Deleting scenes. That’s the hardest part of rewriting. I’ve cut so many scenes–so many chapters–as I’ve been rewriting. Most of them are terrible, and deserve their fate–being banished to the “Clippings” file–while others aren’t so bad, they’re boring or unnecessary. In the case of this scene, it’s redundant. I have an earlier scene that explores the same idea, but in a much more succinct and funny way.
For those of you completely unfamiliar with this never-ending story of mine, let me set up this scene, so it’s not so confusing. It’s a portal fantasy wherein four friends go out to the woods for a bachelor party, but end up in another world. Through various plot mechanics (and dumb choices on their parts), they end up getting split up. Gary, the character is this scene, ends up with an organization that seeks out and hunts the uncanny and supernatural–think, a Fantasy version of the X-Files. They begin training him to become a member of their group. In the scene before this one, he has to kill a pig. Here, he has to go hunting.
In the intervening days after the kill, no one mentioned anything about his behavior, and Willem acted as if nothing happened: he continued training Gary in different aspects of the farm, and working with him in the afternoons on his martial arts, archery and crossbow marksmanship, basic swordfighting and hand-to-hand combat. At breakfast the next morning, Willem gave Gary a cock-eyed grin as he took a bite of hamster. It seemed harmless—a grin that said, “Look, you helped make this breakfast.”
Saethe took him out horseback riding in the afternoons—and though she could be a less patient teacher than Willem, she would stay out with him until he succeeded in that day’s lesson. She too, said nothing about the incident, though Gary was certain that Willem must have reported it. His certainty wavered for, a few days after the killing of the pig, Saethe had Gary join her and a couple other members on a hunting expedition. They were going out for elk, and felt it important to have him come, for his marksmanship with a crossbow was better than expected.
He took the crossbow because it felt very familiar, much like one of his dad’s rifles or shotguns. They never went hunting, but he and his dad would go up to a shooting range in the mountains on the weekends. Gary had no love of guns or violence, but this was the way he and his dad bonded. They talked little—either at the firing range or at home—but when they were out shooting together the guns did the talking for them. After firing off a few rounds, they both loosened up, and would chuckle and tease each other. From his time out with his dad, not due to any real effort on his part but from the sheer amount of time spent at it, Gary became a pretty good shot, and he found this carried over to the crossbow. Whereas the bow and arrow required strength and skill, the crossbow asked little of him, much like a gun. He had to load, aim, and fire. Once he grew accustomed to the weight and balance of the crossbow, it was that simple, and he could hit his target at least eighty percent of the time.
They didn’t go far to hunt—fifteen miles northeast of Baelrath, into the foothills. They left before the sun rose, in the tender hours of the morning when doubts about the sun rising and the belief in witches and wishes are taken seriously. The new day hasn’t officially begun, and the old still lingers, and between the two something new is birthed momentarily, something strange and uncanny that allows for witches and wishes and the end of the world. They rode on horseback in silence, the hooves of the horses shattering the crystallized grass, crackling, crunching thud the only noise. They stopped at the border between the forest and the meadow, leaving the horses with one of the stableboys. From there, they hiked up and over a ridge, through an evergreen forest thick with undergrowth, and then down the other side to where the forest met another meadow. They went along the forest edge, slowly, deliberately. One of the men, a lanky ferret, scurried low over the forest floor looking for sign of elk—scat or tracks. He found scat from a few days earlier, and prints, but to Gary the prints were indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor, and the scat could’ve been made by any animal.
They continued on for another hour, the ferret-like man assuring them that they should be finding something soon. The sun spilled orange light over the meadow, and the crystalline grass sparkled. Stepping into the sun, bathing in its tangerine glow, was a herd of elk. For their size, they stepped daintily, picking their steps carefully. Gary had never seen elk, outside of a few photographs, and had imagined that they’d look just like deer, only a little bigger. What he saw astounded him—the mammoth size and presence stupefied him. They appeared with the sun—one minute it was dark and the clearing was empty, and the next, the sun poured out her rays and the elk sauntered out of the woods.
Saethe tapped him on the shoulder, and nodded to ready his crossbow. He had to remind himself that elk were just like pigs, but bigger, and with antlers. What if he missed, or just injured one of them, would it come rushing at him, seized by a berserker bloodlust? He slowly raised his crossbow, lining up his sight on the biggest elk out there—a behemoth with a shaggy reddish-brown coat that reminded him of redwood bark, and a set of antlers upon which could hang all the trucker hats at a NASCAR rally.
The elk took no notice of them, and nosed the ground snuffling the grass and eating it. It looked peaceful and content out there with its herd, with the sun stroking its glossy coat and polishing its antlers. Black birds flew over the field, cawing and jawing noisily like a flock of teenagers, startling a couple of the elk, who looked about skittishly. One more startle and they could leave, Gary realized—he had to fire now. His trigger finger caressed the iron trigger, and he hesitated—how could he take that animal’s life? It’s not like the pig he killed—they raised that pig solely to be eaten. This elk—it lived a life outside of the farm, free and wild, roaming wherever it pleased. Who was he to determine when and how it should die? This elk would help feed the farm for the rest of winter—there was no Whole Foods where they could pop in and pick up a pound of venison. The world was their supermarket, and if they wanted to eat well, certain sacrifices had to be made.
He pulled the trigger and the arrow whizzed across the meadow, piercing sunbeams and splitting the wind, finally penetrating the elk in its side. Stunned, it looked up, eyes alight with terror. It staggered forward a few feet, ready to run before its knees buckled and it collapsed onto the meadow.
The rest of the elk panicked and fled, springing nimbly into the woods, ballet dancers exiting the stage—their flight as beautiful as their moment of calm. Just as quickly as the elk had appeared, they disappeared, leaving behind their hoof prints and their dying companion. The elk lay there, crumpled and defeated, blood trickling from its wound. Gary could swear he heard its heartbeat at that moment—a quick heartbeat, quite contrary to what one would expect, especially with an arrow embedded in it. It wasn’t the elk’s heartbeat pounding like a hummingbird’s, but his own in his ears, pounding like the tell-tale heart.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Saethe gripped him, beaming proudly. “Great shot,” she said. “Are you sure you didn’t have a crossbow back on your world?”
They walked out to the elk—Gary shuffling after the others, blind with shock. He was exhilarated at the kill, and saddened. He wanted to laugh and sing and cry all at the same time. This felt different than kill the pig—much less personal, for the pig he saw daily, while he had never seen this elk—or any elk, for that matter—and so it felt strange and foreign. Killing this elk felt like shooting a target in a video game—he killed a free-spirited animal, but an animal so foreign and unreal to him it might as well have been a zombie or chocobo. When he stood over the elk, saw its blood welling up around his crossbow bolt, and its thick tawny fur and brown eyes, he shivered and gasped. He reached down and stroked its rack of antlers, and then felt the spear-like tips. It was an awe-inspiring and majestic animal, more impressive to him than any unicorn, for this elk had a head full of horns, while a unicorn only had one; he felt powerful and cunning, too, to have taken down such an obviously strong and deadly creature.
“I killed that,” he said. Saethe glanced over at him and nodded. “Yep, you did. We were there, remember?”
He knelt down beside the elk. “I killed you,” he said, staring into its blank eyes which seemed to answer back, yes, you did, but don’t let it go to your head—for someday this will be you, too. He shuddered and turned away from the elk, looking up at the primrose clouds blossoming and the bloody seam of sunlight on the horizon.