Published by In Her Place on December 1, 2011

The Birds

by Joanne Arledge

I don’t remember where they got the gun, a .22 rifle. They might have stumbled upon it there on the farm, or maybe they brought it with them from home. I heard the screen door slam as they headed out on some semblance of a hunt, the sound of their voices diminishing as they left the yard. I ran after them.

I was ten and my three big brothers could no longer keep me out of things with tactics like stringing a vacuum cleaner hose around their poker game knowing I wouldn’t cross it; nor was I still falling for the trick of ‘go grab the cards and we’ll play’ only to find them gone when I returned with deck in hand. The youngest was four years older than I and each of them two years apart; they always seemed like grownups to me. When I was little I asked, “When will I turn into a boy?” sure that I would, because they all had. The query came, in part, from overhearing my father list the accomplishments of his sons without ever mentioning me. I got the idea that I wouldn’t be my father’s child until the transformation.

My father had sent my mother, and me along with her, to the farm that belonged to his mother, so we were three generations of his women collected there. When I was eleven, I was allowed to come home, but Mom never made it back into the family. There was a new woman in Dad’s life. When the judge asked me which parent I wanted to live with, I said my brothers, so by default, I ended up with Dad.

My brothers’ visits seemed few and far between during the year we were apart. When I knew they were coming, I would sit out on the porch and imagine them along the three-hour journey from our home in Long Beach, up I-5 over the Grapevine and down into the San Joaquin Valley, veering off on 99 through Bakersfield, then veering off again and again onto ever smaller roads into Porterville. Though they were always only a couple of hundred miles away, for me it might have been a million. Waiting, my excitement would grow, eyes peeled on the road; my heart would race with each passing car. When they finally pulled in, it was like their arrival opened a fissure into my world and they brought in color and light.

Now I hurried to keep up as the three of them ran off ahead. They headed down the path alongside the barn, a building I had never entered, mostly for fear of black widows, but also I lacked the courage to venture far from the house, a courage I usually found when with the boys and lost in their absence. They moved as a unit, wiggling around the gun in a circle like small minnows around a scrap of food, while still being carried along by the current. I yearned to jump in.

They set up shop across from the barn beside a broken down wooden fence. Brittle brown grass extended well beyond the perimeter on all sides; the fence seemed an arbitrary decoration, long since having the formidability to serve any purpose, huge chunks gone altogether. On the tattered pieces that remained, the grain was deeply grooved where the dusty desert wind had dug out the softer bits, leaving a wavy texture.

I stood off to the side, not daring to enter the frenzy and a bit surprised I hadn’t been shooed away from their project. Mom tells a story of how when I was a baby I would lie in my crib and cry until one by one they would show up, and only when all three were there staring down at me, would I stop crying and play with my toys. Now as I watched them battle for first dibs, I was conscious of the security I felt with them near. This time, though, I wanted to play with their toys.

One had the gun, another the bullets and the third grabbed at both. The lineup eventually established, each took turns firing at a particular stone, or the far fencepost, or birds as they darted about the cloudless sky. We were used to guns, having always had them around. In the basement of one of our homes there was a long hall, the end of which was packed with many feet of newspapers so we could shoot inside. I was always pretty good at it, hitting the target with regularity. But I never got credit; instead it was chalked up to luck.

The vast blue ether hung in contrast to the brown grass below. The barn stood slightly askew. There was a huge walnut tree that loomed above the entire back of the house, and one black and one green olive tree nearby, the fruit of which was periodically pickled and canned. Just across the driveway was a garage with an attached room where, when enough bacon grease was collected, soap was made. Beyond there was a pool made of cement blocks, empty and full of composted leaves from years gone by. Sometimes I would close my eyes and try to imagine someone swimming in it or lying nearby, but I couldn’t bring forth a single image of people ever having occupied the area. The walkways to the pool, barn and pastures had all grown over with tall brush and quiet took hold of the landscape.

