A story by Rick Strongitharm
In 1969, while Neil Armstrong was stepping onto the Moon, I was celebrating my ninth birthday. My family lived beside a leper colony located where the two main tributaries of the Amazon join. My parents ran a clinic for the lepers.
For my birthday, Dad and I went camping in the jungle. We hiked north from our compound carrying hammocks and supplies. Dad also carried a machete and a rifle.
For months I’d been begging for a gun of my own. Over the previous week, Dad had given me lessons on gun safety. We had used cans for target practice.
Our campsite was a small clearing beside a sandy-bottomed stream. We put up our hammocks, built a fire and went for a dip in the creek. At about 6:00 PM, darkness arrived quickly as it does near the equator. Dad and I sat on a log, facing the fire, eating beans out of tin cans. When we’d finished, Dad presented me with my birthday present, the rifle he’d brought.
I was thrilled and ready to march into the jungle, but Dad said we’d hunt in the morning. I fell asleep imagining how I’d kill a tapir, wild boar or even a jaguar. I didn’t awaken until just after dawn. Dad was still sleeping, so I got out of my hammock quietly. I took a few bullets from Dad’s pack, picked up the rifle, and walked along the path into the jungle, making as little noise as possible. About a hundred yards from camp, I found a log to sit on. The gun was lying across my knees.
A breeze shuffled leaves. Insects hummed and birds praised the new morning. A feathery flutter caught my eye. A tiny, brown bird landed on a branch about ten feet above me. It was no larger than a man’s thumb with a black beak and black eyes. It looked around for a few moments, then began chirping, repeating a slightly off key series of notes. The last note of each short series was higher pitched than the rest as if it were asking a question or making a plea.
Moving very slowly, I raised my rifle. Once I had it aimed, I took a deep breath. My heart was beating rapidly as I exhaled and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. The sounds of the forest continued. My heart kept up its rapid cadence. It took me a moment to realize that I’d forgotten to release the safety. I took another deep breath, pushing the safety switch off. Again I let my breath out slowly and squeezed the trigger. The gun’s report was a slap, sounding like a hand striking a cheek. The small, brown bird fluttered and fell to the ground. It landed at my feet.
Silence shocked me. I stared at the little creature. Its beak opened slowly. No sound came out. It closed, then opened again, closed and went still.
I threw the gun as far as I could into the underbrush and, with my fingertips, took hold of the bird’s wing. As I lifted the bird, gravity pulled the wings open. A red hole was punched through its body. Holding the bird in one hand, I ran back to camp, sobbing.
Dad was up. I told him what I had done. He listened quietly and when I’d finished he asked me to hand him the bird. Gently, I did so. There was blood on my palm. Dad told me to go and get the gun. Reluctantly, I obeyed.
When I got back, Dad told me a story about the Yanomami tribe of Northern Brazil. When one of them dies he is cremated. His relatives pound his ashes into a fine powder, mix the powder into a drink and consume it. That way the deceased lives on in the survivors’ bodies.
While telling me this, he cooked the bird, feathers and all, in an empty can. It didn’t take long. When all that was left were ashes, he mixed them into our strong, sweet coffee. We drank it slowly, listening to the symphonic sounds of jungle life.
By Rick Strongitharm, based loosely on personal experience.