My mother used to tell stories of how I talked to animals when I was a little girl. And then she’d laugh when she described how indignant I got because no one believed they talked back.
I don’t remember much of that period of my life. There were a lot of hospitals—white rooms, other pale children next to me, all of us with clear IV tubes taped to our parchment paper skin—and doctors, smiling men with haunted eyes that they tried so hard to keep us from seeing. That’s mostly what I remember.
And then came the miraculous words “in remission.” I remember those, and the tears on my mother’s face when the doctor said them, for once without the not-quite-hidden anguish in his eyes. Everything was better after that. After those words I remember summer days spent grubby and exhausted in the old abandoned shack behind our house. No longer did I keep company with hospital wraiths, but rather with neighborhood kids who had experienced no greater hurt than a scraped knee or a bruised shin; kids who’d never had to listen to their parents sob just outside their door, thinking you couldn’t hear them; and kids who had no memory of being so sick that even the feel of a blanket was unbearable agony.
I think I stopped talking to animals then. Or maybe I just had better things to do than listen to the birds chattering at my window or the squirrels quarrelling in the tree outside.
But I heard them again today.
“Man chicks pelted my nest,” I heard through the rolled-down window of our old Honda Civic as we pulled into the parking lot of the clinic.
“Did you say something?” I asked my husband.
Kevin shook his head. He needed a haircut. The waves in his hair were turning into frizzy curls in the Georgia heat. I mourned the Civic’s air conditioner, its cooling breeze a memory of more prosperous days.
“Time to build again,” I heard. And I recognized the voice—a shrill, helium babble, a tone I hadn’t heard in over two decades. I looked up, and sure enough, I saw the muted berry-red breast of a she-robin hopping on a branch beside the tattered remains of a nest. Another bird, a brown one with white shoulders, cocked its head sympathetically.
That’s when I knew. Even before I saw the doctor—a woman this time, but still with the same cheery smile that couldn’t conceal the sorrow that was a requisite of her job—I knew.
Kevin held my hand in reception as we waited to be called. They didn’t keep us stewing for long. Maybe when the results are bad, they try to cut you a break on the limbo time spent half bored, half terrified amongst the screaming children and the old issues of People and National Geographic.
Dr. Graykin didn’t bother with small talk; she never did. “The results of your biopsy came back, Ginny. I’m afraid it’s not good. The tests showed a malignancy.”
I expected to feel horrified, or at the very least, afraid. But instead, all I could think of were the words of the robin. Time to build again. How did birds mark time?
It was Kevin who reacted. “Cancer?” The word was a gasp, a choked whisper.
“I’m afraid so.”
“What are our options?” he said.
Our options. Sometimes I got mad at Kevin when he inadvertently left my name off memberships he signed us up for—like the Paperback Book club, or the Music of the Month club. For that matter, the cable was still only in his name. But he remembered this time.
“I’d recommend a rigorous course of chemotherapy,” Dr. Graykin said. “I’m afraid this is a fairly aggressive form of cancer. And because of the nature of the tumor, I believe a hysterectomy will be necessary. The last set of x-rays showed another mass already forming. Complete removal of the impacted organs will give us the best chance of beating this.”
Now Dr. Graykin was included in my prognosis. Give us the best chance, she’d said.
“What are my odds?” With that one word: my, I let the illusion slip. It crumbled to dust like brittle flower husks in winter, exposing me to what the doctor and my husband had been trying to shield me from. But this was my fight and my sickness, mine and mine alone. In the end, it’d be me vomiting my insides out from the chemo, too weak to even raise a hand to brush the hair out of my eyes. No matter how supportive Kevin was, or how solicitous Dr. Graykin, they couldn’t carry that for me.
“I’d say pretty good,” Dr. Graykin said. “I think we’ve caught it early enough. Maybe seven out of ten women can expect to push it into remission, assuming you act decisively now.”
Seven out of ten. My future was laid out, reduced to a number game of statistics and uncertainty.
I let Kevin make the follow-up appointments with the receptionist, scheduling when I would have the poisons pumped into my veins to kill the cells that had turned against me, setting the date for when they’d excise the organs that were killing me like Trojan horse invaders from the inside.
Back in the car, I sat listening to the birds.
“Wind’s changing. Thunderstorm flying in on cloud wings,” I heard.
I’d never learned what the birds indigenous to Georgia were, their feather patterns or migratory habits. But I knew what this one would look like from his voice. He’d be one of those little brownish-gray birds that dive at crows to scare them away from their nests. It always impressed me how fearless they were, attacking other birds that were two, sometimes three times larger.
Kevin stared into space behind the wheel. The keys dangled from his fingers, idle.
