Killing Softly

Sharp-nosed dogs, stealthy birds, and the sweet secret of dawn: A neophyte gets a taste of the hunt

Two years ago my longtime friend Mary wed this sandy-haired, straight-spined guy from south central Minnesota--the co-owner of a forest-management business (spraying, thinning, planting)--and moved south. Whenever I make the trip for dinner, the three of us end up in long, tangled conversations in which we high-five over the essential stuff (love, family, nature) and argue stubbornly about anything slightly less abstract. The fact that the urban liberal consciously made her bed with the small-town conservative, and he with her, keeps us semicareful. Mary and Brad will be learning by heart for half a lifetime; I learn a lot, watching. Hunting, of course, is one locus of disagreement. "I can't come around on the deer thing," Mary admitted before I came down. "This year it's even worse--maybe because of Blue."

Now we near the long decline of land, with its thicketed creek, and Brad wails. "Aaack! Look at all the trucks." I count five, and pick out nine orange figures spread across the furred draw and grassy rises. It's odd to see so far after the close focus of the northern woods. Brad passes the trucks, parks a couple hundred yards up the road. "We'll try these fields, see if they left anything for us."

The day is fairly balmy, the low sun scuttling behind quilted clouds, but the north wind is blowing fit to buck any lingering duck all the way to Alabama. I wade into the left side of a thick scrub stand with Mary. Brad and Blue take the right. "Stop once in a while and just wait," Brad has advised. "You could walk right past one, and it wouldn't budge. But if you stop moving, the birds'll get scared and fly." We arrive without incident at the saplings' end.

"Let's try walking up this field," Brad says. "If people have been in the thickets, they might've pushed the birds out here." Nose to the ground, Blue chugs through the mounded prairie grass like a low-slung vacuum cleaner. She runs tighter circles than the Brittanys, looking back to Brad for direction. "Chase 'em up!" he urges. We shuffle on. At the field's crest, Brad says, "I want to head her into the wind, so she can smell better."

I shuffle and wait, shuffle and wait, hoping to raise up a showy red-faced rooster, the bird Al disdainfully typed "a balloon with feathers" (the more modest brown hens cannot be shot). Instead I find tawny big bluestem, the labia-like seed pods of the milkweed, and a foot-chilling grassy swamp. Fleeing the water, Mary and I forge through a thicket and lose Brad; this open prairie sweep is deceptive.

When we catch up with him, my nose is dripping and my hands are numb. But we've discovered palm-sized bird nests cradled in the crooks of sapling branches. "Isn't this beautiful land?" Brad exults into the wind. "That's red-osier dogwood there. Break some off, it tastes like cocaine." Mary laughs: "How do you know?" Brad essays a blank look: "I've been told."

I twist a twig off. It does. Sucking dogwood, we drop down with the slope to a wind-ragged creek. "If I shoot into the water here, you can see the shot pattern," offers Brad. I nod, and he fires. The water dimples in a 2-foot-wide oval swath. It's the first shot we've heard in an hour--the first I've heard close by since Al downed our last grouse. The sound hits me like a slap: HEY, LADY. THIS AIN'T A NATURE WALK. "You wanna try it?" Brad asks. I slough off my gloves. The gun weighs heavy and cold in my arms. Brad shows me how to jam the gun butt into my shoulder.

"There's the safety," Brad says, indicating a red-painted button near the trigger. "Sight down the barrel, and push the button when you're ready to shoot." I aim, realize the gun has fallen away from my shoulder, readjust, aim again. Squeeze the trigger. Oh right, forgot the safety. Aim, press the safety, squeeze. Simultaneously, I feel the kick, see the water spray, and squeal. "Wow!" Brad and Mary are laughing. Mary steps up, takes her first-ever shot: The barrel rears upward, as I'd felt it leap in my arms. "Where did it go?" she squeaks breathlessly. "I think you hit the trees," says Brad.

I'm jealous--I want the gun back. Brad passes it over from Mary. I try again, fumble less, spray the water just where I want to. I'm thrilled all out of proportion. "You don't notice the kick so much when you're shooting at something," Brad assures us. I didn't notice the kick. Or if I did, it was just one spark in a charging current. I want to shoot again. I feel electrified and huge, like my bones are lit up in neon. I realize I could stay here and shoot that gun all day. Safety pressed, I hand the weapon back to Brad. Mary and I are grinning. "There's a lot of power there," Mary says. I laugh giddily. "No kidding!"

Returning, I fall back, trying to warm my aching hands (another thing I didn't notice while shooting), diligently shuffling. Mary's gathering a bouquet of dogwood stem, sunflower pod, and bird's nest. Blue swims the grass between Brad and scent, milkweed seed fluffs rising behind her like bubbles. A hundred feet from the truck, Brad stops. Blue is pushing hard in the straw. Mary calls out to me, and I turn to answer; when I look back at Brad, the hen has flown. The day's only bird, and I've missed it.

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