Only the two of them are out in the field, but it feels like someone is watching all the time. Josh holds the gun along his right side, strong enough to carry it with just one hand. He doesn’t seem to notice the attention that’s focused upon them. But the other boy clearly does. He stands behind Josh admiring the grip the boy has on the gun, but at the same time looks quickly out the side of his eyes, trying to see what is hanging there, peripherally, that he can feel but not quite see.
He tried to lift the gun earlier and had to wrestle it to his shoulder with both hands and still it sagged down, pointing somewhere to the ground a few feet away, better to aim at a katydid than one of the crows and sparrows they stalk now. Josh is clearly older, taller, stronger and he knows it as he swivels around impatiently.
“Come on! Whatcha waitin’ for?” he calls over his shoulder at the boy behind him. It’s only an air rifle with b-b’s but it’s a serious matter for the two of them to cross the field behind the trailer park today. And the boy can feel something watching from somewhere nearby.
The yellowing grass moves around their legs, up to the small boy’s knees. He worries of chiggers and the chamomile lotion that his mom will put on him if she finds the chigger sores. “What were you doing out there in the tall grass?” she’ll ask, and he won’t know how to explain it to her.
It was Josh’s idea. He wanted to look for birds. “Come on, it’ll be fun,” he told him. But he’s not so sure. He likes when he comes over, and they go looking for beetles, grasshoppers and moths to stick in the jar with cotton balls soaked in rubbing alcohol. All it takes is cupping your hands and a quick pounce. Then they go stiff in the mayonnaise jar. But he isn’t so sure about this.
The first one was a sparrow. They found it, Josh shot it, and they brought it with them. It was perched on one of the scraggly limbs of a mesquite tree and it fell from the sky and lay stiff there in the earth. Not much different from the bugs in the jar.
Josh scans the sky looking for the next target. He shoots before the other boy can see what he’s aiming at. “Whew, boy! I think I got it,” and he starts off running. He heads toward the creek that separates the field into two parts. On the other side is a tree larger than any other in the field. Josh is heading straight for it.
Part of the tree has fallen, maybe knocked down in a storm, but it is still growing parallel to the ground. The gnarled arm stretches across the dip of water and rests itself firmly on the other side. Josh bounds across, only taking a few steps on the bark before he’s on the other side.
Finally he turns to look for the other boy who has stopped to look at the brown water that separates them.
“Come on. It’s easy,” he says, “Once you come halfway, I got your hand. It’s really the only way to do it.”
He looks at Josh calmly. He looks down at his shoes. He knows he has to get across. There’s no way that he could chicken out and not at least try to get across. Really, how far could he fall? The branch simply scudded along the surface of the water, so it’s not like it would hurt. The water really wasn’t all that deep.
He reaches out and takes a branch jutting out from the anchored limb and starts across. It’s just a few steps and then he’ll be across. He looks at Josh when he lets go of the branch. He balances himself with his arms wide as he takes his next step. Josh is growing bored with the time it’s taking for him to get across. He just wants to get to his bird.
Looking down at his feet, the boy sees the roots of the tree that have grown down into the water and are mixing with the silt and rotting leaves. A potato chip bag and a milk cap are lodged in the jumble of matter. He imagines the moccasins that could be swirling below his feet, the snapping turtles.
He looks up to reach out and take Josh’s hand. Then he falls. When he hits the water he thrashes and throws his body in a wild circle of confusion. The water isn’t deep, but what could be in the water drives him wild. The heavy, mixing water rushes in his mouth, covers his head. But as he’s consumed by the possibility of drowning in a foot of creek water another part of him is wondering if anyone else saw him. Did they see how he slipped as he looked at Josh? Are they laughing? Then he’s yanked free. Josh’s hand, swift and strong, pulls him up and out without any problem. Just as his dad did when he fell once out of the aluminum boat when they were fishing. There was no second thought or hesitation. Just as soon as he was in the water, he was out.
Josh is quiet.
“Sorry,” the boy croaks.
Then Josh moves from his side to find his bird. It takes awhile. They find it under a bush, it must have crawled there, they boy thinks, and he tries to imagine what a bird would look like crawling along the ground. Would it use its legs or its wings? “It’s a red-winged black bird,” he says.
“I know, that’s why I shot it,” answers Josh. He’s quiet and he cradles the bird slowly, turning it over and over in his hands. The other boy leans under Josh’s gaze and stares at the stiff bird with dirt on one side. He notices the calluses of Josh’s hands, the scrapes along the knuckles, grimed with dirt and the black lines underneath his neatly trimmed fingernails. His own stubby fingers are soft and pudgy with the nails peeled back from his teeth.
