Waterdogs (Taryn Hendrix)

I see my father at a party in the house he built. He is too young, with a full head of wavy dark hair, just like in his wedding photos, but his face is covered in half-healed wounds, still the color of raw tuna. His nose is flat and pink, and he’s wearing his carpenter’s uniform: canvas pants and a stained grey t-shirt. Without flowers or wine, he arrives to say, “What’s the occasion?” and I guess he’s lucky I answered the door. It’s December, already dark by the time he arrives at the start of cocktail hour. 

“Mom’s getting published.” She’d been working on this project about the migratory patterns of kinglet songbirds since before my father died, eight years ago. As we speak, my stepfather, a man with ashy skin and hair like shoe polish, mingles among the little clusters of people from different pieces of my mother’s life. They’ve come to celebrate her twenty-five-years-in-the-making accomplishment. Her article focuses on the rapacious consequences of climate change, which seems an odd thing to celebrate. She had copies of the magazine shipped to the house because she’s afraid to leave the island where she lives, where I grew up, and where my father died. Tonight, she wears a frilly violet skirt that’s just the wrong shade of purple, clashing with the deep amethyst velvet that adorns her robes and silly hat. 

“Do you want a drink?” I ask, because I always do around my stepfather, and it seems appropriate to offer, as I would a visiting brother or cousin.

My father smiles. He looks about twenty-five, no older than I am. “I shouldn’t,” he says.

When my father drank, he made poor choices. That’s how his car ended up wrapped around a tree. Before I can ask if he means morally or physically (I don’t know ghost rules), my stepfather proposes a toast to my mother, one hand on her left shoulder. My mother is short, small, with cropped hair and candy-colored lipstick smeared across her thin mouth. I thrust my glass of something a little too heartily into the air, slopping a little on my shoes. My mother notices, and her smile flickers. I have to be careful; she’s sure I’m an alcoholic. To be fair, I was still drunk the morning I arrived at their house – I’d thrown up twice on the thirty-minute ferry ride from Seattle to the Island.

Nobody acknowledges my father when he raises his calloused hands and claps over his head to congratulate my mother. It’s loud. 

“How much have you had to drink?” he asks me, looking at the glass in my hand with a mixture of longing and suspicion, and I wonder if I can tempt the dead.

“My second,” I lie. I’m at the perfect level of drunkenness, where I’m floating just above the crowd of people around me. 

He’s fidgeting with the lining of his pockets—he did that when he was waiting for me after school, always eager to return home. 

My mother walks up to me. My father avoids her eyes, but she does not acknowledge him. She takes my half empty glass away from me and asks if I could please refill the cheeseboard. 

“Aren’t I a guest?” I say.

“I’d like to think you’re a guest I can rely on.” My mother’s pursed lips do not indicate confidence. She indicates my stepfather and says, “I’d like to introduce him.” I wonder why these guests, all from the Island and not the city, weren’t at their wedding the previous summer.

My stepfather, wisely, seems to hear the tension in my mother’s voice; my mother and I have been fighting since I was six. It seems young, but I had a head start on puberty, emotionally if not physically. “Everything all right over here?” He sounds anxious, as though he might cry. 

“Perfect,” my mother says. She raises her eyebrows at me. I look over my shoulder at my father, and he nods.

I look at my mother. “Do I get tips?”

I can hear my father laughing. My mother looks upset and says, “I just need some help. Will you please?” Her voice is cloying, almost pitiable. I nod. I can pour myself another glass of something while I work. The two of them turn away from me and I dash into the empty kitchen. My father follows me and watches as I pull a few sliced cheeses and meats out of the refrigerator.

He never spent much time with us inside. He was always out in his shop back then, and it took me years to realize that the loose floorboards hid big bottles of cheap whiskey, that the reason my mother was always so angry when he came home late was not because he was too busy creating, as he claimed and I believed. As it was, I got the brunt of her anger. The hazy aftermaths of those fights were omnipresent in my childhood. I learned to be angry by default, because what else was there to be. 

“Mom still has terrible taste in wine,” I say, before I swallow half a prefilled glass that sits on the countertop. 

