Non Fiction Winner for Writers@Work
In the fall of the year I turned eight, my father used me as his dog. It was dove-hunting season, and I suppose it’s what a hunter does when he finds himself with a dearth of good bird dogs and a surplus of daughters.
We loaded into his truck while it was still dark, the engine running rough in the gravel drive. I didn’t have a jacket warm enough for the bite of the morning, so he wrapped me in one of my mother’s coats, belted with rope, the sleeves left long to warm my hands. I was the eldest of his children, so my father called me Sister when I was on his good side. He called me Sister on this morning, and told me we were going to have fun. I believed him.
We drove out past the paved roads, and parked in a field where there were other men with their dogs. They greeted my father, illuminated by haloes of headlights, all of them with rifles and speaking in rough morning voices. While they talked, I tried to play with the dogs, but they were hunting dogs, not pets, and they jumped and scratched and often knocked me over altogether. Soon, Dad made me stop playing with them, because, he said, we were making too much noise.
He made a blind from downed corn stalks and brush on the edge of the field. I watched him gather the dry stalks and stuff larger openings with weeds. When he was satisfied with the structure, he let me go inside. I could peek out and see a pond. It felt like a play-house, a place where elves would live. Sitting on the ground inside, he took a can of shoe polish from his pack and rubbed some under his eyes. He rubbed it on me, too, and told me I looked like a real hunter, and that I had to stay quiet. The polish tickled on my skin, but I didn’t say anything. Quiet, from my dad, meant quiet.
As the sky began to fill with light, Dad loaded his shotgun. He whispered to me that this was a good spot for doves because they’d harvested the corn late this season, and the birds came to eat what the combines left on the ground. He rolled the sleeves of my jacket up to free my hands, and we sat, saying nothing, for what seemed like a long time. Suddenly, as though he’d heard a signal that I had not, my father stood up with his gun and began shooting through an opening in the blind. The air was full of the sound of gunfire, and I covered my ears with my hands. After a short while, someone shouted and the shooting stopped. My father pulled my hands away from my ears, and pushed open a hole in the stalks, motioning for me to look.
“There it is, Sister. Do you see it?” He pointed to the edge of the pond, and I thought I saw something on the ground, but I wasn’t sure. There were dogs running out into the field from other blinds, trotting back with gray birds in their soft mouths.
“Go on!” he said. “Run get that dove before somebody’s dog gets it.”
I took off across the field toward the pond. The corn stubble was tough going, and I almost fell, but when I saw the dove, I ran to it. It was hurt, but not dead. It rested on the ground, one wing mangled, making a high-pitched keening. It tried to hop away as I got close, but only managed a small circle, dragging the injured wing beside it.
I had seen my father bring home dead animals, mainly squirrels and deer. But I’d also seen him set a fawn’s broken leg and carefully save a small rabbit from a snare. Once he’d found a fox pup that was too young to live on its own, he said, and he kept it in a cage and fed it hamburger and small pears from the tree in our yard until it was big enough to set free. I knew that hunting meant killing, and I also knew that if I brought the wounded dove to my father, he would heal it.
I scooped the bird up and held it close to my chest. It was muted gray with speckled wings and bright black eyes. I began running, and had halved the distance to where my father waited when he came out through the opening in the blind and began walking toward me.
“Sister! What the hell are you doing?”
I stopped dead.
“Will you carry that bird right?”
He was angry, and I panicked. Was I hurting it? I raised my voice to tell him that it was hurt. He ignored me and kept coming, boots easily crushing the broken stalk that nearly tripped me.
When he reached me, he spoke through clenched teeth.
“Are you trying to make me look bad? Like you don’t know how to carry a damned bird?”
He looked quickly around the field before jerking the dove from me and flipping it upside down, holding it by its feet, blood dripping from broken wing onto the ground. He bent down and pulled my arm toward him, forcing the bird’s scratchy feet in between my fingers, so it hung from my hand.
“Now, march that bird back to the blind. That’s how you’re gonna do it all day.”
He walked away, and I stood there, blood dropping from the dove onto what was left of the corn. I can’t remember how long I stood there, just that I was aware of the other men, in their blinds, watching me.
“Sister!” my father yelled. “Don’t make me come back out there.”
I walked to him just fast enough, I hoped, to avoid a spanking. When I ducked through the opening in the blind, one of the other hunters was there, too, squatting inside, his dog panting, sitting beside him. My father took the dove from me, and as I opened my mouth to tell him about the broken wing, he popped off its head, silently, and stuffed the body into a canvas sack. He tossed the small head away into a corner of the blind, and patted me on the back.
“She’ll catch on,” my father said to the man beside him. “She’s my oldest girl,” he said, “but I haven’t hunted her much.”