"What if he makes you eat the heart?"
"I'll eat it. I'll eat the whole thing."
Emily laughed. Ben laughed too, like he was kidding, but he also meant it.
"I still can't believe you're doing this."
"I've got to do it."
"You don't have to do it. Most people don't."
"Most people aren't people anymore. They're something else. We're something else."
"I'm something else?"
"You're something else. We were one thing but now we're another thing. I'm trying to figure out what it was like to be the first thing."
The two stopped talking as Emily started the Nutribullet. Spinach from California swirled with blueberries from Mexico and avocado from Guatemala. "Sure you don't want some?"
"I'm fasting before the hunt."
"Take it all. It'll be good for the baby. Baby needs his avocado."
He picked up his bag and kissed Emily on the cheek and walked to the door. "I'll be back tonight."
"What if this guy kills you out there in the woods?"
"Then I hope he eats me and leaves my bones for the wolves."
"Are there wolves in New Jersey?"
"I don't think so."
"I kind of hate that you're doing this."
"It'll be fine."
"What if you die out there?"
"I'm not going to die out there."
As he sat in the tree stand Ben realized that he might die out there. He knew, intellectually, that he probably wouldn't. Worst case, some search team would find him tomorrow and he'd be on the news. A local idiot presented as a curiosity for daytime TV watchers. But it wasn't impossible. He could die. The thought was oddly relaxing. His guide, Dylan, had disappeared a couple of hours ago. He'd said he had to duck away to check on another client who was "having an issue with a bear."
The sun was beginning to dip behind a hill to Ben's right. The temperature was dropping. He thought about how dumb he was for not bringing a compass. Then it hit him that even if he had one, he wouldn't know which direction was of value. This was supposed to have been his first step in becoming the kind of person who could survive in the woods, and instead he would prove to himself how soft and useless he was by freezing to death.
He had shot a deer though. He'd done what he came for, and here was solace in that. But even that had been stupid. Dumb luck and a gut shot. He and Dylan had spent what felt like an hour pacing around the woods to find the crossbow bolt that Ben had fired at the buck. Dylan hadn't even seen the deer, and Ben was convinced Dylan thought he'd just gotten trigger happy. But eventually they found it. A long, carbon fiber shaft with a steel tip slick with blood and hair and bile.
"Christ, you got him in the gut. That's too bad. Gut shots a bad way to go."
Ben didn't know what to say so he just nodded. It did sound like a bad way to go. "It'll take him about eight hours to die. Maybe twelve. No sense in tracking him now. He'll stumble off then curl up somewhere and that'll be that. We can head on to the stand and see if you can bag another one then find this one later. How'd he look?"
Ben tried to remember. He'd only seen the buck briefly. "Big."
Dylan looked impressed. "Big's good."
They'd been standing in the middle of an open patch of forest where Dylan was tossing around dried corn from a bag to bait the deer for future hunts. Deer loved corn, apparently. "It's not something they get normally but to them it's really sweet. Like a little bite of sugar."
"Should you be feeding it to them if it's not something they normally eat?"
Dylan looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well they eat it. So it must be fine. They know what's good for them."
Ben had been staring off into the woods during the corn scattering when the large buck sauntered up over the top of the hill and stood there, looking away from him. He'd already been holding the crossbow in such a way that it took minimal movement to pull it up for a shot. He pulled the trigger because why not, and the deer jumped in the air and took off running.
On the train that morning he'd visualized the moment of his first kill. He'd thought Dylan would have special knowledge to share with him that he'd employ, and imagined patiently waiting in the trees, camouflaged, as the unsuspecting deer cautiously crept towards him. He thought it would be a profound moment, his reconnection with a wilder world. Instead, a deer with no survival instinct had stumbled into his field of view and he'd shot him without even having to think about it.
"Well let's get to that tree stand. Man. A buck on your first time out. Gut shot but still. Pretty good feeling huh?"
"Yeah pretty good feeling."
It wasn't though. Dylan had been a tremendous disappointment. Ben's urge to hunt had come from a book he'd read called Industrial Society and Its Future, which he'd found in one of the Little Library boxes that were strewn about the neighborhood where he walked dogs for a living. He'd come to New York nine years ago as an aspiring actor. He remained one. Sure, there was the occasional photo shoot, web video, the rare national commercial. But the gigs were too far apart for Ben to have ever made the leap from aspiring actor to working actor. He filled in the gaps in his time and income by walking dogs through an app on his phone. When passing the library boxes, he'd always peer in to see if there was anything interesting, and while most of the books within were romance novels or books for children, he caught the occasional gem.
But it was hard to call Industrial Society and Its Future a gem. There was nothing particularly pretty in it. The book was a small green paperback. The cover was beat up, plain. It had the title in big block letters and the name of the author below, some guy. He flipped it open to the first page and read "The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race." He was hooked. He finished the whole book later that night. He thought about nothing else for the next few weeks.
It was written in the 90s and predicted a future society and culture dominated by machines. It posited that these future humans who have all of their needs met by modern machines would no longer be human. The author called these future people "engineered human beings" who "may be happy in such a society, but they most certainly will not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals."
Ben convinced himself that he was this future person. He thought of the dogs he walked and couldn't shake the idea that he was the same as they were. A pampered man, who paid other people to feed him, clothe him, cut his hair. He realized he had never faced real danger or struggle in his whole life. What was a life without work or risk? He felt like a toy. Shortly thereafter he found out he had a son on the way, and a loop was created in his mind. A vision of the boy becoming the man his father was, over and over again. He could not shake it. It crushed him to think that he had helped bring a life into the world that would never get to be a human either.
