A Story About Survivor’s Guilt
I’ve never been a hunter of animals. My dad did teach me how to shoot, and to walk quietly in the woods over dead leaves. Every deer season, he’d apply for a tag, and we’d get up at dawn and head into the forest in search of meat. Happily, he never caught anything when I was with him, so we’d usually just end up shooting at cans.
I was also always very careful not to hit any animals while driving. Though admittedly a very reckless and dangerous driver as a teen, I drew the line at killing anything, and always kept my eyes peeled for the many rabbits and deer that lined our country highways.
I never expected I would commit a near-genocide one quiet weekend afternoon on a peaceful family of ducks. To this day, I am haunted.
I lived in a tiny small town that was adjacent to two other tiny small towns. The three towns combined would form the one high school, so I had friends scattered over a thirty mile stretch of highway. They were good fun winding roads, and I knew them like the back of my hand.
I was driving with a friend one late afternoon to pick up another friend — enjoying a fifteen mile stretch of road on a pleasant day. We were playing loud music, and singing even louder. I had created a special mix tape just for my car. “Crimson & Clover” was deliciously blasting from my shitty speakers.
Coming around a bend in the road, in between mountains with marshes along the sides, out of nowhere, a family of ducks crossed the highway. I swear they paused to look at me — their executioner that day — before I could slam on my brakes while they simultaneously ran for the other side.
Most of them made it.
One duck. I felt it’s horrid, feathery thud as it hit my driver’s side tire. I skidded to a halt at the side of the road, looked at my friend in the passenger seat, and mouthed a giant NOOOOOOOOO.
We ran to the middle of the road, and there it was. The poor mama duck — helpless and taking shallow breaths. But she was damaged beyond repair. Her family scowled at me as it took cover in the marshes, already saying their good byes. My god, we couldn’t just leave her there.
We picked her up and walked over to my car, going “Ew ew ew ew ew” the entire way. Because gross mushy almost dead duck.
“We should put her out of her misery,” my friend said.
“How?” I asked. “I’m not going to just bash her head in with a rock.”
“Michael’s home,” she’d had an idea. “Let’s get one of his dad’s guns!”
Now. Calm down. This is a small town I grew up in. Everybody had guns in their homes. Some had guns in their trucks. We weren’t in the habit of messing about or “playing” with them — we took them seriously, and treated them with respect. But I sure as shit wasn’t about to go ask my dad if I could borrow one, and then have to explain why.
Plus, we were closer to Michael’s house.
We tucked mama duck into the grass and marked the location. Heading over to Michael’s I started to think about how I was going to pull that trigger — I’d never killed anything before. Oh Jesus.
We walked into Michael’s house — small town, remember? He was in a foul and unholy mood because his sister had used all the hot water up during her shower. But his parent’s weren’t home, and that’s all that mattered to us.
“Glock or 12 gauge?”
We took the pistol and headed back out to the highway. We rode in silence.
The sun was beginning to set, I remember that. People would be in their homes, getting ready for family dinners and relaxation. I was preparing for my first murder. I was already guilty of involuntary duckslaughter — that much was certain. But this was calculated, first-degree stuff and the firearm’s presence under my seat was heavy.
“I don’t even know where I’m going to shoot it,” I whispered as we pulled into the marked area on the side of the road.
“Just aim in the general direction of the head,” my friend was stoic, but not leaving the car. “You might want to stand back a little.”
I walked slowly to the mama duck, loading the magazine and pulling back the slide. I could see her still in the grass. I felt I should say something, but I wasn’t the praying sort, and it was getting dark quickly. The least I could do was touch her feathers one last time and say I was sorry. Sorry that I was driving too fast when I took that turn. Sorry that her babies would grow up without her.
When I gently touched the feathers along her back, I realized she was already stone. She had died while we were scrambling for the gun, and her family had already fled the scene. She had died alone, probably afraid, in that marsh on the side of the road. And I had touched those cold, very hard feathers that were now lifeless along her once vibrant body.
“Ew ew ew ew ew ew ew.”