The Craterhoof Behemoth stood at the top of the hill that led to the cave. Gollum squatted beneath her, a twisted thing, full of sadness and fear. Her face was battered, her side a mess of exposed ribs. She stood, panting, her flesh regenerating with each breath, her body stitching itself back together. She could not be killed.
All around her carnage lay, the soldiers of a thousand armies, dead and dying. In the distance, a white flag, the high priest of Exalted Medicine approached, carrying a shroud and two coins. He stopped in front of the beast, “Virtue is dead,” his words seemed small, lost in the savagery that surrounded the hill, “The battle is over. I have come to offer tokens of passage.” He raised the white cloth dyed with ancient runes, two gold coins glittered in his hand.
The Behemoth sniffed the air, considering his gift. Inside the cave her family met, discussing what needed to be done. She looked at the priest who met her gaze with a confident smirk, “We have done all we can,” he said. “It is time to let go.”
The creature roared, a mighty bellow that shook the ground. The priest took a step back, his confidence wavering for the briefest moment, “She is already dead—” he began, but the Craterhoof Behemoth would have none of it. She charged forward, trampling the frail priest beneath a massive hoof. In the distance, what remained of the armies began to flee. She crossed the empty ground, closing with her enemies, destroying them with a rage that seemed impossible.
Gollum, alone at the entrance to the cave, stared at the scene in awe, “Regeneration 100,” he hissed to himself, “and fourteen attacks per round.” He watched her smash through the ranks of brave soldiers, destroying everything in her path, “my mother is invincible,” said Gollum. “She cannot be defeated.”
• • •
I woke up in my mother’s gigantic Abraham Lincoln bed. My head was groggy, my thoughts disoriented. My sister was asleep next to me. Birds chirped. The sun had just come up. I slid from the bed and crept to the play pen. My niece was sleeping. Her tiny eyes fluttered softly with each breath. Her nails were delicate, tiny things, paper thin, a laughable precaution. They would have to grow quickly if they hoped to protect her. Until then, it was up to her family. It was up to me.
I wandered downstairs, past walls covered in knick knacks and pictures from my childhood. My mother’s house was enormous, an empty, cavernous lair inhabited by a lonely woman.
“Morning,” I mumbled, walking past my uncle David. He was awake, or hadn’t slept, and stood in the kitchen, staring out the window above the sink. I opened the door to the pantry and pulled out a can of pineapple.
“Assassin,” he replied, his piercing eyes tracing each leaf of the enormous globe willow in my mother’s backyard.
I poured the pineapple into a bowl and sat on a wooden stool behind the counter.
“Assassin,” my uncle repeated, turning to me, his hawk nose and hunched back adding primal force to the sentiment. What was he talking about? Had I done something wrong? Pot cake syrupped groggy through my blood. Last night, did I black out? Had I embarrassed myself? “Assassin,” he said again, this time his eyes grew wide, bloodshot whites framed by dark circles and sunken sockets.
I looked up, not knowing what to say, nodding with confusion, worried something was wrong.
“Assassin,” he repeated a final time, then turned back to the window above the sink. I ate a bite of pineapple. “They came every spring and stayed until the leaves began to fall,” his voice was lost and distant, a fervent prayer to something ancient. “I fed them.” He tapped his fingers on the counter in an intricate, complex rhythm. “Seeds!” He laughed maniacally, “such a simple thing.”
“What?” I touched my groggy forehead, trying to wake up.
“I had to protect them,” he opened the drawer where my mother kept the knives, and pulled out a cruel blade, admiring the glint of dawn along its wicked edge. “I had to defend my home.”
“Squirrels,” he growled, a primal gleam radiating from his face.
“Squirrels?” A tiny bit of pineapple juice spilled out of my mouth.
“They ate the seeds.”
“Am I still high?” I looked around the room, searching for clues that this might be a dream.
My uncle raised an invisible rifle to his shoulder, aiming its non-existent barrel out the kitchen window, “Pow, ka-pow, ka-pow.” The imaginary gun kicked with each shot. He moved his sight from target to target, then lowered the deadly machine. “One shot,” his eyes gleamed with killer instinct, “one kill.”
