Dumb Animals

By Ryan Burden

The March house sits on a rise at the head of the nameless peninsula that lifts the towns of Cavalcade, Mania, and Oshokten from the sea. It’s a Victorian, tall, with a wrap-around porch and seven peaked slate roofs. No effort was spared in its construction. Joints and joists were painstakingly squared until they were considered unassailable. It’s a house tight as a ship. In life, March’s father cared for it as for a living thing, painting and shingling, clipping and mowing, until it seemed a sleek breathing consciousness on the rise, watching the land dispassionately and pondering the sea beyond. He built it with the money from his factory, which made nails. He was a man who knew nails – those with strong steel and heads that won’t buckle, those thin enough to finish fine wood and those heavy enough to run through anything.

Behind the house runs a deep bend of the Oshokten River, where March’s father loved to fish for the dark, bullet-headed trout that laze year-round, gorged on minnows and eel. This is where he drowned, drunk, trying to clear a snagged line during one of the river’s frequent floods.

Yesterday March went down to the old nail factory and walked its black foundation, a bottle in one hand and a length of cane pole in the other, knocking aside the weeds and searching, filling his pockets with nails. Now he finds a heap of them on the kitchen table, some others arranged in diminishing rows that must have meant something to him in last night’s stupor.

He drinks a cup of cold coffee and splashes cold water on his swollen eyelids. The bottle stands upright in the sink, empty, a crooked nail stuck hastily through the cap. Reluctantly he takes it with him to the back porch, where he’s surprised by sunlight and must hide his face in his arm. Something tears at his toe and he’s pitched forward, coming up hard against the railing. His hand, well-trained, stays locked around the bottle. When his eyes quit watering he sees the line of nails driven into his porch. They run from the threshold to the steps. Some are driven flush, but the majority rise up dangerously from the boards. They’re red and dirty, flaking rust. He doesn’t see the hammer anywhere; remembers only a dark shape hurtling through the rain and feels a new soreness starting in his right arm.

He’s moved his whiskey from the kitchen to the cellar as a reminder to check for water. It’s mid-June and the river’s been gnawing its banks again, bloated by weeks of rain – fat, slow drops that fall with resignation, bead up on the grass-blades, linger on the porch screen and the window panes. There have been mornings March thought he would wake to find his cellar ruined and a familiar gray scum rising up between the kitchen tiles. It turns his stomach, the thought of all that gray river-scum on the lime-green tiles Cathleen installed years before. If his mother was alive she’d have him running tarps around the cellar walls and dragging the heavy-duty pump from its blocks. Anything to keep the water from getting into the wood.

He knows he’s let the house go. If the water comes, he’ll pack a bag and let the river have it.

Scattered clouds rush by high above the house. March ignores them and descends into the cellar, where he tosses the empty bottle onto a broken pile in the corner and grabs another from the shelf that once held jars of canned corn and pickled trout. Over in its corner, the big pump sulks.

The whiskey is cool from the cellar. He gets the top off and holds a little on his tongue before he swallows. He’s happy when it slips down without incident. Lately he’s had trouble swallowing, as though the whiskey’s damming up somewhere in his chest. He’s had to stamp his feet and shake his body like a sieve. His path to the pump takes him through a shallow puddle forming in the middle of the floor. Too late he tries to leap it and ends up splashing mud over one of his favorite boots. They’re calfskin, faded the color of sand. They were a present from Cathleen, but he’s worn them so long they no longer remind him of her.

He has to think hard, staring at the pump. He hasn’t yet burned the wool off his mind. After a minute he bends and searches out a bunch of wires on the side, leading from the crank start to the engine. They rip away easily and he flings them into the puddle behind him.

March likes to stand when he drinks. If he sits for too long he’ll begin to feel sluggish and will likely sleep an hour away, waking to a new hangover, worse than the last. This kind of sleep feels uncomfortably close to dying, and he’s had enough of that. He leans against the porch post and rests his bottle on his leg. The rain has caused a sensational bloom. Apart from some mud near the porch steps and a narrow worn path to the river, the grass is up to his chest. It’s so tall and dense he can’t see anymore where the ground begins to slope toward the river, nor the black oak stump at the edge of the lawn. Under the nodding grass the stump pushes up through the mud like an inverted hole in the ground.

On the far side of the lawn the grass twitches. Lightly at first, then frantic. March calls out and after some further commotion his dog, Osh, thrusts her head out onto the path. She’s a mutt – some shaken-up breed of red heeler and pit. Her face is thin and fox-like, her ears like shovel heads laced with fine pink veins.

