A man from church, Dan Peebles, asks Saul and his father to join him and his son, Jimmy, for dove hunting. Any doves they kill will be dressed like miniature turkeys for the children. At least that’s what Dan says. He says it like Saul isn’t still a child, like Saul already knows the taste of dove.
They get up early and dress in camo and a smattering of hunter’s orange. Saul loves to shoot. The crack, the force, the impact on a distant target, the smell of a spent cartridge. But for all that, he’s never been hunting and the anticipation sets him thrumming. Maybe the first time he’s been excited about something, anything, since they moved to this little mountain town.
They meet Dan and Jimmy close enough to their house that they walk. Ice pops beneath their boots and the dirt road winds among pines and leafless trees Saul doesn’t recognize. Gray clouds drift far above the treetops, bulging with potential snow. The men have stainless steel thermoses filled with black coffee and they share with the soon-to-be middle-schoolers. Saul’s father never shares his morning coffee, and this gesture feels like an initiation, an invitation, even though it tastes terrible. Dan laughs at the face Saul makes, but not unkindly. Saul’s father hands Saul an empty backpack. He puts it on without asking what it is for, breathes deep the icy air.
Spread out in a rough line, they walk through the trees, no one getting too far ahead or too far behind. It is for safety, so no one gets shot, and knowing this adds another level of intensity for Saul.
Dan hits the first dove. It is more brown than Saul had imagined, picturing the white dove with an olive branch that returned to Noah. Now he wonders if maybe those pictures are incorrect. The bird lolls, bloody and beige, the color of fallen, wet leaves. Dan grabs it with a bare hand, and to Saul’s horror, unzips the backpack Saul is carrying and drops the dead thing in. He feels the weight of it on his lower back.
Their eyes are on him, so he doesn’t arch his back, but he suddenly feels hot despite the morning chill. Jimmy is the next to shoot but he misses and bits of bark spray away, leaving a tree trunk mottled, scarred. He swears and Dan slaps the back of his head. Saul can’t tell if it’s because he missed or for the curse words, maybe for both. Jimmy’s thin lips all but disappear and the next time he shoots he hits a dove so dead-on that thing that goes in the backpack is half missing, body torn with buckshot.
They walk on like that, shooting here and there and the backpack begins to fill. The occasional wing flutters against Saul’s back, a bird not quite dead, only stunned by the shot. Or that’s what he guesses. He has no idea if all of them are dead, and he feels bad for the silly birds and their insistence on living. He’s so distracted by the backpack he doesn’t shoot at anything. He knows the others are aware he hasn’t pulled the trigger and becomes certain they think less of him, a boy playing a grownup game.
Saul’s father takes down several birds and doesn’t speak of how Saul isn’t shooting, which Saul guesses is supposed to feel like a mercy, but in fact has the opposite effect, silence highlighting the situation.
They hunt for what seems like a very long time and the weight of the backpack grows with each step. Eventually they come to a break in the trees and arrive at a wide, shallow stream. The clouds have dropped down and the stream looks like a black ribbon laid across the land.
Saul’s father gestures for the backpack. You want to help clean them? he asks. You don’t have to. He doesn’t say the reason Saul doesn’t have to help is because he didn’t kill anything. He doesn’t need to.
Saul passes his father the backpack and walks a little way downstream. He spots a couple of small rainbow trout lightly swimming against the current in order to stay in the same position. There’s a splash several yards upstream, the fish dart off. Jimmy is there, throwing handfuls of pebbles into the water. He is scowling but stops when he notices Saul is looking. I fucking hate hunting, Jimmy says. Saul smiles in spite of it all. He doesn’t say anything but he does grab a handful of pebbles and he throws them in, the ripples disappearing in the current before they can spread.
Saul looks past Jimmy to where their fathers have laid out all the dead birds on a flat rock along the water. He can’t quite make out what they are doing except that they seem to be pulling bits off the birds and tossing them into the water. They float toward Saul slowly.
As the dove heads drift by, Saul wonders what kind of fish might eat them, what sort of strength of jaw and gut might be required to consume those heads and turn them into sustenance. But he guesses there is no such fish, at least not in this dark river, and the dove heads will most likely continue to bob along unblinking until their feathers can no longer wick away the water and they sink to the bottom like perfect stones.