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Author Biography: Ellen Gilchrist is the author of 16 previous books, including, most recently, Collected Stories. She lives in Fayetteville, AR, New Orleans, LA, and Ocean Springs, MI.
The water wasn't going to rise anymore in southern Illinois if my daddy could help it. He got up at dawn every day and worked until dark and expected the same from his men. It was men against the Mississippi River, a good fight and an unending one. When my daddy was in college he had worked summers at a levee camp in the Delta. This was before they had tractors and had to pile up dirt with mule teams. When the depression ended and the government sent tractors to the river it made my father a happy man, and the years we spent in Mound City were exciting years because he was an exciting man. I thought he was the strongest man in the world and I wanted him to like me as much as he liked my brother, Dudley, but that was a doomed desire because Dudley was a boy and he did what Daddy told him to do. I was incapable of doing what I was told to do no matter how much I wanted someone to like me and think I was nice. Alas, sixty years haven't changed that much, as my failed marriages attest.
Another wonderful thing about my daddy was that he thought up everything to do. He thought up trading some old bicycles for quarter horses and teaching us to ride. He thought up getting roller skates. He brought some men one day and built me a swing so high I could swing to the skies. No matter how high I swung I could never fall because the poles were sunk in four feet of concrete and I got to watch the men dig the holes with post- hole diggers and pour the concrete in and then I got to watch it dry and write my initials on the top.
When winter came to southern Illinois he thought up going ice-skating although none of us had ever lived where water froze or seen it done until we got the skates and cleared a pond and started trying.
Daddy and Dudley usually let me in on anything they thought up to do but they had never taken me hunting and I was mad about that. I was mad about several things the year I was five. I was mad because I could never win at poker and I was mad because they didn't take me camping in the woods and I was really mad because I never got to shoot the guns or go hunting.
If I was mad about something I never stopped thinking about it and telling my mother it wasn't fair. My mother didn't like to live the fast hot life my father lived. She was from the Delta and liked to dress up and have servants and practice French and go to the Episcopal church. She didn't like to go outside and get her shoes dirty and have any bug bites on her. She was teaching me to make doll clothes and read books and say my catechism and cook and write letters to our relatives and have a dollhouse on the back porch and make doll furniture out of cardboard boxes. She couldn't understand why I wanted to go hunting but she felt sorry for me for being left out and she told them so.
"She can't even shoot," Dudley said. "We'll have to show her how," Daddy said. "Come on, Son. Bring the BB gun and let's go out back and find a bale of hay." He could not resist showing someone how to do something they didn't know how to do and it never occurred to him that we were too young to learn anything. He thought we were perfect, to tell the truth, despite my being "hardheaded" and "a tough nut to crack." It was Sunday afternoon and they put on my boots and we all went out to the pasture and Dudley pushed a bale of hay into place and pinned an oilcloth target to it.
"This is a gun," my daddy began. "Come here, Sister. Pay attention to me." "I'm paying it." "This gun is loaded. Every gun in our house is always loaded. That way there are no mistakes. Any gun is assumed to be a loaded gun, in this house and anyplace you go. Understand?" "Yes, sir."
"This is the barrel. The bullet comes down this and is directed at the target. This is the stock or handle that you hold it with. This is the trigger. You pull this to fire the bullet through the barrel and at your target. In here is the explosive device that hits the bullet and starts it on its way." "Am I going to shoot it now?"
"No, you are going to listen to me if you are capable of listening. When Dudley was your age he could hit a bull's-eye with the four-ten. But you have to start with the BB gun, which is different from the gun I just showed you because it has a magazine." He put down the four-ten and took the BB gun and explained all the parts of that. "Let me try it," I said. "Not yet. Take these now and tell me everything I just told you about how they work."
It was half an hour later before I was finally standing in front of the target and was shooting into the bale of hay. I did so well with the BB gun they decided to let me shoot the over and under, but only three times because it spooked the horses.
"Okay," Daddy said, when we were back at the house and sitting at the kitchen table eating scrambled eggs and cinnamon toast for supper. "Next Saturday you can go with us. If you don't bother your mother all week and do everything she tells you to do without arguing. Ariane, it's going to be up to you. On Friday night if she's been good we'll get her ready. We're going bird hunting over on Mr. McGehee's property. We can take her there. If she's been good all week."
"I'm good," I said. "I'm a lot better than Dudley is." "That's another thing," my daddy said. "You're always saying bad things about other people. I don't know where you get the idea that you're better than other people. No one wants to be around someone who's always throwing off on their brother and their little friends."
"Carleen Dee is not my friend. You just bring her over here because her daddy works for you. She's dumb and she smells funny."
"There she goes," Dudley said. "She can't stop it. I don't think she ought to get to go. She's already being bad." "You stay out of this, Son. Your mother and I will settle this." All week long I was so good you wouldn't believe it. I was five and a half years old and I could think and plan as well as I could when I was thirty. Better, because I didn't have to waste time wondering if what I was doing was a good idea. If there was something I wanted, I was after it until it was mine. So on Saturday morning they got me up before dawn and dressed me in jodhpurs and two sweaters and my boots and put me in the truck between them and took me hunting.
We drove out of town with the sun just beginning to light up the sky to the east. It was November and the leaves were gone from the trees and you could see the lay of the land and the way the fields stretched out to the woods and the river. You need to imagine that part of the country in nineteen forty. How narrow and crooked the roads were and paved with asphalt. We were the only vehicle on the road, and our headlights cut through the fog in the low places and lit up the picked fields and the farmhouses near the road.
We drove along with the windows rolled up because there was no heater in the truck, but after a while we had to roll them down because the windows were fogging up.
