The day the killer killed the bitch, the town-they-called-a-city’s grayscale sky went cartoon blue. White sun crashing through, it made the spring that felt like fall feel like spring again, if only before it felt like fall again. A fall, though, where an American Robin’s breast could be confused for bronze, its song a string of syllables: cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up. A fall where seeds for heirloom tomatoes, tarragon, Tuscan kale, and rainbow chard could be planted, quickly conjured into their fullness, and served onto plates. New England springs: falls where nothing falls, except for rain, which had lightly dropped, filling the air with that lonely, loamy smell.
The killer could list parts, name things, separate them, like blocks, like bricks. He could say, “bitch.” He could say, “is.” He could say, “dead.” But the links, the mortar between whatever it was he understood as building-blocks of meaning? Lost. Sure, he had propositions, sometimes. What he wanted, though, was a grammar, of death, this grammar bringing a kind of cohesion, a coming to being: a death sentence.
Earlier, a neighbor, sitting by her window, eyed the bitch through a meditative squint, hating her as much as the killer did, who, at that precise moment, had been walking, unbothered by the drizzle, along a wavering line where waves frothed onto sand. Noctambule, he stood at the edge of the sea—his eyes bloodshot from strain and fatigue—and stared at the roiling, seaweed-clogged water, with no recollection of how he’d arrived there. Scooping up some of the salty spume, where broken shells lay like pottery bits, he found a dried-out quahog. Shaking it dry, he lifted it to the sun, its purple and white and pink striations incandescing. Fingering its lip, he slipped the clam into his pocket, where it sat next to the ear, which had long since turned to marble. He had not thought about the sun winning its way through the gray, or the seaweed forming a green band between sea and beach, or the vacant-eyed cyborgs firing up their machines, or the bluebloods who had all of this as their seasonal backdrop. He hadn’t thought about anything, that is, he thought nothing, a nothing full of—don’t call it bliss—feeling. He’d simply felt this feeling and left even letting go behind him, that is, he let this feeling—don’t call it peace—be felt before it left. It was a feeling counter to the feeling he had been feeling, a feeling he’d felt after what he had been calling “the encounter.”
Days before his girlfriend had broken up with him, the killer had seen a woman walking toward him but on the opposite side of the street. She had waved to him, and he had waved back, unsure, though, of who she was, who she was, who she was, thinking he’d recognize her as she came closer. But he hadn’t, instead finding himself asking himself, “Who is she? Why have I forgotten who she is? Or, has she mistaken me for someone else? Or was I who she thought I was and I had simply forgotten I was the person who I, in fact, really was, and therefore couldn’t place who she was in relation to the self I had become?” He’d suddenly felt like someone, some thing, in-between but emergent, floating in a phantasmastic space, where knowledge and being were uncertain domains. And so, this feeling he’d felt at the beach—which countered, albeit briefly, the feeling he had been feeling, that sense of displacement—left soon after he’d felt what he’d felt and was long lost by the time he broke into the bitch’s home.
She would embrace him whenever he came back from the desert, relieved that he’d returned to her whole, without a hole, unlike one of the soldiers under his command, who had had half his face blown off. It had happened during an assault where he, the killer, had also been hit, the mortar blast forcing him into the air, his war-hardened body landing against a concrete slab, his helmet protecting him from anything more than bruises and the concussion from which the doctors would say he would fully recover.
Boots on the ground. “Watch your six!”—a constant refrain, the phrase a vestige of airborne dogfights, where directions were clock-face numbers. But weren’t they dogs, too, scrambling around in the dust, teeth bared, stillness and rigidity quickly shifting toward lungings forward? Orders, a series of guttural barks. Artillery fire, a kind of bite. Milliseconds between a warning and a bite. Shots like nips that leave no mark. Shots like bites barely tearing the skin. Shots like bites causing puncture wounds. Repeated shots in rapid succession. Territorial aggression—attacking and driving off intruders. Some of the boys had seemed to think of themselves as purebreds chasing down mongrels, screaming, occasionally even in their sleep, “Hajis closing!”
