Clowder

Clowder

clowder-finished

The sound woke her from a nap. She lay curled on back of the living room couch where a pillow had been placed so she could look out the window while basking in the sun. But there was rarely sun in this new place, and the view now was of the soggy, leaf-strewn backyard bounded by a high, wood fence: beyond that, the edge of a mist-shrouded woods festooned with damp, gray moss.

She listened, one ear cocked forward, one sideways, trying to locate the source of the sound. There it was again: definitely not in the house, or from one of the neighbors on either side. It nudged the hairs inside her ears: thin, stretched over distance so that only the teasing edges of it reached her. It seemed a little like crying, or music.

She was still getting used to the scents and sounds of their new home. No more rumbling trains at regular intervals, no tires whining on asphalt, no constant hum of spiderwebbed power lines overhead. No roaches scuffling under the stove or rats softly gnawing inside the walls at night. It had used to drive her crazy, looking out the high apartment window from the carpet-covered tower. From that perch, she’d kept watch on everything happening in the street below- the small, bug-like movements, begging to be stalked. But she was not allowed out. They had bought her toys: cloth and paper made to look like mice or spiders. She tried, for their sake: batting them around, purposefully losing them in shadowy places beneath the entertainment system where they could not easily be retrieved. Then, a few weeks ago, a shift. Anxiety and excitement. Boxes were filled with crumpled newspaper. She had hidden inside them, leaping out at unsuspecting arms and legs. They had laughed and stroked her, making  sounds that meant amusement mixed with annoyance. Then there had been a long ride in a car: she had lounged in the back window above the speakers, watching a grey road unwind behind them like a snake carrying them away from the jagged skyline.

She stretched and leapt down to the rug, angling through the kitchen. She held her breath and shoved quickly through the swinging flap in the door, accelerating in time to keep it from pinching her tail as she exited. The cool, humid air, expanding around her in every direction made her shiver. Outside. She padded across the soft, damp leaves, the air so rich it made her lose track of why she had come out. The sound reached her a third time, closer now… not crying… not music… voices? Clenching her muscles, she sprung to the top of the wood fence, balanced as it leaned a little with her weight, then down again onto the yielding moss. The sound grew thicker, more distinct: not humans, not dogs. Her skin pulled tight against her skull and between her shoulders, fur spiked, whiskers vibrating. These were the voices of no animal she knew.

As she reached a clearing in the woods, the sound stopped. She paused, tail lashing back and forth. She sniffed the foot of a tree, the gravel, some clumps of wet grass. Something watched her from a house at the center of the clearing. She took her time, letting it see her move, her strong muscles, her sleek fur. She rubbed her jaw and face on a rock, then on a fallen log, leaving her scent, taking with her a tangled odor that made her lower jaw shudder. A living thing had left this scent, a strong, powerful thing. Was it the thing watching her now? She meandered closer until she stood outside a door. Rotted wood. Mouse nests. The click and crunch of beetles. There were no people inside, had been none for a long time. The sound came again, rising and falling like water tumbling from a faucet, but warm, like blood. The lower part of the door was eaten away. She slid through.

On the other side, silence. A silence full of listening. Every part of her aimed into the dim space ahead, listening back. The room was large and high. A stairway rose on one side to the second floor. Directly across from her the vertical lines of a tall, square piece of furniture, and above it a line of severed animal heads hung on the wall. The smell of their fur was thick with dust. Their eyes shone in the gray light, but with a false life. Things that resembled tree branches spread from the tops of their heads. They stared down at her, unbreathing, bloodless. Something white appeared across the room, low to the floor, gliding slowly toward her. She was about to break and dart back  through the hole in the door when she heard the welcoming sound: low, warm, alive. The animal came closer, touched its nose to hers, sat and began washing itself. All around the room, pieces of the shadows began to move, came toward her, making small sounds. The powerful scent surrounded her. She flopped on her side and scraped her body against the floorboards, rolling with ecstasy.

***

She woke when the moon appeared through a hole in the roof. She hunted in the dark with the others. She had grown thinner, her fur dirty. A scar crossed her nose and one eye where her prey had wounded her before the killing bite. Once, she had heard them looking for her, their voices carrying through the trees. They called over and over, the sound they had made for her, a sound that had never been her name. Soon after, they had come to the house, calling, calling. She hunkered under the floorboards as they crossed overhead, shining their flashlights into closets and cupboards. She heard the distress in their noises, with it came memories: the soft couch, their warm, caressing hands, their love. Near her, in the dark, the others crouched, the heat of their bodies, their green, flaming eyes. When the people had gone, they emerged together, stretching, washing, getting ready for the night.

