Though this was my first gun, I cannot recall how I came by it. In this small Midwestern town, it was common for children as young as 8 or 9 to have a beginner’s gun. A BB gun. An almost harmless rifle. Its tiny pellets, the size of a peppercorn, could only be propelled after the air we breathe had been pumped into gun’s chamber. Normally, a father would have presented one to his young son, but my father had died before I could remember him.
The unwritten rules of gun ownership were customarily conveyed to the child by an adult male but, in my case, I had to rely on the wild guesses and jokes of my pre-teen peers. Like the exciting game we played by stealthy aiming our pumped up gun at a friend’s rump. After the discharge from the gun, the tiny BBs would harmlessly bounce off his thick Levi’s. With the usual shriek and jump, he would spin about to aim, but I would have thwarted him by assuming the standard defensive position of facing him.
This world of my youth was a quiet one. The blue sky was unmarred by airplanes or helicopters. Scarcely any cars traversed the seemingly wide roads. Even fewer were parked on those streets, which held the town’s few stores. The arrhythmic taps of hard-heeled shoes sounded explosive in the quiet of mid-day. On the quieter streets, soft, harmonious ripples of sound flowed from wide-open windows. The voices of the contented families overflowed the boundaries of their homes. TV’s had not invaded yet, but Radio had inserted a wooden box the size of a small cabinet into living rooms. It would be decades before its offspring were to be found in every room and in every vehicle.
This path I now followed was bordered with short bushes and tall weeds. Above was the wire weighted with the inaudible voices of my community. The silence was so enfolding that, were I to listen, I would have heard the swishing of my pants, the soft rasp of my breath and the muffled whisper of grass scuffed by my shoes. I had to be quiet for I was a mighty hunter. A hunter of small game. Of big game. Or bad men. Whatever my imagination decreed. When I tired of game, I searched for evil. The imagination can be a terrible thing for the uninitiated.
The sharp sounds of insects hidden within the weeds fell silent as my new shoes squeaked on harder ground. Suddenly, I was no longer a hunter of game, but a stalker of dangerous criminals. I knew they were near. The shrubs were the perfect hiding place. As I moved forward cautiously, I held my rifle at the ready. My ears were attuned for the sharp crack of a twig breaking. Or of a rifle being cocked.
Besides our fathers and our peers, there was another influence affecting us, young boys with hands on our first guns. The old Westerns. The movies we saw then are as anachronistic today as are the films featuring stylized swordplay. Apart from the costumes of the actors in these two types of films, there was another important difference. At an arm’s length, the swordsmen fought with swords with gleaming blades, so sharp that our hand-sharpened pocket knives, by comparison, were only as useful as butter knives. Their frantic fights, heavily choreographed, displayed the artistry, the athleticism and the partnership of the two combatants. The fights had duration. In reality, sword fights were duels; on film, they were duets. As viewers, we were too caught up in the action to feel suspense initially, but it did build and so did our tension. Eventually, the good man delivered the fatal stroke and all was right with the world.
Westerns were different. Space was a factor in gunfights. Yards apart, combatants snarled at each other as they reached for their pistols. Lesser bad men were usually members of a gang lead by a master gunslinger. When a gunfight began, their fear reappeared as they fumbled at their holstered revolvers. The gunslinger handled his guns with a juggler’s dexterity. Before a fight, he would perform tricks to display his shooting skills. His opponent, an upright man, was calmer. His fingers rarely brushed against his pistol until the fatal confrontation. At noon, the evil gunslinger and the highly moral man faced each other on a sun-baked street. The villagers scattered to safety. Even the cowboys’ horses vanished from sight. Suspense grew and grew as the adversaries stiffly walked towards each other. Just as the suspense became unbearable, the gunslinger thrust his hand toward his pistol. A loud gunshot and the death were instantaneous.
In swordplay, you must quickly evaluate the skill of your opponent, your enemy. In gunplay, you merely aim at a moving target.
Suddenly, the silence in my world was disrupted. I was hearing unbelievable music. I half believed that an operatic soprano had flung open her window to trill a welcome to the rising sun. The language I did not understand, but its content I could. Here was someone, without a care, tossing jubilation out into the world without expecting compensation. The appropriate word, “Celestial," was far beyond my childish understanding. I was immobilized under this cascade of notes, singularly free of melody.
