Untitled (2013), by Yola Monakhov Stockton. From The Nature of Imitation, published by Schilt
A Bird in Hand Is Worth Nothing to the Bird
By Chris Offutt
Though not inclined to the supernatural, I am willing to recognize the effects of luck on my life, both good and bad. As a result I have many talismans of good fortune: a rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe, an oak leaf from a 150-year-old tree, and hundreds of lucky rocks. I don’t know if they work, and I don’t really care. What matters is my belief, which instills in me a greater confidence on a daily basis. I want to ward off bad luck while beckoning good my way.
The most popular lucky food is my favorite cereal of Lucky Charms, introduced by General Mills the year I started first grade and began preparing my own breakfast. Lucky Charms were “magically delicious” because the “charms” were actually marshmallow candy. As a child, my culinary approach was simple—eat all the colored sugary charms, drink the sweetened milk, and give the soggy oats to my dog.
Lucky Charms were truly fortunate in a number of ways: kids got to consume candy in the morning, parents no longer needed to urge children to eat breakfast, and General Mills had a popular product. Most importantly, the machine that produced cat food could serve double-duty by stamping out cereal. Yep, that’s why the original Lucky Charms included miniature fish!
Not long ago, in a blessedly brief bout of nostalgia, I ate a bowl of Lucky Charms for breakfast. That evening I joined my Mississippi neighbors drinking beer around a bonfire fueled by downed trees. A few dogs milled about—Hank, Milly, Luanne, and The Punisher. Also in attendance was a young man named Hunter, who was, in fact, a terrific hunter. The fruits of technology allowed us to pass around cell phone photographs of each other with recently killed ducks, last fall’s deer, and the huge water moccasin I’d nearly stepped on a few weeks before. (I’d screamed a single cuss word and leaped backward six feet. My neighbor Asa killed it with a shovel.) Rural gentlemen enjoy making fun of each other, and my role is invariably to serve as the butt of these jokes. I’d already withstood a few comments about my inability to use a chainsaw, and had in turn pointed out that one man owed me seven dollars, a prorated charge for having cut my TV cable while digging a ditch. We all agreed that AT&T’s strategy of running cable across the surface of the earth had an inherent flaw.
The conversation shifted to exotic fare. One man related the story of an unsuccessful duck-hunting trip during which his buddy killed a nutria in frustration. Feeling bad for having done so, he ate it. Another man consumed coagulated goat’s blood while traveling in South America. Every one of us had eaten turtle, and a couple had tried alligator. My contribution was having eaten cow brains served with scrambled eggs at a diner in Montana. Hunter, the teenage hunter, said he ate everything he killed, and we soon drifted into a discussion of how much money we’d have to be paid to eat the most disgusting meals of all. I effectively “won” the verbal competition by claiming I’d try anything for a hundred dollars. Economic need always trumps a sophisticated palate.
By this time, dusk had begun to settle through the trees, and we added another log to the fire. True to his name, Hunter had very sharp vision, and he spotted one of the dogs proudly carrying what appeared to be a squirrel in its jaws. Hunter tracked down the dog and returned in awe; the dog had found a teal. The green-winged teal is a pretty bird, small and very fast, known as a “dabbling duck,” a phrase I find endearing. It’s my kind of bird—a dabbler, one who tinkers, the writer of the avian world.
We passed around the bird as we had the cell phones. Each of us examined it carefully—prodding and squeezing, even inhaling the scent. It was freshly dead without a mark on it. The feathers were intact. There was no blood or smell of decomposition. The dog must have discovered it nearby, but no one had heard a recent shot. Its presence was as much a mystery as how Luanne came to possess it.
By the light of his cell phone, Hunter opened his pocketknife, slit the bird’s chest, and found a single piece of shot. We dutifully passed it around, each man tipping the tiny pellet from his palm to the next man’s, ascertaining as a group that it was steel, not lead. It was the last day of duck season in Mississippi, and we decided that the bird had received a single piece of shot from the widest edge of the spreading pattern. The shot had lost velocity by the time it reached the bird, penetrating the skin but not passing fully into its body. Panicked, the teal flew wildly, slowly losing altitude and energy until it succumbed nearby, whereupon Luanne sustained a very lucky find.
