I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
When I was a boy, my father always told me, “If you kill something, boy, you’ve got to eat it.” It’s the way of the world, he’d tell me, and only right and just besides. I suppose that sounds reasonable enough if you say it just like that, but he always took things a few steps too far. Which is why I find myself here now, at the bend in the road, shivering and pale in the moonlight, my balls shrunk like stones as the leaves chatter and the high limbs moan in the wind. Maybe I’ll get lucky tonight.
The first time, I believe, was just an ant, or ants, I’d stomped with small besneakered feet. “Scrape ’em up, boy. They’re yours now.” I wouldn’t do it. I cried and tried to run, but he grabbed me by the wrist and scraped them up himself, sloppily, mixed with grass and sand. He shoved them between my teeth with one rough finger and held my jaws shut like a dog’s. They tasted like dirt. When I threw up, I cleaned it myself so he couldn’t make me eat it.
One summer morning I found a fly, caught between window and screen, drowsy from heat or hunger. I cupped it in my hands, laughed as its wings hummed and tickled my boyish palms, then shook it till it stopped. When I opened my hands it was still moving. An antenna wandered; one wing twitched. I plucked off its wings and watched it stumble drunkenly across my furrowed palm. Then I heard his voice behind me. “You can eat it now or eat it later, son. Whether it’s moving or not, you’ve already killed the fly.” I whimpered and wept, but his shoveled face did not soften one bit. I dropped it in my mouth and swallowed. For weeks I felt it buzzing in my intestines. I dreamed of whole colonies of flies reproducing in my gut, lifting me in the air with the collective flapping of their tiny wings, taking me high above the rooftops, above my father digging trenches in the yard, then streaming out of my mouth all at once, a black and buzzing plume, and letting me fall back through the clouds, through the treetops to the waiting earth.
He made me weed the garden, so on my hands and knees I weeded. I unearthed a pink and wriggling worm, stretched it between my soil-blackened fingers. It tried to inch away. I cut it in half with the blade of my trowel. His shadow fell before me. The two halves of the worm danced and jerked, pink in the rich black dirt. “Howzit coming, boy?” I felt tears rising. My lip and chin were shaking when he busted out a laugh. “You got lucky this time, kid. Slicing don’t harm worms none.” He slapped my shoulder and I twisted forth a smile.
I made a slingshot from a blue rubber band and a perfect Y-shaped twig, stalked the yard and the fields around, my pocket full of pebbles. The trees were silent, the earth still. I sat and pulled at the grass with my fingers. I dug a hole with the heels of my feet. I wondered how to make a whistle. I shot pebbles at a tree, aiming at a blackened knot along the trunk. Hit it six times out of ten. When a blackbird swooped down to rest on a high branch, singing stupidly, I was ready, slingshot in hand and loaded. The stone whined through the air and, with a crack of beak and bone, dropped the bird to the ground at my feet. It twitched a wing and died, its head bloody, glassy-eyed.
“Boy!” I heard him yell. He was still far across the field. I clawed at the earth with the heel of my slingshot, with my fingers. Unearthed a rock, dug with that. Put the bird in the hole, covered it with dirt just in time. I stood there, my feet hiding the bird’s brisk grave. Maybe I should have just thrown some leaves on it and walked away. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?” he said. Then, “What’s that you buried there?”
“Dig it up,” he said. “Go on.” I dug, hoping somehow that the bird would have already decided between heaven and hell and gone its merry way. But it remained. “Well, well,” he said. “A hunter. Pick it up and bring it home. I’ll teach you how to eat a bird.”
I carried the bird by its small black feet, sniffling as we crossed the field. “When we get to the house,” he said, “put on a pot of water to boil, then bring me a good sharp knife.”
While we waited for the water to heat, he told me what to do. To scald the bird just for a second to loosen its feathers. To pluck it, but to do it outside so as not to make a mess. Then he went back to work, digging trenches across the yard, singing songs my mother once sang to him and me. I dangled the bird over the pot by its feet, but the steam burned my hand and I dropped it in. Fished it out with a slotted spoon, ruffled and limp. The water had gone brown from the dirt of its brief burial. I carried it outside in front of me on the spoon. Sat under a tree and waited for the bird to cool. The feathers came out easily, but they were so many, and so small, like perfect miniatures of the grand eagle feathers that poked from the headdresses of Indian chiefs. The bird’s flesh beneath its plumage was rubbery and blue. It was barely bigger than my fist.
He loomed over me, his sleeves rolled, his shirt wet with sweat from digging in the sun. He sent me back into the kitchen for the knife I had forgotten. “You got to gut a bird before you can eat it, even a little one like this,” he said. “Even little things can be full to the gills with shit.” With his fingernail he traced a line from the bird’s tiny pore of an asshole up along its blue belly. “Cut there,” he said. “Just the skin, careful not to go too deep.”
