“If you’re going hunting, you’ll need something to eat.” Deb gestured to a brown-paper lunch sack sitting on the counter as Robert entered the kitchen. She was in her worn robe and her face looked brutally naked without make-up.
Robert walked past her to the coffee maker.
Jackie was at the small table, papers spread out in front of her. He paused and tousled her hair–stiff from the hairspray she used to coax it into a cloud around her face.
“Daddy!” Her hands flew up.
“Oh! Sorry, material girl.” He ruffled her hair again.
“I don’t know why you’re all done up, if you’re just going to sit there,” Deb said. “Are you going over to the game?”
“It’s not starting for another hour, and yes, I’ll go. I’m just finishing this paper for Mr. B.” Jackie did not look up.
“Mr. B, Mr. B. He’s all I hear about lately. That paper’s not even due until Friday, right?”
“Lay off her Deb.” Robert lowered his voice and poured a cup of coffee. “She’s doing her homework on a Saturday morning. That’s not a bad thing.”
“I don’t know,” Deb replied. “When I was her age, I was out having fun.”
“When I was her age, I was doing just what she’s doing.” Robert took a sip of the lukewarm coffee.
“Yeah, and look where it got you,” Deb said quietly as she turned back to the pan in the sink.
Robert clenched the cup. He looked at Deb’s back and imagined what it would feel like to hurl the cup at her, how the coffee would splatter across the terry cloth. Carefully he put it down on the counter.
“What?” Jackie’s voice was shrill. “Do you want me under the bleachers like Jennie probably is right now? She’ll be pregnant any day–like you were. That’s why Daddy didn’t go to State!”
Jackie’s words pin-balled through the cluttered room until Deb crashed the pan hard in the sink and took a step toward her daughter.
“And do you think I got myself pregnant? Get out of this room if you’re going to talk that way around me.”
“You don’t have to ask me–I’m going!”
Robert heard the scramble of his daughter collecting her papers, but didn’t stay to watch her leave. He went to the fridge, grabbed a six-pack, and strode out to his truck. He drove fast, straight out of town and onto the highway that snaked into the surrounding forest.
After several miles he skidded to a stop on a gravel turn-out, swung from his seat, shouldered the gun, and walked into the trees.
His first strides carried him over a clumpy batter of mud, gravel, scraps of paper, and mangled beer cans. He was so used to this garbage that it was only its lack he noticed as he walked further–ferns filling in the patches between tall evergreens.
Robert had spent his childhood in the woods that grew right up to his small house. The powdered stipple backing the ferns, the slant of pine needles, this was the wallpaper of his mind. If he ever thought about it he would realize it was the sweep and whorls of the forest he saw when he closed his eyes, or in the moments before he fell asleep.
As a boy he hadn’t needed a reason to plunge into the woods. There was nothing else to do. Soil etched the creases of his skin into a permanent map. The singular call of a bird, the sun piercing the constant dusk to illuminate one delicate branch, the loamy smell when he pressed his face into the earth, none of these things were miraculous to him, they simply were.
Adolescence had turned the forest into a parallel land–unseen by adults. Here he had learned to smoke, drink stolen alcohol, and unfold girls into the yielding earth, searching with urgent hands for the warm, deep places that they held, hidden.
Once he had gotten old enough to drink at the Stopping Place, take the girls to a bed, the only real reason left to go into the forest was to hunt. His friends had grown up hunting with their fathers. Robert had not. He grew up with his mother, who had left Pine Village in ‘54, gone to Portland and found a job as a secretary but come back in less than a year–visibly pregnant. Robert was born a few months later.
“When I told that son of a bitch I was pregnant, he fired me,” she said of her boss.
Robert grew up knowing his father’s name and had gone as far as hitching to Portland to stand in front of the grand white house before he walked down to the Greyhound station, caught a bus to The Dalles, then found a ride back home in a logging rig.
