When I was six years old, I killed my cocker spaniel. No one knew that I had actually killed him, so no one had ever blamed me for his death. The entire incident had been tucked away, first one fold and then another fold, into family silence. For thirty years I had never talked to anyone about it until my father had a stroke in 1994. In the Yale-New Haven Hospital, in a dimly lit private room, my father and I finally talked about that puppy's death.
A nurse was scratching some notes into a chart while the IV dripped, and the heart monitor pulsed. Propped up by two pillows in a hospital bed, my father looked embarrassed at all this medical attention.
"All this nonsense," he said, "for an old woodchuck like me."
"You're not that old," I said.
He snorted at that remark. The nurse smiled and left the room.
"Where's your mother?"
"Having some tea. Downstairs in the cafeteria with Brother Jerome."
"Louis, Dad, it's Louis."
My father nodded. He had never been comfortable using Louis's new name. He had never quite adjusted to the religious and spiritual process of the Roman Catholic Church when she stripped off his birth name, Louis Paul Korzeniowski, like some old, tattered label, and renamed him Brother Jerome once he took his final vows.
"And no doubt they're planning the funeral service?"
"I wonder what it's like to have your own son administer the last rites?"
"You're far from the last rites."
Louis is one of my older brothers, who is a Benedictine monk. After morning mass at St. Anselm's Monastery in Washington, D.C., he took the Amtrak north and arrived in New Haven earlier this afternoon. I had driven down to the train station an hour ago to pick him up. He's the only one in our immediate family who lives outside Connecticut. Beth, my only sister, still lives in Wallingford, our hometown; Pete, my oldest brother, lives in West Hartford.
"Didn't anyone tell Louis that an old woodchuck like me doesn't need last rites?"
I didn't respond. I simply gazed at his fine face. Even in his seventies, my father was a handsome man: thick white hair, clear hazel eyes, firm lean lips. I ran a hand through my own hair, thinner now, receding a little, but I knew I would still have hair as I stepped into middle age. I could thank my father for that.
After a moment, after no response to his gloomy challenge, my father murmured, "Well, maybe even old woodchucks do need last rites."
I smiled. "Yeah, I guess so."
My father sighed. "So ... how're things up in New London?"
Last year I had been hired as an assistant professor of English at Connecticut College. "Things are fine."
"What're you teaching?"
"The same thing, Dad. Two comp courses and one creative writing course."
"Teaching them to be creative, huh?"
"A few, I guess."
"How do you do something like that?"
I made a moaning sound. We had been through this numerous times. I don't think my father really understands exactly what I do in creative writing courses. "We're studying poetry now. We read poems, we look at how they work, I give them exercises."
"What kind of exercises?"
"Different things, Dad. Prompts. To give them some ideas."
"Right now, they're writing secrets."
My father turned his face toward me. "Secrets?"
I nodded. "Secrets. What I do is have all the students in class type out a secret, something they've never told anyone—ever. Then I collect them and pass them out to different students."
"I pass out the secrets randomly. Then that student has to use that secret to write a poem."
"Someone gets someone else's secret?"
"And they try to write about it?"
"That's it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
"How did you ever come up with something like that?"
"I didn't. It's in a book. A book of poetry exercises."
"Well." My father uttered that word with conviction.
"Why don't you tell me a secret, Dad?"
He looked at me. "A secret, Tom?"
"Yeah, tell me a secret. Tell me something you've never told anyone so I can write a poem."
"A secret, huh?" He looked away from me and down at the back of his liver-spotted hands, turned them over to gaze at his palms, and then turned them back again. "I'm seventy-five. Do you know how old was when she died?"
I shook my head. Babka was my grandmother, his mother.
"She was seventy-five when she died. And now I'm seventy-five. You never think you'll make it this far and when you do, then you want another seventy-five years."
"A secret, Tom? Okay. I'll tell you something. I'll tell you something that's been in my head off and on for years."
What I anticipated as a simple activity just to amuse and distract his thoughts all of a sudden acquired an odd intensity of purpose.
"It's about that dog."
"That puppy you had."
Each Easter Sunday, the family followed the same routine: drink a watered-down glass of orange juice for breakfast (everyone had to fast from the night before), attend Mass, and then visit my grandparents' farmhouse for a celebratory meal. This meal was not so much dinner or supper, a fixed meal at a fixed time, as it was a general indulgence of food and drink and talk all afternoon for neighbors and family—a day of visiting and good will to celebrate Christ's resurrection.
