It’s one of those childhood memories, half-dreamed, bathed in a blue glint of reminiscence. I was perhaps seven or eight years old – a strong-willed, sensitive child with a penchant for red-faced rages followed by inconsolable weeping. I remember the pheasant now, through the cool glass of the window on that February morning – or was it afternoon? Winter clouds circled above in a grim miasma.
I don’t know why my father wanted to shoot it. It didn’t feel like fair game – it strutted about the garden, with its crimson head all bloody like an apple, its dark jade neck and beetle feathers dusted with white and auburn. It was just looking around. Perhaps he did not shoot it in the garden, and that is my own invention. Perhaps it was between the dark stalks of fog-bound trees, stalking the bird through mounds of dank and marshy leaves, with a little me tottering behind. Yet I seem to remember a windowpane, the garden, the dumbness of an oblivious creature seconds from death.
My father towered over me as he tried to get past to the door handle. Clad in huge, moss-coloured waterproofs like a trench-coat fluttering in the Somme breeze he looked dark, brooding, almost aristocratic – a giant, handsome, purposeful hunter. The shotgun was lightly held in his arms, its long black barrel glimmering with obsidian sheen. I love my father and look up to him. He stood there with all the nobility and foreboding of a Homeric hero.
Did I beg him not to go? I knew what he was going to do. I hope that I pleaded with him and perhaps I did, with a snotty nose and big blue eyes filling like fishbowls on my rubber face. His hand was gentle, voice was firm and a seven year old is easy to push aside. And then the door was closed and his tall silhouette stood still in the garden. The pheasant slowly cocked its head round, looking small and silent in the background.
I must have been already crying, though nothing yet had happened. Tears stung my eyes, rolling down my fat cheeks in glassy balls like marbles. My hands felt stuck upon the windowpane and its response was cold. I was only a spectator now, watching through wet, salt pupils.
I didn’t want him to do it. I didn’t know the pheasant. It would have ran from me if I tried to cuddle it. It wasn’t a fluffy pet, or a friend. But I knew then, as I do now, that I don’t like kittens being dashed on walls, I don’t like when pigs cry and scream and I don’t like infant arms in rubble. The shot boomed and rolled, humming, throbbing like a primal drum. Then the pheasant was all bent over, crooked, twitching in the grass.
He was ringing its neck but it didn’t scream or cry, didn’t caw or cluck. Its neck just bent and wriggled, and my father’s hands like pincers were drenched in dew and blood. It didn’t open its dull beak. But its eyes, its eyes were wide with knowledge, with pain, with a black and slimy fear I have only seen in the eyes of dying things. Where did its red face like a poppy blossom end and where did the gore start? I could tell – blood looks more like tar. The ordeal went on very slowly.
Collapsed and snivelling I leaned against the glass door in a pathetic slump: a small, slug-like figure. My father came back towards the house, pheasant limp in his grasp, new colours on his hands and coat and face and head – a bald head, spotted with sacrificial stains like a priest of Amun-Ra. The pheasant’s face was all bent the other way, twisted around, looking back into the garden, past the hedgerow, into the freedom of the fields and woods, and beyond. When I saw its eyes they were not closed in sleep but open, as if dazzled by headlights.
How I recovered from the sight I don’t recall, but it doubtless didn’t take long. Pheasant soup tastes mighty fine and the morals of children are fickle.
By Matthew Chalmers