Mercy Me

I STOLE MY brother’s pellet rifle when I was 6 because it was an upgrade from our old lever-action BB gun. I just wanted to hold it, to feel its heft.

I put a single pellet from a plastic tray in the chamber, the same way I had seen him do it, set the tray on the ground and cocked the gun with a click and a click. I pumped the forestock until the gun felt air-filled and lethal.

I wondered if it would hurt my shoulder. The kickback.

I leaned my head toward the barrel and closed one eye and leveled the gun at the thick canopy of a crab apple tree growing too close to the barn. The gun gave a swift exhale, and the pellet thwacked into the branches.

A second later, a red-breasted robin tumbled from the tree.

I could say I heard it thump to the ground, but that would be stretching my memory to the point of fictionalizing. I can’t remember if it made an audible sound when it hit. But I remember vividly, as clear as the buzz of this morning’s traffic, the sound of its wings swishing against the grass and forget-me-nots, and its desperate squawking, as if asking itself why its body was no longer listening to the commands of its mind, and why this sudden sharp pain in its center.

I was outside on a farm in upstate New York with a pellet gun I wasn’t supposed to touch. I had felled a bird without intention or purpose, without wanting to hurt anything. So I went to it, stood over its little fluttering body, and fumbled another pellet into the chamber, pressed the barrel to the bird, clamped my tear-filled eyes tightly closed, and pulled the trigger again.

Still, the scream, like the frantic ringing of some serrated bell. The wild flapping. The attempt to fly away from whatever invisible horror had pinned its body to the ground.

Another pellet, another pull of the trigger. And then another. And then another.

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