SONG OF INNOCENCE
THE FAMILY stood about, all smiling broadly. Louis took the air rifle carefully into both hands, and held it gently before him with the slim shining barrel pointed upward and away from him. His cheeks flushed warmly. He allowed his eyes to carry down the spotless nickel-plating of the barrel, then over the works, the neat and trickylooking peep sight, and the slick repeater-action lever, marking and devouring each perfect detail. “It’sa beauty!”
Everyone laughed, and Louis even had to laugh a bit himself. Then he began talking. He talked swiftly and excitedly, pouring out questions in a Hood, for he wanted to show them he was truly thankful for the present. It really was a lieauty !
Afterward, his brother took him outside in the back yard, and there he pasted upa bull’s-eye target on the garage. Then he brought from his pocket a small bulging canvas bag of beebee shot.
That was for him too! That was the thousand bagger and it cost 25 cents!
“I guess you got to have something to shoot with, when you got a gun to shoot,” his brother was saying, “Yes, you’ve got to have ammo—There are a thousand shots here. If you don’t believe me, count ’em!” His brother tossed him the bag. “Catch.”
Then his brother showed him how to load, rolling the beebee shot into a small hole at the top front end of the barrel. “It’ll hold fifty,” he said.
FIFTY shots! The only other air rifle in the neighborhood was just a one-shotter.
His brother loaded the air rifle and handed it to him. “All right blaze away!” he told him.
“No, you fire it first . Show me!” Louis hung back, wanting his brother to think him unselfish.
“Hey now! It’s your gun, and you should have the first shot. Okay now, let’s see what you can do.” Louis eased the butt against his shoulder, sighted quickly as he had been taught , and squeezed the trigger. There was a slight putt sound as the air forced the shot and a slight jerk and pressure of the butt on his shoulder and a slight sharp tap as the shot struck the boards of the garage. He ran down the back yard and examined the target. The shot
Shocked by the thing they had done, five boys stared at a rifle and made a solemn pact to be kept for all time
was three quarters imliedded in the wood, about midway to the bull’s-eye.
“Not bad for a first shot,” his brother called, “Not bad at all. Maybe with a little practice you’ll be as good as the old man himself.”
He became very excited when his brother said that. His father had been a sniper in the Great War and got lotsof dirty Germans, and won the Military Medal which was right next to the Victoria Cross. To be good enough for a sniper, you really had to be good.
They tried a few more shots and then his brother went in, and he raced up the back lane to show the air rifle to the gang. They arranged that night, on the spot, to go out in the hills on Saturday.
HIS birthday had fallen on Thursday, so there was all of Friday at school. At least, from the windows of the classroom, you could see the hills. His gaze wandered out the windows, over the rooftops and telephone posts, to where the hills rose up, stretched there like sleeping animals. Like drowsy, half-asleep animals stretched in the warm sun. And beyond the sleeping hills spread the open prairie. Out there about three miles lay the bluff they used as headquarters on their expeditions.
He tried to make out the bluff. It was larger than most, of poplar and willow chiefly, composed into a circle about a slough. But from that distance it was pretty hard to spot.
He silt up with a start.
The teacher asked him what he was looking at and he said nothing and the teacher said all right then he could just turn around and look at nothing the other way.
He was bored stiff waiting for the bell to ring.
Joe came down after supper and they took turns potting away at the bull’s-eye target on the garage.
“Look Joe!” he shouted, “I’m drawing a bead on a deer!” The air rifle swung down the back lane.
“She’s caught my scent and now she’s moving!” The deer moved, dappled and swift, in and out among the green leaves. But he kept the bead. And now she was running in the clear, only for a second, leaping the bull’s-eye target. He let her have it. “Right behind the ear!”
They ran down to the target and, sure enough, it was dead on centre.
They returned and sat down on the back steps. They talked about past times out in the hills, but they soon tired of talk. For some time they sat, staring vacantly across the back fence and the back lane through where the sunset was a red strip between the houses. Then he had the idea that saved the night.
Jumping up from the steps Louis touched Joe on the shoulder, “Come on, follow me!” he said. He started into the house.
Joe got up and came after. “What is it?” Joe asked.
“Never mind,” he said back over his shoulder, “I’ve got something to show you, something you don’t know about. Just you follow me.”