The company had set off in the dog days of late August, mortar fire, shot from tubes, presumably, forcing them away from where they were stationed securing a residential area in Baghdad. Tip of the spear. Full battle rattle. AK-47s. M249s. M4s for raids on resistance cells and Fedayeen commando enclaves. Their last raid had been successful. It’s where he, the killer, had found the ear. He’d seen it lying on the ground inches from the bloodied mess of a man’s head. Kicking the ear away toward some rubble, he would pocket it, several hours later. A keepsake kept hidden, its whorls subsequently fingered from time to time.
From whence the mortar fire? Their unaccomplished mission. Poor, broken city, shattered by blast and scatteration, lasting instabilities brought about by mass rocket bombardment, a perpetual rat-a-tat turning the people over to general chaos, to violent militias and ineffectual police. They, the soldiers, would hide their discontent, like an improvised bomb, a bomb which, when set off, would explode, either here in the dun-colored wastes or in whatever “there” to which they might return.
It had been hot, hotter than anything the killer had ever experienced in East Matunuck, Narragansett, or Newport, or even during the cruise he and his girlfriend had taken to the Caribbean to forget about everything, which for him meant the war, she’d hoped, and for her the distance that would wedge between them during each deployment. Days in the hundreds. Days where the oceans they couldn’t see roiled, boiled over, when dogs went crazy, and people followed suit, fevered, frenzied, as if enthralled by Sirius, Canis Major’s brightest star. One hundred twenty! One hundred thirty! One hundred forty! Climatized they weren’t, not really. The killer would sit in the airless silence of it, hear with profound clarity ice cubes chiming in a shaken glass. It’s a game he would play. Remembering things, like summer rain that cooled things down, the wet tapping on his forearms, asphalt’s silvery sheen. The sandstorm had only lasted a few hours, visibility returning to unlimited from the few hundred feet of just moments before.
Returning from his third deployment, the killer was harder, more distant than before. She knew better than to ask him to go out. Gatherings were tough, especially ones in the dark, in bars or restaurants, where people shuffled around, shouting, being stupid. She’d watch him, as he surveyed wherever they were, his eyes ping-ponging about the place. “Something’s not right,” he would say, and she’d ask him if he wanted to leave, which they invariably did. She never asked about what he’d seen, the people he’d shot and killed, the dead bodies, the IED explosions and rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire.
Going out was out, but she was content to stay at home, where she could talk to him, touch him, feel his body close to hers. He’s too young to look so hard, she’d think. Better him hard than gone. It was funny, at first, the way he’d pick on things, fuss over dust on shelves, about their bed’s disarray, a stack of unwashed dishes. “Like pigs,” he’d mutter under his breath. She’d tease him about it, call him “Captain Neat Freak” and “General Martha Stewart,” which would usually make him catch himself, make him laugh.
One night, however, tired after a long workday, when all she wanted was to have her feet rubbed, eat take-out, watch a movie, she just didn’t have it in her to play court jester to the mad king.
“Well, you’d know something about that,” she’d said when he complained about the pup’s pissings, how the house “smelled like death.” Seconds later, she was up against the wall, the killer’s hands squeezing her throat as he pressed himself against her body, which jerked around, fitfully. She screamed, or tried to, her windpipe clenched, the sounds from her mouth machinic, like metal scraping, her saliva spilling into the trough between the killer’s index finger and thumb, the drool disgusting him but acting like a cleanser clearing his mind, making him realize what he was doing, and so he let go of her, saying he was sorry over and over again, as she crumpled to the floor, sobbing. “Go, just go!” she’d shouted, as he, too, fell to the ground, crying but then quickly jumping up, running out of the house.
“I don’t feel right,” she’d often heard him say. Refusing her encouragement to lay down, he would, instead, sit by the window, swiveling his head hard left and right at birds being birds. He would say their names. “Cardinal.” “Blue Jay.” “Singularities,” he’d mumble. Rock pigeon. Mourning dove. City birds, he thought. A finch, on the ground, hopping alone, a link missing from its chain. Which one caused the leaf to fall to the ground? Whose whistle pierced the solid silence? “My head hurts,” he’d say, when she’d find him at the window again, asked him why he was sitting there, how long he had been sitting there, his eyes focused on some distant vanishing point, as he fixed on a memory, the things, the places she couldn’t reach.
