The familiar smell of gunpowder washes under the cloudy sky and over the field. It twists, quick in this stilled moment, around myself and my daughter Sara. Feathers fall in a shimmering cloud of blue, white, and yellow against the overcast sky. Sara’s hands cover her ears, her schoolbus still pulling away from our front drive. Her eyes are clamped shut as she tries to hide from the violent sounds of the gunshot and her scream. A solitary hailstone of hollow bone and birdflesh plummets to the ground in a sickening plop. She runs towards me again, but stumbles and trips over the empty white mesh cage leaning in the soft earth. As she falls, arms flapping, pink book bag arcing to the ground, I know she sees it all: The cloud of feathers, the smoking gun, and her father. Me.
Her impact on the dirt, marshy from the late fall rains, is a louder echo of the sick plop of the bird’s carcass. I curse myself for forgetting stupid teacher inservice half-days. I reach for her, mumbling apologies, but she pushes me away. She scrambles up, and her hand streaks cold mud across her face, clearing her tears away. Is the smeared mud across her narrowed eyes accident or warpaint? She turns and grabs her book bag, skinny legs pounding across the damp field, then booming hollow up the wood porch stairs. Perhaps she sobs, but it is impossible for me to hear at this distance or over the echo of the slammed kitchen door.
I cannot run. I start to walk, feeling the dead November grass scratch against my jeans. Each step squelches muck as I hunt for the dead bird. For a brief moment I wish that the dog was here to help. Then I imagine it, see the image of a sad canine face with the bird in its mouth, and I have to stop for a moment. I wipe the back of my hand across my forehead. When I look up, I see the bird’s carcass.
The bulge under the bird’s left wing is more obvious, now that most of its feathers are still falling from the sky. It is a hard lump, larger than even yesterday, even larger than it was the day before. It is like the little lumps that lined the edges of my father’s sternum just before his diagnosis. The lumps had been small before the months of useless chemo, before his own cells turned him into a walking skeleton of pain. Before the last wasted hours of blurred consciousness and insufficient painkillers. He had faced enemy soldiers and criminals during his life. He was no stranger to fear or sudden death, but… His muscles faded. Eventually, he was imprisoned by the weight of his own bones. At the end, he had looked past me, past the walls of the hospital room he’d grown to hate. When death came, my father was staring out the window towards the clear sky.
I hold the dead parrot in my hands. A breeze, tasting of a snow soon to come, swirls a cool path along my cheek as I commit the the last few minutes to memory. I vow to replay this again and again in a rosary of remembrance:
It took the bird ten minutes to leave the cage. It had rarely gone outside the cage during its life. It had only been outside during occasional traumatic visits to the vet. Visits like the last with the whispered secret diagnosis while Sara was out of the room. The vet, in her lab coat and sterile environment, offered vials and injections, shots and radiation. The parrot had floundered across the floor while we talked. It scrabbled towards the full-length window, staring towards my truck in the parking lot. No treatment, I decided. Not this time.
Here, in the field, the bird had poked its head out, then in, then out again, slowly convincing itself that the open door was real, that half-remembered species memory of bitter cold and the risk of feral cats was low enough to make it worth stepping through. It had finally burst forth, wings tasting their first real freedom in brilliant neon blues and green. I had not realized the richness of its colors before. Our little loser bird, lit in a stray beam of sunlight, was suddenly a glorious rejoicing thing. It gained altitude, rising up against the sky. Sara shouting, seeing, knowing what would come. I smelled the oil on my rifle, the smell of the powder after I fired. The bird’s flight never wavered, and my shot was good. The bird would not know the slow agony of cold or starvation. It would not know the terror of a hawk’s cry or cat’s claw. It would not know the slow despair of failed treatments and decaying flesh. It, unlike my daughter, only knew this moment, the freedom of the air, the stretch of wings, the wind holding it up. The bird’s head, drunk on a taste of freedom, had evaporated at the bullet’s impact.
I shake my head softly, returning from memory. I carry the bird’s body back, laying it on the old pillowcase I had wrapped around the cage on the journey out. I leave the cage, holding the wrapped bundle in one arm, rifle in the other, and head back towards the house. A final neon blue-green feather falls to the grass by the cage, and I wonder if Sara will ever talk to me again.
Steven Saus injects people with radioactivity as his day job, but only to serve the forces of good. His work has appeared in the anthologies Hungry for Your Love and Timeshares, and several magazines online and off. He blogs at http://ideatrash.net.