The Midwest |

The Tender Knife

by Scott Dominic Carpenter

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

Occasionally, Joyland's Midwest section highlights great small presses based in the Midwest. This story is part of the collection This Jealous Earth published by MG Press, the micro-press affiliated with the journal Midwestern Gothic.  More on the collection below the story.

The night before the killing, Walter plucked silverware out of the dishwasher and thunked it into the drawer. Next to the slotted tray, other utensils caught his eye—the steak knives, the paring knife, the chef’s knife, the cleaver.

“It’s like the guillotine,” Dale had told him, drawing a finger across his own throat. “Fast. Efficient. Painless. If you love ’em, that’s what you’ll do.”

Walter looked down at his hands, liver-spotted and trembling. He made a fist and held it tight. Perhaps he could be equal to this task. He’d put it off so many times. Whenever Julia talked about it, he’d feel a twinge of foreboding. Or perhaps it was a throb of angina. And then he’d bend the conversation to something else.

Tonight he had set the steaks to marinate long before she returned home from showing houses. It was the week before Christmas, but unseasonably hot, and they had dinner on the flagstone patio next to the barbecue, in the shade of the ash tree, close to the desert willow and the blooming yarrow. As they drained a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, Julia melted from a senior realtor back into a woman—a dark-haired, still-slender, still-lovely woman.

There’d been that lilt to her voice that hinted at desire. They’d lingered over dinner, Walter refilling her glass from the sweating bottle, the air freshening as the sun sank toward the crest of the San Gabriel Mountains.

She’d given him that sly look, lowering her lids while her lips tightened. 

That’s when the tail of a koi had splashed in the pond—the one Walter had dug so many years ago, lining the pit with butyl rubber, pouring the cement base and mortaring the walls. It was the centerpiece of the yard, with a stone path leading to it through the bent grass. The fish were hungry now, growing restless, calling to him.

Julia had glanced at the water, tossing her hair back and wrinkling her nose in that pretty way. Then she’d said it: “You really need to take care of it, honey.”

He’d nodded, but only because he hadn’t wanted to spoil the mood. Yes, he heard himself say, yes, he would.

And here he was now, studying cutlery in the dishwasher.

What did Dale know? What made their neighbor such an expert?

Take care of it. Such gentle-sounding words. But he knew what they meant. There were too many of the fish. Way too many. And they had grown so much over the years. The pond was nearly twelve feet long—and as deep as his grandson was tall—but it was too cramped, overrun.

As a reward for his promise they made love that night, a heaving, churning ordeal that left him both breathless and grateful, but tinged with the remorse of a bad transaction. Soon Julia drifted off, each of her whistling breaths stealing away a little more of his own slumber. He rose up on his elbow and studied his wife, her neck still soft and smooth, only faint lines by her eyes. What business did he have with this woman, almost fifteen years his junior? Maybe he should never have remarried.

Sleep was hard to come by these days for Walter, a scarce commodity, and what little he found barely deserved the name. It was like wakefulness covered by a threadbare sheet. The wine, which made him drowsy at first, left him restive. Not to mention the sex. So he rolled out of bed, went downstairs and finished cleaning up the kitchen.

When he carried dinner scraps out to the moonlit pond, the koi saw him coming. They thrashed in the water, their different-colored bodies roiling together like the tentacles of a sea monster.

Julia’s approach never made them frisky. They knew the difference.

The fish frenzied as he sprinkled chunks of food into the froth, but even then they showed deference, making room for old Gandalf, the white giant, over three feet in length, his tattered tail sweeping like the train of a majestic robe through the water. Walter lowered himself to his knees, holding out a knob of meat at the surface, and as Gandalf took it in his fleshy mouth, the two of them, man and animal, exchanged a glance.

Back inside, Walter pulled the slider closed against the night and was ambushed by his own reflection in the glass. A beefy and slack man in rumpled pajamas. Droopy eyes. Even his mustache gone snowy. He stretched his chin forward to give definition to his jaw. Yes, it was still the same man under there.

