Amor Paco

Amor Paco

amor-paco-finished

Amor Paco

Paco spots the squat, rolling shadow crossing the deck and takes cover behind a coiled rope, watching as the captain disappears through the cabin door and slams his way down the companionway into his quarters.

It is a balmy day, sky clear, sea ruffled with a mild, steady breeze, but Paco shivers. The captain moves through the world, and around the ship, speaking with his fists. The moment he wakes in the morning he is angry, and as the day goes along his mood darkens until he begins to drink. The drinking turns his anger to sadness, and makes him want to talk. But he trusts no member of his crew, so he roars for Paco, who has little choice but to answer, hopping below to perch on the chair back at the captain’s table and listen to his sore thoughts.  It has been this way since Paco was brought aboard, and life before that is now a place too distant to travel.

But it is early in the day yet, and hopefully, it will be hours before that forced confinement. Paco pokes one eye from behind the rope and rolls it skyward until it finds Abhi, sitting high above the deck on a yardarm. Paco launches into the air, soaring clear of the lines and sails, circling upward on a draft, landing neatly beside Abhi where he clings, hugging the mast and looking out to sea. Paco, says Abhi, reaching over to scratch at the spot where wing joins body. Together they watch the horizon tip gently, adjusting their bodies unconsciously with the wind and the yaw of the ship. P… A… C… O.  You know what Paco means? says Abhi. Paco blinks slowly, pressing against the boy’s side, hoping for more of his absentminded scratching. Free, Abhi answers. It means free. He gives Paco a scratch behind the other wing. I bet the captain did not know this when he named you… or that you lay eggs! Abhi falls silent for a time, thinking. Paco presses closer to the boy, watching his eyes, where thoughts move like shadowy birds in a night sky.

Did you see the box they brought aboard at Cádiz?, Abhi asks. The cook says the captain won it in a card game our last night in port. I heard someone tried to come aboard in the night to take it back. There was shouting and a splash when they threw him overboard. Abhi shakes his head, leaning over to scan the deck below. The cook says the box contains a bad thing, a bad spirit. He whistles low, blowing out a long breath. Paco, Abhi says, you and I both know there are no bad spirits, no bad boxes- only bad people.

Abhi, Paco croaks. It is the only human word she has learned to say.

***

That night, Paco perches in her customary place on a chair back at the table in the captain’s quarters, but they are not alone: both mates and the bosun are also in attendance, each looking uncomfortable, each holding a cup of wine. The captain is drunk. On the table between them is a small box carved from a coffee-colored wood. There are four ornate letters worked into the lid, and an iron hasp that secures it. The captain keeps pulling it toward him in the midst of conversation, opening the lid just enough to glance inside, then closing it again, as if to check that whatever it contains is still there. Then he pours more wine, goes on talking, stroking the box gently with his fingertips. Paco watches the captain grow more drunk, his men more nervous, until finally, swearing, he sends them all away, slamming the door after the bosun as he scrambles up to the safety of the night.

The captain lurches to his feet, clutching the table’s edge to steady himself, his legs planted wide. He drags the box toward him, this time flipping the lid completely open and staring inside. Paco tilts her head, looking into the box first with one eye, then the other. There is nothing inside. She looks to the captain’s face, which is twisted in an expression Paco has never seen: pain, mixed with something soft… sadness, or hope? The box is reflected in the captain’s eyes, and in that reflection Paco can see that there is something inside the box. It is golden and glittering: a chain with a locket at the end. The captain shifts his gaze to Paco, glaring at her. He slams the box shut. What are you looking at, bird? Eh?

Paco grips the chair back tighter, prepares to hop to the far side of the table. It is not the first time Paco has danced with the drunk fists. But the captain is already forgetting this thought, now casting his eyes around the room, the box gripped in his hand. Can’t put it in the chest, he mumbles, the first place they’d look. His eyes come to rest on the liquor cabinet. He has made clear the punishment if anyone is caught stealing from it. On hands and knees, he stretches his arm into the darkness behind the bottles, tucking the box there, and passes out on the floor.

It is not until the small, cold hours of the night when door latch slowly lifts and the cook enters the room. He looks first toward the captain’s empty bed, then down to the floor where he lays beside the open cabinet. Paco, a shadow amid shadows, watches as the cook stoops down, snaking his arm into the back of the liquor cabinet, and pulls out the box. In the candlelight, Paco sees the double reflection in the cook’s eyes as he looks inside and scoops out a large, blood-colored jewel. The box is returned to its place. The cook creeps back to the door, exits without a sound.

