Childhood Ends

/ /

I had found a stray two weeks earlier
scratching itself
in the canebrake
behind Nichols Pond,
a half-grown,
yellow feist.
It was not averse
to my liking.
Late afternoon, we dawdled,
and frolicked home
like any pups,
tracking overlapping circles
in the mud
of harrowed fields.
The corn was
beginning to sprout.

I was told I could keep the feist, but I must be responsible.

I looked at the pup;
it looked back
with beseeching modesty,
sidling and bowing,
not meeting my eyes,
but I imagined
if I spoke without guile,
using the exact tone
of its yips and barks,
it would correspond
in kind. For instance,
it might roll over, lie
on its back, wag
its tail, and lick my palm.

And sure enough,
despite the scratching,
these things happened
in the twilight
of my nearly
shyness: a partnership,
a pas-de-deux
of feints and dodges
with full knowledge
that a feist is useless—
it will not rescue the perishing
or guard a house.

But then who was I?—
not yet an I; still a me,
a plot without agency,
in a striped shirt
with button-up
elbow pockets,
horrified by the new hairs
in my armpits
and the blemishes
dotting my eyebrows.

In those days the feist and I often went up the mountain.

I had a new .410
single-barrel shotgun.
And what had I killed?
I had killed a vulture,
three baby flying squirrels
when I shot into a nest
high in a beech tree,
and a pine-tree in the churchyard
on a snowy day. The feist
beside me—two legionnaires,
a knight and his squire
crossing the drawbridge to a castle.

But the feist in the real world
itched and whined
as the days heated up.
Its hair fell out in patches.
The skin’s red lakes
dried to scabs. Often
it ran in circles, snapping
at its tail. I could not tell
if it was trying to kill
the part that hurt
or escape. The mange,
my father said—the feist
will die, but I believed
in miraculous healing.

When my father told me to shoot the feist, I negotiated—

I delayed. Insisting
I would not, I
will not; even
when I stood there
in that muddy field
like a child soldier
aiming my shotgun
at a creature who trusted me
to pet it, I told myself
this happened in a story—
in the romantic edition,
I am Abraham bending
over Isaac, God
is merciful and I do not apologize.