More Short Fiction about lessons from Childhood, this time about a boy who learns there’s more to shooting a gun than pulling the trigger.
The Age of Reason
At the base of the mimosa, a wooly caterpillar scaled a twig six inches from Mackey Jarrett’s sneaker. The husky boy lined up the creature between the BB-shaped ball at the end of the barrel and the notches near his nose. He held his breath. The blast spurted dirt and rolled pebbles. After the second shot, the black line curled into a furry circle.
Mackey’s first kill of the day.
The day before, Friday, Mackey’s family gathered at his house, three miles outside Poplar Bluff, to celebrate his birthday. He blew out all seven candles in one huff. He glanced at a coloring book and 64-crayon set from Grandma Jarrett. Mackey muttered “another old shirt” at the rectangular box from his mother Nedra, and refused to stand still long enough for her to hold it up to his shoulders. He peeked under the coffee table and behind the divan. Since his sixth birthday, he’d slept with the Sears catalog under his pillow, opened to the pellet and air gun page. He had expected a BB gun then, but his grandfather Ben Mercer had convinced his parents to wait a year.
This year, while Mackey searched, his father Glenn slipped in from the carport. Glenn’s beefy arms strained to hold the long, narrow box behind his back, so that the button holes of his garage uniform stretched to reveal his ribbed tank tee. Mackey ran to his father and threw his arms around him. The boy only ripped off enough of the cowboy-motif paper to free the box on one end. His stumpy fingers yanked at the heavy copper staples. He cavorted with his prize around the cramped den, as Nedra swerved her knees aside to protect her feet from his snub-nosed sneakers.
After every man there handled the shiny Daisy and voiced approval, Mackey tore through the remaining gifts: a carton of Number Six shot to shoot skeet with his father, ten cylinders of BBs, and a gun cleaning kit from Grandpa Mercer.
“Thanks,” Mackey gave Ben a one-arm hug, his eyes on the BB gun.
“Got to be responsible with it,” Ben glanced at his son-in-law for affirmation, but Glenn was describing the symptoms of one of his cows to his brother and did not catch his father-in-law’s remark. Ben turned back to his grandson.
“I’ll help you learn about guns. Anytime.”
But Mackey had already dropped the cleaning kit and picked up the Daisy. He banged the back screen door against the house on his way out and leaped off the porch. He skipped chocolate cake and ice cream, which his father consumed while he and Ben discussed the thirty head of breed cows Glenn had purchased last fall.
“You know that one, started dropping weight ‘bout as soon as I got her? I noticed Tuesday she’s missing.”
Ben had seen the cow in question by the fence earlier that spring, her head low. Her limp tail occasionally slapped her gaunt flanks. Her bag never looked full. Glenn had rigged a pen for her and her puny calf near the barn, and fed her liquid protein as well as sweet feed and hay daily since Easter, but she lost the calf.
“Maybe she swallowed some barbed wire,” Ben offered.
Glenn shrugged. “Might have.” When he stood up to get more ice cream, Ben walked out on the back porch and eased himself into a lawn chair. He pressed his fingers against each other prayer fashion and smiled at Mackey. As the boy walked deep into the pasture in the back yard, he began to shoot piles of manure. The new Daisy made a pouf sound.
Mackey’s fine-textured hair at his nape, as well as his bangs, the color of a dried magnolia leaf, consolidated into thin, inch-long cords in the heat. His fair forehead, cheeks, and thick neck flushed deep like sunburn. Mid-pasture, he stopped. He pointed the BB gun at one of the cows dozing in the cedar shade by the pond.
“Hey, b-boy, stop that!” Ben lumbered to the fence more quickly than a retired man should. He began to cough. Mackey whirled around, his face guilt-blanched. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled to his grandfather, “Just kidding. I wasn’t going to do nothing.”
Ben stood by the cattle guard and held his side. Mackey retreated to the woods southeast of the near pasture, where Ben couldn’t see him. He blasted white oaks, an abandoned hornets’ nest, and old fence posts. Though he dislodged raccoon-sized stones with his sneakers, no rattlers emerged. He knocked off a large crow feasting on poke berries. When he happened upon a table-wide ant colony, Mackey took random shots at the beige, grainy soil. Soon ants frothed out of the new exits. He fired away. Neither coming darkness nor natural appetite affected his decision to head home. He ran out of ammunition.