“Get out where I can see you.”

A cloud passes overhead and runs a pool of shadow over the lawn. The dog picks her head up and appears to listen to something moving in the grass.

“Snake. They all got to come up when the ground’s wet. Their holes aren’t any wider than they are. You see? If they don’t come up they’ll drown. The water comes and plugs them in.”

He can tell she doesn’t understand.

“Look, I’ve seen you eat the worms off the pavement and you only do it when it’s rained. So I know you understand how they have to come up, even if you don’t know why they do it.”

He sticks out his thumb. “If the snake’s a cork…”

She flicks an ear in his direction, swatting at a gnat.

“Anyway… don’t get bit.”

His head is clear, his heart beating more purposefully. This is how he knows he’s entered that time between the neck of the bottle and its halfway point that he has come to think of as his life. He imagines himself making use of it. In his mind he’s cutting grass and tilling the mud beneath. He’s planting a garden, full of white flowers and plum tomatoes. The offensive tiles in the kitchen are all torn up and he’s replacing them with polished wood laminate. He’s sorting through the stacks of National Geographic at the bottom of Cathleen’s closet; sorting through all her old clothes and shoes, her handbags and makeup and hairbrushes. He’s walking briskly through town, posting signs for a yard sale.

The dog’s face is wrinkled and deformed, smiling at him through the upheld bottle. He can’t make out what she’s saying. He lowers the bottle and concentrates all his attention on her eyes.

“You’re right. We’ll start simple.”

They step over the rows of nails and into the house. The fishing rods are on the top shelf of the closet, next to the old tackle box. Below the shelf, the closet is packed with black wool coats. Cathleen always bought black coats and she always bought coats that were meant to last a lifetime. Every fall, she bought a coat meant to last a lifetime. Looking at the coats reminds him of her, always going around in the cold weather wrapped in black like that, and he starts to laugh. But something gurgles in the back of his throat and the laugh quickly turns into a cough. When the fit is over he anxiously checks his palm and finds nothing but a shining film of saliva, which he quickly rubs away against his sleeve. In front of him the coats hang all in a line, front to back, one after the other. He imagines people in there filling them, all of them traipsing along single-file through his hall closet. They’re going straight through it, coming from somewhere he can’t see and disappearing into it again.

Out on the porch the dog investigates the jagged row of nails. She looks up when she hears the door slap open and the tackle rattling in the box. As March sorts through the mess of tangled line, rusty hooks and desiccated lumps of bait, she comes close and tries to thrust her nose inside. He pushes her away and she comes bouncing back.

“Huh.” He grabs the pole and points the tip at her. He jabs it forward, poking her in the ribs. “Back, now.”

The last time March went fishing he went with Tommy Fitzpatrick. Tommy always wants to fish the pond instead of the river because he’s annoyed by the effort of reeling in his line. Tommy’s a bobber man to the core. March wouldn’t mind that kind of comfort today, either, but he won’t go to the pond. First, it’s at least five miles away and he wants to start simpler than that. Second, he won’t risk running into Tommy.

“We wouldn’t give that backstabber the satisfaction, would we? Remember what we agreed. You ever see him around here, you go for him balls first.”

She whines and comes forward, trying to skirt around the outstretched pole. He jabs again. “Shut up about it, you dumb animal. You know that’s what you are, don’t you?” He punctuates each word with a jab. “Dumb. Dumb. Animal…and…Dumb. Animals. Don’t. Win.”

After the last jab she gives up, leaves the porch and stands out on the path, watching him. March chooses a fat green lure with a double set of hooks on it. He believes more hooks will increase his chances of hooking one of the fat black trout as it sits the bottom, sleeping away the afternoon. It’s an old metal pole and some flakes of rust fall onto his boots as he twists the two halves together. The clouds do their shadow dance in the grass and everything else is still. The insect moan grows louder in the grass.

With the pole over his shoulder and the bottle hanging comfortably at his side, he cuts through the grass toward the river. The dog follows. March knows where there is a flat rock jutting out over a pool, a good place to fish.

Halfway across the lawn he stops and squints at the sky, then at the wall of trees that separate the house from the river. He raises the bottle by the neck and swings it loosely between his thumb and index finger. Starting forward again, he begins to high-step. His head feels as clear as it ever does. At the edge of the lawn the black stump waits for him, hunkered down and hidden in the grass. The stump is hard despite time and the wet weather. The first pain March feels is his shin striking the edge, then the pain in his chest where the fishing pole breaks against his ribs. He yells, “God! Stump!” through singing teeth. Of course, he’s managed to hold on to the bottle. He uses it to take a swing at the dog when she tries to put her nose to his face. She jerks back a few steps and stands smiling at him, tongue to one side, eyes shifting uneasily.