Forgetting Lou Lou

Forgetting Lou Lou

forgetting lou lou

Lou Lou was a wolf, but she looked to everyone else like a little girl. They liked for her to wear pink dresses and little white socks with lace trim. They thought it was cute when she made growling noises and woke late at night to stare through the bars of her crib at the pattern the moon made through the curtains of her bedroom window. They didn’t think it was so cute when she came home from playing on the hill under the oak tree with her dress torn and splashed with mud. Maybe she’s a tomboy, said a well-meaning Aunt. Let her wear pants and act like a boy until she gets it out of her system.

Being eight, nine, ten-years-old, these were the golden years for Lou Lou. She climbed to the very top of the oldest, biggest oak tree on the hill behind her house. She collected the pellets of the owl that roosted there and pulled them apart with tweezers, carefully extracting the tiny bones of shrews and voles and snakes from the matted hair. She prowled all day in the tall weeds collecting caterpillars and watching the long tongues of butterflies unfurl into each flower to sip nectar. She spent nearly all her time quite happily alone. Alone, she could breathe and listen to the wind, pondering the memories that rose effortlessly in her body: the feeling of running on four legs, so fast the wind roared in her ears. The sensation of delicately gnawing with her teeth at her own fur, removing foxtails and fleas and dead skin. Strongest of all were the memories of smell: the scent of tree bark after rain; the hot, anxious scent of mice hiding in the brush; the musk-and-metal scent of her own fear. Lou Lou could not help comparing the memories with her senses now: how everything felt flatter, weaker, as if she were sniffing the world through a pillowcase, as if her body were half numb. She often sat in the old oak, flexing her hands and observing her flat, short fingernails, wondering why she had felt, from the moment she could remember remembering, that something was missing.

In high school Lou Lou began to doubt. The other girls seemed to really like makeup and boy bands and played a game where you drew letters on a piece of paper and chose a number and by a series of eliminations could divine who you would marry, whether you would live in shack or a mansion, what kind of car you would drive, how many babies you’d have. Lou Lou didn’t want babies. She didn’t give a rat’s ass about cars except for how it felt to drive one fast, at night, with the wind blowing through the open windows and music blasting. It reminded her of running with four, powerful legs- memories so distant she now thought of them as dreams. In her dreams she was herself: enjoying what felt good, roaming alone at night, sleeping when she was tired, eating to her fill, waking to the world as it was, being in it as she was. Lou Lou found she preferred hanging out with the boys: they were wilder and more physical. She liked to drink with them and make out with them, but she didn’t want to be someone’s girl. This pissed off both the girls and the boys, for different reasons. Lou Lou ended up with a reputation.

It would have been one thing if people ignored her: but they punished her. From the moment she woke she was pelted with evidence of her wrongness: pics of her drunk or kissing someone in text messages addressed to her and copied to fifty numbers not in her phone, and then the trolling. The dial-ups and hang-ups. #slut. #bitch. #whore. Boys she didn’t even know, from other high schools, stared at her at the bus stop until she made eye contact, then made a vee with their fingers and wagged their tongues through the crotch of it. Deep in her gut a clenching heat would rise: images of grabbing those boys by the throat and slamming their heads against a wall. Biting deep into the flesh of their shoulders or arms. Violent thoughts rode with her to school and home again. After she finished her homework, she’d climb the old oak, listen to the owl call above her head to another owl in a tree across the valley. Their voices soothed her into regret. There must be another way.

Lou Lou decided to forget. It seemed the best solution. A well-meaning teacher had once told her, if you find yourself in a conflict ask yourself: does this problem come up with just this person, or does it come up with everyone? If she was brutally honest, it was clear that Lou Lou herself was the problem: since the beginning she had not been normal. She had not behaved as everyone thought she should. And all she had to do to fix it was stop acting like a wolf, stop remembering, stop dreaming, become a girl.

Lou Lou started wearing short, tight skirts and heels. She could no longer climb the oak in the evenings, so instead she sat on her bed watching how-to videos on hairstyles. Lou Lou stopped driving fast at night with the windows open, and stopped hanging out with the boys. She watched the girls: how they talked, how they laughed, how they flicked their hair, and she copied them carefully, but always toning down her own expressions so as not to overshadow theirs. Lou Lou innately understood hierarchy, body language. Soon Lou Lou’s bad reputation was, if not forgotten, forgiven. A couple of the girls at school invited her for sleepovers. She stayed up all night the night before making sure she knew what pajamas to wear, what to bring, what subjects to talk about, how to act like it all didn’t matter while it all mattered very much.

Lou Lou began to have nightmares. She dreamt of being chased by packs of wild dogs. She dreamt of horrible lapses of responsibility: that she kept small animals but had forgotten to feed them and they had starved to death in a cage in her closet. She dreamt of staring into the bathroom mirror and watching her teeth turn into sticks of chalk. She woke to a temporary relief: she had not really done those things, had she? With her thumb she rubbed the bony slickness of her canines. She got up and made coffee, and watched the rain out the window while she drank it, feeling as she always had, that there was something missing, an important memory whose details had faded beyond recall.

