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October 1, 2011 | Fiction

A Wild Pack of Family Dogs

Amity R. Bitzel

A Wild Pack of Family Dogs photo

It is Sunday when the dogs come. The church bells ring and ring and my mother says to my sister like she does every week “wake up wake up we’re going to be late for church” and this is a joke, because we never, ever go to church but I think in a way the bells themselves are like church—if a sound could be clean, if you could wash yourself in a sound and come out stripped and sparkling, you could probably use these bells for that. Only, you can’t help that a thin little shawl of indigo sorrow would cling to you, the faintest memory of light glazing your limbs, because there’s always something sad about clean pure sounds, like a train whistle or the wind rising and calling. There is always the feeling that you are distinct from such prettiness because you are a person and so full of blood and organs and thing, all knots and complications and crooked bones that never set right, that you can’t ever become one with such sound.

But the bells stop because they can’t go on forever and plus my father screams at the bells to shut the hell up already and I kind of think the bells hear him, because they do shut up and for good measure we all shut up. My mother makes breakfast and she scrapes the last ruby droplets of strawberry jam out of the jars and spreads it over our toast and this is all we have left to eat in the house, so me and my sister nibble it like the little field mice that wander into the house in winter. We chew quietly and I watch her little teeth bite bite bite—her teeth are scalloped round the edges and there is a vein in her temple that marks time, it beats time better than any clock I ever saw and the hours are all nervous hours; yesterday it was nervous o’clock and today it’s nervous o’clock and tomorrow the same. My father has a beer for breakfast and he doesn’t make me drink any of it so it is an okay day so far and I smell the yeast and the cold aluminum marrying each other in the cold kitchen air.

When he goes to the bathroom my mother keeps scraping the knife in the empty jam jar round and round, like some new and ugly instrument that plays only ear hurting music. Her eyes are rabbit pink round the edges and the morning sun glazes her tears (tinges them red) and it looks like she is crying blood dust now. She says,

--Your father quit his job today--

and she cries and cries; I guess he was fired but that’s ok, quit and fired mean the same thing in the end and my father never liked driving that forklift and running the machines. I am pretty sure that one of those presses sucked his soul clean away, breathed it into its inner coils where it heated heated heated into vapor and was gone and that is why my father is a sharp shadow, or a paper doll with fierce edges. I would never tell my mother that, though; she is flesh and blood and not a shadow or a doll at all and when he comes back in she dabs at her eyes and stills the knife, and it is then we hear something like thunder. Our dog cocks his ears and gets up from where he was laying like a comma on the rug and we all look at each other. The noise gets louder and louder, like a herd of horses bearing down on the yard and I wouldn’t mind seeing that, but instead when we go to the window and look out there is a wild pack of family dogs racing towards our property and they are howling and snapping and they are something to see.

I make out all of these neighbor dogs: the fat spotty beagle mix and the collie with the green collar and the one that looks like a wolf and the bloodhound who bays at passing cars and the fluffy white and useless miniature something and the Lab whose coat always smells like machinery oil and hay and the barky pit bull and the one that looks like Toto from the Wizard of Oz and the Irish Setter with the broken ear and the Saint Bernard with the Charlie Chaplin eyes and they are in our yard now, they are churning up the damp brown earth with their paws and snuffling and barking and circling each other and I have a strange calm feeling inside. I know this means something, that these family dogs have broken the chains of sleeping and eating kibble and obeying; it is clear they are their own masters now and isn’t it a thrill to see something like that, the wild kingdom just outside your door except my father doesn’t think so, he is saying “the fuck? the fuck?” over and over and his hands are kind of working in the air, twisting at something the rest of us can’t see, and then he goes to the bedroom and I know what he is getting and my sister’s eyes round and narrow, round and narrow like the moon phasing.

I say he’s just going to scare them, that’s all and my mother goes into the bathroom and shuts the door and when my father comes back out he has his rifle like this is the wild wild West instead of a run-down trailer court. He opens the door and he cocks his rifle and we see him biting his lip in concentration; the dogs just stop, just like that, and they turn towards him, the Saint Bernard growling, the sounds surging out of his big old chest like he means it and my father fires the gun and the dogs scatter, they scatter so fast that it is hard to believe they were even there and now there are only some clumps of fur and a flurry of paw prints left behind to mark their presence. Their paw prints are stamped in the ground like dirt snowflakes, reverseflakes, and my father nods like he did something that needed to be done for he is the man of the house and that is what men do, they shoot things that need to be shot and sometimes even when they don’t need it, like sometimes when he goes all electrical and haywire and points at things that are not dogs or outside dangers—this is for our own protection, so we don’t think about hunger and no hot water and canvas shoes long separated from the soles and the sewer back-up in the yard that bubbles up into the tub twice a week and the sounds of toes breaking and how a person’s hair can just thin overnight, leaving rabbit-patches of pink beneath—he goes back inside without looking at us and gets more beer out of the fridge.