“Rain shoos worms out,” the bird said.
“We’ll get through this,” Kevin finally said. “But no kids on top of everything else—”
His words dribbled away, and between us, silence dug its fingernails in.
No kids. After the hysterectomy I wouldn’t be able to experience the wonder of growing a new life inside of me. I’d never feel a tiny person develop within me nor go through the process of expelling it forth in a gush of agony and hope. I wondered why I didn’t grieve, why I didn’t mourn for the children of my womb that I’d never have. But I felt distant, detached.
“Full gullet follows the rains,” the bird chirped.
The Civic’s motor revved as Kevin turned the key in the ignition, drowning out the bird’s voice.
At home, Kevin fidgeted. I felt sorry for him. He didn’t know what to do with himself. I wasn’t reacting the way the tragedy-struck heroines on television did; I wasn’t crying or shouting or throwing things. He was waiting to be my rock, my solace, and I just sat in the kitchen, staring out the window.
“You should go back to work,” I said.
“I can’t leave you alone at a time like this.”
“We can’t afford for you to lose your job.” The words and your health insurance were left unspoken, but I knew both of us were thinking them. “I’ll be fine.”
I felt him at my shoulder, reaching out to comfort me. “You sure?”
I moved away, knew it when his hand fell back. “It’s just cancer. I beat the odds once. I can do it again.”
It was false bravado, but Kevin needed to hear it. It allowed him to gather up his briefcase and his keys and drive away from me.
And besides, I really wasn’t alone. I waited until I could no longer hear our old car sputtering down the road before I went out to the host of voices I knew were in our backyard.
Our yard is large and fenced in. I think the previous owners had a dog. The fence is old and there are gaps in it large enough to admit cats, rabbits, squirrels, and once I saw a raccoon from the kitchen window. It’s an unkempt area, our big backyard. Neither Kevin nor I enjoy yard work and the weeds had grown roughshod through the grass. Unidentifiable greenery sprouted tiny white flowers, like miniature daisies, cascading over a failing landscaped bush that sagged from the invader’s weight. Thin, tall trees—fruit trees, evergreens, and shrubs—shaded the far corner; long-dead tree trunks intermingled with the quick. The evergreens spewed a profusion of pinecones year round, making mowing a risk-fraught undertaking; the flora itself endorsed our laissez-faire grounds keeping.
I sat on the old wooden bench; its white paint, slashed into streamers by time, revealed the dry, cracked wood beneath, and I listened.
“Got a seed? Got a seed?” trilled from the leaf-canopy overhead.
“Sky fly high.”
“The sun. Lookit the sun!”
Then I heard a non-avian speaker. “Wanna bite,” it said. It was a nasal voice; it reminded me of a young Jimmy Durante.
“No bite.” That voice also had a nasal drone to it, but it was seasoned by maturity.
Out of the cover of a riotously blooming weed-shrub, a soft-furred black face pushed through, crowned with a cap of white. Small black ears and India-ink eyes swiveled to regard me. A round barrel body with two broad, white stripes down the back trundled out. Behind her, a miniature copy tagged at her heels. The ripe aroma of unwashed socks wafted over me.
They say that a skunk out during the day must be rabid, but I knew these two weren’t. Rabid animals don’t exude patient resignation, or, in the case of Junior, unbridled elation. Another urban wilderness myth debunked, I guess.
Mama Skunk trotted up to me, the size of a small housecat but with that sweeping tail no cat possessed. I breathed through my mouth and hoped that Junior wasn’t trigger-happy. Mama didn’t seem to notice my poised anxiety, or if she did, she didn’t comment on it.
“Wanna bite,” Junior said.
“No bite,” Mama repeated. She sat down, not two steps from my bench; her hind legs sprawled out on either side of her.
I began to relax. The smell, though not agreeable, wasn’t aggressively offensive, not much worse than a rain-drenched German Shepherd.
With great dignity, she scratched at a spot behind her ear—one hind leg a blur of movement. “Teeth on this one comin’ in,” she said. “Needs to set ‘em in everything he sniffs.”
To illustrate, Junior launched himself at Mama’s hindquarters and sunk his gleaming white teeth into her haunches.
Mama gave a weary sigh. “Small ones.” While Junior worried at her, she gazed up at me. “Third of the year, he is. First daughter and second and fourth sons crushed by four-wheels on the road.”
She swiped at Junior with a paw. It dislodged him momentarily. “My second breeding season. First was an only daughter. Owl took her. Takes a lot out, raising small ones and watching them die.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. I wasn’t sure what else to say.
