Fiction ยท 11/03/2010

They Do This Kind of Thing

I thought I would have to go into the coop to find Hunter, but he was actually out behind the building. I heard his snarling first, and then the strangled cry of one of the chickens, cut off suddenly amidst a growling outburst that made my hands tighten on the rifle.

I glanced over my shoulder. Michael was standing on the front porch, wringing his hands, looking all of six again, like the night we’d waited up for his mother to get home, only she never did. Twice as old now as he was then, and he still had those same wide eyes whenever he got frightened, the eyes of a doll. The hatred, too, was the same as the first time he saw me, just four months after his father died.

I worked the bolt on the rifle, chambering a round. The snarling had subsided to a low throaty rumble. It didn’t stop. Either Hunter didn’t know I was coming, or more likely, he didn’t care. He’d never cared much, that was probably the one thing I’d liked about him; you could kick him or pet him, it was all the same. I’d never done much of either, of course; there was no love lost between us because there’d never been any there in the first place. He was Michael’s dog, purchased the week after his mother’s death. Michael’s dog and no one else’s.

The chickens were raising a fuss, the noise loud and exuberant. I walked slowly around the coop, keeping close to the side, looking towards the back. I kept the rifle tight against my shoulder, barrel pointed at the ground a few feet in front of me. It was cool out, the late fall afternoon brisk and sharp. I was breathing so hard through my mouth that my teeth were starting to ache, and my gloveless hands were sticking to the wood forestock of the rifle. My foot snapped a branch, blown in from the forest, and I froze, but by now I was so close to the wall of the coop that I couldn’t hear much of anything over the din of the chickens inside. I prayed that Hunter couldn’t hear either, though he’d been given his name for a reason.

I’d never cared much for him, but Michael had lived for that dog for six years, and he had never given us much trouble. He had killed a chicken a few months after we bought him, but just the one, and we’d punished him enough that in the years since he hadn’t stepped foot near the coop except to chase off foxes and raccoons. And then he just started it again, killed two of them one week, four the next, and then he’d disappeared for three days — ran off into the woods and didn’t come back except for this raid. And even then, I’d let the commotion go on for about five minutes, for Michael’s sake, before grabbing the rifle from the closet and heading out to the coop. The boy’s tears had followed me out, and he’d screamed at me once; I’d expected a full-on tantrum, but I guess he’d known it was coming, because all I got was that one scream, and then him on the back porch watching me, hating me.

The first thing I saw of Hunter as I rounded the back of the coop was that tail of his, long and shaggy. We’d tried to find out, shortly after getting him, what breed he was; the folks at the pound hadn’t had a clue. He was a mutt, that’s for sure, with the coloring of a Rott-weiler but the build of a German shepherd. As a kid, Michael had been convinced there was some wolf in him, especially after the first time we saw him kill a badger. Badgers aren’t easy to take — they’re mean and quick, slicker than they look. Hunter had gone after him like a pro; he’d been two years old when we got him, so maybe he’d had some past experience before being abandoned. Hunter’s name had been Brick; Michael changed it after the badger, and the dog took to the new name with ease.

His back was to me; he was too concerned with the chicken in his jaws to pay much at-tention to anything else. I saw, along the back wall of the coop, the most recent hole he’d dug. I’d wanted to buy cement blocks to put around the outside of the coop, but I would’ve had to invest too much money in it. It probably wouldn’t have kept him out, anyways.

I slowly lifted the rifle so it was aiming at his mid-quarters. I took a couple steps forward, and he must’ve finally heard me or smelled me or felt the vibrations, because he jumped around and looked me straight in the eyes.

He’d always been like that. A dog isn’t supposed to hold your gaze, but Hunter always had. There’d never been much defiance in it — he and I had lived our separate lives on the farm — but it had been unnerving nevertheless. Especially now, with that dead bird in his jaws, the blood dripping to the dead grass. He growled at me, from way back in his throat, and I took another step forward, aiming at his head. He held his ground, eyes not shifting from my face.

