Welcome to the working chapters of Zoey, my latest novel. Follow the navigation to the right to read through the chapters. Please remember that these are the working chapters and as such this is a work in progress.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
I suppose the first question that most people will ask is why I was willing to allow myself to be taken captive, especially by a woman who may have killed a man. The short answer was that even if she did kill him, in doing so she may very well have saved my life. The complicated answer is that if she did kill him then I might actually be culpable for not having reported what happened in that alley, so I really needed to find out what happened after I crawled back to the street. The honest answer is that she was offering me her story and I was in desperate need of a good story.
At first I was rather disappointed that her instructions for our meeting sounded like something out of a cliché detective novel: Change my voice mail message to indicate that I had been called out of town for a few days, walk to the nearest bust stop and catch the next bus downtown, and walk into the alley where we first met. I didn’t like the idea of returning to that alley, but that was precisely the detail that jolted me back to the realization that I wasn’t dealing with a cliché detective novel; I was dealing with the most dangerous woman I had ever met.
For a few moments I began to worry that she had only invited me back to that alley in order to eliminate the only witness. On the other hand, she could have just as easily killed me on the night we first met. In the end, my fears were overwhelmed by my curiosity to discover the fate of my attacker and the story to be told by the woman who had so easily dispensed with him.
In retrospect I guess I should have expected that she was watching me from the time I left my apartment. I had been a bit agoraphobic since the attack though, so I was quite distracted by having to stand at the bus stop and too anxious on the bus to focus on much more than my heart rate. The downtown streets were as empty as they were on the night that we met and for the first time since the attack I found myself craving the safety of a crowd. As strange as it may seem, I rushed to the alley to meet her, hoping desperately to return to the relief I felt when I first looked up at my rescuer.
As I rounded the corner into the alley I was startled to find it empty. I froze instantly, fearing something had gone terribly wrong. Then I was startled again as a large SUV rounded the corner and stopped right beside me. The passenger window descended with a buzz and just before I bolted back out into the street I heard her voice.
“Get in,” she said casually.
My mind began to race. What the hell was I doing? This woman might have killed a man - she was dangerous even if she hadn’t killed him. I couldn’t bare the thought of heading back out into the empty streets though. I had made a terrible mistake and desperately wished that I wasn’t there. I was there, however, and there seemed to be only one way out. I opened the door and climbed in.
“There, that wasn’t so hard. Was it?” she said.
I struggled to control my breathing. She was a lot smaller than I remembered and I began to feel disoriented. The man who had pulled me into that alley had to have been well over six feet tall and nearly three hundred pounds. I remembered the expression of agony that overcame his face as he rolled off of me. I looked down at this tiny woman in the driver’s seat, even more amazed now than then that she had been able to so quickly and quietly subdue him.
“Buckle up,” she chirped with a smile.
As I began to pull the seatbelt, it stopped short.
“It’s stuck in the door,” she said.
As I turned to dislodge the seatbelt I felt her move towards me. In an instant the little bit of light there was in the alley faded to nothingness.
As I regained consciousness I realized that I was no longer in the Jeep. My vision was blurry but I could tell that I was lying on a sofa. While I blinked in an attempt to sharpen up the images around me, I became aware of the intoxicating aroma of freshly brewed coffee. The first image to penetrate my drowsy eyes was the head of a moose mounted on the wall above the sofa. My attention returned to the aroma of the coffee as I tried to get my bearings.
“How’s the headache?” I heard her ask.
“Uhm, not too bad,” I mumbled.
“I’m sorry about that…a necessary precaution, but you’ll feel fine shortly,” she consoled me as she entered the room with a cup of coffee in hand.
I was relieved to find that I wasn’t tied up or handcuffed and I was even more relieved that the cup of coffee was for me. I felt a bit dizzy as I sat up but I steadied myself by grabbing the coffee mug with both hands. Just inhaling the vapour rising from the mug cleared my head a great deal as I asked, “So you knocked me out?”
“Again, I’m sorry, but as I said, a necessary precaution.”
“Let me guess; you hit me on the head with the butt of a gun?”
“No, that doesn’t really work without doing a lot of damage.”
“Trade secret,” she said with a smirk.
“So you’re some sort of spy?”
She burst into laughter and then abruptly stopped and said, “No.”
“Where are we?”
“In a cabin at a lake,” she explained, “No one comes up here this time of year, but we’re only ninety miles from a decent sized town. Your car is out front and your keys are back in your coat pocket. You can leave anytime you wish.”
I walked to the patio doors and parted the vertical blinds to peak out. My car was parked in front of another cabin on the other side of heavy snow drifts that mostly obscured the road. I sipped on my coffee as I tried to clear my mind enough to understand the situation. I had obviously been moved to the sofa and there was no way that she had done that alone. Her accomplice must have followed us in my car. The jagged pine trees indicated that we had traveled at least a few hundred miles north.
I spotted my coat hanging by the patio doors and I confirmed that my keys were in fact back where I usually kept them. I looked back at her and she seemed to be taking great amusement in watching me regain my bearings.
“Where is your partner?” I asked.
“Partner?” she said, obviously confused.
“Whoever drove my car and helped you move me to the sofa.”
“Ahh. No partner.”
“Well there’s no way that you carried me in here.”
“True. ‘Dragged’ would be a better word. You might have some bruises on your left side from when I dropped you on the door jam coming in.”
My left ribs were a bit sore, but I had to ask, “And my car?”
“That’s how we got here. I have to admit though that getting you into your car was a lot harder than dragging you into the cabin.”
I peaked back through the blinds and surveyed the surrounding cabins unable to spot her Jeep. She was tiny and I just couldn’t believe that she had moved me into the cabin, let alone from one vehicle to another.
“How will you get back to town if I take off in my car?” I asked.
“I have other arrangements,” she explained, “I planned this quite some time ago.”
