Inside the cottage my friends are bleaching the cupboards and hammering pieces of tin over newly chewed holes. The power of mice to direct our day—gray and soft-boned and horribly focused creatures. Once, I looked a dead mouse in the eye, already glazed over, but the body was warm and plump.
Is drowning better than traps? I have spent some time considering this question—one my father might have said was ridiculous. A man who believes in traps, not without an appreciation for life. You kill animals for two reasons: food and protection. In summers he set live traps on the perimeter of his strawberry patch to stop the sparrows from eating his crop. Small wooden boxes with irreversible doors.
Once, many years ago, my girlfriend and I stood with him at his garden. He was giving us a tour of the backyard; behind the yard was a neighboring farmer’s alfalfa field and behind that the Sauk River and behind that Holsteins on a hill. My girlfriend and I were one day out of the city, out of our basement apartment in a twenty-unit building downtown. We were graduate students at the university, our heads often in notebooks and books, language streaming into our un-integrated brains.
The yard that summer was so green we felt as if we were floating or dreaming, the air was thick with sunlight and water from the river and the ten thousand lakes. My father, sixty-five then, newly retired from forty-five years of inseminating cows for a dairy company, had planted the biggest garden ever—five extra rows of his famous strawberries, green beans, carrots, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, watermelons. He had taken up luring decorative seasonal birds into the front and backyards; he built birdfeeders and wooden posts on which he perched hunks of suet and grape jelly; he filled clear plastic tubes with red Kool-aide and hung them from trees near the windows; he purchased two fake-marble birdbaths. And the birds came. They feasted in front of the living room and bedroom windows and made nests in the backyard, some of them so happy with the fare they forgot to migrate. Blue birds, finches, humming birds, oriels, robins, and peleated woodpeckers.
That day he was wearing a beat-up red fishing cap and a white tee shirt and jeans. His skin was the color and texture of a medium-rare steak. He showed my girlfriend and me every row, every plant. He told us how many inches apart he had sown the seeds, the grade of compost and cow manure he used. He compared the new crop to last year’s crop and the one a year before that and a year before that. He talked about the angle of light, the rhythm of this summer’s rain, the sprinkler problems, the marigolds he’d planted on the south side near the tomatoes to deter some animal or plant-eating insect.
We listened and nodded. My girlfriend had grown up on the fifth floor of a glass-walled building in Manhattan, five blocks from Tiffany. Her family kept a few plants but no gardens; before she moved to the Twin Cities and met me she’d never been west of Ohio, never been within ten feet of a cow or ground water well or a three-foot pile of steer manure.
“These tomatoes aren’t doing so hot this year,” my father said. “But the strawberries are awesome.” Then he reached down, picked up a wooden trap, pulled out a live sparrow, and twisted off its head. “And the carrots are pretty good,” he said, tossing the sparrow’s body and head into the fenced-in compost between the garden and the shed.
At that moment I looked at my girlfriend’s face. She had great ears—angled out like the ears of a koala bear. But her dark brown eyes had turned inward. She put her hand on her stomach. She froze. I did the only thing I could do at the time, but I’ve thought about this compulsion often since: I turned away from her and followed my father into the beans.
That summer a tornado wrenched up an apple tree and took the roof off the shed. My parents’ power went out and they sat in the dark for hours, no television, no phone, no radio, no lights. The windows were black. That summer my father shot twelve geese, and ground the meat with slabs of frozen venison from the doe he’d shot the previous winter into goose-ven sausage and lunchmeat. That summer the lakes ran high and the fish were jumping out of the water into the boat, my father trucked home walleyes, trout, northern pikes, and sunfish in white buckets. Whoever was visiting—grandchildren, my brothers, sisters or I—helped him scale the bodies and cut off their heads while he filleted them on a wooden spool table in the backyard.
At the end of the long winter that followed, just after the ground had thawed and spring was beginning to bloom up on the city sidewalks and trees, my girlfriend moved back to New York and we broke up.
But that late summer day, when we still believed we were in love, my family, my girlfriend and I sat on the screened-in porch and feasted. After the meat my father brought in two big bowls. They were overflowing with strawberries. Vibrant and blood red, pulsing with black earth and sunlight and water. Tasting of all the ruthless, intimate care my father had given them.
NONA CASPERS is the author of four books including Heavier Than Air, which received the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. She has received a NEA Fellowship and an Iowa Review Fiction Award, among others. Stories have appeared in Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, Cimarron Review, The Sun. She co-edited with Joell Hallowell a nonfiction book Lawfully Wedded Wives: Rethinking Marriage in the 21st Century. She teaches Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. www.nonacaspers.com