Shaun Turner

The Blue Heron


            On the morning Rolly Mink shot the blue heron, the sky was the color of dust, low and dark and gray, and fog pooled like smoke across the ridges of the land near his Papaw Rawling's farm. It was the first day of gun-hunting season, and Rolly planned on trying out the Buckstalker, a gift from his parents.

            For Rolly Mink's fourteenth birthday earlier that summer, his mom and dad invited all the close family to their farmhouse, and everyone crowded around him in their living room. He opened up his presents and was about to go outside and try out his new basketball hoop when his mom brought the last package into the living room—his surprise.

            His father must have relented. He'd been making hints for months, taping pictures to his wall and reading off a list of its specs that he found online. The box was green, long and thin. Rolly ripped right into the side, straight through the cardboard to the Buckstalker.

            His rifle was cool and black, the grip pressed into a quilted pattern, the muzzle shiny. Its scope was round and perfect and had a clear lens. Rolly took three pictures with the gun slung over his shoulder—uploaded them to Facebook with his mom's iPhone. Then, his dad brought in the cake. And they dimmed the lights and sang “Happy Birthday."

            The entire time, his Papaw Rawling stood in the corner with his arms crossed.  His papaw's muzzleloaders were heavy and burled from wood, and Rolly liked them a little better, though the only sight they had was a small, perfect chip cut into an edge of iron or steel.

            Later, underneath the oak trees in Rolly's yard, his papaw said that the Buckstalker was made of an alloy. Rolly didn't know what that meant exactly but by the sound of his papaw's voice, he had figured it wasn't a good thing. The Buckstalker felt light in his hands.

            Ever since Rolly could remember, Papaw Rawling had taken him hunting, whether it be for deer on the back acres, or for wild turkeys in Western Kentucky, which was flat and swampy and wholly unlike their land in the eastern Kentucky foothills.

            Throughout his Papaw Rawling's and Memaw Pat's house, trophies of his papaw's conquests hung idle on maple display crests. Seven deer heads alone—all eight-pointers or more—mounted in a line around the living room, their hooves faced down as if they were shackled. A row of stuffed quail—three chicks and their fat mother—were stuffed and fixed to a board that ran along the buffet table in their dining room.

            Rolly never understood the sport in hunting something so small, so delicate.

            Rawling Mink, Sr. was a man of many trades—bus driver, used-car salesman, county magistrate. Rolly's memaw told stories of when they were young and newly-married, how Rawling loaded her up and took her on a honeymoon vacation to the Colorado Rockies.

            She said they spent three days in a little red tent. She had cooked beans-and-weenies in a blue enamel pot over an open fire. His papaw had taken snapshots with on old Polaroid Sun, had often disappeared into the woods to stalk a Bighorn sheep because he wanted its wide horns.

            Rolly's memaw showed him the pictures. In black-and-white, she said, she was as pretty as Elizabeth Taylor.

            After his birthday party, he carried the Buckstalker behind his memaw and papaw's house and shot clean holes into dozens of cans and plastic bottles that he lined up on an old hay bale.

            The front lawn was dirt and shallow-rooted trees, covered in a stretching canopy of thorny vines and the little leaf briars with their drooping brown heads and the fern-like leaves that folded closed when he touched them. In spring, the briars had stood straight and tall, the flowers blue and purple. But in the summer and fall, the vines piled on to each other and hung from tree to tree to old electrical post. The briars snaked across the yard, onto and over the Patch house's porch. 

            A couple acres behind the farm sat an old, grown-up house in the middle of a thicket of briars. Years ago, before the white wood siding had peeled and grayed, Rolly's 80-year-old third  cousin Patch and his wife had lived there. Beyond the ruined windows, there were once living rooms, bedrooms, a kitchen.

            Ever since he was a kid, he wondered what kind of treasure was inside the Patch house—old books left behind, a hornet's nest. His Papaw Rawling once told him that Patch used to keep ten shiny gold coins in a small wooden box. Rolly wondered if they were still there.

            His Memaw Pat had always told him never to go near the house. She said snakes lived in the tall grass in the back yard, said that the place should be torn down.

            After shooting holes into the beer cans and tucking his Buckstalker into its holster, Rolly walked down the access road to the river, covered by its speckled canopy of greens and browns and grays, hoping to get inside the old Patch house. He always kept his Papaw Rawling's old Barlow case knife with him, often palmed its smooth wooden body, as if he were about to spring to attack.

