The nurse's hazel eyes shimmer like pennies in shallow water. She proffers a tremulous hand, clasps my shoulder. A nerve twitches beneath her eye. Must be hard, being the harbinger, the bearer. We mustn't shoot the messenger.
“I'm sorry. The baby is gone.”
Words catch in my throat. “I'm glad you didn't say I lost it.”
I must seem wrong. Not enough tears. Not enough screaming. The truth is, I feel detached, untethered. I am a helium balloon, drifting away.
The nurse holds the ultrasound probe against my abdomen. Lube glistens against my skin and, when she pulls the device away, it slurps and plops.
The fuzzy image of my abandoned womb disappears from the screen.
“Do you have someone to drive you home?”
“I'll ring my husband. He'll want to be here.” But of course he won't. Who would want that now?
I am led to a small room with a sofa and paintings on the wall. It is prettier than the crowded waiting room. There is a coffee table with magazines and a box of tissues. I imagine Gerry in a room like this, filling the plastic tub.
La Petite Mort.
The nurse is phoning Gerry now. She says I look rather pale. Peaky, my mother would say. Like a mountain, lost in snow.
My head throbs. Something tugs my optic nerve. Tug. Tug. Tug. Perhaps my eyes will pop back into my brain. I am experiencing supersonic speeds. Gravity is against me. My head lolls to one side.
I may black out.
My eyes close and I feel the Earth revolving. I think I may be sick.
Then Gerry is standing in front of me. He is wearing his little boy face. His chin quivers and his cheeks twitch. He reaches out for me.
“I love you,” he whispers.
And I tumble like a house of cards.
At home, I soak in scalding water. There are bubbles and candles. Gerry sits on the toilet with the lid down.
“I can't believe we lost it.”
Gerry believes in euphemism. He thinks grandmothers should kick buckets and politicians are economical with the truth. I think I would like to slip beneath the water and never come back up.
This is a euphemism too.
“It's my fault. You could go off. Have a child with someone else.” Self-pity mixes with hope. Part of me wishes he would.
He leans forward on the toilet. He looks earnest, angry. When he speaks, it is with passion and certainty. “Don't talk like that. I want your baby – or no baby.”
Our baby has already cost too much. Seven years of tests and prodding; scheduled sex, regimented coupling; injections, hormones, IVF; Babies R Us. Seven years because I am broken. I cannot do what women do.
They say I have a bicornuate uterus; my womb is a heart-shaped box. Endometreosis has filled it with tiny chocolate cysts.
They say I have a hostile environment.
I slip beneath the water. I wish my husband could carry a child. When he swims, he bobs like a seahorse.
Tonight, I have terrible indigestion. My belly churns. If I drink a glass of milk, I will piss buttermilk.
Gerry snores beside me, one arm draped over my waist. His breath reeks of whiskey and cigarettes. Yesterday, when I believed something lived inside me, I craved these things. Tonight, I turned them down. My body is a temple. No. A tomb. I roll the word Sepulchre round my mouth like a stone.
The baby is gone. He is missing. Where is he now?
My stomach lurches. I rush to the bathroom.
I wake to the sound of the car on the drive. Gerry going to work. His other love.
The cramps in my stomach have gone, but now I feel a flutter in my chest. A tiny, arrhythmic counterpoint to my heart's steady thump.
I can't understand this feeling. Am I heart-sick, heart-broken, heavy-hearted? I have lost something precious. Maybe I am half-hearted.
I place a hand between my breasts, feel the strange, discordant note. Perhaps I am having a half-heart attack.
Downstairs, granola and orange juice. There is a comedy show on the radio, but I cannot find a smile. Instead, I switch the channel, searching for the schadenfreude of the news.
I open a tub of pregnancy minerals and pop one in my mouth.
For the rest of the week, the strange feeling moves from organ to organ like a bee seeking honey. On Wednesday, my lung feels tight, as if a child was sitting on my chest. On Thursday, my back aches and I struggle to get out of bed. I think my kidney is swollen. Friday, I am constipated – Gerry suggests prune juice. For some reason this frightens me and I decline. Saturday, I feel nothing.
Why does this make me sad?
I spend the day in tears.
“You've been in shock,” says Gerry.
He has a book on adoption in his hand. He doesn't understand the phrase “too soon”.
“I was starting to think –” I can't complete the sentence. It is too crazy for words. They'd lock me up.
Gerry looks at me like a puppy waiting for a treat. But my hands are empty.
Sunday. I wake up to the most peculiar sensation in the bottom right hand side of my abdomen. Something swells beneath the skin. I feel a flutter of pain.
