A Burning of Birdsbyjthserra©
A Burning of Birds
Feeling his hands tremble as he sighted down the barrel of his gun, Joseph squinted until the bird perched clearly in his sight. The blue jay was on a branch about fifty feet away, a tough, but not impossible shot. With careful aim, Joseph knew he could hit the bird. He took a deep breath, remembering last week as his friends talked of the burning to him.
"Yeah Joe, we come here each month to the fire. We hunt the birds in the morning, then we have the burnin'," Sam said. “My brother brought me here when I was about your age and now it’s your turn. You have to be a good shot to be in this club. All of us here are good shots, we each got at least one bird.”
"That’s right Joey," his brother followed, "you're six now, it’s time you burned a bird. Sam and I both burned our first birds when we were six, it’s your turn now."
Joseph smiled a bit, "Yeah, I guess it’s time for me to get a bird.” The other boys noticed a proud smile form on Mike’s face as Joey said that. It was the first time they had seen him show any real interest in his younger brother, somehow, the little boy who was always an annoyance to Mike, suddenly grew up a bit. Joseph felt it too, strangely today, his brother seemed to look at him and talk to him differently.
Joseph held his breath as he aimed the gun, just like his brother, Mike, taught him. The bead at the end of his gun centered on the bird's breast, but he felt himself shaking. He had shot at bottles and things with this gun before, he shot pretty well, better than some of the boys much older than him, but this felt different to him. He took a breath, relaxing his grip on the gun a little as he watched the blue jay carefully preening itself, occasionally cawing, perhaps to another bird, perhaps just to itself.
Joseph squinted, focusing his eyes on the bird, noticing the odd black markings around its eyes and the black stripe that ran down its wing. The head seemed in constant motion, looking from side to side, and then returning to its preening. He envisioned his shot, the impact knocking the bird from the branch and its lifeless flutter to the ground below. It was hard to imagine the bird on the branch as a lifeless object; it just seemed too much alive now. He took another breath and held it, remembering the fire and the boys gathered around it a week ago.
He stood silently as each of the boys carefully stacked the birds. Before tossing a bird into the stack, each one pulled a feather from the wing of his bird. Joseph counted a total of seven birds on the stack, their lifeless bodies seemed so detached from what they once were. He tried to imagine them flying, but somehow he just couldn’t picture it. He quickly stepped back as the two oldest boys solemnly approached the carcasses. Sam ceremoniously sprayed the stack with the lighter fluid and then Mike pulled a lighter out of his pocket, flicked it until it lit and then he squatted down. As Mike lit the stack, each boy tucked their feather above an ear.
"Next week Joe, your bird will burn too," Sam whispered to him as the flames rose. Joseph looked at his friends, their faces glowed in the firelight, each smiling in proud satisfaction. The dark black smoke soon turned to light gray as the fire began to hiss and crackle.
Joseph felt everyone’s eyes staring at him and he smiled, repeating, “Next week my bird will burn too.”
Pulling slowly on the trigger, Joseph felt the gun recoil slightly as a tear ran down his cheek. He heard the 'pop', followed by a distant 'crack'. He looked up and saw the bird swiftly flying away into the cloudy sky. Joseph stood motionless, watching its flight until all he saw was the slant of its wings on the horizon. He quickly wiped the tear from his eye, finally remembering to breathe.
Drawing in a deep breath, he heard Mike shout, "Damn good shot Joey, you almost got him." Joseph felt his brother's arm rest upon his shoulder. “You just barely missed him, next week you’ll get one for sure.
“Yeah,” Joseph said, “next week for sure.” Together they walked toward the fire, Mike’s arm still firmly around his little brother’s shoulder.