It’s the last day in November and so today we host our last essay in our first nonfiction november at the dictionary project. We are so pleased to have guest writer Nishta Mehra. Nishta writes a wonderful blog about food and life featuring both stellar recipes and poignant essays. Enjoy her writing here and check out her blog for more.
ring·neck·ed, (riŋ-ˌnekt) adj. having a distinctive colored stripe or stripes around the neck, as certain animals and birds.
My Doc Martens are a holdover from what my partner Jill lovingly refers to as my “Baby Dyke” years. They are one of the few extant remnants from this phase, along with memorized song lyrics to many, many Indigo Girls songs and a few very dear friends.
The boots are so objectively ugly—mud brown and clunky—that it must have physically pained my mother to spend money on them the year I asked for and received them for Christmas. I was not particularly tough, badass, or butch, but those Doc Martens made me feel like I was, a little bit. They were not the norm at my very genteel and preppy all-girls’ school in Memphis, Tennessee, but they weren’t all that noticeably different, either; it’s not like I went after purple patent leather or boots that laced up to the thigh. My boots were quietly defiant, marking me part of some alternative club the same way that the shoes’ very soles stamped a brand imprint into soft ground.
I don’t know why I saved my Docs; I stopped wearing them a long time ago. Perhaps they seemed too significant, too sturdy, too potentially utilitarian to get rid of. Or perhaps I was too nostalgic for those coming out years, my earnest, angsty youth. But kept them I did, unable to throw them out or give them away each time I packed up my dorm room or apartment closet.
They come in handy the first time I go dove hunting with Jill. It is early in our relationship, maybe the second year. We are living together but still exploring each other actively, floating into new corners of experience like kids in bumper cars: meeting parents, learning quirks and proclivities, sharing passions. For this afternoon, she dresses me in an old pair of her heavy canvas camouflage pants and a soft t-shirt (also camo), but is at a loss with what to do with my feet, for hers are much smaller than mine and I will not fit into any of her old boots. Suddenly I remember my Doc Martens, long neglected and relegated to the bottom of the closet.
“Perfect,” she says as I lace them up, feet remembering just how much these damn things weigh. I stand and examine myself in the mirror; it is the first time I have ever worn camo in my life. I look like some alternate version of myself, still not particularly tough, badass, or butch, but feeling more the part than usual.
In the field, I follow behind Jill, treading my way through knee-high brush, grateful for the secure footing of my clod-hopper boots. She has a gun slung over one shoulder and a folding stool over the other; I carry my own stool, a small, round cooler filled with water, and my journal. We set up underneath a modest clump of trees and wait.
It’s important to note that Jill hunts for meat, not trophies; everything she kills we eat. She grew up inhabiting a world that I only read about in books: Where the Red Fern Grows, My Side of the Mountain, and Rascal, stories where the main characters are self-sufficient children deeply connected to the outdoors. They, like Jill, know the names of animals and plants, are comfortable with silence, have instinctive skills for survival, and are not afraid of much.
Jill shot her first gun at age five. Her family grew or hunted pretty much everything they ate, skinning and cleaning and canning and preserving, using all parts of the animals they killed—not because it was romantic, but because they needed to. Because that’s what you did. Because it was a sin to let a once-living thing go to waste.
I did not grow up around guns, and the proximity of Jill’s shotgun, though I know the safety is on and she is extraordinarily careful, makes me a little jumpy. In the yellow-brown field around us, bugs and mockingbirds skitter, backgrounded by blue sky. Our attention is focused on a small watering hole some twenty-five yards away, the hope being that it will draw some thirsty doves on this hot afternoon.
I do not know what to expect, how I will feel about watching the woman I love kill things. Though a meat eater myself, I came into our relationship with a bias against hunters, a lazy understanding that the sport was necessarily cruel and thoughtless, when for Jill it is quite the opposite. She hunts to take an active part in the project of feeding herself, instead of shying away from the reality of the death that comes when one creature eats another. She hunts because she is not a hypocrite, and she is not willing to be a vegetarian. She hunts to plug her being into the greater cosmos of living things, the wild, cruel, and wondrous food chain into which we are all born.
“Hunting is the only religion I practice,” she told me when we first met, and so I am out here to see it for myself.
After about an hour of waiting, a pair of grey-brown, ring-necked birds appear on the scene and Jill manages to get them both as they come in to land, one smooth motion of lifting the gun’s stock to her cheek and its end into her shoulder. The sound from the blasts echoes across the field, scattering more distant birds. Jill locates the discarded shotgun casings on the ground around us and holds one up for me and instructs me to inhale: the sharp, acrid scent of spent gunpowder fills my nose. “I love that smell,” she says.
We walk over to retrieve the birds before we lose sight of where they fell, their small eyes glazed over and spots of crimson blooming in their breasts. I have never held a just-dead thing, so recently alive that it is warm and liquid under the surface. Death has transformed them, making them more lovely and remarkable than they were in life, a kind of reverse benediction. Before slipping them into her game bag, Jill puts each bird close to her face and whispers thanks for its life.
“You lived wild and free until you died,” she tells a dove, tracing the distinctive dark black ring around its neck with her finger. “Not in a cage or a pen.”
At sunset, the hunting is done and Jill lays her six birds on the tailgate of the truck. With skilled fingers and a pair of hunting shears, she cleans their soft bodies, first plucking their feathers, which float out into the air like soft snow for other birds and field mice to use for their nests and burrows. Then she clips the heads, feet, wings, and removes the glistening innards, tossing it all out onto the ground as an offering of dinner for the creatures that live nearby. Finally, what’s left are a naked row of breasts and legs, our dinner.
We cook the ring-necks just a few hours later, their flesh meeting flame on the grill, eating with our hands, taking their bodies into our own for nourishment and pleasure.
Nishta Mehra is a writer, middle school English teacher, and enthusiastic home cook who blogs about food and life at www.bluejeangourmet.com. Her first book, a collection of essays entitled The Pomegranate King, is forthcoming in early 2013. She lives in a suburb of Houston, Texas with her partner, Jill Carroll, and their four-and-a-half month old son, Shiv.