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.