His mother had cared for his Granddad–whose leg had been amputated after being crushed by a log–as well as Robert. Granddad had worked on a logging crew since he was fifteen. Without his leg he sat in his chair and started drinking at noon and all Robert remembered was the scratch of his unshaven cheek and his bitter voice calling out for another beer.
When he and Deb got married he took his grandfather’s old .22 with him. He had shoved it into the back corner of their bedroom closet where it had stayed until yesterday.
“It’s going to be hard to kill yourself with that old thing,” Deb had said when she walked into the kitchen to find him sitting at the table with it laid out in front of him.
“Thought I might go hunting.” He rubbed the cold barrel with a disintegrating chamois cloth.
“Hunting? With that?”
The few times he had been hunting were with Deb’s father–Red–and her brothers; they always lent him a well-kept 30-06, which felt cumbersome in his grasp, something he tried not to reveal.
“It was good enough for my granddad,” Robert said, looking up to where Deb stood, grocery bag balanced on her hip.
“What did he ever hunt?”
“Dammit Deb, I need something to do!” Robert had banged the can of polish down on the table.
“If you need something to do, you could split the wood laying around out there. The electricity’s going to get shut off if we don’t pay the bill.”
Deb’s voice had been just as hard as his.
Now, as Robert walked away from the gash the road cut through the forest, the sun it allowed gradually fading, he became aware of an absence. Aside from the tread of his boots and the occasional call of a bird, it was very quiet. Even as a boy deep in the trees he had been used to the sounds of the mill: the high-pitched scream of the saws, the groaning protest of ancient timber as it was cleaved down the middle. Now the mill had been shut down, he had lost his job, and it was quieter than he ever remembered–the sudden drum of a woodpecker sounding thunderous.
He spotted the bird’s head feathers: a smudge of rusty red against the rich brown of the trunk. As it flew off he raised the rifle and imagined he traced its path.
He had pictured coming home with something they could eat–something rich and fatty. Now the truth of what the forest held, what his gun could bring down, made him lower it.
This was why Deb had given him that look. She grew up in Pine Village also, raised by her father, with three older brothers; she probably knew more about hunting than he did. She certainly knew that this old gun–and the puny bullets he had found in a collapsing box in the closet–had been used by his granddad to shoot at beer cans and squirrels. Deb and his sixteen-year-old daughter Jackie weren’t going to eat squirrel, even if he could shoot one.
The last time he had gone hunting with Deb’s dad and brothers–a couple years earlier–he hadn’t even realized what he smelled was a buck until he saw it; then the heady musk made sense. It was standing in a clearing, the sun gilding its antlers. Robert had stopped between the trees that hemmed the clearing. The animal’s eyes were enormous–liquid brown. The neck that bowed to hold the heavy head seemed to Robert to hold something else as well. Robert shifted, making a small noise, the buck turned its head and looked at him, and then he remembered the gun. He raised it, at the same time knowing there was no way he could shoot this animal, not even for the pride it would give Deb to hang its rack above the couch.
At another noise Robert had looked sideways. Red had been standing ten feet away. His gun was at his shoulder, but he was looking at Robert, and Robert heard the buck spring out of the clearing as the two men met eyes. Red didn’t say anything, but he lowered the gleaming rifle, shook his head, spat, and patted the pocket of his flannel shirt for cigarettes. He didn’t offer Robert one, and he hadn’t been asked to go hunting since then.
“Fuck him,” Robert said–not sure it was at the memory of the buck or the brutal sweep of Red’s forehead–before he continued. He walked steadily for an hour, but there seemed to be no living things beside darting, teasing birds in the whole immense woods.
Hunger and fatigue finally stopped him; he tossed the gun down on a mossy patch and lowered himself beside it with a groan. His legs felt unsuited to what he was asking of them. Until three months ago he had driven through the blank white mornings to the mill–smokestacks stark against the milky sky–and worked all day. He considered his hands. They were strong–swollen and marred with scars. He thought of his grandfather downing trees with a handsaw. Robert’s job had required a kind of strength and endurance, but not the kind his granddad had needed.
