The stream was a net of limpid, delicate ripples, with the water running through the mesh. From time to time, like a fluttering of silver wings, the dorsum of a trout flashed on the surface, the fish at once plunging zigzag down into the water.
—Full of trout, one of the men said.
—If we toss a grenade in, they’ll all come floating to the top, bellies up, said the other; he detached a grenade from his belt and started to unscrew the baseplate.
Then the boy, who had stood aside looking on, walked over, a mountain youth with an apple-look to his face. —Let me have it, he said, taking the rifle from one of the men. —What does he want to do? the man said, intending to re-claim the rifle. But the boy was leveling it at the water, in search of a target, it seemed. “If you shoot, you’ll only scare the fish away,” the man started to say, but did not have time. A trout had surfaced, flashing, and the boy had pumped a bullet into it as though having anticipated the fish’s exact point of appearance. Now, with its white underside exposed, the trout floated lifeless on the surface. —Cripes, the men said. The boy reloaded the rifle and swung it around. The air was crisp and tensed: one could distinguish the pine needles on the opposite bank and the knitted texture of the stream. A ripple broke the surface: another trout. He fired: now it floated dead. The men glanced briefly at the fish, briefly at the boy. —He shoots well, they said.
The boy swung the barrel again, into the air. It was curious, to think of it, that they were encompassed by air, actually cut off from other things by meters of air. But when the boy aimed the rifle, the air then became an invisible straight line stretching from the muzzle to the thing…to the hawk, for instance, floating above on wings that seemed scarcely to move. As he pressed the trigger, the air continued crystalline and clear as ever, but at the upper end of the line the kestrel folded its wings, then dropped like a stone. The open breech emitted a fine smell of powder.
He asked for more cartridges. The number of men watching had now swelled behind him on the bank of the stream. The cones at the top of the pine trees on the other bank—why were they visible and withal out of reach? Why that empty span between him and them? Why were the cones, although a part of him, in the chamber of his eye—why were they there, so distant? And yet if he aimed the rifle that empty span was clearly a deception: he touched the trigger and at that instant a cone, severed at the stem, fell. The feeling was one of caressive emptiness: the emptiness of the rifle bore which extended off into the air and was occupied by the shot, straight to the pine cone, the squirrel, the white stone, the flowering poppy. —He doesn’t miss a one, the men said, and no one had the audacity to laugh.
—Come, come along with us, the leader said. —You give me the rifle then, the boy returned. —All right. Certainly.
So he went.
He left with a haversack filled with apples and two rounds of cheese. His village was a patch of slate, straw, and cattle muck in the valley bottom. And going away was wonderful, for at every turn there was something new to be seen, trees with cones, birds flitting among the branches, lichen-encrusted rocks, everything in the shaft of the false distances, of the distances occupied by gunshot that gulped up the air between. But he wasn’t to shoot, they told him: those were places to be passed in silence, and the cartridges were for fighting. But at a certain point a leveret, frightened by the footsteps, scampered across the trail, amid shouts and the bustle of the men. It was just about to vanish into the brake when the boy stopped it with a shot. —A good shot, the leader himself conceded, —but this is not a pleasure hunt. You’re not to shoot again, even if you see a pheasant.
But scarcely an hour had elapsed before there were more shots from the column.
—It’s the boy again! the leader stormed, going forward to overtake him.
The boy grinned with his rosy and white apple-face.
—Partridges, he said, displaying them. They had burst up from a hedge.
—Partridges, crickets or whatever else, I gave you fair warning. Now let me have the rifle. And if you make me lose my temper once more, back to the village you go.
The boy sulked a little; it was no fun to be hiking without a rifle, but as long as he remained with them he might hope to have it again.
In the night they bedded down in the chalet of herdsmen. The boy awakened immediately the sky grew light, while the others still slept. He took their finest rifle and loaded his haversack with cartridges and went out. The air was timorous and crisp, as one may discover it in the early morning. Not far from the house stood a mulberry tree. It was the hour in which jays were arriving. There, he saw one! He fired, ran to pick it up, and stuffed it into his haversack. Without moving from where the jay had fallen, he looked about for another target. A dormouse! Startled by the first shot, it was scurrying toward safety in the crown of a chestnut tree. Dead, it was simply a large mouse with a grey tail that shed shocks of fur at touch. From beneath the chestnut tree he sighted, in a field off below him, a mushroom, red with white prickles and poisonous. He crumbled it with a shot, then went to see if really he had got it. What fun it was, going from one target to another like that: one might in time go all the way round the world! He spied a large snail on a rock; he sighted on its shell, and going over to it noticed nothing but the shattered rock and a spot of iridescent spittle. Thus did he wander from the chalet, down through unfamiliar fields.
From the stone he saw a lizard on a wall, from the wall a puddle and a frog, from the puddle a signboard on the zig-zagging road, and beneath it: beneath it men in uniform advancing on him with arms at the ready. When the boy came forth with his rifle, smiling, his face rosy and white like an apple, they shouted, raising their guns. But the boy had already seen and fired at one of the gold buttons on the chest of one of them. He heard the man scream and then bullets, in a hail and single shots, whistling over his head: he had already flattened to the ground behind a pile of rocks on the hem of the road, in a dead angle. The rock pile was long and he could move about; and he was able to peep out from unexpected points, see the flash of the soldiers’ musketry, the grey and gloss of their uniforms, and fire at a chevron, at an insigne. Then quickly scramble along the ground to fire from a new position.
Then he heard a burst of fire behind him, raking over his head into the ranks of the soldiers: his companions had appeared on the rescue with machine guns. —If the boy hadn’t awakened us with his firing…they were saying.
Covered by his companions, the boy was better able to see. Suddenly a bullet grazed his cheek. He turned: a soldier had got to the road above him. He threw himself into the drainage ditch, gaining shelter again, at the same time firing; the bullet, though failing to hit the soldier, glanced off his riflestock. Now, from the sounds that he heard, he could tell that his adversary’s rifle had jammed; the soldier flung it to the ground. Then the boy rose up. The soldier had taken to his heels and the boy fired at him, popping an epaulette into the air.
The boy gave chase. The soldier dashed into the woods, at first vanishing but presently reappearing within range. The boy burned a crease in the dome of the soldier’s helmet, next shot off a belt loop. One after the other, they had meanwhile come into a dale, to which they were both of them strangers, and where the din of the battle was no longer heard. In time, the soldier found himself without any more trees before him, instead a glade overgrown with knotted thicket clumps. And the boy was himself about to come out of the woods.