Adventures for FoodHunting

Black Powder at the Hawk Factory Part II

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“Hunting makes us animal. To kill an animal makes us human.” Helen Macdonald, H is For Hawk

There was a sharp bang and everything became blue smoke. When it cleared, drifting like a specter in the cold morning air, the deer may as well have vanished from existence. There was no sign of where they’d been or gone – I heard no sounds of their departure, saw no blood where the doe had been standing a moment before. It was like the deer were never there. I thought I had to have missed – I must have flinched (though I felt I had followed through properly). I clenched my jaw, prepared to face another empty-handed day with my yearning yet untamed.

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But then the student in me gave a nudge. What if I’d wounded her, and she was hurt and scared? What if my dreams came true, but I never knew? I owed it to her to try my best to see where she went. So I set off, first following the fence in both directions, then entering the woods though another bar gate to continue the search. In the excitement and the rifle smoke, I had completely lost sight of her. She could have gone anywhere. But based on where she’d been facing – roughly east – I focused my efforts there, walking through what looked to me like a cervid’s paradise: diffuse golden sunlight illuminating brown trees, red thorns, and blankets of matted dead grass, all riddled with slender trails beaten by countless hooves. Then I saw white.

Growing up, my family’s always been in awe of my ability to see things – the distant hawk, the shark’s teeth on the littered beach. I train my eyes to search for the thing, but sometimes in my eagerness, I see what I want to see. Every dark seashell fragment looks like a shark’s tooth when you’re excited to find one. Here I thought “this must be just that – I’m seeing a deer’s white rump because I want to – because every fiber of my being hopes I got this doe.”

But then it became apparent as I picked through the brambles that tugged on my camouflage that this was very much a deer, lying motionless on the ground. Could it be? It couldn’t be. It could. I waited a few minutes, then carefully approached the head and touched the open, glassy black eye with the muzzle of the rifle. Profoundly dead. Still unbelieving, I turned her over just enough to see a little blood on the leaf litter and in her pelt. Hands shaking with pure adrenaline, shock, and emotion, I texted my co-worker, who had offered to help with my first field dressing. But he couldn’t come – this was after all an early Sunday morning, and he was getting ready to attend church with his family. I had to do this alone.

And it was about 25 minutes before I had to clock in for my shift at the farm.  The woods were silent save for the sound of my blade slicing through hide and hair and the parting of silken layers of fat and blue-white membrane. I was stupefied by the incredible heat and steam coming from a body that was very recently alive. I got it done somehow, despite nicking the stomach and taking excruciating care to ensure its contents didn’t contaminate anything. Worth noting, she’d been gorging on local corn and pasture grass. That is an odor I won’t soon forget. I removed the guts and reached into the chest cavity, grasping the heart, and discovered that the sabot had passed right through it. Holy shit.

About fifteen minutes after I’d dragged the carcass to where I could retrieve it later, a column of black vultures was swirling above the kill site like sentient smoke. I called them there. I brought death to the quiet countryside. But I didn’t cry until I found the bullet inside the deer, when I hung her body at home. It had punched through her ribs, just nicking the shoulder, cutting through her heart, and lodging in the ribs on the other side. I found many fragments, but the bloodshot was minimal. Tears flowed because I had finally done it, and done it right – after years of planning and training and hoping. She had died quickly, and I found her and honored her. But I also cried because she was forever gone and yet always with me. Her journey ended that morning, but mine only began. Her walk continued with me; her physical form nourishing mine; my family’s. I will always be grateful to her, to all the creatures with which we share this wild world.

Dedicated to my grandfather, Robert Chaya – we never got to hunt together, but you sparked the fire. Rest in peace.

Heidi Chaya

Heidi Chaya is a food journalist, farmhand, and avid home cook. Her experiences living and working in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley provide her with many opportunities to expand her culinary horizons and continue to learn and grow through fishing, foraging, and hunting.

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