They tramped through the house and upstairs. He led Joe into a small back room cluttered with discards of the household. Against one wall stood an ancient steamer trunk. Without further explanation he crossed over and threw back the lid. Then, turning, standing before the open trunk, he said dramatically, “I’m going to show you my father’s souvenirs from the Great War!”
FIRST he showed Joe the old postcards from France and Belgium. The foreign stamps and photographs, and the odd foreign names of battlefields, Ypres and Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, puzzled and fascinated them. He took out the album “For King and Country,” and together they leafed through the pictures of heroes who had been killed, and got the Victoria Cross. Then he paraded his father’s medals. When he talked of his father winning the Military Medal he made his voice sound as though he thought it was nothing at all.
“That’s nothing,” he said, “Now comes the real stuff.”
Rummaging down, he dug out the khaki tunic and puttees, which smelled strongly of moth balls, and next the German Luger, the water bottle in khaki wool, and the powerful field glasses. Last of all he brought out the two sheathed bayonets.
He had once questioned his father about the bayonets. He had asked him if they had ever been used.
“What do you mean, been used?” his father had said, frowning.
And he said back, “I mean, to bayonet a guy. You know—Oh, I guess they’ve never really been used.”
His father looked away shortly before he replied, “Oh yes, they’ve been used. They’re just what was used, if that’s what you mean.” There was an ironic edge on his father’s voice.
So they really had been used on men! Right away he wanted to know all about it. Where and when?
But this must have annoyed his father. He grew quite angry then and told him to go away and not come around again with such stupid foolish questions. His father never would tell him about the war.
He told Joe what his father had said. Then he drew forth one of the bayonets from the sheath. “Look at this Joe.” he said, and he placed the bared bayonet across his side for measurement, “look Joe, how long! 1 bet you never thought they were that long!”
Joe said he never did.
“How’d you like to get that coming at you?”
Joe said, “Boy, I sure would not!”
He said, “Boy, they’d go through a guy twice.”
It was growing dark when Joe went home. Leaving him he called after him, “Don’t forget Joe. Ten o’clock.” Joe called back, “Ten o’clock then1”
SATURDAY morning as soon as he was up he was downstairs and out the back door for a look around. He was met on every side by sunlight, sprawled on back stoops and porches, hitched up over back-yard fences, and strewn over the ground. He ran down the yard to the back lane, looked up and down, then tore back again, hard as he could go, up the back steps and into the house.
At 10 o’clock all who were coming were in the back yard. There was Joe and Gin and Les and Stevie, five of them counting himself. Five was plenty. They slung their haversacks and he took up the air rifle. Gin said, “Okay guys, let’s head!”
They crowded out the back gate shouldering one another and laughing, talking. He raced out ahead with the air rifle. When they got to the top of the hills, then they would take turns having it.
Going along Twenty-Fifth, one or another of them would get an idea in his head and take a sudden spurt out front. Then he would stand in the middle of the road, half-turned, waiting for the rest to catch up. Once, the whole lot of them tore along together for a ways. They were all puffing at the end and Gin said:
“We better take it easy. Remember, we got a lot of ground to cover yet.”
At the top of the hills Stevie took over the rifle. They stopped there a while and looked back over the city and the way they had come.
There was no smoke in the air to speak of at that hour of the morning and the city seemed to lie in a hive of light. Heat waves rippled along the top of the far river banks and over the near hills. The only stretch of the river they could see was a narrow strip that reflected the sunlight away out at Goldeye Bay. Three churches down in the city had spires that were made of copper. These too caugfct the sunlight, and glittered like gold.
Turning, they left the city behind. Ahead of them was the open prairie. They struck their bluff at noon.
THEY climbed trees and sighted for game. They sent scouting parties into remote bluffs. They had an Indian fight and a buffalo hunt and a coveredwagon train rescue. They crept silently through the bushes tracking, and ran wildly over the prairies raiding.
Off and on through the afternoon they heard the treble song of a meadowlark, hidden in the grass nearby, but that was the only sign of life they encountered.
They were returning to the bluff. For some time there had been little talking. Joe had the air rifle, with about three shots left of his turn. Gin stopped suddenly and called out, “Say, look where the sun is!”
They all stopped and looked.
“Well,” said Gin, after a short pause, “I guess it’s about high time we were starting back.”
“Yeah,” Joe said slowly, “It’s high time all right. It must be getting on 5 o’clock.”
“That any way,” Les said.
“Well, we better get going then,” said Gin.
