by David P. Fraser
My father who art not in heaven... apologize.
I sit on the concrete porch out back watching the tractor mower cut clean swaths on a manicured lawn and wonder where to start. I look up at the willow tree out on the edge of the fallow field behind the garden and can see the crows perched above on the branches. They look like silent sentinels, guardians, messengers not ominous but omniscient. I know the story as it is a part of me like a genetic demon and today I have to tell it. I have to tell about today and all the yesterdays hauled up in reedy nets; the fish caught one summer at twilight on the Burnt River, a river that ran dark and red with rust.
My father slaps the fish I’d caught hard against the green floor of the rowboat tugging at its anchor in the current. The one eye stares up at me, a chicory flower dipped in buttermilk, the bass scales intricate, the lines of the mouth so delicate, the dead eye so blank and pleading. In the morning we eat the fish, completing a primitive cycle but there’s something vicious in the slapping; something hidden behind the milky eyes of that one lost fish.
One day in the highlands of Haliburton, near Bancroft where my uncle owned a hundred acres and part of a lake before he sold it to the mining company for its uranium, I walk alone boy-exploring, making spears, being aboriginal, fearful of dried snake skins, curled translucent remnants of dark forces, being startled by a sudden splash at the lake edge, something sinister, hidden and watching. I walk along the sandy two-tire tracked road leading from the highway, a road lined by raspberry and black current canes, canopied further off in the long grass by sumac. I follow a pheasant that crosses the road ahead of me, and then it too startles me in a deep-throated flurry of wings straight up like a mortar shot to my right. The things of nature at an early age both fascinate and terrify.
I then sit among the sumac on lichen-encrusted granite boulders and find a leopard frog by himself so far from the lake. I take him in my pocket and continue on the road circling back to the water. It is a long journey, and I pull the frog from my pocket many times. His skin sticks to my hands, his eyes fade pale. Finally he is purple and quite dead and no amount of pumping water on him at the well beside the lake can bring him back to life. No amount of tears can justify my act. I look around for signs of watching, then carefully approach the dark water to lay him in among the submerged leaves. Through the film of water there is something hidden behind his eyes, something that crawls inside of me.
In the course of time, back in suburbia, my father drives the evil forces from the garden. He hacks the heads from snakes and carries their long limp bodies like trophies across the handle of the shovel. He squashes toads and beetles and clears away the tall grasses that hold the glistening morning webs of puffed-bodied, black and yellow spiders. I see them vibrating in the wind, sunlight etching the wonders of the webs into my imagination. There is such violence in his taming.
I get elastic bands and cut them to make long tongues of rubber. I wait with my weapon, stretching the band from thumb and forefinger back behind my ear like an arrow in a bow, and pick off toy plastic soldiers hiding in my room and then in boredom or out of some demonic example, start to pick off flies hovering near the cold glass of my window. They are cut in two, red and yellow guts squashed against the frame. A veined wing, light and useless on the sill, remains.
We get a dog and there is such contrast in my loving him. I love him and he becomes my companion, and playmate. We play the imaginary games of the old west, cowboys and Indians. I round up the cattle, guard the stagecoach, and kill the rustlers at high noon in the middle of the street in front of the saloon.
One day I tie the dogs legs together, and I can see his eyes trusting me, and I watch him struggling in the corner: I watch him pee himself in that corner and stain the hardwood floor. Years later my father took him to the vet to put him down. He always snarled and snapped at my father and in the last stages he started on me and then my mother and that was the end of it.
These things on the surface are like lightening, the strike of a snake, the eruption of an upset stomach, but there is something happening under the skin, beneath the earth of our existence. One evening with the yellow light of the kitchen casting green shadows on the flowered wallpaper, our dog is biting my father’s hand. My father is ruffling his neck, too roughly and he strikes, snarling and quickly it’s over. My father lifts the kitchen set plastic seat-covered chair, the chrome legs flashing, into the air, high to the ceiling and beats it down and beats it down and down and down. The kitchen is in shock and mom and I are screaming as he beats it down and down and down and our dog, eyes of horror, shakes and shakes and shakes and pees the floor.
One Saturday afternoon I come home late for lunch to find my father on the ladder beside the eaves trough of the back porch. I’d known about the starlings from the conversations about their nest building in early spring and now I knew or thought I knew what was about to happen. The air was alive with the cries of birds, the two circling parents and the incessant wails of the babies in the nest tucked in behind a gap in the fascia. I stood out on the lawn creating images of the baby birds nestled together, the nest carefully pulled out and placed on the concrete stoop and then carried to the back of the yard to be placed high up in a bush or a tree. A flowing warmth of interconnectedness consumes me as I watched my father’s arm reach in and pull one baby starling out in the grip of his palm.
