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Walking fast and strong through the unmowed timothy behind their grandparents house, Bob had carried Grandfather Strange's old .22 automatic rifle, while Jack, his legs not much taller than the grass, had struggled to keep up. An experienced hunter, Bob, three years older than Jack, had already killed two woodchucks, a rabbit, and at least a dozen rats. In two years he would be old enough to get a license to shoot deer. He was filled with bravado and tales of gore--a rat's head he had severed, a rabbit that had jumped two feet in the air when the bullet had hit. He crouched low to the ground, his head barely above the grass, slithering through it "like an Injun."

Suddenly he stopped and put a finger to his lips. Touching his brother's shoulder with one hand, he pointed with his other about fifty yards to the right where a woodchuck, its front paws clenched before its chest, stood up like a sentry in the middle of the meadow. Quietly, so as not to alert their prey, Bob unslung the twenty-two from his shoulder and handed it to Jack.

"Aim low," he whispered. "The bullet will rise.

"Me?"

"Shoot it," hissed Bob.

"Why don't you?" asked Jack, though taking the smooth, sleek weapon into his hands, having all along eagerly anticipated and dreaded the moment when he would.

"I've shot plenty of things. Now it's your turn."

"Will it hurt?"

"Sshh! Will ya? Ya wanna scare it?"

"What do I aim at?"

"Aim for his balls." Bob snickered. "And you'll hit him in the heart."

Jack pushed the gun's butt into his right shoulder, sighted down the barrel, and saw at its end the woodchuck, jabbing its nose in the air and sniffing as if it were sampling perfume. He didn't see the animal's eyes, its perfectly formed little feet, its tail, or even its mouth, only that wet, black nose, constantly moving like the needle on a sewing machine, its owner feeling safe and smug, while less than a hundred yards away Jack prepared, with a single flick of his finger, to stop its twitching forever.

"Don't jerk," said Bob. "Squeeze the trigger gently, like you're putting toothpaste onto a brush."

Fixated on that wet, black nose, Jack dropped the level of the barrel to where he imagined the woodchuck's genitals to be. In front of him, waves of heat rose and danced, gyrating like disembodied burlesque queens. Moving in the wind to the earth's internal rhythm, the grass gently swayed all around him. The chirp of crickets, the buzz of dragon flies, the lazy, southern drawl of cowbirds filled the meadow. In the field, were all of these things, plus the wet, black nose and above them all, standing there like a wizard with a magic wand, Jack, at nine years old.

"Go ahead," urged Bob, "he ain't gonna stand there forever."

The gun went off and just as it did the chuck whistled and it sounded like anybody else's whistle--Bob's, for example, or Jack's, whenever he put a piece of grass between his fingers and blew on it. First the whistle, then the shot, or visa versa--then only silence as if the world had been sucked into a soundproof bag. Everything alive and then dead and in the air, only the metallic smell of blue-black smoke.

"It ain't dead," Bob said matter-of-factly.

Jack, his ears ringing, had forgotten for the moment what he had been shooting at. He remembered only why--because he had wanted to stop that nose from twitching and because suddenly it had all seemed so simple. "Whadda ya mean?"

"Just broke its back or somethin'. Take a look."

When Jack looked down the field he couldn't see the woodchuck's nose anymore, but only an animal dragging its hindquarters, pulling with all its might toward its home in the ground that, if it managed to crawl back into it, would now serve as its refuge, or grave.

Bob reached down, plucked from the meadow a long spindly piece of grass, and stuck it between his lips. He shoved it to one side of his mouth, and began chewing, causing the grass to bob like one end of a seesaw. Curling his lips into a begrudging frown, he turned to Jack.

"Let's go finish it."

He spit out the grass and, without another word, started off down the field. Following him, Jack tried to remember firing the shot. He remembered staring along the barrel at the wet black nose, the meadow giving off sounds as if it were a living, breathing person, his finger on the trigger, and wanting to shoot, but he couldn't remember actually pulling the trigger. He must of though, because look what he had done.

Bob began running through the field in front of him, racing to get to the woodchuck before it could get to its hole. Jack too started moving faster, the gun, sagging barrel-down at one side of his body, plowing through the grass like a hog with its snout to the ground. Now they could hear the chuck's squeals--manic, persecuted screams. It must have heard its executioners approaching or, from ground level, seen the grass separate and fall away at their step. The closer they came, the faster the animal tried to move, but it was no use. Against its invisible restraints, the chuck struggled like an insect caught in a web.

