The day was like any other day that would breed a series of events which would rape my young mind and toss me prematurely, I suppose, into the cold realities of life and death, albeit on a miniature scale. Let me start over.
The day was cold. Maybe the day was not cold, but in my brain, bad things don’t happen on beautiful days, so I can only remember a cold autumn day at my Grandparents land in Oklahoma. Not necessarily a Robert Frost autumn day, but a dry, unmentionably gray autumn day. The sky was featureless with no sign of a clearing in sight.
My Grandparents’ house was not adequately equipped to entertain a ten year old boy on boring Saturday afternoon’s. They did not have cable, they did not have any game systems, and they did not yet have a computer. So on cold, boring days such as was being manifested outside, the only thing for me to do was beg my grandparents to spoil me. My grandparents were clever, though, and had already foreseen my boredom, having purchased, in advanced, a child’s version of a professional bow and arrow set. This was not your typical children’s bow set that you would find at a grocery store, painted in “authentic” Indian war paint and accompanied by deadly plastic arrows with suction cup points. This was a real hunter’s bow with tension wheels on either end, meant for the aspiring woodsman to train and hunt with their already aspired woodsman fathers. It was painted in camouflage so that Kodiak bears and Bengal tigers would be none the wiser. When their guard was down, having dismissed me as a child innocently pantomiming aiming an arrow at their head, I would destroy them.
Though the thought of owning a real bow and arrow may have never crossed my mind, my new gift was what I had always wanted. Finally I might realize every dream placed into my head by movies like Rambo II, Rambo III, and the less theatrical Rambo: First Blood.
Having been armed like a warrior, my Grandfather asked me if I wanted to go hunting for squirrels in the nearby woods. This was, of course, a silly question. It wasn’t a matter of interest, it was a matter of necessity. Does a hawk want to prey? Does Rambo want to blow up bad guys? No. They do it because it they are supposed to and because it makes them really cool.
We set out across the fields towards the woods. The dirt was hard from the cold and my ten year old body did not wield enough mass to crush the earth under my shoes and leave deep authoritarian foot prints such as the ones made by my Grandfather. I stumbled over the poorly tilled field with my bow in one hand and a quiver that my Grandmother had sewn together for me slung over my shoulder. My Grandfather had opted for a 12 gauge pump-action shotgun; a far less utilitarian weapon than my own, I thought, but he did not own a bow, so I could not fault him for bringing a canon to a knife fight. This is not to say that I did not expect anything less than a war. However, my plan at the time was to sneak up on our prey, silently project an arrow into its brain, then slip out of the woods unnoticed. I was worried that the fire power my Grandfather carried would make it difficult to kill anything subtly.
When we entered the woods, my Grandfather intended to stay at the edge of the tree line and observe the entire mass of trees. I could not afford to be as uninvolved. If I were to complete my mission, I would need to become the woods. I would blend into the tree trunks and go unnoticed among the squirrels. Perhaps I might study them and develop squirrel-like mannerisms to fool the squirrel into thinking that I was its squirrel brethren. When I found myself close enough, I would then take aim and silently conquer my enemy.
I left my Grandfather’s side and crouched by a tree trunk several yards away, fixed an arrow in the strings of the bow, and waited.
When I remember this day, it does not seem obvious to me that this was my first time to ever really hunt. When you are a boy, you’ve been hunting a million times. Other lone excursions as a kid into the woods, or any outdoors area, were eclectic in motive. Although I may have described an outing as simply “hunting” or “fort building”, the truth was that I had any number of activities on my agenda including but not limited to: scouting, survival, battle, training(for battle), karate, rescue, capture of amphibious species for purposes of science and leisure, and buried treasure. It was not uncommon for me to “hunt”, but without an adult with a determined hunting schedule, my hunts quickly turned into any of the aforementioned activities.. This particular trip was the first to be reserved exclusively for hunting and nothing else.
