The Woodcutter's Upright Son

A Story

by Brigid Brophy

Having grown up among them, the woodcutter’s son was not sentimental about the deer. When accidents befell them in the forest, he rescued if he could, and if not, wasted no time in regret. He did not disguise from himself that they were, on the whole, sensitive animals rather than intelligent ones. But neither did he disguise from himself that each was an individual personality. The terms on which he mixed with them were those of personal acquaintance, and with a few, personal friendship.

His only attempt to be hypocritical with himself was made in his early childhood, and even so it was not the deer but humans he was attempting to prettify. For at first he declined to believe that the hunters who once a year came in hosts to the forest actually killed the deer. He watched his father, the taciturn old woodcutter, help the hunters drag the corpses into their shooting brakes. But until he was about eight the woodcutter’s son managed to believe that the arrival of the hunters and the high casualty rate among the deer were merely coincidental facts, and that the townsmen who temporarily invaded the forest came merely to collect accidental corpses in the same way that he himself, ever since he could remember, had collected sets of antlers and sometimes even skulls which he came upon in the forest.

When he was eight, however, he was already handy enough and sturdy enough to be bidden help his father during the hunting season. At dawn he had to stand in the clearing around the woodcutter’s cabin, greet the drivers of the first vans to arrive, and beckon them into parking places. At sunset he had to help his father haul the heavy bodies along the forest paths and hump them up into the appropriate van. The boy could no longer avoid noticing that the wounds were gunshot wounds and admitting to himself that shot does not fly in forests by accident.

As he grew stronger and his father feebler, he had to undertake more and more of the work. When he was thirteen he found himself dragging the corpse of a deer which had been his particular friend. Bright red, watery blood stood like raindrops in the nostrils of a nose which had often nuzzled his hand.

About the same time the boy realized that his father took — though the son never witnessed the act of taking — large tips from the hunters in return for his son’s labor and the use of the cabin as a hunting lodge. Without being told, he understood that his father’s earnings from cutting wood were tiny and that the hunting season was his only big chance.

The boy came to spend quite half the year in acute but unexpressed dread of the approaching season. When the season was over, he would run for relief and bitter solace into the deepest thickets, where he would find such deer as survived huddled in terror. He would try to comfort himself by resolutely considering only the fortunate fact that this or that individual had been spared. The deer, having always known him, let him move among them like one of themselves. They even seemed to take a certain calm from his sad caresses. He supposed that they must smell the blood of their species on his hands. Yet as a result of their stupidity or innocence they never, for all their timid startings at every noise on the breeze, flinched from him, even when he had to kill deer whom the hunters had left mortally wounded.

He grew up, becoming twice as tall and heavy as his father. Even so, he never discussed the hunting season with his father. The old man’s grumpiness held a forbidding authority, which, his son noticed, even the hunters respected. They hated the old man but paid him largely. They found the son, with his more willing manners and more educated, fluent speech, charming — and gave him nothing but orders.

Sometimes the son wondered if the old man had retreated into grumpiness because he was fleeing a bad conscience.

Suddenly the old man was seized with a pain around the heart and died. It happened just after the close of the hunting season, which made the son wonder whether his father’s heart had in fact been finally broken by the massacre. He found himself mourning more deeply than he had expected.

When he came back from the funeral in the town, he changed out of his smart suit and made at once for the depths of the forest, unthinkingly wanting to be among deer. They seemed to respond in the same unthinking way to his grief, rubbing up against him like snowdrifts or, in brushing past, delivering him a velour slap from their sides. Taking comfort from them, he remembered an accident he had read about in a newspaper years earlier and perhaps stored in his head for this moment. Weaving thoughts around it, he began to elaborate his plans, which he would have a whole year to bring to perfection, for the next hunting season.

That season opened to an exhilarating frosty morning. While the sky was still the color of a duck’s egg, the woodcutter’s son was up and out, stamping his feet and blowing vaporously into his hands in the clearing, his head as alert as a deer’s to the first sound of a car engine.

When it came, he ran out along the path, papery ice on thin bubbles crackling beneath his boots, to accost the first hunter.

The driving-seat window was rolled down and puffs of congealed breath exchanged as the woodcutter’s son delivered uncharacteristically hearty greetings and gave the news of his father’s death with inappropriate cheerfulness, explaining that he had taken over the business. After last year’s record bag, he told the hunter, there would be a run of hunters on the forest and competition for the quarry would be strong. Moreover, he said, the deer, warned by experience, had grown cunning. They would not be shot without the help of a ruse, which he would disclose ex-

clusively to a favored hunter. Then he waited winningly beside the car door. A bank note was passed to him through the window. Hastily, he bade the hunter drive his car into the undergrowth and conceal it, while he himself fetched the necessary apparatus from the cabin.

