Killing Joseph Stalin by Dave Patterson


The photograph in the Press Herald was of a Canadian man in an orange hunting cap with a large salt-and-pepper mustache. In one hand he gripped a rifle, and in his other, one of those small Canadian cigarettes.

“It says here the man always wanted to go to Africa on a lion hunt but couldn’t afford it,” Ira said. He handed his year-old son a slice of avocado. “Now that the animals have escaped from the zoo, he can finally go on his safari.”

“Why do they have to shoot these animals?” Emma asked. “Can’t they stun them and ship them to another zoo? I never understood why there was an exotic animal zoo in Maine anyway. We went once in elementary school. The animals looked sad. I never went back. And now—” She pushed a curl of brown hair out of her eyes with the back of her wrist and went back to washing the dishes.

“Says they’re shooting them for the safety of the people,” Ira said. “If you see one of these animals, and you have a gun, you’re supposed to shoot it. It says here there’s still a tiger, a black bear, a giraffe, and a wolf at large. A guy shot a brown bear in the Hannaford parking lot yesterday. A snow leopard was killed last night on the school playground. Where the hell did we move to?” Ira asked.

Emma laughed. “I never experienced anything like this growing up. I haven’t even thought of those animals since I was a kid.” Her hands stopped moving over a saucepan. She stared out the window above the sink into the backyard. “I’m scared of Joseph Stalin,” she said. “Not sure what I’d do if I saw a wolf.”

Ira flipped the pages of the newspaper to look for the article he’d written on a local brass quintet. Without looking up, he grabbed another slice of avocado and absently held it in Charlie’s direction. It almost fell as Charlie gripped it with his small fist. Ira continued rifling through the paper. “I was promised it would be in today’s paper. What kind of newspaper is this anyway?”

“It’s not in there?” Emma asked.

“This wouldn’t happen at the Globe.”

“What’s the difference? It’ll be in tomorrow’s paper.” Emma set a plate from lunch in the strainer. “You hated the Globe.”

Ira continued scanning the paper for his article. He picked up another slice of avocado for Charlie. Letting go too soon, it fell to the floor.

“Watch what you’re doing,” Emma scolded. She wiped soapy water from her hands onto her jeans. “If you’re going to feed him, then feed him.”

Ira balled the newspaper in his hand. “I’m going out to get eggs,” he said.

Emma said something, but he was already out the back door.

Most of the trees behind their house had lost their leaves—grey limbs of maples and oaks stuck into the sky, naked. Ira looked around, half expecting to see the narrowed eyes of a wolf staring back at him. A chain-link fence high enough to keep away coyotes and fisher cats lined the property. Ira hoped it would at least stall a tiger until he was able make it back to the house.

The chickens were their lone attempt at farming in this new life in Maine. Emma’s family had farmed the eighty acres of land surrounding their lot for six generations, tracing back to Scottish immigrants. Up until a few months ago, Emma’s grandmother inhabited the house where they now lived. When she died of a stroke in March, Emma’s parents offered them the house, and they accepted, though Ira was hesitant.

Two hens pecked at feed in the yard. Ira found the other two in the rafters of the chicken coop. He built the coop with the help of Emma’s father back in July. He waved his hands at the chickens—they flapped their wings and bounded off the two-by-four beam, landing on the floor of the coop and scrambling out into the yard. In the nest of the chicken he named Mick Jagger, because it walked with an exaggerated head bob, Ira found five eggs. In the other nests he found only one.

The hens clattered outside the coop. Stalin was on the move.

With the eggs in his basket, he went out to observe the rooster. Herm, his father-in-law, dropped the hens and rooster off shortly after the last roofing nail had been hammered in the coop. Joseph Stalin was docile at first like the hens, but he became aggressive and territorial, especially towards Emma.
“He doesn’t seem to have a problem with me,” Ira told Emma after the second attack. “Did you do something to him?”

“Yeah, I did something to a fucking chicken.” Emma rubbed the spot on her calf where Joseph Stalin had pecked the muscle.

The rooster looked up at Ira with its black eyes. It went back to eating the feed on the ground. “I bet you could take a wolf, Stalin,” he said to the rooster.

“You too, Mick Jagger,” he added when the hen scurried past his leg.

#   #   #

Ira looked to the woods. In the paper, a family claimed that while eating dinner, they heard the roar of a lion. The mother said it was so loud that it sounded like the beast was standing right outside their front door. Ira heard only the sound of the wind and bare limbs of trees clacking against one another.

