A Memoir Bestiary
Published in Bluline. A literary magazine dedicated to the spirit of the Adirondacks
The forest was quiet. It was early spring. The earth was still damp from the snow. Birds didn’t wake as early, their wing muscles were tight and their little bones clicked at the joints. It was still cold. The forest didn’t make a sound, it was silent like a space buried deep underground. Morning wasn’t over until the sun rose up over the far hills. Everything was still brown and decayed. The leaves carpeted the forest floor like wet paper. The limbs were bare; looking through the forest was like looking through lattice, or the back of a wicker chair. It was a dry day. The air hurt to breath. It was a dry cold, a burning cold.
Deer had yet to begin their rut. Bucks were still young; their antlers were fresh and strong. The does were skinny, their legs like thin grass. Their skin stretched tightly over their rib cages. They were hungry from the winter famine. The deer walked slowly through the forest. Their hooves pressed deep into the damp forest floor. Mud slipped down their calves like wine dribbles down the side of the bottle after a pour. They were slender, sexy. Their stomachs were soft. Their fur looked like polished oak in the sunlight. They walked with poise—quietly like tip toeing down a marble hallway and like the woman in and dark stockings that claps the city sidewalks with her high heels. With each step the deer’s legs brushed past her skin, smooth, like passing silk through your fingers. Her white tail hung low and hidden under her blond coat, like when a woman wears a low dress over her breasts. Everything fit. Delicate creatures. She walked slowly. Her neck strong and slender held a petite head. Her face−Vitruvius. Perfect angles. A slight geometric touch but pudgy and cute. She had big dark eyes set deep in her face. Her lips were tight and small. She stopped to lick the first sign of clover. Her tongue was pink, long like dogs but skinny and moist. She didn’t slobber she let her tongue out like humans do when we try and touch our noses. She held her ears back against her head like a ballerina pulls her hair into a tight bun. She was relaxed, walking through the forest on a cold morning. The fresh air was like her cigarette after sex. Her back was long, delicate but muscular. She was an athlete, a dancer, a tight librarian, she was a young mother, one the boys used to talk about in grade school, she was smart, beautiful, Harvard bound, she had a daddy, a driver, she was a virgin, a slut, she was innocent. She made the forest stop and look. She walked away.
Her butt was curved like a shell. It was soft like a muffin. When she walked it sloped from side to side. Her thighs grew out from under her buttocks like a perfect wave, like the girl on her way to the gym in spandex. A stick cracked in the forest. Her body tensed up, tight. Her tail flipped up a like the puff ball of a Playboy bunny. She was erect and still. It cracked again. She danced off into the forest. Her back legs followed her as she leaped over a fallen oak. They were strong. She could support me.
An owl cooed in the trees. It must be hiding in the thick pine. The pine groves stood tight together like a cold family huddled together. Their long boughs hung down from their trunks like evening gowns. The owl is a lone raptor. Both silent and a warning signal to the rest of the forest. It flies without sound and beats its wings no louder than when wind moves through thin grass. It is as quiet as a moth. The owl has the wingspan of a man. It is soft as a mink and camouflaged as a raven in the night sky. Its eyes are like machines, radon marbles, heat detectors, smoke detectors. They peer into the forest like submarine radar. Their brainwaves move to in metronome synchrony to detect any movement in the forest. They are as sensitive as a Richter scale. They talk to the animals like a god. In waves of warning signs and fright. An owl is never scared. It is brave, like the hero who saved an old woman from the subway tracks. It doesn’t flush like a pheasant, it sits like lion. Owls are the top of the food chain. They prey without fail. They eat lavish meals like rich fat men. The sleep in the heat of the day like cowboys in the shade of the saloon. They have the nightlife of a frat boy−Food, females, and the security of darkness.
Owls hunch their shoulders like gremlins. They hide their faces in their big wings like the business man who cries in his hands after a long day and who has a wife that cheats on him. The owl speaks from the depths of his soul in big bellowing coos that ring through the forest like a gong. The owl is like my father.
Its den was dark and wet, like a cave or a torture chamber. It stretched back deep into the mountain like a dark funnel. There was no light. The bear lumbered out. Its winter coat hung off its body like a wet sweater hangs at the elbows. Its paws padded the earth like warm slippers. The bear stumbled like a drunk. Its legs were weak. Bears are poor fat people. They forage for food, eat scraps, and dig through trashcans. They are always looking for the easy meal, something taken never earned. The bear uses status to its advantage. No one would steal food from the hands of a poor man in fear of getting bitten. Bears gorge themselves to the point of a food induced coma, and then they sleep it off until they are hungry again. They are poor drunks who beg on the streets. Bears don’t really care, they just live like an addict. For seven months of the year they hibernate in temporary suicide. They are rabid, killers, and thieves. The mother bears homes the cubs. The father bear eats the cubs. It isn’t around to teach them how to fish, or how to meet women. It doesn’t share food with them. The father bear fucks and fucks and fucks until it gets bored of fucking, then it eats and sleeps and leaves. It goes on rampages and fights its own kids. It fights its wives, it fights its fathers, its fights its sons. Sometimes I feel like I am the son.
