It was cold, early morning, and my father and I’d been out hunting duck. There was a little wind, just enough to raise the fog off the water. The current ripped, tugging our skiff all over the creek. The rice fields had been flooded by the North Santee River, a dark winter blue carving through high golden grain—with deer upriver and schooling spottail in the shallows.
The dog came out of nowhere, trotting on three legs down a rickety-looking dock, half-sunk and bleached by sunshine. A black pit mix with a sharp, narrow bark. He was all bones and balls, standing at the edge of the good part of the dock, as if stranded on some lost island. He held his back foot up, hesitating to touch it down.
“What’s wrong with his leg, Daddy?” I asked, paddling from the bow of the skiff.
“Can’t say. Let’s have a look,” he said. “Grab that line and loop it around the piling when we get close.”
The dog looked smaller when we got to him. He was skittish, clumsy as a puppy trying to limp off to where he’d come from.
“Stay put, son,” my father said.
The dock’s planks buckled beneath his waders as he followed the dog. My father’s hair had greyed early for a man of forty, tucked behind his ears under a brown toboggan. He wore a tan and green hunting jacket over his waders. The dog looked confused, curling on his side, as my father squatted down with his hand out.
I was nine years old and remember being excited, bouncing a shotgun on my knee, hoping the dog was okay. That we could take him home and surprise my mother. I couldn’t hear what my father was saying to the dog, but I knew he had a good bedside manner. My mother said she wished I could have seen what he was like with his patients, witnessed his tenderness.
“He’s been bit,” my father said, carrying the dog in his arms. The dog was wet and muddy, his swollen paw throbbing as he set him down in the boat. When I reached for the dog’s foot, he growled, foam bubbling from his gums.
“Goddammit, Jasper. Don’t touch him!” he yelled.
“What got him?” I asked.
“Looks like a cottonmouth.” My father showed me fang marks in the dog’s paw.
The motor sputtered as he spun the skiff around in a hurry, making a thick wake of heavy rollers. The salty spray stung, hitting my face like sand. I watched as the dog’s head bumped against the skiff before we planed off. I turned away from him, staring at the orange crack of the horizon, hoping he would make it back to Rice Hope alive.
Rice Hope Plantation was the only place I ever saw my father happy. He leased the property with three men I didn’t know. We hunted duck in the winter—mallard, pintails, and blue-winged teal. During springtime we went after turkey, then whitetail deer in the fall. I never shot anything. Didn’t have it in me, but I liked being outdoors with him. Growing up, we weren’t close. He never had much for me back home unless there was a ballgame on. But at Rice Hope, he was different. Dogs were allowed in the house and cursing was tolerated. It was a place of playing poker, smoking cigars, and at times, entertaining sweethearts.
The plantation was in the middle of the Francis Marion National Forest, part of the Santee Delta, almost four hundred acres of wetlands, full of alligators and cottonmouths. During the summer, the mosquitos were the biggest I’d ever seen, some the size of my palm.
The house was an empty mansion, with thick white columns. Inside, it was like a dorm, smelled of mothballs, and had no heat or air conditioning. The living room had a bay window overlooking a creek, wall-to-wall turkey and deer trophies, a secondhand sofa, ratty pool table, and stacks of old Playboys scattered on a jittery coffee table. An old RCA television with rabbit ears sat in the corner next to a wood-burning fireplace. Game One of the 1988 World Series was coming on that night—the A’s were playing the Dodgers. I wasn’t going to miss it.
The dog’s tongue slid out and he looked dead. My father put him on the pool table, hurrying out to get his black leather doctor’s bag. When he returned, he was carrying it along with a bow saw. I’d seen him hack the legs off big bucks, but never a dog. I felt sick thinking about it and threw up on the carpet.
“Open those windows,” he said.
I unlatched the windows and raised them, the rotting smell of sulfur rose off the salt marsh and passed through the curtains.
“Hold him still,” he said, loading a syringe. He put the cap in his mouth and thumped the syringe to get the bubbles out.
I watched as the needle tore through the dog’s backside. He whimpered, trying to raise his head a little. The bitten paw had swollen to the size of my father’s hand. The pads throbbing and worn down, rough as sandpaper.
“Are you going to cut it off?” I asked, watching as he tied the dog’s hind leg off above the knee.
“I don’t see any other way, son. It’s the only thing I know to do for him. If the venom’s gotten into his blood, he’s a goner.” He slid the leg over to the edge of the table, hunching over its dark shape and began sawing.
