I have not forgotten the last time I killed an animal in cold blood, though it was half my lifetime ago. It was not the last time I killed an animal, of course; we all kill animals by proxy, we all command the steak and deputize the death. Even if we are vegan we consent to the distant dispatch of foliage-threatening deer and marauding mountain lions and unwanted pets. But this was the last time I pulled a trigger and deprived another creature of life for sport, on a whim, for pleasure. And there are evenings when I remember it, though it is counterproductive to do so, though it is meaningless, though it is weak . . .
In the fall of 1992 I was wandering through a small patch of thickly wooded ground south and east of Miami University. Perhaps eighty acres at most, behind a trailer that itself sat a hundred yards back from a country-maintained two-lane. It was fifty degrees out and the trees were bare. My tennis shoes crunched on the leaves. It was perhaps five-thirty in the afternoon.
I carried a Marlin Model 60 semi-automatic rifle, caliber .22 LR, fourteen shots from a tube magazine beneath the barrel. It was literally the most common smallbore rifle in America at the time and it had a cheap 4x scope mounted on the rails. On my hip, in the factory-supplied belt slide holster, I carried a GLOCK 21, caliber .45 ACP, thirteen shots of Federal Hydra-Shok 230 grain defensive ammunition. The purpose of the Marlin was to amuse myself, to take potshots at random junk and squirrels as I wandered through the woods. The purpose of the GLOCK was to settle disagreements.
Strictly speaking, this was not a place where you could legally fire a weapon. It was simply an area that nobody had ever bothered to clear into usable land. Why would they? The trailers around it rented for four hundred dollars a month or less, including utilities. With road frontage, it might have sold for two thousand dollars an acre. Without it, in Butler County, Ohio, the value was mostly theoretical. There were hundreds of places like this south of the university and north of Cincinnati. A twenty-two rifle is quiet and the locals rarely had any interest in some college kid wandering across their property. I was bored with my life and too lonely, poor, or both to partake in the school’s social life, so I’d hunt “varmints” and cans as I tramped past rusted-out barbed wire and and faded signs demanding that I turn back. I spent the time thinking about the books I’d read in the previous days. Fall and winter days were the best, the cleanest, for this activity.
Yet in the previous year, as I wandered, I’d come across a few people who objected. Once I was trespassing up near Darrtown Road, my Colt AR-15 Sporter HBAR held loosely across my chest, when I descended a hill and found myself facing two hard-faced men engaged in a quiet discussion. They’d heard me coming; they had Remington or Winchester bolt-actions held low, fingers alongside the triggers. For a long moment we faced each other across an empty stream bed. I knew my capability to make two hundred yard headshots with the AR, maybe a hundred yards on a moving target. I was an outstanding shot with a variety of weapons, because I’d spent the previous summer working at Ford Credit during the day and shooting most nights at various outdoor ranges.
The men frightened me. I sensed that I had very little in common with them, that they had not read Marcus Aurelius or listened to Wynton Marsalis. I also understood that the more I said to them, the more unsure, the more frightened, I would appear to be. So I said nothing.
“Lot of gun you have there,” the smaller one said, with a disdainful toss of the muzzle towards my Colt.
“I… mostly hunt cans,” I responded, and I smiled though I didn’t want to. It’s thirty yards, I thought. Make the first shot as you pull up to offhand position, follow up with another to the chest, let the recoil carry you to the head, then pivot your forward foot to the right, drop to a crouch, and work the second target. I shrugged to conceal the fact that I was turning my body perpendicular to them. There was a long pause.
“These… cans,” the man continued, “these cans are mine. You’re on my property here.”
“I’m very sorry,” I said, with my tongue dry, because I saw that his friend was nonchalantly stepping away to the side, “I thought I was on my friend’s land here. Guess I went too far west. Which way,” I continued, “is out?”
“You can turn right around the way you came,” was the response, “and take that rifle there with you.” Any pretense at courtesy was gone at this point. I took a long, deep breath. I turned around about one hundred and fifty of the required one hundred and eighty degrees. I stepped hard into the leaves to conceal the sound of my thumb flicking the safety off. And I walked slightly sideways away from them, looking back every few steps. They watched me all the way to the top of the hill.
When I hit the open field I shouldered the rifle and ran. It was probably nothing more than two guys out poaching deer off their own property out of season, annoyed and perhaps troubled themselves by some wild-eyed kid dressed for the city and carrying a scary-looking weapon for no apparent reason. Yet later on in life when I met people who had done multiple acts of casual violence I recognized the bearing and the flat affect of my rural interlocutor and I shuddered inside.
After that I left the AR-15 in the car when I went wandering. I took the Marlin instead and wore the GLOCK in case I ever ran into some mythical creatures — marijuana kingpins, psychopathic hillbilly rapists, black bears.
On the last day I killed an animal for fun, I was accompanied by an eleven-year-old boy who lived in a century-old farmhouse near Stilwell Beckett. Some day I’ll sit down and write out the story of how I met the…ah, let’s call them the Davises for now. I’m saving that story for the day I really need it. For now, let it suffice to say that I was sponsoring the kid’s BMX racing — call him Jake, Jake Davis — through my mail-order bike shop, and that I used to run around and get in mild trouble with his coke-addict, wannabe-biker-gang-member father, who was perhaps forty years old at the time.
