It was Thanksgiving, when Bill died.
I’ll never forget the moment that Papa walked in, his head down and a shine at the edge of his eyes, and mumbled the announcement, while roasted turkey and gravy filled our little shack with a warm and savory smell – which, until then, was a smell I had associated with happiness.
We had a corduroy couch in the main room, near the woodstove. It was green with tiny pink flowers printed all over. The flowers were so small that I didn’t notice them most of the time but, when Papa told the news, I couldn’t stop looking down at those little flowers and wonder how someone could put them there and how they were faded a bit more than the rest in a two foot space on the top of the backrest, where I stared knowing that the flowers were safe from further wear because Bill was no longer-
“Bill is gone,” Papa said.
The room went silent, except for the muffled crackle and pop from inside the wood stove. My three brothers were sitting or lying around the main room. Mama was in her and Papa’s bedroom at the rear of the shack. The shack was a small, temporary structure that served as a home until we finished our cabin – construction on which hadn’t begun at the time. The shack was built hastily with one bedroom, a bathroom, and a main room where my brothers and I slept in bunk beds along one wall, the couch and the wood stove on the opposite wall. A television in the corner.
“Where did he go?” Isaac asked, with a giggle. He lay on the top bunk, to the left side of the room from the entrance, a Punisher comic open and in front of him.
Papa sighed. It was a heavy sound and a sound I would hear exactly one year later. It was a sound so sad that I, to this day – twenty-two years after, will always associate with death, with grief. Isaac was only trying to be funny but his opportunity compass was broken, often misleading him to misplaced attempts at levity. It would kill him only three years from then, but I didn’t know that at the time. Daniel was too young to grasp was Papa had said. He sat on the other end of the couch from me, his blue eyes staring dumbly up at Papa with a stuffed dinosaur in his chunky hands. Richie simply nodded. He sat on the edge of a lower bunk, diagonal of Isaac, with a book on Russian language. He was the oldest and often tried too hard to seem understanding when he, as Emily Blackshear would later remark, had the emotional depth of a July mud puddle.
The door to the bedroom opened and Mama stood there at the edge of its frame, as if she was afraid to come out. As if walking into the main room would have made it real and if she just stayed there Bill might come back.
“Gone?” I asked.
I didn’t look at Papa. Instead, I ran my fingers along the lines in the couch and watched as dark trails were left behind in the corduroy.
“Yes, Aaron. Bill’s gone on to heaven,” Papa said, in that tender voice that parents the world over revert to when relaying grave subjects to adolescents. A cooing, subtle lie that smoothed the hard edges of reality.
It was just past noon. The light outside was bright and flat, filtered by the fluffy white clouds above. Snow, two feet thick with tire tracks and zig-zagging foot paths, hung around the shack like a blanket. Out the front door, through the window in its center, I looked past Papa’s shoulder and saw the little house on the opposite side of our driveway about thirty feet away. It was miniature, with a sloped shingle roof and a front door with a latch, like a house built for garden gnomes. That was the home that Bill lived – died in. There were fresh tracks in the snow from Papa’s boots that led to the house and back. I realized then that I wouldn’t see Bill’s tiny prints break a path in the new layer of snow. That his last tracks were wiped by last night’s storm, as if he’d never existed. As if-
It was nearly dark by the time everyone was ready. That time of year the sun set around three. We might have been out sooner but Mama couldn’t stop crying and Daniel copied her, their broken sobs seemed to vibrate through the floor. We donned our parkas, grabbed lamps and shovels, laced our snow boots, and walked out of the shack, from the smell of pumpkin pie cooling above the oven to the bitter clean scent of winter. We walked in single file to Bill’s home and, when we reached the miniature house, formed a semi-circle around its entrance.
I hoped then, that Bill would burst out and tell us that it was all a joke. That he’d got the idea from Isaac. But the door was closed and latched from the outside, nothing stirred.
Papa knelt down in front of the door.
I thought how each night one of us boys had been given the duty to see Bill out and latch that door to keep him safe, from the weather and predators. At that moment, as Papa unlatched the door, I realized that I wouldn’t have to go out and help Bill into his house anymore. I felt relief, almost happy, at the thought. I had – have always been afraid of the dark and, even though the shack was never out of sight, on those nights that I walked Bill out, I felt as if the warm yellow glow of the shack faded until it seemed like an eternity away.
Papa opened the door.
I drew in my breath.
On a ragged pillow, white in its youth but stained yellow and brown, lay Bill. Stiff, his four legs pointed to one side, as if he’d been standing and fell right over and stayed there. He was thinner than I remembered, his skin looked as if it was drawn on his bones. His orange eyes were open and on his lips was an absentminded grin. I wondered if he was happy to go and what heaven was like for cats, if he would be fed catnip from a golden bowl.
