We were lying among the trees in the yard. The sweet smell of fruit was everywhere. Bees and wasps buzzed above our heads. The sun dug its way through the leaves and warmed us through our clothing; it was a good feeling. We liked being there, in the garden of the yard, where nobody had a word to say to us. It was just my little brother and I on that early afternoon.
We lay there silently plucking the fallen sour cherries from the grass, eating the soft flesh and making a game of shooting the wet pits from between our fingers. It was then that my brother noticed the bird. He poked me in the shoulder and pointed to the branch of a cherry tree. I followed the line indicated by his finger to the lowest branch, where the crow was perched. It was a big one, the branch dipping under its weight.
Until then we had only seen its kind in the plowed fields around our village; they never came so close as to venture into the trees of our property. We had tried to see one from up close before, but unlike smaller birds, these were too intelligent and cunning to let us near.
I felt my pulse quicken, and I reached over to grab our rifle. It was a Slovak-made air rifle. Its black oily barrel flashed in the sunlight as I pulled it close. Our father had tricked it out with a tighter spring, so that we could hunt with it. We were so proud of that rifle – our own firearm. We didn’t mind sharing it; we shared everything else.
I sat up and I cracked the barrel. I dug some ammo from my pocket, trying to make sure none of the excess rounds fell out. We only had 923 bullets for the entire summer, as many as came in one box of ammo. Our father said he wouldn’t buy us more, so we would have to take care of how we used them. We had done the math and figured we could shoot no more than ten rounds a day, but after our father stopped supervising us, the ration was soon forgotten.
I loaded the gun. With my thumb, I gently pushed the lead pellet into the barrel and cracked it back into place. I momentarily worried that the sound had startled the crow. I froze, sitting bone still. But the bird wasn’t concerned with us. It was much more interested in the fruit dangling off the tree’s outer branches. It preened itself, and lazily snagged the nearby cherries with its beak
I carefully rested the rifle against my shoulder, looked into the sight, and tried to control my breath. My brother began to squirm beside me.
“Sure you can hit it from here?” he whispered.
“We already used one bullet today.”
“Well, this guy is worth at least two notches.”
With a pocketknife we had been carving notches into the gun after every kill, just like the American Indians had done in the books about them. We had sworn that by summer’s end there would be fifty notches cut into in the gun’s stock. Though a month and a half had already passed, we had only accumulated eighteen. My brother didn’t think we would make it; for his part, he was too small to properly hold the gun and this resulted in lots of misfires. As for me, I wasn’t too worried about it: from the moment I picked up that rifle I was a natural born killer.
When he gave us the weapon, our father had instructed us to make only clean kills. Figuring that sooner or later we would realize that the rifle wasn’t invented for mere target practice, he reasoned that it would be better if he told us all we had to know.
We were standing in the yard, and the smell of potatoes stewed in paprika sauce wafted through the air. Then, right before our eyes, our father shot a sparrow from its perch on the branch of a walnut tree. “One shot, one kill,” he said. One shot: that’s what he meant by ‘clean.’ He went on to say that if we killed something (as he was sure we would), we shouldn’t play with the dead body afterwards. If we kill, we should do it quickly and precisely. We must respect anything that has a heart.
In the first few weeks, we actually weren’t able to shoot a thing, but not long after that we got the hang of it. We soon became drunk on the power, that we could have this impact; where before there was this living, moving creature, now there was nothing but carrion on the ground. We had killed ants before, and other bugs, but this sort of daring was a new and seductive feeling. We’d proudly pick up the killed sparrows by their feet, and bring them to the graves we had already dug for them. He who had made the kill completed the ritual: carving our mark into the stock of the rifle.
“I’m hungry,” my brother said, sitting up.
“Eat some cherries,” I said, without turning to look at him.
“I’m bored with cherries.”
“We’ll eat after this shot. Dad’s coming home soon.”
I flattened myself on the ground. I didn’t want to startle the bird. I looked at my watch.
Dad was indeed a bit late for lunch, and I was also hungry.
Our mother had been in the hospital since the beginning of the summer. He was almost certainly with her now. Since it had become apparent there was something wrong with her womb, and had to go to the hospital, Dad didn’t do much but shuttle between my mother’s bedside, work, and home. My brother and I didn’t know exactly what Mom was sick with, as they took care to talk about it only after they had put us to bed.
I remember that on the day before she was taken to the hospital, I found Dad crying in the kitchen. He said everything would be all right. Then they went to the hospital and he didn’t return for days. For two months he spent all his time there. It became normal for my brother and I to cry ourselves to sleep, though we eventually gave this up, as we became distracted by the impending summer.
Dad wouldn’t let us come with him on visits. He said that we were still too young for this. We communicated with Mom by drawing her pictures and writing her letters. I was in second grade, and could already write well. I composed serious letters to her, filled with sentences like, “Today we hunted in the woods.” My brother, for his part, mainly sent crayon-drawn pictures of volcanoes, tanks, or whatever happened to be on his mind that day.