By the time he reached the porch, Ben had gone back inside. After minute steaks and mashed potatoes with gravy, Mackey carried a paper plate of cake out to the back porch. When he finished it, he trained his sights on fireflies from the porch steps.
Glenn sat on the divan inside, his feet propped on the coffee table. He played with the lid of a box of bird shot while Ben helped Nedra stuff wrapping paper and disposable plates in a trash bag. Ben stood up, crumpled an empty cup, and looked at Glenn.
“You mind if your son aims at the cows?”
Glenn bristled. “He’s seven.”
Ben leaned over and mashed the contents deeper into the bag. “Pretty young to be going into the woods with a gun on his own.”
Glenn sat up, slammed down the box of shot. Several shells spilled onto the coffee table. “A BB ain’t gonna hurt a cow. That’s just part of learning to shoot.”
As their voices rose, Mackey crept closer to the back door and listened. Ben calmly secured the twist tie on the trash bag. “He needs someone to make sure—“
“Make sure what?” Glenn broke in. “He don’t shoot something by mistake? Like Foreman mistaking that six-point for a doe last fall? You still don’t believe that was an accident. Well believe this: there ain’t nothing my son can’t handle on my property.”
Nedra began picking up the shells. “You two please. Dad just means to be helpful.”
Glenn leaned back, crossed his arms, and looked at the television. “If he wants to be so helpful, let him find the damn cow tomorrow, ‘cause I’m working on the Gaines transmission all morning.”
Ben carried the trash bag toward the back porch. As he opened the door, Mackey scrambled away from it. Ben set the bag outside. “Isn’t it your bedtime?”
“But I’m not tired!” Mackey’s hazel eyes glistened with fatigue.
After Ben left, Nedra plunked the shirt and coloring book on the army trunk at the foot of Mackey’s bed in his room. “Don’t forget your prayers,” she reminded Mackey, who had come inside and already gotten in bed. His hair, still damp from a quick and inadequate bath, moistened his pillow. He turned to the wall, flipped over his pillow, and murmured “Night, Mom.” As she left his room, she pulled the door almost closed. Mackey turned and reached under his bed for the Daisy. He cradled it at his side like a teddy bear. His father peered in the cracked door and smiled.
“There’s more BBs in the shed.”
The next morning, the Daisy at his feet, Mackey finished off a second bowl of Frosty Flakes then walked outside. He approached his father’s gun case in the storage shed out back. He located the BBs next to a minnow bucket so stuffed with yellow, green, and red shotgun shells that looked like a parlor compote filled with Christmas candy. He pocketed several packs of BBs and began his campaign on the insect population in the back yard.
From the mimosa after shooting the caterpillar, Mackey stalked a lady bug to his mother’s four o’clocks. The bug landed near a cluster of seeds, which were shaped like tiny grenades. Across the yard, in Mackey’s earlier hunting spot, a dusty red bird flitted. She whistled and dipped to the ground. She pecked at his trophy, the riddled caterpillar.
Mackey cocked his head into the stock in time with the slow raising of the gun, daydreaming he was a big game hunter. He assumed a sportsman’s stance, feet shoulder width apart, torso torqued to the left, weight divided equally. He watched his prey above the ball at the end of his barrel. He shriveled his left eye to keep the right one from blinking. Suddenly a fleshy tan barrier appeared between his eye and the end of the barrel, obstructing his view of his target. The bird fluttered over the cattle guard. Mackey leaned away from the barrel and looked up into the face of Grandpa Mercer. The man was not smiling.
“Grandpa!” Mackey attempted to pull away the gun, but Ben’s grip tightened.
“Female cardinal. Never shoot a cardinal. Illegal.” Benn looked toward the pasture. “And immoral.”
Mackey gulped. “I didn’t hear you drive up.” When he stopped pulling against his grandfather, Ben released the barrel. Mackey hugged the gun and looked beyond Ben. Ben slid his hands into his slate blue coverall pockets. The twill pulled across his shoulders, still sound from a lifetime of planting and plowing.
“You want to pluck that bird and have your mama fry it for supper?”
“No,” Mackey pushed his tongue against his front teeth, shook his head, grimaced, and wriggled.
“You need a reason to kill something, son. Make sure you have a reason.”
Mackey lowered the gun, his hand on the end of the barrel, the stock set in a clump of clover. He watched a cricket lurch from a fallen four o’clock leaf.
Ben scanned the tree line that bordered the pasture. “You seen that cow–”
“No.” Mackey cut off his grandfather, the way he’d watched his father do, before Ben had finished the question. Ben turned and shuffled toward the pasture.
