Snipe Hunt

When I was nine years old, I achieved my lifelong dream of falling in with the wrong crowd. The wrong crowd was a quartet of ten-year-old girls who wore too much lip gloss and invented disparaging nicknames for everyone-- everyone, except Mimsy. Mimsy was what the authority types used to call a ring leader, a fleshy pillar of Teutonic substantiality, poser of many questions, responder to none. We liked her because she was bright, talkative, and a genius at organizing impromptu overnight camping trips, but we didn't dare give her a nickname-- not one that she knew about, anyway.

It was a clear but moonless night in late July, smack-dab in the center of Summer Break, and the five of us sat knee-to-knee inside Mimsy's parents' big tent, nestled in the woods a few miles from Mimsy's house. We were jabbering and giggling in that style peculiar to Californian girls of our age, just munching Chee-tos and letting the conversation drift any-which-way. It was nearly midnight when April (a leggy brunette reclining off to my right) said,

"Anyway, I'd feel guilty about it-- he's probably never even been snipe hunting before."

I nodded in assent and casually asked, "What's 'snipe hunting?'"

Four seconds later, we were (all five of us, by the glow of a single flashlight) tramping through the woods in our pajamas and flip-flops, Mimsy on one side, Big Louise on the other, April and Little Louise behind us, as Mimsy detailed the virtues of snipe hunting and the laws that govern it.

"Snipes are these tiny little birds that live in the bushes," Mimsy explained, putting an empty pillowcase in my hand. "They go in big flocks and they taste, mmm, just like quail, or pheasant."

"A lot of times, when you see quail or pheasant in a grocery store, it's actually snipes," Big Louise chimed in.

"Yeah," continued Mimsy, "and they're really good. So, what you do is, you get a bunch of people together, and they all spread out in a big circle and start beating the bushes, moving toward the center, and there's one person in the middle, holding a bag. You've got to hold it open, close to the ground, like this, and wait for the snipes to run in."

I stopped. "You mean, we're going to catch the little birds and eat them?"

Mimsy read my expression and went silent.

"We could just do catch-and-release," Big Louise suggested. The other three commenced to bob their heads in agreement, and we walked on.

"Here's a good spot," Mimsy declared after a few more minutes of hiking. She began to speak very quietly "Now, hold the bag like I showed you, and stand perfectly still. You've got to be very quiet, but it helps if you do the snipe call."

Immediately, the four of them commenced singing, "Woo-oot, woo-oot, woo-oot!"

"Just like that," whispered Mimsy. "Now you try it."

Something about this whole snipe-hunting business seemed very suspicious. "Woot."

"No, no, you've got to put some feeling into it!" Big Louise whispered harshly.

I glared at her, but she never flinched. "Woo-oot?"

"Perfect!" Mimsy said, extinguishing the light. It was a good thing that I was standing still and surrounded by trustworthy people, because I couldn't see a thing. "Now, stay right there and keep calling, and we'll spread out and drive the snipes toward you."

"It might take a little while," said Big Louise's retreating voice, "but I know for a fact that these woods are full of snipes. And bears. Just stay there and wait for the snipes, and watch out for bears."

And I was alone.

In the absence of the moon, the stars shone ever brighter and clearer, but their light hardly penetrated the forest canopy to my level. I stood rooted to the spot, clutching my snipe bag and emitting the occasional halfhearted "woot," but the forest noises-- the crickets and the anonymous rustle and crackle from the trees-- easily drowned me out. Hours seemed to pass, and then I heard a louder crash of twigs somewhere in the distance.

"Woo-oot, woo-oot," I called.

Something wailed, "Woo-oot!" very loudly, and I dropped the bag. As I fumbled for it, so blind and nervous that I didn't recognize the feeling of my own fingers brushing my own toes, I heard another "woo-oot!" accompanied by several more thrashing, crashing bush sounds, too loud to be a flock of little game birds, possibly too loud to be a bear, and then he emerged into the clearing.

He was about eight feet tall, with spindly spider-legs, a big ball of fluff for a body, a long, curving neck, another ball of fluff for a head, two beady black eyes and a scythe-like beak. When I saw him, I jumped, stumbled over a tree root, and fell flat on my back.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"Yes, I'm fine," I said, before I remembered that I was addressing an eight-foot-tall, talking bird-thing. "What are you?"

"Well, I'm a snipe, of course."

I blinked and gave him a once-over. "You don't look like a snipe-- you're too big."

He shrugged (he had a pair of undersized wings hidden in the fluff). "There are all kinds of snipes, you know-- common snipes and guttersnipes, jacksnipes and Wesley Snipes. I'm a Brazilian Ground-Snipe, myself."

I picked myself up and dusted myself off. "You're a long way from Brazil," I noted.

"I'm here on vacation."

Which made perfect sense. "But, what are you doing all the way out here in the woods?"

"My friends and I are hunting humans."

My heart jumped into my throat. "Humans?"

"Yeah, humans-- they're these itty-bitty little birds that live in the bushes, and they sound like this: woo-oot, woo-oot, woo-oot!" He shrugged again, and the wind stirred the downy feathers on the top of his head. "At least, that's what my friends told me-- I've never seen one. Anyway, my friends are going to go around and shake the bushes to drive the humans toward me, and I'm supposed to catch them in this burlap sack here."

"Sounds a little suspicious," I said.

"Well, that's what I thought-- but then I heard human calls over here. Did you see them?"

I grinned. "I saw some girls earlier."

"No humans, then." He dropped his head. I suppose it's difficult to express disappointment when all you have is a beak. "All right, I guess I'd better get back to my spot. Good night," and he strolled back through the bushes, whistling "A-Hunting We Will Go." That was the last I saw of him, or any other Brazilian Ground-Snipe, for that matter.

A few minutes later, Mimsy and the rest of my friends reappeared suddenly with masks and scared the living tar out of me, which, I've come to suspect, was the real purpose of snipe hunting. I tried many times to tell them what I had seen that night, but I never could; nor could I ever bring myself to go on another snipe hunt. They are noble, majestic creatures, even if they are a little gullible.