“One more season in me, I think. Then I’m done. No more egg crunch in my teeth or juicy caterpillar fur sticky on my tongue.” She hissed at Junior as he dug his baby fangs into her leg. “No bite!”
Mama snatched Junior up by the scruff of his neck and snapped her head sharply to the side. “No bite!”
“No bite,” Junior squeaked, hanging from her mouth.
Mama released him and Junior sprang at her back, chewing at the thick fur there. She nodded to me, a single bob of her nose, and turned to go. Junior tumbled off in a sprawl of oversized paws and bushy tail, and scampered after her.
“If small ones could bite the moon, they would,” she called over her shoulder. “But no one wants a chewed-up moon.”
Bemused, I watched them flatten themselves under my fence, the flags of their tails disappearing beneath it. I made a mental note to put out a tray of snacks—leftovers from dinner, perhaps—for Mama and Junior tonight.
A flash of violet caught my eye as a blue jay fluttered onto one of our wild cherry trees. “Beware the wind!” he called.
“I’m watching. I’m watching,” another voice replied.
I scanned the branches but couldn’t see this newcomer. From the sharpness of the tone, I was betting it was a woodpecker, but wasn’t sure.
“Won’t rustle my nest,” the maybe-woodpecker chirped. “Go fly.”
The blue jay flitted away.
“Gotta build for a storm,” the unseen bird said. “But sometimes blown down anyway. The sun’s out now. Lookit! Lookit!”
Another voice joined in and a chorus of “Lookit”s ensued.
I listened to the birds discuss the weather until the labored engine of the Civic announced my husband’s return.
Kevin tossed his briefcase into a chair and his keys onto the table as I started some rice boiling for dinner.
“I sat in the backyard this afternoon,” I said. “I’ve decided I like the overgrown look. Some of the weeds are prettier than the landscaped flowers.”
“I can get the mower out of the tool shed this weekend.”
“No, I’m serious. I like it.” I rinsed off a stalk of bok choy and began chopping it into chunks. The stem and the browning parts I deposited into a bowl. Mama and Junior Skunk would appreciate the tidbits.
“Ginny, did you call my folks with the news yet?”
I tossed a bundle of bean sprouts into the strainer and sent a cascade of water over them. “No. I don’t really know what to say to them.” I picked out several choice sprouts and set them in the same bowl as the bok choy stem.
“Want me to do it?”
I didn’t look up from the carrots and parsnips on the cutting board. “Would you?” I made it a game, seeing how evenly I could chop them.
While Kevin dialed, I poured oil into the wok and dropped in some diced green onion and teriyaki sauce to simmer.
Outside, I saw wings flash in the treetops.
“Hi, Mom. Ginny and I got word back from her biopsy today—”
I concentrated on making dinner: mushrooms for us, mushrooms in the skunk bowl, eggplant for us, eggplant in the bowl.
Even across the room, with the headset against Kevin’s ear, I could hear his mother sobbing. Part of it, most of it probably, was for me. But I was sure a little bit was for them too. From the moment we’d announced our engagement, his parents, especially his mother, had talked about grandchildren. I felt like I was shirking them by having Kevin break the bad news, but on the other hand, I knew the phone call would be good for him. His mother was reacting the way I should have, dissolving into tears and railing at fate. He spoke in soothing tones, the epitome of tender consolation. It gave him something to focus on, something to do.
The tang of cooking bell peppers suffused with curry and cinnamon drifted from the wok and permeated the kitchen. I dumped in the sprouts and turned down the heat.
“Dinner’s just about ready,” I said.
Kevin nodded and began the process of extracting himself from the phone. He was reluctant, but I heard him address his father. Undoubtedly my dad-in-law had taken over comforting Kevin’s mother.
I poured us some iced tea out of the refrigerator as he replaced the headset onto the cradle.
Kevin watched me eat; I could feel his eyes, over the bottle of soy sauce, following me as I forked up mouthfuls of rice and vegetables.
“I spent today thinking,” I said.
Kevin put down his fork, his food untouched. “About what?”
I’d forgotten to toss some peanuts into the stir-fry. Peanuts were one of Kevin’s favorites. “The chemotherapy, the surgery,” I said. “I remember what chemo was like when I was a kid. I remember thinking that letting the leukemia have me would’ve been better.”
The silence stretched. The sound of my own teeth crunching through celery and carrots was deafening.
“Did you ever think how unnatural it is, going through all that medical rigmarole to extend our lives?” I continued. “When wild animals get sick, they don’t stress it, don’t claw for those extra few weeks or months or years. They just accept it. Maybe it’s better that way.”
Kevin made a sound; I don’t think it was a word. He stared at me, and I had to look away. I couldn’t handle the confused hurt, stark on his face, that I’d glimpsed.