“So our meeting in the alley wasn’t by chance then?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I had been watching you for quite some time. Your chance encounter with our mutual friend just gave me an opportunity to introduce myself.”
“You were watching me?”
“I was trying to figure out how to approach you – about writing my story.”
“I’ve read some of your stuff. I like your style.”
“So you rescued me from that psycho to convince me to write your story? Why not write it yourself?”
“I think once you’ve heard it you’ll understand. The deal comes with a healthy advance,” she said as she slid an envelope across the table, “and I bought you a present. The laptop over there is top notch. You can use it to take notes and there’s a program to record our sessions. Stay until you’ve heard me out and you can keep it. I promise it won’t take more than three days.”
I cautiously pulled the envelope towards me. Inside was a sum of money that I would rather not disclose for income tax reasons. The laptop was a nice shiny prize as well. With some trepidation I asked, “What if I can’t get it published?”
“Who cares,” she chuckled, “just post it on the internet. Inquiring minds want to know. I do want you to submit it for publication though; that’s why I need you. Either way, I would venture to say the advance is likely more than you’ve made on any of your other books.”
I hated admitting that she was right. The desperate state of my writing career was likely more appealing to her than my style. I wasn’t in any position to turn her down and she knew it. “So how do you want to go about this? Should I ask questions, like an interview?”
“Not really,” she answered, “I’d prefer to just tell the relevant parts in my own way. You can ask questions when you feel that something needs to be more specific. I guess I’d also like you to provide the names of the characters, starting with me.”
“You want me to name you?”
“Yeah. What’s my name?”
“How about Zoey?”
My name is Zoey. I would have to say that the defining moment of my life was watching life itself drain from her eyes as her body grew limp. I can’t express what I felt at that moment except perhaps to describe it as simultaneous fascination and horror. I know for a fact that I loved her, for she was my grandmother. I could never understand why my family was so traumatized that I had been there to witness her passing. I would never trade that experience for anything, for without it I would not exist.
My grandparents’ home was truly my childhood utopia, aside from Sunday mornings when my grandmother dragged me off to church - it was a small price to pay. I remember cold winter nights when my grandmother tucked me into a bed of flannel sheets piled over with comforters so thick that I joked with her that she had made me into a sandwich. The old, wood-framed windows had a strip of wood at the bottom which could be flipped to the side to reveal three little air holes bored through the frame. Even when it was forty below I would open those little vents just so I could see my breath in the air from the safe, warm womb created by all those comforters and flannel.
The house was across from the railroad switchyards where my grandfather toiled through the night to connect the next day’s trains. The low rumble of those big diesel locomotives winding up, followed by the slamming of all the hitches as he sent yet another stream of boxcars down a switch track were an annoyance to everyone in the neighbourhood, but I couldn’t imagine falling asleep without them. I was nearly hypnotized by the low frequency rumble of the engines and with each cascade of slamming boxcar hitches I knew my grandfather was one step closer to coming home and lighting the wood stove in the kitchen. I wouldn’t leave my safe flannel and comforter sandwich until the heat from that stove rose up the stairs.
To this day, the low grumble of a big diesel engine makes me groggy. Whenever I’ve traveled by bus, I’ve always sought to sit at the back so as to be right above the motor. Few people could ever find comfort in sleeping with their head against the window of a bus, but that very posture always returns me to my childhood and the feeling of safety and warmth I found in that childhood cocoon.
I always awoke to the most enticing aromas at Grandma’s house, especially in the winter. There is just something about cold winter air that stokes the appetite during sleep. Most mornings, the first thing I smelled was the porridge. In those days I could even tell if it was rolled oats or cracked wheat. Some mornings I awoke to the aroma of thick sliced bacon sizzling in a cast iron pan and I knew immediately that my grandfather had decided to cook breakfast. He fried the eggs in the bacon fat and almost always burned the toast, but the smell of burnt toast was absolutely wonderful because it was always made from my grandmother’s bread. Even as young as I was, I always preferred a slice of her bread to a slice of store-bought cake. The best mornings were the ones when I awoke to the aroma of her baking that bread.
I can still vividly remember the last morning that I awoke to that aroma. I remember the weight of those comforters pressing down on me as I took my first conscious breath, drawing in as much air through my nostrils as possible. My bladder was so full that my kidneys hurt, but I always clung to sleep as long as possible on cold winter nights at Grandma’s house. It took a long time for the heat of the woodstove to waft up the stairs, and even then the floor remained icy cold. I bounced up and down as I galloped to the bathroom, both to keep my feet off the floor and to avoid peeing in my pajamas.
My grandmother was very strict about everyone washing their hands after using the toilet. It took a long time for the hot water to reach the upstairs faucet, but I had to wait for it because she would check the pipes running up through the kitchen to make sure I had washed with hot water. I shivered as I waited for the hot water, listening to the familiar sound of my grandfather chopping wood in the backyard.
As I made my way down the stairs into the warmth, I realized that something familiar was missing. I couldn’t hear my grandmother humming. She always hummed religious hymns as she toiled in the kitchen. I became worried when I walked by the closed cellar door. She always left it open when she was down there, so she had to be in the kitchen. As I walked into the kitchen I realized why she wasn’t humming and my heart sank.
There on the floor, in the corner of the cupboards, was my grandmother. She was propped up a bit in the corner, with her left hand still clasping the handle on the cutlery drawer. She looked a bit gray, and she gasped for breath with a raspy, wheezing rattle. Despite her laboured breathing, she looked quite peaceful and content. In retrospect, I suppose there really couldn’t have been a better way for her to end her days. There was a fresh batch of bread from the oven sitting on the cooling racks above her head on the counter.
