She hands me a plate
of breakfast food she cooked at
dawn, my big sister.
He asks about my
life as he guards houses at
night, my old father.
She hugs me like she
hugs kids she’s paid to care for,
my weary mother.
Artwork by Ikegami Yoriyuki
She hands me a plate
of breakfast food she cooked at
dawn, my big sister.
He asks about my
life as he guards houses at
night, my old father.
She hugs me like she
hugs kids she’s paid to care for,
my weary mother.
Artwork by Ikegami Yoriyuki
To make up for the lack of peacocks in Peacock Grocery below my apartment building, me and my Cousin Anan would buy mini M&Ms to cheer ourselves up, before our Ammas took us to walk in and out the little streets between the buildings and villas of Passport Road, Abu Dhabi. Don’t worry, Amma laughs, we have the passport to walk this street. On the way, me and Anan would pour M&Ms into each other’s hands, offerings of our cousinhood, like communion bread we were not old enough to partake in yet at St. Joseph’s church.
One day, a red M&M falls into the patch of empty sand between my apartment building and the sidewalk. It’s like a seed, maybe it will grow. Anan smiles wide-eyed as he plants his favourite green M&M next to the red and I drop a yellow one a few steps away because my science textbook says roots need space. Everytime we walked by that sand patch since, we’d watch for trees dripping in rainbow M&Ms, pigeons and mynas nesting upon its branches and dream of plucking a new yellow or green or blue or red M&M off to bite into its chocolate insides.
But the harsh heat of the Gulf is not for M&Ms and so the trees did not grow. With childhood persistence, we kept dropping them into the sand patch, hoping that like the M&Ms, we too could take root in the Gulf we called home.
Artwork by Helen Levitt, “Cops and Robbers.”
The life of an urchin is very long and our understanding of time is slower than humans. We can live for hundreds of years. Someday, I hope to become a famous philosopher: a leader for those sea urchins who have no memories of human time. I imagine the truths of the world emanating from my mouth like the light of the ancient fanous my mom once told me about. She said that during Ramadan, when she was a girl, the fanous piled outside the lamp shops of El Rabea in Cairo, and their lights were so bright and beautiful down the narrow human streets that everyone journeyed to see them. They came from as far as Alexandria or Tunis to feel the lights’ hope and brilliance. I want to be like that.
But that was a long time ago, when my mom was still human. In fact, she told me that when she was still human she had once slipped on a rock covered with urchins while she was learning to dive off the coast of Oman in the Musandam Fjords. This was before she met my dad and before any of the human soul-to-urchin implantations. She said it was a beautiful day, but the air was worse than usual. The air had changed since the time of her parents; it had become a thick invisible web full of pollutants and dust. She would gasp to find spots of clear air between the web’s poisonous strains. That was the day she first met an urchin. After a dive, she had wanted to stay under the water, explore, not deal with the air again, but an urchin with long black spikes stung her foot. She jumped out of the water and crouched on a rock, her foot in her hand, screaming, “Yil’an shaklek konfoz al bahr!” or “Damn you sea hedgehog!” while she yanked out the spikes. “It hurt like getting a tattoo!” she told me. “Since then I’ve never liked urchins.” But I have never seen a tattoo, and I do not understand my mom’s kinds of pain. It feels useless to me to hate what you are. Unlike her, I have never been anything other than what I am now.
I was alone, sweeping north, off the coast of California, when an E-HIP Inquisitor finally found me. Tarn was bigger than most urchins; he must have been at least one hundred years old. The biggest urchins were always the oldest, and the oldest urchins were almost always inquisitors. Urchin bodies are covered with slender tentacles or spikes; these spikes are our legs, our lungs, and our eyes. At the end of each spike is our podia, which we use to grasp food or weapons. Tarn’s countless spikes clutched countless sharp tiny rocks.
“Tell me your earliest memory, Meera,” Tarn commanded.
I tried to remember the exact words I had rehearsed with my dad. That was the deal my parents had made with me when I was young (too young to understand the agreement); they would tell me about human times, about literature and history and science, but I had to be extremely careful if I ever encountered an E-HIP Inquisitor. They warned me: the inquisitors were convinced that excessive memories of human times would lead to violence and depression among us. Any young urchins with memories of human times would meet a terrible fate. They killed many of the eldest, urchins like my mom and dad, who had disagreed with how things should be run underwater. Somehow my parents had gotten away. Since then though our family had roamed the seafloors for countless years, we had yet to encounter an inquisitor.
