I wish I could have protected my children, and my husband. He is such a beauty, and pretends not to understand when I say it. Inside, he knows what I know; that it’s his elegant, sinewy, able frame, the long knowing of his arms, the mauve-gray cloud of his curling hair, his hawk-like face; the body-truth of him makes me able to go on. He’s petulant sometimes, wants food prepared for him, wants things found in our new house that aren’t lost. But when I need him, he pulls me close.
Progenitor of my children, mine to look at, to have, the ascendant arching of his hard penis, the salty taste of the tip; that’s how it started, I thought, of the unexpected pregnancy that became our son, Hildebrand, after Jaret’s father; the Hildys, little and big. Jaret’s hands look like beautiful tarantulas; the fingers bloom open with arachnid grace, can be probing, gently obscene, or efficient, gathering, firm.
Earlier in the evening he had washed Hildy, who was four, then; shit in the toilet still novel, celebratory, the culmination of a long process. From the tub Jaret scooped him up then sat him down gingerly, wrapped in a purple towel, on the bright green plastic pot and kept him there enchanted with a story of Godzilla The Man in the Plastic Suit meeting Mothra Who Is Also Not Real, long enough, wiped his anus, then deposited him back into the soapy water. He dumped the shit and washed the plastic pot. He washed Hildy’s seal-sleek body sing-songing, “It’s a quick trip for the soap to Mooney Town, Mister!” We call an ass a moony. We call Hildy ‘Mister.’ “Don’t forget Penis Town,” sang Hildy, jutting out his hips to make it available for cleaning. Jaret laughed. “Watch how I do this,” he said. He poured blue liquid soap into his hand, then into Hildy’s hand. “Now you do it.”
It was becoming time for all these things; for Hildy to wash himself, dress himself, to comb his sandy colored hair that went every which way, to wipe his own hazel eyed face with a washcloth. We had to be reminded, because we wanted to do it. I wondered if Jaret felt sad about that like I did. There were so many things I missed asking him about when the days shot away from us like spooked rabbits. I wondered if he ever thought in the past that he would wash someone else’s penis and laugh.
In that spot in the hall between the bathroom and the kitchen, I could see them, in there, but they could not see me. I left the faucet on so they would hear that, think I was endlessly washing the dishes, and not know that I was watching.
My friend Tabitha told me, before I ever met Jaret, that one night she had put her baby daughter to bed, and gently closed the door, then went into the small living room and saw her husband sitting with his legs under him, in a soft chair, reading a book, his beard, his glasses, his stomach, his hand on his foot, unaware of her, and she started to shake, and she retreated into the hall, and thought, These are the people I love most in the world, under one roof; this is the ‘why.’
It disturbed me for years that she had said this, but eventually I would find myself standing in the same hall.
I went back to the dishes and the cooking chicken and the lunches for the next day and the Sunday night emptying out of Tupperware and the wiping of vegetable drawers. I made Jaret turkey and horseradish sauce and greens on pumpernickel, a bag of carrots, a bag of grapes, an extra sandwich of peanut butter and jelly in case he got stuck late, and put all that and two granola bars, and a yogurt, in a bag; that’s lunch for 6ft 3 and wiry with the metabolism of a 20-year-old. I loved to watch Jaret eat. Hildy got American cheese and butter on no-crust whole wheat (no one could bring peanut butter to day care because of the allergic girl,) and a bag of tiny chocolate cracker bears, a sliced apple, and a packet of microwaveable popcorn to share. Pillow liked to take noodles in a special princess container and pink yogurt. Jaret was a draftsman, and Hildy and Pillow went to a lady’s house, a few days a week.
Pillow; Pillowscent. Nursed to sleep. I regretted naming her Millicent. I hated ‘Millie’ and my father had said people would call her that and I ignored him but he’d been right. I would cringe. “You can call her Pillow like we do, she likes it,” I would say, and sometimes they would. ‘Millie’ was like a name for a strict church lady, someone Pillow would never be. I forecast that I would be astonished if she didn’t become pregnant in high school, her skin as pink and fuzzy as a peach, round muscles everywhere, blue globe eyes, doll cheeks, corn silk hair, an expression of fearless, scheming glee. She lay on her back in the bathtub earlier that night, floating on the water, staring at the ceiling, smiling, fingering her vulva in amazement, then flipping herself over like a huge chicken on a rotisserie and submerging herself, forcing out violent explosions of bubbles. She burst from under the water like a salvage diver, holding up a cup with holes in the bottom which she raised over her head, and as the water poured down on her through the holes she announced, “Raining.” She was two and a half.
