What he said about me being responsible for the bird’s death was only technically true. I had been driving, but only due to in-law obligation. I had willingly spent one of the hottest days of the summer driving my wife’s father from one flea market to the other, trying to keep him entertained, allowing him to practice new ways to stoke my hatred of him. I hadn’t yet reached the need to kill. Yet somehow, I still felt responsible, as though I could have stopped the bird from striking the windshield of my car.
The impact was so hard that I looked for a crack in the glass. I was embarrassed by how high I jumped in my seat, by how girlishly I had almost screamed. So I made a joke and said, “Got it,” and even though the timing was at least three seconds too late, my father-in-law laughed as though the destructive magnetism of two objects pleased him.
“What was it?” he asked.
“Yes, but what kind of bird?”
“I didn’t see,” I said, by which I also meant that I was glad to have not seen the bird in any more detail than its shadow of wings and the quick, loud whoomp of its beak against the windshield. It happened that fast.
“Turn around,” he said.
I asked why, but he only repeated himself. “Let’s see what it was.”
I pulled the car into summer-brown grass that served as the highway’s shoulder, but refused to step out of the car. He climbed out, but I stayed put. My hands gripped the wheel at ten and two, unmoving. He returned carrying the bird—a grouse—and laid it on the floor mat between his feet.
“You are going to need to remove that dead bird from my car,” I told him.
“It’s fine,” he said. “Don’t worry. It won’t hurt you.”
“I don’t want that dead bird in my car.” I said. “I don’t even want to look at it. At least move it to the trunk.”
“It’s fine here. Besides, it’s your kill. You’re the one who hit the bird and killed it.”
And that was the thing he said that was technically true, although I would argue that the bird hit us and that I had no agency in my actions.
“What do you intend to do with it?” I said.
“We’re going to clean it and eat it.”
“We are not,” I said. “One grouse isn’t enough meat to feed a single person. Besides, that’s road kill. You want to carry road kill into my house.”
My wife said the same thing when we returned home. “You want to carry road kill into my house? I don’t think so.” She was overly sensitive in regards to animals, and for once, she was more angry than I was.
“What’s the difference between this bird and the chicken you buy at the grocery?” he said.
“The difference,” I said, “is that I didn’t even want the dead bird in my vehicle let alone my house. It’s starting to smell.” And it was. It smelled worse than death. It smelled like something wild and untamable, like hatred with wings.
“Respectable people hunt and eat grouse,” my mother-in-law said. “It’s a delicacy.”
“Yes, but we weren’t hunting. We were driving.”
My father-in-law dressed the bird with a Swiss army knife on the front lawn where the neighbors could watch.
I mixed a pitcher of margaritas and started drinking. From the kitchen window, I yelled, “I thought boy scouts knew how to use their hands.”
The women retreated to separate corners of the house to cool off. Even though it was already too hot, I heated up the oven for a frozen pizza, the remainders of which my father-in-law ate instead of the bird. The dead bird, instead of being cooked, was wrapped in plastic and laid to rest in the freezer like an accusation.
The next day, my in-laws left. They said they’d see us next at Thanksgiving, and they’d cook the grouse.
When the garbage truck came an hour later, I remembered the bird, and I asked the men to wait while I collected one more thing. Through the plastic, I could see the diminutive form of the dressed grouse, now headless and without its feathers. I was ashamed by the sight of the bird, dead and shriveled, so small and without hope.
~ ~ ~
Denton Loving is the author of the poetry collection Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag, 2015) and editor of Seeking Its Own Level, an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks, 2014). He serves as editor of drafthorse literary journal. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.