A Story of Animal / Child Abuse
by Quade Hermann
copyright © 1998 Previously published in Diviners
The closet is dark and cool, a relief from the tireless heat of a long summer. Anna has set up her desk lamp for a reading light and sits cross-legged, auburn head bent over a book, on the shoe ledge among the piles of sweaters in summer storage. She has created her own slim space among the dangling entrails of her mother's satiny rain coat, hangers threaded with multicoloured scarves, puffy down winter jackets, and her father's good blue suit. She is buoyed on all sides by scratchy wool and ribbed acrylic, and is comforted by the lingering musk of her mother's perfume. The muffling darkness is the one place she feels safe, soothed in the gentle press of coats.
She is half way through the latest Nancy Drew novel when the closet door is yanked open. Her brother Robby's freckled face appears in the doorway, his blond hair lit from behind.
"Anna?" his thin voice is lost in the density of clothing. "Dad's looking for you. You better come out."
"Surprise, says Anna's father as he pulls a cardboard box from behind the black vinyl couch. It has several ragged finger-sized holes punched in the side. Anna withdraws slightly when he pushes the box in her face. His dark eyes glitter at her. Her mother has been called away from the kitchen to see, but hangs back, watching from the doorway. Her thin body leans into the yellowing frame and long, dirty blond hair swings across her deep-set eyes.
Robby bounces in circles around them. "How come I didn't get anything?" he asks. Although nearly eleven, he seems small for his age; pale and prone to illness, he looks tiny, comical almost, beside the thick denim legs of his father.
"Come on, open it," her father urges, ignoring Robby. He shoves away brown dinner plates and gently sets the box on the dinning room table. Anna tries to catch her mother's eye, hoping she will be rescued-summoned to peel or grate something in the kitchen. But her mother has already lost interest in this surprise and is staring past them out of the big bay window, fixed on some point well beyond Anna's reach.
Anna hesitates, calculating; adding up her chores, subtracting her moods, trying to figure out what she has done to warrant this surprise. She knows they are all waiting, but she is immobilized, cannot bring herself to move forward, open the box, and meet the unrevealed expectations of her father. Her hands dangle at her sides as the crowing of the Sunday football play-by-play fills the room.
Then inside the box there is a scuffling and scratching and a tiny paw pops through one of the holes. Anna forgets herself, leaps to the box, opens the flap and pulls out a grey and white striped kitten. It is so small that it sits comfortably in the palm of her hand, stubby white tail sticking straight up. The kitten stares up at Anna with frank curiosity and she giggles. This is all she has asked for every Christmas and birthday since she was ten.
"Oh boy, it's only a kitten," says Robby and wheels away toward the television. He has asked for a lizard.
"Thank you, Daddy," Anna says, nuzzling the kitten against her neck. Her mother smiles. "That's sweet dear," she says, then gathers up the box and disappears back into the kitchen.
"Don't I get a hug?"
Her father reaches out and pulls Anna to him, pressing her narrow frame against the bulk of his belly and her face against his chest. She stiffens and there is a long moment during which she is fully and completely aware of every spot where their bodies meet, and then he releases her. She steps away, toward the television and her freshly captivated brother.
Her mother comes back into the dining room carrying ketchup and cutlery. She pauses in the awkward silence between Anna and her father, and questions him with a quick twitch of her eyebrows.
"Well, she's nearly twelve, she's bound to get moody," he says, a warning look crossing his face. "As long as she keeps obeying her parents, that's what matters."
Anna stares hard at the little blue buttons on his shirt.
"You have been slipping a little lately," he says, looking down at her. She holds the kitten a little tighter and doesn't respond.
"What are you going to name her, honey?" her mother asks. Anna already his a name picked out.
"Cody," she says.
Her father reaches out and scratches the top of Cody's head and Anna shifts subtly from one foot to the other until she is just out of his reach. Her mother looks from daughter to husband and back again. They both look at other things.
"Why don't you two go fishing sometime?" she says, a smoothing, conciliatory tone creeping into her voice. "You haven't been out together for a long time."
Her father's mouth pops open in mock surprise. "That's a great idea, honey," lie says.
"What do you think Anna?"
Anna shuffles her feet, shrugs and presses Cody to her chest until the kitten mewls in discomfort.
"It's settled then," he says, clapping his stomach, "let's have some dinner."
A couple of days later Anna and her father load up the Bronco and drive west along Chestemere Lake. It's a hot day, though the summer is almost over. Crickets sing from the brittle grass on the side of the road as they slow down and turn from the tarmac onto a narrow, rutted gravel road lined by raspberry bushes and overhung with leafy green. They drive until the road opens suddenly into a clearing that leads right down to the lake.
Her father pulls to the side and parks the truck with the nose pointed toward the water. The lake spreads out flat blue in front of them, distantly speckled with boats.
"This is a special place honey," he smiles at Anna and smooths her auburn curls, "and you're the only one who's been here with me."
She flicks a smile, but her eyes stay planted on Cody, content in the folds of her blue-checked skirt.
They unload his fishing gear, a picnic basket and the lunch that her mother picked for them: peanut butter and honey for her, cold roast beef and a couple of beers for him. Anna sets Cody down on the blanket, string leash tied to the picnic basket, and goes to pick berries. The lake shimmers in the heat. Ducks crowd along the shore, their shiny green necks stretching to gulp at plump water skaters and suck strings of algae off the rocks. Her father puts a grub on his hook, jams the pole upright with a heavy rock, then joins Anna. They work in silence, filling a yellow ice cream bucket. Her mother wants to put up a fresh batch of jam soon.
