I remember during those Vietnam years how a lot of things had become easy that had been a problem before. In most particular, it was about this hardware store owner down in Georgia, the one who did the My Lai thing, that I kept dreaming about because his partner had bunked next to me for a while. Even still, then it was easier to call murder by names other than what it really was, which everybody knows. Actually, though, when you think about it, not at all a lot different from what they do now: collateral damage, or neutralization, or pacification, or justified incursions. Or the all four together and no one would be any the wiser.
I try not to be seduced by it all. But sometimes fail. And that goes without saying.
But even still, if you had decided to talk about all the killing before anyone knew it needed to be talked about, the phrase “a jack rabbit” would have been as good a name as any. Sometimes you can decide to call a thing whatever you want. It doesn’t much matter. Only thing is, it depends on what you’re driving at. According to the new system, there’s really no problem, I suppose, in confusing jack rabbits with people. Not when all you intend to do is kill the thing anyway.
So let’s call it a straight-tall jack rabbit, standing just off the perimeter, erect and wooden. Every evening you could count on several of them showing up. Easy to hit. I remember one in particular standing maybe a hundred yards off, iconic and contemplative—a deadsure hit. Something like that doesn’t take much thought, not at least in the ordinary way of thinking. The only requirements are a suspiration of easy breath and all your senses drawn down to a tight eloquent point like the deft stroke you take on a cue ball, no English, just solid and straight off the tip of the stick.
One fellow from Oklahoma in particular—but almost all the marksmen were from Oklahoma where I was stationed, incarcerated, detained—he moved like smooth warm glass just before it sets up, with that overconfidence of toowise country people. He spent his entire watch up in the tower peering indolently across the line that separated us, out across and beyond our embattled compound. He ate lunch quietly up in his tower, a sandwich and a jug of tea, or what looked like tea, every day. Slow and studied chewing followed by a careful pause, then a drink of tea. And then when he’d finished he’d chew tobacco, great brown clots of it like mats of oily hair.
We (and I use the collective with some hesitation) had controlled the ground long enough by then to build fences and high towers. That in itself is something, to get that done even in the face of a great deal of political turmoil and uncertainty, or perhaps that’s why it happened so easily. It’s hard to tell about politics. But we’d gotten it up in the interests of seeing that a sort of democratic justice was possible. It was a double curtain of chain link separated by a narrow gravel walkway with the towers—high, white, wooden, slowtapering solid pyramids. They interrupted the otherwise smooth run of the path every two or three hundred yards. The fences were laced together at the top with concertina wire.
He never listened to radio like the others in the other towers. There was nothing but him and his relaxed steady eyes as they went searching out beyond the perimeter, playing out in wide arcs like silent, conning beacons. He knew their travel patterns. He was always the first to pick them up when they moved within range and he tracked them within an imaginary, interlocking, coordinate gridwork—the way a chess board must be watched, not as the mere accumulation of discrete locations, additive and single, but as an organic pattern, every piece in constant shifting definition against all the others—angle, declination, abscissa, ordinate.
He’d wait all day to pick the right one up in the crosshairs and wait for me to come sit out not far from where he was picketed. His movements would assume a slow, deliberate melodrama, particularly when I’d bring a new guy with me so he could see the practical side of things, the way business was conducted out there on what had come to be called Country Club Road.
After we’d get seated (he never looked back, never formally recognized us until he’d finished), he’d open the breech and snick a shell into the chamber. They had to be hollowpoint and softjacketed because of the way they would break open and tear out a chunk of ragged meat when they hit and he had to have brought them in himself. Ever since Geneva only fullmetal jackets were allowed. After you watched him on several occasions you learned to see part of what he saw. With a pair of field glasses you learned how to pick them out against the sparse greenery or the dry dirt or long shadows.
And you’d watch while he got ready. It took him a while, not because they were scarce and you had to wait for one to show up, but because of time itself, the very nature of the time all our lives had intersected. There seemed to be a superabundance of time, because you’d come here to die anyway and it seemed essential to move with studied indifference. Time grows entirely superfluous in those circumstances. And at the end of that road on the advance guard of a war zone the way we were, everything was fortuitous time and circumstance—the unforeseen and unnoticed collocation of hours and actions at the end of a dirt road. We knew clearly that with rabbits as well as men, sometimes you’d just roll over dead and one or two comrades would be left to puke last unction over your entrails, or you’d wake up alone to a sound, sometimes just for a moment, just before your destiny slid into your belly in the form of a hot steel knife.
