Shooting Pheasants
by Joshua Allen


Olan raised his shotgun in what would have been seen by an objective observer as a blur of fast motion, a glint of blued steel. The wheat swayed; the bird swayed with it. Heat, noise and light turned into blood, feathers and smoke. Olan, alone in the field, retrieved the bird without comment. He trekked to the far end of the field, reloading a red shotgun shell into the warm barrel of his gun, dropping the spent cartridge into one of the many pockets of his elaborate hunting vest. The bird, stuffed into the large pouch on the back of his vest, kicked without conviction; it was dead. It let out a low squawk when Olan bent to pick a grain of wheat from a low stalk.

Olan moved a few yards south and went back into the rows of the wheat field, dragging his heavy boots through dew and mud. At the other end, Olan could see his car, a blue Saturn, waiting patiently. A mechanical sound, a rhythmic pulse, drifted through the trees from the hard-packed dirt road on the other side. Olan walked to the tree line, resting his shotgun in the crook of his arm so it was aimed in a harmless direction. He rested his free hand on a fence post.

A silver bicycle was passing towards him. It was a long-distance bike. Its trundler, a middle-aged man, wore Spandex clothing wet with sweat in the usual places. His breathing sounded like that of a man who had come a long way, and still had a long way to go. Olan gave the stranger a wave as he approached, bypassing the normal lines of small talk out of respect for the man's dedicated laboring. The stranger nodded in return, too tired even to lift a hand. No other sound except the steady pulse of a well-oiled chain driving the gears of an expensive bicycle passed through the field or beyond. A thought occurred to Olan, but a breeze took it like milkweed spores into the atmosphere. The wheat swayed, the clouds subdued the sun for only a second.

In a blur of blued steel and polished walnut, Olan whipped the shotgun to his shoulder and fired a single shot. The blast reverberated across the plains, answered by nothing. When the sound cleared, a bird whistled above him in the trees. This was followed by the sort of utter silence that occurs in a theatre as the lights dim and the curtain rises. Olan turned, already reloading his shotgun, snatching the spent shell from midair when it ejected and putting it in the pocket of his jeans. He moved down a few yards south, and proceeded across the field, then back; he saw nothing move except the wheat.

He popped his shotgun open, caught the unspent shell and slipped it into one of the elastic loops on his vest. At his car, he placed the shotgun in the trunk and retrieved his Buck knife. He spilled the pheasant's guts into the grass in the ditch by the trees. He was methodical and patient as he dressed the bird--the mark of a man who has performed the task countless times. He even picked some of the shot from the pheasant's breast with the tip of his knife. He washed the feathers and blood from his hands with water he kept in a canteen he had purchased at a military surplus store. He took a drink of the lukewarm water. Olan's car was an oven; the temperature for a winter day was unusual, but the weather channel predicted snow later that night. The layer of sweat on his forehead began to dry to a patina of salt as he waited in his car for the air conditioner to reach the cooling level. He backed the car out from the entrance to the game preserve, which was just a wheat field at the edge of a forest, and drove down the right side of the road to avoid the bicycle. It lay there in a silver shimmer, like a complicated puddle of mercury, with only one small, red blemish. You wouldn't want to nudge such a delicate balance as that layered pool for fear that it would destabilize into a single, ugly puddle.

# # #

Olan boiled his pheasant in one pot of water and a portion of egg-noodles in another. His mother came into the kitchen smelling of ammonia and sweat.

"You got one, I see."

Olan nodded.

"What are you thinking about?"

Olan stirred the noodles.

"Your brother?"

Olan shrugged and strained the finished noodles through the colander he had set in the sink. He slid the wet noodles back into the pot and dropped in a quarter stick of milky butter. Then he sprinkled in dried oregano, garlic powder, and parsley.

"It will be nice to have a Christmas together again," his mother said. She was scrubbing her hands in the sink Olan had just vacated. She was humming a John Lennon tune. "Watching the Wheels," Olan thought.

"Statistics say he'll be back inside within six months."

