IN NINETEEN FORTY we were living in Mound City, Illinois, because my daddy was building levees on the Mississippi River. He was chief engineer for the Louisville District of the Corps of Engineers and he loved piling dirt higher and higher and laying revetments and having big yellow tractors and tractor drivers at his command. On Sundays he would take my brother and me out to look at the tractors and let us sit on them and touch the wheels and gear shifts and marvel at the huge tracks they left in the red dirt. It was different from the black mud of the Mississippi Delta where we were from. It was dense red clay, stained with iron, and it made a perfect medium to pile up and pack down, as the Mound Builders had proved a thousand years before. Several times Daddy had taken us to see Indian mounds and let us climb on them and pretend we were Indians and think about what it must have been like to live on dirt mounds when the water rose and covered the land.
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. There were some sparrows picking at stalks in the field but that's about all the wildlife we saw.
When we got to the gate Mr. McGehee was just pulling up with two of his grandchildren but they were big boys Dudley's age so Daddy let me stay in the truck and take a nap. An old black man who worked for the McGehees had come along to oversee the hunting dogs and he said he'd stay and watch me because his rheumatism was bothering him and he didn't want to be out in the cold. He climbed in the front of the McGehees' truck and I climbed in the front of ours.
The rest of them marched off to the fields. Daddy and Mr. McGehee and Dudley and the two McGehee boys and two thin brown-and-white dogs running in front of them and smelling for quail. I didn't care if they left me. I'd had plenty of hunting for one day. As soon as they were out of sight I got a meatloaf sandwich out of the shoe box and took off the waxed paper and sat behind the steering wheel eating it. I was a pretty strong little girl. I was sure of that. I did everything there was to do. I rollerskated and ice-skated and rode a bicycle and rode a quarter horse with a western saddle and wrote letters to my grandmother in Mississippi who liked me as much as she liked Dudley and sent me lamb cakes on my birthdays.
I fell asleep with my sandwich half eaten across my chest and slept until the sun was shining in the windshield of the truck. When I woke up I started thinking up a letter to write to my grandmother telling her everything that had been going on. This is the letter I wrote.
Dear Dan Dan, I went hunting and shot a crow but it flew away. I don't know if I wounded it or not. When I come down there this summer we can go in Aunt Roberta's closet and get out her Effanbee doll and I will play with it. I miss you. Your loving granddaughter and namesake. Rhoda Katherine Manning.
P.S. It's getting cold here and we are waiting for snow so we can have some winter sports.
About the time I finished thinking up my letter I started wanting to go to the bathroom and of course there are no bathrooms where you go hunting so I got out of the truck and walked over behind a tree and looked around to make sure there wasn't any poison ivy or any ants nearby. Then I took off my second sweater and pulled down my pants and peed on the ground. It was very pleasant to watch the pee make a little river running down the tree roots and running off to make tributaries. Dudley and I knew all about river systems and tributaries. We had a map of the Mississippi River system on our bedroom wall that was made by the National Geographic Society. Only people who worked for the Corps of Engineers ever got to have one that fine or understand how rivers are upon the earth.
A couple of ants showed up on the banks of my river so I hurried to pull up my pants and button them and shook out my sweater before I put it back on. Then I got some dirt clods to throw on the ants. I was just finishing off the second one when I heard the hunters' voices in the distance. I walked back over to the fence to watch them coming in.
"What did y'all shoot?" I called out. "Three quail," Dudley calls back. "Three big ones." The McGehees got their lunch out of their truck and we got ours and we made a table on the back of our truck and everyone shared their food. I sat up on the truck bed on a tire and finished off my sandwich and told Mr. McGehee all about what I had been doing.
"These are fine children, Dudley," he said to my daddy. "No wonder you're proud of them."
"She's a rough cob but she's learning how to ride this year real good. She'll ride any horse you show her." He reached up in the truck and patted me on the head. It was as close as he came to showing affection and I was basking in it. "She almost shot us right before you showed up. We let her get behind us with the BB gun and she put in the magazine and shot at a crow on a tree." Mr. McGehee and Daddy started laughing. The more they laughed the harder they laughed.
"It wasn't funny," Dudley said. "It wasn't funny at all." "Calvin almost shot me once when he was six or seven," Mr. McGehee said. "He didn't know it was loaded." "You got to keep them loaded," Daddy said. He stood back and put his hands in his back pockets and started in. "I keep every gun in the house loaded and they have signs on them that say, Loaded Gun. That way no one makes any mistakes about them."