But the main reason for his waiting was not so much to eat up time in raw unthinking consumption, but rather to effect an entirely elegant kill, like an aesthete sets down a quick, single strophe of endstopped rhyme, sure and haughty. The important part was that it be an act of free choice, or seeming free choice. Just so long as it had as much as possible the appearance of being an act of indifferent will.
Choice mattered most to us then. In his case it was always when the sun was low and red and the substance of the scorched brush had been doubled by long, sad shadows. When the wind had stopped. When it was as quiet as it was going to get during daylight.
And even if you were tracking along with him, along where the barrel pointed, the chances were good you’d lose the mark after he was hit. But you could hear the crying if you were quiet enough and the wind had stopped. But it was only the pain of a dying animal, so we didn’t often bother to listen it was so faint. Sometimes when you were too quiet and just empty enough, you couldn’t be sure if it was you or a rabbit that was crying. Empty enough so that it didn’t matter. In the beginning when everybody’d picked him up, locked onto him, he’d be sitting out there like a deathstill, silent master of time and light, still as the shadows—half light, half shade—a line cutting straight down the axis of his belly.
And then he’d lean down when it was time, like a strong lover along the stock and steel rail of the barrel, his cheek intimate and soft against the walnut, dark with palm oil. Then, his eye dead center in the scope’s glass, he’d rest there waiting like cold still white death for the precise moment—for all of light and sound and everything of touch and mind to fall together like three twos and a wild card. Just the way someone does when they know for sure they’ve won even before all the cards have hit the table. They slap them down saying all in one motion, “Goddamn.” When he pulled that steeltongued solenoid it cracked out like a short, sharp apocalypse driving everything back again to unconstituted, elemental bone and dust and stone.
It was broken up into acts. It seemed after a few weeks we’d designed it together. The state the producer. Me the director. Him the lead. Set, blocking, lines, all of it controlled, finely controlled, especially after reefer. He performed it. I, the impresario, provided an audience. All institutions have opening spectacles, initiation rites, orientations and briefings to call you to order, make you situate, demonstrate who, without recourse, you are in context. Ours was shooting in the sunset. He did the killing. I watched. Me and a new guy usually, so he’d know what it was like doing business out in the country.
It was regular and very orderly. Right after mess, I’d walk out into the yard, me and the right guy who’d come in that day from Pennsylvania or Vermont or Arkansas, or from just moving around crosscountry from compound to compound. We’d walk out there to where the tower was. I’d start off like it was an aimless stroll, just rolling up a smoke for sunset, the two of us walking as if there were no bounds to time, breathing the soft blue smoke. But I’d be watching for him without appearing to. He seemed to know precisely when we would come around the brick corner out of the compound and enter the broad field circumscribed by the doublefenced perimeter. When he saw us he’d turn away or just glide his eyes a few degrees back out toward where they’d be coming in. He knew precisely how long it would take for us to get seated and smoked up and find in the glasses what he was already locked onto looking down the bluesteel spine of his rifle.
I’d lift my field glasses and look for a while, then hand them to the new guy. “Take a look.” And I’d wait for a few seconds. I’d say, “You see it?” Then a pause. “Right where the barrel’s pointing. Dead off the end of it.” He’d look up to the tower then and get a line of sight and then go back to the glasses.
Then he’d see. “Jesus Christ! Look at that bastard. I can’t believe he’s sitting there. Why doesn’t he move?”
I’d say, “Thinks he’s invisible, I guess. Watch.”
“Is he gonna move?”
I’d say, “Nope...just before he does...well, watch...he’ll move soon enough.”
Then there was the snick sound when he loaded in the hollowpoint, but only he and I would hear that and know what it was. I’d say, “Hear that?” We would be whispering by then, no louder than the slow indraw of breath, his under the field glasses, mine into the crotch of my palms cupped steady beneath my chin.
“What was that?”
“Copperjacket, hollowpoint. But it’s coming back out,” I’d say.
And it would rush out like a thin rod of time converted to straight hard light and run square and hard into the center of whatever it might find. It would come spinning out of the hard rifled bore, but before you heard it he was running as if on cue, running in a tight circle, kicking up dust and sand, trying to stay alive just a while longer. His leg, or really just ragged meat, trailing bloody and useless, him spinning in a circle, the other good one working at least twice as fast as it ordinarily would, making up for the dead other one. The new guy would more than likely start to drop his glasses by then. “What the hell’s he doing?”
