Opening Day

bird hunting, montana, bozeman, poem, dogs,

Lessons from the field.

Ernie’s truck rattles along the dirt road
and we’re both quiet,
half listening to Science Hour on NPR,
the host gabbling through a bad connection
as we wind our way to the outskirts of Townsend,
to a gate, where we stop.

The dogs trill between audible inhales,
trembling while they wait,
as we remove layers and load guns,
shot shells rattling deep in our pockets.

The door of an old barn swings open
and slams shut.
Clouds scud across the sky like white claws.
Russian olives gather in hearty clusters,
silvery branches holding steady in the wind.

We weave through scattered outbuildings
and head into the fields,
wading through Indiangrass tall as my chest,
the dogs leaping like dolphins
then sinking again into the flaxen sea.

I’ve hunted two seasons, grouse only,
scrambling after my dog along mountain ridges.
But in these pheasant fields, we are a fledgling pair.
Ernie, though, is 64 and has spent decades out here,
so I listen for his every tousle
and watch for movement.

When he waves me over,
pointing at his setter, Scotch,
I struggle to move toward him
pushing through the giant blades.
He’s birdy, he mouths, and I nod.
It feels important to be eager, and I am.

Scotch rushes onward and I chase after him.
He lifts his head at intervals to smell,
darting again, a deliberate left, then right,
with me in tow mirroring his movements,
until he locks on point,
his tail stiff and sturdy, one front leg lifted.

I whisper, good boy
as I creep ahead of him,
shotgun poised, thumb switching off the safety,
breath held, one more step
before a sudden and startling flush,
russet wings fluttering brat-a-tat-tat but softer.

I mount my shotgun,
train it on coppery feathers,
and pull the trigger,
enveloped at once by a bang
that mutes its cackled call.

Wings spread then drop
with a thud into the grass below.
Stillness, brief, is disrupted
by the frenzy of dogs in pursuit.
I let out a wild whoop.

A retrieve, tails wagging, cheers,
inspection of iridescent plumage,
Ernie nodding in approval,
dogs taking turns parading with the bird
in their muzzles, making chuffing sounds.
Good dog, head pats, over and over.

We walk for hours, flushing hens we let fly.
The extra weight in my vest
fills me with pride,
a small body against the small of my back,
grateful for its sacrifice.
I always eat the meat, I tell people who don’t ask.

The sun sits lower on the horizon,
gilding the snow on the Big Belt Mountains.
It’s time to head back.
We cross a shallow couloir
and slosh through mud along reedy water,
saying little. The dogs continue to hunt,
mostly mice now, pouncing and playing,
rolling in the swampy earth.

We come across a coyote
And at first shrink back in surprise,
then watch as it stumbles in fits and starts,
staring vacantly in our direction,
saliva pooling at its mouth.

I call the dogs but they’re rooted,
growling deep before shrugging off,
slinking over, glancing back at the coyote.
Ernie motions for me to walk away.
Take the dogs with you, he says,
his tone serious, his wiry frame hunched.

He waits until we’re at a distance.
I can no longer see the coyote,
its frame concealed by the pasture,
but I watch as Ernie lifts his gun,
then close my eyes
at the sound of shot,
expecting the dogs to bolt
but they too are still.

Ernie slowly joins us.
You did the right thing. He was suffering,
tears streaming down my cheeks,
feeling the warm body in my vest,
saying thank you, I’m sorry, thank you.
We walk on, all of us.
We go home.

I wonder at how joy
becomes sorrow
becomes gratitude
becomes grace,
if we are paying attention.

How the pieces of our tender hearts split
again and again,
making space to hold it all.