Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Sunday Morning

  

Casey lay in bed in his room in the house on the farm near Addison, Iowa.

Of course, this was Sunday morning, and it being Sunday morning, he knew he would soon have to go to church.  He always went to church on Sunday mornings.  His whole family went to church: his father, his mother, Aunt Ada, Granny and his little sister.

Well, Sunday mornings were Sunday mornings.  You couldn’t change that.

Casey pushed his quilt aside and put his legs over the side of the bed and stood up.

But the walls of the room began to turn and Casey had to reach out to one of the bed posts to steady himself.

Suddenly the walls didn’t turn anymore.

Casey had a really good look.  But it was for sure.  The walls didn’t turn.

“I felt a little sick this morning,” said Casey at the breakfast table.  “When I got up.”

His mother and Aunt Ada and Granny and his little sister were there.  His father was out doing the chores.

“Sick?” said his mother.

“But I’m fine now,” said Casey.

His mother said, “He looks a little pale, doesn’t he?”

This last remark was directed to Aunt Ada.

“Maybe,” said Aunt Ada.

His mother got up out of her chair and came around to where Casey was sitting and reached out and held her hand on his forehead.

“Yes, I think you have a fever,” she said.

“I don’t think so,” said Casey.

“Yes, you have a fever,” said his mother.

So, it was decided by his mother and Aunt Ada that Casey wouldn’t go with the family to church this morning and, further, that his mother would stay at home with him.  All this led to an argument between his father and his mother when his father came in from doing the chores and she told him about the decision.

“My God!” said Casey’s father, putting the milk bucket on the stool beside the sink.

“Henry!” said his mother.

“You think the boy won’t survive?”

After a pause Aunt Ada said, “I'll make Casey a nice cup of lemon tea.”

After breakfast Casey went up the stairs and down the hallway to his room.  But once in his room he didn’t know what he should do.  Should he keep on his pajamas and get into bed and play like he was sick, or, on the other hand, should he put on his suit for church? If he put on his suit that meant he had to also put on his white shirt and tie.

While he was thinking about all this he heard his mother coming up the stairs and down the hallway.  She opened the door to his room.

“Casey, I’ve decided I’ll be going to church now.  Which means you’ll be in the house all by yourself.  You’ll be all right?”

“Yes,” said Casey.

“If you really wanted me to, I could stay.”

Just then his little sister appeared at the door.  She stood there in her Sunday best, a white dress that flared out, white stockings and white shoes.  She even had a white ribbon in her hair.

“Are you sick?” she asked.  “Really?”

“Get!” said Casey.

“Don’t ‘get’ her,” said Casey’s mother.

Casey’s little sister made a face and went down the hall.

“Sometimes . . . ,” said Casey’s mother.  “Well, then . . . .”

But she didn’t leave Casey’s room.

“Go into bed, Casey.”

“I’m not sick.”

“Go into bed.”

Casey went over to the bed, got in and pulled the quilt up over himself.

His mother was still standing in the doorway.

“I love you, Casey,” said his mother.

“I love you, too,” said Casey.

Five minutes later Casey heard the Ford’s doors closing, Randy, the family dog, barking and then the sound of the car starting down the lane.  Casey knew how they’d all be sitting, his father driving, of course, his mother next to his father, then in the back seat Granny on the one side and Aunt Ada on the other and his little sister in the middle.  He imagined how the car turned on the dirt road at the end of the lane and headed toward Addison until the water tower appeared, then the steeple of the Catholic Church before the courthouse, and beyond the courthouse he imagined the steeple of the Methodist Church and the grey-walled graveyard just behind the church.

For some reason Casey saw the graveyard, how all the plots were laid out symmetrically and how the stones were of different sizes, some shiny with smooth and some with rough surfaces.  His grandfather and his other grandmother’s stones were there, and also the stones of his great grandmother and great grandfather.  Although you couldn’t really make out the dates or even the names on those stones because they were so old.

 

* * *

 

Casey lay in bed for a while longer.  He didn’t feel sick at all.  He felt perfectly normal.  The way he usually felt.

And, lying there, it occurred to him that if he got up out of the bed his mother wouldn’t tell him to get back into bed.  She couldn’t tell him that because she wasn’t here.  And Aunt Ada wasn’t here, either.  No one was here.  They were all at church.