My father nods. “What about the city? Happier there?”

I recall the ferry ride to the Island. I don’t tell my father about it, though. Meeting him is something I’ve imagined since he died, having a conversation without my mother to interfere. I won’t spoil it with the truth. “I’m much happier there.”


“University District,” I say. It’s the same apartment I’ve had since school. It’s hardly smaller than this tiny, one-story house that doesn’t even have a back door.

My father smiles because he lived there once. I don’t want to talk about the city, so I hand the plate to a guest and whisper to my father, “Want a cigarette?”

He seems disappointed, which was not part of my daydreams. He may look young, but he’s still my father. Death doesn’t change those things. But he says yes. I tell him we’ll have to sneak out the bathroom window. 

“When did you start sneaking out?”

“Soon as I could drive,” I say, which was one month after he died.

“So, you did pass.”

I failed the first driving test before his accident. “It took three tries.” 

My mother has gotten around to introducing my stepfather to party guests, who look at him and think only of my father when he parades her around the room my father would think of as his. They clearly think he’s a poor replacement, and this brings me joy. I don’t excuse myself from the mingling and walk to the bathroom as fast as I can. I look behind me to see if my father can keep up, but he built this house. His ghost is walking on his handiwork, from small room to small room, a house difficult to escape. 

I open a window and hoist myself onto the ledge, before jumping the three feet down. My father follows behind me with more agility. An owl – natural kinglet predators – flies out of a tree, the flapping of its expansive wings the only noise. The air is cold, damp – the wind is picking up, indicating coming rain. The clouds cover the stars, and it’s nearly impossible to see the wild swaths of trees that loom on the edge of our property.

I pull out the pack of cigarettes out of my jacket pocket and try to hand him one. He shakes his head. “Will they see us?” He nods toward the house. I see he knows my mother, still. She would protest. 

I walk across the driveway to a cluster of trees separating our house from the neighbor’s. Through the dense canopy, there’s a path I carved on my childhood bike. It leads to my father’s workshop, where he spent most of my childhood. I spent my teenage years meeting friends here to drink or, in the summer, to play games that involved all of us getting naked. I motion for my father to follow. I don’t want him to lose me.

Once we are out of view of all windows, and the dense forest of trees becomes the night sky, I hand him a cigarette and a lighter. 

“Menthols?” he asks, another hint of disappointment in his voice. 

“Do they have cigarettes in the afterlife?”

He smiles. “That new husband, a bit greasy, isn’t he?” 

“He’s retired from the military. No kids,” I say. “So, Mom can quit now.” I don’t want to tell my father that the birds are all leaving – the air is warmer here than it was even when he was alive. It never used to be warm enough for the thunderstorm I feel coming tonight. My mother told me the birds are mating farther north. If it weren’t for this, she may never have published. “I don’t think she’ll ever leave now.” 

My father shakes his head, sadly. “You’re so sure?”

I stop. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

He ignores me. “I think your stepfather would like to sell the house.” 

“What? How do you know?” I say, because I don’t want to believe it. 

“I know they’re going to tear that down.” He looks over my shoulder, as though he can see anything through the clots of trees and darkness, toward the place where his workshop looms. I remember watching him build tables and chairs that he sometimes sold, but more often filled our house. I haven’t been inside since he died, nor, I think, has my mother. Our mourning is in avoidance.

His little prophecy makes my throat close up a bit, like an allergic reaction. But I believe him. My father, drunk or sober, had that effect on me, my mother, his friends. He could instill confidence just with the musical cadence of his voice. 

“I can prove it to you.” He motions like a tour guide, and now I don’t want to lose him. His strides are much longer than mine, as though I were a child again, though my legs aren’t much shorter than his now. Each drop of rain falling from a tree branch makes me jump and I shiver. I’m too out of breath to ask him any questions. “You should really quit smoking.”

I resist the urge to flip him off. When we come out from under the shelter, I ask him, “So, are we going inside?”

“Just you,” he says. He looks at it with a kind of longing that makes me sad. I walk toward the door, but he doesn’t follow. 

