A Boy, a Bird
On a perfect summer mid-afternoon, sunshine glinting through a canopy of leaves – still, humid air, deep greens and tall white birch, with the scent of silver brush, blue wildflowers and cool dirt, he descends the gully path behind his home with his birthday present – an air rifle and a pocket rich with tiny lead pellets.
It looks like a solid home. It’s on a good street, it’s new – stout siding – quality build, but his father complains continually about the construction, “Goddamned Keith Built homes. Made of shit.” His room is in the basement – shared with his older brother. There is a window above his bed and he awakens sometimes at night to the pressure of the blankets holding him down, his brothers feet straddling him, head out the window to inhale a joint in the middle of the night. It’s an inconvenience, no more.
The back of the house overlooks wildlands at the edge of the city. On this earth he has lost a single boot to thick mud, and hopped home to trouble trailing a dangling, wet sock. He has skinned his knees on the rocks of the steep path leading from the backyard to the dirt road at the bottom of the gully. He has heard his sister scream with terror, running back from the other side chased by wasps. He has sat hidden in the tall prairie grass to pick and hold the succulent yellow buds of wildflowers, the grey-blue fur of crocus. He has stripped seeds from the top of spear-grass and cat-tail, and hefted knees through deep snow, breathed frost onto tree-bark under slate-gray skies, and come home to warmth and the stinging thaw of fingers and toes – unwrapped from icy mittens and socks.
The yard has three tiers – the house level – back door exit to a patio and a short lawn, where in July and August he can sometimes sleep on a pallet made by his mother, deep pillow, warm in heavy blankets, isolated from the clear night air. The lower second and third tiers serve only to frustrate his dad on days when the heavy gas lawnmower, its vaned iron cylinder-head, greasy wheels, and basket must be wrestled up and down the steep slopes to crop the lawn to a manicured vista – a pleasant, smooth surface that he will sometimes roll down sideways – inhaling the sweet stink of cut grass, marvelling at how fast he can spin before crashing onto the solid bottom level to knock the air out of himself.
One night he dreamed of a cannon ball – a fine silver orb – with marks on it from the barrel of the mortar, black streaks and scars. In the light of day he searched for it with a shovel, sticks, and his bare hands at the side of a clay hill over by the edge of the ravine, adjacent to the sandstone quarry, overgrown, abandoned and tiered for climbing, where slices of rock litter the hill – flat, angular shapes that crumble in your hands. He has a pocket knife and runners, he is t-shirt boy with a mop of dark locks at his brow and downy hair on his forearms. His dreams make him a soldier, an indian, a cowboy, a hero – a full grown man.
His runners slide on dew-damp grass on a downhill run, and he grabs at spindly poplars lining the path to steady his progress. The rifle is awkward in his hand, he wishes his dad would have given him the sling instead of telling him to save his allowance. He stops at the flat part, just above the final descent to the road and studies the surrounding forest, seeking targets.
He breaks open the breech – the stock of the gun between his knees – a barely manageable twist with 12 year old hands and forearms. The spring racks back and clicks leaving the barrel loose. He places a pellet into the tiny orifice of the bore, and it chucks back into place solid, spring cocked, straining and ready. His target is the eye of a broken branch on the girth of a white birch. Black spot – clearly visible from this far away. He lines up the sights like dad taught him, target resting at the flat top of the notch and post, then breathing in holds his body steady, steady again, and slowly squeezes the trigger. The spring jumps, pushes air and mist and the pellet exits to pierce the bark, stops embedded and flattened. It’s a quarter-second event between the pop of the gun and the slap of the impact. Pop – smack! Just enough to let you know it’s a real thing.
But then, there – about 40 feet away on a branch facing him directly is a Sparrow. Plump body and proud breast, pumping feathers with air, powering a delicate call into the hot afternoon.
He sees the bird, close up, perfect, and without thought of consequence, with purpose and caution breaks the barrel, loads the rifle and brings it up. He aims well, holds his breath. He kills the bird with one shot. A breast shot. The sound of the snap of the spring and that split-moment later, the slap of the pellet on the breast.
And then he sees another Sparrow on the same branch, hidden behind some leaves. It sits there and begins to call. He doesn’t hear singing, it is instead a cry. He understands he has killed its mate, and immediately he understands the meaning of loneliness much deeper than his right. He has created a mighty wave of sorrow and his mind whispers to him, “don’t let it suffer.” He reloads the rifle, aims, observes the second bird sitting still – for him – to allow him, and with surety of purpose kills it. Pop – smack! He does this to save it.
He holds the weapon. The air is quiet. He looks straight up – one hand to his brow to block the splash of the sun – looks out to the sky from beneath the tangled towers of branches and green. There are tears in his eyes.
There is no way to vent his shame; it’s trouble if he tells. He goes downstairs to the bedroom with the window and the sex book, where Kleenex was stuffed down to the bottom of the garbage can. He leans the pellet gun up at the corner near the closet – the bore, the barrel-end and the sights pointing to the ceiling. He lays alone on the bed and looks up, out of the window. He can see the eves of the house next door. The rain gutter, the sun-cast shadow of the roof of his house, a wall of black inching slowly across solid siding as the afternoon sun swings westward toward the end of a hot August day. The soldier, the cowboy, the indian – all of his heroes reticent, or fled.