The Widowerby Dennis Y. Ginoza
The sun had only just risen and the garden was still spangled with dew and in that tepid early light the widower knelt between staked rows of cucumber and edamame and waited for his dog to die. The dog's belly had been opened to the sternum, her innards spilling from the breach-she lay on her side with her eyes slitted and her teeth bared, her chest juddering with each shallow breath. The widower had tried to close the wound but the wound had been too deep and the dog's pain had been too great and she had bitten the widower's hand so that now he kept his arms cradled to his chest as he whispered goodgirl, goodgirl, goodgirl, again and again like a secular prayer until at last the dog was still.
The widower set his hand on her chest, feeling for breath, a heartbeat. He stayed like this for a long time, his eyes scanning the field behind the garden. The field had once been covered in salmonberry and manzanita but now it was overrun by scotch broom, the scrub choking out everything that was not itself.
The widower spat and wiped his eyes and got to his feet. He went to the garden shed and found a bucket and filled it with the garden hose. He squatted beside the dog and scooped handfuls of water on to her clotted fur, washing away the mud and blood. When he had done what he could, the widower fetched the tattered wool afghan she had slept on as a pup to use for a winding sheet then took a spade and dug beneath the rhododendrons where the dog had often drowsed during the hottest part of the summer. The widower was an old man and it took a long time to dig the hole but he did not stop until it was done.
After he buried his dog, the widower went into his house and washed his hands at the kitchen sink. Through the window he could see the mounded dirt beneath the rhododendrons. A flock of starlings had already gathered there, searching for insects in the disturbed soil.
The bite on his hand was deep and ragged. He washed it out with dish soap then bandaged it with some folded paper towels and a strip of duct tape.
The widower sat at the kitchen table and drank from a carton of orange juice. He knew what should come next-a cool bath with Epsom salts, lineaments and aspirin, ice packs for his knees. Instead, he found his mind fixed on the blood splashes that trailed out of the garden, the flap of skin wedged between the dog's teeth, the cloven prints gouged into the soil. As he dwelt upon these facts and their implications, the widower could feel some heavy thing congealing inside of him, something hard and sharp, something implacable.
The widower finished his orange juice then rose and went into his bedroom and took a shoe box from the closet. Inside was an old revolver, a bottle of solvent, a bore snake, a box of .38 Special shells. It would be difficult cleaning the gun with his off-hand and it was already early afternoon, but the light would hold for a few hours more and the widower judged this sufficient for the task he had set himself to.
He followed the blood trail through the scotch broom. Though the scrub was so tightly packed that it seemed a solid topography, beneath its yellow thatch it was riddled with animal traces, low tunnels weaving through the breadth of it.
The blood trail led into the woods. The widower stopped at the tree line and looked across the field to where his neighbor's house was perched on an oxbow of the Wynoochee River. The man who had built the house, a fellow named Erickson, had moved away four years ago.
The family who lived there now was Hmong. Three, maybe four generations. They were having a barbecue and the smell of grilled meat and spices wafted through the air. The widower could see children splashing in the river while an old woman sat beneath an umbrella and watched them. A few weeks before, he had passed the old woman as she walked along the road with two of the youngest children. They wore straw sun hats and carried plastic shopping bags bulging with fiddleheads and blackberries. The widower tooted his horn and waved as he drove by. The children waved back shyly but the old woman had only stared, her eyes narrowed against the sun.
The widower went into the woods. It was dim and cool under the high canopy, the sunlight broken into pallid shafts slanting through the branches. Dense clumps of sword fern crowded between the trunks of fir and hemlock and red cedar. The blood grew fainter but a trail had been worn into the bracken, trampled by something heavy.
The widower followed the trail east into the old-growth. The bracken grew thicker and more tangled and he wished he had brought a machete but after a few hundred yards it did not matter because he could smell the thing, a heavy stench like rotten meat and gasoline, and he knew that he was close.
He skirted a low deadfall and the shade of the woods abruptly fell away. The widower flinched against the raw sunlight. When his eyes cleared, he saw that he was at the edge of a swale rank with stagnant water and bramble. A tunnel had been scraped through the bushes and the ground around it was churned to a wallow, flies thronging over piles of wet scat, gnawed bones, rags of fur. Here the stench was a physical thing, not inhaled but swallowed.
The widower bent over and vomited on to the mud, splattering his shoes with rancid orange juice. His stomach emptied quickly and he tried to regain his breath but the stench of the wallow coated his throat and he retched again, dry heaves of sour air.
A low grunting came from the swale. The bushes shook as something large passed through them. The grunting grew louder, urgent, then suddenly cut off.
He saw the snout first, wet and pink and hairless. It swung from side to side, sniffing at the air. The widower clamped his hand over his mouth. Sweat trickled from his scalp into his eyes but he did not blink, his eyes fixed on the jutting snout.
