On a Saturday in October about twenty-five years ago, my younger brother and I set out into the oilseed-rape fields behind our house to kill something with shotguns—his a 12-gauge Cogswell & Harrison my father had given him, mine a Churchill entrusted to me by our grandfather, who was too old to hunt. Edward, slight at fifteen, was apprehensive as he hefted the oversized cartridge belt onto his skinny hips. He pulled out two shells and dropped them into the black chambers of the 12 gauge, then closed the gun like a worried mother pulling shut the door to a nursery. “I think I’m ready,” he said, his hands trembling a little.
We set forth, and a heightened awareness kicked in, an atavistic instinct. Within every contour of the land, each speck in the sky or that dark patch in a copse to the west, could lie a potential target and dinner. I let Edward take the lead. I was an experienced hunter, but this would be Edward’s first time shooting wild game. He kept marveling at the gun in his hands, which slightly dwarfed him. I worried how the recoil would throttle his narrow shoulders. “After this I might even look at getting a rifle,” he said, beaming at the blue barrels but stepping with slow deliberation, like a ballet dancer. “Something to take long-distance shots.” I nodded. I was just two years older, but there seemed an insurmountable divide between us.
Our mother had suggested that I take Edward on a hunt as a way to bond, that it might help defuse some of the tension at home. Recently we had moved to a cottage in Assington, at the end of a quiet road, downsizing from a 500-acre estate we called Clock House Farm. The legend surrounding the farm was that, long ago, a former owner was lost on his horse in a thick night fog. The bells of a nearby village church helped him find his bearings. To show his gratitude, he named the farm Clock House and promised that whoever owned it would pay the church twelve pounds a year, a tradition my father kept until he sold the farm.
My parents sensed a rift between my brother and me since the move. I was flunking school, but Edward was excelling. Every night, he sat anchored in his room, poring over his schoolbooks through thick, horn-rimmed glasses. He wasn’t just a bookworm, either. He played rugby with such dexterity that he was scouted for the county. My friends at school, all rebels and misfits, joked that Edward was the “perfect schoolboy.”
Hunting, on the other hand, was mine. I was good at it. It provided an escape from a school life I hated—the petty rules and arbitrary cruelty of boarding at St Joseph’s College, in Ipswich, England. I felt at peace in the wilderness, tapping a spiritual connection to the land. But apart from that elemental quality, hunting afforded me an illusion of a certain status. I enjoyed the elite connections and social life it gave me access to. Dragging my little brother, who “rescued” rats by bringing them into the house to give them a saucer of milk, was anathema.
“Oh, come on,” my mother had said, turning to face me and wagging her finger in a way that implied an order more than a favor. Then she looked at Edward, who was wrestling to keep the shotgun straight. He struggled to pull it to his shoulder, pointing the barrels, with a disturbing circular motion, at our mother. “It would be good for you both,” she said. “You can show your younger brother a thing or two.” Edward sighted down the barrel, closing one eye as he aimed at an imaginary target.
“You’re not meant to close an eye when you shoot a shotgun,” I snapped at him. If there was one thing I hated, it was my kid brother messing with guns.
Eventually, I warmed to the idea. After all, my father wasn’t shooting anymore, and it fell to me to show Edward how to do it. He carried the shotgun with great solemnity as we trudged through the fields behind our home. This was a rite of passage. A gun passed down through the family.
We headed toward some hedgerows where I expected to see a pigeon or two. “Get ready,” I said.
Edward swallowed and kept walking. The silence seemed to be taunting us. Nothing but a seagull flapping lazily overhead. “Not much to shoot at,” he said.
I changed the subject, feeling guilty I hadn’t been able to scare up any game. “You’ll like that twelve,” I said. “Less recoil than mine. Longer barrels. Heavier, see.”
“Yup,” he said. He admired the gun and began to lengthen his stride.
