Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
* Writer’s note – Originally published 2006 in Dark Fire Fiction. I am the author and own the story rights.
“It’s time I told you about loss, boy.”
We sat, my Pa and I, beneath the old great willow that marked the end of our property and the beginning of God’s country. It had been a glorious day. The midafternoon sun had chased away the rain clouds, bringing spring’s balmy touch to an otherwise inclement week. My Pa had met the morning with our fishing rods and tackle, as if knowing the day’s meteorological outcome beforehand, and together we headed for the lake, splashing through the mud puddles like two boys who didn’t have a care in the world.
“Are you listening to me, son?”
But the day had slipped by (as all days must) and I knew the night would regenerate the cold. The smooth bark of the willow I was sitting against suddenly felt too hard, digging into my back as if it was trying to push me into the lake. The shadows from our fishing rods had changed position, and I felt a chill as the willow branches swayed in the breeze.
My Pa was staring at me; I could feel his eyes, but I couldn’t look at him, not with that strange remark hanging in the air between us. Instead, I glanced over to the water and the fish we had caught this morning. Six largemouths were hooked to the chain stringer, mostly tranquil, but occasionally one would fight for position and send the others into a swishing frenzy. I wondered if the familiarity of the water soothed them, or did they actually know they were being held captive and destined for the fire?
I heard the striking of a match and smelled the exhaled smoke from my Pa’s cigarette. The story was coming… whether I wanted it or not.
“Yes, Pa?” I said timidly, still not looking at him. A lone shad swam by, searching for food along the bank. One of the bass made a grab for it despite the chain in its gill.
“A terrible loss, son,” my father began, “is something you can never forget. Some people will tell ya’ otherwise, but those people either are fools, or they be people who’s never lost anything that ever had any meaning to ’em. Now your auntie Vera knows loss, though you never could’a known it ’cause she’s always walking around with that smilin’ apple pie face—bless her sweet heart, but what happened to your uncle Jarvis is tearing her up inside.”
My uncle Jarvis had been killed on the Mekong, another statistic of the Vietnam war. His body had been railed in from Council Bluffs, and was now buried at Cedar Hill Memorial along with two other boys who had given their lives for our great country. After the funeral, Vera had stayed with us for a few days, helping my Pa with the chores and baking and cleaning house just like my Ma used to do. I understood Pa’s statement—auntie Vera had looked like the happiest woman alive when she was with us—but I also understood about death (as much as any 10 year old could understand) and I had seen Vera crying on my pa’s shoulder while they listened to the taped messages my uncle sent home before the grenade fragment had taken his life. My father still listened to those tapes, and on one occasion I had spied on him while he sat drunk and weeping, listening to my uncle talk about how much he missed his family.
“I understand,” I said, believing I knew the procession of my father’s thoughts.
“No, son,” Pa said slowly. “I don’t think you do.”
And then I did look at him—though my heart told me not to—and what I discovered was a stranger who had cast off all apparel of parental congeniality. The stranger was wearing my father’s checkered flannel shirt—the coffee stains much in evidence in spite of the constant washings—but the fabric clung to skin that seemed hardened by doubt, by decisions that had blasted away the carefree naivete of youth. The balding pate was the same, twin wisps of graying hair flattened back over the ears, but this forehead was crossed with tight lines, their engravement enhanced by his furrowed brow. The smoke from his cigarette obscured his face, weaving a filmy cobweb where only his eyes could find purchase. They locked me in their gaze, hard and unblinking blue orbs which knew neither respite nor forgiveness.
“Because loss is something you can’t understand,” the stranger said. Then he gave me a gentle smile; a smile my pa might have given me if the day had remained unchanged. “It hurts too much. It burrows down into your insides like a worm, gobbling up everything you are, until all that’s left is the loss.”
I nodded my head, secretly hoping something would grab my hook: another bass, a bluegill, a mermaid, I didn’t care what, as long as it freed me from the stranger’s spell.
“It’s like you get a new puppy for your birthday,” the stranger continued, and I cringed as my fear began to follow his words. “And it’s just a scrawny thing, no bigger than your hand, but you’re overjoyed just the same ’cause the puppy takes a liking to you, and you to it, and right away you know you belong to each other.”
