I stand over two grievously injured calves, rifle in hand⎯a lever-action .22, the only rifle we owned at the time⎯my younger brother at my side.
I’m sporting my early high school body, a coiled, ill-fitting long thing meant to withstand athletic defeats and broken-heater cars. Months prior, my mother had offered us the calves as a means of generating money. She’d buy the calves; we’d raise them, sell them, and repay her the investment cost, keeping the profit for ourselves. Standing there with my rifle, perhaps I recalled the many meals we bottle fed to the calves, who drank so tenaciously, their long bluish tongues groping like a child’s hand toward the bottle. Perhaps I cursed the local dogs who tore open our young charges. Imagine it like this. Catch your jacket on a bit of exposed metal as you hurry by. Take up the little flag of material; pull hard. Forget having enough money for a tailor. Soon the two calves were flush with infection, our restorative efforts notwithstanding.
A likelihood: my father instructed me on the placement of the shot. A certainty: with a small-caliber rifle, a boy may not hit the mark with the first shell. The second may quell the struggling, groaning. The third may burrow in, past white fur and pink flesh and white bone, just right, digging life from the creature, nailing it limp and heavy to the dirt. A fourth shot for peace of mind. The rifle felt small and smooth like a light switch in my hands. Surely this was better than living with the rot. Yet years later, without warning, remorse would bleed and ache like a bitten tongue. The second calf lay immobile during its peer’s execution, ignoring us, and we all seemed to be dipping into the same emotional brew of resignation. As I moved to the living calf, feeding another shining shell into the chamber, I snuck a glance at my brother, who appeared sullen. This calf was his, goddamnit. An insistent thought gripped me: Don’t fuck this up.