This weekend, we have a story from William Black. It’s a haunting collision of one screwed-up family and a set of wild animals. It’s a family you know in a situation you don’t. It’s magic. It’s real. –Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
Your mother’s car was in the driveway, so I came in expecting to find her in the kitchen. I must have been coming home from work, or if I wasn’t, I had probably been keeping Joe Meoni company at Gaffney’s and making sure he got home all right. Joe was my partner then, and he was pretty shaken up. We were, all of us, having a bad time of things. This was in the days after a the boy named Jamie Kozol had shot and killed two police officers, men I worked with, men your mother and I knew very well. We looked for this boy, the shooter, for two days before we found him, but we did find him, and Joe and I were part of the team that had tracked him to the basement of an abandoned house and apprehended him. After that, there was nothing left for us to do, and a lot of us simply fell apart.
In any case, it was a hot, humid evening in September, and I was tired and anxious. I remember the way the sunlight slanted through that big linden tree in our backyard and cast shadows that shifted on the linoleum floor. But your mother wasn’t in the kitchen, and those shadows made and unmade their shapes, going on about it without ever stopping. In those days your mother cooked for us. Almost every night I came home to find her putting the finishing touches on dinner. I would get washed up and then call you to come in, and we ate at the table like a family. So on this night I found it odd and worrying that your mother wasn’t there, and I started toward the bedroom, thinking she might be lying down with one of her headaches.
This business with the Kozol kid. I had been on the force for six or seven years. I’d seen plenty of bodies, maybe two dozen of them murdered. But this was different. This was a kid walking into a diner at lunchtime and blasting away at these cops, guys whose houses we’d been to, who had been to our house, who were minding their own business, doing nothing more than eating and talking. Your mother, though. She took it harder than anyone. Since we first heard about the shooting she had not spoken a word. She fixed our dinner, and she managed to get out of bed in the morning and make us breakfast and see us off, handing me my lunch and walking you out to wait for the school bus, but then she went back to bed or else wandered through the house, lost and frightened, unable to escape her thoughts. She did not answer any of my questions about what was on her mind. She did not shower. She did not get dressed. She did not leave the house at all, not to get the mail from the mailbox, not even to feed her birds in the backyard cage.
The bedroom, when I got there, was dark and empty, the bed made, and I called your mother’s name into the house. I called your name—I’d forgotten you’d gone to Devon’s after school those weeks. When no one called back, I went to the window and looked down at the yard, and there she was, at the cage, watching her birds.
Her cage, you were too small to remember it. But picture two trailer homes side by side, then two more stacked atop them: that’s how big it was, a frame of two-by-fours wrapped with chicken wire and planted inside with shrubs and crape myrtle trees and a pin oak that was struggling to grow. I had built it for her. The year we married and moved into that house, your mother found a robin dragging a wing across the driveway, and she coaxed it into her hands—she could do things like that, kneel down and cup her hands and lay them on the tarmac, and birds would come to her—and she kept the robin in a cage that not long before had been home to one of your hamsters or rats. She fed the bird, and in time it healed, and that much seemed okay to me. But by the middle of that summer she had caged three healthy birds, the robin and two bright red tanagers. Then another cage appeared, and another, and in them were twelve or thirteen birds she’d coaxed or caught, and come fall, even as the tanagers lost their red and their feathers turned a pale, yellowish green, their migrating colors, she refused to let them go. So I made an agreement with her. If she promised to always free the birds that had to go south, I would build her a permanent cage. On this day I looked out the bedroom window and saw her there, the cage I had built was noisy with robins, blue jays, cardinals, barn swallows, finches, doves, pigeons. Most of them had come from Cliff O’Day, one of the officers Jamie Kozol had shot and killed. Earlier that summer he had shown up with a wild turkey, a hulking black thing that made strange sounds and looked lost beneath the birds flitting between branches. Then, not a week before the shooting, he brought her a mountain lion cub he’d found, and the cub was in there too.
I went out to her. I said, “It’s good to see you up, Wanda.”
