Fiction · 03/27/2013

The Wrong Bird

Whenever the father puts on his tree-colored pants and his blinding orange jacket, the boy knows what’s coming. Of all the places a father could be, his father prefers to be as far inside the wooded area behind the house as he can trudge in his steel-toed boots. He puts all his faith in the practice of standing where nobody can see him and holding his breath like a man in a fire, all his efforts into ending magnificent animals with a loud catastrophe. The boy finds this to be a sad habit.

A habit, as the boy’s father explained it once, is something that you keep on doing because it feels easier than finding a way to stop. The boy feels that his father’s habit is much worse than picking at chapped lips, which is just one of the things the boy does each day that his father wishes he wouldn’t.

The boy hopes to distract his father. One day, the boy finds his father’s boots and sits on them, because he knows they are so important. Look at me, he says to the father, I am a pheasant. I’m a silly goose. Stay here and hunt me, he says, and he flaps his bones, thumbs tucked into sweaty armpits. He makes the noise of the wrong bird with his mouth, sounding only like a common crow. The boy dives under the bed. He waits in the dark and allows himself to hope his father might pursue him. Instead, he hears the front door make a click just like the hammer of a gun.

Later that morning, the boy sees a spider and he gets scared. He presses his sneaker down on the spider’s head for purposes of self-preservation. In the heat of the moment, the boy believes he’s better than bugs. Once the danger has passed, though, the boy cries a little. He thinks of other ways he might have saved himself. He curses himself for not thinking to back away slowly, make for the bathroom, double back with a broom and a jam jar.

At school the following week, the boy finds a crowd huddled around one of the popular kids, the short one with big muscles. They are all looking at a scrapbook full of photos, each one arranged neatly under glossy plastic. The kid is bragging, saying that these are not even half of all the prairie dogs he and his dad killed last summer in South Dakota.

The kid points to a picture of a prairie dog with its head completely missing, points to another animal in four pieces, points to a patch of dirt that is night-black from soaking up blood. He cackles, and the other children nod along and look impressed. There are so many fantastic ways for a prairie dog to die that it takes him the rest of recess to recount them all.

Riding the bus home, the boy feels like there’s a snake inside his stomach. What should have been inside those animals had been on the outside. Thinking of how bright the colors were in the photos makes the boy need to stick his head out the window for dusty air. He hates that kid and his muscles and his scrapbook. He loves the dead prairie dogs, though it’s too late for that. The bus bumps along the gravel roads, taking the country kids home to their farms, each stop nearly a mile apart. The wind whips the boy’s bangs into his eyes, which he thinks will make a good excuse in case he begins to cry.

Things are coming in pairs today. The bus meets a mud-spattered pickup truck tailgating behind another mud-spattered pickup truck. Two crows sit on the corrugated roof of the hog confinement, arguing about something. A deer bounds down the ditch alongside the bus, feints towards the gravel, then retreats. A few moments later, a bloated roadkill doe lies at the side of the road, crumpled up like wastepaper.

The boy wonders what he would do if his father took him prairie dog hunting and told him it was a sport. Nobody eats prairie dogs, the boy knows; that’s not the point of any of this. He imagines himself into the family scene the kid had described: father’s muscled hand on son’s slight shoulder, showing how to injure the targets without killing them. Would the pressure of those five fingers be enough to make the boy something or someone a little bit other than himself? He thinks of the way his father makes eggs in the morning: maximum efficiency and total silence. The boy always bellies up to the kitchen counter on a tall stool and says a few things, but his father prefers just to make the eggs.

He can see himself in the special outfit, matching his father, casting their similar shadows onto the ground. There he’d be, shooting the creatures in the same places his father shot them — the places where it hurts the most.

Out the bus window, two huge-eyed jackrabbits sit in a church cemetery, frozen together in solidarity.

He could trudge into the woods, the boy thinks. He could get into the habit. He and his father could become a pair of something.

The bus drops the boy off at the mailbox at the top of the lane, and he sprints downhill towards home. Inside, the silence assures him he’s alone. He heads straight for the holy cabinet, slides the rifle from its case and drags it to the living room rug. He sits cross-legged on the floor and holds his breath. The rotten banana smell of the gun oil his father uses crawls up the boy’s nostrils and makes him feel like sneezing. He doesn’t. He can hardly wait for his father to see what they have in common. The boy holds the gun across his lap like a seat belt. The door swings open with a click.

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Eric Thompson was raised in Iowa and studied journalism at Pacific Lutheran University. He currently lives in Roanoke, VA, where he is an MFA candidate and Teaching Fellow at Hollins University. His poetry is forthcoming from Shadow Road Quarterly and Storm Cellar. His fiction has appeared in Word Riot.