A Certain Slant of Light

"Two on Two", By Brett James Smith

That was odd, but what happened next was even more so. Cy pointed in fairly heavy cover that lay between a creek and a stubble field. Dad walked in, and out flew five or six birds that looked like immature hen pheasants. My mother and I yelled, “Hen! Hen!” at the top of our lungs, but my father shot anyway. To our consternation, he killed one. As we walked over to him, Cy retrieved it. Much to our surprise, the bird wasn’t an illegal hen pheasant but a legal chukar partridge.

It was odd to find a chukar in cover so different from its usual habitat of sage and basalt outcroppings (I later learned that the game department had introduced some flocks there as an experiment). What was even odder was realizing that my father had no notion what it was. Although he was far from a naturalist, he could identify a variety of birds, and certainly any North American game bird. When I was five or six, for example, he used to hold me on his lap after dinner and teach me to identify species from Ducks at a Distance. And now, suddenly, he didn’t know what a chukar was. I had to identify it for him. I couldn’t understand why he was so puzzled. Nor could I understand why he was so delighted to have shot it. But delighted he was: he kept stroking it, pointing out (quite rightly) the beauty of its plumage, and he continued to hold it and stroke it as we ate a picnic lunch. I could understand why he was pleased; uncharacteristically, he’d missed a lot of shots this trip. But I wondered why he was being so childish.

“On that last hunt together with my father, I can still recall that certain slant of light as the sun dropped close to the stubble fields.”

To make matters worse, near the end of that afternoon my father inexplicably began to shoot at every hen pheasant that flushed. My mother and I screamed, “Hen! Hen!” as loud as we could, yet my father blazed away. Each of these incidents shocked us because it was so out of character. It may have been this element of shock that prevented my mother and me from realizing what was going on. Each time, one of us would go explain that it was illegal to shoot hen pheasants, and Dad would say he understood—and then he would do it again. It began to be farcical, and the more so as it happened yet another time: the dogs pointed, a hen got up, we shouted, and my father shot. He missed every one, fortunately, and after we hiked back down the draw, we quit for the day.

At the beginning of our last day, my father suddenly announced that he didn’t want to hunt any more: he was fed up and wanted to leave immediately for home. Forgetting entirely my earlier resolution to make the most of our time together, I became irritable. We had planned a three day trip, I argued. I’d arranged to take Monday off from work so that we could have a three-day trip, and this third day should be almost as productive as opening day because most of the other hunters had gone home. My father wouldn’t budge: he was tired, he wanted to go home. But I wouldn’t budge, either, arguing that if he were tired he could sit in the car, reading or napping, while my mother and I hunted. We’d hunt only that morning, I offered as a compromise, and then we could leave early and drive home that afternoon. My father was furious at not getting his way, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it.

And so my mother and I hunted while my father sulked in the car. I was still too angry at what I regarded as his selfishness to think about my earlier desire to give him a good trip, and it probably wasn’t coincidence that I didn’t shoot well that morning. Just about the time I began to feel guilty about keeping my father waiting (he was conspicuously not reading or taking a nap), he became good-tempered again. We quit, had lunch, and began the long drive back to Seattle.

I had forgotten how many pheasants we shot that opening weekend, recalling only that my father had fortunately missed all his hens. But recently I came across a photograph my mother took just before we started home. My father and I are sitting side by side on the tailgate, each holding a cock pheasant; a row of other pheasants is laid out beside us. Cy s nuzzling me for a pat, and in the background Val is curled up asleep. I’m frowning into the sun, while my father looks slightly puzzled, as if he wasn’t quite sure what was going on.

That’s how I see the picture now, at least, for subsequent events made my father’s behavior that weekend not odd but symptomatic. His absent-mindedness about hunting that hillside, his pleasure in his chukar, his shooting at illegal hens, even his insistence that he go home despite our desire to continue hunting were all consistent with the initial stage of senile dementia.

“Dementia” comes from the Latin, “undoing of the mind,” and senile dementia, as my mother, sister, and I were to learn, involves the progressive and irreversible loss of mental functions. And that was what happened to my father, at first gradually—he seemed merely more absent-minded than usual, more irritable, more insistent on doing exactly what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it— and then ever more rapidly. The summer after our hunting trip I moved across the country, so my parents moved to California to be near my sister. Now I was the odd person out. As my mother nursed my father, first his memory, then his mind, and finally his body failed. He died in his sleep less than two years later.

In a real sense, then, my father began to die that opening weekend. Until we hunted together, I had given little thought to the eventuality of my father’s death or, by extension, to the eventual coming of my own. I knew, of course, that my father couldn’t live forever, but until we went pheasant hunting on that trip, this had remained a distant abstraction, the kind of knowledge that is only theoretical, as in the syllogism, “Man is mortal. My father is a man. Therefore, my father is mortal.”

After our trip, however, I began to experience the pain concealed in that syllogistic logic. As I recalled those shadows lengthening over the wheat stubble, I realized that my father—my father—was going to die. It would be just a matter of time before he himself became a shadow, a memory surviving only in the minds of those who had loved him. And I felt then that prickling that signals the coming of tears. I’m not sure which of us I cried for: now, more than 30 years later, I rather suspect that I cried for myself, for the son that would have to be all father from then on.

Our last hunt together turned out to be something altogether different from what I’d expected. I was looking for easy symmetries, I suppose, but there were too many internal differences. At this writing, I’m as old as my father was on that trip, and my son is the age I was then. He isn’t interested in bird shooting, unfortunately, but I selfishly hope he will remember something distinctive the two of us did experience together, something that will remain clear despite the passing of time. On that last hunt together with my father, I can still recall that certain slant of light as the sun dropped close to the stubble fields. As we walked back to the car late that first afternoon, we could see our shadows lengthening before us: son and father, father and son.

Retired from Cornell University, Gerard Cox hunts grouse, deer, and turkeys in New York State. Blood On My Hands, his new book about hunting as a means to gain a larger ecological consciousness, is available from Amazon .