FORTHWITH − LAMENT: TO ATTEMPT A MEDITATION ON GUNS
Violence seems snug over time. And I can’t say how much depends on GUNS.
In what he called “the old days,” my father would hunt lizards. His grandpa Manly, my
greatgrandfather, would make arrows from reeds out in the reedmash. My father would drive a
nail or steel spike into the end of the arrow and stick it with gum he got off a pine tree. He’d
twine all that, and then take a Dominecker Chicken’s feathers and wing the arrows. He made the
bow from scalybark hickory. Gray lizards would run the rails and he would hunt them. He
called the streaked lizards “racehorses”, they filled the hedges. He said cats cleaned them out
of this country. Those blue-tailed scorpions – cats got them too.
Guns meant “hunting,” when I was growing up. The old people worried more about a cat
doubling up in the dirt (this was before lawns) than a gun going off.
There is a stanza in Leon Payne’s song, “The Selfishness in Man”:
“Little children painting pictures of the birds and apple trees –
Oh, why can’t the grown-up people have the faith of one of these?
And to think those tiny fingers might become a killer’s hand!
Oh, there’s nothing that stands out more than the selfishness in man.”
I think about how I grew up, following the hunters, becoming one myself, my Uncle Reuben
(he married my father’s sister Mary) lending me $16.00 to buy a full-choke, 12-gauge Iver
Johnson at Farmer’s Hardware in Smithfield, North Carolina. Uncle Reuben knew I was ready to
hunt with the men and my father did too.
I learned as the years went along that killing anything was not my thing and that I went
along to be part of The Story; yet I always took pride in my Iver Johnson. Maybe it represented
and still does, a big part of my childhood.
I don’t know. Hunters enjoyed having me around. On dove-hunts they would let me shoot
their Browning Automatics. My single barrel was my way. And I learned that I would much
rather be alone, sitting on the ridge of just-cut tobacco stalks. I even felt comfortable in my way,
since I knew I was the only “hunter” who might have eaten squirrel-brains or pickled pigs-feet or
barbecued possum or the soft feet of pullets my mother stewed for me to eat, because I was the
“baby” in the family, my older brothers and sister and parents having first takes on the meaty
I don’t know. It’s just as though Leon, the ex-marine (this really happened) stops his
“Dove Wagon” – that long hearse-like Pontiac – one more time and I really do see the four
plastic doves wired to the rack on top. He asks me, “Beer-stop – want one?” It’s Saturday
afternoon, hot in September’s throes − and I am invited to join the hunt, what with Uncle John
asleep on his upturned bucket in the ironweeds in this ten-acre field surrounded by hunters, some
of them with radios tuned to the football game in Chapel Hill. Leon (in charge of the
“Beer-wagon,” too) makes his rounds.
The dentist has already killed a pigeon − this after he put his first-killed dove in a sack
stamped Southern Pines Dove Club − and he places the bag on the ground next to a cornstalk
and there is a rattle and that bird gets its second wind and flies off into the blue, the paper-sack
thrashing to remove itself.
Uncle John wakes up.
“Shot any today, Uncle John?”
“Yeah, I crippled one up pretty bad. Running him down I was losing weight
and that bird was gaining strength − took me four chocolate bars to get back here to my seat.”
The ex-marine has already put me in my place. Wearing an orange shirt, I appeared
in the A & P parking lot to go on the hunt. “I see we got a deer-hunter with us today! Don’t
make any low shots and don’t shoot any more pigeons.”
That was the day Harold Brady packed with home-made shot my single-barrel Iver
Johnson squirrel gun and stationed me among the sunflowers (a baited field). He got where he
could see me shoot, the stock of my gun flying off and my left shoulder turning bluer every time
I cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger. I stayed awake, thoroughly, never letting on I knew.
