The first dead bird that I saw when I was three fascinated me.
I wanted to cut it open with a rock to see what was inside. The rock didn’t do much other than mangle the soft, warm body.
A couple of years later, I got smart when I saw a dead mouse. I went into my grandfather’s shed. All he had was a rusty hedge trimmer. I took the sheers out to the back of the house and cut the mouse open from its asshole to its neck.
My mom came out to put clothes on the line. She was horrified. She yelled at me with a tone in her voice I had never heard before.
She pulled me inside by my ear. My hands shook as she stood over me at the sink. I didn’t do a good enough job. She took the nail brush to every part of my hands until they were red and raw.
She told me to never touch anything dead again and to never tell anyone what I had done.
When I asked her why, she said people would think I was retarded. I didn’t know what retarded was, but I knew it was bad. It sounded like the worst thing anyone could be.
After that, I made sure my mom wasn’t around when I cut open dead animals. I saw the inside of dead birds and rabbits and even a cat.
To make sure she never knew, I buried them or tossed them into the ditch far from the house.
My father teased me for coming to the table ready to eat the way my mom had asked me. He’d say a boy should have dirt under his nails.
When I was about six or seven, I found a friend who liked opening dead animals as much as I did. He was less careful, less curious.
This boy, Scott, liked to feel the warm or cold entrails in his hands. He liked to bash the tiny skulls with rocks and pick through the mangled brains.
Something was off with Scott, but he didn’t have parents like I did. Nobody liked his father. He was a drunk who beat his wife and spent the welfare money on himself while his brothers and sisters ate bread and honey.
My mom took pity on him. He was always invited for dinner. She didn’t like him, though. She told me that he was a bad influence and that I should make my own choices, maybe even show him some things.
When I brought Scott for dinner and told him to him scrub his hands, my father teased me harder.
Rubbing off on your friends. Making them weird like you.
My mom hushed him with a dirty look.
When summer came that year, Scott got the big idea that we should kill something. I hadn’t thought of that before. It seemed like a lot of work, but Scott was good at trapping.
We spent hours talking about what to kill, how to trap it and what we should do to it once it had been caught.
Mid July, Scott told me to come over the next day. We wanted to spend the night at his house but my mom wouldn’t let me.
He was ready with his father’s trapping gear and a hunting knife when I got there the next morning.
We went to the field we thought would get us a rabbit without having to wait too long. He set up the trap and the bait and then we rode all the way to the store and back.
There was a live rabbit in the trap just like Scott said there would be. He looked scared but rabbits always look scared.
Scott got to work right away. He said he needed me to help him hold it down. He picked the rabbit up by the back of the neck and turned it around to face him.
You gonna die, he said. He had a big grin on his face.
My tummy twisted into knots the way it did when I knew I was about to get in trouble. I wanted to let the rabbit go.
Chicken shit, he said.
That pissed me off. Nobody called me chicken shit.
So, I told Scott to give me the knife. He held it down. He wanted me to cut the belly open but I was no retard. I told him to lift the head.
I pressed the tip of the blade into one side of its neck. I was too forceful. The knife went right through and I had to pull it out. I put the tip into the hole and slit the skin open.
It bled but started making awful noises and got harder for Scott to keep still.
The noise was irritating. I became agitated. The knots in my tummy twisted into more knots.
Kill it, fuck sakes.
I put the blade in deeper and tried to feel around for the muscles but my hands were shaking too much.
I’ll do it. You hold this thing.
Scott was pissing me off. I told him to shut up.
I told my hands to stop shaking and do what they were supposed to do. I held the knife with my right hand above the left and cut through it like I was cutting through a box that needed to be ready for a dump run.
The blood really started then. I made the mistake of looking into its eyes. In that brief glance, I saw the life grow cold.
Once it was dead, Scott wanted to cut the legs off. I sunk back onto my heels and let him do the rest. I wasn’t really there anymore. There was a part of me that was done with killing animals. I couldn’t feel the knots anymore.
I wanted to bury it, but Scott said to leave it for the coyotes.
All Scott wanted to do that summer was kill things. I found ways to steel my tummy when I couldn’t distract him. I never looked into the eyes of another animal.
The week before school, I was feeling relieved. It built into a giddy excitement. I had never looked forward to homework before.
My parents were getting along and smiling all the time. Everything was good.
On a night when Scott wasn’t over, the smell of pot roast made me feel really happy.
Without thinking, I washed my hands before sitting down to eat without waiting to be asked.
My dad came up beside me before sitting down. He showed me his hands, put them right up in my face. They were stained with tar from roofing. His nails were caked with grime.
These are the hands of a real man, he said.
My mom laughed. He smacked her ass as he walked by the stove. Her cheeks were flushed when she sat down.
I looked up, waiting for her to scold my father. But she told me to eat up. I thought this was your favourite, she said.
My face fell.
Think he wants you to tell me not to make fun of him.
My cheeks grew hot. I held back tears.
She looked up from her meal, puzzled. Did I miss something?
I went outside after dinner. The grass and earth were wet from a good rain the night before. I stomped on every frog I saw.