Nobody spoke as Papa gently slid his arms under the pillow, as if he was afraid to wake Bill. He scooped the pillow with our cat on top and retreated slowly away from the tiny house. Without a word, Papa stood, turned, and began down the driveway. I took one last look at the empty room in Bill’s house, the particle board walls glowed scarlet from the heat lamp in the corner, then I turned and followed Papa and the others; an oil lamp in one hand, a spade in the other.
The trees on either side of the drive were like black shadows and the snow at our feet was flecked gold from our lamps but, beyond the reach of our lights, the rest of the world was blue.
We walked on, following Papa’s tracks. He carried Bill, Mama carried Daniel, behind her was Richie then Isaac – both with oil lamps (Papa and Mama wore headlamps) and spades in their hands. I was last and trailing behind. My feet stung with the cold and my face felt numb. Wreathes of steam blew around me from my breath. I could hear my pulse in my ears.
I looked back at the shack and watched the dozy curls of smoke rise from the shiny aluminum chimney. I longed to be back inside. I didn’t want to be a part of this, I wasn’t good at goodbyes.
A hundred yards from the shack, we cut into the forest on the right side of the driveway. Our driveway was long, nearly a quarter mile before it cut into the main thoroughfare which was another dirt road for five miles before it met asphalt. It was an additional six miles before that connected with highway 2, a two lane north-south highway in eastern Washington, and still you were in the middle of nowhere.
We were on a trail where we often played in the summertime or used to gather firewood, yet, it seemed foreign in the dim light and snow. In moments, the forest enveloped us and our lamps scattered thin shadows from the dense and young pine trees that stood to either side of the path. Here the snow was slight, in some places the needles and dirt covered floor of the forest was bare. I glanced to the sides, inspecting the depth of the shadows cast by our lamps until there was only black. I shuddered. The forest was terrifying at night.
I almost bumped into Isaac when I looked forward again. The procession had halted, Papa had pulled into a small birth between the pines and laid the pillow down. We gathered around him.
“This is a good spot. Should be free of big roots and the frost hasn’t claimed it yet,” Papa said in a matter of fact way. He scratched the earth with the tip of his boot, as if to prove what he’d said was true. Then he looked up at us, at each of us, one by one, the lamplights casting a flickering, orange glow on his face that distorted his features.
His eyes finally rested on Richie. “You first,” Papa said. I exhaled then and realized that I’d held my breath since we entered the woods. Richie set his lamp down and stabbed his spade at the edge of the circle which Papa had drawn with his boot.
Next was Isaac, his face contorted as he shoveled and I saw a smile flash across his lips as he bent and rose, scooping mounds of dirt to the side. A joke, I had assumed, had come to him then but he was wise enough not to share it with anyone else.
Papa took the next shift and, in a few minutes, he hopped out of the hole, which was waist deep for him, and stuck the shovel in the loose pile of dirt at the edge of the grave.
He looked at me.
Mama and Daniel’s crying had died down to the occasional sniffle but they did not speak. Richie and Isaac stood at either side of the grave with lamps in their hands. Papa’s face was shiny with sweat and his forehead was a wrinkled mess above his thick brown eyebrows. He stared at me for a moment, then wagged his head, calling me forward.
I pulled up next to him. He hopped back down in the hole, then looked up at me and spoke.
“Hand Bill to me, Aaron,” Papa said, his eyes dark.
I looked at Bill, then back to Papa who nodded.
“You can do it, boy,” Papa encouraged. He never called me son, though he would Richie, Isaac, and Daniel. I wouldn’t understand this exclusion until almost three years later. Mama began to whimper somewhere behind me and the darkness of the forest seemed to press in until it was just Papa, Bill, and me.
I leaned down, knees feeling hollow and stiff, and I had the fear that, if my knees were to bend, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself, that I would fall and keep falling right through the pine needles, roots, and dirt – right to the center of the earth. But I didn’t, my knees struck the ground and it held. My arm extended forward, as if answering a command I had not given, and slid underneath the tattered pillow which held the remains of a cat who was seventeen at his death but who had been infinite in the short ten years of my life.
As I picked up Bill, I tried to call up good memories then, to ward off reality or honor it I can’t be certain. I closed my eyes and the only things I remembered was his horrid breath, how I struggled to brush his teeth once and ended up with a bloody scratch on the back of my hand instead. I tried to remember him younger but I only saw his face in those final weeks, gaunt, shrunken, and a trail of yellow-green mucus streaming from his nostrils that was so thick I’d convinced myself his brains were leaking out.
I finally managed one good memory. It was a collection of similar moments that blended together of Bill’s excitement each time a can of tuna was opened in the shack or in our home before we moved to the woods. Bill would cry and whine and climb Mama’s drafty skirts until she set a nearly empty can for him on the floor. I remembered his meditative silence as he licked the can clean. Forever after, I would think of him when I opened a can of fish and would frown in disappointment when the cats I knew would not be moved or show interest in the way Bill had.
