Honey pulled the spent spool from the machine and scraped a bit of residue from the build plate. She knew the equipment inside and out, but she never had the vision of Papa Joe. Something froze up inside her whenever she thought of making a mask of her own. She studied Jimmy Lee, marveling that he didn’t have any of her inhibitions. The boy was her neighbor from two floors up, he was barely old enough to be out on his own, and here he was standing in front of Honey and her dad ready to pitch his line.
“They’ll be the best you ever seen,” the boy said. “I got me four printers. I can do the whole lot.”
Papa Joe crossed his arms over his belly, that acre and a half of gray sweater littered with crumbs and spilled whiskey. Joe lived the way he wanted, which was mostly making masks and eating snacks in front of the TV. He eyed the boy. “I don’t got time to waste on a fool biting off more than he can chew.”
Jimmy Lee scowled. “I ain’t no fool.”
No, Honey thought, he wasn’t a fool, not yet, anyway. He wasn’t old enough to be a fool. The boy had a runny nose, runny eyes, and a crust of egg at the corner of his mouth. “Let him make the guns, Papa,” she said. “You never liked that part anyway.” She threaded a hot pink spool onto the stylus. It wasn’t Honey’s favorite, she preferred Kelly green, but Papa Joe claimed pink was a top seller at the Shoot. December was such a gray time, and people needed a splash of color.
Honey loved the masks, had since she was a child and her papa told her what they were. Joe modeled them on protozoa, the elaborate fossils of rhizopoda, sarcodina, radiolaria. His creations amplified all the tiny holes, the galactic swirls, the convolutions of miniscule carapaces. His masks promised there was sense to the world; if such intricacies could be spent on fossils blanketing the ocean floor, fossils no one ever saw, then surely there was meaning to a person’s life. Honey loved wearing the masks. Beneath the sunburst strangeness of one of Joe’s creations she became something new. The round-faced woman she was vanished, all the softness of her twenty years disappeared. Under a mask Honey might be anything, even a sun god or a demon.
She did not feel the same about the guns. She didn’t know why people had to shoot, why they had to kill, why those actions were necessary. She picked up a mask, a smooth, pocked, sun-gold starburst of a headdress, and said, “Why do we need the guns? Why aren’t the masks enough?”
“I didn’t make the world,” Papa Joe said with the patience of a man who had addressed this question many times, “I just live in it, okay? The mask is an extension of the gun, and the gun is an extension of who we are. If I had my way, tomorrow there’d be ten thousand people running naked through Central Park, throwing rocks and sticks at the Canada Geese. By the end of the day there’d be one dead goose, maybe two, and the rest would have flown off to the Bronx. No one likes the way they taste, oily and tough, all the bitterness of flesh manifest, but still we do it every year. It’s a tradition.”
“You got it exactly wrong,” Jimmy Lee said. “If I had my way, there’d be nothing but guns. The masks are dumb. No one can see who’s shooting when everybody’s got a mask on.”
“That’s the point,” Joe said. “It’s why you aren’t allowed to shoot if you don’t have a mask.”
Joe lifted a three-foot radiolarian from the build plate and set it on Honey’s head. The central pod, where her head fit, was pocked with holes like an old bone. A prayer scarf of flagellates in stiff pink hung over her collarbones, and the intricate beanie on top hovered like the escape pod of an alien starship. It rested well on her shoulders. She could turn left and right, look up and down. The helmet barely wobbled. Joe nodded his head, satisfied.
“That one’s not bad,” Jimmy Lee said, “I guess I’d wear one like that.”
“You can’t afford one like that,” Joe said. “But make me my guns and you’ll be able to buy something off the street.”
Honey took the helmet from her head. “Make me one like this,” she said, “but green.”
It was the fourth of December, a still, gray day. The ground was cold but not frozen, a little squishy from all the rain. Honey’s breath came out in puffs like steam from a grate. Nine o’clock in the morning and the Park was starting to fill up. Marching bands made up of boys and girls too young to shoot, too young to wear masks, stomped along the paths in their spangled costumes, trying to keep warm. Papa Joe walked past, pulling the cart full of masks. Honey walked behind him and kept a hand on the stack to make sure nothing fell off the wagon.
“We’re late,” she said, “We should have been here at seven. Everyone’s already got their masks.”
“Not everyone. People are still coming in. Besides, my masks aren’t for early birds.”
“What do you mean?”
“Early birds take the first thing that comes along, or the cheapest. My masks are meant for connoisseurs, people who know what they want and are willing to sacrifice something to get it. There are plenty of them around, just waiting for old Joe to show up. You’ll see.”
“Where’s Jimmy Lee? We can’t sell masks without guns.”
“He said he’d meet us at the pipe. Look – there he is. Little bugger got us a good spot.”
The boy’s coltish legs hung down from the oil pipe, his feet swinging above the ground. Running east to west across Central Park, the pipe carried fuel to the five burrows. Jimmy Lee must have come early, Honey thought, to claim a place on the pipe. The boy’s nose was still running, and his sleeve was stiff with the shine of snot.
