John made his way down river to the clearing, his chest young and bare. He liked to play savage, his stick, a homemade weapon he whittled into a sharp point. He studied the birds in the tree, watching the bluebird flit in a nervous rapture, and he dreamed of killing that bird. It would be his first.
At his age, most boys had killed something. A deer, a squirrel or his preference, a bird. The one lesson that thrust a boy into manhood was that first bolt of power, adrenaline striking the adolescent frame like a match to fire starter, the feeling of man’s mighty force overcoming something lesser, or weaker. It was a passage and he wanted in.
For someone so trained in important things, like geometry and literature and world civilizations, proving yourself in the woods wasn’t that easy.
They called him Little Anglo because he wasn’t from the country. That was a stigma, as he said, because those River Road boys never understood him or what he said. When he spoke with seriousness, they just laughed with wide grins, the kind he swore could eat you if they had to.
Yep, they would not spare you, if push came to shove. In their parts, the deep country, that happened a lot. So John appeased them with compliments. Even though most were insincere, they worked. They fell for it every time.
When he said “Bubby, you know you’re pretty smart,” the big lute recoiled like a girl being asked to dance. When he said, “Jimmy, you’re really funny,” he was even stupider, as if he now had a license to be the clown he always was.
While Little Anglo was small, he had authority over people and ideas. He just possessed the atmosphere. When he spoke, they stopped smiling so much and looked quiet in the face. He thought of Shakespeare, as if a cloud had passed over their face, like no one had ever said a kind word and it just wasn’t something they were used to. Being nice caught them off guard.
So John tried to keep the game going at all times, tripping them up with the sharpest object he owned—his mind. Now, he just had to prove his stronger side.
He needed that bird for pride’s sake. It would beat inside his head trapped like in a cage, banging to be set free, the idea beginning to overtake his mind. He quickly threw his spear into the magnolia tree without thinking. It worked. The bird flew out and John’s eyes tracked its flight like radar on an enemy plane. He locked in, its bright blue reflection circling his sea-green eyes, the bird darting and moving before disappearing into the trees. He tried again, and nothing happened. It must be in there alone, he thought. One more try, he thought and again, not a leaf flinched.
He sat and waited because he was good at patience. It took a lot of it to read so much and study. By the time he was 11, all he knew how to do was sit and learn. For this kind of work, though, he had to be crafty.
Hours passed and he held his position, observing and counting the seconds in between its movements until he had formulated a pattern in his head that was almost accurate. But Lady kept interrupting his count. He shooed her away, and began again to count the seconds. It flew out and back in again. He thought of the rifle in the shed and hatched a plan.
Walking quietly as a man in high boots, he moved stealthily until he reached the leaning shed. It was raised on low stilts and sat crooked, its foundation broken from the rush of the river, looking like at any minute it could fall. But he knew Papa didn’t make anything weak, and if it had been weak, the rushing water would have pushed it all the way into town, so he grabbed its beam and pulled himself up onto the porch. Still sturdy. He thought of how Mama was so protective all the time, telling them not to go even near it, because it could tumble. Hysterical, he thought.
It was strange to be leaning though – how funny. He pretended to be talking and leaning and serious all at the same time. He wished Simon were there to see his act, but he would probably say no to gettin’ the gun, and he didn’t need any interference. Simon didn’t understand his frustration. When Simon turned eight, he had already gotten a deer trophy and a rodeo award in one year. No, he needed to do this alone and without any flack.
He pulled the door latch open and peered inside. It smelled of linseed oil and gasoline. The fumes made an intoxicating spell over his head, as if he were entering the gates of temptation. This is what a saloon must feel like. Like a place where you shouldn’t go. But you are there, and there’s so much to swallow the mind that it keeps shaking no, but it keeps going on its own, struggling with itself.
He was grappling with his eyes, they were still used to outside and it was night inside, so his senses were all jumbled up, and he couldn’t help but start thinking he was being tricked by his own self. He shook off the dust and began to walk into the dark, looking for a light but he couldn’t remember where Papa had put the stupid switch. He panicked for a moment because now he was in so much, it was too dark to walk back out, ahead, it was worse. He looked up and saw a chain dangling and jumped enough to loosen his boots from his legs and make the shed wobble. He swung on it like a wild un’, proud when the room lit up with energy.
He could now see a small picture on the wall Papa had pinned with a tack and he stopped for a moment, all of the world settling. For she was there, always there and when he saw her, he saw the love of a million hearts and the dreams of a million stars and a million reasons for a thing called hope. He calmed his racing heart and reasoned. This is ok. I can do this. She had put that in his heart—but he also knew she would be some steamed if she knew what he was up to. Growing up always came with pains he reckoned, so he bowed his head and murmured a half-hearted prayer—half because only one eye stayed shut and the other kept lookout for spiders, creatures or anything else that called darkness home. That one-eyed Jack focused on her, Momma, who owned his faith and sealed it with the blood of Jesus. He just hoped she remembered Jesus’ name when she found him in the shed with a gun and pile of explosives. That would have to worry for later. Now was ‘bout to be showtime and would be worth the tannin.’