But she said nothing, only stared into the cage, watching the cub wake up. His fur was as soft and feathery as it looked. Black spots covered his back and his stocky little legs. Black patches circled his eyes and drooped like a Fu Manchu, framing the patch of white around his nose and mouth, and two inch-long stretches of black angled down the center of his forehead like deep furrows. He napped in the heat of the afternoons, on his stomach, his chin laid on his crossed paws, or sometimes on his side with his legs stretched out, and his habit was to wake up about the time I got home from work, used to your mother bringing out scraps of meat from the dinner she’d made us.
The cub rolled onto his back and yawned, exciting the birds. They ruffled their feathers and made a great deal of agitated noise. Some of them lifted up from their branches and took to higher ones, or darted across the cage, gathering in the trees farthest from the cub, and your mother’s expression changed, it lightened a little, though she did not quite smile.
“Are you ever going to talk again?” I said.
“Sure,” she said. I paused at the sound of her voice. It was squarely hers, and yet it was strange to hear. It sounded off key, harsh, bitter.
She said, “What do you want me to say?”
Your mother said this without taking her eyes off the cub. I thought of some things I would like to hear her say, but it was not the time to share them.
I laced my fingers through the chicken wire and watched what she was watching. The cub was awake and wandering among the tree trunks, rubbing against them as he passed. He seemed oblivious to the birds, but the birds were watching him closely, shifting on their branches, ready to take to the air, and the turkey waddled across the grass, moving as fast as it could away from him. With a drama of flapping the turkey could lift itself up and into the lower branches of the crepe myrtles, only to feel itself too big, it seemed, and too graceless, and drop heavily back to the ground. The other birds called to each other, and the cub seemed to answer them. The sounds he made, his cry, I guess you would call it, was high and thin and nasally, not at all what I’d expected but a lot like a bird’s call. The cub reached a tree across the cage and reached up and gripped the trunk with his claws, shaking the leaves and branches, and the birds shot up in a noisy panic and zipped across the cage to the side your mother and I stood on and settled in the highest branches.
But the cub was not interested in them. He only stretched and scratched at the trunk, working out his claws, like a cat does.
These lions were coming back. There’d been stories about them on the news, and at the station we had answered calls from people who’d seen them in their yards or crossing their streets. Sometimes the lions got a house cat or a small dog in its teeth and took it away. More than once we were called in shoot them. I’d had to shoot one myself, and I hated doing it. I had tried to take it out with one shot—that seemed the least I could do—but I was too far away and I had to shoot it twice before it was down and then a third time, right up close, to kill it. Before I fired the first shot, I was sure it would upset me for a long time to come, but it didn’t happen that way. Even as it fell I was sure of my duty and that I had borne it out. There is a solid, confident feeling that comes from performing your duty. Duty is a thing you don’t have to think about. Just empty your mind and do it.
“You know you can’t keep it,” I told your mother.
“Don’t start with that now. Please don’t start with that.”
“It’s just a fact. I’m not starting anything.”
Cliff O’Day had found the cub near his hunting cabin. The cabin was very deep in the woods and far up the side of No Name Mountain. He’d been driving back to town along the narrow gravel road when he saw the cub in a roadside field. He parked his truck and waited a long time for the mother to present herself and warn him off, but she never did. He said he was nervous about getting out of the truck and starting toward the cub, though not because he feared it. The cub was hardly bigger than a house cat. Cliff was afraid that when he got out of the truck the mother would launch herself from the shadows and take him down.
“So why’d you do it?” I asked him. This was, it turned out, one day before he was shot and killed.
Cliff shrugged, and I watched him hope he didn’t have to answer me. But I wanted an answer. Finally he said, “I just thought Wanda would like it. I wanted her to have it. You understand.”
We had been friends once, but by then, too much had come between us.
Cliff had climbed out of his truck and got low to the ground and made very slowly toward the cub, trying not to scare it off, even clucking his tongue in a steady rhythm because he thought that might soothe it. Cliff and your mother had this thing, this ability with animals, in common. But the way the cub bounded toward him without a second thought, the way it let Cliff pick him up and cradle him and carry him back to the truck, he figured its mother had abandoned it.
