Zahnie (part 1)

I don’t usually post this sort of thing on my blog, but here’s my hand at a short story. This is just the beginning of me trying to get my fiction legs back under me again.

I can’t guarantee I’ll post this kind of stuff all the time, but I expect I’ll serialize it, and then it will disappear from public view when I take it offline and try to complete the thing more rigorously.

Zahniser/Zahnie is a Pistol River name. I never knew the guy. They were related to the Walkers, and the Lawrences and the Crooks. Anyhow, any reactions you have, please let me know.


Every dummy knows you don’t feed salmon to your dog.  Every once in awhile you’ll hear that one of the neighbor’s pooches will get into a pile of heads, left over after some fisherman is finished cleaning the things. And that dog is liable to get a bone stuck somewhere deep inside, where things like that tend to stick. You bury the guts and heads deep.

Now, I know dogs can be bright creatures but, Ol’ Shep, with the one blue eye, he will not hesitate before he slurps up a nice pile of guts. Shep will turn all flappy-doglips and no brain, like some kind of ocean dwelling thing, and gulp them down. Then, not long after, everything that should stay inside your dog will start to show up the outside. He stops drinking. Then he won’t eat. And before long, he’s bloated and stiff, with flies buzzing around his one blue eye. At that point, Old Shep isn’t not a dog anymore. He’s a non-dog. He’s nothing. Just another thing to bury.

Don’t take me wrong. I’ve had my share of dogs on the ranch, for herding the sheep and tending cattle. They can’t be beat. But it’s not just work dogs. There’s nothing like sitting with our legs crossed, leaning against a tall fir with your dog by your side. He’s panting happily after a long day in the woods, and you’re sharing half a sandwich and dumping out a bit of water onto a dirt hollow you made in the fir needles, just for him lap up, like a strange communion between two tired animals. There’s a kind of an unforced innocence and trust about a dog.

But you don’t feed him fish heads. And especially, you don’t feed MY dogs fish heads. Maybe you’re starting to see why I was surprised here.

My name is William Zahniser. Call me Zahnie. Everyone else does.

Early in the morning, I was out the front door, on my way to tend to the cows. It was still too dark to see much of anything. The only light to be had was the armor-gray sky. No sense in wasting lamp oil. Alphie was in the kitchen kneading the morning’s bread, but her light was on the far side of our house, opposite the cattle, nearer the woodpile.

The morning smelled bright and fresh, of the sharpness of loam and cut grass mixed with the dull tang of manure. Pistol River was our neighbor across our cow field and on the other side of the wagon road. Nobody could really hear the river from this far back. It was more a silent companion, the constant breath of river water permeating the predawn gray. Pistol River was just there, like an older sister, whispering to its younger siblings, “Wake up. Time for your chores. Time to brush out your hair. Time to enjoy the day. And then work hard until dusk. If you’re quiet enough maybe you will see an elk calf today.” They were gone now, the children.

So it was no surprise that I nearly tripped and fell into the hole.

I noticed it at the last second, and scuffed my foot backward. I was lucky I didn’t twist an ankle. The hole was large and perfectly round, like when somebody moved a woodcutting block after months of use. Inside the hole, someone had placed the head and the guts of a Chinook salmon. Her fishy eyes were glassy and round, and her open mouth defied you with the hundreds of tiny inward-curled fangs you couldn’t actually see but knew were there. With the rain, the hole and its contents had concocted a kind of fishgut stew.

I just stared and sucked on my teeth for a minute, before I shook my head and muttered “Ain’t that some shit…” I went around the house, behind the cordwood, to get a shovel.

“Zahnie? What you doin’ back there? If you’re coming in here to steal a kiss or catch me nekkid, you better wipe your feet first!” The kitchen window was cracked open let in some springtime air.

“Hmm,” I nodded thoughtfully. “Kissing sounds like a lot of work. And you’re not naked. I’m just here for a shovel.”

“Who you calling a shovel, son?” she drawled. Then she pursed her lips, made a kissy sound, and lifting her hand up to her mouth, blew a palmful of flour out the window at my face.

I could feel the grin spread wide across my face. Twenty five years now, and she’s still something to behold.

Alpharetta and I were a study in opposites. Where I was tall and thin, a splinter on a fencepost, she was a short, round thing like a myrtle nut. Through many years and many accidents, I had learned to place my feet carefully: I had a long stride but the world tripped me up. She flowed when she walked, hovering over gopher mounds and tree roots as easily as she swept across dance hall floor. I was a Dutchman Yankee, and she was my Arkansas sweetheart. Since I was young I read everything I could get my hands on. Alphie signed her name with an X.

I could not imagine why any of our neighbors would leave a pile of fish guts at our place. We hardly saw them except at Independence Day picnics, and the occasional night when Alphie dragged my skinny carcass to a dance. But those things are too painful. Relationships are hard, sharp things and I spent years burying them deep, just like our eleven children, and just like I was doing with the pile of fish guts. Out of sight, out of mind, so the saying goes.

Even so, we have been married a long time, and that’s more than a lot of people can say. In those years, I’ve learned one thing: whatever troubles you face, and the Lord knows Alphie and I have had our share, you just hold together tight until, after a time, that coal turns diamond. Any dummy knows you don’t throw away something like that.


3 thoughts on “Zahnie (part 1)”

  1. Salmon specifically are dangerous to dogs, not just any fish. Once they’re cooked, the sickness-causing parasite is dead and harmless.
    Love the visual imagery–very poetic and accurate. Reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s writing.


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