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.

chasing the river

chasing the river

chasing the river

chasing the river

they told lucky he was special, and he was. he could leap higher and run farther than other dogs. he learned to fetch. he carried in the newspaper. he sat up and rolled over and played dead when someone pointed their finger at him and said Bang! he could open doors and turn on lights, and he could play cards.

at first it was only war, and he only won by cheating, but everyone forgave him because he was young and cute, and war was a game mostly of persistence and chance, and lucky was nothing if not persistent.

he stayed up late when the uncles came over and learned to play rummy and blackjack. he learned to play whist and bridge and hearts from grandma and an auntie who chain-smoked Pall Malls. he learned egyptian rat screw and slap and go fish and crazy eights. he learned to play bullshit and he was so good at it no one would play it with him anymore.

in fact he became so good at cards and was so intense and annoying an opponent, always bluffing and yet somehow always perfectly in earnest, and not above clearing the room with devastating farts he blamed on the cat if he felt his luck had turned. soon, he found that all the decks of cards in the house had gone missing.

everything leaves its river of scent, and the cards had their particular perfume of the oil and sweat of many fingertips, the cheesy odor of bad snacks and beer and poor sportsmanship. he followed this river to find them stashed in a cupboard near the takeout menus and snuck off to his doghouse with them to play solitaire and concentration.

it was not long after this that a series of tragedies befell lucky s family. grandpa died and the uncles left for their beach trailer in mexico. the older sister shaved off all her hair, got in a pickup truck, and drove west, saying she might be able to remain on the edge of nightfall forever if she could just drive fast enough. father, who had left a long time before, continued his haunting by omission- only now his ghost seemed to take up more space since everyone had cleared out. mother’s light, always the moon and the sun around which everyone orbited, had been eclipsed by the exhaustion of loss, and working three jobs, and there was still never enough money.

this was not the way things were supposed to work out, and none of it made sense to lucky, who could no longer create laughter and good feelings by fetching and opening doors and turning on lights and chasing the miniscule red-eyed fruit flies that ambled directionlessly around the kitchen. left alone while mother was on the night shift, he went on long walks, wandering parts of town he hadn’t known existed, chasing the scent of cards.

it was easy, really- he found the games of hold ‘em on stoops and in kitchens and in bars. he won a hand, and then another. at first, the delight at seeing a dog play at all, and then play so well, made the players generous about losing. but as lucky won again and again, things got serious. again and again his cards surfaced on the river, and they called him a fish and a donkey. he think-bluffed, and sandbagged and hollywooded, and won the pot until there was nothing left, but when he tried to gather up his winnings they laughed and threw him out and said it didn’t count because he was a dog. but lucky was nothing if not persistent.

on the long walk home, he saw the future becoming golden. he would come home with stacks of money clenched in his jaws and lay them on mother’s pillow. there would be no more cheap toilet paper. there would be artisan toast with irish butter for mother, and there would be cat food for him- as much as he wanted. he would tell father’s ghost to become accustomed to the sensation of the temporary, as the light of the house would soon be restored, and she would call in all the wanderers, and fill the house again so that there would be no room anymore for what-ifs or could-have-beens.

one day at the end of the summer, a man knocked at the front door. lucky knew why the man was there, but made a show of barking, scattering the pile of unopened mail on the floor in front of the mail slot. mother was upstairs in bed- but he knew she wouldn’t come down. her light had burned very low, but all that was about to change. the man at the door carried the scent of the river. lucky opened the door. the man hung a golden horseshoe charm on his collar. we’ve heard about you, the man said. he invited him to play in a tournament. he would have backers. it would be televised. he would have a chance to make a name for himself. I already have a name, lucky thought, but it didn’t matter.

under the hot lights at the tournament, he saw that he was not alone. there were other dogs at the table, in fact, they were all dogs. he could feel mother’s eyes on him through the camera. knowing she was watching, he gave it all he had.

when he began to lose, he lost absolutely. he lost like he ate. he lost like he breathed, he lost like he won. he lost like a dog. he threw himself again and again into the river, but came up again and again with the bottom end. he busted until he was buried, while all around him the other dogs flopped and cardracked and checked the dark. none of this mattered to the backers, who had bet canines, which was a winning hand no matter what.

