Spring-Summer 2010




Photo of sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus) by LeAnn Spencer. Copyright © 2010. All rights reserved.

Photo of sunset by Jason Sturner. Copyright © 2010.
All rights reserved.

Pheasant Hunting

Julie Wakeman-Linn

Two days after my mother’s funeral, my father, standing in the living room in old tan coveralls, announced he was going hunting. My aunts nagged in a chorus—what about the thank you notes to be signed? They expected the priest and Sister Marcella. The neighbors were bringing lasagna. When there was so much to do, how could he leave? He only shrugged when I blocked his path to the door.

I couldn’t stand any more sobbing people, people I hadn’t seen in years who cried all over me about how wonderful, how loving, how caring my mother had been. My silly aunts, mother’s little sisters, were the worst. They watched me, hovering as if waiting for me to get hysterical. I wasn’t going to be abandoned to them so I asked if I could come along hunting.

At least I didn’t have to deal with siblings—as the only child and daughter, I had spent the whole week resolving issues: her funeral service, her clothing, her little bits of jewelry. My father left it all up to me—anything I wanted was mine. “Haul it away,” he said.

My aunts fluttered about the house, kitchen cleaning, thank you note writing, sniffling on the phone. I had to get away from the house, anywhere, even a field to a South Dakota winter afternoon.

“It’s too bad your mum died in pheasant season; I could’ve walked that whole quarter section this week.” Dad’s hooked nose sniffling the wind. “Won’t snow today.”

“How can you say that?” I said.

“Do you want to hunt or not?”

“I just want to walk.”

“Good because I won’t get a shot if you jabber. Quiet is what’s needed.”  He pulled on his half-finger gloves, pushing the old wool in between his fingers. “Sobbing is for fools.”

Cold man. Cold as the wind blowing through the old red pickup, rolling right down the center of the gravel road. We hit a patch of washboard ridges that shook the teeth in my head, but he never slowed down. Fifty on a gravel road or fifty on the interstate, same to him.

If Mom had been with us, she would have bantered the whole way, teasing about the cold, pouring and probably spilling coffee. But come to think of it, Mom hadn’t hunted with Dad since before I was born. She’d just told me her stories about it as she cooked his birds.

Plowed fields, deserted for the winter, gave way to grassland, flanking a scrubby slough.

He parked where the dirt track ended. I tightened my boot laces, while my father loaded his rifle, and whistled the dog out of the back of the truck. She was just another in a long line of dogs, all German shorthairs named Nan who were the color of ashes.

We hiked to the middle of a quarter section into the frozen slough. The only open water was the creek, about eight feet wide.

“Now watch where I step. I know the stones and the high spots. Then your feet’ll stay dry.”

I grunted. I wasn’t a child who needed advice how to navigate a creek.

Midway in the creek, my father reached his hand back for me. “How you’re doing?”

Ignoring his hand, I hopped to the rock between us. “I’m fine.”

He twisted to let me pass and his foot slipped. “Damn, I’m sure to have some water in my boots.”

I was about to snicker at this mighty hunter, now with wet socks when he muttered, “Your mom and I first walked this quarter section in ‘37.”

I shut up.

We crossed the back forty acres and stood in virgin prairie where the creek made it too damp and rocky for a farmer to bother with. My dad pointed, saying see, it hasn’t been plowed in 150 years.

Back in the east, the green liberals—I worked with people like that—would have launched a protection campaign, but here this patch of land was ignored by everyone except pheasants and hunters.

“The pheasants sun themselves where the grass breaks. See where the blue stem stalks bend over in a clump? Now a smart rooster sits there and then if he hears anything, he’ll run like hell under the grass.” This was the longest speech he’d made since I got home when Mom went into her coma. “The hens stay hidden but the mister has to poke his beak out.”

Searching the grasses, I saw the prairie for the first time in years. Deciduous trees surrounded me in Maryland. This huge, empty expanse, a monochromatic study -- golden stalks, yellow clumps, burnished tassles—it bowed to the winter weather,  but deep down it was alive, waiting for spring.  Still and silent, except for the dog working her scent lines.

The dog pointed, quivering to her tail. My father stared ahead of her. I stopped well back.

A rooster burst from the grass, ten paces ahead of the dog. A whir of red, tan, green, black over my head. One retort and abruptly the wings spun out of control, tumbling the rooster from the sky. The dog hurtled past me for the retrieve. With a single perfectly placed shot, my father had brought down the bird on the fly.

“I knew you weren’t in my line of sight but I didn’t intend to shoot over your head,” my father called. “Did I scare you?”

“You’d never have shot me; your aim’s too good.” The gun’s retort still echoed over the prairie.

“Thanks.” He snapped open the barrel, so the shotgun lay over his elbow.

At his hand signal, the dog dropped the bird at his feet. He snapped its neck with a clockwise twist. As the bird dangled by its neck in his hand, I reached to stroke the feathers, iridescent green, russet, ivory, black and red.  It was so beautiful—a rooster rises at thirty miles per hour—I couldn’t distinguish the different colored feathers until now. Its beauty had been the swift controlled flight, not the colors.

“Baby, you crying?” His crooked knuckle of his pointer finger bumped my cheekbone, wiping it dry.

“No, Daddy.” We walked, crunching the frozen grass. “I understand now, your dead zone.”

He dug in his pocket, pulling out a handkerchief. “Talking gives me no peace; hunting does.”

Accepting his offered handkerchief, I wiped my eyes. “Hunting is about quiet. You needed some, too, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” He took the spent shell out of the gun’s chamber. “Baby, no one else in the family feels like me, but you do, don’t you?”

I nodded and looked down to pick my way over a tiny patch of snow. “I guess I’ve crawled into your quiet.”

I hiked with him for another hour. Two more shots, two more birds.