Killing Softly

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

Al Schroeter and I are bumping down the Echo Trail out of Ely in his battered pickup, catching the day's first gold as we top the hills, falling into gray shadow on the swampy bottoms. My hands gingerly cradle a scalding tin cup of coffee. I've sworn off caffeine, but I'm sipping this thick stuff because I'm cold, and because I've already stepped so far out of the comfortable shell of opinion and habit known as "me" that all rules are off. I'm wearing a blaze-orange acrylic stocking cap. I'm going hunting. Al chants bird lore as he coaxes the lumbering Ford around the road's sinking curves: up and down, into the light and out. My kick-started brain spins. I feel lost. Good, I decide. I think that's why I'm here.

A week before, on the phone, Al's guffaws bounced over the wires between Ely and Minneapolis. He's a rangy, beetle-browed giant, with a voice to match. "Sure, I'll take you hunting," he enthused. "But, Terri, why?" Al has known me as a dedicated non-meat-eater for the decade-plus since his shaggy punk-rock band slept on my floor in San Francisco. I've known him as a loony outdoorsman since I heard that he--three days into a Lake Calhoun ice-fishing marathon--resolutely ignored a fed-up girlfriend screaming from shore. (She grew hoarse, the story goes, before he gave in.) Al moved north a few years ago, with a vegetarian wife who mostly doesn't mind sharing him with two bird dogs and the woods.

For a moment, I couldn't think how to answer him. Because I don't get it, I finally said. Because I've never understood what hunting means to the hunter, and maybe it's time I should.

Polly Becker

The October sun is brightening the high yellow aspen leaves when we park in a rutted clearing in the Superior National Forest. In the quick calm, we hear the dogs--Maybelle and her daughter Dixie--whining and scratching back in their kennels. Al has described the Brittanys' excitement before a hunt, but I'm still startled: Somewhere on the half-hour drive, the short-haired, rust-and-white dogs developed the shakes.

Bred originally in France, Brittanys are pointer dogs to the bone, Al informs me. Freezing up, midstride, at a whiff of bird is instinct for them. Holding that point--while the hunter finds the dog, and the bird tries to wait him out, and the bird finally flies, and the hunter takes a shot--is where training matters. Dixie's puppy exuberance is more apt to frighten a bird into flight (or to "flush" it, in hunting lingo). Maybelle will stick to a point all night, Al claims, only half joking.

Before Al lets Maybelle out, he slides his shotgun out of its Naugahyde casing and shows me the short barrel--chosen for its easy handling amid dense forest growth. Lead shot is used for grouse and woodcock, the smallest bird hunted in the U.S.; duck hunters have been required to shoot larger steel balls ever since ducks were discovered dying of lead poisoning from swallowing spent pellets. Al passes me the unloaded gun, a semiautomatic, which allows for a second shot. I bobble it, my hand slipping with the pump. "Eek!" I exhale and almost throw it back at him.

Al buckles a bell collar on Maybelle. "Hunt 'em up!" he says sternly. She races off into the brush and we saunter after her, Dixie weeping hopelessly behind us. For a short bit, we walk trail as a huffing Maybelle streaks through the scrub. So this is hunting, I think: The dog does everything. Then we're over our heads in saplings, and it's all I can do to keep upright. My confounded eyes offer up screwy snapshots: branches at two inches; mossy log underfoot; Al's gun to the left and ahead; branches at zero inches; Maybelle running; my gloved hand bending back branches; a rise ahead; branches. It's as if we're hiking through a moving kaleidoscope, which might feel divertingly trippy, except that one of us is packing.

Tutored with stories of stealthy Hiawathas, I'd envisioned the hunt as a hushed, contemplative endeavor. Instead we're crashing through crunchy leaves and brittle saplings, big-booted and (in my case) stumbling, Maybelle off to the side a-ringing her bell like Chuck Berry's riding her back. And Al's talking: directing the dog, directing me, and simply jawing, because he does that. "Yeah, you don't tell people about your favorite covers--the locals'd use 'em like walleye holes. MayBELLE! Come! We're gonna head round this way....See this leaf? That's woodcock splash. It looks fresh...." Surrounding all our noise I hear the forest, which on this windless, sharp morning sounds like merciless patience.

Then the bell stops. Al stops me. Silence. "She's locked up." Al locates the dog, which isn't simple (some people use electronic beeper collars). And there she is, poised in midstride, head angling off to her right. "That bird's just staying put," notes Al, "sure it's invisible." We step closer behind Maybelle, quiet. "There it is, about four feet off her nose." I look, and I see brown leaves. The moment extends liquidly around us, filling our lungs.

