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.

Bodies in Oblivion

Bodies in Oblivion

Lethe

Lethe stands behind a wire fence, staring at me with piercing hazel eyes. He is bald with skin so red and wrinkled his head resembles a healing wound. Still, we creep closer to one another until we crouch on either side of the fence, almost touching.

Hello, I say. Lethe says nothing audible, but presses the side of his body against the wires, all the while keeping his gaze fixed on mine. A whiff of rot puffs into my nostrils. It is a hot day- 90 degrees or more- and we are bathed in one another’s scents- dirt and feathers, shampoo and rubber sneakers, dandruff and coffee, dead mice and sweat.

On the side of his cage, a white sheet in a plastic sleeve tells this story:

Lethe hatched in 2000 and was raised at a wildlife rehabilitation center in California. Despite precautions to keep him from imprinting on humans, he became highly socialized and upon release at a state park, kept coming down to people (particularly women) to play with their shoelaces! Even after a return to captivity and several months in isolation from people in a large flight cage with other vultures, he preferred human companionship.

Lethe: a river in the underworld. To drink its waters brings oblivion, but the kind that erases pain. Why else would the waters of forgetfulness be offered up in the land of the dead, but as a comfort and a means of escape? The subject of Death, given an opening, wells up through my carefully built internal levees. I lost my mother three years ago now: suddenly, preventably. Before my mother died, she always spoke of how she wouldn’t. She insisted, on my fears of oblivion, that she would always find me again. In her journals, I found fragments of her dreams: a constant flow of communications from the dead; an alcoholic aunt who passed away jaundiced and wasted, appears to her young and untroubled, glad to report she has shucked off that broken-down husk; a distant cousin rolls by to flash an enigmatic thumbs up; even total strangers leave messages with my mother to pass on to the living. But so far, for me, only one dream: my mother is drowning and I try to shout a warning that will not penetrate the molasses-like membrane that separates this world from the next.

Lethe grabs the fence wire with his beak and blinks at me. I stare back, seeing not something but someone behind that barrier of wire designed, we are told, to protect us both. The owls and hawks I have approached in surrounding enclosures merely tolerate observation. They angle their bodies carefully, deliberately away from the human gaze, turning their heads on an oblique angle, keeping my curiosity at wing’s length, but carefully surveilled. Lethe, now pressed so hard against the wire that his feathers poke through, welcomes this mutual intrusion.

I don’t want to break the rules, which somehow I know would mean reaching out to touch him. So I look into his eyes and breathe him in. There is a fleck of gristle on his face. He stinks of those molecules released by decomposition. I wonder how many deaths have sustained him these seventeen years: all of the bodies in oblivion, the traces of which now pass through the air and into my nostrils, my lungs, dissolving in my blood.

It takes only about two years for any one breath to have spread itself around the world. The molecules of breath last thousands of years. Given the arithmetic, roughly one particle of the last air that was breathed out by anyone who ever existed will appear in my next breath. I realize, with a jolt, that by now my mother’s breath, circling the world, has made it everywhere. She is likely here, in my breath, in Lethe’s, being passed between us, in a kind of river that flows not through the underworld, but through the living, a river of constant remembering.

Lethe reaches down to his right ankle and tugs on his fetter- a leather strap that he drags in the mud and dust. He eyes me and tugs the strap again, then presses himself back against the fence, getting as close as he can, gripping the bars with his beak. I know, I say, but those are the rules.

small, fierce things are here!

small, fierce things are here!