“We should call an ambulance.” Gerry thinks I have appendicitis.
“No. It's not really painful. Just... odd.”
He is not convinced. For two hours he pours over internet websites, growing panicky at every possible problem.
I cup my hand over the small, tender lump. It is warm.
What are appendixes for?
Something wriggles and I slip away to the bathroom.
I pull a plastic stick from a drawer and sit down. It's strange. I know what I will find before it appears. It can't be but it is.
Two blue lines.
My baby has finally found somewhere safe to grow.
copyright © 2014
Hailing from the south coast of England, Leo Norman is a teacher, father and teller of tall tales.
One night, in my dorm at Harvard, while I waited on the linoleum for the water from the
swimming pool to dry off of me, a documentary came on about a hoax mermaid. Some desperate archaeologist in Peru had put together the bones of old fossils: the tail of an Isurus hastalis, the torso and skull of a Neanderthal woman. He’d planted this collage of errors on the bank of the receding Madre de Dios River.
‘People will do anything for glory,’ said Jack, one of my two room-mates, around a mouthful of dangling pizza cheese. ‘What do you think of this, Addie?’
Jack and Kevin still don’t know how to pronounce my name right. I've stopped trying to correct them. Jack calls me Addie which phonetically means ‘curse’, so I cringe a little when he says my name. Kevin calls me Addai which is a girl’s name in Igbo. They are friendly boys and they keep asking me what I think about things, as if on some subconscious level they expect me to bring a new insight into things, just because I came from halfway around the world; because I come from a different culture, a different place. Most times, all I say is, ‘That's crazy,’ or ‘That's some crazy shit, man,’ and they nod solemnly and it seems enough for them.
But this time, towel in my armpits, I'm staring hard at the hoax mermaid, her scraggly blonde hair and slack prehistoric jaw.
‘What do you think, Addie? Mermaids?’
Halfway around the world, a different culture, a different place, my mother raised us on midnight tales of the merpeople. Her stories were startling for their clarity.
‘I remember they had skin the colour of candle wax,’ she would say, chipping at the dried candle wax on the floor with the open end of a Coke bottle.
I was born in 1985 in the fishing village of Ikanre. My birthplace is a stretch of land in the middle of nowhere, hemmed by a freshwater lagoon on one side and a thick, almost impenetrable forest on the other. How the first of our ancestors happened on that stretch of land, no one knew. Even the cataract-eyed griots frowned, lips pursed in confusion when you asked them.
In my mother's youth, Ikanre was an idyllic little place, unconnected to the rest of the world. The country’s independence, the coups of the first military regime, even the Biafra War swept by somewhere like vagabond wind, oblivious of the village and they oblivious of it. The water and the forests were the amber in which the village was preserved.
My mother claimed that, as a child, in 1959, she had playmates in the water.
‘There was a whole village underwater,’ mother would say, tears welling up in her eyes till her blacks were distorted behind them. ‘People lived there,’ she said. ‘People like me and you, except they were made for the water, as we are for the land. We were not surprised by them as people would be nowadays.’
As a young girl, she spent most of her time in the lagoon. All the other girls her age were behaving properly. Some were finding suitors and getting married. She had suitors too, but whenever they came to see her father and he called for her, she would come racing from the water, dripping wet, her clothes revealing all she had underneath, embarrassing him duly and plunging her bride price. But the suitors came nonetheless. My father was the most persistent of them all.
My earliest memories are of father and mother fighting. Mother is heavily set but her bones are the bones of a woman. In the most vivid of these memories, mother is trying to pull father back into the house. I remember there were men waiting outside for father, chuckling, all of them dressed up with harpoons and nets. Father extricates himself and walks out, laughing. My mother runs after them until she realises that her wrapper has fallen. People are looking. She curses the onlookers, squeezing her breasts at them, before walking back into the house.
I remember mother throwing herself on the ground and pulling her hair. And I remember – or maybe I’m imagining it – mother screaming at me, a toddler, ‘You! When you grow up, don’t be like him. Never be like him!’
But as I grew up, all I ever wanted was to be like father. Father was strong. He used to take us out to the lagoon, lift us up on his shoulders and wade in until the water covered his head and we were screaming, afraid of being drowned. We never learned to swim. It was forbidden.
‘Koi, the sweetest of potatoes, grew only underwater,’ my mother would tell us. ‘Your grandmother would row out to the bamboo post of the trader who sold koi. If the trader wasn’t sitting on her raft, your grandmother would blow into a hollow bamboo rod, which was the merpeople’s equivalent of a storekeeper’s bell. The trader would surface, they would chat a little, gossip and trade; your grandmother would offer a derika of beans or a ripening pineapple for a basket of koi.’