Eating dove’s another thing. Seems like they taste better when you don’t go with The
Club − about twenty men − the latest weapons in their arms, plus, attire perfect for an ad in
Could my mama Maytle evermore fry dove! That’s my preference. Smothered in a wine-
sauce they smell like the inside of a paratrooper’s boot. To think what muscles fly as beaks coo.
O mourning dove! Are you a gentle love? Hovering around the house, do you presage death?
A dove can dive with the conciseness of the purple martin. Maybe not as fast. Some of
the old-people used to say “Turkle-dove.” Oh to symbolize such harmlessness and innocence
and to be hunted and shot for the table! To be so well-contented as the dove!
Check this sauce it will lie in:
¼ lb dried prunes
1 onion (sliced)
1 bay leaf
6 pepper corns
½ pint (1 ¼ cups) red wine
4 onions (quartered)
2 ½ tbs flour
1 pint chicken broth
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
Tbs red currant-jelly (optional)
Some Kitchen Bouquet (for browning)
Rosemary, basil, oregano
Put doves in pan: boil; let cool
Marinate: put all this in fridge overnight
Put oil, butter, and doves in pan
Fry quickly to brown.
Remove doves: add onions
Finish frying: put doves in sauce
Cover for 25 minutes
Add some chicken stock
Have you noticed the doves the second day of Dove Season? They fly higher − like
smoking sun-streakers. They know what it’s like to be shot at.
I feed them now. I want to say this again: my 12-gauge’s in the corner of my closet.
I primed sandlugs (tobacco) to pay back that $16.00 loan from Uncle Reuben to buy that gun.
Even at sixteen, I could feel the atmosphere in my blood, as if it were always hunting
season, right there in that hardware store – men’s chairs, the sacks of seeds. I had been in there
before; so I knew the regulars. They would shift their matchsticks. I knew the conversation
would be about loss and ambiguity, crops and guns, too, divorce or wars, and some untouched
area memory fails to get ready for answers.
I can still feel the wind flapping the sign outside Farmer’s Hardware. Maybe that is the
answer I keep looking for – among the rivets, the squeaks, tools, laughter.
Come to think of it, I thought all the men I knew were hunters. Refrain: my father’s
gun is a 12-gauge hammerless Fox Sterlingworth. It’s leaning in the same corner of my closet.
His voice starts a story of wild turkeys he shot – oh those stories he told – how he never got shot
himself, a miracle, he said – I picked many a shot out of the back of my coat.
In memory I am troubled by the warm blood lightening the carcasses of dead animals, fur
and feather bending, where my hand touches hides stiffening – pulling over the eyes.
I love to see the doves relax around my feeders.
And I cannot forget Leon Payne’s words. They give a context to my childhood. And to
think that clematis still climbs the basketball post, leaning now, the vines clinging around a nail
where my father and I cleaned small game, hamstrung, the dogs yelping for the hides, my father,
grinning − wider, pulling skin over bodies, little shot-holes inflamed in tender meat, the cats
behind the hounds – meowing. My father takes and stores his gun on the rack above his bed.
Now he lies among some lilies. My mind outruns fyces and foxhounds and the farthest
wild woodscapes, trying to find him, adrift in tales curling from his cigar.
The wind ditches him for simple statements I come up with: point your gun and fix your
bead. What draws the people in your head? Is it something the moon camouflages in shrillest
rune? A dove flies right into your sight. Does its grace pull you near its flight to urge you to
shoot what it beckons with your automatic weapon? Consider the hare returning to its squat.
You have pressed your face against your gun-stock. In school-class children paint birds and
apples. Could little pupils be the cottontail, fruit, and trees?
I think about our basset, Oliver that never heard a gun. I got him for hunting in places
Memory counts for nostalgia – those guns and dogs − part of my past. Oliver! Hunting dog and
house pet! In the house he would nip my mother’s heels, as she walked by his bean-bag. A
territorial basset-hound? The vet said, “How odd for a basset − they usually lounge like
molasses.” Oliver wanted to be head of the pack. I’m not sure he ever heard a gun. He would
not have been afraid, I can tell you that. His allegiance to me was his lasting concern.
