When I talk to people about the novel I’m working on, they often ask how I came up with the idea. Here’s the answer. I wrote this scene in a writing workshop, based on a writing prompt—I think it was “something that is heavy.” This short scene, which makes me think of a cross between Where the Red Fern Grows and Charlotte’s Web, was the seed that sprouted into the novel I’m writing now. This scene no longer appears in the novel, but the basic elements—a sensitive boy, his unsentimental grandfather, and a dog—are still central to my book (though the book has little in common with Where the Red Fern Grows or Charlotte’s Web, trust me).
His arms felt heavy. There’s no place to put this down, he said. I pointed at the steamer trunk behind him. He wrestled the body, trying to put it down softly, but the weight overtook him and he dropped it onto the trunk with a thud. The carcass balanced for a moment, the head twisted at an awkward angle on the stiffened neck, then it fell on to the dirt floor.
Leave it, I said.
But grandpa, he said, biting his bottom lip.
Gordie, I said, Mike’s dead. It doesn’t matter if he gets a little dirty.
I turned to my tool bench, but I knew he was still looking at me, his eyes jammed wide open with anger and filling with tears. I pushed some stuff around on the bench, acted like I was looking for something. After a bit I heard him moving around behind me, his feet shuffling on the floor, so I knew he wasn’t glaring at me anymore.
Gordie, I said, softly as I could, turning back toward him. But he was gone.
I stepped toward the open door. I looked at the dog laying on the dirt floor. He was coated in brown in a broad stripe that circled his body. You could see how he’d fallen off the trunk and rolled, like a ball of dough through flour. But around his eyes I could see that the dirt had been wiped away.
Gordie, I called, stepping through the door. Down and to my right I saw a blur of motion, saw it too late, then he hit me low and hard like a cornerback making a desperation tackle. I felt a sharp pain in my knee and thought it would break but it buckled forward and I collapsed hard onto my knees, then forward onto my hands. The boy had hold of my ankle and I could hear him sobbing as he wrapped his arms even more tightly around my leg.
I rolled onto my back and sat up, him still hanging on, his head laying across my shin.
Gordie. No answer. I could feel his tears starting to seep into the leg of my pants. Gordie, Mike was pretty old, you know.
He didn’t move, except I could feel his chest heaving.
Didn’t you know that he was gonna go any time?
He jerked his head up and his eyes flashed like a rabid animal’s. No! he shouted. Did you know?
I didn’t answer right off. For one thing, my knee was throbbing and I felt that if I didn’t get up out of the dirt pretty quick my back was going to start aching, too.
I set my eyes on the flap of hair that hung across his forehead, hiding his eyes and his tears. I saw at that moment, with his face out of sight, that he looked just like his mother had at that age, hair the same color of wheat but texture more like straw, hers cut in the tomboy style that she favored until well into her teens, so that looking at Gordie now was like looking at a Polaroid of that unhappiest time.
He’d stopped sobbing and I could hear him doing the work of settling his breathing. I reached a hand to rest on top of his head, lifting it as gentle as I could manage while rolling myself out from beneath him and onto my knees.
Gordie, give me a hand getting up. He still wouldn’t look me in the eye, but he stood up, his head at standing height not more than an inch or two above mine kneeling. I had my doubts that he’d be much use in pulling me up, but he gripped my hand and set his feet at an angle and I pushed up to stand. I tried to keep hold of his hand, but he pulled it away, not angry but determined.
I looked back over my shoulder through the shop door at the dog lying in the dirt. I’d have to get him taken care of soon, before the heat and the flies made a mess of things.