3 Little Birds

Submitted into Contest #140 in response to: Write a story inspired by a memory of yours.... view prompt

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Creative Nonfiction Coming of Age Western

When I was a boy I shot three birds on a fence. The karma haunts me. It was a cold fall day, no snow on the plains, but the thought of snow in the air. My breath was crisp and chilled. There was no way to know what I was about to do. A good day for birding.

I sat shooting my paper target that morning for two hours. I was a dead eye, as they say. Even with corrective lenses, I could hit anything I shot at. The weapon at hand was a Red Ryder BB gun. This device could be loaded with dozens of lead pellets about one-quarter the size of a pea, if that’s an imaginable piece of weaponry. Basically, deadly to nothing, dangerous only to little boys’ eyes.

After a couple of weeks of practice with my Christmas present during the winter months, I had thought I had done about as much damage as I could to the one target that came with the gun. There was little training, after all - any child who has seen a western gets the concept of a rifle, even if a BB gun be not deadly. I cannot recall my father instructing me on safe usage of a gun beyond the simple words, “never aim at anything unless you intend to kill it.”

From a cardboard box the dimensions of a milk carton from my school lunches, I would pour a dozen or so pellets into my cupped palm and then feed them into the loading chamber of the BB gun. The cardboard container had simple, rustic graphics which implied a nostalgia for simpler times. While I had not yet seen ‘A Christmas Story’ in its entirety, I was indeed a precocious bespectacled boy excited to lose myself to the mystique of The Wild West. 

Unbeknownst to me, a right of passage had occurred. A father had begun trusting his eldest son to carry a weapon, though not such a deadly device as a handgun or hunting rifle. The parents approved, I imagine, of their son with his rural setting spending his free time shooting at targets, perhaps some day hoping for a “real” gun that he could join his father with on hunting excursions. Almost unaware beyond the scenes on television, there is a culture to the gun, and I had been inducted into this American past time eagerly.

From my perch next to the garage I stood, kneeled, lay, and crouched; running myself through various approaches and stances to hitting the target. Was I old enough to understand the shooting techniques of my uncle? My mother’s brother? The National Guard sniper? No. Did I appreciate the culture of violence surrounding gun ownership as it now stands? Obviously, and again, no. Could I have foreseen I would be growing up in a world where school shootings would become so ubiquitous? At such an early age, no.

There were no great political influences on my childhood beyond the rural beliefs and practices of my family, which even now do not strike me as intentionally politicalized or beholden to one party, the other, or any belief system beyond, “I can handle myself, thank you very much.”

My cousins had weapons, too. They had air rifles which, when loaded and hand-pumped, provided more velocity to pellets somewhat larger than those of my BB gun. They were more accurate and supposedly capable of killing a squirrel, though I had never seen it done. My cousins were older than me. They had already been hunting with their father. Maybe next season I would be ready too.

There was no great ritual to the BB gun, but there was an order. It sat upright in the garage, near where my father’s gun safe stood, and all I had to do was walk to the safe, pick up the gun, grab my box of pellets off of the safe, and I could be on my way to target practice. I recall never asking permission to shoot once I had received the gift. And in no way were guns a large part of my life beyond the residual effects of growing up rural. 

And so I practiced, guiding lead into breech, out muzzle, down-range, through target and into Walnut tree. Piff. In hindsight, I see a disheveled target, tattered and consistent in center-mass damage, atop mangled Walnut bark. Piff. In hindsight, I imagine my ability beyond what I surely was capable of at such an early age with such limited experience and equipment. Piff. But still I practiced. Still I learned. Still I longed for the day when I would be able to hunt with my father. Perhaps just to keep me busy, my parents allowed me hours alone with my weapon. 

Self defense as a concept is a way of life in the countryside, NRA influence aside, and in no way were my parents bible-thumping gun nuts who instilled fear of government oversight into my comprehension of weaponry. Owning a BB gun could even be considered blasé and completely orthodox by rural standards. Just something one does where I am from.

The preparation, the ritual, the right of passage. Gun ownership may be something more than blasé today but in my youth practicing with a BB gun on a cold winter day felt completely normal to me. I felt cold detachment from what I was doing, almost a tinge of wrath, but no clear awareness of the consequences of my actions.

The act of shooting a stationary target had become a bore and I wanted to be like dad. Across the lawn, upon our horse’s pen, atop the panel nearest me, sat three birds. Sparrows, perhaps, or swallows, but certainly not meadowlarks or bluejays. I became eager in an evil way. Wrath took hold. I knew what I was doing was wrong. With as much stealth as I could muster along the lawn, I walked toward these three targets with the determination to shoot them down from the same distance as my paper target.

I laid upon the ground, placed the bird furthest to the right in the target. Piff. The bird fluttered and fell into the brush below. Nice shot. Center bird. Piff. Another hit and drop. Final bird, now clearly flustered and about to fly away...Piff. Three shots, three kills. Dead eye.

I got to my feet and walked the direction of the pen. Without warning an immediate shot of guilt washed over me. What if my parents ask what I was doing; why I shot the birds. I would have to hide the bodies. As I approached the pen my shame would turn to horror. There on the ground, in the field behind the brush at the foot of the pen, were three floundering bodies writhing in pain. They were not dead, they were winged. I cried out in alarm at what I had done.

I was unsure of what to do, thinking I could just hide the bodies and finding them still alive. I realized I would have to put them down, to end their agony, and then hide my mistakes. I could take the butt of the gun and stomp them out. I could place BBs in their heads from a closer range. I had to act. But it was too late.

In my shock, I had yelped and attracted the attention of our quarterhorse. It galloped to my attention as I attempted to cross the fence and upon its arrival brought its hooves down one, two, three, on top of the birds. One was smashed completely, one was decapitated, and one was still flailing, its wing yet under the horse’s hoof. I cried out for the horse to leave but of course it did not understand. 

My mother, who had heard the commotion and was concerned, arrived and in anger took the BB gun from my grip and brought the butt down on the last living bird’s meek skull ending the fiasco. No amount of berating from her could make me feel worse than I already did.

Years later I would not be able to abide hunting. Years later the lessons I would garner from reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” would ring even more clear. Years later I would still question the desire for death, destruction, and devastation.

April 01, 2022 16:19

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