My daughter is older than I am.  We are walking in the woods when I discover the simple truth of it, she a few steps behind me, nearly thirteen, spending the weekend with her lonely divorced father, wasting the weekend away from her newly-in-love mother and newly furnished apartment in the city, somehow tearing herself away from her friends and her diving team at school.  Lynn, my daughter and only child, is popular, her mother tells me, and all her classmates like her, especially the boys.  I did not know how to react to that news, and her mother gave me no more information willingly.  Does she have a boyfriend?  My question had gone unanswered, as if I was practicing bad form even asking.  So I took a clue and never even asked Lynn.  I am sure, even now , that it would have been met with a blank stare followed by lusciously rolling eyes, her new answer to just about everything I ask her.

We are in northern Wisconsin.  My guise to get her out here was that we would look at trees—she loves trees—and then I would be able to talk to her about the divorce.  For a long time I didn’t see the need to talk to her about it, because I felt that all the messy details were already on display for public viewing.  I have what is probably an irrational fear that my ex-wife, Irene, has done all the talking and commenting on this subject already, and that the picture has not been painted in my favor.  But I have not been able to broach the subject, yet.  Every time I inhale, steeling myself for the beginning of an impossibly difficult discussion, she sees something she likes and wonders aloud what it is, and I take the breath I have gathered in my lungs and like a coward I answer her question.  She is not wearing her pink fluffy mittens and they swing from her wrists, attached by purple strings, and for some reason the color mismatch bothers me.  Her face is becoming redder and more like porcelain in the cold late fall.  She never lets a drip of snot appear beneath either of her nostrils, and her attention to this detail, for some reason, saddens me.  

“What kind of tree is that?” she asks, her voice rising in the crisp air and shattering against my eardrums like icicles.  She is pointing to a tall specimen, branches short but abundant like scattered ribs.

“How is everything with Mom?” I ask her, identifying the tree only to myself.  It is a northern catalpa, its sparse leaves catching the first light snowflakes of the season.

“Fine, I guess,” she says, hardly even thinking about her answer.  I wanted more from her.  

“What do you mean?” I ask.

She shrugs.  “School is good.  Mom and Larry help with my homework.”

I do not know exactly where to take the conversation from here.  She walks in her own path, examining leaves and holes in the ground, leaving me to wander away by myself and potentially lose her if I pay no attention to what she is doing.  

“But you are okay?” I ask her.  I feel like this is a first date, though I have not been on one in years.

“I’m fine.”  She spins suddenly.  “Are you?”

I chuckle, though I hate the sound of my own laughter vibrating through my lying cheekbones.  “I’m fine.”

She opens her eyes wide and her jaw drops; she is staring behind me, almost through me, but for an instant I have the sensation that she is surprised that I have told her that I am doing well.  Then I follow her gaze.  “Look,” she says, a certain kind of pity in her voice.

“Oh,” I say, seeing immediately what she is fixated on.  It takes my brain a moment to believe what my eyes are seeing, like it needs to put together an optical puzzle very quickly before I can react to what I have seen.  It is a dog, and for that first somehow delicious moment of confused reality, it looks as though it has jumped directly off its hind legs and has learned how to suspend itself in midair, perfectly motionless, mastering a miracle I have on many occasions wished I could perform myself: stopping time.  But then I understand.  By the time I do, my daughter is already speaking.

“Oh, poor thing,” she groans.  “Somebody hanged it.”

I take an instinctive step between her and the dog, but she brushes easily past me and starts walking toward the tree.  It, too, is a catalpa.  I follow closely behind her, wanting to tell her to turn back, but unable to tear my gaze away from the frozen canine.  It is a Border Collie, perhaps three years old, brown with irregular patches of dirty white fur spotting its belly and back and legs.  Its mouth is half open in a kind of grimace, its tongue sticking out the right side of its jaw.  The dog’s bottom paws are only an inch above the ground.  Twisted around its neck is a long metal wire, and I realize that it is a cut coat hanger, wrapped tightly around one of the lower branches.  Like a punch in the stomach, I feel a fear seep into my gut.  It is not fear of disease, nothing logical; it is the childish fear of death.  My daughter displays none of it.

“Why would someone do this sort of thing?” she says, reaching her hand out.

“Don’t touch it,” I snap.  

“Why?”  Her hand stays frozen halfway between her and the carcass, her pink mitten swinging in the wind like a pendulum below her wrist.  

“It might have a disease.”  I find myself staring longer at the dog’s face than at Lynn’s.  “Sometimes people do these types of things.”

“But why?” she asks.  She asked her mother the same question when we told her we were going to be living in different houses: why?  Because we don’t love each other like we used to.  Why?  It was good Lynn had asked my ex, because I had no idea what to say at the time.  Hell, I still don’t.

“Maybe the dog lived on a farm and ate the chickens.  They say once a dog gets a taste of blood,” I tell her, and then stop.  I realize I am thinking of Irene.

“Why didn’t they just shoot it?” Lynn asks, her hand closer.  “So it wouldn’t suffer, at least?”

I shake my head.  “I don’t know,” I answer truthfully.  

“We can’t just leave it hanging here,” she says.

I feel my own throat starting to constrict.  Though the air is clean here, I feel suddenly like I cannot breathe, and I lean against the catalpa, probably too close to the mutt, but not able to care.  This, for eating a chicken?  For doing what was only in its nature?  Of course, that had been my defense.  Caught red-handed, you have very little in the way of excuses, and you grab on to the best you can.  That being, of course, that if she wasn’t going to please me, it was only natural to find pleasure elsewhere, anywhere.  

“No,” I say, the words like rusty bolts falling out of a broken-down car.  “We can bury it.”

My daughter stares at me for what feels to me like a long time, but she does not ask me if I am all right.  Not because she doesn’t care, I don’t think, but because it would not seem right for her, a girl, to ask me, her father; though I have decided that she is older than I am.  

I cannot stand the way it hangs there for everybody to see.  It is enough that it is dead.  My throat constricts tighter and tighter, and for a horrifying moment I feel like I am going to collapse.  The bark is cold but losing the meaning of its texture beneath my palm; I feel myself slipping, the bark shedding dry bits of itself, crumbling, falling toward the ground like snow.

I watch my daughter’s hand slowly hover toward the wire.  I glance at her face and expect to see fear there; fear for what might bite, what might be undead.  But there is none.  Her fingers are strong and she untwists the metal where it has been bent around the lowest branch.  The dog falls to the ground like a bag of dirt and immediately I can breathe again.  The air rushes into my lungs like a secret and expands there, sweet and fresh; I stand up straight.  I expect to feel dizzy, but I do not.  I look down at the dog.  Its legs have splayed, half frozen in the cold, in a position not unlike running from something.  I say nothing.  Finally Lynn speaks, her voice soft but firm: “Let’s go get the shovel.”

I watch her go for a moment before whispering, “Okay,” and then I follow her toward my house, afraid to let my eyes wander from her bright pink winter mittens.

Jake has been published online at Paradigm Journal and The Battered Suitcase.  He is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Transylvania.


I was walking in the woods with some students in Romania when one of them saw a dog hanging by a wire from a tree.  It seemed to me so cruel at the time, but that is the way many peasants take care of a dog that eats chickens in Transylvania; they hang them, perhaps thinking it is some kind of deterrent to other blood-thirsty mongrels.  I saw in my mind a father identifying with that dog, and his daughter feeling sympathy for him - and this story was born.




Copyright 2009