I am so proud and grateful to Achiote Press for making this book something I could hold in my hand. It began in 2013 when I sailed the arctic circle with a group of artists and came back empty… or I thought I was empty. For months I couldn’t write. Then osmall, fierce thingsne day I saw an image in my head. I hadn’t done any drawing for years, but I felt compelled to do something, anything, since the words weren’t coming. And then something happened: once the image was on the page, it began to tell me a story. I wrote the story down. Another image came… and so on until there were twelve drawings and twelve stories. As many of you know, I then created a hand-made book, bound with fishing line I found snarled on the arctic beaches. That version sold out, but the small, fierce things weren’t done with me. In the following months, the images continued to present themselves to me on my long walks, on the bus, in meetings, in my sleep, and I kept getting them onto paper, and each image had its story. Eventually, there were twice as many small, fierce things, and with the help of a wonderful publisher, they are now here in book form for everyone. I hope they burrow, claw, sneak, or steal into your heart and head the way they did into mine. I hope they remind you of what it is to be restless and curious and hopeful.

the cat who loved thanksgiving

the cat who loved thanksgiving

silas

the cat who loved thanksgiving

he was a cat of grand reputation: his miaow melted the hearts of even those who in the secret heart of their hearts did not, in theory, like cats. yet each year he proved again, through the naked wonder of his dilated eyes and drooling stare at the plucked and trussed bird nearly twice his own size, the commonality of dreams. slumbering in the sun, curled in the helpless shape of a turkey-filled belly, he traveled between worlds without moving, his eyes half-open, proof also that dreams and reality are sun-streaked shadows falling across the same rug.

the least weasel

the least weasel

Mustela nivalis and skull of Gulo gulo

 

back in 1999 or so my mother called me from her desk at the cornell synchrotron and said, you better come up herei’ve got five baby-somethings in my pockets and they smell pretty bad.

our relationship had been rocky for the past year or so, and we were not speaking much: i took this call as a kind of peace offering in the form of five helpless beings whose problem had a clear-cut solution, unlike ours.

i arrived to find my mother typing at her computer, the breast pockets of her button-down shirt bulging, and a faint skunky smell obscuring her rose perfume. they were so cold, she said. i thought if i kept them near my body, it would keep them warm.

one by one, she handed them over: they were hairless, eyes still sealed closed, skin translucent. their organs and bones were visible, and fine blood-red capillaries, like leaf veins, spread in webs across their bodies. they could have been anything: raccoons, skunks, woodchucks. the only clue was their musky smell.

one of the crew found them on the floor of the new tunnel this morning, my mother said. he thinks they fell out of a nest and the mother couldn’t get to them. construction on a new stretch of tunnel for the particle accelerator had been going on for months. my mother liked to call it the atom smasher in front of the physicists, because it bugged them.

i left the lab with the creatures folded up in a sweatshirt. nothing had been settled, nothing resolved, but there was something immediate i could do.

for three weeks i carried the creatures around in a fanny pack, feeding them every three hours with canine milk replacer and an eyedropper, and stroking their bellies with a q-tip to make them urinate. normally their mother would lick them to stimulate their bodily functions. i was dedicated, but not crazy.

my best friend and i talked in the evenings about what they could be. because of the smell, we had settled on skunks or weasels. when their bellies began to show a fine down of white, and their backs a russet stubble, we had our answer. it also came time to make a decision: did we want to keep them as pets? once they opened their eyes, they would probably imprint on us and could not be returned to the wild. even now we might have done permanent damage in saving them and handling them. so i’ve already done the wrong thing by interfering with nature, I said.  but aren’t we  part of nature? my best friend countered. how is it natural to just sit back and watch things die? these were the kinds of things we talked about. we still do.

the decision, for both of us, was clear: do our best to discover what it is to be a wild weasel, and try to keep our weasels, these weasels, wild. by this time, we’d identified our five creatures as least weasels, the smallest member of the family that includes skunks, otters, and the wolverine. we set up a box in the kitchen sun room where the weasels lived. once their eyes opened, we tried to be sure they never saw our faces, and we never touched them. with sight, they moved from milk to solid food in the form of pinky mice- as vulnerable and hairless and blind as the weasels had been when they were discovered. so one life was sacrificed for another in a necessary, mixed morality.

