That year Tony’s mother forgot all about Christmas. None of us was surprised, really, and nobody blamed her. She had other things on her mind.
Growing up, Tony and I were neighbors, and for years we had spent most of our spare hours fishing and hunting together, exploring the lakes and woods within walking distance of our homes. Tony was my best friend. In the year that his mother forgot about Christmas, Tony was 14, skinny, and so tall that he was already in the habit of stooping at doorways. His father had died young, in August, after a long illness, leaving Tony the oldest man in the house. Now he was responsible for two little brothers who had to be kept away from matches and knives, and his 13-year-old sister, nearly as tall as Tony himself, who possessed not a trace of respect for his authority.
Tony took it upon himself to cheer up his mother for the holidays and decided that a dinner of baked grouse and pike fillets would do the trick. I came from a ham and turkey family myself, but I was willing to go along with just about any plan that involved fishing or hunting.
We lived in the northern reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. In those days, we hunted over my dog, Lady, a sausage-fat beagle who in her prime sometimes climbed trees after squirrels and was the only beagle I’ve ever known who would point birds. She had grown up with a pair of my father’s Brittany spaniels and had learned to lock into a rigid, trembling, belly-to-the-ground point whenever she got a nose full of game bird. Lady’s points were never pretty, but you could trust them as long as she wasn’t distracted by rabbits or squirrels or deer.
Tony and I had one gun between us, a sleek and ancient single-shot 12 gauge that kicked like a howitzer and had been presented to me with formal solemnity on my 12th birthday. It had been my father’s first gun, given to him by his father, and it was understood that I would eventually pass it on to my own son or daughter. It was my most treasured possession, a man’s gun, and I was proud of it. The day after I received it, my father had taken me to his duck blind at the Mud Lake Flooding, where I promptly dropped a drake mallard that rocketed past at 60 yards. It was the only bird I ever shot on the wing with that gun.
Over the years, Tony and I took our share of grouse with it, but they were always ground swats. Whenever it was Tony’s turn to shoot, whether he missed or not, he always held the gun up afterwards and admired it. “This is a sweet shotgun,” he would say. I was sure it was a collector’s item. “You take good care of this baby,” he said. But more often than not it was he, not I, who cleaned it at the end of a day of hunting.
Our December grouse hunt was nearly a failure; Lady had to tunnel through heavy snows that had mounded up in the woods. She kept going off erratically, whining in frustration, and snorting up little spouts of snow. Finally Tony and I flushed a grouse from dense hemlocks, but it shot off on the far side of the trees, leaving only a trail of sifting snowfalll as it flapped through a stand of evergreens. We hunted three or four more days without seeing another bird, then, with Lady nowhere to be found, we almost stepped on one that was roosting in the snow. It blew up from the loose fluff, flaring its wings. We might as well have stepped on a land mine. If I had been carrying the gun I would have been too startled to even think of wasting a shell. But Tony swung on the bird, fired, and it tumbled dead into the snow. We could not have been more surprised. We dressed it and took it home to store in my parent’s freezer.
Tony decided the only way to get a northern pike large enough to feed his entire family was to spear it. Yet Long Lake’s pike population was in decline; the survivors were battle-wizened and cautious. Besides, neither Tony nor I had any experience throwing spears at fish. My father frowned on that time-honored practice, proclaiming it underhanded and chic, a sanctioned form of cheating. Tony’s father had at one time been keen enough about it to build a shanty and equip it with a stove and spear, but the ice shanty required almost daily maintenance. If you neglected to jack up the corners and support them with blocks of wood, the entire structure sank gradually into the ice until the only way to get it off the lake was to chain saw the free standing portion, leaving the floor behind. Tony’s father was a long-distance trucker, home too seldom to give proper attention to the shanty. Eventually he had pulled it to shore and left it there, perched on cement blocks under the birches.
On Christmas Eve day, Tony and I spent the morning digging the shanty out of the snow and dragging it with his toboggan onto the lake. So much snow had fallen that the ice was sinking, forcing water to the surface and forming slush. We horsed the shanty to a 3×3-foot hole we’d cut through the ice with a spud. Once it was in place, and the hole scooped clear, we banked up snow around the shanty to keep light from seeping inside and ignited the stove. We closed the door into darkness.
As our eyes adjusted, we looked down the hole into an entirely new world. Lit green like an aquarium, quiet as the inside of the earth, the watery opening was a surprise to us—I guess we had grown accustomed to seeing only the desertlike winter surface of the lake. On the bottom, 10 feet down, rested wisps of pikeweed and skeletal maple leaves. Outside everything was white, frozen to stillness. Down below was color and movement and life.
Tony picked up his father’s spear and removed the block of wood that protected its six sharp tines. The shaft measured five feet long and was weighted at the bottom with two pounds of lead. An eyelet at the other end was attached to a coil of cord.
We used a wooden decoy weighted with a leader and shaped like an eight-inch, red-and-white sucker. Tony tied it to a spool of braided line and lowered it into the water. He jigged it and it swam in circles, rising and falling like a merry-go-round horse.
The interior warmed and we took off our jackets. I turned to hang mine on the wall and bumped the spear, knocking it hurtling in a stream of bubbles to the bottom. When the water cleared, the spear rested at an odd angle in the muck. Tony pulled it to the surface, bringing up a trail of leaf parts and mud. Then he threw the spear into the water again—not throwing it so much as pushing it off, letting the weight do the work. It shot straight down and stuck in the bottom. I took a turn, aiming at a length of weed I could imagine was a fish. Tony blanked it again on the edge of the hole and we settled down to wait.
