Christmas Dinner

By Reid Maruyama

The day before Christmas, Dad took me hunting. It was an annual tradition—ever since I was six, or maybe seven, or whenever it was that I could properly hold a gun to my shoulder. But now that they were divorced, Dad had to argue with Mom to let me go because she was still angry at him for taking me to the Windjammer to play pool and shuffleboard on his last visit. From my bedroom, I could hear her in the kitchen talking on the phone with him—arguing. She said she didn’t want me to go—she said that it was cruelty.
Dad was persistent though; he never gave up. He promised Mom that he’d take good care of me and that he’d have me home for dinner on Christmas Eve. Dad was a charmer, or at least that’s what Mom always said. She also said that it was what she hated most about him.
Now I liked Dad, but I didn’t like hunting—I never did. I hated the cold and the snow and the wind and getting dressed up in all those clothes. But I never told Dad this. I thought if I complained to him about it he’d never ask me to do anything with him again. After much debate, Mom finally relented.
When I woke up on Christmas Eve morning it was three thirty am and my room was cold. The mornings were always cold.
Dad’s hand was shaking me. He was saying that we better get going before it gets light out. Get ‘em while the gettin’s good. That’s what he always said. I crawled out of bed and bundled up in as many clothes as I could find. I wiped the sleep buggers out of my eyes and I pulled on my boots. I had on a pair of long johns, snow pants, a big down jacket, and a red hunting cap. And I was still freezing cold.
Before we left, Mom and Dad had one last argument in the kitchen. Mom glared at him over her mug as she took delicate sips of coffee. Later, she told me that she felt bad for having surrendered to him and would never let it happen again. I told her not to worry, that it didn’t matter much anyway. In all the years I’d been hunting with Dad, I had never once shot the gun, let alone killed a dove. I assured her that I would be safe from any harm.
I climbed into the front seat of Dad’s truck. His heater was broken and the back window had been smashed several years ago and he’d never gotten around to fixing it. Dad pulled out the big red flannel blanket he kept under his seat in case he ever had passengers. He tossed onto my lap. I pulled it around my shoulders and slunk down in my seat.
As we drove down the ninety-five, Dad stared through the windshield watching the snow swirl in the headlights. It was still dark out. The cab of Dad’s truck smelled like burnt oil. Wind and snow gusted through the broken window and the snow settled on our laps. Dad’s chapped hands gripped the steering wheel—his knuckles turned bone white. I pulled my hunting cap further down on my head and wrapped the blanket tighter around my shoulders and fell asleep to the droning engine.

The next thing I knew Dad’s hand was shaking me. My head was resting up against the window and the window was all fogged up. Drool was beginning to seep down my lower lip. I wiped it off. Dad started pulling the guns out from behind the seats. I opened the door and stepped outside. It was so cold. I rubbed my hands together. They were already turning bright pink and I didn’t have any mittens. Dad said that if I wore mittens I wouldn’t be able to pull the trigger and then what was the point of hunting—I’d just be carrying a gun. I wanted to tell him that I’d never even pulled the trigger in the six or so years I’d been hunting with him—not once. But I knew how he would respond. I’d already heard it before.
“It’s not about the doves,” he said, hiking up his pants and buttoning his jacket, “it’s about the hunting.”
I didn’t say anything. I was too cold.
He gave me the shotgun and reminded me to keep the safety on, always keep the barrel pointing upwards, and to keep the chamber open just in case we came across ranger patrol. He ruffled my head and my hunting cap sank down over my eyes. I readjusted it.
“Are we hunting or what?” Dad said.

We started off across the field in the dark. I was so tired I might’ve been sleep-walking. I needed help getting through the barbed wire fences; Dad held the bottom wire down with his foot so I could crawl through. We walked along the tree line. We must’ve crossed at least sixty fences. Everything was a dark blue shadow. I followed the sound of Dad’s footsteps.
“Mom says that doves mate for life. Is that true, Dad?”
“I don’t know kiddo. What does it matter?”
“Don’t you think it would be cruel? You know? To kill one?”
“I don’t know kiddo. Not any more cruel than divorce is,” he said.
He laughed.

We walked for two hours in complete silence, listening to the crunch of snow under our boots. It was incredibly silent—not even so much as a cricket. I was so cold I felt like I’d never been colder.
So I started to blame Dad for it—I blamed him for everything—for taking me out of my warm bed, for taking me all the way up to the countryside on Christmas Eve day, for the wind and the snow and the neverending cold, for not seeing a single dove in the sky. Something about the circumstances made me want to cry, but I knew better, so I kept my trap shut and watched my feet make tracks in the snow.
The sun was coming up.

Midday—and we crossed through woods of mostly barren poplar trees and hunted along the creek. He told me to watch out for soft pockets of snow. The sun was up and cast dull gray light through thick sheets of swollen clouds. Dad had his shotgun hefted up on his shoulder. He was whistling to himself. We moved our way upstream. With the growing light came the heavy wind and the icy pricks of snow. I pulled my ear flaps down and buried my chin into my jacket collar. The snow quickly powdered Dad’s beard.
We followed the creek until we came to a wooden fence half buried in snow drift. There was a No Trespassing sign posted. Up ahead was a small cabin with smoke billowing out of the chimney.
“Wait here,” Dad said, “I’m gonna see if we can’t hunt these people’s property.”
I nodded and sat on the ground, stuffing my hands into my jacket pockets.
When he came back, he gave me the thumbs up. He helped me over the fence. We walked for hours.

