On Flocks and Rocks by Ean Bevel
On Flocks and Rocks
I’m a native Texan, so I get my first gun at five, a few years after most of my peers. I kneel in the dirt between rows of tomato plants and lower my aim onto the blue bird. I shoot. The bird flies up to its ceramic house hanging from a tree in my granny’s yard, just above the bird feeder.
Dad says never give up, although never in the context of the bird. Mom teaches me how to shoot, although not in the context of the bird. They are training an assassin. With my Red Rider, tassel intact, compass functional, I plink cans, in one side but not out the other, and bust bottles, sometimes, when the BB doesn’t ricochet off, until I am ready to attempt the slaughter again.
In 1823, James Fennimore Cooper publishes The Pioneers, which describes a flock of pigeons that “extended from mountain to mountain in one solid blue mass, and the eye looked in vain, over the southern hills, to find its termination.” 1823 Americans were fresh Americans, but they were already American: brass, arrogant, and ignorant. They planted wheat under the second most travelled flyway in the U.S., unbeknownst until the government grew enough and the flocks dwindled enough to count birds flying south. They expected the flock. They would defend their toil.
Men and boys climbed the mountainsides and dotted the wheat fields holding rifles, and pistols, and bows and arrows, and sticks. One heroic gentleman, Richard, found a cannon into which “several handfuls of duck-shot were placed on top of the powder.” And they waited.
When I passed Red Rider age, I stayed with my grandma one weekend. Grandma worked in a prison, so when I got to her house she pulled out her chore list. We mowed the grass, trimmed the weeds, and swept the sidewalks. We fed the chickens, hayed the boxes, and collected eggs. We weeded the tomatoes, dug the potatoes, and watered everything. We tightened a door hinge, fixed a fence post, and replaced the roof. Then we slaughtered chickens.
You know that friend of yours, the natural athlete? You and your friend, Jimmy, played high school basketball. You played point guard and Jimmy played. He was six feet at the time, too skinny, never weight trained or conditioned. He averaged thirty-two points a game and five dunks. You averaged.
You and Jimmy decided to go to basketball camp where you stayed in the dorms, spent a week practicing with and playing against a college team. You and Jimmy always played together and usually won, two-on-two, three-on-three, five-on-five.
After two nights of sleeping off the conditioning, you and Jimmy wanted to move. You were on a college campus. It was time to explore.
After Mom teaches me how to aim and breathe and murder cans, the blue bird dies. She teaches me safety. Never shoot into the air. Never aim at anything you don’t want to kill. Never shoot a bird.
I refill granny’s feeder with thistle, lie in the cool earth, and wait for the blue bird who lives next to the garden, maybe even has babies, in the ceramic bird house. A few songbirds alight on the feeder and crack shells, winnowing chaff, pivoting heads. They don’t see me. I want the blue one. I wait.
An eternity later, probably five minutes in five-year-old time, Blue comes home. He flies to his house and perches on the peg below the entrance hole. I aim into the air at the bird. I shoot. The BB misses Blue and plinks his house, loosening a quarter-sized shard of ceramic which falls onto the feeder and frightens the songbirds away. Blue just sits there, stares.
The settlers stared into sky, a brief gap between flocks. Natty Bumpo, Cooper’s hero, chastised his fellow countryman who did not collect the dead, “which lay scattered over the fields in such profusion as to cover the very ground with fluttering victims.” They “kill twenty and eat one.” There is no remorse, American cognitive dissonance justifying the slaughter, claiming “these rascals will overrun our wheat fields.”
Natty raises his rifle to his shoulder and shoots a single pigeon. His dogs retrieve the pigeon from the carnage and they walk back to Natty’s house. He disappears, knowing an “assault of more than ordinarily fatal character” awaits the next flock.
We caught three chickens in their coop. Grandma put them in burlap and we carried the squawking sack to a stump we had just trimmed around. It was a walnut stump, two feet out of the ground. The axe head stuck in the stump and the handle stood out in mid-air, right where grandma swung it and left it.
“I’ll show you once.”
Grandma reached into the bag of clucks, thrashed her hand around, and swore a few times. Then she pulled a chicken out by the head, her hand bleeding from chicken scratches. She handed me the bag and pulled the axe from the stump.
You walked out of the high-rise dorm onto asphalt that emitted heat waves and was rainbowed by oil spots between parking lines. You started sweating, but Jimmy, he was cool. You approached a manmade pond, a triangle surrounded by three parking lots, a fountain in the center spraying a bell. You threw a rock at the bell, but the rock splashed down halfway to its target. Jimmy threw a rock over the bell, over the rest of the pond. Then you saw the ducks.
I aim the second shot and Blue doesn’t struggle. He falls into a pile of seed husks, never peeps, never flutters. I rise from my ambush position, Red Rider overhead. I lead granny to my kill and she slaps me twice on the back of the head. I drop my gun, fall to my knees.
Dad is pissed-proud. Dumb enough to shoot the bird but smart enough to engineer the execution. Mom is proud-pissed. Made the shot but broke every safety rule. Granny is pissed.
“Made it when I was a girl. Travelled all across the States with me.”
The birdhouse means more to her, she says, than her entire house. She is hyperbolic, always. She got it at a special time in her life, at a special place in her life she couldn’t remember. Dad lights a cigarette and studies the match until it blows out. Mom, I think, winks. Granny cuts a switch.
“So low did they take their flight, that even long poles in the hands of those on the side of the mountain were used to strike them to the earth.” After the guns, the sport, the cannon, the slaughter, “urchins” worked wringing pigeon necks as “full one-half of those that have fallen are yet alive,” and the men had been offered cash for “heads only.”
Grandma and I plucked, cleaned, and fried the chicken for the weekend gathering, kids eating outside in the gazebo. The fried chicken on my plate stared at me. Every time I lifted it to my mouth, all I could smell was the afternoon slaughter. I washed my hands again, then gagged when I looked at a crispy thigh. Potatoes too. Corn. Slaw. Peas. All blood.
Jimmy hit you on the shoulder. “Ducks.”
You quick-grabbed a stone from the asphalt when the ducks paddled close to the bank. You hurled. You missed. You hurled. The stone landed ten feet before the ducks, then skipped twice and slapped a duck in the eye. The duck rolled over in the water, feet straight up, dead, did not flip a flipper. Average that. The other ducks watched their comrade float away upside down but kept paddling in the same spot.
“These ducks have clipped wings,” Jimmy said. “So they can’t fly away. Ornaments. You killed an immobile duck.” He thought that was funny, but you didn’t.
Jimmy selected a rock, turned it over in his hand, removed his shirt, and grinned at you before he threw. He killed two ducks. Robbed of their ability to fly, trust of men gained through Wonder Bread, jailed in a concrete pond, ducks. You only killed one with two rocks.
© 2017 Ean Bevel
Ean Bevel lives with his wife and two children in rural Illinois. When he is not chasing kids or teaching English classes or swinging a hammer, he puts pen to page. His work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, Calliope, and elsewhere.
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