Each Easter Sunday, the family followed the same routine until 1964. That year, I had been the owner of a puppy for three weeks. We already had two family cats: an old battered tomcat and a longhaired Angora with orange and white fur. But I wanted a dog. My mother did not. I pestered her for months until, finally, she relented when a neighbor's dog had puppies and offered me one for free. Mrs. Canning gave the pedigree papers to my mother, which she accepted with defeated grace.
The puppy was a dark caramel-colored cocker spaniel. After I got the puppy, I couldn't think about anything else. When in school, all I thought about was that puppy; when I got back home, all I did was play with him for the rest of the day.
When we returned home from Mass that day to change clothes before driving to the farm, I wanted to take the puppy with me. I wanted to show him to my cousins. My mother did not think it was a good idea.
"Oh, Mom, please, I'll watch him all the time. I promise."
"There are enough animals up there already. It's Easter Sunday, after all. It's a holy day."
"Oh, Mom, please."
"Go ask your father."
My father said I could take the puppy to the farm.
He drove up the long driveway, around the circular drive and parked next to the grape arbor. Cars were parked everywhere.
"Well, at least it's not raining like last year," my mother said, opening the car door.
The day was clear and bright and crisp. I always loved the dairy farm because it was so unlike my home. The farm was an entirely different world: English transformed into Polish, the back yard swings turned into tractors and hay balers, the gardening shed changed into a huge red barn and three silos, the small vegetable garden shifted into acres and acres of pasture land, and the cats metamorphosed into cows and calves and bulls and chickens and pigs. Even an outhouse, not having been used for decades, still stood at the edge of the field.
My grandfather's two black German shepherds came bounding and barking from the side of the farmhouse. I had the puppy zippered up inside my jacket with just his head peeping out, and he started to tremble and whine. I ran past the barking dogs and hurried to the side kitchen.
In the entranceway, lying in a patch of sunshine on the floor, a fat gray cat gazed up at me.
My grandmother greeted me in Polish. "Tomasz! What have you got there?"
"Fri-day?" she repeated, bending forward to peer at the small brown face.
"He's a cocker spaniel." I unzipped my jacket. "Erik named him. After Robinson Crusoe."
My brother Erik, who was three years older, had been reading that book the day I brought the puppy home.
She nodded. "That boy book."
"And Friday is also the day Jesus Christ was crucified," she said.
I had not thought about that.
She took Friday's little paw in between two arthritic fingers and shook it. "Very nice to meet you."
Then, still bent over, she cupped me under the chin and lifted my face toward her.
"Did you fast?"
"Did you receive holy communion?"
"And did you thank God for His blessing on this most holy day?"
"Very good, little one." She released my face and stood up.
My grandmother wore a dark blue dress with a sprig of lily-of-the-valley pinned near her shoulder. I thought she even had a little rouge on her cheeks. She was a slender and strong-willed woman with copper-colored eyes. She walked with a slight limp because a cow had once kicked her and cracked her hip. She was intensely Roman Catholic and intensely Polish. She never forgave my father for having married my mother because she was not a Pole—she was Italian.
When my mother stepped into the entranceway, my grandmother stiffened. Disagreement and tension had rippled between them for years.
"Thomas has a very nice puppy," my grandmother said in English and winked at me, because my mother did not like her to call me Tomasz or to speak to me in Polish.
"I told him not to bring him up here," my mother said. "After all, it is Easter Sunday, but his father said that one more animal at the farm wouldn't make a difference."
"No. No, it won't make a difference," my grandmother declared and limped into the kitchen.
A long table had been set up, covered with a white linen tablecloth, and piled with plates and pots of food: baked ham, homemade bread, hard-boiled eggs sliced in half, kielbasa, potato salad, farmer's cheese, baked beans, borsch, pies and cakes and candies. The room was warm and spicy and sweet. Tall white lilies, in full bloom, were set on the sills of every kitchen window.
Everyone oohed and ahhed over my puppy when I let him down to scrabble along the linoleum floor. "So cute." "What a darling." "Look at that nose." The crowd frightened him and he peed on the floor. My mother stood mortified, but my father just chuckled and stepped over to the sink for some paper towels.