He watched a late-night show, read two magazines, started a third, his eyes skating over the pages, the words leaving only a faint residue in his mind. Vague and distant, that was the news—unrelated to life in their neighborhood, its rhythms set by mail deliveries and garbage day, trips to the grocery store and the dry cleaner. There was also the weekly phone call with his son Peter in Chicago, when he could hear the chirps of Sammy and Chloe, those rambunctious grandkids who never seemed to know what to say to him, and he didn’t know back, leaving them all to babble silly things back and forth until everyone laughed. What wouldn’t he give to see them again, to squeeze their little bodies in his arms. But they were separated by mountains and desert and more mountains, followed by plains. No, he wouldn’t do that drive again. And the doctor recommended against flying. Better for them to come to L.A. at Christmas. They’d put up a tree, a real one, pretend that it was winter, pull the stale ornaments out of the basement, with the kids running in the yard, feeding the fish, maybe jumping in Dale’s swimming pool next door, squealing, crying out to their grandpa, calling his name with their thin voices: Walter, Walter.

Walter,” the voice bleated again, louder.

He startled awake, squinting in the light. Julia towered over him, dressed for work. A sofa cushion jabbed into his back.

She shook her head, glanced at her watch. She had a showing at nine. “Did you spend the whole night down here?”

Probably? His mind was still thick. “No problem,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.” He attempted to sit up, but his back ached from the sofa. He’d try again in a minute, maybe after she left.

Julia gave him a pinched look. “Are you all right?”

He nodded.

While she fetched her purse, she talked at him. Details about shopping and laundry. Then a moment of grace: she bent down and kissed the top of his head.

On her way out she stopped, turned back, her hand on the doorframe. “Don’t forget what we talked about.” She nodded toward the patio. “Do take care of it, won’t you?”

Take care. Right.

Then she was gone. He heard the car back down the driveway, and with a groan he struggled to his feet, climbed the stairs, changed. After breakfast he swept the kitchen and watered the plants. Halfway through the morning he found himself staring at the letter opener in his hand, dropping it like a murder weapon.

He walked out to the patio and surveyed the blooming garden. Nearly Christmas, but the plants quivered with life. Nothing ever withered here.

As he approached the water, the black speckled fish, the one Sammy had named Pony, saw him first, and soon many of the koi had swarmed to the side: Orange Juice, Tiger, Measles, Cyclops, Frog. On and on. There were twenty-six of them, including Gandalf, the granddaddy of them all, aloof at the side.

Twenty-six. Too many, far too many for this pond. He’d dug it out over two decades ago, and Gandalf was the only survivor from the original batch, his color vanishing when the temperature spiked too high, which left all his companions belly up. That had been the first of three koi holocausts before Walter got the chemicals right and improved the filtration system. Then he’d gotten it under control. Many of the fish had swum in this pool for a decade or more. The population was constant—thank goodness they gobbled up their own young—but individually they kept growing and growing. A couple dozen had seemed about right, even a little skimpy, back when they were small fry. But these koi stretched longer every year, doubling in size, then tripling and quadrupling. Most were now over two feet, a couple closing in on three. And Gandalf the White, that hoary old thing, his fins and tail frayed, was longer than Walter’s outstretched arm. Walter had waited for nature to take its course, for mortality to thin the herd. But Death wasn’t interested in the koi, leaving them to swim in ever-tighter circles inside their shrinking home.

Then he’d done a little research and discovered why: these fish, they could live for decades, over a hundred years. And they would only grow larger.

He’d never told Julia about the ad he’d placed in the classifieds over a month ago, the one where he’d offered the koi up for adoption. No one had called, and in fact there were two other ads just like his own.

He’d considered letting them loose in the stream in the park. But Dale, who fished and hunted, explained how they’d perish from the shock or die slowly from parasites. It would be a cruel finish. Then he’d outlined the best way, the most responsible and humane: knock them unconscious and cut off their heads, right behind the gills. If Walter really cared about them, he’d help them go fast. He owed them that, didn’t he?

Walter had managed to keep his lip from trembling while Dale was there. Then he’d tried to forget about it. But Julia kept prodding. And now he had promised.

