Dark Fields

when we used to shine a beam into the night

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

We used to see 40 of them, sometimes more, out in the fields under the deep, starless sky. My shoulder aching, my fingers freezing, I leaned out the truck window and held the spotlight as high as I could. Every year. Every October and November. Every night we were up north, we looked for deer out in the ragged cornfields, stripped all but clean by the tractors and the combines.

When I was young, you’d see herds of deer, milling around together in the dark, snuffling through crusty, chunky soil, sparkling with frost. They’d pick through the stray, forgotten cornstalks, tongues fumbling for leftover kernels.

How many cars roared by on the worn out blacktop? How many people – windows up, heat vents blasting – sailed by in the dark? If they could see all these deer, I thought, then they’d stop.

How many cars roared by on the worn out blacktop? How many people – windows up, heat vents blasting – sailed by in the dark? If they could see all these deer, I thought, then they’d stop. They’d pull over and ogle this weird gathering of animals, poking around the sleepy fields on skinny legs and black hooves.

But the hunters stop. They ease over into the gravel and weeds to shine the fields, dissecting the night with a glaring electric spear, their breath billowing from the windows.

We’d slow down for every single field, even for clear spots in the woods where nothing grew but grass and little scrubby pine trees. We’d shine the fields at low speed, stopping when we caught sight of their hazy brown fur. It might be one deer, it might be 30, we’d stop and scan the field all the same. The deer rarely cared. One or two might raise up their heads, more curious than alarmed, to stare back into the spotlight. Their eyes shone bright green and yellow.

We left our coats on and kept the windows rolled down. It was just easier that way. When I was little, my dad would drive, my grandpa would run the spotlight, and I’d sit between the two big men, bored as hell. The first half hour was great, but once the snacks were gone and I had lost count of the deer – first 12, now 20, now 30 – I was ready to head back to our cabin and its little television. Dad and grandpa would holler at each other over the hot engine and the gushing wind. They’d chat endlessly about who shot what deer what year in what neck of what woods.

They were sizing things up. Figuring out the different patterns of the herds, predicting their comings and goings. Where did the deer eat at night? How much longer would they graze before moving on? And always, forever, where were the bucks?

Grandpa came out with us less and less, so I took over the spotlight. You plugged the curly cord into the cigarette lighter. You shut it off between the fields or just pointed it down into the ditch if the next one was close.

I quickly learned to hold the light high and shine it so the beam would paint a wide stripe clear across the field, right up to the trees way in the back. You’d keep it steady at that angle as you panned from side to side. I’d linger on the deer and dad would grab the binoculars for a better look, talking to himself about what deer was shot on what field in what year. I added little to that conversation. Those things never stood still in my memory, but they were constantly rambling through his.

The years kept passing. The herds dwindled. And each night after we had checked the last field, we’d roll up the windows and pull onto the highway, headed for home. In the darkness, the deer would scratch at the dirt and fill up their bellies.

Out on the lakes, thin, clear ice would creep out from the shoreline, and the air would move, cold and quiet, slowly bending black oak branches toward Thanksgiving.

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