At 3 a.m. in this huge city, a man enters my home.
Before I had a gun that was mine I was a quail-fetch. Shooting from bird blinds, the men were stationary while I traversed through marsh and field with the dogs to recover their slain. If the quail or dove or duck was still alive after the shells, the fall, and the dogs it was up to me to put it out of its misery.
When killing a bird with your hands expediency is essential for mercy. They usually flutter and peck a great deal, and five-year-old girls have tiny paws. Grab its neck firmly behind the head, the spot where a mongoose would bite a cobra. It's not in the wrist as others would have you believe, but rather in the angle and speed at which you spin the unfortunate animal in a counter-clockwise circle. Pretend it's a party favor, that the snap of avian bone, which pops like viscous jerky and bubble wrap, is really a whirling, happy toy, and that the point of the game is to shut the screaming toy up with one spin, instead of two, three, four, or, one time, twelve spins and a beak to the wrist. Once I got the gun that was mine Brooks Brickell took over as quail-fetch. He grabbed them by the feet and beat them against a soggy ground with too few rocks. Idiot.
Beautiful gun. 4-10 shotgun. Gleaming gun. My father's first gun. Welcoming gun. Good gun. Not my older brother's gun. My gun. A perfect fit in my seven-year-old girl's hands. I have never received a present that made me happier.
I murdered so many adorable woodland creatures before the gun. Insects went down with my shoe, spiders ground into the ground for good measure and vengeance against the brown recluse that tried to kill me when I was three. Frogs were stabbed with twigs sharpened on an older boy's knife, snakes with the knife or a machete. We kept machetes and rusted butcher's knives embedded in the flesh of trees all through the hunting grounds. If you saw a pygmy rattlesnake or a water moccasin you grabbed the nearest blade and decapitated the son-of-a-bitch. Carefully, though. The heads still bit for five minutes after they died, and even when they lay still clumsy handling could scratch a fang and send fire with a vicious efficiency through your system. I hate snakes.
I really wanted to use the gun on warm things.
I actually hit something I aimed towards when I was eight. I killed a deer outside Valdosta in the middle of January. My father and I had woken at three in the morning and driven an hour and a half into Georgia where deer are valued only slightly higher than New Yorkers. Being Georgia in deer season at four thirty a.m., it was fucking cold. We both had coffee and 7-11 snack cakes. I ate mine in the car, listening to my dad explain the problems in American politics.
"Too partisan, honey. Remember that. Everyone needs to be far less contentious."
"Oh. Is that what uncle Jonas is?"
"Yeah, that'll work. Contentious."
Pitch black flight north has always been my favorite form of travel. The only people you can count on in this life are the ones willing to start journeys with you before dawn that they know will end in someone dying. My dad and I hunted. My mom and I went to relatives' deathbeds. My brother drove me to the doctor when I was fifteen (fuck you, Philip O'Neill). When I ask people to join me on road trips it's almost always a test of character.
Dad and I hunted outside his friend Leslie's blueberry farm. We spent the morning camouflaged beneath cypress branches utterly silent. Around noon he stood, stretched, and un-cocked his twelve-gauge.
"No, sir. Thank you."
And he sat back down. Of all the qualities my father possessed, the one that left the deepest impression was concision. You must be succinct when dealing with people.
I have not eaten deer in three years. Weeks ago, at a dinner with my Northern neighbors and friends not from home I was asked for advice on how to cook a particular piece of meat. I said I preferred my game rare, and that there was no richer taste than venison still purple in the middle. They stared at me with unashamed horror.
"You've eaten....deer? Like, actually?"
"How could you do that?"
"I was hungry."
"Yeah, I mean, sure, but, I just...Jesus Christ, how does one get deer?"
"I hunted with my father."
"How Scout Finch of you."
I felt no need to remind them that Scout Finch did not hunt, or to explain the satisfaction of eating something that died because you wanted it to. Venison is softer than beef. It's best grilled over an open flame after soaking in Wild Turkey and Worcestershire. Leave it bleeding in the center. It's like liquid copper wrapped in wood smoke. Good god, I miss my father.
Hold the gun just so. Never do this. Always do that. When we headed back to Leslie's with my first deer he tossed me an eight-inch carving knife encased in black leather.
"You'll need that pretty soon."
"Don't want to use your teeth. I don't think."
Dad and I drove to a shed in a clearing where we'd clean the animals. There was a contraption I loved. It looked like the sturdiest coat hanger ever made. Actually it reminded me of when following my dad's back surgery he'd lain in bed for weeks with a fantastic metal trapeze above his eyes. I'd hang from my crooked gold legs, white hair cutting my father's image into slivers of laugh. I cried when he could walk and function without it.
The deer trapeze was different. It was attached to rope, hooks, and pulleys, true, but it also had two spikes, one at each end of the triangle's base. You stabbed them through the back feet of the deer. When the deer was secure you hauled it up and let it hang upside down. Its front feet should usually swing a good foot above the ground. Because I was short then it had to accommodate me. Dad set it with the creature's front legs bent at the knees, its head bowed at an angle, like an altar boy with his flanks lifted up behind him.
"Skin or gut. Pick one."
It's more of a toss up than you'd think. Skinning takes longer and the sounds are worse, but that's because they're dry. Ever peeled a juiceless orange? It's not like that. The one thing I can equate it to is when a possum died under our house. My babybrother and I crawled through the dark dirt to find it. Dad had tried and clawed back into the light to puke. That's why my brother and I got to go. When we finally spotted the corpse under the bathroom I reached to grab its tail and discovered that its left side had decomposed and melted into the wall of the foundation.
"What do we do now?"
He blew a sharp whiff of air up through his ash bangs and sighed.
