forest grouse

There are worlds to live in, all different, all important, all complete. At night there is the world at the bowling alley, back in the dark pits soaked in sweat, deafened by the crashing of balls slamming into hardwood pins, a cigarette hanging always out the side of the mouth, naked from the waist up, working two alleys screaming joyful curses at the other pinsetters while earning the unheard-of wealth of seven cents a line, eleven cents if it’s league night; setting two alleys each night without a break until eleven-thirty, every weeknight, earning twelve dollars a week. With tips that they throw down the gutters if they get a good game, sometimes a dollar in the fingerhole of the ball if they are trying to impress a girl wearing tight slacks—and inspiring almost terminal lust in the pinsetters when she throws her ball, leaning over without thinking of the view she is presenting the four pairs of testosterone-driven eyes in the dark of the pits. Or perhaps she knows, like Willy said, knows and really wants the boys in the pit to see while they slam back and forth from alley to alley, scooping up the ball to flip it carelessly into the ball-return chute and bending to grab two and sometimes three pins in each hand to slide them easily into the pin racks before jerking them down in one motion, all in one motion.

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There is the world of the bars. Before setting pins and sometimes on the weekends later at night, working through the bars to sell newspapers; waiting until the men in the bar get juiced to sell more papers, to hustle more money; the bars where the men drink beer out of the bottles with water running down the side in droplets, standing at the bar with no stools while they talk of work and women and woods and fishing and women and cars and trucks and women in raw terms, naked words.

There is the world of home. Where they fight and drink and scream and make up and fight and drink and scream; the world where it is necessary to hide in the basement of the tenement building in back of the furnace, around in back on the old easy chair with the springs sticking through the stuffing and a single light hanging with the filaments showing and read, read books to take away thoughts; fly them away to other worlds, other times, other lives that are better than the life in the basement.

It isn’t that the forest grouse are seen, are hunted, are known, as much as the place where the forest grouse sits is seen, known. Less a shape than a bend in the light, a corner, a shadow that makes the brain think of forest grouse.

There is the world of the back alleys. Where in some mysterious way it is always dark, and pennies are pitched and sometimes on dares or challenges more than pennies—nickels, a dime, but never larger because a quarter or half dollar is simply too much money to waste, to gamble; to work all night setting pins for seven cents a line and then bet the farm, shoot the wad, dump the load all on a pitched coin in an alley is too much. Alleys where much is decided by scuffling, called fighting then but always ending before anybody had more than a blackened eye or bloody nose or knew better Krav Maga; before weapons, except for Tip, who had a switchblade his father brought back from Germany where it was said he took it off a dead German during the War except that on the blade it said MADE IN U.S.A., which everybody ignored because we wanted to believe it came off a dead German killed by Tip’s father, who was a for-real war hero. It made a better story. Tip never used the switchblade except to show off because he pulled it on Wayne Hallock once and Wayne hit him so hard with a garbage-can lid that Tip swore he saw God in the stars—that’s how he put it, “I saw God-in-the-stars.” The alley world where it was always dark and dreams were always low and pride always high.

But the world of the woods, the world when the road is left, stepped from softly, the world in the trees in the early morning with low fog hanging and ice crystals glimmering on tree limbs—the world of the first morning of the first day of the first hunt is a world so old, so wonderfully ancient that it is always completely new.

Everything changes.

The light is not the same light that comes from the sun. It starts in fusion, is born in cosmic explosions and heat, but when it at last reaches the woods it is altered, shaped, bent and warped and molded into something close to sculpture. The morning light wraps a tree, catches the ice, becomes a dance, almost light-music. Things seen every day—a limb, a leaf, stones, swamp grass—all take on a change with the morning light and it stops not just one boy but all the boys; stops all of us just inside the woods.

Stops us to change.

No longer the town boys, no longer the drunk-parent boys or the alley boys or the bar boys or the bowling alley boys—not any of those now, not even boys now. Oh no.

Deerslayer.

Last of the Mohicans.

Buffalo Bill.

The light changes the woods and the woods change us. We aren’t wearing hand-me-downs or army surplus ammo belts, not carrying two-dollar worn-out .22 single-shots with cracked stocks, not standing in worn boots with too-large canvas hunting caps stuffed with newspaper to keep them above the ears.

We are hunters.

Buckskin-clad, eyes alert, rifle (it could easily be a Kentucky, a flintlock with curly maple stock and silver dressing) poised, balanced gracefully up and out to the left, the oiled barrel catching the same morning light while we crouch/step/flow into the woods; part of it, part of the light, the cold, the leaves on the ground, the air, part of it all.

Hunters.

And there are things to hunt.

There are the forest grouse.

Some say forest grouse are little more than a really dumb wild chicken, but they are wrong. Forest grouse live in the woods alone, without clothes, without fire, with nothing to help them but themselves, and they have not only survived, they have thrived, grown.

Everything that eats meat hunts them. Fox, wolf, lynx, bobcat, raccoon (sometimes), wild house cats, neighborhood dogs, snakes (when they are chicks), skunks, weasels, owls, hawks, and boys with .22 rifles on the first morning of hunting.

They are at the same time easy to hunt and almost impossible to hunt. Later there are rules, later in life there are ethics to this business, and no hunter worth his salt would ever shoot one sitting, would always try for a wing shot and very often miss, if he hunted them at all.