Edward and guns had never been a good fit. This was obvious the first time he fired one, on a father-and-son driven shoot out at Tunstall, a shooting syndicate near the US airbase of Bentwaters, where my father and grandfather were members. Hunting in England, unlike America, is seen as an upper-class concern, one that has always included a degree of formality and feudal ceremoniousness. To say one goes hunting is to indicate a certain breeding and class. Driven shooting consists of beaters driving pheasants out of cover to fly over what’s known as pegs—a line of stands at which shooters are positioned, holding shotguns at the ready. The beaters are, tacitly, seen as belonging to a lower social class. Invariably, the shooters are local landowners, usually dressed up for the occasion—a crisply knotted olive-green tie, check flannel shirt, and Scottish tweeds.
The shoot that morning was to be followed by a lavish lunch at a local pub, with more shooting in the afternoon. In a thick morning mist, my father claimed a spot at the middle peg along the line of hunters while my brother and I claimed pegs on either side of him, about forty yards apart. A resplendent cock pheasant got up with a beat of its wings. It stayed on a closing course between my father and my brother at eye level. My father left it, fearing he would shoot the beaters, but my brother jerked his gun up and followed the bird. Just as it passed between him and my father, he squeezed the trigger—missed the bird, but shot my father. Mercifully, the shot only pierced his trousers, slightly bruising his legs and drawing a little blood. Persuaded by my father and the others, Edward sat out the rest of the afternoon.
I couldn’t help but remember this incident as we left the hedgerow. I kept an eye on his loaded, free-ranging barrels. We broke toward a copse stacked with tall pines, where often a pheasant or two would dart out of the cover. I nudged Edward in front, telling him to be ready. He brandished the gun like a club.
“You need to relax,” I said. “You can’t pull it up to your shoulder easily if you’re tense.”
Edward nodded, hurriedly darting his eyes from the gun to the dark interstices between the trees. We walked the perimeter. Nothing. Just a ghostly silence.
“Never mind,” I said. “I know a better spot.” I set out ahead of him, alongside another hedgerow, cradling the Churchill. Its oil-soaked, walnut stock and etched receiver hinted at money I could only dream of.
On a snowy winter Sunday years before, my grandfather visited us at Clock House. He was a large, thickset man with a regal mustache and fleshy jowls who was at his most natural in a dinner jacket and bow tie. He smelled of Rolls Royce leather and cigars. Known throughout the family as “The Boss,” he was a titan of industry who made a fortune from selling diesel engines in World War II. Clock House, in fact, was one of his many investments, a pig farm with a hundred breeding sows and four boars that produced around 2,000 weaners a year for market.
The entire family had gathered in the second sitting room, warmed by a roaring log fire. With ceremonial gravitas, my grandfather presented me with a worn, brown leather case that looked like it might contain a violin. “Open it,” he said. I popped the brass latches. Inside, reflecting the orange flicker of the fire, was a custom, 12-gauge shotgun. The walnut stock gleamed. The heavily engraved action was resplendent with rococo curls and flourishes. Stamped on the sidelock steel was the legend, EJ Churchill. My grandfather had had the gun made for himself, handcrafted to the last screw by artisans whose skills had been honed over generations. “I’m never going to shoot again,” he said solemnly.
This lavish gesture was typical of my grandfather. It was also a foreshadowing of what lay ahead. The car outside from which he went to retrieve the gun was a dusty, blue Fiat Argenta, which my grandparents had driven up from their small ground-floor apartment in the town of Sudbury, a radically different dwelling than their former estate at Chilton Priory. The changes were underway at Clock House, too, as my grandfather sold it to pay his business debts—piecemeal, almost imperceptibly, the only clue being when my father would tell us to avoid yet another field we’d normally hunt in with the dogs. As the farm constricted, so did the income.
One day we came back from school to see my father sitting on a log opposite the chicken coop with a .22 airgun over his lap. He was shooting rats that were taking the birds’ corn. The gun lent him an air of authority and masculinity. I’d never thought of him killing anything, but now I realized something different about him. He looked meditative, deep in his consciousness, but strangely content. He smiled.