My brother is a dog. He is not domesticated. He is smaller than me but much stronger. He is older, wiser, and going grey. My brother is my father, my friend, he is my compass, my anchor and my sails. My brother doesn’t slip, he falls, he falls really hard. But when he loses, when he drops from stories high he springs. Sometimes he goes hungry, he goes for weeks without food. He can eat the snow. My brother is smarter than me. He travels in a pack. He knows the woods like a map. He is a soldier, a fighter, a lover, a husband, a loyal pet. He is stern and respected. He lives off the land in a den with his brothers and sisters. He is not an alpha. He is sensitive, mysterious, and quiet. He moves like a spirit through the forest. He is like a god, I only seen him when I’m meant to. I can always hear him. Every night he lies at the cliffs edge and howls deep thoughts, harrowing thoughts through the night. My brother is a wolf, and I, I am just a human.
The Sparrow is fragile like little glass sculptures. When three sparrows sit on the same branch, they are up to something—conniving little innocent chirpers. They swoop from branch to branch like yoyos, hard to follow and small. Sparrows aren’t vibrant, they’re brown, black and white. Sometimes sparrows forget that winter is coming and fall asleep in the branches only to find out that the next morning their feet are frozen down like a fly stuck on fly tape. When I was younger I saw two sparrows huddled next to each other on a branch. It was Valentine’s Day and I remember my uncle using the phrase “to kill two birds with one stone.” The context of when he used the phrase was when he was telling my dad about getting the car washed and listening to the game at the same time. He said “it’s like killing two birds with one stone.” But, I was young at the time and didn’t understand so when I found myself outside on Valentine’s Day looking up at two frozen sparrows stuck to a branch of the Dogwood tree in my front yard I remembered my uncle’s saying. I went to the garage and found a green plastic broomstick and brought it over to where the little birds were sitting. I jumped in the air and tried to whack the branch with the stick but I was too small to reach so I threw it towards the branch. The stick hit the branch and the birds jostled from side to side like a Jell-O mold. I wanted to kill them both with one hit. I threw the stick again and the birds jostled. My mother came outside and saw what I was doing. She hit me with the stick, told me not to move and hit me with the stick again. I was not crying from the hitting but from the sin I committed. I remembered in Bible school when we learned to treat those how you want to be treated. My mother reached her hand into the branches of the Dogwood tree and broke the sparrows away from their little frozen feet. She held them both in one hand like two little infant feet, looked at me and told me not to move.
My father used to take my brother into the Milkweed fields to look for Monarch cocoons. I was too small to go and stayed home with my mother. When they came home they would put the cocoons they found into glass jars and poke holes into the lid with their pocketknives. They then put the jars onto the windowsill behind the kitchen sink so the light warmed them in the morning. My brother would wake me up every morning, carry me down to the kitchen, and sit me on the counter. He’d sit me in his lap Indian style and we’d watch the cocoons while the morning was still cool and while the kitchen was still quiet. I remember thinking the little green cocoons looked like the rubber part of my binky. All I wanted was to suck on them until they turned into butterflies then to open my mouth and let them fly out into the sky. My father found me one morning on the kitchen floor, I was unconscious, there were two broken glass jars spread out around me. I went into a coma for 17 days. Years later my father told me he pulled a sticky cocoon out of my mouth that morning. I never saw the remaining monarch cocoons complete metamorphosis.
* Affuage is the right to cut wood in a forest for firewood. In England there existed prior to 1850 a right of fuelwood . This is the right to cut wood for fuel. The wood must be burned in the house and the right applies to the hearth, not to land.
He was poking up at the tree with a stick. I told that boy to quit poking at those trees but he just never listened. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been woken up from a nap on the porch to the sound of little Jack scratching up at the trees with a sycamore stick. There I was, rocking in my chair, hat tipped down over my eyes, hands folded in my lap, eyes catching the last sliver of light under my eye lids when all of a sudden there goes little Jack again banging branches around. Every time I came to, Jack must have run off. I never had the chance to grab the boy to kick him the blue jean sitter! Getting out of my rocker was hard enough; much less holding the boy over my knee to beat him. Big jack never disobeyed his father like little Jack, If I was still in my ranching days I’d have that boys bottom so sore he couldn’t sit down at the dinner table. If Big Jack didn’t get home soon I was going to break his boy’s goddamn arm with that goddamn sycamore stick.
Little Jack ran around all damn day whacking trees, or playing swords, jousting or whatever. He’d find a new stick and leave his old one wherever he felt, not thinking that his grandpa still couldn’t walk good. Whenever I found one, I’d throw it up on the milk house. Little Jack was still small enough that he could barely help his mama chop carrots on the table. The boy couldn’t even climb up on to his bed without getting a running start at it. With his sticks being up on the roof, he’d half to damn near kill himself climbing up there. Here I am, picking tomatoes and putting them in my basket when all of a sudden little Jack comes running like circus lion out of the barn screaming “grandpa, grandpa Betty’s of fire!”
