Friday, July 29, 2011

The Bird

The day dawned like any other November day; perhaps a bit warmer than usual, but still entirely unremarkable. We rarely know, in the beginning, that a day is to be a "big day", and it's probably just as well. If we did know, we'd do things differently, and it's probably that we do not that is precisely why these days turn as as they do. And so it was that the young hunter - no longer a boy, to be sure, but not yet a man - unleashed his hound, and headed off into the brush, as he had done a dozen times already that fall. The dog, still a youngster himself, was a sleek, happy, but stubborn beagle named Phragmites. The dog was already a fairly accomplished rabbit hound, and the hunter was proud; proud of Phragmites and proud of his own development as a hunter. Why it was just a year prior that he had killed his first rabbit, this over Roy's pack of half-wild beagles. Roy, one of the hired farm hands, had a crew of six or seven dogs - dogs that were lean, and did not eat if they did not run rabbits. This was partly because Roy was poor, but partly because he felt this made the dogs better hunters. When a rabbit was killed, it was only in about eight of ten cases that one could get to the animal before the dogs did. And of course, if the dogs reached the rabbit first there was nothing left for the game vest. If Roy did get the rabbit first, he would "remove" the head, toss it to the snarling pack, and put the rest of the rabbit in his vest. For all of these reasons, and more, Roy was suspicious that the young hunter could make a rabbit dog out of Phragmites. After all, Phragmites was not only well fed - "fat", according to Roy - but also spoiled least as far as Roy was concerned. "You don't hunt rabbit with a godamn pet!!" is what he would say.

None of this bothered the young hunter, of course. By which we mean that he had full confidence in Phragmites, and loved him unconditionally. But Oh! Oh, how he wanted to prove to Roy that Phragmites was a genuine rabbit dog! Roy had no interest in hunting with just a single dog, and when on occasion the hunter and Phragmites joined Roy and his pack, it is true that Phragmites did not perform well. It wasn't that he couldn't run rabbits - he could! But Phragmites was a slow, deliberate hunter. He was the whole package: a strike dog with nose, drive, and bottom. But of course, he hunted alone and therefore by his rules, and his alone. In the company of Roy's uncivilized curs - and that's how Phragmites and the hunter saw them, to be sure - poor Phragmites just didn't know what to do. Now, our hunter knew this to be true: that never had there been, nor would there ever be, a rabbit run by a better dog than Phragmites. But he also knew, or so he thought, that he'd never be able to prove it to Roy. On this day, all of this would change.

But as I say, we don't know these things most times. And this would explain why, as he was leaving the house, the hunter grabbed just a handful of two-and-one-half inch .410 shells. He did not yet own a big bore shotgun, and it didn't occur to him at the time that, perhaps, the larger three inch .410 "magnum" shells...and many of them...would have been prudent.

Phragmites picked up scent as soon as he'd crossed the fence and rounded the first briar patch. The hunter knew rabbits and he knew Phragmites, and so he positioned himself on the high mound by the sumac trees - for he knew that a rabbit jumped by the briar patch would first enter the tall grass, run the short length of the fenceline, and then re-enter the brush before crossing in front of the sumacs. Phragmites would follow, baying musically, but would maintain the proper distance, such that the rabbit would move quickly enough but not so quickly that the hunter would miss the shot. And so it was, and the game pouch sagged with the weight of the day's first rabbit

The hunter patted Phramites on the head affectionately, pointed to the brush, and said "Go on now, hunt 'em up!" It was not but a few minutes thereafter that the dog signaled that he'd struck scent again. The hunter was already in position, and knew he need do nothing but wait: Phragmites would bring the rabbit around presently, the shot would be easy, and dog and hunter would return home with a brace of bunnies fit for stewing. But something was not right. From the sound of the dog's baying, it was clear that this rabbit was not following standard operating protocol. Instead of coming around the well worn path, as all rabbits jumped here had done to this day, this rabbit appeared to be taking Phragmites deeper into the brush. If it continued, dog and rabbit would be close to the swamp, and the hunter would have to reposition himself. It was at this moment, as he was considering his options, that the change in dog's voice stopped him cold. Phragmites had ceased to bay and was instead barking and growling angrily. It was momentarily quiet, and then the hunter heard Phragmites yelp once, then twice, then three times. The hunter ran to the dog, not sure what was going on but not at all comfortable with the sounds he was hearing. When at least he reached the dog, he found Phragmites scratched and muddy, confused but excited. The dog clearly did not want to give up - something (but what?) had slipped off into the swamp that Phragmites wished to pursue. The hunter stared off into the distance, squinting in hopes of catching sight of something, when he thought he glimpsed movement. Before his mind had time to process the image before him, Phragmites saw the same thing and bayed loudly. Only now did the hunter get a good look, and what he saw sent a chill down his spine. It was The Bird. The hunter grabbed Phragmites by the collar, leashed him, and whispered harshly "Hush boy!" to the dog, while he tried to collect his thoughts.

