The Pheasant

May 7, 2008
“He’s no more my father than he is your husband now.”
My mother drew her hand through her blond, tangled hair. “I know you two never got along. But I think you ought to go. Maybe you can patch things up.”
She kicked out my father after twenty years of marriage. She couldn’t take his habits--- mostly hunting and whiskey. He was never home, either. He’d go up north for months at a time, leaving me and my mother to work and tend the house. When he did come home, he was always on the bottle. He never had much to say.
“Why don’t you get a second job to help around here? I work my ass off on the lines ten hours a day. What do you do?” School was for ‘kids who were going somewhere,’ he’d tell me. “I can’t support this family by myself.” He’d pop open a fresh beer and yell some unreasonable demand at my mother in the kitchen.
Sometimes he beat me when I was younger. My mother never knew since I hid it pretty well. I didn’t want to start more trouble than there already was. I knew he would only stay for a week or two anyway. Then, after boozing-it-up, he’d trail off into the woods again, his rifle slung around his back, his flask sloshing in his back pocket.
When mom finally told him she’d had enough, he didn’t say anything to either of us. He packed his bags and moved to Muskegon, thirty or so miles away from our house. Two years later, when I turned sixteen, he wrote me a letter inviting me to come hunting with him. In all the years of living together, he had never once asked me to come along. He must have known that I despised him, but I agreed to go, nonetheless. And though I didn’t plan on “patching things up,” I thought it might make my mom happy.
We drove north in his pickup on an early November morning, when the fog crept over the northern Michigan farm plains, and where the sleeping pheasants were hidden in the cover of bladed, yellowed grass. After parking the truck by an old abandoned barn, we walked out to the field, stalking the rows with our beagle Chester at our side, sniffing at the low burrows of weeds. It had rained the night before so the ground was muddy and soft and gave way to our heavy boots.
My dad’s old double-barrel was slung around my shoulder. He had told me to watch him for the first two or three kills, to “learn from a master.” The shotgun shells clinked together in my front pocket as we continued down the rows and I watched the sun rise, shimmering off the dew of the grass and pressed corn stalks.

“Why don’t you come to stay with me for a change?” It was the first thing he’d said to me all day. “I’ve got plenty of room. You, Chester, and I could go hunting on weekends. We’d be pals again. Wouldn’t you like that?”

Pals? It was a complete joke and he knew it. I felt like laughing out loud. “Mom needs my help around the house. Besides, all my friends are at home.”
“I don’t know why that woman is so convinced she can’t support herself. Always leaching off the men in her life, like damn crutches. I figured you’d want to get away from that woman, too.”
“Dad, what do you expect? You and I weren’t exactly close.”
He didn’t come up with an audible response. He just scoffed and carried on walking. Every now and then, Chester’s tail would perk up, and then he’d continue on. He was beginning to pick up his pace when he started sniffing furiously.
“Watch him, look where he’s going!”
But before I could pull my shotgun around, Chester had flushed two birds, a male and a female. The only sound was the beating of their wings hoping for takeoff. But the sound was silenced by the crash from two reports of my father’s twelve-gauge. They, the pheasants, seemed to hang in the air for a moment, until they spiraled back towards earth, plopping back onto the soft grass from where they came.
“What a shot! Ah, the feeling of a perfect kill.”
Chester trotted over to the birds, grabbing one in his jaws. After several failed attempts to take its mate in one trip, he came back to drop off the male, returning a few moments later with the female, her brown feathers bloodied and frayed at her breast.
My father had put the first bird in his pack and was going to grab the female when she let out the most awful sound I’d ever heard. She began to flop around wildly. It made me jump back but Dad gripped her by the neck in some sort of instinctive attack and squeezed. He squeezed as hard as he could. I could see his white knuckles, his face void of expression-- a routine that I could see was entirely familiar to him.
And then I saw her eyes. The pheasant’s blank, black eyes. They looked at me and I stared back. He started to ring her by the neck, shaking the flapping body until the sound of the thrashing feathers died away.