They moved on to the bluff in silence, quickening their step.
They cleaned up around, burning the leftover paper, and throwing the empty tin cans far back into the bushes. Last thing, they made sure the fire was out, j all standing around it in a circle.
A swift change had taken place in the afternoon. The heat had gone out of the sun and already the air was growing chilly. The light was slowly fading and the shadows thrown upon the ! ground by the bushes were dim and I grey. The bluff was very still.
They shouldered their haversacks, and Joe took up the air rifle. They ; were all set.
Right then, the silence of the bluff was abruptly broken. They were taken completely by surprise. The sound that broke the silence was a loud hollow knocking, like somebody tapping hard and fast with bare knuckles on a heavy door. It rang through the entire bluff, filling it with echoes. Then just as I suddenly as it had started, it stopped. It was too much for Les and he blurted out, “Now what in the deuce was that?”
No one answered him. The sound had begun again, if anything, louder than the first time.
It was the kind of sound you might expect one of those dwarf cobblers to make whom you read about in fairy tales, coming upon without warning in some secret clearing of a forest. Or like someone in a great hurry knocking on the door. It echoed so boldly so definitely through the afternoon one thing was clear: whatever was making it was not at all afraid of being heard.
No more than a dozen yards from them a dead poplar stood out plainly from the surrounding bushes. They saw through the leafless branches the bright tufted head and brown and black speckled plumage of a woodpecker.
Of course Louis knew all about woodpeckers but he had never seen one before. They did not often come to that part of the country. He had no idea a woodpecker would look so comical: the way it stuck to the side of the tree there with no support at all that you could make out, and the way its head went back and forth faster than you could follow. He had never seen anything like it.
It would scoot up the trunk, just a few feet at a time, knocking away like mad, its head bobbing. Then abruptly it would stop. It would simply stick there, glued to the one spot, and calmly take in the view for a few seconds. There would be a dead silence. Then, just as abruptly, off it would go again, knocking and climbing, the bluff ringing with the sound. Certainly it must know by now they were there, but still it went blissfully ahead at what it was doing.
Joe shifted his grip on the air rifle.
Les said to no one in particular, “ They sure travel, don’t they?”
He said, “They look kind of silly though. But boy, they sure leave themselves wide open.”
As if in answer the silly woodpecker paused in its knocking and, perched there in plain sight, cocked its head about clownishly.
“Yeah. They sure do.” Joe said, “They sure do.”
They eyed the woodpecker narrowly.
“But he’s getting pretty near the top,” Gin said.
Again the woodpecker fell silent, glancing.
Les said, “Let him have it.”
There was not a sound. Everyone looked toward Joe. Joe passed the air rifle into both hands. He said softly, “Should I?”
They nodded in turn.
Joe raised the air rifle slowly and took slow aim. He waited until the woodpecker should be still. The gaze of the others was intent. He fired.
The woodpecker let out an uglysounding squawk and started up into the air. It hung there for a moment, fluttering wildly, then toppled backward and plunged down, half-flying, half-falling through the dead branches.
It fell sideways, awkwardly, crashing down through the sharp brittle pointing twigs and snapping them off, and scraping roughly on the shaggy bark of larger limbs. It brought down with it a sharp hail of dust and dead bark and brittle twigs. Trying desperately to fly it managed only to prolong the fall. Lower down, it struck heavily on one of the main boughs, and dropped from there straight to the ground.
On the ground, in the dry leaves and underbrush, its threshing made a crisp rustling sound. One of its wings dragged the ground. The other wing beating wildly, sent it swerving in a wide clumsy circle as it tried now to take cover in the surrounding bush.
Stevie cried out, “Somebody kill it! Somebody kill it!”
Joe did not seem to hear. The others seemed unable to remove their eyes from the flailing woodpecker.
Louis, standing nearest Joe, without a word grabbed the air rifle from his hands and pushed frantically into the bushes. He loaded as he went. A trailing willow branch laced his eye and started if smarting and watering.
The woodpecker became aware of his following and tried to make off, but he caught up. Louis shoved the air rifle ahead of him as close as he could get it, sighted as best he could with his eye stinging, and pulled the trigger. He had aimed for the head but the shot struck somewhere in the body. The woodpecker only increased its struggles, and with such force, it managed even to raise itself from the ground, and floundered deeper into the brush.