Most fathers would say they were happiest playing at the beach with their children or tucking them in at night, but my father was at his best when he was creating things in his workshop, watched over by a cheap painting of Saint Joseph. This is where he made my mother a bookcase inlaid with the image of an egg nest for her fortieth birthday. It is now in the bedroom she shares with the retired captain. 

I stomp out the cigarette and, without asking, hand him another and the lighter but don’t light one myself. He smiles. In the moonlight, his scars don’t look so dramatic. If I sat down, I could be a child again – three or four. I used to watch him smoke back then. It was my favorite thing because it was our secret. 

“You should go in,” he says.

“I’m scared,” I say. 

“Don’t be.” He runs his hands over his hair. “I think you’ll like what’s left.”

“Like what?”

“You’ll know when you see it.”

I ask him again and again, “What is it?” but he won’t answer. He turns away from me and toward the forest. 

“Wait for me?”

“Of course.” 

For the first time in the eight years since his death, I enter my father’s shop. His distinct smells are gone. The whisky scent of the oak that burned in the fireplace cut by acetone and almost-sweet turpentine. The cracks in the walls are still replete with sawdust that once coated the floor, high piles swept into the corners. My father left me no unfinished projects, though I would have liked that, even now – to collaborate with him after death in a way he wouldn’t let me when he was alive. I close my eyes and inhale pine, cedar, redwood – harsh, acidic smells that make me think of the long stretches of finished tables, and my mother painting her nails while she watched PBS documentaries. 

The place still looks like his. It’s decorated with his sketches, mostly of furniture plans but also of the world just outside the window: the clouds that come after wild rainstorms that he called waterdogs, the thick knots of trees. I walk to his table saw, still in its proper place, poised to begin cutting. I think no one has been in here; surely my stepfather would have sold the tools. There are cupboards and drawers in his workbench that my father may have been the last to touch.

Toward the back of the workshop, there’s a door that led to an office of sorts, where he sketched and planned his endeavors. I walk to it. Past the scraps of wood, I see unmistakable signs of occupancy: empty coffee cups and rotten apple cores. I open the door and see books and papers and magazines sloppily arranged, and Wellington boots too small for my father. My father’s unsellable furniture makes up a desk, chair, and bookshelf. The smell inside is like city garbage, mold from many different sources. It is nothing like the alcove I remember, where my father’s glossy art books were stacked alphabetically on a shelf and his bottles hidden in a cardboard box beneath a chair. 

When I walk toward the desk, I see a corkboard packed with shiny lumps like silk. Upon closer inspection, I find myself looking at the feathered carcasses of eight small kinglets, organized like  evidence from a crime. Detached beaks line the left-hand side and legs the right. In the center, the rest of their bodies are pinned by their emerald-and-gold wings with sewing pins. One belly is split open. 

For all my time on the Island, my mother had always studied the birds from a respectful distance, noting the shapes of their nests, the size of their eggs, and the numbers of their brood. Kinglets are local, which is why she was able to study them. They are also plentiful, so disrupting their habitats is less of a concern; plus, studying them was not considered fun or sexy. Instead, my mother could work in peace, getting close to them, to these birds that rarely made it past the age of two, and never past six.

I can’t imagine her taking the birds apart with such severity. She nearly made me get rid of the cat when it started eating her birds, leaving behind nothing but heads and feathers. My mother cried over their little bodies, saying she knew who that one was, by the shape of its little red crown of feathers. That mother just laid nine eggs; based on her size this was her first brood; those little chicks will die. She would call the cat a nuisance, and then I’d hide him in my room, under my pillows and blankets. My father would insist that the cat was like an assistant, I assume to persuade her to let me keep it. He held my mother, but never tried to persuade her to make its death noble. Then, he disposed of the birds behind this workshop, with an elegant grave marker in case my mother ever wanted to visit. It’s impossible that this board of carcasses, neatly organized like school supplies, is hers.

