(MYSTERIES OF) GRIEF
A few hours before he declared that they should stop seeing each other, in his car on the way to Petco, the girl told him about the parakeets.
Sky was blue with white wings and a white head, and Cloud was a bit of a darker blue but also with white wings and a white head. It could be difficult to tell them apart. When Sky died, the girl buried the bird in a cardboard box and held a funeral. Some of her friends had come and they had all worn black, but they were very young and could not take the occasion very seriously. They prayed to God and sang “Lord of All Hopefulness” and had lemonade and cake in the kitchen after.
Years later, her brother shared with her that the bird had not been found dead in the cage, as her mother told her. When Sky started to lose her feathers in patches and gave up on eating, her mother researched what might be wrong. It turned out to likely be something called beak and feather disease, or beak and foot disease – the girl couldn’t remember – but supposedly the bird would have died in pain and probably would have infected Cloud.
Her mother had called the vet and been instructed to do one of two things: bring the bird in to be euthanized, which would be costly but very painless for all involved, or place the bird in a paper bag and put the bag in the freezer, which would likely also be relatively painless for the bird and would certainly be free.
Her mother chose the latter. Through the freezer door, her mother could hear the bird chirping feebly, and could hear the spaces between chirps growing wider. Her mother left the house, distraught. She went for a long walk, smoked a cigarette, listened to the robins and the crows outside.
“How awful,” the boy said, and was quiet for the rest of the drive. The darkness outside peered into the car. The cold light from the streetlamps made their faces look wet.
(MEMORIES OF) A FAVOR
Sharon was working by herself in the library on a Friday evening, small and pale under the fluorescent lights. It surprised her when a boy asked if she could watch his things while he went to pick something up from his dorm room—it was close, and he would be back soon. “Of course,” Sharon said, and continued working. She had never seen the boy before, and didn’t know his name, but they had been working near each other for a few hours and she felt a kind of camaraderie with him, amidst the busy typists.
For some time, Sharon did not preoccupy herself with his things—a laptop, backpack, travel mug and some of the expensive kind of headphones she often thought of ordering. She worked on a paper for her Medieval Literature class, and after an hour, she was mostly done with her work, but the boy had not returned. She bit her nails and drummed her foot against the floor. No one remained near, so she could not delegate her task to another student. Instead, she waited, biding her time by checking her email and reading an article about a ferry which had recently hit a whale.
She moved on to the internet. She found herself on a page explaining the recent murder of a 13-year-old girl by two college students. The boy had been a track star and had been called “the best-kept secret in Maryland” by a former coach. The article quoted the girl’s LinkedIn page, presumably because there was no other information they could quickly gather on her. There, she wrote, “No matter what the end-goal is, I will work till I reach that goal.”
The girl had been charged with “improper disposal of a body,” the boy with the murder itself. This lead her to an article on the Leopold and Loeb murder of Bobby Franks, which related a quote in which Leopold called the murder an experiment and said, “It is just as easy to justify such a death as it is to justify an entomologist killing a beetle on a pin.”
It had been almost two hours and the boy was not yet back. She felt rooted to the spot. What if the boy came back and his laptop had been stolen? Even though she hadn’t recognized him, what if he knew who she was and told others about what she’d done, how she’d abandoned his possessions to the possibility of theft? Sharon felt that it was in her nature to be thoughtful and didn’t want others thinking she was inconsiderate.
She thought about napping, but realized this was just as bad as leaving. She thought about bringing his things to the front desk but this didn’t seem to solve the problem of the boy coming back and finding them gone. Perhaps she could persuade someone to come sit here near his things?
She chewed the inside of her cheek. She got up, paced the floor for a while. Attempted a handstand against the wall. Watched some television on her laptop. Lay down on the floor. It was almost midnight.
“Sorry!” The boy called out from the stairwell, rushing towards Sharon. “I ran into some friends as I was coming back and they wanted to catch up for a while. I completely forgot I had asked you to watch all this—I’m sorry you have to be working so late, hope your work gets finished up soon! Thanks again!” He spoke with an enthusiasm that seemed irreconcilable with the quiet, dark library, and hurried to pack his things up.
Sharon opened the paper back up quickly and pretended to be working. She didn’t want him to think she had nothing better to do, and she didn’t want to admit that she’d stayed out of a loyalty to the person she thought she was, or wanted to be. Once he was gone, she packed up her things, too, and walked back to her room. Some loud beetle butted against the window, hitting the glass again, again. Sharon closed the blinds. She lay down with the light on and imagined sleep until it came.
(MYSTERIES OF) THE BEAST
You descend the gravelled path down the hill, and you see the poppies sway like many dancers. The dogs run after one another in a vast game of chase—they circle the field, they circle you, they catch the scent of fox and run. Running, too, through the yellow afternoon sun, your brother calls back—he’s caught a butterfly, and its yellow wings cramp closed in his clammy hands.