Casey pulled the quilt away, swung his legs out over the bed and stood up.  He checked the walls.  They didn’t turn at all.  So he put on some old pants and an old shirt and went out into the hallway and down the stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs just past the crank telephone he passed his father’s gun cabinet.  He stopped.  He stopped and looked inside.  There behind the glass he saw his father’s array of shotguns as well as his Winchester 54 bolt-action 30-30 repeater with a scope attached.  Once a year his father flew out to Alaska with Uncle Harry and hunted moose with that Winchester.  Most 30-30s had a cock-action lever right down near the trigger.  But this was a bolt-action.  And a bolt-action was more accurate.  That’s what his father said.  When you’re up in Alaska tracking moose and you’re at 300 yards, well, accuracy counts for a lot.

But Casey’s father had laid down the law.  Casey was only fourteen.  Too young.  When Casey reached his sixteenth birthday his father would take him out, show him a thing or two, and instruct him on the Winchester. 

Standing there in the hall it again occurred to Casey that he was all alone in the house.  Nobody else was here.  And the neighbors wouldn’t come visiting because it was Sunday. Which meant that there was no one to stop him.  Which meant that he could open the door to the cabinet and take the Winchester.  Randy would get all excited and run back and forth.

Of course, Casey knew he couldn’t just open the door to the gun cabinet.  Because the door was locked.  But here was the thing:  He knew where the key was.  The key to the gun cabinet was in the back, left corner of his father’s sock drawer.

Casey really thought about it.  He could go up to his parents’ bedroom, pull the lower drawer of his father’s dresser out, take the key, listen again and make absolutely sure that no one was in the house, come back down the stairs, fit the key into the cabinet door, turn it, pull the door open and take the Winchester.

Casey almost did it.  That is, he almost went upstairs.

But he couldn’t.  He never would.  Because his father had laid down the law.

 

* * *

 

Casey actually had a rifle.  Well, it was sort of a rifle.  Kind of a rifle.  But not a real rifle.  A BB gun.  But it looked like a real rifle.  A carbine.  Complete with a cocking lever.  It was the kind of gun cowboys always carried because of its light weight, blasting coyotes or some such.  Or Indians.  Casey often saw himself riding down a valley with high hills on either side and suddenly there they were, Indians coming over the crest of the hills, an ambush.  Casey wheeled and shot.  Again and again.  Lots of dead Indians.  Casey always galloped away and escaped.

On this Sunday morning Casey went back up to his room, found his BB gun leaned against a corner right next to his gym shoes and his fielder’s mitt, carried the BB gun down the stairs, passed the crank telephone and his father’s gun cabinet, continued out through the kitchen where his mother and Aunt Ada had been making applesauce with jars all around and continued out through the boot room to the porch.

Randy jumped up as soon as he saw Casey’s BB gun and bolted down the lane, then stopped, looking back at Casey.

“You want?” said Casey to Randy.

Randy raced all the way back up the lane jumping on Casey so that Casey had to hold his BB gun high up to avoid the dog’s paws.

“What do you think, Randy?  A moose?”

The dog charged down the lane again and Casey followed.

Of course, looking out on the fields on either side of the lane Casey knew as well as anybody there weren’t any moose around Addison.  Far from it.  Squirrels and rabbits, all right, and groundhogs and even muskrats down near the creek.  And lots of birds, pigeons and robins and larks and sparrows.  Those sparrows were all over the place.

In fact, a bunch of them right now were flitting from branch to branch in one of the trees beside the lane.

Casey raised the BB gun to his shoulder and sighted along the barrel to one of the sparrows.  He saw the bird preen itself, pulling at a feather beneath its wing.  Slowly, because this is what his father had instructed him to do, he squeezed the shot off.  The BB gun went “ping.”  But nothing happened with the sparrow.  It continued to pull at the feather beneath its wing.

Casey lowered the gun, cocked the lever and raised the gun to his shoulder again.  But when he tried to sight again at the same branch he couldn’t see the sparrow anymore.  Then he saw that the sparrow had flown off.  In fact, the whole flock had shifted to another tree.