What I am trying to say is this: On Paul’s Hill − where I was born at home in a
three-room shanty of a plankhouse I have restored and where my wife Nin and I have lived since
1996 in a “modern” brick-ranch home my parents built in 1952 − the romance of the hunt is
dead and gone.
In some ways, however, I took after my father. I am basically a storyteller. I never really
loved to play checkers, though. He was a champion player – he played in tournaments. He loved
to play by himself, playing himself, talking to his “men.” His checkerboard is on a table in the
plankhouse. The checkers hold dust inside a Three Nun’s tin. When I was a boy – is that his
voice? Or mine?
I’d make every shell count. I’ve killed more squirrels since I was sixty. They are
multiplying in our yard now that you’re gone. I mean, your backyard, or Grandpa Manly’s or
Pap George’s, or David’s before George. The sign at the driveway still reads: North Carolina
Century Farm. I know every foot of this land.
I’d go slow, not pop any sticks and I’d hunt when the wind was blowing, if I could. When I
was seventy-nine, I felt invisible. If you don’t make a racket the squirrels will come to you.
Creek’s so open they can see you. They stir around early in the morning about light and in the
evening about an hour before dark. When you see one, don’t raise your gun. If you do he’ll see
you? I have me a piece of old tractor inner-tube I sit on. I saw one within a foot of his hole one
time. I took thirty minutes, slipped up on him. One way to do is stagger the trees. Get a thick
place on him. If you rake the trees, you’ll be heard. And work the branch.
Go down it?
Ease along and watch the ground and trees. When you catch them not looking, that’s the
time. In the Beaver Dam one day I saw five in one blackgum. One turned and headed to Bob’s
Field. They didn’t know what was happening? I shot four out. The fifth come back and I shot
him out. Another day I got in the run of the branch with my boots so I wouldn’t make any fuss.
One squatted on a limb. I scraped his head and he fell in a mud-hole and went around and
around. I saw another one on the ground. I shot him: I know I hit him. He went down on the
ground to die. He was hurting so bad up there in the nest. I sat there an hour and that squirrel
fell out of the tree kerrchoog.
Shotguns revisited? The scene: my father looks up from his board − Crown me, Son, and
then he drifts: When I was a boy, guns were mostly made by United Arms – Knickerbockers and
Bay States, Big Columbias with old-mountain barrels. I got my Bay State from Mink Coats.
We’d shoot spots: I put as many holes in the paper as the Columbia. I’d take eggs Maytle
would gather and trade them for shells, got paid 50 cents a box for 25 eggs. Then I traded my
Elgin watch for an old Remington, hammerless. And I owned an Iver Johnson one time,
the sorriest thing I ever toted in my hands.
Grandpa Manly bought me a Muzzleloader from Old Man Bill Turner Holland.
It cost $4.00. One tube was busted. Old Man Holland made me a new one. That gun would
kick the tar out of you if you packed it with too much powder. One time Oscar Poole carried it off
and filled it up – I didn’t know he’d done that. I shot a fox-squirrel. The boom knocked me clean
back in a clayroot. I liked that gun, though, had me a shotgourd, with a corkstopper in the end.
I’d buy black powder; keep the powder and paper in the gourd. When I was grown
Ma made me a shotbag from oilcloth that got worn at the edges where it fell over
I’d dose − he’d shift his blackgum twig, set the checkerboard on the coffee-table.
Your greatgrandfather, my grandpa Manly, let me hunt with his musket. He served in the
War Between the States. He learned me a sense of history.
Was the musket heavy?
Heavy? I couldn’t tote it all the way.
How did you carry, what’s it called − ammunition?
