Life and death rub very close together on a hunting trip.
One moment, you’re inside a heated lodge watching a Rachel Ray cooking show while drinking whiskey. In another moment, you’ll be out walking a decayed field of sunflowers with layers of mud trying to suction your knees apart like a creature out of a Jim Henson movie. You could be browsing Facebook on your phone in mundane swipes of your thumb, but in the next moment you might be watching the steaming bowels of a deer spilling out of itself like under-cooked Manicotti.
On a recent duck hunting trip, my cousin Phil, a tall, Hank Hill clone, was coming back from the afternoon hunt. Phil would hunt the most out of all us hunters.
I had already been out hunting that morning. It had been the typical dawn trip, with hours of grey gloom and shy sunlight, with thin clouds spread across the sky like they’d sneaked out of a photograph from somewhere. The air had a dewy taste, but since it’s fall, there is some distant and cold acidity to it. In Minnesota, winter is always peeking over a wall at us. When the sun does rise, and those fiery beams look like lost bridges between heaven and hell, you realize the sour smell of gunpowder is just an excuse to acknowledge the natural beauty of the world.
Phil woke me up by yelling through the screen of the window at me.
“Hey, get out here! I shot a grouse in the woods. You want to come see it?” He yelled.
“What? Huh? Sure, yeah, I can do that, hang on I’m just napping,” I said.
I’m not sure why I needed to watch another animal be pulled apart like red clay, but I don’t see Phil that often so I obliged. He was outside the lodge, which sat on a steep green hill like an eyebrow. There was a concrete patio next to it with a hose. He had set the grouse down on the speckled grey slab, like a patient in a hospital bed. The bird was a beautiful creature. It was dust-colored. There were patterns of the woods marked on its plumage, like it was a living extension of those leaf-empty stumps. It looked like a pheasant or duck, only it was clearly made to mix in trees.
Phil picked the grouse up and pulled a knife out of his belt.
“Actually, this grouse is so small, I can just use my hands to rip the meat off the bones,” Phil said, stowing the blade away.
One year beyond the grouse, close to the next duck hunting trip, I’m calling my parents for a weekly checkup. They’ve been aloof for about a week. They haven’t wanted to meet for dinner, see their grandchildren, or talk on the phone. Previous experiences had taught me that this meant they were either offended by the way I’ve conducted something in my life, or something horrible was happening within the family and they were eluding me to prevent an information leak. Midwestern avoidance methods are like navigating a conversation with Frank Underwood.
After finally tracking them down through a phone call, my dad seemed distant on the phone.
“Alright, what’s going on? Why are you all bummed out?” I asked.
I judged the empty silence between our phones, and thought about spinning satellites in low orbit. If it was a long silence, it was something I had done to isolate them. If it was a short silence, it was something in the family.
“Your cousin Phil, he had to go in for some surgery last week to have his Gallbladder, Pancreas, and part of his Liver removed,” my dad said. The response was quick. He’d been holding it in for some time.
“Oh god, is it cancer? Is it pancreatic cancer?” I asked. Phil was about twenty years older than me, making him more of an uncle than a cousin.
“Their, uh, doing a biopsy on it, but they’re pretty certain,” he said.
“Well, well, what’s the prognosis? Is it like the stuff Steve Jobs had?” I said.
“Yeah, similar, we’re talking like ten years if they can handle everything on time. Could be more. But yeah, to answer your second question, same thing,” he said.
Back to the grouse. It looked so small and delicate against Phil’s body, like a part of nature had been kidnapped without permission. My cousin looked so much like the archetypal hunter. He was dressed all in camouflage, with dark red shells hanging off his armor like little pills. He looked more like a soldier than a hunter, like our hills and forests were crawling with some lost nightmare he needed to chase with the sight of his rifle.
Phil turned the grouse around to look at him. He started to pull the feathers off its chest in snowy strands of white and brown. It looked like there was so much of it, but after a few clumps the skin over the breast was exposed. The meat had a strange yellow color to it, like we shouldn’t be looking at it. I had only heard grouse beating their wings before in the woods, but never actually witnessed one in real life. The sound of them thrumming in the branches and eves was almost mythical, like the thunder of dragon wings in some fantasy realm.
“Only the breast is good on this thing, the rest, whatever,” Phil said, pulling back the skin with his thumbs. Blood came out then in a quick string. The husky air trapped it for a second, and spread it over my cousin. Some other guts came out too, but I couldn’t figure out what they were. They looked so red against the blue sky and patched green hills.
“Watch closely, so you know how to do this,” he said.
In a few muscular snaps of breast bones and sinew, the chest of the grouse was free of its body. It was round, pale, and small, like it’s own body knew it had little meat to offer the world in terms of nourishment. My cousin took the corpse and tossed it in the forest next to us.
It meshed back into the undergrowth like a feathered phantom.
We’re at duck hunting right after Phil’s surgery. He can’t walk around the property, much less go out with his gun. He’s lost twenty pounds and his skin is that questioning paleness, like death and life were actively debating what direction to take him. He was caught in some sort of cellular purgatory. The cancer was deciding which direction to go, and his body was being towed behind it like a broken automobile in a snowstorm.
We’re sitting on a couch watching television. He’s doing a crossword puzzle. The lines, boxes, and print on the folded page look obscenely permanent against his withered hands. He grimaces and adjusts himself. He’s wearing an extra baggy shirt, which makes him look like a bouncer at a club.
“This goddamn bag. I hate it,” Phil said. On the left part of his stomach is a tube attached to clear plastic pouch that helps drain his body of the excess liquid. His organs are still being supplied with fluids even though they’re not there anymore.
“They took a lot out of me,” Phil said. He crossed his legs, and squeezed his feet together to make sure they’re still there.
Life and death rub very close together on a hunting trip.