I spent the night at the deer camp alone. The fire in the old woodstove was my only company. I’d had an early dinner and gone to bed at 8:00, early even for a 53 year old. But tomorrow would be the Opening Day of turkey season in the Green Mountain state and I had made an appointment with a big ridge-running tom up in the saddle during last deer season. I had a vision of how the next morning would unfold and wanted to get an early start for the long hike up into the beech and oak stand at the end of the worn logging trail.
The alarm rang moments after I put my head on the pillow and had covered myself up in a Hudson’s Bay blanket I had been given for my 16th birthday. At first I was groggy but quickly the image of the big tom snapped me to attention. My bare feet hit the cold plywood floor. The oil lamp in the corner glows a soft gold against the hemlock paneling of the camp’s walls. I stumbled to the stove and the propane burner made a whoosh sound when the blue flame magically appeared. Within minutes the old blue enamel percolator was gurgling and popping bubbles into the glass dome on its top. I filled my thermos with the pungent coffee, packed a granola bar and a container of water into my pack, and strolled out the door to meet the promise of dawn.
Peepers were singing in the backwash of a small pool created by the brook that flows by the deck. I began the long hike up the trail. It took several minutes for me to find the rhythm of my lungs inhaling the cool night air and my exhaling breath. I was definitely not the young man I once was. “But I do still have the drive to pursue the quarry of my dreams” I muttered out loud. Before long I found my stride and the cadence of my footsteps became melodic. The waning half moon shone through the trees and I pictured the big tom silhouetted against the sky, cast in moonlight and sleeping in his pine roost with one eye open.
As I neared the area where I had seen him last fall I slowed my pace and tried to breathe only through my nostrils to calm myself down. As I entered the back door of the old tom’s house, I crept silently into the kitchen, awash with luminescent trilliums blanketing the floor. In the moonlight I could distinguish the triangular shaped scratches of the flock that had fed earlier, before flying up into their roost for the night. My heart thumped in my chest. I prayed that my stealth would not be broken by an errant satellite bird on the outskirts of the feeding area. With great caution, I set out my jake and hen decoy in the trillium patch right on top of a big scrape with acorns littering the ground. The smell of wild leeks, called ramps in colloquial terminology, was permeating the night air.
I gathered my vest together and sat at the base of a large oak tree that provided a hammock-style root system offering me natural armrests. I used my pruners to clip some small hackberry bushes and pushed the pointed end of the branches in the moist earth at my feet. I leaned back against the tree and looked at my watch. It blinked 4:12. I had covered the distance to the spot in less than the 45 minutes I had allotted. Sweat ran down my neck and trickled down my back, tickling me as it cooled. I would not itch. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the woods.
I could hear the stream in the distance, gurgling down the ravines cut into the hillside. I heard a barred owl and my ears perked up for the response. Before the owl finished his “who cooks for you” song, a deep guttural sound penetrated the pre-dawn. The Big Bird had been awakened by this predator of the night and voiced his discomfort with a reverberating shock gobble. It sounded as if he was about 100 yards away.
“Perfect!” I thought. I didn’t get busted sneaking in. As dawn crept its way into the dark blue and purple horizon of the hillside to my east, I waited. Would he speak again? 15 minutes later I was beginning to get discouraged and started to think that maybe he flew down and walked away from me, up into the hillside on the opposite bank. No sound. Nothing.
Finally, half hour before sunrise I begin to hear timid hens purring on the roost. Still no response from the big tom. Pulling out a half-wing that I had salted from my bird last year, I beat it against my thigh, increasing the tempo rapidly to make it sound like a bird coming out of his tree. I thought fondly of my friend, Matt Norris, of Starksboro, who taught me this trick about a decade ago. After the wing beating I do another, this time with a fly-down cackle in syncopation with the tempo of the wing. I do a few gentle putts as my phantom hen hits the ground.
I lose my breath at the response. A thunderous gobble rings through the hills, obviously pointed in the direction of my ghost bird. I imagine that His Majesty is very upset that he had counted his entire harem of hens and knew where each of them were, and when he heard this one fly down, it was not one of which he had been aware. Perhaps, overnight, he had acquired yet another concubine and has not yet been properly introduced. I putt a few more times and he roars back his response. Who are you that have come into my kingdom unannounced?
Within minutes I hear the wing beats of several birds coming off the roost, one of which, I imagine is the King himself. Everything goes quiet.
Fifteen minutes pass and it feels like time is standing still. Knowing that silence, at this point in the game, is the most powerful indicator of a bird on his way, I raise my old Benelli Super Black Eagle to my shoulder and lean the forearm on my knee. My mask covers my face but I can see clearly through the eye and nose opening. I practice breathing through my nose, taking each breath with intent and purpose, inhaling deeply into my lungs. The smell of acrid onions permeates my nose. About fifty yards away I catch movement. Just a black shadow between brush.
Five minutes later, from behind a single beech tree I see a red and blue head peak out. He is now thirty yards away. Behind the cover of the beech he spits and drums the ground with his powerful wings. I can hear the leaves being tossed out from underneath his scaled legs. Five more minutes pass and I inhale a breath that sears my lungs with adrenalin. He steps up on the top of a fallen tree and throws himself into a full fan presentation to this mysterious mistress of spring.
His beard hangs in a thick braid of rope from his chest and touches the moss on the fallen tree between his feet. I draw my bead on the base of his neck and wait for him to stretch out again. It seems he is going to spot me any minute. Finally, he lifts his head in regal disdain for this hen that will not show herself. I whisper to myself “Here I am!” and pull the trigger.
I do not remember hearing the report from the 12 gauge 3 ½” shell, but I see him drop and know that my shot has found its mark. I rush to his side and as the green fire fades from his eyes, I pray.
“Great Spirit, whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me. I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty. Make my eyes behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things that you have made. Make me wise that I may understand that things that you have taught my people. Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes, so that when life fades as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.”
I am in rapture with the universe. The walk back to the camp seems strangely easy. I feel the weight of the big tom on my back as I carry his legs strapped together by an antler and leather lanyard made by a friend from long ago.
The passage of time washes over us all and for moments we are blissfully aware of its salutary nature. A chain of memories binds us all to the present and eventually, when that chain is full of cherished moments like these, it is time to go.
The red and purple sun sets over the mountain and I embrace all that I have known. I drift to sleep in my reclining chair in front of the woodstove, with firelight dancing on the hemlock walls.