Only my mother talked of the merpeople. It was not a shared memory.
“They were beautiful,” Mother would say, on the nights after her bad days – days she spent in a cocoon of inconsolable sadness.
My brothers were no longer interested in her stories; they said they didn't believe them.
‘Then why don’t they allow children in the water?’ I would argue with my brothers.
‘Because of the water snakes and the crocs,’ Bode would say dismissively, his head buried deep in a book.
‘Why are there no more merpeople?’ I asked my mother one day. I was six, and had just come back from school. She was pounding something in the mortar and she abandoned it for two minutes to beat the shit out of me.
Civilisation came to our village in my mother’s youth by way of the oil rig that appeared on the horizon, and the rapid proliferation of a city nearby. The city of Port Harcourt. That little strip of land, which we'd ignored over the years, began to bustle and grow.
Father worked for a shrimping company on the port, crewing on an ocean trawler called The Titus. When he wasn’t hauling shrimp on the trawler, he went fishing with his friends, mostly at night when the water was calm and the fish were stupid. Father and his friends would wear thick fur and tattered motorcycle gloves. I was dying to go fishing with them from the moment I could construct coherent thought.
But father wouldn’t take me. I was too soft, he told me one day when I dressed up and made to follow him. ‘And you’re your mother's only daughter.’
‘I'm a boy!!’ I screamed.
My brothers laughed. It was true, mother loved me most, but she had loved everyone, until they started going fishing with father. She held on to me as she would a shield and cursed the three chuckling men as they carried their harpoons and guns and spears.
‘One day, you too, you will go with them,’ she'd say eventually, when they were gone, pushing me away.
I didn’t understand her then. I was 13, and had come to see her as other people did: crazy. I hoped to be a doctor when I was older so I could get mother the right drugs she needed to be free of her imagined horrors and sadness.
One night Bode shook me awake on my straw bed. He was dressed for fishing. I leapt up after him, but he held me down, a finger perpendicular across his lips. I nodded, grateful for this gift in the night. Mother was sleeping fitfully in the corner.
My father and brothers and three of my father's friends were pushing out the canoes and the rafts. I wanted to go and thank them, but they didn’t say a word to me, didn’t so much as acknowledge me with a glance. I thought fishing was fun and talking manly and tossing jokes, but it suddenly looked like serious business.
I was given a short spear, and Bode dumped a net over my head that weighed me down considerably. I scrambled in and we started rowing out towards the oil rig on the horizon, towards the city.
Port Harcourt is beautiful in the night. I stared, enraptured by the blinking lights. The wind brought the report of music to my ears, the soft blare of horns, laughter . . . an auditory teaser of a city that never slept. We stopped paddling and the current took us forward. One of father's friends opened a large bucket and carried out a baby dolphin; it struggled in the man’s grasp. He held on to it, fingers hooked under its throat. I stared at the animal and its gaze met mine.
My brothers brought out a mallet. They lay the dolphin on the floor of the canoe and hit it twice, then once more. They broke its back, with a horrifying crunching sound. Its eyes rolled in their shallow sockets. Its pallid skin shook and it squealed whenever it was moved. They lowered it into the water where its screams seemed to spread like ripples. It tried to swim, hurt itself in the process, and shrieked some more. It lay on its side like something artificial, like a blow-up balloon fish, poking out of the surface. Occasionally, it would flap, struggle against its own incapacitation, and scream yet again at the pain it brought to itself. Then it lay still for a while, rheumy eyes roving from one person to another. I thought I could see a plea for death in those eyes.
Soon, slowly, it began to sink. I could see its white underbelly squeeze and ripple in spasms.
‘Pull yourself together,’ Bode whispered. I was crying.
We waited. The howl of the animal was spread around us and it seemed as if the sea itself was weeping. All of a sudden, there was a presence. I could feel it. We could all feel it. The water seemed to move and twirl, like something viscous, like milk.
It was glowing. In all my imaginings of the merpeople, of my mother's stories, I'd always felt they were our size. I was wrong. It was long. The length of three men placed end to end, the size of a war canoe. Yet it swam gracefully, unobtrusively in the water. The scales on its magnificent tail were layered one atop the other meticulously like silver coins, and it glowed in the dark like expensive damask. It emerged from the deepest depth. Its eyes, large orbs in its head, had a bright and intelligent animal quality. Its skin was pale fluorescence. It rushed to the injured dolphin and cradled it, cooing to it like a baby. I was mesmerised.