“Can’t you ever…?”

He rolls onto his back and waits for the pain to subside. It doesn’t take long, but he lies there for a while even after it’s gone, stretching and flexing one leg above the stump. He can feel the dog’s presence near his foot. Each time his leg extends she leans in to smell the bottom of his boot. He tries to look down his body at the boots but his stomach is in the way; a flannelled mound, tight as a drum, the blue squares of fabric and their thin gray borders like a landscape of still, regular ponds with stone paths between them, or blue fields irrigated with gray water from the range of button-mountains running through.

March sighs and taps the dog’s nose with his toe.

“Perspective.”

She whines.

“What we need is some goddamn perspective.”

March drinks and fingers the sore spot on his ribs. Lately he seems to bruise more easily.

The ring at the end of the broken pole fits snugly over the protruding head of a nail, but he isn’t strong enough to pull it out without bending. March isn’t upset about the pole. It’s rusted through and would have snapped on the first cast. He’d still be here, just as he is now, standing against the railing with the bottle against his leg.

“You think too much about death.”

She’s lying with her paws slung casually over the top step, her tail threaded through the first row of nails. Her eyes roll up at the sound of his voice.

March has entered the uncertain part of his day between half-way through the bottle and its bottom. This part is something like a dream. Things happen he won’t remember.

“We don’t have much else. That doesn’t mean we have to obsess over it. There are more things in this world than one. Life goes on irregardless.”

His tongue goes numb. His ribs hurt where the pole caught him. He’s spent over an hour now aggressively fingering the bruise.

When he understands that the nail won’t pull he tosses the pole out into the yard. It sticks sideways in the grass, suspended a foot from the ground. The dog stands up. She takes her time stretching, trots down the porch steps and heads off around the side of the house. March hears her start to dig. He watches the long grass twitch with insects, wondering if the dog thinks about death because, deep down, she wishes he’d never saved her at all. It was during the big storm, when the river first took the kitchen and gave Cathleen the excuse she needed to install the tiles he’s always hated. He’d been alone that night, drinking to blur his view of the gray scum gathering, when he heard the yapping of dogs, pups being swept away down the river. He only managed to save the one. He wishes Cathleen had been there.

The last words Cathleen said to him were “What do I have a husband for, anyway?” The lawn was neatly mown, then, and they were sitting out on it drinking huge mai-tais from a plastic thermos. She said it because she wanted another drink. That was how March found himself in the kitchen, mixing ingredients together and being ridiculously careful about it, as though the rum was hydrochloric acid and the orange juice potassium nitrate and the slices of watermelon, lemon and lime were all fat white chunks of lye. When he heard the crash from outside he jumped, then congratulated himself on not spilling the drink. He wet his finger and drew a transparent heart on a tissue-paper umbrella.

He carried the drink onto the porch, only to find the old oak tree lying sideways where his wife had been.

The dog had liked to dig around that tree. Around it and around it, like she thought there might be something dead under there – like maybe she thought she could dig all the way down to where the waterfall let out a mile downstream and find some kind of cavern where her brothers and sisters were all waiting to be saved. Always digging, like that, like she wanted to be some kind of a hero. Of course she doesn’t understand reality. Of course, if March could dig up the earth and find those he’d lost – forget how far he’d have to dig or how long or how hard – he would. He’d drain the river if he could, and in the dog’s mind his father would be there under it somewhere, huddled frightened against a deepwater mud bank or curled up inside a catfish hole. These dumb animals can’t help but think dumb thoughts. They can’t understand death because they can’t unimagine life.

March believes he is an honest man. He admits he might have saved a few more pups if he’d been a little braver and a lot less drunk. He hadn’t remembered to take off his boots that night and the river had quickly turned them to lead. If he’d remembered to take them off he might have saved just one more, so the dog would have someone around to take her mind off death once in a while. He believes she has that much to be mad about. He believes he deserves to be punished for not taking off the boots. But he won’t believe that Osh dug up that tree on purpose. He can’t. It wasn’t Cathleen who let those puppies drown. She wasn’t even there that night. The truth, and it’s a hard one, is that she was with Tommy Fitzpatrick in the back room at Grover’s Lanes.

