A Reliquary for the Guns
There is a violence to it. Holding a gun in your hand. If you think about it too much, inevitably you realize that you have a new power at your disposal. I told my father I didn’t want to learn how to use a gun, that I didn’t condone violence.
He held up his hand to quiet me and placed the cold metal in my palm, reiterating what he had always told me over the years. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.
“Yeah, well, guns sure make it a hell of a lot easier,” I mumbled. Then he gave me that hard look, the one where his eyes narrow and his brow pulled together slightly like there was worry behind the anger. I didn’t make it a habit to use profanities in front of my father, so when I did, I hoped it was enough of an indication that I was displeased.
I suppose he had hoped that I, growing up in a family of hunters who knew the woods better than the roads they drove on, would gain a natural affinity with guns. But I preferred the sturdiness of bows, the work of drawing the string and letting the arrow go with the force you had instilled in it. It only seemed fair that way.
Still, we had driven all the way down to this dilapidated and abandoned house for target practice and he didn’t want to go back with a full magazine. “We’ll just unload a few rounds,” he assured me, “won’t take long.”
My father stood up straight and showed me the gun, a sleek, metal machine that was surprisingly heavy for its size. “It’s a .22 semiautomatic pistol, all you gotta do is aim, line up the rear sight and the front sight, and pull the trigger,” his voice is gruff, stern, a voice I have come to associate with any lessons in life he wished to impart upon me.
I remember looking back at him hesitantly, but he stood erect a few feet away, watching me patiently. It was cold, a late December snow, and I had to shed my gloves so I could cock the gun properly. I aimed at one of the few windows still standing and did what we came out there to do. I pulled the trigger and my ears began to ring.
When my sister moved into our home to live with us when I was ten, her belly was large and round. She laid claim to the entire basement as her new home and I became infatuated with the concept that this woman who I had met only once before when I was four years old would be my new friend. It didn’t take me long to realize that, as she was already five months along in her pregnancy, the last thing on her mind would be her little sister, sixteen years younger than herself.
Some evenings she would sit with me in my room, watching my television, as she couldn’t afford her own. One night, up later than usual, she was finishing off some Neapolitan ice cream while sitting and moaning on my wooden floor. Together, we watched one of her favorite reality cop shows, one where the criminal’s faces were blurred and there was a lot of yelling and censoring of curse words. She leaned her head against my bed and I touched her hair, softer and straighter than my own. She smelled like warm vanilla coffee. I wondered often if I would look like her when I grew up.
“Melissa,” I asked pensively, “when is the baby going to be born?”
She sighed and rubbed her temples, something she had done continually that past week. “In February sweetie.”
“When is Justin going to get out?” the “Justin” who I had referred to was the baby daddy, and at that time, in prison.
“Hopefully by May,” she answered.
“But he won’t see the baby being born.”
“That’s what happens when you hold up a store, honey. You get in trouble.”
A “hold up”, a term that had been added to my vocabulary since her arrival. “Did he have a gun?” I asked because I didn’t know what else to ask. I wanted to talk to my sister, to have something in common with her. But I didn’t know how to bridge that gap. Not with sixteen years in the way.
“Yes. But it wasn’t loaded.”
“What does ‘loaded’ mean?”
“Goodnight, Cheyenne.” It took her a while to stand up, and she had to call our mother in to help her. Together, they left me to sleep, turning off the lights on their way out.
It was called the acute stress response, or more commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. For an animal, and humans for that matter, to escape required intense muscular effort, supported by all of the body’s systems, and it was the sympathetic nervous system’s activation that provided for these needs. Dad explained that animals that have experienced a trauma, such as escaping a near-death situation, will lie down somewhere and shake until the fear and adrenaline leaves them. Then, they go about their business as if it never happened.
The winter of 2011 marked the end of a family friend’s life. We knew that Kyle had been depressed for a long time, but it must have been the hope of the family that instilled a certain faith in him when he came back from rehab. He looked better, and it seemed he felt that way as well.
On a Sunday, he told his girlfriend he was going into town to pick up some groceries. He drove into the woods and parked, called the police and told them where to find his body, picked up the rifle that had sat next to him in the passenger’s seat and shot himself through the heart.
I wondered about this often; why hadn’t he shot himself through his head? Was it easier for him to place the rifle against the dashboard and pull the trigger? Or did he place it in between his legs and lean into the barrel? I couldn’t picture it. I couldn’t imagine how he killed himself. I couldn’t ask.