I asked him to teach me to shoot. At twelve, I started with a .177 airgun. A year later, I moved up to a .22. In my early teens I used a 9mm shotgun. For years my father said the 12 gauge was too big for me to handle, but that was my ultimate goal, the pinnacle of my shooting ambitions.
One day, he got fed up with my nagging him to let me shoot it. “Okay,” he huffed. We pulled it out from under the stairs, assembled it, and then marched out to the allotment where we had a nearly ripe crop of carrots, where an old bathtub sat collecting rainwater. My father put shells in it. “Go ahead, then. Pull the trigger.” My first mistake was standing square on. The second was not having it pulled into my shoulder. And my third was flinching. The gun fired and kicked violently, almost knocking me off my feet, certainly blasting all the air out of my lungs. The blood drained out of my face as my father took the gun, removed the remaining shell. “Shall we go inside now?” I trudged behind him as we went back to the house.
I was packed off to boarding school at thirteen. At night the cold dormitories were taken over by the hardier kids, the ones whose parents were in the army. Fights and bullying were common, as were molesting housemasters. My grandfather sent me Alexander Kent books along with his letters. “I know going away to school is hard but this will make you a man,” he wrote. “PS. I have included some of those blue and green bookmarks that you are so fond of.” When I opened the book, a banknote would fall out.
I returned home after my first term markedly different than the boy who had been sent away. I’d spent enough time blubbing on the telephone to my parents before I toughened up. As darkness fell on my first day back at Clock House, I walked with my brother out to the tennis court. We were carrying air rifles. He asked how it all had gone, with a worried look. I felt like a convict on probation. I think he found it impressive that I had survived to return home again. We fired a few desultory shots at a small circular paper target we had nailed to a post. We chatted about the guns. Hearing calls for supper, we headed back to the house. While we unloaded the guns, Edward offered that he hoped he wouldn’t be packed off to boarding school next. “Make a man of you,” I said, striding back to the house, aping my grandfather. Then I softened: “The last thing you want is to be sent there.”
We would live just another year at Clock House. By then, Britain had been a member of the European Economic Community for about a decade, and one creeping effect of this expanded market was the importing of bacon from Denmark, which eventually crippled British pig farmers, my father among them. This, coupled with the land sell-off by my grandfather, was a deathblow to Clock House. We auctioned the farm, moved to a smaller house near Assington, a village on the Suffolk–Essex border. The one vestige of our old life was the collection of guns, symbolic as the tools of a landowner. Just the smell of gun oil was comforting, reminding me of my grandfather and the tradition we were barely hanging on to.
My father made the adjustment from farmer to working in the office of a local charity that assisted victims of Nazi concentration camps. What was once volunteer work had become a salaried position. Though the pay was a fraction of what he was making with the farm, the job suited his outsized social conscience.
For my brother and me, making new friends was difficult business, slow going, but spurred on by my parents. One day my mother dragged me out to a neighbor’s house to have “tea.” “They have a son your age,” she said. I was used to a somewhat rebellious group of friends, and certainly boarding school had made me discerning about whom I associated with. The family lived on a sprawling farm with hundreds of acres. Inside, amongst the tea and scones, I met Christopher, who quickly led me outdoors, where we tore about on three-wheeled motorcycles. “Like guns?” he asked at one point. I nodded. We headed back to the house, where he brought out his shotgun. We spent the rest of the afternoon shooting clays. It was the start of a deep friendship.
I went home and told my father I had spent the afternoon with a 12 gauge. Now, it was time to shoot my own. He agreed. From then on, I had the Churchill all to myself. The first time out with it, I found my head lolling on the wrong side of the barrels; my grandfather had such a large, fleshy face that he cast the the stock to the left, to enable him to bring the gun to his cheek. I would adapt my shooting to cope.
On weekends, Christopher and I roamed the land like a couple of mercenaries. We burst out of hedgerows, set up pigeon decoys, and blackened our faces with camo paint and masks. We rode a 4x4 over the hills, shotguns pointing skyward as we hunted for prey. At night we parked in the middle of the fields, dragging a wet piece of polystyrene across the windshield to mimic the cry of a dying animal. Foxes came and we shot them with our .22s. The killing never bothered us; it seemed natural. We shot pigeons, rabbits, pheasants, and hares. We were feral. Best of all, Christopher’s father rented all the land around our house. I was now free to hunt there whenever I wanted. I had Clock House back by proxy.