Hunter had cut out the breasts, tiny pouches of meat, and these were passed for inspection. Teal is not farmed in the United States and has been illegal to sell since World War I. Hunting is the only way to get it. The meat of a teal is a delicacy, considered “rib-eye in the sky” due to its flavor, and there was some talk of eating it. After all, we already had a good fire under way and a bird had dropped out of the sky.
Asa went to his truck for a pair of needle-nose pliers to use as a cooking implement, and we watched as the twin teal breasts began to roast on a narrow log. The fire was very hot. Both breasts fell into the ashes, but someone pointed out that ash wouldn’t hurt you—the old-time Indians ate their food covered in ash. In my life I have spent thousands of hours among rural men in the South, the West, the Middle West, and even the Far North. We are resourceful, independent, and ready to laugh. But all it takes is one person to evoke Indian ways, and everybody listens carefully. Regardless of our country’s historically abhorrent treatment of native people, rural men hold them in very high regard. They knew how to live off the land, and many tribes had a deep spiritual relationship with animals and the earth. If the old-time Indians ate ashy meat, we could, too.
Soon a charred black chunk of fresh teal breast began making its way around the circle. Nobody really wanted to take a bite, but, more tellingly, no one wanted to refuse. This is another trait of rural men—our manliness must be tested and retested, especially in front of each other. I was fourth in line. I was trying to figure out a good excuse to pass but figured the meat would never get to me. My trepidation increased as first one man then another took a bite, and passed the pliers on. The guy in front of me refused, and I experienced a surge of joy and relief. However, he abruptly changed his mind, and my mood plummeted.
By the flickering firelight and a cell phone’s weak glow, I inspected the meat snared by pliers. I plucked a few tiny feathers. I chose the most blackened area, thin and near the edge of the meat, reasoning that it would be cooked the most and therefore more sanitary. I intended to pull off a tiny piece, as the others had done, but somehow a large chunk came away between my thumb and forefinger. With a brave face, while secretly wanting to weep like a baby, I put it in my mouth. The tender meat was shockingly good, even great! Despite the char, it was strong and gamy, the single most distinctive flavor I’ve ever experienced. I immediately wanted more, but the tiny morsel had made its way around the circle.
Shortly thereafter I excused myself to walk home, taking a shortcut through a narrow line of trees. I felt proud for having acquitted myself well—a Kentuckian at large in Mississippi. By the time I got home, however, I’d convinced myself that I’d committed a stupid error. The only rational explanation for the teal’s death was disease. I’d either vaccinated myself against bird flu, or I would soon die. My stomach was upset, and anxiety produced perspiration to such an extent that I feared a massive fever. I spent the rest of the evening treating my malady with the traditional rural remedy of bourbon.
I woke up cured, thinking perhaps I’d been lucky. The concept of luck occupied my thoughts as I walked a creek bordering the property. The duck hunter had been unlucky, and Luanne had been supremely lucky. I wondered if animals comprehended luck, or was it a human urge to draw meaning from coincidence? I remembered a cat who had lived next door to me ten years ago in a midsize city. It was born crippled, the back legs deformed. Daisy couldn’t run but managed to get around with a slow, inelegant hop. At first I felt sorry for her, but I soon realized she was the happiest cat I’d ever met. The neighbor girl doted on Daisy. Kids on their way home from school fed her. No dog or cat ever attacked her, as if recognizing an unfair fight.
Daisy hunted the front yard every day with no success. Over time I realized that the squirrels, rabbits, and birds were fully aware of her disability. In fact, they mostly ignored Daisy. They knew the limit of her effective range of attack—a few feet in an ungainly bound. Bold squirrels waited until she was very near before scampering away. Birds picked the yard a few feet from her. I thought perhaps this was mean-spirited, that they were teasing her, but there are no bullies in nature. The other animals knew precisely how close Daisy could get before she was a threat. Day after day she hunted, never giving up. I came to believe that the proximity of her intended prey encouraged her. No other cat could get that close to a rabbit in open land. Over the course of eighteen months, Daisy hunted several hours per day and never made a kill. I came to admire her vigilance and determination.
