God wouldn’t get rid of the raccoons, so we asked his mother for help. My earliest memory is eating peas from a sticky cup. My next earliest is pasting the picture of Our Lady, pearly with glue, onto the kitchen wall. My mother found it on a corn can label.
“Our Lady will keep the nasty raccoons away,” she told me. She was the one who spread the glue on the corn can label. A bit of the holy barcode gummed her hand. “But only if you pray to her every morning. If you miss a day, they’ll come back. Don’t say you forgot I said that.”
We didn’t know that the raccoons were praying too, in their brushed church coats, their prickly hands forming rosaries out of blackberry branches.
Today she calls me wanting my help with a crossword puzzle. One person who fills out this crossword puzzle, with no mistakes at all, will win free dog kibble for the rest of the year.
“Is it for the calendar year or for the next twelve months?”
“Do you know the name of the smallest Great Lake?”
“I don’t. Will the dogs eat that stuff?” I hear her cover the receiver and whisper at the dogs. She says that they will, and that they better. “I didn’t think they liked kibble.”
“I keep waiting for you to come see me,” she warbles. In the background, the dogs catch onto her whine and lob it back and forth between them. “I keep thinking, one of these days my daughter will come home and visit me. And help me with this damn crossword.”
It’s only two hours away, but it takes me weeks to get there. I keep stopping the car to roll down the passenger side window and pretend to hold a cigarette. I’ve been quitting for twelve miserable years. My mother’s dogs do not know how to breathe. Clean air makes them gasp and furl their oily lips. I keep telling her: that’s why they can’t nose out the raccoons.
Lightning and pestilence were too cruel for Our Lady. Instead, she sent a neighbor who beat his dogs. They rooted through the shadows to our back door and licked bacon grease right out of my hand. Cootie dropped a few glassy teeth into my mother’s lap. “That ugly man,” she said. “He’s going to go straight to hell.”
The raccoons nested in the attic and the wheel wells of her truck. One naked chicken bone would draw them out. You know: that’s how raccoons are. They ignored the decoys – cat food, wet noodles, calcified clementine peel — and baptized their babies in rivers of Campbell’s Chicken Soup, in waterfalls of Ro-Tel.
“My guardian angels,” my mother called the dogs. They sat when she shouted, begged when she opened the microwave, whined when she shifted in bed. Way up high, Our Lady stopped nagging her for my prayers.
When I finally get home, the first place I check is the garage. It’s like a cathedral lit with candles: two on the tool bench, two in the truck bed, four crackling under the fridge. A sow sleeps in the curve of a busted tire. Her belly starves and swells with every breath. She isn’t much larger than the babies, but her teats are blackened and cracked like barbecue.
The dogs sleep on each side of the bed, fugitive knots of fur and heat. Even after they leave, the bed sags from their weight. “There’s flies in the sink,” is how I announce myself.
“They keep leaving wet food in the bowl. Don’t you, Cootie?” my mother says. Cootie watches me with hostile eyes. Her nose welts quake in the mist from the air freshener. “Cootie’s a bad girl, aren’t you?” At last my mother puts a shirt on.
“I got raccoons in the garage still,” my mother tells me. “The vet won’t listen to what I say. So now we all just stay inside. We can’t go out on walks anymore because he won’t call animal control. Even though I told him they spread rabies and other diseases.”
“The vet knows about rabies.”
“Well, he doesn’t take it seriously.”
“I haven’t seen a raccoon here in a long time.”
“You’ve got to be around all the time to see them. They’re sneaky. They’re eating out of the trashcan. They can’t eat that.”
“What?” I say.
“I said, they don’t eat that stuff anymore.” She’s spotted the bag of kibble that I left on the kitchen counter. “Cootie’s allergic to it.” Now I realize: Cootie is the patron saint of infantrymen who are just following orders. She groans, lifts her plush belly, and walks into the bedroom.
I know those dogs used to love kibble. Now their bowls glow with rustic rye noodles, and silken beef tips, and the floral broccoli served in restaurants. My mother is feeding them microwave meals. In this house, even the dogs pray before they eat. She grips one muzzle in each hand and manipulates their jaws along the Glory Be.
“Kibble is just dust and glue, that’s all the grocery stores put in,” she explains to me. “But I’ll try and fix it up so they’ll eat it.”
In eighth grade, the devil appeared to my mother as a raccoon. She was walking home from school when it crossed her path and beckoned with its scabby hands. Its new heart and tongue belonged to a larger and leaner animal: a creature that made its own garbage. It smacked its brains between its teeth, and its own saliva chained it to the ground.
This raccoon put a curse on her. Even though she screamed and cussed, it thrust its skinny arms toward her. You know how a raccoon begs: like it needs an ibuprofen, or a benediction. So she still crosses her chest when she hears the rustle of plastic bags.
Gunther snorts at me from under the sheets, but Cootie’s thin snout is inevitable: when I leave the bedroom, when I sit on the edge of the couch, when I lather up at my mother’s bodega of crusty soap rinds. I joke about it. I say, “I guess she smells the bones deep down in my hand.”
“Cootie wants to go home with you,” Mom says. “She keeps looking at your car.”
“She can’t recognize it. She’s never seen it before.”
“I guess not,” she says. Then, “Cootie doesn’t like me. She doesn’t sit on my lap anymore. She don’t like to eat out of my hand either.”
“She’s an old lady now. She doesn’t like to be babied anymore.”
“Why don’t you love your grammy?” my mother asks, kneading Cootie’s licorice gums between her hands. “Are you going to go away with Sissy? Are you going to leave Grammy all alone?”
