Thou Shalt Not Kill

The musical theme that opened “Boston Blackie” filled the living room. We heard hollow footsteps. Whistling. The silhouette of a man in a raincoat stepped into a dark city street, into a slick puddle of light from an overhead street lamp. He paused, turned his body toward us. A match flared. I saw his mustache and thick eyebrows. He lit his cigarette, the smoke curling over the brim of his hat. The man was a Yankee. Clearly, he was a murderer. I sat up straighter, chilled. But then came my mother, and with a flick of her wrist she snuffed out Boston Blackie and all his matches, too evil for us to see. In 1956, I was 8, my sister 7. The television screen went gradually dark, with a diminishing blotch of light in the center. Then it was fully dark. I always believed I could smell smoke as I rocked back on my heels on the carpet, breathing more easily, released from the ritual of rapt expectation and disappointment that was my fear.

I knew my mother was afraid of strange men. I had seen her slyly put the hook on the screen door when a man she didn’t know, a salesman with a suitcase of brushes and perfumes, rang the bell and stood on our porch. My sister and I should not open the door to any man nor speak to strangers on the street. Our allowed universe extended to the Stonewall Court, no further, unless we were invited onto Clark Road by a playmate, and to go there we had first to ask permission. Men stole children and sold them in gangs as white slaves. A woman’s breasts had been sliced off by a man who had abducted her. When in hushed tones I told a friend my age about what had happened to this woman’s breasts, she put both hands over her mouth and ran off laughing so hard I knew that she was terrified.

In Amelia County, away from the city of Richmond, my mother was more relaxed. Our Aunt T didn’t have a television. In Amelia, everyone colored and white knew everyone else colored and white. But there were still snakes, black widows, the kicking end of horses, and broomstraw to look out for. Broomstraw? Broomstraw, my mother replied emphatically. A man who had been a neighbor, running across a field of it, had tripped and a stiff shaft of straw shot up his flared nostril, piercing the soft brain. He had been found on his face in the field. Aside from not being allowed in the barn without a grown-up, once out of Aunt T’s house in Amelia we were turned loose to see whatever was there to see.

When Edwin killed a chicken, taking off its head with a hatchet, there was remarkably little blood. My mother was farm-bred. Killing hens for Sunday dinner was an ordinary occurrence, and neither she nor anyone else thought to warn us. Later I would know the signs of Saturday and its ritual slaughter. Marie wore her most faded print dress into the kitchen. After getting breakfast, she put a huge black kettle of water for plucking on to boil, the temperature in the kitchen already near 90, at not even 10 o’clock.

Sometimes she wanted her extra pay for Sunday dinner, a quarter, ahead of time. Aunt T grumbled, but out came the quarter from her change purse and into Marie’s grip. To keep it out of sight, out of mind, Marie put it on top of the can of pork and beans on the second shelf. “Miss T, she got Sunday dinner. I got Saturday night to think about.”

We slipped away from the breakfast table and ran askelter through the kitchen. Marie was boiling water, paying us no mind. We banged out the back screen door, making as much noise as our bare feet could, slapping them down on the wood stairs. We were free until lunch. I wanted to go to the wooden house where Aunt T kept the new broods of baby chicks. I was shy of hens. When I was given corn to broadcast onto the dirt yard for them, I didn’t cast it broadly enough. Or I forgot to be careful of my bare feet and wandered around in the feed area, fascinated by the lidless yellow eyes of the hens, the fierce and accurate bobbing of their necks after glints of corn, the flounce of burnished tail feathers, and the manner in which each yellow foot lifted itself, flexed its nibbled toes, spread them out, and set them carefully down in slow motion while the fury of the bobbing necks kept up their rapt staccato. The hens were as intent as I neglectful. Why then was I surprised, each time surprised, when the hard beak found its way to my bare toes, or fell between them in a near miss that teased me with delicious terror? I might have seen it coming.

To get to the house of the baby chicks, to be in that safe muddle of soft cheeping and down, puffs that could easily have been animated dandelions, we had to cross in front of the woodshed and continue on behind it. But on this one Saturday morning, I saw Edwin in front of the open shed, in baggy overalls, no shirt on. He was Marie’s husband. A hen fluttered and squawked in one of his hands. He had her by the ankle part of her legs, and her yellow feet stuck out the back of a hand as big as a baseball mitt. Sun flashed off the head of the hatchet that hung in the ring of his overalls. I stopped still and watched him intently. What was he doing? He was whistling.