Since our mother’s disappearance, there were lots of changes at home. For instance, Dad didn’t play with us anymore. He became irritable, lost a lot of weight, and took up smoking again.
“Can I shoot it?” asked my brother.
“But you got the last shot.”
“That’s because you still can’t shoot so well,” I said, lowering the gun.
“It’s not fair that you always get to shoot.”
“You still can’t load it properly without my help.”
“But it’s still not fair that you always get to shoot!”
“The next shot’s yours, OK?”
I had whispered that last sentence, because I noticed the crow begin to stir. Then, with languid flaps of its wings, it flew from the cherry tree to the top branch of a pine tree that stood by house. We jumped up and raced in the direction of the house, keeping an eye out to find the best position to shoot from. We didn’t bicker anymore, after that.
I took a place by our green, rusty fence, and again raised the rifle to my shoulder. I shifted my aim a few centimeters left and calculated the path of the bullet. I felt a slight breeze against my face. Though it wouldn’t be strong enough to push the bullet off its path, I still wanted to be sure, so I concentrated on guessing the exact trajectory. I pressed the rifle butt into my shoulder and left it there, allowing my grip to become more relaxed so I could release the bullet more easily, just like Dad had taught me.
The shooter needs to fire after exhaling, because when you breathe in, your shoulders move. With the sight, I found the crow, and aimed at its neck. I waited for the right moment, when I could no longer feel the weight of the rifle in my hands.
The lead bullet’s report echoed through the air. The bird fell from the tree as I, with a triumphant smile, lowered the rifle from my shoulder. We rushed over to where the crow had fallen. It was still alive, though my shot had hit it in the neck. It flapped spasmodically about on the path in front of us, trying to take flight. We watched it in its death throes from a few steps away. We had never seen anything like it.
I reloaded the gun, took aim at the bird’s breast, and shot. The bird’s feathers flew from its body where the bullet entered. It tried to stand, but was unable. Blood from its wounds spread across the cement walk.
“Die already!” my brother shouted at the bird. I searched my pocket for another pellet and loaded the rifle again.
This time I found the crow’s wing, the force of the shot propelling the bird on to its feet. Now standing, it ceased beating its wings. After a moment it noticed us, and began to hobble our way, dragging its limp wings behind it, the wound in its neck dripping blood down the feathers of its breast. I reloaded, and shot.
I hit it in its chest, but that didn’t stop it. I began to retreat, because I was afraid its blood would get on me. The crow was perhaps a yard from me when it lifted its head and looked right at me, its eyes black as buttons.
It began to caw, unbearably loud, and without pause. I shot it again, but it was as if the crow didn’t even notice.
“It doesn’t want to die!” my brother cried, in hysterics now. “You can’t kill it,” he shrieked and ran away.
The crow continued to come for me; I tried to load the gun again, but after I had emptied my pocket onto the ground, I was left with an unloaded gun.
When it was right in front of me, it stopped and again, resumed its piercing cry. It was so close I could see its tongue moving in its beak. The gun fell from my hands, and clattered on the ground. Blood pounded in my temple, and my sweat turned cold. With nowhere else to go, I pressed my entire body against the fence, so hard that the chain links would leave their impression on my back. I couldn’t kill the bird. Our eyes locked, and we stared each other down. As I gazed into the bird’s black eyes, my tears began to flow.
“What in God’s name are you doing?”
It was my father’s voice. He stood by the fence, cigarette in hand.
In one swift motion he was beside me. He gave the bird a swift kick, and I heard the crow’s bones break. The kick sent the bird flying into the air, black feathers falling in its wake. It met with the wall of the house, leaving a bloody stain where it hit.
Still, it wasn’t dead. It cried pitifully and bled on the ground, again trying to stand. My father picked up the air rifle, stepped over to the bird, and with all his strength, smashed the bird in the head with the butt of the gun. He had to hit it several times until he finally cracked open its skull. I couldn’t move; I just stood there and watched as fluff from the bird’s feathers flew into the air. It was all over in a few seconds, after which he used some grass to wipe the blood from the rife.
That night, I came down with a fever. I tossed and turned in my bed and kicked the blanket from me. If I closed my eyes, the crow appeared, coming for me, coming for me, a wholly unkillable bird. I whimpered loud enough so that my father came into my room. It was already late night, but he was still in his street clothes. He sat on the side of my bed and stroked my forehead, then stuck a thermometer under my arm. I could smell cigarettes and beer on his breath.
“I don’t know how I blew it,” I said to him, my voice trembling. “I did everything that you taught me, but I couldn’t kill the thing the right way.”
“You didn’t do anything bad. Not even God can make a clean kill all the time,” he said. He patted me on my head, then tucked me in again before returning to his room and turning up the music.
SÁNDOR JÁSZBERÉNYI (1980) was born in Sopron,
About the Translator:
M. HENDERSON ELLIS is the author of the novel Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café (New Europe Books, February 2013). He lives in Budapest, where he works as a freelance editor at Wordpill Editing, and is a founding editor at Pilvax magazine.