T H E D A R K H O U S E
The nights in my hometown of Meridian, Mississippi were cool and forgiving of the hot hot summer days. The Bats tumbled through that inky sky, swirling like leaves on high wind as they chased through a sea of flying insects great and small. Even now I can see them darting over the face of the custard moon which rose like the eye of God out of the tall black pines behind the dark house across the street. At nine years old I spent the long southern twilight shooting at the bats with my pump pellet gun, and sometimes with the .22 rifle that was given to me when I was seven, if I could manage to sneak it out of the house. I could hit most anything that moved, except for those little brown bats that swept through the night like black holes in the sky. Most nights I quickly retired the .22 in favor of the pump air rifle, because I could shove all kinds of stuff down the barrel at once and have more chances of hitting a bat as it twisted away from my shot. Them bats have radar you know.
Into the emerging starlight, I pumped and fired, pumped and fired until I couldn’t see them coming anymore. Sometimes, even then I would continue snapshooting at the black flash of their silhouettes against the glowing circle of the moon. But I never got a confirmed kill. Mac, a friend who lived up the big hill, would sometimes join me, and it would be his job to lure the bats in by throwing a small rock up into the air, which the bats would quickly lock on to with their radar. Usually the bat would arc up to the stone, and then follow it down with an arrow-straight swoop, giving my young eye a predictable shot. Mac said his best friend before me, George, had shot one once this way with a single-cock BB gun, but he hadn’t actually seen the bat Dead On the Ground. George said it fell into the woods. I say Bull. That bat is a granddaddy-bat today, I’ll bet you anything.
The Dark House wasn’t like our yellow brick house. The yellow brick house was really big. When Mom wasn’t home you could play WAR with butter-forks in the continental living room. The Dark House across the street was just a plain old red brick color, with only a covered concrete slab for a carport. A lady with no kids lived there once for a while, but we didn’t see her much, only sometimes when she was bringing in her groceries or somethin. But she had a husband who I saw once. He came out one night to watch me shoot at bats. He was an army guy in green clothes. I don’t remember his name- I only talked to him that one time, but he would watch me pull a bead on a tumbling bat and say stuff like “squeeze the trigger slow, keep your eye on him.”
and “Easy does it, boy, don’t jerk the trigger”. He talked to me like I was a horse, but he was a real army guy, I know because he showed me his dog-tags, so I liked him fine. The next-door neighbor’s dad came out and they stood in the middle of the street and talked for a bit under the buzzing blue streetlights. I was tired of pumping the gun for a while, so I sat down on the curb to listen to them talk about helicopters, and how dangerous it is when you turn one upside down. “Once you do that”, the army guy said, “it’s all over.” The army guy crashed his hand in the air and made an explosion noise with his mouth. He was pretty neat. My next-door neighbors dad shook his head and whistled. “That Vietnam is a mess isn’t it?” The army guy didn’t answer. They talked some more about boring stuff, but luckily, right then the bats got thick, and I had conjured up some new ammo that I was eager to try; sewing needles from my Mom’s basket stuck into the end of a matchstick. I think I hit a bat with one of the needles but it’s really hard to tell for sure what with the way they dodge through the air and all. The supply of needles didn’t last long though, so I sat down again and we all listened to the crickets for a while. I guess everyone was done talking. Soon the grown ups shook hands and went inside their houses. “Remember to keep your eyes open and squeeze that trigger!” said the army guy. I didn’t like to be alone out there in the dark, just shootin at bats by myself, so I went in too.
The next morning I found the thing in my yard. It was an 80mm cannon shell, said so right on it. I’m pretty sure the army guy snuck it out there for me, cause who else would have one? In the neighborhood war games, I was the sergeant for the whole day. The bomb was invincible. Surrounded by superior numbers, and out of saltine cracker rations and canteen water, I would lob the round into the middle of my “enemy-friends”, who could only make shooting noises with their mouths. Some of them made some pretty good noises all right, but I had the hardware. It was mutually agreed that the bomb would kill every one but me. The bomb commanded respect. It was like five or twenty pounds when you held it in your hand. It wasn’t very long but it was fat with a cold black tip. Right on it- it said “danger”, and “inert” and other impressive stuff like that in white boxy letters. It looked like the .22 cartridge that I shot in my rifle, only it was humongous! Over and over the crowd of attackers fell to the bomb. But after a while, everybody got tired of me always winning and them always dying, so I had to share the bomb or else they wouldn’t play anymore. Fair is fair, especially if you don’t have a choice.
