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I quickly glance around the familiar room, enjoying the brief silence. Cautiously, my paws stretch out from under the cabinet and curl as I completely slink out of hiding. The sun warms my back and reflects off the basket of apples knocked askew by the man. The fruit rolls around the dead duck dropped just moments ago, and then scatter about the floor. I smell the blood beginning to pool around the single bullet wound in the duck's body. If the lady doesn't pick it up soon, she'll have to clean up the sticky mess before the man returns. The poor lady. The man is constantly presenting her with ducks to pluck, never expressing a kind word or thanks. That cruel creature must enjoy her suffering. I know he sees her mangled hands and must sense her equally mangled spirit.
At night, when she sits by the tiny, barred window in her room and pets me, I see her tears. Her guise breaks and through her cracked, dry lips a cry escapes, only loud enough for the rats and me to hear. Then, just like every other dark, dour, dismal night before, she lies down on her short length of cloth that monster calls a bed. Her sleep is fitful, but why should it not be? Even my small bed is better than what he permits the woman now. I know the man could treat her better. I remember when we were young; he treated me well-enough. Even after his father left and his mother began to yell, I was treated better than the woman is now. The tender woman has never done anything wrong, and yet the man I abhor treats her like a slave. I wonder if he is lonely, with his only company locked in the basement. Sometimes in the dead of night, I hear him talking to women. It must only be the radio, because the voice is always changing and we seldom get visitors. This place is like the jail cells I’ve seen in town. The warden comes and goes, giving the inmates their daily tasks. No visitors, limited space, and severe discipline. If only we were in jail. Then we’d at least have a hope of leaving.
I hop up to rest on the lady’s chair, and her head slowly turns toward me. She looks at me, but what she sees is a mystery. Her dark gray eyes are bottomless pits, belying her former beauty. The hair that used to fall in glorious golden curls is now dull yellow and choked by a dirty bonnet. I rub against her arm attempting to comfort her, but I know it’s no use. She knows it too, but nevertheless forces a somber smile that doesn’t reach her hopeless eyes.
The back door squeaks, followed by heavy footsteps in the kitchen. The woman slowly sighs, but doesn’t glance up as the man enters. He surveys the scene, and his frown deepens. I wonder if he’s tired of this dreadful life. He runs his tough hand across the stubble on his sullen face, and opens his mouth.
“Why haven’t you finished this duck?”
“You were only gone-”
“And why is this goose on the floor? The cat could touch it.” He nudges me with his foot, and I resist the urge to claw his bare shin.
A quiet voice. “Do you know when my pay will come?” The man turns and scowls. She hangs her head in dismay.
“Pay?! For what? All day you sit here, never finishing my tasks on time. I promised pay in exchange for work.” His disgust turns into a projectile of spit that lands at her feet.
“You haven’t paid me in weeks.” The weak accusation contains no emotion. I wonder what the woman would do if she had enough money to leave. Without the man she is hard to imagine, but she probably had a happy life before he sullied her memories. I remember the first time she stepped into this house of horrors, before the man let his true self show. They laughed constantly, and he frequently took her out into his field and let her try shooting the ducks. But the memory and his sweetness were fleeting.
The present, soured man begins to pace and kicks the apples. “I let you live here. I feed you. Is that not enough?”
“I live in your basement with the rats, eating the scraps of food you would otherwise throw away. You have done nothing for me.”
The man looks up and growls. “And why should I?”
“I am your wife.”