I nodded, still dazed from the marijuana cake.
“I never missed!” He said triumphantly.
“What didn’t you miss?” I asked.
“I never killed anyone,” he whispered, his eyes peering through time, “I never had to,” he was a warrior, a barbarian-born, displaced by fate and time, “but I could have,” he nodded to himself, “I have the ability.”
My hands were weak and shaky, a lingering effect of the pot hangover. After breakfast, I would take more prednisone. The cycle would repeat.
“I know, because I never missed. I could do it if I had to,” he smiled, “I could.”
“Why were you shooting at who now?” I lifted the bowl and sipped pineapple juice.
“They ate the bird seed,” he gazed out past the fence, scanning for his ancient foe.
I finished breakfast while my uncle talked about birds and squirrels and how he killed the squirrels with his pellet gun and how this was proof of his prowess as an elite assassin. At some point I stopped listening, satisfied that his story had nothing to do with me. Morning broke. I swallowed some prednisone. My mother began to stir. I showered and went into the basement for some yoga.
“Let’s go, honey,” my mom called down the stairs after an hour.
“The family is meeting with grandma’s neurologist in 20 minutes.”
I grabbed my MP3 recorder and connected it to the chain around my neck, then wandered out to my mother’s golden SUV. My mom sat on the driver’s side, the car already in gear. She backed down the driveway without looking, then sped up the hill and out the cul-de-sac.
We pulled into the handicap parking spot near the entrance to Saint Mary’s. My mom hung a blue permit from the rear view mirror. “You’re terrible,” I said, embarrassed that she was stealing the spot from someone who might need it.
“Grandma’s not using it,” my mother shrugged, then leapt from the car and began walking towards the door. I jumped out and jogged after her. I had never seen her move so fast. We headed down the well-lit, antiseptic halls, past the acrylic etching of dead nuns and through the security doors that led to the intensive care unit, “They’re in the meeting room,” my mom said as she rounded the corner. The hallway widened then split, circling around a glass enclosure, four transparent walls that contained a conference room complete with table, chairs and three of my grandma’s impossible children. My mom pulled the glass door open and we walked inside. I stood near the entrance, trying not to cry. The room was full of dark skinned, hunch backed Ukrainians, each with piercing eyes set deep in dark, baggy sockets.
“How’re you doing?” I asked my uncle Craig.
He was a small man, with tiny hands and dainty feet. When my grandparents retired, Craig bought the ranch. He was the last cowboy, a tough, affable rancher who lived by his wits. “About like you’d expect,” he said, matter-of-factly. He had seen death. It was part of life.
My uncle Dwight approached with his blond beard and piercing eyes. He was 45 years old, the baby of the family. He embraced me with grizzly arms. I hugged him back, feeling the solid mass that protruded from his shoulders, “You don’t look like you’re a mess,” he said, his thick, North Dakotan accent distorting the round vowels.
“Looks can be deceiving,” I said, scanning the room for my grandpa.
“Cindy and Dad aren’t going to make it to the meeting,” My uncle Bryan hung up his phone. He sat in his chair as if it were a throne, his hands trembling with Parkinson’s disease. “Dad’s really struggling.” He turned his gaze to meet mine. “Morning, Nathan.”
“Morning,” I nodded.
My uncles milled about, talking and catching up. They had been raised on the same ranch, but had since spread out, coming together every 5 years or so for the latest wedding or funeral. Uncle David arrived, adding his booming voice to the crowd. Outside the glass walls, nurses and physicians scurried back and forth, busy with the details of the sick and dying.
A tiny man in a collared shirt and tie walked into the room. He was old and bald but with a youthful vigor, as if age were just a mask he had put on for a while, “I’m Dr. Gillman, your mother’s neurologist,” he looked around the room at the crowd of teary-eyed Slavs, “I’ve looked over the results of the tests and I wish I could give you good news, but I can’t. She’s had a series of small strokes as well as a build up of amyloid angiopathies. I don’t think she’s going to come out of it.”