My sister—Betsy we called her then—was lingering at the old porcelain bathtub set out in the yard. Although we weren’t supposed to, she was running water into it from the old hose, raising the water in it to give to the cows and horses we always hoped would one day materialize from the pages of our books or from the pastures of more affluent farms in Amelia. She liked to sprinkle water on her toes and on to her exposed tummy, soft and pale between the little ruffled halter and the elastic band of her shorts.

I turned back to Edwin. He didn’t let on that he saw us, but then he never did. Why should he have to deal with Miss Doyle’s city girls? I didn’t know anything about his life, except that he was married to Marie, came to Aunt T’s to chop wood, and he kept to himself. Years later, Marie would tell me he liked a beer on Saturday night. They had a boy named Junior who had been hurt in the war. He had one arm and pinned the empty sleeve of his shirt to the side of the shirt so it wouldn’t flap. That’s what Marie said he did when I asked her what about the empty shirt sleeve. I had never seen Junior. You could ask Marie questions, and she would answer in her sharp, high, amused voice. She gave me little jobs in the kitchen, swatting flies when they got too bad, and she let me pat the rolls into place on the tin sheets before she put them in the oven. Marie, my mother said, had a lot of white blood in her. That’s why her skin was so nearly white. Edwin had darker skin, and he was quiet. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask him a question, although I now wanted to. How burly the mitt of his hand was around the handle of the hatchet! How the sun lit the steel! And how curious that the hen, only moments before a flap and squawk of feathers, was now grown quiet, stilled perhaps by Edwin’s gait, a lumbering that rolled as if he knew the earth were roundly curved beneath his feet, a stolid rocking along the ground that had taken him now to the stump of cut wood. Barely breathing, I let myself be drawn to the wood, coming near it with my body, going away from it with my mind, wondering if I could get close enough to see the annular rings and know how old the tree had been when it was cut down. I must have known what Edwin was about to do.

In a motion so swift it was seamless, like light, came down naked arm, steel edge, and the weight of Edwin’s determination to give Aunt T what she’d asked for—Sunday dinner. And these powerful forces met in the neck of the hen, which I knew from sucking one cooked in Brunswick stew was an intricately interlocked lace of bones, delicate. Through feather and bone the hatchet fell, lodging into the surface of the wood with its orbiting years. The hen’s head went over soundlessly into the wood dust and pine chips at the base of the chopping block. The eye was yellow with a jet black center, the beak hard and bright.

Next to me, Betsy was an explosion of giggles, pointing—for there in the dust, released from Edwin’s grasp, the chicken, headless, ran its body in swooping arcs about the ground in front of the wood shed, looking for its head. Wasn’t it looking? It was blindly, accurately looking. It did not bump into the stump or into Edwin’s legs. He watched the swooping hen without expression. “It dancing,” he said flatly. Dancing? The word astonished me. The body careened about the yard. Would it stop? Would it ever stop? Just then, it slumped to its side, near its lopped off head. I inched nearer the stump. On the rim of the blade, on the cutting edge, there was a faint blur I could call blood. Then I saw two bright drops on the wood rings.

“Do another one!” my sister demanded. She was delighted with the dancing dead hen. Appalled, I would never have asked—although I was glad she had. I wanted to know if the frantic searching Edwin called dancing was what any chicken, headless, dead without knowing it, alive from the neck down, did.

“Miss T want two more hens for company Sunday,” Edwin said.

He wouldn’t let us think he was to kill another just because two white girls from the city, who didn’t know what they were looking at, the difference between life and death, had asked him to.

Marie plucked the hens in a large bucket into which she had poured water as hot as her hands could stand. I wondered if her palms were pinker than the tops of her hands and fingers because they were faded by the scald of hot water. I shook off the idea. Were that so, her hands would be entirely pink. Edwin’s hands were light and dark in the same way and so were the soles of their feet. There were things no one could explain, and color was one of them. A boy in school had a rosy stain that spilled across one side of his face, a birthmark. My grandmother, the palest woman I knew, had splotches of brown on her hands, on her bosom, and one dark patch on her cheek that had drifted up to the surface mysteriously one year and stayed.

