Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Place For Regrets

As a young boy growing up about an hour outside of Houston, I spent plenty of time outdoors. I fished in the murky shallows of ponds, clutching my cane pole as I waited for the plastic bobber to sink beneath the reflected sky, pulled by a hungry bass. I learned to shoot a slingshot and a compound bow near the edge of the woods. I dug holes in the earth, struggling against the hard clay and the weight of the Texas sun resting against my back, always disappointed when I didn't make it to China or at least strike oil.

So, as my tenth birthday approached, I lobbied hard for a pellet gun. But not just any pellet gun. I'd already mastered toy BB guns. And since I was approaching double-digits in age, practically a man by my estimation, I asked for a Sheridan pellet gun. I'd heard rumor that it was the most powerful pellet gun available. I coveted its smooth hardwood stock and the nickel plating that ran along the barrel. I longed to blow holes through things. But I knew that it was an extravagant request, too expensive, and probably even too dangerous, despite my pleas to the contrary.

Yet I somehow got that gun. I can't be sure exactly why. Maybe because I was a good boy that year, smart-alecky to be sure, but possessed of a certain maturity.

I ran my fingers over the box and asked, "How powerful do you think it is?"

My uncle rubbed at the stubble on his chin, contemplating his answer. "Probably about like a twenty-two. We can take it for a spin and find out."

He probably didn't mean that very second, but I begged and pleaded. The only thing to do with a gun like that was to shoot it, to sight it in, to harness its power.

We packed the gun into the car along with a heavy yellow box of lead pellets and some tin cans we'd collected for target practice. Then we followed the main road in the neighborhood until it turned into a blacktop and eventually a dirt road that cut through brush and sparse pines. It emptied us out in a clearing near a yawning ditch where muddy water snaked through the center and off into the distance.

We loaded the gun and took turns shooting at the cans. It was a single load rifle, and it required pumping to fill its pneumatic chamber. With each lead pellet, we calibrated the sights, until we consistently hit our targets with a plink that sent them flying. The pellets were designed to mushroom on impact, and they quickly tore holes in the tin. I wasn't strong enough to pump the gun to full strength without bracing it between my legs and using two hands. But I wanted to see what it was capable of, and at that power it even shot through the thick metal of a coffee can.

My uncle nodded with approval. "Yep, you're a good shot. And I reckon it's about like a twenty-two."

I was pleased by his pronouncement and tagged a tuna fish can dead center in celebration.

"You know you have to keep this thing on safety. And you can't ever point it at anyone. Even if you think it's unloaded. Accidents happen."

I grunted in agreement and continued shooting. But I was listening. I took in everything he was saying. I looked up to him.

And I followed his advice. Even on that day in the backyard as I shot Coke cans on low power, wasting time by myself.

I remember inspecting the holes in my target and marching back across the smell of pine needles for more practice. And I spotted the brittle brown shell of a cicada clinging to the skinny trunk of a tree. I reached out and touched it, a miniature monster, the remnants of something that disappeared into its own scream during the night. And my eyes climbed the tree, a pine, thin and dark, pointing towards the silent sky above.

A crow perched on one of its high branches, large and menacing, its dark eyes camouflaged. The black of its feathers shone plum in the sunlight, and I was reminded of something ominous, of some old feud between crows and men.

And I decided to kill that bird, to load a lead pellet in the chamber, to pump the gun to full power and to shoot it dead.

The gun was heavy aiming above my head, and I struggled against its sway before pulling the trigger and sending the pellet whizzing upwards, propelled by a loud pop.

But the bird stayed put, resting on his perch.

And I realized that I didn't know anything about life and death, that I was just a boy wielding too much power. And I was glad that I had missed that bird. I was glad that he would soon take flight, lighter than air. And I smiled a toothless grin at him, an olive branch offering.

But he didn't fly away. Just as I'd finished my thought, he fell, fluttering to the other side of the wooden fence and into my neighbor's backyard.

My stomach fell with him. And a lump grew in my throat as I climbed the fence, splinters digging into the soft palm of my hand. My feet slipped against the wood as I struggled to pull myself up to peer over the wall.

The bird hopped, broken-winged in a barren corner of the yard, a spot of dirt where nothing grew. And little clouds of dust kicked up beneath him as he tried to escape, as life left him. Mesmerized, I looked on. I watched until my strength gave, and I tumbled backwards to my own patch of barren earth.

I packed up my gun and my pellets, and I went to my room and locked the door. And I cried. I cried because I was too scared to tell anyone what had happened, to possibly save the crow. I cried because I didn't have it in me to load another pellet in the gun and put him out of his misery. I cried because I understood something that little boys weren't supposed to understand. I cried for his slow death, for the blood on my hands.

Only he didn't die. He still stumbles and flutters, kicking up dust in a claustrophobic place just beneath my sternum. It's a place reserved for the deepest of childhood regrets.

25 comments:

  1. Wow. A powerful post. You need to forgive yourself for that; you were a child. You did what children do. If there was a wrong, it was committed by those who put a weapon in the hands of a child before he was mature enough to know how to use it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. And that's why you are a terrific writer. You feel with your heart instead of the trigger of a weapon. Fantastic post.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This post was very moving. You are a wonderful writer.
    My uncle took his life with a gun when I was only 8yrs old. I will never touch a gun b/c of it. I can't even look at them. They scare me to death.
    I'm really looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    ReplyDelete
  4. That's so sad. And honestly, it was awful but you were a kid and that's how kids learn. And you learned something that shaped your ideas about that subject in a good way forever.