I searched him for something wrong, some sign of sickness. No foam. No twitches. Just that damned utter calm that he’d always had. I’d asked the vet his take on it, and the old man had shrugged and said it happens. Maybe dementia. Maybe just because. Said once the dog took the habit this late in life, there wasn’t any way to train it out of him, like we had when he was younger. “He’s a carnivore,” the vet had said. “They do this kind of thing.”

Maybe they did, but I had a farm, I had to make money, and I couldn’t when the dog was killing all my chickens. I think Hunter knew it too, or at least sensed it; I think that’s why he ran off. Maybe he was just crazy, like the vet had suggested — “Animals suffer mental illness, too; no rhyme or reason for it” — but he knew it wasn’t tolerated behavior, and he’d run off before I could shoot him, and had only come back when the craving for chicken meat became too strong.

You can’t let a predator get a taste for chicken. They say the same about man-eating lions and sharks: once it senses how easy the prey is to capture, how rewarding the catch is, it will keep going. The way Hunter’s jaws gripped the neck of the chicken — expertly, the spine snapped, teeth penetrating the feathers and gripping the flesh beneath — I knew he’d taken to killing them just as easily as he had badgers. It was instinct now, honed not merely by hunger, but by accessibility. He went after the chickens because he knew he could catch them, and that the effort would pay off.

But the chickens were accessible only as long as I allowed them to be, and when Hunter snarled again and took a step forward, I shot him. I didn’t give it any thought, I just fired, the bullet caught him just right of the center of his forehead, and he yelped — the sound muffled by the chicken — and fell to the ground. One moment he was standing, the next he was down, almost before the rifle had even made a sound. Just a lump of fur with a bunch of feathers in its mouth.

He didn’t look a thing like the creature that had been sharing our home for the past six years, not like this, limp and lifeless. His eyes were still open, but they were marbles now, and though I had stared into them the whole time, was even looking at them as the echo of the gunshot faded, I hadn’t noticed the moment life left him. Maybe I blinked when I pulled the trigger. Maybe I just hadn’t known him well enough to tell when he died.

By all rights, it should’ve been Michael to pull the trigger. I wasn’t even his biological father; I felt like a fraud, holding the rifle. Michael should’ve shot Hunter. That’s what they did in Old Yeller, and that’s what my father had insisted on, when my boyhood dog had taken ill. My mother convinced him to just take the dog to the vet — but I still had to watch.

I’d suggested it to Michael, which was when he’d screamed at me. I hadn’t the heart to press it further, just got up and grabbed the rifle and went outside. Part of me felt bad for suggesting it; part of me felt nothing at all, resisted the urge to feel something. When you’re about to take a life, even that of a dog you’ve never had much empathy for, it’s best not to feel anything about it.

Staring down at Hunter, the only sensation I had was the low throbbing in my shoulder. It had been a while since I’d fired the rifle; I hadn’t gone hunting in years, and since we’d gotten the dog, I’d hardly had need of the gun to scare off predators. I lowered the rifle and bent to pick up the spent cartridge, and stayed in a kneeling position for a moment. The chickens were still clamoring, the sound grating and piercing enough to make my actions quick and sure. I set the rifle aside and pulled the dead bird from Hunter’s jaws; he had torn the thing up enough so that it came out easily, in shreds. A hen. I set it beside the dog’s body; they would go into the same hole, hidden both from sight and from scav-engers.

I wasn’t going to bury Hunter just yet, though. I needed to talk to Michael first, because in order to bury the dog, I’d have to do it where the boy could see. He needed to under-stand these things. Business is business, and sometimes you have to eliminate the com-petition. The vet couldn’t have put it any better himself: these things happen.