Behind the seat was a shoe box containing our lunch. Meatloaf sandwiches with mayonnaise, carrot sticks that had been soaking all night in salt water, apples, and homemade oatmeal cookies for dessert. I had helped make the lunch the night before and I was thinking about it as we rode. I wasn't thinking much about hunting. I figured we would go out and kill something and bring it back and then eat the lunch. Still, you could never tell with my daddy. We might be stopping off at an apple orchard or to buy some goat milk. Going off with him in the truck was always full of surprises.
Daddy started talking about hunting and he kept checking to see if I was listening. "Listen to this, Sweet Sister," he would say. "I'm not going to tell you twice."
Then he talked about how to keep the gun broke over your arm at all times if you were walking and then he got off on people he knew about who had been killed by going hunting wrong and then he was talking about hunting dogs my granddaddy had raised in Alabama and how one time he had to borrow a car and leave college and drive all the way to Courtland, Alabama, to get one of my granddaddy's dogs and take it back to Auburn so some men could use it to teach other dogs to hunt.
Then he got off on snakes and watching out for them in the woods and then he said, Goddammit, we should have some dogs but he hated to have them around because he had to take care of them all the time when he was little and haul them around the whole South the whole time he was in college.
"When are we going to eat lunch?" I asked. "I'm getting hungry." "Don't start complaining, Shorty," my brother said. "I said you'd just complain the whole time." "We'll eat lunch at lunchtime," Daddy answered. "You just had breakfast. You couldn't be hungry again." "She throws up when you feed her in the car," Dudley put in. "Remember last summer when she threw up on the way to the Delta?"
"Well, we're almost there," Daddy said. "Right up there where that gate is. Mr. McGehee said there are quail by the dozens. He's coming out later with his pointers and let us see him work them. His son's driving a tractor for me now. He owns eighty acres and he's keeping this all for hunting."
We stopped the truck by a wide sloping place on the shoulder of the road and got out and took the guns down from the gun rack and Daddy checked them. A four-ten for Dudley, a shotgun for Daddy, and the BB gun for me. They showed me how to remove the magazine containing the BBs and put it in my game bag and sling the bag on my shoulder over my sweaters.
"I have to take off one of these sweaters," I said. "I'm burning up." So Dudley took off my game bag and then one of my sweaters and put the sweater in the truck and came back and got the bag situated so I could grab the magazine and load it in the gun if I needed to. "Be sure and screw it in tight," he said. "But don't do it until we tell you to. Just carry the gun with the barrel pointing at the ground. Pretend like it's broke over your arm to practice for later but don't point it at your feet. Sometimes people shoot their feet if they aren't careful."
When we were suited up and equipped, we walked down to the gate and Daddy opened the lock with a combination and we went through and closed the gate behind us and locked it and started walking out across a field toward a stand of oak and maple trees. Other trees were along the fencerow to our left, completely barren, not a leaf left on a tree. Beyond the field the early morning sky was gray with soft white clouds and a full moon in the east turning palest silver. "Those clouds are over the river," Daddy was telling Dudley. "Take out your compass and get a bearing. You must always know where you started and where the sun is and the way to the river. Then you can't get lost, but don't take bearings by the moon unless you have to." He turned to me. "If you get lost, Sister, stay where you are and wait for us to find you. When children get lost it's always because they didn't stay put and wait to be found."
"I know it," I said. "Sit down and make a mark on a tree and don't panic. You'll come and find me."
"That's it." Daddy and Dudley walked ahead of me. Daddy had started in telling Dudley how God made the world for men to live in and enjoy and all about what a great job God did putting animals around for us to hunt and dirt to build levees and all the blessings of our lives. I had heard that enough so I dropped behind to think my own thoughts. They were about thirty feet ahead of me, talking about how beautiful quail were and how the mother quail would sacrifice her life to save her babies, when I saw a crow on the high branches of an old tree beside the fence. It was just sitting there, waiting for somebody to shoot it, and I reached in my bag and got the magazine and fitted it into the gun and screwed it in and pumped the gun and raised it and shot.
Dudley hit the dirt and Daddy turned and put his arms up in the air and started yelling. "Drop the gun, Sister," he was yelling. "Drop the gun. Don't shoot. Please don't shoot." The crow had flown away. I didn't know if I had hit him or not and my daddy was running across the field yelling at me. "I shot a bird," I told him. "But it got away." "Oh, no, Sister," he was saying. "You can't shoot until we tell you to. You can't shoot when someone's in front of you. That's how people get killed, Sweet Sister. Give the BB gun to me." I handed it over. Hunting was turning out to be a lot like a lot of other things they thought up to do. A lot of work for nothing, like catching grounders or throwing footballs. It was cold in the field and the stubble was sticking my legs and I was hungry.
"I wish we could eat that lunch," I was saying. "I think it's time to eat the lunch."
Dudley had gotten up from the ground and was coming toward me. "You're crazy, Rhoda," he was saying. "You can't shoot a bird when it's sitting on a tree. It isn't sportsmanlike. You have to wait until it's on the wing."
"Well, I don't see why," I answered. "It was just sitting there. You said we were hunting birds." He screwed his mouth into a line and kept from saying anything. He looked so grown-up, standing there with his shell cartridge around his coat and his four-ten rifle he got for his ninth birthday and his short haircut and his privileged position as the oldest male heir, not to mention being named for my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather who had been the governor of Mississippi during the Civil War. I was proud of him, to tell the truth, and glad I didn't shoot him by mistake.
"Let's mosey back to the truck and see if Mr. McGehee is here yet," my daddy said. "If he brings his grandchildren maybe there'll be somebody for Rhoda to play with." We started back across the field in the direction of the truck.
Excerpted from I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy by Ellen Gilchrist Copyright © 2002 by Ellen Gilchrist. Excerpted by permission.
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