Short Story: Beyond the Dread Remorse

There is a painfully obvious impulsive nature about the hunting man. At least I speak on behalf of myself and many acquaintances. And it seems our spouses are always more than willing to bring up our impulsiveness.

My wife going on 30 years has forever referred to me as a “gun nut.” I once mistakenly asked her how she would describe herself, taking into consideration that she spent enough time in a local wall and floor covering shop to be justifiably – save for lack of wages – called an employee. Why, she changed the wallpaper in our dining room more times than I changed my socks last year.

“So what do you call yourself,” I asked one day, “a wall nut?”

I tried to understand her fixation, but she made little, if any, noticeable effort to understand or cope with mine. I gave up keeping track of how many times she retorted with phrases such as, “If you were to make veneer from all the walnut stocks on your guns we could panel the whole house and still have enough leftover to wholesale out to the local cabinet maker.” I never cracked a smile. Humor was not her forte and dark humor seemed apparent when she once said, “Let’s remove all the barrels from your guns and make the kids a swing set and outdoor gym.” She was always in the tormenting, chastising and fun poking mode which, I suppose, is why I’ve owned so many guns yet harbored only one spouse.

For a couple of seasons, due to health problems and a change of heart regarding killing, I abandoned hunting as my second love in life. But, because the guns were still there, a constant reminder to her – as the house leaned a bit toward the corner where they stood – she’d reprimand me for not hunting, making use of said arsenal.

I hate clichés, but for lack of one more descriptive, I found myself living the proverbial “no win situation.” Besides, I wanted to hunt, missed it desperately and couldn’t bear to seeing the hunters’ autumn gatherings in and around our little village without feeling deeply sorrowful, and once in a while having to pretend I didn’t hear when someone would whisper, “There’s Joe Parry, the great outdoor writer; he doesn’t even hunt anymore.” Little did they know that Joe was slowly coming back.

The Good Book, somewhere in James says, “The tongue no man can tame; it is an unruly evil.” James obviously wasn’t a hunter, so I’ll add that neither can the hunter’s heart be entirely tamed. For the ever elusive, primordial hunting urge lives in its deepest, most hidden chambers. But, too, it must be said that it should be universally known within the faction and otherwise, that is to those who choose not to hunt, a hunter’s heart must never romance or entertain evil.

Certainly our hearts simmer steadily with the intentions to pursue and ultimately kill, but only for the benefit of wildlife. That, I believe, is what most hunters strive to enhance throughout their lives. And thus, I made the weekly rounds to the three village sporting good shops, in an attempt to expose myself to the predatory chatter, the language of men with whom I could intimately relate.

One morning while in Wayne Smith’s Triple D Gun Shop, I was fondling a dirty little side-by-side 12-bore when mischievous Wayne sneaked up behind me and yelled, “Hi, Joe.” Jumping from my britches I stretched my camo suspenders to their limit. Wayne knows I’m nearly deaf and seems to like to take advantage of that for the sake of humor at my expense. He’s always successful, and I enjoy it most times.

I walked the short distance around the gun rack like a gem dealer examining the crown jewels of Great Britain and finally, nonchalantly asked, “What’s this filthy little smoothbore here, Wayne?” It was so dirty a person could have made a house planter out of it without adding potting soil, not to mention the cobwebs so thick that they Flying Wallenda’s would be compelled into a little trampoline exercise.

“An Italian gun, an Excelsior. Nice one, ain’t it?”

I mentioned the fact that it might be, beneath the clinging spider webs and dust.

“How much if I don’t make you spruce it up?” I asked. Hoping there might be some discount involved in this transaction.

“For you, Joe? How about $300?”

We made the deal, and after returning home I removed all the grime and cobwebs, only to find a little price tag wedged between the double triggers. In Wayne’s own hand it read $295. Now take this not as him being smarter than I, just craftier, and I’m being nice.

After scrubbing the bore and gently pen-knifing off the gummy film so as not to scratch what might be beneath, it turned out to be a real beauty. “Gorgeous. Old Wayne blew it this time. Now let’s see if she’ll pattern as pretty as she looks,” I said to no one in particular.