My hands trembled. The knife shook. The bird shook. I held the blade to the belly of the bird I had killed, but could not make the cut. He put his brown and calloused hand around mine, steadying it, and pushed his thumb down over the blades dull edge. It was almost tender, the way he did that. The blue flesh parted. I expected blood to spurt up out of it, like a burst pipe, a jelly donut, but none did. My hands steadied, and I pulled the knife down across the bird’s abdomen. The guts were pink and blue and yellow. I expected them to smell, but they did not. “Now use your hand,” he said, “and scoop ’em out.”
He ate a pork chop that night, and a potato. On my plate was just the bird, fried in the same pan he fried his chop. It was brown now, not blue. It looked like a parody of a chicken, or someone’s hand. “Watch the bones,” he said. “They’re little.” I poked it with my fork. A tear darkened the napkin in my lap. “You better eat the whole thing, every part of it, cause you killed every last part.”
When he’d swallowed the last of his potato and the last of his chop, he wiped his mouth with his napkin and came around the table behind me. “Come on,” he said. “You know how to do it.” He used my knife to cut off the bird’s leg. It was no bigger than my pinky. He put it in my hand and pushed it to my mouth. “Eat.”
The sobbing had tightened my convulsing jaw, but I opened my mouth and chewed. He carved off the other leg, then stripped the meat from the bird’s tiny breasts and thighs. I didn’t know those hands were capable of such fine movements. He stood over me till I ate everything he cut. My belly hurt from crying. I didn’t care about the bird, or what I ate or didn’t eat. The flesh was tough and didn’t taste like anything. It was his rough hands that made me cry, how gentle they could be, but weren’t. “All right,” he said. “That’s enough. Get to bed now.” He spread wide his calloused fingers, gestured loosely at the door to my room. I ran into the yard and retched.
I was sick all day the next day, and he let me stay in bed. The day after that I got up early, left the house with my slingshot before he had even taken his pick and spade from their hooks in the shed. I trudged through the field, then through the far field and into the woods until I could no longer hear the rhythmic clanging of his pick or the sweet, sad songs he mumbled through. My sneakers and the cuffs of my pants were wet and heavy with dew, even through to the socks. I found a stick and a patch of mossy, loose earth and dug the hole first, a foot deep, another foot square. I saved the moss, unbroken.
It didn’t take long to spot a squirrel. My first shots missed, bouncing off the tree trunk as the squirrel scurried up into the high branches out of range. I walked and waited, spied another, with a mangy tail, at least half rat. Sensing me, it froze. I got it right behind the head, snapping its neck with one shot. It fell with a thud at my feet and lay there on its back, feet in the air, tiny squirrel tongue lolling, funny almost, cartoon dead. I grabbed it, warm still and strangely delicate, and rushed it to its grave. Sprinkled a handful of dirt over its head to cover its staring eyes and said a prayer—“All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before Him: and none can keep alive his own soul”—before pushing the rest of the earth over it and stamping it down, replacing the moss for camouflage. He would never know. For dinner that night I had a pork chop too, and a potato.
I was skipping from rock to rock along the little creek that divided the field nearest the house from the far field. He brought his tape measure along to inspect the trenches, and a small spade that swung at his knee with each long stride he took along the bank. I knew every stone in the creek like the scabs on my elbows and knees and leapt from rickety rock to rickety rock without bothering to first test my weight on them, or even to look. So I didn’t see the salamander, bright orange slick, stock still in the shade of the rushes, until both my feet were in the air. I nearly swallowed my tongue and tried my best to change the path of my descent, but the salamander bolted straight beneath my falling foot, and I landed with a squish and a terrible crunch, slipping, splashing belly up into the shallow stream.
I stayed there in the cold wet, looking up at him looking down at me, his jaw tensed and chewing on his gums. “Newt’s a poison creature, boy. Eat it and you die,” he said. “Now run home and dry off. Meet me in the far field and watch your step.”
He was quiet all week, working his jaw on his gums like he was chewing over something serious. I checked my food each meal for signs of salamander, praying he hadn’t made up his mind.
He got me for the next squirrel, caught me right in the act. I dug the hole beforehand like I did the first time and had just let loose with the slingshot, the rubber burning my wrist as it sung the stone up into the air. I heard his voice before the squirrel hit the ground. “Pick it up and bring it home, son. You’re cooking dinner tonight.”
But when I reached for it, the squirrel scratched up at me with one gray claw. It was bleeding from its mouth and its nose, and couldn’t walk or right itself. “It’s not dead,” I said.
He knelt at my side for a closer look. “Broke its back,” he said. “You can’t kill a thing halfway. Finish it and bring it home.”
“How?” I asked, but he had already walked away. A bubble of blood sprouted from the squirrel’s pinpoint nostrils. I could hear its breathing, like the creaking of my bed. I crushed its head with a rock and carried it home by the tail, spraying a thin trail of blood in the grass as I went.