“I don’t want a gun in the house,” Emma said.

Ira could hear Emma and Joanne, his mother-in-law, talking in the kitchen while he gave his son a bath. Charlie smacked his palms against the water and shrieked as it splashed around him. He reached for a toy elephant.

“Maybe a real elephant will show up in our yard,” Ira said, handing him the toy.

Charlie smiled, then screeched. Ira thought about how fragile and tiny his son was—Charlie’s chubby legs still groping at the world to find footing, his head that was just now supporting itself. With the wild animals adrift around this new town he’d moved his son to, Ira wondered if they’d made the right choice to leave Boston where all the wild animals seemed to be securely penned.

In the kitchen, Joanne spoke in a serious tone. Ira heard the word gun being repeated. He lifted Charlie out of the water and wrapped him in a towel. Charlie whined and pointed to the tub where he’d dropped his toy elephant.

“What are you guys talking about?” Ira said. He leaned against the doorway of the kitchen.

The women sat across from each other at the kitchen table. Though Joanne’s face held more lines and her hair had streaks of white, they were both beautiful in the same way—arched eyebrows, pronounced cheekbones, grey eyes.

“Dad thinks we need a gun.” Emma rolled her eyes like a child embarrassed of something her parents said.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Ira said.

“You’re kidding. We are not having a gun in the house.”

“You live on a farm,” Joanne said to Emma, “you’d need a gun even if that wacko zoo owner hadn’t let out all his animals. Besides, it’s just a .22. It won’t do much damage.”

Emma looked up at her mother, “There aren’t that many animals left.” She turned to Ira and said, “I can’t believe you want a gun.”

“We live on a farm now. You heard your mother. Let’s embrace this Maine life. At some point, I’d probably get a gun anyway. Might as well be now, since—you know.” Ira nodded his head toward the window over the kitchen sink. The three of adults looked at the black windowpane. “Those animals will most likely go to farms looking for food. We want to be ready, don’t we, Charlie?” Ira poked his son in the belly. Charlie laughed, but his jaw started shaking.

“God, he’s freezing,” Emma said. “What are you doing?” She stood and reached to grab Charlie.

“He’s fine.” Ira turned so she couldn’t take him. “You don’t always have to—” he began, but Joanne was watching. “I’ll take him upstairs and put on his pajamas. I think we should get this gun,” Ira said as he left the room.

Later, Ira sat up in bed with his computer on his lap. He was editing a draft of an article he was working on about a cellist. Emma walked in the room and pulled her t-shirt over her head. She stood for a moment in her bra and jeans, staring at the floor.

“What?” Ira said, closing his laptop.

“I was thinking about tomorrow. I’m supposed to bring Charlie to the doctors, but I’ll cancel.”

“Because of the animals on the loose?” For reasons unknown even to himself, Ira wanted to take his son out into this dangerous world. “You said yourself they’re almost all gone.”

“Still, it’s not safe,” Emma said. She reached for a plastic bottle from the bureau and rubbed lotion over her fading stretch marks.

“Why don’t I take him if you’re not comfortable?” he said.

“The appointment’s at one. That’s when you work.” She didn’t look up from her stomach. “God, it’s like they’ll never go away.”

“I’ll get up early and write. I’ll get the gun on the way to the doctor,” Ira said.

Emma pushed her jeans to the floor. She stuck her hip out to the side and frowned at Ira. “Do you think I’m still sexy? I mean, I used to be sexy.”

“You’re sexy,” Ira insisted, and he meant it.

She turned and looked at herself in the full-length mirror, first head on, then her profile. She clutched a handful of skin above the elastic band of her blue underwear. “Look at this,” she said.

“You’re sexy. Don’t be obsessive. You did carry a small child inside your belly,” he said. “I’ll take Charlie tomorrow.”

She looked up from her stomach. “What’s all this gun business anyway? You grew up in Connecticut and learned violin through Suzuki. What the hell are you going to do with a gun?” She jutted her hip out again and rested her hand against the bone.

“I’m trying to adapt to a new life. You want me to embrace this place, right? You want me to be happy in a place where the best newspaper doesn’t print my articles on time.”

“Can we stop pretending that you loved working at the Globe? I want you to remember how much you hated not getting work published. The entire time you wanted to quit and work for a smaller paper, someplace where you’d be appreciated. I’m not sure why you act like you were so happy before we moved here.” She looked down at her stomach again and frowned.

“You’re sexy,” Ira said, but she kept running her fingers over the faded lines.