Oh – steer horns capped with wooden stoppers kept the powder dry – my gourd held
Number-6 shot and I carried a sling hunting sack at my side: one time I leaned into the musket,
fired, and the tied paper-wadding set the woods ablaze. Grandpa Manly beat it out with his
hat. It was a black felt I glanced as I was backpedaling into a clump of sow-thistle. One time I
saw a turkey gobbler drag his wings, sweeping frost off the ground. Grandpa throwed his self
out straight as a stick below the reedmash, hiding behind that hat, pillowing his chest; he
triggered his double-barreled Bay State packed full of powder; feathers thrashed the ground; he
was over that bird with one booted foot on the neck, another astride him and he shouldered him
home. Did you hunt in cotton-chopping time?
I’d leave my hoe in the field, get my gun and go down by the rock-quarry. I saw a turkey
puff and strut his wings, stick his neck up beside a red oak. I couldn’t see his head – he saw me
and left: I come back home, went back, he was in Finch’s Mash; I moved along the lowground
fence, holding my yelper of thin maple; I could mock a turkey exactly, clucking twice on my
caller. I could hear him coming; I planted myself at the Simmon Tree Hole along a fence near
an open space. I could almost smell him – hammer cocked and ready, I heard him again. Like a
lark he flipped back across Middle Creek. I went home, thinking of steak-gobbler breast.
Maytle cooked me some fatback. With molasses it was out of this world.
Consider my father’s world − his thirty-five hunting dogs named mostly for movie-stars
of the 1950’s − with the Newtown “comforting dogs.” These are the dogs that
soothe the fallen ones with Love which lifts Comforting to a Vow − Love being the soul of
golden Chloe, and of the little children, parents – hours dedicated to families: those dogs are
more than dogs – Addie, Prince, JoJo, Kye, Ladel, Luther, Moses, Ruthie, Shami, Isaiah –
Barnabas, Chewie, Addie, Hannah, Abbi − plus the pup, Isaiah, a child’s rave, as beauty begets
the Golden Retriever, first a gundog: trained to love, its brave and tender disposition’s
Obedience. And consider Isaiah. This Golden Retriever pup wowed Newtown. And the adult
Goldens acted at ease to set the scene. Comfort makes sense possible. These animals bring some
closure to horror. Isaiah − the “helper” − learns from his companions – after a shooter goes crazy
with guns and weapons and and kills elementary school-kids and the ones who teach.
Somewhere in Memory, the K-9 Parrish Comfort Dogs visit all children. They do not
wonder if dying’s final. Hearing the call of Sandy Hook’s doggies-in-training, the boys and girls
pet and hug Isaiah. They salvage embraces and kisses from brothers and sisters and friends who
feel better in that atmosphere. Their grief is not in vain.
My father never grieved for animals he killed. He never wore red either, or rode
nobly-looking on horse or mare. He wore mustard-colored pants no briar could tear, thick
ones – turned him into a stop to wobble and deaden the way, excepting the hounds, a rabblement
ahead of the game; instinct served him like a potion the minute the hunting season opened.
When the cottontail returned to its lair my father was waiting there to fire. Our eatin-table
swelled my mother’s head. He drank a toddy of pure apple brandy and his face turned red.
Every day now I get up and walk out to the plankhouse I was born in. I can see clearly
Beaver Dam Swamp and Cow Mire from the high porch. I take in the health and sickness of the
past and turn my meditation over to the mouse scrambling toward the crack in the window-sash.
Peace, I believe, comes and sits down for a long spell on the porch where my father’s
hunter-stool sits, empty, his gun in the modern house, well in its slip-on cover in the
corner-closet, silent among the clock-ticks. I stand on that porch under the tin-roof in the
mizzling rain which makes me see farther than I can see into sacrifices my ancestors made for
the road, their low way through and around the clanking chain-traces, the mules (Black and
Gray), the tractors (Farmall), the land – and oh the faces on the wall of the living room of my
plankhouse – voices – of my tongue’s load.
I make up a song for my father; call it “The Song of Father Paul, S R,” as he loved to
The old man, my dad, Paul, S R
Was a farmer who fished
And he hunted, too, for the table,
Always wanting to smell the steaming dish.