Later Al will tell me: "When Maybelle goes on point, I know I have time to think about the bird's probable course, what my best shots are; I have time to adjust my hat." For me, watching, it seems like we all become something other than conscious--more like functions, levers within an old and efficient machine. The bird appears to fly up at the same time the gun goes off; it is falling, light to dark, even as it rises.

"Down bird!" Al commands, and Maybelle leaves her point to snuffle for the woodcock. "Was that loud?" he asks me, grinning. "Not really," I say, although the shot still echoes. The whole moment was loud, not just the gun.

Maybelle brings Al the bird, and he brings it to me. Patterned in deep brown and black, the woodcock fits exactly in Al's wide palm, its neck draped over his wrist. "How do you know it's dead?" I wonder anxiously. Al wiggles the loose little head, with its thin stilt of a beak. It does look lifeless. He spreads the tail feathers and shows how the mottled pattern types this bird an adult. Longer-beaked, larger birds like this one tend to be female, he explains. I can't see where she's shot, but Al has blood on his hand. I hold out my two, and he tips her onto them.

The body is hot. I didn't expect that. The eye is black and glassy yet, the white ring around it emphasizing the gleam. Drawing out the wide wing, I can feel its tensile strength. The needle bill, with which the woodcock probes dirt and wet leaves for earthworms, opens to reveal a slim tongue. These details escaped me the last time I stalked woodcock, a spring evening years ago when some friends and I drove to the Elm Creek Park Reserve in Osseo to witness the male's whistling courtship flight.

Crouched low, uncertain in the deep dark, we heard above us the trill of the wind through the male's wing feathers and his chirping song, inscrutable music to an invisible dance. This bird, leaking warmth into my hand, cannot hide herself. But her weight, the tactile substance of her soft feathers and bony bill, strikes me as a mystery equally bottomless and off-balancing.

As Al drops two more woodcocks and a pair of grouse, missing a single cunning grouse who refused to fly, the thunking reality of all these interrupted ascensions chips away at the wonder of a bird in the hand. Whatever your respectful intentions, a shot bird still flops cruelly to the ground. My eye tries to keep the downed bird flying into the what-if dimension, into the web of ghostly flight paths envisioned by writer Robert F. Jones. Jones would have it that spirit birds, forever "winging on out as if they'd never been hit," eventually weave the hunter's "rough winding sheets." I'm not sure nature writes its stories with such satisfyingly karmic ends.

The hunting creed assumes that the lives of prey can and should be sacrificed for the sustenance, physical and/or emotional, of the hunter. Most people who eat meat pay someone else to kill food for them. Hunters pay to kill. Their refusal to distance themselves from killing intrigues me: I don't know whether they deserve my disgust or my respect. It's the latter that has shot up lately.

Nearly two decades into vegetarianism, I've lost a bit of the self-righteous edge: I keep running into contradictions. Plant-eaters tend to trumpet the animal cruelty and environmental destruction caused by meat-eating--a valid, constructive criticism, and disingenuous, too. At the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana University researchers have been watching as run-off pesticides and fertilizers from heartland farms liquidate the ocean life over an area the size of New Jersey. Part of the dead zone bears my name. So do gender-bent alligators and walleye, five-legged frogs, and thin-shelled eagle eggs. Organic farms displace wildlife habitat as surely as conventional ones. Whatever you eat, because you eat, something else doesn't. The hunter doesn't try to elude responsibility for human appetite and its consequences.

A year ago Thanksgiving, Al presented our gathering with his fall harvest: Woodcock, pan-fried, baked, and served with a reduced red-wine sauce. I did not refuse a sample--per the worm diet, it tasted rich and steaky--partly because I knew that these birds had enjoyed a wild, unfettered existence, and partly because I wanted to acknowledge the labor that had brought this food to the table. I'm a gardener; I plan and plant and weed and water, coaxing life and dealing death until the two become one and I fold the wasted plants into compost. Al scouts and trains his dogs and talks woodcock for months preparing for the hunting season (September 19 to November 2 this year); he marks time by the birds' migrations as much as I do by the freezing and thawing of the soil. Perhaps the hunt and the garden should be considered together, the hobbified versions of ancient, essential pursuits. Perhaps when you shoot, as when you dig, you remind yourself that food is not just bought, but earned.