The stranger paused in his recital. For a brief moment I thought I could see the Day’s father peering from underneath. “That’s a special feeling, son. A good feeling – knowing something so intimately you feel it belongs to ya’.
“After a while you start to love that puppy: you love the way he plucks food from your hand; you love how he twirls around in circles, chasing his tail and yapping all to high heaven; and you be deciding that he’s just the best damn thing since long underwear on a blizzard night. You name him—he belongs to you now—and he becomes another part of your life, like he’s been there from the beginning.
“But there’s other things, too, that have been with you since the beginning; other appetites fighting for your attention: your need for learning and your needs for maturity; your desires for play; the innocence we all have that scoffs at responsibility and the necessities of everyday life.
“Time passes; the years roll by like boxcars in a train; and you get older, the puppy becomes a dog, and the world becomes a bigger place as you discover it has more to offer a boy than just his own backyard and the friendship of a pet.
“Finally, one day, you grow tired of the dog’s company. I won’t say bored—that’s like saying you get bored of those stories you’re always writing, and I know that ain’t the truth—but you do put your pencil down sometimes, to go off and do other things. But you always go back to your stories. You don’t actually give ’em up for dead, right? You just get tired of the same old rigmarole, so your mind starts a’wandering, and you take off in pursuit of other fancies.”
The stranger’s voice dropped a tone. Images of my own dog, Rufus, were spinning in my head, and I found myself leaning forward to hear the rest of his words:
“What you don’t stop to consider is that dog of yours gets tired, too. And if you ain’t around, he’s gonna wander off on his own, maybe into unfamiliar territory—some place where you can’t protect him. He might get lost, or—and I know this ain’t something any child should have to go through—but… but he could even get hit by a truck, or caught in one of those muskrat traps the Haskal brothers have been putting out.”
There it was: as blunt as a poor man’s gravestone. In that moment of final revelation, the day lost its glitter, fading from a father-son affair full of camaraderie and mutual passion to a sugarcoated tragedy. Rufus had been missing for a week now, his food bowl untouched, the mornings undisturbed by his barking as he hailed me off to school. But today’s warmth had dismissed all thoughts of his absence. I tried to call up a picture of him in my mind… and failed. Even the memories eluded me. Something else pervaded on my thoughts, and I remembered the muskrat traps, those steel jaws spaced around the lake like the fangs of devils that had invaded paradise. The grown-up-bud inside me (something alien and as yet just a seedling) earnestly hoped he hadn’t suffered.
The child prevailed, though, as my hands balled up into fists and covered my eyes to join my tears in blocking out the world. I was dimly aware of the stranger watching my reaction. I hated him at that moment. I wanted him to go away, to pack up his tale of woe and return to whatever terrible place he’d come from. But I knew he would not go away until I asked the question neither one of us wanted to hear:
“Rufus is dead, isn’t he?”
Silence followed my question; even the breeze was still. I felt lost. Alone. With the exception of the fecal worm smell wafting from my fingers, my senses were dulled, as if I was enclosed in a vacuum.
The reply stunned me back into awareness: “No, son, he’s not.”
I pulled my hands away from my eyes, daring to hope. The stranger was gone, replaced by my Pa, his form outlined by the light of the descending sun, and I noticed for the first time how old he’d become, not only in his physical appearance (the crow’s feet and wrinkles were a gradual process of age, and I accepted this), but also in the manner in which he resolved himself, as if he was comprised of words and experiences that said: “Here is what I am; a vessel of years and nothing more.” Faced with this utter absoluteness, a spark of wisdom ignited inside me, and I caught a brief glimpse of what it truly must mean to be alone. I became ashamed of my tears, knowing my Pa had lost so much more than me when my mother passed away.
“My dog’s dead, ain’t he?” I said concedingly, feeling like a boy who had unexpectedly stumbled upon his manhood. “I can take it, Pa, you know I can. I’ve been thinking about ma, and how—”
“He ain’t dead, and I don’t want you fretting about it,” Pa interrupted.