When I came home that day, Cliff and your mother were standing at the cage, just as your mother and I were now, watching the cub watch the excited birds, watching him leap up and swat at the air as they passed out of reach, and they were laughing, Cliff and your mother. I heard them when I got out of the car. I came partway around the side of the house and watched them from there, the two of them full of laughter. Your mother was happy. Very, very happy.
At the cage she asked me, “What was he like?”
I said, “Who?”
“That kid. That kid who killed everyone.”
“Kozol.” I said, “I don’t know. He was a scumbag. Let’s not talk about him.”
“But what was he like?”
I didn’t like thinking about him. I didn’t like remembering, which I got plenty of in my dreams. Eventually I said, “He was soft,” because I could not shake the way it felt to touch him, to handcuff him and take him by the arm and walk him out to the transport van. He was shirtless and tattooed across his chest and shoulders, silly tattoos, cartoons and skulls and crossed bones, things kids liked, and he was skinny and had a soft little paunch that hung over the waist of his jeans and no muscle at all, and he was cold. He’d been living in the basement of that old house—not just hiding from us but living there for months, maybe longer—and his skin was cold and a little damp from the place, even though the sun was hot and for weeks the air had been heavy with humidity. Touching him made me feel sick.
I told your mother all this, and after I finished she held those eyes on me, wet and worried. She said, “But what was he like?”
“I don’t know what you want,” I told her. “What do want?”
She didn’t answer, only turned back toward the cage and started to cry.
I said, “You mean was he a tough guy? Did he resist? No, he didn’t. He just sat there in the corner of the basement, on the stone floor, all crumpled-up-like, and waited for us. We came into the basement, eight of us cocked and aiming right at him, and he just sat there. He put his hands on his head when we told him to, but other than that he didn’t really move. We cuffed him, got him up on his feet, got him out of there. It was like escorting wet paper. Is that what you want?”
“No,” your mother said. She gripped the chicken wire and shook it, angry, frustrated, and said, “I don’t know what I want.” I touched her arm to calm her, slid my hand up her shoulder until I cupped her neck, and she twisted free of me. She cried harder and tried to stifle it, and then she gave into the crying. Through it she said, “I can’t have what I want,” and her knees buckled. She lowered herself to the ground, sobbing, heaving with it, and we heard your voice—your happy, excited boy’s voice—and I looked up to see Devon’s mother’s car at the top of the hill, idling in the driveway, and you and Devon racing toward us at top speed, your footsteps thudding, your arms out, your little hands, yours and Devon’s both, knotted into fists.
It bothered me that Devon’s mother would not get out of the car and come be neighborly but only sat atop the hill, idling and smoking. I thought, watching Devon come down the hill in front of you, as if this were his house, that this was a bad time. I did not want him here. I did not want him here at all.
Your mother wiped at her tears and coughed. I bent down to help her up, but she stood on her own and smiled at you, her face wet, all her features looking strange to me, contorted, and you and Devon did not say hi to either of us, just ran to the other side of the cage, where the cub was, as you’d done every day since Cliff had brought him here, to your mother.
“I need to be alone,” your mother said.
I heard your voices across the cage, your laughter. I did not like how eager you were for Devon’s approval. I did not like how hard you tried to impress him.
The cub growled—a hostile, tightly wound noise, like a small, red-lining motor—and there was Devon’s laughter again, then yours, strained with effort, and the cub growled again.
“Yes, now,” your mother said.
“Why?” I said, and I saw the cub through the trees, crouched and growling at you, taking deliberate steps backward. The rocks you threw kicked up dirt at its feet, knocked against tree trunks. ““Hey,” I called out to you. “Are you throwing rocks?” I said. I said, “God damn it, knock it off now.”
“I just need to be alone,” your mother said.
“We’re all going through this, Wanda. We should go through this together.”
“You know why,” she said. “I know that you know.”
The sound of a rock through the leaves, a bird lifting up and finding nowhere to go, flapping its wings and smacking the ceiling of the cage, rising up and hitting the ceiling, again and again, and I left your mother’s side and came after you, enraged, ready to pound a lesson into you. Some part of me was watching and terrified as I turned the corner to find you and Devon with rocks in your hands, watching me lift my hand to strike you, to knock you on your ass, like I had never done—had never dreamed of doing—and that is when the cage went loud with a riot of wings and bird screams, the turkey sounding like a person choking on water, gurgling with it, then went perfectly silent, and dust, black feathers, black down hung in the air like a cloud of gas.