He could hear the wind leave his mother's lungs. He could feel her tears, smell them drop into the sink. She left as he began to shred the pheasant's breast meat into the pot holding his noodles. He was silent as he stirred the concoction together, mixing the flavors, adding a bit of Parmesan cheese at the end. He dished it out onto a plate and ate it a forkful at a time at the dining room table. Occasionally, he heard a sob from his mother's bedroom. He never flinched.

He felt the wind from his mother's swift entry. He turned to see her and his face met with the hard knock of her open hand. He met it full, resumed chewing his food as the pain of raw nerves began to flare.

"You have always been my baby and your brother has always been the fuck-up. But he's your brother and he's my son and if you love me, you'll love him."

Olan said nothing, but resumed devouring his kill. Olan's brother had never liked hunting, but had loved shooting. Like a child impressed with noise and sound and power, he would shoot at anything that caught his eye. Olan never went hunting with his brother once their father quit making him go. When their father had died, Olan had cried and pushed handfuls of dirt into the ground that was their father's new home. His brother had gotten drunk and high and pushed a fifteen-year old girl from a three-story window. The girl had been too drunk herself to be injured. Pushing fifteen-year old girls wasn't why Olan's brother was in jail.

Olan could feel his mother's anger burn from his silence. She went out the front door, slamming it because it was the only door in the entire house that would slam with such authority. Olan set his fork down on the table. He went down into the basement, his dank sanctuary. He took his shotgun from the closet where he kept it propped behind a pile of dirty laundry. He took out his set of brushes and began running the copper bristles through the barrel of the gun, cleaning the burnt powder from the steel interior. Black pungent crumbs spilled from the barrel with each stroke. Olan was finished cleaning by the time his mother returned. His pheasant/egg-noodle supper still lay on the table, cold and half-eaten.

His mother was kicking around, making noise upstairs in case Olan hadn't realized her return. He reclined in the old chair that occupied his room, laying the shotgun across the armrests. The gun contained him like a roller-coaster bar. He dug the empty shotgun shell out of his pocket. He lifted it to his nose and breathed in the smell of spent gunpowder, a smell that always aroused him. He put the empty shell in the gun and snapped it closed. Then he pointed it towards the door of his bedroom. He cocked the hammer and dry-fired the gun.

"Pow," he said, the breath barely passing his vocal chords.

He opened the gun and caught the empty shell, the reloaded it, cocked and dry-fired at the door again.

"Olan, wait I'm your moth—"


Reload, cock, fire.

"Finally back from the pen, bro. What're you—"


Reload, cock, fire.

"We've come to take you in for the murder of—"


Olan opened up the gun again and caught the airborne shell. Before he could stick it back in, he heard the auxiliary doorbell in the basement sound. He heard his mother's footsteps. He loaded the spent cartridge into the gun and cocked it. Then he put the butt of the gun on the floor and the barrel of the gun in his mouth. He snapped the trigger clumsily with the toe of his shoe.

"Pow." But the word was muffled this time, inarticulate and full of drool.

"Olan?" He could hear his mother through the ceiling, but didn't respond.

He looked at his closet, staring hard. His vest was in there, the vest his father had purchased for him years ago. A thought entered his mind, but the air pressure from his bedroom door opening blew the thought away. It joined the mold-spores of the basement, becoming just another nuisance unseen.

"Olan, what are you doing?"

"Cleaning my gun, mom."

"Well, Mark is here to see you."

"Be right up, mom."

His mother left the door open as she marched back up the stairs. Olan knew he was all right. He knew if he went upstairs and told his mother a story of a terrible accident and a fearful panic, that his mother would take him in her arms and cry into his hair and then she would call who she needed to call and that somehow she would make everything work out. That was what his mother would do. Olan popped the gun open one last time, letting the empty shell land on the carpet behind him. He placed his finger on the firing pin and slammed the gun shut. The pain was a ribbon from his finger to the base of his skull. The tears were instantaneous. Tears would be necessary, he knew. His mother would expect tears.


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