This is an excerpt from my novella, The Hunting Club.
The sun peaks over the broken cornstalks blanketed with snow. The wind snakes flurries toward the truck. The wind eats at my fingers. I am in the back of a Hummer truck-bed with Waylon Lewis. We’re standing above several crates filled with pheasants. It’s a cold Iowan morning. It feels good to be back in my hometown with my new boss.
Waylon stands on the truck’s bed, reaching his freckled arm and gloveless hand into the squawking cage. He rips out a pheasant by its feet. The bird flaps and tries to escape. Waylon shakes it up and down until the bird stops struggling. He cocks back and pitches the bird.
It tries to fly, but instead spins and crashes into a snow bank.
The bird stands, shakes, and waddles toward the corn. It pecks there, mesmerized that his dinner was that easy.
The woods behind Waylon are dead and lifeless. They creak with the wind.
I am surprised at how well this self-proclaimed “dharma brat” has taken to the hunting culture here. He’s wearing Carhartt, a Filson hat, and as much orange as possible. He’s even agreed to keep his cell-phone and laptop back at the lodge.
It’s definitely a first for him. While he guides elephant journal, out here he follows my rules, even down to dipping.
The crates are red and yellow plastic. I unlatch one and hold onto a bird’s boney feet. It kicks, and I let it go. It launches into the sky, soaring over its brother and circling back toward the woods. It’s a rookie mistake that I shouldn’t even be making. How am I supposed to be telling him what to do if I can’t even hold onto a stupid bird?
“Thought you were the expert,” he says, laughing. His breath hangs in the air.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s just see how good of a shot you are.”
He shakes his head and goes back to work.
We’re planting these birds for later; they’ll stay and graze on the food plots. (The birds are farmed raised, so they have little to no natural instincts. For a novice like Waylon, this is the only way he’ll be able to shoot down a bird.) We’ll come back with another guide, some block-head named Todd. We went to high school together. He’s the manager here.
I grab another bird and hold on tight. He flaps and struggles, trying to yank my arms out of my socket. Once it stops, I hurl it in the ditch.
Surprisingly, Waylon keeps about his work, chucking more pheasants into the ditch. He snags another bird and starts to shake it. He smiles a little wider with each shake.
I figured he would have been against all of this, but I think that he understands we are outside of Boulder and that this is a new experience to add to his canon of adventures.
Waylon swings the gun up from his hip, clicks off the safety and pulls the trigger before having it shouldered. It blasts birdshot across the snow toward our bird-dog. Even though we practiced all yesterday, he gets jittery on the first shot.
He drops the gun and reaches for his shoulder. He tries to leap up and down in the knee-high snow, but he’s stuck. The snow around the barrel starts to slightly melt. The bird sails off.
Waylon picks back up the shotgun. “Sorry guys. Next time.” He starts to laugh.
Waylon holds the barrel down to the ground. He rests his attention and eyes and breathes in deeply. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone ever meditate while hunting. He stops and gives us his cocky smile that he is famous for.
I blow into the dog whistle around my neck. Rip, a thick and muscular pointer, leaps across the snow and comes to my side. He sits. I pet his head and give him a treat in my pocket.
Rip weaves in the snow, sniffing. His tail shoots up, and he slowly walks forward. I shift to get a better view. I see the dog’s tail blending in with a snowdrift. He stops and begins shaking. In a patch of corn, he must have found one of the pheasants we placed.
Todd holds up his fist to stop us. Waylon steps forward slowly. He shoulders it and practices a few swings. Then he clicks off the safety and looks at Todd quickly.
“Action!” Todd yells. Rip lunges forward. The bird rockets into the sky, leaving a waft of white behind it. Waylon follows the path and then leads the bird with his gun. He pulls the trigger, and the blast rings over the top of the snow. The bird plummets before the echoes in the forest to our right stop. Another pheasant takes flight, and Waylon leads him too. Heck cocks the shotgun, and the shell flips into the snow. He fires. It falls out of the sky. Rip stays in place.
Waylon smiles and clicks on the safety. With his gun pointed in the right position (he took his hunting license exam a few days ago and remembers all the techniques), he congratulates himself: “You know, I thought I was going to hate this. But that felt good. Can we do it again?”
He takes to it extremely fast and is happy to keep hunting while I tie his pheasants together with twine and then sling them over my neck.
He’s a natural shot, meditating slightly before each kill. I never figured Buddhism and the hunt would go so well together.
In the back of the Hummer, I hand a cigar to Waylon. We light them and lean back. The back of the Hummer to have two benches facing a row of gun racks. The shotguns are propped up, and the pheasants are tied up around our feet. Rip curls up in his kennel, licking at his paws.
“Been a damn good day, man.” He mimes a pistol and shoots the air. “I was rocking that shotgun. I can’t believe I’ve never done this before.”
“You ready to bag a deer?”