He found the net out in the garage, tucked by the old refrigerator where they kept the beer, next to the workbench piled high with tools and jars and rolls of tape. At the side of the pool, the fish vied with one another for the opportunity to draw close, and they glided into the net as though eager to sacrifice themselves for their fellows. Or for Walter himself—traitorous Walter, whom they expected to nourish them. The hard part was choosing who would go and who would stay. Once again the pain rose in his chest. He had no authority to make such decisions, no idea what criteria to use. He could take the oldest first, but since every fish in the pond was built to outlive him, that detail didn’t seem relevant. Size, perhaps? He could save more by removing the largest ones—maybe just four or five. But all that would do is buy a little time, stay some executions, and in two or three years he’d have to thin it again. How about color? The two gray ones were invisible against the dark bottom, and Orange Juice disappeared against the tan rock of the sides. Wasn’t the whole point to have fish you could see? It was the mottled or striped ones—fish like Tiger and Measles—that stood out the best.

Decisions, he thought. This word brought another: precision. Not to mention incision. Words of sharpness.

And Julia had left this task to him. What does it matter? she’d asked, way back when she first started to nag. They’re just fish.

What does it matter.

In the end he applied a compromise of all the principles. By turns, old ones and big ones and unmottled ones swam into the mesh, the aluminum handle of the net bowing with the weight as he lifted each one out and dumped it into a plastic tub, joining it with the others. Even then they didn’t thrash, just flicked their tails once or twice and settled in, gaping slowly, as though sucking in the warm air. They didn’t panic. It was just Walter, after all.

Old Gandalf, nearly translucent, hovered in the middle of the pool, watching the roundup. According to every measure, he too should go. If he didn’t, Julia would have something to say about it.

The net nearly buckled when he hoisted that behemoth out of the water. The fish watched as Walter lowered him into the tub and disentangled his fins from the mesh. The whiskery barbels at the sides of his mouth gave him a dour expression.

Walter rested his eyes. A fish, he told himself. Just a fish.

He started with Pony because she was smaller than the others. He wanted something manageable, a trial run. At the patio table, he’d lifted the taut, wriggling body out of the tub, gripping her tail as best he could. Stun them, that’s what Dale had said. Then they won’t feel a thing. Gritting his teeth, Walter took a deep breath, aimed and whacked Pony’s head against the flagstone, as hard as he dared. And it seemed to work: the fish stopped flopping. Walter lay Pony out on the cutting board brought from the kitchen, and he released his breath. It hadn’t been as difficult as he’d feared. Perhaps the blow to the head had already killed her. The rest would just be a formality, an insurance policy.

The knife he’d chosen was a long, slender blade with a black handle, perfect for cutting through onions and potatoes, a compromise between flex and rigidity. After holding the blade over the fish’s neck for several seconds, just behind the gills, steeling himself to be hard, to be sharp and fast, he plunged down with a sawing motion. Too late he realized the knife was the wrong choice. The scales were too strong, or his arm too weak. The blade wouldn’t cut, and then Pony woke up, a Lazarus fish risen from the dead, thrashing with such force that Walter feared he’d lose his grip. He sawed all the harder, but there was no serration to the edge, nothing to catch on the lip of the scales, and the more he pushed, the more the blade pressed into the flesh, strangling the fish more than beheading it. Walter could barely keep his eyes open, so he stopped, let go, pulled the knife away from Pony’s spotted throat only to find that the flesh didn’t spring back, that the blade had finally crushed through the scales, opening up a gash through which blood and some other liquid now oozed. Pony writhed and flailed, struggling to live, although even Walter could see that life draining away onto the cutting board.

More mysterious were the strange crescent marks on Pony’s underside, where the blade hadn’t even touched. Then he understood: he’d clamped her down so hard that his fingernails had driven into her belly. There was no going back now, not after crushing her insides. He clenched his teeth, slapping his left hand back onto the clammy skin of the fish and pinning it down, going at it with the knife, digging away, trying again to push through and finish the job. But the knife stopped against something tough, and the more Walter pushed, the harder Pony thrashed.

He let go again, gasping for breath as he raced back into the house, smearing fish blood on the handle of the slider, yanking open the drawer in the kitchen, retrieving the cleaver. A moment later he was back outside, and then—oh miracle!—Pony was gone, vanished, and for an instant Walter’s heart lightened. He’d been delivered, spared this sacrifice, as when the angel had stopped Abraham’s hand over Isaac.