After graduating, Lou Lou got a job waiting tables. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to go to college. She wasn’t sure about anything. Each morning she dressed carefully. Did her hair and makeup carefully. She had become good at looking happy as she delivered food to customers, cleared away their dirty plates, smiled with her lips carefully covering her teeth. She was praised often: good girl, sweet girl. After work each evening she stared out her window at the oak tree on the hill. The owls still called to one another across the valley. A well-meaning self-help blog she was reading said, memories are likely to contain accidental fabrications, many errors, and a great number of “filled-in” details which we simply subconsciously invented. Lou Lou refocused her eyes, regarding her own reflection on the inside of the window.

Exodus

Exodus

Exodus

He was late for work. He made the right-hand turn while looking left and drove directly into the bison. In the fractional moment before his deploying airbag filled his field of vision, he made eye contact with the animal.

The animal slowly wheeled and faced oncoming traffic on Lincoln. With a sound like cinderblocks clattering on asphalt, the other eight members of the herd trotted up the small slope from Chain of Lakes and joined him, aligned themselves in a kind of phalanx pointed east. Together, they began to jog, and then eased into a gentle canter.

At Sunset, they encountered their first traffic. The first sedan did not slow or even stop, but slipped narrowly between two of the massive animals like a silvery fish. The next clump of cars was not so lucky. They swerved and skidded. Two collided and drove off the road into a pole. The third spun in a slow, graceful curve to the shoulder where it teetered on two wheels and then rolled over like a stunned tortoise among the trees on the edge of the park.

It went like this for just over a mile. The animals were eloquent in their movements, sure in their purpose. Their massive bodies rippled with the impact of hooves. Their nostrils stretched and expanded. They snorted as they ran, blowing mucus behind them into the wind.

Around 21st Avenue the first dog appeared. It was a black Laborador retriever. It stood on the sidewalk outside an apartment building with its body in the shape of an arrow. The hair along its spine stood up. It quivered. When the bison passed, the dog stepped into the road, staring after them. A human voice called out a name… the dog recognized it. It looked toward the voice, then back at the retreating animals, and tore off after them.

The light was with them at 19th Avenue, though a packed 71 bus, which had just pulled into the stop, was forced to brake hard, and several people fell into other people’s laps. Most of the rest were looking at cell phones. The bus driver swore under her breath, staring in her side mirror at the retreating animals.

By the time the herd reached Stanyan, it had swelled to nine bison, thirty dogs, and a man on a bike.  #bison was trending, a silent, exhilarated hysteria began its tsunami crash, felling websites and servers. Raccoons, possums, and rats poured from the storm drains along Oak Street, joining the swelling ranks of animals. Traffic quickly snarled. People in the panhandle froze, or ran, or climbed trees. Some, after a few moments of deliberation, ran after the animals, tossing their backpacks and purses down on the grass.

The news helicopter caught up with them at Octavia. The bison swung right at the light and crossed Market onto the 80 East toward the Bay Bridge. The broadcast showed a line of large, brown animals at the front, galloping now. Behind them was a mélange of colors: dogs in sweaters dragging leashes, cats scurrying beneath tires and leaving pawprints across windshields. A massive grey cloud, like the herd’s shadow, trailed just behind: thousands upon thousands of pigeons.

Between molecules of air, the waves that carried the news #coyotes-downtown #Los Angeles, #whitetigers-loose-MGMGrand #Las Vegas, #ostriches-nimitzfwy #SanDiego, grew denser and steeper and slower until they stood motionless, high and invisible.

an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org
A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org

This morning, my colleague, publisher, and fellow scribbler Jason Buchholz emailed me to ask if I had seen the review of my recent book of flash fiction, small, fierce things in Mary: a Journal of New Writing.

I had not.

As the writers out there know, and most readers probably don’t, the publishing world is not what the shelves at Barnes and Noble might imply. If you are not a Stephen King or a JK Rowling, (which 99.9999999999999% of us are not) finding a publisher for your book is not the domino that sets the rest in motion: it is only the first step. The next is a lonely, shameless, and grueling campaign of self-promotion and self-marketing through any and all means, such as selling your book out of your backpack, bringing your book to local shops to see if they are willing to sell on commission, posting relentlessly into the general cacophony of social media, begging your former teachers to consider teaching the book, inviting yourself to open mics and readings, and hoping your family, friends, and people from your writer’s group are not the only people who read it. In my case, I had the help of Achiote Press and my colleague Jason, who showed up at my readings, blasted his own social media to promote my work, and as this post shows, was out there looking for reviews of my book in his spare time (when he isn’t working full time, raising a child, co-running his small press, and writing his own novels.)

