You Swore We’d Never Be Rats
We killed the horse and ate it. It was a sad day. His name was Caspian and I’d had him since I was 5-years old. We’d bought him down in the South Country when times were good. I used to ride him all over our property during the wild green summers of childhood. Those hot days when the flowers popped and the insects buzzed and winter felt like it would never return. But winter always did, and so did hard times, and right now we were in the middle of both. So Papa told me to grab the shotgun and go outside and shoot the horse. It was my chance to become a man, he said. My chance to see life for what it was. So I did what I was told.
It took two shots, but I got it done. When it was over I laid in the grass next to his carcass and cried for a while. He was a good horse. But here in the North Country, where winters freeze everything for months at a time, you sometimes have to do terrible things to survive. It was the nature of our lot, Papa often said. He drove his truck out to where I was and we tied the horse to the tailgate and dragged him back to the house like a sack of mulch.
It wasn’t the first time we killed a pet for food. Five years ago, there wasn’t nearly enough meat to go around. Our country was quite vast and quite populated. So one February morning Papa made me watch as he took all five of our dogs behind the shed and did to them what I’d done to Caspian. It took five shots, which was good, because Papa only had six shells. He was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette when he did it and the smoke curled through the air like an apparition. The whimpering was unbearable. It made me remember all the times I’d laid with them on the floor of our cottage, about how they’d lick my face and wag their tails when I rubbed behind their ears. It was awful we had to do that to them. It was like watching five of my brothers die. But we ate well for the rest of the winter. That was the only thing that mattered during bad times. You could make the meat taste good if you told yourself it was beef or venison. Otherwise you had to force it down, bite-by-bite, and it was not so good.
Our cottage was small and we were miles from the closest town, which only had one bank and a tiny grocery store. We were often snowed-in for months at a time, so it was in our best interest to be self-sufficient. We farmed through the summer, corn and cucumbers and potatoes and many other things, packing those foods into jars and placing them in our cellar. We rarely ran out of vegetables, which was nice. It was meat that was sometimes hard to come by, and through practice we perfected the art of rationing. If we were lucky, we’d have a beef cow or two. But that wasn’t always the case. Because of that, we know five dogs will last us most of the cold season. As much as it haunted me to think about what I’d done to Caspian, his death would allow us to survive, if not all winter, some of it. I said a prayer every time we ate, thanking him for his sacrifice and for being such a good horse.
The stress got to me, though. One night while my father was sleeping, I snuck into his room and stole a couple cigarettes and stood outside the front door and lit one up. The smoke was harsh on my throat and I coughed, but it gave me a mellow feeling I liked. When I exhaled it was impossible to tell what was smoke and what was my breath cutting the cold. Papa had let me smoke a few times before, so I figured he wouldn’t mind this time. He was trying to toughen me up. I figured smoking was part of that. But as I was standing in the cold, my father burst through the door and grabbed my arm. The cigarette fell into the snow and he pulled me inside and slapped my face. “If you ever steal again, I’ll hit you twice as hard,” he shouted. I’d seen him mad before, especially during those days after he shot the dogs, but this was the angriest by far. “Rats steal,” he said. “You’re not a rat, are you?” I shook my head. His eyes softened and he hugged me. “I know you’re not,” he said. “Now get some sleep.”
But sleep wouldn’t come. I just stared at the ceiling until the sun came up and I heard Mama call me for breakfast.
Mama had dark craters under her eyes as she moved about the kitchen, frying eggs in a pan and boiling potatoes in a rusty pot. Normally she would ask me how my night was, but this morning she was silent and floating like a ghost as the wind howled outside and snow fell hard. She tried to pour herself a glass of water, but accidentally knocked a couple of eggs to the floor where they splattered like bombs. “Oh, shit,” she said, bending down to clean up the mess. I’d never heard her cuss, not even when she was yelling at me for some stupid thing I’d done, like eating one more potato than I was allotted. I grabbed a rag to help her clean when I noticed she was crying. She fell back into the cabinet and put her hands over her eyes and wailed like someone had died. I didn’t know what to do, so I put my hand on her shoulder and said “Is everything OK? Mama, what’s wrong?” She cried for a while longer before wiping away the tears and looking me in the eyes.
“I was going to wait until your father came in, but there’s no point now,” she said. “You’re going to have a little brother or sister, honey. I don’t know when. Probably soon.”
