The Dog Doesn’t Die
I had nightmares long after Father had drained the marsh, and it was a while before I could hold frogs again, afraid they may try to avenge themselves on me, bubble up through holes in my back, leave me always open. The Suriname toad gives birth this way, burying her young in her own flesh, releasing them through skin that looks like it would forever whistle if she walked through a windy forest in her aftermath, and I was always afraid of that kind of love. But my mother brought him to me, an admirably sized toad, one who had earned his place here but had fled to our grassy yard with the marsh filled and gone.
His face was half mowed away but still sputtering. My mom was too weepy with guilt to fully form words, but she trusted me at ten. I watched the abandoned lawn mower rolling by itself, the vibrations from its own popping motor carrying it slowly forward. I took the toad in my hands, an unexpected puddle, brought it to the garage and placed it in the straw-lined box where the one-legged infant chickadee hadn’t made it through the night—I had buried its soft, motherless body but left the box where it was. The toad tipped over and kicked its legs until I sat it back up, blood-damp hay matted to its missing face. Father’s small, agile hammer lay out in the open on his anvil.
My mother had corralled the mower, and it sputtered for a moment before remaining silent, leaving the front yard half pinstriped. The soggy remnants of marsh were left in limbo, too water-filled to ever cut, a protest against my father who had drained it, expunging many years of myths about drowned surveyors, of moaning slippery elms dropping branches upon wayfarers, of long, low groans and corn knives hidden beneath burial mounds, and many generations of leopard frogs. Sloped and dried, the water was slowly growing back beneath straw and forcibly planted grass that threatened to sink tires. It never wanted to grow there, and most of the seeds resisted germination, though a few were forced into life. I took the frog to the rocks by the black drainage pipe, set it on quartz and steadied my hand—it had no eyes to look at me.
Father was a farrier and spent most of his days making and fitting horseshoes, pounding steel, hammering it into something like a fingernail. It was a family trade—he had been raised to efficiently bend and shape iron with therapeutic effect, but he hated horses and, working with files, hammers, a forge heating steel white, and, of course, large, easily startled animals, he frequently injured himself.
He came home from work that day with a cauliflower thumb blooming in every direction with splintered nail and finger gut. He sat down on the couch complaining of back pain while our dog licked the sweat from his face. He didn’t get stitches. Instead he groaned in the bathroom as he sliced away the ballooned flesh with a dulled pocketknife and shoved the rest back inside, wrapping it hard with gauze to make the cells remember each other. He let the nail turn blood blister and was back at the forge the next day. He took me with him to the barn where I handed him horseshoe nails while he stooped under a large, chestnut mare frothing with sweat, the thumb of his free hand too swollen to pick the slender metal slivers from their small box himself.
He drew his hammer swiftly back toward his eye each time he landed a blow, driving steel into a space as wide as its own margin of error. The horse blinked. Swatted flies with coarse tail and stomped—Father punched its gut and swore, pinched its heel and forced its leg back between his. Told me to hold its head. I swatted flies away from her damp forehead with her long bangs. Tickled her beard, left untrimmed in the off-season. Father always startled everyone with the swiftness of his hammer, how closely and quickly he drew it back to his own face.
Father came home one day with his eye blown wide, iris silvery against scarlet. The pupil in that eye would remain forever dilated disproportionately, as if someone had hooked it and was always gently tugging. The hammer claw left a long scorch on his lower eyelid that singed everything away but a bright, pale lip. From then on his eyelashes grew inward, fine and see-through, but sharp into egg-white flesh.
On the way to an optometrist, Father glanced at me with that one, oblong pupil and I chanced a look back from beneath thick bangs that grew thicker every time my mom cut them, allowing titmouses and blue jays to carry away a little more chestnut to build their nests with. Father slammed on the breaks when the vehicle in front of us lurched and a deer, a large, antlered buck, burst through its rear window and tumbled lifeless, my father said, until it stopped just beneath our scorched brake pads, his trailer jackknifed. Father got out, said stay, and went to the small pea-green car.
Hair, silvered and frizzed, sat in shock at the wheel, over and over saying it’s still in the car, it’s still in the car. Father pulled her out, clammy and broken, and sat her on the gravely shoulder. When he reached back inside past the front seat for her purse, he saw the black hoof and muscular, blood-blown thigh. An ambulance probably came, but I’d only remember so many sunken eyes. That night I dreamed I met a buck in the marsh, staring at me with its many-tiered horns. It hooked the lowest bough around a mossy slippery elm and pulled the spiny antler from his head where it landed in beds of orange pine. He lifted it with his soft, whiskered mouth, extending his neck gently toward me, waiting for my open hand.
I spent the next day rearranging square-cut box nails of varying lengths that had jumped into the wrong drawers, pulling CU 5 slims from size 6 city-heads, and fishing Capewell 4.5 racers from Mustads. Years later my father would ask if I remembered organizing his trailer, saying that was his favorite story to tell his friends, what a good job I did.
