NEA Literature Fellowships

Donald Lystra

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(2008 - Prose)

From the short story "Geese"

While I was getting dressed I thought about what I had to do. There was a stand of pine trees in the woods behind Carl's house and I'd decided that would be a good place to do it. I knew Buster was too lame to walk that far, but I thought I could drag him over the ground on the quilt, or use a wheelbarrow. Then other questions started crowding into my head, practical questions I hadn't thought about, like where, exactly, I should aim the pistol and what I should do with Buster afterwards.

I began to feel strange. My thoughts were darting around like ants when a rock has been turned over. I wondered if there was another way to do it, maybe take Buster to the vet without telling anyone, or feed him a handful of Carl's pills so he'd just slip away peacefully. I was beginning to understand there was more to shooting something than I had realized and I wasn't sure I could pull it off. I pictured Carl and Eileen out on the road in Carl's Bronco and suddenly I wished I was with them and not where I was.

Finally, I managed to pull myself together. I stuffed Carl's pistol into my pocket and lifted Buster up from the laundry room floor, quilt and all, and carried him back to the spot that I had been thinking about. Then I offered up a little prayer and then I picked up the gun.

It was over so fast I almost didn't realize what had happened. All it took was a little squeeze and the pistol jumped in my hand and Buster slumped into the snow like a puppet with the strings cut. The sound of the gun left a big impression on me, though, the explosion going out into the forest and then the echo crashing back and back and back, and then hearing the cry and flutter of a startled flock of crows, and then everything getting quiet again and peaceful and like before, except Buster was dead.

I went back to the house and got a shovel. My hands were shaking so badly I could barely hold it. The ground was frozen but I was able to bust through the top layer and get into the soft earth where it was easier digging. I dug like a madman and made a nice deep hole. I wrapped Buster in the quilt and lifted him down. Then I filled the hole, first with the soft earth and then with the frozen clods. The last thing I did was to roll a big white stone on top, because I wanted to be able to find the spot later, and show Carl, if I had the chance.

I stood up and looked around. A north wind had come up; it was driving the snowflakes slantwise with the ground. The wind and the slanted snow made everything white and furious and off-balance, and for a minute I wondered if I would be able to find my way back to the house. My heart was pounding and the cold wind was blowing on my face.  

I had kept my promise to Carl but I didn't feel good about it. Buster was lying dead in a hole and I was the undisputed cause of it. I tried to tell myself that it was the worn-out Buster I had shot, but my mind kept seeing the young Buster fetching sticks. That was the hardest part: knowing that that Buster was gone now, too, and everything connected to him.

"Please accept this fine dog into your kingdom," I blurted out, which was something I remembered from a movie. Then I turned and hurried back to the house.

Donald Lystra began writing fiction after working for several decades as an engineer. His short stories have appeared in The Greensboro Review, Cimarron Review, Meridian, North American Review, Other Voices, among others, and he has received Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. He has recently completed a novel, Satellite Autumn, and is at work on a second. Lystra is married and has two adult children. With the exception of a three-year period in Berkeley, California, and a few months in France, he has been a lifelong resident of Michigan.

Photo by Michael Hough

Author's Statement

I am immensely grateful to have been honored with this NEA fellowship. It's a source of pride, and an occasion for much humility, to have your work validated by the talented individuals who serve on the selection committee. It won't be hard to find a use for the money which is appropriate to its intended purpose. But to someone like myself, who came to writing late in life and learned it slowly and painfully, leaving blood on many pages, this fellowship is also an invaluable affirmation.