On a personal level, my time in this city was a difficult one in my life. I was separated and trying to be a single father, which primarily meant shopping, cooking, driving, cleaning, doing laundry, and teaching myself math to help with my sons’ homework. I gave them Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast, but none of us felt remotely lucky. My writing went poorly. It was a period of sorrow and despair, but I took heart from Daisy. She remained tenacious and committed. Although I never achieved Daisy’s consistent good cheer, I stayed focused and didn’t surrender. Being in the house alone while my sons were at school felt foreign and sad, and I decided to write in a notebook outside on a low beach chair.
Daisy was steadfast in her efforts, as relentless as ever. Each time her prey got away, she limped back to her observation post and began again. A few cars drove by, one of the drivers waving to the cat. A few minutes later an older car emitted a tremendous tailpipe backfire. Startled, I jerked my head up from my notebook. Even more startled, a bird quickly vacated the boughs of a bush and flew in a straight line directly away from the sound. It was literally a blur in the air, low to the ground, panicked. Its flight path ended in Daisy’s mouth.
I was surprised, but Daisy was absolutely shocked. She stood in her spot, leaning back on her crippled legs, while the bird struggled within her jaws, then went still. In my years of interacting with nature, I’d never witnessed such a remarkable sight. It was as if the cosmos was rewarding Daisy for her persistence. My policy is to never interfere with the activities of the natural world, so I merely sat and watched. Daisy didn’t move. Perhaps she was dumbfounded, or maybe she was enjoying her triumph.
I heard another vehicle but ignored it. A car door slammed. In my peripheral vision, I saw that the neighbor girl had come home.
“Hi, Mr. Offutt!” she said. “Hi, Daisy!”
The cat released the bird and began her slow graceless run to greet the child. The bird dropped to the ground and gyrated, flapping its wings, then flew to a tree. I watched it gather itself, as if double-checking for possible injury, then soar into the sky above the roof of the next house. The neighbor was squatting before Daisy, rubbing her head.
It had been a day of phenomenal luck, certainly the luckiest day of Daisy’s life. The bird had a brief period of bad luck trapped in a cat’s jaws but escaped intact. Despite my personal circumstances, I believe it was also one of my luckiest days—I’d beheld an incredible event, meaningful only to a cat and a bird, both obeying instinct. Perhaps all life was like that. Luck arrives suddenly in many forms. The way for me to bring it close is by never giving up, continuing to write, following the only instinct I’ve ever had.
The following recipe is from Easy Game Cooking, released in 1974 by EPM Publications. The book is short at 140 pages, and small, measuring 4 x 7 inches. The subtitle compensates for its size, and takes up most of the cover: “124 Savory, Home-tested, Money-saving Recipes and Menus for Game Birds and Animals.” The prose has an affable style, personal and intimate. The author, a West Virginia native, dedicates the book to her husband, Arthur, described as a “jovial hunting companion.” Of the many cookbooks for wild game in my burgeoning collection, I chose this one for a reason unrelated to quality, ease of use, or popularity. I picked it for the author’s name—Joan Cone. What luck to have a name that is a short poem!
In a brief introduction to the waterfowl section, Joan Cone quotes George Orwell: “‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ He wasn’t referring to waterfowl, but he should have been. When it comes to eating them, especially the various wild duck species, some are certainly much tastier than others.”
QUICK ROASTING METHOD
If you prefer to use a hot oven, here’s a cooking method you’ll want to try. All you do is place several orange slices within the empty body cavity of each duck. Put your ducks on a rack in a shallow pan and roast in a 400–475˚ F. oven. Baste ducks often and generously with melted butter and dry, red wine. You can substitute orange juice for the wine, if you prefer. Roast for 20–30 minutes and add salt and pepper to taste. Discard orange slices and serve with pan juices. One wild duck yields 2 servings.
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