On Easter Sunday it was imperative to eat blessed food first to break the fast. Father John, our parish priest, had come over the day before to bless the ham, the kielbasa, the homemade bread, the eggs, and the horseradish. I suppose he could have blessed anything at all, but those foods were the traditional foods to bless.
I always had to start with a blessed egg and a dollop of horseradish. The horseradish was so strong that my nose tingled and my eyes watered.
"Good?" my grandmother asked and then laughed when she saw my eyes tear.
She had made the horseradish a week ago. Out in the back garden, she had pulled up the long, slender white roots and grated them up with a little vinegar. My grandmother took particular pride in the strong bite of her horseradish.
After I finished my egg, I ate some ham, kielbasa, borsch, and bread and butter. All afternoon, the men smoked pipes and cigarettes, drank beer, and argued about the assassination of President Kennedy last fall: Who did it? How many? Was Oswald alone? The women gossiped and sipped sweet red wine. I played with my puppy.
In the late afternoon, holding a plate on my lap and sitting on a maroon sofa in the front parlor, I ate once again. After I finished, I had some leftover ham on my plate. Friday was scrabbling around at my feet, chewing on a raggedy sock made into a toy.
When I picked the piece of ham off my plate and held it down for my puppy, my grandmother shouted, "No, Tomasz, no!"
Her face was tight with anger. All conversation in the room withered.
"Co?" I asked.
She limped over to me, stiff and erect, her eyes cold and angry. "You must never feed blessed food to an animal."
I peered at the scrap of meat. Friday was yipping for it.
"Because it will die."
I stared at the scrap of meat again and dropped it back on my plate.
Erik said, "Yeah, didn't you know that? If you feed blessed food to an animal, it dies."
"I didn't know."
"Well, now you do, dummy."
"Don't call me dummy."
I ignored him and looked at my puppy. I looked at the plate. I looked at the piece of ham. I puzzled over the fact that this piece of meat could kill my puppy just because Father John mumbled some Latin over it. My grandmother stood looking down at me.
"Why would Friday die if he eats blessed ham?"
My grandmother's eyes sharpened. She sat down next to me and took one of my hands in hers. Her knuckles were bent and bony. Her skin was tough and reddened. She squeezed my fingers together and spoke to me in Polish.
"Christ was not crucified for your puppy, little one, but for you."
I nodded in an absent manner.
She released her grip and opened my hand, palm upward. She pressed the tip of her forefinger into the center of my palm. "That is where the nail went in when they nailed Him to the cross. He died for our sins. Through His death we live."
I stared at her forefinger pressing into my palm, the pressure becoming painful.
Then she pulled her forefinger away and squeezed my hand again. "But He rose from the dead. Today. For me. For you."
"But not for Friday?"
She jiggled my hand. "A puppy does not have an immortal soul, little one."
"Do you not listen in catechism?"
"And the nuns do not tell you?"
"I want you to tell me."
Shaking her head, she said, "I do not know how you will ever become a priest, little one."
It was my grandmother's fervent hope that I would become a priest. I was her pet, for some reason, and her choice for a life in the Church. She always said that before she died she wanted to know that one member of her family would become a priest or a nun. She herself would have entered a convent if it had not been for my grandfather.
For a moment, my grandmother sat quietly and held my hand in hers. I sat staring at the piece of ham on my plate.
"Little one, God made you, do you understand that?"
"I think so."
"Do you know what that means to be made?"
I shook my head.
"You were made in His image."
"Like a mirror?"
"Something like that, little one. You are part of God. And that part is your soul. That part is immortal because it lasts forever."
"Because it's part of God?"
"Tak. And that part returns to God when you die."
"But your puppy does not have that part."
"But didn't God make Friday too?"
"God made your puppy, too, little one, but not the same way."
"And prayers and going to church and eating blessed food are for Catholics, so we can return to God when we die. That is called Heaven."
"I see." But I didn't entirely understand.
"Some things must simply be accepted. Some things you must not question. The Church must guide your life."
"That blessed ham is for you, not for your puppy."
I nodded. "I understand."
"Remember, little one, the Church must guide your life."