He came running back carrying a set of antlers, one of those it had been his childhood’s work to collect. Explaining rapidly that the deer were now so suspicious that the only way to come within shooting range of them was to pass oneself off as one of them, he bound the antlers to the hunter’s head with strings it had been his last year’s work to devise and construct. Warning the hunter that he could not expect to get a full view of the now alerted deer but must shoot — low, of course — the instant he saw a pair of antlers moving among the bushes, and promising him, as the only possessor of this subterfuge, a splendid day’s sport, the woodcutter’s son bundled the first comer off into the depths of the forest and hurried up the path to meet the next comer, to whom he gave exactly the same explanation and promise and a further set of antlers.

The morning rose high. Hunters poured into the forest. The woodcutter’s son, waylaying each into secret colloquy, issued his entire collection of antlers. Each of the hunters tipped him. Yet he suspected they did not give him such large amounts as they had been in the habit of giving his father.

The forest began to be noisy with shots. Soon the bangs were joined by cries of pain, shouts of anger, altercations, and groans. A walking casualty limped furiously up to the cabin door and began to abuse the woodcutter’s son. Compassionately helping him up the steps and into a rocking chair, the woodcutter’s son explained that the hunter had misunderstood his instructions and had better, unless he wanted to be laughed at for his stupidity and ignorance of forestcraft, make no mention of them. He unstrapped the antlers which the hunter was still wearing and hooked them back into their place on his cabin’s wall. Then, after doing his best for the man’s wound, he walked the three miles to the nearest phone and summoned an ambulance.

Parties of wounded hunters were already, when he got back to the cabin, carrying in the bodies of dead hunters. Four or five corpses were stretched, under what blankets the woodcutter’s cabin could provide, in the clearing. The clanging of relays of ambulances was added to the groaning that filled the forest.

The woodcutter’s son worked untiringly all day. Not only did he help the ambulance parties at loading and comforting. He made forays alone in search of the dead and wounded, hurrying along the tracks only he thoroughly knew and usually contriving to arrive first at the place of a fatality, where he would unstrap the antlers from the hunter’s head and discard them in the undergrowth, so as to make the corpse lighter for the stretcherbearers to bring in.

By sunset the size of the disaster was patent. Even of the wounded, many had died in the cabin or in the ambulances. And great numbers of the hunters had been killed outright where they stood. Their fellow marksmen, calculating downward from the glimpsed tip of an antler, had often put a bullet accurately through the center of the forehead.

The woodcutter’s son wore his smart suit again to go into the town for the inquest. He comported himself modestly and winningly in the witness-box and was commended for the help he had given the casualties.

In the lobby of the court, and again at the inn where he stopped on his way home, he made sure of the result. The carnage had already given the forest a superstitiously ill repute. No hunter would set foot in it again. The innkeeper regretted the takings he would lose.

Returned to the cabin, the woodcutter’s son changed his clothes and hurried out, in the dusk, to the deer. From a distance he could discern the shadowed forms; there were no gaps; no deer had been killed.

As he approached, a sentinel deer at the edge of the group threw up its nose, sniffed, and wheeled away. The whole group took nervous alarm. Breaking into a silly trot, they all hurried deep into the forest, where they were hidden by the night.

The next day the woodcutter’s son went into the town again. He bought himself an entirely new set of clothing — which used up nearly all the money he had taken in tips on the day of the carnage — and then bought large quantities of soap, disinfectant, deodorant, and aerosol sprays of every type and scent.

He went home and thoroughly cleansed both himself and the cabin.

Yet when he approached the deer again, they ran away again. He tried all year. He tried three years later, when he expected a new generation to have forgotten the smell of human blood on him. But the signal of caution had been transmitted throughout the group.

He missed his friendship with the deer, but unsentimentally. He stayed on in the forest, living on the small wages of woodcutting. For sheer lack of anyone to talk to, he grew as taciturn, but not as grumpy, as his father had been. He never for a moment repented. On summer evenings it gave him deep content to watch the deer from the distance and rejoice in their safety.

  1. Miss Brophy is a talented British novelist and essayist, noted for her perceptiveness and slightly irreverent wit.THE BURGLAR, published last spring, was her first attempt at drama, after a series of successful books, including the prizewinning novelHACKENFELLER’S APE.