Josh and the Deer
Several days after Josh and the deer, I find myself the last remaining member of a stargazing expedition at a friend’s house in upstate New York. I’m in the middle of a frozen pond, and without any light pollution nearby the darkness of the sky stands in astonishing contrast to the hard white surface, illuminated by the stars. I, like so many before me, like anyone who has really looked long at the stars, feel small and lost and out of place. Recently I’ve had that feeling a lot. I’m twenty-two, just days away from graduating college, and I don’t have a plan yet. I’m surrounded by people with more direction than I: a roommate with a recently landed consulting job; a professor who has just been granted tenure; a best friend with an eternal passion for cheese.
And then there’s Josh Hungerford. He’s the local game warden, primarily enforcing fish and wildlife laws in an eight-town district in central Vermont, from the Green Mountains down to the waters of Lake Champlain. I first meet him in person when I climb into his truck one Thursday mid-January morning. While I sign a release form that notifies me of the dangerous situations we might find ourselves in, he calls the dispatcher to let her know he’ll be having a ride-along for the day. The truck is halfway between dark green and white from the splatter of road salt. Josh’s smile is halfway between friendly and bashful. He begins to point out the bells and whistles of the truck, the different radios, the gear in the back, like he’s almost embarrassed at how cool it all is. Unprompted, he tells me that he has always wanted to be a game warden. He describes the moment he first met a game warden, as a kid, and the process he went through afterwards to become one. He tells me that he loves the freedom to patrol his district however he likes (“Just the other day, I went out and checked fishing licenses on hockey skates!”), and to set his own hours. I’m joining him a couple hours into a nine-hour shift that will see him finished by four in the afternoon. We head towards Lake Dunmore to patrol the ice.
* * *
The ice fisherman’s voice is steady, but his hands are shaking. Josh ignores the man’s hands, but I can tell he notices.
“No, no luck yet,” the fisherman says. Josh half-smiles sympathetically.
“Say, you’re over in Bethel, you know Keith?”
“Oh yeah, yeah sure, we know him.” Josh hands the man’s fishing license back to him. Everything is in order but the man’s teeth, and his haircut looks like it might have been self-inflicted with rusty scissors and a broken mirror. The talk is casual, but Josh is feeling the guy out, more out of habit than an expectation of finding anything. The effect is a little bit like going through the artifacts of a stranger’s life at a garage sale, picking each one up, examining it, and setting it back down. I think that Josh wants to put the man at ease, to humanize himself, at the same moment that he enjoys the sense of anxiety that his presence brings. The game warden uniform is more casual and variable than a police officers’, but the patch on the sleeve is as real as the gun on Josh’s hip.
There are three other guns in the truck, and Josh ran through each of them when he gleefully volunteered a tour of his gear stash, only moments after I had met him. In the back there’s a 24-gauge shotgun and a .22 rifle. Under the snowshoes and wilderness survival kit there’s some other fancy rifle with a scope for long-distance shooting. The inside of the truck’s door is full of ammunition. He’s not quite sure why he has so much.
Weapons are a part of the job. Many of the people Josh stops to ask about licenses are armed, often because they’re hunting. It’s because of this fact, Josh tells me, that many of the town and state police officers think game wardens are crazy. Josh could never do their jobs though. Traffic stops? Domestics? He’d rather be in the woods, even with the risk of angry hunters.
Josh isn’t much older than I am, maybe three or four years. He majored in biology at Norwich University, but I have a hard time imagining him in a classroom. I don’t make the connection that Norwich is a military school, even after Josh pulls off his cap and surprises me with his close-cropped hair. He suddenly looks like a cop, something I hadn’t felt earlier when he had been gushing about his gear and how much he loves the job.
* * *
It’s a damn beautiful day to die. There’s a half an inch of fresh snow on the ground, and a hoar frost has extended the ground up to the fingertips of the trees. The temperature has risen to a point that no longer requires a scarf wrapped around the face. We’ve both put on our sunglasses. Josh’s are mirrored, mine are not. The sun from the clear sky causes every minute detail of the Vermont countryside to shine, lending sharpness to a landscape that would otherwise be blurred by the movement of the truck.
We’re moving, quickly, the truck briefly becoming weightless the instant before we plunge down a hill, the sways of the corners pushing me against my seatbelt. Josh elects not to turn on the truck’s blue and red police lights (“there’s no point in risking anyone’s life,” he says). A truck going the other direction waves and he waves back.
“That happens all the time,” he says. “I don’t even know who that is. You wouldn’t believe how many people just wave at the truck.”
He is totally relaxed except for his driving, which is making the truck’s engine whine as it goes through the gears. When the call came in, a deer hit by a car, he was calm too. His head dropped for a moment and he exhaled sharply, like he had just drawn the short straw in a bet, but he must have just a little bit loved the chance for action, and he must have loved even more that I was there to see it. Josh hopes that we’ll spot the injured deer on our own as we drive, but we’ve been given the wrong street name and we don’t find the deer until we see a truck parked in the road up ahead, deliberately, and we pull up behind it. Something moves in the apple orchard across the road. A dark shadow on the white snow. He makes a call on the radio.
“Nine-four-zero New Haven.”
“Show me twenty-three to that deer call in Cornwall. It’s actually on North Bingham Street.” His voice dips at the end of his sentences like he’s disappointed in the dispatcher’s mistake. Or maybe he’s just tired.