“Can we do something to move that fluid out of her?” My mom asked.
Dr. Gillman looked at her, surprised by the question, “It probably won’t do anything,” he tried to explain, “I’m talking about her brain.”
“I understand that,” my mom pressed, “but her hands are full of water and if she can feel, I’m sure it’s uncomfortable. I’d like to start giving her essential fatty acids through her feeding tubes.”
“She’s in no pain,” Dr. Gillman assured us, “She’s no longer there,” he touched his forehead, indicating the place where my grandma no longer was.
“You also said she was in the advanced stages of dementia,” my mom began to argue, “but she was sharp as a tack. What if you’re wrong about her chances as well?”
Dr. Gillman paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully, “The M.R.I. results show she was demented. Somehow she compensated for the loss of cells. She must have been a very bright woman.”
Everyone in the room began to laugh.
“She was butchering chickens in her garage last weekend,” said Bryan.
My grandma was a newly-minted millionaire, her bank account stuffed to overflowing with oil money that gushed out of the ground like a thousand happy genies. Despite this new wealth, she still found it necessary to slaughter her own chickens, carrying out the ritual with the garage door open, hoping to frighten neighbors driving down the street. Even at 83 she was bright and capable. If she had dementia, it made sense that none of us noticed. She was that kind of woman.
A friendly nurse poked her head into the room, “There’s a gal out here with a small baby, but she can’t come into the I.C.U. with her little one.”
It was my sister and her child. My mom and I left the room and headed out to meet her. She stood in the hallway, her baby wrapped in a green sling. It was only yesterday that I waited in a hospital like this one, watching my mother give birth. We had grown together, my sister and I. Now she had a baby. It was too big for words.
“Let’s get breakfast,” my mom said, taking the Baby Hannah into her arms, “my treat.”
We walked down the air-conditioned hallway, the battered remains of my family, brought together by tragedy, sustained by something not unlike love.
The cafeteria was a brightly painted, ergonomic place with an open floor plan that seemed too modern for the town where my mother lived. I ordered eggs, my mom and sister omelets.
“This place is a killing field,” my mom said sadly as we sat down to eat. “I told them not to give her morphine. If only they had listened.”
I thought about the growling thing my grandma had become, about the semi with its axel torn off and the 30 tons of scrap metal that shoved through her dashboard, “It wasn’t just the morphine.”
“She was functioning well,” my mom said stubbornly, “Her vitals are strong.”
I broke the skin of my eggs and watched the guts spread across my plate, “Her brain is shorn from her skull.”
“I never should have left her alone,” my mom choked back tears, her heart breaking with each breath. It wasn’t her fault. Still, she held on to the story like a cross, the symbol of her failure as a daughter. My grandma had never loved my mom; she had been born overweight, awkward and female — a crime if you lived on a ranch. My mother had spent her life trying to win my grandma’s affection, and now she was dying. Now it was too late.
“Her vitals are still strong,” my mom said to herself, holding out hope, desperate for more time.
We ate and talked, sorting through recent events, trying to make sense of the unfathomable. We had almost finished when my mom’s phone began to screech. She answered, listening without talking, then hung up. “Pastor Mark is here with grandpa,” she looked down at the table, “They’re going to pull the plug.” The news sort of ruined breakfast.
“I’ll stay here and feed Hannah,” my sister said. “They won’t let her into the I.C.U. any way.” Our grandma was dying, but my niece was alive. For better or worse, the cycle continued.
We walked, my mother and I, through the rounded, ergonomic kitchen, down the cheerful hallway full of non-threatening paintings, and into the elevator, “What was grandma’s favorite color?” I asked. There were so many things I didn’t know. So many missed opportunities.
“She liked yellow and green and purple and blue,” my mom replied, “all the colors, really.”
“No,” I pushed the button to the second floor, “she liked one of them more than the others.”
“I can’t believe they gave her that morphine,” my mom repeated, shaking her head.