“Why’d I tell you a story like that one? ‘Cause I thought it was time, son,” Pa said flatly, and I heard the truth in his words—or, at least, the truth he wanted me to hear. “First, I ain’t too old to know when a boy is speaking from his guts ‘stead his heart, and I appreciate that, but the gut don’t always speak the truth, and that can lead to trouble later on. I’ve been thinking about your Ma, too. Ain’t a day goes by that I don’t. I try to remember all the good times we had, but for some reason all I can think about is how powerless I was to stop the pneumonia from taking her away. Sometimes I think I should’ve done something else to save her, but that’s my gut talking, ’cause I know in my heart there ain’t nothin’, boy, nothin’ I could’a done. And that’s the worst feeling in the world.”
Pa put another cigarette to his lips, and closed his eyes. I remained silent, afraid to speak and shatter his confession.
“Powerless,” Pa repeated. He shook his head violently, as if he was battling some inner turmoil. A vacant emotion slithered across his face, a thing that had nothing to do with the midafternoon sun or the glorious day it produced. “That’s loss, son. That’s true loss, when something happens and all you can do is stand there and wish it hadn’t. I’d do anything—anything at all—to protect you from that terrible feeling.”
Twilight enfolded us. The crickets in the brush began their nightly chirping, seeming to invoke the dark as they sang to their mates. It was still too cold for mosquitoes, but I felt as if they were already buzzing around my head, trying to force me to seek cover. The catch of the day were fading into shadow, reclaimed by the murky lake. The glorious day was escaping, and I ventured a question, hoping to reinstate its glamour before it vanished completely:
“Is Ma in Heaven?”
The answer drifted from the darkness: “No.”
No? That simple statement shocked me more than anything else my father had said. We were never churchgoing, not even when my Ma was alive, but I liked to think there was something out there—heaven or not—where the dead could go to find peace. “But Pastor Simmons says there’s a heaven,” I said, “and when we die we go there if we’ve been good.”
“Let me tell you something about preacher Simmons, boy.” (And my father sort of sounded like a preacher himself as he spoke to me.) “He’s a dreamer. Mark my words, son—he ain’t going nowhere, and neither are we. Simmons is like those Commies they got runnin’ all over Asia right now; the ones who killed your uncle Jarvis. Now they talk a big tale, talk on about changing the world and such, but they’re just the same—just dreamers. And dreamers ain’t nobody lessen they be asleep.”
He started reeling in our lines then, and I figured we were done for the day, that we would pack up and head home to clean the fish, but Pa had other ideas. He tied larger sinkers to the end of each line along with another leader, baited the hooks, and recast. The weights sailed through the gloom, making nearly inaudible plopping sounds as they broke the surface of the water. Pa lit the lantern and placed it beside me. “I want you to keep fishin’ for awhile,” he told me. And then, as if in answer to the question he knew I was going to ask, Pa said: “Do as you’re told, boy. Those fish’ll keep, and I got some repair work to do for Mr. Campton before the ‘morrow. If you catch anything—and I think you might if you got the patience to keep your pole in the water—string ’em with the others. Take my word for it, those bass won’t mind.”
Presently, he turned and strode away, my thoughts following his footsteps. Pa’s repair work—everything from overhauling tractor engines to fixing the Gurney twins’ bicycles—was our meat and potatoes, and I guess I should have felt lucky with having a father who worked at home, but it took up so much of his time, and I had no desire to join him in his mechanical tinkering. Besides, Pa’s work shed (along with the local tavern and the chicken farm run by girls out on Route 1) was one of those places that were off limits to me and my friends, and I respected his wishes. I knew it was his private place, like the stories I dream up are my private places, and I believed (and still do) that everyone should have a hideaway they can call their own.
The lake had once been one of those special hiding places, before the farmers on the east side sold their land, paving the way for the city’s extension and the intrusion of out-of-state businessmen whose ideals of privacy differed from us country folk. The war had put a halt to their invasion, but I knew it was only temporary. They’d be back, rending the earth with their machines that smelled like sulfur and belched black smoke into the air, destroying another hideaway. Perhaps this was why my father insisted I continue fishing; to enjoy the moment while it remained. Time was a fleeting thing, and the good times were fleeter still, slipping away to progress and death alike without so much as a considerate good-bye. I think he knew—as I knew—that time was definitely not on our side.