I can’t see the shadow on the snow because it’s behind him. We exit the truck and as I come around and onto the road I can see it. Josh is already greeting the two men who have exited the truck in front of ours. They’re the ones who called in the deer. They’re both cut from the same handmade Vermont cloth, that’s for sure. They both have faded hoodies (a once-bright red, a once-dark green) under another layer (an unzipped vest, another green hoodie). Working clothes. Farmers. Hands in pockets, a heavily loved grey baseball cap, a cup of coffee in a paper cup. At first I think they’re short, but it’s just an illusion caused by their width. I don’t think they’re related, but if I’m wrong then they’re father and son.
“Where the hell did I see you?” says the older one.
“Cattails one night!”
“Cattails! That’s what it was, that’s what it was.”
“Yeah, yeah, I was out to eat with some buddies—you saw the guy hit this thing?” Josh doesn’t even pause as he shifts from the greetings to the deer. He turns his body slightly so that they’re facing the shadow in the orchard.
Just like that, without altering his casual tone, he’s all business. The question is subtly probing, checking the men’s story to make sure there was no foul play. I’m looking at the men as they describe what they think happened to the deer and so I don’t know that Josh has returned to the truck until I hear the door of the truck and the click of a rifle round being chambered.
Josh checks the gun as he walks to the edge of the road. He stands on the edge of the trees and takes careful aim at the shadow of a deer head, looking at us. Then he fires.
The sound of the gunshot is louder than I’m prepared for, but not as loud as I’m expecting. Gunshots are never as loud as their consequence.
The deer’s head falls back like a diver off of a high dive.
“Nice,” mutters one of the farmers.
“Game over,” says the other, and the first one chuckles.
Josh’s boots crunch loudly in the snow as he walks over to the deer. He shoots it again in the chest. Then the farmers and I walk over and stand around the deer and wait for it to die. It’s a young doe. It twitches a few times as Josh examines it, checking where it was hit by the car. The way that it’s lying on the snow there’s a little bit of blood, but I can’t see the gunshot wounds. It doesn’t look like a dead thing. It doesn’t look like it’s sleeping either, like people sometimes say dead things appear, but it doesn’t look dead. If it’s dead it should appear more obviously dead: blood, a gaping wound, an unnatural position. I don’t feel anything for the deer. I had thought I would, and I’m surprised at myself. The men talk about the deer, the hunting season, farming, and trucks. Josh drags the deer back through the snow, across the road, and the farmers help him load it into their truck. The farmers will butcher it and put the meat to good use. Josh goes back to his truck to get the appropriate tags to authorize their possession.
Lying on its side with its head pushed awkwardly against the tailgate, the deer finally looks dead. I reach my hand out and touch its hindquarters, and the expected warmth nonetheless makes my breath catch. It’s the largest animal I’ve ever seen killed. I try and feel something for the doe, but any sorrow at having watched this deer die doesn’t feel like my own. The three men standing and talking between the trucks certainly don’t feel disturbed or upset. Did it only take one morning for me to see the practical point-of-view on this deer, or was I always going to feel this impassive? Would it have been the same if I had pulled the trigger, or just business? “It is what it is,” Josh says several times regarding the deer, often with a shrug. I suppose that the doe was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Josh estimates he has shot fifty or sixty deer in his life. Every hunter and fisher toes the line between life and death, crossing it here and there to return back with spoils. But Josh lives in the hinterlands along that line. He pushes in two directions, both to kill and to prevent killing. It’s a dangerous thing to be both. He is used to the bulletproof vest now, hardly notices it, except when it rides up. He never unzips his fleece to show me.
* * *
On the way to lunch we see a herd of deer in a field, maybe half a mile from the orchard we left with the bloody snow. I think that it must be the herd of the doe that we killed. We stop and get out of the truck briefly to look down at them from a hilltop. Am I supposed to contemplate the fragility of life, seeing one deer dead and another alive? Am I supposed to wonder if the herd notices the doe’s absence? They’re just deer. One was alive and now it’s dead, and in rural Vermont that’s just the way it is. I do wonder if Josh feels proud of the herd. These are the deer he protects. But they’re also the deer that he hunts, like everyone else. His job really is less about the deer than the level field.
That idea of fairness is at the heart of what Josh believes in. When we walk into the Noonie’s Deli for lunch the folks behind the sandwich bar recognize him and strike up a conversation about ice fishing. The manager mentions to him that they’re starting a discount program for law enforcement, firefighters, and the like. Once we have our sandwiches Josh confides in me that he dislikes the idea of the program. “I’m just doing my job,” he says. “I get paid to do it.” I try to tell him that these things are a way for the community to demonstrate that they appreciate him and the service that he does for them. He just shakes his head. Josh has an interesting mixture of pride and humility about his job. I think that he likes to be seen but not acknowledged. This can be a contradiction at times, but he aims to achieve it in an omnipresent sense. It’s a feeling he has because he does work for the community, and his job is as based in people even more than in nature. He’s a steward of the community, and he has found his place.
As I’m standing there several days later on a frozen pond, looking at the stars, feeling out of place, I think of Josh and the place that he has found for himself. And then I think of something my friend has said before she left me alone in the dark, which is that it takes over six-hundred years for light from the star Betelgeuse to reach Earth. From all those miles away those tiny photons of light have traveled, for hundreds of years, to the precise point that I’m standing, that exact place where my eyes are. I’m in exactly the right place at the right time. I realize that I’ve been thinking about the deer wrong. As I’m standing in just the right place for the light of the stars to reflect off of my eyes, somewhere the light of a car’s headlights is reflecting off of a deer’s eyes, just as the light from the snow reflected off of the fisherman’s eyes when he looked at Josh, just as all things that day reflected the light of other things. And the same will always be true for me, a week from now, a month from now, or a year from now: when I look at the stars I’ll be in just the right place too. “It is what it is,” says Josh.