Hunting with my wife (P2)

It is, of course, hard for adults to learn anything new and complicated (retrained Navy admirals and laid-off auto executives will bear this out). I have, for example, wanted and tried for years to learn to play the harmonica. I even had a friend who plays in a blues band in Mississippi try to teach me. But I’ve failed. I can never seem to make the hard leap from wanting to doing; can’t get over the discouragement of entry-level complexity and frustration and proceed to the deeper, more profound gnarliness of the harmonican art. I can never bend a note, so that finally the nagging, silent repetition that “Life’s too short” thrums in my ears and turns me balky.

But especially it is not easy, at any “advanced” age, to learn to rely on what are at best uncertain observations about where gamebirds might be – observations that may be the right ones but turn up no birds at all, or may be wrong (quite wrong) and turn up many, many birds. We modern adults have become addicted to life’s proceeding only in the direction of surer certainties. Some manic-pathetic fury makes us want to do things only if we can do them well and precisely. Limbo, uncertainty, miscalculation, failure – these are all things we want strictly less of, whereas huntingrequires us to think of them – failure, etc. – not merely as part of the whole but as part of its pleasure.

Likewise, it is hard for an adult to learn to walk through the woods or the open fields in a continual state of vivid readiness – to notice everything, to hear, to remember, to take care, possibly to shoot a gun – and to do it for hours and hours, and with your husband, wanting to please him and for him to please you, and for your union to ascend toward a newer realm of heaven, all the while knowing that if you were, say, 8 instead of 38 (when Kristina began), it would be so much easier. At that younger age, a “loving adult” could force it on you, as happened to me, and all your youthful miscues and wrongs and dead misses a slow-rising birds wouldn’t matter, since at such a faultless age you would already do so many things inexpertly and without grace, no single one could matter, and eventually less grindingly, you’d learn.

Kristina is a woman of emphatic and unhidden talents. She has mastered difficult sciences, written useful books, attained an advance degree and a high office of public trust. Without being a cold-eyed and hard-hearted rationalist, she has never trusted the spiritual an unproved in most things. She has compassion and sympathy, and is no practicer of the deadliest sin – stubbornness. But what I have tried teach her in these years is fresh habits, to be added by repetition to the already cut-and-fitted prism of her own so as to change her behavior. They are my minor habits, practiced by me essentially without plan and so nearly unconsciously as to resemble instinct: to hunt up the wind whenever possible; to walk in on a pointed bird with the confidence of having already calculated which way it might fly; to resist scouring the ground with my eyes; to stay aware of changes in cover when trailing a pheasant; and always to expect a wild flush. Beyond that, to watch flying birds out of sight, always to choose my bird, not to shoot the dogs (or someone else), not to shoot too fast, and not to get shot myself by standing in front of someone when birds go up. Learning these things would try anyone’s patience.

Still, in another way, hunting is just working around out of doors, doing what hunters insignificantly do: recounting prior flushes; exhibiting bafflement that the birds “went out” the way they did detailing exactly where you stood and where he stood and where the sun was; speculating why the birds flew toward the gravel pit instead of to the woods or the edge of a beanfield or into the coulee the way they usually do; opining over what the last bunch was doing when found – going to roost, feeding ahead of a storm, getting gravel, feeding behind a storm, “dusting”, on and on like that. Kristina, I think, takes to this as much as to any of it, senses that in such small talk there are small things to learn. Hunting is mostly a thing that men do, but she likes men and their casual businesses. She is inquiring and good company, likes to laugh, and she doesn’t take seriously what doesn’t seem serious. And she does not think that hunting is harvesting game. She seems to realize (and I did not teach her this) that hunting is chiefly being there, taking that walk toward that tree, crossing the river again, going into the swale, seeing what there is to see at this time of day or year or life – ordinary human goings – on that profit from being enacted more meticulously, and then enacted over again. By her nature she seems to know that if we could always come and find birds by some agate-eyed calculation, if we could never not know, then finally we wouldn’t come at all, and that probably we register our humanness by coming when we aren’t sure and by recording the changes in things and by recording change’s opposite – dogged recurrence.

I am, as any of my friends can tell you, no encyclopedia of hunting lore and know-how, and no spiritualist, either I have never intentionally gobbed ritual blood on my cheeks or “utilized” a trout. To me, all such hoodoo conveys is the idea that hunting’s a thing out of reach of the ordinary soul and can be achieved on by a certain few with special magic. I believe, on the other hand, that if huntingbirds were so hard to do, I of all people would never be able. So with that as my “theory,” I haven’t cared if Kristina becomes a great or a perfect hunter or does it better than I do. I have merely hoped to show her what I presumed she could do by herself if she chose. Mine is not a father’s job, to replicate myself in a purer, more specialized and enlightened form, or a wizard’s – instructing her in some sacred office – but a husband’s: to give what I can give, to invite her to be herself to show her my way and then let her figure out her own; to widen the limits of the institution of marriage so as to make them seem to disappear and make us be joined as friends who meet on some road and agree to go on together.