Marie sat on a stool, knees spread, the bucket between her legs, hunched over. The burnished red feathers turned dark brown in the hot water. The yellow chicken feet turned yellower. Marie loved to suck the feet once they were cooked. She said they were “sweet.” I worried about the toenails and never asked for a suck of one. Nor did she offer. Sometimes Aunt T let Marie take a whole hen home for herself, but most of the time the hens stayed on the Harvie yard or on the Harvie table. “The feets is mine,” Marie said, and she could have them, sticking up like broken witches’ umbrellas, evil angles with small curved spurs. I hated the smell of blood and hot water and wet feathers. Sweat kerneled on Marie’s forehead and slid down her neck into her dress, where it darkened the seams around the collar and shoulders. The feathers came out more easily in the hot water. Marie grunted softly as she yanked at them. I thought she had forgotten that I was there. Then she looked at me sharply. “Law, child—you gonna faint?”

Aunt T had smelling salts in her purse. I had gone into her purse on the sly to sniff them. She wouldn’t allow the salts uncapped unless someone were light in the head. “They’re powerful,” she had said, “but each sniff takes the power off.” The salts turned out to be horrid things that made my nose prickle and tears sting my eyes, a kind of punishment for being devious. Although now I was in fact light in the head, I didn’t want Marie to fetch Aunt T and her salts, so I decided to duck out of the smell of water and feathers and blood, just as Marie said, “Run along now so’s I can get these hens done before it gets any hotter.” That was lucky. It appeared that I was minding her, but I was doing what I wanted to do. And I wanted the day to be hot, a scorcher. If the day were a scorcher, Aunt T would let Betsy and me fill the bathtub in the yard, and we’d go swimming. That is, we’d sit one at either end of the tub facing each other and hit the surface of the water to slosh each other in the face. Or we’d put the hose down inside the bottoms of our two-piece suits so that the water tickled and bubbled along the pale skin that never saw daylight, now that we were declared too old to run naked. In Richmond, even in the summers, I kept on my undershirt or wore a ruffled halter. In Amelia, we ran barechested in and out of doors no one bothered to lock.

Whenever my mother spoke of meals in the country, either in the “olden” days or at Aunt T’s, she used the word platters. There were platters of fried chicken, platters of corn on the cob fresh from the garden. Garden peas or limas, sliced beets, shelled black-eyed peas, mounds of mashed potatoes, or new potatoes cooked in their skins, quartered and bathed in butter. These came to the table steaming in bowls. But when my mother said platters, bowls and gravy boats were included in the largesse of the word. When she said platters I could sense her mouth watering, could smell the crispy, oily chicken. Marie served the food, bringing it to the table on platters once everyone was sitting down and the blessing mumbled. “Bless this food to our use and us to Thy service.” The food was blessed because it helped us serve others. But Marie served the table, Otelia served the plates, and everyone else ate too much, even in the heat. “Loosen your belt,” my mother sang out, an instruction that included unbuttoning the top button of my shorts if need be. I was encouraged to eat. I was skinny, my chin could be used to pick walnuts—I should eat. My father had a belly, Betsy was born chubby, my mother squeezed herself into her girdle and struggled with the hooks of her broad bras. Daddy helped her to hook up. The day before we were due to leave the country, I’d hear my mother’s voice, high as a bluejay’s shrill imitation of a field hawk, call “T?” She meant her voice to carry from the kitchen, past the phone that rang two shorts and a long, and into the office where T did accounts. “T, let me have one of these chickens to take home to feed my girls.” And T would have Marie pluck her a hen. Again the voice, nearer the time of our departure, would call out, “T,” and a request would follow, this time for the snaps simmering with the hambone in the stew pot, “for my two girls.” I hated snap beans cooked until their seams split and the beans turned a washed out, flaccid olive drab. But Aunt T promised a ham hock—Mom could cook up her own green beans.

In Richmond, at home, dinner was not served on platters. Mom fixed our plates in the kitchen, and we brought them to the table. Meals in Richmond included fare I never saw at Aunt T’s farm, and that was why I thought Aunt T was rich. At home Mom made ends meet with navy bean soup and soft Nolde’s bread, spaghetti with crumbled hamburger, and the dreaded salmon cakes with their tiny circlets of bone and little slimes of skin lurking somewhere in the patty, no matter how long it was browned in the skillet or baked firm in a mask of white sauce. I knew that we didn’t have much money because Daddy didn’t make much. That was why he stayed in the Army reserves and went away for a week each summer. If we were stretched, how, I wondered, did Marie, who was poorer than anybody I knew except colored Annie who had 20 children and did Aunt T’s washing and ironing, make ends meet? In Marie, who was stout, ends had visibly met. She liked her stoutness and patted herself on the belly like a drum, to let me hear what the hollow inside sounded like. I couldn’t figure how Marie got stout. My father praised her pies, especially the lemon chess. But if he weren’t careful, he could keep trimming away at the pie on the dinner table until I squirmed, knowing that Marie wouldn’t have much of an extra piece, if any, to take home in a carefully folded napkin in her purse, along with the extra rolls.