I stood up with my half-eaten plate of food and dumped it and the bowl of vegetable leavings onto a plate. The back door’s unoiled hinges creaked as I wrenched it open.
Kevin didn’t follow me. I hadn’t expected him to.
I’d just unlatched the screen door when I heard the scream.
“No! Not me! Aii!”
I rushed out and saw a calico tabby cat examining a tuft of gray fur between its paws. I recognized the cat as one of the strays that roamed the neighborhood from the jagged scar across its nose. As I watched, the cat opened the trap of its claws and the animal leapt free. It was tiny—a mouse, or a vole maybe.
“Run,” the cat growled.
The terrified little creature scampered towards me. I didn’t think it was seeking me out; it was just running away from the cat. It screamed, high pitched and inarticulate.
I took a step forward but the cat was faster. It pounced and the tiny animal’s screams ended, cut off. I heard the snap of fragile bones shattering between sharp teeth.
My headlong rush petered out before the momentum could build beyond the first adrenalin jolt. It had all happened too quickly.
The tabby spat out the mouse-vole and prodded the now-limp body. His golden eyes gleamed in the twilight. “Fought well, small warm fur,” he said. “Tried to bite me. Such small fangs. Mine are much finer.” He shook his paws at the dead rodent and turned his back to it. “It’s still now.”
“Aren’t you at least going to eat it?” I said.
The cat’s tail flicked back and forth like a plump, furry serpent. “Not hungry.”
“Then why’d you kill it if you aren’t going to eat it?” Indignation made my voice harsh.
Yellow-slitted eyes met mine. “It was there.”
Before I could reply, he bounded across my yard, scaled the fence in a single prodigious leap, and was gone.
I set the plate of food down, half surprised to still find it in my hands, and went over to the pathetic corpse in the overgrown grass. A trickle of blood spattered a soft-muzzled face, plastering the fur around its head and neck. It was still warm. I wondered if I ought to bury it.
Still undecided, I stood up. Movement from above caught my attention. Against the shading of the darkening lavender sky, I saw silhouettes flit and flutter. Voices drifted to me, excited and high-pitched.
Bats. Little brown ones out in the dusk, hunting insects. Such chaotic energy, a wild dance in the sky. And not once did a dancer misstep; they all seemed to know the exact cadence and meter of their frenetic waltz. I watched them dive and careen above me until it grew too dark to see.
“Warm blood is sweeter, but tonight it is cold.” The speaker’s voice was precise, a softly calculating presence. An owl.
I wouldn’t have to dig a grave for the tiny dead thing in my yard. I retreated, returning to the voice-free refuge of my kitchen.
It was deserted.
The door to Kevin’s den was closed, but when I knocked on it, the knob turned and the door swung open as though he’d been waiting for me.
He hadn’t changed out of his work clothes; his shirt was wrinkled and his tie loose and askew around his neck. I couldn’t meet his eyes—familiar soft blue eyes that crinkled in laughter at our private jokes, ones that no one else would understand. Those eyes would hold anguish, I knew, pain I had caused. There might be tears in them if I looked up. I stared at his chin.
“I didn’t write down when my appointments were,” I said. “Do you still have the cards the receptionist gave you?”
I let myself peek after all. Yes, blue eyes the color of the evening sky, still pained, but also relieved. I’d given him back something to hope for.
I avoided the outdoors after that. I kept the windows closed and the radio or television, or both, turned up to drown out even the hint of wilderness voices. Trips to the hospital for the start of my chemotherapy were made with the car radio blaring and culminated in a hasty, unseeing, unhearing dash from parking lot to foyer.
The drugs made me tired and everything I ate became seasoned by flakes of rust. But the hint of nausea I felt when I watched the clear solution dripping into my arm during the first treatment didn’t manifest beyond a suggestion of misery. I was thankful for that.
Days disappeared, unmarked and unremembered while the poisons did their work. Then came the one scribbled on my calendar by Kevin, like a birthday or anniversary.
He drove us to the hospital and hovered nearby as the nurses and interns took charge of me. In hospitals, nobody’s clothing fits properly. Doctors flurried by, the wings of their white lab coats and smocks loose in their wakes. Fellow patients slouched or reclined under a stratum of blankets and hospital gowns. And my attendants’ slate blue scrubs transformed them into anonymous, androgynous drones that buzzed and twittered about me. When they donned their facemasks, the illusion was complete—featureless, genderless eunuchs, all of them. In my baggy hospital garb, I joined their fellowship. But they could take off their uniforms and become people again. I, on the other hand, would be a true eunuch after today, hollowed out and sterile.