He opened his bag. The six-pack sat banded together at the bottom. He remembered the lunch bag that Deb had made: still sitting on the counter.
Easing himself back against a fallen log–cushy with unimaginably green moss–he cracked a beer and let it stream down his throat. The deep, yeasty ache was so good that he drank the whole can in a few long pulls. He sighed and lobbed the can into the trees, then opened up another.
“Come out you little fuckers!” he yelled at the empty woods and laughed.
Sunlight cracked the canopy high above his head and he shut his eyes and let it touch on his face. His breath deepened. He saw the mill’s high chimneys, smoke indistinguishable from clouds, felt his hands vibrating as he guided a plank towards the eternally rotating blade; he saw Deb’s tired face from the morning, felt the sour tension held silently in his house.
At a muffled noise his eyes snapped open; a rabbit hopped nervously into the clearing. It was all twitch and fluff, and was followed, a few hops behind, by a second. They were silvery grey, with big quick eyes.
Very slowly Robert edged his hand out, grabbed the gun, and in one motion yanked it up, found the first rabbit and pulled the trigger. The tiny muffled whump told him he had hit it. Instinctively he aimed for the second creature–he needed to shoot before it fled–and only then did he remember that this old gun took just one round at a time. His guts twisted in private mortification.
“Goddamn it!” With clumsy fingers he fumbled in his pocket for another bullet, sure the other rabbit would be gone when he looked up.
But it wasn’t. It was paralyzed, only its eyes darting from side to side.
Robert wondered if it was looking for its partner, then he depressed the trigger. His heart was pounding; the shot cracked the forest wide open.
He had hit both creatures and they lay in the warm seconds before stillness, before their eyes lost their gleam. He reached down and buried his hands in the soft fur. It was so silken, with hot flesh just below, that he groaned.
The tableau waiting for him when he entered the kitchen, the rabbits held firmly by their ears, was almost the same one he had walked out of earlier. Jackie was at the kitchen table, her schoolwork around her, and it was only the change in her appearance–her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing one of his old flannels–that revealed she had gone to the game, returned, and changed.
Deb was planted before the sink again, a clothed and colored-in version of the pallid woman he had left.
Both wife and daughter turned their gaze to him.
He swung the stiffening rabbits up by their ears and let them drop with a meaty thud onto the counter.
“Just like some fancy French restaurant,” he got out before Jackie began shrieking.
“Bunnies, Daddy? You shot bunnies? There’s no way I’m going to eat a bunny!”
“You’ll eat what’s put on your plate until you’re paying for your own food,” said Deb, her voice low and even. “Now clean up that mess and get the table set.”
Jackie looked fiercely at her mother and Robert could see signs of earlier tears marring his daughter’s eyes. She gathered her papers and books loudly, but said nothing as she stomped from the room, and Robert knew that Deb had won the bout that morning.
As soon as Jackie’s bedroom door slammed loud enough to send a tremble through the house, Deb turned to Robert.
“Have you ever eaten rabbit?” She took a few steps toward him. “Have you ever cleaned a rabbit? Skinned one?”
She looked to the animals on the counter and he followed her gaze. Atop the worn linoleum, their fur seemed to lave lost its luster, and the angle of their legs made him look away and back up to Deb.
She was glowing now–her skin, her eyes. “Well, have you?”
“Jesus Deb, you know I haven’t.” Robert was aware of the beer he had drunk; it seemed hard to form words, they backed up, unwilling to spill out into the kitchen. He felt too big, swollen, smelling of dirt and beer and his own rank scent.
“Well I have,” she said. “Cleaned them, cooked them. Rabbits. Squirrels. We didn’t have anyone sending us checks from the big city. I’m not going back to that.”
“Every fucking guy in this town is out of work.” Robert reached out and ran his dirty finger over the very ends of the rabbits’ fur. “What do you want from me?”
“I don’t know!” Deb said and he looked up quickly at the tremble in her voice, was surprised to see tears making her eyes bright. “But it’s not dead rabbits.”
