|Confessions of a Former Killer
by Herschel Raney
November 17, 2000
(c) 2000, Herschel Raney
(reproduced here with the author's permission)
(Green Heron photo by Warren Williams)
| NOTE from A Dim View:
If you're unfamiliar with Herschel Raney's writing, you're in for a treat!! Sit back, put your feet up, and prepare to enjoy what follows.
And if you like what you've read so far, you'll find even more of Herschel's stories at Random Natural Acts, (http://www.hr-rna.com/RNA/), or look for his book, Snowmelt Timberdoodles.
| Behind my parents' house in North Little Rock there is a creek. Thirty years ago, when I was twelve, it was a wild place. Now it is more pampered and surrounded by suburbia. At age twelve it was the wildest place I knew and the one closest to my wanderings. One's transportation capabilities at age 12 are significantly simpler.
I would often sit there where the creek pooled into its deepest corner, shaded by willows. The south bank was open and perfect for fishing. It was a pastime that I have now mostly outgrown but back then, before I discovered birds, it was the greatest escape from everything else. Escape from what I thought then was stress. What I didn't know about stress back then is something larger than the shadow of the moon.
I have comforted myself all these years later by saying that all boys go through a BB gun stage. It is not true, I know. (I still say it.) But my father was a hunter and though I would not take back any of those times we hunted together, I have to admit it may be the sons of hunters who go through a BB gun stage more than others. The sons of birdwatchers do not have that phase. I was not the son of a birdwatcher (though I am working on it). And therefore I stalked birds and shot them. For the sport of it, and not for science.
Audubon killed birds. He killed many. This is something else I also tell myself. And he did kill them. But he was studying them. He was doing science with his small bird murders. Science and art. I could not draw. Still can't. I knew almost nothing, really, at the time. I was in seventh grade.
Sitting beside the creek back then, I watched my cork in the water with that intensity that only fisherman can achieve when watching such things. It is a learned focus, a daydream behind the eyes. I used cheese for bait. The kind of cheese that comes in individual slices. My mother indulged me for this. It was cheap. I could fish a good long while on one slice of cheese torn into tidbits. And I could watch a cork out of the corner of my eye while I saw other things happening around that pool.
I blended into the background with my fisherman's stillness while the creatures of the pool went on with their secret lives. Turtles surfaced and eyed me, snakes occasionally cruised across the water top. It was there that I saw the largest mud snake I have ever seen -- a beautiful red and black thing. I'm not sure I've seen one since.
With my eyes closed, I believe I can still see the etched line of that creek bank now. But there was one pool dweller I remember most clearly. One who was as keen as I was on fish. And he was smooth as silk with his fishing skills. Patient as any fisherman can get, two feet tall and deadly. He was a Green Heron.
There is a scene in "Wild America," Roger Tory Peterson's book, where he and James Fisher take a detour down to Mexico to see some birds. They have a guide with them because even Roger Tory Peterson back then did not know his Mexican birds. They brought Bob Newman. He was a bird lover as well but also a scientist, and he needed a few birds for the skin and skeleton collection back at his university. They found a Potoo there in Mexico. It was on his list. A bird of the darkness -- huge eyed, silent as an owl with a giant-sized mouth for popping the night bugs out of the dark.
They all watched it in the lights, its eyes glowing in the beam as it snapped moths from the air over and over. At the end of this feeding display, Bob raised his gun and shot the bird.
He was almost in tears holding its body in his hands. "I would not mind so much," he said, "if it had been an ordinary bird."
This Green Heron at my creek was sharp. It is the small heron of our Arkansas waters. A dwarf compared to the Great Blue Heron but it uses the same skills to move slowly in the shallow water and spear its fish. It stalks. It walks slow and carefully, lifting its foot one step at a time like a cat after spiders. Normally they are pretty shy -- these mini-herons. But this one became used to seeing me there as a fixture of his hunting grounds. Obviously, I meant him no harm. He'd fish; I'd fish. We were two of the same stitch. And we mostly minded our own business until he began to see how many fish I caught. (I like to believe he was amazed.)
And then, once, when I hauled yet another nice sunfish up out of the creek, after I'd just seen this careful bird miss again, a thought flashed in my head and I tossed the fish up on the shore near the Green Heron.