Hildy and Pillow gave into sleep willingly that night as usual. But our dog, Element, was restless and irritable. Element, ‘Elly,’ was getting old, the picture of ‘long in the tooth,’ and more lupine and feral than ever. She was a slate gray, bony Shepherd mix I’d taken home from a shelter, somewhat on a whim, the year I met Jaret, which made her ten, by that time. She had rocky joints now, and was easily annoyed, though not by the children, who stayed a little away from her; she was not cuddly, was not compelling to children. She considered herself my guardian and was hyper vigilant even in sleep. In recent weeks she had begun following me around more closely, panting; I thought, until that night, that she was in pain with her arthritis and wanted me to do something for her, but that wasn’t it.
As I did the dishes and then sprayed out the sink, moved the toaster and the coffee maker and the knife block and wiped down the counter, took a few damp swipes at the stove top but could not bear to take it apart and clean it, Elly stood with hunched shoulders just inside the kitchen doorway; when I’d spied on Jaret and Hildy I’d had to go around her. She just panted, steady, waiting for me to stop. I bent under the sink for the dustpan and brush and swept the kitchen floor superficially, flung the dirt out the kitchen window into the shallow side yard area where birds and squirrels came now every day for our crumbs, and put the brush and pan away. As I straightened up I felt a quick, piercing pain below my belly, and then felt the bands of my back muscles contract, and then give in a way that was strange and familiar but too far off to think about. Outside I heard a cat shriek and then leaves shake and snapping twigs as it ran off. I wondered whose cat.
I turned off the lights except for the one over the stove. I could see just my face reflected in the high, open window, and my body seemed to be part of the night. It was almost nine. Hildy should already have been in bed but Jaret and I were always slower than we realized in the evenings. Everything we did was staggered. The children ate their little supper at their little table while Jaret supervised, and watched an episode of an animal show. Then Pillow took a bath, and Hildy read with Jaret, while I made food for myself and Jaret then put it aside and we took turns snacking. We were not organized about anything but we had a way, a rhythm. Pillow got into pajamas, we read a book, and then she nursed for a long time. She would go on nursing until three years old, because Hildy had, which was the rationale for everything; Hildy did so Pillow will. I had nursed Hildy all the while I was pregnant with Pillow. Now Hildy got pajamas on with a little help, and had three books read to him and a honey sandwich and water. He had a final pee in the toilet and Mr. Weasly and Bluey Blanket and a long cuddle in the dark, and with murmuring speculation about the next day, and about a dream he planned to have, sank fully and warmly into sleep.
As I stepped out of their room and closed the door, Elly pushed herself up from the floor, moved toward me, and head-butted my legs. She let out a very low, rippling current of sound, and then her head hung tiredly. She continued to pant. I looked at her food and saw that she barely touched it. Oh, my God, I thought. My dog is dying. She was old, I realized, and my last dog had gone like that; aged stably for a long time, then took a disturbed, anxious down turn, became lame, and died in sleep. I leaned down to pet Elly and she snarled in a measured way; she didn’t want that. She pushed me again. “Okay, old lady,” I said to her, and I went toward the back of the house to let her out.
Our house was small, and not in good shape, but well laid out and on a nice piece of property; a wide front lawn surrounded by trees with hammocks between some of them, a narrow side yard next to the kitchen, after which was a good size woods, enough to walk in, to spot deer and rabbits and skunks and possums at twilight. I could sometimes see their eyes reflecting green in the night. We had a little porch in the back; Jaret was looking for a good swing that wouldn’t pull down the bonnet of it. I loved our screen door, and the wide, shallow three steps that led down to the yard, which sloped a little way out into more woods.
The kitchen was right off the front door when you walked in, which always made me feel like someone had spun the house around, but I got used to it. Opposite was the living room, where we had a small table we ate at sometimes, the television, two couches, toys scattered around, and bookshelves. Elly slept on a blanket in the corner. On the same side of the hall was the children’s room, then Jaret’s workroom. On the other side, after the kitchen, was the bathroom and then our bedroom, and the screen door at the end of the hall.
