My parents met me at the church door—they never attended and I still don’t know why they sent me—and we walked home down hot, stagnant city streets, the late summer sun boiling sidewalks, baking the buildings. My dad asked if class had gone well and my mom worked on her third cigarette. I mumbled something about stone tablets and Noah and not killing my neighbors’ gods before me, and my dad nodded and grunted. I think he was happy to get a response from me. He had been back for two weeks and I had said little, if anything, so far. I didn’t know where he had gone, but he had been there for a year.
My mom still locked their bedroom door at six every evening and my dad and I still had cold, silent suppers without her. In some ways, the two of us were spending more time together than before he left, but there was no joy in it. I was determined make it through the meals without speaking. I would never give him the satisfaction of a smile. I could never let him know I was relieved to have him home again.
My mom stopped walking for a moment to light another cigarette, and my dad stood with his hands in his pockets, staring intently at the building across the street from us, his eyes scanning from window to window. I stretched and leaned against one of the maple trees, planted in a cavity in the sidewalk. The tree shook against my back and I looked up into its branches, expecting to see a robin hopping from one limb to another, but it was empty. Its leaves were already yellowing—a dry, thin yellow, starting at the edges and crawling in towards the center of each leaf. There had been no rain for weeks.
That night, my mom locked herself in their bedroom again, and I did the same. I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling, and I tried to memorize the Ten Commandments for the next Sunday. I was making little progress. I could hear my dad flipping between our three channels in the living room. Occasionally, I could hear my mom moving about in her bedroom, talking to herself and rearranging the furniture for the ninth time in as many days. The walls in our apartment were too thin. Everything in our apartment was too thin.
I looked at my elbows and realized that my arms were as thin as my mother’s. As I considered this, a sudden, loud crack ripped my attention from my arms to the bedroom window. I stood up and looked out. A pigeon lay on the fire escape, its neck twisted. One broken wing flapped slowly. Before I had time to open the window and push it down to the street another followed it, slamming into the window with enough force to crack the pane. It dropped beside the first. I called to my dad and he heard the fear in my voice. Within seconds, he was beside me, his right arm draped around my shoulders, and I buried my face in his side. I’m sure now that I wasn’t crying over the dead pigeons, but with my eyes closed I couldn’t see anything apart from a pair of dead birds. He stood with me until I calmed down, and then he went to the kitchen for a garbage bag. We gathered the birds into the bag and took them to the building’s incinerator.
The next day, he walked me to school. As we walked up our street, I noticed leaves covering the sidewalk where we had stopped the day before. The tree was completely bare. I pointed this out to my dad.
“It’s that time of year,” he said.
“Yeah, but the other trees haven’t lost their leaves yet.”
“Well, maybe the city didn’t water this one as much.”
My father and I arrived at the school early, and he stood at the curb, watching while I walked in. I couldn’t keep myself from glancing back at him. He smiled and waved. I didn’t wave back.
My science class had two pets—a rabbit and a chameleon—because when the teacher took a vote on what kind of animal the class would take care of, the girls had voted for a bunny, and the boys had voted for a lizard. The teacher decided to get both. I didn’t tell the other guys, but I preferred the rabbit. The chameleon didn’t do much besides change colors, and he didn’t do that often, but the rabbit would hop around in his cage, sniffing and chewing on everything, nibbling at fingers and standing on his hind legs with the air of a king evaluating his domain. It was my week to feed and clean up after the animals.
After I dropped some dead flies in the chameleon’s cage and refilled his water-dish, I went over to the rabbit. I carefully measured out some pellets, and added some dry oatmeal that I had brought from home. While he chewed happily, stopping every few seconds to look around, I stroked the fur behind his ears and tried to remember the first five commandments.
The day progressed normally. I failed my history test and scored a 70% on my geography test. In reading, I remained in the remedial class. “The Catfish,” the teacher had labeled us—the best group was “The Sharks” and the second best was “The Barracuda.” To move up a group, I would have to read and report on The Call of the Wild. After lunch, when I arrived at my science class, Susan was sitting at her desk, crying quietly, and all of the other students were crowded around the teacher and the rabbit cage. Tariq saw me come in and said, “There’s Nick now, Ms. Greene.”
Ms. Greene turned to me, and her face was red. “Nick, will you come over here, please.” She motioned with her finger and I slid between desks and across the room. When I got there, I noticed the rabbit was not moving.
“Nick, was it your turn to feed the animals today?”
“Yes.” I couldn’t take my eyes off the rabbit and my palms felt very warm.
“Did you feed the rabbit today?”
“Yes.” I looked back at Ms. Greene and I knew that I was in trouble.
“What did you feed to the rabbit today, Nick?”