I watched as one of them tightened a tourniquet on my arm and slid a shining needle into the faintly pulsing vein in the crook of my elbow. I dutifully counted down from ten, and embraced the darkness that crowded the edges of the room when I hit four.
Three. Two. One.
Someone had erected a nest of cotton balls and gauze in my mouth and hastily dismantled it while I slept. I was left with the taste of desiccated foundation.
I opened my eyes and immediately closed them again. Surely the world was not supposed to be a dizzying slash of color and light?
“Ginny?” I recognized Kevin’s voice. “I saw her open her eyes, doctor.”
“She should be coming out of the anesthesia,” Dr. Graykin said. “It can be disorienting.”
I remembered now. I had been un-womaned in the limbo of three numbers, carved up and sewn back together again. “I’m awake,” I said. Although it didn’t sound right, more like “Mm, wwm.” I tried again. “I’m here.” I squinted my eyes open, relieved to discover that the room wasn’t still canting sideways.
I felt Kevin’s fingers against my hand, felt the brush of his lips on my forehead. “How’re you feeling?”
“I wouldn’t nominate today as one of my all-time favorites,” I mumbled.
“You’ll probably be sore for a while,” Dr. Graykin said. “A week, at least. You’ll need to take it very easy.”
I had been blissfully oblivious of my body until I heard the word sore. Then I became aware of a deep ache running through me. Each breath pulled at low parts of me that were unhappy and eager to complain. My arm throbbed where the IV line punctured it, tethering me to a jellyfish-flaccid bag.
“The procedure went smoothly,” Dr. Graykin continued. “We were able to visualize the tumor in its entirety.”
“You should rest now. Let the nurse on duty know if you need anything.” Dr. Graykin patted my sheet-shrouded leg and was gone in a whirl of white before I could finish mouthing a thank you.
Kevin handed me a tastefully cheery, pink envelope. I produced the obligatory smile at the cuter-than-cute bunny on the cover of the card. The inside read “Hopping you get well soon!”
“Thanks, honey.” The words sounded dismal, even to me.
Kevin leaned over and brushed his lips against my cheek.
I closed my eyes.
“Try to get some sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
That night, alone in my hospital bed, I dreamed that I was Prometheus, chained to the bench in my yard while crows picked at me, tearing out my ovaries and uterus with their sharp beaks and crying “Lookit! Lookit!”
I didn’t need a psychoanalyst to interpret it.
I woke with the curtains of my room just beginning to turn from a colorless gray to a pale dandelion-buff. Birds would be singing outside, announcing the dawn. I couldn’t hear them, and suddenly I wanted to.
I swung my legs over the edge of my bed, careful not to tangle my IV line, and lurched the two steps to the window. My legs were uncooperative, intent upon tripping me up. The pain intensified and I staggered against the window casing. My eyes felt scalded, like a handful of salt had been tossed into them. I reached a hand up and discovered that my face was wet. Tears. Why was I crying? Weeping, standing, the window, it was too much for me to manage. My legs gave way and I crumpled, taking the metal tree that held my now-empty IV bag with me. Pain erupted through me and I couldn’t stop myself from crying out.
The soft shushing of rubber-soled shoes on tile pattered to my door. The door opened; light enveloped me.
“Oh my goodness! Mrs. Broward, what are you doing?” It was the night nurse.
“The w-window,” I sobbed. “I j-just wanted to open the window.”
She righted the IV stand and half-lifted me to my feet. The tears wouldn’t stop and each time I hiccupped, another spear of pain tore through my body. I no longer felt distressed at the closed window; I just felt ridiculous.
“There, there, Mrs. Broward.” The nurse settled me back into bed, handed me a tissue, and checked my bandages.
My nose dripped disgustingly. Blowing it hurt. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”
“It’s the hormones and all the stress from the operation. It’s perfectly normal.” She tucked the blankets in around me. “Comfy?”
I nodded. My eyelids were heavy again, weighted by hot coins.
“Right then. Just hit the red button if you need me.”
“Okay,” I mumbled. The nurse’s face grew hazy and the edges of the room softened around me.
She patted my hand. “Henry’s coming ‘round today. I’ll make sure he swings by here first thing. He’s good at getting a grin. Smiling is its own medicine.”
I don’t remember her leaving. When I opened my eyes again, the curtains were a radiant canary-yellow. A hollow rapping echoed from my door. It was that sound which had awakened me.
The door opened a crack and a man’s face peered around the edge. It was an unobtrusive face; creases at the eyes and forehead spoke of time spent in the sun. He wasn’t a doctor; there was too much buoyancy in his eyes.
“Did I wake you?” he said. “Judy, the nurse, told me I should come by.”