I grabbed two No. 8s, two No. 7 ½s and two No. 6 shotshells, crossed the road and placed a piece of paper with a 3-inch bull on a wooden frame. In short, the old Italian patterned as good as she looked. I brought home the targets to show my son, Justin.

“Looks awfully good to me, Pop. Now all you have to do is quit making excuses like your doggoned shotgun lost all sense of direction, when you miss an easy shot at a grouse.”

He got his sense of humor from his mother and fine-tuned it to a humiliating science. I once told him, “Thank goodness you got my brains, son, my intellect.”

“Why is that, Pop. Didn’t you need them?”

He laughed, as usual, at my expense. If I were paid for all the fun poking and laughs obtained via my embarrassment, I wouldn’t have to spend the wee hours of the night pecking away on my word processor to make a living (bare existence is more accurate).

Few things in the natural world excite me like ruffed grouse. There is just something mystifying about their appearance and I never tire of watching them. Too, I suppose because they’ve won more “contests” than I have during my 40-some years of hunting them, that they hold a special place in my heart.

Being a little rusty, I needed to do all I could to hone my shooting skills to a respectable edge. Clays were the order of the week prior to the grouse opener. After about 50 or 60 “pulls,” Justin did all he could to hold back the laughs, while I was ready to make a fancy fence post out of the Italian shotgun. “You’re hittin’ ‘em, Pop, but with just little chips out of those clays, we might as well pick ‘em up and use ‘em again,” Justin said.

“Only takes a few BBs to kill a grouse, Son.” Then, feeling shamefully guilty, I added, “Yea, you’re right. What do you think I’m doing wrong?”

Justin has always been honest, but one can carry almost anything to the extreme. “What ya did wrong, Pop, is you took that shotgun from the cabinet and decided to hunt grouse. You’ve laid off too long, I’d say. You should have at least practiced a few times a year during the layoff. Shoot, I remember when you’d smoke clays with the old Fox.”

That evening, I was “shooting” imaginary clays in our living room, trying to smooth out the swing-through style I use on all game birds. Justin came down the stairs, stopped halfway and said, smiling, “That’s one way a guy can never miss, Pop.” He laughed and so did I. “Why don’t you give old Tim a call over at Cooper’s Sporting Goods in Mansfield? He’s a pretty good wingshot. Maybe he’ll have some idea as to how to improve your shooting.”

The next morning I gave Tim a call. “Tim, I’m in a bit of a jam, and because you shoot clays and hunt a lot, I figured maybe you could help.”

Tim told me to go ahead, adding jokingly that I couldn’t hit a standing bull in the rump with a fistful of rice – just the inspiration I needed.

“Tell ya what, Joe. I have these new shells in from Polywad Incorporated out of Georgia called Spred-R shotshells. These shells produce a pattern two times larger than traditional shotshells, and they maintain real impressive density downrange. They’re tremendous. I haven’t missed a single bird since I discovered them.”

“Save me a couple boxes in 7 ½s, Timmy; I’ll be over.”

I didn’t dare tell Justin about the new shells, wanting to impress him with having regained my ability to knock down anything that flew within shotgun range, specifically a couple of grouse on opening day.

Opening day arrived with a dark sky and misty rain – good hunting weater. “Ready, Partner?” I asked Justin.

“Yep, how about you, Pop? Sure hope you don’t shoot up a box of shells just for two grouse.”

“Oh, I’m ready, and don’t you be worrying about old gunner here. I think I’ve figured out my problem and have a good feeling I’ll be done early.”

“What was the problem, Pop, bent barrels on that old Italian?”

I shook my head and mentioned that he’d soon see the real wingshooter in the Parry family in action.

In a small tangle of wild grapes near a spring seep, I spotted a single bird just as it ducked its head. The old Italian gun went automatically to my shoulder and I stomped my right foot. The grouse didn’t flush but began to hotfoot it directly away from me. About that time I heard Justin’s old Ruger Red Label roar, and I took my eyes off the running bird for an instant. Then, just as I looked back where I’d last seen it, the bird flushed and flew behind a tree. I sighed, thinking it might have been my only chance of the morning, and then began questioning my emotional ability to kill again. Knowing the hunter never really “quits” as long as he lives, knowing the natural need to hunt never completely dies out, and knowing the embers forever burn, I forced myself into giving those embers enough “air” to enflame

I continued my quiet walk through the tangled, moist hollow in search of God’s most enchanting bird. I couldn’t have taken 25 steps when – from an opening no less – a single bird flushed. The gun came smoothly to my shoulder, an unconscious urging of mind over matter, like the talons of a raptor extending outward the instant before a kill.