***

The groaning begins near dawn. It’s not the captain, who still sleeps as if dead. It’s the ship. Her ribs creak. She rolls and wallows. The wind cries and then screams through the rigging. The first mate throws open the door, accompanied by a spray of rain. He crosses to the captain, shaking him, shouting in his ear, but he doesn’t wake. Paco escapes, hopping quickly up the stairs and into the storm, immediately blown back indoors by the force of the wind. She leaps to the galley window, watching the men scramble across the lurching deck, straining to find Abhi among them. The ship moans and wallows, her bow swinging to port and then starboard wildly.

Mother of God. The cook appears beside Paco, staring out the window. They hold on, watching as Abhi, thrusting himself from handhold to handhold, makes his way to the cabin door and swings himself into the galley.

Paco, Abhi says. Stay in. The wind will take you.

The cook grabs Abhi by the shoulder and shakes him. Forget the damned crow, he don’t understand you. Boy! What is happening? Why are we adrift?

The wheel’s gone. We can’t steer.

Gone? What do you mean… broken off? Did something strike us?

All three of them lurch as the ship swings hard to port. Paco flaps her wings to find balance, gripping with her feet. Abhi shakes his head, No, not broken… gone. The wheel is just… not there.

The cook swears, pushing Abhi out the door ahead of him. Paco watches them make their way through the wind toward the helm. The ship dips hard to starboard, and from overhead in the little berth where the cook slept, something drops and rolls, then ricochets off the galley wall and lands with a loud clang in a cast-iron cook pot. Paco hops to the rim of the pot and peers in: it’s the red gem. She seizes it in her beak. It is heavy, smooth and oval, like an egg. A great roar erupts from below decks followed by the bang of the captain’s quarters door. The first mate shoots up the companionway, the captain close behind, shouting, swine! Thief! They tumble out into the wind.

From the top of the companionway, Paco spots the box through the open door into the captain’s room. On its side on the floor, open and empty, it looks like a nest. Paco hops down the companionway toward it. Halfway down, the ship swings again and the door begins to close. Paco flies, the door clapping her hard into the room as it swings shut. By luck, she crashes onto the captain’s bed, still gripping the egg-like jewel. With two short hops, she reaches the box, drops the gem inside and flicks the lid closed with her beak. As if the storm were controlled by a switch, the wind stops. The ship ceases its sickening roll, and straightens as the rudder finds its bite and the ship resumes her steady course.

 

***

I’m telling you, Abhi says, rubbing his nose with his thumb, a storm can appear and disappear without reason, but a wheel cannot.

Paco clicks her beak and blinks her eyes. Her opinions of what is and is not reasonable are difficult to communicate. She had been perched on the chair back when the captain returned, steering the first mate by his hair, the cook following, trying to calm him. I’ll teach you to steal from me, the captain said, his grip on the mate’s hair pulling the skin on his forehead tight. The captain scooped the box from the floor, slamming it on the table. He forced the mate’s face close to it and flung the lid open. Paco was surprised to see it empty: where was the egg? She looked to the men’s faces. The cook stared; in the bottom of the box lay the red, egg-shaped jewel he knew he had taken: guilt, confusion, then fear flashed across his features. In the mate’s eyes, something else lay in the bottom of the box: a folded letter sealed with wax and the stamp of the queen. The captain’s face shifted from mean fury to a kind of despair: in his eyes, the object he thought stolen rested safely, its chain coiled in a neat spiral around an opened locket. On one side, the image of a woman, on the other, the image of a child. He let go of the mate and sat down hard in a chair. Get back to your duties, he had said quietly, turning to include Paco. Out!

Now, sitting in a patch of sun, peeling potatoes, Abhi and Paco keep a surreptitious watch on the wheel. The wind carries the conversation of the mates to them. I saw it myself: a letter in that box with the queen’s seal intact. The admiral must have received my report that he is not fit to command and he has received orders to relinquish, but he hasn’t opened them. The second mate, nodding, continues to inspect the helm, the wheel, all of its parts. Do you think he made up the story about the box, winning it in the card game, to put us all off? Does it have anything to do with someone taking the wheel and putting it back? The first mate takes his pipe out of his mouth and begins to pack it with tobacco. We’ll know when I get ahold of that letter.