Sitting there in the warm, dark shanty, I started thinking about Christmas. I was 14 too that year, and though I no longer approached the holiday with the same expectations I had as a child, I was reluctant to give them up. For months I had dropped hints about a gasoline-powered airplane. It as not a sensible gift because it required a broad expanse of concrete or asphalt for takeoffs and landings, and there was no such place for 10 miles in any direction of my house. But the child in me wanted it. I wanted the old excitement. I had learned about my parents’ version of Christmas, in which it was better to give than to receive, but that idea was strong to me.
“Tony,” I said, “What do you want for Christmas?”
He turned slowly, his mind elsewhere. His face was lit from below with eerie light. “I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing much.”
“Nothing much? Come on.”
“Some school clothes. Maybe a hunting knife.”
I said nothing about the airplane.
I took a long turn with the decoy. In time my arm seemed to move independently of me. The decoy below vaulted and sailed, attached by its black umbilical, and seemed to have no connection to my arm. I started getting restless. I wondered why Tony was not content to just eat store-bough turkey like everyone else.
I handed the decoy line back to him and stood to put on my coat.
“I’m going for a walk.”
I stomped out a circle in the slush and waited for it to freeze so I would have a dry place to stand. I imagined my parents at home, preparing for our traditional Christmas celebrations. Then I thought of Tony’s mother, which made me think of his dad. I had preferred death when it was an abstract concept. That summer it had struck too close to home and I didn’t know how to think about it. Tony and I never talked about it, not once. I told myself he preferred it that way.
Tony shouted. I spun and looked at the shanty. He shouted again. There was a clatter insde and the shanty seemed to rock and tremble, like a cartoon rocket about to launch. The door burst open and Tony tumbled out, his spear at waist level impaled through a gyrating northern pike. He could hardly hold it up.
Ten pounds, I though in disbelief. Fifteen pounds. Tony threw it down on the ice and danced in triumph around it.
It was not 15 pounds. More like 10. Eight, to be honest. But it was plenty large enough for dinner. Tony’s grin was so broad, I thought his face would cramp. He told me what happened, how the fish had appeared suddenly, without warning. One moment there was nothing, the next there was a northern pike, the largest he had ever seen, hovering in the center of the hole. It focused intently on the decoy, its fins waving to keep it in position. Tony had pushed the spear off firmly, the way we had practiced.
We walked to the shore, stepping in the plugged and frozen footprints we had made starting out. Tony waited while I ran up the hill and took the wrapped grouse from my parents’ freezer. Then we walked together to his house, like wise men bearing gifts.
His mother sat along in the kitchen, dressed in a sweat shirt and jeans, her hair pulled back and pinned so tight it stretched the skin taut on her face. The house was dark, no dishes were set on the table, and the oven was cold. I realized for the first time what Tony had been so intent on achieving and it made me ashamed for not taking his efforts more seriously. I was ashamed, too, because my family was so stable and complete, our Christmas so abundant that the bounty overflowed outdoors. There were wreathes on our doors and an electric Santa on the roof and a two-string coil of blinking blue lights around the spruce beside the driveway. Inside was Christmas music and a crackling fire and dishes heaped with nuts and the chocolate candies my mother made every year. Our Christmas tree was large and full, lit as bright as the night sky, with an enormous silver star on top. I was ashamed and grateful and guilty all at once. Tony and his sister had set up a tree, but it was skinny and sparse, with a few tinny ornaments and a scattering of tinsel. I realized then, with the kind of sudden irrefutable insight that kids are prone to, that Tony’s family could not stay here much longer, that the house would be sold, that this would be the last Christmas we would spend as neighbors.
It took her a few moments to notice us, but when she saw what we were offering she smiled. She motioned for us to put the fish and grouse in the sink, and then pulled Tony into her arms in a hug. His sister and brothers appeared, as if they had been summoned. Everyone was smiling. That evening they would have the goofiest Christmas meal of their lives, and it would be a turning point they would always remember—not the first Christmas without their dad, but the Christmas Tony brough home pike and grouse for dinner.
It was nearly dark. I headed home, following the deep trail Tony and I keept open ll winter between our houses, and walked in on my mother’s usual Christmas Eve feast. My grandparents were there, and uncles and aunts, and all my cousins. There was venison sliced thin and served with gravy as a side course to the turkey. We had mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows, cranberry sauce, two or three kinds of pies and homemade ice ream. I watched my father as if I had never seen him: A big man at the head of the table, his sleeves rolled, laughing at someone’s joke while he used a carving knife and fork to slice the turkey into thick white slabs. I was never so grateful to have him home.
In the morning we open presents and to my surprise I was handed, not a gasoline-powered airplane, but a mysterious, long, heavy package. I tore into it with fear and disbelief. Inside was a new pump-action 20-gauge shotgun. It was the exact gun I had been coveting in catalogs for years. I had always been so sure it was beyond any possibility o possession that i had never dared mention it to my father.
I was stunned. My parents sat close together, their eyes bright, watching my reaction. I could not believe they would buy me such a gift. Their generosity humbled me. I wanted to emulate it.
After breakfast I cleaned and oiled my old 12-gauge and replaced it inside its leather case. I wrapped it in Christmas paper.
My father watched. “What about shells?” he asked. He helped wrap two boxes. They made heavy, satisfying packages in my jacket pocket.
Outside it was cold, the morning air harsh, the snow crunching underfoot like Styrofoam. Tony came to his door wearing a new sweater over his pajamas. Behind him his brothers stood five feet from one another, screaming into a pair of walkie-talkies. Tony grinned at the commotion and stepped aside to invite me in, but I stood my ground, hands behind my back, breath hanging in the cold air.
I will never forget his eyes, the way they grew wider and wider as I held the bright package out to him.
This story was published in the December 1991 issue of Outdoor Life. To read more stories from our archives, visit covertocover.outdoorlife.com