My breath spewed forth in misty clouds through the January cold. My fingers hurt, and just the act of depressing the trigger seemed like an arduous task.
My quarry sat atop a utility pole twenty yards down the easement: a red-tailed hawk. Its own breath exited its beak in little jets.
Father told me not to rush but I knew I had to take the shot before the bird took off or else he would not be happy. We had been out hunting a while and the sun was about to set. Father would not come home empty-handed.
Hunting trips with my father were some of the only times I didn't have to fear his drunken wrath, but I still dreaded them. I was only seven during this particular memory, but even then I knew what we were doing was wrong. Father communicated more than he realized about the legality of his hunting habits to me. He never outright said we were breaking the law, but the way he spoke of hunting regulations and how they were all drafted up by petty tyrannical bureaucrats and how some rules in life were okay to break made it clear enough.
I took the shot. It hit the bird right in the heart, just like Father had taught me. My father let out an enthusiastic "whoop!" as it tumbled down. He took the pellet gun from me and gave me a congratulatory slap on the back.
After making sure it was dead, Father gave me a towel to hold my new prize in. He had me pose for a picture with it. I don't imagine I was smiling.
He was very proud of me on the drive home. He said he would take the hawk to a taxidermist who would know how to do it (his most direct way of saying one who would be willing to do an illegal job) and mount it in my room. I did my best to act happy with the idea. Not being happy with it could have severe consequences for me.
Father's face grew sour as two people appeared down the road. One of them was the game warden.
My father never liked cops period, but the game warden was his arch-nemesis. He always warned me to keep an eye out for the warden before taking a shot. Right now, the warden appeared to be checking someone's fishing permit, and Father breathed a sigh of relief as we passed by him without him looking up from what he was doing.
The memory of that day ends there for me. Eventually the hawk was mounted in my bedroom closet. Out of immediate sight, just in case.
Illegal hunting was my father's own little way of rebelling against the system. Any animal, any age, any season, any time of day or night, any weapon or method. Baiting, trespassing, spotlighting—it was as if lawful hunts bored him, for rarely did we go out to hunt without breaking at least a few rules.
He started taking me with him as soon as I could shoot a gun. He was very enthusiastic in initiating me into his little hunting rebellion way of life, bidding me to practice on any elicit game we could find. He would get pretty creative too. One time he took me out to hunt for owls at night. He could expertly mimic the calls of several species, and called in a great horned owl to perch in a tree in the middle of a field, where he promptly shot it, fearing I would miss in the darkness.
You see, birds were a favorite for him, particularly raptors. I think he took some perverse pride in taking down the elite apex predators.
As I started to approach adolescence, he let me do more fun activities on my own, so I didn't have to come on his hunting trips as often. If he was hunting something large like a bear he would bring me along to help out with the sheer amount of work such things took, but for the most part he'd just tell Mom and me he was heading out and then come back with something he shot illegally.
Then one day he brought back a bald eagle. I don't know where he shot it, in fact I had never previously seen one in person, but there it was. At the time, bald eagles were still very endangered and I knew he would be in a lot of trouble if caught with it.
He told me to wrap it up in a towel and take it out of his pickup truck and put the bird on the picnic table behind the house on our small acreage. He must have known even the seediest of taxidermists wouldn't take an eagle, since he set about trying to perform his own amateur stuffing job.
I placed the carcass on the picnic table while Father got his tools ready. I'd seen plenty of dead animals before, but I felt genuinely sick as I looked down on it with its closed eyes.
The bullet wound was right where the heart would be, just like he always taught me to shoot. Despite my father's contempt of hunter ethics, there was still one scruple he held onto and taught to me: quick, clean kill, cause the animal as little suffering as possible.
I really didn't want it on display in our house, but Father was clearly very proud of his kill, and he enthusiastically set to work on it, bidding that I watch and learn.
He ended up making a bloody mess of the thing. By the time he realized he was in over his head with the job, the bird was well beyond salvaging for display purposes. He decided to settle for keeping the beak and talons and some of the feathers.