When I was BB gun hunting, I crawled through the brush on my knees and belly to get as close to the sparrows as I could. I didn't know their names. They were sparrows -- little brown jobbies. No one really needed them, I thought. There were millions of them. I stalked and fired and the birds would go limp and fall. White-throated Sparrows were the ones thick in the brush near the creek. I knew this later.
I'm not sure how many I killed. I was good, though, and patient. I remember the nice white throat patches when I lifted the dead birds up to the light to see how good my shot was. The wings would unfold, the head would fall back. Nice shot, I thought.
When my first fish offering hit the shore, it flopped around a bit and the Green Heron's head came up to full alert. Neck stretched out long and longer it fluttered over and then, to my amazement, it stalked my grounded fish like it was still in the water. It did a little dry-land tiptoe. It carefully stepped up as the fish's tail writhed in the dust and then the bird was close and ready and wham! it fired the beak off like a spring-loaded spear. I think I jumped. And with the sunfish on its bill, it ran off a safe distance from me and did its fanciest trick. The one where it moves the fish out to the end of its beak without dropping it and then swallows it whole.
Well, I can tell you, after that, I didn't let any sunfish go back in the water.
Previously I had been a catch-and-release man. And before that I would keep them on a little gill stringer. I stopped that practice when a huge cottonmouth swallowed the very last sunfish on my stringer and the viper and I came to a nasty tug-of-war. (I said he was huge.)
I wish I could say I only shot sparrows back then. Might make it a softer story. But that would not be true. Mostly I stuck to sparrows but once I downed a Great Crested Flycatcher. He was there crying out. And then he was in my hands. He was so beautiful I looked him up in a book. He has yellows and reds and that sizable flycatching beak. I did not show him to my father, knowing somehow that even the patriarch hunter would not approve.
And another time I shot straight up into a tree outside my Grandmother's house. It was a great sycamore that served up its leaves for games of leaf catch in the fall. I shot up into its flapping, tallest greenery at a small dot of a bird that was very high up. It was a luck shot -- one in a thousand. The straight-up trajectory worked for me though and after the shot, down came an oriole like a broken maple leaf, spinning, almost on top of me.
The screen door slammed as I reached down to pick him up. I wish I could remember my Grandmother's words as she whipped my felonious butt around in a circle there in the yard.
She had one end of the gun and me the other. She did break me of shooting her Orchard Orioles ever again. She broke me of using the word "shoot" around her for awhile. And, frankly, all its derivations. A shame she didn't have me as her charge all the time. A shame she didn't take the gun away then.
The Heron was a fast study, After just a few of my tasty fish were stalked on the bank and eaten, he gave up on his own fishing whenever I showed up. As soon as I arrived, he packed it up and came over to stake out a good spot near me like a skinny green-and-red dog. He would sit closer and closer. There was a little knob of a stump just three feet away and this became the spot to sit. I am not lying when I saw he actually learned to watch the cork with me. He linked the whole bait and capture system up in his birdmind. He learned.
I have no doubt. I saw him become visibly agitated when the cork started dipping and punking in the water. He'd do a little shuffle step with his feet. He'd flit those little wings and bob his neck like a chicken near the feed bowl. (I've owned chickens now, and I know it is the same motion in the cock of the head.)
Eventually, I'd just lay the fish right there next to me. No more tossing and fooling around. We both knew the fish was his. And he'd give me a look and stalk over. He lost all shyness. He stopped doing the long stalk. Just gave me that look and stepped on over and popped it up. Swallowed it with that quick bulge of his neck and some feather rearrangement -- a wide-eyed look of thanks and satisfaction. With a little more time I think he would have rigged his own pole.
I took a Grackle one day with a shot across water. Grackles were tough and shy, large kills for the BB gun. I cannot describe the iridescence in a Grackle accurately enough. Even now, my words fail the rainbow. It is a sheen, though. And I had never noticed it until I held that bird in my hand. Before that they'd just been black. It is like a trick of light, prismatic and mysterious.
