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A Winter Grouse

ISSUE:  Winter 1991

As forecast, last night brought this slight layer of snow. Today will be my final one to hunt grouse: the feed is vanished, the game-cover skinny, the scent worse and worse.

I have, of course, the ‘flu.

In recent years the first storm, the last day of my season and this sickness have so perfectly coincided that I’ve come to believe more than ever in the body’s power of recall. My chest tightens, my eyes burn—they know how to mark an anniversary. I should lie in bed and recover; but there are other things to recover. To cover again. The covers . . . .

“Colder than a frog’s mouth,” a neighbor says, as we stamp by the general store’s gas pumps. Across the common, Old Glory, blown straight as a plank. “Take two men to hold on one man’s hat today,” the neighbor adds; I’ve heard it before, but am happy to hear it again. Habit becomes me. Yes, it’ll be bad scent in such a gale, and bad hearing; after all the explosive years my ears aren’t much even in a still woods.

Yet I’m happy, the world so crisp and hard-edged I might be in some museum of The Beautiful, a commemorative place. Death of a season, but I am like a person who, at the term of a bountiful life, may recognize death as the imperative that kept him keen to the bounty itself.

I know. All over the globe, desperate or despicable people unsheathe the billy, unfurl the electric lead, approach the cell. Others somewhere contemplate throw-weight. Still others—the last of the bottle sucked down—turn on wife or child in a rage that’s incomprehensible, even to themselves. Not logical, exactly, this dream of available bliss, which I vaguely pursue as I set off along route 113, yet there it is. It’s there even as through my truck window I read the late history of nearby woods where I used to shoot, where new “country estates” dot the hills. I must range farther each year, so much closing down around me.

Still, my mood is affirmative—never mind the No Hunting posters on every tree; never mind that this will likely be my last hunt in the Gore, which has been bought by the ski industry; never mind that soon the winter sports enthusiasts will put up even more posters, hoping to save the wildlife they’ll never see. (Two thousand condos planned in the Gore, each owner a friend to the game. . . .)

I bump my rig out of sight on the creamery lane. Just a cellar hole here now. I remember the proprietor’s name: Hazen Flye. I remember the year he died—how trim he left the place, how soon it moldered, how soon the game flocked back to reclaim it. Instant ruin, full of romance.

Annie shrinks and moans as I slip on the bell-collar, her usual charade of suffering; then she races across the rough ghost of a meadow to loose her bowels. I step into the cover a few feet to wait. A woodcock, diehard loiterer, whistles up and hovers above me. I stare at him there along my barrels, then watch his long flight over the road. When Annie comes back, she locks on the little bird’s scent. Gone, I call to her.

This is a three-hour cover if you work it all. I have small faith that I’ll move many partridge, smaller still that I’ll get decent points, almost none that I’ll hear wings. But somehow I mean to cover every inch.

Behind the creamery, land plummets down a steep lane of haw and blasted apple. I follow. A blaze flares from a trunk where a buck has hooked, and here and there his cuff marks and the orange dribble of his rut show as I wobble downhill. Jesus, I’m weak. It’s going to be a real struggle coming out, but I’ll worry about that then.

The only sign of feed is a solitary thorn apple in a clump of untracked snow—perfectly red, perfectly shaped and displayed. I behold it a moment.

I move on, pausing frequently in fealty to my sickness and in order to pick up the sound of the bell. What a wind! More than once, I blow my lungs out on the whistle, so that the dog (close by after all) skulks, confused. What is bothering me?

Nothing, really. The sky is that near-purple I’d sooner associate with February than November. No cloud softens the prospect, but that seems part of the general rightness this morning—rude as barbed wire, lovely.

Was that a grouse’s flush? I don’t know. I think so, but it may have been merely the hurtle of air. When I come on Annie, I think she has that slightly offended look she wears when a partridge has flown and no shot been fired. Has she been pointing all this time?

I toot her on, losing the sound of her in an instant, noisy as I am, crunching past the abandoned hunter’s shack, tripping once on a downed alder and crashing. I smile to recall the rage such accidents used to induce, how once I stood throwing forearm shivers at a hornbeam, as if that would avenge the indignity of my pratfall. You’re a grownup now at least, I think. For better or worse. . . .

No grouse among the grapevines below the shack. Why would there be, the grapes burst or bitten or buried long since?