"Who shot the quail?" I ask. "Calvin shot one and Mr. McGehee shot the other two," Dudley answered. "I got a shot but I missed." "We want you all to take the birds home," Mr. McGehee said. "Go on. We get plenty of them. You think your wife knows how to clean them?"
"We got a woman who can do it." About that time the old man in the McGehees' truck woke up and got out of the cab and came over and talked to us and ate some of the lunch plus the cornbread he had with him. It was pleasant sitting on the bed of the truck with the low clouds covering half the sky and the sweet smell of the land and river all around us. Daddy and Mr. McGehee talked about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and what a good job he was doing in Washington and how many tractors he had sent to the levee jobs and then they talked about President Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders and Mr. McGehee told Daddy about some cutting horses he could buy and not to get me a pony because ponies are too mean but just to keep me on a quarter horse until I got finished learning. Then Daddy told him all about his grandmother who rode to hounds sidesaddle and then they said some things about women and then Mr. McGehee said they had to be getting on and he hoped we enjoyed the quail.
We waited until the McGehees got in their truck and started it up and then we got into ours and started home. Daddy put me in the middle with my legs stretched out beside his long one and the cold, hard feel of his vest beside my face. Everything about my daddy was hard and strong, and his voice was as strong and beautiful as a river. When he started talking anyone would listen because no matter what he was saying somewhere in his voice was laughing, somehow he was always bringing it down to earth, making sense of it, telling you where you were. A long time later, when I knew he wasn't always going to be alive, I saved some tapes from my telephone answering machine so I would have the sound of his voice forever. It's been a long time since he died but I have never looked for the tapes. I don't need them. The sound of his voice is part of my mind forever. Just because he isn't here to say it doesn't mean it's gone.
We rode along home in the truck with the November sun getting lower in the sky and Dudley napping with his head propped on the window and after a while Daddy started in telling me about the land around us and how the middle part of the United States where we were living was called the stable interior craton and that it was the hard, strong part of the United States and all the other parts of our country depended on it for food and for good people who worked hard and took care of their families, plus we had the river which could take us all the way to New Orleans and out to sea or up to Minnesota where strong people from Germany and Norway and Sweden lived in the snow and went ice-skating every afternoon when they got through work and school. "I went up there once when I was playing ball," he told me. "But it was summer and I only got to see the places where they do it, because the ice was mostly melted. They make some cheeses up there that will melt in your mouth, Sweet Sister."
That's about all that happened on our hunting trip except we drove on home and showed Momma the quail and then we sat out on the back porch in the cold and cleaned them and tried to pick all the buckshot out of them and Momma cooked them and we had them for supper with some grits and biscuits and a nice new pot of butter our neighbor had brought over for a present. Then they bathed us and washed our hair and dried it and put on our flannel pajamas Momma had made us on the sewing machine and put us in our beds and turned off the lights and made us go to sleep. I never did like to sleep back then. There was so much going on I didn't want to miss it for a minute.
I wouldn't want to miss this opportunity to tell you what it's like to go hunting with a man who would kill or die for you. A strong man that other men seek out and love. It's a gift for a girl to have that kind of father and it's also a curse. It's a gift because you have a safe and fortunate childhood and can grow up strong and unafraid. It's a curse because you cannot reproduce it in the adult world. No man can be that wonderful ever again because only a child's mind can really comprehend wonder.
My daddy's dead now, buried in the ground in Rankin County, Mississippi, and I never even go and visit his grave. He wanted people to come visit his grave and expected that they would so I guess I'm still not doing what he told me to do. But I am mourning him.
The other day I found a letter he wrote me. It was in answer to my asking him to write down things about all the rivers he had known. He sent me back a list of the rivers and their characteristics and where they rose and where they ended. Then the letter said:
Now if we could only get you to stop thinking you know everything about the world and its background and history. It would do you good to listen just a little bit to someone who does definitely know and then pick up any additional knowledge you think good for you. You need to learn more about the major things of life. You seem real interested sometimes in the little things I know about, like rivers, but please be interested in a few of the big things I now know or at least listen when I try to tell you things that will be invaluable in the long run for you and your loved ones.
Then he got off on talking about why eating too much meat is bad for your health and where to order macrobiotic food and why the Department of Education is the worst thing that ever happened to the United States.
Excerpted from I, RHODA MANNING, GO HUNTING WITH MY DADDY © Copyright 2002 by Ellen Gilchrist. Reprinted with permission by Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.
I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting With My Daddy
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Little, Brown
- ISBN-10: 0316173584
- ISBN-13: 9780316173582