She released my hand, stood up, and moved away. Once again, people started to chatter and drink and eat. Erik slinked away to the other side of the room. The TV set murmured. Cigar smoke floated along the ceiling. I sat musing over this bit of information. My immortal soul. In His image. Part of God. The Church.
Friday started scrabbling again at my legs, trying to climb up. I picked up the piece of ham. It was no bigger, really, than a half dollar—just a small chunk of meat.
No one seemed to be paying any attention to me, so I slipped my hand down and fed the blessed ham to my puppy.
I then carried my plate into the kitchen, where my grandmother was cleaning some dishes. I handed her the empty plate. She stared at it and then at me. She said not a word as she plunged the dish into the sudsy water.
At 5:30 p.m., we drove home with plates and bowls and all types of food, blessed or not, wrapped in Saran wrap. I watched some TV and played with Friday. At 8:00 p.m., it was time for me to get ready for bed. Erik and I shared a room, but he didn't have to go to bed for another hour.
I had had a battle with my mother over where my puppy would sleep. I insisted that he sleep in bed with me; she insisted that he stay in a dog bed in a corner of the garage. The compromise was that he could sleep in my room in his dog bed, and that I would be responsible for any accidents.
I took Friday outside one last time, and then we climbed the stairs together. I changed into my pajamas, brushed my teeth, said my prayers, and jumped into bed after kissing and hugging Friday and putting him in his little circular bed.
I fell fast asleep.
Then I was being jostled. "Tommy, wake up. Tommy?"
"Friday's whimpering," Erik said, standing next to my bed.
I sat up and heard my puppy whining and crying. I jumped out of bed.
Friday lay there, panting, his tongue hanging out.
I knelt down and stroked his head. "What's the matter, Friday?"
When I picked him up, he yowled.
"What's wrong with him?" Erik asked.
"I don't know."
"I'll go get Dad." And Erik ran out of the room.
Sitting on my heels, I held him on my lap and did not know what to do. He just kept panting and whimpering and crying.
My father stepped into the room with Erik close behind him. "What's wrong?"
I started to whimper along with the puppy. "I don't know."
My father bent down. "Is there something sticking him?"
When my father felt him, Friday yowled again. "He might have a broken rib or something. Did you drop him?"
I shook my head.
"Did he fall down the stairs or anything?"
"No, I don't think so. I didn't see."
Friday started to cough.
"Did he eat something at the farm? Maybe he ate something bad?"
At that remark, I stared at my puppy. "No. I don't think so."
Friday oozed black shit on my pajamas. "Oh, Dad, do something. Please do something."
"Get a towel," he said to Erik.
The smell of puppy shit was ugly. I could feel the warm black liquid on my thighs. Then Friday started to gag. Erik returned with a towel but just stood there. My father knelt down on one knee near me.
Friday continued to gag, the way cats gag when they vomit a hairball—that hideous retching sound and those jerky body spasms. Friday gagged and gagged and then simply stopped. When he stopped, I knew he was dead. I could feel it. I could feel it in my fingertips and in my palms. Dad knelt beside me shaking his head. I tried not to cry.
My mother stood in the doorway now. "What's wrong?"
I looked up at her, my lips tight together.
"That awful smell," my mother said. "What's wrong?"
I don't remember too much more about that night except that my father managed to take Friday away from me and wrap him up in a towel. He removed my shit-stained pajamas, bathed me, and put me back to bed.
I wanted to tell my father that I had killed my puppy. But I couldn't. I wanted to tell him that I had fed my puppy blessed ham and he had died. But I couldn't. I wanted to tell my father that I had broken a sacred law of the church.
In the hospital room that afternoon, my father said, "Babka poisoned your puppy."
When my father told me that, I could not speak.
The nurse, once again, stepped into the room to check on my father. She examined the IV and the heart monitor and scratched another note into the medical chart. She smiled again and left the room.
"She poisoned my puppy? Why? Why would she ever do something like that?"
"To teach you."
"To teach me? Teach me what?"
"Faith in the Roman Catholic Church. You know how she was."
"But why in the world would she poison a puppy?"
"Because you fed the dog blessed food."
I looked at him dumbfounded. My thoughts were turning and slipping. "You knew?"
"But I never told anyone. I never told anyone about that. How did Babka find out I fed Friday blessed food?"
"Erik told her."