Our house sat in the folds of a gentle valley. I got to know the surrounding fields down to the inch. They were planted with a mixture of corn and oilseed rape, the perfect draw for pigeons. In a thick copse situated on the southeastern edge of a field shaped like a riding boot, I found perfect cover behind a berm on a well-traveled flight path. Moving east, a slim hedgerow often contained lurking pheasants. On most days, I returned home long after dark with a brace of pheasant, a couple of pigeons, maybe a rabbit. I pushed my way into the house with the Churchill, breach open, slung over my shoulder like James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause.
I took the game out to the garage, where my father would pluck the birds. If I brought hares or rabbits, he’d show me how to “piss” them—sliding both hands down the abdomen to force urine out of the body so that it didn’t spoil the meat. Edward often came down from his bedroom to stand and watch us, hands on his hips.
Edward and I moved up a bank that led into a deep copse, pushing aside briars and sapling branches as we pressed into the woodland. Edward wrestled with a blackberry bush that snagged his coat sleeve. His barrels, loaded with heavy six-shot, lingered in my face. “For chrissakes! Keep the barrels down.”
Edward looked mortified. “Sorry,” he mumbled. I moved to help him untangle the thorns so he could lower his gun.
We bullied our way through. I listened for the telltale canvas-like slapping of wings that indicated a pigeon breaking for freedom. But this time, nothing. All was quiet. We burst out of the undergrowth further up. Behind a berm was a spot I used to survey the fields that afforded early warning for incoming pigeons. We sat on the mossy ground and laid the guns on the bank, barrels upward, ready.
Edward was beginning to look bored. “Yeah, well,” I said. “Sometimes you have to put the time in. That’s why it’s difficult.” Edward nodded. I lit a Marlboro Light and sucked on it, ruminating. Edward moved the gun to his lap. It was 4:00 p.m. It would get dark in the next couple of hours.
Then I remembered: About half a mile or so away was a spot that Christopher and I were just beginning to hunt, where the hedgerows formed a chevron. At the tip was a big, old oak tree that towered over a ditch, offering perfect cover. I knew it was a good spot, having shot several hares there.
Within half an hour, we were settled in at the bottom of the ditch, on a bed of acorns. I peered out across the fields, where hares generally headed in a westerly direction at dusk. Unlike rabbits, hares live in shallow depressions called “forms.” I got used to scanning for these dips, which my terrier gravitated toward, startling a hare that took off at 40 mph while it galloped vainly to try and close the gap.
Every spring, hares chased round these fields. My mother often watched them through the kitchen window as they stopped, hopped onto hind legs, and boxed one another.
Edward and I sat tight now, chatting. “Aren’t they meant to be witches or something?” he asked absently. Our eccentric aunt Jane, a deeply religious archeological conservator, had struck a disapproving tone when she learned I’d shot hares. “You know they are witches taking the form of animals,” she said once, between long puffs on a Dunhill. For Christians, hares represent the Holy Trinity; in other cultures, they have long been associated with moonlight and are revered as otherworldly messengers, a link between the human world and the spiritual realm. “I don’t think shooting them is a good thing to do,” she’d said. Months later, we were at Long Melford’s Holy Trinity Church, built in 1484, when she pointed out a small, stained-glass window above the north door that showed three hares in a circle, connected by three ears. Hares, my aunt intoned, were sacred.
The light began to fade. The corn stalks reflected a sinking sun. Just as we began to feel it might be time to head home, I spotted an ambling shape on the hedgerow to our left. It stopped. Hard to see in the light, but it looked like a hare. “Get ready,” I whispered.
Edward’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “What do I do?” he hissed, panicking a little. I crawled up the side, positioned my gun on the berm. I motioned for Edward to do the same, and he crept forward, wrestling with the gun and then poking it out through tufts of grass.