Memories of a first light conversation filtered into my consciousness. I struggled to sit up. “Are you Henry?”
The man pushed the door wide. “Actually, my name’s Dave. But Henry’s with me.”
I heard a soft clicking, like a strand of pearls being coiled together. A tawny yellow and black, indisputably canine muzzle, poked around my door. The head, level with Dave’s thigh, was long and graceful atop a brindle-shaded neck. Bright brown eyes peered up at me while a wide mouth lolled open in a doggie smile. It was canine nails on hospital tile that had clacked and clattered so.
“This is Henry,” Dave said.
“Oh.” I had thought that Henry would be a therapist or a psychiatrist.
“You’re not allergic or anything, are you?” Dave said.
“No. Not at all.”
Henry’s ears flipped forward. “Hi,” he said. “Pleased to meetcha. Very happy to. Yup.”
“Henry’s a greyhound rescue from a track in Florida,” Dave said. He didn’t react to Henry’s words, but then I hadn’t expected him to. “We visit the hospital every Wednesday. Judy said you needed some company?”
Dave led Henry to the side of my bed. I noticed something. “Hey, you’ve only got three legs.”
“I know. I know,” Henry said. “My leg was sick. They cut it off.”
“Bone cancer,” Dave said. “We caught it in time, but that was pretty much the end of his racing days.”
“Good as new. Better. Better,” Henry said. “Doesn’t hurt. Can’t race as fast as I used to. Boy, I really could go when I was a pup, but I can still get the wind buzzing through my ears. I like running. I’d run with two legs if I had to. Sorry. No offense.”
I smiled. The curve of my lips felt alien to me, like I hadn’t smiled in a very long time. I reached out to stroke the dog’s head. His short fur was warm, like thick velvet beneath my fingers.
“Pet my ears,” he said. “My ears. Everyone likes my ears.”
So I stroked the felt and sateen of his pale yellow ears.
“Y’know,” he said. “Listen up here. Listen. It doesn’t matter how many legs you got. The important thing is the running. That’s what I always say.”
It was soothing, just petting Henry. Some of the tension, a bit of the anxiety, leaked away as I ran my fingers through his coat.
Dave ruffled the dog’s head. “Hey, I have to take Henry to the kids’ ward now. He’s got a date with a certain little boy who’s very punctuality oriented. If you like, I can swing by afterwards. Maybe let you and Henry have some quality one-on-one time?”
“That’s not necessary. My husband will be in soon to take me home. But I’m glad you both came by.” I gave Henry a last pat. “Thank you, Henry.”
“My pleasure. You’re welcome. Any time.”
“And you too, Dave.”
“Hey, I’m just the transportation. I know who the real star of the show is.” Dave grinned down at the dog. “Ready to go, fellah? Rickie’s waiting for you.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Gotta go see Rickie. Yup,” Henry said. “Nice to metcha, lady. Glad to make your acquaintance. See you around.”
Kevin arrived while the day nurse—a slender, pinch-faced woman with brusque manners but a soothing voice—was serving me a tray of red Jell-o, oatmeal, and toast.
I pushed the unappetizing meal away. “Hi.”
“Hi back. How’re you doing?”
“Not too bad,” I said.
“Has Dr. Graykin been by yet?”
As though he’d conjured her, she appeared at his elbow. “Good morning, Ginny. Did you sleep okay?”
“More or less.”
She performed a cursory check of my vitals—heartbeat, blood pressure, temperature—and oversaw the removal of the IV umbilicus before declaring me sound. It was such a relief feeling the plastic tube slide out of my arm. I had spent more time than anyone should have to endure, violated by a slender hose piping medicines and nutrients through my veins.
The pinched-faced nurse helped me dress into proper clothes before bundling me into a wheelchair for my exodus to the hospital’s patient drive.
Kevin acted as though I was a sandcastle at high tide. He hovered over me, unhappy when I wouldn’t let him bodily carry me from the car into the house. But he didn’t press me either, as though he were afraid that I would melt away at a strong word.
“Do you need anything? Want me to make you a sandwich?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“The doctor said you should eat something. I can heat up some soup. Maybe with some bread and butter?”
“No, really. They fed me at the hospital.”
“You didn’t eat it.”
“Really, I’m fine. I just want to lie down.”
“Of course. After we get you tucked in I can bring you something light to snack on. Maybe some fruit?”
My patience splintered. “Kevin, having my reproductive organs surgically extracted did not create a gaping hole that needs stuffing. And even if it did, I hardly think food would be an adequate substitute for what I’ve lost unless you were thinking of cramming that fruit into me from a different orifice than my mouth.”