#   #   #

Pots and pans clanked, breaking Ira’s concentration on the article about the cellist. In the kitchen, Charlie looked up from the floor, surrounded by every piece of metal cookware they owned. His son let out a grunt.

“It’s almost one,” Emma said. She was on the ground next to Charlie with a wooden cooking spoon in her hand. Looking down at her son, she drummed the spoon against the bottom of a saucepot browned from age. “Maybe Daddy should write a review on our little band,” she said to Charlie. Then she added, “Let’s cancel the appointment. It’s stupid for you to be outside with Charlie. Something could happen.”

“I can’t be trapped in this house all day—I need to get some fresh air.”

Emma stood. “Ok then. Watch Charlie while I get some eggs.”

“Aren’t you scared of Stalin?” Ira asked.

“I’m taking the broom. I can’t be trapped all day either. Watch my back for lions.” She smiled at Ira, but he saw fear in her grey eyes.

Ira picked up Charlie and followed Emma out the back door. Sitting on the top step of the porch, he watched Emma’s ankle-length skirt billow in the wind as she walked with long strides across the yard—the wicker basket at one side, the broom swinging at the other. Though it was a sunny fall day, the wind gave a dry chill to the air. Ira held Charlie close for warmth.

The wind shook the trees, and Ira clutched Charlie tighter. He held his breath so he could hear better, but nothing moved in the woods except the few gold leaves that still clung to the aspen trees.

Emma screamed from the red chicken coop. Holding Charlie, Ira ran across the yard. The hens scrambled to get out of his way.

Emma stood in the corner of the coop panting. In front of her, the rooster paced back and forth. The egg basket was at her feet, yellow yokes spread across the plywood floor. The broom lay in the corner of the coop.

“Get him!” she yelled.

Not wanting to put Charlie down, he clasped his son hard and kicked the rooster with his sock-covered foot. Joseph Stalin landed against the side of the coop. He regained his balance and came back at the family. Emma screamed. Charlie started crying. When the rooster was close, Ira stepped forward and again kicked Stalin, this time launching the rooster out of the coop. It ran to the chain-link fence at the edge of the yard and pecked at the ground.

“We need to kill that chicken,” Emma said, walking out of the coop.

“Let’s go get the gun from your parents,” Ira said.

“No, we need to kill it now.” She turned to face Ira. She was crying.

“How should we do this?” he said. He was desperate to act. Ira rocked back and forth to calm Charlie’s crying.

“You get the ax in the basement; I’m calling the doctor to cancel Charlie’s appointment.” She took Charlie and walked back to the house. Joseph Stalin took a few steps in her direction and stopped.

Ira felt something brush against his leg. He jumped, but it was only Mick Jagger, who continued walking by before stopping to peck at feed.

Ira went to the dirt-floor basement of the house. In an old pine box, he pushed tools around, finally producing a wooden-handled ax. Running his fingertip over its edge, he frowned at how dull and chipped it was. The urge to sharpen it came over him, but he had no idea how to sharpen an ax.

In the kitchen, Emma thanked the receptionist at the pediatrician’s office for understanding her last minute cancellation and hung up the phone. “I rescheduled for next month. Hopefully they’ll have shot all the goddamn animals by then.” She looked out the window into the back yard. “I’ll put Charlie down for his nap before we kill Stalin.” Her voice was steady, back to its confident tone—humor hovered around the edges of her words. “Why don’t you work for a while, and I’ll get you when it’s time.”

In his office, Ira couldn’t concentrate. Pushing aside lace curtains left over, like many things in the house, from Emma’s grandmother, he watched Joseph Stalin and the hens in the yard. Before July, he’d never even seen a live chicken up close, and now here he was getting ready to kill one. With an ax.

“He went right down,” Emma said, standing in the doorway. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Your dad will do this if we want,” Ira said.

Emma shook her head and left the room.

When they got outside, Emma said, “You grab the rooster and lay him on his side. Expose his neck and keep your hands out of the way. I’m going to chop his fucking head off.” She made an awkward chopping motion with the ax. “I saw my uncle do it once.”

Grabbing a handful of feed, Ira stooped and walked towards the rooster with his palm out. Mick Jagger clambered over, but Ira pushed her away. Stalin circled behind the coop. Ira followed. He said the rooster’s name in a sing-song voice over and over. “Sta-lin. Sta-lin.” The chicken continued walking towards the back of the yard.

In the woods, there was a crashing of tree limbs. Stalin ran past Ira to get away from the sound. Ira squinted into the thicket of boughs. A charged shock thumped over each vertebrae of his spine, and he ran towards Emma.

