In archery you have to draw back the bowstring straight and taut. When you’re a novice, like I am, you might have to stop and make sure you can listen to the smallest movement of your own fingers grazing your earlobe. Make sure your elbow isn’t hailing the sky with too much ambition. Stare down the shaft of the arrow and not above it. Because as they often say in any discipline of marksmanship, Focus on the process and not the target. It doesn’t matter how clear the bulls-eye is; if your technique is off, your arrow will fly somewhere you did not intend it to go.
Practice arrows, the kind I know how to use, are basically thin carbon cylinders. Some don’t even have arrowheads; you can finger the blunted point and not feel anything sharp. It’s the velocity you release them with that creates the thwock as the arrow sinks into fabric and foam. When you retrieve the arrow from the target, you stand sideways and pull it out slowly, so that if your hand slips you won’t impale yourself. Then hold the arrows with the points down, because even though they’re blunt, an archer is nothing if not careful.
I have never been bowhunting. In my six-hour archery class, we shot at objects, not living creatures. I’m glad. It’s hard enough to hit a faraway foam target, but in bowhunting you must aim for the heart or lungs of an animal. (Its brain is too tiny: for the deer, a half inch too low hits the nose, and a half inch too high is over the deer’s head.) The heart is about the size of my hands folded together. To hit a target this small with an arrowhead that’s even smaller, you have to really know what you’re doing. If you’re not careful, you’ll wound your quarry and probably lose it altogether. About half of the deer that are shot by arrows run away and are never recovered. They stagger away in the forest to die, leaving a bloody trail behind them. Some suffer as long as a week before finally heaving their last breath, the arrow still protruding from the ripped flank, where it did not intend to go. Careless.
When I think of that shuddering gasping deer, lying alone in its own blood, I try to imagine what it feels like to have someone shoot you but miss your heart. All I can come up, though, is what it feels like when they don’t. All I can come up with is what invisible bleeding feels like. What it felt like to go outside at night and sob in the dark, trying to block out the faint sounds of shouting from people who hadn’t even been aiming at me. But almost as bad was the silence afterwards. When we had all staggered away and were lying in our beds, alone. But the next day we showed up for target practice again, and smiled, and no one knew about the wounds except the people with the arrows in their chests. That’s how I learned that we are all wounded animals, and if you aren’t now then you will be later.
Archery is so hard, but heartbreak is so easy. When you love someone, you give them a steel-tipped arrowhead. When you tell them that you love them, you draw a target on your chest. They know exactly how to hurt you because they are the how. You are William Tell’s son who grew up but never ran away. You hope the person you trust never raises that bow, and if they do, you hope they never stare down the shaft of the arrow and see you.
I’ve shot a few arrows myself. I’ve always regretted them, but I don’t always have the guts to go retrieve them, to try to slide them out with the shamefaced request for forgiveness. I think that in all those moments of releasing my arrows, I was just looking at the target. If I had just pulled that tight bowstring to my ear, close enough to listen to myself, to consider the quivering power I was holding back...
When I think of the archers who have hurt me, I try to disarm myself and think about their too-careless, too-wounded hearts. I think about the times I’ve made them bleed, and about how much they want to survive. I imagine the holes that have ripped through their own heaving chests. When I think about their hearts, racing with fear and the feeling of being hunted – I don’t excuse them, but I see why they let each arrow fly so quickly. Careless. Everyone I know is wildly vulnerable: the people I love most and the people I like least. It’s just that their blood trail is hard to see when you’re trying to cover up your own.
So when my friend comes to me with a punctured chest, reeling from the confusion of a misplaced arrow from an archer she trusted, I lie down next to her. I tell her this: Maybe that person released that arrow because their chest has a target too, because they were wildly afraid that the one they love might shoot first.
About the Author: Abigail Shaffer, or Abby, is an undergraduate student at Cedarville University pursuing a Professional Writing major and a Creative Writing minor. Besides writing, Abby loves going to the movie theater, spending time with family and friends, and making puns. Most of all, she owes her life to Jesus, and she is thankful for the beauty he displays to her every day. If you would like to read something that Abby likes significantly more than her own writing, she recommends her current favorite poem: “The Thing Is” by Ellen Bass.