Killing Softly

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

In the Suburban, with the heater booming and beers in our hands, Brad gripes about his zero-for-three day. "I would've liked to have at least seen more birds." Blue is sacked out in the backseat. The warmth loosens up muscles stiff from leaning into the wind. Brad talks about some wild turkeys who fooled him into thinking a deer was approaching his stand last week. "You just about puke out your heart, you get so excited. 'Can't be a squirrel, no...Oh. It's a gol-darned turkey.'

"What else gets your heart racing like that?" he asks earnestly. "Besides running, and...that's not really it. If it is a deer, you really lose it. And if it is a buck, well, you're going to be there the next year, that's for sure." I think: That's the clearest answer I'm going to get.

The next morning, I watch Blue fasten in on a scent. She thrusts her nose into a bunched hillock of grass. A long-tailed rooster bursts from the straw, whirring upward, iridescent yellow and brown and red. The bird pauses once, the gun's barrel resting with it, then they both rise and shudder, together, in the air. The bird drops. Blue goes to the cock, lifts it in her mouth, and drags on it. The bird flaps. Blue spits it out and looks up, grinning. I wake up with the shot still in my ears. My first kill, I think. I am the hunter. And I am also the fallen bird. Something has died inside me. And something else is winging out now, "as if it had never been hit," into the real world.

I'm sitting in the woods near Ely in the dark, no gun, hunting deer. I'm wearing a blaze vest and hat, though I can't see them. Also: long underwear, flannel jeans, socks, mukluks, a shirt, sweater, scarf, and down jacket. Temp's around 30. Time's a little after six.

I close my eyes for a bit and drift, coming to as I'm falling backward. Straighten up, quiet myself. Breathe. The moon lights up a snow crystal at my feet. The forest is so still I can hear the absence of sound. It's a struggle to get a full breath; I'm listening so intensely. When I next open my eyes, the black pines have defined themselves against graying air. The next time, I make out needles and bark. And the next, a thin caramel seed pod near the ground, bouncing on a breeze only it knows.

A rifle booms, far away. The crow flies first. Then the jay and my beloved chickadee, leaping above, it seems, from tree to tree. A plane buzzes over.

I'm considering time: The pilot's idea of it; the bird's clenched span; the forest's continuous present, into which I've stepped. A grouse flutters. Another streaks across the clearing in front, clucking furiously. More rifle shots, still miles away. A small red squirrel hurries by, not three feet from my boots. Behind me, a tree creaks.

I hold my breath. And it comes again, but from further to my left. And again: the sound of a dry leaf, heavily crunched. I'm straining to sit still; my pulse is slamming in my ears. What is this stealing up on me: reverence or terror? The silence eventually extends. I gulp air. My heart slows. The day brightens. At eight I walk out, teeth chattering.

During dinner in Ely the night before, we'd bumped into a hunter still adorned in piecemeal orange. "How'd it go?" my companion asked. "Well, I got a little buck," the man admitted, with noticeable distaste. "I let him pass by, but my buddies bugged me until I went back after him." His mouth pursed.

"I wasn't ready. It's not the killing I'm into so much as the hunt." The answer struck me then as pat, though his discomfort didn't. This morning, I think I understand. This morning, I finally feel I have earned, if such a thing can be done, the deaths of those first birds with Al.

I realize that I have to keep earning them: If hunting demands anything, it is a constancy of attention, a kind of faithful listening to prey and gun that only begins in the ear. I don't know when--or whether--my aim will stop a bird's rising flight. I do know this: My mother-in-law has offered me her father's old 12-gauge, and I haven't said no.

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