Below his feet, in the shadow of the pipe, lay a loose pile of dove-gray long guns. Most had the flared muzzle of a blunderbuss, and their hammers were curled like cowlicks. Frivolous, Honey thought. Her papa hated that in guns.
“Took you long enough to get here,” Jimmy Lee said. “People have been coming by all morning, but I can’t sell guns when I got no masks.”
Papa Joe grunted. “They’ll be back. How many you got?”
“Fifty-seven. How many masks you got?”
“Not that many. Low fifties.”
“Shit,” the kid hissed. “These are good guns. It’s a shame not to fire them. I thought you said you was making sixty.”
“I said I was trying for sixty. Masks are a lot more complicated than guns. Anyway, what do you care? I paid for the guns whether they get shot or not.”
The kid shrugged. “My guns are meant to be fired, is all I’m saying. They got good aim. More geese is going down with a bullet from Jimmy Lee’s sticks than any other make. See if it don’t happen like that. It’s a shame when a gun don’t get fired; it’s like a man dying when he’s still a virgin.”
Papa Joe rolled his eyes. “What do you know about being a man? Maybe a few folks will come by with a mask and no gun and we’ll sell off the extras.”
“That ain’t how it works,” the boy said. “Nobody’s ever got a mask and no gun. Everybody wants both or none – that’s the way.”
“Not me,” Honey said, stepping up to the guns with her Kelly green mask under one arm. She picked the simplest one she could find, wrinkling her nose at the weapon’s embellishments.
“Best gun you’ll ever shoot,” the boy said.
“I don’t care about that. What’s the load?”
“Six. It’s standard.”
Honey hefted the gun. It was light. The boy had probably printed it porous to save on plastic. Piece of crap. The kid didn’t know a thing about ballistics. Jimmy Lee was nothing but a sack of boogers on stilts.
A man came and picked out a pink heliozoa, ciliates spiking out all around. He chose a gun at random, paid, and headed out onto the Lawn to stake his place. After that it was hotcakes for half an hour, and Papa Joe’s pockets hung heavy with cash. The boy watched the transactions, hungry, but he’d already been paid for his part. One person did come along with a mask and no gun. She was old and thin and dry and her mask, a fan of corn husks broken and stained so that it resembled a geriatric cat more than the sun god it was meant to be, looked like it had been brought out every Goose Shoot for the past fifty years. A lot of people kept their masks, but it was another thing to keep wearing the same one, as if you insisted on being the same person over and over again. It just wasn’t done.
After she had gone, Papa Joe was restless. “Crazy old coot,” he muttered. “It’s people like that get culled in a Shoot.”
“She seemed harmless,” Honey soothed.
“You only say that because you’ve never seen a culling. It’s the harmless ones that tend to lose their minds.”
The Goose Shoot culled both birds and people. The invasive flocks of Canada Geese were kept in check, and those who couldn’t manage the violence and despair at the heart of being human were drained through the sieve of temptation and found out. A mask and a gun changed a person; some couldn’t change back.
At eleven o’clock the marching bands fell quiet, a sign to get ready for the Call. There were two guns left and no masks, and it was then the boy realized the position he was in. He hadn’t thought to buy a mask off the street, not until now when they were all sold out. Joe picked up one of the guns, his head a giant radiolarian sun. “I guess that one is for you,” he said, toeing the last gun, the longest blunderbuss of them all.
“I don’t got a mask!” the boy cried. “You didn’t save me one!”
“You didn’t pay for one!” Joe said, mimicking the kid. Papa Joe was a caustic man when he wore a mask.
The boy’s face was a rage of disappointment. Honey knew this was his first Shoot, and that like any youth he’d fantasized for years about aiming into the air and firing, dead sure he would kill. She felt sorry for him. “Come on,” she said, “pick up your gun. You’ll see more without a mask anyways.”
“But I won’t be able to shoot.”
“That part’s overrated. Just a lot of loud noise followed by a lot of dead geese.”
The day had begun to brighten. As a blue patch broke open in the sky a wall of trumpets blasted out a high, carrying note – the Call of the Goose Shoot. The boy forgot his complaint and dropped down from the pipe. He picked up the last gun, a eunuch weapon in his unmasked hands, and followed Honey and the old man out onto the Lawn.
All around them people turned to the sky and held their guns high. Murmured conversations fell to silence and only the clear clarion call of five hundred trumpets carried on. One by one the trumpeters lowered their horns, and the Call grew faint as a zephyr until at last could be heard the soft beat of wings. For a heart’s beat only this almost silence, and then the air was filled with honking. The geese rose in a mass from behind the trees and flew low and loud over the crowd, their bellies a dirigible of gray flesh. A thousand guns fired and the sky exploded in a rain of feathers and blood.