I wipe the tear away that is sliding down my sister’s cheek but I don’t taste it because I already know that oceanic rainy-day brine well, no need to sample it further—I get a napkin and wipe the toast crumbs away from her mouth and she gets a picture book and sits on the couch by herself and I let the dog out and watch him through the window. He sniffs the ground and paws at it and shakes his head like he just doesn’t get it and it is so quiet in the house, except for the sound of my mother singing. She is still in the bathroom and she is singing a little bit in that really quiet way she does that makes me think she is singing lullabies to her other family, like maybe there’s a husband and children somewhere else, a family with teeth that gently sparkle, and good skin, and pleasant helpful demeanors, in another place that she cannot reach and so she sings to entice them. My mother is a siren, in the tiny room with pink carpet round the toilet base and heart shaped soap that smells not even of roses, but the memory of roses.

I don’t know where my father is and the hours melt sticky sweet, the hours are honeycombs slumping into jars on an August day and so when the wild pack of family dogs comes back, when they thunder back into the yard, I don’t even say anything, I just watch them herd their way right up to my own dog and it is this: it is like a storm cloud of dogs, I am watching a weather system of teeth and tail engulf everything. Our family dog doesn’t even turn back to look at me and this hurts me a little bit because a good dog is like a vault for secrets and I fed him so many that it wasn’t just blood running through his veins but my whispers, too, all mixed together. And surely that counts for something and also I always hid him outside when my father was busy protecting us from ourselves, but I think he couldn’t look at me even if he wanted to because his blood is singing real loud in his ears and it’s like he is wild again. It’s like collars and old tennis balls and dental biscuits are divesting themselves from him, falling away like wind, like grace, and he is sinew and thunder and fangs and he has gone to earth, he is earth, and the last I ever see of him (like that) is one little flash of his tail, standing straight up like saluting the blue blue sky.

I don’t say much of anything at all, what is there to say but to wish him fair travels; although I do pick up his squeak toy then, the squirrel one that he ravaged all the stuffing out of. I can’t help but smell it and you know the funny thing is it smells like his breath and somehow it’s still milky puppy breath, so clean, like if a million washer women in the sky were beating sweaters and skirts against clouds, scrubbing them good and fierce—that’s how clean that squirrel smells and it makes my stomach and my heart hurt. I remember that my heart is like the shell of a nautilus, how the chambers are divided there in small echoing partitions; something has gotten inside of my heart and it is a trailing and plaintive thing.

Later my sister is hungry but there isn’t anything to give her until I find a solitary, half-melted butterscotch in the junk drawer and I really want it myself for I can taste the sweetness unspooling over my teeth in a sugared wash but I give the candy to her. I tell her it is a magic bean that will fill her belly for hours and she kind of believes me and then I take her outside to play, (no one tells us not to), and I sit on the porch and my sister plays with a stick and a doll that is missing one eye. And as she is sitting there I hear the familiar sound of thunder descending—the wild pack of family dogs roars through the yard like saints or spirits.

I look for our dog and I am looking so hard that I forget about my sister and by the time I remember the pack is taking her away and all I can see is her skinny crescent moon face and her little heron shoulders, kind of perched on broad furry backs like a queen and I guess maybe she was taken up okay, because there were some sounds, not like mean sounds but business sounds, the noise of things being handled quick and neat (scissors biting through paper for snowflakes or a kite striking a tree and breaking its spine). I think maybe she waved goodbye though I can’t be certain but I’m pretty sure she did, I’m pretty sure I saw a little hand wriggle like a starfish, like happy trails, like ciao, and it helps to think the pack knows what they are doing. If the truth be told, my sister always had a wild spirit deep inside of her and sometimes when she exhaled you could smell that wildness, something of loam and gasoline and bitter gooseberries; truth be told that kind of spirit isn’t made for this anyways, is it.

Later my mother comes out and I don’t know if she knows that my sister has gone with the pack but maybe so, because she walks right up to me and even though she doesn’t touch me with her fingers, she sings again, to her real daughter this time. Her song swells into the chambers of my shell heart and I can’t make out all the words she is singing but some of them sound like my favorite words, like hullabaloo and inkling and austere; they kind of settle around me, drifting onto my shoulders like petals, like the moon is sloughing off its tender silver skin.

The thing is I know she won’t be coming and this isn’t fair but that is what the words are telling me and I am fresh out of arguments. I just pat her shoulder and tell her to go inside and I go down the steps and into the yard, down by the mudlake and I wait for my turn, I wait for the pack to take me away and the waiting, the time, is a cat’s cradle and I work it between my fingers and lace time in and out and I guess that after I go with them, when I cross the bridge of backs and I am a thread snapped, the dogs will start floating up towards the glowing sky and I imagine that it’s so clean up there, it’s so cold that it burns all the ordinary right out of me: the postal stamps, the orange juice, the television show, the white sneakers , the comic books, the punches, the dryer sheets, the paperclips, the black eyes, the hiccups, the chewing gum, the bird feathers. It burns it all up to a glittered hot-candy white sheen until we are nothing but pinpricks up there; we are fierce stabs of light sewing our way through the darkness and it is the most beautiful thing you could ever imagine and now, now, we will all receive our rewards.

image: Valerie Molloy


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