by Doug Ramspeck
It is rarely what we imagine or expect, but always something burrowing beyond sight, hidden in the crevices or dreaming itself from the flurried wings of crows, my mother in the backyard setting down the tin plates of meat scraps or peanuts, the birds a frenzy of commotion. And here, beside us, is cousin Whitney, twelve that summer, while my brother and I are eight and nine, and everything about her is simply wrong. Slow and stuttering speech. A staccato way of walking. Fingers touching even simple words she can barely read.
We are forced to play Monopoly with her, Go Fish, to let her join us at Simpson’s Roller Rink and the multiplex, forced to take her with us down to the river, where we swim while she watches, calling out what is indecipherable. What we know in our hearts is that she is not more than a few feet from where, the previous summer, we saw three baby water moccasins swimming with their sulfur-yellow tails, and where, sometimes, a full-grown snake will display for us the moon-white of its mouth in the San Marcos River. Another time, in the yard overlooking the current, a few feet from where she waits, we watched a red-tailed hawk swooping down to lift in its talons one of the baby kittens recently born in the horse barn. This is the way the world works. There are consolations of moonlight, of fireflies in dead summer, of squirrels my brother and I shoot with our father’s .22, watching them twitch their way into stillness. That Whitney was in a car accident in Dallas at age ten means nothing to us, nor that her mother is currently serving three months for check kiting. What matters is the primitive and perfect throb of hatred, how we attempt again and again to lure the girl into the moving current—she says she cannot swim—how we envision her being drawn away, her spastic arms waving.
Yet when we actually kill her we are stunned. We are throwing a football in the thickened heat, ignoring her pleas to join us, removing her from the universe of our thoughts. But finally my brother—in a moment of weakness—spirals one her way, causing her to duck. Suddenly, without warning, she is on the ground, a catfish dragged from the river, thrashing, laboring to free herself from the burdens and constraints of the body. Surely she is disappearing, is like one of those squirrels we poke with a stick to make certain it is gone. We stand in wonder while she shudders, envisioning our world returned to us. Then Mother—dropping her tin plates for the crows—is rushing out the back door to Whitney’s side, telling us that we should run inside to retrieve the seizure medication, assuring us our cousin will be fine. But all we are thinking about is the vision of those dead squirrels thrown with limp bodies into the erasure of the river and carried off.
Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections. His most recent book, Original Bodies (2014), was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is published by Southern Indiana Review Press. Individual poems have appeared in journals that include The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and The Georgia Review. Stories have appeared in Iowa Review, Green Mountains Review, Gargoyle, and others.