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Authors: Joshua Gaylord

When We Were Animals

BOOK: When We Were Animals
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For my mother,

who, when as a child I woke from nightmares

and asked her how dark it was outside, replied, smiling,

“Pitch black.”

There was a mean trick played on us somewhere. God put us in the bodies of animals and tried to make us act like people. That was the beginning of trouble.…A man can’t live, feeling himself from the inside and listening to what the preachers say. He can’t do both, but he can do one or the other. He can live like we were made to live, and feel himself on the inside, or he can live like the preachers say, and be dead on the inside.

—Erskine Caldwell,
God’s Little Acre



The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.

—Henry David Thoreau



All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

or a long time, when I was a girl, I was a very good girl.

You should have known me then. You would have liked me. Shy, undergrown, good in school, eager to please. At the dinner table, especially when my father and I went visiting, I didn’t eat before others, and I sometimes went without salt because I was too timid to ask anyone to pass it.

They said, “Lumen is quite a little lady.”

They said, “She’s so quiet! I wonder what’s going on in that mind of hers.”

I did all my homework. I ate celery sticks as a snack. I went to bed early and knew that the shrieking outside my window had nothing to do with me at all.

*  *  *

Some people said
the moonlight shone stronger there. Other people said it was the groundwater, a corrupted spring beneath the houses, or pestilent vapors from the abandoned mine shaft in the woods. (It’s impossible to know exactly what you breathe—I think about that sometimes.) Once upon a time, Hermit Weaper explained to me and some other girls who had wandered onto his property that there was a creature who lived in the lake, and that this creature crept slyly into town once a month and laid eggs in the open mouths of the youth, and that was why we behaved as we did. Lots of people speculated. I didn’t. I don’t. I don’t for the same reason I don’t try to guess why houseflies fly the way they do, capricious and bumbling. Some things just are, and there’s nothing to be done but smile the world on its way. Some people—though not as many anymore, since faith has become quaint as magic—even thought that the town was evil and being punished by God, like Sodom and Gomorrah, or Nineveh, or Babylon—poor cities! The truth is, nobody knew why it happened this way, but in the town where I grew up, when the boys and girls reached a certain age, the parents locked themselves up in their houses, and the teenagers ran wild.

It’s been a long time since I left that place, and now I lead a very different kind of life. My husband is a great admirer of my cooking—even though I never use recipes. There is a playground attendant at the park where I take my son to play. Playgrounds now have rubberized mats on the ground, and the attendant keeps a watchful eye for potential predators—my son is safe, he doesn’t even know how safe. I have friendly neighbors who are concerned about the epidemic of dandelions on our lawns. The checkers at the grocery store greet me as they greet everyone else, smiling and guileless. I’m a different person, mostly.

And it makes me wonder if one day I might be able to rediscover fully the child version of myself, before things fouled themselves up, when I was a little girl with commendable manners, when my father and I were two against the world, when my striving for goodness was so natural it was like leaves falling from trees everywhere around me, when I believed sacredness was to be found in many small things like ladybugs and doll toes, when I didn’t have a murderous thought in my head, not even one.

*  *  *

Here’s something I

I am six years old. I awaken in my bed to the pitchy darkness of night. The familiar glow of my mermaid night-light is gone, and there are sounds coming from outside in the street—screeches like those of predator birds, but human. There are people out there. And also rain. Thunder.

I call for my father. He comes in, carrying a candle in a crystal candlestick. He sets the candle on the table next to me and sits on my bed. His weight dimples the bed, and my small body rolls against him.

“You’re dreaming, little Lumen,” he says.

“No, I’m not,” I say.

“How can you tell?” He is testing me, but his eyes tell me he is sure I will pass.

“I never dream about the night,” I tell him. “All my dreams are daytime dreams.”

“Is that true?” He seems pleased.


“Well, that’s the sign of a pure spirit.”

A blinding flash startles the room, a moment of clear sight in the blindness—and a moment later a violent crack of thunder. The earth is tearing itself apart outside. I picture the ground rent with gaping fissures. And the voices, howling crazy at the sky, the thunder, the apocalyptic sundering of the world.

“What’s happening?” I say.