puck, our cat, would watch from the safe perch of my shoulder, his eyes dilated to black discs, as the weasels tore the pinky mice apart. at least they did it quickly. by this point, there were only three weasels left: two had died from an upper respiratory infection only a week after i’d taken them in, their noses filling with mucus faster than i could suction it out, and their breathing growing more and more faint until it stopped. the three survivors were voracious and fierce, especially the lone female. she was half the size of the males but always killed her food first and then tried to take theirs. at two months old she was fearless, insatiable, and so aggressive she drove puck off when he once became curious enough to stick his nose in the box. she was enormous in personality. in stature, she could curl her body nose to tail and fit perfectly around the outside of a penny.

when the weasels could no longer be contained by the box, it was time to transition them to the outside. we had read up on their habitat, the things they ate, their reproductive lives, everything we could find in a world before all the details were on the internet. i chose an eroded area underneath the barn to set them up: there was a water source and shelter nearby, and an empty field full of bugs and small animals right behind the barn. if they were going to learn to hunt, this was the perfect place.

each day, in the afternoon, I brought a can of wet cat food out to the barn and left it for the weasels. i couldn’t know if they were learning to hunt- all of their meals had come, if indirectly, from my hands. within a couple of days of doing this, they knew to expect me, and would form a greeting party, consisting of a mad weasel dance punctuated by vicious lunging at my ankles from all sides. i learned to distract them with a long stick, dragging the tip behind me through the grass. they chased it, striking and dodging and circling it at high speed. puck and i would watch from a safe distance as they took turns eating and chasing each other around the can.

after a week, one of the males was gone. only two weasels came to meet me for the daily can of food. about a week later, only the female appeared: as fearless and insistent as ever, but so small i only knew she was coming by the swift-moving line of parting grass headed in my direction from the barn. not long after that, i emerged with the can and only puck showed up. together, we searched the ground near the barn, but the weasels were gone.

many years later, my best friend confessed that she was afraid puck had eaten the weasels. tearfully, she told me she thought it might be her fault they had disappeared. it’s possible that this is what happened, but it’s also possible that one or more of them survived. it’s also possible that it was wrong to take them in, to try to change the outcome of their story. it is possible that they died in the jaws of a larger animal or a bird of prey, or when the winter came.

it is also possible that they could have been left to die on the cold floor of that tunnel, before they had ever opened their eyes, their bodies left to decay to bones, over which invisible particles would fly near the speed of light, being accelerated in order to answer other questions: not more important questions, just other questions.

Mustela nivalis and penny

how it came to this

how it came to this

how it came to this

how it came to this

At this moment, Lucky thinks about lowering his head and rushing the cops. In his mind, he sees it play out: their repeated warnings to stop, his perceptions slowing and lengthening in the surge of crisis, the thump and sting of bullets followed by the beloved quiet and the relief of weightlessness. In his favorite dream, Lucky floats, drifting past farmhouses, hovering outside their warmly-lit windows, looking in at the comfort of full bookshelves and thick rugs and old quilts and scarred kitchen tables.

Before this:

Lucky stands at the highway exit, scanning for oncoming cars. Nearby, stashed in the weed-strewn bushes of the median, lies his backpack stuffed with cash. In the distance, he sees the glint of an approaching vehicle and begins to pace back and forth frantically, hoping to attract the driver’s attention, hoping for the kindness of a stranger who might recognize his distress and give him a ride. When the car begins to slow and pull to the shoulder he sees the red light bar on its roof, and recognizes the insidious shape of a New York State trooper’s blue sedan.

He sets the backpack on the counter in front of the teller’s window and shoves it toward the woman that faces him. On top of the backpack is a note. The note says, I have a gun. Put all the money in the backpack. Do not activate the alarm. Her dark brown eyes lock with Lucky’s for a moment, and then she opens the drawer and calmly fills the backpack with bundles of cash. When her drawer is empty, she hesitates and briefly looks over her shoulder. Lucky snatches the backpack and takes off running out the front door of the casino.

