Gardner Variety: understanding death
I still remember the first time I killed an animal. I didn’t know then it would be also be my last, though perhaps I should have.
The memory, forever scarred into my brain, surfaces from time to time.
We were staying with family in Louisiana to attend a funeral. My mother’s Aunt Dottie had passed away. I was only 10 or 11 at the time, and my experience with death was limited.
I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Aunt Dottie, though the quiet, sullen drive to Lake Charles — a trip usually passed by playing “the license plate game” or some other innocuous means of distraction — demonstrated the profundity of the moment.
When we arrived, we greeted my cousin Johnnie, his wife Holly and the kids. They lived on several acres of land. We always looked forward to our visits.
As we said hello, I remember watching my mother smile as she hugged her family. Between embraces, her eyes welled up with fresh tears, though the smile remained.
I looked around and noticed almost everyone was crying. Then I realized I had been crying too. I’m not sure I understood why.
After sharing in each other’s grief, my father, Johnnie and I set out to a wooded area behind his house. Visitation would not be held for another five hours, and we were looking to kill time.
My father told me we were going dove hunting — something he enjoyed with his father when he was a boy.
He began to talk about what we’d do when we encountered them and seemed to repeat the phrase “good eatin’” over and over again.
I was distracted, however. The sunlight had been weaving in and out of the branches overhead, producing thin beams of light that spotlighted the earth.
Children are easily distracted by beauty.
Then, my father grabbed my shoulder and pointed. No less than 20 feet away, perched on low-hanging limb, stood a solitary dove. Its white feathers shined brightly in the sunlight.
My father handed me the shotgun, helped me to aim and stood close behind to absorb the impact of the gun’s blowback.
I pulled the trigger and felt and heard the raw power of the blast. Twenty feet away, a solitary white dove fell from a branch.
I can’t remember exactly how I felt when I watched the bird drop, though I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little excitement. It vanished, however, when I saw the results of my actions up close.
A single pellet had struck the bird squarely in the chest, leaving a small stream of blood trickling from the wound. The sunlight gleaned more brightly off the red blood than the dove’s white feathers.
I was horrified by what I’d done. I looked in the dove’s small, lifeless eyes and began to cry.
When we arrived at the funeral home later that afternoon, I remember feeling afraid to look at Aunt Dottie. My mother assured me everything would be all right and walked with me to her coffin.
I peered inside and gazed about. She looked a little like how I’d remembered her. Her skin was about the same. She was wearing a dress that seemed fitting. She never wore that much make-up, but overall, her face was recognizable.
Then, I saw the eyes. They weren’t hers, but I’d seen them before.
It didn’t strike me as strange at the time that her eyelids should be open. Most funeral homes employ some method of ensuring they remain closed. Perhaps those measures failed.
Whether driven by chance or by fate, those eyes, staring vacantly upward, produced an image in my head — a flash of white and the sound of thunder, followed by a streak of red.
If there’s one thing the dead have in common — outside, of course, of being dead — it’s this:
Regardless of the species, all creatures devoid of life share the same eyes — the same empty, emotionless voids once filled with light and wonder.
The eyes we remember, the ones that fill our hearts with joy and grief, cease to exist.
Only then did I understand why everyone was so quiet during that drive to Louisiana.
Wesley Gardner can be reached at email@example.com