(published in KC Voices Vol. 14, Oct 2017)
The Crossman pump-action air rifle was a gift for my tenth birthday. A symbol of my maturity.
My father spent hours explaining the finer points of the weapon. He traced the path of the pellet with his finger. He showed how the action of the bolt snapped the pellet into place. He pumped the lever below the barrel, his bicep rippling through each cycle.
He taught me to brace the butt of the rifle into the natural crook of my shoulder. He gently tilted my head until my cheek grazed the wooden stock. Close your left eye and look straight down the barrel, through the open sights. The borders of my vision blurred into vague pools of brown, the target standing alone in eerie clarity.
I pretended the butt of my rifle had melted into my chest, becoming part of me. The barrel became my arm. The sights, my eye. The gun moved where I moved, it saw what I saw. It’s aim rose and fell in time to my breathing.
My father taught me how to breathe. How to take a deep breath while lining up the shot.
How to hold it.
How to exhale smoothly, never losing sight of the target. Squeeze the trigger smoothly as the breath leaves your lungs. The final pull of the trigger should match the final push of breath.
It always seemed odd to stop breathing while killing something.
I practiced with the rifle. I pasted newspaper to cardboard boxes and leaned them against the shed door with the sun-blistered paint. I shot at the newspaper, spelling words letter by letter, pellet by pellet. I spelled my name. I spelled Clark Street. I spelled the rain, the wind, the crooked doghouse in the corner of the yard. I spelled Lori Spriggs and her flawless braids. I spelled walking home from school alone, using the key that Mom had sewn into my jacket. I shot and I shot and I shot.
When I had spelled everything, I repeated myself.
I learned things about the gun that no one else knew. The sights that drift a whisper to the left. The firm jiggle that shakes loose a stuck pellet. I shot from ten paces, twenty, memorizing the flight of the pellet. Forty paces. My aim grew true.
I told my father I was too old to shoot boxes. He agreed.
I was only to shoot at the sparrows that nested under the eaves of the house. I liked watching the sparrows swirl through the air, swooping in and out of the brick chimney, but my father said they were damaging the attic. Causing more harm than good, he said.
I was not allowed to shoot at songbirds. My father said that songbirds should be respected.
I was very good at shooting sparrows. I never missed.
When the birds weren’t circling the chimney, they perched in the sunlight along the eastern edge of the roof. They sat in a row with their beaks raised against the fresh spring breeze. Stepping heel to toe, I moved silently into shooting position, transferring my weight silently across the yard. I drew the rifle slowly, keeping the barrel pointed downward until my target was chosen.
I always chose the bird farthest to the left.
I exhale, I shoot, one bird falls. The other sparrows scatter and turn loops around the chimney before eventually coming back to rest at the same spot of sunlight. I fire again, one falls again, the others in motion once more.
I placed the dead sparrows under a bed of rocks in the corner of the yard.
It had just finished raining when I saw the robin. It came to rest on the roof, its red chest puffed proudly, its head tilted toward the sky. The wind shook the branches of the tree above him. The bird turned its head toward the wind, like a Greek hero immortalized by sculpture.
I knew it was a robin. I was not to shoot at robins, I reminded myself as I crept lightly around the woodpile toward the windward side of the house. I’m only to shoot at sparrows, I thought as I raised the rifle, aiming high and to the right. The robin did not move. It just sat there, content.
Songbirds should be respected.
The robin didn’t drop like the sparrows. He tried to fly, but his wings beat helplessly against the roof. The robin hobbled away from the edge of the roof, out of my sight.
I had never simply hurt a bird before. I had only killed them. I only knew birds at absolute life and absolute death – never caught in between. The simplicity of death was gone, replaced by the messy sickness of suffering. The robin had a life before I intruded on it. He flew, he nested. He made a home for his family. He only stopped to rest in the sunshine, to enjoy the spring breeze.
I pulled the old wooden ladder from behind the shed. The two bottom rungs rotted away years ago. In their place was a thin piece of rusted wire. My father said it was too dangerous for me to use. I had always scoffed at his caution, but now I understood.
I raised the ladder against the roof. I slung the rifle across my back with the thin green nylon strap screwed into the bottom of the stock. I tested the rickety rungs over my head to make sure they hadn’t rotted too. The rungs felt firm, but for some reason I didn’t trust them.
I stepped over the broken steps and climbed.
The robin sat silently in the corner created from the attic meeting the roof. He sat atop of a small pile of dried leaves and twigs, courtesy of the big oak tree. His breath was heavy and scared. The robin’s proud chest beat rapidly as left eye darted frantically.
His right eye was gone. A small rivulet of blood ran down his cheek, blending with the sunset plumage on his chest.
The wind swirled some leaves around the robin and some leaves around me. The bird tried to flap his wings once more, but it made no difference. The robin resigned itself to motionlessness, the only movement coming from his eye.
I slung the rifle around my shoulder. My heart pounded in my chest, and my breathing was short and ragged. I didn’t take the time to measure distance. I pulled the rifle to my shoulder and aimed for where his right eye should be.
The wind shifted and shook the bare oak branches. A host of sparrows circled the chimney, making final preparations for the cool night quickly approaching. Baby sparrows needing food and warmth waited patiently under the rickety eave. I wondered how many mothers I’d buried under the rocks in the yard. How many babies. How many sparrows that had lives, plans, joy. How many that simply wanted to take a rest in the sunlight on the edge of the roof.
I drew a deep breath, closed my eyes, and exhaled slowly.
I hid the rifle in the back of the closet, underneath the winter coats. I returned the ladder behind the shed. I kicked leaves over the rungs to hide that I had moved it. I threw the newspaper-wrapped boxes into the garbage can in the alley.
That night, while everyone else slept through the dreariness, I climbed through the attic window and skittered across the roof. The robin sat patiently in the corner, waiting for his time. I gathered twigs and leaves around him, building his last nest, apologizing softly as my tears mixed with the misty rain.