Like I said, Tarn approached me while I was alone. I was gliding across the sea floor scraping whatever was below me into my toothy mouth: small animal particles, spongy pieces, algae. Our mouths are located on the underside of our body. We have five pyramid-shaped teeth. Aristotle’s Lantern, that’s what the humans had named our lantern-shaped mouths. Aristotle was one of the great western philosophers. That’s what my mom had told me. Aristotle believed the human soul could not exist outside the human body.
Boy, was he wrong.
I wish I knew why our mouths were named after this particular philosopher. Why him? Aristotle did say humans were political animals, but he was also an atheist. Why not Ovid’s Lantern? My mom had told me stories of Ovid—women turning into trees, ships into sea nymphs, and animals that changed into other animals. Or why not Plato’s Lantern? Plato thought the soul could wander. Wasn’t that true? Isn’t that what the humans had done? What Tarn and I were doing? My mom told me Plato had also believed that a sexually frustrated womb could travel around a woman’s body and make her insane. He thought of the uterus as an animal. Sometimes, when my mom cried at night, I imagined that a piece of her human uterus had somehow made it into her urchin body, latched onto her soul.
When I was little, my dad taught me all the anatomical names of the body. He taught me in English and Taiwanese. I can’t say I remember all the words. Nor has my memory categorized the words into two separate languages. I don’t understand where one language begins and the other ends, exactly. I like the words ām-kún and clavicle best. My mom, meanwhile, taught me about the body’s textures and desires. She said she had been the size of a dolphin calf, but narrower. She described her skin as stretched over like a smooth brown sponge. Human skin, unlike urchin skin, she said, could be easily punctured. My mom’s human body had been covered in tattoos. Tattoos were paintings on the human body created by needles, and humans got more and more of them towards the end of their era. I knew all about paintings and literature, because my mom was always talking about the past, and what she liked most about the past was human art.
I remember another time, when the three of us were still together. We were slowly migrating north up the seafloor near the coast of California, trying to escape an epidemic that had broken out among the starfish. We glided north avoiding the clumps of star pieces on the bedrocks and coral skeletons. Some starfish were still alive but they were puffy and covered in white lesions, too sick to attack us. My dad said it was a wasting disease like what had happened to the humans as the temperatures rose. To pass the time, my mom described the frescos she had seen in Florence when she was a young human studying there. Her favorite was inside the San Marco cloister, one called Annunciation, where the mom of a god meets an angel. When describing the colorful striped wings of the angel, my mom’s spikey body began convulsing and my dad had to lean up against her.
“Maryam, come on now. Cheer up, my little red Christmas garland. We’re so lucky, we have each other. And if we ever break a leg, we’ll grow another!”
My dad had lots of funny jokes like this. Other times, he’d say, “Maryam, my little sea gallbladder, perk up, don’t make me get cannibalistic.”
The cannibalism joke always made my mom shake happily, because it was common knowledge in our family that my dad was a great lover of uni when he was in human form.
Before we lost my dad, I could always rely on him to help lift mom’s spirits.
The truth was that my dad didn’t mind being an urchin, even though he was born in the time of humans too. He was the second child of a midwife, born in the milky grey port city of Keelung.
“I was Taiwan-ren. I could swim before I could speak English,” he boasted, but that meant little to me. Our speaking didn’t sound like any human language (or so my mom told me).
We didn’t speak through our “Aristotle’s Lantern”; we spoke through vibrations in the water. We somehow willed what was inside us into the water and if lucky, it reached someone else. My parents had learned how to communicate in urchin form before the implantation. They had worn special masks and suits inside ocean-water pools in Sicily that E-HIP had arranged. My dad said my mom had thought it was fun. My mom said that whenever they finished their trainings, she and my dad would run home and have sex.
My mom was explicit with me. She had no reason not to be: I feel no shame for how we use our bodies to receive and give pleasure.
My dad’s positive attitude about urchinhood might have had something to do with loving the ocean from an early age or maybe because he had been a Buddhist or perhaps, even a small pride in his contribution to the Echinoidea-Human Implantation Program (E-HIP). While my mom studied languages and philosophy as a human, my dad was an evolutionary biologist. They had both been comfortable with change in their own ways, but my dad’s research on the evolutionary paths that marine echinoderms were taking to adapt to the planet’s harsher environment had proven a more useful comfort. His research team was able to demonstrate the urchins’ unique ability to adapt to the rising acidity in earth’s oceans, and his work caught the attention of the head honchos at E-HIP just as they were searching for the most viable species to transfer the human soul onto. Other companies were looking to the sky. My mom once teased that she should have fallen in love with an astronaut, maybe she would have gotten to keep her body that way. My dad was quiet when she spoke like this.