A feral pig trotted out of the bushes-- a boar, three feet at the shoulder, its neck shaggy with bristles. Two tusks curved up from its lower jaw, the bone yellowed and fissured, splintery. One of the pig's ears was missing, a scab of flies writhing over the stump.
The widower took a slow, deep breath. He thought of his dog buried beneath the rhododendrons and he thought of the marker he would put there when he got home and this brought a calmness to him that steadied his hands as he took the revolver from his pocket and opened the latch and swung out the cylinder.
When he looked up again, the pig was rooting in a pile of dung. It lifted its head with a sharp twist, a garter snake clenched in its jaws. The pig chewed and swallowed and chewed and swallowed, its flat grinding teeth drawing the snake in tail first until only the head remained, jutting from the pig's jaws like the stub of a cigar, its tongue still flicking.
The widower retched again. The pig froze at the sound, its weak eyes fastening onto the dim outline of the old man.
"Sachiko," said the widower. He repeated the name to himself, making it a mantra, as he gripped the pistol with both hands and began his advance, his feet squelching in the mud. He knew he had to get close-he was an indifferent shot at best and his bandaged hand would make aiming even harder.
The pig watched him come, grunting softly as the space between them narrowed. It made no move to flee, did not retreat back into the bramble. It waited, casually pawing at the ground.
When the widower had closed within five yards, he stopped and raised the revolver and leveled the sights. The gun had a heavy trigger so he thumbed back the hammer until it was fully cocked. He aimed for a spot just behind the boar's foreleg, hoping to take it in the heart.
The pig jumped a foot into the air with the first shot. It shrieked and ran in a circle, snapping at its blood slicked belly. The widower aimed and fired, aimed and fired.
After the third shot, the boar charged.
The widower got off another shot before the boar was upon him, three hundred pounds of meat rolling onto his right leg, buckling his knee and snapping his shinbone like a stalk of celery, the dying pig's charge driving him backwards, slamming the old man into the mud and pinning him beneath its carcass.
The widower's head hit a stump when he fell and for a time he was unconscious. When he opened his eyes, he saw a murder of crows peering down at him from the deadfall.
Karasu, he thought. The word came to him unbidden and the widower puzzled over its return. Then the pain took him and his screams set the birds to flight.
He screamed through the last hours of daylight, biting through his tongue, choking on his blood. The pain was unbearable and unceasing-he would have shot himself if he still had the gun, it lay just a few feet away but the widower could not reach it. He tried to push the boar's carcass off his legs but could only shift it a few inches before his arms gave out and the pig's bulk rolled back down on him.
He passed the night in agony and delirium. In the moonlight, he sees his dog circling the edge of the swale. The widower calls out to her but she does not come and he realizes that it is not his dog but a coyote drawn by the smell of blood. He yells and throws clumps of mud and the coyote scampers away, but later the widower is not so sure that it wasn't his dog and he regrets driving it off.
As the night unspools, his mind curls in on itself-he relives moments from his life, rehashes old conversations, reinhabits old memories. He remembers being a child at camp, the heat of the Utah desert, the dust, the tar-papered barracks he shares with his parents. A half-blind mutt has gotten itself tangled in the barbed wire fence and an old man goes to try to free it. The guards shout at him to turn back but the old man doesn't hear or, more likely, doesn't understand and the guards shoot him and then they shoot the dog and the shots are not loud at all but more like the crackling of tinder. And he remembers the dog he hit with his car as he backs out of his driveway, he wants to get out and see if it is hurt but his wife is bleeding in the backseat and so he drives away and it is only after the miscarriage that he comes home to find the dog curled under his porch, dead and stinking and full of maggots, and he remembers how he buried that dog in the backyard and how his wife did not ask about it when she got home from the hospital, a willed ignorance he never forgave her for in all the years of their marriage, but mostly he remembers the dog he has spent the last decade of his life with, the brindle pit bull that wandered into his garden, a skinny abandoned pup he'd named Sachiko who now was buried under the rhododendrons where she had loved to drowse during the hottest parts of the summer.
By dawn the widower no longer struggles to free himself-- the pain has receded, his body has finally gone numb. The pig has swollen to twice its size, its belly bloated with gas. He can feel the carcass lightening with each passing moment-- soon it will float away into the sky and the widower will rise from the mud and make his way home where the dog will be waiting at the screen door, anxious at his absence. He will open a can of corned beef for her and a can of sardines for himself and afterwards they will sit together on the deck overlooking the garden, watching the sun setting over fields of manzanita and salmonberry, his hand on her head, his fingers curling in the fluff at the base of her ears.
As the widower waits for his burden to lift, he watches the old Hmong woman standing at the edge of the swale. He does not know how long she has been there, he waves to her but she does not wave back and he is troubled by her silence.
The old woman slowly crosses the swale. She squats beside the widower and lays a hand on his forehead. The widower studies her face as she leans over him. In the early light her eyes are opaque, her weathered face implacable.