Grouse Dinner


“Hell and spite!” As there was, clearly, no evading the wet, I just lay there. I did boost the gun up against the prickly ash to drain but didn’t dream of getting up. “Do your worst,” I snarled.

Diane wanted that window replaced. I, stupidly, went hunting instead, with a fixed bag in mind, and now the woods had taught me who was master. Grouse hunting is, and ought to be, the pure opposite of a trip to the supermarket. I deserved pneumonia.

“The careening bird must have been absolutely hammered on plum brandy when it mistook the window for a forest opening.”

After a while, since the muck hole was about my size, I began to warm the late October water. I looked vainly for blue sky above the dark tent of leaves. I wondered idly why Pyos, still nailed to the maple, didn’t let the bugger fall on me. Twenty-five yards away he was straining, snorting, wagging, looking up at—a stiffly spread ruffed grouse tail, wedged in the crotch of a tree, eight feet up. I rose, slid, splashed toward Pyos and his tree. Broke off a serious prickly ash branch. Scratched at that tail until I hooked the whole bird down. Gray variant, not the red one I’d just missed. Bloody spot behind the left eye. The bird that had towered.

The fine feeling of a lost bird found, human-caused waste averted, sweetened the nasty job of stripping, wringing out clothes, dressing again in sticky rubber and canvas against naked flesh. The socks and skivvies went into the empty game pocket. Then, although it had become a soft autumn evening, it was time to go home, closing time.

The road and the white clapboard house with its cracked back window was at a northeasterly angle from us. Pyos found and flushed three slow, oddly dithering grouse out of raspberry and seedling plum thickets before we made the road. I filled a pocket with some of the wrinkled, vaguely winey plums as we went on. But, maybe because of the miraculously found bird that I plucked as we went along, I was not even slightly tempted to violate closing time, not even for June’s (or my own) sake. The woods had spoken. Immersion, then discovery. Enough. We’d make the two birds, thawed and towered, stretch.

There remained an hour and a half to prepare dinner. The frozen bird was thawed, the prodigal returned was plucked. Enough, if I could get the rice on and the jug Chablis wasn’t too vinegary. I hugged Pyos once more, fed him, and dashed for the cellar to drop my muddy rags, towel off, eviscerate the bird before a quick shower, and then steady, knowledgeable cheffery. I dropped my muddy rags at the top of the cellar steps, and then dash off to—


I thought, The cracked back window must have fallen in. I was wrong. It was blasted in.


At the foot of the cellar steps as I approached, a feathered, plump, buzzing, red-phase ruffed grouse was ending its days. I picked it up, wrung its neck, opened its crop. Yep. The aroma of natural alcohol. Dalrymple was right again. Not “wild” flight, but drunken flight. The careening bird must have been absolutely hammered on plum brandy when it mistook the window for a forest opening.

With preternatural quickness, never a Slav’s strong suit, I plucked and voided this third grouse, filled all three with wrinkled plums, blanketed them in bacon tacked with toothpicks, and ovened them. I started the rice, picked the remaining shards out of the empty window frame, and still had time to shower and dress before Diane’s racing rust bucket rolled up to the garage. I was sliding the quick-chilled Chablis out of the freezer as they came up the stairs from the back hall.

“Grouse!” June beamed over dinner. “But why didn’t you finish the window?” Diane asked, though not at all sharply.

“The spare pane turned out to be cracked, so I went for partridge,” I said brightly. “The truck’s dead, and you had the car.”

Dinner was superb.

Ruffed grouse follow woodcock in the turning year. Unlike woodcock, grouse—which we tend to call partridges here—are born with their brains right side up, like us. Maybe that’s why they insist upon turning themselves upside down with the aid of natural alcohol. The cause of the “towering,” the flight straight up, remains, as far as I can tell, undiscovered. It may be, though, that a head shot that damages their sight compels the stricken bird to choose a direction with no obstructions.

Richard Yatzeck’s stories have appeared in Gray’s many times. He taught Russian literature for 48 years at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He passed away March 7, earlier this year. He was 89.