“Get inside!” he yelled, grabbing her by the arm.

They crashed into the kitchen. Together, they leaned over the sink and stared into the back yard. They panted from running.

“What is it?” Emma whispered.

“I don’t know.”

The tops of the trees shook at the edge of the woods, and out of the greyness, from behind the black limbs of oaks and pines, emerged a yellow giraffe. It bounced its front legs up and down slowly to gain momentum, then stood on its hind legs, craning its neck towards the top of a birch tree. It chewed at the dead leaves that remained on the white limbs.

Emma made a gasping noise, sucking air into her mouth. At the sight of the giraffe, Ira started laughing, low at first, then harder. So hard, he had to cover his mouth to try to control it.

The animal, tall enough to chew the shingles off the roof of their house, moved slowly from tree to tree, mouthing at dead leaves before letting them fall to the ground.

“It’s hungry,” Emma said.

Ira wanted to respond, but he was still laughing, eyes fixed on the animal. It seemed to move in slow motion as it rose on its hind legs to reach the very tops of trees, its front legs coming down to the ground in frame-by-frame speed. Finally, it stopped and looked towards the house. Even from that distance, Ira made out the deep brown eyes that seemed to look through the window right at the young couple. The chickens scattered when the giraffe stepped towards the fence. It leaned its long neck over and licked at the ground. Ira was still laughing, focusing on the way the animal’s muscles moved beneath its skin, so he didn’t hear Emma open the back door. It wasn’t until he saw his wife in the yard that he realized she wasn’t next to him.
He walked onto the porch and called her name, but she didn’t respond. He stopped laughing. She scooped feed from the bin next to the coop. She moved to the giraffe confidently and lifted the feed bucket. The giraffe leaned its neck down and buried its face in the bucket. Ira marveled at how small his wife looked next to the animal. The giraffe lifted its head out of the container to chew.

When the bucket was empty, Emma walked back to Ira. Neither of them spoke. Ira put his arm around her as the giraffe walked along the fence-line, stopping when it reached the closest point to them. It pawed at the fence, making a scraping noise against the metal. “It must be starved,” Emma said.

“Should we be feeding it?”

“How can we not?”

“We should call someone,” Ira said.

“They’ll shoot it.”

Ira nodded. He grabbed the bucket from his wife and scooped more feed. He walked towards the animal. When he held the bucket up in its direction, it recoiled its long neck, then cautiously bent and ate. When it pulled out to chew, its purple tongue lapped around its mouth. The feed didn’t last long, and Ira walked back to his wife, keeping an eye on the animal.

“Let’s show Charlie,” Ira said as the giraffe pawed the metal fence.

Together they went up to Charlie’s room, leaving the giraffe. Ira bent to pick up their son; Emma bent too, but let Ira pick him up. Charlie rubbed at his eyes with his tiny fists. “Giraffe,” Ira said.

“Raff,” Charlie replied.

When they got back to the yard, the giraffe was gone. They walked through the gate out into the main yard. The giraffe wasn’t in front of the house either. Deep hoof tracks in the ground led to the gravel driveway, then disappeared.

“It must have wandered out to the main road,” Emma said. “Let’s drive.”

Ira got in the driver’s seat, and Emma sat in the back with Charlie on her lap. Trees lined the driveway all the way to the road. Ira panned back and forth as he drove.

“Do you see him?” Emma asked.

Ira shook his head.

“Why don’t we drive to my parent’s house?” Emma said. “I want to tell my dad about it.”

In the rearview mirror, Emma’s reflection smiled at Ira. He smiled back. “Maybe we can grab that gun now,” he said.

Emma nodded.

The farmhouse where Emma’s parents lived was a quarter of a mile from their driveway. Ira pulled the car onto the main road. When they got past the woods where the farmland opened up, Charlie squealed, “Raff!”

The giraffe’s neck poked out of the wilted corn crop ten yards from the road. Ira pulled the car to the shoulder. Every so often, the giraffe dipped its head down into the corn, disappearing, then reemerged, working its jaw back and forth.

Charlie screamed again. Ira turned to smile at his son, but his elbow pushed the car horn. The giraffe looked in their direction and ran towards the far end of the field. It looked like the animal’s long neck and head were floating away from them above the corn crop. No one spoke as the immense animal vanished into the trees lining the cornfield.

Before driving home, they got the gun from Emma’s parents.

#   #   #

That night, all Ira and Emma talked about was the giraffe.