A shadow falls across Abhi, making Paco jump. Always hanging out with that crow. The cook stands over them. His face, normally kind and a little mischievous, is haggard. How are the spuds coming? He follows their gazes to the men at the helm, then his eyes stray back toward the cabin. Abhi, I want you to stay clear of him as much as you can, he says. He’s ugly since we left Cadiz… since he brought that thing on board. There’s something in it, something not right about it.

How do you know? Abhi says, dropping a peeled potato into his bucket and picking up another. The cook scratches under his wool hat, frowning. Never mind that, he says. Hurry up with those potatoes.

Abhi starts on another potato with his small knife. She is not a crow, Abhi says, almost as if he is speaking to himself. She is kṛpate. Or Rāvēna. What? the cook says, his eyes on the mates, his thoughts elsewhere. Abhi looks startled, then worried. Nothing, he says, only… the bird, she is a raven. I remember these birds, where I came from. The cook has heard now, looks down at the boy. You remember where you came from? Abhi stares at his hands, the knife circling, the brown skin of the potato curling away into a long, dirty ribbon. Only a little, Abhi says, only sometimes.

Best not to look back, the cook says, tugging his hat lower and turning toward the galley.

***

Paco has never seen the captain in the mood he is in. He is not drinking or sleeping. He is not writing in the ship’s diary. He is not amongst the men, checking that everyone is doing their jobs. He is just sitting at the table, staring into the box, his hands holding the two sides of the locket. He is talking to the pictures there, or to Paco, or both. Paco isn’t sure.

Tell me how to make sense of it, he says. I lost you and now you’ve found your way back, but to what end?

Paco shifts on her perch, which catches the captain’s eye. Paco, he says. He lifts the necklace out of the box, holds it up carefully, as if he might break or bruise it. Do you see them? he asks. This is my wife, my son. He is about to say more when there is a knock at the door and Abhi enters carrying the captain’s supper.

Boy, the captain says. Set the plate down there and come here. Abhi tenses, his eyes wary, but he obeys. In a gentler voice, the captain asks, are you happy here?  Abhi looks at the floor, watching Paco from the side of his eye. What is he to say? Is this question a trick? What has he done to make the man angry? He gives the only safe answer: Yes sir.  There is a long silence as the captain stares into the boy’s face, waiting. Abhi, he says finally, do you remember anything of where you come from? Do you remember how you came aboard?

The captain has never called Abhi by name. It was always boy or you there! He did not know the captain even knew his name. In the years Abhi had been aboard the ship, no one ever asked him what he remembers, if he remembers… now he has been asked twice in a span of days… first by the cook and now the captain. How can he explain the voices, the images that rise in his mind when he sits high on the mast staring at the sea? How when he holds a cup, or a rope, or a stewpot, other words for these objects slide onto his tongue? How once he spelled out the letters carved onto one of the crew’s sea chest, and the man cuffed him across the face and told him never again to pretend he knew how to read. Abhi has learned to be quiet about what he knows, except to Paco.

I don’t remember… Abhi says, feeling he must say something, … anything before… before you brought me aboard. Only the ship.

Sometimes it is better not to remember a time before. The captain is not looking at Abhi now, but down at his hands. But you should know, it was not me that brought you aboard. Abhi looks up, all this time he had wondered, had guessed. Who had he been stolen from? Were his parents still waiting somewhere, wondering where he had gone, or believing he was dead?

Five years ago, in Bombay, there was an accident in the street. Your father, a schoolteacher, was killed. A member of my crew held himself responsible. Apparently, your mother was dead: you had no one else.

Abhi’s heart races. He has seen many ports, the slums and the hungry children on every dock looking for what they can earn or steal. The crew treat them like rats. Why had he been different? You took me in?

The captain looks up. No, he says. I did not know you were aboard until we were well out to sea. I don’t know how he thought he could keep you hidden. He knew the punishment for aiding a stowaway.

Who? Abhi asks.

The cook, the captain answers. He holds the boy’s gaze briefly, then turns back to the box on the table, reaching inside it.

Years before you, he says, I had a family. He holds the locket out toward Abhi, pointing at the tiny image on the left, my wife, then the right, my son. He was about your age. Abhi stares at the captain’s hands.