I open a drawer where my father would have hidden his rolling tobacco, but all I find is jars of embalming fluid and what look like surgical tools. The setup looks shoddy, unprofessional, and smells like decay. I pick up a jar. The birds look limp and uncured. This can’t be my mother’s work: the image makes me feel like I’m jetlagged and running past the unfamiliar vistas of a foreign airport. 

Still clutching the jar, I dare myself to go closer to the birds. I see my mother has pinned a graph, written in her elegant script, with relevant statistics—numbers of eggs, characteristics of birds, all in her unique shorthand. I can decipher it. I wonder if my stepfather can. I hear a clap of thunder and jump and drop the jar, which breaks. I jerk back and watch the carpet under my shoes burn just a little. The overwhelming smell of vinegar mixed with the pungency of rot makes my head feel cloudy.

The longer I stand there, the more the smell overwhelms me. I look out the window, but it’s too dark to differentiate tree from tree in the forest just outside. For all I know, one of those trees is a man, the ghost watching me. I break into a run out of the room, through the workshop, and out into the cold night. My father is no longer there.

In the rain, I curl up on the wet ground and resist the urge to vomit up cheap, waxy food and the tequila and the prosecco, and I know my father can, maybe, see me and I am so embarrassed I sob, but I keep the contents within me. All I feel is anger. A sanctuary lost.

When I come to, the air is clear, but it’s raining harder. There must be more dead things out here than hang on the walls of my father’s decaying work shed, but I can’t smell them. I can imagine their descendants chirping through the rain and again, the sound of owls prowling. 

“Dad?” I say to the night clouded sky. I stand. My knees are muddy, and my hair is dripping down my back. I try to brush some of the mess off, but it just smears over my dress.

I look down the trail, forged by me so many years before, and into the dense, unknown woods, and choose the path I shaped. It’s too dark to see anything through the trees, except for the form of an imagined monster. I shiver. Perhaps, in those trees, I might find my father. I want to cry again when I think of him. I wonder if, on my walk, I could find him again. I decide to go home.

While I am alone on this winding path with no distractions, the trail begins to transform as it might for a small child. The sound of the storm wanes, and the spaces between branches morph into homes for monsters, both real and imaginary. My long-dead cat could spring from those branches and guide me home, as his matted orange form may have when I was small. It’s difficult to imagine the body I’d found, soaked in its own piss, reanimating itself. I hadn’t been allowed to see my father’s mangled form until it was ready for the open-casket funeral. That’s what I’m more likely to see among these trees: my father’s waxy face, the scars that would never heal, and the orange-tinted makeup intended to cover them. This, I remember deciding, was not my father, and this, I know now, is what I will find between the knuckles of gnarled tree roots.

It’s too dark tonight, under the canopy of clouds, to see even ghosts. I feel leftover rainwater drip from tree branches and want another cigarette, but when I reach for the lighter, I remember it’s with my father, and I curse. I look through the trees for him again. 

I exit the forested path to see the clouds parting. The rain has stopped, as though I’ve left the bad weather behind me at the workshop. I can see the house, most of the lights out and the gravel driveway nearly empty. The air is still, the wind eerily dissipated. 

“There you are.” My stepfather waves at me from the porch. I think to duck behind a tree, as though this will help me. My dress is heavy from the mud and my hair feels dirty. I wish I’d thought to rub the makeup off my eyes before coming outside.

“I still see you.” He crosses the driveway to meet me, out of sight of the remaining party guests, and crucially, my mother. I’ve dropped my pack of cigarettes in the dirt and kneel to hide them, but he’s a fast walker.

“Get up. I can give you a light.” His voice goes up in pitch, with a lilting laugh, melodic in a way I didn’t think he could achieve. 

I rise and he strikes a match against a box and something sparks.

“Can I have one?” he asks, and I’m taken aback. 

“Menthols?” I say.

“I prefer them, actually.” He stretches out his hand. I inhale and for the first time that evening, really try to appreciate the flavor. It’s something to focus on besides my stepfather’s mustache. After a beat, he asks, “What were you doing out here?”

 “I went out to the workshop.” 