There isn’t much blood, just the shocking red of the red and yellow bars solid across its black wings. Josh continues to cradle it, cupped in his hands. The breath from the two boys mingles in his hands and seems to give the feathers life, they move and flutter when they exhale. The other boy isn’t sure what Josh is going to do with it now, now that it’s dead, but Josh produces a plastic shopping bag from his pocket. He takes the sparrow from his other pocket and puts both birds in the bag.
“You’re shivering. You should take off your shirt, it’s making you cold,” Josh says as they squat close to each other.
He’s right. His teeth are chattering, but he didn’t notice, he was looking at the two birds mixing together in the white sack. He was looking at Josh’s fingers, at the veins that wrap around from his wrist and trail up his arms. The one on the bottom of his arm, where it’s pale and soft, a thickening cord that bulges when he flexes his arm. But he doesn’t remove his shirt. He knows that his belly is round, not lean and cool like Josh’s. He looks down at his stained t-shirt that hangs low on him, heavy with water. His shorts are also dripping, and he can see reddening welts from the chiggers that he wants to scratch .
“Go on.” Josh is tired of his slowness to action. He is serious about the bird hunting, and he is getting tired of dragging him around. He can’t let Josh get fed up.
The boy lifts up his shirt, struggling with it around his head, and the wet cotton fabric gets tangled with his ears. The shirt was clammy, and it’s good to have it off his body. The breeze begins to dry him, and he gets a thrilling chill, partly from the wind, partly from being half naked in front of Josh. Does he care that his stomach is round and soft over his belt loops? Then he crosses his arms across his chest, an attempt to hide his nipples which don’t stick out like Josh’s but rather are turned inward, look fat.
Josh looks at him. He doesn’t say anything; his blue eyes simply stare at the younger boy. He notices that he is staring too long.
“Are you cold?” he asks.
“I’m okay,” the boy replies.
“Here,” he says and begins to take off his shirt. It’s a blue t-shirt that has the logo of his father’s auto body shop on the left breast pocket. It smells musty and has a little hole in the left armpit.
The boy holds the shirt in his hands. It’s used and warm, and he puts it on over his head. It doesn’t hang down as low as his own did. Josh seems happy that he’s wearing his shirt. He tucks the boy’s wet shirt into the back of his pants, letting it hang out behind, ignoring its cold wetness.
He smiles and says, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it. I’m not wet, and my mom will put your shirt in the dryer.”
Josh walks bare chested and proud. He is tan and lean with hair growing under his arms, even more than the boy’s dad. Josh swings his arms wide with his bag of two birds. The other follows behind, poking his finger through the hole in the armpit of the shirt, feeling the area that is smooth and hairless but warm.
After they cross over the water again (taking a much easier and quicker route, he notices), Josh suddenly stops. He takes aim and fires again before the other boy can find what he is shooting at. The pop sounds out and the boy jumps back a step.
“What was it?”
“I don’t know if I got it that time,” Josh admits easily, already starting to walk towards one of the nearby trailers.
Then he picks up his stride and starts running quickly toward the homes. They both run to the street near the edge of the field, the smaller one panting behind but keeping pace with the taller boy. They want to get there before any cars can. The bird may have fallen in the road and it would be ruined before they get a look at it.
He hears it before seeing it and stops. It’s a high pitched screeching sound scraping along the air towards him. Josh runs up beside the little brown, gray ball of noise lodged along the curb. It’s flopping on the asphalt, spinning in a circle. Its wing bloody.
“What do we do?”
“We have to put it out of its misery,” Josh says softly.
“Maybe it’ll live. Maybe’ll be okay.” The bird is bloody and screaming. There is so much life in this thing compared to the bugs in the jar. He doesn’t like looking at it. He wants it to stop making these horrible sounds. He thinks maybe it’s telling them to kill it. They both continue to stare, neither moving for a moment.
“Let me try,” he says to Josh, “You’re right. We can’t let it suffer.”
Josh doesn’t seem to want to let go of the gun, but he hands it over to the boy. Josh puts his foot on the bird to stop it from churning in the gravel. The boy struggles to hold up the tip of the gun. “Go on, I know you can do it,” Josh reassures. He fires. The b-b skitters away along the curb, missing it completely. He looks up and Josh takes the gun back.