I couldn’t look at it. It made me ill and I turned my head to the brush to vomit. Dad gave me a terrible look of disappointment, something like, “Suck it up, wusssy. It’s just a bird.” He put the other pheasant in his pack. “Let’s go, we’ve got more to go.”

We had walked for twenty or thirty minutes before he spoke.

“I figured you could have handled this.”

I couldn’t say anything to him. I just walked and drank from my canteen, washing the sour vomit taste from my mouth.

We stopped to eat our lunch. I barely took two bites of my sandwich when I started to get sick again. My father looked up at me with those same disappointed eyes burning through me. I knew what he was thinking, how his pansy son couldn’t take the sight a few dead birds. His expression was awful, I couldn’t stand it, and I wanted to go home.

When he finished his sandwich, he spoke up, “Get up, let’s go.”

“I don’t feel so great. I think I’m going to walk back to the car.”

“I just don’t feel great, I want to lie down.”
“No son of mine is walking out on his first hunting trip. You still gotta’ show me that you can get a bird. Now pick up that gun.” It was then that I noticed the smell of his breath, that stink of strong whiskey.

I didn’t argue. I picked up the shotgun. He walked out in front of me and I followed close behind.

After some miles, Chester ducked low, pushing his nose to the dirt, bending his knees, and pointing his tail towards the sky. A goose flying over the field caught my eye and I watch it glide across the sky.
“Hey! Pay attention!”
When I turned back, Chester was pouncing on a mulberry bush. A young male pheasant flew into the afternoon sky.

“Pull your gun up, follow your target!”

Without thinking, I followed the order, pulled up my gun and aimed. But I stopped short. I hesitated, realizing what I was doing.
“Shoot him! Shoot him!”
Chester howled at the screeching bird.
The barking, the bird crying, his yelling—I wanted it all to stop. I closed my eyes, my finger strayed across trigger, and I squeezed.

“Good shot! Very good shot! See, it’s not that hard, now is it?”

I stood there in horror of what I had just done. Chester brought back the wet, bloodied corpse, and laid it at my feet. I couldn’t breath, tears welled up in my eyes.

“What are you doing?”
I couldn’t speak.
“Quit crying!”
I spoke up, “C’mon, Dad!” My voice broke at first, but I kept talking. “What do you want me to say? I’m not proud of that! I’m not proud!” I looked down at the bird. “I killed it! Oh God, I killed it!”
“Don’t you talk like that, boy!”
“Don’t yell at me, you damned drunk!” Chester started barking at us.

He slapped me, my face burned, and I fell to the ground. Chester’s howls echoed over the field.

“Shut up, you mutt!” He kicked him, and Chester cowered away, running towards me.

I pulled myself up off the ground and started running.

“Get back here!” I ran into the field and he followed, cursing. The ground was still wet and I had to jump, dodging knots of raised earth and muddy holes. I was near the edge of the forest when I looked back, my father was not too far behind. I heard a snap and pain struck up my leg as I fell back onto the mud. My ankle was broken. I knew it and I screamed. The pain made me light-headed and shaky. I started to feel sick again as he approached me panting. The sun blinded my sight of him.

“You ungrateful bastard!” He kicked some mud onto me and bent over to put his hands on his knees. “You go to hell,” he spit on my feet, “and take your mother with you.” He wiped his mouth and started to turn away.

And out of the corner of my eye I saw a beautiful brown female taking flight out of the brush-- its banshee squawking a deafening high-pitched whine and the beat of her feathers pounding in my ear drums. I saw the silhouette of the pheasant in the bright of the midday sun, my father’s right beside. I pulled up the old rifle and clicked off the safety. The crack of the shot made Chester whimper and my Dad fell to the ground beside me letting out the most awful sound I’d ever heard. I pulled open the gun, ejecting the smoking shell and the other that killed the pheasant before, while the bird flew up above my head and over the trees.

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