“Oh.” He taps his cigarette. He seems remarkably unconcerned about current condition. I want my father to reappear, to confront my stepfather. But they cannot exist, together, in this new world. I’ve forgotten to smoke, and my cigarette goes out. “Are you going to come back inside?”

“Not yet.” 

“Your mother’s worried.” My stepfather moves over to lean against a tree, perhaps to look more relaxed. Instead, he looks silly. 

“Do you want to leave the Island?” I ask.

The man wilts a bit. “You know that being here makes her sad, right?”

“She’s not leaving.”

“She wanted me to talk to you about it.”

His smile betrays pity. “Maybe you make her sad.” I flick my cigarette butt at him, and he flinches, but doesn’t respond. I leave him to walk inside and find my mother. 

I take another drink, and I can feel that end-of-the-party mood, adults gathered to talk about things the children shouldn’t hear as they jingle their keys and lace their shoes. It takes effort for me to push each sip to the back of my throat with my tongue. Mint and champagne mix together unpleasantly. I can taste tonight’s and tomorrow’s vomit.

When my mother sees me, she says I look tired. I smirk and say that I am. Her friends won’t even look at me. She takes my arm, nails digging my skin, and pulls me into the kitchen.

“Where the hell have you been? Look at you.”

I scoff and look toward the window, but my mother takes my cheek and gently pushes my face back toward her. She doesn’t have to ask again. “I was in the workshop.” My tongue trips over my teeth. “Dad’s workshop.” I hope this will hurt her.

Her hand falls and she simply says, “Why?”

“You’ve been in there,” I say, defensively. 

“It’s mine,” she says. “This –” she gestures at the ceiling, at the rain-smattered windows. “All mine.” 

“No, it’s not. It’s his. It’s still his.” I pause. “Or mine.”

The ladies are putting on their coats and shoes noisily. My mother is too upset to walk them out; but my stepfather, returning just in time, opens the door, takes over the hosting duties. I hate to think of them liking him as the door closes.

“Why did you trash the place? All those dead birds.”

“Trash? It’s my work.” 

“It’s sick.”

“It’s science.” 

“Why his workshop?”

“It wasn’t being used.” She bites her lip. “It’s rotting into the ground, anyway, sweetie.” Her tone is lightening, and this makes me angry. “We can sell the tools, but the rest . . . worthless.”

“So, you’re selling.”

“I didn’t say that.”

I think of my cat, the one she nearly gave away to save her birds and begin to cry. It’s an ugly, blubbering weeping and she says, You’re drunk. I don’t deny it. I’m more angry than drunk, however. I can’t stop. I cry so hard my stomach turns, this time for real, and I fall to my knees. By the time my stepfather re-enters the house, I’ve lost my voice.

You’re a drunk. My mother’s voice seems to echo. I can’t look at you anymore. She walks away. My stepfather stands over me without offering a hand. He says that I shouldn’t drive, but that I should step outside while he makes up my bed. Give yourself a break. He must feel guilty for the cigarettes.

I leave my coat behind when I step out into the aftermath of the thunder. Smoky clouds —my father’s waterdogshang about the sky, illuminated only by the moon. I see a figure in the driveway. It could be my father, it could be a bird, a lingering guest. I wave, motioning it over.

When it waves back, I see a wing, a big wing, and just barely, cast in shadow, the long, elegant rope that must be a neck. The neck spasms, and then there is a gust of wind. Instinctually, I shrink back toward the house to hide from it, camouflaging. Up against the sky, a shadow in the shape of a giant, prehistoric bird soars against the sky to block out the moon. I hear the pop of a car backfiring, or maybe it’s a gun, but the bird keeps soaring farther and farther away from me. I do stand, eventually, and this cigarette has gone out, too. I let it fall from my lips gently. I hear the sound of footsteps, and I look for my father among the trees.


Taryn Hendrix (tahendrix.com) is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor originating from the Pacific Northwest. Her fiction has appeared in CircleShow and Phosphene. She is an MFA candidate at Brooklyn College’s fiction program where she is a contributing fiction editor for The Brooklyn Review.


image: MM Kaufman