When I was ten we lived in a rambling, wood frame house at the edge of town near an open field.
When I was ten we lived in a rambling, wood frame house at the edge of town near an open field. It was not long after we moved in that I began to lobby for a gun. I wanted a rifle. I yearned to shoot tin cans, bottles lined up on logs and scraps of paper with a bull's-eye drawn in the center.
I had spent many a Saturday afternoon seated in the balcony of the Laurel Theater watching exhilarating adventure serials: G-Men packing heat, soldiers in foxholes firing off machine guns, cowboys reaching for six guns or rifles, puffs of smoke rising from their barrels as horses bolted and men fell off roof tops, mortally wounded. Most kids in the neighborhood were armed with silver cap guns and wooden rifles. We played war or cops and robbers, racing up and down the street shooting each other and arguing about who was supposed to be dead or at least wounded.
My father finally relented, no match for my earnest pleading, Please dad, Please dad. I touched on words like, Careful, I'll be really careful. I'll learn stuff. I'll be responsible. I was no rookie and my dad was a softy. My mother was silent and apprehensive.
And so I stood in the field holding a rifle, an air rifle as it turned out. Wooden stock, a blue-black barrel with a forward grip that was also the lever that I worked up and down with some effort filling a chamber with compressed air. I placed a pellet neatly in a sleeve just above the trigger and pushed it snugly into the barrel. Armed with a sack full of pellets there wasn't an empty can or bottle to be found that wasn't dented or shattered repeatedly. I caught on quickly, sighting along the barrel, allowing for the physics of a solid object moving across a great distance while losing altitude ever so slightly as it went.
That rifle was a compelling thing to possess: an elegant, sleek mix of wood and metal and engineering. To me it was seductive, irresistible, and possessed an inherent power and authority by virtue of what it could do: send a pellet across the field toward a distant object at a hundred feet per second (even faster? I wasn't sure) and clang and dent and break whatever it hit.
In one distant corner of the field was a large pine tree, its branches wide and open, a favorite resting place for blackbirds. They are a frenetic crowd, their beaks sharp, their eyes quick and suspicious, their wings a shimmering midnight black, some with a touch of red at the shoulder. Like robins, they're gregarious, darting about in small flocks, walking on the ground, heads bobbing, probing the damp soil for seeds and small bugs.
I often stood in the field with my rifle, watching the blackbirds flying restlessly from the field to the pine tree and back, swooping and diving, briefly resting on a sagging wire fence that bordered the field. On occasion, with no malevolence, I lifted my rifle to my cheek and took aim, sighting on one then another, back and forth, from one branch to the other. A blackbird was not a bottle or can, for it was not in its nature to sit still for very long. They flitted about, sitting quietly for only the briefest of moments. It would be no easy shot to hit a blackbird.
I had been admonished repeatedly by my parents, especially my mother, that I was never to shoot a living thing: not a bird, not a gopher, not even those small, dry lizards that would appear suddenly, darting from the brown grass, legs akimbo, their narrow tails sweeping the ground. I had promised.
Then one morning, early, the sun barely above the treetops, the air cool, the tips of my sneakers wet from the damp, I stood in the field, not far from the pine tree, and I watched the blackbirds. As I had done so many times before, I raised my rifle and took aim. And then, without reflection or hesitation, I pulled the trigger. This time a blackbird, one that had been sitting on the end of a branch, fell like a stone from the tree and landed on the ground, unmoving.
In disbelief I walked toward it, lying in the grass, the blackbird that had just seconds before been electric with life was now lying with a final stillness near the tree. I struggled to grasp the connection between my abstract act — raise, aim, fire — and the lifeless blackbird. I bent down and picked it up in my hands and felt its softness, its warmth, and holding it gently, carefully, I noticed how light it was, everything about it fragile and tentative. Its legs were thin, dark stems, its claws weakly curled, and on its shoulders were two red spots, a startling contrast to the ebony, charcoal shades of its feathers which caught the sunlight and lifted in the morning breeze.
I realized then, in that moment, that I had killed that small bird and when I moved my hands, its head rolled from side to side. There was no blood, no sign that anything had happened other than its eyes were hooded, opaque, and I knew that I had done something that was completely unexpected and irreversible. I could not wish the pellet back into my gun. I could not will the bird back into the tree. I had killed it and its life was over.
I put my gun away that morning and never shot it again. And my father never asked me why. Perhaps he knew. Perhaps he understood. I never said a word about the blackbird and tried only to forget the image of it dropping from the tree and lying in the grass, unmoving. Like a small, dark stone.