Forgive me if I’ve just gotten the 12 days of Christmas stuck in your head, but it’s been stuck in mine ever since I thought of this rewritten line—-”and a partridge on a rocky ridgeliiiiiine!” It wasn’t even technically Christmas time yet when it came to me, it was that dead week between Thanksgiving and December 1st. I stood squinting in the sun as Dexter came to my dad with a mouth full of feathers, his nose crinkling away from the bird, and I thought of it then. That was almost a week ago, and it’s still stuck.
But they had been so beautiful, all those Hungarian Partridges taking to wing. Backed by the sun their feathers looked like luminescent orange, a hue I want to remember forever, a burnt rust color shot through with light. How could I forget? I’m getting better now at hunting, so that even as I admire them I’m shouldering the Verona, tucking it tight into the pocket where my arm meets my neck and chest, snapping off the safety, and then, keeping my eyes wide, I pick one of those lovely winged creatures, breathe into the motion of my pointer finger and pull. Once. Twice. No birds. But I am getting better, I can feel it. Because all of that frenetic activity happened in the space of two seconds, two great pulsing beats of the world around us, and I have now the predator skills to match my predator mind. I don’t always hit a bird, but everybody misses shots. I see that now, even all the greatest hunters I know miss shots. My dad, my Uncle Jason, my Uncle Cary. Everyone misses. But not everyone can do what I just did, which is to react and not think about it, not let the panic of the moment choke my senses into slowness.
And fewer still can go on to tell you how it felt to look at those birds, even as they aimed. Fewer still could put it into words, to stand on one bumped vertebrae of Oregon’s long and winding spine, surrounded by a body of golden grass. There is so much I struggle with when it comes to my head—fear and doubt I cannot shake, anxiety that will swamp me, a constant need for doing, learning, thinking, striving, an inability to settle down—and then there are times like that when I think of all the good gifts it has given me. I have a body that is strong enough to climb land so steep I haul myself up hand over fist. A body swift and sure now with my gun, that can react to the soft rustle of wings taking flight. And a mind big enough to take it all in, to remember it, fix it in words. A mind with enough expansive grace to understand that life and death lie right next to each other, whispering in the dark, and to ignore it is to lose so much of the richness and depth that make the ride worthwhile. A mind that remembers, fixates, gets itchy with words and memory. A mind that finds a line—a partridge on a rocky ridgeline—and cannot let it go, until it gets out.