Suddenly my father and his friends were in the water. My brother struck glow sticks against his thigh and threw them in. Shots were fired. The stench of phosphorus and gun powder. It shielded its eyes with one arm, spun and tried to flee back into the dark depths from which it had come. The lights from the yellow glow sticks brought it out in fresh relief, and I could see the veins running on the underside of its arm, the dings in its umbilicated silver scales. The nets, then the spears and the harpoons stabbing repeatedly, blood gushing in the water, mixing with the froth and suds of struggling, and, over the water, my heart-wrenching screams.
When I came to, they had lifted it into the boat. The canoe was too small for it and part of its tail hung out over the water. Paper-pale arms, lifeless eyes and dilated pupils . . . a partly opened mouth with pink girlish lips. There were lines in his palm like a human and one of his fingers was a healed broken stub. I stared into his lifeless eyes as my family worked fervently on him with the chisel, peeling out silver scales and dropping them on the floor of the boat where they fell with loud heavy thumps. When they had done one side, they rolled him over on his back and peeled all the scales on the other side. His blood was like ours, dripping from the gaping stab wounds in its throat and chest and arms and collecting on the silver coins that filled the boat.
Before they pushed him back into the water, father caught his hand. Father's jaw pulsed, a sadness rippling across his brow. He held the arm like a handshake, and for a moment, father and the dead merman looked like comrades making a pact. Father turned away to the silver coins as the fishermen pushed the merman into the water, into the dying blinking lights of the maize-coloured glow sticks, where he sunk with his hands up in eternal surrender.
Two nights later, Bode’s dry, gloved hand rapped on my cheek and I pretended to be impossible to wake.
‘Sissy,’ he hissed before running off with the rest of them.
‘Why didn’t you go with them?’ Mother's voice in the dark.
‘I hate them. I hate my family.’ I was crying.
‘Come here, child.’
I crept into the curve of my mother's belly and she held me and started to tell the history of our village.
‘When the oil rig appeared on the horizon,’ mother said, ‘the merpeople went first and brought back the news of the ‘beautiful’ things they’d seen. They brought back garbage and raised it up as trophies. Fools.’
‘The best of our men took boats and went to the city. They came back different. It was as if a disease had befallen them from which they could never heal. Soon, the trousers came and replaced the sokoto and then the shirts replaced the bubas and then there were mirrors and trinkets and watches . . . and all the other things we hadn’t needed. Even the hours of the day were suddenly not enough now that we knew how many they were, now that we had taken time and hinged it on the face of a three fingered instrument. Then, one day, someone took the deciduous scale of a merman to the city and became surprisingly and instantly rich.
‘Our corruption came fast. First we asked the merpeople for their scales. There was an amusing dash of people thrashing in the water, looking for fallen silver. When the lagoon had been stripped of fallen scales, all was quiet for awhile. It seemed the amusing brouhaha was over. Then someone ran a spear through an old mermaid's throat and picked her clean.
‘That was the start of the massacre. I was sixteen, 1971. I was distraught. I ran to the water that was pleated with so much blood. I threw myself at the men, tried to pull them away, tried to stand between their spears and the thrashing merfolk but I was only a girl in the face of their crazed desperation. As they brushed me aside I saw: They had no blacks in their eyes, only the luminous glare of silver.
‘In the end, all that silver was not enough. People went to the city and made a mess of their lives. One after the other, they slunk back home. The water became a forbidden place out of our fear of an anticipated revenge. But it never came.
‘I married your father in the summer of '74. I was given to him by my father in the hopes that he would revive in me a will to live. People called me crazy because I was the only one who still swam in the water. The stories had changed by then and we had managed to convince ourselves that we were the good ones and the villains lived in the water. We renamed the massacre and called it a war.
‘I cooked for your father and cleaned his nets and fishing baskets. I simply did what was required of me. I had nothing to say to him. If he wanted me a hundred times a day, I didn’t protest. I just lay down beneath him. At first, he was content, he was happy. It was all that he wanted. But he soon realised that I wasn’t there, and became disgusted with himself afterwards. He tried to make me hold him but my hands were always limp, slipping off his back and falling on the mat. I saw him crying once. He was married to a ghost.’
She lay still and silent for a while.
‘Your father is not a bad man,’ she said eventually. ‘He wants you all, you and your brothers, to have the best education, the best in the world. He doesn’t want you to work on trawlers and haul little shrimp.’
‘Who buys the scales?’ I sniffed.
‘They are pure silver,’ she said. ‘Your father sells them to the men who work on the rig and the men who own The Titus. He sells them for foreign currency.’
‘But our school fees are not expensive.’