Marie’s house was down a red, deeply rutted clay road. The car jounced in the ruts and red dust filmed the windows, no matter how slowly Daddy drove the car. Marie’s house looked as if it had slunk into place and hunkered down, a slouch of gray and black tar paper and planking with a screened porch in front that had bits of cotton or newspaper stuck in the tears in the screening so mosquitoes couldn’t get in. Smoke came out the chimney even in summers—Marie had a wood stove, too. She had a well out back, a kind of miracle down into which we peered fearlessly to see, after miles of thick stone, the glint of a coin at the bottom. We weren’t allowed near it without a grown-up.

“Can I go to the well first? Please?” I asked Mom.

“May I,” she replied. Then she said no. We had to stay in the car.

I didn’t know why we were going to see Marie anyway, I thought as I slouched back grimly into the upholstered cushion of the Chevrolet. The car was packed for the trip home; my sister and I had struggled over who sat where in the back seat. There was a best side of the car, the side that passed the most animals in the fields. We counted animals on each side of the car. Whoever had the most, won. I could count higher than Betsy could and had the advantage, unless I sat on the side where the graveyards were. The rule was you lost all of the animals you’d counted whenever the car passed a graveyard on your side of the car. We knew where the fields with the most cows were. We knew where the graveyards were. Just by picking the right or left side of the car, we knew at the beginning of the journey who would finish it triumphantly. Today, I was going to, unless the shadow of death had fallen dramatically across a field while we were staying at Aunt T’s. I had the best side. Ready to win, impatient to start home, I whined silently to myself. We’d already said goodbye to Marie after the Sunday dinner, which had taken too long because Aunt T sent the roast back because it was pink. We’d packed, but no one had been able to find the two cigar box banjos my father had made for us to play, twanging rubber bands as we sang the words we didn’t know to “Oh Susannah,” except for the refrain, which we sang loud enough for everyone in the house to hear. We wouldn’t see Aunt T for a whole year. Home, the small brick house Mom called the “little red hen house,” seemed far away. Counting the animals was just around the corner.

Mom and Dad went into Marie’s house by the front screen door, after warning us not to go near the well. Since we didn’t know why they were stopping to see Marie, we couldn’t guess how long they’d be inside or judge the time we’d have to sneak to the well, lean over the rim, and get back to the car before they came out frowning. I was half-way through counting empty cans on Marie’s back stoop, many of them Crisco cans, when my father came out with his hat tipped back on his head, grinning. He had a large, rectangular wood and wire box in his hand. On the box a door flapped open. “Come on,” he called, heading back of Marie’s house, past the well, into the feathery green pine and scrub hardwoods.

Marie had rabbits! Marie had millions of rabbits—nearly 20. White, brown and gray rabbits, black ones and some with mottled brown and white fur. We could each choose a rabbit, whichever one we wanted, and they were going home to live in hutches Daddy would build, he said, out back in the stand of three dogwoods, at the edge of the back yard near our play house. No, we could not hold them in our laps on the way home. Yes, we could put the pen at our feet and pet them. We both chose white rabbits.

The rabbits would not fly away over Miss Conrad’s crepe myrtle and apple trees as had the bantam chickens we’d brought home after last summer’s visit. We had been told they’d flown away. I wasn’t so sure. I had heard dogs in the yard before dawn and their growling haunted me. Would the rabbits tempt neighborhood dogs? Our dog Rusty had been hit by a car and had died under our mother’s bed. But now we had two white rabbits.