I stood, using the stock of the rifle as a crutch, and walked back around the side of the coop. Michael was no longer on the porch, and I stopped, thinking of everything the child had die on him in so few years. His father. His mother. Now the dog. His father had been replaced; I’d done my best not to think of it like that, but there it was, that’s what it amounted to. His mother couldn’t be replaced; I’d had a couple girlfriends over the past years, but nothing that lasted more than a few months. I wondered if he would want an-other dog. If so, I promised myself that I would get attached to it, that it wouldn’t be just another animal on the farm. The boy deserved that, after everything he’d been through.

I walked up to the porch and leaned the rifle against the wall. I would carry it inside later; for now, I thought it best that Michael not see. I remembered staring at the needle as the vet took it out of my dog’s haunches, saw how it was darker than when it went in, how immensely huge it looked. Painless was the word they used for the process, but only a fool would think a needle that size wouldn’t hurt.

I opened the door and stepped inside, and there was Michael, standing at the end of the short hall with a revolver in his hand. It was aimed at my chest. I saw the hatred in his eyes again, saw his hands quivering, and I knew he would shoot.

“Michael,” I said.

“I hate you.”

I slowly raised my hands, palms toward him. I took a small step forward. “Michael.”

“Don’t move!”

I froze. The air at my back was cold; the air at my front, warm and humid. I was sweat-ing, my shirt and jacket sticking to me, my bangs plastered on my forehead. Michael had been sweating too, sweating and crying; his face was red and wet. His hands looked pa-thetically small around the gun, a thirty-eight caliber I kept in my nightstand. My wife’s idea. It was his mother’s gun.

“I hate you.”

“Drop the gun, Michael, I’m — “ I stopped myself, but not in time.

“You’re not my father. My father was bigger than you.”

An old joke, from back in the early days when I was just getting to know him. A boy, six years old, not really understanding what was going on. As I was tucking him in, a con-fused whisper, almost a prayer: “My daddy was bigger than you.”

And me, in a bemused voice: “Yes, he was. But your mother’s prettier than both of us.”

He hadn’t said those words in years, nor had I thought of them. It struck me hard, staring at him now, and for a moment I saw him as a little kid, a little kid with a gun in his hands.

I blinked the image away, but it stayed, lingering behind him, ghostly. We stood in silence for a moment, both of us breathing through our mouths, thick wet breaths that we forced out of our lungs. My thighs and chest itched from the sweat, but my back felt frozen, and I was shivering, my hands shaking almost as much as Michael’s. For a moment, a brief but horrible moment, I regretted leaving the rifle outside. I pushed the thought away before it could grow any further — but there it was; once it was thought into existence, it stayed, mocking and waiting its turn to show its dark face again.

Michael moved slowly towards me. I was watching his face, not the gun. His lips were twitching, as if he were fighting back another scream, as if it were writhing around in his mouth trying to get out. “Michael,” I said, but there were no other words to follow it, and I closed my mouth.

“Why?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, Michael. I had to.”

“No you didn’t.”

“He was sick. You know that.”

“I hate you.”

“I know.”

“I wish you would just die.”

The word must’ve caused some delayed reaction in him — there was a pause in his face, a momentary blankness, and then the weight of what he’d said. He flinched, and I knew. It was fleeting, there and gone, and I could see that he had no control over it, probably didn’t even know what he was doing. I jumped to the side a moment before the gun went off. The bullet tore into the wall next to the door, and Michael had dropped the gun even be-fore the dull clap of the revolver had hit my ears — had dropped it even while pulling the trigger. The gun hit the floor between his feet and he stepped back from it as though it were a copperhead. He stared at the gun slack-jawed, moving slowly, his feet shuffling. He tripped over the carpet, falling to a sitting position and still staring at the gun.

I ran to him. I kicked the gun away, more for his sake than mine. He lunged forward, grabbing me, wrapping his arms around my shoulders and sobbing the instant I gripped him back. I held him like that, his fingers digging into the back of my jacket, his face dug tightly into the crook of my neck.

“We’ll get another dog,” I told him, my mouth pressed against his ear. It was the only thing I could think of to say.

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Daniel W. Davis is a graduate student born and raised in Central Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can follow his work and musings at dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com.