At our final stop on the Echo Trail, Al strolls up to an aspen stand and pronounces: "Last time there was a grouse here." As if summoned, a grouse rattles up, nearly brushing our teeth for us. I think I am uneasy around these deaths because I have not earned them.

The late-October day clings damp and clotted, as if the clouds had collapsed. Woodcock season ends in a week; grouse season, which lasts until December 31, is barely a third over. Carol Nyholm backs out the driveway of her Grand Rapids home and dog kennel and points the van toward one of the local woodcock covers she frequents. She's describing the elephants she saw and the kudu antelope she killed on a monthlong African safari three years ago--a gift to herself on her 60th birthday. "I had saved enough money to replace my old van," she says, her voice pinched with the nasal flatness of the Range. "But Africa was the best experience of my life." I look at her--suburban-lady gold-rimmed glasses, neat gray-blond shag, rough red jacket and canvas pants--struggling to fit her pieces together.

Al put me in touch with Carol: Her deep-chested Brittany stud Drifter is Dixie's father. I've asked her to show me how a professional hunts, and I mean both her and her dog. Slight and sharp as a sparrow, Carol has raised Brittanys and golden retrievers for more than 30 years; for half of those, she has made a living as an upland bird-hunting guide--not a popular profession for women. "I know of one out east," she reports flatly. "I read her ads."

Carol learned to hunt, fish, and trap from her dad in the '40s. What he caught or shot was the family's meat during the Depression and later, when he drew thin wages working at a Cloquet paper mill or in the Duluth shipyards. Trained as a medical-lab technician at the University of Minnesota, Carol eventually quit to start a dog-grooming business. "Thirty years ago wasn't a great time for women," she says. "Even in this small town, the boss thought he had a right to grab your butt." Working at home meant she could stay close to her two girls, whose father Carol had divorced. "My best year I made $15,000," she admits. "That was my choice, though: to make money or to have a good quality of life." When we pull into a small clearing on Blandin Paper Co. land, the sky sludge is already thickening. Forest companies, Carol says, have always allowed hunting in their woods: Between that and plentiful state and national forest land, she seldom needs to bother with individual owners. Lately she has seen more of them posting "no trespassing" signs on their fences, the legal way to keep hunters out. She has also noticed more hunters coming up from Iowa and Illinois, where urban sprawl is fast eating up what used to be wildlife habitat. "Minnesotans don't know how lucky they are," she says.

The Brittany rakes at the kennel bars: "Drifter likes his job," notes Carol, who locates humor in understatement. She collars him with a bell and electronic beeper; then, with a quiet "High on" from her, he's cantering, nose to ground. Nyholm likes the English hunting phrase, she explains, because it seems calmer than "Hunt 'em up!"; there's no need to incite an already agitated dog.

We walk into the soft light on an uneven track paralleling Drifter's circles. This time out I feel less overwhelmed: Maybe because I've figured out how to move through the aspen saplings with my gloved hands out in a flying wedge. Maybe because Carol barely lifts her voice with Drifter. Or maybe it's that, when we flush a woodcock, Carol pulls up her gun, then lowers it without firing. She has been in the field with clients for five straight days, she says; she's got woodcock in her freezer and doesn't know that she feels like shooting. Behind her reluctance I can hear her father's first rule: "You don't shoot anything unless you're going to eat it."

Drifter comes up on a second woodcock and flushes it down our deer path, a clear shot overhead. I find myself tracking the bird with a hunter's eye. BLAM! goes my inner shotgun. The bird flies on, still alive in this dimension. Carol chuckles. "Drifter's wondering what's wrong with me." We hike on, dodging branches. Carol notes the still-green strawberry leaves and clover, the grouse's fall fodder along with poplar and alder buds. Slash--new growth in clear-cut areas--is the best grouse and woodcock habitat, she asserts. "A mature forest supports no game. That's one for the tree-huggers." I could argue that, for tree-huggers, game is not necessarily the point. But I don't.

The birds we've found, she says, are not locals; the woodcocks who nest here flew a couple weeks ago, riding a north wind under a full moon. As the season goes on, the birds flush more easily; they recognize hunters, she maintains. She also feels, with the perspective of 50 hunting years, that woodcocks are evolving new behaviors: "They're not staying put like they used to," she claims, "and they're starting to flush [through the woods] like grouse, not just heading straight for the treetops." After an hour, Carol whistles in Drifter. He refuses to come, his bell tinkling off to our left. As we near the van, the dog flushes another woodcock over our heads. It wings out, black against the diffuse, melting sky, and is gone.

