Poetry

“So Now You Have To Write About the Dead Pheasant” by Karen Skolfield

Lunch came to your door, and before that,
the sunrise was a thin strip, nothing special.
If it had been special, maybe you could have
written about that.

Of course, you were sad about the pheasant.
It thumped into the window and you startled
out of your chair. Its head dipped slowly into
the snow as if it wanted a moment to itself.

You thought, maybe it will fly now.
Instead it shuddered as if
an invisible hand were urging it to move.
As if the wind were claiming it as one
of its own. You say “it” out of habit,
but this pheasant is female. A dozen
muddy browns—no surprise—but also copper, bronze,
a tip of iridescence. Lovely—you’d never admired
the females before, so flashy were the males.

You admire her even as the shuddering continues.
Worse, when it stops, and all along you realize
there’s been no wind. Her head so deeply
in the snow you worry she can’t breathe.
Yes—that’s the problem—she can’t breathe.
Before you can grab your boots, your suitemate
opens her door. You point to the pheasant.
She’s sad, too. You’re both sad together.

It makes you a little less sad. For a moment,
you talk about making tea, and you forget
that the pheasant can’t breathe. Then you take your time
getting on the boots, because you’ve come to accept
that moving the snow is only a gesture.

This bird isn’t going anywhere. But it’s the least
you can do for a fellow creature and so you do it,
scooping the snow carefully, gently, in case
she really is recovering, and then blood.
Red. No surpise—sign of a vertebrate—
except Antarctic ice fish is what
goes through your mind. It’s already freezing,
red as a—oh god, a cherry Slush Puppie.

And then you feel—is this possible?—angry.
Just a little bit, as if she’d forced you
to look at a wound or a loose tooth
the way the kids sometimes do, and you
don’t like that. That gut reaction:

WHY WEREN’T YOU LISTENING WHY
WERE YOU JUMPING OFF THE
WHAT DID YOU THINK WOULD HAPPEN

even if you only think these things
it must show in your eyes, the escaping sigh.
This bird has disappointed you
and will go on disappointing you.

You know that already. A two-hour walk
will not erase the pheasant,
and you spend the walk almost pleading
with the cows to do something nutty
or the skunk—you can smell it! Show yourself!
Wouldn’t that make a good story, assuming
you emerged more or less unscathed?

When you pass people you know,
you don’t mention the pheasant.
You do mention the skunk.
(Thanks for the warning!)
Why bring anyone else down
with your dead bird? They’d feel sad
for that little moment but you
still with writing ahead,
the obvious leap to the other sadnesses in life,
both universal and personal
which mean so much more than the one
dead pheasant with her eye closing
you saw this—saw the lid coming down—
which reminds you of something else, someone,
because the dying have this connection.

The eye dimming. The lid coming down.
Without ever having seen you and how
you cared and what you would write.
Go ahead and fill in the blank
with the name of your dead someone: _________.
I can’t do all the work for you.

 

Karen Skolfield’s book Battle Dress (W. W. Norton, 2019) won the Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her book, Frost in the Low Areas (Zone 3 Press), won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry, and she is the winner of the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in poetry from The Missouri Review. Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

 


Image: “i’m a ghost of my former self” by ©Chuck Miller