Curiosity provided the impetus for me to break free of the song. I stood straight and surveyed my surroundings. I seemed to be alone. It was a certainty that the known world was empty of any creature capable of creating such exquisite sound. Here was a hint of the path to infinity or to the Deity.
Eventually, I realized that the music was literally over my head. I glanced up, but, except for the telephone wire, the sky was empty, bereft even of clouds. As I scanned the heavens, I finally spotted a small, brown, feathered object perched athwart the wire. The bird was so tiny I could have held it within clasped hands. It was miraculous that a creature so small and so visually uninteresting could create such a wondrous sound, so effortlessly. When its beak pointed upward, the stream of music ascended into celestial regions unknown to a child. Could its feet, in grasping the wire beneath, pull in the purest sounds that flowed through it? Within the purview of the bird’s song, the world sparkled. I was immobile, spellbound by its beauty.
I cannot explain what happen next. I have tried. It was as though I had been cruelly divided into two persons. The introspective one who had been absorbed in the melodic beauty vanished. The aggressive one shoved that fool aside to step forward with gun in hand. I was now a Western sheriff who had spotted a wanted sharpshooter on a rooftop. To reduce the size of my body, his target, I collapsed my knees and bent my back. Simultaneously, I grabbed my gun with my good hand and pulled it over to my right hip. For several long seconds, my finger clawed for the trigger. In a frenzy, I jabbed at the stock. By the time, I was ready to shoot, I was desperate. There wouldn’t be much time left. Would I be too late? With the stock at my knee and the barrow pointed upward, I fired. Once. Without looking.
I had thought that the bird’s song had vanquished silence, but it returned terrifyingly with the small pop of my gun. My single shot had muted the bird. To check his reaction, I looked up, but the wire was empty. The bird had vanished with my shot, as had my sheriff. After I stood upright, I let the gun’s barrel droop, harmlessly pointing to the ground. Frantically, I searched in all directions for the bird, but he was nowhere to be seen.
The songster could be hiding, I thought. After thrashing the bushes without success, I parted the tall, dry grasses under his wire perch. There I found his body, absolutely still. Not even a feather fluttered as I roughly pushed the grasses aside to reach for him. When I straightened up, I held his still warm body close to my face. The bird refused to move, to breathe. As his body cooled, so did my palm. I couldn’t believe that my untargeted shot had felled him. Over and over, I spun his body, searching for the bullet hole. But here was no hole, no blood, but still the bird was dead. No evidence that I had murdered the bird. But something had stopped his voice, his heart. Was it fear of the flying pellet? Desperately, I sought the answer. I searched for my innocence. I felt the oppressive silence of self-reproach while I awaited the castigation of a higher authority.
To enable my eyes to see into his, I rotated his body, but his closed eyelids blocked my vision. I don’t know how long I stared until I noticed his beak was partially open. Even in death, this doorway for song refused to close. I brought his body closer to my face and stared deeply into his mouth. There I found the instrument of death. My errant shot, like an unconsumed seed, was buried firmly in the flesh at the back of the bird’s mouth. When the sunlight touched the BB, it glowed like a silver bead. I couldn’t use force to pinch his beak closed with my fingers.
The final step should have been the bird’s burial, but I lacked the tools to break into the hard earth. After parting a cluster of tall weeds, I made a cradle from leaves of grass I had ripped loose. During my final viewing, I spread more fallen leaves over the body and straightened the weeds. There was nothing further I could do but to leave silently. Quickly, I walked away from his grave with the barrel of my aimless BB gun scuffing the path.
During my journey home, I was haunted by the winged one’s silence. In the empty sky, the overhead wire’s whir had replaced the bird’s trill.
In the decades since this incident, there have been many moments when I recalled that departed singer. Once in a very odd way, when I held a misshapen, multi-eyed potato in my hand, it seemed to be transfigured into the still remains of that nut-brown bird. Quietly, its protuberant eyes brought back my shame.
Of my weapon, the BB gun, its only memory for me is linked to the murder of that forever silent singer.
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