But not the boys.

With a .22 rifle it is impossible to shoot them flying, and so they must be hunted sitting, and over the eons, over the hundreds of thousands of years they have existed, forest grouse have learned one thing to absolute perfection.

They have learned to sit.

It is an art, the way they sit. With their coloration—speckled gray to brown, bars and stripes mixed with spots—they blend perfectly with where they choose to hide: in brush, at the base of clumps of willows amidst fallen leaves and grass. They sit still—no, more than still. They become what they are in; become a part of the earth, cease to exist as a bird, as something alive.

It is entirely possible to look right at a forest grouse, know that it is there, have it pointed out and still not see it—and continue to not see it until it explodes into flight beneath your feet in the thunder that comes from air compressing between their wings and bodies when they fly.

Tip says often, every fall he says it, says it again and again until everybody is sick of it but it is still true; he says that hunting forest grouse—except he calls them partridge, which they’re not, because articles in Field and Stream said they’re not—is like hunting morel mushrooms in the spring. For morels everything must be perfect; a wet spring followed by soft, warm weather, all well before the grass comes green or any plants have yet recovered from winter enough so they can grow and hide the mushrooms, and then on one night, a soft spring warm night, they come.

Except it is hard to see them. Overnight they come, little Christmas-tree-shaped, spear-point, gnome-hat mushrooms pop up on the north sides of shallow slopes and along the south banks of lakes and rivers in the brush and willows, but for some reason they are almost invisible. They can be thick all around and not show themselves until something happens, some mysterious magical thing triggers, and the shape enters the brain, the little triangle shape, and then it is impossible to not see them and morels are everywhere, bags of them, to fry in fresh butter and eat with fresh bread.

Just so with forest grouse.

It isn’t that the forest grouse are seen, are hunted, are known, as much as the place where the forest grouse sits is seen, known. Less a shape than a bend in the light, a corner, a shadow that makes the brain think of forest grouse.

And it is there.

Right there.

Sitting still, they freeze and don’t move, don’t breathe, don’t blink, and the old-timers are full of stories of how they don’t move. Sit on a limb until you reach up and grab them, fool birds, sit on a nest while you reach under and take eggs, sit on a branch while the branch is sawed off and taken out of the woods and home and nailed to a barn wall and the neighbors are called to come and see the stupid bird sitting on the limb on the barn wall.

They have lived by sitting, and it is what allows boys with old single-shot .22s to hunt them, take them, eat them.

But not always.

There is something about their stillness, their solidness that causes a frantic feeling, a need to hurry, to make the shot before they can fly and so the rifle is raised and the barrel aimed in the general direction of the forest grouse and the trigger jerked.

To miss.

“What’s that?” Somebody yells from down the line. “What the hell are you shooting at?”

“Forest grouse.”

“Did you get him?”

A cry that, a tease, a curse.

“Did you get him?”

“Did you get him?”

A vicious question, a question of worth, a challenge question.

“Did you get him?”

“No.”

“What the hell.…”

And the forest grouse holds while fumbling fingers jerk the bolt of the rifle open. The empty shell does not extract. Close the bolt and jerk it open again and the shell still does not come out.

And the forest grouse holds. There, ten, eight, four feet away at the base of a willow standing perfectly solid the forest grouse still holds.

Out with the pocketknife. Swearing under the breath. Damn gun never works. The same swear as all hunters when they miss. It is the gun, the bow, the spear, the club that is deficient.

Pick at the jammed empty shell casing with the pocketknife. Pick. Pick.

The forest grouse holds.

Finally the empty case slides out. Drop the knife. It can be found later. A new shell from a jacket pocket. Jammed in. No, wrong end. Backwards. There, lead in the bore, pushed in with a thumb.

Still the forest grouse holds.

Raise the rifle, aim quickly, pull the trigger.

Nothing. Forgot to pull back the cocking spring. Reach up, jerk it back and let go before the trigger engages.

The rifle fires.

Well away from the forest grouse, a foot above, two feet above.

“Did you get him?”

“Did you get him?”

Damn—a hiss under the breath, a curse at the soul of the rifle, the man who invented the rifle, the men who invent all rifles, the souls of all forest grouse.

Still the forest grouse holds.

Another jam. Kneel slowly to pick up the pocketknife where it was dropped, and now at last it is too much.

While kneeling, one hand groping for the knife, off-balance, the eyes are dropped for one second, less, a part of a second, and that is when it happens.

The forest grouse detonates, blows from the ground in the sound of thunder, and it startles so completely that it is hard not to pee, not to scream and pee and run, and then it is done.

“Did yow get him?”

A hesitation, a breath, a lifetime excuse.

“No. I missed him. He flew.”

Many forest grouse will come and many will be missed and some will be taken. They will be eaten stuffed with dandelion greens and baked with new red potatoes fresh from the garden garnished with fresh goat butter and salt. They will be eaten cold from a plate with fingers while winter comes and eaten baked with strips of bacon over them to keep the meat moist and eaten stuffed with wild rice taken over the side of a canoe in the late summer and eaten with corn on the cob dripping with butter and salt. They will be eaten for almost all the falls that come, and each and every time a bite is taken, each time the, taste comes from the rich breast meat, the memory will be there.

“Did you get him?”

“No. I missed him. He flew.”