Lucky is up in the blackjack game. He’s nearly doubled the $2000.00 he started with. It looks as if he’s broken the bad streak. A bad streak of days and years. He will pay his brother back, he will look him in the eye and say I’m sorry, but here’s the beginning of what I owe you.  He will have a leg to stand on again. One more hand and I’m out. His top card is an ace. He hits and draws a nine. The dealer’s top card is a seven. Lucky goes all in.

In the middle of a thunderstorm and sixty miles southwest of the poker table, a cab pulls up, its wipers working furiously.  Lucky slides into the back seat, peeling off his backpack and placing it on the floor by his feet.” I’ll pay you a hundred bucks to run me up to the casino.”

The trailer stinks of tobacco smoke. Around the living room, Lucky picks out traces of his mother- an aquamarine pashmina draped over the easy chair, amethyst and quartz crystals lined up along the window sill. On the coffee table is a Polaroid of Lucky and his brother posing beneath a whitewashed piece of wood with Dude Jail written on it in crude block letters: they are so young they are barely tall enough to grasp the fake bars. Lucky moves down the carpeted hall into the back bedroom, which had been his mother’s. The bed is stripped bare, the closet empty, but the room still smells faintly of the blood orange perfume she wore to kill the smell of his brother’s cigarettes. He tried to hide his own habit from her.  Lucky closes his eyes. He and his mother had always had a connection. Sometimes she would call him and tell him what he was thinking, or tell him that she had seen a sign- a dead hawk or deer in the road that meant he should be careful driving. Mostly, he just felt her presence, no matter how far apart they were, watching, knowing. There was a time when he wanted nothing more than to shake that feeling, when it felt like he would never get away from her. Never be alone with his thoughts.  He waits.  He hears the leaves outside the trailer stir, and a low rumble that must be thunder.  Somewhere nearby, a chickadee gives its two-syllable, sinking call. The sounds slide past him like thin, flat sheets of paper. Lucky turns and heads back into the living room. It only takes him five minutes to find his brother’s hiding place. His brother doesn’t trust banks.

Lucky watches his brother move slowly down the steps of his trailer and ease himself into a cab headed for town, on his way to yet another doctor’s appointment. Lucky watches the cab navigate the curve at the end of the road, pass the mailboxes, and disappear south. He smokes a cigarette, and then another. A cicada calls from somewhere overhead in a towering cottonwood tree, and another answers from further into the woods. The air presses down around him, humid and tinged with ozone. Through a break in the trees he sees a portion of the sky darkening from purple to black. A thousand summer afternoons of his childhood flood back over him. He never expected to return to this place. One or two fat raindrops splash the steps around his feet.  He lights another cigarette and steps inside.

His brother purchases the ticket and tells him where to claim it. Lucky boards a bus.  Beyond the window he watches tall palms stutter past blue and white beaches like the bars of a luxurious prison. He watches the traffic give way to open highway and twilight and darkness. He is going home.

Lucky texts his brother that he has been kicked out of his apartment, that he is living on the streets, sleeping on the beach or climbing the fences of resorts and sleeping on chaise-lounges beside swimming pools. He texts his brother every few minutes. He can’t remember if he’s already texted.  He does not know when his phone will die. He texts that he is clean. He texts that he has a job. He texts that he lost his job. He texts that the cops are staking out his apartment and he’s scared and paranoid. He promises that he is telling the truth, will tell the truth, wants to tell the truth.

A $23,000.00 check arrives for Lucky in the mail. A week later, all the money is gone. Lucky texts his brother that he owed all the money to the IRS and they came to his door to collect and he’d had no choice but to give it to them, so can he please wire $70 to pay rent. With a hundred, he can get some food.

Before the heat of the season, before the green and the yellow of the first flowers have pushed up through the old snow, when the trees and the air are still grey and frozen and empty, just a few months back when it still hurts to breathe the air, Lucky’s mother dies.