The sun was in descent and our shadows were getting longer. We must’ve walked pretty far because when I looked around, I couldn’t tell from which direction we’d come from. We came to a small scrub of oaks. It was getting close to dusk and it was getting colder, but it didn’t matter much anyway because my hands were now numb and warm. We sat down underneath an oak tree and ate our lunch. Dad gave me a peanut butter sandwich and a plastic bag of cookies. I ate. My hands were almost purple. Dad took a bite of his sandwich and looked around, studying the white field of snow. There was nothing but this scrub of dead oak trees for miles around.
“We’re really out here a ways,” he said.
I kept my chin buried in my jacket and my eyes fixed on the sandwich. The wind started to howl.
“Think we’re gonna see anything out here?” Dad asked
I shook my head.
“Yeah. Me neither,” he said.
He ate a cookie, leaving crumbs in his beard.
“Think we should call it a day?” he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Yeah,” he took another bite of sandwich, “we should probably start heading back. If I don’t get you home soon, your mom’ll kill me.”
“Sure. I guess so.” I said—even though I didn’t need to guess at all. Dad was right. Mom would never forgive him.
“Well. What do you wanna do?” he asked me.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Can I tell you what I want then?” he asked, leaning in close as if to tell a secret, his Adam’s apple bulging in his throat—bobbing up and down as he chewed. “I want us to both go home and just be a family again. Doesn’t that sound nice? Isn’t that what you want, too?”
I nodded my head, knowing it was already hopeless.
He ruffled my hat, “That’s the spirit kiddo. Now why don’t you say we pack up our stuff and start heading back? Okay?”
“Okay.”
I was happy. Dad’s voice was reassuring.
We finished our lunch and got our guns leaning up against the tree. That was when we heard it—from right above us the whole time. It sounded like someone whispering in their sleep. We looked up and saw them—a flock of sleeping doves—roosted in the bare branches of the oak tree, sitting up there like little porcelain statues. There must’ve been twenty or so of them. Dad pointed to them on the branch and looked at me and put his finger to his lips and made a shush sound. He spoke in a raspy whisper.
“Holy shit kiddo. Looks like we caught ourselves a big break.”
Dad pointed over to a clearing. He told me to move over onto the other side of the tree. And on his signal, I was to scare the flock into the open field, where Dad would be waiting for them, with his gun loaded, his safety off, and his finger ready on the trigger.
“Got it?” he said.
I nodded.
I went around to the other side of the tree as Dad walked out into the clearing.
I pointed the barrel up at the sky and waited for Dad’s signal. He gave me the thumbs up and I pulled the trigger. The gun kicked into my shoulder and the blast scared the doves from out of the tree. They flew up in a grouped pattern, fluttering and making for the open sky. They looked like flitting little shadows against the dying light. They wheeled around right into the open field.
Dad took a shot. The gun cracked and the doves scattered in every which way. Dad pumped the gun and took another shot and a bird fell out of the sky right under the oak tree, where it was roosted only moments before.
Dad and I ran up close. The bird was still alive, flopping around in the snow like a used tissue blowing in the wind. It was trying to take flight. I was oddly aroused by all of this—and yet it was a sensation that also frightened me. Dad patted me on the back.
“Your turn kiddo.”
Without knowing what to do, I approached the dove. Drops of blood stained the snow, where the bird fluttered around helplessly. I could feel the snow crunch under my boots—and Dad’s eyes boring into the back of my head as I got closer and closer.
I bent down on one knee and examined the dove. It was a female—it had the red dot just beneath its eyes. Its feathers were torn out and scattered across the snow and its wings were covered in bloody pock marks from the scattershot. I picked it up and held it in both hands. It was so light. Its breast was heaving rhythmically and I could feel its dying pulse in my thumb. I carried it back to Dad. He put his hand on my shoulder and nodded to me. I felt so small and out of place.
“Do it,” he said, “just give its neck a little twist.”
I shook my head. I felt the weight of Dad’s hand on my shoulder.
“You gotta wring its neck,” he said, “can’t you see it’s in pain right now?”
“Are we gonna eat it, Dad? I don’t wanna do it if we’re not gonna eat it.”
“There’s not much meat on these little guys,” he said, “but you can ask your mom when you get home. Maybe she’ll cook it up for Christmas dinner.” He let out a bursting laugh and thumped me twice on the back.
I looked down. The dove’s head was about the size of my thumb. Its beady little eyes blinked back at my own. My hands were trembling—and I couldn’t tell if it was because I was cold or scared. The dove cooed and its wings fluttered, trying to escape the cage my hands had made around it. I pinched its head in between my thumb and finger. Its feathers were so soft. And with a flick of the wrist, I twisted its neck.

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