How does one get reviewed if you are a small, fierce mouse and not a large, visible elephant? You beg. You send out email queries and never hear back. You mail out free review copies to anyone who will take one, and then pass out after holding your breath for a few months waiting to hear back (while sheepishly googling your book title to confirm that no one has reviewed it.)

Then you give up.

And then, if you are really really lucky, a kind soul not only reads it, but reads it closely, and writes their observations down, and publishes it. In my case, that kind, generous, thoughtful reviewer is Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org.

I don’t know Andrew, but I would like to say this: writing book reviews for small presses is the literary equivalent of volunteering to get up and sing your heart out to an invisible crowd who may or may not be there, and who may or may not be paying attention. Most reviewers of fiction are not paid for what they do… except in review copies, a very small per-review stipend ($25-$50 if you write for say, Publisher’s Weekly) and the author’s undying gratitude (even negative reviews sell books). Book reviewers, in my opinion, work harder than the authors themselves… putting their craft and art into a piece of writing about someone else’s piece of writing. They are the (mostly) unsung heroes of the publishing world. Those who do have high visibility, like NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, give solid but eventually predictable and repetitively-styled reviews as bookends (yup) to Terry Gross’ show Fresh Air. If you are everyone else, you are competing to be read by an audience terminally distracted by the sheer white noise of the net. And don’t get me started on the reviewers who treat reviewing as an exercise in cynical showboating.

So, if you’ve read this far, please doff your hat to those book reviewers out there who do this work as a labor of love, a masochistic reflex, an unspeakable kindness, or whatever it is that makes them kind enough and crazy enough to donate their precious mental resources in this act of service. Andrew Hamilton, and maryjournal.org, thank you. 

The Final Strand

The Final Strand

sleep until the starlings come

She learned to weave a nest by watching her parents. It was a skill and a language, a music she could not describe except by building it around herself from strands of hair and fluff and old strips of cloth.

Her parents assured her there was nothing she couldn’t achieve if she worked hard enough. That is why we are here, they told her. That is why we live in this place, where anyone can have a nest as long as they are willing to work hard, and to keep weaving. But be careful not to weave too well, they warned. When the nest is perfect, go back and pull out the final strand: keep it and it will keep you safe.

Truthfully, the nests she saw around her neighborhood tended to be scruffy and unkempt, certainly not in any danger of being perfect. Some were chewed in places by rats, and became mildewy from the fog. This was not so much the fault of the weavers, but of the low piece of ground they lived on. Her mother and father would never have said so, but like most children, she learned the hard things by overhearing them. Watching a well-dressed couple moving quickly down her street, she caught their conversation: Who would want to live here?  one said. The poor don’t choose, the other answered.

Though she understood the truth of this, she was also unconvinced it was the end of the matter. It seemed to her, watching the mud flow down the gutters carrying gum wrappers and plastic bags, that all of this state of collapse needed was a bit of care, and a weaver that did not leave strands out.

Over time, she came to understand that things were more complicated than she had observed as a child. Life was not simple, like a TV show where everything ties up neatly in the end. People had to eat and pay parking tickets: some went hungry or went to jail, and some, despite working as hard as they could, never got ahead. Some wove the most beautiful nests she had ever seen, then took them apart again for the sheer satisfaction of having some ounce of control.

Like her parents had taught her, she worked hard, and became no more special than the next person. But she did not want to be special: all that really mattered to her was the weaving. And so she built nests. At first, they were overwrought snarls that leaned at odd angles and made people feel awkward.  Later, she experimented with slick nests made of folded junk mail. Then she spent her days building sturdy, functional nests to make a living, and her nights spinning gothic castles and flying buttresses into nests as high as the ceiling. When it no longer mattered if she failed or succeeded, she made the best nests of all: of cigarette butts and cotton candy that turned to mush in the rain; of live spiders and dust bunnies; of leaves and kelp washed up in storms.

When her parents died, she took over their nest, and began giving those she built away: warm nests for those who were old and infirm. Treehouse nests for the kids in the park. Nests that connected distant buildings so no one would have to wait for the bus. She kept on and on, and by the time she was nearly an old woman she had filled her once dirty, once poor neighborhood with objects of beauty: a nest made of sea glass and damselfly wings. A nest of steel cable and hemp rope in the shape of a ship. Nests that chimed and played music in the wind. Nests filled with books that gave off the scent of cedar and cinnamon. She did not pull strands. She did not keep anything. She trusted the work to hold.

One morning, she watched a well-dressed couple stroll slowly down her street, writing down house numbers and taking pictures with their cell phones. They stopped in front of her building and gazed up at her nest, though they could not see her looking back. This is such a charming neighborhood, one said. How much do you think these places are worth? said the other.