Her First Elk
She had killed an elk once. She had been a young woman, just out of
college her beloved father already three years in the grave and had set
out early on opening morning, hiking uphill through a forest of huge
ponderosa pines, with the stars shining like sparks through their boughs, and
owls calling all around her, and her breath rising strong in puffs and clouds as
she climbed, and a shimmering at the edge of her vision like the electricity in
the night sky that sometimes precedes the arrival of the northern lights, or
The hunt was over astonishingly quickly; years later, she would realize that the best hunts stretch out four or five weeks, and sometimes never result in a taking. But this one had ended in the first hour, on the first day.
Even before daylight, she had caught the scent of the herd bedded down just ahead of her, a scent sweeter and ranker than that of any number of stabled horses; and creeping closer, she had been able to hear their herd sounds, their little mewings and grunts.
She crouched behind one of the giant trees, shivering from both the cold and her excitement sharply, she had the thought that she wished her father were there with her, that one morning, to see this, to participate and then she was shivering again, and there was nothing in her mind but elk.
Slowly, the day became light, and she sank lower into the tall grass beneath the big pines, the scent of the grass sweet upon her skin; and the lighter the day became, the farther she flattened herself down into that yellow grass.
The elk rose to their feet just ahead of her, and at first she thought they had somehow scented her, even though the days warming currents had not yet begun to ascend the hill even though the last of the nights heavier, cooling currents were still sliding in rolling waves down the mountain, the faint breeze in her face carrying the ripe scent of the herd downhill, straight to her.
But they were only grazing, wandering around now, still mewing and clucking and barking and coughing, and feeding on the same sweet- scented grass that she was hiding in.
She could hear their teeth grinding as they chewed, could hear the clicking of their hoofs as they brushed against rocks.
These creatures seemed a long way from the dinners that her father had fixed out on the barbecue grill, bringing in the sizzling red meat and carving it quickly before putting it on her childs plate and saying, Elk; but it was the same animal they were all the same animal, nearly a dozen years later.
Now the herd was drifting like water, or slow- flickering flames, out of the giant pines and into a stand of aspen, the gold leaves underfoot the color of their hides, and the stark white trunks of the aspen grove making it look as if the herd were trapped behind bars; though still they kept drifting, flowing in and out of and between those bars, and when Jyl saw the biggest one, the giant among them, she picked him, not knowing any better unaware that the meat would be tougher than that of a younger animal.
Raising up on one knee, she found the shot no more difficult for her than sinking a pool ball in a corner pocket: tracking with the end of her rifle and the crosshairs of the scope, the cleft formed just behind his right shoulder as he quartered away from her, she did not allow herself to be distracted by the magnificent crown of antlers atop his head and when he stopped, in his last moment, and swung his head to face her, having sensed her presence, she squeezed the trigger as she had been taught to do back when she was a girl. The giant elk leapt hump-shouldered like a bull in a rodeo, then took a few running steps before stumbling, as if the bullet had not shredded his heart and half his lungs but had instead merely confused him.
Copyright © 2006 by Rick Bass. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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