In building the first rabbit hutch and placing it on wooden legs high off the ground, my father was like Noah making an ark for animals two by two. The hutch was not lifted up and set high because we expected flood water from the James, but because rabbits that lived on bare ground might sicken and die. The bottom of the hutch was wire with square holes the size of the checks in a gingham blouse I wore. The holes were small enough so that the rabbits had secure footing, large enough so that their tidy, admirable pebbles of dung dropped through to the ground. From there my father would shovel the droppings onto the flower beds to feed the bulbs. My father was happy with his hammer and saw. And I was happy thinking how much better off our two rabbits would be than those who lived on the earth, barren or grassy. My mother had told me stories of cutting the barley or wheat fields on her childhood farm. The mower went ‘round the border of the fields, winding in and in toward center, driving the rabbits to a core of standing grain. Then the mower would be shut off, and in the quiet of circling hawks, the farm hands would take their rifles and go into the stand of grain to shoot the rabbits that had huddled there, clear of the rackety menace of the mower. I was glad that we had been able to make for our rabbits a refuge, an ark.

I named my rabbit Peter. Betsy named hers Snowball. We named them without knowledge of their genders, nor were we encouraged to peer into the posterior privacy beneath their puffs of tail. Soon enough there were six rabbits. Then 11. Twenty. Too many to name. But how serene the original Snowball rabbit was. She could sit unmoved for as long as I could remain quietly watching her, only her fine quirky nose twitching like the winter shivers. I suspected that the nose was connected directly to the heart of the rabbit, which I had felt thump with a terrifying rapidity when I held her up once by her chest to measure how tall she’d be if she stood up like the bunnies in the Easter books. I was as frightened as she was, breaking the rule that we were not to take the rabbits out of their cages. Didn’t we remember what had happened to the bantam hens?

Peter and Snowball produced rabbits that were brown and gray and white or a mix of those colors, and they huddled together in the hay we stuffed into their hutches in the winter. The more there were, the warmer, especially the little ones which tumbled over each other and slept pell-mell with their paws and tails on top of other rabbits’ heads as they burrowed into each other’s fur. They were like my sister and me in bed with Mother and Daddy on the Saturday mornings that were made more leisurely by our not having to go to school or Sunday school at St. Giles.

After church on Sundays, our family came home and got quickly out of our good clothes. Betsy and I shrugged ours off, silk socks to the floor of the closet, patent leather shoes back in their boxes, our dresses and coats hung on hangers. My mother audibly sighed out of her clothes, the flesh pent inside her girdle gratefully released as she unzipped it at the side. Then she leaned over to unpin the hosiery from their little tabs and wire hooks, so that the soft brown nylon fell to her ankles. She’d flip off her high heels and then carefully, so not to run the expensive nylons, uncover her feet. Next the girdle. She’d scoot it off her hips to thigh level, a final tug, and down it would come. Flesh the girdle hadn’t been able to tuck behind its elastic grip, and which had ridden up into rolls between girdle and brassiere, would come melting down. These rolls—she called them jelly rolls—were what Marie’s turnovers turned into.

Before church, Mom put into the oven a pot roast or she baked a hen in a dented roasting pan that had a snug lid. She loved soft bread, meat that was fork tender and fell off the bone, potatoes that steamed open and crumbled with the gentlest pressure of a fork. I was given white meat, my sister dark, her preferred piece a drumstick. Mother took breast and thigh, leaving my father with a leg, the back, the wings and the Pope’s Nose, the last part of the chicken over the fence. It was a triangular plump piece that resembled the nose of a boy I knew after he’d fallen smack on his face in the playground. I nibbled the Pope’s Nose shyly, once—-just once. It was fatty, and I spat it out. But the fat, my father said, was what made it “sweet.”

We hadn’t had pot roast for what seemed a long time. Never mind sirloin. Steak was a sale at the Safeway or a special occasion, like my birthday. For an eternity of Sundays we’d had chicken baked, chicken fried, chicken in lumps in a cream sauce on rice. One Sunday night when we were playing cards, only a half an hour from bed time, Mother drew a card from the pile after Betsy sniggered “Go fish!” She fanned out the cards in her hand and said, “You know, Marie and Edwin wouldn’t do as well as they do without their rabbits.” I thought about Marie’s house, smaller than ours. What did “doing well” mean for Marie and Edwin? They were colored, and the country seemed far away from us in Richmond, where the only colored I saw regularly were women waiting for buses in the afternoon on Grove Avenue, or the maids in white uniforms pushing strollers around the block. “They’d be a lot hungrier if it weren’t for Aunt T’s goodness to them, and their rabbits.” Suddenly I understood. Rabbits were how Marie got stout and made ends meet. From the depths of this insight, I heard her say that rabbit tasted a lot like chicken. I shivered, suddenly afraid that there was something I shouldn’t ask. My father, I noticed, was frowning. We finished the card game and said the prayers that gave our souls into safety for the night, and then we slept.