When the bucket is full, they sit down to lunch. Her father drinks the beer and tells Anna about fishing in the lake: how to bait a hook with cheese and drag it just so through the water; how to tell a rainbow trout from a speckled. Squirrels come begging for scraps and he laughs when she shies away from them, but shows her how to feed them from the palm of her hand.
When they are done eating, her father pulls off his t-shirt and stretches out along the blanket, eyes closed against the shifting sun. Anna, lulled by the heat and a full belly, cuddles Cody in her lap and counts the white sails crowding the middle of the lake.
Then, without saying a word, her father reaches out and lightly snakes a finger along her thigh. Anna pulls her leg away and squirms a little on the blanket, leaning hard right until she is out of his reach. He shifts his body toward her and lays an open palm on her leg. Alarm rises in her throat. She gulps back fear, then pain, then fury.
You can't do this to me, she wants to scream, until her insides loosen and cascade out of her mouth. But all she can bring to the surface is, "I don't want to," so quiet it's barely audible.
"Come on honey", he says, sitting up and putting her arm around his shoulders. Underneath the Old Spice, Anna can smell a thin layer of sweaty expectancy. She feels faint and sags a bit under the weight of his arm.
"Don't you love me?" he asks, gripping her firmly against him. His voice, low and coaxing,
sticks to her.
Something tightens deep in her body. She turns her face as far from him as she can.
She wants to retch; to repel him with all that's inside her, brought up in raw, poisonous streams.
All her undigested rage released.
She tries to pull herself away and lie relents, loosening his grip.
"Don't be that way, sweetie," he smiles down at her, brown eyes innocent wide. "You know I wouldn't do anything to. hurt you." His calloused fingers rasp against her check.
"I won't." Her voice is low and determined. She has finally come to a place where there is nothing worse than losing this fight. He snorts in surprise and tightens his arm again around her thin shoulders.
"You will," he says flatly.
Anna makes herself as small as possible in the vicegrip of his arm and waits to see what will happen next. They sit locked together in a silent tug-of-war on the picnic blanket. Squirrels rustle in the raspberry bushes. Cody mewls in excitement, eager to explore. A breeze sweeps off the lake and shakes the branches overhead and a few turning leaves flutter down onto the blanket.
Then he laughs, an unhinged sound somewhere in the back of his throat, thrusts a hand up under her skirt, digging his fingers between his legs. She struggles and wrenches away from him. Half crawling, half running, she puts the truck between them and clings to it, red paint flaking under her finger nails. He kneels on the blanket and stares; she can feel the force of his anger rising.
Cody nudges against his leg and lie looks down at her for a moment, then picks her up by the head, leaving the small body dangling from his hand. The kitten cries and twists wildly, trying to catch a foothold with her tiny paws.
He flashes her a tight, regretful smile and pulls a silver pocket knife from his jacket. His voice, clipped with warning, comes to her from a distance. She is frozen, eyes fixed on Cody hanging forlornly in his hand. Her father flicks open the knife and turns Cody over onto her back. He pokes her, with the sharp point and she squeals in pain and flails helplessly. It begins to dawn on Anna what is happening; the price she will pay for her resistance, for her refusal.
"I thought we had an understanding, you and I," he says, shaking his head.
Holding the kitten's head back, he traces the tip of the knife from under Cody's jaw, down through the soft white fuzz of her belly and between the short striped legs. He has never had a knife before, never left a mark that anyone else could see. Skinning, Anna realizes with horror, that's what he's doing. Pretending to skin her. Her palms bleed where her nails have dug in, but she does not move.
His eyes flicker over her face and he shrugs. "If that's the way you ,want it."
He walks over to the lake, and crouching on the slick rocks, dangles Cody out over the water.
He dunks the kitten under the water and holds her there.
"Anna. Look at me." His eyes drill into her and the message is clear and unavoidable.
"Don't," she sobs, her face suddenly broken open, begging. One word, but it's enough. Tears stream down her face and her whole body shrinks in defeat. Her father holds Anna's eyes for a long moment before he pulls the kitten out of the water. There is a trickle of blood on his wrist where Cody caught him with a claw.
He walks over and hands the whimpering kitten to Anna.
"Sit down. I'll be right back." He goes behind the truck and she hears a zipper and then urine splattering leaves.
Anna presses Cody against her chest, crooning to her, trying to calm the tiny, wildly pounding heart. Her father returns and stands over them, his zipper still undone. Anna puts Cody gently on the ground and covers her trembling body with a corner of the blanket.
After it is over, Anna goes down to the edge of the lake and sits with Cody in her lap, watching the slow progression of boats back to shore. Behind them her father is dozing in the final warmth of the afternoon sun. She reaches for small stones and tosses them, one by one, into the lake.
"One potato, two potato, three potato, four..." A hand-slapping kids' rhyme from when she was little, the way to choose between one thing or the other, especially when they weren't all that different to begin with. Cody gnaws on her finger. She cups the kitten in her hand and raises her up until they are looking into each other's eyes.
"Five potato, six potato, seven potato, more."
She can only save one of them.
Anna picks up the Swiss Army knife that her father left on the rocks and cuts the kitten's throat in one deft motion. Blood spills hot over her hands and the little body twitches in surprise. She stays there by the water, staring out into the deepening blue, cradling the dying kitten.
The lake is nearly empty and the clearing dim when she washes the body and wraps it in paper napkins. She steps wide around her slumbering father and buries Cody beneath the bushes on her way back to the main road. ~
Survival Game by Quade Hermann copyright © 1998 Short story previously published in Diviners.
Posted with permission on Animal Appeal, part of Anura - Stop the abuse, Start the healing! on April 15, 2000.
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