Panic-stricken, Louis reloaded as fast as he could but his hands fumbled the lever and he almost cried with anxiety. He followed the woodpecker, wiped the back of his hand across his eye to see straight, once more took aim, and pressed the trigger.
The good wing fanned the ground, stirring up leaves, but this time the shot had gone home. Louis pumped shot after shot into the head until there was no more movement and he was sure the woodpecker felt no more pain. The woodpecker was dead.
STEVIE said he did not want to look but when the others had gathered round he came up behind. He took one look and turned away, “We had no right to kill it,” he said in a tight voice. “What did it ever do to us?”
Joe went red in the face, staring hard. Suddenly he turned on Stevie and said hotly, “Don’t you go blaming it on me now Pawchuk! You all said yes! Don’t you go blaming it on me now Pawchuk!”
No one spoke. Stevie did not like being called by his last name.
“I wasn’t blaming it on nobody.” Stevie said.
“All right! But I’m telling you!” Joe said, “Just don’t you go blaming it on me! Just don’t you go blaming it on me!”
Gin said then, “Aw leave him alone Joe. Nobody’s blaming it on you.” “All right then!” Joe said, “but I’m just telling him. You all said yes. Just don’t go blaming it on me that’s all!”
No one answered Joe. They all lowered their eyes and looked at the woodpecker.
It was not the same bird whose racket had filled the bluff a few minutes ago. The brightness and color had gone from the feathers, they were rumpled and dusty, and stuck all over with little bits of dead stems and leaves. The neck hung loosely over and, where all the shots had gone in the head was a sticky wax of blood.
It was smaller.
The bluff was very still.
After a while Gin said that he guessed they had better bury it, they could do that anyway and, if they wanted, they could use the cardboard box he had in his haversack to put it in.
When Gin had spoken, Louis found his own voice at last and said that what he thought they should do was make a pledge never to kill another one, to swear and promise and make a pledge.
Les said he had a pencil in his pocket so they could even write it out.
Joe said he thought they should bury the woodpecker right where it had fallen at the foot of the dead poplar tree.
Louis wrote out the pledge as it was his idea. It went:
Saturday, June 15, 193-. (3 miles out, West)
We the members of the Avenue gang promise we will not kill any more woodpeckers. We will only kill birds that are a nuisance to mankind in the future or in self-defense. M e are all to blame for this one but we promise we never again in our whole lives will kill another one.
Signed: Les Stevenson ■Joe Kelly
Thomas “Gin” O' Mallia Louis McGavin Steve Pawchuk.
When it was finished Gin placed it in the box beside the woodpecker, put. on the lid and laid the box in the grave. Joe and he scooped back the earth over the box, and formed above it a small mound of leaves. Stevie planted the cross he had made from two sticks and a string at the head of the grave.
It came to the funeral then. They had all been to a funeral when Billy died about a year ago and so they knew about it, and one of them would have to say a prayer. They were standing around in a circle and no one was saying anything and then Joe said, “Let Louis say it. He’s best at saying things.” So he had to. They were all looking at him sideways, expecting.
They removed their caps and bowed their heads and he recited the prayer they said every morning at school, the “Our Father which art in heaven.” Louis tried to make his voice sound just ordinary.
He said the Amen and looked up. The others were still standing with their caps off and made no move to go. For a minute he was afraid he had left something out.
Then Gin said what was troubling them, “I don’t know. But maybe we should do something together to finish it off with. Then it’s all over. They usually sing something.”
“Sure. That’s right.” Les answered him slowly.
“We should do something together all right.” Stevie said.
Joe said slowly, “Yeah.”
“Well what will we sing?” Louis asked Gin.
Gin was silent, twisting his cap.
Then Joe made his suggestion.
Just for a second they hesitated. They thought. Then everyone was echoing Joe.
“That’s it. Sure.”
“Okay. That’s all right.”
“Louis might as well start us since he did the other.” Gin said.
It was much harder than the prayer. Louis could hardly get any tune in his voice starting out, and when the others failed to join him immediately, his voice just about gave away altogether. He almost stopped at the end of the first line then Stevie took up the words, so he went on. The others joined in gradually, first Gin, then Joe and Les at once.
When they were all singing at last Louis found the tune easily, and even put a little expression in the words. They sang not loudly or strongly but at the close they were all singing unafraid;
Send him victorious Happy and glorious Long to reign over us God save the King. -fa