I had workspace in the basement; a computer table, a crafting table, comfortable chairs, the hum of the washer and dryer. We didn’t have a hamper for dirty clothes, we just threw them down the stairs for me to collect and wash, which the children loved. On rainy days we made sock balls and threw them down there, then went down and had a contest to see who could throw them all the way back up to the top. It was cool down there, I could spend hours there alone in the utter quiet, my feet on the cold cement as I folded laundry, read a book, wrote my occasional articles for animal lover magazines or for a midwifery organization’s newsletter. Elly had a bed down there she never came to anymore because the stairs hurt her. Sometimes I carried her down. Lately, in her agitated state, she stood at the top of the stairs whining until I came for her, but still she wouldn’t lie in the bed; she would pace.
Now I went toward the back door. Jaret was at his computer researching porch swings. The light was low. The screen reflected in his glasses. From behind him I gathered up his long hair and gently, firmly pulled it into a ponytail, then made a knot, tugging it to massage his head, and he moaned and took off his glasses, allowed his head to fall forward. Pulling his thick hair with one hand, I pinched the back of his neck deeply with the other. “I think Elly is failing,” I said.
“I noticed that,” he said softly. “Something is going on with her. She’s worried all the time.” He straightened himself and turned to put his arms around me.
Our nights together were short. Jaret loved to work and so did I. The nursing and cuddling took a lot of time. But we gave a lot to avoid crying, arguing of any kind, misusing our power with the children. We wanted peace for them. By the time one of us came out from Hildy’s bed, nearly asleep ourselves, the other would be deeply engrossed in the work, or a book. But often enough, emerging from the children’s dark, sweet smelling bedroom, I would find Jaret naked on the bed, waiting, stroking himself under the gentle lamp, smiling at me, hopeful, restless, infinitely welcoming and grateful. How I loved him, with every cell in my body.
I sat on his lap and half faced him, ran my thumbs over the crow’s feet at his blue eyes, which had become, like Elly’s, a bit clouded. He pressed me to his chest and my breasts felt sore and pressured. It’s so strange to me now that I still did not realize what was happening. Over his shoulder I could see Elly lurking in the door, her fur stiff and her eyes glassy, the ridge of agitation high on her back. “Let me get her out,” I said, and I got up and went toward her, to go out the screen door.
Now, I think of snowflakes falling when I remember this, although it was autumn. Snowflakes in the house, and air shattering like icicles crashing in spring. I think of it as if I watched it and was not in it. I stood from Jaret’s lap with my hand on my aching breast, and as time slowed I could feel my bones directing the force of my life and wants, the simple going to the door to let out the dog, my legs walked toward Elly, knee raised and then lowered, foot on the floor, knee raised, and that’s when Elly spun at a sound, no sound I could name, nothing I could actually say I heard, but we felt it, Elly and I, and she snapped around to run from the room at the same moment that I lurched toward it, something outside, and her bone-arrow, thick furred body wove like shock through my legs and then shot out of the room to the door, and I fell fast as if the floor boards yanked me down, crashed on my hip and yelled, my sound the distinct herald of broken bone and stabbing pain, overlain by Elly’s murderous barking.
Something was out there.
Jaret leapt out of his chair hissing, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” at me, because he ran around me to the screen door, and then I heard him say in the hall, “Oh my God,” and I got up on my left knee, tears streaming down my face, and crawled, dragging my right leg, to him. He was frozen, his hands in the air. Elly stood inches from the screen door, her legs rigid and slightly splayed, every slate gray hair on her body raised and sharp as tiny swords, her sides distended as she sucked air and barked compulsively, a raging, rasping bark filled with threat, at what she saw; a wolf, foaming at the mouth, ripping the screen out of the door with his teeth, his jaws bloody.
We didn’t have a gun. Jaret ran past me to the kitchen and I turned to watch him. He came back out with the largest knife I had in the block; can my husband stab a rabid wolf? Elly’s enraged barking continued and deepened, but slowed; she couldn’t go on like that much longer. For drawn out seconds my pain wound around my brain inside my skull as a high pitched, lingering tone of alarm and I watched the wolf, his eyes wild and mismatched, he was ill, possessed with shredding my screen, a death-seeking stupidity had run away with him; I thought, it’s not his fault.
Jaret ran toward us with the knife raised over his head and saw that it wouldn’t work; he panicked then. The blood drained from his face, he was white and sweating. He turned to the closet, set the knife inside it on the floor, and grabbed his winter parka, unfurled it and shook it out like a matador, and that’s when we heard the door of the children’s room open. Hildy and Pillow stood there, peering out, the fronts of both their pajamas wet with urine, the smell floating toward me, their faces still, and Elly turned, smelled them, her tight black nose twitching, and she turned back to the wolf, his whole face now inside our house. He was beside himself with aimless fury, he could have stepped right through the screen by then and killed any of us but didn’t, he still tore at the screen, and Elly lunged.
