The Imprecation by Kathryn Scanlan

A short story from the collection The Dominant Animal.

Book cover of The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan

A day after she died, the man came to cut the broken air-conditioning unit from the wall. The back end of the unit hung outside, beneath a messy tree. When the man pulled the unit through the hole into the house, dry leaves and little twigs and dirt and squirrel droppings and oblong pods fell all over the floor.

The man carried the old unit out the front door and down to the curb. The hole in the wall brightened the small, dim room—there was a fresh, cheerful feeling. A sense of serenity came from some glowing, floating dust.

But then the man came back and jammed the new unit into the hole. He turned it on with a remote control. Within a few minutes the room was cool, but it couldn’t help her because she was dead.

For three weeks I’d poured cold water on her in the tub and set her in front of a floor fan. I’d held her up to the open freezer and pressed ice cubes under her arms until they melted. I’d squirted water into her mouth with a little rubber bulb I used to irrigate my ears. But I’d also wrapped her in thick blankets later, when she started to shiver. I’d hugged and rubbed her until she fell asleep. I kept my hand on her side, which rose and fell with effort.

When she died, I helped lift her body into a box to be carried away. Unlike the ugly, busted air conditioner the man took to the curb, her small, old body was clean and soft and looked useful still—still with life in it, something not yet ready to be thrown out or, in this case, burned.

For three weeks the man said he would come, but did not come. Now he’d come and expected a hero’s welcome, but because she was dead, I no longer cared whether the room was hot or cold.

I got the broom and swept the mess he’d made. When it was piled, I saw that among the leaves and twigs and pods were little clumps of her white hair. I kneeled and carefully removed them from the dirt.

I did not thank the man when he left. He was a businessman, self-made and busy, with many irons in the fire. He was tasked daily with assorted problems of greater and lesser importance—the broken air conditioner, for example, being a very low priority—but one sensed he got a great deal of enjoyment from his life. His trendy eyeglasses he pushed to the top of his head while he worked, and his casual clothes were of a particular, pricey type. He whistled and checked his phone often, apparently invigorated by how much he was needed.

I stood at the window with her hair in my hand. I closed my fingers around it. I could hear her breath near my ear, though I’d heard her breath stop. My insides haven’t worked right since. Not my brain, either.

I watched the man drive away in his glossy, valuable car and prayed he might be met with some misfortune. Due to a major failing—the pathological poverty of my imagination—I could not call to mind anything more specific than that.

Excerpted from The Dominant Animal: Stories by Kathryn Scanlan. Published by MCD × FSG Originals, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux April 7th 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Kathryn Scanlan. All rights reserved.

Kathryn Scanlan is the author of Aug 9—Fog. Her work has been published in NOON, Fence, Granta, The Iowa Review, and The Paris Review. She lives in Los Angeles.

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