a short story by J Eric Miller

My old man lived off the animals. Which is to say, he was an exploiter. He used to run a trap line, and he raised chinchillas in the basement. He shot bears for the gallbladders, deer and elk for their horns, and God knows what else. Cockfights, dog fights, raccoons chained to logs and forced to fight dogs, and so on. He ran exotic birds through the house; my father and I would burn the bodies of the bulk of the birds that died in transit, and we would try to clean up those that lived. Somebody would pick them up and give my father money. Mother kept a few, her pets, and she taught them to speak. My father never liked hearing them much. Neither did I.

She got fed up after a while. Probably with all the animals and the death and the fact my father never had a real job and most of the money we had came from places ordinary people wouldn’t consider legitimate. She wanted, I think, to lead a regular life. So she left.

I was seventeen. The morning after she left, my father took her birds out and went from one to another, wringing their necks. I guess he didn’t want them bringing up memories.

Those first seventeen years were filled with blood, and suffering, and death. You’d think it was my birthright. You’d think I’d be the same as my old man. But I wasn’t. I could hear the sound of those pet birds talking, and the sound of their necks breaking. That was the end of it.

And so, like my mother, I left.

Ten years later, and I don’t eat meat. I don’t wear leather, or wool, for that matter, or silk. I don’t eat eggs and I don’t drink milk. I try not to do anything that involves the exploitation of animals. A psychologist might say that I’m overcompensating. But I like to believe that if I had grown up the regular way that my mother wanted, I would have developed these convictions anyway.

In truth, it doesn’t matter. I believe what I believe.

I am involved. I am doing what I can. Trying to slip cogs out of the machine. Trying to remember, when I feel overwhelmed, that each individual suffering is worth alleviating, even if the overall problem is not solved. Break-ins, thefts, and destruction: testing laboratories, hen batteries, fur farms. Sometimes we do more. Sometimes we do things that would make lesser people turn away. But of this I am certain: nothing will ever make me stop.

It is only that I want a break. Everybody needs a vacation sometime.

Ten years, and I haven’t seen my old man–shortly after the divorce, he moved into a cabin he owns in a Washington state forest–although I call him two or three times a year. We never really talk about anything; we just confirm that the other is alive. It’s obvious he’s gone downhill. You can hear the age in his voice. Sometimes, he doesn’t make much sense. I imagine empty cages with doors bent open; instruments, once sharp and shiny, now dull and rusted. It is important for me to believe that my father is no longer an exploiter. After all, he’d be a perfect target, even though he’s my dad.

The cabin is in a state of disrepair. And to my relief, there are no apparent victims about–no animals staked to the ground; no skins stretched on the outside walls; nothing crying out from some hidden place; nothing. There are, in fact, butterflies and hummingbirds in the air.

The old man is bent and gray. Hair hangs off his knuckles, out of his ears. He looks mean and wrinkled and when he smiles at me from the cabin door his face looks like a rubber mask. It is at once frightening and pathetic.

“What you up to, Pop?”

“I’ve got to tell you,” he says in the voice of a conspirator–and a fear runs through me–“that I’ve found particular signs. Absolute evidence. He is about…”

“Who’s about?”

“Bigfoot,” he hisses.


“Bigfoot. He’s mine.” His eyes absolutely glow with purpose.

The relief is not as profound as you might think. In truth, I am undone by the pathos of it. I half wish that Bigfoot were, indeed, about. Even worse, I wish that my father might catch the creature so that the light–mean and stupid as it is–will not leave his eyes.

“Going to get him by God!”

The old man’s face is steady and determined now and I can no longer see the pathos. Rather, I am chilled by his intensity.

He feeds me potatoes and I ignore the bloody, store-bought meat he eats.

“You got a happy life?” he asks.

“I’m not unhappy.”

He nods and appears to think. “Me neither.”

“It’s thin line,” I say.

He looks at me. His face isn’t quite blank, but it is hard to read. I almost see a question there. I’m ready to say more. It is only through an act of will that I close my mouth and turn away.

“Let me show you something,” he says.

He lifts to the table a dirty folder full of cutouts from various magazines offering money for the live capture, or at least the dead body of, Bigfoot.

Artists’ renderings show the creature as sad-eyed and intelligent-looking, shoulders slumped as if with fatigue, with the face of a chimp, which reminds me of the faces of the many tortured, beaten and imprisoned animals I’ve seen.