Lucky texts his mother that he needs $70. Just to pay the rent. A hundred and he could even get some food. Lucky’s mother drives on bald tires to the grocery store, where she agrees to pay the $25 fee to wire him $100. The woman at the counter swipes her card and hands it back, “I’m sorry ma’am but there’s insufficient funds.”

Lucky’s mother sits in the parking lot of the grocery store, enjoying the feel of the heater running. She is watching the crows. They have arrived in flocks of hundreds this winter, settling in the frost-thin branches like glossy black leaves. She has never thought badly of crows like other people do. She thinks they are beautiful and insouciant and self-aware. Like her, they enjoy parking lots. Soon, they depart in a feathery cloud that seems to erupt out of nowhere. She would like to follow them in her car, to see where they go.

Long before any of this, Lucky’s mother wakes in the middle of the night from a dream. She sits up, looking out her bedroom window. A blonde, blue-eyed, baby, seated in a Lotus position, is floating outside. The window is on the second story. She asks the baby what it wants. It says, I’m your baby, let me in.

otter and wolf

otter and wolf

otter and wolf

 

otter and wolf

It was said that otter was not right in the head. She ran toward loud noises. She jumped from steep snowbanks that dumped out onto the highway. She shoved her nose into piles of scat, into cooling campfire embers, into snake holes. She took deep breaths and held them as long as she could, exploring the dim and tangled root-tunnels below the lake’s surface, never knowing if she had enough air to make it back. She acted without fear or worry, because she mostly got what she went after: if it was large and dangerous, she was fierce enough to startle it, and fast enough to get away. Otherwise, she proceeded to roll around in it, eat it, hide it, tear it to shreds, or grow bored with it and move on. All her life, otter had been able to catch anything she tried to catch, with one glaring exception.

It nearly always appeared at dusk, usually in the middle of the lake, but not always at the same time. she had tried swimming out to it, but it kept pace with her, drawing away as she neared until she couldn’t see it anymore, but when she turned to head back to shore, there it was, floating on the water in the direction she’d come from. It also sometimes appeared in puddles, or in the slow parts of the stream that fed the river, but when she pounced, it scattered apart into tiny, distorted pieces, bright and restless. It seemed to be breathing. She wanted to press her snout against it. She wanted to feel what it felt like between her teeth. Instead, she would crawl into her den and hold it in her mind until she slid away into the frictionless dark.

Wolf had been watching otter for many months. He had a reputation as a cynic and a loner. He sat outside the mouth of otter’s burrow and listened to the pattern of her breathing. Even in sleep, her heart rattled insistently. He had watched her chasing the thing in the water. He had never noticed it there. He had never thought to look down like that, to notice what was in front of him.  He was always looking out at the horizon. He was always thinking ahead. He was always worried about what might happen, and always regretting what had already passed. This made him slow to decide. This made him cautious. This is what wolf was thinking about as he sat outside otter’s burrow and carefully licked his paws. Then he looked up and saw it appearing over the ridge, and he howled. Wolf howled not at it but because of it, because it rose a giant and grew brighter as it shrank. Because it grew thin and disappeared, and then it returned, swelling- a new light or the same light- he never knew. But always far away, always out of reach, no matter how he called to it, no matter how far into the distance he looked.

Otter emerged from the burrow, awakened by the howling. She strained to see what wolf was staring at, but she was near-sighted. All she could see was his fur and the nearby grass waving slightly in the breeze. But the sound he made was so horrible and wretched she had to do something, so she bit him, and ran.

Wolf caught up with otter at the edge of the lake, just as her tail and back feet disappeared into the water. After a few moments, she surfaced a few yards from shore, looking back at him, her whiskers limned with bright droplets. The water’s surface stilled, and in it, wolf saw the pale orb appear, huge, glowing, and close enough to touch, with otter floating in its center. Otter, squinting, saw that wolf had caught the bright thing, not once, but twice, with his eyes.