On the next Saturday we drove with our parents to the egg farm out Three Chopt Road. This farm was the nearest thing in Richmond to Aunt T’s farm, a white frame house that needed painting, a dirt road that raised clouds of dust behind the car, and a half dozen tumbled down outbuildings here and there behind the big house. Mom bought her eggs here because they were brown and fresh from the oven of the hen’s body. Brown eggs tasted country. This Saturday she bought extra eggs for the meringue she would make for a special pie on Sunday. I begged for chocolate, overriding my father’s plea for lemon. “Chocolate it is,” she promised.

That Sunday we were allowed to eat dinner in our shorts. Early April was warm, and Betsy had already been up to something in the back yard. She had plans for a new hideout underneath Miss Week’s tree that wasn’t a willow but drooped over like one and made a dark tent inside. In the shade of this nameless tree, she planned to spend Sunday afternoon, letting me in only if I knew the password. Since Saturday night she’d been taunting me with the need to know what the password might be. I pretended not to care. I was above passwords, she could hide out all she pleased. Dinner came to the table on plates prepared in the kitchen. The chocolate pie with perky peaks of meringue was sitting on the stove like a kept promise. I took in the glasses for milk and sat down. On my plate was a mound of potatoes hollowed out, with a well of gravy in the center. Also corn nibblets from the can with the green man on the label. And chicken. My piece of breast meat looked queer. Instead of the crispy tapered end where I usually found the soft fold of cartilage that held the tenderest meat, this breast was blunt at both ends. I turned it over to see if there were the ribs I liked to suck, but Daddy said not to play with the food. He was about to say the blessing.

After his voice had stopped rumbling over the words we knew too well to listen to, I looked around to see if it was OK to poke my fork into the chicken. Perhaps it was a thigh. I would have to eat the dark meat and watch out for the thready vein that reminded me of blood. Chickens didn’t fly, that’s why the white meat was tenderest. White meat was lazy, dark was used muscle—in fact the last muscle the hens used, dancing about without their heads.

Suddenly my sister’s face turned red and splotchy. Tears spurted from her eyes and splashed on her chin, missing her cheeks altogether. “Snowball,” she cried, pushing her plate into the middle of the table. In the middle of the table was a large white Wedgewood bowl I liked because two rams’ heads faced off in opposite directions. Inside it my mother put a clever disk with sharp needles. She called it a frog, but it didn’t look like a frog. She had daffodils stuck into the tines, and these nodded out of the ram’s head bowl, nodding in assent, agreeing with my sister’s allegation and outraged grief. Her lower lip trembled. She looked at our father with a lowered brow that would butt like a goat’s at anything in her way. Tears streaked her face now. My father’s eyes met my mother’s, smack over the daffodils.

“I can’t eat Snowball,” I murmured and put down my fork. I felt pale and cold. I had been about to eat, and I knew it. I remembered the rule: Eat what you’re served. But Betsy had known what I’d only been on the brink of knowing. Not quite knowing, obedient, I would certainly have eaten the mother of all the little bunnies in our ark.

Mother pushed back a wild frizzle of gray hair and began to explain that we had to eat, money was tight just now… but my father interrupted. He said her name. Would he look at her the way he looked at me right before he took me down to the basement for a strapping? I knew without looking that his eyes never left hers as he said to my sister, “Don’t cry, honey, just eat the potatoes and corn and forget the rest.”

After lunch, I ran out the back door into the yard to check the hutches. Peter was there. Several smaller bunnies were nibbling on greens. That meant Betsy had snuck carrots and lettuce out of the icebox and taken them down before lunch. Snowball was nowhere to be seen. As suddenly as Betsy had known what the chicken that wasn’t chicken was, I knew her secret password. The word that had served to taunt my ignorance. The word that had been her tease of power over me all morning before church. The word no one in the family now would utter aloud. Snowball.

As for the rest of it—how Snowball got dead, whose ax, whether she danced in her blood and white fur—I forgot on purpose to think about these things. I forgot intently, and so thoroughly that now I can’t remember if I, if anyone, spoke words of comfort to my sister, who went to her room and wouldn’t come out, not even for chocolate pie.

About the Author

Margaret Gibson

Margaret Gibson has published five books of poems, the most recent of which, “The Vigil” (1993) was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. Currently a visiting professor at the University of Connecticut, she lives half the year in Preston, Conn.,

View Essays