Jack stopped. He dropped the rifle and stood in the middle of the field. He could not take another step for then he would be near enough to see the chuck, its smattering of whiskers, its sawed off little tail, its rheumy, black rodent's eyes. Eyes, he remembered from a poem his mother had once read him, were windows to the soul and would never lie.

"Hurry up!" screamed Bob, who had stopped less than twenty feet from the woodchuck and turned back toward his brother. "Christ, the damn thing is spinning like a top. I think it's paralyzed."

And what would be in the chuck's eyes? Pain? Confusion? Fear? Or maybe Jack's own reflection, clouded forever by the pain he had inflicted on it. The only dying eyes Jack had ever gazed into were those of his grandmother, but she had been old and sick and everyone had said her death was a blessing.

"I ain't coming down there."

"What?" asked Bob, cupping his hand to his ear. "What do you mean you're not coming down here?"

"I'm not coming."

"You've got to!" shouted Bob. "You started it and now you have to finish it."

"I ain't gonna.

"If you're going to be a hunter, Jack, this is something you have to do."

"No, I don't."

"You can't just leave it suffer."

"You do it," said Jack, hugging his upper body, making himself into a statue in the high grass. "You like to shoot things. I don't. You made me do it."

"If you're going to be a hunter...."

"I ain't gonna be a hunter."

"It's too late to say you ain't gonna be. You already are."

"No! No it ain't too late!" said Jack. "You made me do it! I didn't want to shoot nothin'!"

"I made you?"

"That chuck didn't do nothin' to me!"

Bob took a deep breath and slowly let it out. From where he stood, Jack could see his brother's lips come together, forming a line as straight as a telephone wire running through a desert. Then he dropped his hands to his sides and ran back to Jack and Jack never even moved or tried to get away. He dug his feet into the dirt and squeezed himself even tighter, waiting while his brother reached down and picked up the rifle.

"Jesus," he huffed. "You never even put on the safety."

He flicked the little button below the trigger from red to green, hefted the gun onto one shoulder, then reached out with his free hand and took hold of Jack's left arm just above the elbow. He turned and started back down the meadow and Jack, not resisting but not relaxing either, allowed himself to be dragged along like a horse by its rein.

When they got within five feet of the woodchuck, Bob stopped. Whimpering now instead of squealing, the animal twirled slow, sluggish circles in the grass, trailing its insides. It glanced up pathetically, its yellow teeth bared, but impotent, its nose twitching still and wet, like a kid's nose. Jack looked first at what he had done, then at his finger, and wished that he could cut his finger off.

"Kill it," said Bob, handing him the rifle. "Now."

"I can't."

"Point the gun at its head and kill it. "No."

"You pussy! You wimp! You gut squirming, stomach crawling little shit! What right do you have to shoot something and then to walk away?"

"I can't...."

"You look in my eyes!"

"What?"

"Look in my eyes, I said!"

He snatched the gun from Jack and walked over to the woodchuck that was now barely moving, but was whimpering and, with its front feet, clawing at the ground. With one hand, he pointed the gun between the animal's eyes and with the other pulled Jack up next to him, hugging him like a lover hugs a lover or a father does a son. Their bodies were so close they could feel each other breathe. Bob pulled down on the back of Jack's head until their eyes met. Jack heard the safety catch go off.

"Put your finger on the trigger."

"No."

"Do it or I'll knock you down, you little shit, and I'll keep knocking you down until you either finish what you started or you can't get up no more."

"Please, Bob....?"

"Do it."

Jack, still not looking at the chuck, but hearing it and praying that it would die before he would have to kill it, slid his finger into the trigger guard.

"Pull."

He pulled and all he heard was the rifle's pop and a thud, like a fist makes pounding into a pillow. Bob blinked--just once, but a blink nonetheless--then looked down at the chuck. He kicked it with his foot.

"It's dead," he said. "You killed it."

"No."

"I was looking right at you when you done it. So now go ahead and tell me--ain't you the one that shot it?"

"I didn't want to," whispered Jack, but he made himself look down at what he had done and could not now deny. Below where it had been shot, the chuck's eyes were still open, but dead--windows to nowhere. "You know I didn't want to."

"You killed it," said Bob, dislodging the spent bullet and carefully resetting the safety, "whether you wanted to or not. And now you know what it's like."

He put both his hands onto Jack's shoulders and spun him around, away from the dead woodchuck and back toward the house. To get Jack started,

he shoved him gently in the back. Because he was polite and loved his brother, Bob walked behind Jack and didn't let on that he knew he was crying.

"And if you ever do it again, you can't say that you don't know nothing about it. You can't say that you thought you was just shooting holes into cans."

 
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Copyright © 1997 Matthew Jones