E-HIP was based on the tropical island of Sicily. My dad told me the lab facilities were near the bluest waters and surrounded by avocado farms and mango trees. Sicily was a hot place during the end of human times; the average temperature was already 7 degrees Celsius higher than it had been in so-called pre-apocalypse times, but the island had plenty of drinking water and dromedaries for folks to get around on and there was hopeful buzz in the air about E-HIP’s potential solutions. Wealthy pilgrims had made homes near E-HIP, clamoring to be part of the implantation program. My mom had been there to teach the children of the wealthy pilgrims. That’s how my parents met and fell in love.
As she explained it, she was relaxing under a mango tree, translating a sonnet called “Del mondo e sue Parti” by Tommaso Campanella when my dad came over and broke her concentration. He had long dreaded hair and a sparkling smile. His skin was patched with ugly scars from the sun and he wore a large floppy hat. “I still remember some of the lines from when he interrupted me.”
I had begged her to tell me them, and though her spikes pointed downwards whenever she recited from her fading memory of verse, she agreed. She stated, “The world is a great and perfect animal, that God lauds and stimulates, we are a family of tapeworms, imperfect and vile, who have, within God’s belly, life and shelter…something something… we must measure how much every being is worth, then you will learn what part is left to you…or for you. Maybe it is for you. Not to you?” her spines leaned lower. “I can’t remember it all.”
On days like today, when I miss my mom, I try to imagine her in her life before the sea, even if that means I wasn’t born yet, because I know she was happier then. I try not to picture her in her red urchin form, though that is the only form I know her in. When I picture her human body, I see her skin tattoo-painted in the most beautiful Italian frescos, winged-humans and toga-wearing great thinkers and bosomy fruit trees and storm clouds covering every part of her, swirling over her arms and her neck, a red stingray’s tail curling around her kissing lips. She is perpetually under that mango tree in Sicily. In some memories, she is reading and just about to meet my dad. In other memories, she is reading and she never meets my dad. He walks right by her and she never marries him, and therefore, never qualifies for the E-HIP implantation program. She dies in her human form when the sun finally heats the land to oblivion.
“Meera, what is your earliest memory?” Tarn asked again.
Nervously, I clenched my anus on the top of my head. “I remember bobbing along among the plankton, the blinding sunlight.” I said it exactly right. My mom and dad would have been proud. Tarn nodded his dark pinchers.
“Anything else, Meera?”
“There were roaring sounds and choppy waves, geese, and my larval body—.” I wanted to say my body fell from its transparent spaceship to the seafloor like a parachuter out of an airplane, but I could not admit to knowing about parachutes and airplanes and spaceships, so I said, “My body fell to the ocean floor as my soul turned itself inside out like a sock—”
“A sock?” Tarn froze in his glide and dozens of his black-stripped spikes converged and pointed erect at me. Tarn’s urchin kind originated from the reef slopes of Hawaii. His kind of urchin was called a wana. The wana’s long razor-sharp spikes were especially venomous.
“A swell! What’s a sock?” I hoped Tarn would think the lights were on but nobody was home (as the human saying went). He stayed erect another moment and then finally released his predator stance. He nodded and we continued gliding forward crushing over the skeletal remains of a flathead fish.
“Anything else, Meera?” Tarn asked, his sticky manner was as misleading as a sea otter’s friendly whiskers. We know what sea otters do to urchins.
“I remember descending through turrets of kelp and the light becoming dimmer and dimmer until I could barely see it anymore.”
He nodded approvingly. “Yes, Meera, our species sees light better when we are young before our skins harden. Then, we exist in darkness and we can only see certain lights with the tips of our tentacles.”
“Wow? That makes so much sense.” If it saves my life, I’ll act as dumb as a brainless urchin. Or as they would have said in human times, according to my dad, I’ll act like a fox.
“Yes, Meera, it is better that way.”
He asked me a few more questions and then left. I froze, overcome with relief and a strange sadness. I wondered if Tarn had known my parents. Had they been humans together in Sicily? Probably. If he had been less brainwashed and zealous, could he have told me stories of my mom and dad? It would have been so good to have another educated urchin to talk with, especially since I am alone now with my thoughts and memories. I also wonder about what Tarn would have done to me if I had failed his questions. Would he have grabbed my weakest spikes and dragged me up a stalk of kelp? Led me to the surface of the ocean and into the light? Would I have become food for some larger animal, another soul that was trying to survive too? I am sure of it. What I am less sure of is what happens after a soul dies. My mom had said she once believed in god, but that god had abandoned her.
My mom told me in the beginning of human times, the people had many stories of metamorphosis, so it made sense to her when the governments and scientists became interested in metamorphosis again at the end. We were off the coast of Oregon when she had me start memorizing the stories of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “Oh habibi, I wish you could have read it. It was beautiful. I’d give anything to hold a book again. Even an electronic one.”