I pushed past him and stomped upstairs, trying not to flinch when the sudden movements caused my insides to twang and bite. I wanted to bang the bedroom door shut, but I managed to cling to the last threads of civility and merely shut it.
I barely had the strength to kick off my shoes before falling into the neatly made-up bed. The last thing I saw before my eyelids slammed shut was that the window overlooking our yard was open.
Crying woke me. At first, I thought it was Kevin, but it wasn’t his throat that made those heartbroken, pitiful wails.
It was dark outside, but it was only a little after noon, far too early for sunset. Somber gray clouds, heavy with rain and the promise of thunder, enveloped the horizon. Peering out the window, I realized that the sounds were coming from the yard. Without bothering to slip my shoes on, I padded to the door. Nothing stirred inside the house as I made my way through it, blinking in the false twilight.
The grass was cool under my bare feet. Edges of crabgrass like crinkly knives slashed my ankles. I nearly tripped over a white plate, hidden by overgrown weeds. It was the licked-clean plate of food I had set out an uncountable number of days ago.
The noise was coming from the tool shed nestled in the furthest recesses of our yard where we kept the neglected lawn mower and other underutilized paraphernalia.
The door squealed as I pulled it open; the hinges were too rust-encumbered to perform smoothly. The stench of recently-fired skunk musk assailed me. No, it wasn’t a stench; that word didn’t do it justice. Fresh skunk is a transcendental state, an experience more profound than anything encompassed by as simple a sense as smell. My eyes streaked with tears and I struggled not to retch, knowing that to do so would require me to take another breath.
Through the blur of my tear-filled eyes, I saw a small black and white bundle of fury charging me. His tail stood up straight behind him, the long hairs bristling out like a Christmas tree. He was puffed up, standing on his toes to appear as large as possible. It was Junior.
“Go ‘way!” he shrilled in his Jimmy Durante voice.
“Don’t shoot,” I whispered, half-choked. “I’m going away, see?”
At the sound of my voice, he stopped mid-charge. His tail drooped and he deflated. “Wait. Need help,” he said.
I tried breathing through my mouth, but I could still smell the musk. When I inhaled, my tongue and the back of my throat became swathed with a foul, oily coating.
“What’s the matter?” I gasped.
“Mama poofed someone. I run away. She won’t wake up.”
“She was attacked?”
“Just here. Lookie.”
A still puddle of black and white lay in the shadows. It was Mama Skunk. She was dead, her neck snapped.
“Oh, Junior, I’m so sorry. Your mother’s not waking up.”
Junior butted and pawed at her, whining and snuffling forlornly.
“What happened?” No sane animal would tangle with a skunk. And obviously Mama had got in a shot. For her assailant to have managed to snap her neck after being hit, I couldn’t fathom it.
“Cat,” Junior said. “All scarred up. No sniffer.”
And I remembered the calico cat, the one that had killed the mouse-vole.
Junior’s liquid black eyes gazed up at me. “Lonesome,” he whimpered. “Scared.” He began to cry, small snuffling noises both like and unlike a weeping human child.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. The words felt inadequate. “Are you hungry? You’re probably hungry. Let me get you something to eat.” I reminded myself of Kevin, an uncomfortable sensation.
“Leaving me? Come back?”
“I’ll be right back. Stay here.”
The air was fresher outside; I inhaled with relief. The first droplets of rain plunked on my arms and shoulders.
Kevin had made soup, after all. I found a large Tupperware bowl in the refrigerator filled with some cream-based concoction. It would have milk in it, and vegetables, maybe cheese. I ladled up a bowlful and debated whether I needed to microwave it for Junior. But no, I was still inundated by the residue of Mama Skunk’s last stand. The less time I spent in the house, the less exhaustive the fumigation efforts would have to be. I hoped.
I was on my way out the door when I heard Junior’s screams. They were high-pitched and shrill, inhuman. The bowl shattered on the kitchen linoleum as I ran out. Tendrils of sizzling pain oscillated from my nether regions up through my chest in a pulsating rhythm. I doubted whether Dr. Graykin would classify sprinting as “taking it very easy.” I caught my breath, and instantly gagged. I’d thought that the stink couldn’t possibly get any worse. A fresh infusion of skunk spray proved me wrong.
I tried to ignore the raindrops now hammering down from above, but they trickled into my eyes and made the grass slick. The throbbing turned into a persistent flare of pain as I slid and stumbled through our yard. Despite the toxic miasma that hovered around the tool shed, I rushed in.
The relief from the rain vied with a wave of nausea from the redoubled aura of skunk. In the storm’s gloom, the shed was pitch.