Part of me was excited because I’d always wanted a brother or sister to play with in the fields during the summer. But I knew Mama and Papa didn’t want another kid because that meant one more mouth to feed and we already had enough trouble feeding the mouths we had. So even as I daydreamed about running through sun-lit pastures with a little brother, our feet wet from morning dew, I wrapped Mama in a big hug and tried to comfort her. But I was just a kid and so scared and I had no idea how we were going to make it work. My mother and I were down on the floor, locked in an embrace, egg guts everywhere, when Papa walked in the front door. Cold air rushed behind him. He froze for a second when he saw us lying there. Then he crawled onto the ground, too, and the three of us laid intertwined like coyotes trying to protect each other on a cold dark night.
Papa and I spent the rest of the day clearing the snow from the front of our house and making a path down to the creek. We worked in silence for hours, sweat forming under our heavy coats, the dream-like woods covered in snow and crystals. When the path was finished, Papa patted me on the back and told me to sit next to him on a rock by the creek. His beard was shaggy, like it was every winter out of necessity. I couldn’t wait until I could grow a beard like his. Then I could call myself a man. I shaved every morning, even though I didn’t have hair on my face, because I thought it would make the hair grow faster and thicker. A few black wires were poking through on my chin, so I figured I was doing something right.
I sat down on the rock next to Papa and he handed me a cigarette. We sat there smoking, together, in the shimmering silence. I coughed a few times, but Papa inhaled the smoke like smooth mountain air.
“You understand why I hit you, right?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Other families, they will steal. During the winter, when times are tough, they forget what’s right and wrong. But we don’t do that. Do you understand?”
He wrapped his arm around me and pulled me close with his thick hands. It was so quiet and white that it felt like the world had stopped spinning.
“What are you going to name the baby?”
He stared at the creek for a long time, cigarette hanging from his red lips like an icicle. Then he flicked it into the snow and stood up.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll have to think of something.”
It was almost dinnertime when Papa gave me another cigarette and said go ahead, knock yourself out, you earned it with all that shoveling today. Mama was cooking the meat that I tried not to think about and the cottage was warm and cozy and smelled of life. I stepped out the front door and lit the cigarette and thought about one night a few summers ago when I’d ridden Caspian into the field in the middle of the night. It was a perfectly warm night, right in the gut of summer, what month I’m not sure, because we rarely knew anything for sure around here. I hopped off Caspian and wiggled my toes in the soft grass and listened to woodland insects play a midnight symphony. Caspian was in a calm mood, like he usually was, and I gave him a rub behind the ear, and when I looked up I saw hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stars streaking across the sky in all manner of colors, from blue to red to orange and pure white. I’d never seen anything like it. I considered running back to the cottage to wake Mama and Papa so they could experience the beauty with me, but then I figured I’d take it all in on my own, just me and the horse, miles and miles under a gorgeous galaxy and exactly where we wanted to be.
I took a puff and exhaled loudly, considering how good times like that may never come again. Through the twilight, I saw a furry creature sprinting toward me. It was larger than a dog but smaller than a cat, and by the time I realized it was a raccoon, it had already run past me and nosed his way through the door. I heard Mama scream and a loud crash and Papa shouting GET OUT, GET THE HELL OUT. I rushed inside just in time to see the coon dart down the stairs and into our cellar where he wreaked havoc, knocking down shelves and smashing jars and screeching like a dying creature lost in a strange world with no way out. Then he romped up the steps and back into the kitchen, where he hid under the table, twitching and frothing and plotting his next move. Papa bounded out of the bedroom with a steel cage in his arms, shouting WHERE IS HE, WHERE IS HE, and I said he’s right there, under the table. Papa flung one of the chairs to the floor and lunged at the creature with a quickness I’d never seen. It was a dead ringer. The coon flailed, but he was caught and wasn’t getting away, so Papa shut the cage door and grabbed the handle and lugged it outside, shouting at me to get his shotgun from under the bed, so we could take care of this son of a bitch before he did any more damage. I scrambled to his bedroom and got down on my belly and pulled the shotgun from under the bed. When I got outside, Papa was beating on the top of the cage and shouting WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE. When he saw me he said, son, I’m going to let you take care of this one, after Caspian it should be no problem at all. He said take the cage down by the creek and shoot this rotten creature, take him far enough away that your Mama won’t hear the gunshot. I nodded and felt a twinge of fear in my gut, because I didn’t like to kill anything no matter how bad the animal was, but I pushed that fear down like a good man should and did what my father said. One shot, right in the head, and it splattered in the snow like strawberries. As I stared at its dead body I felt something like guilt, but not the emptiness I’d experienced after Caspian or the dogs, and by the time I carried the carcass deep into the woods and placed it under branches, I felt proud of myself for protecting our cottage, for doing what needed to be done.
