O Shenandoah! Dirt Road Journal

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"The Last Pheasant"


Once there was a cabin by the river. It was small, maybe 600 square feet, and built, even the deck, with sawmill lumber. At first, basically, there were two rooms inside, a kitchen and an "everything else" room. Outside, down the hill a bit, wavered a rickety outhouse with a pink sliver of a wooden moon nailed to its side. Some years after constructing his home, and in consideration of friends and family who occasionally braved the long and torturously bumpy private road, more like a four-wheel drive trail really, Garner added an indoor bathroom with a curtain hanging from the top of the doorframe. Complaints about the curtain and ribald jibes concerning privacy led him somewhat later to install a door.

Mostly, though, Garner was alone, and he meant to be. Through three warm seasons, he tilled and tended a large country garden, experimenting with new varieties of seed, canning, and giving away much of his produce to neighbors and passersby. In cooler weather, he hunted, first squirrel and rabbit, later white-tailed deer and black bear.

Years back, when the cabin was sturdy and new, ring-neck pheasants were plentiful. As time went on though, the holler's large-scale farmers passed away and with them the most extraordinary of game birds disappeared. Garner missed the startling sight of a bright green head stretched low from its gliding wingspan through fieldside brush and trees. Finally, although generally opposed to keeping pets of any kind, Garner built a tall coop of scrap lumber and chicken wire and with a slightly sloping plywood roof, with perches and bad weather boxes nailed inside to the supports. Driving to Tonkle Holler, he found Jim's rambling and ramshackle collection of coops and buildings.

"Don't yer want a female?"

"Nope. Just a male."

"Get a hen. You can raise 'em. Sell 'em."

"Don't want to raise 'em. I'll jest take the one."

He called the pheasant "Mister."

Mister, like Garner, seemed incredibly hardy. He survived blizzards and torrential rains, temperatures way below zero and above 100 degrees. Sparrows snuck into the coop in bad weather. Cardinals, robins and yellow finches pecked from the ground through the chicken wire to corn and birdseed scattered inside. Whenever Garner reached in to remove the water dish for cleaning, Mister grabbed quickly at earthworms and nightcrawlers squirming in the mud. And every spring, Mister called, undiscouraged, for a mate.

"Ain't no use," Garner would say. "Ain't no mate fer ya here. Ain't none for me neither, bud."

So, Garner and Mister passed the seasons, with unexpected, uninvited company from time to time, that they enjoyed and that soon left. One fall, after twelve years of mostly silent companionship, Garner found Mister crouched, eyes closed, on the coop floor. Opening the small plywood door, Garner reached in. The bird leaned against him, quiet, calm. A healthy wild animal, no matter how tame, struggles from a human, Garner knew. And so, as he placed Mister carefully back in the coop, he said goodbye.

That night Garner dreamt he was walking slowly, carrying Mister against his chest, toward the woods.





Midi music file, "Liebestraume No. 3" by Franz Liszt, arrangement by Robert Finley

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Original material O Shenandoah! Country Rag April, 1996. All rights reserved.