© Jordan Bagbey
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[Asterisks indicate italicized text. A group of asterisks (* * *) indicate a break in time.]
My father, all six foot three of him, swept through the back deck door and brought the cold and lifeless air in with him. I attempted to feign disinterest by not acknowledging him and kept my nose buried in my phone.
“It’s uhh… twilight now,” my father said staring outside the deck doors.
“I know.” I tried to keep my attention on the bullfighting videos I was watching and that in this moment felt compelled to watch.
“If it’s going to be done the time has to be now. Before it gets totally dark.”
I said nothing and the silence lingered. My father shuffled around the dining room table. A few moments later he tossed his gloves on the table. “Of all days it had to be today.”
“How’s Kenzie?” I asked. My father succeeded in pulling away my attention from the bullfights.
“To pieces but holding on. We ultimately let it be her decision.”
“And she said yes?”
My father said nothing. When I looked at him he barely nodded his head in acknowledgment.
“I called Bill. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”
I knew what that meant. I stared for miles into the twilight sky outside and then focused my eyes on the wood case on the opposite side of the room. “I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Of all days it had to be today.” My father came into the living room and sat down. His face constricted and I could see his eyes were watery and his face puffy. The puffiness did not look like it came from the cold.
“Son I…” his voice cracked, “I can’t do it. I can’t bring myself to do it. We did plenty of this growing up and I don’t have the stomach for it. I just... can’t do it. Not to her.”
My father sobbed. Until now I had only seen him cry once and that was when we admitted grandma to the nursing home. It is an unsettling sight to see one’s father cry.
“I’ll do it.”
He looked up. “I can’t ask you to do it. Bill is perfectly capable…”
“No… no. It needs to be someone in the family that carries it out. If I need to step up then I will.”
My father looked at me, sizing me up. “Are you sure about that? This takes a lot of strength.”
“I can do it. After all, it needs to be done, and I don’t have the connection to her like everyone else in the family does.”
He shook his head and stared at the ground. He slouched and rested his elbows on his legs. My father then reached slowly into his pocket and tossed me a set of keys. I knew these keys, but was never allowed to use them until now.
“You know what to do,” he said as he stretched out on the couch and massaged his temples. To me he resembled a fallen monument.
I walked over to the wood case, unlocked it with ease, and considered the options. I feared the .270 was too small. The .30-06 would probably work but I wanted to be sure, so I went for the overkill option and pulled out the .308 Winchester Model 70. The walnut stock felt cool in my hands. I then opened the bolt for two reasons: to double check it was unloaded and to inspect the bore. It was unloaded and the bore was clean.
While inspecting the rifle the deck door opened again. The orange twilight wrapped around my little sister Kayla. Even at thirteen years old I still looked upon her as my little sister.
“Momma doesn’t want me down there any longer. I’ve said my goodbyes.”
I heard a hint of emotion in her voice but overall she held a facade of strength. She stared at me as I took out three bullets and placed them in my pocket.
“Why are you taking so many?” Kayla inquired. My redundant look was my answer. Kayla didn’t say anything else.
A few minutes later we heard Bill driving up. The time was now. Our father forced himself up from the couch and began to walk out. Before following suit I walked over to Kayla.
“Kayla, you know what’s about to happen… and I want you to do something for me.”
“I want you to go into your room and use the headphones momma got you, okay? I don’t want you to hear what’s about to happen. Can you do that for me?” She shook her head.
I walked out onto the deck and into a twilight kingdom. It would be a wonderful time of day, but what I needed to do contaminated it all. Instead of bathing in wonderful gold and amber light I saw death everywhere. Everything appeared gloomy. The approaching grey clouds resembled a fleet of battleships. The grass stood limp and lifeless and colorless. No shade formed anywhere. All of nature appeared paralyzed and awaited the unnatural act I was about to commence.
My father was talking to Bill. I walked over and could barely hear them over the synthetic roar of his tractor engine.
“They’re down there below the barn,” my father bellowed over the engine. “The gate’s open. I’ll walk you down.”
“Hey Bill!” I screamed at him as I stepped up onto the tractor’s operator cab. He greeted me. “Can you put this in there with you? I don’t want them to see it and upset them further.” I handed him the Winchester.
I escorted the tractor beyond the barn and through the gate. Our house and the barn stood up on the higher ground in this rolling hill country. I observed the other horses up here staying out of the way. They clearly knew something was up. They are so intuitive it’s not even funny.
Bill slowly drove the tractor down the bottom of the hill. Down here we had a medium-sized pond with one lone tree about forty meters from it. The next section of rolling hillside on the other end was about a tenth of a mile away. It was a good spot. Down in the bottom my father gently touched my mother’s shoulder. Kenzie was down on the ground next to her. They had already laid the horse down on her side. The sight touched me in a way I did not anticipate. I sighed and with a heavy heart I joined the vigil with my hands in my pockets. My right hand was clinched around the .308 cartridges.
