Alison L Fraser
Have you ever heard a raccoon scream?
It's higher pitched than you might think. When you hear cats fight, but more human, howling. You hear the arch of their backs as they scramble away from the source of their pain, the reverb traveling down their throats, spines.
My dad grows bonsai in my older brother's absence, who has lived in Japan since I was five. The summer that marks the six year anniversary of their estrangement, my dad installs a koi pond in our yard. Early on we learn raccoons love to fish the carp out at night, easy prey. We find a gutted fish dragged out onto the patio one morning. My dad goes straight to the hardware store. He shows me the electrical wires he has threaded around the perimeter of the pond, how if triggered, a current will electrify the intruder, but not the fish. He crosses his arms and stares into the pond, as if a raccoon would dare try something in his hunched presence. He putters in the garden before dusk, watering his bonsai, inspecting their leaves. My aunt, my dad's sister, has said it is time for dinner, but after a while we give up waiting for him and eat.
I lie with my cheek pressed against the brick overlay, where the ground meets the space underneath the unfinished porch, the hot afternoon sun touches just the tips of my outstretched fingers. The baby raccoon lies curled up just as I am, her sunken chest swarmed by flies. I wish I could swat them away, but each time I move closer, a chill runs through me. I see the spiderwebs draped beneath the porch, a flash of her body, a cavity of exposed flesh, or her eyes. I am most afraid to see if her eyes are open.
My aunt tries to pry me away from the bricks, threatening that the rough texture will damage my skin, scarring, perhaps. I ignore her. I observe the decomposing body for fluttering at the slightest breeze. I wonder if the baby's mother abandoned her, or died at the expense of the koi pond, leaving her kit to starve.
At night I listen for the neighborhood cats fighting through my open window, and occasionally, the raccoon scream. I picture the baby raccoon, her as a plush animal, smooth fur, squishy body, black glass eyes. I crawl beneath the porch to get closer, just enough to see her take a shallow breath. I gasp. All this time, she's been alive and I've just watched her and done nothing. My hand reaches out to touch her and she tilts her head towards me. As she does, I look at where her eyes should be and see bloody hollows. I go to shriek but my throat tightens up, I go to cry for my mother, a mother I never knew, but I gulp, heaving gulps, stopping me from breathing out—out—out.
I awake hearing myself shout, as though from paralysis, and maybe I was—paralyzed. I roll over and try going back to sleep, but the thought that she might still be alive keeps me awake until sunrise.
My father is out pruning the bonsai the next morning when I go to see how the raccoon is doing.
"This one isn't doing well," he grunts to me, or just to himself, I can't tell.
"What's wrong with it?" I ask.
"It's got disease. They're very susceptible, you know."
"What disease does it have?" I had never considered plants getting sick. I knew they died, but I hadn't thought about how they died.
"It's rust!" he says.
"It doesn't look rusty," I venture, trying to be helpful.
"Not rust, it's called rust. It's under the leaves," he says, lifting the underside of a leaf for me to see the spots.
"Can you save it?"
"I don't know," he says, crossing his arms.
I cross my arms, tilt forward, falling over my feet, my body smashes on the bricks, raccoon guts pull from her body by something larger, something rabid. I snarl and hiss as the shadow creeps across the yard, as it swarms the body every day, growing darker, smaller. Her corpse lingering on as the matted fur becomes less flutter, more ground down.
My father fishes slugs out of the pond with a net. Big, thick, black backed, creamy bellied slugs. He lays them on the brick side by side. They dry out to become tally marks for the days I've spent with the raccoon, leaving silk glitter trails in their shadows. Five. Five slugs in five days.
One side of my face has become the moon, pocked and pinched, flattened with the light of the sun. The wretched sun drifts away from my back as it sets behind the house. It leaves the raccoon and she is in the darkness of the under-porch. My father examines the electrical wires around the pond, he inspects the leaves of the bonsai, he watches me watching the decaying body, not knowing I am watching a body at all.