The hare hopped closer. It sniffed the air, looked around, moved nearer still. The moon hung faintly in a cloudless sky. “Shall I shoot?” he whispered.
“Wait,” I said. “Let it get closer.”
The hare moved nearer and, oddly, seemed to make eye contact with us. It had deep amber eyes with dark pupils. Its coat was a rich brown and, judging from its profile, it was at least thirteen pounds. I heard the metallic click of Edward sliding the safety forward. The hare sat up straight on its rear legs, its ears jutting upward like antennae.
“Now!” I said. My brother jumped to his feet, slipped, the gun tilted forward, and then he tried to recover. The hare bolted. Edward pulled the trigger. The gun fired and the muzzle kicked up to the sky. Edward wrestled it down and fired again. Dirt around the hare exploded like landmines. A cloud of purplish smoke hung in the air around us.
For a few seconds, silence. Then, from beyond the veil of gunsmoke, the worst sort of screaming I have ever heard. It was a bone-chilling screech, like an infant in the most excruciating pain. I felt as though we had just carried out a monstrous act.
In Siberia, Russians refuse to eat hares because their screams sound so human. “Besides, when a hare dies,” writes A. A. Cherkassov in Notes of an East Siberian Hunter, “its front legs are always folded in a cross on its chest, like a dead human’s. They therefore say that a hare is very similar to a human, because it cries like a newborn human and dies like a human; no other animal folds front legs like a cross when dead.”
In the Suffolk countryside, sobs rang through the hedgerows. The hare started to run in a small, tight circle. It took a few steps and stopped, circling back to us in desperate fits: Edward had shot off its left hind leg.
The screaming continued. I worried that neighbors half a mile away would hear it. We looked at each other. Edward was on the verge of tears. The blood had drained from his face. “What do we do?” he muttered. He held the gun away from his body as if it was an alien object, something that had suddenly been thrust in his hands for some confounding purpose. Two light-blue cartridge cases lay on the ground, smoking. “This is fucking horrible,” he said.
I pushed up out of the ditch and started to move toward the hare, which was rolling in the dirt on its side, kicking its one powerful hind leg against the dirt but not finding purchase. One of its ears had been shot off. The other was dotted with shotgun pellets. Its eyes were wide and unblinking. To me it seemed to have a deeper knowledge about what was happening than we did. I looked at Edward, who looked sick. I felt guilty for dragging him into this whole thing in the first place.
I walked back twenty paces, then turned, put the gun to my shoulder, and fired a shot at the head. The dust around the animal scattered, and a heavy silence descended. Edward and I looked at each other. There wasn’t anything else to say.
We both reflected. I worried what Edward thought of me now. Had I been exposed as a monster? Would he resent the fact I had put him through this experience? I was never the best at “setting an example,” as my mother would say, but now it seemed that I’d blown any chance of that completely. Dusk brought with it a foreboding. The hare was a wretched-looking carcass. A few lead pellets could be seen in its fur. The meat was spoiled. Any moral justification for killing it had evaporated. Instead, the hunt had ended as an unspeakably cruel act with no saving grace. I picked up the animal by its hind leg, walked it over to a thick part of the hedgerow, and tossed it into the bushes.
We turned and headed back home. There was no conversation. I tried to make sense of it. “Sometimes it happens like that,” I said. “It’s obviously not ideal. You want a clean kill.”
Edward nodded but didn’t say anything. He was shaken. He relaxed his grip on the gun so that the barrels were dragging in the dirt. I chided him, gently. Finally he asked me to carry his gun for him. He said his arms were getting tired.
“It’s not exactly much of a challenge is it?” he said. “Just shooting animals.” I began to resent my parents for asking me to take him out. Stupid idea. This wasn’t what he was interested in anyway. On a deeper level, I wondered what it was that allowed me to hunt with no remorse, and yet Edward was appalled at the killing. Was something wrong with me?
