The woods had already begun to grow dark in the lower part of the hollow. The browns and burnt oranges of autumn blended into shadows on the forest floor as the last light of day retreated behind the hills to the west. I had come down from the tree line that separated this area from the seemingly endless pattern of pastures and fields above. My plan was to cross this steeply sloped, rocky hollow by finding a narrow place in the stream at its bottom and then work back up into the thick stands of pine that bordered on my house.
The single shot .410 felt safe and solid as I eased down the slope. A small gauge shotgun my father had given me in the third grade, my habit was to always carry it in the evenings on my after school walks like this one. Sometimes I would be several miles into the woods when it got dark, and while coyotes would probably never bother me, I never regretted having it with me. In the rare times that I would shoot it, it would be to kill a poisonous snake or to shoot a squirrel or two for dinner.
We were poor and proud to a fault. My father and I lived far out in the county in an area known as Freedom Hills. Our neighbors were few and far between and consisted of a handful of small farmers, the "old people" (my grandmother's affectionate term for the generation above her) quietly passing through the days on home places that had been in their family for generations, and lastly, what many would consider the "white trash" of our area. This group included my father and I; people hiding from one thing or another, dealing with their own issues, but also independent and full of their own uniquely subtle sense of superiority.
A continuing source of pride and amusement among us was the perceived helplessness of people from "the city", even though the nearest true city took more than an hour to drive to from our house. A false perception, socially perpetuated, but for a group of people that rarely had much to be proud of in the first place, we clung to it tenaciously. Preeminent in this idea was the belief that our guns and our ability to hunt for ourselves set us apart from those who could only obtain their food from the grocery store. But I had never been fully comfortable with hunting. From an early age my father had impressed upon me the importance of only shooting animals I intended to eat (snakes and coyotes excepted). From time to time I would squirrel hunt, or rabbit hunt if it snowed, but I never enjoyed cleaning the animals, so I rarely had the enthusiasm for it. Once or twice food was actually scarce in the house and I cooked up a few squirrels while waiting on my dad to get home from work, but those times were exceptions.
Yet it was hard not to be a part of hunting in some way or another. Visitors would talk about it, friends would have cookouts featuring deer and turkey, and when given the chance my dad would brag about what a good shot I was or how independent I was (often times spending two or three nights out of the week alone at home when he stayed with his girlfriend). So on this evening, with the temperature starting to drop as darkness approached, as a force of habit my eyes continuously scanned the treetop for moving silhouettes. As I reached the bottom and began looking for a place to cross the swift moving stream, something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. Just behind me and further down the hollow, near the top of a large pine tree, a squirrel hopped from branch to branch moving back up the hill.
At that moment when I spot prey for the first time, the response is always the same. My heart races, all misgivings flush out of my consciousness, and my attention becomes singularly focused on the quarry. I can hear the squirrel's small sharp claws skittering against the bark and start anticipating what limb it will jump to next. I will raise the gun to my shoulder, checking the safety with my fingers as I do so, and press my cheek into the stock as I take aim along the barrel. And then comes the tension on the trigger, but carefully so as not to alter the aim of the gun. This is a shotgun, which means precision is less important than it would be if I were hunting with a rifle, but with a small gauge like this, shooting into the trees still requires a fair amount of accuracy. As a result of having a gun for most of my life I don't often miss, but this time I do.
The roar of the shot momentarily destroys the stillness of the forest. And then something is falling through the shadows, too big to be the squirrel, while I am mechanically breaching the gun to reload. Instead of hitting the squirrel, I have sheered the limb out from under it, and both squirrel and limb have fallen to the ground. When I walk up to it I can see that it is still alive, but unmoving. The fall has broken its back.
For a heartbeat, I am at a loss. The squirrel sees me, its pupils are dilated even more so than usual, but it cannot move. It tracks me with its eyes as I step closer and kneel down beside it. In the past, shooting them from afar, I had not experienced the death of the squirrels in a personal way. But seated here among the shadows with the light fading fast, I know the squirrel has to die, and as it looks at me, I know just how unnecessary that death will be.
It has been almost 20 years, and I can still see the squirrel in my hand.