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The First Time I Killed by Cole Martin

Waking up before the sun rises is hard, especially when you’re a kid who wants nothing more

than to just sit inside and play Halo on his Xbox all day. I remember it was brutally cold, a cold

that infiltrates and imbeds itself in your floorboards. My father opened my door, the hallway

light penetrating the safety of my eyelids. I rubbed my eyes as he roused me, him not trusting me

to not go back to sleep.

I swung my legs out of bed and they encountered the cold floor. Lord knows I wanted to

scurry back beneath my blankets. But, I rose and wandered to the bathroom, meeting my equally

drowsy brother. We brushed our teeth side by side in silence, him a foot taller than me in the

mirror.

We loaded the truck. A massive thermos of coffee sat in the cup holder, my father

removing it from its place and sipping from it what seemed like the instant he set it down. I was

in the back seat, the local radio station and the rumble of the truck the only sounds, our breaths

emitting clouds which rose and dissipated in equal intervals until the engine warmed and heat

replaced the cold.

We drove for an hour, until trees took the place of power lines and dirt took the place of

asphalt. My brother had fallen asleep, his head bobbing against the window with every bump our

tires tread through—and there were many. My father made some joke about him sleeping like a

rock and I laughed even though I didn’t get it. I couldn’t fathom how a rock could sleep, but

when you’re that age acting like you understand is more important than understanding.

We rolled through the woods for another half-hour until my father slowed the truck and

we proceeded in a crawl. The sun was just beginning to rear its head, its light appearing as we

crested a hill and then disappearing when obscured behind another. I remember the stars were

still visible, though fading fast, as if little candles being extinguished by the pinch of licked

fingers.

A trail to the left appeared which must have been to my father’s liking because he slowed

and turned in. I assumed we’d be hopping out and walking it because I was always told to hunt

from a vehicle was as taboo as they come.

“We Hollywood huntin’?” I asked.

My father chuckled and said “It ain’t Hollywood huntin’ when it’s this cold,” and I can’t

say I complained about that.

We dropped our windows, and the influx of cold air woke my brother. He said nothing

about falling asleep, so we didn’t either. We peered into the frost ridden woods, searching for

any sign of animated life within the stillness; sentries aboard a rolling war-machine.

We drove until the sun was high and it was warm enough to lower the heat from the

vents. We parked the truck at the entrance of another trail and climbed out. My father went to the

ditch to take a piss and I mimicked him even though I had very little to let out. We pulled out

some lunch and shared it and then began our walk. My brother held his four-ten shotgun broken

open on the crook of his arm like he was cradling a baby, and my father’s was strapped to his

shoulder. I wasn’t yet old enough to hold one of my own and I was envious of them. I grew up

watching war movies with my grandfather, and Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers were

my examples of what a man should be and so I thought men held guns.

We walked in silence, but the woods were anything but. Frost crumbled beneath our

boots and in the trees echoed the communications of birds and squirrels and other forms of

creatures the shapes of which my imagination constructed with no basis in reality—beings with

large fangs and claws and wings which preyed on boys who were not men because they held no

gun.

I followed behind the men and plucked branches from the trees which hung over the road,

weighed down by snow. I snapped the dead wood in an attempt to occupy my hands but a brief

look from my father let me know I was making too much noise. I was trying to convince myself I

wasn’t bored because from what I knew those who were bored in the woods were city-folk and

from what I knew that was a bad thing.

It was two or three trails later, when my feet hurt but I was too ashamed to complain,

where we came upon a flock of partridge. It wasn’t until I was much older that I found out the

birds we’d hunted all my life were not in fact partridge but grouse. There’s a type of knowledge

different from fact where if you say it and everyone understands what you mean then it must be a

form of truth in its own way. That’s how I feel about still calling them partridge and I reckon

there’d be those who’d agree.

The birds emerged before us about twenty yards up the trail. I had long since given up

looking for them so I was surprised when my father put out his arm to stop us in our tracks and

pointed their way. There were about four of them in the road pecking at whatever it is they eat,

and they circled and bobbed their heads in a sporadic ritual dance. My heart pounded in my chest

from the excitement of encountering that in which we’d hunted for so dutifully. Accompanying

that excitement was a form of confusion, as if I’d forgotten what happened after we found the

birds—as if I’d forgotten killing was a part of it.

My father and my brother raised their arms and before I could plug my ears they let two

shots fly, and the buckshot ravaged the birds and the boom of the guns reverberated along the

hills of rural New Brunswick like echoes of some war-torn country where not only did hunters

have names but the prey have names too. The birds shook on the ground in their violent death

throes, and I wondered how anyone could love in this world.

My father and brother ran up to the dead and dying birds and my father bent to retrieve

his target and with a twist of his hand he dislodged its head from its body. I had never seen an

action so grotesque in my life before that and I imagined him wrapping his arms around my neck

and doing the same to me. The carcass of the bird no longer held life but its nervous system did,

and it twitched until it didn’t anymore. My brother attempted to parody my father’s mercy, but

he wasn’t as proficient and instead ended up breaking the bird’s neck, which did the same job as

ripping it out would have done. The two stood celebrating their victory and my father patted my

brother on the shoulder and he held a big grin of pride on his face. They went about cleaning the

birds in a nearby puddle.

The trail seemed to be endless, and we walked it for a while longer until we came across

another bird perched in a tree, sunning in the last warmth of the day. My father pointed it out and

directed my vision towards it and put the gun in my hands. I knew how to use it from watching

them, and I leveled the gun and I hesitated only for a moment before pulling the trigger. The shot

was true and the bird fell like it had no business being away from the earth, and I was relieved to

see it must have died instantly and that I wouldn’t have to involve my hands in the execution.

My father showed me how to clean the bird and I ripped its skin open with my fingers

like it were a vest and I cut the breast from its wings. It was in that moment that I became part of

the world and its cycles and was no longer removed from it like an outsider looking in. There

was death and I participated in it and that was part of life. I struggled with it, but I thought at

least we are eating the thing, as if to consume it meant to justify its slaying.

I think back on that day and the more I think on it the more I realize that it was then that

my childhood was gone, or at least the part of childhood where you believe yourself not part of

the world but the center of it. I realized that I am in the world, and in the world I am capable of

actions, actions that have the ability to render things inert.

There’s a certain kind of peace in guilt, just knowing it’s there. Without it, actions

become nothing but facts. A; therefore, B. A trigger is pulled; a life is taken. But it’s more than

that. It’s always more. To forget that is to reduce things to their basest nature. To forget that is to

blow a bird from a tree just to make your daddy proud.


Originally published by Canadian Stories Magazine 2021


Cole Martin is a twenty-something writer from Atlantic Canada. He has words in Canadian Stories Magazine, Fahmidan Journal, and Rejection Letters. He can be found on twitter @maritimemagnate.


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