Another cloud passes. March leans back against the doorjamb and drinks. The paint on the porch is peeling. The porch is covered with fat strips of it like a plague of dying, dried-up worms curling their stupid faces toward the sun. And the dog is still digging at the side of the house.

She’s always digging.

She does it to get at him.

“You know it’d be better if you weren’t so serious so often. We could pretend this was just a guy and his goddamn dog.”

She stops digging, coughs, then starts up again.

“Osh!”

It takes a second, but soon she comes panting around the house and March, looking down into his bottle, hears the tic-tock of her claws as she climbs the steps. She whines to let him know she’s there. He takes her wet nose in his hand and rubs away the dirt.

“You didn’t mean it that way, did you? You couldn’t have.”

She sneezes into his palm.

“Didn’t think so. We’re better off now anyhow, aren’t we, Osh?”

He sticks one foot out into the yard. The boots are his last pair of shoes. He digs his heel into the mud until he makes a sickle-shaped hole an inch deep. He spits into the hole and covers it slowly, contemplating.

“Graves are a long way down. It must take a day to dig that far.”

The insects in the grass make a buzzing like the one inside his head.

The dog stares out over the grass at the line birch and ash that screens them from the river. He pulls her head close to his and sights along her nose. She smells like wet leaves and smoke. Eyes closed against her fur, he shakes the near-empty bottle. Pretty soon he’ll be checking the cellar twice a day.

Her body snaps to attention under his arm. She is a statue except for the wriggling tip of her nose. March hears the distant sound of voices. Now shouts from across the river, a splash followed by peals of laughter. A car door slams.

“I told you it’s too much.” He prods the dog until she has to look at him. “We can’t keep on this way, you know. Look…” he sprawls out over one elbow and takes her slender paw in his hand. It’s small for her size – the size of a deer’s hoof.

“You don’t blame me, and I won’t blame you.”

She stares at him a second before her mouth breaks open in that comprehending grin and her pink tongue unfurls from it like some insulting canine banner.

“We’ll get along just fine. No more thinking. We’ll just pack it up and live it out. Life goes on, you know.”

The grinning mouth comes closer and her tongue rasps across his face. Then she turns back to staring at the river. He stares into her ear. Someone across the river laughs again.

“Osh. What do you see when you look at me?”

She sees animal eyes, dark-centered and yellow-ringed, set precariously in a tough red face. His hands are covered in sores. He is the man who couldn’t save more than one.

“You’re a fool to think that. You’re just a dumb animal.”

He leans closer until he can smell the bitter chemical smell inside her ear.

“You’re no better than your daddy was.”

The ear twitches. March sneers with pleasure.

“You’re just a murdering bitch, you know that? You aren’t any better at all. Who the hell is down there?” He drinks and sets the bottle down on the porch.

“Come.”

They start down the path together. When they reach the trees the dog stops.

“Come.”

She whines and turns to face the house.

“Easier? No. It sure doesn’t get any easier.” He looks for some sign of courage in the small brown eyes.

“Right. Everything’s so perfect when there’s no water around. Like there aren’t a million other ways to die! Like there isn’t somebody digging up a tree for you, without a care for you, just because they can’t think about anything but the ones they’ve lost.”

He bends over, stumbles and makes it back onto his feet with a wet clod of dirt in his hand. He flings it at her and misses. “Well, just stay up here with your memories, then. Just stay the hell up here, if that’s all you want to do.”

The dog disappears into the grass. March shuts his eyes and listens to laughter in the woods.

He opens his eyes and starts to move carefully down the hill. There’s a car on the side of the road across the river, a sleek silver sedan, the kind of machine that the kids standing around it could never afford on their own. There are four of them, two boys and two girls. The boys are lean and muscled, wearing brightly colored shorts and nothing else. Sunlight exaggerates the soft transitions between their shoulders and biceps. The girls wear shorts as well, though they aren’t more than ineffective patches of blue-jean. Above, they wear bikini tops that match the color of the boy’s trunks. One of the girls has wide hips and red hair. The other one hardly fills her clothes but has a round, freckled face.

March leans against a tree, watching. He thinks they are all unquestionably beautiful. He looks down at his own belly, which looks like some absurd, useless muscle, as the kids shout from the river.

“Come on, come on.”

“Hit a double.”

They’re swinging from the rope swing – the same one March used to use. When his father put it up the knotted end was exactly six feet from the surface. Now it is swallowed by the flood, so that only the length rises twisting from the water to the thick branch above.

