Mercy (an excerpt from a novel-in-progress)

I hope the deer was the last thing Cory saw, not the pickup truck careening toward him, and I hope his eyes were wide and soft with pleasure.  We’re here to teach our children and grandchildren, I know that.  But sometimes we see things through their eyes and everything changes.

Every November for ten days in Dwayne County, the hunters’ bright hats dot the woods like apples still hanging after frost.  They’ll even climb trees to hide in sometimes, the men, waiting for the creatures to leg their way into the rifle sights, noiseless except for the small rustle of leaves.  I can see that part in my mind without much bother.  But then I see the deer, its enormous eyes knowing and uncertain at once, picking its way along, just trying to live another day, and I wonder when is it that you can’t stand what’s about to happen?  I blink and flinch, hearing the simultaneous explosion and kick, like a hoof deep in a shoulder, and the stutter of a second shot.  Maybe someone else’s shot, from another side.  It happens, that close.  My good husband Harold used to be one of the hunters when he was alive.  He used to say the first shot is life, the way things are, the second shot is the mercy.

Our son Jason would have hunted, but he’d quit to save face when it turned out that he was the worst shot since the invention of guns.  Harold was thrilled when Jason and his wife had a son:  another chance at a hunting buddy and he didn’t think it was even possible that the boy could be as blind as Jason.  The hunting season that our grandson Cody was twelve and could first get a youth permit and legally hunt with Harold was right after Harold and I had to sell Mom’s house and have her move in with us.  We were having the mysterious gift of an Indian summer in mid-November and the day I’m remembering should have been a reassurance of heaven.

But I was banging around the kitchen slamming drawers with my hip and muttering, “Nothing lasts in this house.”  I winced and looked around, hoping I was alone.  Mom hadn’t been living with us long enough for me to remember to shut up when I was searching for what she’d put in some bizarre place, say ketchup in the freezer.  But what I’d said bothered me like a bad omen.  All I meant was that the spatula had disappeared, but the whole point of Mom living with us was so that she would last.  I’d said it to Harold:  if we don’t take her in, honey, she’ll never last.

I was in a terrible mood.  Nearly eligible for retirement and the great state of Indiana had decided that all teachers had to pass a CPR test in order to keep their jobs, never mind that I’d been working twenty-five years and didn’t have the name of a single dead student posted under mine.  That Saturday morning I’d had to grain our two horses after I made Mom’s breakfast, which made me late to class.  Like I was the fourth grader, the instructor made me demonstrate what he’d been showing everyone, which I didn’t exactly know, because I was late.  But big dumb Resus-It-Annie was lying on the floor, just waiting for me to restart her heart.  Wouldn’t I love for someone to restart mine some mornings?

Since I had skimmed the book, I found the spot and put my hand a notch above her sternum and I pumped and blew my life into hers, like I did every day with the kids in my class, and my husband, son and grandson, my life right into theirs.  I got tired, like I did worrying over them.  And the chickens and the livestock, not that we had much, but the feeding always fell to me.  I felt like screaming at Annie to buck up, for god’s sake, get up, go on, live, live, live.  No such luck.  The small green life light just flickered like a tease and then went out, meaning, I guess, that while I didn’t exactly kill her, I didn’t save her either.

When I got home to Mom, she was all stooped over and looking like a sneeze would knock her to the floor.  She was thick enough around the middle and the hump of her back, but her arms and legs were so frail they put me in mind of dry sticks.  Now I look at myself naked in the mirror and I see my body evolving or devolving into hers.  Mom’s palsy had gotten worse and worse.  The way her head moved back and forth, it looked like she was saying  “No, no, no,” constantly.  It grated me like cheese back then.  Now I wonder if she was saying no, I do not want this to be happening to me, and I wish I could tell her that now I finally understand.

“What’s going to happen to me, Louisa?  I’m all alone, Daddy’s gone.  I’ve got nobody,” she used to say, which made me want to tear out fistfuls of my hair.  Or maybe hers.  But I always tried to keep my voice patient and nice when I answered.

“You’re not all alone, Mom.  You’ve got me and Harold.  We’ll take care of you.  And you know how Cody loves you.  A great grandson, Mom.  Now that’s something special.  You can’t let Cody down.”  Which was sort of switching the point but I’d use whatever I could.

“You don’t understand.  You can’t understand.  But you’re a good daughter, Louisa, and I thank you.  My breasts are gone, have you noticed?  See?” she said, running her hands down the front of her blowsy shirt and working her body toward profile.  Her breathing whistled through her false teeth like a February wind, and her body was cold to the touch.  Sometimes, I couldn’t help it, I used to think of a chicken overly stewed and left to chill, the way her flesh seemed to be falling away from her body.

“No Mom, I hadn’t seen that,” I’d lie, “but I think it’s just normal.” Oh, she was right, I didn’t understand.  I hope she didn’t know what I felt.


