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Deleted Chapter from A Beckoning War

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His brother’s face, black and white, beckoned from the lamp table beside the chair in the parlour in which he sat. His brother in his RCAF uniform, handsome and trim and proud, a slight close-mouthed smile on his boyish matinee idol's face. The face of a self-confident and callow young man. Mark was now in flight training at the base in Trenton, north of Toronto, training to fly Wellington bombers. His last letter was filled with tales of adventure and misadventure, most related to alcohol. He glanced at the picture and saw Mark fifteen years younger, his features softened into those of a child, a boy of nine, in the bushes behind the family cottage on Ramsey Lake, just out of the urban reaches of Sudbury. The two of them were carrying mail-order BB guns, with the hope of shooting robins and sparrows, BB guns ordered from the back of one of Mom’s magazines full of detective stories.

Among the scrabble of trees they stalked their prey. Amid the fanlike ferns of the forest floor were some yellow and red leaves, the first fallen of the early autumn.

"Hey Jim, I bet I can get a bigger one than you do!" Mark exuded confidently. "Like that duck Dad has mounted in the parlour!"

Jim responded to this brash challenge. "Go ahead, Mark." He put on an air of experienced wisdom. "The real challenge is in getting the tiniest one you can. That's the measure of a marksman. "The measure of a marksman: He heard that from his father on a hunting trip last year. Marksman, he thought. He liked that word. It sounded tight. Compact. Capable and trained. It reminded him of the tales of trench snipers in the Great War. Taking out unsuspecting Germans while they ate their sausages and drank their coffee, while hidden in holes in the desolation of No Man's Land.

"But in hunting, you go for the biggest one," countered Mark.

"But we're not going to eat sparrows, dumbbell." Before Mark could retort to this affront to his intelligence, Jim spotted a robin roosting on a birch branch, its orange breast playing off the sun twinkling between the gently fanning leaves.

"Shhh!" he whispered sternly. "There's one right up there!I got this one!" He pumped the handle several times to pressurize the chamber with air, steadied himself and then took aim, imagining himself to be a hunter for one moment, and then a sniper in the mud of No Man's Land the next. The robin roosted and chirped to itself, oblivious to its fate at the hands of its momentary boy-god who has made the decision unbeknownst to it to remove it from existence on a puerile whim borne of a trivial challenge. Jim pulled the trigger and the BB snapped free of the gun. In an instant, the robin toppled backward off the branch into the foliage below like a two dimensional target in a circus shooting gallery. The two boys trudged through the underbrush to inspect their kill, brushed by ferns as they did so. They found the robin lying dead, a limp mass of feathers, one expressionless eye pointing upward and nowhere, misting over.

"You sure got 'im, Jimmy!" There was a proud ring in Mark's voice.

"Yeah," Jim responded. He looked at the dead bird and he felt a sudden sadness come over him. Why did I just do that? The robin was dead. A minute ago, it wasn't. He was responsible for this. He felt sick for having done this for no reason other than to prove something to his little brother, to prove he was a 'good shot.' A deadeye. A marksman. They left the dead robin in the bush in search of more prey so that Mark could have his turn. Mark shot a sparrow and whooped triumphantly when it also fell out of the tree in which it perched, oblivious in much the same way as the robin Jim killed.

"Good job, Mark, good job," he congratulated, clapping his little brother on the back all those years ago … now, he had made the decision to enlist in the army and live out those No Man's Land fantasies, and shoot at human prey, his boyish sensitivity dulled after all these years, the hardening of adulthood, a thickening of skin, his soul calloused in preemptive protection from all that which the world could throw at it.

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