She laughed at this. ‘They will soon be. Didn’t you say you wanted to be a doctor?’
‘Not anymore,’ I said.
In my Harvard dorm room, the TV was going. I looked around at the medical textbooks, whose leather bindings matched my sofas.
‘So what do you think, Addie? Mermaids?’ Jack said, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin.
I looked out the window.
‘That’s some crazy shit, man,’ I said.
First published in Australia by Canary Press May 2013
Adelehin Ijasan is a Nigerian writer residing in Lagos and has been published in magazines such as canary press, on the premises, membra disjecta and takahe.
For some of us, if our souls were flesh, there’d be long scars traversing the surface. The scars would be bumpy and jagged as if made by serrated edges. That’s what the hunt did to us. I got mine at age ten during the heart of the hunt. Sometimes I imagine it an open wound, bleeding and swollen, oozing white pus.
My father seemed saddened by the wolf hunt, then angered, then resigned. I tried to mimic my father's emotions, but only mastered sadness. Seeing the hunt bury me in sorrow fueled the quiet burn of his rage.
There’s no need to imagine his scar, it’s right there on his stomach. It’s brown and fat like an earthworm. The curved keloid looks almost cute, but that little mean thing is the reason his breathing sounds like knotted, labored grunts; the reason he moves like a 75-year-old—even back when he was a young man he shuffle-stepped like every stride was a torture.
It all began for us the night we found dogs quivering in the stairwell behind our house. The three of them curled into one another and shivered as if cold, but it wasn’t cold out. They looked pitiful and sad. Little black noses twitching atop pale brown fur.
I pointed them out to my father instead of shooing them away: “Daddy, can we help?”
Father, mother and child, like our own family, I told my dad. Forgive me, I tend to anthropomorphize them, even to this day. The father barked at me, weakly. It was pathetic and sad. My own father disliked dogs, but his hatred for the dog-hunters was greater than his disdain for the animals. The father dog barked weakly again, standing between me and his family.
It was the high time of the hunt. Bullets still cracked through the night. Before the hunt, you would rarely see wild dogs trotting the Northside, but now they knew they would be safer here—if only marginally—so it was no longer rare to encounter them, two at a time at least, almost never solo. We were in the grip of craziness and mob rule. Roving bands of lunatics with kill licenses roamed the town. The sound of blasted weapons and the sight of wolf carcasses still littered the Northside, but not as much as in the Wildlands and the Southside. We prided ourselves on our relative sanity.
“I’m your friend,” my father said.
The father dog seemed to understand. My father moved closer. The mother dog tensed. There was a gash on her paw and another at her side. The father dog wouldn’t let us within whispering distance.
“Smart man,” my father said. “I would do the same for my woman if roles were reversed.”
My father sent me to the kitchen for meat and bones. The father dog ate. He fed his son. His wife moaned, watching the food as if it were dirt. We sat with them for a while. My mother called from the window every couple minutes. It felt as if we were all one, united against the hunt.
We left the dogs in the stairwell that night. A friend of my father’s, a vet with a downtown practice, promised to be at our house at eight in the morning. Since the weather was fine and the dogs were used to being outdoors, he told us they’d be safe in our backyard. The dogs wouldn’t leave a food source and a friendly hand, especially with an injured party and distant gunshots popping more frequently than a Baghdad night.
Cal, my father’s friend, arrived before eight the next morning. My dad greeted him wearing a ratty robe, his teeth unbrushed and snot dotting the corners of his eyes. I hadn’t slept, not even for five minutes. At six in the morning, I left my bed for the living room window, keeping vigil for any sign of Cal’s car. Every ten minutes or so I peered into the backyard to make sure the dogs were safe.
“I thought you hated dogs,” Cal said to my father.
“Sometimes I hate humans more,” he replied.
Cal spoke softly to them. The family didn’t growl beneath his hands. He looked into their broken-toothed mouths. He massaged their flesh and fingered their fur. The bitch moaned in pain. Her husband and son watched sadly as Cal patched her paw.
“Cross River is inhumane,” Cal said. He scrunched his face as if about to cry. “Keep them inside if you want them to live. Especially the bi— the female.”
“Don’t worry Mr. Tillery,” I said. “I’m gonna write a letter to Mayor McJohnson. Things’ll change.”
I’d hoped an adult would validate my words, but no one even acknowledged I’d spoken. My mother called from the next room ; she’d made my favorite breakfast, fish cakes and grits.
Cal ran his thick hand through my hair and rested it atop back of my neck and it did nothing to reassure me that all would be fine.
That night, after we had gone off to sleep and the dogs were likewise resting in a cleared corner of the basement, the ringing doorbell disturbed the night. The chiming was urgent and insistent and followed by rough banging.