“I’m so sorry, my dear,” Bill consoled Kenzie and hugged her. “Where would you like her?”
All Kenzie could manage was pointing. Her arm must have felt anchored down, but she managed to point over at the tree. Bill got back into the tractor, drove over to it, and with the digger he began violating the ground. They called for snow during the night so if there was a time to do this it was now. As Bill dug into the ground Mother Nature vehemently protested. The cold weather made the ground hard as diamond, but eventually Bill prevailed against the ground and the chasm before us grew deeper.
As Bill dug ever further into the ground I heard Kenzie talking to the horse. “Please go now, Winnie,” she said. “Please go naturally. It’s your time, dear. Please, Winnie… go. Go! Please, Winnie! I beg you!”
Kenzie became more frantic with each dig. Don’t ask me how hard it was to see my older sister all to pieces like that. The horse just wouldn’t go. She lay still with violent outbursts of breath. She was fighting, dammit. Every fiber of what was left of her muscle was fighting to live and to survive. She wouldn’t go naturally, god bless her. It reminded me of what Kaiser Wilhelm once said: “to the last breath of man and beast.”
Bill completed his digging. A mound almost as tall as the tractor sat next to a black void. He stepped down from the tractor walked back over. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said as soft as he could through his weathered voice.
Kenzie sobbed and hugged the horse around her neck. “Goodbye, Winnie,” she whispered. “I love you.”
Kenzie stroked her blonde mane and kissed her. She got up off the ground, stiffened her back and steeled herself. “Thank you Bill for helping out on this.”
“It ain’t no trouble. If someone has to do it I’m glad it’s me.”
“Thanks, Bill,” my mother hugged him as well. “We really appreciate you doing this today... of all days.”
No words were exchanged between my father and Bill: only a shake of hands.
My mother and father got onto the Gator to drive back up to the house. Before Kenzie joined them she came to me and wrapped her arms around my neck.
“Oh what a rotten thing you must do!” she told me.
“I know… but she’ll no longer suffer.” The words sounded choked, but not because of her tight grip.
“Promise me you’ll make it quick.”
“I will, Junebug.”
She let me go and sat up on the back of the Gator. They drove off and up the hill. Bill and I watched them go out of sight.
“Bill let me also thank you. I’m sorry you have to deal with it as well.”
“It’s my honor to do it.”
“Thank you. Of all days though. No vet can come. So it’s either this, or she freezes to death or the coyotes come out to get her.”
“Yes. A few weeks ago I dug a grave for nine of them.”
An unsettling picture formed in my mind. “A mass grave?”
“A mass grave.”
I grunted. Some time went by and then he asked: “Do you want me to do it?”
He offered me a Get Out of Jail Free card but I refused. “No. Someone in the family oughta do it. Dad can’t bring himself to… so it’s me. It’s my initiation.”
“I applaud you, kid.”
We walked over to the tractor and I collected the rifle. Bill drove it back around the horse to get behind her alongside near where I stood. Daylight was nearly gone so he shined the tractor lights onto her, greatly aiding my task. I took my stand behind the horse because I dared not meet her eyes. Her mane mostly covered her neck and her pink blanket fastened to her covered up her sandy color. I loaded the three cartridges into the rifle and pushed the bolt back into place, bringing one of them up out of the magazine and into the barrel.
I planted my feet about ten meters directly behind her head. I leveled the rifle on my left shoulder and took aim. Even though it was cold my hands did not shake. In fact, they were numb and my heart was racing. This felt like either an adrenaline rush or a panic attack. I began to control my breathing. Once I did this I adjusted my aim on where her head met her neck. I aimed just below the ear. In my short tenure so far in college I gravitated toward the modernist writers. I couldn’t help but think of one of the more well-known verses in this moment. I began to breathe in.
*This is the way the world ends*
*This is the way the world ends*
Before I could fully squeeze the trigger she jerked her head back. I knew I missed due to how the dirt kicked up in front of her.
I reached around the rifle and recycled the bolt as quick as I could. The horse was so down the shot didn’t even bother her. I stepped a little to the right to reposition the shot and took aim again.
The bullet found home and entered her head. The entry wound was neat and clean and no bigger than a small acorn. She spasmed and her hind leg went up into the air and pulsated, but she did not shriek in protest. After a few seconds her body ceased to move, and calmly and peacefully and like a newly fallen leaf her leg fell back to the ground. As the horse lay motionless I noticed it had begun to snow.
I took a deep breath, cycled the bolt again, clicked the safety on, and slung it around my shoulder barrel down. I picked up the two spent cartridges and placed them in my pocket. After about a minute Bill went to work picking her up by placing the digger in front and cupping her. When he brought her up her body was as limp as a rag, but then something happened. Her body abruptly stiffened and went rigid. This caused the entire body to stand upright. When her head jerked up, I witnessed in horror as burgundy blood drooled out of her mouth and nostrils. The body twitched. My god, was she still alive?
