In late November, a man marches, his breath a burst of warmth that grows cool too quickly and dissipates.
He hears the doctor’s quiet words again.
A loon cries out. Gravel crunches under his boots. He moves further into the woods, brushing aside low-hanging limbs, damp air catching in his over-taxed lungs.
He turns a corner and there, blocking his narrow path, is a deer, a young stag. It stares at him with large brown eyes, and he remembers:
A red dot trembling on a forehead. The eyes meeting his for a heartbeat. Confusion and panic behind them. His heart beating once more. Pulling the trigger. The brown eyes going blank. The jaw slackening, death an astonishing relief. Turning, walking away.
A gunshot detonates the forest. The deer falls, soundless amid the sudden surge of noise.
Hunters pour from the trees as the deer tries to rise, its eyes on the man as if he were its deathgiver. He brushes the hunters aside and kneels. The stag’s breathing is as laboured as his own.
Before, he turned away, but now he cannot. His trembling fingers brush the stag’s wound, still warm but cooling too quickly. He begs forgiveness, but the jaw slackens, the eyes go blank, before his misty lungs can get the damp words out.
He finds no solace knowing he never killed a man who didn’t need killing.