On the way back, I ask how Carol will vote on the upcoming state ballot's constitutional amendment, which promises to protect Minnesotans' right to hunt, fish, and "take game" (i.e., trap) for perpetuity. "I'm for it," she offers bluntly. "The number of hunters is dwindling--we're a very small body. It's just like the NRA: I don't agree with all they're doing, but if we lose one right, it's just a step towards losing another one. Because the majority wins over--and there's a lot of anti-hunting sentiment."

On election day, of course, I'm one of the very small body voting against the amendment, which passes in a 77-percent-to-23-percent landslide. But Carol has reason to be defensive. In terms of demographics, the hunter looks to be a threatened species. In 1972, 14 percent of Americans hunted. By 1991, the figure had dropped to 7 percent. Minnesota has been something of a holdout against the decline; the Department of Natural Resources reports that in 1997, nearly 18 percent of us hunted, about the same as did in 1960. But here, too, demographic trends bode ill for blood sport: More than half of the state's population now live in urban and suburban areas, where residents are less likely to hunt than rural people. And in an October Star Tribune/KMSP Minnesota Poll, 80 percent of respondents said they hunted less often than they had in their youth; more than half said they were too busy to take their children hunting.

My father has a late-'60s snapshot of my Montana grandmother, an unruly grin on her face, standing beside a Plymouth with a mule-eared brown buck draped over it. That's the last deer our branch of the family killed. My brother remembers a single father-son hunting excursion during which, he recalls, they talked loud enough to send any animals over the next mountain. My brother's suburban daughters will find hunting as strange a pastime as sod-cutting--unless, like Al, they consciously convert, embracing the hunter's way of life precisely because it is falling away.

Carol has met these changes with a mixed strategy of retreat and missionary outreach. Her life's last adventure, she reveals, will be starting a hunting lodge in Babbit, just south of Ely, with her daughters. She has also become a mentor to Al and others, including the women she's taught to shoot and hunt as part of Minnesota's Becoming an Outdoor Woman program. "Oh, I wish you could've been along with us!" she enthuses about a recent BOW weekend hunt. "Here are these women who just took shooting lessons, now out hunting--and they're just astounded by how much they're enjoying it."

A woman is as "natural" a hunter as a man, Carol stresses, with an eye on my pen. "They're just never invited. And if they are, they're not helped along--or they're given a gun that'll knock her flat on her crack." She laughs like an old crow, and I laugh back. She's very convincing. "It's not for everyone," she continues tactfully. "You've got to find those things inside you--see whether you like it or not."

But what are "those things," I ask. What inner mouth is filled, stilled, by the hunt? Carol steers the van down the tunnel of the headlight beam, the early night drawing in around us. Her usual eloquence deserts her. "I know I love the woods--all my life I've been drawn to it. I love seeing my dogs work." The dashboard glows within the circle of her chest, chin, and arms. "I just feel like I belong." And I see her suddenly as I had Al, an instrument in the guts of a great, hoary wheel.

Brad Gatzlaff has been up since 3:30 a.m., hunting. First he and a friend drove to Weaver and huddled in their duck boat, grumbling as mallards and teals landed in the middle of the water, out of reach. Then he walked out to his deer stand--which he has used for more than 20 years--and did some housekeeping. Now, 10 hours since his first cup of coffee, he's heading to public lands south of Kenyon and West Concord, aiming for pheasant.

On this November Saturday, three hunting seasons overlap in southwestern Minnesota: We're halfway through pheasants (October 10 through December 13), in the midst of the first of two deer firearm seasons (November 7 to 15 and 21 to 27; bow-hunters enjoy a longer span), and coming up on the end of ducks (October 3 through December 1).

"We need something for the game bag!" Brad cries. His wife Mary Madison, who doesn't hunt, laughs from the backseat. Their blond Labrador pup, Blue, who is learning to, eagerly leaps into the front and is shoved affectionately back.

Leaving their Zumbrota farmhouse, I had spotted a heap of feathers in a porch planter. "It's a teal," Mary informed me. The small duck's emerald green swoosh still shone prettily, though the rest looked battered. "I'm teaching Blue to carry it in her mouth," Brad called from the Chevy Suburban. Labradors are retrieving dogs: Their joy involves jumping into frigid fall waters and finding downed ducks, by scent and the hunter's direction. In the field, they flush pheasant rather than point it, and bring the bird back when it's dropped. Except that Blue has been reluctant to hold that feathery weight in her jaws--especially, Brad says, the relatively bulky pheasant.

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.

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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