by Reid Bryant
First published in Skydance Magazine, Fall/Winter 2014
Rick and Perry Thomas bought the place on Coburn Hill for the horse pasture and the hilltop mowing, as draft horses had gotten into Rick’s blood pretty bad, and a few thousand pounds of Percheron gelding were making trouble in their yard on the Common. The Coburn Hill place wasn’t much to look at, but the pasture was flat and clear, and the mowing had been tended lovingly for a century, and was free of bedstraw and steeplebush. Rick would have no problem laying down all the winter hay he’d need for the horses, with a few bales left over to sell for jingling money. It was a pretty good deal all around.
I walked it with them in late summer after they’d bought it, knowing Rick wanted to brag on it a little. He pointed out this and that, told me how he’d lay out the fencing, where he’d raise the new horse barn. I listened politely but couldn’t help but notice the popple whips that bordered the woods, the pasture edges studded with apple trees, the whole of it hung with bittersweet and grape. I knew what grouse cover looked like, and Rick, unbeknownst, was showing it to me in spades. My feigned enthusiasm for his pasture management plan was, I hoped, sufficiently buttery to win an invitation back to during bird season.
Back in those days, I was just another threadbare hippy kid with a shotgun, though I like to think my poetry ran deeper, and my love for the uplands was genuine and new. I’d been hunting the Vermont hillsides for only a few seasons, which had proven long enough to know how plump and sweet a partridge fat on apples might be in the pan, and long enough too to know what a rare gift such a pan-full might be. I walked the covers nearly daily through the season, dogless and often alone, twisting my way into a reddening forest that would soon enough become skeletal and gray. Wing thunder and those darting departures beckoned me on, and I had it good, as the grouse were there in number. I was loose and unencumbered, liquid enough to buy shells and gasoline, and so smitten with the uplands that barred feathers filled my dreams.
I did get on Rick and Perry’s that October in a midmorning draped in fog. The pasture edges were high and going brown, the last cut long since shorn from the mowing. A wet swale that I’d barely noticed bent into the field edge where the popples started, and it seemed my best route to the grouse woods. I buttoned my vest and poked shells in my gun, and wrapped my pant cuffs tight to my ankles before pulling on my tall rubber boots. I was happy. I closed the car door and swung off into the day, while osiers and deadened goldenrod soaked me through, and tried hard to hold me back.
Hunting then was a quiet thing made up of the rhythmic footfalls and frost-plume breaths, the sounds of dripping forest, birdsong, and solitude. Back then there were no dogs, no whistles or bells, no crashing turns through the thick stuff or panting faces split wide with joy. It was a different game, with me as the flusher, the shooter, the retriever. It felt streamlined, unencumbered, and not knowing any different, I assumed that if the birds were there, I’d find them and they’d fly. After that, the hitting part was all I ever worried much about, as the local grouse had given me good reason for concern.
At the bottom of the swale things turned to goo, and my boots got stuck and I had to pull hard to clear the mud. I opted for higher ground, angled up the scrubby rise and into the thicker stuff, where the walking was harder but the ground more solid. Edging through the osiers, I stepped out into an open patch, and all of a sudden a fragment came loose, a tinkling fragment, more chimes than thunder, more butterfly than bird. Being young and impetuous, I raised the gun and shot, only aware of what I was shooting by the rumors and the myths. I’d never flushed or held a woodcock, never tasted one, or smelled the dusky earthen smell of one. I’d of course heard them twittering up in spring, and singing their buggy little song in the twilight. But my association with them had been remote, ephemeral; they’d been relegated to the place of fireflies and faeries.
But here I was, bending to pick up this odd bit of feather with the absurd beak and the spindle legs, such a precise piece of autumn color splashed in blood. I held my little prize and wondered at it, turned it over and over, realizing even then that jubilation was the wrong emotion, as was victory, as was triumph. Instead I felt a little bit regretful and yet connected, for this thing seemed a part of the autumn itself, and so quietly hidden that I’d missed it altogether.
I know now that I’d been walking past woodcock all along. Through those first Octobers, they’d lain in the sunwarmed places, the wet places, the wormy places, silently watching me pass. Maybe they needed to see me prove my poetry before they showed themselves to me. Maybe I simply walked too slowly, or too fast, through just barely the wrong places with too much focus on what I thought would lie ahead. But when they became plain, they gave soul to the autumns that had been too raucous and too quick. Woodcock did not roar out like grouse, the slipped in silently and settled, requiring my presence, and my full attention. The required of me a bell-wearing dog, and a broader stroke, albeit of more muted intention and connection. Woodcock became something to never be walked by again, of their own volition and of mine. I’ve taken some and sent many more on south, to make themselves plain to some other boy who’s paid his dues, whose poetry runs deep, who’s ready for the gifts they give.