He stood for a minute and the air in the room seemed to quaver around him like Deb’s voice and the rabbits’ fur. When he finally spoke he knew his words were as disappointing as the dead animals. “I don’t have to stick around for this.” Again, he turned and left her in the kitchen; climbed into the cab of his truck where the air was calm.
The wavering sunshine had been erased by a low white mist, bringing evening early. Robert switched on his wipers; they spread a film of grime across the windshield. Automatically he drove towards the Stopping Place. The route took him past the mill. It rose up dark against the mist–crenellated and quiet. There had always been activity there, even at night. Lights had shone–illuminating odd angles, steam had swiveled out of the chimneys. Now there was nothing. A chain-link fence had been erected around the whole site, but nothing more had been done.
He drove through the dark until he reached the bar’s feeble neon sign. Red’s truck, pulled up tight against the front, made him hesitate. He looked around the lot, up and down the empty highway then continued to the door.
The air was smoky, stale and reassuring. The was noise: voices, music, the crack of pool balls.
Red turned at the jingle of the bell and watched Robert approach over his thick shoulder.
“You look like shit. What’ve you been doing all day?”
“Hunting.” Robert climbed onto the stool beside Red, then looked to the bartender, Mike.
“No shit!” Red said. “For what?”
Robert met his eyes and smiled slightly. “Rabbit.”
“The fuck you have!” Red’s voice was loud. “Rabbit. You get any?”
“Two,” Robert said. Mike approached and looked at him questioningly.
“Jack.” Robert said, “beer back.” He turned to Red. “Your daughter’s too good to cook them.”
Red and Robert looked at one another for a moment.
“No shit?” Red said. “She always was a picky little bitch.”
It was midnight when Robert stepped out of the bar and the cold, moist air slapped his flushed face. On the dark highway he shut one eye to keep the road in focus, and still the centerline danced in front of him. He flew past the dead mill and the dark houses.
His house was dark as well. He switched on the light and saw the rabbits. They lay just where he had left them; he could tell without touching them they were stiff.
The room smelled like food though; there were two crumpled bags from Dairy Queen on the table. The nearest Dairy Queen was a half hour away.
The brazen scent of fast food hung in the kitchen and Robert was abruptly starving. Saliva flooded his mouth and he realized he had not eaten all day. He plunged his hand into the greasy sack, his fingers reaching for detritus from the meal: a few french-fries, maybe an uneaten crescent of Jackie’s burger, but there was nothing left.
He snatched up the bag and shook it, but only a spattering of salt fell out.
His anger leapt; she ought to guess he would be hungry! Then he saw the lunch sack hunkered reproachfully on the counter. In an instant it was flying through the air, but he did not look to the mess it left after exploding on the floor.
He did not want to look at the rabbits either, but he would have to. He would have to eat them; he saw that now.
Robert wheeled around and confronted the small bodies.
Have you ever cleaned a rabbit? Skinned it?
He reached down to his belt and fumbled for his pocketknife. The exposed blade gave him the hot-cold thrill it always did.
He cupped the creature in his palm. He would open it this way: down the belly. He nested the tip of the blade in the downy fur between the front legs. His hands were not quite steady. He gripped the handle tightly and pushed, felt skin stretch then finally puncture.
He tugged the knife downwards. Instead of sliding smoothly it snagged and caught like the overused zipper on a child’s parka.
He gritted his teeth and yanked until the rabbit’s entire front had been undone.
The incision was barely visible, hidden in the fine fur. He pulled at the edge of the cut but the pelt did not give way. He pulled harder, but it stayed firmly affixed to the body.
Robert hooked the very tip of the blade under the ragged edge of fur and tried to prise it away.
Between fur and flesh greyish membranes glistened. He jimmied the blade and tried to cut through the layers, but the angle was awkward and the knife slipped uselessly.
He tossed the knife aside, inhaled fast, then slid his fingers into the small cave he had carved. All warmth had left the little body. His fingers encountered a viscous substance–something not meant to be touched–and he swallowed bile.