Something was all wrong. I sat still, hoping the knocking and ringing would cease. I heard my parents grumbling in the next room, but I couldn’t make out what they said. Then they started to bicker loudly.
“What are you doing,” my father asked. “Don’t go out there.”
“You’re just sitting here,” my mother replied. “You gonna do something?”
My father’s steps thudded down the hallway.
I looked out the bedroom window and saw three men standing on the porch. One waved a badge. The shiny thing caught the pale light from above and flicked it about.
I heard the front door creaking and watched as the men walked into our house. In my head I heard my dead grandfather, the civil rights attorney: Never open no door to let no po-lice in your house if they don’t got no warrant.
He had said it to me over and over, even when the conversation had nothing to do with the subject of the police or our Constitutional rights. I imagined my grandfather watching from above, shaking his head in disgust and shame.
The darkness of my room suddenly became so thick I thought I needed to scoop it off my body. I felt it invading my airways and I wouldn’t be able to breathe if I stayed in the room, so I crept to the door and cracked it, just enough to let a river of light pour in.
“Mr. Bosley,” I heard a man say. “We’re told you have some guests in your basement. Wolves.”
Some unfamiliar voices mumbled in agreement. I eased further down the hall to hear the exchange more clearly. “There are no wolves in Cross River,” my father said. “A shitload of dogs though.”
“No one showed any ID or anything like that since you’ve been inside,” my father said. “Can I see that badge again?”
I was now at the edge of the corridor in plain sight. There was a man with a thin mustache standing before my father and two shorter guys hanging back. One man held a long black bag. It was dark in the living room, but it seemed to me that they were all wearing black leather and official-looking uniforms that didn’t at all resemble the clothing of any police I’d ever seen. I felt a hand touch the back of my neck and I jumped and softly yelped. I turned to see my mother.
“What are you doing out here,” she whispered sharply. “Get back to your room. Now!”
She brushed past without making sure I followed her orders and I probably would have if she didn’t decide to enter the drama.
“Are you police,” she asked, cutting in front of my father. “You don’t look like police so you have no right in my house.”
A moment of tense stares passed between my parents and the men and then, as if appearing via magic, a small handgun hovered just inches from my mother’s face. She gasped and my breathing grew shallow. The man with the black bag removed a shotgun and passed it to the other unarmed man. Then he removed one for himself, letting the bag thud to the floor with a heavy metallic thump.
“Taking in strays is against the law,” the thin-mustached man said, gesturing with his handgun as if it were just a prop. “We’re going to have to take them and put them to sleep. I don’t mean to scare you, and this doesn’t have to end with problems. The guns are for wolves, not people, but I ask that you don’t get in the way of our work.”
“You’re not police, huh,” my dad said.
“Is that your boy back there?” the man asked. “Hey little guy. My name’s Sid.”
“Didn’t I tell you to go back to your room,” my mother yelled. “Go. Now.”
“No,” Sid said. “Stay with us, buddy. It’s cool.”
“Are they in the basement?” Black Bag asked.
“I don’t have any dogs,” my father replied.
“Hey, little guy, is your daddy telling the truth? I know he told you to never tell a lie. Is he telling a lie to Sid?”
My body became mannequin-stiff. I was scared to even turn my head to make sure my mother was OK. My dad always used to say, “If anything ever happens to me, you gotta look after your Mom. She’s tough, but in the ways she’s not, it’s your job to be tough for her.”
At that, I’d nod. In those days there was not a single way I could see that my mother wasn’t tough.
“Someone should give the dogs guns,” my mother said.
“We’re the Wolf Pack,” the hunter with the friendly face, chimed in. “Just doing our part to rid the town of wolves, that’s all. I know you heard of us.”
My mother shook her head. My father shook his. I shrugged.
“I hate dogs,” my father said. “I didn’t bring any in here. Whoever informed you is mistaken.”
“Your friend, the vet told us, man. If it’s any consolation,” Sid said. “The brother was under duress. Had big guns in his face, not no little shits like the ones you’re shivering about.”
“Again, we don’t have any do—”
A blue spark momentarily gave light to the darkened room. The pop of Sid’s gun deafened me for a second or maybe my brain couldn’t process it all; my father falling, bleeding--the brown stain at the back of his pajama pants as he tossed side to side. My mother crouched over me—the same way the father dog had guarded his wife—holding me tight to the spot as if I even had the ability to move. And my father on the floor, all alone.