This was yet another one of the days where the father was holed up in a trailer somewhere with a prostitute or fellow addict, avoiding his warrants, sleeping on some dirty mattress with his finger on the trigger of a Colt Trooper revolver. On days like this, I’d take the son out to keep him away from the situation. His mother was barely any better.
I used to fancy myself a bit of a volunteer social worker, I used the phrase noblesse oblige without irony, I thought that the only way I could redeem myself from the sin of attending an expensive school and having a father who was an executive somewhere was by doing my own brand of outreach to the poor. Not fake poor, like I was — I might have had ten dollars to my name but at any time I could call home for help if I needed it. Real poor, dependent on the SSI checks and the random dope deal for grocery money.
Jake walked behind me, carrying a Browning Buck Mark pistol, caliber .22 Long Rifle, six-inch blued barrel, ten-shot magazine, also belonging to me, tucked into his belt and with the chamber empty. When we had walked far enough into the woods that we couldn’t see the surrounding landscape, we set a few random items on a fallen log and plinked at them from twenty yards or so away, perforating the can of Coke I’d carried in with me and shattering a cloudy old beer bottle we’d found earlier. I reloaded the Marlin with Remington Thunderbolts and idly glassed the trees beyond our makeshift targets. I saw a plump sparrow on a head-height branch, maybe fifty yards away.
“Man,” I said to Jake, “that is one well-prepared bird, he’ll make it through the winter no problem. Can you see it?” He squinted, then nodded. In my scope, the bird was a thick blob at the crosshairs. I could see its head flicking from one side to another.
Then, quick as thought, it spread its wings and left the branch. “Check this out,” I mumbled to Jake. I drew across the sparrow’s flight path and fired the Marlin with just the right touch, the first pad of the finger on an isolated hinge as I swung the smooth arc.
Just for fun; I’d been shooting a lot of clays on the weekends when I went home. It never occurred to me that I’d hit it. Not a flying bird at fifty yards with a Marlin .22. But it dropped from the air and I did not hear it land.
“Fuck,” Jake breathed, “you shot it out of the fuckin’ sky.”
“Stay here,” I instructed him, as if we’d wounded a Cape buffalo, and I jogged towards the area where I thought it had fallen. I’d searched the leaves for a minute or two when I heard a faint peep and I looked up to see the sparrow lying on its side between two roots of a broad tree.
It was breathing rapidly and I saw no blood. For a moment I thought that I had stunned it somehow, but then it shuddered brokenly and its beak fell open. Yet it continued to breathe, the plump breast rising and falling with a desperate speed.
I looked up to see that Jake was still safely where I’d left him. I aimed the Marlin at the small bird but turned my head as I pulled the trigger. A moment after I did so, there was that peep again. This time, I saw dark blood on the sparrow’s chest and the breathing was slower.
“Cover your ears,” I yelled to Jake, who did as I requested. I leaned the Marlin against the tree and I drew the GLOCK. This time I did not look away. I lined up the ball-in-the-box factory sights on the the spot where the blood was trickling out, pulled the first stage of the trigger through, closed my eyes, fired the weapon.
(The Federal Hydra-Shok 230-grain Jacketed Hollow Point round in .45 caliber was recommended by Marshal and Sanow in their 1992 book Handgun Stopping Power: The Definitive Study. Although the statistical approach used by the authors has been largely discredited since then, at the time no competing .45 caliber round could match the Hydra-Shok’s impressive eighty-nine percent record of “one-shot stops”. The Hydra-Shok is noted for its unique center-post design in which a lead nipple of sorts located in the hollow point is intended to disperse high-speed fluid loads, such as what you might encounter when shooting a man or a sparrow or better yet a nice thick slab of ballistic testing gelatin, in such a fashion as to expand the hollow point faster. I do not know if this works. In my office I have three expended Hydra-Shok rounds that I fired into wet newspaper some time in 1995. They all appear to have functioned as designed. In my mid-twenties I came to prefer the Speer “flying ashtray” 200-grain wide-mouth bullet, as loaded by Cor-Bon in their “+P+” round. It shot flatter and achieved a velocity of close to 1000fps compared to the trundling 830fps of the Hydra-Shok. Decidedly supersonic from the muzzle, the Cor-Bon flying-ashtray load was superior in antipersonnel situations, or so I’m told by people who tell people about these things.)
Dirt and perhaps something else splattered my shoes. Where the bird had been there was a six-inch deep hole. I holstered the pistol and retrieved the Marlin and walked back to Jake.
“Dude, it really took three shots to kill it?” I felt a steel shutter drop over my mind at that moment, I felt temporarily laconic, transformed into a man of few words by the act of murder. For this was what it surely was. I’d shot the bird out of the sky to show that I could shoot a bird out of the sky. I thought of Matthew 10:29:
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
Seventeen years later, I would sit by the sterile plastic box into which they had placed my son and I would pray, and when I thought of my sins, I thought not of the men I’d harmed or the women I’d betrayed, but of that bird. Not a sparrow falls. And my son lay there in the box, breathing rapidly, like the sparrow. Not a sparrow falls, Lord, without you. So let this child live, my sins are not his. Not a sparrow falls. But I remembered that He had permitted the bullet to fly and the bird to fall, nonetheless.
“It did. It took three shots. Hell of a bird, right?” And we walked out, as the evening fell, and the woods were silent behind us.
This story originally appeared at jackbaruth.com and is reprinted here with permission.