Honey’s mind filled with the dull thud of birds falling from the sky. She shot without aiming and gave herself up to the simple pleasure of carnage. On her left Papa Joe brought down a bird with each bullet until six Canada geese had fallen. It was his way. “Never be unintentional,” he’d told Honey when she was small. “If you’re going to do a thing, mean to do it.” Despite her wishes, her father’s words seeped in; it took all Honey’s effort not to aim her gun. On her right the boy aimed at bird after bird. He sighted with his naked eye and whispered, “Pow,” as he pretended to pull the trigger.
The flock was past in five minutes, on its way to Yankee Stadium, minus the thousands sacrificed to the Shoot. Children too young to hold a gun or wear a mask began the joyous task of gathering the carcasses, flinging them onto a pile that would stay all day so that everyone who wanted could take a selfie. Honey had dozens of such photos, a lifetime of Goose Shoots, and she didn’t need another. But the boy beside her looked so sad, so lost, his feet sinking into the mud and shit and blood, that she said, “Come on, I’ll take your picture. The pile is as tall as you already.”
“What’s the point?” the boy said. “I didn’t shoot any.”
“Who cares? Shooting is overrated, so are the geese. It’s being here that counts.”
Papa Joe had gone to fetch his cart and Honey and the boy were alone. She plucked his elbow to pull him toward the dead birds and felt the hard knob of bone in her hand. All the growing parts of him were mismatched against his skinny meat. She pulled him forward until he stood in front of the heap of birds, his chin and shoulders sagging, the gun listless at his side.
“Smile,” Honey said, but the boy, maskless, frowned. She took a few pictures of him anyway, but they were hollow, haunted photos, so she said, “Here, wear this,” and put the green shell of her mask on his head.
The boy stood up straight under the weight of the helmet, his shoulders back, feet apart, gun clutched to his chest. Almost like a man, Honey thought.
The boy was happier after that, and Honey let him wear the mask as they milled around, watching the children gather the last of the geese. Most people had removed their masks and begun to move toward the melting booths and the rest of their lives. Lines had formed at eight points around the Great Lawn, but the boy showed no willingness to line up, to let the day end. Honey stayed with him out of kindness. He’s just a boy, she thought, if a foolish one. He was too young to be holding a gun, too young to be wearing a mask, but it was too late to change that now.
At last she pointed him toward the yellow canopy of a melting booth. A line snaked across the trampled Lawn as people waited to discard their guns and maybe their masks as well. Honey’s feet were heavy with mud and blood. “It’s time to go home,” she said, pulling him towards the line by his bony elbow.
“I don’t want to.”
“It doesn’t matter what you want. You can’t stay here, and you can’t keep the gun.” She nodded her head toward the green peak of her mask atop the boy’s head. “You can keep that, if you want.”
The boy pulled the helmet from his head and threw it on the ground. “I don’t want your dumb mask,” he spat.
The boy looked different. A half an hour under the mask, gun in hand, inhaling the scent of a thousand dead birds, had changed him. Violence seared through him, and his lips pulled back in a feral grin, as if the fury was too much for his face to contain. Dry snot crusted his nostrils like mineral deposits.
Honey’s heart beat hard in her chest as she realized what was happening. He hadn’t shot the gun, but that didn’t matter. He had held it. He had aimed it. He had wanted to kill.
“Give me the gun,” she whispered.
“No. It’s mine. I made it. I’m keeping it.”
The boy stepped out of the line and walked toward the bridle path.
All around, chatter stopped. It happened like this sometimes, the Goose Shoot raising up bloodlust instead of releasing it. Jimmy Lee would be culled if he didn’t turn around now. Four masked guards pointed guns at the boy. “Stop,” one said, “Put down your gun.”
Jimmy Lee kept walking. Seconds passed, and he walked some more. Then the air split with four guns fired at once, and the boy fell in a loose pile of bones and blood. The guard who’d spoken lifted the visor of her mask. “We told him,” she said, “he knew we would shoot.” She pried the gun from the boy’s fingers and flung it into the cauldron of melting plastic.
The line shuffled forward and the mutter of conversation covered over the gap where the boy had been. One by one people dropped their guns and masks into the swirling plastic and left the Shoot behind until next year. Honey clutched her gun and mask to her chest and waited her turn. She felt guilty for having let him wear her mask. She had only done it to be kind, but he was too young to understand what he would find within. For the rest of her life she would smell the boy’s blood, feel the weight of his weapon, never fired, in her hands. Her first culling, and it was all her fault. She wondered if she would become like the dry woman with the cornhusk mask, never able to move on from this moment. When it was her turn, Honey dropped her gun into the soup. It disappeared instantly. She hesitated for a moment but then dropped the mask in too. It took longer to go down. Green swaths of melt circled the gyre until at last the mask, too, was subsumed.
Jennifer Lee is a graduate of the MA writing program at Johns Hopkins University and an editor at the Baltimore Review. Her stories have appeared in JMWW, Phoebe, the Bellevue Literary Review, Monkeybicycle, Jabberwock, and elsewhere. A Pushcart nominee, her work has won the Maryland Writers’ Short Fiction Award. She’s currently working on a looming science fiction project, among other things. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches middle school math and pursues her interests. Read more from Jennifer at her website.