In my family, firearms were a mark of manhood - until the day they became a symbol of tragedy.
Credit: Courtesy David Vann
The next day, in the lower glades - wide expanses of dry yellow grass on an open hillside, fringed by sugar pines – I saw another buck. It was in short brush off to the side, a three-pointer this time, bigger. I aimed for the neck again but hit it in the spine, in the middle of its back. It fell down instantly. Its head was still up, looking around at us, but it couldn't move the rest of its body. So my father told me to walk up from behind and finish it off execution-style, one shot to the head from five feet away.

I remember that scene clearly in all its detail. The big buck and its beautiful horns, its gray-brown hide, the late-afternoon light casting long shadows. After all the rain, the air was clear and cool, distances compressed, even in close, as if through a viewfinder. I remember staring at the back of his head, the gray hide between his antlers, the individual hairs, white-tipped.

"Be careful not to hit the horns," my father told me.

I walked up very close behind that deer, leaned forward with my rifle raised, the barrel only a few feet from the back of his head, and he was waiting for it, terrified but unable to move. I could smell him. He'd turn his head around far enough to see me with a big brown eye, then turn away again to look at my father. I sighted in and pulled the trigger.

The next year I began missing deer, closing my eyes when I shot. We were on an outcropping of rocks over the big burn, an area consumed by fire years before, with only shorter growth now. A buck leaped out from a draw and bounded across the hillside opposite us. My father hunted with a .300 magnum, a gun he'd bought for bears in Alaska. It was an outrageous caliber, sounded like artillery, would tear the entire shoulder off a deer.

My dad was an excellent shot, but this deer was far away and moving fast and erratically, dodging bushes and rocks. I was firing too, but only pointing the gun in the general direction, closing my eyes, and pulling the trigger. I opened my eyes in time to see one of my bullets lift a puff of dirt about 50 feet from the buck, and my father saw this too. He paused, looked over at me, then fired again.

This was the last time we hunted, and we never talked about what happened.

I turned 13 that fall, after the hunt, and I saw very little of my father. At Christmas he was having troubles I didn't understand, was crying himself to sleep at night. He wrote a strange letter to me about regret and the worthlessness of making money. At the beginning of March he asked if I would come live with him in Fairbanks for the next school year, eighth grade. I wanted to spend time with him, but I was afraid of his despair. I was afraid, also, of the kids I knew in Alaska, who were already doing drugs at 13. I wanted badly to say yes, but I could feel a terrible momentum to what my life would become in Alaska. So I said no.

Two weeks later my father called my stepmother in California, where she'd moved after their divorce. He was alone in Fairbanks in his new house, with no furniture, the ides of March, cold, sitting at a folding card table in the kitchen at the end of a day. He had broken up this second marriage the same way he had the first, by cheating with other women. And now my stepmother was moving on. She'd found another man and was thinking of marrying him. My father had other problems I would learn about later, including the IRS going after him for tax dodges in South American countries, failed investments in gold and a hardware store, unbearable sinus headaches that painkillers couldn't reach, and he told my stepmother, "I love you, but I'm not going to live without you."

She was at work in an office at the time and couldn't hear well. She had to duck behind the door with the phone and ask him to repeat what he had said. So he had to say again, "I love you, but I'm not going to live without you." Then he put his .44 magnum handgun to his head, a caliber bought, like the .300 magnum, for grizzlies, capable of bringing a bear down at close range, and he pulled the trigger. She heard the dripping sounds as pieces of his head came off the ceiling and landed on the card table.