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The Benefit of Doubt

What if I miss? What if I wound the animal and it dies a slow painful death?

Whatif I disappoint my family? What if…

HooooonnnnkShooooo…HoooooonnnnnkShooooo

“Dad can you please put your mouthpiece in I”

 HoooooooonnnnnkShoooooo

 “Ugh!” I cried in frustration. 

All night I had been trying to get my dad to put his mouthpiece in that would keep him from snoring. It was about 1 a.m. and at that point that I finally decided to give up. I desperately longed to see the back of my eyelids instead of the small thatch roofed room around me. My thoughts started to swarm around in my head like bees. Stinging, rushing around frantically. 

Tomorrow, I have to hunt. Tomorrow, I either make the shot of a lifetime or fail.

These thoughts continued to rush around my head. Until one lone memory of the previous day crept in. It almost seemed to shush all the others, so that was the only one I was thinking of. That afternoon on the hunt, my father had made a funny comment about how many times he’d missed that day. “I’ve never heard a Gemsbok laugh before.” My father had shot at the animal, multiple times I might add, and he had missed every single time. 

It turned out to be just because the gun was two inches off, but that didn’t stop me from chuckling to myself as I listened to the rhythmic, almost soothing snores. It was too loud for me to go to sleep, but I felt at peace listening to the sounds around me. At 4 a.m. my thoughts started to drift away like soft flurries of snowflakes being carried by a gentle breeze. Within ten minutes, I had fallen asleep. 

During my hunting experience in South Africa, I learned a very important lesson about taking pride in what you do and to never doubt yourself. I have carried this knowledge with me since the time I had this amazing opportunity. It has shaped me as a person and I never intend to forget it. 

I heard my father ask me the one question I hoped he wouldn’t ask: “Mary, are you awake?” “No.” I replied with a groan. I finally got my wish, to see the back of my eyelids. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong time for that to happen. 

“Mary, there’s a whole bunch of impalas over in that field, do you want to shoot one?” I heard Pete ask.  

“Mmmm… sure.” I replied. As I lifted my heavy gun up, all I could think about was how much I didn’t want to do this. I was tired, scared and overall lacking in self-confidence.  

When I shot, it was not surprising to me that I missed. 

“Why are you so tired?” my dad asked. 

“Why do you think?” I retorted. 

“I slept great!” my dad said with energy and enthusiasm. 

“Exactly!” I replied. 

We started walking toward a thick forest. All you could see was darkness as we trekked through the woods. The Jeep started to fade away until it was just a tiny speck in the distance. Pete, our hunting guide, was guiding us through the brambles and thick, heavy brush. 

“Did you see that?” he whispered with a mixture of awe and seriousness in his voice. 

“What?” we all asked in unison. 

“There’s a buffalo right behind that tree,” he replied. 

I stood very still and slowly turned my head toward the tree. I saw an enormous Cape buffalo. Fear started to seep into my mind like a beach wave seeping into the fresh sand. That fear was quickly washed away by a crashing wave of exhilaration that pounded through me and gave me new strength and energy as we continued our search for the elusive impala. 

“The only difference between this and buffalo hunting is that the animal we’re looking for isn’t trying to kill us,” Pete whispered. 

We continued like that for a very long while and eventually we weren’t looking for impala anymore. We were looking for buffalo. Like giddy children on Christmas, we couldn’t contain ourselves when we saw dark shapes moving around or a pile of fresh dung. We were in buffalo territory. All too soon, we had to leave our treasure hunt because we were too far in the forest. We headed back to the jeep. 

We steadily bumped along the rough terrain. Budum, budum. I was lying on my father’s lap, slowly falling asleep to the steady lullaby-like bumps of the jeep. All I could do was replay the Cape buffalo or impala hunt in my mind over and over again, wanting to soak up each tiny detail of it so that I would never forget any second of the experience. 

It was a different excitement than the thrill that comes from anything else. It was something that I felt belonged to us, me, my dad, my grandfather and Pete, the hunting guide. It was something special, something that might not come again. Unlike an everyday exhilaration, this one was going to stick with me forever. 

I heard Pete’s voice over the loud rumbling of the jeep. “Hey, Mary.” 

“Yes?” 

“I see a blesbok in that field over there, do you want to shoot it?” 

I opened my eyes just enough to see what Pete was referring to. Sure enough, there was a blesbok in the field. A pang of hesitation hit me. What if I miss? What if I injure the animal and it dies a slow painful death? What if…no. 