The needle-nose, sloughing, he hulled
And ate like it was salmon.
I mean, if he hooked a gar in Middle Creek,
He kept it – a trophy of memory.
He put that catch in wet burlap
To make sure not a one flopped back
Into the creek (my brother Paul
Lost a three-pound bass that flapped –
And bounced the bank into the creek,
Paul grunting and stomping all the way down
To the water − bubbling gone, gone, gone)
And Father Paul, S R, a swan,
Waving his arms all of a sudden,
A feathery drool his White Owl cigar.
Lord, I was laughing too!
The scene was really bizarre.
Oh my solemn Paul, S R
I knew from the time I was born,
Almost: those years I can’t recall
I make up from others whose torn
Memories stick in my mind as my own,
The guns, I mean, hunting guns
(The word resounds real bad today) –
It’s hard to write Newtown and come
Out clean, for the exploitation of arms,
More than any farewell can say
In words what currents grief
When children, shot, die in disarray.
Paul, S R never talked about “protection.”
Why the plankhouse I was born in?
We never locked, as I remember,
And few would dare shoot people – pure sin.
My song breaks into a swoon,
And bends lament for us humans
Whose actions might bother the NRA
More than the local Shooting Range.
And I am dislocated again;
Yet, as if you could see my father
In his hunting-pants, holding game
He would clean − or fish he would lather
To scale and prepare, no matter for someone
Else who might say – trash −
Hear me: those days are gone: his guns in the corner
Of my closet sunlight touches from a window-sash.
And so I end my lament. My father leans back and tells again how it was – the dogs
and guns and men:
“Shoog had a bitch named Lemon and a Walker called Fancy. I had Dinah, Blue, Bob,
Cora and Sing. Sing was a beagle for the briars and thickets and Pa gave me Smoky, a redtick,
his voice thick as greased syrup. Waylon Parrish had one he called Old Lawyer. He’d figure out
the track; Waylon would holler – Hoiiiicckkkkk. Hunter Bethune’s Judd had a mummer’s voice,
prettiest music I ever heard – choice. And there was Rock – snow-white – sounded like a horn
on a duck.”
Hair would rise on our heads while the Houstons moiled around the truck.
I’d close my eyes and he’d start again. I could hear my voice in his – the bell-voices
coming back to me through sweetgums. Suzie, short, blue-speckled, brought up the rear –
torsos of dogs gracing logs. There was Black-With-The-Lion’s Voice swimming up Black Creek
where the fox took a turn, his space close to the posh fences of settlements, all wired; Jeams
grabbed one, it just sizzling, his jumping fists holding on, Holt Lassiter, hollering, “Dogs can’t
catch that Red!” Hair would rise on our heads while the Houstons moiled around the truck.
Cora comes out of the woods near a nursery. Bob holds the red fur in his mouth, dangling
like a sock he nurses, his jaws running over the South, the little bones never making it to the hole
the fox tried to take, the pack pushing him tight for eight solid hours.
It starts to rain and my father blows his horn and calls the dogs. Slobber Mouth (my father
said he could outrun the Word of God with the Bible tied to His tail) and Wildgoose come along
fresh and sour at once, trying to jump another in the mash. Hair would rise on our heads while
some dogs moiled around the truck all morning. My father’s forgotten his hearing aid again.
He loved to get up before light to hear the dogs run.
I’d barely get into my breeches, as I heard − or sensed I heard − that red running in a
pattern around Paul’s Hill – absurd I thought; yet there he was – loping – moving his head, right
slow, left and right. He looked just like a bird a new pack was raising to a height to behold, the
fresh dogs unable to hold their eyes on his tail, a bright red blur bearing down – and he could not
find his hole. The hair would rise on our heads while a few dogs moiled all morning.
