My father died because he was a thief. He stole three times from the Fields of Zò, and on the fourth the man caught him. He shot him in the belly, tore the chicken from his mouth, and tied him to a fence post as a warning. He left his partner with six kits on her plate, in the middle of winter, with the snow already on the ground. Through the blizzarding nights, all lumped together in the same big bed, we watched as our mother despaired in the kitchen, in the half light of the lamp under the den’s low ceiling.
“Damn it, Davis, damn it!” she cried. “Now what am I supposed to do? You stupid marten!”
We watched her and didn’t make a sound, huddled close against the cold. On my right was my brother Leroy and on my left Joshua, whom I never got to know. He must have died not long after he was born, perhaps crushed by our mother when she lay down for a nap.
“You scoundrel!” she cried. “And now who’s going to raise these orphans?”
In those early days life was a beautiful feeling. Beneath the covers, breathing nice and easy, you drifted off into the most vivid sleep. You were fragile and strong, hidden from the world and waiting to venture out into it.
“Who’s going to raise them? Who’s going to raise them?” our mother said. Then she would come over to the bed and lie down, offering us her belly. The moment I sensed it, I clung to it with all my strength. Instantly my siblings started scrapping for space. Leroy, the biggest, went barreling in, while the girls, Cara and Louise, teamed up. Otis, the youngest, was often the odd one out.
“Who’s going to raise them? Who’s going to raise them?” our mother said. Every now and then I would feel her wince in pain, when one or another of us bit down too hard. Joshua was sticking out from beneath her fur, not moving.
At night she’d leave us to go looking for food and during the day grab a few hours’ sleep. Once in a while, if she found something of value, she’d go out in broad daylight to trade for food with Solomon the lender. She was gaunt and her belly hung down on the ground. Dragging it over the snow must have chilled her to the bone.
“Pipe down, kits,” she’d say, whenever we woke her. And she went on saying it every waking hour.
“Pipe down, pipe down.”
We were beginning to speak. And to range about. One morning Leroy fell out of bed, crawled all around it, and couldn’t manage to climb back up. He would have died from the cold if our mother hadn’t come home. Before setting him back onto the bed I remember she hesitated a few moments, which I couldn’t comprehend. Though if one of us had been in her place, we might well have left him where he was. Leroy was the biggest and the strongest of us.
It snowed and snowed, sometimes for days on end. On one occasion the entrance to the den was blocked up, and our mother spent hours trying to dig a tunnel out.
“Pipe down, pipe down!” she shouted, whenever any of us complained we were hungry.
Every now and then I’d see her sitting in the kitchen staring into the void. She’d smooth her whiskers and sigh, not saying a word but as if she were talking with someone. Whenever she behaved this way, I’d linger and look. I sensed she wasn’t well, that something wasn’t right, and this frightened me. But before I knew it my eyes had closed, and when I opened them again she was gone.
“Don’t get sick, I can’t afford the doctor,” she told us once, after we’d started romping around the den. Her warning wasn’t lost on any of us, and indeed we never even ventured near the window, let alone outside. But Otis was the only one who never climbed out of bed, and the girls used to tease him.
“You’re such a runt, Otis, you’d break your neck.”
When Leroy started touching everything around the place, I mimicked him. We didn’t talk much. He would pick something up, look at it, then put it back, and I’d do the same. I studied whatever I had between my paws in a hurry, though, because my brother’s attention was quickly on to something else and I didn’t want to fall behind.
Our mother steered clear of us if she were on her way somewhere. As far as she was concerned we weren’t even in the room. When she suckled we all jumped on the bed, where Otis, luckily for him, had already had a few moments to feed.
“You’re hurting me,” she’d murmur in irritation whenever one of us got carried away. Usually that was enough to calm us down, but sometimes she’d curse and swipe at us with a paw, claws in.
We were almost always hungry, and cold too. Some days we hardly got out of bed and wrestled with our stomach cramps beneath the covers, nestled close. One time Leroy nudged me awake.
“Are you cold?” he said.
“Me too. We could eat Otis. He’s small, and weak.”
I never thought for a moment it might be a joke. With my tongue I touched the little teeth growing from my gums and said nothing.
“Maybe I’m more cold than I am hungry.”
Our mother came back into the den before he could respond. Somehow I thought I might have offended him with my cowardice, and for a while, even after I’d eaten, I couldn’t get to sleep. That was the day I began to comprehend there was a slight, horrible difference between me and Leroy: He was more of an animal than I was. To think that he also realized this was very upsetting. But neither of us ate Otis. Nor did Leroy eat me.
One night our mother came home with a very peculiar object. She set it on the table and gave us a warning.
“Don’t touch it. This thing will keep us in food for a while.” We waited for her to fall asleep before going to see what it was.
“It’s a lady’s jewel,” said Cara. “One of man’s little treasures.”
It was a roundish trinket that shone green and lovely in the light. Lying there on the table, it seemed to speak to each of us in secret. Leroy nudged and touched it with his paw.
“It’s cold,” he said. “Like the air outside.”
I wanted to touch it too. But our mother had been clear, and I was afraid she’d wake up. The thought of disobeying her gave rise to horrible things in my imagination, especially since back then I’d never seen the consequences. Louise leapt onto the table, picked it up, studied it innocently, and slipped it over her paw like a bracelet.
“Don’t, Louise! No, she doesn’t want us to,” Cara hissed.
“I’m the most beautiful of all,” said Louise, ignoring her sister.
“It isn’t true!”
Cara jumped on the table and lunged at Louise.
“Mama doesn’t want us to!”
She struggled to pull the trinket off her paw, but Louise thrashed and bit her.
“Stop that! Leave me alone!”
It didn’t take Leroy and me long to see what was coming. In the blink of an eye, we slipped off the table into the far corner of the room.
“It’s not yours!”
“Leave me alone!”
And it fell, shattering into four pieces with a dry-sounding crack. From the depths of the bed, our mother sat witnessing it all. The two sisters remained frozen to the spot as she climbed down and came to see what was left of the trinket. She picked up the pieces and stared at them.
“Mama . . .” Cara murmured.
She was quick and precise. With one paw she smacked our sister’s snout and knocked her off the table. Louise flinched and began to shake but didn’t say a word. My heart pounded. Leroy, feeling something soft on his fur, pulled at it to see what it was.
While Cara began to cry, we stared at that strange white-and-red lump, as it slowly dawned on us it was a chunk of her eyeball. Our sister held her head with one paw, stifling the pain as the blood mottled her face. Leroy let the eye fall to the ground. For a moment I had thought he might eat it.
Our mother threw the shards on the table by Louise, who’d gathered all her limbs around her like a fortress, to ward off blows.
“Scum,” she said, without looking at any of us, then went out into the freezing night.
I heard her come in the next morning. She shuffled into the kitchen and stared into the void. In the sunlight she looked skinnier than ever. I climbed out of bed in silence while the others were still asleep.
She turned slowly around. Perhaps she’d heard me coming. She seemed to look right through me.
“Do you feel bad about Papa?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. She never did.
From My Stupid Intentions by Bernardo Zannoni, translated from the Italian by Alex Andriesse. Copyright © 2021 by Sellerio Editore, Palermo; translation copyright © 2023 by Alex Andriesse; courtesy of New York Review Books.