He had no resistance and just stood silent in a moment absorbing the high-spirits of the shed. He leaned over and picked at a dead mouse. It was hard as his stick so he kicked it with his rubber boot. “Heck even a cat wouldn’t want you. You’ll be nothing but dirt soon, so you don’t scare me. Nothin’ but a big grey heap of ash.” He looked at the worktable and saw Papa’s tools, his saw and carvings, and drawings, and he felt a comfort, touched by what was real—wood and nails and someone who could build. He picked up the fat pencil and wrote his name and the year on the underside, just so when he would come back, when all was said and done today, he would remember the day—the precise time when he became a man.
Above, he saw all of the ammunition he could ever need. He saw his small rifle—a Daisy cricket—and he turned his face, scoffing, because no one ever shot something big with that sissy gun. Plus it was Anne’s gun first, and well, it just didn’t feel right to be shooting something with a girl gun. No, he needed manpower, and he saw his man above—the lever-action Browning and he knew that was shot that would take that bird down.
He took a crate from the floor and put it on top of the table, then got on top, standing and wobbling before he reached with all he had to the stars and he was still too short. He hurriedly glanced around, beginning to worry that someone would be coming, his nerves getting frayed and he saw an old garden chair, so he heaved it on the table and placed the crate at its center.
He grabbed one of the ropes hanging from the big hooks and hoisted it over the thick beam, something he learned in scouting, and looped it like a noose. He grabbed the rope and pulled himself hard with his arms, his legs making their way up first before his face, and his stomach the final piece in his maneuver. He was up, now just to be higher so he could reach its strap.
There was nothing above but a pitched roof so he grabbed the rake and began shimming it up into the holder until finally, like a fish on the line, he felt the heavy tug of a lot more weight and in the dark corner, blinded, he knew he had it. Careful, he thought, as he stood on his own house of cards and the more he concentrated on being still, the chair began rocking and he was straining to hold his balance. The gun was now in control, wagging back and forth on the rake until all came spiraling down into a hundredfold heap.
Papa heard the shot and began running to the shed. He knew, and he knew better, and he blamed himself a hundred times on that sandy path, for not locking it, for not keeping things straight, for not fixing it right. He had no idea what he would see, but he knew it was all his fault and he flew in to find his son dirty and composed sitting holding the gun, looking proud and strong, ready for the hunt.
John’s blue eyes looked of steel, “I know you’re mad and I’m in trouble, but its gonna haveta wait because I have business here.” So he looked up to Papa and walked past, the gun leading like a dark elephant, him following until they reached the hollow where he finally plopped down in exhaustion. He caught his breath and wondered if this was all worth it. The whipping he was gonna’ get when this was all over. The bird. The fall. The trouble. His eyes grew wild and fiery, and his tongue began confessing its mind.
Bird, I am gonna git you if I have to climb into every limb of that tree and snatch you with my raw hands. I am gonna git you if I have to cut down this tree and starve you. I am gonna git you, stupid bird, if I have to wait until Christmas, bird, and roast you for dinner. Because I got so much on the line for you and soon Mama’s gonna come running up here hollering and worried and you have just rubbed my lamp too hard for me to go back inside. No, we are gonna get things straight TODAY if it kills me—it’s gonna be you or me feeling that fire, and something tells me God’s on my side today. Heck, I shoulda been dead in there but there’s something bigger goin on here, a destiny and I am not leaving until its mine. This King’s—not some dodobird’s.
And just then, like a cuckoo striking twelve, it appeared and he aimed. He wasn’t prepared, talking to himself and everything, it took him off guard, but not again, because now his head was on straight and he knew what he had to do. He stared and counted under his breath because he didn’t want to make a sound, and for once all of nature seemed to be holding its breath, waiting too for that dodobird, because not even a squirrel rattled about. Nope, it was calm quiet and his count was almost up. That jay’s life was almost up. And he saw it and aimed at the blue of the sky, blue of wings and BOOOM, he fired. It shot up as if the hands of heaven held it on a string, yanking it into clear view and accepting the favor, BOOM he fired again, the sun torching his eyes until he heard a thump and he looked to see where it had fallen, searching, searching until Lady bolted out from the thicket and took off like a runaway train.
“NOOOOOOO,” he cried, knowing she was a bird dog and seeing the liver and white spots streakin’ down towards the river. Heck, he didn’t even know she knew what to do because he had never taken her huntin’, but of all days, she knew what to do, that stiff-necked, nevr-mindin’ stupid dog, I swear I have every mind to shoot her. He screamed, “LADDDYYYY”…and began running like his seat was afire, swiping branches and leaping like a madman and he was now a man but you ain’t a man unless you can prove it and he had no proof—yet.
He tore on until the clearing and began to feel that sinkin’ feeling, a tickling rising in that place in his ribs and he yelled harder because he remembered the traps and as if watchin’ in slow motion, Lady ran into the field like a fuse setting off fireworks for miles, snapping and biting until he just watched her tumble into the high grasses and lay still. He laid the gun on the side and crept slowly, careful not to cause any more commotion because by this time, he could hear a trail of wailing, and calling in the distance and he was pretty sure whose name he heard. “John William. Come here I say— NOOOWWW.” He heard them but didn’t answer, didn’t care, standing like a mute over Lady and the bird. A mute with dominion.
She released her jaw, proudly gifting her master with the winged prize and he stood right there, with bird in hand and plucked them feathers, counting aloud for all the world to hear, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” just like when he was in the little schoolhouse, like blue rain falling from his hands, until its coat was bare, little bones rolling in his hands under the clear skin and he hollered back, “Mama, Stop yellin’, I’m comin’.”