The contented look in her eyes changed to one of fear as she spotted me. I think she would have been happy to depart this earth, leaving a fresh batch of bread cooling on the counter, had it not been for the realization that I was about to watch her slip away. I scurried over and dropped beside her, taking her right hand and telling her not to be afraid. As she looked at me a tear welled up in her eye, but then it seemed to recede. The feeling of her hand in mine changed in a very subtle way that you can only ever imagine if you have held the hand of someone who is dying. Before there is enough time for the flesh to grow cold, you just know that the life has left it. Before the muscles even begin to slack off you just know that the blood is no longer flowing. It’s as though there is a magnetic field in the hand of a living person, and it diffuses as the life passes out of them.
The eyes are the real beacon of death, however. That tear that had welled up in her eye seemed to drain back into it. The light in her eyes faded like an oil lantern being turned down. Even after the light from the lantern is gone, there is a faint glow of warmth that continues to fade. It’s like an image burned into your retinas that is no longer there but still visible for a few moments. Even after it’s gone you still think you see it for several more seconds. Your eyes have to fully recover from this overexposure for almost a minute before you realize that you are staring into the darkness. It’s such a gradual realization that it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment went the lights go out.
I just knelt there, holding her hand in my lap, staring into her eyes. It was impossible to think of her as gone while the aroma of that fresh-baked bread remained in the air. She had baked that bread, and it was still warm. That was all I had left of her and I slowly inhaled that aroma over and over. It was as though a part of her was still fading away, even though I knew for certain that she was already gone.
I have no idea how long I sat there clasping her hand, staring into her eyes, and breathing in the aroma of that bread. It was as though time stood still. It could have as easily been a minute as an hour. The next memory I have is the sound of my grandfather stomping the snow off of his boots in the back porch. I looked up at the back door expecting him to come and join me in a very serene experience. I truly found it that peaceful and beautiful.
It wasn’t my grandmother’s passing that traumatized me, but rather the reactions to her passing by the rest of my family. I had fully expected my grandfather to come and kneel gently beside me when he came through that door and I had absolutely no context for understanding his reaction. It started out serene enough, with him inhaling the aroma of the bread and donning a very familiar expression of peaceful bliss, but chaos quickly ensued. To my horror, his familiar expression was instantly transformed to a very alien expression of terror as he quickly surmised the absence of life in Grandma. He howled the pathetic howl of a grief stricken old man. He fell to his knees, and then onto his face at her feet. He reached as far as he could to put a shaking hand on her knee and he sobbed and wailed in tones that sent shivers down my spine. For the first time in my life I was truly terrified.
As best as I can reason, that fear resulted in large portions of my memory of the following days being blocked out. I have no idea when my mother, aunts and uncles arrived, but I do remember them wailing in every room of the house. They didn’t bring any of my cousins to the house on the first day and so I was alone with the adults and their behavior continued to bombard me with confusion and fear. They kept telling me over and over that Grandma was “in Heaven now” and that I shouldn’t be sad or scared. They kept repeating the same words through choked sobs as they tried to steady me with their own shaking hands. I don’t think anything could have frightened me more than frightened adults telling me not to be frightened.
I never thought for a moment about heaven as my grandmother slipped away, but I guess I also didn’t realize that I would never see her again either. As each aunt and uncle choked back their sobs to tell me that Grandma was happy and in Heaven, it became more and more clear that they didn’t believe their own words. I wondered why they were lying. I wondered how they could be so certain that Grandma wasn’t in Heaven.
For the rest of the week I spent a lot of time in the living room, hiding between an upholstered chair and the wall. It was my favorite place to find solitude during big family gatherings. My little nook was just under the telephone so I could eavesdrop on all calls as I watched everyone in the room without them taking note of my spying. I watched all of the adults very carefully, trying to figure out what was going on and why they were behaving so strangely.
I can’t begin to count the number of times they consoled each other by saying, “She’s in a better place now,” as their tears kept flowing full stream. I wondered who they were trying to convince, for none of them seemed to notice me in my hiding spot. I slowly came to realize that they weren’t really trying to convince me or each other so much as they were each trying to convince themselves. Once I came to this understanding, the rest of their behavior made perfect sense.
They were afraid because they really didn’t know where Grandma was, and that meant that they had no idea where they were going to wind up when it was their turn. They were frantic to have their lies about Heaven affirmed in order to affirm that they themselves would end up in such a place. None of their tears were actually for Grandma. They were crying for themselves.
It was all too much for me to absorb at that age. Up until that week, Heaven had been a very real place for me; more real than England or Germany. I had no reason to think that I would ever visit England or Germany, but Heaven had always been a definite destination. I knew more about Heaven than New York or Los Angeles. Heaven had streets that were paved in gold and big mansions for everyone. I had heard about it at church and Grandma had told me about it herself as though she had been there.
I thought about Grandma’s eyes as she slipped away. I vividly remembered the feeling of life fading from her hand. Where did she go? The question echoed over and over in my mind and I knew that I couldn’t ask the adults while they were so desperately trying to convince themselves that she had gone to Heaven. I might have been able to block all of it out if it weren’t for what happened at her funeral.
My next memory is of walking past Grandma as she lay in her casket. She looked wonderful. She was a bit pale, but she no longer looked gray. I looked up at my mother and asked, “Who closed Grandma’s eyes?” The resulting gasps and shrieks completed my trauma. It only got worse when I explained that Grandma never closed her eyes when she left. The rest of the proceedings are a blur, at least until they lowered her into the ground and began to cover her with earth.
My grandfather was never the same after my grandmother’s passing. My mother took turns with her siblings taking care of him. Unfortunately my parents were divorced and my father had moved to the west coast so the burden was far greater on my mother than her siblings. I think that is why she sent me to spend the summer with my father’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Summers, at their lakeside cabin.