We exited the elevator and headed down the hallway, past the acrylic poster of ghoulish nuns, through the security doors and into the room with four glass walls, our stage for the final act.
Aunt Cindy had arrived with my grandpa, she came close and hugged me, her stretched face and genteel clothing the perfect mask to hide her cold, bitter heart, “I am so glad that you are here, Nathan,” she said, pronouncing each syllable with trained precision. It was a lie. The woman had never loved me. My mother was fertile and Cindy was barren. I was a symbol of her shortcoming as a woman.
My grandpa sat in a chair beside the table, his giant hunch marking him as the eldest male. Despite his age, he looked like a child, attached to an oxygen tank, his pants too short for his legs. White socks peeked out from beneath his khakis and his shirt was clean and pressed, as if someone else had dressed him.
Pastor Mark stood on the other side of the table. He was a friendly, stupid man with salt and pepper in his beard. He shook hands sympathetically, offering condolences, promising that his congregation was praying for us.
Outside the glass room, people paraded by, nurses and family members attending the infirm. No one stopped to watch the tragic scene, so common was our story.
“I remember the good times,” said Bryan, twitching more than usual, “I remember the chickens.”
“And the chicken plucker,” said Dwight, the baby of the family.
“What’s a chicken plucker?” I asked.
“It’s a round drum,” my uncle replied, “with about 100 flexible rubber fingers, and you take the chicken and put it up against the thing and the feathers just fly.”
When my grandpa first bought the chicken plucker, the family gathered around, each one admiring the dangerous machine. My grandpa cut the head off a hen and scalded the body in boiling water. “I’ll show you how to do it,” my grandpa said, his proud cowboy hat sitting at a jaunty angle. But my grandma would have none of it. She took the chicken from her husband’s hands and told him to turn on the plucker. My grandpa flicked an electric switch and the powerful motor began to spin, 100 rubber fingers reduced to a blur.
My grandma took the chicken and held it up to the plucker. Its skin barely touched the twirling, black strips when the violent, whirling rubber sucked the skin and feathers clean off. The ball of flesh hit the back of the plucker with a thud. My grandma was left standing on the lawn in her pretty bonnet, covered in guts — feathers drifting through the air — holding the carcass in shock.
“Turns out you don’t have to scald the chickens nearly as long when you use the plucker,” laughed Dwight. “We were all certain Dad was going to get it, but after a few seconds, Mom just started laughing.”
Everyone in the room laughed with him, each of us imagining my prim grandma covered in feathers and blood.
“A lot of times we get discouraged because life is hard,” said Pastor Mark sympathetically, “In First Peter, God tells us that we have hope in Christ because He conquered death. The grave has no hold on believers. There is no greater security than being in God’s hands.”
A doctor stepped into the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
“God tells us that because of this hope we can rejoice. This is not the end, it is only the beginning. The place He has prepared for us is a paradise. Your mother is going to glory.” Pastor Mark closed his eyes and folded his hands, the rest of the family followed suit, “Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for the great love we have in Jesus Christ. This life on Earth is not the end. You have prepared a place for us…”
There was fear in his words, a hidden subtext beneath the well-worn prayer. Pastor Mark was afraid to die. He clung to his faith like a toddler grips a blanket, shielding himself against the terror of an uncertain night. Death was coming, but Pastor Mark was ready, his place in eternity reserved by the promise of a carpenter long ago. I looked around at the rest of my family, so pious and serene. How many of them were scared to die, and if fear was the source of their faith, how real was the salvation it had bought them?
Pastor Mark ended his prayer with a solemn ‘amen.’
The doctor stepped forward, “We’re gathering the paperwork and staff necessary to remove her from life support.” He was a kind man, professional and business like. He was going to give my grandma drugs to ease her passing.
“Does she have to be on medication?” My mom asked. She was a necromancer, a sorcerous, willing to do anything to keep her mother alive. Western Medicine had failed, but there were still potions she could try. The poisons the hospital offered would only impede her witch’s craft.
The doctor was uncertain how to answer, “We usually give medication to patients who look like they’re in discomfort.”
