Then there was the time my father ended up with only four fingers on his right hand. Four and a half, really, and we probably could have saved the part above the knuckle if we weren’t so deep into the woods. That was when my parents began to notice something strange about me. Most likely, it was why they noticed it.
We were camping, of all things.
We never camped. We weren’t that kind of family. But something had gotten into my father’s head. He’d watched a special about the Smoky Mountains, and off we went—all that gear, “a real adventure,” he called it. The seams on our packs were straining, and while we hiked toward our campsite, my father was all of a sudden a wildlife fanatic.
“Stop,” he’d say. “Freeze.” And my mother and I would stand where we were on the trail. “Do you hear that?” We’d listened to hours of bird calls on cassette tapes driving down. “A warbler . . . no . . . a chickadee.”
My mother cocked her head, an ear angled toward that avian domain. But her eyes darted down at me. They seemed to say, It’s good for him to be out, don’t you think, Christine? For him to have an interest we can all take part in?
“Christine!” he said. “Are you listening? A chickadee?”
And my mother nodded to me, and I said, “Chickadee. Yes. I hear it.”
Then we’d walk some more, and he’d say, “Freeze!” again, and we’d wait while he inspected a pattern in the sticks. “Snake tracks,” he said, bending so that his pack almost tipped him over. “No…deer more likely, white-tailed deer.”
My mother lifted a handful of sticks to her face then lowered them to mine. “Yes,” she said. “White-tailed deer! I see it. Christine, do you see it? Christine?”
* * *
At the site, my mother and I unfolded the tent poles, while my father unwrapped cellophane from a roast and started up the white-gas stove. We sat on rocks and held plastic plates on our laps. My father’s back was toward us as he fiddled with the flame. The stove roared and quieted, roared and quieted. He scraped a cast iron skillet atop the burner. My mother hugged me toward her.
“We’ll be okay,” she said softly. “This is what he wanted.”
The roast began to hiss.
“Ultimately that’s all people really want, Christine, is choices.”
I could still remember how his sobs had traveled through my bedroom walls. Back then, there’d been frequent sobbing. “I want you to take an interest in something,” my mother had pleaded. She’d just suggested an open relationship. “No,” he cried. “But you can try it. I’ll stay home with the cat.”
Now he stood with a knife in his hand, the other holding slabs of meat. “Eat, eat,” he proffered, gesturing toward our plates.
So much had changed.
We ate, but we couldn’t eat it all. “Stuff it in,” my father said. “Christine, try burping. Your problem is that you’re full of air.” The leftover roast rested on the table, in a puddle of juices like a wounded animal. We would leave it there, unfinished. That was our mistake. But what did we know about camping? We were city people.
By 8 o’clock, we’d retired to the tent. The hike had wiped us out. My mother and father played cards by lantern light, sitting cross-legged in the tent. My father was letting her win at Bartok. She touched his ankle and smiled in a distant, knowing way.
I was glad they were getting along.
I was in my sleeping bag, watching the nylon of the tent start to fade from blue to gray to black. I thought of the night my mother had shouted, “It’s only been two dates, Frank!” She’d been pleading with him to try a bar, any bar, even if it was just to meet another Mets fan. I thought, Mets fan? From my room, I cried out, “I’m scared!” They’d both rushed in. They took me to their bed and said, “You can sleep here, if you’re scared.” I’d burrowed into the spot between them, smelling my father’s sour shirt, the heat from my mother’s back warming my own. “OK,” I whispered, “ I am.”
In the tent, my father was flipping cards. “Your turn,” he said in an agreeable way. In my half-dream I was tucked between them again. In his confidence, the future of our family could still rearrange itself, unformed.
Then, outside, we heard a baby shrieking.
“You hear that?” my father said. “Sounds like a baby shrieking.” He tilted his head. “Interesting. Northern poke weasel, I’d say. Don’t see many in these parts.”
My mother had laid her cards down on the nylon floor. “That’s no weasel,” she finally said. She did not reach for me, but I could feel how much she wanted to.
The shrieking outside grew louder.
“Oh dear lord,” she said. “They’re killing it.”
“Killing what?” my father asked, panicking. “Killing who?”
“Does it really matter, Frank? Can we do something?”
He placed a hand atop her shoulder and got to his feet.
“Frank,” my mother started. He turned to regard her. They looked at each other deeply for a moment.
Before those wilderness shows, he’d always been afraid of noises. Tree limbs scraping the house could make him curl up with a baseball bat. But now he strode into the dusk, carrying a lantern by its wire handle. He lifted it to inspect the trees. He shined it on the white-gas stove facedown in the dirt. He swung it across his body, a sphere of light bobbing all around him, and there, at the edge of the campsite, a bobcat was tensed above our roast.
He had never been a strong man, or a brave man, but my father did not run. He said, “Ohgodohgodohgod,” but stood there, turning into a wall between that wild thing and us.
“Frank!” my mother shouted.
He kept his eyes on the bobcat and reached back to the table where he’d done the dinner prep. Blindly, his hand fumbled among the utensils. The bobcat hissed and exposed its teeth in the way of a venomous snake. My father’s hand found the carving knife and he brandished it—but he’d grabbed it by the blade. He pointed the wooden handle at the cat. It hissed again, and my father cried out, “This is not your domain!” Then he squeezed the knife so tightly it severed his middle finger above the knuckle.
It cut so cleanly that it took several seconds before the blood and pain arrived—before he started screaming.
I remembered him in that darkened living room, while my mother was out. How he’d laughed at the wilderness host in a khaki vest. “Look at this guy,” he said. “All alone. He’s gonna get himself mauled!”
Suddenly, I was marching past my father’s naked legs. I was banging on a pot with a metal spoon, marching toward the beast. It smelled like cat food, I thought. The way my father had smelled, the first night my mother hadn’t come home from the bar. Christine! This cat’s breath smells like cat food! I’d been watching wilderness programs with him, but he’d been kissing the cat. It was 9 o’clock. Even back then, I understood what was possible.
I got closer to the bobcat and it made that sound of a wailing infant again. It arched its back. Its hair stood in a ridge. I thought, Maybe I’ll be mauled. I got closer, making my terrible racket. I thought, Look at you. Smelling like cat food. Then I smacked the spoon into the pot as hard as I could and the bobcat popped away and disappeared.
Only when it was good and gone, deep in the woods, did my father wail, “Christine!”
If I close my eyes, I can still see the look on his face, regarding me, his daughter, as though I were someone he didn’t know. How unsettling that must have been, to no longer see me as his little child.
That was the last time we’d go camping, the last time he’d notice the sound of a chickadee, or the color variations of a woodland squirrel. Never again did he eat a wild blackberry, or grip a knife in his hand. From then on, it would be me who carved our meat. He would stand off in a corner of our kitchen, his arms crossed so that his missing digit was tucked in his armpit, watching me slice the flesh of some headless bird. He would nod at me, hiding what he’d lost.
At the back of the tent, my mother was cradling my sleeping bag against her chest, as though she imagined I was still within it. And while I stood in that chittering nightscape, among the invisible nocturnal creatures, my father retreated into the tent, finally, to be with her.
Benjamin Warner is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University’s MFA program. A lecturer at Towson University, he teaches courses in composition, environmental writing, and fiction writing. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in American Short Fiction, Guernica, Lithub, Salon.com, and The Washington Post Magazine. He’s also the author of the novels Thirst (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016) and Fearless (Malarkey Books, 2022).