Swing your gun, follow the line of the bird. Get your face down closer. The day is gray, a wind kicks up, the toilet paper stuffed into my ear tickles. My Dad pulls the clays, and my Uncle stands behind me, trying to see where the shot is going. He thinks it’s high, but he’s not sure. Get your cheek down closer to the gun, my Dad says again. Keep your eyes open. I know all these things, in theory, but my body doesn’t yet. My Dad and my Uncle, they make it look so easy—one swift action from a relaxed gun in hand to a taut line of muscle, aiming for the bird. Where they are instantly predators, I am still clumsy, encumbered by humanity’s gift and curse, the mind. Too much thinking, not enough instinct. That’s the problem, I know it. Some things are comfortable now, the smooth pearl feel of the stock, the way the butt of the Verona should feel tucked in tight to my shoulder. The perpetually cold steel of the barrel doesn’t surprise me the way it used to. I know the small click of a trigger pulling, the sound of shot exploding, I know the tremor of energy that precedes the brief hush of a world gone still after that yellow piece of plastic echoes out from the barrel of my gun. For a second, too, always the brief acrid smell—like fritos, I’m not kidding you. I walk around outside all day smelling fritos.
But I still have to think about the motion, the gun in my hands to my shoulder, to following the bird, to turning the safety off to not closing both eyes and then finally the wild shout into the void, a shot. It happens in less than a second, but to me it is an eternity—a mind clicking through a checklist, when it should be a body rote in action.
This is just experience, I remind myself, frustrated as I miss pigeon after pigeon. I release the action and the barrel springs open, spewing wasted shells onto the ground, I reload to waste more, forcing the barrel open a little farther—this is a trick of the Verona’s, to not open fully. Every now and then she’ll misfire too from the second barrel, we’re both a little moody. Take a deep breath, he says. So I do, and I think of the thousand fields those two have walked without me, the hundreds of hills they’ve pressed boots into in search of chukar, the rooster candy they’re used to, and I remember they’ve earned the ease with which they handle their guns, and I haven’t. I will, but I haven’t yet. Time, my old fickle friend, is at it again.
Guns are not instinctual. Hunting is, but the instrument that we use to accomplish that aim—a good old-fashioned firearm—has to be learned. The urge to hunt, that’s something we all have, a dull gleam in the back of the human mind, struck to spark if given the opportunity. It roars in some, it winks out in others, but it’s there somewhere, I’m sure of it.
Practice is over, we head for the fields in search of the elusive rooster candy. Today is Cedar’s day, so we reign in the big beasts, a near impossible feat and no light task for the left arms of my Dad and Uncle, and cross our fingers that he’ll know what to do. He knows, the fire of instinct is strong in this one—he knows we’re here for a reason, and it’ll be a year or two before he really figures it out, but today is a good start. He’s grown enough now that he’s starting to show signs of the graceful gait that he’ll maintain for the rest of his life, a gentle lope through the golden grass—glimmering silver today in homage to the sky—that he’ll use whether we’re going around the block or for fifteen miles. Mostly gone is the puppy hop, almost too soon if you ask me, but I am happy too, to see how a simple joy exudes from every particle in his being, a creature wholly in the moment, smelling good smells, checking back in with me every now and then. Sometimes, though, he’s all puppy and runs so far from us he’s out of earshot. But he’ll learn, soon enough, that without me he will never get a bird—he does no good pointing a field away, no good pouncing on birds.
We both have plenty of instinct—it’s what makes your head snap up at the familiar whisper of wings, it’s that unconscious pull towards a particular stand of sagebrush—something you just know, and it’s what makes Cedar stop dead in his tracks at a smell. But without the gun we are both useless, because this gun is the only thing that’s getting either of us anywhere. I do okay, now. But target practice proves important.
I miss the first hen of the day, I don’t shoot at a second—the approach up to the dog makes me jumpy, nervous, knowing that at any second the bird is going to flush and then it will be go time—but the bird doesn’t flush straight and I can’t hit her without hitting a dog. So I don’t shoot. That’s a good choice, my Dad says, that’s a good choice. We walk for a ways along a swampy little creek, chock full of cattails, and Cedar goes snout to the ground, gulping up scent and air so fast it’s audible. I see the pheasant—I think it’s dead at first, I’m not proud to admit—but it’s so close to Cedar I think, surely he can’t miss that, but he has, I point it out to my Dad and he says, ahhhh L, no it’s not. And the bird flushes because we’re so near, not because Cedar points him—he still has some learning to do—and I double tap the bird before I even know if the first shot takes. He plummets to the ground after barely getting off it, and Cedar takes off, returning with a mouth full of pheasant to lay at my feet. My God he doesn’t always find them, but he’ll always bring them back. The pheasant shines in the gray light of the day, still a glorious thing to behold, even though he’s now stiller than he was in the cattails. We praise Cedar, Cedar eats a cattail, this is the way the day goes.
Birds shot over a highway, Dexter keeps breaking his point, two roosters who remain elusive, and my Dad and Uncle both have colds. By the end of the day we are bone tired and sick of birds, but Cedar has done well, and I’ve done okay, and we’re ready to go on our own. I’m pretty sure.
Driving home, we go over the mountain, and it pours on us, a steady stream of water coming down the windshield. It’ll get better, I know—the gun will get used to me, I’ll slip into predator mode as easy as my Dad and Uncle do. Cedar and I have a lot of work to do, miles to put in, shots to take and miss, and some to hit, and that’ll make it worth it. Patience and time, that’ll all it’ll be, patience and time and a lot of walking.