"What's wrong with you?" My aunt asks me at dinner.
I shrug my shoulders.
"Don't shrug. Don't slump, you'll get scoliosis. What's wrong with your face?" She says with some bitterness, her eyes look past mine to the wall behind me, a photograph of my grandfather on a fishing boat on the Demerara. It has always hung there.
I touch my hand to my face, my bitten nails graze the fat of my cheeks, feel the indents, almost holes. I find the deepest one, set the tip of my thumb inside like a nest.
"Eat your dinner. Why aren't you eating your food your aunt made?"
"I am eating!" I slam my hand to the table, the fork glints as I forget its place beside my plate, my palm stabs itself with the tines. I don't yelp in pain. I keep staring at my father, seething. He used to shout at my brother about things like this, but at the time I only noticed that he wasn't yelling at me. I wish I could go back to when I was invisible, and my brother would be watched, would be praised, would be smothered and screamed at and stomped into fragments of anything but an artist! Anything but an artist who lives in Osaka.
I watch my dad spray aphids all morning, growling in between each shot, inspecting the leaves to find more black sticky insects nestled in crooks, huddled en masse. They seem to have arrived overnight, he said. He turns to me, my hair tangled and in my eyes, points the nozzle at me. His eyes grow big as he laughs, shooting me once, right at the front pocket of my shortalls. It's unexpected. I look at the dark spot of water, clutch my chest.
"Dad!" I yell.
"You used to like when I did that," he said.
I did. I do. But a knot in me shuts me up from saying so.
I stand up with my arms crossed, crouched under the porch, my head almost touching the rafters beneath, the spiders crawling away into dark corners. I let the cobwebs dangle near my lips, the feel of webs inside my mouth. I smell her dryness, the heat, her intestines, the maggots. Her body purrs. I wonder if she screamed when her mother left her, and now she purrs to soothe herself, as I did when my brother left, while my dad touches the tiny bonsai leaves with a gentle hand, and roughly kisses my head goodnight.
The raccoon speaks to me at midnight, her voice stretched and flimsy. I reach my hands out to catch it, dead lip-skin tingles against my hands instead. Her voice carries from beneath the porch to my bedroom ears.
Outside I sit in the darkness of late summer. I run my hand along my shin bones, graze goosebumps. I place the dead slugs on my legs like leeches. There is a new one floating in the center of the pond, the pump gurgles, rocking it in circles over and over, a tumbled precious stone. I squat near the edge of the pond and peer across it to the hedge dividing our house from the neighbors'. A pair of glowing eyes peer back at me. I put a hand out, glancing down at the water. I feel myself fall forwards, my palm outstretched, a jolt courses through me as though I jumped from a high wall and landed flat on my feet, only it starts through my hands and flows around and through me, back to my fingertips.
What were you thinking?" My aunt yells at me. I look at her. Look at my arms, the shirt of my pajamas, soaked. I don't feel wet. I see her in the dark, hand to her chest. She has pulled me back from the water.
My tongue lolls thick against my cheek. I am unaware of how she knew where to find me, as I never made a sound.
I grow the bonsai my father grew in my small, city apartment. I put them on the balcony for most of the year. They withstand the cold like the carp would all winter, the pond water frozen in time until the spring thaw.
The day after I electrocuted myself my dad got his shovel and took the baby raccoon away. He buried it somewhere out in the woods near the reservoir where my brother and I used to hike. I wasn't allowed to go with him to bury her, so I pictured it in my mind, of finding a spot near a tree, far from any path. My aunt stayed with us another year, and then she moved out. I heard the raccoons at night sometimes. I lost track of all the slugs I picked out with a branch on mornings before school. I came back for the bonsai trees before he sold the house, before he died. I didn't think I would continue to grow them. I did. I do.
is a writer existing in Massachusetts. Find their recent work in Dead Fern Press
. Twitter: @catholicked