            The front lawn was dirt and shallow-rooted trees, covered in a stretching canopy of thorny vines and the little leaf briars with their drooping brown heads and the fern-like leaves that folded closed when he touched them. In spring, the briars had stood straight and tall, the flowers blue and purple. But in the summer and fall, the vines piled on to each other and hung from tree to tree to old electrical post. The briars snaked across the yard, onto and over the Patch house's porch.

            Rolly slashed at the brambles with its slick blade until he had made a path to the door. The porch was as old as the house, rotting out in the places where it sank into the dirt. Rolly took step after careful step, reached for the door-handle only to find it locked. Jagged shards of glass glinted in the high windows, and Rolly didn't want to risk cutting his hand just to get inside.

            Rolly could have bashed the door in, but instead, he decided to ask his dad if he could get someone to unlock it. He walked away from the porch and yard as carefully as he entered, the Barlow knife clasped in his fist like a talisman.

            In September, Rolly went hunting by himself for the first time, testing his skill before his folks allowed him out with the gun alone, just using his bow and sixteen carbon-tipped arrows. Rolly's papaw and his cousin Patch had built several tree stands in their patches of woods, on both sides of the access road a couple hundred feet past the Patch house, closer to the river, where the waving wild grass and alfalfa broke into the final acres of blue ash trees and river birch.

            Rolly perched in his favorite hunting stand, killed his fourth deer, a doe. He dragged it up the steep hill on a tarp, half-a-mile or more back to the main road, and used his great-uncle's four-wheeler to get it home.

            His Papaw Rawling took the deer to an old Mennonite man named Doug Rupp, who broke the deermeat down into tubes of summer sausage and butcher-paper packages of deer loin and deersteak. For twenty dollars extra, Doug Rupp would save a buck's head and hooves for mounting.

            Rolly heard his papaw say that Doug fed the doe's head to his dogs.

            On the first day of gun-hunting season, Rolly planned on trying out the Buckstalker . He woke up early, hours before dawn. He didn’t use an alarm. He dressed himself in camouflage and an orange hunter's vest.

            His house was about half a mile uproad from the river, and the Patch house was closer down—their acreage stretched all the way downhill to the scrubby forests near the banks of the Rockcastle. Rolly wanted to get there while it was still dark, when the deer could still be grazing on the wild alfalfa that grew on the fields near the river.

            In the glow of the open refrigerator, Rolly loaded his backpack with his various things—a blue tarp, the trail mix he had made with his mom the night before, a canteen full of cold water, several matches in an aluminum waterproof tube.

            Out in his dad's garage, he cleaned his gun underneath the dim spread of his father's hanging workbench light, fixed a cleaning patch to the end of a ramrod and ran the patch up and down the full length of the barrel, over and over again. Rolly took a wire brush from the pegboard to clean and dry the bore, like his Papaw Rawling had shown him.

            He held the gun in his hands tenderly, patted it into the camouflage nylon rifle holster his Memaw Pat sewed up for him. He unzipped another pocket, slid in an orange plastic box of .50 caliber bullets and some cough drops. He tucked two plastic bags of salty deer jerky into the side-slung leather pouch he had made at 4H Camp that summer.

            Rolly used his house key to lock the aluminum side door behind him. Then he walked down his driveway and turned left next to the main road that wound itself into a loop around their little community and connected back at the main highway. Grass clippings stuck to his boots as he maintained a steady pace toward the river access road.

            Since it was still early morning and the sun hadn't risen, the river access road was dark and quiet, covered in a thickness of fog. All Rolly could see was the patchy gravel that curved a narrow route in front of him, neatly bisecting the Mink and Patch properties. He was too far away to hear the river.

            Rolly walked past the hazy silhouette of the Patch house with its twisted build-up of briars, but he stopped in his tracks when he heard the loud and piercing cries, raw and ragged as a buzzsaw.

            When Rolly was eight, he had walked down to the river with his cousin Emily, who was sixteen and tall and smart. Her papaw—Rolly's great-uncle—gave her one of his birch walking sticks, and she paused to lean against it while Rolly picked up bottles and cans from the ditchline.

            “We can take these in to town and turn them in for money,” she told him. “I'll buy you some candy, and I might have enough left to go to the movies on Saturday night.”

