Photo: Courtesy of Kimberly Hiss
My Christmas dinner was up in one of those trees. It was snowing lightly on a minus-two-degree dawn, and I was lying on my belly bundled in white camo, pointing the muzzle of a Benelli 12-gauge through a cluster of fireweed. The cold hurt my hands in a way I wondered if I should worry about. In front of me, a snow-coated field stretched for 500 yards to a line of bare trees silhouetted against a blush of sunrise. The trees' branches were dotted with roosting turkeys, and their occasional gobbles carried back across the field to where I waited, breathing into my face mask.
Next to me, rising on his knees to better see the birds, was Brent Lawrence, a friend who worked for the National Wild Turkey Federation, a nonprofit conservation group. We were hunting together outside the town of Kearney, Nebraska, for three days in December—one of which had already passed. Now he tapped my shoulder and pointed: The dots had started flapping to the ground, and single-file lines of birds were bobbing into the field, their chatter echoing in the cold air. I took a deep breath and adjusted my grip on the gun.
Id started hunting a few years before, shocking everyone who knew me. Not only am I a sucker-hearted animal lover who includes my cats' names on the answering machine, the closest I'd ever come to a firearm was a cardboard prop in a school production of Annie Get Your Gun. But in 2003 I fell into an assistant position at Field & Stream magazine; then I was invited on a mule deer hunt, and then I had some thinking to do.
My reformative logic went like this: For every turkey wrap or club sandwich I'd ever eaten, something had been killed for my benefit—I'd just never done the killing myself. The deer hunt invitation seemed an opportunity, a challenge even, to reclaim my place in the food chain by assuming responsibility for the meat on my plate.
I took shooting lessons and a hunter safety course, and headed to New Mexico. I killed a buck the second morning and cried with its big head in my arms. Then I skinned it, butchered it, and shared its meat with my curious friends back home in the Bronx. From there I hunted ducks in Oregon, antelope in Wyoming, and geese in Pennsylvania. But the hardest hunts I attempted were for turkeys, which have exceptionally keen hearing and eyesight. They had ditched me in New Mexico, New York, and Ohio. Still, I was hoping that this was the year I'd get one—in time for Christmas.
Brent ducked below the reeds. "They're close," he whispered. "To your right." I flattened myself in the snow, my heart pounding. And there they were—a dozen big, dark birds popping out one by one from behind a rise 40 yards away. I clicked my safety off and watched for a good shot. But they never seemed still enough. Or close enough. Or far enough away from each other.
This happens every time. As much as I love hunting—the connection with nature, the pure nutrition it provides—I don't like the killing part. I arrive at this moment conflicted, struggling with a mix of reluctance, doubt, and advance repentance. Eventually the flock moved on and I exhaled, unsure whether I felt grateful or pissed at myself.
Suddenly Brent hit the ground again. "They're right there," he hissed as another group of birds filed into the same field. Gradually the turkeys spread out, and one wandered a little closer to us. It pecked at the ground, then raised its head and stood perfectly still for one moment. I squeezed the trigger.
The blast of the gun is always a bit of a surprise—more like something that happens to me than something I initiate. All at once, my ears were ringing, the turkey was thrashing in the snow, and Brent and I were racing down the hill toward it.
"Don't worry; it's dead," he shouted. Though its wings were flapping, its head was limp on the ground. I wanted to look away but didn't—this was part of my responsibility. When the bird was still, I knelt next to her and put my gloved hand on top of her feathers. I always try to somehow commemorate the taking of a life, but I have yet to come up with the right words. The ones that move through my head are usually I'm sorry and, finally, thank you, and that's how my sort-of prayer went now. I looked up to see a cow in a nearby field, her big eyes watching. And I felt an overwhelming, almost sleepy sense of complete relief.