I lie unmoving in bed, remembering a fall day in Peter’s Valley, N.J. in 1973, creased with rifle shots. We – my first husband, our golden-haired toddler, and I – were living in a farmhouse in the middle of federal parklands. My husband was working as a demonstration potter in the crafts village, and I was collecting plants for vegetable dying, weaving while preparing for the birth of our second child. The white clapboard house where we lived was at some remove from the “village” and had a generous front porch that faced a wide field in front, no fences. There were afternoons when I would sit with my beloved son, identifying birds for him as they flew up from the golden grasses – red-winged blackbirds, bluejays, robins, wrens, grosbeaks . . . and pheasants.
The day before the rifles, a large truck piled high with wooden crates had parked on the other side of the field, and two burly men climbed down and began opening the crates one by one. Large birds flew out, and as they discovered their freedom, the birds flew skyward. Some flew directly towards me and when they drew close, I could see that they were pheasants. My son was enchanted by their bright feathers and so was I. As we watched as these beautiful birds congregated on the drive, moving about trying to get their bearings, we marveled at their beauty. By nightfall, all but a few had disappeared into the high grasses of the field and dark of the woods beyond. I went to bed, thinking how lovely that our government was repopulating our woods and fields with pheasants.
The next morning, I woke to a single rifle shot, but that shot, unlike the one this morning was followed by another and then another, until all the air was cracking and splintering as if overnight war had been declared and my home dropped smack in the center of the battlefield. When I shifted the curtain and peered out at the field, I saw dozens of red-shirted men marching elbow-to-elbow across the field, firing wildly. At the sound of the guns, pheasants flew up from the protective cover of the grass, and as soon as their wings lifted them into clear view against pale morning sky, they were shot and came spiraling to the ground below. Pheasant ‘season’ had begun, and these urban hunters were shooting the confused birds delivered yesterday. As wings flashed, and birds thudded, I wondered with so many hunters, shooting simultaneously, if they would not shoot each other.
The gunfire was so random and so rapid, so complete. I knew we couldn’t leave the house. I closed all the windows, placed a stack of records on the record player for continuous play, and drew a warm bath for my son. Of course, the noise had awakened my baby, and of course, he wondered what the racket was. I murmured this and that, held him close, kept well away from windows, rocked with the music, and said nothing about the beautiful birds we had watched yesterday soaring into blue autumn skies that were now dying by the dozens outside. I wanted to run outside, shake my fist at these shooters, tell them to stop, but instead I made blueberry pancakes and told my son small stories about summers longs past. I spoke of the miniature octopus I found in a tidepool when I was a child and baby seal I had found abandoned on the beach, told him how my great-uncle and I had lifted the listless seal into his canoe and rowed it out to Seal rock, hoping that it would find community amongst the many. How blue the sky was, how the water sparkled, how a great huge seal had come and nosed the baby gently. I wasn’t sure I was misremembering but as guns fired in rapid succession outside, accuracy didn’t seem to much matter. Visions of oceans did.
As we ate and as I searched for more stories of survival, I wondered what I would do if this shooting went on all day – surely I would run out of stories – but I needn’t have worried. By late morning the gunfire had ceased. I suppose all the pheasants were dead. That afternoon, when my son asked if we would see again the ‘magic’ birds from yesterday, I paused, swallowed hard to keep my tears away, hugged him close, and told him that they had gone to the wildlands. He was too young to know of massacres.
That day, the first rifle shot was followed by a volley of gunfire and hundreds of dead birds. Today, the early morning rifle shot remains unique; hopefully no one has been injured or left for dead. I hear no sirens. What follows is the sound of my neighbor vacuuming, the rise and fall of a quiet conversation on the corner, and occasional car shooshing past, the distant hollow whistle of the trains, the rumble of the city bus and the whine of its opening door. Seagulls overhead. Thomas a Kempis noted that “Habit is overcome by habit,” so why cannot men perfect new habits, translate their habits of violence and killing into a habits of loving. Listen to the world. Hug your kids. Sing songs. Plant gardens.