That night, in the garage, I reinforced the biggest box I could find, tripling the cardboard on the sides and bottom, securing the seams and corners with duct tape. Your mother had taken her pills and fallen asleep. You, too, were sleeping after a long night of tears and shame and horror. When the box was ready I took my thirty-ought-six from the cabinet and slung it over my shoulder, and I got the hamburger your mother had defrosted for dinner but hadn’t cooked. I did not have Cliff and your mother’s way with animals. I had to outsmart them, or bribe them. I carried it all out to the car and drove the car down the hill of the yard to the cage, the headlights switched off.
I left the rifle in the car and took the rest into the cage. It was like stepping into a jungle, a dark, foreign place far from anything I’d ever known. The birds made small movements as I closed the cage door behind me, just enough that I could hear them, but I could not see them. I could not see the cub, though I knew where he liked to sleep. Everything smelled of carrion. What was left of the turkey rotted somewhere in that dark. Slowly, deliberately, I carried the box and the meat to the back of the cage and placed it on its side a little ways from where the cub usually slept and waited for a long time, glancing every now and then at the windows, making sure they were still dark. When I finally saw the cub he was stepping past me, darker than the night, a silent black shadow roused from I don’t know where by the smell of the meat. My skin tingled. In the dark and after his kill he seemed bigger somehow, powerful. I did not know until that moment that I was afraid, that I had been afraid since the Kozol kid did what he did, maybe longer, and I was a fool, I thought, for not bringing the rifle.
I let the cub move some distance from me before I followed him. I watched him find the box and lean into it, sniffing. Then he stopped. He pulled back and turned his head and looked right at me. His eyes—they lit up a bright greenish gold. I’d never seen anything like that, and my blood went to ice. My heart, my brain, my muscles, they urged me to go, to get out of there, but as long as the cub looked at me like that, I couldn’t find it in me to move. When the cub went into the box, I thought now’s my chance, but I didn’t run. Duty moved me, or something like duty. All of me fell into line, and I did what I’d come to do. I turned the box over and taped it tight.
I got the box into the car and drove deep into the county. Behind me, in the backseat, the cub shifted and paced in the box, brushing against the cardboard walls, scratching at them. I drove past Carbondale and Uniontown, past Waymart, where Kozol was locked up and awaiting trial. The cub made angry sounds, long, low growl-like hums, was how it sounded, and I waited for it to escape the box. What would I do if it escaped the box? I drove past the Hawlsen State Park and then the abandoned Birchwood Airport, keeping myself calm and steady, impatient to pull the trigger and be done with it.
Through the trees I saw lake water glittering in the moonlight. I pulled off the road and onto a gravel one without a street sign and drove until the lakeshore appeared in the headlights. I was very far out. Everywhere, the sounds of crickets. The air was heavy and damp and cold. It reminded me of the Kozol kid’s soft arms. I reminded myself that it was only fall edging in. Soon the heat, I told myself, and the light of summer would drain away, and these last months would become something else, something we had lived through.
I dragged the box from the backseat and carried it a little farther down the road to the lake’s edge, my rifle strapped to my shoulder. I cut open the top of the box and turned the box on its side. I took several quick steps back and sighted up the rifle. But when the cub emerged, a black, black shadow in the shape of a cat, it sensed me and turned its head and looked at me, eyes shining, just as it had in the cage, as if it knew my intentions, and I went weak. I could not shoot it. This was cowardice. Cowardice and rank foolishness. I kept my sights trained on him and waited for the courage to come. I told myself there’d be a price to pay for failing to pull the trigger. I told myself the cub would not survive out here, that it was better for everyone to go on and shoot it and be done. But the courage did not come, and I knew this, I knew it perfectly clearly—what I was doing, whether I shot the cub or let it live until something else came along and took it, or whether it found a way to survive and outlived us, none of that mattered.
—photo Flickr/JD Lasica