I don’t recall hearing the gun go off, but I vividly recall the grouse stopping in mid-air as if it had hit a wall, then dropping to the earth in what seemed like slow motion. I broke the gun, slid the spent hull into my pocket and replaced it with a fresh load. I stood there for a moment, looking at the grouse, wondering how I was going to handle my first kill in two years. I took the first step toward it and another bird flushed, then another. The second grouse tumbled back to the earth at my shot, and in less than five minutes, my hunting day was done.

I heard Justin shoot again, and I smiled knowing how sharp his reflexes were; knowing how dear the ruffed grouse was to his hunting heart. I could see the smile on his face, too, but I also knew that at that moment he was feeling the remorse common to all hunters after the killing of a game animal.

I sat there stoking and smoothing the feathers of the two birds, realizing that what I did was okay. Realizing that grouse are one game bird that will always be around in substantial numbers, knowing that hunting is the best tool for ensuring their future. And sometimes, it seems that I step outside of myself and see that I could never be happy without hunting in my life. And I question crazy things, such as how a gram of gold can be worth more than a butterfly of the same weight. Certainly, I’ve learned lessons in my many years as a hunter, lessons that ultimately enhanced wild places and things in maybe just a small way. The killing of the two grouse was okay in my heart. I was comfortable with it. I was back, and this time I knew I’d stay until my weakened heart dictated otherwise. I need wildness, hate cities and civilization; the woods, for me, harbor far more “roses” than “thorns.”

Justin came walking up the hill where I sat, two birds tethered to his belt. His face was the color of oak leaves bleached by a relentless autumn sun. He spotted the grouse on my lap. “Well, two birds, huh, Pop? How do ya feel about it after bein’ gone for so long?”

“See you did okay too, huh? How do I feel? About killin’ again?” I looked into his eyes, smiled and said, “I’d say I feel most comfortable, like I’m in tune with everything that happens out here. How about you?”

Justin’s heart has always been borderline with regard to handling a hunting kill. But he loved grouse hunting and, I think, forced himself into some sort of emotional numbness. He answered, “Same as it was on our first hunt, Pop, grateful as I can be. Nothing like a brace of ruffs marinated in wine sauce.”

I smiled with renewed pride. Pride that was always abundant, but missing in the two years I didn’t hunt. Feeling that special pride in him once again brought my heart full circle and made the day complete.

We sat there a while, talking about how we each took our limit of grouse. I told him about the Polywad shells, and how I felt I cheated a little because they threw such a great pattern. He replied by mentioning that an old guy like me should take all the advantage he could in life, then he laughed that million-dollar laugh of his I cherish so much. He loves to laugh and is forever teasing me or making up absurd jokes.

“Pop, do ya know that country singer, Shania Twain?”

“Don’t know her,” I said sarcastically, “but, yes, I know who ya mean? Why?”

“Know what her real name is?”


“Her real name is Choo-Choo.” He laughed again and added, “Choo-Choo Twain. Get it, Choo-Choo Twain.”

“Yes, I get it, and I suppose you’re gonna tell me she has a brother named Lionel.”

We laughed together, and during those priceless moments I realized more than ever before just why I loved to hunt. What happened to me after having gone through four heart attacks, that is never wanting to kill again, was perhaps God’s way of allowing my heart to heal. For surely He knew I’d push myself in the autumn woods before the ticker was ready. But for whatever reason, I’m back to where I want to be. And once a man becomes intimate with nature and falls hopelessly in love with the whole package, he naturally understands it to a broader extent.

The remorse that accompanies the killing of an animal is forever present but buffered with certain knowledge that death plays a vital role with regard to wildlife and our natural world. I did not “need” those two grouse I killed; let’s call them the destination. It was the journey I needed toward that end. And I find it rather difficult, if not impossible, to walk the woodlands without the heft of a gun. On second thought, a lemon and buff Brittany would be nice to have along, too.

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