I strained my neck, searching the air past his New York necessary backtag, over his shaved head and outstretched finger. I gasped as a wild turkey deflated before my eyes. Half his previous size, the turkey looked puny, no longer the width of the forest itself. He knew these woods, that I could see, for when his bulging eyes swept in our direction, he ran off, a flurry of white, brown, blue, red—an impressionist painting where a tom once stood.
There are many reasons beyond the condition described above that I have yet to down one of the massive birds. In North Carolina, we hunted an area so full of gobblers, I could barely think over their racket. Unfortunately, a silent percussion section had taken over at that time, the small bangs and scurries of a thousand chiggers and the lime disease carrying white spotted ones, an army of a million little jerks who ruined our hunt and our evening as we dug out ticks embedded in the backs of our knees.
My second North Carolina season was promising for I had hunted hard. The men had pointed impressively in the direction of a very talkative gobbler. I had faithfully carried my shooting sticks, although I wasn’t entirely sure how to use them. In awe I sat and listened to Mike transform into the most scantily clad hen of the night, calling to every one of her suitors with a purr that meant down and dirty business.
But no turkey came, nothing, in retrospect, really happened. My illness crept up in a swell of burning anger. Hadn’t I hunted hard? Hadn’t I done enough to deserve this?
Apparently I hadn’t. So I ate turkey tag soup, a flavor I came to disturbingly enjoy with a sort of feverish self-loathing.
I got my first glimpse of a real turkey herd in North Dakota during my first deer season here. Each time I climbed up into our preciously leaning stand, my vision would slip past the next rung to the adjoining field where, on average, at least 100 turkeys would be milling about, inflating like car tires, showing off their best feathers to the unimpressed hens.
While waiting for the venison to arrive on the conveyor belt down below, I began playing a game called, “101 Ways the 101 Turkeys will be Cooked for Strutting about in Such a Manner Outside of Season”. Wild turkey and rice. Fried turkey. Stuffed turkey. Grilled turkey with homemade mashed potatoes. Oh him? He’d be a perfect appetizer...
That spring, I added a dash of salt to the soup. I figured it symbolic, the rubbing of sodium into the wound, a wild-turkey-free stomach.
The illness’ zenith peaked in Texas. The tale has been told but the symptoms unrecalled. I shook so badly upon seeing my first rio, my guide whispered, “She’s gonna have a heart attack!” Strangely, its symptoms began to change. When I began hunting, I’d get so excited, so nervous, so overwhelmed, I’d feel myself turn into a Jell-O mold atop a speeding car’s dashboard, wiggling and jiggling with each emotional curve.
However, this time, I could have sworn I wasn’t moving.
In my mind, I was a statue. I was Artemis, goddess of the hunt, swathed in granite, formed via chisel, awaiting a marble stag. In reality, I wasn’t. The GoPro atop my trembling dome was swaying so violently it appeared perched atop a crab boat in every episode of Deadliest Catch. My labored breathing, as caught on camera, sounded as if I was practicing Lamaze for an International Fake Labor Competition. In an instant, I turned from confident huntress into shaken lime Jell-O mold splattered upon a Cadillac floor.
These tags I saved for a special soup made from my own tears and box after box of powdered Jell-O mix. I didn’t even make the stupid Jell-O, I just let it sit there, half-congealed, half liquid; myself, half-huntress, half-earthquake.
This year, against my better judgment, I put in for another set of delectable turkey tags. These were yellow so even before season began, I envisioned some sort of soup concocted of gourds, leaves, and crushed up dreams.
Morning broke on opening day, finding me in bed, much happier to sleep off my Anniversary food coma from the night previous than suit up to endure the miserable snow/sleet/fire rain falling outside. However, I knew I couldn’t sleep, the dragon inside me causing my heart to pound at the mere thought of hunting.
The yard, as promised, was full of turkeys that also made their leave in a flurry of colors, the flapping of wings. The landowner gave us permission to kill as many of the damn things we wanted because he didn’t want to replace another damn roof because of the damn birds. He mentioned he was thinking about doing a damn tin roof. He looked at his house then, as if picturing the joyous sight of hundreds of damn turkeys sliding down, smacking their damn preserve-filled heads upon the damn ground.
I watched this exchange take place but I couldn’t shake the bird from the trees. As if reading my mind, Dennis asked if I’d like to go and see if he was hanging around. I did.
My heart didn’t pound and I was breathing like a normal person who does not get easily excited looking a turkey. I stealthy maneuvered around the derelict barn, making myself invisible against the trees. Waylon, who had followed behind me, said, “Take him…”
“I can’t see him,” I whispered.
“Behind that tree…he can’t see us…” his voice dropped off as I rounded the tree.
There he stood, munching away happily, content, assuming he had dodged his foes. As soon as my eyes connected with his shadowed form, the illness roared like a chained dragon, shooting fire through my veins, singeing my nerves and pounding on my gong of a heart. Somehow, my Vinci lifted, aimed and went, as did the bird.
Stumbling from the woods, turkey in hand, my brain immediately told my body to find my husband. I collapsed into him and found myself laughing, crying, and speaking in strange tongues. After all that work, all that hardship, it came down to a five-minute walk through a patch of woods to allow me to finally lay claim to my first bird.
The last tides of “Over Zealous Huntressitis” bubbled then as I struggled to avoid cutting my fingers off, shaking once more with the realization that after six years, there would be no soup to make or paintings to remember, no questions of if I had worked hard enough. I had worked hard enough and wanted it so as excited as I was, I was sad too because that moment when the six-year long hunt finally ended, finally ceased its barrage on my psyche, it was done, as if it had never really been, a flash of white, brown, blue, red.