Burning the Dead

by Rebecca Wallace-Aktas

From the big backyard I see the house, low and flat, the snow trying to hide it. The stone Catholic Church sits next to the house. The green house was built for the priest to live in, but there aren’t enough Catholics in this town to have services all the time, so they rent the house to Mom. The stray brown dog walks alongside me, softly padding along in the snow. She is a good dog, but our dog Shaggie is the best.

Mom says he’s a sheepdog. He’s soft with fluffy black and white fur. He always wants to play with us and loves to run, but he’ll also sit down with us and put his head on our laps. Once we got to see him be a real sheep dog. We were at Grandpa Wallace’s house and Shaggie helped bring in the cows. He ran low and squat behind them, nipping at their heels. Mom says that he herds us six kids like that, too.

Walking to the back door, I see that Dad’s truck isn’t in the driveway. For a moment I’m happy, and my stomach doesn’t hurt like it does when his truck is there. I pat my new guard dog on the head as I go through the back door to the laundry room. When I open the door, the warm air hits me and I realize that my pants are soaked.

“Don’t wear that wet stuff in here!” Mom warns from the kitchen. “Take off your shoes and wet clothes and leave them in the utility room.”

A pile of wet clothes lies on the cracked, brown and green linoleum floor. I peel the wet socks off my hands and the pants off my legs; the room that was warm is now cold. Wet socks cover the utility room floor. They’re used victims from the many changes we made throughout the day. We wear mismatched socks on our hands for gloves when we cannot find our actual, fingered gloves.

The snow began falling before we woke, even before breakfast. When enough had fallen, we had snowball fights and made snow angels. I don’t know why, but I like falling backward into the snow. It’s kind of fun being afraid of not knowing how hard you will hit, but knowing that you will fall into the light, cold snow. When it was deep enough and falling heavily, we played army. The heavy falling snow helped to cover our tracks so the enemy could not capture us. Mom says that tomorrow there will be no school, and that we can play all day.

After I take off all my wet clothes, I open the kitchen door from the utility room to the warmth and smells of dinner and run to my room in my underwear to get pajamas. The window in my room looks out on the road that runs in front of our house. Through the window next to my twin bed, I see the heavy snow coming down against the streetlights. The dogs are in the front yard, including the new brown dog, Shaggie, and dogs from the neighborhood. The snow muffles the outside sounds and everything seems quiet and close.

Dad comes home while I’m putting on my pajamas. In the kitchen he kisses Mom on her long, thin neck. She’s very pretty, with brown hair and soft brown eyes. Dad is wearing his plaid shirt, blue work pants, and black cowboy boots still shiny from last night’s polishing before he went to the bar.

It’s really cold tonight, and after dinner Mom makes hot cocoa for us. We sit with our legs straight out in front of us on the brown braided rug, carefully holding our mugs as not to spill the cocoa. Cool air comes in from around the windows and the doors; it makes the wooden floors colder. The tall wall heater in the living room next to the front door makes a clicking noise when it comes on, but to get warm you have to stand or sit right in front of it. If you move a little either way, the cold air will chill your arms and face.

We form a semicircle around the new color television set. I remember when we got it. Dad brought it home from Springfield, backed his pickup across the yard to the edge of the front porch where it was taken out of the box. My job was to hold the door open while he and the boys took it inside the house. The television is long and is supposed to look like a piece of fancy furniture. If you sit close to it and tap on the wood front you can hear the hollow plastic.

Even though the snow is still coming down, and the weatherman says there will be ice, the television picture is clear. I like days when Mom is home and doesn’t work. I like it when we can play all day and get hot cocoa after dinner.

Sunday night is always special. All of us kids gather on the brown braided rug in front of the television. The twins, Keith and Kurt, lie on their stomachs with their chins propped on their hands. Kent sits next to Mom’s rocking chair and baby Kae is on the blanket. Bill and I are on the floor, our backs propped against the couch. We are ready for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Before the show starts, we call out who is going to be Marlin Perkins, the main guy, and who is going to be Jim, his assistant. Jim always gets the crappy jobs and has to jump in the water and wrestle anaconda snakes, or run through the African grasses to get the lions to chase him. Sometimes Marlin does get out with the animals, so you have to be careful if you always call for Marlin. It’s never like you think it’s going to be.

