My father stopped the car. We were silent for a moment, still numb from the early rising. I rubbed my hand against the glass to take away the halo of my breath. There was a bitter cold in the clear morning air, penetrating right into the bones, making vain the layers of clothing worn to counter it. From the cockpit of the off-road vehicle we began to make out the first shapes, the borders, the curves of the valley in front of us. The warm lights of a cold December dawn began to timidly cloak the fields and slopes, warming the light frost that had settled on the meadows in the night. I got out of the car. The muddy ground beneath my feet was what was left of yesterday's storm. The horizon was dressed in a pale shade and the last stars, to a keen eye, were still visible. The air was imbued with a crisp humidity, which swept through my boots. I took the binoculars from my backpack and began to observe the valley.
A few scattered banks of fog still crept, light and sulphurous, between the narrow gorges and the wooded slopes. The bushes and the vineyards immediately jumped to the eye, now skeletons of opaque colors, distant memory of the triumphs of autumn, of red and yellow and brown of October and November, of the matching colors without apparent logic as the work of a distracted painter . I told myself that the day I would no longer be able to marvel at that sight, then it would be time to hang up the gun. It would have meant having no more emotions inside of oneself, being empty. I thanked God for being there to contemplate that wonder; on the other hand I did not remember having done anything in particular to deserve all this. It seemed to me the least.
I made another pan with the binoculars for the whole territory in front of me. No movement. The only presence was that of some cows in the pasture at the foot of the hill.
After a series of unsuccessful stakeouts, we had established a different tactic from the previous one. In fact, in the first outings we had positioned ourselves in a dense gorse grove that overlooked an open field, where we had repeatedly observed the passage of fallow deer. But not even the shadow of the sheet pile. We had thus compared with Massimo, our hunting teacher, on the approach to follow. A great local expert, he suggested that we radically change our strategy. In fact, there was a small village on a hill overlooking the entire valley, a real natural terrace from which to observe the territory for several kilometers. Signano, this is the name of the small group of houses, could have offered us the possibility of identifying the boss, and then approaching the approach at a later time. The hunt for the male had started for about a month, the first of December, but in our case it had started several months ago. At least since July, when, on a cool summer evening, fate had rewarded us with the assignment of an adult fallow deer. We could hardly believe that the draw had been so benevolent. It was an opportunity not to be missed; for the first time in our life we could undermine the sheet pile. On the way back, we had done nothing but fantasize about what awaited us in the winter. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Occasions like this in fact happened a few times in life, we knew it. An even greater joy to know that the goddess of fortune had also kissed Massimo, after even twenty years of waiting.
Yet, once the hunt had begun, the first outings had failed.
That morning, December 30th, as the sun was slowly peeping out, we still hadn't seen even a roe deer, usually a permanent presence in that valley. Meanwhile, time passed inexorably. The temperature had risen, so I took off my gloves. The two valleys in front of us were divided by a village of four houses, Casola di Canossa. The fallow deer had almost always appeared in the west of the town, where there was a thick pine forest that offered them a comfortable shelter during the day. But that day my attention was caught by some movements east of the houses. A large group of animals grazed placidly on a slope still in the shade. They were fallow deer. Do you see them too? I asked my father. Where is it? Below the village, two hundred meters above the stables. I nodded to him. Seen. Yes, they are. Watch with the long.
I quickly took the telescope and placing it on the window to keep it stable I tried to focus on the same point. I spotted the group and noticed that, among the dozen animals, there were at least three or four adult males. My father didn't even want to check. We jumped into the car, heading quickly towards the town. The moment of truth had come; thoughts began to crowd into my mind. In all likelihood, the fallow deer would make their way slowly towards the northern gullies, where the pine forest began, to rest in safety after the dawn meal. By the time I spotted them, before starting the jeep, they were still under the village, but no doubt they had already moved. There was therefore no time to waste. We stopped with the car at the end of the houses and, walking on the eggs, we walked slowly along the muddy carriageway. My intention was to position myself so as to shoot as soon as the fallow deer began to climb the valley. After we left the houses, I loaded the rifle and put it on safety. We walked along a thick hedge of wild rose, trying to put our feet on the edge of the dirt road, which was less muddy. The shrubs blocked our view of the fields below. It was at that point that the unexpected happened. At first it was an engine noise, which broke the silence of the morning, to put us on the alert. We couldn't understand the origin of the thunderous sound. Our doubts were soon dispelled.
