We killed the porcupines because they were sneaking into the barn at night and chewing on the floor beams. My father walked right up to them and shot them through their little eyes.
“That’s the only way to get at them,” my mother said, “their skulls are so thick.”
I saw them the next morning, stacked in the wheelbarrow by the driveway—two big ones and two little ones. My father was going to dump them in the ditch up the road.
My friend Amy buried dead animals in her backyard in town. She had a little red wagon and some rubber gloves her mother gave her and she would walk out to Route 112 to pick up any animal that was killed there. She let me help her one day when I stayed after school to play. She had a dead squirrel from the day before, laid out in tissue paper inside a yellow shoe box. We dug a hole by the fence in the backyard and put the box inside. Lisa taped two sticks together to make a cross and stuck it in the dirt we put on top. There was a whole row of little crosses, just like in a cemetery.
I told my parents about it when I got home.
My father put down his knife and pushed back his plate. “That sort of nonsense is okay for a city kid,” he said.
We killed the beavers because they were ruining the north field. They were building a dam in a long loop across the stream; every day the water spread out a little more behind it. My father went and broke the dam in the evenings, but by the morning it was always put back together again, so he got some dynamite and blew it up. Then he and Hop Johnson set traps along the stream bank so they could catch the beavers when they came out to rebuild.
The deer were so my father could relax with his buddies when the farmwork wound down in the fall. The rabbits were for the same reason, but also to give his beagle, Jake, a run and not the kind of run he had when he got loose and took off with Pogo, because Pogo was a mutt and would give chase to anything. “That mutt’s got no place on a farm,” my father said.
On a farm, the animals come first. Feed the animals before you feed yourself, my mother always said—you can wait, they can’t. Feed them first and always feed at the same time, otherwise the horses will pick on each other and the cows will get into mischief and hurt themselves. In the mornings, you don’t want to feed the animals. You would rather do anything than open the covers and stick your legs out into the biting air, but your mother said to, so you do.
You put on your thick peacoat and your heavy rubber boots and you stumble across the rough surface of the field. When you open the barn door, the dumb heat of them greets you through the darkness—the clouds from their nostrils, the sweet smell of their skins. The horses make a welcoming noise. They were waiting for you, and now you’ve come.
We had to poison the mice or the next thing you knew we’d have rats. The poison came in a yellow box shaped like a cheese wedge. It tasted good to them but when they ate it, it made them bleed inside. In the mornings I would find them drowned in the toilet or lying near the tiny circle of water around the sink drain, their triangular mouths gaping. With the groundhogs it was the vegetables in the garden. There was no arguing about the damage; I could see it for myself: three rows of chewed green stubs and every few feet the two perfect leaves of a plant they had missed.
My dad sat out with the shotgun and waited for them, but they were wily and hard to get, so one Saturday my parents found their holes and plugged them all but one. Then they backed the truck up to it and ran a thick hose from the exhaust pipe down into the opening. My little sister and I stood by with plastic feed bags to stuff in afterward so the good air wouldn’t slip in there and save them. That way we got the whole family, my mother said. I was worried that they weren’t all in there. What if one of them came back and found everyone dead?
Afterward I called Pogo upstairs to lie on my bed. Cows and chickens and pigs like anyone who feeds them, but a dog is for you alone. You smooth back her ears and stare into the bewildered yellow mirrors of her eyes. She looks back at you from her secret animal face. At night she sleeps in the V of your legs; in the day you abandon her, at least once every day, but she waits for you anyway, and when you come back she is wild with joy. You hold her ears and stare into her eyes and after a minute she jumps up and licks you, licking and wagging and giving you a soft little nip or two so you’ll cut out whatever it is you’re doing, looking at her that way.
The chickens went to their deaths with their big, musty bodies tucked under my mother’s arm. She would walk slowly around the pen at first, as if she were only getting their feed ready, the chickens moving away from her at the same pace, but hopping a little, their eyes jerking. When she grabbed the one she was looking for, the others would squawk and scurry off to the edges of the pen. But by the time she’d wrung its neck they would all be eating again. When you pluck a chicken you have to touch every pore.
It makes you sick—the pull of the skin coming up with the feather and then, when you think you’re done, those last wretched spines sticking between the legs. It makes you think of the eggs your class tried to hatch at school, when the boys turned the incubator too high and killed them. Afterward the teacher cut one of them open and called everyone around to see and what you saw was a tiny fetus stuck in the yellow-green of a cooked yolk, exactly like the one you loved to pick out of a hard-boiled egg.