Except when my brothers were there. During that year of exile, life appeared on the farm in the form of visits from the boys. From the time they drove in until the time they drove out, quiet took a backseat. As I stood and watched them argue over supremacy, the sound of them filled me with a familiar joy. I could breathe again, air went in and out. The sun seemed brighter in the sky; the birds were dancing in the warm air. Even the sad, dull thud of a walnut pod hitting the ground seemed more like music when they were around.

They were starting to grow weary of this game. Seeing my opportunity I asked if I could shoot, and before they lost interest altogether, I was allowed a turn. I found a level slat in the fence and used it to steady the gun. I lifted the barrel and could see the tip bob up and down with my excitement. As I held my breath to steady my hands, a small black object rose from the brush. I aimed a little in front of it and squeezed the trigger. It flipped around and hung frozen in the air before gravity reached up and pulled it to the ground. A stunned silence and then glee surrounded me. “You hit it.” “Holy shit, she hit it, on her first try!” “Lucky shot.” This time luck was definitely a factor, but I didn’t care. I was now the center of the minnow pack.

Basking in the glow of inclusion I looked out into the field. My kill had energized the game and the boys were back to haggling over who would try next with a renewed need to prove their manhood: not to be outdone by their little sister. I suddenly felt a deep sadness with the realization of what I had just done. I wanted to rush out and find the bird and put it in a nice shoebox and nurse it back to life. But I knew it was dead. I started to tear up.

I stepped back as shots continued to ring out. Then I stepped back some more, quelling the urge to run away. I felt nauseated. I needed to push down hard and stand strong. I couldn’t let them see me cry.

But something had shifted. It was like I was looking through a wide-angle lens; the dirt beneath us seemed to warp and expand, but the distance between us was no longer of their making. For the first time, I didn’t want to do what they were doing and I didn’t want to feel what they were feeling. I didn’t want to be them, and I was on shaky ground. Now I was scared and I didn’t know why.

Another shot rang out, another bird fell. A celebratory clamor ensued, but I couldn’t share in the excitement. Having met the little-sister challenge the game was soon over. I was relieved to get away from what was now, and would be from then on, the bird graveyard. I was frozen in that moment between an old and a new idea of who I was. I unstuck my feet from the ground and followed them back to the house, but I didn’t hurry to keep up.

Soon after that, their visit was over. My body ached, as it always did, at the sight of them packing up the car in the shadow of the old walnut. The screen door banged over and over in a flurry of activity; then came the hugs and goodbyes. As their car pulled out from under the tree and into the sun I could see the boys inside as they adjusted and settled for the three-hour ride back. When they made the left onto the road, I waited for a wave, but their thoughts were already back home. The distance growing between us this time was real.

In the vacuum of their departure, a walnut pod hit the ground, back to the familiar thud amid the silence.

Read Joanne Arledge’s bio »

4 comments

A beautiful piece; having younger siblings I related on a different level- I was the one followed! I enjoyed the back story very much, could feel the longing for acceptance into a ‘man’s world’ which turns out to be NOT what is is imagined to be.

by JoAnne Algiers on December 2, 2011 at 1:14 pm. Link

That yearning to belong was palpable. Loved how vivid the picture of the farm was — very descriptive, very real.

by Rhonda Pinnell Goldberg on December 3, 2011 at 4:35 am. Link

Acceptence and inclusion… Then the realization that we don’t always share the longings and desires of those we strive to connect with. Still, love drives us to find where we do share joy and light and the unpleasent memories flow into the background noise much like the water in the minnows ear…
Very well written. Thought provoking …

by Burt Latone on December 3, 2011 at 5:18 am. Link

A searching point-of-view is always in sight, even as the reader moves through the eldritch but elegant passages of an endearing scene layered into the quick “bullets” (a gentle pun of intention) of description, the awfully good use of words to prize the particularity of the internecine rivalry among the four siblings: the revelation of the latensified nuances of growing up finally coming through a life made for wonder, while (also) keeping the daemon at bay, but ready to employ it as art.

by Henry Hoffman on December 3, 2011 at 4:40 pm. Link