Sunlight

Jacob Pritchett

Dad doesn’t speak during the three-and-a-half-hour drive from our cottage to the hunting

club. He never looks at me either—just looks straight ahead at the gray dirt road guarded by a dense wall of pines. Now and then, I look in the rearview mirror and watch dust swirl from behind the pickup truck. Our rifles clank against each other in the backseat. He had gotten me one a week before the trip, unannounced. I had turned fourteen a month earlier, and he got me nothing.  

“We’ll be hunting caribou,” he said. “Figured it’s time I taught you what it means to be a

man.”  

He said it not expecting a response. Dad has a calm slow way of speaking that makes

whatever he says irrefutable. Saying no to him may as well be saying no to God himself. It was comforting when I was little—in the winters where the sun barely showed itself, when the nights closed in on all corners, and his commanding voice was all that held my world together. Now, it scares me. In my gut, I know something isn’t right.  

After a while, we pass the gates of the hunting club. When we finally arrive at our trailhead,

we get out and unload. The lukewarm air has the faintest chill of early fall. It makes my nape hairs stand on end, even as I struggle with supplies Dad hands me from the truck bed. Once we’re set, we lock the truck and hike into the forest of golden aspens. I soak in the scenery and try to ignore the weight of my backpack. We brought a week’s worth of provisions. I just hope that’s not how long he plans on staying here.  

I take one last glance at the pickup truck. The sunlight glints in the windshield, half

obscured by shadows stretched across the gravel lot. I wonder how we’re going to get a caribou all the way back.  

“Isaac.”  

My heart lurches and my eyes snap forward. “Yes sir?”  

“What do you plan on doing with your life?”  

“I don’t know. I think I want to be a teacher.”  

“A teacher?”  

“Yeah. Follow in Mom’s—”  

“That won’t suit you.”  

I know not to say anything. We traipse on, ascending gradually. The dense foliage blocks

the sunlight until the forest around us creates the imitation of night. It’s here we set up camp. I put up the tents and Dad builds a fire. We eat a brief meal and go to bed early. The sun doesn’t set, and it won’t set until much later. Dad says we’re getting up early. The hunt begins tomorrow.  

# # #

One winter, Dad bought a new television. It was meant to be a gift for Mom, but he ended

up using it more than her. After he’d come back from logging, he would put on the news and watch it for hours. Sometimes I would sit with him and try to understand what was going on. I thought it would make me seem more like an adult—more like a man to him. I vaguely remembered seeing the headlines about a boy named Matthew Shepard. At the time, all I knew about being gay was that it was a sin. Mom had to explain what “lynching” meant, and she didn’t give me a clear answer. I wanted to know more, so I asked Dad, “Why did they kill him?”  

“Because he made a choice, and that choice had consequences.” He didn’t say anything else.  

# # #

I rub the crust from my eyes to see Dad getting dressed. When I step outside, the sky is the

same sunburnt blue as it was when I fell asleep. The charred remains of the fire let off a narrow trail of smoke. It hypnotizes me until a rifle falls into my hands.  

“Let’s go.”  

I follow him out of the camp, still ascending. The trail weaves back and forth, and the pines

grow thinner and thinner, until soon, we’re looking out across a sprawling valley. The sun peeks over the jagged snowy mountains in the distance, and tiny dots litter the rust-colored prairie beneath us. The caribou are grazing.  

“How are we going to get to the caribou from all the way up here?” I ask.  

“We’re not going to shoot them today. We’re going to watch them and see where the herd is

headed.” Dad pulls out a pair of binoculars and looks through them. Through the gray of his beard, his lips purse, and he hands the binoculars to me. “Look closely, Son. See the antlered ones? Those are the stags. It’s their job to protect the herd from wolves. Or men.”  

I look closely, twist the knob to focus, and I see them graze. The sun turns the prairie grass

into a golden sea, disturbed only by the river running through it. The caribou move slowly along the waves. They look so peaceful, I almost forget why we’re here—to kill them.  

My blood runs cold.   

Something else is out there, emerging from the forest. I refocus the binoculars. A person, a

woman, walks across the grass, smiling in the late summer sun. 

“Mom?” I whisper.  

The binoculars fall out of my hands. I barely feel Dad’s grip on my shoulder. Everything

becomes a blur through tears and terror. I come back with my dad pinning me down. I’m screaming, “Mom is dead.”  

It was a reality that took so long for me to accept. But I just saw her. I know I just saw her.  

Dad says nothing. His eyes darken, he grabs me, and he pulls me down into the forest.  

For the rest of the day he’s silent—just packs camp and prepares to move on. In unspoken

accordance, I follow suit. He at least waits for me. The trail splits, and we descend. No vista ever greets us, only rows upon rows of tree trunks and dense foliage. My eyes don’t leave his back. As we go deeper into the park, farther from the truck, I start to wonder why we’re really here.  