And he’d spin out there for a while but not long because then another shot would rive his skull open, not having anything at all to do with mercy, but just to blow it up like a balloon with its impact and then watch it explode, like that Eugene Smith photo of a Spanish Nationalist, and then out the other side with its repercussed gore. He’d fall over dead then. You kept watching for a while longer until you knew he had to be looking down at you and you’d look up at the tower and there he was smiling, the side of his mouth blown out the size of a hickory nut. He’d then just very slightly nod his head back out across the fence, just feint that way with dry Oklahoma humor and say, after jetting a long, brown stream of venom at the base of the tower, “You know, if one or the other of you was to get across there,” then he’d nod down towards the gravel dogrun between the fences, “if one of yousta git out,” and then nod back to that still shivering lump of death bleeding its last breath in the dirt, where it had spun around until it stopped, “if you wasta somehow get across there, I’d get a carton of Camels if I could bring you down like I did that jackass rabbit out there. That’s a local ordinance. Bet you didn’t know that, pretty boys.” He’d grin and spit again and start nodding his head slowly and say, “And I’d get me them Camels, sho.”
And say that in three or four different ways using “sho” every time and grinning. That was a custom of the country observed always in the breach.
Sometimes late at night I get a fever. It starts small, the thought. I see it first, behind my eyelids and it warms just them at first, but then, sparked by the autonomous reworking of my imagination, bursts, before I know it into a high flame, like now, and begins burning up my brain, white-hot and will not go away and let me rest. So now I must get up again before the pills work so I’ll have time to tell or try and tell it before I can’t talk anymore. I am never sure when or even if ever, the words will come back—today or tonight or tomorrow or never. I want to believe it was a dream. I’m sure it was.
Yesterday, pretending the part of a Roman centurion acting on the ritual orders of a proud, fatuous superior, I set about, only under duress and coercion of his commands, set out to kill the earth, but only in a symbolic way. I have a work bench under an oak tree that keeps my tools. I went out to it and got an iron pin and a five-pound maul. Just the things we’d used to stake off the corners of the place when we measured them out with transit and tape. I’ve been listening to the coyotes for the last few nights and finally decided to get a good look at them. I live back in the country now. As deep out as I’ve been able to get so that in the late evening when the sun’s low and the trees are all shadow-doubled and it’s quiet except for the burring and cricking of everything that hasn’t died for the year, I can go for a walk without worrying about answering questions.
Before I go out, I go to my grandfather’s old trunk he brought back from the Marne. I open it and stare. His Purple Heart’s in a Chesterfield tin. Beside it is a whiskey flask covered with old, soft, dark cowhide he bought in Forrest City. I fill it up and pin on the heart. Then I go out to the rabbit pen. I raise a few now, small ones, and I take one and cut off his leg. Not wantonly, mind you, not for mere cruelty or curiosity, but for what I consider a deeper purpose. There’s a cleaver hanging on a tree out by the pen. I keep it sharp so it goes through bone and all very quickly. I wrap the rabbit up in burlap to stanch the blood flow and to spread out the radiating surface because it has an odor. Then I go out walking across the open field that starts just off the edge of the porch in the trough the rain has worn coming down off the roof.
About a hundred yards out I’ve driven an iron pin in the ground. I’ve hooked a braided cable across it and bent the top of the pin over so it can spin freely and not come off. Then I tether the wounded rabbit to it. I run a sharp hook through his haunch and lash him out there and walk back to the house.
I get back up on the porch with my Carcassi-Manlicher. It’s got a night scope and I wait for the sky to get night black. I light a cigar and wait. I sip whiskey from the flask until you can hear them coming in through the leaves. Blowing through like smoke. Like jackals of the dew or spirits sent to do murder, the coyotes form around my wounded rabbit. They don’t play for long. One of them is soon on him tearing at his entrails and holding just still enough for me to crucifix him in my scope. I don’t wait. I bring him down right through the head.
It takes two or three days for the crows and possums and flies to clean it all up.
I wonder what it would have been like to be a real warrior. But it’s quiet in the country, quiet as thinking and the glass-green air can make it, and I’d not want to leave here for a war.
R. Mullin, as a result of having courageously served his country in opposition to one of its too
numerous wars, is a fully-accredited PNRFIC, that is to say a Proud Non-Recidivist Formerly
Incarcerated Citizen. He is a Mississippi writer laboring assiduously under all of the grave
disabilities these conditions entail.