"Pull harder." So we did. It pulled off like a rotting, gangrenous hangnail. The sound was close to skinning a deer. The boy next to me laughed.
"I think it's sick."
Gutting, then. You have to drive the knife (which is sharp, sharper than a razor because your father is conscientious, and you're worried when you stab that the flesh of your fingers grasping the hilt will slide slowly but surely over the blade, severing the nerve and you've seen how uncle Jonas has to get along with one hand) into the chest of the deer slightly below the sternum. Pull down and make two other diagonal cuts at the belly. Empty. Toss the steaming jigglies into the woods. Watch the ants. It's shorter, gutting, but...I'll leave it at that. It takes less time. That was why I chose it.
My father was shot in the back of the head by my Aunt Sarah, his sister. I was sixteen. A year earlier I'd gotten pregnant by my first boyfriend, Philip O'Neill (Flip) and had it taken care of by a doctor two hours from home in the panhandle. Dad gave me the money, told my brother to get us back quickly but safely, kissed me, and walked into the house. He'd already beaten the shit out of Philip. When I told him I was in trouble and that there wouldn't be a daddy to help he'd driven over to the O'Neill house and waited outside with a two by four until Philip got home from a trip to Disney World. Philip pulled into the driveway in his green Camry, the Emerald Shitty, and started to pull right back out when he saw dad. My father walked calmly over to the seventeen year old boy that had impregnated me, ripped him out of his still moving car and beat his ass with a block of wood. When dad came home he asked me what I wanted to do.
"I don't want it, daddy."
"Then you don't have to have it, darlin'. I have to work tomorrow, so your brother will take you. If you feel all right when you get home I'll get you a blue slush puppy. Don't see that boy again."
He knew I learned the first time. He worked the next day. My brother got some more practice driving stick. My problem was handled. And that was it. My father and I understood each other.
Aunt Sarah was less understanding. She had lived with us since I was ten, since uncle Jonas had died sticky and black, waving his dead hand and trying to figure out how you spelled leukemia. She was tall like daddy, and they had the same eyes, but what looked kind on him looked sneaky on her. We'd existed peacefully enough for five years. Aside from her begging me to grow my white hair long, which my mother also greatly desired, Sarah and I had very little to do with each other. She understood the fundamental truth that some people are hopeless, and that I was one of those people. I was a girl with a gun. She gave up on changing that. But suddenly, at fifteen, I'd become a stink, a dead creature, spilled deer guts, baby arms, that possum we'd claimed from the depths of my home years before.
"You're nothing but a whore," when my family would leave the room.
"You're a filthy little whore and it'll serve you right when your daddy dies of shame." It wasn't why she killed him, but I honestly think she never forgave him for forgiving me. When it became clear that dad wasn't going to die of shame, was in fact just as big a fan of mine as before, she stopped talking. I don't mean she avoided conversation for a few months, the woman went dumb. Sarah literally did not speak to any member of her family. Certainly she didn't talk to me. I must admit I thought it the most perfect relationship possible with my aunt. I did not understand that hers was the quiet of the wooden blind, the silence of frosty Georgia four in the morning with coffee and keen eyes. One day she took my gun from my closet, behind my lilac prom dress, and blew my father's brains out as he watched the Sugar Bowl on TV, cheering on the Gators. We have no idea why.
Living in Chicago I have little use for a shotgun. Wait, strike that. I could probably put a shotgun to great use in Chicago, but I have little legal use for it. It rests under my bed, loaded. A girl does have to be careful by herself in the city. My friends don't know. My three roommates don't know. I have a hard enough time being the colorful Southerner. There's only so many times you can be told by a broken concrete voice from St. Paul or Michigan that you have a funny accent.
The doctor that aborted my child was from Pittsburgh. His accent didn't annoy me as much as those from Minnesota, but at the time it struck me as odd. My brother and I sat in a Lake City clinic's waiting room for two hours waiting for a nurse. We read Newsweek while we waited and I learned that someday in the near future paralysis would not exist thanks to stem cell research. Then a tiny blonde woman told me to come back. She introduced me to Dr. Stevenson whose voice sounded like charcoal dust. Pleasant. When they put me under I had a vision of the deer I'd killed and gutted. It had been a doe, a female, in season so I hadn't felt bad at the time. With my legs spread and held apart by metal as my insides were pulled I felt like a traitor. I felt like a cannibal, that I had killed and eaten a more graceful version of myself. On the way back home I sobbed through the drugs for the downy girl creature I'd done away with, blasted out of this world, desecrated and devoured. I have never mourned my non-child. Only that deer. I never felt good about the abortion; I knew I understood the weight of it. But God I loved the taste of that animal's flesh.
I kept the gun. Dad would want me to have it. It's mine. I make sure it's always in good condition. I keep it loaded in case of intruders. There is a sweet comfort knowing I am skilled with a tool of death. There is no such thing as vulnerability when you understand the power of a woman who can use a gun.
At 3 a.m. in this huge city, a man enters my home. A man can enter my home. A man can break my locks. A man can make his way down my hallway and maybe open the door to my bed but he will go no further. Men, like deer, freeze at the sound of impending doom. A snapped twig in a pitch black forest, a shotgun being cocked in a pitch black apartment, either way they know their world is rapture. Their time has come. People fear anyone that understands the simple mechanics of murder, anyone with the patience to implement death properly. I have stripped beasts of blood and body. I have executed breath in my womb and I have buried my father. I hear the creak of an alien presence in the dark. I lift and aim in a quick, watery hush. I let my gun greet them. I am no quail fetch. Humans are not quail or deer. If they survive the blast they can bleed until they expire. If asked nicely I may twist their necks and clavicles quickly. Or perhaps I will beat them against a floor with no rocks.