I hadn’t wanted pus from her left eye to dampen the orange feathers below her dented beak, hadn’t expected to see her wings, held high and tight seconds before, sprawled across summer-dried grass and fallen bits of straw from her nest. Feathers from the wings in a half moon around her limp body. Feathers I shot.
I told myself the fall is what killed her—twenty feet straight down from between the barn and the overhanging edge of its roof. Twenty feet onto ground that dissects wings, dents beaks, breaks necks. Splatters eyes. One BB couldn’t have produced that much chaos.
Her eye said different, seemed to choke Why? as more pus seeped out.
“Holy shit!” Leon, my cousin said. “Fucker dropped straight down.” He clapped his hands to heighten the curse words we’d learned from our older brothers, words innocent seven year olds shouldn’t know. At my feet, a dead barn swallow I shouldn’t have shot. A killer’s guilt a boy should never have.
A tractor fired up thirty feet away. Twenty feet above me I found her nest, not the other fifteen hanging like inverted triangles other barn swallows flew in and out of, delivering puke to open mouths. Two tiny beaks stirred in the motherless, three-inch wide hole they knew as home.
I wondered how Leon had persuaded me to do such a thing, to kill not only a bird, but a mother. “I’m bored,” he’d said. Let’s destroy something is what he’d meant. It’s what it always meant to two boys on farmland so peaceful it ached.
Leon rolled the mother over with his boot. Her indented body looked like a banana, the head and tail feathers curved. Blood made her once blue feathers obsidian, shimmering in cloud-covered sunlight. She didn’t fight the boot—not a fidget, not a vengeful beak, no last attempt at survival. She just rolled.
“Is she dead?”
Two hundred yards from home, my nest, I wanted to call for my mother, for assurance I hadn’t killed a part of us by killing this bird. I wanted her to see my innocence, like mothers can in their sons, even in murder.
Buster, Leon’s aged lab, rose from his shady spot between the barn and silo and picked the mother up by her wing. Leon kicked Buster’s mouth. She fell another foot and a half to the ground.
“Yeah, it’s fuckin’ dead,” Leon finally replied, wearing a smile that seemed to fit his overalls and rubber boots far better than my sneakers and guilty eyes, a smile I’d seen before, after crashed bicycles, vandalized doors, landed punches on weaker things. Demented satisfaction. Leon crouched and pointed at a small tear on her neck. “Good shot.”
I wanted to fly to the nest and apologize to her babies, wanted to nurture them how a boy could because I knew she wasn’t coming back, not from the BB that paralyzed her, not from the fall that broke her neck, dented her beak, dampened her sides. But I’d been told by men wiser than me that boys can’t fly, no matter how furiously they flap the arms they have yet to grow into.
Leon took the Swiss army knife his grandfather had given him from his pocket and punctured her neck with a rusty blade. I don’t remember moving as Leon unveiled gritted teeth needed to struggle through the bones in a bird’s neck I never wanted to learn about afterwards. Her children and I watched Leon claim a kill that wasn’t his.
Before her head was off, her eye choked once more.
“Wh—Why’d you do that?”
“Because I wanted to.” Leon opened his palm like he was offering her head, that eye, to me as a trophy.
I pulled the trigger because he’d wanted me to, because he said it’d make me a man. It’s what we all think we want too soon, not yet knowing the burden of choice.
I dropped the rifle onto the grass and shook my head, then hopped onto my tipped bicycle in the gravel driveway and pedaled to my mother, wishing I could fly like the bird I killed—tight loops expanding to straight lines through swaying leaves. Higher yet but carving below gentle clouds, drifting with wind gusts over telephone poles and silos. Nearly weightless before settling under a roof back home.
Something told me I didn’t deserve such a beautiful thing.
Garrett Dennert is a graduate of Grand Valley State University’s Creative Writing program and is currently a creative nonfiction editor of Squalorly, a literary journal out of the Midwest. He has been fortunate enough to have stories published in WhiskeyPaper and Circa Review.