d gone out hunting on Christmas Day and his dad had left him standing too long, while he had gone to dog out some rabbits and, when he got back, Tom was crying because his feet were frozen, and how bad his father had felt, and back at the truck, he’d taken Tom’s boots off and warmed each of Tom’s feet in his big, strong hands.
He thought of those wonderful camping trips at Algonquin, lying next to his dad in the tent at night, feeling safe, before his father changed jobs and couldn’t get holidays in the summer any more. And of the fine speech his dad had given at his wedding and how proud he’d felt of his father that day.
From the direction of the lake, he heard the deep sound of a powerful motor. He opened the door and saw a large boat down at the dock, rocking heavily with the waves. Two police officers were coming up the hill. He turned to say goodbye to the man. He wasn’t there. He called out to him, but no one answered.
“You won’t see him again,” said one of the constables. “Not as long as we’re here, anyway.”
On the way to the boat, they told him what they knew of the man. His engineering firm in Toronto had failed and the same year his wife left him. He’d come north and lived alone on this island ever since.
Once everyone was aboard, the big inboard fired up, its powerful engine throaty and gurgling in reverse. Then they headed slowly around the island, staying in as close to shore as they dared. Beyond the light of the cottage the lake was black. The boat was going into the wind. Its nose rose slow, riding up one side of a wave, and then falling hard down the other. The two policemen sat at the back and shone the beam of their powerful spotlight on the shore, searching along the rocks and up into any openings in the trees.
Tom stayed up front with the driver of the boat. He stood with his head above the windshield and the icy snow blew hard into his face and stung, but after the two mugs of whisky, it felt good and he breathed in the cold air and watched the beam of light pass along the rocks and between the trees.
The boat worked its way laboriously up the leeward side of the island, the light here and there eerily illuminating the eyes of deer lying sheltered out of the wind, but there was no sign of his father. They came to the end of the island and passed through a channel and suddenly they were in the open lake. The wind was stronger here and, going down the other side of the island, they had the wind at their backs and it was harder to keep a slow searching speed.
It now seemed to Tom that they were not going to find his father along the shore anywhere, and he went back and told the officers that they had to mount a search party on the island. They said it was impossible at night, in such bad weather. Tom got mad and said that he’d go it alone, but they said one lost hunter was enough. Tomorrow they could get dogs and more men, and do it right. But Tom knew that if his dad were lying unconscious somewhere, tomorrow would be too late.
WHEN he thought that his father really might die, his chest got tight and he thought of his mother living in that big house alone. He thought of how she’d cry and how hard it would be on all of them. He remembered his dad’s brother’s funeral and how all his children had cried and held each other, and he wondered if it would be like that, and if he’d cry. He thought somehow that he wouldn’t – even if they found his father dead that night, he’d go all quiet inside, but he wouldn’t cry. He remembered his dad saying that, when his own mother had died, he hadn’t cried, even when they buried her, and it had taken six weeks before he realized that she was really gone.
One of the policemen shouted. He looked up and saw the searchlight was on a man waving on the shore.
“It’s the old man from the cottage,” the driver yelled. “He’s found something.”
They put ashore at a dock about fifty yards further along. The man was waiting. He talked to one of the policemen and pointed up the hill.
“He’s okay,” the policeman called back. “Lost and tired, but all right.”
They followed the man, single file, up a rocky incline and into the trees. After a couple of hundred yards, they smelled smoke and saw the light from a fire reflected on a tall bunch of hemlocks at the foot of the hill. And then, there was his father, sitting by a big fire in a sheltered little gully. Beside him was a large pile of branches, enough to last the night.
When they got near the fire, one of the policemen put his hand on Tom’s shoulder and said, “Go on, give your old dad a hug.” Tom stretched out his arms to his father, and all he could manage was “Hi, dad,” before the tears came.
Paul Harbridge, of Toronto, was born in Peterborough, but grew up just outside of Gravenhurst. He is an economics graduate from the University of Toronto and is married, with two small children. He teaches English as a second language.