“Just a storm,” says my father. He is a geologist. He knows about the currents of the earth. “Must’ve taken down a power line somewhere. The electricity on the whole block is out. Nothing to worry about.”

The rain goes clattery against my windowpane. Then the voices again from outside. Feral cries. They sound not afraid, as I am, but rather celebratory—wanton, a word I am aware of.

“Who’s out there?” I say.

“Just teenagers,” my father says.

“Why are they like that?”

“That’s just the way they are.”

“Will I be like that when I grow up?”

“You? Perish the thought.” It is a pet expression of his. Perish is to outlaw, but parish is also a place for pastors. It is a magical word, and it might protect me. “You’ll be different. You’re my good girl, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” and I am his good girl.

“Will you always be my good girl?”


Always is so easy to promise.

“Then there we go,” he says and brushes my hair away from my forehead with his fingertips.

The pandemonium continues outside my window, and I reach out to touch the fine, shimmering angles of the crystal candlestick. That, too, seems magic, like a wand or a gemstone that holds power in its mineral core.

“Where did it come from?” I ask.

“It’s old,” my father says. “I found it in the credenza. It was a wedding gift to your mother and me.”

Outside there are many voices at once, caterwauling in the rain. They must be running past, because I hear them grow gradually loud then quiet again. I look at the window, expecting maybe faces pressed against the glass, a smear of pale skin against the dark. Yet there is nothing to see but the hazy reflection of candle flame.

My father must see my apprehensive gaze.

He says, “Do you want me to tell you the story of our wedding?”

“Yes. Was my mother’s name Felicia Ann Steptoe?”

“It was. Until she married me, and her name became—”

“Felicia Ann Fowler.”

“That’s right.”

“And did she wear long orchid gloves on her wedding?”

“She did.”

I have heard this story many times before. It is a catechism between him and me.

“Show me the pictures,” I demand.

But he shakes his head. “It’s too dark. Tomorrow, when the sun comes up.”

“Okay,” I say.

Then I hush so he can tell the rest of the story. And he tells it, every detail the same and perfect. And he looks up to the ceiling as he tells it, as though it were a story of shadows narrated by his easy, ocean-smoothed voice.

And as he tells it, my lips form my magic word against the night—perish, parish—repeated intermittently, like the thread that quilts together many pieces of fabric, while outside the animal cries of teenagers join with the thunder to rattle the windowpanes.

*  *  *

That’s one thing.
Here’s another, from even earlier.

We are playing hide-and-seek in our big house. It is a serious game, because not even the third floor is off-limits. I run from room to room, looking even in places where I know he cannot fit—under couches, behind bookcases.

I climb the steps to the third floor, out of breath but happy. I am closing in, I’m sure of it. He’s not in the bathtub, behind the shower curtain. He’s not in the guest room crouched behind the desk. But I am warm.

I open the door of another room, one we keep shut, one used mostly for storage. There is a sound coming from the closet, a low, whispery sound. I’ve found him.

I swing wide the closet door, and there he is—there he is—clutching at a dress that belonged to my mother, and choked with tears!

*  *  *

This is where
I tell you that I grew up happy. Motherless, I was treated nicely in school. I was complimented on my handwriting (which remains picture-perfect to this day—many people believe I use a ruler to cross my Ts), and my diction, which inspired my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Markson, to declare that she had never seen a child so full of grace and refinement in all her years of teaching. English was my favorite subject, because I was a good reader—my father having early on in my life encouraged me in the ritual of reading together every weekend afternoon in the backyard, I in a hammock slung between two oak trees, he stretched on a deck chair beneath the shade of the slatted wooden pergola over the patio. He would, every now and then, call out, “How’s the book?”—and then I would be expected to deliver some thoughtful appraisal of whatever I was reading at the time. Positive or negative—it didn’t matter, as long as my critique was grounded in some personal, authoritative interpretation. “I’m not sure why they use farm animals as characters instead of people,” I might say. “I don’t see the advantage in it.” And he would nod, satisfied that a position had been taken one way or the other.

But I was also good at math and science, which led me to believe that my left brain and my right brain were perfectly in balance with each other, that I had an ambidextrous intellect, and that someone with my gifts ought to think very hard about what she really wanted to
in life, because there would be so very many options open to her.