“Seven years old.” A man of few words, he scratched the white and gray stubble on his cheek. In his seventy years, he had seen buried a big brother and little sister with polio in childhood and stood helpless as three of his platoon buddies fell to fire in Korea. He had witnessed a cutting horse stud worth a new pickup lie down and die from colic. As county agent, he had shoveled hundreds of dead broilers one August day from a chicken house whose overhead fans had failed. Ben had grown a truck patch every year since his return from military service, and raised ring neck pheasants and quail. Mackey was his only grandson.
As Ben stepped across the cattle guard and headed toward the woods on the other side of the pond, Mackey alternated between scoping the cricket and watching his grandfather. He made a sour face toward Ben’s back, and scoffed, “If I need help, I won’t ask you,” and zapped the cricket.
The boy left the yard, meandered through the meadow, and sidled into the southeast fringe of the woods, his Daisy barrel pointed down. A steady rustle stopped him. A dull black cord, speckled with yellow, curved through a patch of jewel-weed. The rustling stopped. His eyes followed the crook to the blunt, slightly rounded head. The mottled sunlight occasionally highlighted the shadow of a forked black string against one of last year’s oak leaves.
Mackey’s hands shook with adrenaline. He was so engrossed with his prey that he blocked out the sound of twigs snapping behind him. He took a deep breath. He had not yet cocked the air gun when he jumped from pressure on his shoulder. A pup-like yelp surged from his throat. The pressure remained. The snake he was aiming for slithered under a rotting tree trunk that had fallen across a segment of rusted barbed wire fence.
“King snake. Leave him alone.”
“Grandpa, you scared me.” Mackey dabbed at his eyes, his hands still quaking both from the excitement of seeing the snake and the surprise of being hindered by his grandfather.
“Son, you have got to have a reason to kill a creature. Long’s that snake’s around, we don’t worry about the bad ones.”
Mackey rammed the butt of his Daisy into the moss-clothed roots of a white oak. He tapped his foot and glowered into the woods, his “Yes, sir” shaded with sarcasm.
“You didn’t hear your daddy say where he’d looked for that cow?”
Mackey jerked his head back and forth in a manner that betrayed his impatience. Ben adjusted his cap and rubbed his forehead. “Listen to me. Don’t shoot a king snake. Ever.” He turned away without further comment.
Though Mackey peeped over his shoulder from time to time, he spent the next couple of hours without interruption. He backtracked to the near pasture where the cows grazed, and drilled grasshoppers there. He returned to the house to gather cola cans. He toted them in a tow sack to the far side of the big hay meadow where he arranged them on a log at the edge of the woods.
He popped twelve of the sixteen cans. He reloaded, reset the cans, counted off twenty paces, and turned to face them again. But two trees deep to the right of his target, something unnaturally bright flickered on a fallen branch. A bluebird conversed with an out-of-sight companion. After glancing back across the meadow to make sure his grandfather wasn’t nearby, Mackey inched closer to his mark, hands glued to stock and trigger, eyes settled on the pinkish upper breast of his cobalt blue target. He slowly cocked the gun and nestled his cheek into the stock. After a couple of deep breaths, he fired.
The dead weight rolled off the branch. Mackey did not move, the gun still aimed, his cheekbone crunched against it. He slowly lowered the Daisy, glanced over his shoulder again, and walked toward the brush. As he neared the dead bird, he recoiled.
Twenty yards deeper in the woods, the sick cow groaned on the ground. Her once curly sienna coat, now matted and dull, sunk into deep crevices between each of her curved, slender ribs. The hide over her pelvis stretched like canvas over a tent pole, as if the sharp bone might puncture the skin.
Her mud-caked tail flicked a couple of inches off the ground. Flies crawled on her nostrils and muzzle. She nodded her head faintly but could not raise it. A stench
pervaded the low area where she lay. Three feet in every direction beyond her frame, a swath of bare brown, where she had rubbed away every stub of vegetation to the powder below, resembled arcs like the snow angles children etch on the ground in winter. Her wild eye rolled. When she tried to moo, a distinct guttural grunt emerged from her throat. She made soft and short blowing noises as she gasped.
Mackey dropped his BB gun and streaked across the meadow. Dust flared into his throat and choked him. He hacked and stumbled, but stood and ran again. He tried to yell but could not because he was coughing. All he could utter was an intermittent wail. He tore through the fescue, first zigging toward the house, then zagging toward the lengthwise end of the field.