I looked over at the cage and back at Ms. Greene. “I gave him one cup of his rabbit food and a bit of oatmeal. That’s all, I promise. What’s wrong with him? Rabbits like oats, don’t they?”
“Yes, Nick, rabbits like oats. Are you sure you didn’t feed him anything else?”
“Nothing, Ms. Greene, I didn’t feed him anything else at all. Is he dead?”
She looked at me for a couple of seconds and then told the rest of the class to take their seats. I stayed where I was and looked back at the rabbit cage, hoping, praying that it would wake up. I knew I hadn’t killed the rabbit. I overheard Susan telling Joanna that she thought I had killed the rabbit on purpose, that I wanted the boys to have the only class pet. I wanted to respond, to yell out and throw something at her, but I couldn’t move. The teacher opened the cage and gently lifted the rabbit out with a towel. She wrapped the towel around its limp body and then pulled out the food dish for a closer inspection. It was empty, except for a few pellets. She looked at me again for a few seconds, and then put the dish back in the cage.
My parents had a call from Ms. Greene that evening and after they hung up, they stayed in the kitchen, whispering fiercely late into the night. It was the first time they had held a conversation in over a month. The next night, they had another fierce but quiet discussion in the living room, and the night after that, they moved to the bedroom and locked the door. I had my window open to let in the cool evening air, and occasionally, their whispers would spill out and float into my room. I heard my father say, “Well, I wasn’t ready for this either. I really think I should—” and my mother cut him off.
“No, Frank, we don’t know anything yet. We still have some time. We live in a city, for crying out loud. We’re not—”
My father interrupted again, but I couldn’t hear what he said. I tried to listen for a little while longer, but eventually I fell asleep.
By Friday, the rabbit had been replaced by another, and Susan was in charge of feeding the animals. The girls all fawned over this new bunny, but I didn’t care for it. It wasn’t as curious as the old rabbit. It was lazy and its eyes were mean.
Two weeks later, my family took our first camping trip. My parents had stayed in the same room together almost every night of those two weeks, and I spent the evenings lying on my bed, staring at the posters on my ceiling and trying to memorize the notes from confirmation class. We had finished the Ten Commandments and moved onto the creeds for the third week of class. For the fourth, I was absent, driving northwest into Wisconsin, with my family.
We arrived at Blue Mound State Park early in the evening. The campground was modern, with electric hook-ups, flush toilets, and drinking water on tap at every site. Our campsite was delineated by two small lines of trees on either side, and the ground was smoothed over. We quickly pitched our tents and my father built a fire in the fire-ring. My parents sat close to each other and didn’t speak, so I didn’t speak either. We all ate silently, filling our stomachs on lukewarm hot-dogs and charred marshmallows. After a couple of hours, the sun had set and the fire was low, and we turned in for the evening.
The next morning, before the sun had fully broken the horizon, my father shook the rain-fly on my tent. “It’s time to get up, Nick.”
I groaned and rolled over, but he was persistent.
“Nick. Let’s go. We’ve got to get a move on before it gets too late.”
I pulled my knees up to my chest and tucked my head under the edge of the sleeping bag. “It’s still dark. Leave me alone.” I stretched out and rolled back the other way, squeezing my eyes shut, trying to fight off awareness, hoping for a little more rest. I could hear my father piling wood, rolling up newspaper for kindling, filling the percolator with water and then he was back at my tent, shaking the rain-fly again.
“Breakfast is on, Nick. Time to get up.”
I sat up, still wrapped in my sleeping bag and unzipped the door to my tent. The sky was still dusky. I slid out of my sleeping bag and pulled on my blue jeans and a Cubs sweatshirt. My mother was still asleep. My father handed me a mug of coffee—my first—and we sat together on a log alongside the fire-ring. He sighed and stared at the fire. I sipped slowly at the coffee. I hated the taste. After we ate some oatmeal, my father stood and said, “Let’s take a walk.”
We walked together down a paved trail that cut through the campground and a parking lot before it ended at the edge of some woods.
My dad stopped, his hands in his pockets, and turned to me. “Nick, before we go in here, I have something to show you.” He reached down to a little tuft of grass and weeds that had squeezed through a crack in the concrete, and I watched as he ran his hand over it. He stood back up and kept looking at the weeds. I looked at him and then down again. After a couple of seconds, I noticed that the grass was drying out and turning brown, and after another minute, the whole patch had shriveled and died. He looked at me and a tremble worked its way up my legs.
“Let’s go for a walk, Nick.”
He led, walking quietly into the woods, following a dirt trail that had seen a lot of use. I followed a couple of steps behind, still shaken. At a fork in the trail, he stopped and waited for me to catch up. He looked down both trails and then at me. “Nick, I want you to sit here for a little while. I’ve brought along some food for you, but I want you to stay in this spot for a couple of hours. Do you understand?”
