the first death

I am so young that I can’t remember the world being anything other than enormous. The road from our apartment to the park winds too close to being a journey I can’t make on six-year-old feet. My father holds my hand as I balance on the curb. I must have walked so many miles that way, as a child, on the edge of where the sidewalk met the street. My mother scuttles after my wandering brother, ahead. He runs too fast to balance as I do.

On the edge of the curb, where I walk, lies the squirrel, flayed and flat.

There was no chance. And yet.

Momma, call 911.

Like they taught me.

Darling, the ambulance doesn’t come for squirrels.

Momma, call the squirrel ambulance, then.

Darling, there is no squirrel ambulance.

I am quiet.

He went to squirrel heaven, she says. I try to believe her.

We watch Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, on the television. He wrestles crocodiles, anacondas, and occasionally the particularly viscous wombat.

As we watch the television, our father folds our laundry. He occasionally wrestles a particularly vicious pair of socks. I nestle as close to his side as I can, horrified and fascinated by how close the man could look danger in its yellow eye. I whisper, he’s going to die, he’s going to die, he’s going to die, as teeth flash across the screen and the water churns white. Incredibly, Irwin emerges victorious and astride the behemoth, the beast’s jaws taped shut as he catches his breath and proceeds to points out the evolutionary development of a jaw so immensely powerful and yet so swiftly subdued. My brother, jaw agape as only small children do, watches silently and in awe. My father subdues my brother’s jaw with less trouble: a light tap on the chin as he passes by, laden with laundry. No child of his would look like a crocodile, even if my brother’s secret dream was to be one.

Of course, I would, to my horror, be proven right. A stingray, not a crocodile, would be our hero’s end.

I wept. I never wanted to be right.

My father and my brother and I walk home from school together past the loading port of the hospital. Chemicals, tanks of oxygen, huge, white lacquered trucks with ominous names on their sides. This day, I forget what my brother and I were fighting about. He streaks ahead. I march unhappily behind. As I catch up to him, he triumphantly announces, you stepped on a mouse!

I jump as high as I have ever jumped and shriek as loud as I have ever shrieked.

What was that crunch?

My family does not let me forget this.

It is rush hour on the subway. I am hungry and cold after a long soccer game, scraped knees and November rain that turned to sleet somewhere in the second half. Or perhaps it was sunshine that turned to sweat. But all the same, sometimes my mother is a cruel sort of kind and teases me with all the foods I love most, when I am most in thrall to hunger. And nestled in the corner seat, she delightedly croons, pancakes, strawberries, eggs, bacon, ice cream…

It never fails to make me laugh.

And I think that this is what I remember: that we are too tired to make sense, and she starts to croon, frogs, snails, dog food…

I laugh and say, our dogs would disagree, if they were here.

I am tired. I laugh a little and say, I wish they were here.

We have lost too many dogs to the curse of a pure bloodline; brittle bones and bad livers, too many surgeries that weren’t enough.

I am tired. I say, I wish they didn’t have to die.

And this part I know is true: that my mother’s eyes say that I am old enough to know the truth.

They went to dog heaven, she says, because we sent them there.

They were in too much pain, here.

I believe her.

The subway car, packed solid, is silent as I weep.

It feels like the first death every time.

© 2016 Anna-Christina Betekhtin, All Rights Reserved.

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