In my family, firearms were a mark of manhood - until the day they became a symbol of tragedy.
Credit: Courtesy David Vann

My father gave me my first gun at age seven. It was a Sheridan Blue Streak pellet rifle, powerful enough to kill squirrels if I hit them in the right spot. The giving of the gun was a ritual, my father's pride and pleasure as he showed me how to pump the rifle, how to pull back the bolt. He even read a poem from Sturm, Ruger & Co. about a father and son – used it to teach me safety. Never point a gun at anyone, never leave a gun loaded but always assume a gun is loaded, always keep the barrel pointed down.

This was very soon after he and my mother had divorced, and we had only the weekends now. Roaming his 90-acre ranch near Lakeport, California, one of those weekends, I didn't realize the rifle was pumped and loaded, and it fired as I walked. Luckily the barrel was pointed at the ground. But my father turned around, the disappointment clear on his face, and my shame was nearly unbearable.

The next year, when I was eight, he gave me a 20-gauge shotgun, for hunting dove and quail. That gun felt inevitable, as if it were a given that couldn't be turned away from. As if we were put here to hunt and kill and the only true form of a day was to head off with a gun and a dog, hike into the hills for 10 or 12 hours, and return with meat and stories. That shotgun became an extension of my body, carried everywhere, the solid heft of it, cold metal, a sense of purpose and belonging. I gazed at it in the evenings, daydreamed of it during the week at school, looked forward to when I'd head out again.

When I was nine my father gave me a .30-30 Winchester lever-action carbine, the rifle used in all the westerns, and he actually went down on one knee when he presented it to me, holding it in both hands, as if it were a ceremonial sword. "This is the rifle I learned on," he said. "This is what we pass down through the family. The rifle I hunted with when I was a boy, the rifle I shot my first buck with, the rifle you'll shoot your first buck with. It's a good gun, an honest gun, with only a peep sight, no scope. You won't be shooting long range, and you'll need to hit the buck behind the shoulder."

He moved back to Alaska then, where I had been born and spent my early childhood, and when I visited, a tourist now, we flew into a remote lake with a floatplane, camped on a glacier, and slept with our rifles loaded, a shell in the chamber, beside our sleeping bags. "If a bear comes," he told me, "the bullet from a .30-30 will only bounce off his skull or bury in his chest and not do anything. You'll have to hit him in the eye or in the mouth if he roars." There was no moon. We were the only humans for a couple hundred miles, and I lay awake imagining the bear attacking my father in the middle of the night while I tried to sight in on an eye in the darkness. This felt like the nature of our relationship: I saw him only during vacations now, and we were supposed to cram half a year into a week. It seemed like an impossible task.

I shot my first buck at 11. A rainy weekend in September 1978, on the White Ranch, my family's 640-acre hunting spread in Northern California. A two-hour drive away from civilization, it was the entire side of a mountain, with high ridges, enormous glades, pine groves and springs, ponds and switchbacks, an old burned area, and even a "bear wallow." Our entire male family history was stored in that place. As our Jeep pickups crawled along the fire roads, my father and uncle and grandfather would tell me the stories of past hunts. It was a place of triumph and shame, a place where all who had come before were remembered.

My father flew down from Alaska every fall for this hunt. He was in his late 30s then, a dentist like his father, in years of despair: grim-mouthed, hair receding, thin, impatient. Everything in his life had somehow gone wrong, and his depression was something I had no way of understanding at my age. But he hadn't always been like this. He'd hunted here from when he was a boy, and he was known then for being lighthearted, a joker. Whenever he came back here, he could see each year recorded in the place, wonder who he had become.

At 11, I could think only of who I would become. Shooting my first buck was an initiation. California law said I wasn't allowed to kill one until I was 12, but family law said I was ready now.

I imagined sneaking up through pine trees or brush to make my first kill, but the weekend was rainy, so we hunted directly from the pickup. It felt unfair, even at 11. The deer would be standing under the trees in the rain, flushed out from the brush. I stood in the back of the pickup with my father, holding on for the ruts and bumps. And when I saw the buck, hidden mostly by a stand of half a dozen thin trunks, I immediately felt pounding at my temples. "Buck fever," we called it. Heart going like a hammer, no breath. The moment of killing something large, another mammal, something that can feel individual - that moment is not like any other. You could call it many things - brutal, wrong, irresistible, natural, unnatural – but what it felt like to me was straight out of Faulkner, the rush of blood and belonging, of love for my father. This was the largest moment of my life so far, the moment of being tested.

I saw two points on one side of the buck's horns, making it legal to shoot. I levered a shell in the chamber and raised my rifle, but my father put his hand on my shoulder.

"You have time," he told me. "Rest an elbow."

So I kneeled down in the bed, rested my left elbow on the side of the pickup, much more stable, and looked through the peep sight, lined it up with the deer's neck. I couldn't shoot the deer behind the shoulder because its body was hidden by the trees. I had only the neck, long and slim. And the sight was wavering back and forth.

I exhaled and slowly squeezed. The rifle fired, and the neck and head whipped down. I didn't even notice the hard kick or the explosion. I could smell sulfur, and I was leaping over the side of the pickup and running toward the buck. My father let out a whoop that was only for killing bucks, and it was for me this time, and then my uncle did it, and my grandfather, and I was yelping myself as I ran over ferns and fallen wood and rock. I charged through the stand and then I saw it.

Its eyes were still open, large brown eyes. A hole in its neck, red blood against soft white and brown hide. I wanted to be excited still, I wanted to feel proud, I wanted to belong, but seeing the deer lying there dead before me in the ferns seemed only terribly sad. This was the other side of Faulkner, conscience against the pull of blood. My father was there the next moment, his arm around me, praising me, and so I had to hide what I felt, and I told the tale of how I had aimed for the neck, beginning the story, the first of what would become dozens of tellings. And I slit the deer with my Buck knife, a gift from my father, slit the length of its stomach, but not deep, not puncturing innards. It seemed a monstrous task. I had both hands up to my elbows in the blood and entrails, not the overpowering foul bile of a deer that's been gut shot but foul nonetheless, ripping out the heart and liver that I would have to eat to finish the kill, though luckily they could be fried up with a few onions first, not eaten raw. I pulled out everything and scraped out blood, cut off testicles, then my father helped me drag it to the truck. He was grinning, impossibly happy and proud, all his despair gone, all his impatience. This was his moment even more than mine.