I was both a city and country mouse, living between my father’s deep-Appalachian world of sharecroppers, hunters, and, yes, moonshine, and the bustling metropolis of Rogersville, Tennessee, population around 5,100. I grew up in a small, middle-class suburb on the edge of town, a place where people kept their grass cut and their children played on the street.
Billy was my best friend, we pretty much grew up together. He was a city boy, had never gone hunting or fishing. He’d cross the street to our house and enter our world for a spell. Billy stood, fascinated, as Dad and I, having come in from a hunt, stripped the fur off half a dozen squirrels. While I tore the pelt off, Billy stared at the stretched, off-white, tough, membranous tissue that held the fur to the muscle. Dad wrapped the squirrels in butcher paper and placed them in our freezer, stacking them like a small cord of firewood.
It felt good to tear the pelt off an animal in front of my Townie friend. I wanted to show off to him, with my skill of shooting two pistols at once, like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western. That didn’t happen. Dad owned guns and he had rules. I learned at age nine how to carry a rifle in the woods: rest it atop my forearm, casually, the muzzle toward the ground in front of me. “But, not too low. You trip, and that barrel goes into the mud, it’ll stop it up. You shoot it, it’ll kick back and blow your eyes out of your skull.”
Crossing under a barbed wire fence was tricky. You’ve got to spread two of the wires out to step through them. But, you’ve also got a rifle in hand. If one of those barbs catches on the trigger as you pass, and that muzzle gets too close to your face? Dad told me of a cousin of his whose trigger got caught on a barb. He now walked the earth with his entire face sheered off from buckshot.
Some rules were unsaid, as though common sense was enough to keep you from breaking them. I learned one on my own. Why I did it, I don’t know. I was maybe twelve. Unemployment had hit the territory hard, so Dad had gone off to the coal mines in Kentucky. He sent his paycheck home. There wasn’t the need for wild game in the freezer, Mom could afford store-bought meat from the Piggly Wiggly. Dad had taken one of the pistols with him. The other was still in his closet, along with the rest of the small arsenal.
It was a boring day. Billy wasn’t around. Mom was at work, a secretary for a small business in town. After watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island, I meandered to their bedroom, grabbed the other pistol and walked into the woods behind our house. A flock of about forty blackbirds were pecking away in a clearing. A rain had come through and floated the worms up for easy picking. Blackbirds—some of the ugliest fowl around. I raised the pistol and shot into the flock.
It hit one bird. The flock burst into flight. The bird flopped and beat the ground and flopped more. “Oh no,” I said, and ran to it. A second bird, which had taken off with the rest, returned. It looked like it was trying to pick up the wounded one—no, it was trying, desperately, but couldn’t, not with all those violent arcs of a body that sprayed thin, miniature fans of blood through its feathers. But it tried, it squawked and neared the bird, put its talons out to grab it and fly off. I was ten feet away and still didn’t spook it, it just kept trying and in memory it’s still trying, right before me, and the memory is coated in my own horror: I had created this terrible, enraged dance of one bird trying its best to grab the other that lurched and flipped and now did not squawk so I run at them and yell Git! Go! but the bird doesn’t, it keeps trying to pick the other one up and flies only when I shoo it away with the swing of the pistol and I stand over the wounded one that flops halfway around me but I had only clipped it, it’s not going to die soon so I weep and tremble and shoot the last five bullets at it as it flips and careens and beats the ground and finally one bullet hits and it’s dead and it’s still dead in memory and the other bird is still alive.
I walked into the house, trembling, and cried while I reloaded the revolver. I put it back in its place. Dad was three hundred miles away, and two hundred feet underground, coated in coal dust and sending money home. There was no one around to say, Why in the world did you do that? No one to ask me what my purpose was in shooting into a flock of blackbirds. Had I planned to pluck it and put it on top of the dwindling cord of squirrel carcasses in the freezer? What caused me to kill just for the sake of killing?
I haven’t killed an animal since. I don’t say that proudly; this is a confession. I wouldn’t see another weapon until I moved to Nicaragua, a country at war, where M-16s and AK-47s were all around us, in many, many hands.