I shook my head, but he pulled a brown bag and a bottle of water out of his jacket pocket. “Here’s some food and some water. I will be back to get you in two hours.” He handed me the items and opened his mouth to speak again. He paused and shook his head. “I’ll see you soon.”
After he left, I looked around for a rock to sit on. There was a large one just off of the path and I took a seat. For the first thirty minutes or so, nothing significant happened. The sun rose, drying the dew and cutting through the trees, warming the air. I ate one of the granola bars in the bag and continued to sit. After about an hour, I noticed some of the ground-cover quivering, the weeds and tall grass disturbed by something moving through. Across the path from me, a skunk stepped out of the foliage. I remained still, hoping not to alarm it, but it came up to me without hesitation and started to sniff at my shoes. The skunk carefully smelled his way up my left leg and towards the bag of food on my lap. I tightened my grip on the bag and waited. After a couple of seconds, the skunk climbed up my leg and onto my lap to get a better look at the bag. I slowly pulled the bag back and tucked it under the bottom of my sweatshirt, but this did little to discourage the creature. He put his front two paws on my chest and started to sniff at my face, his whiskers brushing against my nose and cheeks, tickling me. Without thinking, I reached up to brush him away, and I knocked him to the ground. He quickly rolled onto his feet and turned his tail towards me, ready to spray, and then stopped. His tail dropped back to the ground, and he sank down as well. His sides, at first expanding and contracting quickly, now slowed. After another few minutes, he stopped breathing altogether.
The second hour was worse. After the skunk, more animals started to slip out of the undergrowth to examine me. I had my hands shoved into my pockets by then, but the forest started to surround me, chipmunks, squirrels, wild rabbits, beavers, more skunks, even a deer. The little animals ran up and down my pants legs, so I stood and shook them off. This scared the other animals for a minute, but then they came back, and as the hour continued, more and more came to surround me. The deer eventually came close enough to lick my cheek, but moments later, it too lay dead on the forest floor. Chipmunks were falling off me in succession. I tried to run up one path a little ways, but they followed. I ran back to the intersection of the two paths and they followed again, rambling along, as curious as ever. I shouted at them. I shook sticks at them. I threw a stone at one of the beavers, but the stone hit and killed it instantly. All around me I could see dead and dying animals and I wanted to burrow under the ground, away from them all. In my mind, I saw a whole catalogue of beasts, from mice to horses, lining up to satisfy their curiosity and die. I saw the millions of microorganisms, the bacteria, the whole of Kingdom Monera, floating into contact with my body and dying in mass. I curled up on the ground and waited to wake up.
“Nick!” It was my father, running up the path. The animals bolted back into the forest, and by the time he arrived, I was left lying beside a dead skunk, a dead deer, and a small pile of other creatures. He grabbed me by my arms and pulled me to my feet. “Nick, I’m here. Are you okay?”
I had to put my hands on my knees and gasp for breath.
“Nick, are you all right?”
I shook my head furiously.
“Nick, take a breath. That’s it. Take a breath and tell me what happened.”
I told him between deep breaths and he listened patiently, nodding and looking up and down the path. After I finished, he moved over to take a look at the dead animals and I noticed that his footsteps left the tiny plants underneath brown and lifeless. I looked and found that my footsteps had the same affect. I started to hyperventilate again and my father walked back, put his arm around my shoulder, and we walked back towards the campsite.
For the rest of the afternoon, I stayed in my tent, terrified that if I went back out, animals from all over the forest would come scurrying along, crowding each other towards death. In the evening, my father and mother packed the camping gear while I waited in the car, and we left. We found a motel and stayed there for the night, and the next morning, we returned to the city.
That was years ago. I remained in the city. Birds continued to crash into my windows, and occasionally, stray cats would sneak up behind me as I walked home from school. I asked my father once why we could touch people. He sat for a long time, staring out of kitchen window, and finally said that he didn’t know. I asked him why he didn’t warn me. He said he had hoped I wouldn’t be like him. I told him I wasn’t.
He disappeared three more times over the next two years, and after the last, he never returned. My mother remarried.
I finished my confirmation classes, and then I finished high school. At college, I proposed to a woman and she broke my heart. In a rage, I ran through the campus, slapping every tree I passed.
But, I know now why my father left. He went looking for something that would live, that would not fall under his hands. Some weekends, without planning to, I find myself driving into the woods, seeking hope, praying that one day, I will touch an oak and it will not die.
I look back to the sky and I watch the hawk dive towards the earth to snatch up a chipmunk that has been following my trail. I can hear the trees whispering, scolding, scorning, afraid of me and desiring me. I can hear the earth groaning like a woman in labor and I know it suffers for me.