Once upon a time, on a visit to my then not-long-married daughter, we took turns shooting a pistol. We had been taking pictures of each other lying in the hammock, or standing in the field talking to the farmer, or pretending to weed the garden, that we would later show to my parents, so that they could see how their first married granddaughter (my daughter Val) was doing, where she was living, what the house and the fields and the barn looked like in the full golden summer light. There was one picture of her ten-year-old cousin Robert jumping from the porch bannister, staged to capture him in full flight with all the rest of us looking on – we hoped that one came out.
It was a .357 Magnum Ruger Blackhawk, western style. My boyfriend Dean had brought it because he never had a chance to shoot it in the city, where it stayed in its bag in the basement, oiled, cleaned, and unloaded. He had a friend who belonged to a gun club and who sometimes invited him to come and target shoot, but this didn’t happen very often. Out in the country, on the farm, seemed a good place to bring a gun.
Val and her husband were not farmers. They were not planting crops or keeping livestock: they were renting. The farm, some three hundred acres, had been a working farm not so long ago, a small dairy farm. It was hilly, and the cows had ranged over the hills, eating the grass short. Now the hills belonged to a consortium of businessmen who were undecided about what to do with them. While they decided, Valerie and her husband lived in the farmhouse, built in 1894, and kept their truck in the old shed which had a chicken house built onto the back of it. There was also an enormous barn, its red paint peeling, several silos, and a half dozen small outbuildings that no one knew the use of. The fields the cows once pastured on had been let to go wild, to a small brush forest.
There was something strange about visiting someone who was to some of us a former child. A former child who was married. That didn’t bother her sister or her cousins. Her sister Sue was waiting for that to happen to her, to become a former child. Maybe Kate, too, who was fifteen. It never entered Robert’s head, I’m sure. But her aunt, and my boyfriend, who had known her as a child, and me, her mother – it was different for us. How to accept a glass of water or a cookie baked by her own hand in her own kitchen? How could we hide our smiles when she talked about redecorating, or spoke on the phone to her boss? Valerie’s telephone voice was the voice she had used when she and her sister played School or Office with a cardboard box upended to be her desk.
It had been a good visit, relaxed, full of various delights: horseback riding, long walks, discussions on the porch while drinking endless small bottles of flavored water. Dean had gone out with the gun and the springer spaniel. He hadn’t shot anything. It was the wrong time to shoot anything except crows and woodchucks, which, the farmer who rented the fields in front of the farmhouse told us, were varmints. Varmints were always in season. The crows didn’t seem to know it. They hung in the sky, flipping their wings, diving, cawing as if they were in a horror movie. The woodchucks had made themselves scarce though. There was not a woodchuck to be seen, although earlier we had found the entrances to their tunnels in the mowed field on the other side of the pond. You could find these by looking for the places where the grass was a darker green, the farmer told us, but when we asked him, he couldn’t say why.
When we decided to shoot the pistol at the last minute, it was because Val’s husband came home from his job early. He and Dean got the pistol out to look at it, and then, while the kids were trying to entice the kittens out from under the porch, they set up a target on the little hill behind the chicken coop. Everything was packed into the car, but the day was so mild, so sweetly hazy, so tenderly sunny, that no one was annoyed by the delay.
We all gathered to watch, leaning against the front of the truck and sitting on the hood. Val put the leash on the dog and brought out more bottles of water: loganberry, cranberry, cherry. I put my hand to my face to hide my mouth which was stretching into a smile. Who was she kidding? She was just a baby, she didn’t have a kitchen in there behind the screen door (although I had seen it, I had sat in it, sliding my bare feet on the old linoleum). Her Play-Easy refrigerator was only two feet high, decorated with stickers of Mickey Mouse. She gave me my favorite, loganberry, without asking. I loved her so much.
I was sitting on the hood with my back against the glass of the windshield, and while Dean and Val’s husband took the bullets out and looked at them and then opened the gun and looked inside, I closed my eyes with my face to the sun and flexed my legs, which were sore from hiking in the nature preserve that morning. The preserve had signs warning you not to step off the path, lest you should unbalance the ecology. If trees fell, the rangers cut through them so that the path was clear, but the rest were left as they had fallen. There was a section that had been hit by a tornado ten years before, marked by another sign explaining that the damage had been left to preserve the natural ecology that would develop in the wake of a storm The dead trees were piled like jackstraws. It had been hard to restrain Robert from climbing on them as if they were a giant jungle gym. After we got past it, the ravine narrowed and narrowed until we could touch the sides by stretching out our arms, and still when we got to the end of it, we couldn’t see the thread of water we heard falling ahead of us.