            They were almost to the river, a quarter of a mile past where the grassland gave way to trees and ponds of brown water sat in quiet pools when Emily whispered to him, “Quiet, now, Rolly. Quiet. Look.”

            She motioned to their right, where a long tall bird with a blue and white head perched in a little pond. 

            “That's a whooping crane,” he had said, his voice small and full of wonder.

            “No, whooping cranes don't have that crest,” she said. “That there is a great blue heron. But you can call it what you like.”

            “It's beautiful,” he said.

            Then the tall bird had stretched his wings and flown away, calling.

            “He's saying, 'right, right, right,' Emily,” he had said.

            As soon as Rolly Mink heard the shrieking sound that came from the Patch house, he shed his backpack, the leather pouch, and discarded them on the edge of the overgrown yard. He pulled his Barlow knife out of his pants pocket and into his hand. He left the Buckstalker in its nylon holster.

            Recent autumn rains had turned the dirt lawn into a slick lot of mud, and the morning fog off the river made for slow and careful movement. Much of the path that he had cut to the porch still remained from the summer, so he followed it to the house, pausing to step over a new vine or to hack at one that hung ahead of him. The closer Rolly moved to the porch, the more the cries sounded like screams, angry and raw in a way that made the back of his throat itch.

            The front door of the Patch house was still locked tight. His father told him that only Aunt Sadie had the key. To the right and left of the front door were tall-set windows. One was boarded up, nailed to the wooden siding. The other was broken—vines wrapped through the broken glass.

            The animal yells grew louder, more frenzied. Rolly pulled the Buckstalker out of its holster and drove the butt of the gun into the window, spraying the insides of the Patch house with tiny shards of glass. He re-holstered his rifle, then lifted one leg over the sill, then another. He felt a piece of glass stick his leg. Felt the wet of blood above the back of his knee.

            Inside the house was foggy, too—dim, and littered with debris and vines. The front porch opened into a living room with a crumbling brick fireplace, the walls cracked plaster and wooden slats and newspaper insulation. The floor was brown with vines and decay, and Rolly walked carefully on the balls of his feet, pausing slightly to test the firmness of the path in front of him.

            To his right, a hallway led to the back of the first floor. He presumed, to the dining room and kitchen. To his left was a narrow staircase where morning light barely peeked in from the wooden slats of the outside wall.

            The screams came from directly above him, so he walked left. The stairs led both up and down, a small landing that connected the main floor with the basement and the second floor. The treads were thin and tall, and his ankles scraped against the narrow, blade-like steps that drooped in the middle. A bannister sat discarded alongside the stairs, covered in thorny vines.

            At the top of the stairs, light and fog streamed in from a large hole in the roof. The second floor of the Patch house felt the most unstable, like a rocking boat, the swath of vines and briars around and inside the house unstable as sea water.

            On the morning Rolly Mink shot the blue heron, the sky was the color of dust, low and dark and gray, and fog pooled like smoke across the ridges of the land behind his grandparents' house and into the the top floor of the Patch house. Rolly Mink could hear the screams, could see the outline of a slender figure trapped by vines. One wing spread in the fog about three feet long, about the size of his gun. The other hung unnatural.

            Rolly stepped out from the eaves, where he could get a closer look at the bird's mask face. It was long and tall with a blue and white head and Rolly listened to the screams of this bird whose wingspan was two feet longer than his entire body.

            Rolly was afraid to get too close to the thing. His Papaw Rawling always told him that dying animals are the most dangerous. Rolly heard the rustle and flapping, saw the outline of the bird struggling and flapping, a vine wrapped around one of its talon feet and tendon legs. One wing torn bloody, ripped so bad that Rolly wondered how it even stayed on.

            He took the rifle from its holster, and used his scope to draw a bead on the heron's delicate face, its paper throat. On the morning he had planned to be his first lone gun hunt, his first lone buck, Rolly Mink saw the sky through the old roof of the Patch house, hanging low and cloudy, and he understood something his papaw never told him, that sometimes life is quick and gray and cruel. Rolly sighted along the barrel, his finger shaking on the trigger.


Shaun Turner is the author of a chapbook of short fiction, The Lawless River (Red Bird Chapbooks 2016), and editor at Fire Poetry. His writing can be found at Stirring: A Literary Collection, Connotation Press, Tin House’s “Flash Fridays,” and Permafrost Magazine, among others. He earned his MFA at West Virginia University. 


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