My father stood in my doorway holding his .45 caliber handgun. He leaned against the wood framework smoking a cigarette, loading the gun. Smoke circled his head like a halo, and I gently laid the book I was reading into the sheets. Every time he loaded a bullet you could hear the steel snap into the magazine. His mouth moved when he did this. I watched, staring at the cigarette burns on his arms that his father had given him as a teenager. Now they stood out as large purple circles bulging off of his skin. He didn’t talk about them. He didn’t tell me what he did to make his father give them to him. He just rubbed his hands along them every now and then as though he was caught up in a memory. The hair on his head was long and pulled back into a ponytail. His sweater was blue and holes collected themselves around the collar—sleeves rolled to his elbows. He coughed on the smoke from his cigarette, knowing I was unaware of what we needed to do. I was 14 years old.
My mother had left the house earlier that morning with tears in her eyes, hugging my father in her stilettos and blonde hair, stained coffee cups in the sink. He whispered things into her ear. Her sobs echoed through the hallway. He whispered more things and they hugged.
“…why do we have to do this, I can’t believe you want to do this…”
Outside snow was falling and covering the gray yard. He stuffed the .45 into the front of his pants and we walked out of my room out of the hollow hallway of our trailer, out to the backyard. Birds were moving around in the tree, the hushing sound of the snow and their voices is all I remember hearing. My father stood in the middle of the yard in front of me crushing the remainder of his cigarette into the snow. He reached for the red handkerchief in his back pocket and blew his nose. Birds still chirping, snow still falling. The pistol gleamed from his pants.
We walked further near the pasture where the dogs Koda and Gus were kept. They were kept by an acre of aluminum chain link fencing. Koda was my mother’s oldest wolf hybrid. She had rescued her seven years prior from a stranger who starved her and kept her in his basement for years. Her ribs had been broken when we first got her. My mother nursed her back to health in our house. She slept in the living room for the first few months, moaning in the night and scratching at the pin we kept her in. My family adjusted. I remember walking out to the living room at night to talk to her. I would tell her everything about her I loved and stick my fingers through the pin to touch her blue-gray coat. Her eyes were tired and seemed to glow in the night—a bright swirling orange. They must have glowed in the man’s basement too. She must have been able to hear him walk along the wood flooring upstairs—above her. Sitting near the boiler or old brown boxes labeled Christmas and Halloween and Birthday she would probably wait for him to walk down his creaky staircase; the man only seeing the glow of her eyes, the swirling orange, twisting like a dying fire.
My father adjusted the gun in his belt as we approached the chain link pen. The pen stood alone in the pasture surrounded by nothing but snow covered grass. But on this day it stood unsure of itself. I asked my father what we were doing and he paused. I watched the foggy breath poor out of him, his lips cold and surrounded by the black of his beard.
“I want you to hold the gun when I go into the pen.”
We both stood still. The cold itching our feet, silence, a long pause, and then, “Koda is sick.”
A few days prior my father had stood at my neighbor’s porch with Koda bleeding in his arms. My mother stood nervous at his side. She stood brushing Koda’s stomach as she lay lifeless on my father. Blood was thick and dripping in between Koda’s legs. Our neighbor was Altman, an older man training to be a vet. When he put his hands inside of Koda he pulled out three dead puppies and more where stuck inside, corrupting her organs and intestines. He told my parents there was nothing to do.
My father moved into the pen cautiously, the gun was now held tightly in my hands. I flicked the safety off and held the barrel near the aluminum fencing. The snow stood above the soles of my father’s shoes, white flakes laid on his shoulder and in his hair. My gun pointed at nothing, but it was ready. Koda lay near the tall grass away from her dog house curling her lips, growling, her teeth glowing like the snow. My father glanced to me, to the gun, to Koda, back to me, to the gun. Once he reached Koda he cupped her snarling mouth, she whined under his pressure. Koda tried to fight but could barely lift her butt off of the snow, sick with lifeless puppies inside her.
I stood as my father pulled Koda out into the weathered field, whispering into her ears. Her legs and paws hung stretched beneath her.
He tied Koda to a pole he had put into the middle of the pasture earlier. She wasn’t fighting anymore, her breaths were so labored that her mouth stayed open, spit hanging from her lips. When I looked into Koda’s eyes I wanted to believe I saw relief or understanding. I know I saw pain but I wanted the calm of the winter and my father’s hands to give her everything she needed. I wanted to believe in what we were doing. I wanted to know that people had done this before.
“You need to see this,” he said holding me by the arms, “You need to see how things are handled.”
He glanced to the foothills and back to the side of the trailer. I wondered if this was something his father had taught him. I don’t remember crying, my father’s goal growing up was to teach me how not to cry. When I think back I believe he tried to teach me that awful things are always going to happen. They had happened to him.
Before he asked for the gun back he rolled the sleeves of his sweater to his elbows. His purple burns were the only color in the landscape. I handed him the .45. He stood holding the gun looking into the sky, taking deep breaths, eyes closed. He knelt next to her in the snow, whispering things into her ear that I never heard, things that I will never hear. I think he probably told her everything about her that he loved, and why he had to do this and why people have done this before.
Wiping his eyes, he put the gun on top of Koda’s head. She sat staring into the hills in the distance.