The boy and the dog hunker under the shrubbery. Dim green light dapples the boy’s reddish hair, the matching coat of the setter panting next to him. The boy’s arm is around the dog; the dog doesn’t need the restraint, but the boy needs the warmth, the sense of complicity.
The green light catches a welt on the side of the boy’s face. His grandfather’s hands are big, heavy. The boy doesn’t mind pain, but the hurt in Ma’s eyes as she watches bothers him. He knows she can’t stop it; it’s for his own good. He doesn’t blame Granddad either; the big man loves him, he knows that too. It’s Aunt Gerda he blames. The wily bitch.
-“Bitch,” he’s drunk with pleasure at saying the forbidden word. “She’s a bitch, Shandy.”
The dog pants quietly in reply. Smiling.
There she is. Silently, the boy and the dog shift as one to a better vantage point. Aunt Gerda’s massive frame is locking the front door, struggling to balance purse, shopping bag, umbrella and hat. She teeters on ridiculously tiny shoes; the boy almost laughs, but a glimpse of the cruel face above the bloated neck kills the laughter in his throat. Bitch. Always telling on me, always finding something to accuse me of. Always forcing Ma and Granddad to punish me. Why does she hate me?
-“Doesn’t matter why, Shandy. We’ll teach her.”
As she wobbles down the driveway, she stops at the small corral housing Mr. Avertino, her prize rooster. Mr. Avertino puffs his blue-black plumage, shakes his blood-red comb haughtily. The dog’s panting stops; tensing, he raises his ears.
-“Not yet, Shandy.” The tip of the dog’s tail wags minutely, his gaze fixed on the rooster across the street but content to obey. The boy is his master; he adores him, he’ll go to the gates of Hell for him. The boy wonders if Shandy knows he’d do the same for him.
Aunt Gerda (“bitch,” the boy repeats) is leaning over the low fencing, but if she’s speaking nonsense to the rooster, the only living creature she seems to care about, it’s inaudible at this distance. She fixes her hat, tugs at her hitching skirt, and disappears down the street. The dog, wound like a spring, releases at the boy’s whisper.
A red-streaked dash across the street, into the corral. Wings flap, a short squawk, then the red streak, tinged with black now, bolts back into the shrubbery. Shandy’s trained to retrieve fowl, not to kill.
-“Where have you been?” Ma is worried, angry; it’s getting dark.
-‘What’s this?’ She pries a downy black feather out of his hair. “Is this…? Oh God. Oh no. Sweetheart, you didn’t. Why, baby? Why?” Ma’s face is all scrunched up; the boy stares at the floor. Where did that feather come from? He’d been sure they were all gone.
~ - ~