by John Riley
I went with Dale Stack to drown a cat on a fading summer afternoon.
I sat on the porch steps and watched him cross the unplowed field separating his trailer from our clapboard house. He dragged a burlap bag, the type chicken feed comes in, tied shut with baling string. When he got closer I heard the screeching and scratching coming from the inside.
Without a word, or a wave to my grandpa, I stood and followed Dale past the fig bush where the bumblebees grazed, down the two-rut tractor lane, through the electric fence, on across the empty pasture and down the dead leaf hill toward the creek. Muddy Creek it was called, as though they’d run out of creek names in the black days before we were born. I thought about those black days all the time. Sometimes it was like I had already lived and died. There didn’t seem to be a place I was supposed to be in this life. I found no comfort in the woods, at church, or in living on a run-down farm with an old man with one arm who sat in a cane back chair and read and re-read the same old brown books until it was near enough to sundown for him to pull out the clear whiskey and drink straight from the bottle.
Dale walked tall, lightly, onto a tree trunk that had been tossed across the creek by one of the late afternoon storms that came up when the heat had no place to go. He stopped and looked at me. He wants me to flinch, I thought. When I didn’t, he leaned forward and dropped the bag into the creek until it filled with water and the noise from the inside stopped. After a long moment, he pulled the bag out. Water drained through the rough threads and soon enough the cat started screeching and clawing. The afternoon filled with its ruckus.
Dale’s face was blank as moonlight on a pond as he trailed the bag back and forth across the surface before letting it sink again. It settled on the sandy floor, the burlap the color of the rocks that broke the current. A few bubbles rose to the surface, then stopped. He pulled the bag up and the water drained out. There was no noise this time. He untied the twine and shook the carcass onto the log bridge. I recognized the cat. She’d been around a while. Dale stared at the body until the tips of the white fur were beginning to dry, fluttering a bit in the lightest of breezes, then turned and walked past me, back up the creek bank. I waited until he topped the rise to follow.
First published in Flashquake.
John Riley has published poetry and fiction in Smokelong Quarterly, Better Than Starbucks, Connotation Press, Fiction Daily, The Molotov Cocktail, Dead Mule, The St. Anne’s Review, and many others. He has also written over thirty books of nonfiction for young readers.
Deep below the lake’s murky surface, there sits — intact — a house. A two-story structure of Carpenter Gothic details like elaborate wooden trim bloated to bursting. Its front yard: purple loosestrife. Its inhabitants: alligator gar, bull trout, and pupfish. All glide past languidly — out of window sashes and back inside doorframes. It is serene, and it is foreboding. Curtains of algae float gossamer to and fro. Pictures rest clustered atop credenzas. A chandelier is lit, intermittently, by freshwater electric eels. And near a Victrola, white to the bone, a man and a woman dance in a floating embrace.
Keith Hoerner lives, teaches, and pushes words around in Southern Illinois. His recently published memoir The Day the Sky Broke Open can be found on Amazon.com.
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