Though I was, in my mind, as skilled of an outdoorsman as there ever has been, I never remembered my own personal hunting experiences to be so boring. My Grandfather and I sat quietly for what seemed like days. I liked hunting, but I had not been informed that we would be relocating to the woods for purposes of indefinite pursuit of squirrel. Had I known this, I would have brought a journal to document the excursion for future civilizations that might find my dried bones. They would wonder who I was and my words would be a light into the past.
Day 1: The woods are cold. We cannot make a fire because the squirrel will undoubtedly see the fire and ambush us in our sleep. Blankets were not an option. We must travel light so as not to break leaves when we walk on them. I have fashioned a pair of shoes made of leaves so when I walk, you cannot hear a sound. No sign of squirrel yet.
Day 2: I stared for 5 hours at what I thought was a squirrel. I later realized that it was not a squirrel, but a squirrel shaped tree branch/leaf optical illusion(SSTB/LOI). No squirrel yet.
Day 3: Food is scarce. Grandfather and I have resorted to eating twigs and nuts for nourishment. I fear that this constant exposure to the cold woods might eventually lead me to sympathize with the squirrel. If this happens, I am concerned that in the deciding moment, I may think twice about killing him and return home a failure. This must not happen. No squirrel.
Day 4: I accidently swallowed a bug. It was gross. Still no squirrel.
The journal would go on like this, probably weaving in and out of obscurity as madness would inevitably set in.
On, what seemed like, Day 14, just as I was beginning to think that a new hiding place was in order, my grandfather stood up. Before I could realize what was going on, he fired once. The shot echoed off hills miles away. Immediately after the lone shot, there was the sound of something falling through the canopy of the trees, hitting limbs on its way down, then splashing into the dead leaves on the forest floor.
“Go see if he’s dead.” My Grandfather instructed.
The gunshot served as a curtain call for the days events. I dropped my role as a silent stalker and ran noisily and enthusiastically through the leaves to where the animal landed.
“You got him!” I exclaimed. He had done it. My Grandpa had conquered the elusive squirrel.
I stared at the creature that I thought I knew all too well. Every moment was soaked in and filed on a blank slate in my brain reserved for the inevitable discovery and dissection of death. In a young boys mind it is filed between “hunting” and “victory”. There was not as much blood as I expected. I noticed its open dark eyes and then subsequently its chest still taking panicked breaths.
“It’s still alive.” I called back to my Grandfather with a slightly worried inflection in my voice. I expected him to fill me in on the commonality of an unclean kill and its inconsequential nature in the hunting world. Or at least I hoped it was inconsequential.
“Grab a stick and club it,” was the response I received.
“What!?” I replied. I thought that maybe he had left out some step that would make this process seem less outrageous, but he didn’t.
“Grab a stick and hit it over the head to kill it.” My Grandfather had always spoke in calm, passive tones, but when he projected his voice over the length of the woods, he sounded more like a parent than ever before.
“I don’t want to.” I replied back. He rarely questioned my youthful stubbornness, and I was betting on this to try and force him to figure a way around doing what I would not dare contemplate. “Do you want it to suffer?” He asked.
“No.” I said, but I did not really understand what suffering was in the sense that Merriam-Webster would understand. All I knew was that I felt very wrong for ever stepping into the woods. I did not shoot the squirrel, but I could tell by its eyes that it blamed and feared me. I wanted to help him. “We should take it to a doctor.”
“You wanted to go hunting, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but…” Tears began to well in my eyes and my Grandpa became a blur.”…I didn’t.”
“Well, this is part of hunting.” The blur interrupted. “It’s in pain and going to die. You have to put it out of its misery.” My Grandfather’s orders came with the similar authoritativeness with which he made giant footprints in the cold dirt where I could not.
“Fine!” I yelled back, feigning apathy amidst my obvious tears. The tears in my eyes made it difficult for me to look for an adequate stick to pummel the small squirrel.
Now the responsibility set in. I compared sticks and contemplated the logistics of whacking a squirrel to death. Distance was a factor. I did not want to be close to it when I killed it, so I looked for the longest stick I could find. The second factor was girth. I recalled being spanked by my mother’s skinny belts and the intense pain compared to my father’s beefy leather. I used this logic when upgrading from the convenient fallen limbs to the bulkier dried tree limb several feet away. It was shorter than the others, but a courtesy that I was willing to extend to my squirrel victim.