Grandpa and Grandma Summers weren’t the nurturing type so I found my warmest companionship with their old Golden Retriever, Amber. Amber was well beyond her years of playing fetch, but she seemed to take great pride in leading me down the labyrinth of paths around the lake in search of unknown treasures. That was how I met Matt, a boy who was spending the summer with his parents at their cabin a few lanes over.
Matt was a little older than I, but seemed to have trouble making friends because of his devotion to fishing. When I expressed an interest in catching fish he took me under his wing instantly. Grandpa Summers provided me with an old fishing rod and Matt and I made the long trek to a nearby creek where he promised we would catch schools of brook trout. Amber came along to keep an eye on both of us.
Fishing turned out to far more interesting than I had ever expected. It started out rather boring, but that changed instantly when I got the first bite. Just the feel of that little brook trout on the end of the line pumped up my adrenalin. I shrieked and jumped around, reeling it in as fast as I could. Matt was quite disappointed when I quickly flung it out of the water and into the bushes, for he explained that the greatest joy in fishing was dragging out the battle to reel in the fish.
He lurched into the bushes and grabbed that little brook trout, quickly dashing its consciousness on the trunk of a tree. This was where I expressed my disappointment, for I felt cheated by not being able to watch the life drain from the trout. Matt seemed a bit perplexed by my desire to watch the fish die slowly, but he agreed to take part as long as I agreed to spend more time fighting to reel them in.
Amber expressed her disappointment when Matt hung the fish by its gills in a tree to keep it out of her reach. Apparently this was just the sort of treasure she had been expecting to find on our journeys and she seemed to feel that the trout, by rights, was hers. She made her way to the edge of the creek and laid down with her head on her paws to pout as we cast our lines with confidence bolstered by our recent success.
Matt got the next bite, and he wasn’t kidding when he said that he liked to prolong the fight. He swung his fishing rod around in an exaggerated struggle, reeling in more line as he swung it back down stream. When it seemed that there couldn’t be any more line left in the water, he clicked down the button to let the line spool back out with a whirring zip and started all over again. I jumped up and down in excitement as Amber paced back and forth barking out a warning to anyone thinking of stealing our trout.
Finally that poor fish just didn’t have enough fight left in it to hold Matt’s interest and he swung it onto the path beside the creek. Amber jumped in close to get a good sniff but I pulled her back so I could kneel beside it. There was a lot of life in its eye but it just didn’t have the strength to flop around. It gasped for air and I could tell that its heart had to be beating wildly. It squirmed a bit when I set my hand upon it but was powerless to escape. I leaned in and stared into its eye.
“What are you doing?” Matt asked.
“Watching the life drain out of its eye,” I answered.
Matt knelt beside me to see what I was talking about. Within a minute or so the eye quickly drained and stopped staring back. I really didn’t feel the energy that I had felt in my Grandma’s hand when she had passed but there was no mistaking the failing beacon of that eye. Matt saw it too and was quite impressed that I seemed to know what I was talking about.
We sat back on the path and discussed what had just happened. I told him about my Grandmother’s passing and how the life that drained from her eyes was much deeper than what we had just witnessed. He was quite enthralled by my description and we discussed it at length, completely oblivious that Amber had gone missing. By the time we remembered the fish, we turned to discover that it had disappeared as well. Just then, Amber emerged from the bushes, covered in dirt, and we realized that she had buried our treasure.
The daily fishing expeditions that I took with Matt and Amber made the summer pass quickly. As it turned out, though, the long treks were a bit more than old Amber could handle and the wear and tear began to show itself. Her hips had been deteriorating for years and all that exercise was more than they could bear. She showed her age most in the morning as she began having more and more trouble getting back on her feet.
Spying on Grandpa and Grandma Summers wasn’t a task at all, for they always spoke as though I wasn’t in the room. Each day they spent more time on the topic of having Amber put down. Finally the morning came when they told me that Amber couldn’t accompany Matt and me on our daily fishing expedition.
“Will she be here when I get back?” I asked.
“What kind of question is that?” my grandmother shot back, obviously startled.
“You’re going to put her down, aren’t you?”
Both my grandparents stared at me in amazement. As strange as it may seem, I’m convinced that they were completely oblivious to the fact that I, like them, spoke English. Like all too many adults in my life up until that point, it just never dawned on them that an eight year old might be listening to their conversations. My grandmother was a hard woman and not one to be intimidated by an awkward topic, so she knelt in front of me, stared me straight in the eye and said, “Yes, we’re going to have her put down today.”
I think she was expecting me to cry and run away, thus alleviating her of any further uncomfortable interaction with a child. She definitely didn’t anticipate my reaction, for her face grew sour when I told her I wanted to be there when Amber passed away. She turned to my grandfather for support, but he was a hard man who grew up in hard times and he gave her no quarter.
“Let the girl come along,” he said coarsely.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
In the ensuing discussion it quickly came to light that Matt had been having long discussions with his parents about our preoccupation with watching fish die. There seemed to be little concern for Matt regarding those activities, but in light of my experience watching my other grandmother pass away it was determined that something strange was happening to me. My grandfather argued vehemently that watching Amber being put down might be just what I needed to get past my predilection with death.
My grandfather pressed his will successfully and shortly thereafter Amber found herself in my Grandfather’s truck, sitting between me and Grandpa on her last ride. Grandpa’s harsh demeanor was as resolute as ever and the only companionship I had during the ride was Amber. I sat comfortably with my arm around her big neck as she panted and stared out the familiar windshield for the last time.
The proceedings at the vet’s office proved to be very anticlimactic. Amber was too drugged up when she passed away and actually lost consciousness without being aware that she was about to die. Somehow that changed things. When the life slipped out of her paw it wasn’t nearly as strong as when it had slipped out of my grandmother’s hand. I wished that Amber had been conscious as she was dying and I really felt that she had missed out on something, as did I.