The only subject I didn’t like much was history. I couldn’t be bothered to care about the kings and queens and pilgrims and soldiers who lived so long ago and had nothing to do with my little town and its peculiar ways.

But I was a very dedicated student—even in history class—because my father took great pride in my academic successes, and I wanted to please him. It was difficult for him, having to raise a child on his own, and sometimes he seemed stricken, and I certainly didn’t want to add to his already considerable grief. So I did the best I could, and my best turned out to be very good indeed.

And of course this: my mostly female teachers seemed to like my father quite a lot. I watched them moon over him, and he was a lesson to me about what women ought to admire. When they praised me in his presence, their words redirected the compliments toward him. “She is a marvelous reader. You can tell she’s been raised to think critically.” Or: “She’s at the top of her class. It’s obvious she has a wonderful support system at home.”

You can’t take these things personally. My father puffed out his chest with pride, and the look he gave me as he received these adulations was payment beyond measure for my hard work.

As a reward for a good report card and as long as it wasn’t a full moon, he would take me to the drive-in movie theater. We got there early in order to find the ideal space in the center of the lot. Then, until the movie started, I was allowed to run back and forth over the rows of tarmac dunes constructed to raise the front ends of the cars to a proper viewing angle.

During the movie, we ate from a bag of popcorn on the console between us. Sometimes a young couple in the car next to us would steam up their windows, and I was embarrassed. But if my father noticed, he never let on.

So it was a simple matter to shut myself off from the mortification of witnessing the private acts that might be taking place everywhere around me.

*  *  *

Then it was
the sixth grade and I was twelve and I had a best friend named Polly.

Once, we rode our bikes down to the lake. It was Worm Moon, so it must have been March, and we had gotten out of school early. The school always had late starts and early closings on the three days around a full moon. The purpose of the shortened hours was to give students plenty of time to travel to and from home without having to be caught outside while the sun was down—but Polly and I lived so close to the school that we could use those extra hours to adventure around town.

We pulled our bikes through a thicket of dense brush until we came to a little patch of beach that was unknown to anyone but us. In the summer we would have stripped off our clothes and dived into the murky water, but on this day there was a crispness to the air, and we pulled our jackets more tightly around us. We skimmed stones off the surface of the lake and spoke of many things, including Hondy Pilt, the slow boy in our class who only knew how to say a few words and spoke them in a loud, inarticulate voice, and Rosebush Lincoln, the girl who was rumored to have made him cry by cornering him in the boys’ bathroom and making him pull down his pants so she could examine his boy parts. Rosebush Lincoln was in training to be a doctor.

Petey Meechum was also under discussion. Our school had square dancing once a week, and he was the boy who asked us each to be his partner (Polly seven times and me five) more often than he asked any other girl. All the girls wanted to be his square dancing partner, so Polly and I were pleased about our prospects for young womanhood. Petey Meechum’s attentions told us we were on the right track, and they boded well for our futures.

“Do you think he writes about us in his diary?” asked Polly.

The “us” signified a political settlement. There had been some tension between Polly and me on this matter, and lately we had come to some vague truce by speaking about the boy’s affections as if they were directed in equal measure toward both of us rather than simply toward one or the other.

“Boys don’t keep diaries,” I said. I wasn’t sure if she had been joking. Polly was sometimes wry and sometimes frank.

“I know,” she said. “How come you think that is?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe they don’t care to dwell on things. Or maybe they don’t need to write things down because they have naturally good memories.”

“I bet Petey has an excellent memory. My mother says he’s the marrying kind.”

“The marrying kind? How come?”

“I don’t know. She won’t say. I think it’s because he tucks his shirt in again every day after recess.”

We sat on the sand, our legs pulled to our chests, and laughed into our knees. On my right, where Polly couldn’t see, I traced my initials in the sand with my finger. Then I imposed
over my initials and put two twigs in a cross over the top. When I stood up, I would have to remember to brush the whole thing out quickly with my sneaker before Polly saw, and if I did then the incantation would be complete.

BOOK: When We Were Animals
8.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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