Tender Deaths
LaTanya McQueen

Near the end my father would go out picking up the dead animals the city sweepers left behind. I saw them sometimes as I walked home, the half-eaten carcasses of squirrels or birds that had fallen from their treetop homes. The worst were the mice, their bodies flattened like paper. I always looked away, careful not to let their images linger too long in my mind. My father carried a habit of staring at the ground when he walked. His feet shushed through the leaves as he took small, delicate steps. He saw the animals too but he couldn't look away, and afternoons I'd see him going out to the yard, carrying mother's old hatbox in his hands.

"What is this about?" I asked him.

"They deserve better deaths," he mumbled through gritted teeth.  

Two weeks before, he'd learned that an old buddy of his had died. He was found sitting on a park bench near his apartment. Days had gone by and no one noticed his decaying corpse, the smell of the rotting flesh. It was only on the fourth day, when the first season's light snowfall began, that a woman walking home thought to ask if he was all right. She went to him, put her hand on his shoulder, and then upon realizing, began calling.

I told my father to stop. I said he could get rabies. I said what was the point, they were already dead. Still he would go creeping in the night down our lost city, crouching low among the dirty alleyways, a small key light between his thick fingertips, looking for their wretched remains.

One night I followed him through the quiet streets until I saw him stop. He stood staring at something on the ground. I walked to him and we both kneeled. Tucked in a pile of crushed, wet leaves was a dead squirrel. It had not been dead for long from what I could tell. With shaky hands he picked it up and placed it into his cardboard box, this lifeless, ruined thing.

"Found one," he said, smiling madly as if he had done something, as if he had rescued this animal from its cruel fate. He slid off latex gloves and I looked at him and thought—it won't be much longer now. So I walked with him until we both got tired and there was nothing else left to save.

LaTanya McQueen has had stories in The North American Review, Monkeybicycle, Dzanc's Best of the Web and others.

To link to this story directly: http://wigleaf.com/201101tender.htm

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