The hardest part was not being able to look into Amber’s eyes as she passed away. I thought a lot about the significance of the eyes during death as I rode with my grandfather back to the lake. As was his custom, he didn’t speak a single word the entire return trip. When we got back to the cabin, though, my grandmother was more inclined than ever to converse with me.
She was relentless in pressing me for my feelings about the experience at the vet’s office. It was obvious that she was hoping to drive me to tears, to get me to express grief at the loss of my beloved companion. She was driving in the wrong direction though, for unlike all the adults I knew, I didn’t find death to be abhorrent. I told her plainly that they had robbed Amber of her only chance to experience death by drugging her the way they did. My perspectives on mortality were not well received, to say the least.
Both of my grandparents returned to discussing the matter as though I weren’t in the room. They were far too old fashioned to even know what a child psychologist was, let alone what benefit might be yielded by such an intervention. My grandmother was adamant that something had to be done and my grandfather just paced back and forth agreeing with her repetitive assertion until he figured out what that something might be. He stared at me for a minute, then glanced back and my grandmother and announced that he knew what to do. For the first time in my life I was ushered out of earshot.
I always knew that my Grandpa Summers was a harsh man, but I learned just how harsh he could be when he and my grandmother called me back into the cabin to announce their solution. My grandmother didn’t say a word but rather stared at me with a smug superiority that revealed her pleasure that my cure would taste of medicine. My grandfather tersely declared that we would be headed to Old Ben Herzog’s farm the following morning. I think he refrained from adding any further details in order to stoke the ominous impact of his proclamation.
The following morning I hopped into his truck, eager to discover whatever lesson they had devised for me. Once again my grandfather was silent for the duration of the trip, but he was at least kind enough to buy me a red cream soda for the ride. When we arrived at the farm he told me to wait in the truck and then proceeded to walk across the yard to meet with Old Ben Herzog.
Whenever two old men undertake deep philosophical discussions in a farm yard, they assume the postures and mannerisms of pitcher and coach having a timeout discussion at the mound. As my grandfather illustrated the importance of his arguments with greatly animated gestures, Old Ben Herzog just stared at the ground and kicked at the dirt, nodding his head to each argument. When finally my grandfather had said his piece, Old Ben slapped him on the shoulder to confirm his agreement.
Old Ben remained on the mound as my grandfather returned to retrieve me from his truck. As we crossed the yard back to Old Ben, my grandfather informed me that I was about to find out where a chicken dinners came from - and he wasn’t talking about KFC.
We followed Old Ben to his chicken coop. As he picked up the first chicken, it seemed to panic for a few moments but he quickly got it to calm down on his lap. As he sat petting the chicken he asked me if I knew what was going to happen. I told him that I thought he was going to kill it. Then he did just that. With a decisive twist of his big muscular hand, he broke its neck.
He laid the chicken at my feet and told me to describe what I saw. It was still conscious and actually breathing. It couldn’t move its body, and it knew that it was going to die. Its eye seemed vaguely aware that we were looking down at it, and it was the closest experience I could imagine at that moment to my grandmother’s passing. I knelt down beside the chicken and told him that the life was draining out of it.
He made me put both hands on the neck so I could feel where it was broken. I was pleased to feel the life energy in it. There was more energy than in a gasping fish, and plenty more than there had been in Amber in her drugged up state. Most importantly, the upturned eye revealed a much brighter beacon of life energy than I had experienced that summer. That chicken knew that it was about to die and also knew that I was aware of its imminent passing.
Then Old Ben asked me if I thought I could do the same thing. He seemed surprised when I glanced up at him and said yes. I think he was certain that I would back out at the last second when he selected the next chicken. He held in on his lap and calmed it down and then got me to pet it as well. I let my left hand slip up close to its head and then brought my right hand close to clasp the neck. It took all my strength, but with a hard snap I managed a quick, clean break. Old Ben gasped a bit, but he set the chicken at my feet and told me to watch it. I dropped to my knees and laid my hands on it, feeling where I had broken the neck and warming my hands in the life energy that pulsed from it. I leaned it close to watch the life drain out of the eye. The close proximity of its killer spiked the adrenalin in that dying chicken and the eye absolutely radiated like a tiny diamond. It was an extremely compelling experience.
Refusing to acknowledge that things were not going the way they had planned, my grandfather asked me if I was willing to eat that chicken. He turned a bit pale and gulped when I looked up and said, “I have to; I killed it.” I have to admit that I lost a bit of my resolve during the plucking process. Old Ben had fashioned a chicken plucking machine out of an old ringer washer. I’m not sure how it worked, but I didn’t like seeing the chickens bouncing around in there. I was also worried that I wouldn’t know which chicken was the one I had killed.
When Old Ben pulled the chickens out I was quite surprised at how thoroughly they had been plucked. He told me to feel their necks to see if I could tell which one I had broken. The first one didn’t feel quite right to me, but when I put my hands on the second chicken’s neck I could tell instantly that the break was exactly where I had made it. Ben had broken the first chicken’s neck really close to the body, but I had used both hands and broken the neck much further up.
Once again, Ben and my grandfather seemed disappointed with the way things were going, but old men never admit defeat. I wasn’t the least bit repulsed by the gutting process since it was actually far cleaner than gutting fish, and I had already watched Matt gut plenty of fish that summer. I was intensely interested in the organs that Old Ben showed me. Learning the difference between the kidneys and liver was a wonderful experience, and I was really proud of myself for instantly recognizing the heart. I don’t know how I knew it was a heart, but it just seemed instantly familiar.
As we left I heard Old Ben saying to my grandfather, “Maybe it went ok. Maybe her curiosity is full now.” My grandfather said he hoped so and we climbed into his truck. My chicken was in an ice cream pale in the truck box and I kept an eye on it all the way back to the lake, once again in complete silence.