But no, there she was on the flagstone under the table, where she’d landed after flipping herself off. Pony’s head leaned a bit to one side, one eye looking up. Down on his knees, Walter grabbed her again. Holding the fish, he took up the cleaver, hacking almost blindly, his vision blurred. The blade didn’t come down flat, and he sent off chips of flagstone. Or chips of Pony. On the third blow, the body went utterly rigid in Walter’s hand, then shivered and relaxed. On the fourth, the head separated from the rest, and Walter, exhausted, dropped the cleaver and fell back onto his rump. His khaki pants were smeared with red ooze. The head was detached but Pony’s mouth opened twice more, slowly.

Walter heard himself gasp, then realized he was sobbing. He wiped his face with his sleeve, then looked back at the plastic tub where seven other koi waited, yawning for air. There was no way he could do that again. No way.

“Good grief,” Julia said when he called her to report the disaster. He could tell she was stepping out of earshot of her clients. “They’re just fish, Walter,” she said, her voice half bewildered, half scolding. “Just take care of it.”

There it was again, that expression. The catch-all.

There were voices in the background. “I’m sorry, but I have to go,” she said. “I have people waiting.”

The phone clicked.

Julia would have lined the koi up like stalks of celery and cut through them all with a single swipe. But she hadn’t been the one to feed them, to care for them—not the way he had over the past twenty years.

It was the grandkids who would notice. Chloe would ask what had become of Pony or Orange Juice or Gandalf. What was he to tell her? That he’d decapitated them at the patio table?

He took a break to regroup, washing up in the bathroom, scrubbing the crusted fluids from his arms and face with a washcloth. He rinsed the spatters of fish blood from his mustache, rubbing the white whiskers, smoothing them down past the corners of his mouth. The man in the mirror looked to him like the butcher of Treblinka.

He made himself a sandwich—avoiding the cutlery drawer—and pondered his next move. The trick was to end it all quickly or painlessly. Both, if possible. No more knives. Dale had guns next door, but Walter couldn’t see himself firing a .22 into the heads of fish. After lunch, he checked on the plastic tub, hoping they might have expired on their own, but no, they lay together like giant sardines alive in a can, calmly gasping. How many hours could this go on?

He checked the internet. Yes, just like everything else, there were pages about how to kill koi. He wasn’t the first one to face this problem. Opinions varied. Most of them came down on the side of Dale’s solution: stun and cut. But a few recommended freezing, which numbed them like an anesthetic. Walter remembered a story he’d read, decades ago, in high school—a man lost in the Yukon. Supposedly it wasn’t such a bad way to go. And since fish were cold-blooded to begin with, it made sense. Didn’t it?

Out in the garage stood the old fridge, the bottom filled with beer.

He divided the koi into two garbage bags, doubled for strength, the plastic so thick he could barely tie them. Then he hauled them to the garage, each sack heavier than a load of salt. The fridge was an upright model, the freezer on top capacious and nearly empty. As he heaved in the bags, the fish wriggled and slid about, and Walter tucked in the corners of plastic before slamming the door, the magnetic strip sealing them in like the last block of a pharaoh’s tomb.

He panted, his face wet. The bags had been heavy but it wasn’t that. Something moved in the freezer and an ice cube tray clunked against the inside. Walter stared at the cement floor between his feet. Then he trudged back through the house. On the patio he hosed out the plastic tub and returned it to the garden shed. He wrapped Pony’s body parts in another bag, which he sealed with a twist-tie and set by the door. Using the spray nozzle he cleaned the flagstone of blood and oils, blasting remnants of Pony into the grass. The cutting board he threw away in the trash.

The koi pool was calm. The fish didn’t appear to mind their numbers being thinned. Nor did they shy away from him. They didn’t understand the role he had played.

It was the heat of the day, normally too hot to be out for long, but Walter felt chilled. He went upstairs and stood for a long time under the steaming water of the shower. Then he sat out on the patio in shorts and bare feet, straining to absorb all the heat the sun could offer. When he closed his eyes, he felt traces of goo and scales on his hands, little bits that hadn’t come off in the shower—but when he studied his fingers, nothing was visible.