"Erik? But I never told him. How did he find out? Did he tell you?"
"Well, then how did—"
"When I saw Babka a few days after your puppy died, she told me she had poisoned the dog to teach you a lesson. She said Erik told her you fed blessed ham to the puppy."
"Did Erik know Babka poisoned the puppy?"
My thoughts ached. "I cannot believe this. I didn't think anyone knew and now everyone seems to know."
"Erik saw you feed the ham to the puppy. He told Babka that you didn't think anyone was watching, but he was. He told her. I don't know if he ever told anyone else. Babka told me the whole story."
All this time, for thirty years, I didn't think anyone knew I had fed Friday blessed food. But my grandmother knew, my father knew, and my brother knew.
"Who else knows this?"
"I never told anyone else ... until now."
"But Erik didn't know you knew?"
"And he didn't know about the poisoning?"
"No. Babka told me and told me alone. Erik did not know about the poison."
"So when Friday died later that night, Erik might have thought he died because of the blessed ham?"
My father nodded. "Possibly."
"God, Dad, how could she do such a thing?"
"She said it was to guide you. To guide you in the ways of the Church."
"To guide me?" My words were hard and bitter.
I stood up, walked to the window, and stared out at the street.
The secret my father just told me was my secret. What I thought no one else knew had been known. My grandmother, father, and Erik all knew I had fed Friday the blessed ham, but Erik did not know my father knew. Only my grandmother and father, however, knew about the poison, but now I knew about the poison.
When I had gone to confession to recite my sins and transgressions to the priest, I had never confessed anything about the blessed ham. When I had a bout of depression in my late twenties, I had never even discussed it with Dr. Kyro, my psychiatrist. I had simply never told anyone.
Even though the secret my father told me was my secret, I realized that it was also his secret. He knew what Babka did—what his own mother did—but had told no one. My grandmother had poisoned my puppy. Poisoned the puppy of a six-year-old boy.
Then I realized that my father's secret was also my grandmother's secret as well as Erik's secret. That central act of feeding blessed ham to Friday had generated a whole series of intertwining loops of secrecies.
I turned away from the window and sat back down in the hospital chair. "And up to now, you and Babka were the only ones who knew about the poisoning?"
"God, Dad, why didn't you tell me all this sooner?"
His voice frowned. "I didn't want to stir up bad memories. You were hurt when that puppy died, but you seemed okay. I wasn't even sure if you made the connection between the blessed ham and the death. You never said anything. I wasn't sure if you even remembered feeding the ham to the puppy, that you might have just done it without thinking. I thought you just thought the puppy had died."
"Did you ever wonder why I never wanted another puppy? Or why I never wanted another pet? Why I have never owned a pet my entire adult life?"
He didn't respond.
"Dad, I really did think I killed that puppy. Of course I made the connection. I made that connection for years. I accepted it as punishment. Catholic punishment. Divine retribution. Later on ... only later on did I dismiss it as some freak coincidence. Some strange scene in a black comedy. But not as a six year old."
For years I thought I had killed my puppy, until I was about twelve or thirteen years old when reason securely seized my brain—no cause and effect. It had been a freak accident, a bizarre coincidence. Now, however, I had been the reason for his death. My grandmother would not have done anything had I not fed Friday that piece of blessed ham. I had indeed killed my puppy.
My father's eyes drifted about the room. "I never understood why she did it. She always had strange ways. Had always been a devout Catholic. We had a huge fight when she told me. She was in her sewing shed that day, that building near the grape arbor? Do you remember it?"
"I remember it."
"I had just gone up there, up to the farm, that is, to visit. And when I mentioned that your puppy had died, she said, 'I know.' At first, I thought she knew because someone had told her, but the way she said it ... I said, 'You know?' She then told me everything. She said it was a small sacrifice. 'A small sacrifice?' I said. 'To guide him in the ways of the Church.' And, Tom, I did say to her, 'But a boy six years old?' She shook her head. 'It is for his own good.'"
"My God, Dad."
"Then we fought. I told her I didn't want her to teach any of my children anything. To stop meddling in my family. That I will raise my children my own way. The whole thing was just ... ugly. Just ugly."
"I can't believe this happened."
My father looked down at his hands again. "I wish I had said something to you sooner, Tom. I should have told you, but I just wanted to forget the whole thing. To forget it."