But time was all I had as I sat alone in the dark with only the bass and the echoes of my father’s story to keep me company. The feeble glare from the lantern did little to illuminate the jollity that had set with the sun. In fact, it seemed not to be illuminating anything at all, but rather allying itself with the night, and everything the night hid, compressing me into myself and forcing me to look inward at secrets I never knew existed. It was a time for self-analysis, and I realized I had never completely accepted my mother’s death, that a small part of me was always searching for signs of her presence. If she wasn’t in Heaven (as my father professed) then where was she? It wasn’t fair she had been reduced to photographs and hazy memories. It wasn’t right that I would have to spend the rest of my life without her. Selfish thoughts, I know, but I was also thinking of my father’s interests, and I’d come to the conclusion my Pa was wrong when he stated that the helplessness of loss was the most terrible thing in the world.
How the survivors responded to that loss was far more terrible.
Suddenly, the end of my pole started to bend, and I leapt out of my reverie, grateful for the distraction. So intent was I upon the catch, that I didn’t notice my father coming up behind me.
“Yeah, I thought they might be biting tonight,” he said, nearly startling me into dropping my pole. “Fight it, boy, fight it!” my Pa hollered, laughing as I strained against the weight. “That’s the morrow’s dinner, so don’t let it get away.”
My little arms went rigid with tension. My father ignored my cries for help, sipping at his flask, chuckling as I gasped and pulled and finally brought the catfish to shore. He tousled my hair and beamed at me as I unhooked the cat and displayed it with triumph.
“Ten pounds, Pa,” I said, beaming back at him. “Ten pounds at least.”
Pa took the fish, weighed it with his hands like all the true fishermen seem to do, and nodded in agreement.
Using chicken liver and patience we caught three more cats, though none as large as that first one, until Pa finished off his flask and started to yawn. It was the signal for our departure. “We’d best be getting home, son. I don’t want your Ma to have—”
Pa caught himself then and turned away, exhaling his whisky breath in a mournful sigh. The night hid his face, but I’m sure he was crying—or doing his best not to cry. I stumbled over words of reassurance, but fell short of the comfort I wanted to confer. There was no use denying the obvious. He still loved her—just as I loved her.
But when he turned back to me his face was dry, and I was pleased because I did not want this night to be spoiled as the day had been. We headed back to the house, Pa letting me carry the fish as if they were some sort of trophy, but he stopped me at the door.
“Mind your feet, boy. I don’t want you tracking mud all over the kitchen floor,” Pa said. He slipped his own boots off with a practiced skill I could not duplicate, and I was left on the stoop, fumbling with my own bootlaces.
And then I heard what I’d been longing to hear for the past week: the sound of Rufus’ barking. I called his name, steadying myself for the inevitable charge that would send me sprawling to the ground under a barrage of fur and wet dog licks, but the reunion never came. The barking continued, however, and I noticed how weak it sounded, as if Rufus’ voice was coming from the squawk box and being transmitted from far away. Fearing that my dog had been hurt after all, I tore off my boots and rushed into the kitchen.
My words of greeting never carried any further than my throat. Rufus was standing in the kitchen corner, next to the stove—just standing there. His tail lay limply against his hind leg, stiff and devoid of the wagging joy I had expected. His eyes were open, but empty of activity. Barren and glazed, they stared from above a blood-caked snout at surroundings without meaning.
“Rufus,” I muttered, taking a step toward him, my hands shaking uncontrollably, my mind reeling from the morbidity of the situation. I reached out to touch him and encountered the cold steel of the chicken wire that was spiraling up his legs and around his neck, supporting his broken body in an upright position. Tufts of his matted hair protruded from between the netting, brushing against my fingers with all the warmth of a terminal disease. Searching for a heartbeat, scanning madly for some sign of life, I bent down to peer into his face and saw my helplessness reflected in his dead eyes.
The barking sounds abruptly stopped, and my Pa picked up the tape recorder, carrying it into the parlor and sweeping past me without a word. I followed him to the entranceway, unable to speak, as he substituted the tape for another and placed the recorder on top of the book rack adjacent to the sewing chair. My mother’s sewing chair.
“C’mon, son, and give your ma a kiss before you go to bed,” Pa told me. He pressed the play button, all the while staring at me with an eager anticipation.
The significance of my father’s words became clear as my sight fell on the mass of tangled hair poking obtrusively over the back of the chair. A feeble shriek escaped my lips; the sound of a mouse caught in a trap. I backpedaled toward the kitchen, my sight fixed on my Pa as he leaned over and whispered a tender intimacy into the ear of that thing sitting before him. But I should have been watching where I was going. As I turned to flee, I ran into the motionless slab that was once my best friend, my hands flailing but too slow to stop my fall. Lying in a heap, my dog’s inanimate body beneath me, I struggled for breath and escape.