My grandfather said very little to my grandmother when we got to the cabin. He just handed her the chicken and said, “It’s done.” My grandmother looked at me and asked if I would like to help her cook the chicken. I was very eager. Watching her massage poultry seasoning into the chicken’s skin was beautiful. I didn’t pay much attention to how she made the stuffing but I was excited to help stuff the cavity. I was very happy that she was roasting the organs with the chicken. I sat in the cabin for the rest of the afternoon, just enjoying the aroma of that chicken as it roasted.
I don’t think I had ever before so enjoyed a chicken dinner. It was the first time that I tried the organs. Previously I had always been grossed out over the idea of eating liver or kidneys. I didn’t like the heart very much because it was so tough, but the liver had such a soft texture that I came to enjoy the mineral-like taste. I was rather indifferent about the kidneys.
To my grandparents’ delight, I lost almost all interest in fishing for the rest of the summer. The experience of watching the fish die had completely paled to the experience with the chickens. My interests turned fully to cooking and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in the kitchen. My grandmother always seemed a bit uncomfortable with all my questions about different cuts of meat and where the animals had come from, but she took comfort that I was finally interested in something that she deemed far more normal than watching fish die.
She tried as much as she could to peak my interest in baking. I didn’t entirely mind baking, but there was just something about the sound of flour rubbing between her hands that affected me like finger nails on a chalkboard. I persevered, however, with the goal of learning to make meat pie. I think that by the end of the summer my grandparents were convinced that they had cured me.
When I was returned to my Mother in the fall she was still under the heavy strain of taking care of her Father. All my aunts and uncles spoke in hushed tones about him not being able to last much longer. My curiosity obviously compelled me to ask if he was soon going to pass away like Grandma; a question that was not well received. I wanted to be with him when he passed, however, so I persisted in my inquiries.
The adults’ whispering began to change in tone as they became more concerned with my predilection for the topic of death than they were for Grandpa’s longevity. They often spoke of how my experience with my grandmothers passing had changed me and how I was no longer “right in the head.” In my mother’s defense, she tried as best as she could to stand up for me, but this only strained her relationships with her siblings.
To me the adults seemed weak, maybe even pathetic. Their fear of death and their ridiculous assertions that the dead were “in a better place” just disgusted me. The other children at school were even worse. It seemed that they could be tricked into seeing life in just about anything. I remember being disgusted when another girl at school showed me her pet rock. It was just a rock with some googly eyes glued onto it. I peeled the eyes off and as I handed it back to her I said, “It’s just a rock.” I just couldn’t believe that she cried.
I was completely dumbfounded when I was sent to the office for “killing a pet rock.” Needless to say, my mother wasn’t pleased at all. I had become completely alien to all around me and I have to say that the feeling was mutual. In retrospect, if they viewed the changes in me as resulting from the trauma of having watched my grandmother’s passing then they really should have felt some sort of compassion for me. Compassion was the last thing I was feeling from anyone.
The real trouble came when I buried my dolls. I made a nice little cemetery for them in the backyard. I don’t really remember doing it but I definitely remember my mother’s reaction. She walked into the room, turned off the television, and then held one of the exhumed dolls in front of me accusingly. I looked up at her not understanding what the problem was and for a while she just stared down at me in silence.
Finally she said, “Can you explain this?”
“You dug up one of my dolls,” I replied.
“Why did you bury them?” she demanded.
“There’s no life in them.” I answered.
“They’re dolls. There isn’t supposed to be life in them!” she shouted.
“That’s why I buried them.”
She marched out of the room abruptly and phoned one of my aunts. I just turned the television back on. I can’t say that the adults in my life treated me with any less warmth after that, for there wasn’t much warmth left for them to withdraw. They did eliminate most contact that I had with my cousins but I really didn’t care. I really didn’t have much to say to anyone and I felt almost no connection with people anymore.
Although my contact with my cousins became minimal, I had already become aware that I wasn’t like most other children. I no longer had the notion that adults were all-knowing beings. I think that I must have begun to look at them differently as well, for they began to glance back at me in fear and rarely made persistent eye contact.
Just before Christmas all hell broke loose. Someone in the neighbourhood had killed a dog and mutilated the corpse. Everyone kept talking about the horrible things that had been done to that dog and I honestly had no idea why anyone would have wanted to do such a thing. The fact of the matter was, though, that all eyes turned to me. I have no idea how they thought an eight year old girl could have killed and mutilated a dog without anyone noticing but I was already feared. I guess they just couldn’t accept that there might actually be another deranged child in the neighbourhood.
I don’t even remember Christmas that year except for the whispers and horrified glances. No one seemed to know what to do and I guess I could sense that there was a lot of pressure on my mother. As winter progressed, I seemed to become even more alienated by the other children at school. I think she finally realized that I had to go when not a single child was allowed to come to my ninth birthday party. That’s when she sent me to live with my father.
It’s hard to describe the sense of detachment that I developed when my own mother cast me out. I knew that she was under a lot of stress but to a child the only thing more certain than the existence of Heaven is a mother’s love. I had learned far too early that Heaven was just a ruse, and within a year I discovered the same of my mother’s love. There really wasn’t anything left that I could trust.
I’m not sure what my mother told my father but I am sure that he, unlike every other adult I had been exposed to, didn’t see me as a disturbed, creepy child. It was a big sacrifice for him to take me in, though. He and his second wife were working on plans for a big hippy commune. They lived on several acres of land on an island off the west coast. The island was sparsely populated and still lacked most hallmarks of community, particularly a school. He had remarried and had two more daughters but they were still infants and he and my stepmother had felt they had plenty of time to develop a plan for home-schooling. They really hadn’t a clue what to do with me.