There you are! The cook has appeared in the doorway. The captain tucks the hand holding the locket behind his back. The cook looks harassed and sweaty. Get back to the galley. The pots won’t wash themselves. As Abhi turns to obey, Paco launches from the chair, landing on his shoulder. As they climb the companionway together, she looks back at the captain, still sitting at the table, watching them go.

***

I’m telling you, there was nothing there, Abhi says. He is scrubbing a large pot, his black hair plastered to his forehead from the steam. The cook leans against the stove, scratching beneath his wool cap.

But what did he say was in it? He told you about his wife and son… and he pointed at his hand while he said it?

Paco paces back and forth on the counter rail, her wings folded, clicking her beak. Abhi has said nothing about the rest of the story, about the accident, about being smuggled aboard. He had believed it all, until the moment the captain held up nothing in his hands and acted as if he held a treasure.

It was like he had something in his hand, Abhi says. Like he was holding something and pointing to pictures. He motions, pointing to one side of his palm, then the other. My wife, my son.

The cook stops scratching his head. His eyes widen and his mouth opens, then shuts. It can’t be.

What, what is it? Abhi says. Paco stops pacing, leans forward, blinking.

His wife and son… they took ill while we were at sea and died. He had a locket made. There was a picture in each side of it. But… The cook reaches up into the nook where he keeps his pipe and tobacco pouch and begins to pack it. A wet rag flies across the galley, smacking the cook in the side of the head and knocking his pipe away.

But what, Abhi says.

The cook looks angry, then scared. Lost, he says. That locket was lost years ago. The clasp broke and fell from his neck into the sea.

Abhi frowns. So he is losing his reason.

Or the locket has returned, the cook says. He puffs on his pipe as if the tobacco will help him make sense of what is happening. The box. That’s what he sees in the box.

There was nothing there, Abhi says. There is nothing in the box. Why do you believe there is something in that box?

The cook looks up, he doesn’t have to answer. He is not good at hiding things.

What did you see? Abhi asks.

The cook’s face and ears have gone a deep red, the red of a jewel that could have bought him a home, could have bought both he and the boy a future that did not include this dirty, stinking ship. But he does not say any of this. He is not a man who dreams aloud.

I hid it in my berth, the cook said. Then the wheel disappeared… and when I came back, the damn thing was back in the box. And the wheel… the wheel was returned.

Paco, unable to contain herself anymore, goes flapping and croaking around the room, then out the door and into the night sky. She flies for a long time, the wind riffling her feathers, sailing in and out of the rigging, wishing she did not have to understand the things she could not understand.

***

Paco and Abhi are in their favorite place, high up on a yardarm of the main mast. The ship has entered the zone of the equator where the breezes are fickle and the nights are so warm they sometimes sleep above decks in a hammock, though this means they are sometimes soaked by thunderstorms and driven in by squalls. But to fall asleep at night rocked by the movement of the ship, Abhi tracing with his finger a path from star to star, Paco nestled into the hollow beneath his arm, is worth the risk. Abhi has talked little about the story of the cook, the accident, his father’s death, but Paco sometimes wakes to see the shine of the boy’s eyes against the stars late at night, when he is awake alone, thinking.

It’s been two weeks since the night the captain showed Abhi the locket, and since then has moved about the ship as a different man. At first, the men had not known what to make of his, if not exactly sunny, steady and thoughtful demeanor. He looks them in the eye, listening to their reports. He moves about the ship offering terse praise for a job well done. He rousted the cook from his slovenly habits and ordered a full scrub-down of the galley as well as improvements in the men’s meals. After a week of this, the men had begun to believe it, shifting from an attitude of wary doubt to relief, and from that to a new morale. Feeling they can please the captain, they set out to do it. At night, he sits at table with them, listening to their stories. The ship feels, perhaps for the first time, like a brotherhood.

The cook has had much to say about it over his stewpot; he has not touched a drop to drink. I’ve been with him on one vessel or another for twenty years. I’ve never seen him like this- even before he lost his family, he was never a man to appreciate his crew. But then his face clouds over. Still, if it’s that box… it can only lead to trouble. To Abhi and Paco, the captain’s behavior is perhaps the most markedly changed. Used to being ignored unless wanted or not wanted, they are still surprised when he speaks to them now with a stern kindness. He asks to see what knots Abhi knows and set to teach him more, and how to use them. He feeds Paco biscuits and tries to get her to say her name.