“I’ll get the bastard,” my father says, but he’s no longer talking to me. He’s looking off, his head nodding and nodding, as if he has forgotten how to stop it.

I want to nudge him, maybe a bit roughly, as if he is a broken record, caught upon a skip. I rise and take my plate to the sink. My father goes to the window and stares out. Slack has drawn the wrinkles from his face. His lips are puckered, his head cocked slightly.

In the night, Bigfoot’s face comes to me sad, as it is in the drawings, but then it transforms, and I see the eyes of my father in the face of the beast, stupid and hungry. I sit up and can hear my old man breathing.

“I figgered you’d come here,” he tells me the next day.

“I’m not staying long. Just a few days.”

He smiles. “You don’t have to help me.”

“Help you what?”

He smiles even more broadly. “You don’t have to help my catch him. You can stay here anyway.”

“I didn’t come to help you.”

“I know. You came for help.”

He begins to laugh.

Each morning, he goes across an old bridge and into the forest. He carries a carefully maintained tranquilizer gun–I’ve used them myself in different circumstances–and a backpack. Hunched and hunkered, he disappears into the woods.

At night, I hear noises from the woods; they wake me from my sleep and I think about the creature. My father is always awake at these times. I find him at the window, perfectly still and focused.

When I dream at night, it is of either my old man or Bigfoot, or a combination of the two: the face is evil, then innocent; it is mean, then sad. When I wake I feel I haven’t slept at all.

I wait for my father during the day. I catch up on the reading I’ve avoided over the years. Frequently, I drift into naps–and I dream then, too. Sometimes it is of the animals I’ve helped, the ones who’d been broken so badly that their suffering could only be alleviated by death; or the thousands who are maimed, physically and psychologically, for the rest of their lives. I think of those I could not help, the ones who had to be left to their exploiters. Rarely do I dream of those animals whose rescues were accomplished cleanly.

In the day, with the weak warm sun on me, I dream, too of humans, the ones we’ve labeled evil, and the attempts to break them, their bodies and their minds.

Sometimes I wake still dreaming of the pain. Sometimes the pain of animals and humans blur into one throbbing mass. Then I snap out of it, emerging to the sound of birds, to the smell of my father, and, sometimes, to a deeper smell of some other creature in the forest. I feel watched, frightened, exposed.

The old man comes back limping. He doesn’t know to soak his feet. “Going to get him,” he says, “you bet.” He eats his bloody meat. He stares from the window.

And at night, something thrashes in the woods. Before coming here, I would have known it was only a bear or an elk or some other animal, large but identifiable. Now, I have to remind myself.

I am not sleeping enough. The dreams are following me too far into my waking. The sunlight is on my face but I can look right past it to the woods, where moss hangs like drapes in the darkness, above the stink of earth. I tell myself, get your mind straight. You’ve been weak before, many times. In every circumstance there is a moment of weakness. But weakness is something certain that a mind can overcome.

Overcome, I tell myself. Think straight. Take control. Overcome.

“Soon,” he says.


“I’ll have him soon. You’ll see.”

I can hear the bones of my father creaking as he walks around the cabin. I ask nothing further.

I watch the old man go into the forest. He looks innocent and he looks evil. He looks sad and he looks cruel. I am not clear on other things, either: do I follow to hunt him or help him? Do I go to be hunted by him with the beast as bait or by the beast with him as bait?

There was a light rain last night and into this morning, and his recent tracks are easy to differentiate from those of previous journeys.

This forest is dark and crowded and dank. There is the drone of insects and the sound of small animals, and sometimes, a crashing sound from an animal much larger than me. My mind is clear. I tell myself to go forward, one step after the other.

I see a thin stand of aspen trees with sunshine pouring in. My father’s tracks veer off there, and I follow them. He is fifty yards in, lying at the base of a tree, his hands folded on his chest, his pack and rifle propped up beside him. Up close, I can hear his breath is long and deep. I look around. The woods are still. My father is still. I can hear his heart, or perhaps it is my own. Or perhaps it is the heartbeat of the creature. For a moment, I imagine that I am the Bigfoot my old man seeks. I imagine standing as that creature above my father, leaning down with large, black hands, and twisting without much effort the old man’s head, so that his neck snaps and it is over.

And I hear all of our hearts as that one heart.

A small black ant runs across my old man’s face. And I realize, he’s going to die, just like that, sometime soon, in peace, without really causing much more harm to the world.

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