I should take my usual route west through the remaining cover, but I’m beset by odd curiosity to explore new ground, the likelihood of killing anything remote as it is. Younger, I’d have scoffed at the notion of exploring on the last day, especially in a zone the skiers had doomed. Maybe this morning I seek a farewell that’s inclusive. I don’t know, I don’t know.

I push on to a wide brook. Now where does it come from, go to? Bizarre territory: high grass waves tawny in the wind. I squint hotly at a small patch around me, watching the near stalks riffle, ignoring the snowy ridges to north and south: This might be Africa, a lion crouched in that stuff, big tail flicking, dark stare on his face.

A hallucination of wonder, however, not terror.

Water leaving me no choice, I do turn west and follow the brook along its ice-beaded ledges. Annie rushes past—I can hear the bell for once, and can just make out her colors in the lion-cover. She stops dead 40 yards on. What the hell? I scrooch to the ground; it would be soft in a softer season, and I can believe that some maverick woodcock might drop to it for a brief, disenchanting spell; but surely I saw the autumn’s last woodcock up where I came in, wished him well, willed him southward.

Thus it’s carelessly that I amble to the point, and in complete surprise that I behold the flush. The bird crosses the brook in the frank light, scales into larches whose last needles tumble in cascades. I have not thought to raise my gun.

I know that this winter I’ll see the grouse again in mind, almost black against that drift of gold. It’s true what they say about fish, I think, by sudden association—you remember The One That Got Away. I have not fired at this partridge, but somehow I’ve also had him on a line. I think just now I pray, if wordlessly, that the snow stay fluffy, that no fox paw through an overnight crust, that till melt the bird keep busy on high limbs decked in fat, nourishing buds. . . .

Perfect, perfect, perfect, I whisper as I swish through the wavy stuff beside this pristine stream. Once I stop at water’s edge to watch a wild brook trout dart under the cutback. Perfect, that deep-green jacket, those vermilion dots, that shearwater shape.

I don’t comprehend my sudden electric expectation, but it has nothing to do with grouse. I can’t yet know that within the hour I will see God, or more accurately, will understand that I’ve been in His presence right along. Indeed, my thoughts as I break out of the strange savannah are not epical but domestic: of my tall wife, chuckling over some piece of humor we shared last night; of the children too, each a treasure. Have you had such moments, when the clutter and strife that befall the happiest of families seem never to have been? If not, I wish them on you.

I turn north again, into the blow, against the swell of that hill I tripped so dreamily down at the start. The dog begins to make game—straight up, of course. I must labor to follow, the ‘flu like a flatiron in my chest, each breath a bubble of phlegm, my legs no firmer than jam.

No. I must stop and sit, and I do, facing downhill, and to hell with a bird! I’ll find another; if not today, then. . . .

My tracks in the snow-dust retreat into jackfirs. I follow them there with my eyes. I could rise and retrace them, seeing much on the way of what I’ve already seen this morning. But not all. To see it all, I must do what I’m doing, close down my burning lids and re-create it. An impulse as of tears, not unpleasant, stirs at the back of my throat. If I sat long enough, letting go, the mind’s backtrack would take me through that strange yellow grass, across the frozen bottom by the dead hunter’s camp, back up the hawthorn lane to the creamery’s cellar cavity, where I flushed the woodcock; but it would also lead me back through a thousand other thickets, up and down a thousand sidehills, around slough and slough, over the knobby apples that a thousand grouse have pecked at. I’d come on the points of five beloved dogs. I’d come on myself, maybe flailing my wrath against that ironwood or casting down the empty shotgun, having missed an easy straightaway. And I’d come on men (especially my father and three others) who are ever my age in vision, but who are gone now, all but one. Gone, or as that one puts it, “used up.”

Behind me, in the wind’s momentary lull, a grouse rattles away; I’m sure of it this time. Annie has been pointing, not 20 yards distant. Now she takes two steps, the bell barely clinking, and pauses. I whistle her ahead; she starts her hunt again, never daunted. I get up and puff to the knoll’s top, my gun shouldered, melancholy settled on me like a huge affirmation . . .which of course it is: after all, is it not signs of life that make us mourn their passing, that joy and fullness to which we now and then have had access?

I can’t know that my dog, who’s so busy, so much in her prime, will be eaten up with cancer four months from now, that she’ll die in my arms on a table at the clinic, that the vet—a good man, but stiff—will fumble for words to console this weeping fool, and will fail to find them.