“How long until you pull the tube?” Asked Cindy. If my mother was a necromancer, her sister was a paladin, a holy warrior who would strike the final blow herself rather than see her mother turned into a zombie.
“It can be whenever you want,” said the doctor, “We can do it in the next five minutes.”
“Let’s do that,” Cindy nodded, hungry for the kill.
“We’ll need two funerals,” Bryan said somberly. “One in Grand Junction and one in North Dakota.”
People came swirling in, friends of my grandparents, men and women who wanted to share in our tragedy. My mind was gone, a fractured, swirling mass of pain and emotion made real by the steroids in my blood. Everyone was certain that after my grandma died, my grandpa would soon follow. They whispered it, quietly to one another, behind his back, nodding knowingly, sure that it was unavoidable. That thought kept spinning through my broken psyche, rebounding and swelling, growing bigger. More people flooded into the room, shaking hands and making introductions. I looked over at my grandpa, sitting in his chair, lost in the infinite prairie of the mind. They said his heart was breaking, that the two had become one, that his soul was bound to his wife’s.
“Grandpa,” I croaked, my voice cracking through the tears. “You’re not allowed to go anywhere.” The words came out like a growl, my pain manifest in a primal groan, “I need you. I know it’s selfish, but I can’t take any more.” I held out my hand for him to grasp. He looked at it, but didn’t extend his own. I kept my arm stretched towards him. “You have to stick around,” I repeated, “at least for a while.” A tear fell down his chiseled face, defiance shown in his eyes. He wanted to die.
“Take my hand,” I pleaded, “take my hand and promise.” He glared back, staring me down, pushing me away with his gaze. I met his stare, refusing to yield, defiant and angry. I had never asked him for anything. He owed me one request. I kept my rail-thin arm stretched towards him, willing that he take my hand, my frail fingers trembling. The ancient cowboy looked down at my offering, anger etched into his eyes. Slowly, he lifted his arm and took my tiny fingers in his own. It was the first time we had held hands. I squeezed his massive fingers, those ancient hands so full of life. Invincible, they were, I could feel his heart beating through the calloused pads. “Promise,” I begged through the tears, praying to any god that would listen, “Promise you’ll stick around.” The old man looked away, still holding my hand. We were lost, the two of us, drifting in a sea of grief. My grandpa wanted to drown. “I need you, man,” I sobbed. “You’re not allowed to die.” I squeezed his hand in mine. I squeezed with all my feeble might.
He sighed at last, his sharp eyes dropping to the table, his thick hunch sagging in defeat, “OK.” He conceded quietly, his raspy voice acknowledging my right as first among his grandchildren. He released my hand. I collapsed into a heaving, sobbing mess, growling and groaning, unable to think. It was unfair, what I asked, but he promised and I would hold him to it.
“Dad,” Cindy approached her father, her false voice singing the words, “do you want to see Mom before they take the tubes out?”
“I’ll look after they’re done,” he waved his daughter away with one hand. “She’ll be prettier without them.”
It took a long time to gather the paperwork and staff necessary to remove my grandma from life support. We sat in the glass room, talking and crying, mired in sadness, sharing the comfort of family.
“Alick needs to write a book,” Pastor Mark said, trying to take our minds off the pain. “It should start out with The Rabbit Adventure.”
All eyes turned to my grandpa. No one could mention The Rabbit Adventure without everyone wanting to hear the grisly tale again. The old man sighed. He would tell the story. It was easier than arguing.
“I was a preschooler at that time,” he began without preamble. His English was clear but dirty, his voice rough and textured, like a violin made from straw. “I started out trapping mice in the grainery. My father paid me a penny a tail. I saved those pennies until I had enough to buy a bigger trap. I was gonna catch a rabbit,” he looked at his hands, lost in memory, “The rabbits were big at that time, giant jackrabbits, larger than me.”
When the trap arrived, my grandpa went out into the woods and found a rabbit trail. With a pull and a grunt, he opened the deadly jaws and staked his snare into the ground with a mallet as big as his arm.