Later in the afternoon, everyone had gone home, and I was hunting the yard alone with my rifle, I heard the sound of approaching Blue Jays in the tall pines. There was a bunch of ’em from the sound of it, so I froze in my tracks like when I was hunting turkey with my daddy. It was late summer and the birds were stupid for some reason. They fluttered and yelled from one branch to the next. I dropped to the grass and crawled with my .22 to the base of a tall and fat pine tree where I waited for them to come along. The bark of the tree was scaly and charcoal black. It was covered with the golden shells of locusts, from a molt the night before. Their backs were split open from were the locusts had climbed out of their old bodies and moved on. I pinched one off and it crackled like a pork rind. There were hundreds of their shells, which grasped the bark like amber ghosts glowing in the shafted sunlight which filtered through the trees. I smushed a few more and then checked my gear. I had to carry a wire coat hanger with me at all times when I was hunting with the .22. The bb cap ammunition I carried was smaller than normal .22 ammo, and the short cases would not automatically eject from the breech of the gun like they were supposed to. So, a coat hanger had to be broken down into a long rod, and then after each shot, the rod was rammed down the barrel like you do with a musket on TV, pushing the spent case from the receiver. A person familiar with guns will know that sawing a bent wire back and forth through the barrel after every shot is not very good for the spiraled rifling inside, but I could out-shoot anybody with that gun. Any day. It was birds that I shot mostly. Didn’t matter much which kind, although I wisely spared the colorful songbirds when I thought anyone was watching. But mostly, no one was watching.
We had the softest grass in the front yard of the yellow brick house. It was like a carpet, with thin fibers that were soft as moss. I was sittin in that grass, crushing a big black ant with my “iron hand of justice” when five cussin blue jays landed eighty feet up in my tree. They were big Alabama blue jays, jumping from limb to limb and chasing each other around in noisy circles. They wasn’t from Meridian, that’s for sure. They were too stupid. I rolled and pulled the hammer back on my rifle, shouldering for a straight up shot. The birds were really hoppin, so squeezing the trigger like the army guy said wouldn’t work. By the time you got the thing squeezed, the bird would have hopped on to its next perch, and there you’d be, squeezin on air, like a fool. So I did a jerk shot on the first one. That’s where you don’t think much about it, you just do it pretty quick. The jay was shot well in the middle and fell dead weight to the soft grass with a little plop. I knew he was down, and the others hadn’t flown yet, so I broke open the breach and rammed the coat hanger down the barrel. The empty shell fell to the ground and I pushed another one in. My trouble was deciding which one of the bouncing jays to shoot next. The next two shots were misses but it wasn’t my fault, I think the blue jays were mad or something because they were really loud and jumpin around like crazy! But still they didn’t fly. The next shot was a slow killing shot, and the bird fluttered down with a screech of surprise. I didn’t really like it much when that happened, because when you just nicked them, they made funny faces like fish out of water, and made sad sounds that I didn’t like to hear. It was better when they just went ahead and died right away like they were supposed to.
The rest of the birds were jumpin up in the tree like mad, and screaming really loud like Blue jay’s do sometimes. I dug around in my pocket for more ammo, but I only had two rounds left. I took down another bird which reminded me of the upside down helicopter the army guy had talked about as it spun to the ground with quivering outstretched wings. I decided to leave the other two shouting birds up in the tree while I ran for more ammo. If I had left only one bird, he would have probably got lonely just screaming at himself, and flown off somewheres else.
I cradled my gun and took the bushes all the way to my bedroom window, which I used as my private door in the summer- time. I rummaged around for a quick while, and found some more ammo. I could hear the jays were still in the tree as I ducked through the window and into the yard. This time I used a tree-saddle to rest my gun and took the sassiest jay with the first shot. I grated the coat hanger through the barrel and out again, and put another round in the chamber. I grabbed a picture through the rust iron sights and the last bird became suddenly quiet and still, like he finally knew I was there. This time, I squeezed the trigger on him like the army guy said to do, and the shot surprised me, like it happened all by itself. The bird leapt off the branch. At first I thought I had missed him but he came on down dead as a doornail. I guess the shot just surprised him as much as it did me. It made us both jump. That was it. They were all down. As I went out into the soft grass to look at the dead and dying birds, the army guys’ wife was getting into her car. As she drove by, I waved back with my rifle, holding up a dead one for her to see with the other hand. The wife didn’t wave or nothin, she just looked ahead through her dark glasses, with a frown like she hadn’t woke up yet even though it was afternoon. But I liked her anyway. She was pretty, like my mother.
A little while later, me and Mac noticed that there wasn’t any one living there anymore. I never saw any movers or anything, and I never asked anybody. It was like, all of a sudden, there was just nobody home no more. So I don’t know, but no-one else has ever lived in The Dark House that I remember. The last time that I was ever over there it was only to pour gunpowder down a yellow-jacket hole I had found in the yard. I smoked em good and only got stung once.
J H S