“Why were you screaming?” he finally asks.  

I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything.  

“Answer me.”  

“I don’t know.”  

“Yes, you do.”  

I hesitate for a second, and the second becomes a minute.  

“Answer me,” he says again.  

“I saw… I thought I saw Mom.”  

He doesn’t say anything until we reach the border of the forest and the prairie. “Must have

been her ghost.”  

I begin to set up the tent. “I guess so.” 

I don’t expect him to say any more, but he does. “Do you miss her?” 

I take a few deep breaths and try to keep my voice from trembling. “Every day.”  

The sun disappears behind the mountains, and my father starts the fire. “I do too.”  

# # #

I always thought of Mom as fragile, like an ice sculpture. In the summer, she was happy—

smiling, laughing, doing household chores and taking me on walks through the rainforest. In the winter, something in her always changed. Maybe it was the perpetual night. Maybe it was Dad’s stoic indifference to her suffering. Maybe it was me. Last winter, I told her something I think I shouldn’t have.  

At school, I had a group of friends who, in the span of a month, all had girlfriends. I didn’t

understand why they were suddenly so obsessed with dating. That was the first time I noticed something was different about me. In another month, I caught myself looking at those friends as we changed in the locker room. Was I…?  

The image of Matthew Shephard’s bloodied face flashed through my head and sent a cold

shock through my body.  

It wasn’t like I had chosen to feel this way. I just did. Still, nights would pass where all I did

was lay in bed praying for God to change me. It was a corrosive, sinking feeling. I had to tell someone, and Mom was always there for me. I knew there was nothing I could tell her she wouldn’t hold against me. Despite the hollowing sadness in her icy blue eyes, she never stopped loving me. But when I told her what I told her, she said nothing. She just walked out of the room and didn’t speak to me for a week. I shouldn’t have told her—not in the grips of winter, because the pain it caused her outweighed the pain of dying. 

I was the one who found her. She was in the outhouse. Her skin was white as the snow that

choked the landscape.  

# # #

“Isaac, wake up.”  

I start with a sharp inhale. He leans over me in the cramped tent, fastening the strap of his

rifle across his chest. A choir of crickets fills the forest, and I notice that it’s dark outside. He unzips the tent, and through the trees, I catch a glimpse of the stars. “Good morning,” I groan, sitting up.  

“Get dressed.”  

I don’t complain and I don’t question. I do what he says and follow him out of the tent. The

rare night sky shimmers with emerald and red rivers of fire. The aurora. It’s nothing new, but it never gets old. I think of the winter months, of the endless nights by the fire, of the dense white blanket coating the quiet world, of the fickle promise of spring, of Mom. Dad nudges me out of my trance. We pack our things and begin our hunt.  

The sun rises at the angle of an ascending airplane, casting odd rays across the forest as we

walk across its edge. Dad keeps his eyes on the prairie. I keep glancing into the woods expecting to see something I don’t want to. Birds and crickets are all I hear. I see no movement.  

Dad stops abruptly and kneels. The lower half of his body becomes obscured by grass. I

kneel beside him and try to track his gaze. The herd grazes not far from us in the prairie. In the chilly morning, the puffs of their breaths move upward like rising steam from a lake.  

“You take the shot. See the one on the end? The stag?”  

I aim my rifle and peer through the scope. “Yes sir.”  

He doesn’t graze. He paces along the edge of the herd, dipping his head occasionally as if

he were giving some cordial bow. Dad guides my hands and steadies my shoulders. His finger presses over mine, resting above the trigger. My vision focuses, and I watch the buck take his last few breaths of life through my scope. They rise and melt into the fading aurora.  

“Now,” Dad whispers.  

His finger pushes mine over the trigger. A deafening pow kicks me backwards, but Dad

catches me. The birds in the forest all flutter out of the foliage, and when I look back, I see an icy pair of eyes staring back at me—Mom’s eyes. Her breath rises in a billowing cloud. Before I can react, Dad pulls me into the prairie. The buck staggers through the field, trying to run. The herd stampedes westward, leaving him behind. When we find his corpse, it’s still warm, leaking blood from the shoulder.  

“Perfect shot, Son,” Dad says. The edges of his lips curl into the faintest smile. “Let’s set up

camp back at the forest’s edge. We’ll be having caribou for dinner.”  

We spend the rest of the day setting up camp and finding a place to hoist our kill. He uses

his pocketknife to clean it. Since it’s my first, he insists I paint my face in its blood. Only then does he say, “Take the guts out to the river in the prairie and dump them. We don’t want bears sniffing us out.”  