Back at the house he had laid newspapers out on the ground by the shed. He handed me his pocketknife, well sharpened. “Gut it first,” he said, “just like you did that blackbird. Slice from his bunghole to his ribs and don’t push the blade too deep.”
The squirrel’s dead eye stared up at me, offset in its broken skull, as I pulled out its warm intestines and flung them, steaming in the crisp autumn air, on the unfolded news of the world.
“Now girdle his feet,” he said. “Cut the skin straight around his little ankles like you’re giving him socks.” The fur was greasy, and the skin beneath it gave away easy to the knife. Trembling, I did as he demanded, then cut along the inside of the squirrel’s leg, to the root of its tail and down the other leg. “Now peel him,” he said. I looked up at him, confused, hoping for a reprieve. None came. “Get your hands in under there,” he said, “and roll his skin back and up till you can pull it off.”
With blind, numb fingers I pushed the skin up and away, uncovering a strange, new pink animal beneath the gray one I had killed. The eye still belonged to the old gray squirrel, which did not drop its reproachful gaze until I pulled its own very flesh up over its head like a hood. “Yank off his tail and you’re done.”
After hanging his pick and spade in the shed that evening, done for the day, he made me cut the squirrel up and stew it with potatoes, carrots, and onions. I don’t remember much of the rest of that night, whether I ate dinner that night or the next, but I remember the toxic smell of rubber burning, and the blue rubber band’s twisted dance as it blackened and burned in the hearth where I had thrown it, along with my perfect Y-shaped twig.
He bought me a puppy when I turned 12, a little black mutt with pointed yellow ears. He put a ribbon around its neck, smiled lots and said it was for me, but really he meant it for a watchdog, to guard the trenches at night and when he went to town. He fed it every other day to keep it mean and he beat it when it barked too much or sometimes just to beat it. I took it with me in my wanderings about the fields, snuck it food on its fast days. We ran together, swam together, wrestled in the pine needles. I would have slept with the dog curled beside me in my bed but it wasn’t allowed in the house for the fleas.
He told me I was a man when I turned 13, gave me a shovel and a pick. The day after my birthday he had me start a trench not far from where he was digging. He gave me tips on how to dig, to always bend at the knees, to get a rhythm going, to try to pick around the rocks, not at them, to hang a plumbline with a rock and a length of twine, smooth out the sides with the flat of my spade, to measure depth before I dug too deep, adjust the corners with T-square and trowel. I dug that day till my palms were bleeding, but what bothered me most was hearing him not ten yards away, singing and moaning and sighing. I knew the words to every song he sang, and hearing them from his lips tore my heart against my ribs like the hard wood of the shovel’s handle against my raw and bleeding hands. The next morning I started at the far end of where my trench was meant to end, and by the time I got back to where I had first been digging, he was on a new trench away across the field.
He taught me how to drive the Datsun when I turned 15, hollering each time I let the clutch out too fast, slapping me in the head when I ground the gears. I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the Buick except to wash it, and once to pump gas. He would send me out in the old Datsun for groceries or to the hardware store in town and with time I got the hang of it, more or less.
It was my job to keep the cars clean when I wasn’t running errands or helping dig the trenches. He didn’t care about the Datsun, but I washed it anyway, scrubbing even the rust spots and the balding tires till they gleamed. The dog lay in the shade, opening its eyes occasionally to make sure I was still around. When I finished drying the Datsun with rags cut from his old T-shirts and flannels, it was time for the Buick. The hose didn’t quite reach around to where the Buick was and I know I could have just moved the Datsun out of the way, but the temptation to sit for just one second in the plush bench seat surrounded by all that chrome proved too great.
I got the keys from the hook by the door where I knew he left them. The seat was pushed all the way back for his long legs and I had to slide it forward to reach the pedals. I turned the key in the ignition and the engine started almost soundlessly. There was no clutch that I could find so I took my chances, slid the shifter to where it read ‘R’ and hit the gas hard so as not to stall. The car shot backward with far more power than I ever could have guessed, like a horse rearing or a shotgun recoil. It startled me so much that I didn’t even hear it hit. Not a thud, not a whimper. I jammed on the brake, hoping he hadn’t heard me, slid the shifter to first and inched the car back around the Datsun. It was only then that I noticed the thump, leaden and awful, as my rear wheel drove over something soft. I put the Buick in park, slid the seat to its original position and had started to walk back to the house to hang the keys on their hook by the door when I glanced back and saw my dog, asleep just seconds ago, now suddenly dead.