My sense of accomplishment disappeared when I got home. Mama and Papa were down in the cellar surveying the damage and from the tone of their voices I knew we were in a bad way. I heard Papa shouting, and my mother crying, and then both of them coming up the steps. Mama went into the bedroom and shut the door. Papa looked dazed. Like he’d just wrestled a bear to the brink of death. He sat down at the kitchen table and buried his eyes into his palms. I stood there without any idea of what to do as the salty smell of meat and potatoes filled the house. Outside it had started snowing again, the thick wet kind that made trouble for everybody. I sat down next to Papa and expected him to say something, like son this is what we’re dealing with, or son why the hell did you let that coon get past you, but instead he stared down at the old wooden table. No anger. No worry. No emotion at all. I tried to formulate a plan for survival, like eating the raccoon I’d just shot, or trying to track down a faraway neighbor to see if they had any extra food for us, but before I wandered too far along that line of thought, my father lifted his head.
“It’s mostly gone,” he said. He sounded like he was alone in a large room.
“Mostly?” I said.
“All of it, really,” he said. “There’s maybe enough to last a week.”
There was a long silence. I could think of nothing to say. Our roof was creaking from the heavy snow and in the woods an owl hooted.
“What will we do?” I asked.
He rubbed his beard like he was considering God. His sharp blues eyes were focused now.
“We’ll sleep on it,” he said. “Maybe the morning will bring clarity.”
Mama walked out of the bedroom. She pulled the bottom of her dress over her round stomach and wiped her cheek with a handkerchief, trying to not let us see. She took the roasted meat out of the oven and the hot potatoes out of the pot and placed the food on three plates, shaking a small amount of salt and pepper over top. There was a pit in my stomach from hunger and as soon as my plate was laid in front of me I nearly attacked it like a dog. But I composed myself, and as the steam from the food warmed my face, I said a long prayer, because I knew who I was eating, and because the winter was so dark and cold and even Papa didn’t know what we were going to do. Then the three of us ate in silence, thinking of a fourth, as snow continued to pile up.
“You have to understand,” Papa said. “That every man must do what he must for his family. Even if that means sometimes doing things you’re not proud of.”
“But you swore we’d never be rats,” I said.
“I know what I said, damn it. I know what I said. But that was before. We’re not rats. We’re not rats. We’re just doing what we have to do. A man’s word must be flexible.”
That was the last thing he said to me before he hugged me and sent me out the door and into the cold mouth of a bleak winter. He told me: take this sack and go to the store. You know how to get there, trust your gut. I’ll stay here with your mother. Grab what you can when you get there and bury it in the snow and mark the spot. After you’ve buried as much as you can, stuff your sack and leave. But don’t let them see you. If they say anything to you as you go, run. They won’t chase you far. The snow will keep them close. Nobody wants to be caught in this mess. You’re a man now, son. Take some cigarettes to pass the time. I know you like them. Take the gun, too. Just in case you run into trouble. Coyotes or something. Only use it if you need to. I love you, son. What you are doing is right. What you’re doing is for the family. For your little brother or sister. Think of the summer. Now go. We will be praying for you.
I thought about his words as I stood knee-deep in snow, trying to remember the way home. I thought I’d be able to follow my tracks, but it had snowed more since I’d left the store and the terrain was flat and white in all directions. Like the moon. The sack was stuffed with food and slung over my shoulder. It was heavy and I was sick of carrying it. My arms and knees ached. I was delirious and my toes and fingers were numb. I’d done exactly what I’d been told: bury as much as I could, stuff the bag and leave. I didn’t even have to use my gun. Nobody had chased me. I felt as high as the pines when I’d left the store, thinking about how proud Mama and Papa would be of me, but now I was lost and it was growing dark and I was unsure of how to get home. So I reached into my pocket and lit a cigarette and sat there, thinking: How does a man make a choice when he doesn’t know what to do? Without knowing the right way forward, how does a man go on?
I’m not sure exactly how to describe what happened next, but there was a flash that lit up everything, and suddenly I was thinking about riding Caspian on a hot summer day, about how our bond was so strong I could merely think about which way I wanted to go and Caspian would turn that direction. Now I was mounted on Caspian once again, trotting through a dream, but instead of Caspian responding to my thoughts, I was responding to his. He was guiding me along a path. I hiked up my sack and followed his lead, knowing I was doing the right thing, going the right way, even though there was nothing but darkness as far the eye could see.