By LAURA LAING
Wythe County, VA, 1985
The rifle is heavy and hard in my arms, the butt jammed up into my right shoulder, just like Lee showed me. Peering down the nose of the gun, I can see the line of targets—coffee cans, plastic milk jugs, and Coke cans—lined up like birds on a fence. The air is cool and wild, and a breeze comes across the hollow carrying the sweet smell of hay and manure. Except for the herd of grazing Holstein cattle, little black-and-white smudges against the browning pastures, Lee and I are the only living creatures visible. Me and him and the gun with real bullets.
He stands behind me, his chest against my back and his arms lined up along mine, my left hand cradling the long nose of the gun, the index finger of my right hand crooked around the trigger, my thumb resting on the cocked hammer. I float between watching us from above to feeling the horrible power of the gun in my hands. I feel the angle of my body so clearly I can see it, my feet planted firmly on the ground, hip-width apart for stability, my right foot behind my left. My chest curves in slightly, making a pocket for the butt of the gun in my right shoulder, which is pressed back so it is directly above my foot. The gun will kick back hard when I pull the trigger, slamming the butt into my shoulder and shooting the nose up into the air.
Pull the trigger, Laura, Lee says firmly in my ear.
I’ve never fired a gun before. It’s a Sunday afternoon in the fall, just before rifle season opens, and Lee has already spent a few days on the mountain bow hunting without a kill. He’s itching to get out with his gun, and, like other teenage boys, he’ll take the first day of deer season off of school. In this annual ritual, boys will scatter throughout the woods of Wythe County with their daddies, uncles, and granddaddies. Up before dawn, they’ll see puffs of breath as they gather outside pickup trucks with gun racks, gulping hot coffee and swallowing biscuits homemade by mommas, aunts, and grannies. They’ll pull bright orange vests over camouflaged coveralls, jamming John Deere caps on their skulls so their ears, red with cold, stand out from the sides of their heads. They’ll climb into tree stands with thermoses of coffee and bags of chewing tobacco, prepared to sit for hours and hours. Either time will pass or they’ll reach their bag limit, the maximum number of deer they’re allowed to bring down with buckshot. They’ll take photos of their kills atop trucks or in the beds, always holding the head of the animal up to face the camera, side-by-side with their own. Daddies and uncles and granddaddies will slap their boys on the back and remark on the size of the stag or how it passed below them earlier without a sound until it was too late and “I don’t know how you spied it, because I was blind to it!” And then they’ll head home to dress the deer for butchering. Over the next few days, mommas and aunts and grannies will grind venison chuck into hamburger patties and separate steaks from stew meat. One big buck can feed a family here for a couple of months.
But this Sunday is before we can hear rifle shots echoing in the hollows, bouncing off the mountain walls. It’s chilly but not cold. The turkeys aren’t running yet, and there aren’t any calves in the hutches. I’ve changed out of my church clothes and driven curvy roads to the farm for our Sunday afternoon date. Lee has scrubbed his hands and forearms, changed his jeans, and scraped the muck from his boots after morning milking. It’s only two, but the sun is already starting its descent behind us, glinting off the metal cans along the fence.
Pull the trigger, Laura.
I want to be a farm girl, but I live in a brick house, two blocks from Main Street. My parents are teachers; we buy our meats and vegetables from the grocery store. My father’s hunting rifle is collecting dust in the attic, and I never once ask him if he would teach me to shoot it. He never offers either.
On the farm, I’m not afraid of the cows when I help drive them into the milk barn on Sunday evenings. I join Lee and his father, Leland, in the milking parlor, country music playing loudly while the cows walk in four-by-four, their udders at eye level to us. I wipe the mud and manure from teats, hook up milkers, and, after the udders are drained, dip each teat into purple liquid to prevent infections. I fill bottles with warm milk that hasn’t even reached the tank and tip the fat nipples to the mouths of calves in hutches next to the milking barn. I help separate calves from their mothers, one time getting head butted so hard I’m lucky my collarbone didn’t snap. Saying it’s too dangerous, Leland draws the line at fieldwork. I never drive a tractor or pull bales of hay from the baler or watch as a combine separates corn cobs from the plant, spitting stalks onto the ground. Oh, how I want to.
In that broad field under an expansive blue sky, I feel penned in, claustrophobic. It is only a moment, but it feels like we’ve been standing out there a month. The ridge of metal under my index finger is cold. It would only take a little squeeze, but what would come next seems intolerable—a loud blast; the slamming of the butt into my shoulder, leaving a bruise; smoke rising from the nose of the gun pointed at a 45-degree angle into the blue; a flock of birds taking to the sky in soft flaps; me stepping backward into Lee’s chest.
I am a familiar stranger to these hollows, to the granddaddies and mommas, to Lee and Leland and the lowing cows and the circle on the calendar that marks the opening of deer season. I don’t belong, and this is terrifying.
Pulling away from Lee, I unwrap my arms from the gun and step to the right to pass it to him while keeping the nose pointed at the targets. He doesn’t act mad or disappointed. I am a town girl, not even born in these mountains, but I have proven my mettle in other ways.
He takes the rifle from me, and I step behind him. I’m not scared for him to fire, one by one, first taking out the coffee can, then the plastic milk jug, and, in two shots, the Coke can. There is a fine distinction between myself and the almost-man I’ve fallen in love with. I want his way of life, but still I cannot pull the trigger.
Laura Laing’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Full Grown People, Consequence, and Creative Nonfiction. A graduate of Goucher College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction, she is currently writing a memoir that blends story with explorations in abstract mathematics. See her work at www.lauralaing.com.
Photo by Grace Zacharias.