Gail was the first woman he brought to Rice Hope. I was six. At first, he tried to hide her in a way that might seem normal. He said she was one of his patients. I believed everything he told me, the way boys do with their fathers. He took Gail to the good bedroom we never used. Before we brought sleeping bags and stayed in a room with bunks. But now he would make the good room up when we arrived, keeping the door closed until Gail showed up. My mother had no idea he was fooling around. There were others, but Gail was the one he liked most. She kept coming back.
He caught me listening once as I sat on the hardwood floor with my ear against the bedroom door. “Get on outta here, Jasper,” he said, shooing me away with his foot. I kicked the door after he shut it. He came back a second time with a leather belt. “Go back downstairs, son, or I’ll wear you out,” he said, cracking the leather of the belt. I’d taken licks from it before, but I’d never been afraid, not until then. As the door closed, I could see Gail straddling a pillow, rose wallpaper behind her as she covered her chest with a sheet. I ran down the stairs, stomping as I reached the landing. I hid there, listening as he lingered at the top of the stairs to make sure I was gone.
I’d told my mother about Gail a few weeks before we found the dog. My father no longer bothered to hide her. The morning we’d gone hunting had been a rare one. I passed most weekends at Rice Hope alone, playing behind the house, among the azaleas and willows, watching as water moccasins drifted along the creek like sticks.
The dog was out of it, his limp body falling all over the place. I knew seeing his leg get cut off was a memory I didn’t want to keep. Outside the window, a heron fished along the mud banks, strutting with its grey feathers, head like a skunk, the long blue bill built for snatching fish up to swallow them whole.
After the dog’s leg was removed, my father wrapped it in newspaper. I don’t know why, but he put it in a big freezer in the kitchen where other hunters kept venison and fish. It was strange to see a part of the dog missing, a piece that that had just been there as part of a whole.
“Will he live?” I asked.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” my father said.
“How do you know the bite didn’t spread?” I asked.
“I don’t. But if he’s made it this long, it had to be fresh. The venom would have stopped his heart.” He covered the dog with a blanket and loaded him on the couch.
“If he lives, can we keep him? I want to name him Jack.”
“You’ll have to run that by your mother.”
He stared through the bay window at the creek for a few minutes.
“How’s she doing?” he asked.
“Fine, I guess.” I sat on the floor, stroking Jack’s ears.
He was quiet, shutting the window and pulling the curtains together.
“Why’d you tell her?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t look at him, but could feel his stare burning through me.
“You should’ve known better, Jasper. Men and women are different.” The room was as cold as metal and smelled like bad eggs. He wiped the specks of blood from his face with a rag the way a mechanic does.
“One of these days, you’ll understand. You’ll see it was wrong.” He tossed the rag at me as he walked to leave the room.
“I didn’t mean to mess things up, Daddy.”
“Let me know when the dog wakes up,” he said, then went upstairs.
The stitching around Jack’s nub was loose, unraveling like an old baseball. As I picked fleas off him, I remember wondering if the dog was better off without us, or dead. I thumbed his eyelids open. They were white, moving a little like he was dreaming. Chasing rabbits or ducks, or whatever got him into trouble with the snake. Why couldn’t I forget what I’d done, take it all back?
By evening, Jack showed signs of life. Before he’d had a chance to notice the missing leg, he tried to stand, then turned and began to lick the stitching. His stomach muscles tightened and there was an awful froggish noise as he threw up. I ran upstairs and found my father in the master bathroom. His hair was still wet from a shower. He wore a white towel around his waist as he shaved.
“Jack is up,” I said.
“How’s he look?” my father asked. He stared at me in the mirror, dragging a straight razor across his jaw. He rinsed the blade in the sink and tapped it against the porcelain.
“He puked,” I said.
“He’s probably still drunk from the drugs. I’ll be down in a minute.”
“Is Gail coming over tonight?” I asked.
“She might be. Why?”
“I thought we were watching the World Series together.”
He eyeballed me in the mirror, wiping patches of shaving cream from his shiny face.
“Bring me a beer, will you, son.” He dabbed his face with aftershave. It had a strong, minty smell like chewing gum.
He was sitting on the corner of the bed, talking on the phone when I came back. I watched as first he ran the cold beer against his forehead then drained it in heavy gulps. I could hear a woman’s voice from the receiver. I wished I was home with my mother.
Downstairs, I fed Jack some Nilla Wafers and turned on the World Series. I tuned the rabbit ears to fix the screen’s fuzziness, then sat next to him on the floor. Jack was warm and the soft brown of his eyes looked sleepy. His slack tongue slid off to the side through his dirty teeth.
Gail showed up during the third inning of the ballgame. My father s