Horace Jefferson, like his father (always “father” or “sir”) Tomas Jefferson, is a man of few words. At least, he will be a man in a few years. For now, at this moment, he is only a newly-christened teenager, untouched by puberty, but in his mind already fully grown. If not in body, certainly of spirit.
Everything he learned about manhood he gathered from his father: a creative, capable man whose life was defined by his hands. He was an engineer, a woodworker, a reader. When he spoke, it was always in a soft tone which could convey affection or malice with only the most subtle of distinction. And Horace loved him deeply, as only a son can love his father.
The man was a pillar; an institution. But he was also intimidating: demanding swift obedience and expecting excellence, even when he knew—must know—how hard it was for Horace to succeed. Horace internalized the disappointment and frustration his father felt as his own personal failing. He was, simply put, not strong/fast/clever/smart enough. For many children, this disheartening revelation is the beginning of the end for their parental relationships; a signal that it’s time to focus on what they, the child, want and not give a damn what their parents expect from them.
But children like Horace double-down: they pull from deep within the eternal wellspring of hope that they can, with enough effort, please their parents. But Horace couldn’t work with gears or wood like his father. He couldn’t play the guitar (at least not the complex fingerpicking which defined Tomas’ bluegrass style). But there was one thing he was reasonably sure he could do.
And so, with the hope of his father’s approval fueling his heart, he woke one early morning and dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. He took an old rifle from the wall and ammo from the safe. He set out the back door, crossed the wooden fence his father and grandfather built, and plunged into the wilderness.
For the uninitiated, the Blue Ridge Mountains on Earth, in North America, stretch from southwest Pennsylvania to Georgia. The Jeffersons lived in the thick of them, just a few kilometers from the small town of Boone, North Carolina. It was peaceful and serene. A wilderness preserve for countless generations.
And now a teenager walked its trails with only a rifle, two granola bars, a bottle of water, and a mission: bag a deer and bring it home.
It’s hard to say when Horace got the idea that hunting an animal would make his father proud. Maybe it was the ancient buck’s head mounted over the fireplace, it’s glassy eyes forever destined to stare at the taxidermy owl mounted across it. Maybe it was the reverence his father showed for his father, who was a regular hunter before his health failed him. Or maybe the idea came from all the nights Horace’s father read to him the likes of Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, or Mark Twain: that a man should be self-sufficient, reliable, and stalwart—defiant, even—in the face of nature.
Never mind that replicators meant kill-free meat of every variety. Hunting was, as Horace understood it, conservation. That is to say, killing the right deer in the right season meant keeping the population in check. Otherwise, deer could become so prolific as to destroy their habitat. That’s what his grandfather told him, anyways.
He climbed a tree about three meters high where he lay, using the rifle’s magnifying scope to search for movement. He waited many hours, the wooden stock pressed against his shoulder, his eyes searching for a target.
Horace was nearly dozing when he heard a rustle. A family of deer: a doe and her fawns. She moved gracefully, her dark eyes ever watchful. The fawns were less sure-footed and made far more noise. Their legs were like delicate twigs holding up slender, brown balloons.
The child took aim at the doe, adjusting the sight carefully. With hope in his heart, he pulled the trigger.
The M1 Garand, first produced nearly five hundred years prior, rang out with a furious thunder. Its wielder was unfamiliar with the weapon’s many features—including the fierce kickback.
Horace fell from the tree, hit three branches on the way down, and saw nothing.
* * *
“‘He had no conscious knowledge of death, but like every animal of the Wild, he possessed the instinct of death.’” Thomas Jefferson sat next to his son’s bedside reading the same battered, earmarked copy of Jack London’s White Fang his father used to read him. This tenuous connection to the past was the only thing grounding him in this present. “‘To him it stood as the greatest of hurts. It was the very essence of the unknown; it was the sum of the terrors of the unknown, the one culminating and unthinkable catastrophe that could happen to him, about which he knew nothing and about which he feared everything.’”
He looked up from the book at Horace. Folded the book closed and leaned in his chair with a sniff. He was an educated man—a product of Duke University’s engineering department—but he was totally unprepared for the onslaught of medical jargon that accompanied the only word he did recognize: coma.
His ex-wife was still en route. Six more days, if the transports aligned. It had already been three since Thomas noticed Horace was missing and by then he figured it had been eleven hours since his son fell.
How could he miss Horace for that long? What kind of father was he? What was he doing in the woods with a rifle, anyways?
It didn’t make a lick of sense.
So, the man sat next his son’s bedside, picked up the book, and continued to read. And read. And read. He slept and ate and bathed when it was strictly necessary. But for all other concerns, they could hang.
Horace was all that mattered, now.
* * *
Two days later, Horace woke feeling weak and disoriented. He saw his father asleep on a couch which had been pulled beside his bed. Everything was blurry and he had trouble stringing words together. He started to panic, a moaning sound escaping his lips as his arms flailed in alarm.
Father‘s eyes shot open and he moved with lightning speed to wrap his arms around Horace. He was warm and smelled faintly of sawdust and body odor.
“My boy my boy my boy,” was all Tomas could say, holding him as tightly as that night be found Horace, freezing and unconscious under the moonlight.
Doctors and nurses came then, like the hungry wolves which precede the eponymous hero of White Fang. And Horace endured the tests and questions with Father’s hands in his.
Later that evening, when his wits and appetite returned, his father continued reading. White Fang had been captured by cruel men who forced him to fight for their profit, all the while neglecting the wolf-dog; tormenting him just to make him more vicious.
Horace twisted the bedsheets in his hands. He knew how the story ended, but it was still hard to hear this part. Even his father seemed worn by it. He closed the book, pinched his eyes, and asked, “why’d ya kill a doe, son?”
Horace held his tongue. His father’s voice had edged on reproach.
Tomas eyed his child steadily. He knew his son would answer.
The child looked inward, trying to find the words. He was certain, at the time, why he had gone out into the woods. Knew for sure it was a good reason. “I don’t know, sir,” was his reply. It was true-enough an answer, though the rising warmth along the back of his neck told him there was more—more he would be embarrassed to tell.
“Fawns need their mother to survive. If you hunt again, only take bucks.” A pause. “And only when I’m with you.”
A silence grew between them. It was familiar and comforting; as though the universe were righting itself after a long two weeks of instability.
“But why?” Tomas insisted. “Son, you nearly died. Was it,” he looked away, tears pooling in his eyes, a thousand fingers inwardly pointing at him. “Was it the divorce?” It was his deepest fear, that by ending their long, failing marriage Tomas would hurt the one person who was innocent in the whole business.
The boy answered immediately: “No, Father.” Seeing his father’s tears was enough to bring his to the surface. His heart rang like a heavy gong needing to be heard over the chorus of emotion he was feeling. “I just want to be like you and grandpa. Y’all go out and I can’t—,” and so it all came tumbling out in an avalanche of words and snot, shame and humiliation. He would not be enough. He could never be enough.
Tomas listened to it all, even as his mind raced. When the tears has subsided, he held his son close and said, “son, a man is measured by the lives he takes and saves. He gives of himself to realize another’s dreams. His heart is filled by the love he earns through hard work.”
“You mean how Weedon Scott earns White Fang’s love?”
“Yes, Horace. Hard work begets love.”
There is more: the slow path to recovery, surgery, physical therapy, and years to mark the way. But this was the beginning, where hope and lead and blood and tears intertwined; where a death gave rise to a new life.