Dean had not liked the nature preserve. The signs had bothered him. He liked the woods behind the farmhouse better, where he had walked with the springer spaniel, where there were only deer paths, where the trees lay uncut and rotting if they fell. I was most fond of the view from the front yard which looked out across the pond. I loved the little red building in the middle of the pond, used by the farmer to store hay. I had a fancy of living there like someone in a fairy tale, surrounded by water. The geese who swam in the pond could be my watchdogs – they honked at everything that passed. I could sleep on the hay. The geese could bring me food, but what would they bring? Frogs and strange limp water plants.
I also liked the house, which had a stone foundation, huge uneven mossy blocks, and a stone with a hollow in it to catch the runoff from the gutters. And I liked the herb garden where I had helped Val plant things with witchy names: rosemary, lovage, rue, hyssop. We had had to dig up great clumps of multiflora rose, which Val told me was a weed there, impossible to eradicate. She told me this so seriously, so informatively, wiping her forehead with the hand that held the trowel, that I laughed and then had to pretend that Robert, who was climbing the hill behind her, had done something funny. When we were digging we kept uncovering bits of old trash – pieces of tools, unidentifiable bits of metal, scorched wads of aluminum foil, or maybe it was old enough to be tin foil. It must have been where the old farmers had burned things or thrown them away, Val said.
Back of the house, between the chicken coop and the barn, there was a small slope, part of the bigger hill that rose behind the farm, and there was where we could shoot, safely into the side of the hill, the target an old piece of cardboard with a bullseye drawn on it with magic marker.
“Now here is how you hold it,” Aaron said to Katie, to my sister Susan, to Robert – for none of them had ever shot a gun. “Here is how you line it up. Hold your arm crooked, so.” We didn’t have enough ear protectors, so those of us that didn’t have them put our fingers in our ears when the gun went off, its crack muffled, its echo scattering the crows in the cornfield.
I sat on the hood of the red pickup truck, my legs stretched out straight in front of me. Every time the gun went off, the crows rose and fell like a wave over the field. The water in the bottle was cold, the metal of the truck warm. When I had opened the freezer to get ice, I had seen the top of Val’s wedding cake, the little man and woman swathed in plastic, whitened festively with frost. Val had plans: a garden by the barn, a picnic table by the garden, an arbor, a firepit.
The gun was the realest thing in all the green, its noise, its black metal shape. When the people who had made this farm had stood where we were now, had made the pounded-dirt path that led to the barn, had cleared the land where the corn grew, guns were tools. You used them as you used the harrow or the plow or the iron that had to be heated on the stove.
When I was 19, 20, 21, I would have been horrified by the gun. I was opposed to the war, and all its appurtenances, including guns. This opposition was maybe a selfish opposition. I felt something vague, incoherent, something having to do with an idea that we, that is, we who were young, should not be bothered with all that, by them, by which I meant old people. We, the young, had better things to do – screwing, growing our hair, drinking and smoking at parties, learning to play the guitar or practice witchcraft. We didn’t want to be bothered. There was also a kind of horror, mixed with a little self righteousness, at the idea of people killing other people: this was not how we had been brought up. And then a bit of actual fear – that one of us might be killed or wounded – that we or our boyfriends might be shot, bombed, napalmed – our flesh, our bodies pierced, flayed, broken – we hardly had a mark on those bodies. Perhaps we had a scar where we had scraped our knees a little more deeply or a shaving nick that still showed, or a place where our strong white bones, product of innumerable glasses of milk, had grown almost perfectly together after we had fallen from our bikes. But mostly, we were intact and we could not imagine being otherwise. We did not want to surrender our wonderful bodies, our new long legs and hair, our breasts, our cocks, our lips, the pink palms of our hands. We didn’t want to cry or fall or grow weak. We didn’t know what death was, but we did not want it.
My flesh had grown less perfect, my hair shorter. But not Val’s or Sue’s or Katie’s or Robert’s, whose hand now was on the gun, his whole being showing his impatience, that he should be let to do it, to shoot it, by himself, immediately. The safety, yes, he said he was listening, but his eye was on the target, on the holes he could make in it.