A Delta Hunt
In Mississippi, the week between Christmas and New Year's is set aside for deer and duck hunting.
The loblollies flash past as we roll on the Natchez Trace out of Madison, Mississippi, north of Jackson, in Andy Dyess’s white Dodge, bound for the Delta; and Andy’s laying out the week ahead, talking what William Faulkner knew made for “the best of all listening,” the talk of hunting. Andy is forty-something, baggy- eyed, with a bit of a paunch, a short boxed beard, and a bowl-cut head of chestnut hair. The radio is on, and Andy lights a Winston. In the pickup cab are a minimum of five long guns, a stockpile of ammunition, knives, binoculars, bedrolls, day packs, camo clothing, knee boots, and several unopened bottles of brown liquor. All of which are essential matériel for this particular time, because this is the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the week the hunters of Mississippi have been awaiting all year, the week when home is a cabin or a clubhouse, often stilted up above flood level; and the purpose of being there is, though not in its entirety, to find the Big Man white-tailed deer and, in the downtime, a few ducks.
The traditions of the Week may not be antebellum, but in their vitals they were codified long before Faulkner’s boyhood initiation into them. To some the traditions may seem antediluvian because the Week is not about work (definitely), wives (generally), or offspring (preadolescently). It is about heads and antlers and wild birds stilled in flight on pecky-cypress-paneled walls; groaning bunk beds and obdurate snoring; muttered predawn awakenings; shivering transport on ATVs or in boats; dipped tobacco; tree stands and shooting boxes or netting-covered waterfowl blinds; merciless japery; shared meals featuring, depending on the hour of the day, red meat grilled or fried, biscuits and gravy, butter-yellow scrambled eggs, boiled vegetables, grits cheese or plain, molasses, red-pepper sauce, and sweet tea; last-light deer borne in and suspended from the meat pole and dressed by lantern glow; sticks of hackberry flaming across sections of iron train rails in the open stone hearth inside; jokes, to some extent, artfully told; the odd game of chance; certainly whiskey in “salute,” as Faulkner would have it, to the quarries’ “virtues of cunning and strength and speed,” even if the whiskey is drunk now over ice in a Styrofoam go-cup rather than from the neck of a wicker-wrapped demijohn. Regrettable, of course, has been the adding of the cell phone and the big-screen TV, but at least they can remain turned off.
Andy does something in insurance but lives for whitetail. He has a certified Boone and Crockett trophy head in his home’s office. He spends much of his fall and winter in pursuit of wide racks, and the rest of the year maintaining and preparing his hunting lands for the deer that sport such “rocking chairs” on their heads. His hope is that the Week this year will coincide with the height of the rut.
By late afternoon on the palisades of the Delta we wind through the tiny tree-shadowed clutch of abandoned clapboard buildings that is Teoc—not only the birthplace of Mississippi John Hurt but also, in one of those peculiar entwinings of history, the locale where Senator John McCain’s great-great grandfather, felled in the War Between the States, owned a plantation and slaves. Then we are down in the Delta itself, driving past the table-level fields of “skeleton stalks of cotton” that grew “in rich deep black alluvial soil…taller than the head of a man on a horse” and turning up a muddy road that conveys us past palmettos and hardwoods and through the gate in a wooden rail fence to the clearing where the Timber Company (an approximate name) hunting club stands and Andy’s hunting friends of more than a generation, the three brothers McRee and Jeff Champion, are expecting us.