No, I was not going to let the “what ifs” be my downfall. There are way too many of them in life and I realized I was never going to get anywhere if I let the “what ifs” drag me down. 

“Yes.” I replied. I found a rest for my rifle, steadied myself and pulled the trigger. When I looked up the blesbok had moved only ten feet away from his original spot and was now continuing to eat grass. 

I had missed! All the “what ifs” were swarming now, panic started to settle in and I was having trouble focusing. 

“Do you want to go after it?” Pete asked. 

I looked over at my grandfather and my dad, sure I was going to see scowls and looks of disappointment, but all I saw was reassuring smiles. At that, I, too, smiled and nodded. Pete carried the tripod sticks and I carried my gun. We walked down the hill and set everything up. 

“Now remember, keep yourself steady and make sure you’re confident before you shoot. Don’t doubt yourself,” Pete instructed. 

I nodded my head and swallowed. I lowered the gun to the sticks and put my eye up to the scope. For once, all of my thoughts were of encouraging things and even though only Pete was with me, I could hear everyone’s voices pushing me forward, giving me new strength and energy. I’ve never heard a gemsbok laugh before, make sure you’re confident, don’t doubt yourself, like giddy children on Christmas, no more “what ifs.” I zeroed-in on the animal, took a deep breath and squeezed. 

BAM! I pulled my head up and Pete was smiling. 

“What?” I asked. 

“You hit it!” Pete replied. 

The look of doubt on my face quickly turned to excitement and elation, I was thrilled. “Seriously!?” I screamed. 

“Yep, straight through the lung,” Pete said. 

I bounced up and down and squealed in delight. Pete started walking toward the dead blesbok that was giving up its last breath of life. I did it! I actually did it! Pops, my grandfather, surfaced from behind the hill and he put his arms up in an unsure celebration and I thrust my arms up in confirmation. Soon after, my father appeared, as well, and the next thing I knew, we were all down in the valley celebrating. 

“Go find something for the blesbok to put in its mouth,” my dad said. 

Everyone went over to the animal to make sure the last of its muscle spasms were over while I wandered around to find flowers. It was an old tradition that when an animal dies you need to put a bundle of grass or flowers in their mouth out of respect for their lives and to thank God for his creation. 

As I tread along the rocky landscape, I started to think about how I was going to tell everyone at school how I had done it! I had hunted and killed an animal! These thoughts bounced along my mind, ricocheting back and forth. I thought about their reactions maybe something like: “Oh, my gosh, wow!” Or, “That’s amazing!” 

Then reality settled in. I realized what their real reactions might be like: “Oh my gosh, you killed an animal! How could you?” Or, “What!? That’s horrible!” These reactions would actually end up happening when I eventually did go back to school. 

When the doubt of others hit me, my self-doubt kicked up. Why did I do that? What made me kill that animal? Did I come all the way to South Africa just to take a life? I spotted the flower, a beautiful purple flower in the bare, dry landscape. 

No, not again. Shooting the animal was only a small puzzle piece in this trip. In fact, it wasn’t even about the shot at all. The shot was the destination, the hunt was the journey. I pondered in solemn silence for a while until I heard the voices of the others. 

“Mary! Where are you?!” 

“I’m coming!” I yelled back. I quickly pulled the flowers out of the ground and ran back to where the blesbok was. We took some pictures and I eased the flowers into its mouth. We said a quick prayer and we loaded it up in the Jeep. I had forgotten about those doubts, for now. 

It was time for a picnic lunch, and we came to a beautiful rocky outcropping with a perfect space to picnic. When we pulled up, I could not contain my excitement to tell my cousins, Hayes, Griff and my Uncle Lonnie. I told them all about the hunt. 

We ate an amazing lunch and went back to the beautiful lodge which no longer felt confining. It felt free. I felt like I could do anything. I talked about it all day and the best part was, nobody got tired of it because they were there. They experienced the utter joy and exhilaration that I did. As we sat next to the fire, all the chatter was about the hunts of the afternoon and at that moment I felt unashamed and proud of my accomplishments. 

In conclusion, I learned that even when self-doubt, judgment and fear may conflict you, there are still some things that no one can take away from you. My hunting experience in South Africa was one of these things. It wasn’t about killing the animal, it was about being with the people I love and hunting. 

My experience in South Africa, is something I will never forget. In a way, I am almost thankful now for the insecurities I had about myself, because without them, I wouldn’t have been able to overcome those weak spots in my self-esteem. I learned the benefit of doubt.–Mary Hayes

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