I used to tell a story about a beautiful creature and how its perfect killing meant I had learned something or other. It began…
When I’d shot him, I held him by the feet, and I stood on his blue and green iridescent throat and pulled his head away from his bloody neck. I’d taken him with the .410 Dad had given me.
Working nights and weekends, Dad provided but was otherwise as good as divorced from the family. We appreciated his labor, and I had no problem with his absence, but I didn’t really care about hunting. I suppose he’d found the gun because he thought that was what fathers do.
Some of the other kids hunted though… some who had girlfriends and who seemed to know things. It might mean something, I thought, so I took the gun and began stocking the wooded draws, the riverside, and the stubble of our December fields for game. I liked firing the shotgun… the kick, the release.
When I killed rabbits, I took them to Old Man French. He’d grown up poor and had a taste for wild things. In 10 minutes flat, he’d gut and skin a cottontail and begin it frying in a big dollop of Crisco. He thanked me for everything I could bag with homemade bread and cold beer.
The stubbly corn where I sometimes found rabbit attracted ringneck pheasant too. A pheasant is a beautiful animal. Its bare face shines bright red; its throat shimmers iridescent green and blue; a white band rings its neck, and its multiple shades of maroon plumage are tipped at feathers’ ends in black and white. It has a long split tail with ebony bands.
To shoot a pheasant, you first must find one. Whether in a corn field or tall grasses, you never knew if it wold kick into the air or just run the ground. If it did kick up, this happened out of nowhere with a frightening hollow gobble of wings pumping the air chirping and squeaking like a voiceless banshee, a bat out of hell.
Then, quick, you’d must determine its gender; you could shoot a cock, but must shed its awe… a ringneck is gorgeous on the wing. Then you’d snap closed your breech, pull the hammer, lead the bird a little but not too much, and fire, all in a motion, all in a second.
On Christmas Eve day, when I was 15 years old, I thought to have a walk, to see what I could find. Old Man French might enjoy a fresh bunny for the holiday. Besides the air was glorious and crisp; the sky was clear blue. The green foliage had long given way to early Winter, its grays and gold.
I’d headed North from the house and across the Rock Island tracks. A wooded strip of land separated the Raccoon River from the railway. The woods were full of thorn trees, but you could walk the path outside. The town dump lay a bit further west.
I’d seen no rabbits, and was a couple hundred yards from the dump, when I scared up a fat ringneck. He got up so quickly and so frightened me that I didn’t get a shot, but I watched him fly through a break in the woods, across the river, to settle in John Jungman’s corn stubble.
The bridge across the river was a mile behind me. If I did walk back, I’d walk a mile up the other side of the river and eventually a mile and a half back home. Still, if I didn’t get my bird, I might get a rabbit; I could stop at French’s for a cold one on the way home.
So I walked back along the wooded strip and through our little town. A boy with a loaded gun roused no concern there. I crossed the river bridge where, in summer, men drank cold beer, swatted mosquitos all night, and threw back the ugly carp they hooked.
I trekked up the North side of the flow though the rich rich bottomland that yielded a hundred bushel of corn an acre even in bad years but flooded often in the spring. The wood on the river’s edge shaded me. Where I thought he’d landed is where I found him.
He fluttered out in front of me, shoulder high. Before I could think, I’d snapped my breach closed, raised the barrel, and fired. His right wing dropped; then his head, and he somersaulted to the ground. The field was quiet then but for a little wind and the far off horn of the Rock Island Rocket.
Mom dressed the bird at home. There wasn’t much shot, six or eight bee-bees only. We probably ended with a pound of leg and breast, enough for the four of us for Christmas dinner. The meat was peppery, a bit dry and wild, but delicious.
I don’t tell this story now, at least not this way… not since the last Christmas with my father. And although he’d never been a father before my birth, and I’d never been a father before my children, my father had learned a few things, things I did not know.
So that Christmas, when I ended with, “I never took another rabbit to Old Man French; I never hunted again,” and everyone had gone quiet, my father waited a few beats.
He waited in all the Christmas glow and the warmth, and finally looked at me and smiled coldly and said, “How do you know?” And I said “What?” But he said nothing.
And I repeated, “How do I know what?” And he said, “How do you know it was the same bird? Maybe you were just lucky. A chance shot too. That’s all. Plain dumb luck.”
So I thought a moment, and I knew I didn’t know. My father had been right. Nothing special had happened, no special meaning found.
I rarely tell the ringneck story now.