Raucous barking rose through the floorboards. Sid and Black Bag laughed. The third hunter though, watched my father with a frown and a brow knotted tight with pain. Maybe he felt compassion or maybe disgust. Or perhaps an empathy he couldn’t fully express in front of his friends. Sid and Black Bag walked past us into the basement as the empathetic hunter trained his shotgun on my mother and me. He didn’t speak or react to my dad’s screams or my mother’s whimpering. I heard footsteps padding down the stairs and then some brief barking followed by three loud, blunt pops.
Moments later, as my father dipped in and out of consciousness, the hunters mumbled back and forth and I studied their mostly blank faces—another roving pack of madmen, run wild by the hunt. When I could no longer take staring at them, I lowered my eyes and watched three sets of black boots walk out the front door.
copyright © 2014
Rion Amilcar Scott lives and writes in Beltsville, MD and currently teaches English at Bowie State University.
As she extinguished her last cigarette in the ashtray, the ten from earlier in the evening rolled to the middle, welcoming the new fallen comrade. Parting smoke billowed in Helen’s face as she waved her right hand in disgust. Her left hand still clutched a glass of red wine. She turned the stem upward and paused as if more Merlot could trickle out through gravity alone. As soon as the neighbors turned off their last porch light, she rolled her eyes and lifted up from the couch.
“What the hell?” she cried, noticing her husband’s dirty plate from earlier sitting on the kitchen counter, far from its rightful place in the dishwasher.
Her beagle, Teddy, raised his head out from under his blanket, alerted by the tone in her voice. He sensed her frustration, so he stayed in his bed, watching her every move. Before Helen turned off the lamp, she opened the front door hoping his truck would be pulling in the driveway. But she only found an empty pad of cement and a cat watching over his shoulder with each step as if the world was out to get him. She rolled her eyes, turned off the front porch light and locked the door. Less than three steps away, she paused and changed her mind, turning the front light back on.
“Going to bed. Be careful!” she texted her husband, Everett.
Helen shuffled back to the bedroom, contemplating where he may be as he read her message. He is damn lucky to have such a wife, she mulled in her head. She placed her phone on the empty pillow and crawled in the king size with Teddy. He situated himself in Everett’s spot, stretching out his lazy dog legs.
“I promise I won’t be out long, but don’t wait up,” were her husband’s last words before he left with the guys that evening.
Helen waited up anyway in hopes he would come home early, wanting to be with his wife for a change. She now regretted that decision. The blinking green battery light of her cell phone pulsed in the dark room like a lone buoy on the sea’s dark horizon. She stared at the beacon from the opposite pillow. Teddy grunted as he tried to re-situate.
“Well excuse me, mister,” she said as if Teddy’s frustration had been directed towards her.
A distant flash of light rumbled soft thunder. Immediately rain began popping at the windows as if the lightening had just pierced the saturated clouds. She picked up her phone, making sure she did not miss a reply text from Everett. But nothing new appeared, just the time displayed as 12:35 a.m. in white numbers against the black screen.
“This is ridiculous.”
She dialed his number. But it went directly to his voicemail.
“This is Everett, you know what to do,” the recording spoke abrasively in her ear.
“Uh,” she growled, annoyed at his careless tone.
She threw the phone back onto the empty pillow.
“Why the hell would he turn his damn phone off?” she questioned the night, staring up at the fan blades circling her head.
The rotations made her sick. She checked her purse for another cigarette, and then recalled smoking the last one earlier—so much earlier, a lifetime earlier. She dropped her purse to the floor. Teddy gave out another grunt.
“Oh cool it!” she said, lifting the sheets.
He cut his eyes at her. Helen covered him back up and rolled on her side convincing herself, as usual, that there was nothing left to do but close her eyes. The rain became more consistent on the window. She could see the lightning through the thin membrane of her lids. She closed them tighter, trying to force sleep. But it was hopeless, her thoughts ran back and forth through her head like a parade of rowdy children mocking her: two written proposals due on Mr. Matthews’ desk by 9 a.m.; need light bulbs, dog food, lunch meat; Everett shouldn’t be drinking, I should have stopped him from going out, I’ve got to start cracking the whip; Teddy needs his heartworm pills refilled; my mother will be in town next weekend; need to clean bathrooms.
Helen lifted herself up from the bed and found the Ambien in a bathroom drawer.
“I should’ve done this two hours ago,” she said with frustration.
She swallowed one pill and listened to the spring wind moan with the sheeting storm. It shouldn’t be long now, she thought, turning on the television while crawling back in bed with Teddy.
She skipped over the infomercials looking for a soothing background that would help guide her gently into the night, ultimately settling on a documentary about the Civil War. The narrator’s monotone voice floated over the grainy dark pictures.
