Life in a Bowl of Gravy

From rock doves to whitetails, a man couldn’t go no better.

[by Rusty Ward]

THE DOVE’S WINGS FLASHED BRIGHT AND DARK AGAINST THE CEDARS UNDER A PALE SEPTEMBER SKY. A gun popped and the bird slanted down, bouncing once in a burst of feathers. Greg emerged from the shadows and walked slowly, painfully, out to retrieve it. “Good shot!” I yelled from my bit of cover, but after Greg’s decades of open-eared gunfire, I’m pretty sure he didn’t hear me. A pair of doves sneaked in behind Greg and whistled through my airspace. Too slow for the first, I cartwheeled the second into some high grass. Breathing heavily before I’d gone 20 steps, I was blowing like a runaway train when I got back to my stool.

Four of us—Greg, David, Mike, and I—tallied nine birds that day. In an earlier time, nine birds for four guys would have been a bust, but today it seemed fine. Cumulatively, we had logged nearly two centuries of field time, much of it in each other’s company, and success was no longer tied to numbers.

Greg, the master gardener of our dove plot, had battled cancer and was under siege from the drugs that kept him alive. Mike slept courtesy of a mask that pushed air against his face. David, a smoker and carrying too many pounds, had suffered a light stroke with no guarantees against aftershocks. In my case, an unpronounceable autoimmune defect sapped wind and stamina, especially on hot September afternoons and cold December mornings— the times that mattered most. Age, in short, had gained the inside track on us all.

We peeled the birds and wrapped them in a doublefisted package for the freezer. Plugging away in this, the way of the tortoise, we would have enough birds by season’s end for our annual camp feast. Most everyone grills doves, but ours would be cooked slowly, simmering in what the culinarians call sauce—gravy to us commoners—to continue the ritual that had started long ago, before Greg or David or Mike.

IT BEGAN AFTER WILLARD MARRIED MARY VIRGINIA AND THEIR SON WAS BORN. The boy adopted the woods as his natural home and viewed anything that took him away from them as intrusion. Never mind that the family lived in the middle of town. He invented his first woods in a pair of nearby vacant lots overgrown with privet and hackberry. He was a hunter from the start, and those lots were his darkest Africa, wild Alaska, and high Mountain West, a place where he could pretend the solitary wilderness existence he longed for. The kid wore out multiple Daisy BB guns. Not so much wore them out as discarded them for newer models that more closely resembled the guns real hunters used. Absent Cape buffalo and full-curl rams, city pigeons that roosted in the eaves of rental houses bordering the abandoned lots were his big game, and he hunted them with obsession.

Though pigeons were at the outer fringes of a spring-powered BB’s effectiveness, and most bounced off their heavily feathered breasts, he found that head shots would bring them down. When he presented his prizes as potential table fare to his mother, he was shushed out of the kitchen as if he had presented her with a brace of rats, which indeed was how pigeons were perceived by genteel city folk. Never mind that I showed her in field guides that they were really called rock doves, larger cousins of the mourning doves our family would eat by the bushel once the boy came of age.

These were nasty city pigeons, the pestilential birds urban fathers controlled by periodically allowing the citizenry to stand shoulder to shoulder with their shotguns on Main Street and shoot what they indeed called winged rats as they dived between buildings. Mary Virginia would not have them in her kitchen. This caused something of a domestic crisis because it violated his father’s prime directive—that to kill without eating was a sinful thing, a thing not done. Since his mother was as repulsed at the thought of cooking pigeons as he was powerless to stop hunting them, this was a problem.

The family lived in an older part of town, where black and white neighborhoods intertwined. Relations were polite and respectful, although in the early 1960s, social segregation was absolute. Kids were exempt from adult mores, however, and I was perfectly at ease among our black neighbors, in whose eaves the pigeons roosted and where my depredations were mostly welcomed. There was a gnarled and ancient lady of color, Old Louise, who lived across the street from us, and I spent many evenings with her, warmed by her coal fire and our conversations. What a 12-year-old white kid and a 100-year-old (so she seemed to me) black woman talked about those long hours is a forgotten mystery, but she was friend and confidante. She knew of my pigeon habit and asked what I did with them. I stumbled through a nonanswer. “Why don’t you bring them to me?”

“Sure, but what for?”

“Because I eats them—in a stew. When I was a little girl, my mama and daddy fed us anything that would put meat on our bones, and we ate lots of birds. Last time I looked, that’s what pigeons is.”

Astounded, but happy at the chance to sidestep the prime directive, that is exactly what I did. It never occurred to me to question the truth of her claims until one of my buddies planted the seed of doubt. “You don’t really believe she’s eatin’ those things, do you?” I did, but not wanting to seem simple to my friend, I asked her. Hurt showing in her dark eyes, she drew herself up to her full height. “Sho I does, honey. You just come wi’ me.” I followed her into the kitchen. There was a steaming pot on her wood-fired stove. Tiny slivers of meat floated in thick broth from which needle-like bones protruded. She dipped me a small cup. A half century later, I still remember its taste, which was heavenly. “It’s da gravy what makes it good,” Louise said with the barest hint of pride.

As I grew older, I spent less time with Louise, but I never outgrew her. And I never forgot the warmth of her company, as of being drawn toward a bright center against the outward pull of an entropic universe, of a trust repaired and deepened by a simple cup of stew enjoyed on a cold winter night now long past.