In my head I hear my father everywhere. Now he’s hiding in the lap of a footlog. A little
snow has fallen and I see a turkey track; a man named B. Ryals thinks my father’s a turkey and
he pulls down both barrels and another man appears in the shape of my grandfather. My father
calls him Pa; the story gets all mixed up in innocence and tall tale. Dr. McClemore gives the
shot-man a pocket of pills. By now the hair on my head stays in place.
Turkey-wings appear among the yelpers my great-grandpa Manly makes out of wings.
The little bone he sticks in a cork, working well the end of a coffee-pot spout. A gobbler sits up
in a wing-backed chair in a dream. Feathers spread among my mother’s
fingers. She’s sewing cloth around the butt-end of the turkey-wings. Finch’s Mash gushes with
gobblers flipping lark-like across Middle Creek. My hair stays in place all through
Thanksgiving and cotton-picking time.
No more the fox jumped in the rain. The Fox-man slumbers among his pack. No more the
run to the hole mid-morning. The vision of his victories is shown to him. No more the calling of
the hounds. It seems to him they appear in human forms. No more Slobber Mouth and
Wildgoose and Bob and Bing and Ginger and Bette and Sing and Atlas and Butler and Tony
heading back to Finch’s Mash to jump another. The sky seems a hue brighter than any he’s seen
in the mash. No more the prettiest music in the world − forgetting his hearing-aid battery,
wishing he could be knocked in the head. Covered with his Stetson, he startles from sleep. No
more surprises of mustard-colored dogs lying alone, and Rufus Jones saying, “Back broke.”
He hears a call from heaven, he thinks, “Paul, the shades of night vanish days.”
No more stories of putting the invalid dog on a guano-sack and then in the cab of his
truck – wait –!
Name was Spot. At home I kept him separate from others. He’d drag around, actually
got to where he could walk. After a month or so he could move pretty good. His hind-end was
warped up but he could run! He put him in the kennel with the other dogs, took him hunting
with the boys and that was when he learned Spot was a cutter. Spot wouldn’t bark unless he was
in front of the pack and when he got there he would blow that bugle. It won’t long before the
other dogs were following Spot. One time they run a red for four days. That fox’s ass was
cherry red – I saw it twice. And Spot solid put the heat on him. I had to get some sleep during
that race; so I went home, started to pull off my clothes, but the music was so pretty I got me a
five-gallon bucket, took some coals outen the heater and put them in the bucket and I sot on my
front porch, warming my hands, listening to Spot lead the pack to the fox. When I got up about
light I heard the dogs still singing.
Said he put his breeches on and ran out on the porch: That red was running in the same
pattern, circling my plantation: I saw him! He was loping, moving his head, right slow, to left
and right. He looked like a bird. I didn’t want to run my dogs and Spot to death. Funny: he
said the fresh dogs couldn’t keep that fox. He run in a hole, and as far as I know, he ain’t come
out yet; because, if he had, Spot would be burning his tail.
And soon he said I’ve about wed my row − keep my grave clean at Rehoboth.
His 16-gauge single-barreled Harrington-Richardson (said he bought it from Lon Byrd)
I gave to his grandson Andy (my father’s wish). His 12-guage double-barreled Fox
Sterlingworth, his nephew Jut said was an antique, I got here in my closet on Paul’s Hill. I can
hear my father say, “Jut said he wants it back” – all these decades after he bought it from Jut.
Jut’s gone, my father, too, though I keep looking around for him.
Somebody needs my guns. I’d give them to you but you can’t hit nothing. I give Andy
my .22 Winchester rifle I used to shoot bullet after bullet through a co-cola lid nailed to a post.
Survey the land when I die. The line goes up the middle of the path to Reuben’s. There’s
a stake in the corner of Roach Branch where Hector’s hogfeeding ground was. Divide the land
up. Include enough with the house to get the lower drainage. Don’t forget to keep my plot
cleaned at Rehoboth.
Short Bio: Shelby Stephenson’s Maytle’s World is forthcoming from Evening Street Press.