I was on the ground with it, bawling and stroking its yellow ears, its jowls and its black and broken body, when I felt his shadow pass over me. I couldn’t see his face for the sun behind his head and I put my hands over my ears to block out his words, shaking my head and crying, “No. No. No.” He grabbed me by the collar, lifted me to my feet and swung back to slap me, but I wriggled from his grip before his hand fell and ran down the long driveway to the road with my torn shirt and my eyes half blind with tears and horror.
For two nights I slept in the bushes. While the sun shined I wandered through the neighbors’ land, avoiding their trenches and keeping to the woods to stay out of trouble. The days were fine when it didn’t rain, but the nights were cold and all I had was the one ripped shirt. So on the third night I trekked back to the house for a sweater and a jacket and something to eat. All the lights were off. I went in the back way, through the kitchen, and was just turning up the stairs when he spoke. “Glad you could make it,” he said. “Your dinner’s waiting. I did the ugly part myself.” He flicked on the kitchen light and nodded to a plate on the table. I ran for the front door without looking.
The cops brought me back a month later. I stayed a week. Woke up from dreaming I was eating my own entrails—a perfect plate-sized circle of skin removed from my belly, just lying back chewing, slicing and jabbing with fork and knife—packed a bag and took off through the window. I held out nearly two months that time before I was caught. He took me back without a word.
Around that time he started drinking. He would drive the Buick into town when the sun set on Saturday, roll back up the driveway near dawn Sunday morning, stumble upstairs and sleep through the sabbath. I would lie in wait for him just around the bend in the road a half mile before the house. Set my alarm for four, then with a flashlight and a blanket hike down to the road. I would huddle in the bushes till I heard him coming, then drop the blanket and stand naked in the middle of the asphalt, my arms at my sides, a fork in one hand and a knife in the other.
The first time he came around the corner fast, spraying gravel. He hit the brakes hard and skidded into a spin, the Buick’s back wheels taking the lead and angling the car in a tight and violent orbit with me at its center. It came to a stop about five yards down the road, its headlights illuminating two dumb circles of brush. When I shined my flashlight through the dusty windshield he did not blink. His face was flushed, his spine straight. I laid the fork and knife on the hood and walked back up to the house.
He stayed home that next Saturday, sitting erect at the kitchen table, working his jaw over something for half the night, but another week of digging trenches and wordless meals at home sent him running to town come Saturday. When he shot around the bend just before dawn I was there waiting, naked, fork and knife in hand. He locked the brakes again and this time swerved off the road and into our field, upending the Buick in the peripheral trench. I picked up my blanket and flashlight, walked back up to the house and went back to bed. He was still drunk when they found him in the car the next morning. He spent 20 days in lockup for driving drunk, the Buick two weeks in the shop.
When he got out he stayed sober for a couple months. We dug trenches all day long, me in the far field, he in the close, and didn’t speak at all in the house. I was as tall as he was, and nearly as strong. The cars stayed unwashed.
The time came, as I knew it would, that he washed his hands and face, put on a clean shirt, pomaded his hair and took the keys off the hook by the door. It was a warm night, so I left the blanket at home. I was in the road standing ready in the moonlight when I heard him coming, but he had gotten wise, and crept around the bend at five miles an hour, stopping the car with its new bumper three inches from my knees. For a minute or so I stood there, my skin white in the headlights, each budding hair on my chest with its own distinct shadow, staring at him behind the glass of the new windshield, his shoveled face stern and red with booze and anger. He gave the horn a tap. I laid the fork and knife on the hood, turned and walked away.
The next Sunday morning I got up a little earlier and hiked a little farther, two bends in the road before the house, a half mile down. I was just in time, and stepped into the middle of the road as he roared on home oblivious. He screeched to a halt and hit me. I flew four feet in the air and lay where I fell. My left leg curled oddly where it had made contact with the car. My right elbow, which hit the asphalt first, bent the wrong way back. The pavement had scraped my right side to pulp, but he hadn’t killed me, so I held my breath and lay still as if he had.
My eyes closed to slits, I could make him out kneeling over me, but couldn’t see his face for the headlights behind him. He gurgled a little, and started swaying back and forth on his knees. It was when he reached a trembling hand out to touch me that I started laughing. Leg broke and elbow busted, half torn to shreds, I bawled out cackling. He withdrew his hand and stood. I wanted to throw the knife and fork at him as he walked back to the car, but my hands were empty. “What were you gonna do, Dad?” I wheezed as he started the engine again. “What were you gonna do?”
He drove on and went upstairs to sleep it off, leaving me to drag myself home. It was light by the time I got the keys from the hook and drove myself one-armed and one-legged to the hospital, swerving down the highway, bleeding all over the Buick’s plush velour. The casts came off today at two, but I can almost still feel them on me, naked as I am, blanket on my goose-bumped shoulders, gravel between my toes. Maybe I’ll get lucky tonight.
—Ben Ehrenreich’s work has appeared in the LA Weekly, the Village Voice, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is currently working on a novel.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee