Issue Forty-One - Winter 2023

The Murder of Toads, 1958

By John Brantingham

On Tuesday, Henry has an algebra test that he’s going to fail so he skips class and since he’s probably going to catch it anyway, he swipes his father’s .38 from the back of the closet where his pop thinks it’s hidden. His pop’s got a box of bullets there too, and he’s never noticed before that some of the rounds are missing. His dad is drunk most of the time anyway, so he probably wouldn’t suspect Henry if Henry just flat out stole the pistol and sold it. The old man would probably just think he’d misplaced it.

Henry goes out into the woods behind his house, far enough behind the hill that his mother won’t hear the report or if she does, she’ll think it’s hunters. He bullseyes knots on trees, taking his time to aim and hit.

The first time he ditched school and shot up the woods, he ran through like a madman, playing like he was storming Normandy, but he was a kid then. He’s sixteen now, and calmed down and shooting, yes for the feeling of power that runs down his arm, but also for the practice. He’s not sure what he’s practicing for, but he knows it’s good for a man to know how to use a weapon.

It occurs to him too that a man should be prepared to kill, should know what it is to look something in the eye as the life fades out of it. He’s read Chandler and Stout and Hammett. He knows the world is dangerous. Not that he wants to ever kill a man. He wants to know that he can, and it’s not like his father ever took him hunting and taught him about life and death even though everyone says that his father was a big war hero.

So Henry stalks through the woods, checking his watch and smiling because right now, he would be struggling with his test. Instead, he’s looking for the deer who are always around when you don’t want them, always eating up gardens or bouncing into the road.

Since there are no deer, Henry turns the pistol on himself, pressing the muzzle firmly up against his left shoulder, right on the bone. He’s read Chandler and Stout and Hammett, and he knows too that a man should be ready to face the pain of a bullet, to get shot in the leg or the shoulder and merely wince at the pain. He takes three deep breaths, working his way up to pulling the trigger, sure that he’s going to do it until he doesn’t. This isn’t exactly the scientific method, he thinks. He raises the barrel a little, so it will only graze him, and he takes his three breaths again, and when he reaches the end of his countdown, he fails again, and he lets his hand drop, pushing down the tears of shame, closing his eyes and bearing down.

When he opens them, he finds that there is a toad at his feet, and he aims and finds he cannot shoot it, not even a toad. He isn’t ready for manhood yet, he supposes, not to shoot or to be shot. He should have brought a friend out here to push him, to make him too embarrassed not to face these tests. But it’s only Henry out here, unsure if he will ever be enough to be a man. Unsure what he even is.

Copyright Brantingham 2023