I attempted to signal Bill to let him know something was up. He continued to back her up toward the grave. Couldn’t he see that something was happening? I had no time to think. Panicking, I ran to the left and to the other side of the tractor to get a clear view. I unslung the rifle and clicked the safety off to again take aim. I had one more shot left, but before I could do anything Bill dropped her into the ground and was now out of sight. I could’ve run up to the grave to see, but truth is I didn’t want to know.
Bill began piling the clay and dirt back into the hole. I witnessed him scoop all he could back into the hole on top of her. After five minutes he completed his task and then drove over it a couple times to level it off. I walked over to where I shot her. In the darkness I made out both blood and brain matter. She had to have been dead. Her body spasm had to have been a nervous reaction post-death. I saw it occur in snakes and frogs. I just hoped it happened here.
Nothing was said between us about it as Bill gave me a lift back up to the barn. I thanked him again and we shook hands before he made his way home. I took the rifle and placed it underneath the porch attached to the rear of the barn. I would grab it later. I walked back into our house and everyone stared at me from the living area except Kenzie.
“It’s done,” I announced. I walked over to the kitchen to wash my hands.
“Did she go peacefully?” Kenzie asked.
“Yes. It was instant.”
“How are you holding up, Kenzie?” I dried my trembling hands.
“I’ll be… okay. We’ve known for weeks this could happen.”
“Of all days though,” my mother said sighing.
“We had to do it though,” Kenzie responded.
“It was either that or she froze,” dad said, “or the coyotes got her.”
“This was just the best way… the most humane way, but a rotten way! Even in the modern world we had to resort to this!”
“I’m so sorry honey.” My mother wrapped herself around Kenzie. Muffled cries could be heard and my mom did her best to stifle them.
Even in this moment my mother could not let our ancestral and Germanic tradition die. I guess in her own way she felt this would comfort everyone. She began singing.
*“Stille Nacht… heilige Nacht…”*
Everyone began to join in.
*“Alles schläft, einsam wacht…”*
I couldn’t join in. I didn’t have the stomach to. I stared at our tree as if it were a thousand yards away. The lights and ornaments shone warm and bright. My mother had a knack for decorating the tree.
*“Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar…”*
I turned away and placed my head on the door glass, and my mind traveled to the dark place of Germans singing in trenches and no man’s land and mass graves. I tightly gripped the spent cartridges in my pocket. In my own way I now felt closer to those men. Outside the snow came down heavy and it started to blanket everything.
*“Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh... Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh...”*
* * *
But I couldn’t sleep. Not because of what I did, my mind was at peace with that, but I kept replaying the entire event in my head. It wouldn’t go away. I came to the realization I needed to do more because I only felt like an executioner. So in the dead of night, I got out of bed and dressed. I layered appropriately: t-shirt, sweater, down jacket, and then my Orvis field coat. Downstairs I grabbed ten more .308 cartridges and then one of momma’s poinsettias. I breached the door’s threshold and out I went into the cold, unforgiving night.
The snow stopped sometime during the night but it had come down heavy. About four inches blanketed the ground. The clouds had broken up and the near-full moon was visible. The night was brilliant as it shone down on the snow, enveloping everything in a cold, blue paleness. I collected the Winchester from the barn and placed four more cartridges in the magazine. I then grabbed a spotlight, a small spade, and headed down the hill.
I could tell where she was buried due to the protrusion of the small mound. I moved some snow at the head of the grave and gently dug in about six inches. I placed the poinsettia into the hole and covered the base up with dirt and snow. Satisfied with my work I sat there in silence with tears freezing on my face.
With everything done I stepped away from the grave under the tree. The red leaves gave everything some much needed color. Standing there reflecting I then heard a yelp. The yelp sounded like a dog on crack. Up on the adjacent hillside I saw them below the moon: coyotes. Four of them stood silhouetted in the moonlight with their shadows clawing toward the gravesite. Even through the snow they could smell it. I stared in awe. It was equal parts Romantic and horrific. I stood out from the tree and shined my spotlight up at them. Their eyes reflected back so I knew they saw it. The interlopers stood for a moment but then backed down the other side of the hill.
They were gone, but I knew they would come back. I hoped they wouldn’t, because I was done with killing for one night. I retreated back up our hillside to the barn to be on equal elevation with them. I turned on our small space heater and sat down in a camp chair with the rifle beside me. I could see everything from here: the moon, the hillside, the tree, and Winnie’s grave. The majesty of it brought more tears to my eyes. Feeling both hollowed and stuffed in this other kingdom, I settled in and awaited the Christmas sunrise.