“There was already a light snow at the time,” my grandpa remembered. A chill wind blew through the glass room, suddenly we were all gathered around a fire, listening to the story, just like his men had listened as they sat eating beans after a long day riding herd. “Each day mother bundled me up after she’d sent the older kids to school and I’d go and check my trap. My oldest brother told me, ‘You couldn’t kill a rabbit if you did catch one.’
‘Oh yes, I could,’ I told him.
“I had a piece of a broomstick and I said, ‘I’ll hit him with this and I’ll kill him.”
The world was cruel in those days. The first time I heard The Rabbit Adventure, I was sitting in my grandma’s kitchen, loading digital images onto a computerized picture frame so she could watch a slide show of her grand children when she walked by her mantlepiece. Two generations, and my family had gone from trapping mice and rabbits, to eating instant noodles warmed in a microwave.
“‘How much money do you have left from your mouse hunting?” My grandpa’s brother asked. “I’ll kill the rabbit for you for what you got left.”
My grandpa paused, remembering his troublesome, older brother, his ghost dancing through the room. “I’d go check my trap every day and he’d come home from school and laugh at me, ‘Did you get your rabbit?’
‘So mother told me to go along the fence line and beat it with a stick to flush them rabbits out. And I done as mother said and I flushed out a few rabbits and one of them ran along the trail and got caught in my trap,” my grandpa paused, weary with memory, “So I pounded him, and the harder I pounded him, the louder he squealed.”
I thought about my grandma, trapped in her body, flushed out of hiding, waiting for the doctors to come. Life had pounded her, but it was we that screamed. It was her family that suffered.
“And finally, I wore myself out,” my grandpa continued, “and I stood back, and he was still alive. So I stepped up to the rabbit and with his mouth wide open, he come at me. He was squealing and he lunged at me, and he hit me in the chest and we both fell over and I landed on top of him, and all I could think of was those two top teeth in that big mouth and how if I didn’t kill him he was going to get me. So I reached down and I found his neck and I squeezed him, and I kept squeezing him.”
The air conditioned hospital with its ergonomic kitchen and scientific walls hummed electric, a beeping vibrating thing that could sustain life, but only for a time. It was a shrill parade, a charlatan’s trick. Life is sustained by death. My grandpa knew it, and so did the rabbit in his story.
“His squealing began to fade,” the old cowboy shifted in his chair, “but I could feel his heart beating, so I kept squeezing. I squeezed until the tiny flutter disappeared. Then I got up and looked at him,” my grandpa breathed through the narrow tube inserted into his nose. Yesterday, he ran wild through the hills, an unstoppable thing, as savage as the beasts he hunted; today he was old and tired, a warrior with no teeth. “I stomped on him,” my grandpa lowered his gaze. I could hear the dull slap of his little foot against the giant skull, I could smell the blood, “And then I beat him, and then I stomped on him some more. And I thought, ‘If he comes too, when I take that trap off, I’m as good as dead.’”
We listened, lost in the story, each of us contemplating our own, fragile existence.
“It took me forever to get him out of that trap,” my grandpa looked out the glass walls, at the tanks and tubes and beds that fought against the inevitable. “I started carrying him home. It was a quarter mile that I dragged him, a jack rabbit as big as me. Dad was gone, but mother was home.”
The doctor entered the room, My grandpa stopped talking.
“Finish your story,” said Cindy.
My grandpa stared at the doctor, at the specter of death who had come to take his bride, “I told mother to hang that rabbit up on the clothes line so when the brothers came home they would see him. So she hung him up and they came home and marveled at the big rabbit.”
“And what did your brother say?” Asked Cindy.
“He wanted to know how I killed him and I said, ‘Never you mind how I did it, there he is.'” My grandpa looked at the doctor again, “Mother took the hind legs off the rabbit and she let them dry and used them as brushes to calcimine the walls of the house.”
The room was silent as my grandpa finished. “The tube has been removed,” said the doctor, “you guys are welcome to visit whenever you’re ready.”
Gravely, my family stood and filed out of the room.
to be continued