My stepmother decided to just dive right into playing teacher. She had no idea what she was doing but I have to say that I think the experience was a very positive one for both of us. Few of the neighbouring hippies had any children, so several of them pitched in as well. I was only nine years old but I was hearing great stories about Kerouac, the beatnik revolution, and the antiestablishment movement. Our closest neighbours, Nicole and Loretta, were a lesbian couple who subscribed to the practices of Wicca. I have to say that at first I regained a lot of respect for adults - having finally found a group of them that didn’t cling so pathetically to ridiculous social constructs.
They seemed to fully understand my bewilderment with mainstream adult behaviors. Rather than fearing my lack of social integration, they applauded what they viewed as my purity of mind. To them, I was living proof that the mind of a child was pure and only became corrupt through the constant bombardment of society’s lies. I felt like a regular celebrity everywhere I went. Nicole and Loretta were very eager to help in my education, although mostly just to impart their misandrogenous philosophies.
It wasn’t long, however, before I spotted some holes in the facades of this new group of adults. They constantly berated the role of money in society but they frequently argued about problems that arose from not having any. They praised the merits of free-love and never falling into the trap of possessive relationships but they often exhibited signs of jealousy. They all talked the talk but failed to walk the walk.
My respect for them was often bruised but never vanquished. This served to remind me of the bitter lessons I had learned about blind trust, and I became quite disciplined in keeping my innermost thoughts to myself. Whenever I wasn’t certain that my thoughts or feelings would be welcomed, I would instead repeat the thoughts or feelings of those around me. The results were extraordinary. I quickly learned that the easiest way to gain someone’s trust is to affirm that which they already believe.
I have to say that I couldn’t have fallen into a more perfect situation. My basic education was remarkably accelerated by being the singular student of multiple teachers. On top of that, I was able to greatly direct my extra studies in almost any direction my whims and fancies blew. The educational resources seemed limitless with so much of the population being devoted to such a wide array of arts and crafts. I learned pottery, gardening, weaving, and even bee keeping.
The most succulent opportunity arose from the local devotion to sustainable living. There wasn’t a yard on the island that wasn’t littered with chickens, goats, pigs or some other form of livestock. In those days, vegan ideals weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are with modern-day tree-huggers. They not only loved their meat but they also had high regard for maintaining a close relationship with the food chain. Although my father seemed to want to shield me from animal slaughters he didn’t voice any concerns about me visiting Nicole and Loretta during the process.
I weaved my way in gradually, however. Nicole and Loretta thought it was wonderful that I was comfortable with sitting on their porch, plucking a chicken for dinner. Plucking by hand was slow, so they were more than happy to let me undertake that task almost immediately. All I had to do was ask a few pointed questions about the organs in order to gain an invitation to take part in the gutting process as part of my advanced curriculum. It wasn’t long after that that I was given the opportunity to dispatch the chicken myself.
I was quite disappointed to find that the standard practice for killing chickens involved cutting the head off with a hatchet. I found it very abrupt and impersonal but my lack of enthusiasm was interpreted as an abhorrence of death. They seemed relieved that I wasn’t completely repulsed, though, and so my education continued. Eventually they gained enough confidence to let me undertake the entire process unsupervised.
It was quite irresponsible of them to let an unsupervised ten year-old dispatch chickens with a hatchet; I could have easily lost a finger. I decided that would be my cover story if I were ever discovered dispatching a chicken by breaking its neck. In the meantime, I covered my tracks by chopping off the head at the break with the hatchet after the chicken had passed. This gave me ample opportunity to observe the life draining out of another living creature.
The first few times I found the experience much more satisfying than my experience at Old Ben Herzog’s farm. For one thing, I was alone. This made the encounter much more intimate and allowed me to take the time to really feel the life flowing through the chicken before I broke its neck. Furthermore, I was the only person for the chicken to fear as it died and the focus of that fear seemed to direct more of the energy towards me. This heightened sense of satisfaction soon began to wane, however. A chicken’s eye is small and just not a very efficient beacon of life energy. The other downside was all the hours I spent plucking those damn chickens, longing for Old Ben Herzog’s spin-o-matic plucking machine. I just didn’t have any other viable options though.
Some of our other neighbours invited me to their pig slaughters, although not that often and for that I am glad. Of all the animals I have seen slaughtered, only pigs seem to understand that they are about to be killed. If you walk into a barn, survey the pigs, and then decide which one you are going to kill, the selected pig panics almost instantly. The only way to separate it from the others is to wade through and grab it by the hind legs as it squeals horrendously. It will wriggle and kick and squeal all the way out of the barn. I never had to drag a pig out like that but I witnessed it more often than I care to remember.
Few of the hippies believed in guns, so they usually killed the pigs by bleeding them out. They would clamp its hind legs, hoist it into a tree and then cut its throat. The pig would continue to convulse until the gushing torrent of blood began to subside. At that point it usually continued to slowly wriggle for another minute or so. Once devoid of blood, the life drains quickly from its eyes and I have to say that I didn’t care for the experience at all. Even if I could have undertaken such a slaughter myself, all that wriggling and squealing would have really killed the moment. I really do abhor premeditated violent deaths.
I did enjoy the butchering though. A pig’s organs are so much larger than a chicken’s. The liver and kidneys are unmistakable and there are a number of smaller organs that can be readily identified. One of our neighbors was very knowledgeable of such things and everyone was pleased that I was so eager to identify the pancreas, bladder, spleen and other organs. They actually chattered loudly that I was bound to become a doctor. I think that for a while the thought of being a doctor seemed quite appealing to me. It seemed like a great opportunity to witness death frequently.
If there was any animal that I found compelling, however, it was deer. There were plenty of them roaming the island and I continually encountered them at the edge of our acreage. When a deer spots a person, it freezes in its tracks and its eyes light up with more life than any other creature that I have ever seen. Their eyes are so big and shiny and full of life, especially in the moment that they wait for their adrenalin levels to rise to the point that they can leap deep back into the forest in a single bound. When I spotted a deer I would freeze in my tracks and my adrenalin would shoot up as I waited for it to spot me. When it froze and its eyes began to flare I could barely contain myself.