    When I was ten I saw a guy shooting at swans on the river. He was on the opposite bank to me and swans are protected so my friend and I threw stones at him and hid behind a tree when he started firing warning shots at us. When we got home my mum called the cops who caught him and we eventually had to go to court over it all and testify. Crazy. I haven't even thought about that event in 20 years, till I read your entry there. Weird.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow this is an amazing post. It actually brought tears to my eyes. I love how you write and seem to so effortlessly shape my emotions. Great story - heartbreaking but wonderful.

    Okay I will stop gushing now.

    Kate x

    ReplyDelete
  6. That opened up the claustrophobic place beneath my sternum. Mine was a starling off the chimney, mine died on the spot, but still flutters there nevertheless. I recently posted about my first shots with a pellet gun, but I didn't have the courage to tell the whole story. http://itsnotthecoffin.blogspot.com/2009/11/i-broke-sequence.html

    Powerful emotions at play here.

    AV

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi, Eva. That's definitely something I recognize intellectually, but still...

    Hi, Sarah. Thank you.

    Hi, Shandal. Thanks for popping by. I'm sorry to hear of your uncle. I can imagine how that would shape your view of the world.

    Hi, VA. That's crazy. Shooting at swans and warning shots at kids. Hope that guy got what he deserved.

    Hi, Kate. I really do appreciate the gushing. Thanks so much for reading. ;)

    Hi, AV. You just don't realize these things when you're a kid.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Oh Hunter, that is such a sad story, but a lesson was learned that day! Yes, you do not realize these things when you are only a child, but these are the things that stay with you for the rest of your life.
    A lesson well learned, and my heart goes out to you.
    Big hugs. (sniff)

    ReplyDelete
  9. What an emotional post, Hunter. I can only echo the comments the others have left here. I will say, though, the things you experience as a child, no matter how devastating, help shape the way you become as an adult. Even though the act and the emotions following were horrible, it helped you to become the understanding, emotional and talented person you are today.

    I always look forward to your posts. You always manage to pull a myriad of emotions, thoughts and lots of inspiration out of me!!

    ReplyDelete
  10. hmmmmmm.....THANK YOU this was a beautifully crafted post -It will linger in my soul for a little while and leave me a little changed forever. The hallmark of great writing.I like to think that perhaps there was a little boy on the other side of the fence who found a bird with a broken wing and nursed it back to health.... You never know. I think we all have deep regrets, most of them hidden and wedged under layers of shame. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  11. That was lovely, in it's own way.
    Childhood regrets is a facet of humanity that we don't often discuss. Most of the time the experiences are too embarrassing. It might be a good exercise for everyone to share them more often.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi, Alice. That's true. They do stay with you.

    Hi, Amber. I'm glad that you enjoy the posts and think it's just fantastic if you find anything resembling inspiration over here. ;)

    Hi, AWS. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

    Hi, Erin. Agreed. I almost didn't hit 'publish' on this one. And it would definitely be interesting to see how others might approach this type of post.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hunter,
    That was amazing writing, I pictured the whole thing, I had done something similar around that age, but am not going there.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hunter, this is an amazing post! Brilliant writing, you really drew me in and i felt everything that you remembered.

    I found myself surprised that you did have regrets about harming the bird. It shows you probably had an old, wise head on child shoulders. I can't imagine many kids at that age full of regret. I always thought that was an emotion we learned much later in life!

    Great story. :)

    ReplyDelete
  15. When I first started reading all I could think was, "But, you'll shoot your eye out!" A la The Christmas Story. That feeling was quickly replaced.

    Oh, Hunter. You do dark so well. Fantastic post. I once found a dead sparrow in our wood stove. It must have fallen down there and then couldn't get back out and starved. It broke my heart.

    Imagery with birds always gets me. Beautiful closing.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Aw man, this weeps sadness. Such rich writing.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hi, Bob. I don't blame you. As I mentioned in a comment above, I almost didn't post this one.

    Hi, Lou. I definitely regretted it. Too bad I didn't have the wisdom to foresee it though.

    Hi, Lindsay. I'm glad you liked this one. And I agree about imagery with birds. That actually is playing a very big part in my manuscript. Not sure if a variation on this story will make it in there though.

    Hi, Fish. Thanks, man. You scared me with your last post. Thought you were leaving the blogosphere.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Beautifully well written. All children make mistakes and learn from them...hoping not to remake them as adults.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Beautifly written from your heart. It took me back to my crow. I was thirteen and thankfully, it died right away.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hi, clo. True. I've shot birds since, but they were the finger gesture kind. ;)

    Hi, Mike. I'm always amazed to find how many people have had similar experiences/thoughts to some of the things I post. As always, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I'm glad you shared this. I've actually been back a couple of times to read it, and am only now commenting. I like what Erin said--and I would like to see how others approached this sort of post. It's very hard to write about and reveal these terrible, haunting moments from one's childhood, when we felt things so strongly but didn't always have words for what we felt.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Hi, Leah. Well, I'm glad you did decide to comment. I was a little worried about freaking people out with this post. While we all have our childhood demons, it seems like a lot of the guys do in fact have their own 'bird' story. I wonder if there's something similar that would be unique to the ladies?

    ReplyDelete
  23. Oh no! I wasn't freaked out. Just reflecting for a bit.

    ReplyDelete
  24. And I'll have to give that some thought, whether ladies have a "bird story" in common. It's an interesting question.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I'm here from Erin's place. Wow. This was just so moving to me. I know how this feels, the ache of childhood regret.

    ReplyDelete