Grandma Grouse

by Kendrick Chittock

I lifted up my twelve gauge into some kind of a ready position and crept into the woods. I could make out Eric’s blaze orange on the other side of the thick cover to my left. Beyond him, walking along the narrow dirt road flashed the orange of a third hunter’s cap. Eric yipped a note in the opposite direction and the orange hat responded in kind. It was easier having a hunter on the road that edged the property. No way to get lost, easy boundaries to follow.

The thick-set pines before us were an hour behind in the morning light. As if it could get any more difficult, it made catching a partridge with my eyes as challenging as taking one with an explosion of shot. We moved into the thickness. And then a flurry. Bird to the right, bird in front. A shot from my gun. A shot from Eric. Nothing from the road.

Partridge hunting is a surprise two seconds of chaos. If it takes three seconds, the bird is halfway to the next block of woods. We found Eric’s bird and knew there was no need to look for mine. Picking up those first feathers in the morning meant we’d add to the freezer. Eric yipped at the road. A distinct holler came back in a whooping noise and the woods were quiet again.

The hunt treated us well and we admired our harvest at the vehicles. I managed somewhere amongst my flailing around with a firearm to get a bird whose color matched my lightly rusted hair. Eric held up a gray phase with a beautiful spread. It was a special location to get both types of birds.

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We glanced up the road to see our third hunter making her way out. She clutched her shotgun in both arms like a life raft and her orange cap was big enough to cover the top half of her ears and hide her short cropped, white hair. Her vest draped over her small shoulders like a cape, a throwback to a time when they didn’t make women’s sized hunting clothes. It had been ten years since Grandma Troy last fired her shotgun. After the morning hunt on her land, it was approaching eleven.

No one in the Troy family was exactly sure of the last time she let loose a cartridge from the barrel of her twenty gauge, but they all seemed relieved that she made the mature decision to stop shooting. Every so often she would yell from the road about a bird and every so often one of those yells would actually turn into a fleeing partridge dodging sticks and branches along its unfortunately chosen route along the hunting line. She knew the partridge were there but I wasn’t sure if she could actually see them.

Grandma insisted we take a photo in front of an old hunting shed on the edge of the woods. I had been seeing that shed for years in a photo at the Troy’s house but it wasn’t until I stepped into the same photo did I realize the location. Grandma stood between us, her head reaching somewhere between our waist and chest, almost even with the partridge we held out in front. The wood on the shed was beaten by winters and wind, sun and ice. A pair of porous moose antlers held on beneath the eave for whatever life they had left. The shed was probably the same age as Grandma. The two were as much a part of the place as they were distinct. If the shed could count, it would make an endless tally of the pictures in which it appeared with Grandma.

Our hunting grounds were not our normal public lands. On this trip we hunted private land based solely on the relationships Grandma had forged in her time in the towns and woods of Canada. I was without a doubt a visitor, a one-time user of the woods and in some sense, the people. Eric and his family were familiar friends. Grandma was a legitimate member of the community.

We followed Grandma’s guidance to our next location and got ourselves well lost. Eric and I mistakenly thought for a moment that we were the community, that we knew the land. That we knew the partridge. Our compasses worked but not our sense of direction. We found ourselves in a weird forest, twisted and small, boggy and wet. No type of place for birds.

When we made it back to the cottage Grandma laughed at us. She knew of the woods, but not the landowner. By her account, both were strange. It was a foreign place to us, no relationship to connect us, teach us. Tired and ready for food we loaded the wood burning stove to keep the cottage warm for the night. Eric’s parents breaded partridge breast meat and set it on a cast iron pan to cook in oil. We plucked out pieces with our hands when Grandma wasn’t looking.

We were set to hunt two locations the following day. Both were recommended by Grandma. We stopped by the home of the first landowner, a man named Jared. He was jovial and as pleased with himself as anything. He tucked in a collared plaid shirt to his blue jeans and his worn leather boots were untied, he slipped them on just to say hi. If it wasn’t for his respect for Grandma Troy, he seemed like the type that would make a deal for anything. It was probably why he was so well connected. Despite his eccentric business ideas, Jared was central to the land, to the community. He sat on council, he owned part of what passed for a mountain in that part of the world. He amassed wealth through any number of odd jobs and above all, he had his health.

His land differed only in the bounty, not the success. Birds huddled beneath haw trees and fed fat on ground pine. They posted high up on warm boulders before taking flight from our fire. We crept silently through the regrowth of timbered forests and hugged the edges of old logging roads. Grandma was as lively as any of us through this section. Her whoops and calls reminded us of her location and her scolding of our taking the odd timberdoodle had us leaving a few in our vests when it came time to take a photo. Grandma wouldn’t eat those little critters. So far as she was concerned, nobody should shoot the ugly things.