You hand the chicken to your mother in disgust. You won’t eat it, not this time. She gives you a look of disbelief so you swear to God. You watch, you say.
In the evening, the crisp, buttery smell of it steals up the stairs while you’re doing your homework. The oven turns the bruised yellow skin to gold, and when your father touches it with the knife, juice sparkles up. He carves white feathers of breast meat, golden strips of skin. You eat cold peas and mashed potatoes without gravy under your mother’s exasperated gaze. For a week afterward you long for chicken: the tender heat of it, the sweet, folded limbs.
The pig died when the leaves turned red. A different pig each year, but only one. In the spring he was trim and adorable and he bounced up to the fence whenever you passed. But by fall he was fat, dulled and bloated by loneliness. He lay all day at the edge of the pen like the pupil of a crazy eye, and you didn’t care if he died, you wanted him to die, you wanted him out of there so the mud would turn to grass again and the wire gate could slump against the fence, an idle curl of mesh. “Some animals are stupid anyway,” I told Amy. “Chickens and cows and pigs are all stupid.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “Pigs are smart. I read a book about it.”
“I know that book,” I said. “That’s a make-believe book.”
“No it’s not,” she said.
“Yes it is,” I said, “and if you don’t believe me, you can’t come to my farm anymore.”
With the mowing it wasn’t our fault. We had to kill the rabbits and snakes and frogs that jumped up in front of the blade because there wasn’t time to yell for the tractor to brake and if we did, the blade might jam and jump off its guide and then our father would have to stop and get down and slam it back into place with the hammer.
If you tried not to notice, you could pretend it wasn’t happening. The animals leapt up into the shuddering grass and fell away so fast they might never have been there at all. But every so often you’d see a frog with a missing leg by the edge of the pond, lopsided and terrified, struggling frantically to propel his body to safety.
That was what you saw when Pogo caught the baby groundhog: the groundhog scrambling for the mouth of its burrow and then the white snarl of Pogo’s teeth, jerking it back. She shook it like she’d shake a stick you’d thrown her. She tossed it up and caught it; she dropped it and stood over it, waiting for it to move so she could pounce on it again, her ears cocked, her body tense and bright with gladness.
You could see where the whiskers stuck out of the groundhog’s nose, its hairless gray belly. When she threw it in the air its mouth opened, and you heard the tiny sound that came out. It was funny almost: the jerk of the body, the mouth flying open. Its fat head went back and forth, back and forth, and something inside you snapped loose, floated up in your throat. Your limbs went slack and ticklish and you burst into a run, leaping across the sunlit grass, yelling, “Pogo! Pogo!” jumping up and down in front of her. She dropped the groundhog and sprang back, waiting for you to throw it—and then you swung your foot out and kicked her in the ribs.
You stood in the blank rectangle of the field and watched her run from you, the lifeless groundhog in a heap at your feet. At the road, she stopped and looked back. Then she turned away and trotted up the hill into the dark, spread hand of the wood.
“Funny she should take off like that,” your father says at dinner.
Your mother reaches for the biscuits. “Nothing to do but wait,” she says. “She’ll come home when she’s hungry enough.”
You poke at the food on your plate, thinking of the foundation in the woods that your father showed you last fall, a deep, stone-lined square in the ground. He held your jacket while you leaned in to look at the dead German shepherd stretched out in the corner. He had a thin red collar and he lay on his side, as though he were only napping.
“No one would have heard him way up here,” your father told you, and then you saw how he must have barked. When he realized he was trapped, he must have barked for someone, and he must have gone on barking and barking up at the trees, but there was no one to hear him and he lay down to wait and he died.
When your parents aren’t looking, you take the meat off your plate and stuff it into your napkin. You put it in the dog dish and you put the dish at the end of the porch, where Pogo might smell it and come home. In the morning you wake to the still-empty bed.
“When is Pogo coming back?” your sister asks at breakfast.
“Hopefully soon,” your mother says. “Now eat up that oatmeal.”
Your sister is still small. She has short legs and blond hair and a tender roll of fat above each wrist. Every day before you leave, your mother kneels down to button her coat for her, the little red coat that used to be yours. You walk her to the school bus alone, the empty rope of your heart bumping along behind you.
