My dad grew up hunting with his father. When the sky was still grey, my grandfather would shake him from sleep and together they’d load up the car and drive out to the field of an old farmer who would let them hunt on his land outside Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Together they’d walk the cornuntil they got to the flooded field where the ducks would rest after feeding. There, they would wait, as the sun stretched up through the trees and fell over the field, turning the stalks gold. My father remembers the quiet of those mornings spent in the field with his father—the intimacy that lay between them as they waited in the cover of the corn, watching for the beating wings of ducks in the distance.
For my tenth birthday, my father surprised me with my first gun—a single-shot .410 shotgun. “For my sharpshooter!” he had said. I liked its heaviness as he placed it in my arms, the oiled barrel that gleamed in the light, and the lasting smell of gunpowder in the cold morning air. Crouching in the field with him, I followed a bird’s flight in the sky, leading it until the end of the barrel was just in front. For a week I’d practiced with the unloaded gun, bringing it up to my shoulder in a singular motion, just as my dad had taught me. Only then did he let me put a shell in the chamber.
When I pulled the trigger and felt the kick of the gun and saw the bird fall from the sky, I thought I would feel excitement. Instead I felt regret. While Dad called more ducks in, I traced the bird’s white wing tips and fingered the rubber webbing of the feet. How far the duck had flown during migration, from Northern Alaska or the plains of Saskatchewan. Dad had shown me the migration pattern of the different birds, guiding my finger across the globe from Iceland to Argentina to Australia and finally to the Northern edge of the Antarctic Ice.
At home, we sat on the steps of the porch as he taught me to pick and clean the bird. I watched as the dark blood ran over the breast and stained my father’s fingers red. I remember the feeling of holding the bird’s heart in my hand, purple and soft like a crushed plum.
I try not to think of that when I hunt with my dad. I try not to think of the wood drake in the back marsh gliding over the water with its emerald head held high. Or the cooing of the mourning dove, in its nest in the branches above, still and unafraid. I try not to think of what happens after the crack of the gun. But when I close my eyes, I see the last dip of the bird’s wings as it falls from the sky.
I no longer like the smell of gunpowder, but I like those early mornings when my dad shakes me from sleep and whispers in my ear, “It’s daylight in the swamp, Shooter.” I like the quiet as we drive down the country roads toward the marsh, not another car in sight. I like his smile when I shoulder the gun, and I know that he is proud of me.
I rarely return home in fall, so it’s been a long time since I’ve been hunting with my dad. Now, he goes out alone. Rises in the early mornings before the rest of the world is awake.
Last November, I made it home for Thanksgiving, and my dad asked me to come hunting with him. I wanted to be his sidekick again, to follow him through the long grasses of the prairie, and sit watching the sunrise over the pond. I wanted to hear him call me “sharpshooter” again like when I was a girl. But, I had become gun shy.
My father doesn’t understand my fear. He doesn’t like to see me wince as the shot explodes in the air. It is my fear that makes me miss, he tells me. “You don’t breathe out at the end. Release, Aidan. Release.” But, I am afraid. I am afraid of the crack, the kick, and the bird falling and falling until its heart ends up in my hand.
My dad has a gentle heart. On Thanksgiving day, we read poetry on the couch, each person choosing a favorite. My dad reads William Stafford:
It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out – no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
Halfway through, he gets choked up. He clears his throat and begins again, but his voice catches. He hands the poem to me. “Finish it, Aidan,” he tells me, and I read the final stanza.
When I hold a gun, I feel the weight of death. When my father holds a gun, he feels his dad behind him guiding the barrel up into the sky.
I joined them one of the last times they hunted together. The gun weighed on my grandfather and walking the field was an effort for him. His breaths were heavy, coming in clouds in the cold air. We got one duck that day; my dad made the shot.
At home, my grandfather sat on the steps and began plucking the bird, the feathers falling on the frosted ground. As he made the first cut, I imagined him guiding my dad’s hand just as my dad had guided mine. “Finish it, Aidan,” my grandfather told me. He put the bird in my lap and I cradled its head in my hand. I remember the feeling of the soft feathers beneath my fingers and the warmth of the breast against my skin. I don’t remember taking the knife. I just remember the presence of my grandfather beside me and in my hand a heart that once beat as fast as wings.
Aidan Campbell has barns, bees, and chickens in Wisconsin, but she definitely is not a farmer and has never milked a cow in her life. Despite this, she loves milk, cheese, and her Cheesehead roots. Feel free to contact her about anything Wisconsin related as long as you are not from Illinois. She refuses to associate with people below the Cheddar Curtain.