Learning to hunt is not the same as learning to shoot, even though learning one certainly seems to help the other, and it is hard to think now of a good hunter who is not also a pretty good shot. But long before I fell upon this significant distinction and encouraged Kristina off to an elaborate shooting school, bought her a gun of the right size and weight, and retired my old, hand-me-down L.C. Smith 16 that weighed eight pounds, I tried to teach her some things about shooting and the related skill of getting into position to shoot – both of these imagined as a prologue to a manual of hunting. From those early days, I still have a vivid picture in my mind. We are hunting, the two of us, in the wide, damp bottom of a place known as Timber Coulee, in central Montana – a pheasant heaven. My dog, Dixie, a little Brittany, is on point just at the edge of a long, reticulated rose thicket. Kristina is tentative but readying herself to shoot the big Smith should a rooster fly up and into her area. We are behind the dog, who’s grown nervous because we aren’t visible to her and are not moving up confidently to flush the bird, as she expects. Instead, I am furiously but silently waving my arm, trying to get Kristina to move up parallel with me and to push the hiding bird ahead of us toward the back of the thicket, where it will lose cover and probably fly. She is carrying her gun at port arms, trying to understand what my gestures mean, and by turns stealing glimpses at the dog, watching her footing, trying to find the safety on her gun though not yet clicking it off wondering where the bird is in the dense briars, no doubt silently considering the possibility that she might soon shoot a live animal and dreading it – all that, when suddenly the bird launches itself wildly into the clean Montana air, cackling and flapping, only not out ahead of us but straight up into my face, startling my heart and thwarting any shot by me.

But not by Kristina. The shot’s hers. The big bird flourishes higher to the air in an instant, and I reflexively fall to the ground to clear a shot alternately watching Kristina’s alarmed face and the big rooster beating the empty molecules, heading up toward the coulee rim.

“Shoot!” I shout, flat on the ground. “Shoot it. Shoot it, Kristina!” She is looking at the bird, her gun correctly to her shoulder but pausing as if what she sees is what she can’t believe. “Shoot!” I shout, agonized “Jesus, shoot it! Shoot, shoot!”

But she doesn’t. She has found the bird over the plain of her barrels, gone with it a ways, kept both eyes open, but not shot. Just stopped, watching. “Shoot!” I shout pleadingly, still wanting to have it happen. Shoot the damn bird. Why don’t you shoot?’ And – bear in mind I am not proud that this is true – I pound the ground with the flat of my hand and press my forehead to the cold soil like a penitent and let some odd, awful fury rise, peak and then drain out of me as the bird disappears forever.

She did not think she had a shot, she tells me on the spot. It seemed too far. Or maybe it’s that she didn’t get her safety off, or snagged the butt plate on her shirtsleeve. Or possibly she thought I would shoot the bird (from the ground). She is new to all this. I was yelling at her. The bird startled her. Her footing was wrong. It was all a chaos and she didn’t care to shoot under such conditions.

Tears come then. She lays her gun, broken open, on the ground and sits beside it, staring at her boots, crying.

“Why are you such an asshole?” she asks. “Did you think I didn’t want to do it right on purpose? Did you think that was why I came out here? To do it wrong.?” She sobs. “I just don’t know why you get so mad at me.” She wipes her face with her sleeve and stares up at me where I lurk not far away.

“You can’t hit a bird unless you shoot,” I say. “You have to shoot.”

“I know I have to shoot,” she says, less miserable now than resentful. “I just don’t know why you have to be such an asshole about it, you know? I really don’t.”

“I understand,” I say. “I don’t know, either. I’m sorry. I guess I just want you to like this too much.”

“Well, you have a strange way of showing that,” she says, and goes off to hunt by herself the rest of the morning.

This was early on, though only recently have I become certain that I hunt with Kristina at least somewhat for the satisfaction it gives her instead of just for what it brings to me – hunting being to an extent an insular, ruminant pleasure and hard to share, even unequally. I’m certain, now, that in those beginning days I wanted “a wife who hunted,’ a wife with bragging rights, a finished” wife, as my pal Geoff Norman once said, borrowing a term used to describe a fine bird dog. Over these years, I have watched Kristina miss or not shoot or shoot badly at any number of birds, and each time felt a thick lump fall from one part of my insides to another. What I called sharing,” a willingness to teach Kristina what I loved, was, I suppose, just a wish in disguise to make myself happy with her success, and then to share that – an un-innocent generosity, I know.

Hunting requires avidity, a continual, alert responsiveness to the particulars of the changing situation you’re in. Writers celebrate hunting so often partly because such exquisite, tuned readiness is not usual in life and can make one feel (though not write) like a Romantic poet, which some people seem to want to be. Most hunters know this avidity, though. its evidence lies not in how well or fast you shoot, not how often you hit what you mean to, not even how quickly your gun comes to your shoulder, but how widely you see, how promptly you pick up a soft wingbeat and by its sound know it to be a hen’s before you even see the colors. it is how quick you are to know that your young dog has lost a scent, and to find the bird yourself, then get your dog to refind it. It is concentration upon all the particulars of one thing, which is exhilarating and rare in life. Shooting – actually pulling the trigger, firing a shotshell – is the last and in some ways least to be relished of these dedicated movements. And certainly one need not shoot to be rewarded. Though, too, without the possibility of shooting, many argue that die rest, the avidity itself wouldn’t matter, perhaps not even exist. Myself I’m simply not sure.

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