Will not be long, she repeated.
Helen checked her phone one last time in hopes of a comforting reply. But still just the time staring back, insulting her, telling her how late it was on a work night and what a pushover she had become. To avoid her frustration she focused on the fading stills of Confederate soldiers hunkering down in the earthworks, eyes closed, shielding themselves from the onslaught.
Not long, she sighed again, fanning her lashes.
Then as if placed in another space and time, a violent gust shattered a window in the kitchen, breaking the muffled silence of the night. She heard glass rain down into the sink. Her heart pumped rapidly. Teddy did not move. The front door then opened bringing in the night’s frustration. At first she feared the wind flung it open, but then heard her husband’s drunken movements ricochet throughout the house.
“Honey, is that you?” Helen questioned the darkness, her voice cracking.
He did not answer until he reached the entrance of the bedroom. She could only make out his massive silhouette at the door.
“Hey babe. You awake?”
“I am now. Are you alright? Did you break the window?”
“I think I might’ve hit someone.”
“At the window?”
“Are you awake, babe?”
“Yes, Everett. Tell me what the hell is going on?”
“I think I might have hit someone tonight.”
“Lord, did you get into another fight?”
“I think I may have hit someone on my way home.”
She blinked twice in the dark as if to forget and refocus, “What do you mean?”
“Everett! Yes!” she threw off the covers as if escaping.
“I think he was homeless. He was walking beside the road and the minute I came up near him to pass, he tripped or something and fell right into my path.”
Her feet hit the floor, “Oh Jesus Christ! What are you saying?”
“Are you awake, babe?”
“Everett, did you hit him?”
“Yes. He rolled off the front side of my truck. I am…I’m pretty sure of it, but I wasn’t at the time, it was raining, so I—”
“So you what?”
“So I kept going. I just kept driving. I didn’t look back to see.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Well, you seem to know now! I told you to quit drinking and driving, Everett, goddammit! You already have two DUIs in the past three years; you know you can’t afford to do that shit! You shouldn’t be drinking at all!”
“Are you awake babe or still asleep?”
“I swear to all that is holy, Everett, I—”
“I won’t disturb you if you’re asleep. I was just seein’ if you were in the mood is all. Go back to sleep now, babe.”
“Don’t you dare say that shit! Don’t you dare! I don’t believe what you’re saying right now, you’re drunk!”
She jumped up from bed, leaving Teddy hiding under the covers. Worried that Everett would try to stop her, Helen sprinted to the kitchen and turned on the lights. The night-covered window projected only her frenzied reflection.
“How could he do this to us? How? I knew it! This man—I don’t know this man. I really don’t. This is the man you hear about on the news and wonder who could love such a disgusting prick of a man—a slimy, heartless beast! This man, the man I thought I loved and cared for all these goddamn years! How do you love a man like that, let alone live with him?” she cried, biting her nails. “But I can’t say the signs weren’t there. They’ll ask me, and I honestly can’t say that I didn’t know. I knew he’d do something to ruin everything eventually. I just didn’t want to believe it. All that I’ve done and sacrificed for him. What a piece of shit!”
Helen turned on the kitchen sink and splashed her face with a handful of cold water—then remembered the window breaking earlier and stepped back, raising her arms slowly, looking for the glass in the sink.
But there was not a trace.
Confused, she looked around the kitchen and the den, turning on lights as she went. All the windows remained intact as the rain continued tapping against them. Without thinking, she opened the front door and walked down the driveway. The pines swayed on the wind like marionettes, leaning down to her shoulder as if to tell her a secret. The night had come in such slow deliberate motions, but it now felt so fast and uncontrollable. She didn’t see Everett’s truck parked anywhere. Just still the empty concrete pad. And cats. She was sure cats were everywhere, watching. Pine straw then fell in her hair causing her to jump and swat as if spiders were crawling up her neck.
The wind driven rain pushed Helen’s small frame back inside the front door. She turned the lock. Silence fell upon the room and her mind. The rainwater marked her steps as she returned to the kitchen. For the first time she noticed Everett’s keys sprawled on the counter with his wallet and a card for a taxi. She tried to catch up with the images and thoughts, but was slow to understand anything. She crept back to bedroom. Only the flashes of white light from the television could be seen.
Everett and Teddy were in the bed, wrapped securely within the thick covers. Helen stared at the blinking television, not sure what to do next.
Then Everett rolled over, “Babe, come back to bed, it’s 4 a.m. What the hell are you doin’ awake?”
copyright © 2014
Samuel K. Wilkes is an attorney, writer, and musician living on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, Alabama.