Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the first in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part two, see Quitter #7: November.
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I wish I could say that it was surreal the first time I butchered an animal.
It was not; it was rote, mechanical, genetic, practical. A rabbit wedged in the crotch of a tree branch, my five fingers prehensile around a knife, pulling the innards out slowly, rather unsure yet determined. I made no prehistoric grunts, just internal nods at the recognition of biology, that we beings are surely all built the same way, one long branching tube from mouth to asshole providing the physical and chemical mechanics of life; the chicken the same as the ox only smaller, the ape the same as the roach but larger.
It was early Winter. I was panting from running and following the screaming beagles as they chased on the dispersing scent of the rabbit. The dogs howled as they ran on and on, continuously circling away from me then toward me, a sloppy swing of quick cuts and almost undetectable stops, their cold galloping feet tracing lines in the snow throughout the low forest. I fired once at the rabbit as it crossed to my side, bird-shot screeching from the gun barrel and through some brambles. The ear ringing mark of a single shotgun shell echoed among the striped maples and red oaks, long cleared of leaves. I ejected the shell from the gun and took in the sweet metallic whisper of it. I was ten years old, sniffling from the cold air cracking my mouth and nostrils, looking quietly at a lump of brownish gray fur that no longer moved. My step-father stood over me pointing and pushing instructions on me.
The fur of the rabbit came off quickly, small fibers of connective tissue making a wet noise not unlike the crinkling cellophane of a return envelope. I cut small rings around each foot, first through the fur and then through the joints joining the bones, snapping each paw off and letting them dangle like grapes on a vine. The final cut severed the head from the body. All but the meat was left in a pile on the ground, the heat of the guts melting a small riddle of ridges in the snow allowing the heap to sink at different speeds to the frozen earth below. The guts and tiny head – with its dark, half closed eyes – looked like a mask resting on pink and brown snakes, unmoving as the curtain dropped on a macabre play performed for the crows.
I didn’t say any prayers at the butchering. I didn’t offer any thanks to the rabbit. I didn’t think I needed to, really. It was just a rabbit, simply a rabbit, only a rabbit, as I was told by my step-father that it was just and simply and only a rabbit. I would come to realize, far in the future and away from this gray forest, that he was always incapable of sympathy or thinking beyond his own skull.
He was a crowing man, given to expanding himself into where he never was, claiming credit for things he barely understood. He was also a cruel man, a barbarian in a yawning sense of the word, ready to raise his voice and hands against anyone smaller or weaker than himself. This is the same man who kicked my brother in the stomach for forgetting to flush the toilet; the same man who threw me up the set of concrete steps outside our home for raking the leaves incorrectly; the same man who left bruises the size of oranges just below my mother’s elbows from where he would grab her and force her to listen to every. last. word.
At dinner, my mother would ruin the rabbit. She would bake it in cheap, overly sweet tomato sauce. There was always too much onion. The result was an acidic, chewy meat served without additions no potatoes, no bread and certainly no rice. There would be periodic murmured exclamations around the table as someone would bite into a pellet from the killing shell.
The only talking came from the tinny speaker of the thirteen inch television perched on the kitchen counter. The television was always on at dinner, providing context and detail of a world outside the door of our double wide. It was on that television that I followed the Reagan presidency, learned of school closings due to snow and heard that Stevie Ray Vaughan had died in a helicopter accident.
The silence around the table was built by my step-father. If he wasn’t talking then there is no way you were. And that was the end of it. There was never any discussion about what was learned in school or how work went or what we might do over the weekend. There was nothing to indicate an existence as a family beyond all of us sitting around a table wishing we never brought this rabbit home.