You Don't Listen Anymore
When the first shot went off, the sky went black. Nick had never seen anything quite like it. He'd heard the stories, told to him by his grandfather and then his father and finally his brother, but unless you were actually there, you'd never have any idea what it was really like.
His father was running now, laughing like a child. He ran too, and as he did, he realized that there was an edge there. In his father's laugh. Something he'd never quite heard before from his dad. It was like when you were talking and you got so excited about something that your throat kind of rose up and made your speech sound funny. Like you were gargling with your pride. He'd felt that before when he was proud.
"Come on, son," his father said as he ran. "Fire! Fire son, fire!" He did fire. He held his gun up, not really even trying to aim. You didn't have to. He fired into the black sky. A sky filled with birds.
The birds came down like hail. Everyone was firing at them and there were feathers and blood and little bits of birds in the air like a fog. He heard a wild laugh and he looked across the field and saw Jimmy Potter with a shotgun, firing into the air, smiling bigger than he'd ever seen Jimmy smile before. And there was Nate Hasher, with a .22, firing as fast as he could pull the trigger, and laughing. Nate's father had a pair of revolvers that he held and fired, all bent backwards like a cowboy in a movie.
The birds were all over the ground now, hundreds of them, in dark clumps across the field. In his mind it was like one of those pictures on the wall at home. Very rare. Pictures his father had from the Civil War. Scenes after the battle, with the fields in black and white, almost yellowish if you wanted to be exact, and the dead men lying in the sun as far as the camera could see. His grandfather had been in that war on the side that won; he had fought to preserve their values, his father told him, although he didn't see why two groups of people who were part of the same country could kill each other over such things.
There was a picture of his grandfather at home, too, standing there with his funny beard and his gun at his side. He once asked his dad what all those black clumps were.
"Confederates, son," his dad said. "Dead confederates."
He smelled sulfur in the air. It was sweet. Like the Fourth of July and the firecracker snakes that burned slowly when lit, and squirmed black and greasy out of the fire.
"I already got 142 of them!" a boy shouted. Paul Scoffeld, the Jewish boy from school. The one they called the Kite. He wondered what that meant. If Paul, who he liked actually because the boy shared an apple with him once, could really fly.
By now, he had shot so many of them, he'd lost count. It was so hard to see which ones were the ones you shot because there were so many. And it didn't matter for that same reason. He looked down and saw one of the birds close up. It wasn't dead yet. It had lost one of its wings, which had been completely blown off, and the bird flopped around on the brown, dead grass. It looked at him, its eyes like a pair of black bbs, and suddenly he wanted to pick it up and put it in his pocket. Take it home and care for it. His dad grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him away.
"Let's go, son. We're behind. We gotta get a lot more of em! Let's go, son. Reload." He reloaded and fired more, forgetting the bird. Everyone was firing, so that the booms in the sky seemed to blend together into one as if the booms were the way things were permanently and silence was different. It reminded him of the time he'd been to the city.
It was all over in about twenty minutes. Someone blew a whistle and there were no more birds in the sky. Many had escaped but thousands lay dead on the ground. The men and boys walked among them, picking up a body, holding it for a moment and then dropping it again, or stuffing it into a bag or a box.
The men and boys converged together in the center of the field. The boys were smiling and laughing and talking about the numbers they'd reached, each with a figure that surpassed the last claim until one said he'd killed a "zillion" of them and then Scoffeld said he'd killed an "infinity, which is the most you could possibly kill".
The fathers stood together in another group.
"Well that was something." one of the other fathers said. "One of the best years yet." "I don't know," said another. "There were a lot more of them five years ago. Seems they've thinned out a bit."
"They won't ever thin out," said another. "There's way too many of them. They breed like mice. They'll keep on coming back forever."
"This was great, dad," exclaimed Nate Charmfield. "This was the best time I ever had!"
"I know it is, son. It means you're a man now. This is something that every boy has got to do to be a man."
"I'm so glad we did it. Can we come back next year, dad? Do we get to do it again?"
"No, son. It's only once every five years. We have to let the flock grow back. God has to replenish it. Like water." Everyone heard this comment and there seemed to be respect for it. They understood that you could go too far with such a good thing. That God needed time to replenish. That men had to be patient and not greedy.
He thought he understood, and he had two of the birds in his satchel and felt how heavy they were, and thought that it would take a long time, probably more than five years, for God to make a passenger pigeon. "Let's go, son. It's time to head home. Your mother's waiting." He held his rifle in his left hand and took his father's hand with the other. As they walked off the field, he looked back over his shoulder. There was a heavy blanket of yellow smoke over the grass. The light was dying, and would soon be gone. He squinted his eyes and thought for a moment that he could see the old photo that sat on the wall at home.