And that “ping” his BB gun had made hadn’t been very much, thought Casey.  Not much at all.  With a real rifle the “bang” of the gun would have scared the bird off – if he’d missed, which he wouldn’t have because his aim was too good.

If he’d had the Winchester and not the BB gun!  What would a 30-30 bullet do to that sparrow?  Pulverize it!  It simply wouldn’t be here anymore!  One moment it was living and the next moment it wasn’t!  

Like the time about a year ago when his father had called him out beside the barn.  “See that sonovabitch?” said his father.  Casey looked down, where his father was pointing toward the ground, and saw a rattler all curled up and ready to strike, with the tongue flicking out.  “We don’t need nothing like that,” said his father.  His father told Casey to watch the rattler while he went and got one of the shotguns from his gun cabinet.  “This’ll do her,” said his father coming back with the shotgun and putting a shell in its chamber.  Then he said, “You want to do her?”

His father was asking him if he wanted to shoot the snake.

“Okay,” said Casey.

“You up for it?”

“Sure,” said Casey.

His father eased the shotgun over to Casey and told him when he aimed to hold it tight against his shoulder.

“See, she’ll kick,” said his father.

Casey put the butt of the gun in there as hard to his shoulder as he could and sighted down the barrow and saw the rattler all coiled up.

“And slow on the trigger,” said his father.

“I’m ready,” said Casey.

“So do it,” said his father.

The blast and the whack against his shoulder happened all at once.  But the amazing thing was the snake.  The shotgun blast had torn it all apart.  It didn’t even look like a snake, but was in different pieces.

“Jesus!” said Casey.

 

* * *

 

On this Sunday morning Casey continued down the lane with fields on either side to the stream and the brush pile beside the stream.  Randy had already gotten there before Casey and was working the brush pile looking for rabbits.  Casey made sure the gun was cocked in case Randy flushed something out.

Suddenly there were high “yips” from Randy and a rabbit came out at full speed right at Casey.  Just before it got to Casey the rabbit swerved and disappeared into the high grass next to the lane with Randy close behind.

Casey hadn’t shot.  He’d been too surprised.  That rabbit coming straight at him.  Although he shouldn’t have been surprised.  Randy had been working the brush pile.  Even before he got there.  So he had already known Randy might flush out a rabbit.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t have made any difference – that is, whether he shot or not.  Even if he got really lucky and hit the rabbit.  Because the BB gun wasn’t a real rifle.  It was more for sparrows.  Maybe.

“Randy!” Casey called.

But Randy wasn’t paying any attention.  He was all involved in smelling out his rabbit in the tall grass beside the lane.

Then Casey saw it, a flock of sparrows flying straight toward him and, the flock making a kind of whirring noise, landing in the branches of a tree right beside him.  One of the sparrows – Casey could tell by his markings that he was a male – landed in a branch not even three feet away from Casey.   This sparrow turned around and then around again and began to preen himself, pulling at his feathers.

Slowly Casey raised the BB gun to his shoulder, sighted, and saw the sparrow at the far end of his gun.  He pulled the trigger and the gun went “ping.”

The bird fell to the ground.

Casey couldn’t quite believe it.  That he had actually hit the bird.  But there it was on the ground.  So he must have hit it.

Casey went over to where the bird was laying, kneeled and picked it up.

And was surprised that the bird felt so warm in his hand.  Although that made sense.  The bird had been alive.  A moment ago.  That was why it was still warm.

But now it was dead.

Casey stood up with the bird in his hand and looked up at all the fields.  Casey’s father farmed these fields.  Now.  But before, in his father’s boyhood, his father’s father had farmed these fields.  And when his father’s father was still a boy, his father’s father’s father must have had farmed these fields.  And one day, for sure, Casey knew, when he was no longer a boy, he would farm these fields himself.

Casey looked at the bird in his hand.

Just moments ago it had been alive.  

Now it was dead.

The fields to either side of the lane began to turn and Casey was forced to reach out to the tree to steady himself.

 

 

 

Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 90 stories published in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review, and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, and twelve of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was a finalist for a collection of short stories in the Iowa Publication Awards for Short Fiction, the George Garrett Fiction Prize for Best Book of Short Stories or Short Novel, and the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.