When we changed our cover to try to force up a few more of the long-beaked birds we could hear her hollering to us. She knew where they were and she knew when we moved our focus from the partridge. We came to the end of our push through the woods and an errant flush headed directly toward Grandma and her twenty gauge. Eric yelled in her direction. We waited, we listened. No shot. We were half relieved, half disappointed. Her view along the old logging road would have given her quite the swing time, but she informed us it wasn’t her shot. We weren’t sure what was.

It was our most successful hunt and with no hunting shed to pose in front of, we used the obligatory tailgate. We snapped a few with Grandma and when she sidled her way into the seat of the truck, we took out the timberdoodle and took an extra picture. She made it known she could still see us.

We didn’t expect to meet the owner of the next piece of land. Estranged from his more affluent brother whom we met in the morning, but nonetheless a stalwart historical figure in the community, James was battling cancer. His modest home sat opposite the block of woods we would hunt, but the house sat empty for much of the year. It was an hour and a half drive to get chemo treatments in town and a friend had put him up in a nearby hotel. Despite whatever Jared and James had decided was enough to keep them apart, Jared used every ounce of his local political clout to be sure James’ driveway and road was the first one plowed whether he was home or not. The house consistently looked clean and kempt but often entirely empty.

Grandma looked tired as we set off opposite of James’ home and she sat against the truck with her old shotgun and bade us go ahead. We scoured the old set of woods that Grandma remembered as being a prime location, but after several hours and only one flush, I wondered how long ago it was when she first had the memory. The woods were too old, now, the trees too tall and the forest floor too clear. Or was it just because Grandma didn’t come with us? The woods didn’t know Eric and me. Maybe that made a difference.

We found Grandma walking near the truck, back to her happy self. While we unstrapped our vests and lay down our guns a truck pulled into the gate about half a mile away. Grandma couldn’t believe it. It was James. Must have been straight from chemo.

James pulled forward and poked his clean shaven round face out of the window. When he saw Grandma the joy could have beat back his cancer. His smile was young but he had aged ten years in the last two. He used Grandma’s first name and said yes ma’am and when he asked how the hunting was she told him it was one of the best years she’d ever seen. She left out the part about his property growing up. That it was too old and uninterested in the partridge. James relayed his last six months to Grandma and we stood back and listened. His desire to get away from the hospital made our one flush seem like pure joy. James hadn’t fired his gun in two years. Cancer didn’t make for a good hunting partner. The dust followed as he drove away, back to the city and the chemo.

The wood burning stove boiled my dreams that night. My warm blood forced me to drag the small mattress on which I slept onto a porch of the same size. I awoke with the water and wiped the sprinkles of rain from the only part of my face I couldn’t bury under the blankets. It would be ducks in the morning, not partridge. But I could do ducks at home. The partridge long left the land from where I came. Too many people that forgot about them, too many people passing on the hunt, not taking the shot. So the birds left. Good thing Grandma still knew where to find them.

Eric and Mr. Troy were up early for waterfowl, but Grandma and Mrs. Troy didn’t bother with duck hunting. All that sitting around and setting up, making ridiculous noises. Waste of damned time. They were going after birds and I was going with them. I readied my gear and set my shotgun down next to Grandma’s and recognized that they were the same model. Maybe a few years off but my first gun was likely the twin of her last gun. A different gauge, a different age, but the same gun. The sealant on my stock nearly matched hers but lacked the character of a lifetime. It was all she ever needed to get those partridge. I put both in the back of her SUV hoping mine would soak up some local knowledge and lamented that she wouldn’t be taking any more shots from her firearm. Guns were made to be shot, not stored or hung up pretty in a cabinet.

The three of us hunted a sloping trail that led upward into rocky hills and thick pines. We were on a piece of Grandma’s land and she knew it well. The rain from the early morning cleared for us and birds popped in and out of the trail to get grit before bombing into the bottoms. I picked up one bird that Mrs. Troy flushed my way and stowed it in my vest. It was my vindication for not duck hunting. Grandma took the opposite path down the mountain, she knew of some haw trees there. Mrs. Troy broke off from our hunt when the rain started coming down thick enough she couldn’t hunt the trail. She needed to meet Grandma back at the car. I moved on slowly, through the leaf littered slopes and beneath the thick cover. The flushes were few on my solo hunt but I wasn’t surprised. After all, I was new here.

It was wet and slippery as I started my way down the mountain as the rain subsided. I wiped off my gun as best I could in case birds wanted to warm under the now deliberate sun. Somewhere to my right, way down the mountain, I heard the echo of a shotgun blast. Mrs. Troy letting one have it, to be sure. I crept on, looking, listening. The two trails converged then, three ages of awareness beneath the sun. I looked to Mrs. Troy to verify her shot. But it was Grandma that smiled and held up an empty shell.

I asked where she was aiming. Partridge, of course.


Kendrick Chittock