I looked little Jack in the eye like I was ready to kill him. I could have taken a good swing at him and left him in the garden, right next to my toppled tomato basket. So, I run into the barn and find my little brown jersey stamping and hoofin in her stall, fire burning up her back legs. She was breathing heavy like a steam train and mooing like she did during birthing. When she saw me, she tried to buck up over her gate but on account of her back legs burning she buckled down and sat right into the fire. I hadn’t milked her yet, and her udder sack was starting to look all slimy and bubbling. It looked like throwing and ice cream cone into the fire. Everything was melting and spilling, her skin was dripping and then her udders started to shrivel like peanuts, like they was getting sucked back inside. Betty kept trying to get up, she was moving her head up and down and kept trying but her fore legs were scuffling in the ashes. My cow was dying and there was nothing I could do. There were two little streaks in the dirt from where Little Jack had crawled under the gate. The barn was loud now. All the other animals were cooing and clucking, my horses were glass eyed and trying to split a wall to the pasture, the cows were still and mooing they were hungry, Little Jack was crying in his mama’s apron right outside the barn door. Here I am eighty-eight years old, barely able to walk and Little Jack and his mama are just standing there crying watching me try and save my farm.
“Damn it Little Jack, Susan, get at the horses, take em’ to the field” they saw me yelling but didn’t hear a word I was saying on account that they were at the other end of the barn. I was screaming now, and trying to rile them up with my hands. I was pointing to the fields and waving them to the stables. With one hand on my cane and the other flying in the air likemad, they started running out towards the fields.
That damn boy. Once I got all my animals out I was going to beat him. Him and his mama now running off to the fields and my cow lying silent and dead with a hay fire burning wild in the barn. The chickens were flying up against their cage and acting all frantic and scared. I walked as fast as I could over to try and unlatch the coop door. That damn thing had been giving me trouble for years. I had to wiggle it up and down a hundred times with it squeaking and scratching itself until the door finally popped open. Big Jack could open the coop door like a beer can but on account of my old hands I had to wiggle with it forever. When the door opened the chickens hopped out like a jail break. The fire was crackling and growing big now. Betty was all black, skinned like she was scalped by an Apache.
My horses were rearing against their gates. They were stamping and clapping their hooves. It sounded like I was driving railroad ties down. Other than Lucy I could never calm any of my horses. Not like Little Jack’s mama could. She could walk in on Buck mounted on Sadie and still keep them quiet. I had no patience for those horses, but Lucy was mine. Her and I’d ride the corn field at night and watch magenta yellow sunsets out over the Affauge Mountains. She’d walk along, head tipped to the ground and just listen to her big hooves sink into the soil. I saved her first because she was my love.
The fire was creeping along the floor and starting to burn up the grain bags. As soon as that fire hit the hay lofts the barn was going to come down fast. Lucy walked by me calm as a pond in the morning; she tipped her head to the ground and walked towards the doors.
Buck and Sadie were the lifters, they carried the plow and drove the sleds in the winters. They had the tempers of a yard dog. Anytime you’d get close to them they’d stamp a hoof into the ground and jerk their heads up like a bull moose. The only way I could get them was by throwing a razor lasso around their necks. Once they felt the blades dig in I could cinch it up tight and near kill them. My razor lasso was in the bedroom on account of Little Jack using it to pull apples down from the tree. Boy near took his fingers off one day. I either had to swing the gate open and run for my dear life or swing a bale rope up around their necks. Sadie had her rear to me so I lassoed her first. As soon as she felt the rope around her neck she bucked her back legs so hard that she splintered the latch and the gate came down. There I was eighty-eight years old, barely able to walk, in the middle of a burning barn, with two horse beasts about to run over me like wagon.
Thunder and steam came at me like an avalanche there was nothing I could do but watch my work horses trample me like a grain grinder. Sadie made a quick left and bolted straight for the door. Buck put his head down and rammed me into the air like I was a cotton doll. There I was floating in the air watching my horses run out of the barn. Just me and an empty barn, lifeless, still, quiet. The fire hit the dry grain bags and rose up like a leak in a submarine. I had an oil can in the hay loft to run the belt sitting right above the grain sacks. Once the fire hit that can, it was over. Fire spread across the loft like sprinters. The barn was dead, Betty was dead, and I left suspended from Buck to watch my eighty-eight years of farming burn cold body down. Big Jack would come home to find nothing but a damn boy and my daughter in the kitchen, apron tied and fresh pies in the oven.
That damn boy. Poking at trees always making grandpa mad. His mama, my daughter always worrying about Big Jack. I never did like that boy. Always coming around with his books and binoculars, climbing trees and studying bird eggs. Put your goddamn feet on the ground and let the birds be. Go knock some other motherless girl up so she can carry your books around and make you pie from her daddy’s gardens and give you milk from her daddy’s cows. Why couldn’t you leave my daughter alone? Always tweeting from under her window with a robin’s egg, telling her it’s the color of her eyes. I killed every damn bird I saw because of you. I knocked every damn nest on my property down because of you. Now look at me, busted up and dropping to a burning barn floor about to get burned alive. I hope I’m damn near dead by the time I hit the ground because If I got any life in me, any strength in my legs to get up, I’ll beat your boys legs so bad, he’ll never go poking at trees again trying to grow up to grow up to be like you.