I walked back to the squirrel and prepared to strike. The squirrel lay on a small incline and it was difficult to get proper footing for a good swing. Even bigger an obstacle was that I intended to close my eyes while swinging. I planted my feet on the sliding leaves, closed my eyes, and swung. There was a thud followed by a cracking sound and I lost my footing slightly. I opened my eyes to find my stick broke and a dent in the dirt next to the squirrel. I had missed and now my stick was shorter. There was no more time to be spared looking for another stick. Not by my preference and certainly not by the squirrel’s. I tried closing my eyes again and swinging, this time striking the squirrel in the abdomen. A second strike hit it in the head. A third strike in the head for good measure and I felt “satisfied” that I had killed it. I was sobbing. When I opened my eyes, the squirrel lay motionless. The fur clumped together from the small amounts of blood pooled around the bullet holes. It’s arms and legs were in awkward positions from the force of the blows. I assumed it was a male, though I perceived its body to curve the way I would imagine a female squirrel body to look. At the time, though, I chose not to imagine the repercussions of killing a mother squirrel.
My Grandfather told me to grab it by the tail, so I did and we left the woods. We stopped by what we referred to as “the barn”, but what is really just a small, wooden covered area on the edge of the woods used to store a small amount of hay for my Grandfather’s half dozen cattle. He fed the cattle, I sat on a small bed of hay, and the squirrel lay next to me.
I sat and stared quietly. If it had fangs or menacing claws I might have felt better about viciously extinguishing its life. But it was just your typical squirrel. The kind you associate with spring. The kind children gasp in delight at when they see one scamper into view. Were they a less timid species, I would have already had several as pets. Under different circumstances, I might have played with it or fed it. On that day, I killed it. I stared at him for a long enough time to notice that he was still taking slow and faint breaths. I did not bother to inform my Grandfather of this for fear that he would kill the squirrel once and for all, or worse, make me finish the job.
I was slightly relieved that he was not completely dead. I looked at the squirrel, my eyes still puffy and warm from a thorough cry session, and I tried to see into its black eyes and communicate how sorry I was. In my mind, the squirrel understood that I never wanted to hurt it. There was an understanding that we would forget about the circumstances that led up to us lying next to each other, one with bullet holes, dying, and the other mourning. We would just be friends and the history would be rewritten so that the squirrel would not know how he got dead, only that he was dead and that was neither of our faults. I felt that we both shared this peace and that the squirrel was not scared anymore.
By the time my Grandfather finished feeding the cows, the squirrel had stopped breathing, so I did not feel bad carrying it by the tail again.
When we arrived home, my Grandmother asked if I had fun. My Grandfather answered for me and explained, in a calm, passive, Grandfather way, the events that took place. His summary accented some ounce of bravery or admirable feat that seemed to have been performed, but I recalled it differently.
That evening, our dinner included a small amount of pan fried squirrel. The attainable meat from a squirrel, it turned out, is not a large amount. I was given, what looked like, two drumsticks from a miniature chicken. Before we ate, my Grandfather, being a Baptist pastor, said grace.
“Dear God, thank you for this meal that you’ve provided for us. Thank you for giving Josh a kind heart and helping him to do what needed to be done in the woods today…” The rest of the prayer followed protocol and my mind wandered. Slowly the afternoon’s events came into some sort of human perspective and perhaps I contemplated the importance of life and death and the meaning of mercy. I wonder now if it was a morbid plan that my Grandfather devised to teach me about the courage needed to hunt and to kill or if it was some greater humanitarian lesson that I was to come away with. Regardless, “victory” is no longer filed anywhere near “hunting” or “death” in my brain, but “death” and “hunting” are still synonymous. “…Amen.” He finished.
“Amen.” I thoughtlessly echoed and then commenced to eat my spoils that tasted just like chicken.
By: Josh Gilpatrick