Ben strode out of the trees in a corner of the meadow, alarmed. When Mackey reached him, the child flung himself into his grandfather’s arms. The old man squatted in front of his grandson and took him by the shoulders. “What happened?”
“The cow,” Mackey panted.
Ben stood. “Alive?”
Mackey nodded. He thrust a quivering finger toward the cans on the log. They crossed the meadow. At the edge of the woods, Mackey huddled behind Ben as if the weak beast were a healthy crocodile. Ben took a few steps, looked down at the bluebird, and frowned. From there he saw the cow. He turned toward the house. Mackey sniffled, tagging behind his grandfather a couple of steps, but keeping pace. As they walked over the meadow through the strip of woods and across the near pasture to the yard, Mackey’s breathing resumed a more normal rate.
“Wait here.” Ben instructed him behind the storage shed. Ben returned with a twenty gauge. He dropped a single shell in his pocket. They retraced their path to the cool of the woods near the cow. Mackey dragged his feet, but Ben advanced toward her. He stopped five feet from the cow’s head, then turned and waited for his grandson.
Mackey hovered behind a pin oak. His grandfather pulled the slug from his pocket, loaded it in the chamber, and slammed the bolt shut. But instead of aiming at the brute, he lowered the shotgun and turned toward Mackey. He eyed his grandson for a moment.
“You want to kill something. Shoot her.”
Mackey began to blink. Fists at his side, he took small steps backward. “Aw Grandpa.”
Ben did not grin. He extended the firearm, barrel toward the treetops, to his grandson. Mackey backed into a tall white pine. He clasped its trunk with both hands behind him.
A clot of flies had drawn blood on the cow’s neck. They did not move when she swiveled her ear. She made an effort to paw the ground, but could not. Ben shook the fist that clamped the gun, pushed it at his grandson.
“Come on. Here’s your chance.”
Mackey shifted focus from his grandfather’s face to the ragged cow. The child sunk down the pink bark, which snagged the back of his tee shirt, until his bottom grazed his heels. He covered his head with his arms and moaned, “I don’t want to.”
“This cow can’t get up. We have to put her out of her misery.”
Mackey stood, wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “Please…not me.”
Ben spoke through gritted teeth. “Come here and take this gun, boy.”
“Hunh-uh, I—“ Mackey faltered. He hung his head. He covered his face with his hands and sobbed again, his shoulders shaking.
Ben strode over and grabbed Mackey’s arm with his left hand and jerked him off his feet. Mackey scrambled to gain balance as Ben hauled him over to the cow. He wheeled the child in front of him to face the cow, scooped up Mackey’s left hand and mashed it beneath his on the barrel. Ben pressed the stock into Mackey’s shoulder and used his chest, arms, and the gun to position Mackey’s cheek next to the stock. Mackey bawled out loud. He clenched his eyes shut and tried to wriggle away from his grandfather’s hold. As he wagged his head about, mucous smeared onto Ben’s forearm.
“Shoot her!” Ben roared.
“Noo-oo!” Mackey cried. He felt the parts of the gun, metal and wood, against his hands and his cheek, his grandfather hemming him in. Ben jolted him again, repeating, “Shoot her!”
The child inched his finger toward the trigger, sniveling. The blast rammed the stock into Mackey’s shoulder and made his ears ring. The beast flinched then was still. Flies returned to the glossy red hole in her neck. Gun smoke momentarily battled and lost to the rancid smell.
Mackey wrenched free from his grandfather’s hold, bolted across the meadow and into the strip of woods. He tripped on a hackberry root and groveled several yards before he returned to his feet. He was still running as hard as he could, kicking up acorns and dirt clods. Tears blurred his vision, twigs slapped his cheeks, and fallen branches caused him to stumble.
When he cleared the trees, he could see across the near pasture to his father’s truck parked in the carport. Glenn stood in the back yard, his fists on his hips, watching. His uniform was stained with grease, his work boots like two chunks of granite. So big and strong, a stern expression on his face, he seemed to peer beyond his son. Mackey pressed his left hand to his side, took deep breaths to stop the sobbing, and slowed to a walk.
This story won honorable mention in the Page Edwards Short Fiction Contest at the Florida First Coast Writer’s Conference in Jacksonville, Florida. It was published in the Summer 2014 issue of Cloud 9 magazine.