Menace is in the air. Tragedies are in the making. Fear passes from each to each. It has always been this way.
Mine were violent and all-powerful. They even knew this about each other. Father sarcastically called her “The Queen” because she was cruel and self-absorbed. Mother called him “The Minotaur,” after the creature of incalculable fury.
Jack’s were a little different. His mother was violent, but his father was not. His mother beat him. His father was rarely around. Jack’s father called Jack’s mother “The Witch” because of her sharp tongue. His mother called his father “The Goat Man” for his lasciviousness, for he liked the ladies.
3. Dog Stories
I never had a dog when I was little, but Jack did, a little Boston Terrier named Pepper. And Pepper was everything to Jack, his baby to take care of, his friend to keep him company. A creature pure in its love.
A teenaged boy told me once that his dog was run over by a car. The dog was alive but suffering. He knew he would have to shoot it to put it out of its misery. As the dog lay beside the road, the boy reached his hand out. The dog licked his hand. “The Goddamn thing licked my hand,” the boy said. He was crying when he told me this.
Two weeks ago, in this town, someone tied a stray dog to a pole. The person poured accelerant on the dog and set it on fire. The dog lived for a few days, during which time many people rallied to save it, and when it died many were left feeling empty, with nothing to do and no one to blame.
Last summer, at a festival, I saw a black dog. Its owners stopped to let a child see it. The child was a very young, a boy, not yet able to talk. It was a remarkable dog. I know this because I saw it through the child’s eyes. Its owners went around with it on the end of a string! It had two shiny marbles for eyes! Its hair was short and velvety like the inside of a jewelry box! Nearby, people sold confections and balloons, so there was a flurry of buying. Most people headed toward the river where canons were being fired and men wore uniforms from long-ago wars. Silently, the boy sent his finger forth and touched the dog’s little black anus. The mother was calm. She looked at her child with sadness, as though she had seen something far ahead or had just awakened from a dream about death.
There is a place some humans believe in called “the Rainbow Bridge,” a realm where pets go after death and are restored to full health and happiness. It seems to me a place like the Big Rock Candy Mountain that hobos sing of, a land of lemonade springs and a lake of stew, a land where jails are made of tin and you can walk right out again. In these places, there are no sad consequences to anything pleasurable in life. At the Rainbow Bridge, there’s unending sunshine, room to play, and fresh water and food all the time. It’s a place of reunion, where humans someday rejoin their pets. I’ve heard people say something like, “My Buddy passed over the Rainbow Bridge today.” They say through their tears that now their pet is running free.
We walked to school every morning and Pepper followed us. He knew what classroom we were in and jumped until he could see us through the window. It made everybody laugh, even the teacher. When he was satisfied, he would lie by the door, waiting for us. He would wait all day. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote in his diary, “The yardstick for a human being is: how long and to what degree he can bear to be alone, devoid of understanding with others.” Pepper understood us. This was his proper function, and when were together, we were happy.
I slept in a room at the end of a long dark hallway on the second-story of our house.
Once I let a rope down for Jack to climb on. The idea was to let him and Pepper live secretly in my room. It made sense at the time.
But Mother heard us and nailed the window shut. And that was the end of that, except for the punishments.
Mother punished me by making me sit under the big tree in our front yard. I sat there for many hours. While there, I developed a relationship with an owl that lived in the tree. The owl became my confessor, listening to all my problems, considering all my questions.
I asked it, “Do you believe in God?” I said, “I have read The Golden Book About God, but there is no picture of God in the book, only pictures of birds, insects, cherries, and stars.”
In my childish way, I wondered whether these things might be God or at least manifestations of Him. I still wonder.
Jack’s punishment began with his mother yelling at the top of her lungs and his father’s grand escape. The Goat Man fled the house, yelling that his witchy wife was nothing but trouble. “If I wanted to take my troubles with me,” he said, “I wouldn’t bother leaving.”
The next day I saw the marks on Jack’s face and arms, the places where she had hit him, making blood rise angrily under his skin.
One day I felt good, so I broke into song at the kitchen table. This was rude, Mother said, so she made me sit under the tree again. I sat there for many hours.
It became a regular thing.
The punishment was so frequent that I began to study the situation, and I saw she didn’t care if I stayed under the tree or not. She only wanted me out of her sight. Then I was free to join Jack and Pepper in their explorations.
Jack and I found an old cabin in the forest, and we decorated it with objects we found at the dump. It was homey. We had chairs, a table, a painting of an angel protecting children while they crossed a bridge, and a vase for flowers. We had a whole set of World Book Encyclopedias. We had a circular rug made of old, braided rags sewn together. We gave the rug to Pepper, who slept on it in a sliver of light that came through the cabin window. And while Pepper slept, I read encyclopedias to Jack and quizzed him about the summaries they held.
When we were in the cabin, we never pictured ourselves changed by grief, growing up, or growing old. Like children in a fairy tale, we would be children forever and eventually all would be well.