He had to get rid of the rest, being incriminating evidence and all. He probably could have just thrown it in the woods behind our house and let the animals consume it overnight. But just to be safe, he put the mutilated carcass under an upturned metal swimming pool, one of the several disused items we had scattered about our property.
That experience left me with a very bad taste in my mouth. I had nightmares about the eagle. I imagined it still alive, blind and in terrible pain, struggling beneath the pool.
Between a few days and a month later, two police officers showed up to our property. I had an instant sinking feeling. As much as I feared Father, I didn't want him taken to jail. Plus, Mom and I were also complicit in his hunting crimes. What would happen to us?
I didn't know what the penalty was for killing an eagle at the time, but this was during the early 1980s, not long after the passage of the Endangered Species Act and during a time of intense conservation activism. I knew the world would not be happy with our family if we were caught with it, and beneath my fear was shame.
Father made sure they never came wandering around where the pool was. They asked him some questions that I couldn't hear, and left.
They never came back, and gradually my fear subsided. But I still felt bad about the eagle's fate.
I left home as soon as I turned 18. I spent a couple years in the Navy, met a girl, got married, and the whole time I never talked to my parents again
They're both dead now. Father died of a heart attack, and Mom from overdosing. I did not attend their funerals.
The house was left abandoned. My parents didn't have a will, and I never cared to press matters of inheritance. My wife and I were doing fine on our own.
However, I eventually realized someone could start doing something on the derelict property in order to set up an adverse possession claim, so I decided I may was well see if I could fix up the place and claim ownership.
I had a lot to think about during the three-hour road trip to my childhood home. I felt guilty for leaving Mom alone with my drunk of a father. I felt bad for keeping out of touch, but I also felt angry that they had never tried to contact me either.
I almost turned back on the easement as the house came into view, the upturned pool and other junk items scattered around it. There were no signs that it had been occupied in the over ten years since they had died.
The door was not locked. I had brought my pistol just in case, but there was no one inside. Everything was still there, from the furniture to Mom's decorative knick-knacks, all covered in dust. The drab green wallpaper was now peeling off, and the various nature paintings now hung crooked.
I went to the basement, where most of my father's illicit trophies were still mounted on the wall. Guests to the house were never allowed down there for that reason. The house no longer had electricity, but there was just enough light streaming in through the basement windows to allow me to see the stuffed heads, staring me down from their plaques and podiums.
I went up to my bedroom. I had taken most of my stuff with me when I moved out. Only my bed and a few items I didn't want remained.
Among these was the stuffed hawk, still perched awkwardly in my closet, now looking rather disheveled. I would have to get rid of it and the other trophies if I decided to claim the house.
I thought about the eagle. I had never looked under the pool after Father put it there. I had been too disgusted and afraid of what I might see.
I decided to go and look. It would be some form of closure. The pool was still there, overturned as always. There would not be a horrible mangled creature there anymore, just some bones and maybe some feathers at most, though I doubted even that.
I was still somewhat nervous as I lifted the pool. Just the sight of it had given me pangs of dread as a teenager.
I don't know if whatever was left of the eagle was still under there. I don't know if I saw it and have forgotten, or if it was completely gone. All I know is I was not expecting to find a human cadaver.
I think the body had undergone some kind of half-mummification under the pool. It still had skin and hair, but I don't remember a strong stench. He had been dead a while.
It appeared to be sinking into the mud, filth covering its green or khaki shirt. It took a few moments for me to accept that it was not some Halloween decoration. We never celebrated Halloween.
It was not a pretty sight to be sure. There were a thousand questions a second racing through my brain. But what really haunted me, what made me put the pool back and turn around and drive home and never speak a word of the trip to anyone, was a small metal object on the body's tattered clothing: a game warden's badge.
Written by HopelessNightOwl
Image credited to Tim Koener, licensed under CC-BY 2.0