It was early spring and the winter had been another long one.
Still outnumbered were the days of thaw, when the sun scarcely shone through the nearly impermeable grey to make the corral thick and pliable enough for the heavily-coated ponies to trudge hoof-prints into the half-frozen peaks of ice melting and earth reanimating.
Still limited was the inclination to be out of doors where snow piles and mud patches crushed your will to wander or play.
Trying to escape their own gray environs, Gina, Mary and Bill had arrived and we were all hanging out in the kid’s TV room upstairs, twitching and giggling and getting riled by the one who usually instigated the unpredictable free-for-alls in the family.
Jim… of course.
But this time, instead of hanging around to help control the building chaos, Jim left his younger siblings and cousins to deal with the consequences – the most important of which was that Mark was wound-up and dangerously near the one thing in the room (besides Mark) Jim should have taken with him: his Benjamin Air Rifle.
Jim had gotten the rifle for Christmas (Dad never liked the idea of the eight-pump, .177 caliber pellet gun, but Mom’s Missouri farm roots made her believe that it was every boy’s initiation into manhood.) and had been target practicing with it that morning.
In his defense, Jim had never shot a living thing – mostly targets, trees and tin cans.
Yet he got an enormous amount of satisfaction occasionally turning its site on siblings and cousins for the sheer satisfaction of watching their faces; which is likely where Mark got the idea when he picked up the air rifle and aimed it across the room at Gina, sitting on the sofa.
“Don’t point that at anyone!”
“Cut it out, Mark!”
“That’s not funny,” various family members shouted.
But Mark got that certain look in his eyes which told us he’d stopped listening and before anyone knew it, he’d pressed the trigger and discharged what he thought was only air pumped into the chamber.
Gina, already curled into a defensive ball and grabbing her knees, was hit. The lead pellet grazed her jeans, ripping a small hole, and tearing the skin on the back of her left thigh, already bruising when we gathered around to inspect the wound.
Everyone – including Mark – was stunned into silence.
Gina’s eyes grew wide and wild.
“You little fucker! You shot me!”
We looked to Mark for an explanation, but he was off.
Like a shot.
Out of the room, down the back stairs, and out the door.
It took mere moments to form an angry mob (Led by Jim who had returned to the scene to investigate all the ruckus.) which immediately went in search of the lone shooter, now taking refuge somewhere in the damp, barren woods surrounding our house.
As morbidly curious onlookers, we followed Jim around the backyard and back woods, looking for a spark of tell-tale color among the sullen, gray tree trunks.
Then something turned.
It was Jim’s allegiances.
Lord of the Flies, my ass.
Suddenly, we were all in his sights and half-heartedly running for our lives.
Finding a safe spot from Jim’s line of vision, I watched from the barn stalls when Jim spotted Mark weaving through the trees and across the frozen patches of slippery leaves in the back circle by the cottage.
He was trying to make a break for the large stretch of trees just across the driveway.
From there, it was certain he could outmaneuver Jim through the woods to safety.
The problem was the ten foot stretch of open pavement – twelve to the nearest tree.
Jim gave the rifle an extra pump and took aim at the small figure now bounding across the ice-patched asphalt, and with one very well-aimed shot…
He hit his mark.
And like a plastic carnival duck floating atop a painted carnival pond, Mark was knocked flat.
To this day, Jim swears he heard a “plink” when the pellet made contact and insists it was meant to be a “warning” shot.
As all games were officially over at the first sign of blood, and with no carnival prize in sight, Mark limped toward the garage where everyone once again gathered to examine yet another wound.
He pulled down his sock, now filling with blood.
Mom was soon on the scene and without a peep from the now subdued mob, she shook her head calmly and said: “Jim, what have you done to your little brother this time?”
Clearly indicating the long history of Jim’s sometimes overzealous rough-housing where Mark ended up with stitches and bruises, and Mom ended up with a friendly visit from social services.
She brought him into the kitchen (with everyone following close behind), sat him on the countertop and cleaned and examined the wound, declaring the pellet must have skimmed the surface of his skin (just like Gina’s had, but we chose not to mention).
Satisfied with Mom’s answer, the hunter and all those hunted walked – and limped – away.
It was over forty years later, when Mark was having x-rays taken for an orthopedic shoe insert, that he discovered the truth.
Entering the room and with a strange look on his face, Mark’s doctor hung the newly taken x-ray on the lightbox and pointed to a dark spot behind his left ankle.
“This is a metal object,” he said incredulously, “… and it looks like a bullet.”
They both stared at the very clear, small, rounded object appearing on the film.
“No, that can’t be right,” Mark insisted. “There must be a glitch on your x-ray machine.”
But the doctor assured Mark that the object was no glitch.
“Do you happen to know how it got there?” the doctor asked, now looking a little sideways at Mark.
At first, Mark had no recollection of the event, but as he stared at the small metal object now imbedded in his achilles tendon, it all came flooding back to him and before he left the parking lot of the doctor’s office, he sent out a reminder to us all.
And even though the details of the day took some time – and several conflicting memories to sort through – it was like many of the memories I have of growing up with my family – profound and within close range.