There is one person on the ship who is not happy with this change. Paco and Abhi, from their windy vantage, watch the first mate leaning in an alcove where he keeps an eye on the activity on deck. Shoulders tense, he puffs like a dragon on his pipe. His hard eyes watch, watch. The more the captain has become involved with the men, the more the mate has grown quiet and detached, though never far off. He is waiting for something.

As if conjured, the captain appears at the cabin door. He strolls toward the foredeck. The first mate, watching from his alcove, waits until the line of sight between himself and the captain is broken. He checks that no one else is about, then crosses the deck and disappears into the cabin. Two, no more than three minutes pass, and he appears again, checking that no one has seen him. His hand is pressed to his breast pocket. He removes his cap and twists it in his hands, then makes his way aft where he finds the second mate. Their heads lean together as they talk. Paco cranes to listen, but they are too far up. The wind carries away all sounds but its own voice. Paco, Abhi says. He is looking to the horizon, one hand shading his eyes. Out where the blue line of the sea meets the lighter blue line of the sky, something glints.

As they watch, the glinting grows brighter, a thickening line of brightness creeping toward the ship, at first from the southwest, but then appearing on all sides, in all directions. It’s something on the water, Abhi says. Paco, without hesitation, dives into the air, riding a current clear of the ship. She chooses the direction of the ship’s progress, toward the lowering sun where the glinting is brightest. It doesn’t take her long to reach the edge. In tightening circles, she cruises lower and lower, finally thrusting her legs downward, wings tucked, and lands on the cold, whitish-blue surface. With her beak, she hammers a piece loose, picks it up, and carries it back to the ship.

Abhi is standing on the yardarm now. Hallooo! he calls to the men below, sweeping his arm in a circle describing the object on the sea that is closing around them. Paco lands. Abhi takes the object from her beak. Ice, Abhi says.

On deck, Abhi thrusts the melting piece of ice into the captain’s hand. Paco flew. She brought it back.

Pack ice, but how, at this latitude? The captain says. They break the sails, slowing the ship as much as they can, so as not to damage the hull against the approaching edge. By nightfall, they are stuck fast. The moon rises. The warm, equatorial air flows across the ship, stirring the hairs on the men’s arms and necks, while in every direction a frozen landscape reflects the light in weird ways. The men are silent. They all know what this means. They can do nothing until the ice releases them. They have all heard the stories of men caught in the ice for weeks, months, until their stores of food and water run out, and starving, some set out for land they will never find. Others, found months or years later, skeletons manning a ghost ship.

It can’t last, the captain said. It is too warm here. We’ve been thrown a freak, but it will blow over. The men want to take comfort from his words- strange things happen at sea- but this was the strangest any of them have seen. Fear settles onto their necks. So much of sailing is by feel, and this ice, coming from nowhere, from all directions as if sent to meet them, feels like more than an act of nature.

No, a voice says. It is not a freak. It is not even incompetence. The first mate steps forward. From his pocket, he draws a letter with a broken wax seal. He holds it up over his head for all the men to see. It flutters like a dying moth in the lantern light. Captain Pender, the mate says clearly, loudly. You have been remiss in your duties to this vessel. For months, you have spent your time drunk and abusing your men. You have let the running of the ship fall to those who kept her asail while you lay passed out in your cups. For two weeks, you have run this ship as a sober man, as an able man. But it is too late. It does not make up for years of neglect of duty. And this, he points to the horizon of ice off the port side of the ship, this shows that even as a sober man you cannot perform your duties as a captain.

No one spoke. All around them, the ice creaked and groaned and squealed, the sounds of mass forced against mass with no place to go.

I have a letter here, the first mate says, relieving Captain Pender of duty. It was delivered to him in Cadiz. He has kept it secret from us. I think, the mate says, his eyes cold, he knew he could not return to face such shame, he meant to sail us together, to our deaths. He meant to end his life and take us with him.

Paco, like a piece of the black sky, her eyes glinting stars, sails down and removes the letter from the mate’s hand. With two great flaps of her wings, she is through the cabin door and down the companionway, where she smashes into the closed door to the cabin’s quarters. Dazed, she rolls to her feet, eying the latch above her head. She could leap and turn it, but she would not be strong enough to pull it open. Feet thunder behind her. The cook grabs the rails on either side of the companionway, taking the stairs down three at a time. Move, he says, turning the handle and opening the door. Now go!