still, lucky pursued the scent of empty potential, which never grew cold: he chased after the red and the black, the high and the low- the pull of the river that was everywhere and nowhere. if he could speak, he would explain that the river is like the light. you can bask in it, and you can drown in it, but you cannot hold onto it.

but lucky was nothing if not persistent.

the very very important shoe

the very very important shoe

the very very important shoe

 

the very very important shoe

she tried to give me the shoe several times.

i thought it was because i had lent her some money and she felt bad about it. she said the shoe had been appraised for something like $5,000.00.  she said that if she died she wanted me to keep the shoe. don’t let anyone take it from you, she said.

the problem was, i loved her. the problem was, i did not love the shoe. i did not want to talk about the shoe, because i did not want to talk about her dying.

i also knew the shoe’s history. to whom it had been given, and who had done the giving. there were things about the shoe that only she and i knew. there was a time when i wanted everyone to know that history. times she and i had fought over the telling and the not telling. she was older than me. she knew that sometimes it is better to hold an ugly thing tight and close, and in this way, defeat it.

when she died, it took me a whole day to drive down out of the mountains to reach her home. when i arrived, my brother had the shoe on a chain around his neck. the first thing he did was remove it from his neck and hang it around mine. she wanted you to have this, he said.

it takes a lot of paperwork and phone calls and trash bags and coffee when someone dies: even when they are a rugged individualist and often say fuck the government, and really want to leave the planet in as simple a way as possible. still, that’s not what happens.

my brother and i drove around together for a couple of weeks, picking up and dropping off pieces of paper. once it was mostly settled, i figured it was time to head home, back up into the woods.

when i got there, my answering machine was blinking. one of the messages was from the original owner of the shoe. i hadn’t spoken to her in about 20 years. all she said was, where’s the shoe? then she said her phone number and hung up.

i pulled the shoe out of my shirt, where it still hung on the chain, next to the metal tag from my mother’s box of ashes. following her final orders, we had thrown her in the lake. i wanted to throw the shoe in the lake too, but it didn’t seem fair. she had left it for me to decide what would become its history.

i thought about giving the shoe to my brother to sell for the money, but then I’d have to tell him why. i’m not good at lying. i’m not good at keeping secrets.  i thought about the destructive nature of certain truths. i found that i had fought for the truth as if it were a thing that could do no harm.

i pulled off my boot and my sock. i slid the shoe off its chain and onto my foot. it was far too small, though i jammed my toes in as far as they would go. even with the buckle undone, the strap did not reach anywhere near my ankle.  it was a kitten heel with fake sapphires and rubies and topaz and amethysts and emeralds glued all over its gold lamé surface. it was a godawful shoe, but you can’t choose the vessel of a story any more than you can choose what happens to you, or to the people you love, who die and leave you holding the shoe.

just then, i knew exactly what to do. i opened the back door and flung the shoe as hard as i could. i was aiming for the creek at the bottom of a small ravine that runs behind my house. let the water and rocks wear it down until it’s beautiful. let it disintegrate. let it be forgotten, i thought.

unfortunately, i threw it too hard. it flew over the ravine and bounced up the slope on the other side, landing squarely heel-down and toe-forward on a tree stump where it was framed by my kitchen window. its fake jewels glittered in the sun.

the whole situation reminded me of other shoes i’d read about. cement shoes that dragged down the people that wore them. shoes that made people dance until they went mad. shoes that wouldn’t allow themselves to be removed. shoes that transported the wearer home, or away from home, depending. shoes that led people to lost love. shoes that tripped the wearer just as they were about to outrun the monster.

that night, it rained. i kept looking out the window to see if the shoe was still there, hoping it would be washed away, but in the illuminations of the lightning, it would appear, glimmering. i was going to have to go out in the morning and get it and bring it back. i should have known it would not be so easy, that a simple, decisive act could not release me. the next time the original owner of the shoe called, i would have to lie. i’d have to keep the monster with me, in order to keep everyone else safe.

i woke to the sound of the phone ringing.  it was the original owner of the shoe. did you find it? i’m sure it was somewhere amongst her things, my grandmother asked. i looked out the window. the shoe was no longer on the stump. i stood to get a better look. the ground around the stump was empty… just some animal tracks in the mud.

Well? she said.

I told her the truth.

I have no idea where that shoe is, I said.