Ours was always a random sort of a farm, acres of field corn backing up to Rush Run, the broad creek that runs behind it like a vein to the river, cutting its way through a mile-wide stand of old forest.  Back then we had Cinder, our black quarter horse mare, and Flash, Cody’s roan gelding, my beautiful flock of laying hens and Jack, the rooster; Crystal the sheep—don’t ask me why—and Nic and SeeSee, the yellow Labs.  Maggie and Marvelle presided in the barn.  And our goat, Pammy, had the yard much of the year.  Harold could not abide mowing and we got her between the time Jason left home and Cody was old enough to mow.  But by then Pammy was taking care of the patchy yard grass well, and giving milk, beside.

You see how little remains.

But about the deer.  The whole thing goes back to Mom and that same day after I got home from my CPR class.  Mom hadn’t wanted Harold to take Cody hunting.  She’d lived in town all her life and couldn’t accept it.  I tried to explain it to her the way Harold had first explained it to me, but the words weren’t mine and got stuck between my heart and my mouth.  The truth is that I think he liked having charge over things, as men do.  Maybe when you make something else die, you don’t think about dying yourself, you think you’re bigger than dying.

But Harold had taught Cody to shoot, and the boy had a gift with soup cans.  He’s good, Harold used to marvel before that day. What a shot.  He’d talked up how great it would be to hunt together, and Cody automatically loved whatever his Grandpa did.

The boy was antsy; he hadn’t gotten his deer yet and there’d be no more chances until next year.  Twilight was coming on and he was going to lose his bet with Harold, which probably was for all of fifty cents.  I was outside the barn when he came trudging up from the pasture toward the house; he’d been all day in the woods our back pasture skirts, making a last try for his antlers.

“I need bullets,” he called to me, a slump of crimson dejection.  “Only one left in the chamber.”  That meant he’d taken shots and missed.  Harold, who had to be with him, must have been waiting.

It was by pure chance that I spotted it, plainly out in the field that drops down to our woods, where Rush Run hurries on to get to another world.  I shouted to Cody, who was nearly to the back steps by then.  The deep-blue and purple-grey shadows edging out from the woods kept me from seeing whether it was buck or doe—Cody only had a youth permit for buck—but later the boy said he had seen the huge rack shining by as though by moonrise, or last sun, like something not quite of this earth, as he took off, running into the russet of late autumn.  I even prayed.  “Dear God,” I said.  “Let my grandson get that deer, he’s only got one bullet.”

What was I thinking?

I heard the gun after I went on in, after I’d stood staring into the dusk.  So did Mom, upstairs in her room, and it scared her pale until I told her what Cody was after.

“If he got it, have him bring it around so I can see it up close,: she said.  Mom was trying, I could tell, she was trying to keep a hold on herself, to get used to it here, to put things in their right places.

“Are you sure, Mom?  You know, it’s well, it’s different than what you’re used to.”

“I told you, Louisa, have him bring it around.”  I even asked her again.

I watched between the yellow print curtains at the kitchen window for Cody to come back while I started supper.  Our lunatic rooster was perched on the head of the cement goose Harold had bought at the fair, his idea of a joke because I’d said I’d like some geese in our back pond.  When Harold set it outside the back door, the poor rooster went mad, squawking and flapping and trying to mate with the goose every day.  Back then we all bent over laughing.  He’d give up after a while and sit on the goose’s head or back, pecking every once in a while trying to rouse her, but then he’d lapse back into mourning.  He used to put me in mind of Mom, wattles hanging from her upper arms, and longing for what’s not there.

Then Harold came running up toward the house waving his rifle.

“Cody got his buck!  It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful!  I saw him take it down.  What a shot.”  The storm door slapped behind him.  “He’s gonna need the truck to get it.  Where’d I leave the ropes?”  Harold was so happy for Cody, all sweating and flushed and breathing like a trumpeter gone to heaven.  I told him when he had it, to bring the truck around underneath Mom’s window so she could see it, too.

When I heard the truck bumping up the pasture, I went upstairs to get Mom over to her window.  When Harold stopped, Cody looked like he tumbled out of the passenger side and headed for the house.  Mom and I looked out the window.  Mom stared down.  We could see the size of the hole in the neck, the crimson spread out on the brown.  Thin forelegs bent at the joint almost as though he was still running.  I could see the heart convulsing on the way it does, maybe forty minutes, even if it’s taken out, but I didn’t know if Mom’s eyes were good enough to catch it.  I couldn’t get dumb Annie’s heart going like that if I pumped her chest and blew her into tomorrow.

I heard Cody on the stairs.  “Grandma?” he called, hoarse-voiced, and I didn’t answer because Mom, she was falling apart, crying and crying on me like a stone dissolving in water, and I held her.  I laughed at first; she’d said she wanted to see.  I looked down at the old buck as I held her, and then Cody came into the room, his face a red blear, sobbing, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”  Mom was heavy, melted into my arms, her tears all over me until I could hardly stand up.  I looked outside again, and at Cody, then my tears were all over her, and I felt her thick, ancient body on spindly legs giving out beneath her, and the thready blue pulse in her throat buried into mind, as if all the water were blood and flowing together down to Rush Run where the deer drink.

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