She eased back into her joints and shot forward, her vicious angle of mouth full of old, yellow teeth open as she dove on him, snarling. The children started screaming and the dog and the wolf, stuck in the shredded square of the door began killing each other. “Stop!” I heard myself screaming at the animals, “Stop! Elly! STOP!” but they would not stop.
Jaret shook his coat open one more time and ran at the door, threw himself on it, and came crashing down on top of the animals, the coat covering them as they continued to tear at each other’s throats, growling and yelping in agony as the three of them fell onto the porch, the door on top of the animals, Jaret on the door, holding it down as it galloped under him, himself now shouting out sounds, crying out for me, yelling my name a dozen times before I understood what he was saying, because I was suspended, lifeless, watching, until I really heard him and then looked at his terrified eyes; “Anne! Anne! Anne! Help me!”
“Jaret,” I heard myself whisper, and I began to crawl toward him, the children still screaming behind me. The coat was alive with the killing beneath it, the door shook, Jaret held them down with all his weight and might and then Elly’s snout tore through the coat and her dead black eyes and bloody face appeared, and she bit through Jaret’s left hand, which sprung blood. He released his hold on the door and the coat with his right hand and brought his fist down on her snout and cracked her skull. He raised his fist and brought it down again, over and over, seeking the skull of the wolf, and found it, and he cracked that, too, and the animals were dead.
It was not a wolf. It was a feral dog that had lived near a run-down garden apartment complex some miles away. He had been seen in town several times, we learned, and the local police had complacently not looked for him, in spite of the recent reports of rabid skunks and opossums in the area.
I was so furious I could barely speak, when I saw the police chief’s wife in the market, the first time I went out alone, weeks later, my leg in a brace after surgery to place pins in my femur, my pregnant belly becoming evident. I lumbered toward her and she had the humility, at least, to stand and take it.
“How could you,” I whispered to her, spittle flying off my tongue, tears welling in my eyes. I meant it for her husband and she knew that.
“I’m sorry, Anne,” she said, and suddenly she was crying.
My eyes, I knew, were black with sleeplessness, my skin slack and gray with exhaustion and sorrow. My breath was stale in my mouth. I just stood by her. I had nothing else to say. I lived in my head. I couldn’t talk to people. I just thought about what was happening, all the time.
We were selling the house.
Jaret’s hand was sewn back together with black, twiney stitches that were crusted over with blood. I wrapped it and rewrapped it several times a day to keep him from picking at it. He had finally given into medication after two weeks without sleeping and chronic scratching of his own whole body. He slept now all the time. We did not know when he would go back to work.
His friend Hector had come with his son right away that night, our neighbor had called them, and removed the carcasses from the porch, cleaned the blood, took away the destroyed door. Then they came right back and stayed all night, with a small rifle, even though it was too late. In the morning, they began to fix the doorway and didn’t leave till it was done. They replaced the screen door with a storm door and refused any money from Jaret, who told me about it while I was in the hospital, where I stayed for a week after surgery. Our parents came and stayed with the children while I was there.
My only job, when I came home, was to make quiet. I moved so slowly, so carefully, that I could have watched new leaves uncurl from spring buds on trees while I did each tiny, crucial thing; to put butter on bread, to pour milk into a glass, to answer a call for me, was a whole act and took time. Everything now was one thing, isolate, fragile, necessary. I did nothing other than feed the children, feed Jaret, wash the children, hold them, sleep with them, and quiet them. The four of us slept in one bed. They did not go to the daycare lady for months.
By spring, my belly was large, but not as big as it had been with Hildy or with Pillow. I didn’t eat, this pregnancy, because my leg couldn’t bear the weight gain, and I wanted to keep the baby from getting too big; I couldn’t tolerate the idea of a c-section. I also wasn’t hungry. Jaret’s hand healed, and after months of physical therapy, he started back at work, first quarter days, then half days. His company loved him and his colleagues and bosses were kind and patient about everything. He began to taper off his medication, very slowly. He held me more. Pillow turned three, and did not want a party, but said that she missed daycare, and went back.
Hildy wouldn’t. He stayed at my hip all the time, and began to make keening noises at night.