It’s late at this point, but the sun hasn’t set. The bucket is heavy, and the grass is thick, so my

trip to the river is a long and difficult process. The whole time, I’m looking for Mom. I know I saw her. She’s out here somewhere. As I dump the bucket into the river, I can’t help but wonder if Dad saw her too.  

We spend the evening eating caribou and watching the fire, but the prairie never leaves my

mind.  

# # #

I remember sitting with her one night, waiting for Dad to come home. This was long before

I even knew I was different. I was just a kid with his family, waiting out another bitter winter. We sat by the fire and she held onto me. I didn’t want her to, but she kept insisting, “Please sweetie, stay with me.”  

So, I did. I loved her.  

“Isaac,” she said after a period of prolonged silence.  

“Yes, Momma?”  

“You mean so much to me. You mean everything. Your dad loves you too. He doesn’t show

it because he feels like he doesn’t have to, but he loves you just as much as I do.”  

“I’m scared of him.”  

“Don’t be silly. He loves you. I love you.”  

“You love me no matter what?”  

“No matter what. Even if it doesn’t always seem like it, I do.”  

I watched at the fire crackle in front of us. “Why are you sad, Momma?”  

“Because in the winter, the sun goes away.”  

“It’s not because of me?”  

“No, sweetie. It’s not your fault. It’s never been your fault. You’re my son and I love you.”  

She kisses my forehead. 

I love you.   

# # #

I wake up to the sound of footsteps outside the tent. Dad is still asleep, snoring gently under

his sleeping bag. Careful not to disturb him, I unzip the tent and look outside. All is still and silent. I look around the camp and stop when something on the ground catches my attention. In the damp soil, fresh human footprints lead off into the prairie. A rush of emotion washes away my fatigue. I grab my rifle before I go out into the field.  

“Where are you going?”  

I whip around to face Dad. He watches me from the tent. “Someone was just here.”  

His eyes study my face and trail down to the dirt. “Was it Mom?”  

Silence falls over us like a crushing weight. I stare at him, my lips parted, my trembling

hands clasping the gun. I realize I could kill him now. In this moment, for the first time, I have the power and he is powerless. I point the barrel at him. “What did you say?” 

His expression doesn’t change. “Is that who you saw?”  

“I didn’t see them.”  

“You saw her yesterday though. And the day before, through the binoculars.” When he

leaves the tent, he has his rifle with him. “Put the gun down.”  

His dark eyes cut into me, and I have no choice. My rifle hits the dirt. “You… you saw her

too?”  

Dad walks closer, his gun aimed at me. “Why do you think Mom died, Isaac?”    

“I— I don’t know.”  

“Do you think it had something to do with you?”  

I try so hard not to tremble that I forget to respond.   

“Do you blame yourself?”  

“Y—yes.”  

His cold gaze finally softens. “Well, it’s not your fault. It’s mine.” For the first time I can

remember, he cries. He didn’t when Mom died, but now, in the morning light, glistening tears forge trails down his cheeks. “I wasn’t strong enough for you or your mother. I should have been there for you and for her. It made both of you weak. I didn’t raise you to be strong, so you fell into sin. I wasn’t strong for my wife—your mother—and her sins, your sins, killed her. I’ve—I’ve failed you.”  

Even with the barrel of his rifle aimed at my chest, I couldn’t control the rush of fury that

came over me. “Is that what this is about? Is that why you hate me now? You didn’t fail me by raising me weak. You failed me because you couldn’t love me for who I am.” Tears stain my cheeks as well.  

His eyes harden and his lips curl into a scowl. “I should have been there for you, but you

made your choices, and your choices have consequences.”  

“When did I have a choice in anything? I didn’t want to come here—you made me! I didn’t

want Mom to die, but she did! I didn’t choose to be— to be—”  

“To be what? Tell me like you told her!” His voice thunders.  

But I can’t. I just turn around and run into the prairie, following the footsteps. Dad’s

thunderous roar becomes a distant wail. Soon, all I hear is the wind. All I feel is the wind and the damp grass that catches on my boots. I look ahead and wonder where I would be if I didn’t tell her. If Mom never knew, would she be…  

A gunshot echoes through the crisp air. Another thundering roar—a stampede—begins, but

I never see the caribou. All I see is the woman in the distance, standing in the middle of the prairie, arms outstretched. She smiles, her icy blue eyes glinting in the sun. Mom smiles at me, and I’m blinded by my own tears. I hear her scream to me, “It’s not your fault! It’s not—”  

Another gunshot cuts through the rumble. Something zips past me—a bullet. I keep

running. I keep my eyes on Mom, though all see is a golden blur of light. I know she is smiling, reaching out for me, drifting backwards like the promise of forgiveness. I keep running. I— 

Fall 2021