From a mile away we could see the yellow glow of the kitchen. Edward started to pull ahead, his hands thrust in his pockets, his shoulders forward. We scrunched back over the gravel drive to the back door. I could see my seven-year-old sister drawing on the kitchen table just before supper. She was effervescent. Edward ignored her and went up to his bedroom to play music. My father came out. I stood in a little pool of light thrown by the lamp at the back door, holding both guns at my sides. There were empty spaces in the cartridge belt where the shells had been.
My mother emerged with a hopeful smile. “Well, how did it go? You got supper for us?”
Twenty-five years later, 3,500 miles away inthe backwoods of Maine, I think of that hare and my brother as I settle in for a shot, my first in years. I’ve driven up here to hunt wild turkey with a guide named Kevin, a police officer over in Yarmouth Port, on Cape Cod. Kevin is a soft-faced man with a buzz cut, a neatly trimmed goatee, and rimless glasses that sit in front of worried eyes. Being a cop, even in a place as seemingly tranquil as Cape Cod, is a high-stress, seventy-hour-a-week job that has wearied him. The cabin and the surrounding wilderness are his sanctum. “I don’t tell people about my camp,” he had told me on our way up to Solon, the last small town before reaching the cabin. “I don’t really want visitors. This is my place where I come to be alone.”
The light is just beginning to break over the mountains. An owl swoops over us, its talon almost grazing the fabric of the blind we’ve set up for cover. We’re dressed head-to-toe in camouflage, very different from the tweeds and tie of my hunting life in England. In America, I’m seeking to meld with the landscape. In England, I stood dressed to own it.
The turkey Kevin has been calling answers. There is symmetry to the anticipation, a sense of crossing a rubicon in a high-stakes game of life and death. I feel rejuvenated, as I was with my brother. I thumb off the safety and peer down the barrel, following an infrared dot (so much for the iron sights of the Churchill). My heart is racing, the net face mask fluttering as I try to exhale slowly. My eyes are wide and spiked with adrenaline. Drifting into my peripheral version are the tall necks and distinctive red-and-blue heads of not one, but a gaggle of jakes all jostling to get at the hen decoy. “Pick one,” Kevin whispers.
Through the branches, briefly, is the perfect silhouette of a turkey head, standing alone from the baying pack. I pull the trigger—the gun bucks, thumping into my shoulder.
Kevin breaks out of our hiding place first. I set the gun down on the mossy ground and follow. At Kevin’s feet, cleanly killed, is my bird, a spectacular four-foot specimen with a crimson and cobalt blue head and feet almost as large as my hands. Something feels remorseful about killing it, of course, which reminds me of the hare. But it didn’t suffer.
We lug the carcass back to Kevin’s pickup. He puts some grass in its mouth as a show of respect. “The Indians believe you must give them a last meal before they cross over,” he says. “It probably sounds sappy but I always say a prayer and give thanks if I take a life for food.”
A few weeks later, I’m back home on a Thursday night. I’d spent the day smoking my turkey with hickory wood in my backyard, and now I and a few new friends are sitting around drinking beer and eating the bird. We share an easy joviality, and it occurs to me that we are all gun owners. Forty is late to make friends in life, but the men I have subconsciously gravitated to all share a common bond with me in that we have accepted the responsibility of guns.
I sold the Churchill long ago, when I moved to London in my twenties, much to the consternation of some members of my family who felt it was a sacred heirloom. The gun was completely shot out—thin barrels and an unreliable firing mechanism after so many shells through it. But it gave me enough to put a down payment on an apartment. I was still single, adrift, but by then Edward was settling down nicely, working as a financial advisor, married with children with a house in the suburbs. A family man well before I became one.
These days, Edward and I are closer than ever. He now excels at marathons and mountain climbing—his forms of conquest—but finds no challenge or purpose in shooting animals. I, conversely, thrill to the solitude, the metaphysics, and the old sacred rites of a day’s hunting. Sometimes, when we get together over beers, we talk about the hare, the gulf it pushed between us. It is now, of course, a simpler, less threatening difference. We accept it, and are grateful for it.