It wasn’t even three o’clock, but Walter poured himself a whiskey. He’d earned it. After the first one he had a second, and by the end of the second a certain calm began to settle on him. He could breathe again. It was the right thing to do and he had done it. By now the fish would be slowing, their eyes dulling. He would leave them in the freezer until garbage day, when he could carry the sacks straight from the makeshift morgue to their waste disposal grave. This was the way to take care of it. It eased their passing.

The image of Sammy and Chloe flashed through Walter’s mind, then the face of their father. He took another gulp of whiskey.

A glance at his watch set him in motion. There were things to clean up before Julia got home. He put the knives in the empty dishwasher and turned the dial to sterilize. He wiped the blood off the slider handle. A new lowball of whiskey in his hand, he picked up the old net and padded barefoot down the hallway to return it to the workbench.

Stepping into the dark garage, he gasped, dropping his cocktail. The glass smashed, sending shards and whiskey over his bare feet.

There, in the middle of the cement floor, lay a long, finned figure, ghostly white. It was Gandalf. The great fish flicked his tail, slapping it against the concrete. His eyes gleamed in the low light, and his lips still opened and closed, as if he were trying to speak. Wa… wa… he seemed to mouth. Water, of course. 

Unless it was something else, something nearly the same, a beckoning, a name.

As Walter’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw the others—Orange Juice, Graybeard, Blacky, and more—all of them scattered across the cement as if a storm had passed through, hailing down koi. The door of the freezer stood ajar, the necks of the bags unraveled. They’d sprung themselves free.

A great energy surged inside of Walter, and he roared at the fish, a long guttural roar of frustration. What did they want from him? Couldn’t they see there wasn’t a thing he could do?

Fast—faster than he had moved in a very long time—Walter stormed to the freezer and grabbed at the bags the fish had left behind. He stuffed koi in, one after the other. Gandalf the ringleader went last. That one, the one who refused to back down, Walter rolled into a separate sack, all by himself. He packed them in the freezer, slammed the door closed. From the workbench he grabbed a roll of duct tape, fumbling to get an edge started, then wrapped a band around the freezer door, reaching it all the way around the back, one layer, then two, then three. He tore off long strips, sealing the door at the top and the bottom, binding it on the sides, not stopping until the roll was empty.

Back in the house he found that his feet were bleeding. With tweezers he plucked shards of glass from his soles, covering the red cuts with Band-Aids from the medicine cabinet. He mopped up the floor. Then he climbed up the stairs and dropped into the bedroom armchair, gazing out the window while his feet throbbed. He didn’t move until Julia came home.

That evening he made pasta with a vegetarian sauce. He set the table indoors, protesting that it was too hot to eat out back. Julia asked for a beer, but Walter convinced her to have wine instead.

He was at the sink, draining the pasta in the colander, when she asked the question.

“So,” she said as she hunted for the Parmesan in the fridge, her back to him. “Did you do it? Did you take care of it?”

He nodded. Steam rose from the mass of noodles before him, leaving a halo of mist on the windowpane. Out there by the ash tree sat the patio table, not far from the steel barbecue and the patch of blooming yarrow. Further to the left was the stone lip of the koi pond, the surface of the water still, except for the bubbles by the filter.

What bothered him more than the killing was the parting, the leave-taking. Harder to sever than flesh were all those other filaments, the invisible ties that bound him like live nerves to those he loved. He looked around from the sink. At the table Julia scrubbed a block of hard cheese against the grater. He wouldn’t tell her now. Not tonight. Tomorrow morning he’d make a call or two and get a reservation. By noon on Saturday the wheels would lift from the tarmac and he’d be rising over the mountains, headed for the plains, for the crisp cold, for the snow, for Peter and Sammy and Chloe, escaping, however briefly, from this warm land with its bubbling ponds and its lies of eternal summer.

* * *

More about This Jealous Earth: A man puts his beloved pets to the knife; a family prepares for the Rapture; a woman in a department store slips a necklace into her purse. Whether hawking body parts in a Midwestern city, orbiting through the galleries of a Paris museum, or plotting sibling tortures in an Arizona desert, the characters in This Jealous Earth face decisions that forever alter their lives. Always moving and often humorous, Carpenter’s stories examine the tension between the everyday and the transcendent—our struggle to grasp what lies beyond our reach.