"But you told me now."
"Tak. Now I've told you. Now you know."
That night, after visiting hours were over, I drove my mother and brother back to the family house in Wallingford before driving home to Deep River, where I lived in a rented house. As I drove down Rt. 9, over and over I kept returning to that conversation with my father, examining the implications, exploring the reasons.
What had Erik thought? Did he think he had betrayed me? Did he, too, think I had killed the puppy? I had the puppy for only three weeks and then he was gone—it was almost as though the puppy had never existed. He and I had never talked about it. No one in the family ever talked about it. I wished, though, I could talk to him now. I wanted to know what he knew, what he thought, what he remembered. I wanted to know what he would have thought had he known our grandmother had poisoned Friday.
What began to fascinate me, however, as I drove down the highway is that what I thought was my secret alone hadn't been mine at all. Three other persons knew. And if my father hadn't told me his secret this afternoon—if, in fact, his stroke had been fatal—I would have continued thinking that my secret was my secret alone until I too died.
I was confronted with a paradox: my secret was not a secret. My secret had never been a secret. For thirty years. I began to wonder about the essence of secrets. I wondered about the secrets that other people had and about the other secrets that I had. Was it possible, now, that they too weren't secrets? That someone else somehow knows? Everyone has something—whatever it is—that is hidden. Everyone presents a face to the world that is seen and studied, but behind that face lie secrets and mysteries and desires.
I then tried to comprehend the entire psychological context of my grandmother to understand what she did. For a farmer's wife, of course, a puppy or a cat is hardly significant. Animals die all the time on a farm. Kittens get stepped on by cows. Dogs get run over by trucks. Cows, calves, pigs, and chickens are slaughtered with regularity for food. My grandmother had killed animals her whole life. Without a flinch she would snap the neck of a chicken for supper. What importance is a silly caramel-colored puppy? No importance at all to her, except to teach a small boy a lesson. A lesson she considered of utmost importance. A small sacrifice.
By the time I got home and pulled into the driveway and cut off the headlights, I thought that her reason for poisoning my puppy had been a selfless act, in a macabre way, entirely for my benefit. She did not poison Friday out of malice or cruelty or thoughtlessness, but to guide me in the ways of the Church. For her, the Roman Catholic Church was the single most important dimension of her life: her faith in God, her salvation through Christ, her devout belief in sacred laws. I had always been her "little one," her pet, her choice for the priesthood. "I can sense your depth, little one. You will be a priest. There can be no better life than serving the Church." Louis, however, turned out to be the one to serve the Church. She did get her wish. She had just gambled on the wrong grandson.
I got out of the car and walked to the back porch for the magnificent view of the Connecticut River. The night was chilly but pleasant. September in Connecticut is a wonderful month: the light sharpens, the air clears, and the summer folds into itself ready to change. I could sense that change in the trees and in the ground and in the gathering breeze. I sat down in a white Adirondack chair and looked out over the treetops at the wide black river. I thought about my father almost dying. And then I thought about death itself.
I have been battered by death for years. That puppy was my first exposure to death. Then, in the third grade, a Polish immigrant boy I knew died from a wasp sting right in the classroom. My grandparents all died when I was still a boy. My brother Erik, the most brilliant one in the family, drowned in the Long Island Sound when he was nineteen years old: a sophomore at Yale one day, dead the next. My best friend Rob, sixteen years old, also drowned—in Miller's Pond, while tripping on acid. Andy, my cousin, died in the Vietnam War. Beth's first child died a "crib death." Pete's first wife died in childbirth. My dead puppy seemed insignificant compared to all that death in our family. Did I have the right now to be upset about Friday's death? A mere puppy?
A boat chugged around the bend and moved down the river toward the Long Island Sound. I could see figures on the deck. The faint sound of voices drifted up to me through the night air. I wondered if the boat would stop at one of the harbors along the river or head straight out into the open sea as I sat on the porch in the dark with my father's secret, my brother's secret, my grandmother's secret. No one told me. No one told me anything. I heard laughter from the boat.
My grandmother wanted me to have faith in the Church, so that my life would have meaning. When she knew I had challenged that faith, she acted—swiftly. I could still feel the grip of her bony and arthritic hand. I could still feel the pressure of her fingertip in the center of my palm.