But I felt something there, holding that Grackle. Before they had just been shots well aimed. But the Grackle with its head fallen back and the dark, sharp tongue protruding, it made something happen in my chest: a crack, something about the heron and the grackle, about feathered things falling and a sense of fault, stirrings of guilt.
And then there was the one sparrow. That last one. It was not a White-throat. I stalked it through weeds and set it floating on my open sight. It seemed to watch me as I breathed my slow breath for the trigger pull. Its body jumped with the burst of air from the gun. It fell so densely onto the ground; it was a life and then it was a pool of lifelessness.
And I put my fingers on it and saw the light red shadings that a Field Sparrow carries on its head. That little dark eye was staring beyond me to somewhere high and ethereal. It had been so alive just a second before.
I covered him with leaves, walked back to the house and put the gun away and never touched it again.
Soon after that, I dug my father's naval binoculars out of the closet. And though they weighed five pounds I walked out into the woods with them to look more closely at the birds moving around the creek. I saw what they did and watched them sing. I carried a small book of birds and then a bigger one. I learned the sounds each one made. And the noise of the Great Crested Flycatcher, that rising wheeeEEEP, still sounds like a command to me, like an order to drop and cover my face or to study the lines of my hands.
I fished more. I began to expect the Green Heron to be there for me, to sit with me and fish. Fishing was an activity I did just for him after a while. It wasn't for me anymore. It wasn't that much fun to pull a small sunfish out of the water. But watching that little Heron get stirred up and dance around waiting for me to give him my prize sunfish -- now that was worth it.
I could lift the binoculars and scan his Heron body as if he were in my hands. And I did try to touch him. He sat so close in his confidence. I would move my hand out farther to my side when the cork drifted and he would be just beyond my fingertips. Sometimes he would make his soft cluck-cluck noise but he would not come closer. He would not hop up and sit on my knee where I wanted him.
My hand sometimes shook but I never frightened him with any desperate jabs. Sometimes, looking at him, I could tell the cork was moving by his excitement before I saw the cork itself jump. I could have caught a fish by pulling my line at the moment of the bird's knowing.
And then I came down that day, down the hill to the creekside where I always sat, where the willows shaded the cove, and I looked on the bank and saw a small form stretched on the gravel and dirt. I stopped cold. I stopped and dropped all the things I carried and bent down to the body in the dirt which was the little fisher bird, the little Green Heron, the one that had adapted himself so well to the kindness of humans.
He did not look the same so lifeless and reclining. The body seemed emptied of all that spark. He probably let the boy with the pellet gun come up very close. The heron was probably waiting for the boy to drop a cork in the water and was wondering what was taking so long when the pellet killed him there on the bank.
The blood from the pellet shot had seeped from the wound into the dark head crest. The feathers there were sticky and out of place. The eye was empty and dusky. The tail that reacted to the cork with that animated jerk and twitch was just a tuft of feathers. It must have been a very close shot. A distance shortened considerably by the trust of a bird. At last, I've touched him, I said, shaking all over. I built him a rock cairn and I cried. I didn't feel much like fishing after that.
Andrew Hudgins, in his beautiful poem "Rebuilding a Bird," says this: "Once you have dismantled Cardinals the one you see break from a larch and skim, undulant, across the pond is never quite the same -- it's almost flame, but even more mysterious than fire."
Updike's fictional child in his story "Pigeon Feathers" looked into the breast of a pigeon he'd just killed and saw: "the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him." The boy stared transfixed at the feathers and decided that the God who had been called into doubt, the one who paid so much attention to the masterful coatings of such a simple bird, must truly exist.
I wanted to go back and talk to Bob Newman with the Potoo dead in his hands in Mexico, Peterson and Fisher standing beside us. The bird is dead and Bob says, "I wouldn't have minded so much, if it had been an ordinary bird."
And I would say, Bob? Bob? Look at it again. Put the feathers up to your eye. Which one of the thousands you've seen, or that I have seen -- the ones falling through the air expertly or flying in flocks that turn and twist like a single hurried thought or the ones crouching over their young or crying out near the creek in the morning, which one of any of them has been just that? and only that? Which one of them has been just ordinary?
| The feathers were more wonderful than dog hair,
For each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather,
And the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern
That flowed without error across the bird's body.
|Herschel Raney and the red dog|