BY Megan Stielstra
When Wade Dell Dallas put his fist in my eye on our third date, my father went after him with a .375 Holland and Holland Magnum. Uncle Jack suggested that was too much gun, seeing as the last thing it killed was a fourteen-hundred pound bull moose. Every year, my dad and his brothers and all their sons—some fifteen beefy muscled Alaskan guys between the ages of six and sixty—loaded up two weeks worth of gear and disappeared into the mountains, hunting moose. Or caribou. Or sheep, goat, elk—whatever had four legs to chase and a head to mount on the living room wall. I tried to imagine Wade’s head up there next to the moose, his big ol’ ears sticking out, his taxidermied skin wind-whipped and ice-burned raw, his stupid blue eyes blank and glassy. “Wade don’t weigh more than one-eighty,” Jack told my dad, who was squatted on the carpet loading up his field pack. “That H&H’ll spray his face straight backwards through his brain.”
That’s a nasty image, especially for a fifteen-year-old girl in such a fragile emotional state, and my dad looked over to see if I’d lose it. What he saw was me on the couch, curled up in a ball with a pack of frozen peas over my left eye, the eye that two hours before had swallowed Wade’s fist in a single gulp, knuckle bone on skull bone and everything went black. My dad turned to Jack then and said, “You see what he did to my girl?” His voice was quiet, the kind of calm that deep down points to crazy. “My one and only girl.” He stuck a six-inch fixed-blade into his backpack. Then a GPS, a 10 x 40 spotting scope and a meat saw. “Besides, I’m not gonna shoot him in the face,” he said. “I’m gonna shoot him in the lungs.”
In the Lower Forty-eight, kids are taught not to run into moving traffic. Never talk to strangers. Ask before you pet the dog. In Alaska, we’re taught to shoot for the lungs. “Here,” Jack would say, pounding the meat between his chest and his armpit. “You aim here, for the lungs. A high shot’ll hit the spine and a low shot’ll hit the heart; either way, you’re golden.” My cousins and I hung on his every word: kill a moose, field-dress an elk, track a sheep, troll for salmon—we trained for the hunt the way other folks prep for the SATs, all my big boy cousins with their muscles and their rifles and their Suburbans and me, the one lone girl treading water in testosterone. I’ll tell you what, though; they never treated me different. I was one of the boys; gimme a knife, a gun, and twenty rounds of 300 grain soft points and I’ll hold my goddamned own.
Dad’ll say, “You see that?” pointing to the twelve-point caribou mounted over the sofa. “My girl whacked that bastard when she was eight years old, so don’t give me none of that Girls Can’t Do Horseshit. My girl put a bullet right through that bastard’s lungs!” Then he’d turn to me, his pigtailed daughter in size XS camouflage overalls, black paint smudged under her eyes to better blend into the brush. “Tell ’em, kiddo,” he’d say—this is how we showed off—“Tell ’em how come the lungs.”
I knew this script better than the Pledge of Allegiance. “When hit through the lungs,” I’d recite, “a moose or game of similar size will bleed out through their muscles until the lungs collapse and the animal can no longer breathe.” I’d seen this happen to every head up there in the living room wall and now, sitting on that couch with Wade’s fist pounding in the back of my brain, the left side of my face all numb from the peas, dad loading bullets into waterproof baggies and my cousins all staring ’cause for the first time in our lives I wasn’t one of them, I imagined what would happen to Wade.
It’s a scene straight out of the movies: that big, six-foot pretty boy is hard at work at the petrol plant, loading Exxon barrels onto the back of a truck. Suddenly—a hard, fast whack to the chest, so fast he’s not sure if it actually happened. He opens his mouth to speak but his breath is locked, can’t get out the words, just two hollow gulps of air before his lungs soak red like a wet sponge and slowly, slowly, blood seeps through the canvas of his coveralls. In one horrible second everything connects: the dark red-brown staining his chest. The airless gasping like some cancer patient with a cigarette. The punch above his heart like a shotgun with too much pull and then, after he’s too empty of blood and air to keep on his feet, my dad walks right into his line of vision, the H&H Magnum pointed barrel to the ground. “Hey, there, Wade, how you doing?” he says, and Wade’s stupid blue eyes go glassy and there’s more blood on his uniform than there is in his body and in the last single second of life left in him my dad squats down and whispers: “She’s my girl, Wade. My one and only girl.”
My dad—he loves me like crazy. You can’t hate that hard if you don’t have love.
My cousins ran around helping Dad pack—flashlight, binoculars, plastic moose call, nylon rope—all trying their best to avoid my eyes ’cause, really, what would they do then? Say Sorry? Get me more peas? Pet my forehead the way my mom might’ve done? One by one, the women in my family disappeared, sneaking down to California where water waved instead of froze and the sun only shone for half the day. My dad and Jack and their brothers blamed the light—twenty hours of sun in the summer made you jumpy as a carton of Red Bull and the dark in the winter was like living under a rock. “It takes some kinda woman to handle this life,” they’d say, and my mother wasn’t the kind they meant. One day I came home from elementary school and found her squatted on the sofa, talking to the caribou head. Another time, she bought me an Easy-Bake Oven and all the guys started laughing, uncles and cousins and even my dad. “What do you want her to do with that?” he asked. “She’s a killer, my girl!”
Not long after that she was gone.
All that was years ago and my dad still won’t talk about it, just loads up his gear and heads to the mountains; trailing, tracking, searching for something, always something. That day he went after Wade, once they’d all took off and I sat alone in the living room, I tilted my head back and talked to those heads, the moose and the caribou and the big ol’ curly-horned sheep. I said how I miss her. How I still have the toy oven, hidden in my closet under a box of tackle. How sometimes I hate being one of the guys. I want to put on some of those fancy shoes they sell at Coles and go out to goddamn dinner, and that’s why I liked Wade Dell Dallas and his stupid blue eyes and his Hey, sweetheart and his big, mechanic’s hands—because he is the only man I’ve ever known who’s made me feel pretty okay with those secret parts of myself, even when the sonofabitch caught me between the chest and the armpit, that shot to the lungs that stole the breath straight out of me.
This story appears in Stielstra’s story collection Everyone Remain Calm.
Megan Stielstra is the author of Once I Was Cool, and her collection COME HERE FEAR is forthcoming from Harper Perennial. Her work appears in Best American Essays, The New York Times, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, as well as National Public Radio and Chicago’s 2nd Story storytelling series. She teaches creative nonfiction at Northwestern University.