Your hands are caught between father’s and mother’s, they lift you up and you, squealing, pray again, again. The sky is the color of your blue dress with white gingham and little flowers along the collar. Hands place you on tall shoulders, where you can see it all better—look back, see the house, with its big patio and little green lawn.
In the field of poppies, your brother releases the butterfly. It flies up to your eyeline which seems impossible—you are up so high. Just before you can reach for it, you are taken down from shoulders and placed inside a forest of poppies, amidst their red feather-thin petals. Some stand almost as tall as you, and you lie down and their heads envelope you, form a new roof, from which petals rain down atop you. Your brother shouts something, excited. Mother and father walk off to inspect a piece of the fence or perhaps just to talk out of earshot.
You sit up. You notice a shifting in the grass. It inches nearer, shifting the stalks of the poppies, which part and crumple close to dirt. The dogs? You hear them bark at the edge of the field, where your parents talk in hushed tones. Some strange beast, with breath like the ticking of a clock. The breaths get louder. You stumble backwards, eyes on the motion in the grass; you look to your brother, across the field, but when you blink he looks somehow an older version of himself—wrinkled and grown, at once familiar and unknown. Blink again. He returns to himself and the rustle of the poppies slows; you call out to him. He comes running towards you, all bowl cut and scrawn. Your parents return too. The beast runs off to the left and you watch its grassy wake exit the field.
You return to the house, trailed by the dogs, tearful but unafraid. You gaze back at the olive trees briefly, their aging limbs stretching out into the afternoon, the ground around them seeming flecked with blood. You close your eyes on a new night, you rise the next day, fresh and forgetting already.
The memory slides away, becomes stale. A cross appears on the side of the hill and beneath it, a dog lies buried, wrapped in an afghan knitted by an ex-lover of your father’s. You move from the house with its olive trees and Eucalyptus, but not before a fox gets in the chicken coop through a hole in the wire, leaves behind dreadful wreckage. The fox only eats the breast meat of each of the chickens, leaves the rest—so much lost for so little.
You move to the city, where the streets are straight and the air is rubbery. The beast seems forgotten.
(MYTHS OF) CONFIRMATION
In the cool of the church at High Mass, the Bishop speaks, and he wears his tall hat, though sometimes he takes it off during this mass and passes it to an altar boy, who brings the hat to the back of the church and then returns it at the appropriate time. The altar boy carries the hat very delicately in his thin hands, and moves gracefully behind the wide, marble altar.
The Bishop says God created us in his image, which informs the terms on which the girl is thinking. She cannot imagine that the God the Bishop is talking about created her to be like Him. She does not think the Bishop’s God gets acne between his shoulder blades and forgets to walk the dog, or that this God sometimes loses control of the umbrella so that it is flipped out backwards and exposes its own crablike insides.
She does not think the Bishop’s God would have kissed Shannon Dorner once in the girl’s bathroom after their soccer team lost in the semi-finals, with sweat in their hair and on their faces. She does not think the Bishop’s God would have felt the tenderness that spread throughout the whole damp room until even the writing on the stall door (Jenny sux cock, a drawing of a flying saucer) seemed holy.
She does not think the Bishop’s God would read young adult fiction and she does not think His heels would crack and bleed in the winter. She particularly does not think that He would have to triple-check that the doors were locked and get very anxious about driving at night and being late to events, nor would He listen to the same song on repeat over and over.
Maybe, the girl supposes, every animal thinks, like the human animal seems to, that God made them in His image.
The Bishop of the present is not a man who lies, or who is unkind. Before he joined the church, he had few rules and he himself had committed sins of the flesh and was unhappy and could not express this to his friends, because he felt he did not have the words. He awoke to God one night when he was walking back from the library and his path led him past the university’s chapel. Light leaked from the windows and outside the snow blew and the whole building looked very much like a sweet home and the Bishop wanted to enter it. It was dark and cool within, and smelled as churches must have for smelled in centuries past.
The Bishop began attending mass regularly. He realized that, unlike God, the devil had no plan.
The girl misses this part of the sermon, for she is otherwise occupied. Behind her eyelids emerges a whole menagerie. She sees a God who roars, who scales a rocky face and sheds a layer of skin. A God who grows pink and papery between the spines of an ancient cactus. A God who searches for a cool and still place in the stream, who tumbles the rocks till they are smooth and round and perfect. A God who coos and rustles feathers and shits on the roof of a building—maybe even this building. A God who births a litter in the hole of a thick trunk, licks them clean, hunts down sweet morsels for their mouths. A God who, filled with the lift of hollow bones, lets go of the tree branch and soars. ▩
Grace Little is a Seattle-based writer who is thinking about what it means to be a person and the joys, devastations and obligations that accompany it.