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Birds on a String

This is one of the pieces I wrote for my Creative Non-fiction class under Butch Guerrero. We were assigned to choose a photo from our childhood and write something about it. I chose not to post the photo because of its “controversial” nature, considering that people might not read the story behind it. A description of the photograph is included in the piece.

Birds on a String
While rummaging through an old photo album, I stumbled across an old photo of myself taken when I was about six years old.  The photograph was yellowed with age, and it showed me in a bob cut wearing a white Ghostbusters t-shirt, pajama bottoms and a pair of slippers that were too big for my feet. I was wearing an impish expression on my face—the toothless, “cutesy” smile that I used to hide my tartar-ridden teeth—a subdued expression of glee. There was really nothing extraordinary in the old photo except for the fact that I was holding a rather large string of dead birds in one hand and a handgun on the other.  The handgun looked much too big in my six-year-old hand, but I vaguely remember a feeling of “coolness” as I held that piece of metal.  About two dozen dead birds were bunched neatly in a bundle by my feet; held by a line of thick, white string. It morbidly suggested that I not only touched a gun at six but I can apparently shoot birds as well.

Before animal rights activists scream blue murder, let me just say on my defense that I didn’t kill those birds. My dad did.  I don’t shoot birds as a recreational sport and it’s all because of a duck.

When I was really young, my parents and I would usually go home to my grandparents’ house in Pangasinan for what my mom called “much needed R&R”. My grandparents’ house faced the highway and behind it was a huge rice field.  We usually went there during summer when those rice fields were dry and barren—a perfect playground for my cousins and me—except for the huge piles of fly-infested carabao dung lying haphazardly around.  While I played habulan and patintero with much-missed cousins in those rice fields, my mom visited her old friends and my dad went hunting in the mountains for Tiking.

I have no idea what the Tiking is really called.  These little birds look like a cross between small ducklings and wild sparrows.  They had short duck-like beaks and small wings that had a small amount of blackish feathers.  The rest of their bodies were almost bald—ugly little creatures.  They were usually found at the foot of the mountains at the edge of the rice fields behind our house.  My dad hunted these birds very early in the morning, armed with either his long air gun or his pellet handgun, accompanied by an uncle or two.  Being a carnivorous family through and through, hunting was never frowned upon, especially since the local farmers treated the Tikings as pests. The hunting group would be gone by dawn and would normally be back a couple of hours later with a string of dead, unhappy birds.  These dead birds are later de-feathered, seasoned with soy sauce and calamansi, deep-fried then eaten as appetizers for lunch. I remember that the meat was a bit tough and that it tasted like chicken.  The kids used to consider these small fried birds as a treat—fighting over the birds that were laid out so appetizingly on my grandmother’s kitchen table.

My first experience with a gun came a few months after the yellowed photo with the string of dead birds was taken. That summer, my dad asked me if I wanted to learn how to shoot.

Everything I’ve heard and read about the alpha male describes my dad.  He is not too tall but what he lacked in size he made up for his loud booming voice that used to terrify me as a kid.  He did all the stereotypical brusque, manly stuff—he played basketball with his elbows, never shaved his moustache and cursed (aloud) at drivers in the highway.

Shooting guns used to be a favorite hobby of his.  My brother and I grew up thinking that my dad’s guns were merely an adult’s toys; they were no different from our action figures and lego sets.  We all wanted to get our hands on them but we weren’t allowed to go near the guns, much less touch them.

So when the opportunity came to touch those forbidden objects, I jumped at the chance.  It was definitely something cool to brag about my friends back in Manila.

I was up very early the next morning and gulped down breakfast as fast as was humanly possible.  My dad and I stationed ourselves just underneath this huge mango tree, facing the side of my grandparents’ house and a neighbors’ backyard.  My grandparents’ neighbors used to have a small poultry farm and on that particular day, their yard was filled with noisy, fat ducks getting ready to be fed.

My dad set several empty cans of soda in a neat line on top of a small mound of dirt. Then he taught me how to aim; how to keep my shoulders straight and look at a target.  I thought it was going to be a piece of cake—aim and shoot—much like the scenes in all those spaghetti westerns.

I was so wrong.

I think I was only able to shoot one can after a number of tries. I was extremely frustrated at not being able to shoot the stationary cans of coke that seemed to be taunting me. Patience was never my strong virtue.  I started shooting carelessly; merely pretending to look at the target and relying more on luck or good fortune that my bullets would find their targets. What happened next seemed to happen in slow motion. I remember pulling the trigger, then this loud “QUACK!” and a flutter of big white wings as a neighbor’s duck rose in the air either in surprise or in pain.

Everything suddenly seemed magnified.  The rice fields became quieter than usual and the distressed quacking of the ducks seemed to rise to a crescendo of panic that it was all I could hear.  I knew terror was written all over my face.  Did I actually shoot a duck?

I could distinctly remember how my dad shouted at me to run to the house while he hastily went to the neighbor’s yard to check the damage I’ve done. I was breathless and my heart was palpitating. I was near tears by the time I reached the house. I cowered at the corner of the kitchen and ignored my mom’s concerned questions until she started shouting at me to tell her what was wrong.

I was horrified at the thought of actually shooting something ALIVE.  The thought never crossed my mind nor was mentioned to me when my shooting tutorial began.  Soda cans were one thing but the idea of hurting another living, breathing thing made my stomach hurt so bad that I actually vomited all over my grandma’s spotless kitchen.  My mom began to panic at my obvious distress and began shaking me, but I remained mum—too ashamed and horrified at what I thought I’ve done.  Murdering a duck was too much for my young mind to take.

After a lot of praying and wringing of hands, I was told later that day that the duck I shot didn’t die.  My aim was so bad that I didn’t hit any vital organs but just nicked the duck’s derriere.  My mom scolded me since I almost caused her to have a panic attack.  I felt lightheaded and didn’t really mind. My conscience was clear. The duck lived and I never touched a gun again. I realized then and there that I didn’t have the same taste for hunting as my dad did.

It’s uncanny that I don’t have any more memories about my dad’s hunting escapades after that accidental duck shooting.  Perhaps it was because my dad seldom went back to the province or maybe I unconsciously blocked those episodes from my mind.  His pellet guns are gathering dust in our bodega, seemingly forgotten.

I never learned how to shoot and I also stopped thinking that guns were cool. The only living things I’ve killed (or tried to kill) the past few years are the occasional cockroaches and ants; mostly by my feet or with a large can of Baygon.  Nothing with feathers and definitely nothing that goes “QUACK!”

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