I pause in the creamery meadow. The dung that Annie left as I waited under that hovering woodcock has already hardened. It marks where she started, and now, so soon after, she paces back and forth by the pick-up, wanting me to take her someplace where the action’s livelier. She’s just a dog, after all, and a young one at that. . . .

Not that I’m so old myself. I’m in good shape, ordinarily in perfect health, and this side of 50. Not young and not old, then, but between. This is not a physical matter alone, I’m thinking, as at the wheel I ponder which dirt road to follow. The easterly one, which my doctor would recommend, takes me directly home. The westerly will take me to the Gore’s far side and another big cover. But there’s a third road that runs north for 15 miles and then winds homeward. At 20, flu be damned, I’d have ordered myself through that other big patch. In a different mood, I might still be dismayed or angry at myself for not doing so now, for not being twenty anymore. At 60 (if there are still places to hunt), I may in a similar circumstance choose the home road. But just now I’m in middle way, as they say, and that seems—in accord with the day’s judgments—a good place.

This little middle-road tangle is almost square, and sits in the center of a timber yard, ancient and vast. The loggers cut all the surrounding highland pine and oak, and there was nothing but ledge under the topsoil: the whole ridge is turned to bone, its only growth a few maple whips. Why they left this square down below I don’t know. Was there no market for the cedars that loom now over the sumac, witch hazel and barberry I’ll stagger through? At the northwest corner of the square they also left a hedge that juts uphill like the handle on a pot. A freshet runs through it in spring, but in fall you can hike up its bed, as I always do, because of a certain day in 1976.

There were three of us. We knew, we know, each other’s moves by heart: I handle the dog, Joey to my right and Terry to my left. I was running Gus then, a real ranger, and he had spilled out of the usual cover and come on point in the hedgerow. Joe crossed the brook-bed, Terry staying on the east edge, and I walked up the middle. The grouse had nowhere to go. There were six of them, and we got them all!

We have religiously tramped the row’s full length ever since, though we’ve never found another partridge there, for whatever his conservation ethic—and ours is acute—each hunter wants just one time to see the dream of annihilation come true. If he stays at it, it will come true—just that once and never again. Yet the urge to retrace such a path of dream and memory won’t be resisted.

I am nothing but aching joints and hot gasps by now, but I walk the path to its difficult uphill end. Of course I flush nothing. Annie obligingly works the strip, then breaks from it downhill toward the “real” cover. She is a rocket over the granite, with its spare adornments of cane-maple, lichen, ground pine. Head high, she cuts across the rough, unseeable wind. I watch her grow smaller—and somehow whiter—as she approaches the thicket below. At the last moment, I blast the whistle and she wheels without breaking stride. I regard her in the frame of the larger landscape: black softwood at cover’s edge, two knolls behind it with their stark poplar fringes. And in this instant, the air is invisible no longer, but possesses a shine, like paint in the halos of quattrocento saints.

It is a blasphemy, even to those of us whose faith is uncanonical, to have said that I would this morning see God. But it is in any case not God I claim now to see so much as what Paul calls His power and glory, evident “in the things that have been made.”

I pass in this fever of mine through what’s left of the cover, slowly, and ever more so as I near the road. There will be no game in these last hundred or so feet—there never is—but I mean to protract the sense of a perfect end. The winter will be long, and what may be beyond it?

Annie already stands by the truck’s door, anxious again to try the birds somewhere else. She doesn’t know that the hunt and season are done for. I hear her whine excitement, mouth gaped in a yawn whose climax is a vibrato squeal. The wind’s still broad and urgent, second growth around me tossing, clicking.

I look up, as we have been taught to do in such moods. . . and there in a dead elm, for no reason at all, unless it be the one I surmise, sits the last grouse I’ll see this year with a scattergun in my hand. I begin to raise the Winchester, speculating on which direction the bird will take when it flies. But it continues to sit, chiseled, stationary.

How long do I behold that grouse? I don’t know. But the gun comes down and I break it, momentarily feeling the shapeliness of shotshells before I slip them into my vest.

If this were a true vision, I’d report that from that limb a voice thunders, demanding, What manner of man art thou? Indeed, though it makes no sound that an outer ear could hear, I imagine I do hear that voice. Perhaps to that exact extent this is—all of it—as true a vision as I believe, my gun cased, my dog crated, my truck following the snow-smeared lane back eastward.

Back to where I’ve come from today—home and heat and family, and the young year’s white coming months.


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