“I’m getting Mom a white handgun for her birthday,” Cody, my older brother, said this as he stocked up on a bowl of soup, a bowl of ramen, and chips. I wasn’t sure what to say; how does one typically respond to the knowledge that their parent is going to be receiving a weapon?
“Cool, what kind?” though I was not actually interested in knowing what type of gun my mother was going to get, I asked, because my brother seldom started a conversation with me. Like my sister, we have a great age difference, however the difference between my brother and I is only eight years. Still, it is enough of a difference that though we live in the same house, I only catch glimpses of him as he leaves and comes home from work.
He explained that the gun he was going to get her was a white “Hedy Jane” Double Tap, 9 millimeter; a pocket pistol. Though I could hardly follow his terminology, I couldn’t help but feel closer to him as he explained with such detail and passion the workings of this gun. When he finished his long speech, he gained a look of weariness and gazed at the kitchen counter, a place where our infrequent conversations usually took place. I didn’t know what else to say, to keep him there with me, to hear my brother say something when almost always his silence loomed over us.
“That’s going to be a great present. I’m sure Mom will love it.”
“Yup,” was all he left me with before grabbing his food and returning to his room. My brother and father had the same way of silence about them; only my father’s was a considerate silence, one to take in his surroundings. My brother’s was a tired silence, as though he were always thinking of something else, frustrated with the lack of movement in this life of his. His frustrations were no secret. Displaced anger and ire would direct itself toward our mother and father, for what he could not explain to himself, for what he could not say to others. But I understood more than he thought. There were many things I could not explain, many things I could not say.
Never point a gun at anything unless you intend to kill it, my father scolded me as I swung around an empty BB gun. I had taken it from my brother’s room, curious about the heaviness that it expressed in my hands.
“It’s empty Dad. I can’t hurt anything,” I tried to say, but he quickly rushed to explain. Then, he paused, looked at me sadly, shook his head, and walked away.
It’s a strange feeling, standing there frozen. The ringing is never as bad as those who have shot a gun before claim it is. I was stuck knee-deep in the snow listening to that melodic ring that gradually faded away as my father began to praise me, told me that I did a good job. I looked to see the damage I had done, only to discover that it was merely a tiny hole in the glass, barely discernable from the other cracks and holes that had already been made.
My father continued on, explaining something about aiming to me, but I just watched the glass, expecting it to fall to pieces.
But it sat firmly in place, unmoving. For all the abuse and wear that this house, that window, had seen over the years, I was nothing but another mark, another story to be told.
The pines above us retained the snow of a terrible blizzard earlier that month, and they drooped dangerously toward the rotting wood that made up what I supposed to be the side of the house. The trees were more likely to crush this place than I was.
“Cheyenne,” my father said firmly. I gave him back his gun with haste, the weight of the cold metal more recognizable to me after having shot. It was that feeling, that moment of weightlessness, when the world between the barrel and your target seems infinite, until the bullet you shot has landed somewhere. Somewhere in that space.
When I was younger, I was told never to venture out to this house by myself. It was about a mile from our land, and this place, off the edge of a steep slope, was a popular location for drunken parties to transpire. When the snow melted, the garbage of wild nights resurfaced, from things like beer cans to paper plates.
When I was seven, I did what I was told not to do. I came to the house in the heat of August, and I walked around, amazed and fascinated by this building that leaned so far to the left, like a great wind had knocked the foundation sideways. I picked around for a while, finding small insignificant things like the leg of a wooden chair and a broken plate that I gathered wasn’t worth much.
Then, around the campfire pit, I discovered four gleaming shell casings, hardly dirty. They were fresh, and when I picked one up, I half expected it to still be warm. I don’t know how long I stood there examining them, but when I heard the first shot, time was lost and I felt my blood run cold. It echoed far off, and it was a familiar enough sound to me. But it was not hunting season. That was not the shot of a hunter.
I dropped the casings and I ran home as quickly as I could, the shot of that gun only going off once more before I finally reached our land. I made it into our backyard but I still ran all the way to the back door and into the house. I called for my mother, for my father, but neither of them was there. They were both working at this time of day. I didn’t bother to search for my brother.
So I went back to my room and I lay on my bed, shoving my face in my pillow. I couldn’t understand it, but I shivered for a long time. I didn’t cry, I didn’t wonder, I didn’t think; I just shook.