He couldn’t tell her about that day, which would emerge from a resolute blankness, the obliquity of the misremembered; about the coughing blasts, the gray overlay of dust, the company rushing, helmets-first, firing their rifles, bullets hitting bodies, theirs and the enemies’. That he had killed and killed again. Until it seemed like someone else was doing the killing. And maybe it had been, he’d thought. Used my eyes to sight the enemy, used my hands to squeeze the trigger. He had captured the men. The ones left. Disarmed them. Lined them up against the wall and shot them. At once, judge, jury, and executioner. Peered over them, the fevered sweetness, a mess of purple, black, and red, and one man, still shaking, most of his head cracked open, brain matter pouring out like warm oatmeal. And, there, beside him, like a misplaced ornament, the ear.
“You used to tell me everything,” she’d say to him.
“Going away, part of you doesn’t come back,” he’d wanted to say to her.
Returning from the beach, the killer drove his car back to the town-they-called-a-city, toward the street he’d promised his girlfriend he would never return to. After parking, he walked toward the backyard. What followed was what usually followed: There was the fussing over the gate. There was the walk to the door. There was the muttering about the “infernal forest.” But instead of the rummaging for keys, there was the hesitation before the door. There were the conjectures about the door’s weakest spots. Near the hinges? The center? Then there were the two kicks, just below the knob, the trim splintering, the latch clattering to the floor. Thrusting himself through, the killer breathed in the room, the litter’s rank smell reminding him of his hatred of cats, save the fierce tabby he’d once taken care of, a cat who’d left a mouse it had caught where he could easily find it, as if to say, “From one killer to another.”
The bitch ran from him, and he ran from her, toward the kitchen, where he grabbed a butcher knife. He kept saying, “It’s all good,” and hating himself for it. How could it all be good? What was he, some stupid teenager? Like the new recruits, their crew cuts the only sharp thing about them. But it wasn’t all good. It wasn’t good at all. It would never be good again. “Coach, coax, choke.” He’d first heard it at boot camp, officers describing methods, the steps toward ensuring obedience. There he was, now, putting it to practice.
See their bodies now, pressed together, a contorted arabesque, a series of thrusts and retreats, he seated, absorbed, his legs spearing forward, she, distorted, coiled, thrusting her legs out as his arms tightened against her chest, the bitch’s body pressing against his own.
Holding her head up, he sliced across her quivering dewlap, blood pouring out, like gravy from a spout, splattering all over his chest. The knife caught in her hair, and so the killer yanked the bitch away from him, a liquid slap as her head hit the floor, where she cavorted, covering the linoleum tiles with her blood. The killer heaved his lunch on the floor, where it mixed with everything else. His jeans were wet with blood and the bitch’s urine. His thigh ached from kicking in the door. Where was his cap? Boston Red Sox. They might get the pennant, if they didn’t fuck it up again. But hadn’t he fucked it up? Made a mess of it? Standing at the center of the kitchen, he wiped the knife across his shirt, gazing at his unfinished work. She lay there, a mad spasm, panting. Blood bubbled out from the gash, from her wet trap of a mouth, tongue drawn out, her faulty, faltering breaths making a sick sucking sound—the abstruse language of death.
His eyes mapped the bitch’s body, catalogued its parts: its wet nose sitting on a long muzzle; its knobby stop, forehead, and occiput suggesting intelligence; its expressive ears, eyes, brows, and whiskers; its taut haunches; its pendulous flews and cheeks. There was its tense, barrel-shaped body, with its sharply sloping croup, shivering brisket, and muscular legs, where hocks led to pasterns to pads and toenails. Things were okay if he could name things. Naming is what brought meaning. It’s what distinguished people from animals. The killer thought back to the years of Sunday School, where he’d learned about Adam giving names to all “the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.” How they might have been brought to him so that he would sense their difference from him, so that he might yearn for another, one fit to be his companion. Which brought to mind a game he’d play in the desert, to alleviate the inevitable lull between operations. Waging war was really about the question of being, of meaning, of the potential to lose both, a process less about defense than about dissolution. It was a test of a person’s resistance to boredom while surrendering to the promise of purpose offered by an awful equation: kill or be killed. Introducing a subject, say, animals, they’d take turns going through the alphabet. They’d start with the expected ape, bird, cat, dog, and so on, but, after several rounds, as the soldiers tried to outdo each other with obscurities, they’d end up with the wildest of abecedaries: Axolotl. Bongo. Coati. Dik-dik. Electric Catfish. Fiddler Crab. Greater Sage-grouse. Hoatzin. Iriomote Cat. Javelina. Kanchil. Lamprey. Marsupial Mole. Nautilus. Okapi. Pangolin. Quoll. Ringtail. Shoebill. Tapir. Uakari. Vaquita. Woylie. Xenopus. Yellow-cheeked Gibbon. Zebu.
