Small Animals | The New Engagement

Small Animals

By Jeff Bond

The Dingle house stood, weak-kneed, in the big yard across from where the Meanys lived. It had probably fit in nicely once among the other houses, before it started getting that sunken look houses get when no one wants to live in them. It belonged to no one, therefore it belonged to them.

It was Bridget Meany's idea to raid the shed behind the house, hanging what they found from one of the two oaks that pressed the sides of the house together. Jonathan lived in the last house before the woods took over, and he was good at climbing trees. He hung a pair of hedge clippers from one of the high branches, using a little bit of wire he'd brought himself. “No fair,” Linda objected. “You can only use things you find in the shed!”

Linda found a punctured soccer ball. She connected it to the handle of a leaf rake and propped it against one of the trees. The metal tines fanned out to make a little skirt for the figure. Jonathan's clippers dangled over it.

They pretended it was Mrs. Dingle herself, though she'd been gone long before any of them had heard of her. She needed arms, so they cut a piece of garden hose and tied it around her middle. They  worked the handles of gardening tools in the ends of the hose for hands, and used some of Jonathan's wire to tether her arms to different branches so Mrs. Dingle reached out, as if to scoop up the earth.

At night, Mrs. Dingle in her metal skirt seemed to glare across the street at them, the hedge clippers swaying perilously over her head. Linda could see it all, standing on the edge of the windowsill in her bedroom. The porch light from the Meanys' house next door cast a pale glow on things. You put those clippers there, Linda could hear Mrs. Dingle saying to them. You are my executioners.

“Mrs. Dingle is a witch,” Bridget said one day, and it felt true. Each waited for someone to raise an objection. There was none, so the verdict stood.

As did Mrs. Dingle's effigy. Linda tried to imagine the torture, wondering how Mrs. Dingle could stand it, knowing those clippers could fall at any moment – the right strong breeze and WHAM! It was a fear she wanted to taste.

There was a terrific storm on a Saturday night in August. Linda checked on Sunday, and there Mrs. Dingle was, slick and dripping but erect. In September, they played stickball in the Dingle yard. They lost the ball in the weeds. “Where's the ball, Mrs. Dingle?” Jonathan asked. Mrs. Dingle gave no answer.

Then Bridget got stung by a bee, and Mrs. Dingle was blamed. Bridget threw an apple core at Mrs. Dingle's head.

“Stupid Mrs. Dingle,” Bridget Meany said. Linda sulked, but didn't say anything. It was in God's or the Devil's hands to decide Mrs. Dingle's fate, not theirs.

The biggest blizzard Linda thought possible brought all the houses to a standstill for more than a week in late November. Every house lost heat and electricity. Linda's mother made soup over a can of Sterno. “We're not going to starve,” she said, in a voice that sounded full of splinters. Linda wanted to help clear the driveway, but her mother said the drifts were taller than she was, and the shovel too big to hold. It took Linda's mother three hours to dig a path to the street.

When she stepped out into the chill in her blue rubber boots, Linda could see Mrs. Dingle, buried up to her armpits.

Then Linda turned seven. Her mother threw her a party, and Bridget didn't come. Jonathan came, and brought a rabbit. Linda wanted to tell Mrs. Dingle about it, but even when the moon was full the drifts made it hard to see her figure in the yard across the street – though she could see the kids from another school arriving at Bridget's dance parties next door. Linda's mother said that Bridget had friends her own age now.

Bridget hurt her arm – Linda saw the cast – but there was no knowing if she was still blaming Mrs. Dingle for her misfortunes. Linda took a sock from her mother's room and wrapped it around her arm like a cast. She wanted to know what a broken bone felt like.

In January, the branch holding the hedge clippers snapped and the clippers knocked Mrs. Dingle face down from behind into the snow. Some older kids Linda didn't know came over from one of the new developments and built a snowman in the Dingle yard. Jonathan called it “the new Mrs. Dingle” and talked about hanging the clippers over its head. It wasn't anywhere near a tree, so what would they hang them from? No matter, as Linda saw Bridget, her arm still in a cast, laughing as her new friends knocked the snow-woman over. She lay there, disassembled, a few yards from where Mrs. Dingle still lay, looking like she had passed out.

Winter left and everything melted. Jonathan's mother had a baby. Soon everything had babies, it seemed, and small animals appeared in all the yards, up in the trees and down in the holes and under bushes. Most people talked about Jonathan's mother's baby and why it hadn't come home from the hospital.

One of the new kids from Sherwood Acres threw a rock through a window of the Dingle house. It happened in May, in the evening as the houses were settling for bed, and everyone heard it. Jonathan's mother said the neighborhood was changing so much they were thinking of moving. The Meanys got a new car. It was much bigger than the old one. Linda got a new pair of shoes, they hurt for a week. Linda's mother said she was a big girl now and had to learn how to deal with things.

Within hours of Jonathan's mother's baby dying, everyone had heard the news. Linda's mother said to someone on the phone that she didn't think Jonathan's mother was capable of handling it all. Somebody really should do something.

Linda hid her new shoes behind the Dingle house. She came home in socks and said her shoes had been stolen. Her mother didn't believe her. “Who would steal a little girl's shoes?” But Linda stood by her story. Her mother said she couldn't go to school without shoes, and they'd have to ask the Meanys if there was an old pair of Bridget's they could have. Otherwise, Linda would have to wear her blue rubber winter boots.

Linda took off her socks and went barefoot across the street to get the hedge clippers. The Dingle yard was teeming with small animals. Linda ignored them all as she pierced a fresh hole in the soccer ball's face. She was Mrs. Dingle's executioner, and she wanted to be sure she was dead. She would suffer no questions.

Jeff Bond writes stories and edits video, and has for decades been a staple of Manhattan daylife as a Happy Hour bartender. He is also known as the "Lester" half of the satirical web series "Lester & Charlie." His short story, Excerpts From My Novel: Here’s the Story of a Lovely Lady, appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency sometime in the early 21st Century. He lives in New York City.

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