All day, the pit of fear grows in your chest and by afternoon you can’t wait to get home. You jump off the bus and run to open the front door, hoping for the click of her nails, the thump of her tail against the kitchen cabinets. But the house is empty. You walk back through the rooms like a ghost or a stranger. The blue chair, the broken clock—everything familiar is lost to you.
After your chores, you fill your pockets with scraps of bologna and walk up the hill to the edge of the woods. The cold trees stretch back like stones into the darkness, one behind the other.
“Pogo!” you shout. Your puny voice trails off. In the silence, you hear the red animal of your own heart, pumping blindly in your chest. You turn and run.
In the end, someone finds her. You hear the phone ring and the happy tone of your mother’s voice and then she comes into the kitchen smiling at you and you run for the leash and tear across the lawn to jump in the truck after your father, everything good again, the hills in their rightful place, the woods friendly, you and your father speeding over the bumps and hollows of the road, a woodsy, comfortable smell rising from the stiff folds of his hunting jacket.
Sometimes we had to kill an animal to stop it from suffering. Like the groundhog in the road—when we saw it up ahead, turning crookedly in a puddle of blood, my mother said, “Stop the car. It’s not fair to let a creature suffer like that.” She got out and took a stone off the wall that ran along the road and dropped it on the groundhog’s head. The animal lurched forward and then jerked back a little, as if a great, clumsy spring were recoiling inside it. When it was completely still, she kicked it slowly into the weeds.
It was the same thing with Pogo’s puppy. It had been made wrong in Pogo’s womb and its lungs didn’t work. It lay on its side at the edge of the box, its tiny pink mouth grabbing at the air.
“We’re going to have to put that puppy out of its misery,” my mother said. But my sister and I thought it might get better, so she left us there for a while to watch it choke, its great, blind head tipped sideways.
“Can’t we call the doctor?” my sister whispered. She was rolling her hands in her shirt so that her little belly stuck out. “Shhh,” I said. I was watching for a change in its breathing. It would have to breathe and then it would have to nurse like the others. Once or twice, I thought it was getting better, but when my mother came back, I could see that it hadn’t really changed.
“We’ve got two choices,” my mother said. “We can suffocate it in a bag or we can drown it.”
My sister and I sat there looking at it. It had two perfect ears and a white stripe on its nose. “Suffocate?” my sister said. But my mother said drowning would be faster. She picked the puppy up. Pogo jumped out of the box and followed us, but she kept looking back at the rest of the litter and after a minute she went back and lay down again.
I held the puppy while my mother filled the yellow laundry bucket with water. The velvet skin of its head was thick and sealed tight, like a new bud. When the water was deep enough, my mother shut it off and pushed the faucet aside. She looked at me.
“Are you going to do this or do you want me to?” she said. She gazed into my face, waiting. The puppy was warm and dry in my hands; I could smell its sleepy puppy smell.
I looked at my sister. Her mouth was hanging open in a scared little o.
“Put it under?” I whispered. My mother nodded. There was no one else to ask. I walked to the sink and put the puppy’s head into the cool water. It jerked and I snatched it back up into the air.
“Don’t do that!” my mother said. “You have to hold it there.” I put it back under and held it. Its soft body kicked and twitched for a long time in my hands.
My mother stood behind me, watching. “Look how strong,” she said. “It’s all that good food it got inside the womb.”
Later, when you have grown, you can live in an apartment at the edge of the city. You can be a vegetarian there, without arguing about it with your mother. You can have one cat and two plants with no purpose but growing. At night, your cat will sleep in the hollow of your arm. In the morning, she will hunt birds. Every week or so she’ll catch one, trotting into the bedroom with her victim flapping and screeching in her mouth, and you will leap out of bed with your heart pounding, running to corner her and pry her jaws open before it’s too late.
Then the bird, sitting in your hand.
It will be young—you will see its stubby tail feathers, still bound tight in their sheaths; the soft, torn down of its head. You could take it outside and set it free, but you already know it will not fly. Even if you put it on a branch, even if you hide it under a bush, something will come along to kill it—your cat or someone else’s; one of those hawks that lives in the park. And you will stand there with the bird in your hand, feeling the faint shiver of its breath, the frantic pulse pumping and pumping under the skin.
From Rutting Season. Used with permission of Scribner. Copyright © 2019 by Mandeliene Smith.