The Bird. Roy had talked about The Bird before. Everybody talked about The Bird. The Bird was not a bird, but was instead a rabbit. But he was not just any rabbit. As Roy had explained it, The Bird had lost one ear, years ago, to a shotgun blast from Old Man Humphrey's big 10 gauge. Why, you ask, would anybody hunt rabbits with a 10 gauge? Well, as Roy explained it, The Bird was no ordinary rabbit. For reasons unknown at the time, but that would become clear before the day was done, The Bird had ceased to eat carrots, lettuce and other ordinary bunny-fare. The Bird had become a predator, and it was when Old Man Humphrey had already lost two spring lambs and a Hereford calf to The Bird (though, of course, at the time he'd suspected a coyote or maybe even a bear, still reputed to roam these woods and hills now and then) that he pulled the old 10 gauge from the closet, loaded it with buckshot, and put it in the corner where he could reach it quickly. The night of the shooting, Humphrey heard the blood-curdling screams coming from the feedlot, grabbed the big gun, and ran out into the cold dark. Now of course Old Man Humphrey has been dead for years, but as he related the story to Roy, Humphrey saw The Bird (though, at that time, he was not yet called The Bird, nor anything else) clinging to the throat of one of his shoats. When the rabbit saw Humphrey, he let go of the now mortally wounded piglet and stood up on his hind legs. Humphrey fired and one of those balls ripped through the rabbit's left year, shearing it off cleanly at the base. According to Roy, and he always quotes Old Man Humphrey when relating the tale, "That old rabbit didn't even flinch. I'd just blowed his ear off, and he just stood his ground. Standin' there, against the moonlight with just the one good ear still standin' up, and him not backin' down at all, he looked somebody giving me the finger - you know what I'm sayin'? That one ear standin' up offa his head, it was like the old rabbit was just givin' me The Bird." With that, the rabbit turned and casually hopped off into the night. Old Man Humphrey picked up the ear he'd shot off, and when he died gave it to Roy. They say Humphrey's last words were "Kill that godamn rabbit for me, Roy", and Roy was determined to do so. And for a few years, he'd come close to doing just that, though it had cost him more than one good beagle. How The Bird did it, nobody knew because nobody saw it happen, but on more than one occasion, Roy heard a dog go silent mid-chase, only to come upon the poor thing split wide open from belly to chin, its guts hanging out. Tracks at the scene left no doubt that The Bird was responsible, for they were the same tracks (two small ones from the front feet, two large from the back feet) that were always found in the barn yards and feedlots when livestock had been killed.