I can still vividly remember the first time I experienced this. I was taking a shortcut through the corn field where my father grew his marijuana. As I emerged at the edge of our property a deer was also emerging from the forest. I spotted it first and I stopped instantly, mesmerized by the energy that coursed just below the surface of its flesh. My heart was pounding and my eyes were locked on it when it spotted me, cocked its head a bit, then froze. I could tell its heart was beginning to race and the life in its eye was so brilliant that I could barely contain myself. The feeling was so intense that I can only imagine that it is similar to what other people encounter during their first sexual experience. The tension built up exponentially until the deer exploded with a single bound out of sight, back into the forest, like a popping spring. In that moment I startled and fell onto my back into the corn. I laid on the ground catching my breath for several minutes.
I knew then and there that I had to kill a dear. It was a challenge that seemed insurmountable, however. No one on the island believed in hunting, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to shoot a deer anyway. At the time, I had the delusion that shooting a creature resulted in instantaneous death and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be there as all that life slowly drained out of it.
I wracked my brain, trying to figure out how I could subdue a deer and get close enough to experience its life energy. The idea of breaking a deer’s neck seemed impossible. I imagined traps that would break the deer’s legs but couldn’t imagine how I could set them and then get the deer to trip them while I was still present. The only alternative I could imagine was hitting it with a spear or arrow. Although that seemed impossible as well, I did express an interest in archery and quickly talked Nicole into teaching me to make an authentic medieval longbow. All I could do was to start working towards my goal and hope that a good plan would eventually emerge.
My frustration with trying to figure out how harness the large volume of life in a deer’s eyes nearly drove me mad. I have to admit that it was an obsession. I had learned to fashion an authentic medieval longbow, but there was just no way that I would be able to use it to take down a deer. The thing I hadn’t anticipated with the longbow was that its useable force would be limited by my own strength.
I spent most of my spare time tracking those long-legged, majestic creatures. I learned the paths that they took, where they fed, and where they drank. All of the traps that I could imagine seemed like they would take days to build and wouldn’t likely work anyway since I noticed that the deer had a strong aversion to anything soiled by the scent of humans. I had all the information I needed but I just couldn’t figure out how to put it all together.
Then one day, when I was about thirteen, I was walking up the road to our acreage when the opportunity of a lifetime struck. Some tourists in a pick-up truck flew past me at incredible speed and smashed into a deer that had just bounded from the forest. As the deer few up into the air, their truck slid to a stop. As the deer dropped from the air into the ditch the truck spewed gravel and sped off. I ran up the hill faster than I had ever run before and jumped into the ditch beside that deer, sliding on my knees on the wet grass and stopping right beside its head.
For a moment I thought I had made a horrible mistake as the deer began to try to leap to its feet. I had my hand on the top of its front leg as it began to bounce higher and higher. I was sure that I was going to be trampled to death but I just couldn’t take my hand off of it. After about three big bounces it fell back to the ground and snorted out a huge breath, resolved to its fate. Its legs were badly broken and bone was sticking out and there was no way that it was going anywhere.
I stared into its eye in wonder and spoke in the most soothing tones I could manage with so much excitement coursing through my veins that I could barely keep from squealing. I don’t remember what I said for I was completely mesmerized by all the life that was left in its eyes. It was incredible. I don’t think it had any serious internal or head injuries because there was more life in its eyes than any other deer I had ever seen. I nearly flopped onto its neck to give it a hug but I just couldn’t tear myself away from its gaze.
As I stroked its neck I felt more life than I have ever felt in any other creature to this day. Usually the field of life around a creature is like a strong magnetic field, but in that deer it felt more like a cocoon of warm water. I could feel my hand moving through it and I realized that there had to be an overload of adrenalin in its system. Nothing else could produce so much life. It was intoxicating and I lifted my hands off of the deer and just waved them around through that field as I stared into its eye. My own heart was pounding so hard that I swear I could hear it.
Then there was a shock of energy like an elastic snapping. My hand jerked as I felt it snap and in an instant life began to drain from its eye. My face lurched forward as if pulled into some sort of vacuum and I found myself only inches from the deer and my hand came to rest on its neck. I was actually inhaling its last breaths. I’m certain that a deer’s breath must be awful but at that moment I found it to be a compelling musk and I drew it in like a dope fiend. I was fully encapsulated in the passing of life, immersed in the whirlpool of the hereafter.
I could feel the energy flowing and I actually had a sense of where it flowed. The light in that eye was like looking up through a few feet of water at the sun as I was flying to the surface. As I broke the surface the sun dropped with incredible speed behind a mountain and all the light began to fade. I was on the other side, but it was getting dark and cold. I was falling off the path and I couldn’t find my way back. I screamed and pushed back with all my strength.
I pushed myself right off of that deer and onto my back in the ditch. I laid there gasping for breath. Suddenly I was startled by a voice. I hadn’t even heard them approach but Nicole and Loretta had pulled up in their truck on the road and apparently had seen me scream and jump back. I scurried to my feet to tell them that a truckload of tourists had killed the deer but I was immediately distracted when I realized that I had peed my pants.
There was absolutely no fallout from the experience. The tourists were blamed for their reckless driving and I was heralded for comforting a dying deer. No one ever mentioned my incontinence, and I suspect that Nicole and Loretta kept failed to mention that detail. Everyone believed that I was the most compassionate adolescent in the world for showing no fear in jumping to that deer’s side to comfort it as it died. They had no idea that I dove into that ditch to drink up that deer’s soul. That’s how I came to describe it from that day forth. It’s the only way I can describe inhaling a creature’s last breaths while basking in its energy and chasing its life to the other side.
I had discovered my passion, my addiction, and my only love.