Back then, my only companion was my dog, an old shepherd who would follow me around the yard as I placed acorns and leaves in the low crooks of trees. I believed deer would come to eat them and would become ecstatic when I’d return on occasion to find them missing, never suspecting the wind. But I was always careful to avoid the black drainage pipe. We went happily along like this, neither of us allowed beyond the old cow wall, careful never to cross its borders even in the places where rain and time had worn it down so that in one near-accidental step you could cross to the other side.
One day, sometime after the deer dream but vague, like all my memories, my dog and I sat at the base of the small hill I sometimes liked to sled down in the winter. He suddenly began barking at the knoll—an alarming sound from a silent shepherd with no job to fulfill anymore. I ran in time to see it, black-bodied and bull-headed, slinking through fresh grass clippings. It disappeared in a ripple before I could retrieve the blue plastic bucket I used to catch all my living things, but my dog still saw the ghost snake when I couldn´t. I followed as he chased it down to the patch of quartz by the raspberry bushes I was not allowed to pick, because they were dangerously close to the corroded mouth of the black drainage pipe, full to the brim with bees.
My dog let out a rapid series of pained squeals until he fell silent, out of sight from where I stood in the brambles. I threw my small handful of raspberries against the bleeding quartz to drag him to the house. I sat with my mother in the oak kitchen as she spoke softly to me, the loud, fruity wallpaper behind her; cartoon lemons, cherries, small bunches of grapes. But while she was talking and rubbing ointment on my one sting, my mind was still back at the black drainage pipe, crawling through on hands and knees, mud-sleek, until it became dark, until I could no longer feel my limbs, lured by the scent of honey, the mouth of the queen still thick with saliva. I dreamed I could go to where the pipe let out on the other side, of rebirthing myself from its slick black body far beyond the old cow wall, out of sight of the stained quartz.
The next day my father ripped up all the raspberry bushes and paved over their corpsed roots, a place for him to park his trailer. When he was finished and not looking, I surveyed the remains. Everything had been mowed away except for one tender stalk where the old brambles used to give way to the woods. One raspberry with only three small pods still clung to its easily startled stem. I took it to softer ground and buried it whole without understanding that not all things can be coaxed from the ground.
My father had never given me permission to forage through the woods beyond the old cow wall behind our house, but that day he let me so I could see where he buried my dog. He led me over the mossy stones, dried and crumbling flecks of mint green catching on worn corduroys. Stumbling through piles of forgotten leaves, clutching the sparkly pink guts of a hula hoop I brought to decorate his grave, I imagined families of deer ticks crawling up beneath my loose pant leg, over the rim of my sock and down to my warm ankle and blue veins.
Eventually my sneaker, bought floppy to grow into (though I never would), caught on something and gently nudged it up above the leaves—shiny like ivory or a tusk, it was a freshly-shed antler. Turning, seeing what I had found, my father rushed over to pick the antler up by the base—the rough, bony tendrils seemed to reach, like they had not yet forgotten the young velvet forehead they so recently fell from. My father held the antler mockingly to a corner of his forehead, his own receding hairline, at its toothy root. Suddenly no longer fearful of copperheads disguising themselves beneath the rust of displaced water and oranged pine, he ploughed through the leaves hoping to find another. For some reason words wouldn’t come to me, and I couldn’t say I wanted to go home to check my ankles. That antler had been sharp, not yet dulled by tree bark like the pair I encountered years later, still attached to their quivering body.
I’d eventually grown past the days of trying to leave treats for deer in trees, of believing that any good could come from that place anymore where everything else had fled. I’d grown anxious and quiet like my surroundings and drove nervously at night. Driving home one evening, I slowed to a stop as a family of deer crossed the street ahead of me—a mother, two daughters, and a son. They moved leisurely across the pavement but were close to the other side now. Only the large buck still remained in the road.
As I watched, I saw a sudden stream of light moving fast up the other side of the hill. The buck’s thighs and flashing tail were still passing over concrete and onto the grassy shoulder. My hand hovered trembling over my wheel but would not honk, though I would tell my family later that I had. The drunk driver rode fast and blindly and I had taken too long to decide between confrontation or the small, foolish hope that I was wrong, that the driver knew the buck was there and had everything perfectly timed to stop or to just miss.
The driver’s headlight caught the buck’s flank so hard that glass and fluorescent bulb tore away and violently split, flying through the air and hitting my windshield from the other side of the road. The driver kept going, seemingly unaware that anything had even happened, no doubt surprised later in a hungover haze to find his car destroyed, blood and fur matted to what was once his bumper.
Inaction was something else I had learned gradually, as gradually as the marsh gave up its fight. Though still damper than the rest of the property, the toads, frogs, water bugs, and twisting vines never returned. The yard was left instead as a soggy plot of slender, sparse grass next to a long, winding, concrete driveway that ran away from the woods.
After driving a little way, I would eventually decide to turn around, hoping not to find him there, or that he could be helped. Instead I returned to watch him die, larger than I ever thought he’d be, so close I could have touched him—I wanted to touch him, to soothe like a little ointment and a Band-Aid on a single bee sting. This I was right not to do, and it was right that I watch as shock-stricken eyes dulled, the stilling of rippling fur over ribs.
L Favicchia is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas and is the Editor in Chief of LandLocked. Their work has appeared in The Rupture, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Hobart, among others.