After Wild Kingdom comes The Wonderful World of Disney. We may get to watch the Disney movie, but that’s always iffy, especially if Dad is home. He might decide halfway through the movie that he doesn’t want to watch it and then we have to change the channel.

As we watch Wild Kingdom, the dogs outside begin to bark. We get quiet when the dogs start barking, because Dad doesn’t like barking dogs. He complains about them while we pretend not to notice him and watch Wild Kingdom.

“Goddamn dogs!” he says, shifting in his black chair. He has unbuttoned his plaid shirt, and we can see his white ribbed t-shirt. He gets up a couple of times and goes to the front porch and yells at them to “Shut up, Goddamnit!”

He comes in and slams the door. We giggle because it’s funny. Dogs aren’t supposed to understand you unless you are saying nice things to them or giving them food. Besides, dogs are kind of like us kids. They may be quiet for a bit, but as soon as he comes back inside they’re going to start talking, or barking, again. We go back to watching Wild Kingdom and after a while the dogs start barking again.

Dad gets madder and madder. “Goddamn dogs!”

But this time he doesn’t go to the porch to yell at them. He stands up and shuffles with his black shiny boots into his and Mom’s bedroom and comes back with a rifle. He sits down in his chair, props the rifle across his lap and loads it.

We look at Mom, with her lovely, soft brown eyes, hoping that she will say something, do something. But all she says is “Joe, don’t.”

“I’m not going to have a bunch of goddamn dogs hanging around here,” he replies and clicks the rifle closed.

“Mom, tell him not to shoot Shaggie,” I beg. I turn to Dad. “Don’t shoot the dogs!”

He stands up with the rifle clutched in his hands and glares right through me. I turn back to Mom. She leans down and picks up baby Kae and holds her on her lap like she’s protecting her.

Dad goes to the door; his eyes are dark and angry. We scoot back on the rug, breaking the ring. We stand up and move to the couch. Dad opens the door and slams it behind him like it was one more word he wanted to say. When the door shuts, I see the lock on the door.

We hear the gun pop, the shot. A dog yelps. It sounds like the dogs that are hit by cars on the road in front of the house. At night as I lie in my bed, I sometimes hear the sounds of brakes squealing, a thump, and then a yelp. Sometimes we find the dogs in the morning, dead next to the road. Their eyes are open and glassy.

“Shaggie,” Bill cries, “not Shaggie!”

The dog cries and yelps again. Then we hear a second shot, then silence. Dad comes in. His face is red from the cold. He walks to the bedroom and takes the shells out of the rifle. He never keeps the ammunition with the guns; he says it’s not safe. He comes back to the living room where we are all on the couch.

“Did you shoot Shaggie?” Bill murmurs.

“No,” he says sitting down in his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I shot that bitch that was out there. Tomorrow when you don’t have school,” he pauses and takes a drag off his cigarette, “I want you and Becky to burn that dog. Drag her over by the fence and burn her.”

We don’t want to watch Wild Kingdom anymore. We take our cocoa cups to the kitchen and set them on the red, slick countertop.

“Bill and Becky, wash up those dishes. Don’t just leave them sitting there, damnit!” Dad orders.

I pull out my wooden box that Dad made me when I was in kindergarten or first grade so that I could reach the sink. I move it close to the cabinet where there are marks across the white doors where the box has rubbed before.

We run hot water in the left sink and add some soap. I run more hot water in the right sink for rinsing. We collect all the dishes that we can find and line them up on the counter, moving away from the sink, just like Dad taught us. Closest to the sink and to be washed first, are the glasses and cups, then silverware, then plates, then bowls, then the pans. At the very end we clean out and wash Dad’s cigarette bowls, filled with ashes and dead butts. We wash and rinse all the dishes, not saying a word. The only sounds are from the sleet now pecking at the windows above the sink and the sounds of our short breaths as we cry.

I roll the glasses around in the rinse water across the bottom of the white porcelain sink. They are like a magnifying glass and make the marks and scrapes in the sink appear larger. These are marks that I usually can’t see.

After we finish the dishes, we quietly sneak out the back door through the utility room, past the piles of wet clothes and mismatched socks. We go to the garage and find Shaggie in his cardboard box, curled up and scared, but he’s all right.

