FOUR MEN, a woman and a quivering black Lab are crouched in a camouflaged hunters' blind somewhere near Chestertown, Md. Decoys look to be feasting in the surrounding cornfield. Overhead, two geese are circling wide in the low, gray sky.
Three of the men are hunting guides. They have been keeping up a steady orchestration of goose calling, an aboriginal drone. It is hypnotic, and the woman is fighting off the nod of sleep -- she had slept only a few hours and then stumbled into the blind at dawn.
She can't believe she is falling asleep under these circumstances: holding her new shotgun and straddling a dead goose on the mud floor. She opens her eyes wide but the goose calls lull them back to fluttering.
"Get ready! Get ready!" One guide stage whispers out of the side of his mouth. She's finally wide awake. The dog's teeth are clacking in anticipation of the shoot.
"Get ready!" Her husband is poised, straining for the second he can jump up and shoot. But the safety latch on her new gun is so stiff, her thumb can't push it back.
"Take 'em!" The four men leap up. The shooting puts a whine in her ears. The dog is gone in a dash.
She never got the safety off.
It's over; they sit down. The dog gallops back with a goose, wounded and flailing. One guide snaps its neck. Another, sitting next to her, can't resist, turns and asks with a sly smile, "You shoot?" Of course he knew.
Actually, that stab at shooting was the most exciting thing that happened in my first morning of bird hunting. The rest of several dank hours were spent reflecting on what a nice girl like me was doing in a plywood shack in the mud with a 20-gauge shotgun.
It was reflection such as this that prompted me to ask our main guide whether he catered to many women hunters, was I the eccentric exception?
"We're seeing more and more women," said David Price, who, with his wife Annette, runs Winter Farms Hunting out of Centreville, Md.
As the partner who logs in the reservations, Annette Price also has noticed an increase in women hunters, but she's not necessarily one of them. "I'm a pretty good shot," she said, "but I'm not a cold-weather person." She loves the family hunting dogs, which, incidentally, are the beneficiaries of the foul taste fowl leaves in her mouth.
I had plenty of time that first morning to reflect on what it's like to be the wife of an outdoorsman. When I married the guy sitting next to me in the blind, I knew he was a sailor, a rock climber, a fisherman, a skier. I did not know he was a hunter. But then, neither did he. He got bit by the bird-hunting bug only about a year ago -- or about a year before that same bug bit me.
I remembered the day Jim brought home his first shotgun. I didn't react viscerally, as some apparently do, to the idea of shooting birds for food. I even thought it was pretty ingenious of him to turn the small blowtorch from his cross-country ski kit on a plucked Canada goose, to scorch the down off.
The cooking of game birds was an adventure in itself, requiring a bevy of new cookbooks. Taking that first bite of wilderness was easier after seeing two major newspapers devote their Thanksgiving food sections to cooking game and the places where it could be purchased. I liked the taste of geese, pheasant, especially ducks. The sound of molars crunching on a shot pellet was an education in the composition of shotgun shells.
About that time, I also noticed I was feeling lonesome because Jim was off hunting on the Eastern Shore -- it was wife against ducks, and the ducks were winning.
I should have seen the future of the obsession when Jim started loading his own shells in the basement. He bought me a flannel camouflage shirt. It was punk, I liked it.
Then Jim came up with the notion of buying me a gun. I recalled sepia prints of my pioneer grandmother out in Kansas, standing in prairie scrub in her jodhpurs, holding a big rifle.
Down in the basement, Jim handed me his Remington pump shotgun. It was so heavy, I couldn't hold it up for very long before my arms started shaking. I thought I was off the hook. But before long, Jim had it all checked out: A little "youth gun" with a shortened barrel arrived at our house. We practiced shooting skeet at a range in Manassas.
The next thing I knew, it was wintertime, and I was putting on four layers of clothing at 4 in the morning, driving in the dark to meet strangers in pickup trucks, who would become our guides for a day. We would eat the "hunter's breakfast" in little cafes full of other hunters, then emerge into that first slap of cold air.
I was hooked.
On my second goose-hunting trip, we left Chincoteague, Va., in an open boat, with a pink sun barely showing. The wind was so cold and penetrating that I felt as if it was blowing months of city grime and pollution out of my system.
Our guide's blond Lab had her face into the wind too. Her master revved his little boat's big engine into a scream, and shouted over it, "We're gonna shoot some brant!"
And that is what I did.