He yanked quick and hard.
The otherworldly hue of the organs and inner workings, packed tight within a dull translucent wrapping, reminded Robert of something: his infant daughter handed to him in the minutes after she was born. He had shrugged the hospital blanket down and been shocked by the indigo tinge of her skin, how thin it seemed–something from the inside turned out.
He shuddered and unhanded the rabbit.
And then his body moved in a way he did not understand. It threw him forward and something issued from his mouth.
Crying, he realized; he was crying.
He did not know the last time he had cried. Not when Jackie was born, and not since then. He had not cried since that bus ride back home, his forehead hard against the dirty glass.
He put his hands to his mouth to stifle himself; his fingers were slimy. He choked at the sensation, blubbered, his own spit and tears and snot mixing in. He couldn’t seem to stop the guttural noises escaping him.
He looked up to Jackie standing in the doorway.
She was in her pajamas; tousled by sleep, but her face a perfectly rendered sketch of horror and pity.
She hesitated. He watched her take in the flayed rabbit, his befouled face and hands.
And still the crying. Even as his daughter watched him his body heaved. He rammed his hands over his mouth, forced the sobs back down his gullet. His frame rebelled–quaked once and then again, but finally stilled.
“The bunny…” His daughter began, her eyes again racing from the rabbit to her father. “Are you ok? Your face.”
In her brown eyes was fear. Like he had not seen since she was a child and was truly scared of monsters she had dreamed up.
Cautiously he pulled his hands from his mouth. They came away stickily, still joined by snotty strands.
The words were there: a history of words crammed into one man. But there was no way to get them out cleanly or accurately. It was impossible he saw with a hot upsurge of anger.
She waited, watching.
“What the hell are you doing up? Get out of here. Get back to bed!”
He might as well have reached out his hand and rearranged her features, collapsed them.
“What are you looking at?” He couldn’t stop himself. “You heard me! Get out of my sight!”
She lingered for only a second. And then she could not turn fast enough to get away from him.
She ran straight into her mother–the fleshy collision forcing a despairing exhalation from each of them.
From over Jackie’s shoulder Robert watched Deb’s sleep-soft eyes take in the carnage he had wrought in the kitchen and he turned his gaze from hers, but he could not keep himself from hearing his daughter begin to cry–scared sobs muffled only by Deb’s bathrobe.
I don’t have to stick around for this. His earlier words echoed through his mind; all he wanted was to leave the bruised air of the room for a third time, to escape the barrage he was certain was about to come.
But when Deb spoke her voice was mild, almost flat. “Rabbits are a bitch to skin.”
Robert looked back at her in surprise and saw his daughter’s head come up as well.
“They are.” Deb said this in the same conversational tone, while she gave Jackie a forceful squeeze, then peeled her off and spun her briskly around. “But they’re good,” she said. “Go wash your hands.” She nodded at Robert who sensed some mute gap of gratitude open within him and walked to the sink.
He heard Deb moving efficiently behind him while he cleaned his hands in water as hot as he could stand, and when he turned back it was to her swiftly sharpening a slim curved knife he did not know they had.
Jackie hovered in the doorway–her face still stricken–and Robert could almost see the fragile threads that bound her–to her mother, to him, to this house–shimmer both with attraction and repulsion.
He glanced out the window to his truck, perched and waiting on the drive, but then slid cautiously sideways to stand beside his daughter. He was almost shocked that the air between them allowed him through.
The ease–the unsolicited forgiveness–with which she dissolved against his side when he reached his arm around her shoulders either broke or melted something within his chest.
He pulled her to him and they stood together in the doorway and watched while Deb took the thin blade to the small body and with assurance separated the flesh from the fur.
A writer emerging from motherhood, Kathryn Lipari’s short pieces have recently been published in journals including Smokelong Quarterly and elephant. She is a member of Full Frontal Writers’ Collective and smallSalon.com.