“I can’t have dogs in my apartment.”
“Did you hear what she said? She doesn’t want to take you.”
“I just can’t have any pets in the apartment.”
“Did you hear that?” Mom eases her rubber skin backward, quickening her eyes to their whites. “Guess you’ll just have to stay here with Grammy, then.”
I know that my mother replaces the corn label every few months. The sun slurps out the orange and yellow like the sweet from a fruit. When they changed that drawing last year, she bought a whole flat and stacked them in the garage.
Our Lady must have a soft spot for dogs: the suppleness of their hind legs, the feminine heat of their nostrils, the immediacy of their grief. A desperate Sunday School teacher told me this: when a dog we love dies, its folded limbs make the ground sweet and holy.
Then again, the raccoons spread disease. More disease means more ripe prayers for her to pluck from the air and place on her tongue, which is wide and firm as a mattress. You know: it’s all supply and demand.
“I’m taking Gunther out.” I steal a leash and collar from the door. “He needs to get rid of that paunch.”
“Where’re you taking him?”
“Just out in the yard. I saw the raccoons messing around earlier. Thought he’d like to chase them for a while.”
“Wait a bit.”
Since it’s fragrant summertime, their noses clip along the ground like iron on a magnet. “Get ‘em!” Mom cries. “Go get ‘em!” The dogs bolt to the garage and back and to the trees, panicked for a reason they couldn’t say. Their toes splay in the dirt like baby hands around a breast.
“I told you they can’t smell,” I say. “Now they’re out too far.”
“My voice is their leash,” Mom says. Then she howls, “Get back! Get back here right now! There’s your warning!” Of course they hustle back to her. “I told you.”
Over and over, Cootie mashes her nose against the screen door. “She always does that,” my mother says, “once you let her out once. Then it’s like the end of the world when she can’t go out again. She’s greedy.” Cootie has been winding up a sneeze for the past hour.
While I shake ground turkey into a bowl, Gunther pummels the air with his paws. “Good boy,” Mom croons, pressing her nose against his soggy face. “Are you hungry? A hungry little baby? He says, Boy, I’m just whipped.”
Meanwhile, I’m dragging Cootie’s head out of the kibble bag. “Your dog needs fed,” my mother says, and leaves. I know I’ll find her up in bed, naked toes itching at her calf. Looking out for me. Peeling open the crossword puzzle, just when I walk in. Wouldn’t you know?
The Bible has just a few stories about dogs. It’s not enough to build a theology on. There’s the Phoenician queen. I imagine those dogs as haughty breeds: afghans or borzois. They left her face and feet for the vermin.
After dark, a tribe of raccoons waddled to the foot of the tower and fretted with her robes. Come with us, they said. They hauled her gamey toes and lips away. The queen wrung her hands to be disposed of like that, and Our Lady wrung her hands in hot sympathy, and the raccoons wrung their hands to keep warm.
Later that evening, for the first time, those raccoons ate dinner among the dogs. But they didn’t know how to handle the silverware, and felt embarrassed, and left early.
While I’m warming up the car, adjusting the stereo, the old dog makes his move. If you pass too close to the garage, the sow scratches your ankles or performs death in the gravel. She follows me all the way to the car, which is the problem with mothers: they’re always after that one thing.
Gunther, a compassionate but blundering surgeon, drains the fluid from their brains with his one good tooth. They trumpet throatily, but also quietly, with their snapdragon noses lifted. Pus and water evacuate their bodies. Clean and tidy, just like Jesus did it.
I wait as long as I need to, then lay them in the backyard under a tarp. Gunther watches me with waxy, hungerless eyes. Crouched over the fresh earth, I see that his legs are thin and lissome as votive candles.
So I stay. I listen to my grocery store kibble rattling in the sink, defiant. My mother softens the pebbles with water and pounds them into mush.
“You don’t need to use it,” I say. My voice sounds impoverished. “It’s okay. It’s fine if you don’t use it. You said Cootie’s allergic.”
“You know I can’t stand to waste it. You know me.” Then she tells the dogs: “Mummy’s here. Mummy’s getting your dinner. Yes, she is.”
“Gunther killed a raccoon,” I say. “He killed all those babies.”
“There’s a good boy. You hear that, Cootie? Your brother killed the nasty raccoons. Maybe they’ll stay gone longer now.”
Every one of my mother’s dogs has died violently. Has Our Lady forgiven me yet for praying in the wrong key? I want her cool, elliptical affection. Drop kibble in my mouth and lay your damp hand against my forehead, even if I have done nothing worthwhile in my life!
“I’ll stay for one more day,” I tell my mother. Cootie’s tail encrypts a sad message on my hand.
“If you want to,” my mother says. “Only if you want to.”
Out in the woods, released from Our Lady’s keeping, the sow slaps her paws against the water to cleanse them. She floats on the surface of sleep and rejoins sheer, ancient dreams: form without light, musk without fear.
Soon she’ll forget about the busted tire and the trash cans. Her teats will shrink back under the skin, relieved, and her milk will puddle at the root of her belly. Her eyes will be clear and cool, like ice frozen from the outside in. She will treat all this as if it were nothing, and as if it were not everything. She’s free to slip out of her church best, wind pearls around her tail, and crunch eggshells like cocktail ice.
But when a male calls out, lonesome, she’ll answer him.
Carina Martin is a nonprofit professional, a fiction amateur, and a 2018 graduate of the creative writing program at Houghton College. Her work can also be found in Okay Donkey. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a cat named Sophie and a small houseplant menagerie.
© 2019, Carina Martin