6. A Cat
I was the one who discovered it. It was a kitten, so tiny it was sleeping in one of father’s shoes. Mother wanted Father to carry it off, but he wouldn’t. She wanted him to kill it but he said no. He didn’t want the cat. He just didn’t want to bow to her commands. He was the Minotaur, the crazy bull at the heart of the labyrinth of life.
I fed the cat and it learned to trust me.
Mother said it would all come to no good.
One day I saw the cat’s belly was large. Mother saw it too and said the cat would have kittens. She blamed Father. What were they going to do now with a bunch of cats? This would upset our stability. Our lives would now be so much worse. An argument ensued. Insults were traded. To end the fight, Father threw a mug of beer at her head. She ducked, so it didn’t hit her. It exploded against the wall.
It was quiet then, enough to hear the mice scurrying behind walls.
Time went on.
It was in the fall when the air was bitter with the smell of burning leaves. That’s when I found the cat dead under a bush.
As Kierkegaard wrote in his diary, “Great is my grief, limitless. Since my earliest childhood, a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As long as it stays I am ironic—if it is pulled out I shall die.”
Mother saw the dead cat too and was filled with a magnificent rage. She would give me a lesson, she said.
She had already told me long ago how babies were made, how they were born. Her descriptions of cutting, blood, and pain had left me scarred and afraid.
And now she said she would show me something. She went into the house and got a knife. She wanted to expose the kittens, to show me how they would be hairless and blind, like little rats, she said, like filthy little rats. She sliced the cat open but there were no babies, only a big tumor.
No kittens. This enraged her even more. She threw the cat and the tumor onto our pile of burning leaves. The flames curled everything up, turning it black before reducing it to almost nothing.
After this, I dreamed that the cat had only looked dead. Really, she was alive, except I was the only one who knew it. The dream gave me a private thrill.
One day Jack’s mother chased him around the yard hitting him with a broom handle. She had done this before with other objects, like belts, wire hangers, or shoes. This time, Pepper was barking in outrage.
Have you ever seen an animal killed before your eyes? To see it pink-tongued and bright-eyed, then still. At first you think it will get up and strut like before. You think it just has to. Then you notice it looks so much smaller. You want to ask it, “Where did you suddenly go?”
That afternoon when we returned from school, a dirty shovel was resting next to the house. And that was the end of that.
Some believe in heaven. Some believe in the Rainbow Bridge. Others say the earth is our mother, and she loves us. What the truth is, I can’t say. Though I’ve seen once-buried things and they didn’t look like they were loved by the earth.
After all that happened, I would dream I gave birth to some sad thing, a cancer, a rat, a dog with a broken face, a human fetus distorted beyond repair.
Then, years later when I did have children, they were born beautiful but dead. This is Kierkegaard’s irony.
I knew a woman who had to put her ailing dog to sleep and could not forgive herself.
She showed me a photograph and said to me, “This is my baby.”
There are people who can’t abide a person referring to a dog as their baby. They think it’s silly, or weak, or that the comparison isn’t apt. But I abide.
The creature sighs just as a baby does. It draws close for comfort and drools on your shirt. It yelps in its sleep and we imagine it has nightmares, so we hasten to relieve its trouble. A dog is a placeholder for a thing that’s missing or, in many cases, it’s the thing itself.
“My baby was my everything,” the woman said, “I miss him so much. I miss his mouth, his velvet chest, the way he walks, the way he snuggles, I miss it all.”
The way he walks, she said, the way he snuggles, as if the dog was alive in her mind.
Then she remembered her dog was dead. She said, not to me but to God, “Bring my baby back. His ears and feet. Bring him back, his soft skin, his loving grin; I’m sorry. I did this to him. Why? My baby.”
She was crossing “The Bridge of Sighs.”
In his diary Kierkegaard mentioned “The Bridge of Sighs,” which is the enclosed bridge in Venice which passes over the Rio di Palazzo and which condemned men crossed on their way to their lead dungeons. He said this bridge is the path we all must take on our way to eternity.
Last night I dreamed about the cat again. I was looking out through my childhood eyes, but also the eyes I have now. I was looking at Mother illuminated by fire as she stood against a black and starless sky. She was about to throw the cat onto the burning leaves.
“No,” I shouted, “she’s still alive!” In response, she threw the cat’s body onto the fire. It was as though I had made it happen. After a sharp instant of grief, a sense almost of being sliced in two, I saw the cat leap from the flames and disappear into the night.
I could only stand perplexed.
What had I witnessed, a miracle or all hope leaving?
Even now I have no clue why the universe exists as it is.
Theresa Williams (Attica Adams) has twice received the Individual Excellence Grant from the Ohio Arts Council. Her work has appeared in many magazines, including Gargoyle, Hunger Mountain, and The Sun. Her Sun stories can be read here: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/contributors/theresa-williams . Her novel, The Secret of Hurricanes was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize. She is currently working on a graphic novel, The Diary of Lea Knight.
Art: Attica Adams (Theresa Williams)