Names. Abstract to concrete. Thing—Living thing—Mammal—Canine—Dog—Labrador-mix—Diva. “She’s a bitch, you know,” she’d said. And that’s how his girlfriend’s puppy, the one he’d bought for her just before his first deployment, was named.
Diva stared at him, registering both alarm and, the killer thought, understanding, her right leg twitching. Eyeing her, he saw himself. He was afraid, too—he understood that. But wasn’t this the dynamic between companions? A coalescence of consciousnesses? What he saw in the percipient was a gateway, an energetic zone of shared fear, that fear compelling the killer to see himself in the animal, as the animal. Man and animal intertwined, he thought. Humans simply animals gussied up for the carnival of grotesqueries called life.
Staring into Diva’s webbed-red eyes, a granularity of life, a residue of sentience still apparent in them, the killer saw not merely a figure, a composite of relational externalities and internalities, but a being, who was more than a list of attributes, more than simply the sum of her parts. Her hard, bulging black eyes bore into the killer’s own, a blankness burying empathy, like so much sediment. His face: angular, browned from months in the desert, a thin scar running like a worm across the back of his head, a block of juts and abutments. Here is the animal: throat ripped open, tail still wagging, even as she flags, whimpering. Dying, it still suggested motion, of tensile properties pushing and pulling, reminding the killer of how Diva would always refuse to drop the ball once she had captured it, of how Diva had once, in an effort to remove a tick, dragged her buttocks across gravel, the way Diva would seat herself between him and his girlfriend, curling herself into an O, serving as a kind of electric conduit, a warm link between them, suggesting faith, loyalty, and love.
“Do what you want” had been his girlfriend’s last words to him, an answer, of sorts, to his asking what he was supposed to do after she had finally broken things off with him. He sat down, then, next to the animal, Diva, who was still breathing, knowing what he wanted. Sitting beside her, he lifted her onto his lap once again, forcing the knife into her stomach, a rubied cornucopia falling into his lap, rancid stink filling the air.
Feeling the ache in his hand and forearm caused by his vise-like grip on the knife, he dropped his arm to his side, fanned out his fingers—blood falling through them, like swill down a trough—letting the knife clatter to the floor, drops of blood dotting the floor, like diacritical marks. Stroking Diva’s head, he watched life seep from her eyes. His own burned. Was it fatigue? Anger? Sadness?
He squeezed his eyes shut, absorbed, distorted with pride for what he, as a soldier, would have called the “successful removal of a target,” the refrigerator’s insectoidal buzz slowly sawing into his mind, returning him to here, his girlfriend’s house, and to now, barely a minute after the killing. Taking in, once again, this banquet of the senses, he remembered who he was, where he was, what he had become. His mouth broke into a jaw-breaking yawn, much like a cat’s, bringing saliva, which he swallowed, into his red mouth.
Allowing his girlfriend’s sendoff to sound in his mind, the killer, closing his red-rimmed eyes, released himself to it. The things he had seen and done, the things he’d carried, avoided, loved, and hated, even killed, could not be reduced. Not by him, not by anyone else either. It was something that kept happening. He was here but he was also there, alone, together, apart. Life: a series of decays, of ruptures within ruptures without sutures. Life: a thing lived alone, but alone in many places, past, present, and future, simultaneously, where there wasn’t so much microscopic-but-still-ultimately-discernable moments but one thing, one continuous something. “The past is present is future.” He said this over and over, mumbling it, as if memorizing lines, rehearsing them for some future performance.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.
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