The next day he decided that he would learn to hunt. He was a man, with a wife and a son on the way. It made sense to him that step one in reclaiming his humanity would be to bring home food for them. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. He had absolutely no idea where to begin. The first step in his plan to break away from the machines led him right back to the machines. He Googled "learn how to hunt nyc." He clicked the first site that came up. That was how he'd gotten in touch with Dylan.
Dylan. Where was Dylan? Had he found the bear guy? Had they both been killed by the bear? Had he just forgotten that he'd left Ben out in the woods? The sun was dipping closer to the hill. It would be behind it shortly, and then it would be gone. Dylan had said they could hunt until thirty minutes after sunset.
Ben had been sitting in the tree stand for six hours and had seen no other deer since the buck he'd shot in the guts earlier, wondering if this was even a good spot. He didn't know anything about hunting, so there was no way for him to know if Dylan really did either. He had expected Dylan to be some kind of learned mountain man and figured the day would be full of nature and he would learn bits of wisdom of the woods. Instead, he'd been picked up by a guy a couple of years younger than himself who had the same curly brown hair and, as it turned out, the same career aspirations—they'd both been in the same audition for a Pop-Tarts commercial weeks prior.
Ben had thought there would be lessons on how to track the deer, what signs in nature to look for, how they thought. He'd hoped for some kind of deeper knowledge, but Dylan did not possess this, or find it necessary. His method was much simpler.
"I set up some cameras out in the woods and then watch the videos on my phone to see what the best spots are. Then I bait them with some corn to bring them in and park a stand up in the tree. Easy does it."
They'd stopped by an archery range so Ben could familiarize himself with the crossbow he'd be using to kill the deer. Dylan told him it cost $3000 and "could punch a bolt through the side of a truck." The bolts had expandable broadheads that would cause the tip of the bolt to expand on impact and rip a hole in the deer the size of a tennis ball.
"You want to aim down, right behind the upper back part of the front leg. That's the heart and lungs. Land one of these in there and the deer will just drop."
"And then what?"
"You've got meat. You hang it up, slice it from its asshole down to its chest, pull the organs out, and take it to the butcher."
"What do you do with the organs?"
Dylan turned and looked at Ben like he thought, briefly, that he might be a murderer. "You just, uh, fuckin', leave them. For the coyotes or whatever."
Ben forced out a laugh. "Yeah makes sense. Thought you might make me eat the heart or something."
Dylan got a kick out of that. He was no heart eater.
"Eat the heart? Shit. Eat the heart! Man maybe next time. You a heart eater Ben? You a fuckin' savage?"
Ben was not a "savage." The whole day had proved that. He'd hoped stepping back into nature would awaken something in him, something primal, something real. Instead, he'd walked into the woods with more factory-made equipment than he had in his house and he'd shot a deer in the belly practically by accident. Now he was stuck in a tree stand, crossbow in his lap, no way out, and if no one came to get him he'd probably just die. He pondered how stupid this entire line of thinking had been, how hopeless his dream of becoming an independent man of the woods. For the most part those people no longer existed. And if they did, he wasn't finding them on Google. There was no one to learn from, no way to even know where to begin. The wild humans were gone. He was a domesticated one, surrounded by other domesticated ones, who didn't even remember what it was like to be human. Asking them to teach each other to hunt was like trying to teach a pack of pugs to take down an elk. They were wolves, once, but that was before. They did not remember what that was like. The idea of them returning to what they were was an absurdity.
Overall, his own life had been fine. It was approaching the halfway point and he hadn't felt what he felt now before then, so the first twenty-nine years or so had had their moments. But now he saw them as empty and the future looked bleak, bleaker still because he was bringing another boy into the world who would have no idea what it was like to be a human being. The vision started playing on its loop again. He would be raised in boxes by other people so that he could grow up to spend his time in other boxes, staring at screens for money so he could go home and stare at other screens. Maybe he'd be an actor too, and he could get paid to be on the screens and could then see himself on them. That was something to hope for.
Then three does walked over the top of the hill and briefly and Ben Walsh forgot all of the things he'd spent weeks worrying about. The needle that had been working the same groove in his mind lifted up and all he saw were the deer and he hoped that one would walk close enough for him to get a shot and that he would kill it clean. Even if he wound up dying out here, he would have killed two deer, would have had that glimpse, the merest glimpse, of what it was like before.
Slowly shifting the scope to his eye, he saw one doe had wandered from the other two and was nibbling branches and acorns, stepping closer and closer. It occurred to Ben as he held the $3000 crossbow that people used to do this with sticks and rocks. The doe came closer and he pulled the trigger and he hit her right behind her back front leg. The bolt ripped through her heart and lungs and she ran a few feet and then dropped on the spot. It was a clean kill. He sat in the tree breathing rapidly for several minutes until he felt calm enough to climb down from the stand. As he did, he saw headlights flash through the trees. Minutes later he heard Dylan walking up to him.
"Sorry I'm late, my bear guy in a spot. How'd it go?"
"I got one."
"Really?" Dylan hurried up to Ben and looked down at the doe. "Wow. Killed her clean."
He had. The sun was fully gone now, and the stars were beginning to appear overhead. There were a lot of them. This was it. This was nature. The stars and the trees and a man and his kill. If he was a domesticated human, so be it. Maybe there was still something of the real in there. Sometimes a pug bit you. He felt in that moment that the beauty of nature was in its simplicity. It did not allow for the complexities that modern society forces on everyone. He felt a weird sense of peace as the gut shot buck from earlier burst through the trees. It smashed into Ben with its antlers and was bleating loudly, its guts hanging out from the arrow wound. His ribs were broken, and something had been ripped open on the back of his leg and he grabbed hold of the antlers to try and hold the buck back as Dylan screamed and fired a revolver at the deer. It took half its head off. Brains and blood and skull sprayed on Ben's face and he pushed the deer off and he was dead and he was dying and he smiled.