I pushed the door wide. A single strobe of lightning splashed whiteness and shadows in with the rain. In the moment of washed-out over brilliance, I saw Junior, huddled in the scant shelter of the mower where it leaned against the wall. The lightning framed the calico cat in mid-leap as it sprang.
Blinded again, but trusting in the afterimage memory, I dove.
“Don’t shoot!” I shouted at Junior.
My hand closed over a screeching, furious ball of teeth and claws. The cat sank its fangs in but I didn’t let go. Red-hot wires scored my wrist and I felt teeth grate against bone in my palm.
Another slash of lightning lit the shed. I wrestled the scratching, biting demon to the dust-covered crate that housed moldering copies of Kevin’s old comic books and magazines. I threw the cat in, slammed the lid shut, and latched it.
My hands and arms felt like I’d set them on fire. More worrisome, I felt wetness trickling down my side through the bandages. “Junior?” I panted. “Where are you?”
“Mama?” I felt a cold nose nudge my ankle. “Mama?”
I kneeled, doing my best not to breathe, and picked Junior up with my smarting arms. “You okay?”
He immediately nestled into me, snuffling at my face. It felt good, his warm, soft body snug against me.
“Oh my God!” Kevin exclaimed behind me. I turned and was blinded by a flashlight beam.
Junior squawked and tried to burrow under my arm.
Kevin repositioned the light so it no longer blazed into my eyes. I could imagine the picture I presented. I was drenched, barefoot, my hands and arms scored and bleeding, rank with musk, and cuddling a baby skunk. But Kevin surprised me. After only the shortest of explanations, he helped me and Junior back to the house, phoned animal control to collect the cat I had trapped in the shed, and took charge of Junior, setting him up with a bowl of soup and a blanket-lined box in the spare bathroom.
“We’re adopting a skunk, huh?” He got out the peroxide and began dabbing at my bites and scratches. “Y’know, if you wanted a baby substitute, I would’ve thought a puppy or cat or something would’ve been less problematic than a skunk.” He glanced up at me as he said it, his tone teasing and light. When I didn’t rebuff him, he smiled shyly. “So, uh, you think we can get him de-scented?”
The rueful expression on his face made me giggle. When was the last time I had giggled? I couldn’t remember. I took his fingers in mine and winced when they brushed against my wounds.
“Kevin, I’m sorry about how I’ve behaved,” I said. “It’s just, I’m so scared all the time, I don’t—”
He pulled me close and rested his chin on top of my head. “I know, honey. It’s okay. I’ll always love you, no matter what. Kids or no kids, even if you decide you need to adopt stray skunks and get into fights with alley cats, I’ll still love you.”
I laughed and something rigid that I’d been holding tight inside me dissolved away. The laughter metamorphosed unexpectedly into tears, great gasping sobs that swelled until I was helpless to stop them. I felt my knees fold. I would have fallen, but Kevin caught me. He held me in his arms as I cried, stroked my hair as I wept, my body wracked with tremor after tremor. I clung to him, my rock after all.
People look at us funny when I tell them we have a skunk living with us.
Kevin drew the line at Junior sleeping in bed with us. But when he’s at work, Junior usually curls up with me on the couch for long skunk naps. He follows me around as I tend the new vegetable garden in our backyard and gets underfoot as often as he can. When the chemotherapy made my hair fall out, his antics lured me away from fixating on the freakish apparition in my mirror. And when I feel too wrung out by the drugs to get out of bed, he drags all the covers off me, puffing and straining to haul the mass of blankets away. I laugh and find I can get up.
The backyard has acquired some strange attraction to four-legged and feathered types. It’s especially the sick or the scared or the lonely that come to me. Cats thrown out of car windows, puppies dumped by the roadside, they find their way here and tell me their stories. Sometimes the only thing I can do is make sure they don’t die cold and alone. And sometimes I have the joy of watching a newly healed bird fling itself back into the sky.
Kevin is building bat houses and birdfeeders and squirrel perches for me. And he’s going to tear down the tool shed and build something better, sort of a triage sanctuary for outdoor beasties to take refuge in who can’t or won’t come into the house.
Dr. Graykin was displeased with me for pulling my stitches, but she thinks that between the chemo and the surgery we’ll get all the cancer cells. God, I hope so. But there’s never any certainty in life, no guarantees, no promises. The only thing I can do is take each day as I can and do the best by it. Or, as someone once told me: “It doesn’t matter how many legs you got. The important thing is the running.”
Dedicated to the memory of Hobkin, who enriched our lives and reminded us to run for the joy of it, lookit the magic all around us, and to laugh every day.
© 2004 by Eugie Foster. Originally published in issue #40 of The 3rd Alternative.