Without saying anything he squints his left eye and aims at it. The pop sounds and the noise stops. Josh picks up the bloody bird and throws it in his plastic bag and starts walking home to his trailer.
“You know, it’s supposed to be bad luck to shoot a red-wing,” he says to the other boy. No, he didn’t know.
They both keep walking softly, not knowing exactly what to say. The boy feels like the thing that was watching earlier has left them. He looks down at the patches of brown grass in the crags of the sidewalk and walks on top of them deliberately. He doesn’t feel the eyes prickling along the back of his neck as they did before. They are alone. And he likes it. He likes walking close to Josh when he’s quiet like this. He wants to smile, but he doesn’t, he’s still thinking about the bird back there.
Josh leads them to the back of the trailer, in the shade of a little tree. He takes the bodies out of the bag and lays them along a rock in the shade. Then he takes out his pocket knife and begins to divide them up: legs, heads, wings.
“What do you want?” Josh asks.
They both look down at the pieces of bird, and both boys’ eyes move directly to the red-winged blackbird wings.
“Nothing,” he says.
“No, we’ll divide it up.”
He gives the boy a sparrow head (the one less bloody), red-wing legs and a wing with broad bands of red and yellow and the wing of a sparrow.
“Here. Those are yours.”
Squatting there together, the boy tries not to notice the bulge of flesh that squeezes out behind his knee and his thigh. Josh’s legs don’t have that bulge, and he has hair on the backs of his thighs.
The two go inside with their pieces of bird and no one is home. They find the plastic sandwich bags in the drawer and pile in the feathered heads, wings and legs. Then he takes the wet shirt that still hangs from behind him and puts it in the dryer.
“Do you want to put those in here too?” Josh asks, pointing to the boy’s shorts.
“Naah. That’s okay.”
“You could wear some of my clothes.”
The boy doesn’t know what to do. If he keeps denying the help he’ll seem strange, as if he’s embarrassed.
“Alright, I guess.”
They go into Josh’s room at the back of the place. There’s a small, red guitar in the corner and a race car track taking up another side. He goes to his dresser and takes out some white underwear and a pair of shorts.
“Here, you can wear these while you wait,” he says, handing the clothes over to him.
He knows it will seem strange going into the bathroom to change, so he goes to one side of Josh’s bed. He hopes the shirt will cover him as he wriggles out of the wet shorts and then underwear. His thing is shriveled and pulled tight to his body. He hopes that Josh doesn’t notice that he has no hair on him and his thing is so small. He turns his back to him and pulls up the other boy’s underwear. It’s larger and the elastic is worn out, they sag and he has to hold onto them as he pulls up Josh’s denim cutoffs.
“So d’you have fun today?” Josh asks from behind, arranging some coins into stacks on his dresser.
“Yeah. Cool. I did too.”
Josh takes the boy’s underwear, it’s tinted brown from the water, and shorts and puts them in the dryer. Then the boy hears the door opening and the screen door slamming shut.
“Hey, boys,” she says from the other room, “I just got back from the store.”
She comes back to Josh’s room and peeks in. She looks at the boy, dressed in her son’s bigger clothes. She makes a face and asks, “What’s he doing in your clothes, Josh?”
“Oh, he fell in the creek, and I gave him something to wear. I put his clothes in the dryer.”
“Your mom’s not going to get mad that you got wet is she?” she asks the boy.
“No. She won’t care.”
“Well then why don’t you just wear Josh’s clothes home, we’ll get them back later. Your mom will be here any minute. I’ll wash your clothes for you. They don’t need to be in the dryer,” and she’s off into another part of the trailer.
Josh and the boy sit in the room for a while, quiet. Josh takes out a picture.
“See her, that’s this girl I’m seeing.”
“Oh yeah,” the boy doesn’t know what to say. He feels funny talking to Josh about the girl. He looks at her face very closely, not seeing anything.
“Yeah, she’s pretty cool. We’ve been going out for `bout a month.”
The boy looks at the bits of dark hair that he can see on Josh’s leg through the hole in the knee of his jeans. He notices for the first time the moles like his own on Josh’s arm, and he can’t take his eyes off them.
“I’ve got lots of moles like that on my back,” he tells him.
“Yeah I noticed,” says Josh. And he’s very pleased. He’s glad that Josh noticed. He’s happy that he has something in common with the older boy. The boys both stare at each other for a while. Josh has a strange smile on his face, then he looks to the front of the trailer.
