All the Little Deaths

by Penelope Cray

When we arrived, the first row of little deaths was already lined up shoulder to shoulder along the firing range. It was easier to pick them off that way. The rest extended in single file like rows of blighted corn. The little deaths in the first row shivered but held firm. Douglas had trained them well. We were to use BB guns�it was the only way Douglas could guarantee their cooperation. Nothing too violent, they�d requested. Resilience wasn�t in their nature, the littlest deaths being easily bruised, and skittish. We had to warn them when we were going to fire by raising our hand in a sort of salute. That was the arrangement, elaborated in the weekly emails Douglas had dispatched in the months before the big event.

None of us had unreasonable expectations. No one expected any big deaths to show up; no one expected to take out their own big death. This was simply about making life easier on a day-to-day level. Some of us sought to extend the shelf life of certain foods. If the little deaths that caused them to sour or stale could be stalled—via BB, for instance—the food would last longer, which would save us money, freeing us to spend it on more pleasurable pursuits. Others were more ambitious. They didn't want to avoid death per se, but rather sought to win a protective advantage for certain body parts. One woman had a nasty canker sore that blistered, wept, and crusted over. She wanted the little death to leave her upper lip alone, long enough at least for someone to fall in love with the rest of her.

I stood in line and watched as, one by one, my brethren took the BB gun in hand and picked off their row. We'd all been practicing our shot. The little deaths were flying backward, a purplish mist trailing after them as they landed, stunned, in the grass or staggered about, clutching their arm or stomach. I felt almost sorry for them, except I knew how much they had taken from me.

Just then a hush fell over us. Trish had set aim, skipping the salute. Douglas leaned in, then seemed to think better of it and took a step back. Trish held herself still, staring down the gun at her little deaths, who fidgeted and avoided eye contact, but held their ground. What was she up to? Then, with a practiced swiftness, she lowered the gun, wrapped her lips around two fingers, and whistled. Tweet! All of Trish's little deaths and all the trim rows behind them poured in one mass toward us. I heard Douglass scream "No!" as Trish wheeled around and began firing. I was hit first in the arm and then again in either thigh. Into each small, nonfatal wound leapt a little death. I fell to my knees. I thought I heard the singing they say you hear when your big death comes to collect you. But it was Trish.

Trish was singing to us, "My friends! I love you! I am setting you free! Your big deaths will never get you now!"

Then she turned the gun on herself, and in a hail of BB fire, the little deaths roared into her.

BIO: Penelope Cray earned her MFA in Poetry from the New School in 2004. Her work has appeared most recently in Pleiades and Barrow Street. She lives with her family in Burlington, Vermont, where she is in a matchless writers' group.