I held the pillow with Bill on top and was stunned by the lightness. The weight of this animal, who’d squirmed and outwitted my grasp for so many years, was gone. It felt foreign, like a trick, as if Bill had only left a very believable model of himself behind. Being unable to say goodbye himself, the real Bill had walked off into the forest the night before. He wasn’t dead, just gone, like Papa had said.
But I knew that wasn’t true, as much as I wanted it to be, and I handed Bill to Papa who took the parcel into his arms with great care and laid it at the bottom of the hole. The grave that Papa, Richie, and Isaac had dug. I had not taken part in the digging and I felt absolved in that knowledge, my hands were clean. I’d only handed Papa something, something that was no longer Bill. Until Papa heaved himself out of the grave and handed me the shovel.
Mother whimpered louder then, a crooked and wavering “Noooo”. Papa looked at me, to the shovel, and back again, locking on my eyes.
“You first, Aaron,” Papa said.
My mouth was dry, my tongue seemed stuck between my molars.
“Shouldn’t we say something?” Richie asked, his voice quaked but it was deeper and seemed older, wiser than I knew him to be.
“Yes, we should,” Mama confirmed as Daniel dug his face into her collarbone.
Papa paused and looked up at them, then back down to the grave, his headlamp like a spotlight on Bill. I looked into the grave. Bill’s eyes were open and I wished then, more than anything, to go down and close them.
“I suppose we should,” Papa said at last and folded his hands in front of his belt buckle. The leather of his belt creaked and I shuddered, as I had the many times before when he loosed that same belt to discipline me, quoting scripture as he commanded me to lower my jeans.
Papa inhaled heavily and began.
“Dear Lord, we come to you, gathered together in reverence of your greatness and saddened by the passing of our pet, a friend you gave us, who we cared for seventeen wonderful years. We ask that you watch over him in the other place he’s departed to.”
Papa paused, my eyes were closed as he prayed, waiting. He began again.
“Rest in peace, Bill. You will be missed. And thank you, Heavenly Father, for blessing us with the gift of his life.
“Amen,” Papa finished. And everyone echoed his amen, except for me. My tongue was trapped somewhere behind my lips.
“Okay, Aaron,” Papa said after a moment.
My eyes snapped open and I looked up at him. I felt the cold of the night seeping through my clothes but that wasn’t why I began to shake. It was the dark emptiness in Papa’s eyes when he looked at me and nodded to the shovel. It was the first time I remembered seeing that look but, as the years went on, it would not be the last.
My hands trembled so bad that I fumbled the first two shovels of dirt, they landed limply at the edge of the grave. Isaac snickered but it was so low that no one but I heard it or, if they had, no one said so. Papa held his silence.
When I dropped the first lump of dirt down in the grave, it spilled to the side of Bill and only a light coat remained on his fur. Some rested on his open eyes and seeing it, like dust collecting on the neglected shelves inside the shack, my stomach twisted and I thought I would vomit.
Papa took the shovel from my hands then and nodded to me. He did not touch me or pull me close with his thick hands and callused fingers as I wished, instead he gave me a little shove in the direction of Mama.
Alone, Papa filled the grave until it mounded above the surrounding earth while we watched in silence, oil lamps flickering when the breeze caught and lightly shook the trees around us. Papa was the first to speak when it was finished.
“Time for dinner, what do you all think?” Papa’s voice was light and curiously cheerful. Everyone agreed. Richie and Isaac were first to leave the grave, then Mama and Daniel, Papa, and, in the rear, myself. A lamp in one of my hands and the spade, dirty and telling of our duty, slung over my shoulder.
Before I left the forest, I looked back one more time just to be sure. The light from my lamp barely reached ten feet in front of me, I could no longer see Bill’s grave, but what I did see caused my breath to hitch and sputter. Two golden eyes seemed to float in the dark forest. They glided behind the trees and came closer, became larger, until they were just beyond the edge of the light. They hovered and stared at me. In the distance, I heard Papa call for me but I was too frightened to respond. I could only stare at those eyes.
Then, the eyes blinked and vanished.
I turned and ran as fast as I could, heart threatening to break my ribs, and caught up with Papa halfway up the road to the shack. Mama and the others were already going inside.
“What’s wrong?” Papa asked when I pulled up next to him.
“My boots came untied. Sorry,” I lied lamely and looked down at my toes. I did not tell him what I saw, I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it myself.
“That’s alright,” Papa said, then patted me on the back, too firmly. “Let’s get out of this cold, shall we?”
That night, as my stomach groaned and was stretched so tight from dinner and pie that I thought it might burst, I convinced myself that the eyes I had seen were only a rabbit or a raccoon, we had plenty of those in the woods, not Bill’s eyes even though they were a perfect replica of his. But I was wrong and it wouldn’t be until the following Thanksgiving, exactly a year later, that I would see those eyes again and find out who they belonged to.