“I heard a car pull up, I think your mom’s here.”
“Oh yeah. Right.”
When the boy gets home he runs straight up the stairs to his room. He’s been hiding the plastic package with the bird pieces in his pocket so his mom won’t see. She already doesn’t like the rocks that he picks up off the ground and collects in his pockets. His room has jars lining the windowsill. Some have grasshoppers living in them, complete with grass and twigs for a natural habitat. Some are for bugs and rubbing alcohol. He accidentally kicks a Nike shoe box that is filled with all the rocks that he picks up around the school playground and the lake.
He takes out the sandwich bag folded over to seal in the bird pieces. He takes them out places them on top of the bag. Then he takes off all of Josh’s clothes.
The underwear fall off of him before he gets a chance to take them off. He sits by the bird pieces naked and strokes the glossy black feathers of the red-winged blackbird wing. He leans in close to look at the yellow film that has formed over the sparrow’s eye. The claw of the leg has curled up as if it is going to find a grip on some rock or twig.
He had found baby birds in the backyard before. They were scissortail flycatchers, little bits of trembling gray fur. His mom said that he couldn’t touch them or put them back in the nest because the mom bird would kill them. He sat there staring at them for hours, not touching them, scared that something horrible would certainly happen.
Then he finally decided to take care of them. Two little gray birds in a box under his bed. He would catch the bugs and feed them. All day spent searching in the grass for little things for them to eat. That night he put the birds near his bed, feeding them the last of their bugs for the night.
The next morning he got up and stepped out of bed before remembering them under him. Lifting up the skirt of the bed, there was the box, tucked safely away. They didn’t move. He picked them up, held them near his face. His mom was hysterical when she found out the birds were in the house, “Don’t you know those things have lice?” The box disappeared and so did everything inside.
Now he carefully lays out each of the parts of the bird on the white underwear that belongs to Josh. He places them all in a line down the flap of the crotch so that he can fold over both sides and make a sling out of the underwear. Then he takes the bundle of bird stuff and places it in his top drawer, his underwear drawer. He hollows out a small area to put the bundle, near the socks. That’s where they stay.
“What’s going on?” his mom says staring at a long trail of ants making their way across the room. She scans the trail and sees them filing into the top of the dresser.
“What?” he asks, not really sure what she’s talking about.
“Where did all these ants come from? Are you hiding candy in your dresser again?”
“Mom.” he says remembering now.
She pulls open the drawer but doesn’t see anything at first. She starts to search amongst the white underwear and the socks tucked into balls on the right side. Then she feels something hard. She pulls at it and the pieces come flying out at her.
“What the . . .?”
The head of the bird now stares eyeless, losing its sleeping gaze, the feathers weighed down with too many things to fly. Curled underneath, the gnarled feet are losing their tight grip.
“What is this?” Then she looks at the underwear in her hand, “Whose is this? This isn’t your underwear. Where’d you get this?”
She’s wild with hysteria now. She whirls on him. “Whose underwear is this?”
“I mean it, how did you get someone else’s underwear? And what’s all this crap?”
He doesn’t say anything. He just looks down at the pieces of bird on the ground, the bone that was showing through the feathers. The faded band on the black wing.
“What the hell’s wrong with you? Tell me!” she says, not even caring what she’s saying now. He wonders how he is supposed to answer this, or if he is supposed to answer.
“They’re not mine, they’re Josh’s.”
“Josh who? Josh Held?” her face is red and splotchy now. He doesn’t say anything. He wants to leave, but he doesn’t know where to go. This is his room. Where would he go? He could go in the bathroom, but she would just want him to open the door, and he knows that he would. He couldn’t leave the door locked and closed with her screaming outside of it.
“Don’t start this shit with me. Why do you have another boy’s underwear? You’re sick. You’re sick!”
And then she is gone. She left. He stands there and then drops onto his bed. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want to see her. He can’t go downstairs. He looks at the floor and the faded wings and dissolving head. He lays there for a long time. He doesn’t cry. He wishes he could cry. He would lay there and the tears would fall back in his head and the snot would make it hard to breathe. Then he would sleep and feel heavy, not light and cold like now.
He thinks of Josh. Of that day outside hunting for the birds. He thinks about how it felt when he pulled him so quickly from the water. He thinks about his skin and his smile. He cradles his head on his folded arms, and he falls asleep in the middle of the afternoon, dreaming.
This short story was originally published at www2.gsu.edu.