After we are in bed, Mom comes to tuck us in. She kisses us and with her sweet breath in our ears she whispers, “I love you.” She doesn’t say she’s sorry. She doesn’t say that it will get better. She doesn’t say anything else at all; she just quietly walks away.

In the morning, we eat our breakfast hiding behind forts made of cereal boxes. Kurt and Keith have cereal boxes to hide them on three sides; the boxes protect them from the Captain Crunch pieces that they fire at each other using their spoons as slingshots. Mom reminds Bill and me that we have to burn the dog. I don’t want to do it, but we don’t want to get yelled at or whipped with the belt, so we go.

We put on layers of pants and tops, our coats, and mismatched socks for gloves. It is cold and gray. The air smells light and cold. The sky seems low, like it will scrape off the tops of the trees. Shaggie comes from the garage and follows us. We turn at the corner of the house to go to the front yard where the brown dog lies. Shaggie pauses and then walks away toward the baseball fields next door; he knows what we have to do.

I look past the baseball fields to the school building. If we were having school today, its smokestack would be burping lots of gray smoke. I wish for a moment that it was, and that I was walking to school rather than doing this. Mom says you can tell when it’s going to snow because the smoke from the school stack hangs close to the ground, rather than going straight up in the air. I’m happy to see that what little bit of smoke is coming from the stack is trying to reach straight up in the air, not hanging too close to the ground. I don’t want to stay home again tomorrow.

We go to the front yard and see her, the brown dog lying in the snow. New snow came down last night after the ice. The snow and the ice cover most of her. She’s stiff, and her eyes are open and glassy. Just yesterday she was playing with us. We stand for a moment, then take deep breaths and grab her by the curled front paws. Bill is on one side, and I am on the other. When we first move her, some of the snow falls off and we see the blood. It came from under her body. The blood turned the snow red and brown, as it seeped out of her. Bill looks at me. I don’t want to cry.

Bill says, “Let’s pretend that we are fighting the Nazis. They killed our buddy and they’ll get us. We are trapped behind the enemy lines.” With his head he points to the ridge of hills beyond the barbed wire fence where we will take her.

“We have to get rid of our buddy so they don’t find us. So let’s burn the body, okay?”

“All right.”

We drag our buddy’s cold, stiff body through the snow across the yard, over the gravel drive and next to the barbed-wire fence, with the thin layer of ice on the snow crackling as we go. Our buddy was from Illinois. There are good people from Illinois. His daddy is a farmer and needed him to come home from the war and help him run the farm. Bill, Sergeant Wallace, will write a letter and we both promise to go and visit his folks after the war. We drag the body up next to the fence, as close as we can get it. The fence gives us cover from the Nazis in case there are snipers. Sergeant Wallace says that we should put gas on our buddy to make sure that his body burns up completely.

“But first,” he says “let’s say a prayer for his soul.”

We stand erect and say a prayer for our slain buddy. We pray that he’s in heaven with God and Jesus, running around where he is loved. We also pray for our enemy, the one that shot our buddy. We pray that love will come into his heart and that he will be kind.

Sergeant Wallace gets the gasoline and pours it on the stiff, brown body of our friend. He tells me to stand back while he throws matches at the body until it flashes. We stand guard while he burns. The spiritless flames jump from spot to spot where the gasoline is still on the fur. We watch the ice and snow patches melt and slide off the body, the glassy eyes still open with the flames reflecting in them. We smell the richness of the thick, wet burning hair and skin. The flames lick up around the head, burning the lips, showing the teeth and the paws tightening into fists. The smoke hangs low against the sagging sky and curls around us; it catches on the tree branches, and fills our nostrils. I want to ask Sergeant Wallace about the smoke, if the enemy will see the smoke. But we both know that the enemy knows where we are.

Rebecca Wallace-Aktas is a native of southwestern Missouri, where she, along with her five siblings, experienced childhoods rivaling those of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. She and her husband live in Charlotte, North Carolina. The newest generations of family members have given Rebecca the beloved title of Storyteller. She is the very proud mother of Chloé Aktas, a filmmaker and actress, and the next generation’s storyteller.

About Burning the Dead—This, unfortunately, is a true story about an incident that occurred when I was nine years old; my brother was eleven years old.