My father stood over me, scowling. “Let’s go, son,” he said harshly. He held a cleaver in his hand, pointing it at my face, its honed edge a warning against disobedience. “It’s getting late, and your Ma needs her rest. You can play with Rufus tomorrow.”
He strode past me, and began to align the fish on the cutting board.
“Hey, there, little man. I hope you and your pa had a fun day,” a voice said, and it was my mother’s voice, distant and autonomic, but carrying the same undertones of mirth I had stored in my memory. It made no difference that her speech was coming from the past. It alleviated my fear just the same, creating the wholesome image of my mother as she was before her death, tugging at my heart, and, before I knew what I was doing, I was shambling back toward the parlor.
Behind me, I heard the condemning whack of the cleaver as a fish head was severed.
“Go on, boy,” Pa said to my back when I hesitated at the threshold. My sight had restored my common sense. Whatever was sitting in that chair was definitely not my mother. “I don’t need no help cleaning these fish.”
Whack. The cleaver took off a tail.
As I dragged myself forward, I closed my eyes, sealing myself in darkness, attempting to hide myself from the horror that was waiting for me.
Whack. Another fish lost its head.
My Ma’s voice continued to call me: “Okay, I love you too. A kiss and then it’s off to bed.”
I tried to recall the setup of the parlor as my feet nudged me further into the room. I clenched my eyes even tighter, reaching out to my right to grasp the divan, using the edge of the cushion and the singsong messages of yesteryear to guide me—
“Mrs. Appleton tells me your studies are going well. I’m so proud of you. She says you’re her brightest student.”
A smell assaulted me as I drew closer, an odor like rotting cabbage in a storm cellar, and I imagined (for the sake of my sanity) that it was coming from the fish, although I knew that no fresh fish, live or dead, could emit a stench like that.
Groping blindly, I stumbled into my destination, reaching out to anchor my balance. My eyelids inadvertently cracked open, and I pulled my hand back in disgust when I saw that the greasy support I was clutching was the back of the corpse’s skull. I quickly resealed my eyes, but not before I saw the skeletal claw gripping at the armrest, my mother’s wedding band hanging loosely from one bony digit.
The recorder—still continuing to spout nonsense: moments from Christmasses and birthdays past—was deafened by my father’s shout: “Soon as you give your Ma a kiss, I want you in the bath. Those chicken livers will stink you up for days if you don’t wash ’em off now.”
Giving in; knowing it was the only way to end this distasteful nightmare; I bent down and planted a kiss on what I assumed was my mother’s cheek. Something small and furry scurried across my lips, and I slapped it away as I drew back. My mouth filling with bile, I turned away and forced my eyes open.
Pa was standing at the parlor entrance, the slime-covered cleaver dangling from his hand. “All right, upstairs with you now.”
As I hurried up the stairs, I could hear my Ma calling to me: “I’ll be up later to tuck you in.”
* * * * *
I scrubbed. I scrubbed and brushed until I thought my hands and teeth were going to fall off. But it didn’t do any good. I can still feel that dank perversion pressing against my skin. I can still taste the stale decay in my mouth. And I can still hear my Pa, downstairs, speaking to that thing in the chair. Occasionally, I can hear my ma answer him.
Rufus is up here with me. Pa decided it was all right if he slept in my room tonight. I don’t mind. I need a friend right now more than anything, and although Rufus’ cold stare continues to disturb me, I know he means me no harm. He’s just scared, that’s all. And I’m sure he’ll come around.
Won’t you, boy?
He has to, because he’s coming with me. I’ve got my bags packed and, as soon as I’ve finished writing today’s events in my journal, I’m going to do what every kid has thought of doing at least once in his childhood: I’m going to run away from my… my family.
C’mon, Rufus. C’mon, Rufus.
I’m going now; I have to. I keep imagining tomorrow’s events: sitting captive at the dinner-table, eating fish, listening to the past, sitting next to it in the full light of day. I have to get out of here, because if I don’t I’m going to die. And if I die I don’t know where I’m going to end up.
Credit To – madinverse