A huge white pickup truck appeared from the valley, jerking up the slope we were about to reach. What was he doing there, in the middle of a farm? The deafening noise, worthy of a large-displacement tractor, threw us into despair, while the accidents were wasted in our heads. The moment the pick-up managed to reach the carriageway we were on with a final rush, it was suddenly passed by a dozen roe deer, which quickly disappeared into the woods. My heart leapt to my throat. While we were waiting at the gate for the wicked driver, here is yet another twist. First a fallow deer, then another, then another ... The whole group sighted only half an hour before poured over the carriageway, just twenty meters from us, moving away at a small trot towards the gully to the north. We were petrified with emotion. Everything was happening. I looked at my father in shock. One glance was enough to wake up and decide what to do. In the hope that they had not already disappeared into the thicket, with quick steps and with our heads down, we followed the direction they had taken. I prayed in my head that they were still there. The binoculars bounced off my chest as we bent forward like Indians and I put a hand to stop him. Incredulous, we discovered that the fallow deer were standing at the edge of the wood, intent on grazing as if nothing had happened. We immediately crouched on the ground. We were in an advantageous position, since a small gutter in the ground was able to conceal our presence and prevent them from seeing us. But we had to act quickly, the animals would soon take shelter in the trees.
I leaned forward and took the rangefinder and aimed it. 120 meters. There were even four sheet piles, plus a few young and some females. Without being noticed, I quickly tried to recognize the fallow deer with the largest trophy with binoculars. He was a massive male, slightly isolated from other animals. I nodded to my father, and got a positive sign in response. He was our leader. The animal we were looking for. No doubt. It was about ten meters from the scrub. He hadn't heard us. The wind had pardoned us. I placed my backpack on the ground, on the grass, and set the rifle down. I brought my elbow closer, trying to get into a good shooting position. I felt the wet grass below my knees. I alienated myself from my surroundings. The noises around me became muffled. Who am I to give death? Nobody. I looked at him in the optics. Proud and magnificent, oblivious to everything. I took off the safety. Is it right to ask yourself these questions? Maybe I shouldn't think about it. Not now, at least. I slipped my index finger over the trigger. The cold of the metal electrified me. Yes, that's right because we're hunters, and we've always wondered that. It is part of our identity, that of man. Always, from ancient times.
I brought my right eye closer. It is something that belongs to us. I slowed my heartbeat. I tried not to think about anything. Apnea. I shoot.
The shot rang out in the valley, followed by a general flight of the group of animals. The rifle rose, so it took me a few seconds before I was able to focus on the game again. The sheet pile had collapsed to the ground, trying to stand upright with its forelimbs, in a last, desperate instinct for life. A pat on the shoulder confirmed the result of the shot. We had made it. We waited a few minutes, interminable. When we got up to join the animal I noticed that my legs were shaking. The heart pounded incessantly as the footsteps became more and more hasty. By now the sun was warming the environment around us, while nature, abruptly interrupted by the shot just before, resumed the stage, almost oblivious to what had just happened. The song of the birds then resumed to mark the course of time, as if to reaffirm the subtle and indissoluble link that exists between life and death.
The fallow deer, majestic and regal, lay in the shade of a shrub. He looked like a sleeping king, capable of maintaining a proud nobility even in eternal sleep. The head lay in profile, the crown kissed by the sunlight. We remained a few moments in silence contemplating the remains. A whirlwind of conflicting emotions assaulted me, leaving me confused, astonished, to reflect, without saying a word. We just didn't feel the need to talk. It must be what every hunter feels when faced with something greater than him, I thought. And that he will never be able to tell anyone, because only those who have lived can understand and all the rest are words in the wind, a gospel for non-believers.
We brought the last, symbolic, meal to his mouth. Rest in peace, son of nature. I remembered the words of Mario Rigoni Stern. Prayer is being silent in a wood.
La hunting; heart pounding, upset, excitement, trepidation, bitterness, black and white. Something that since the dawn of time has led man to ask himself questions, to question his own conscience. A visceral passion. This, and more. Each of us, in his own small way, keeps his truth.
I looked up and saw the sun now high above us. Below, a tractor was limping up a cart between the fields. A few clouds of smoke came sobbing from the roofs of the town. The roads in the distance climbed with steep switchbacks on the hills of the valley. Nothing seemed further from civilization, from that civilization, like that precise moment, like what we were experiencing. I felt that sort of intoxication that pervades the human soul when our being realizes that he is witnessing something that will not return in the future, something quite exceptional. We were the protagonists of a unique and unrepeatable event, of which we would be the only custodians for the rest of our days. Our. It filled us with joy. Finished the hunt.
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