The tiny head peeked out and squawked and squawked. The parents screeched and circled low overhead. My father’s other hand swung back, forehand and knuckles forward and in one sweeping arc he broke its neck and dropped its lifeless body to the ground. One by one they died. One by one I felt the back of his hand across my neck, the side of my face, the back of my ear, and across the wrist that still holds the tattoo of my pain. There was a viciousness in his taming of all things.
Beneath the willow tree, now dark with watching crows, I once secretly dug an underground hideaway, a large deep hole four or five feet deep and six feet long covered by planks and cut brush. Many days I ran from the taming of his world to my hideaway buried alive among the earth, roots and solitary silent grubs. There was a madness beneath the earth, beneath the skin of my genetic demons.
One wonders why things happen as they do, why painful memories are forged by circumstance. Behind the manicured lawn, untamed grasses grew, and I liked to tramp through their wildness. One day I stepped on something soft that squirmed then flipped and hopped and dropped across my running shoe. Two baby rabbits, one darted away and the other lay limply at my feet. I picked it up, still warm but lifeless. I didn’t with intent squash its head or give it the back of my hand or slice it to pieces with a shovel; I’d by accident met with cruel circumstances, and an agonizing sense of demonic timing.
I buried the rabbit in a shoe box with a carrot and a tiger lily and conjured up the images of the purple frog, the dead fish staring up from the bottom of the row boat and then the stomach wrenching remembrance of the spiders I’d collected in a jar and with premeditated cruelty emptied over the shoulders of Margie, my best friends little sister while she played with her dolls in a tent made of old flannelette blankets. That image still haunts me; I want to apologize.
I sit on the concrete porch watching the linear cut grow larger as the tractor rides back and forth, back and forth, once father receding featureless, then facing coming closer, moving toward me, the me there, older, having already lived a life, and the me that was always running, hiding, watching, and hiding memories. He waves and smiles. I want to smile but only wave and watch the blades whirling on the mower. I know the story and need to tell it.
I creep down into the basement following my father, remembering the layers buried within its whitewashed walls, the steamer trunk lid rounded as I lay across it feeling the belt and the anger, the moldy bathroom, and the washtubs where we washed our hair, the places of hot tears and the fierce madness I know is still somewhere deep inside of me. I follow him and plead with him to catch it and let it go. I know this is not expedient. I know he has no intention of listening to me. I know death waits for us in that cellar.
I see it first, brown-gray, furry like a mouse, its wings leathery and translucent as it passes the bare light bulb. It passes overhead and swoops and dives missing everything. I sense its terror. I see its beauty. Ugly thing he said, picking up the straw broom. I wait and watch and the bat lights on the whitewashed wall. My father drives the broom into its body and all I see are the tips of its pinned wings and three thin strands of blood sliding brightly down the pale wall.
One morning years later I wake up from a dream of driving a hatchet into the chest of a burly featureless man lumbering toward me beside the wash tubs in the whitewashed basement. I wake up strangely calm and wonder who he was, a part of me, some genetic demon, me.
What is left to tell? I blow mosquitoes from my arm; I free the wasps that get into the house; I harbour spiders, save worms while digging compost, and try to let them all find a balance point. There is a need to let go of all that stuff we keep locked up inside our bony chests. I watch the mower move up and down and there before it near the end on an uncut patch of grass lies a dead crow, its feathers furled and blowing in the breeze. The tractor moves toward it, a reaper in the field. I watch. Mentally I jump ahead. He stops the tractor, lifts the dead animal and throws it into the long field grass out back behind the lawn. However he continues without stopping. Mentally I jump back.
The tractor slows and a live crow flies down from the willow tree and stands defiantly in front of the moving machinery, guarding the dead one. I wait, as I waited with the starlings and the bat, with the pale fish and my own skin. I hear the rpm increase, a whine of power, and the cadence of control. My father waves, a challenge to the crow. The crow that can move does not move; the other one is still. The tractor cuts the hollow bones like little sticks and sends the feathers and flesh into the air like so much confetti. A few downy feathers still float above the lawn as he cuts the next swath.
I want to see the sky turn dark with crows, cloud the horizon and descend on him, apologize, apologize, pluck out his eyes, pluck out his eyes. Apologize, apologize, pluck out his eyes.
Copyright © 2004 by David P. Fraser