The young hunter, before he was a hunter, would occasionally ask Roy to show him the now shriveled right ear, and Roy would pull it out of his shirt pocket, hold it up, and tell the boy the story of The Bird yet again. He never tired of hearing it, nor did Roy tire of telling it. But it had been years since anybody had seen The Bird, and with the exception of Roy (because he had hoped to kill him) the townspeople were perfectly happy to go on not seeing The Bird. In fact, most believed he had finally died of old age or perhaps been killed in a fight with a bear. But there was no doubt, none at all, that what the young hunter was now facing was The Bird. And this, of course, meant he faced a tough decision: he could pursue The Bird into the swamp, perhaps kill him, and finally prove to Roy and the world that Phragmites was a legitimate hunting dog. Or, he could do the smart thing and leave now, without risking his life or that of his dog. And indeed, it was this very thing that he'd intended to do when at that very moment, The Bird stood up on his hind legs and howled - a sound like no other, a sound that the hunter imagined must be The Sound of Hell. It was too much for Phragmites, who, having already allowed The Bird to bruise his canine ego, wanted nothing more than to kill that rabbit; Phragmites bolted, and the hunter, admittedly awestruck by The Bird's sinister howling, failed to hold on. Before the hunter knew what had happened, Phragmites had broken loose and was headed straight for The Bird. It would be impossible to shoot (and with what, the little .410 shotgun?!) without risk of hitting Phragmites, so there was nothing the hunter could do. The Bird saw Phragmites coming and turned to run, or so it appeared. No, in fact, The Bird had just turned so that his powerful rear feet were facing Phragmites, and with what was clearly a well-practiced move, The Bird sent Phragmites wheeling with a mighty blow from his feet. To his credit, Phragmites righted himself and before the hunter could get a shot off, was on The Bird again. This time, he anticipated The Bird's moves and leapt to the side, just as The Bird kicked. Phragmites turned, and in a split second had The Bird by the throat. The Bird in turn wheeled, and laid open Phragmites' flank, and the blood began to flood the ground. Phragmites was up again, but was clearly badly hurt and The Bird knew it. He rose again upon his hind legs, and would in an instant be upon Phragmites - when the hunter fired. The blast toppled The Bird but he was on his feet immediately, and coming for the hunter. The small shotgun was clearly no match for this particular rabbit, at least not at this range, so the hunter had no choice but to wait until The Bird was within just feet of the muzzle, whereupon he fired again. When the smoke had cleared and the hunter opened his eyes, there was an eerie silence. There, on the ground in front of him lay The Bird. He approached cautiously, as did Phragmites (who, despite being severely wounded was now on his feet). The hunter shoved the muzzle of the gun into the rabbit's side, and gave it a nudge. There was no movement. The Bird was dead.

The hunter collapsed to his knees and took Phragmites into his arms. The dog's wounds, though serious, would not be mortal. It was almost dark by now, and the hunter knew it would be a long night, so he stood and reached for The Bird. When he turned him over, he saw a sight so hideous, so grotesque, so utterly abominable, that he let out an audible gasp and dropped the rabbit. Even Phragmites, despite his pain, lept back with a start. For now that they could see the rabbit's face, they understood, for the first time, The Bird. Apparently, at a much younger age, The Bird had suffered a dental malocclusion, a condition in rabbits wherein the upper and lower incisors do not meet; this meeting of the incisors is essential for proper growth and development, for if they do not meet, and thereby provide the mutual grinding surfaces so necessary for keeping the teeth in check, the incisors will grow unabated. And indeed, because of this malocclusion, The Bird's face resembled not so much a rabbit but that of a wild boar, his lower teeth no longer teeth but now tusks - long, sharp tusks, covered now with the fresh blood of Phragmites and the stains of a hundred others before him. It was this gross deformity that explained his blood lust, for without the teeth typical of your garden-variety rabbit, The Bird was unable to eat vegetables. Forced, was he, to live the life of carnivore not by choice but by cruel fate. When this realization hit the young hunter, he felt a twinge of sympathy for the old rabbit, vilified for years for what he could not help (for what else could he do, but lay down and die, and would it be fair to expect any creature, no matter how hideous, to do so voluntarily?). But the reality was that The Bird was dead, for better or for worse, and it was time to head home.

When the hunter reached town and word of the kill spread, the townspeople gathered on the farm to view the now dead lagomorphic terror. At the sight of The Bird's frightening physiognamy, women fainted and children cried. The Bird had been hoisted up into a tree using a block and tackle, so large was he (no official weights were ever taken, but many there who helped lift him were convinced he was over five pounds, field-dressed, which would have put him at possible six pounds when alive). It wasn't until after midnight that most of the crowd had thinned. The young hunter was just heading into the house to feed Phragmites when Roy stepped into the light, walked over to the dog, and knelt down and with a grin said: "Well, I'll be godamned."

A young T.J. Brayshaw, Phragmites and "The Bird"


  1. The man and the myth, T.J. Brayshaw, lives on! (Bravo, really good story)


  2. I once hooked a one finned fish and lost him at the net. That one fin was the last thing that went under. I did not have a beagle with me.

  3. Old chap, this is exceptional writing. Great story.