One of the boys looks like Fitzpatrick. He has sensitive eyes and fair skin, almost blue when the sun hits it. March fingers his bruised ribs. He believes he doesn’t care about Cathleen and Tommy. He really does know as well as anybody how cheap bourbon can take a person places they never wanted to go. But he cares about the funeral. He’d been careful to stay sober, but in the end all of the attention was on Tommy, who showed up dead-eyed with an oversized orange hunting flask in his hand. He was so angry he hardly remembers them lowering her. But he remembers the black earth and the white sprays of clipped roots jutting from it and the pool of green river water at the bottom of the hole, where she would rest. He sometimes wonders how long it took them to dig that hole.

Once, when they were bowling, Tommy said, “Animal confidence.” He was teetering against the railing, so far gone he couldn’t keep his hips still.

“Everybody has to be so fucking human, March. What’s so bad, huh? About the rest of us I mean. What’s so bad about being a fucking animal?”

The boys are making funny gestures toward the girls as they swim around each other in the slow river. March’s toes are numb. He sits in the leaves and lets the groundwater seep through the seat of his pants. The kids are arguing. The rims on the car on the road above reflect bursts of sunlight like diamonds. March believes each of these babies has a house three stories tall, where the paint sticks to the porch like latex and there aren’t ever any shadows, only artificial day like the light inside of a bank. He believes that they have thousand-dollar dogs with papers and recorded genealogies. Dogs pretty and muscled and stupid who don’t dig for anything except the joy of digging. The babies’ dogs don’t have to think about death because life hasn’t given them that reason. It’s well enough. It’s well enough the babies don’t think about death because they can’t yet see it. They’re too inexperienced to acknowledge the inevitable.

One boy turns onto his back and spits a jet of water in the air. The other one swims away and stares downriver toward the falls. The skinny girl’s face contorts as she works at something underwater. All of them are suddenly still. She laughs and holds her shorts triumphantly above the water, and the boy who was pretending to look away comes paddling back fast. Soon there are four pairs of shorts and two girls’ tops floating away downstream. They are all swimming around each other in the dark water, all of them laughing.

The boy who looks like Tommy grabs the skinny girl in his arms and tries to swim away with her. She protests and, to the sound of his friend’s laughter, he pulls her farther out into the river. The other boy is moving close to the red-haired girl, who is frightened though she doesn’t show it. The boy with the skinny girl whispers in her ear. Her body is stiff as a nail. The red-haired girl thrashes and slaps the water and for one clear second March is light again. He is young, wild, and unburdened. He takes a quick healthy breath and heaves himself off the ground. Then the skinny girl screams and throws an elbow at the boy who looks like Tommy, catching his temple. He gasps.

March looks back up the hill for the dog, but he can’t see anything through the grass.

He turns back in time to see the skinny girl walk naked out of the water. The boys are quiet until she is halfway up the bank, until she stops, looks back at them and shakes her ass. They laugh and everyone comes out of the water to join her on the bank, their bodies all white and shining. The boys have grabbed what clothes they can, what hasn’t floated too far downriver. Among them they all achieve a state of semi-dress and climb the bank to the foot of the tree, where they rest and wait to dry.

March puts his back to the river and makes his way up the path. From the back his house looks worse than he’s imagined. Nails. He sees nails protruding in every direction, backing head-first from the swollen wood. He reels, thinking they’ve hardly kept it together. The structure sways and shimmers, nails working their way out, water gushing from the holes. He presses his hands against his temples and presses, and whimpers a little, and cries a little. When he pulls himself together the house is still standing, fine apart from some peeling paint; the occasional stained gutter.

The dog watches him from the porch, her head on her paws.

“You see?” he says, “Life goes on.”

He comes to the porch and she puts her nose in his hand, and March understands. He isn’t a good man, but he saved her, after all. This is the thing he didn’t know and won’t remember. This is the thing that she, without thinking, has understood from the beginning.

He’s drunk enough now to find the hammer, close by in the ivy patch beside the porch. He pulls the nails, remembering vaguely now that he had meant to hold something down. When he finishes it’s near twilight and the grass nods erratically in a stiffening breeze. Its motion hides the opposite bank of the river where the kids are almost naked again, each couple ostensibly respecting the others’ privacy on opposite sides of the front seat backrests. It hides the stump pushing up through the mud, the stump that makes sure March will never mow the lawn and will leave the house next winter one way or another, when the grass dies and it sticks out against the snow. On the porch, he sleeps beside his empty bottle. Osh stands calmly at his elbow, holding the broken fishing pole between her teeth.

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