“We get to hunt a deer? Awesome. You know, I always thought this was some barbaric, masculine, outdated ritual. But I can see why people do it. Those birds give me energy, and this is the way to get meat. I mean, I’m not going to eat them ’cause I want to stay vegetarian, but this better than those hog lots and corporate beef plants. This is natural and good. God, I love it.” He shouts out in glee.
The deer blind is a small trailer on stilts. I replace and turn on the propane tank at the base of it.
Inside, Todd kicks on the heater. There is only room for the three of us. We sit back in comfortable chairs; Waylon reclines.
There are three windows looking out on a corn plot and clover field. We’ve been watching the field with night vision motion detectors. We know that this is the spot that our biggest buck frequents.
We just wait. Waylon tells us stories about his time in Vermont, Boston, and other places around the country. Todd and I flip-flop hunting tales. It’s a great afternoon.
Inside, there is a bathroom that filters down into a container. I’ll clean that up tomorrow. We wait in there for hours.
Eventually, a small buck trots out of the woods and into the meadow. He stops and digs at the snow with his mouth.
I nod to Waylon. He picks up the shotgun (this one has a scope on it because Iowa law requires that a hunter only shoots down a deer with a shotgun because it is less accurate. Todd has tricked the gun out to be more efficient.) Waylon loads a slug and clicks off the safety. He slides open the window as quietly as possible. He positions the gun and meditates for a second. I hold my ears—in the close space, this is going to be loud. He pulls the trigger.
The slug strikes the deer right in the neck, and it slumps down, spewing blood all over the fresh snow. It gets up and tries to gallop away but is only able to limp. Waylon clicks on the safety. We run down the stairs.
Truthfully, I thought that Waylon wouldn’t be able to kill a deer. Fowl are one thing; they are essentially mindless. However, a buck has a family and future.
He’s the first to sprint toward the animal. We’ve left the gun upstairs.
Waylon catches up to the animal. It has fallen over and is making a choking sound. He hit the neck, and it’s choking on its own blood, drowning itself. It was a great shot, avoiding all of the available meat.
Todd hands Waylon a pistol. (Todd carries a concealed weapon everywhere.)
He straddles the animal and stares him right in the eye. “Om Vajrasattva Hum.”
My hands turn blue and wrinkle. I pick up a skinned pheasant breast and snip the wings off and throw the wings in the garbage can. Then I follow all of the burnt holes in the breast with my fingers and try to pick out all of the shot. If it’s left there and cooked, then I might break a tooth on it. I clean off the breast in cold water and slip it into a Zip-Lock bag.
I’m happy to eat all the pheasants that Waylon killed. They have a perfect, gamy taste, almost spicy.
I can hear Waylon speaking in the background. He is sitting around a fire pit with Todd. They are drinking beers. Waylon says: “Then the bird plummeted back to reality, and for the briefest of moments, I gazed into his beady eye, and something happen. It was like in Buddhism where your teacher just stops your mind and you see the nature of reality, if only for a second or two. You see, in flight, I could see it see me, and we touched minds, in a way. In that moment, we were the same creature, and it was okay that I took his life, because he took a piece of mine. The hunt is Dharma.”
I grab a pheasant around the neck with one hand. The other holds onto the body. I pull down and rip the spine off the breastbone. The bones crack and the muscles tear. The legs follow. I clutch the two separate pieces into the light. All of the bird’s innards cling to the breastbone. I stare into the bird’s tiny, marble eye. I wonder if it actually ever lived. All it did was waddle around a cage for it’s entire being, until I threw it out into the world.
I don’t see this as Buddhist or an expression. It’s a business, and a good business. I love how my boss has taken to killing; it solidifies his masculinity.
I hurl the legs, head, and spine into the trash. Then scoop out the innards with my free hand. I hold them up to the light. The tiny liver, heart and kidneys look plastic, and the stomach’s expanded. Inside, pieces of whole corn pack next to each other. I toss it all into the garbage and then reach for the scissors to snip the wings.
Waylon continues: “Now, where was I? Oh, yes. I was staring that buck in the eye. He bent over to devour some feed, and then his neck in my sights. I focus on the source of his energy, his hara. Without the breath, his life would be empty. I slide the window open and align my shot.”
I sit down next to them. They all look over at me. Waylon mimes that he is shouldering a shotgun.
He continues: “There I was, standing over the deer. You handed my the pistol, and I knew that I could connect to the animal’s being. It felt so good, guys. I know it sounds crazy, but again, like the bird, we connected. Then I severed the connection, but took on the energy. Awesome.”
He picks up his iPhone for the first time and tweetdecks about it. In that moment, Waylon transformed back into elephant journal and went back to work.
Joe Yeoman loves you. He is an MFA candidate at the Jack Kerouac School. As a displaced Chicago writer and editor, he hopes to see the Windy City soon. You can contact him at Joeyeoman [at] gmail [dot] com. Follow him on twitter @themindfullife, @walkthetalkshow, and @joeyeoman. Friend him of Facebook.