Together, they search the room for the box. Voices reach them from above decks: shouting, thumping. The cook finds the box stashed behind a chart at the corner of the captain’s desk. He sets it on the table and opens the lid. Paco, her claws clicking across the wood surface, drops the letter in, and flips it shut with her beak.

What are you doing?! It’s Abhi, standing just inside the open door. They are fighting! They are going to kill him! We have to do something! The cook snatches up the box and crosses the room, pushing Abhi out of the way. What are you doing? Abhi says. The cook heads up the companionway without answering.

At the top of the stairs, the cook comes face-to-face with the first mate, who is frog marching the captain, his face bloody. The crew follows loosely behind, arguing among themselves. Stop, the mate says, seeing the box in the cook’s hands. What are you doing?  The cooks says nothing, but starts toward the starboard gunwale. The mate lets go of the captain’s arms, who crumples onto the deck. The cook, reaching the gunwale, draws back his arm to fling it outward, into the sea, but the mate has reached him, blocking the throw. They struggle. Paco, Abhi, and a few of the men reach them just as the mate overcomes the cook, wresting the box from his hands and kicking him to the deck. He stands, breathing hard, over the cook.

Look! Abhi shouts, pointing over the gunwale. The ice is gone. They are adrift on moving water. The mate opens the box, removes the letter, then flings the box high and hard, out into the dark water. He then reaches down and grabs the cook by the throat, hauling him to his feet. Traitor, the mate says. I’ll put you overboard. No! Abhi shouts, running toward the mate, grabbing hold of his sleeve, trying to make him let go. The wind gusts hard, dusting them with a spatter of rain, and the ship, drifting broadside to the wind, dips suddenly to starboard. The mate, trying to keep his balance, lets go of the cook, stumbles, and tips over the gunwale and into the sea, pulling Abhi with him.

Paco flaps as hard as she can against the wind. Two heads appear and disappear in the churning water below. She fights to get close without being driven into the water. Abhi. Abhi.

A head bobs up below, black hair plastered to the face. It is the mate, the letter still clutched in his hand. Images flash in Paco’s mind. She returned the egg: the wheel was found. She returned the letter: the ice disappeared. If she can get the letter again. Find the box. Put it back. All of this can be undone. She dives. She has it, in her beak, pulls it free, and is slapped out of the air. With his free arm, the mate catches Paco’s wing in his hand, and crushes the bones in his fist.

A wave knocks them apart. Paco, floating, watches the mate go under. The letter is still clutched in her beak. A dark, large shape lurches into view and then begins to grow smaller. The ship. Small figures wave from its deck. She rolls her eye, scanning the swells. Abhi. Abhi.

***

Paco hears waves, gentle waves breaking on shore. It has been years, how many years… since she has heard the sound. Her eyes open. A soft, wet wall rises against one side of her body, a yellow light blazes on the other. Not a wall, a beach. She is lying on the sand, the noon sun overhead. The letter is still tight in her beak. Her head, her wing, sing with pain, but she rolls onto her feet. There is something else down the beach; it is hard to make out. Her eyes blur. She limps, dragging the bad wing behind her.

It is the box. A few yards beyond it, a boy’s body stretches out on the sand. The face is turned toward her, the black hair dry, moving with the breeze. There is sand on Abhi’s face. It is hard to see clearly with this thing in her beak. The letter. The sea should have dissolved it. She should have let go of it, but she had not.

Paco drags herself to the box. She spits the letter into it. She shuts the lid, and keeps going until she reaches Abhi. She finds the spot she likes in the crook beneath Abhi’s arm, nestles there, goes to sleep.

***

Your wing is broken. Paco is lying on her back looking up into Abhi’s face, which is dusted on one side in a fine layer of sand. We can find something to splint it and see how it mends. Abhi carefully turns Paco over, and tucks her into the crook of his arm. As they walk up the beach the box comes into view. Abhi stops, leaning down to examine the lid.  A…M…O…R.  Amor, the boy says, reading the letters carved there. He flips the box lid open. Paco watches Abhi’s face, looking into his eyes. The box, reflected there, is empty. Abhi whistles low… You know what this word means? It means heart’s desire. It means love. He straightens and kicks the lid shut with his toe. Paco, you and I both know that no box can contain such a thing. Shading his eyes with one hand, Abhi tucks Paco closer, and heads up the beach, toward the trees.

Abhi, Paco croaks.

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.

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.

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