“Did you see the way it moved its neck?” Emma said while feeding Charlie.

“Yeah, and those brown eyes—they were huge!” Ira laughed.

By the time they’d finished dinner and gotten Charlie ready for bed, their son could say the word giraffe clearly.

Later, Emma put Charlie to bed and came into the bedroom. Without pausing to look at her stretch marks, she removed her clothes, leaving them crumpled on the floor, and walked to the bed. They didn’t talk as Emma laid her body on top of Ira’s. She kissed him hard on the mouth. He palmed her breast. When she bit his neck, he suppressed a moan to keep from waking Charlie in the next room. He rolled on top of her and leaned down to bite her shoulder. She clawed his back with one hand and reached her free hand to the bedside table to switch off the lamp.

After, in the darkness, Emma asked, “Do you think someone’s shot the giraffe by now?”

“I hope not,” Ira said.

“Me too.” They were both quiet. “Tomorrow,” Emma said, “let’s kill that chicken.”
Ira leafed through the pages of the newspaper at the kitchen table, hoping to finally find the article on the brass quintet. On the front page of the local section was a granular color photograph of the Canadian man with the orange hunting cap squatting over the limp neck of the giraffe. Their giraffe. The animal’s body was bent at impossible, lifeless angles—its neck craned in a U, legs splayed in different directions. Below the man’s thick mustache was a full smile as if he really had been on a safari and hadn’t shot the exotic animal in Little River, Maine.

“Look at this.” Ira held up the photo.

Emma gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. She started crying but laughed between sobs. “It’s stupid, but it’s just so sad.” When she finished her sentence, she breathed deeply to regain her composure.

In his high chair, Charlie said “giraffe” in a clear voice.

“It’s not stupid,” Ira said, “that thing was here, in our backyard.” He stood and hugged her.

Emma cried into Ira’s shoulders. In the yard, Ira saw the ghost silhouette of the giraffe. The chickens picked at feed in the fenced-in yard. From behind the red coop, Joseph Stalin ran towards the hens. They scattered, wings flapping in the air like people running out of a burning building.
Ira squeezed Emma against his body. She breathed deeply and wiped at her tears with the sleeve of her sweater. Her eyes were pink and swollen from crying. She shook her head, “All that over a giraffe. It’s so dumb.”

They looked back at the picture of the dead giraffe on the kitchen table.

“I’m going to start crying again,” Emma said, flipping the paper over.

In the yard, there was a loud squawking from the chickens. Ira looked up, expecting another wild animal, but instead it was Stalin tyrannizing the hens.

“That fucking rooster,” Emma said. She left the room and came back with her father’s .22. She dropped the box of bullets on the table, snatched a fistful, and walked out the back door.

Ira watched as Emma loaded bullets into the chamber, brought the butt of the gun up to her shoulder, and leaned her head over the barrel towards the sight. She closed her left eye and stuck the tip of her tongue out between her pert lips. The autumn wind blew her curly hair up around her head. Fifteen yards away, Stalin pecked at the earth, looking up from time to time, not noticing Emma or the gun. The hens had gone inside the coop, except for Mick Jagger who moved by the fence line. Breathing in deeply, Emma steadied the gun, and as she breathed out, she pulled the trigger. The gun made more of a popping noise than a bang.

Joseph Stalin fell to the ground. A puff of dirt rose behind him where the bullet had passed through his body and hit the earth. Miraculously, the rooster stood upright and barreled towards Emma. There was a second popping noise. The rooster spun around, took one step, and fell on his side, dead.
Ira looked from the chicken to his wife, who continued to stare down the barrel of the gun, left eye shut, finger rubbing the trigger, waiting for a beast to appear.
 
 

Dave Patterson is from Portland, Maine. He attended the Bread Loaf School of English, where he won first place in the Freeman Fiction Writing Contest. He is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program in Creative Writing. His work has appeared in The Onion River ReviewStoryacious, The Drunken Odyssey, and Hot Metal Bridge. He has work forthcoming this spring in The Apple Valley Review.

If Dave could live anywhere in the world, he would truck his wife and dog to the deep woods of northern Maine. Not the south of Spain? you may ask. Or some tropical paradise? No to both. In his woodsman fantasy, Dave would chop wood and hunt moose. In the afternoons he would write—on a Royal typewriter, of course—and read from the endless stack of books on his shelves. (Shelves he built from trees he chopped down, no doubt.) But alas, the complex modern world keeps him securely hunkered in civilization.
 

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