My dad was nearby giddily chomping on a ribbon of kelp. He hollered over, “Oral storytelling, my sweet porcupine, powerful stuff!”
But my mom ignored him. “You just never think you’ll be the one who transmogrifies to something so much lesser, lesser than you can even imagine,” she said, her spikes crestfallen. I looked outward at the purple carpet of laboring urchins, shuffling in long rows along the ocean bottom, clearing the algae away, without any nostalgia or complain. “Kharoof” my mom usually called them, “ignorant sheep.” I wondered what my mom thought when she looked at me. I wondered if she could imagine me in a human form. My mom was beginning one of her rants against god and E-HIP and urchins…
That’s when it happened—a swoosh of bubbles and micro-plastics and blurry ocean came charging our way, and before we could move a centimeter or decide what was going on, a furry paw stretched out of the shadows of the kelp forest and tore my dad off the plant. The sleek otter carried him up and away to the water’s surface. I can’t remember any thoughts in my head. I watched the blob of dark color rise until I could see it no more and then the ocean was dark and undisturbed again.
If we could have screamed, we would have.
Instead, my mom began slowly beating herself against the fallen rockweed.
“No, no, no,” she cried. The army of laboring urchins continued grazing unmoved.
“Mom,” I said, “Stop, stop. It will be okay.” But I was lying.
For hours, she went on in this torpor. She was mystical. As the days passed, my mom stayed inside a crevice of half-alive coral and I brought her pieces of drifting kelp I caught with my spikes. I encouraged her to move, to chomp, to recite poetry—but quietly. I told her I could understand her, but she didn’t want to speak to me anymore. She flipped herself over, her “Aristotle’s Lantern” faced the sky. She slurred words from “Del mondo e sue Parti” and ancient Egyptian love poems. Worms. God’s belly. Her womb. We are all worms in her belly. I worried we could not travel together. I worried her pain and sadness would attract an inquisitor and the inquisitor would drag us both out of the coral and kill us. I believed there must be others like us and we had to find them. We could start a new civilization. There must be inquisitors who had fallen out of rank, fallen angels like Lucifer, like us. I told my mom this, but she only fell deeper into her self; she stopped vibrating the water with her thoughts towards me. The last thing she said was that I had it all wrong. I had mixed up all the stories. But I think there is only one long human story. I can’t categorize the human stories and languages and nationalities and histories the way she does and my dad did.
The night I left, while my mom was sleeping, I whispered into her long spikes, “I’m so sorry. I hope you can forgive me someday for doing this to you. You are rohi, my soul.”
I don’t know if she heard me. I remember her red tinsel body becoming smaller and smaller as I drifted away. Sometimes I imagine myself as the piece of her womb that made her crazy. I imagine that I have run away for her sake. I like to think she is better now. Couldn’t that be true?
I have been traveling north since I left her. I believe there is a colony of large urchins above Alaska. I believe they are different from other urchins. Where does this belief come from? I don’t know, but what can I do but wander?
My body is small and dark, but I feel like a lantern. I am lit with hope. What will I find? Do I have a special mission? Or maybe I am truly the lantern and others will find me. I survived the E-HIP Inquisitor. I have inside me the knowledge of human times and urchin times. I once asked my mom what was the difference between a philosopher and a prophet. Her answer did not satisfy me. She said prophets’ messages came from god, not just from intellect. She said that philosophers weren’t worshipped and remembered in the same capacity as the prophets. But I think she is wrong. She cannot see that they are the same; this is her defect from once being a human. If she were better and here with me today, I would tell her that the intellect is god, wandering among us.
Photo by Pascal Kobeh
“Mom has been acting a little strange lately. We can all agree.”
Suzanne stood on the talking stool in the centre of the treehouse. The talking stool had three legs and wobbled dangerously if you didn’t spread your weight right, but when you stood on it, nobody dared to interrupt you. It was for serious business, and in a house with six kids, sometimes you needed to take a risk to be heard.
Suzanne was still wearing her school uniform, and one of her pigtails had come out, giving her a dangerous, unkempt air. She was standing under the flashlight we’d hung with a shoelace from the ceiling and it cast dramatic shadows across her face as it twirled. The second-youngest kid, Arthur, was a little afraid of her, so he was hiding behind the frayed curtain that covered a big crack in the wall. The baby burbled stupidly in the corner. The rest of us sat in a circle around her, on upended crates that had once been filled with apples. Suzanne was one of the middle children, but she had the respect of even the eldest, because she could talk like a grown up. Most of us murmured our agreement, there was something different about Mom.
“Hmm, I don’t know. Is she really acting that weird?”
That was David, another middle child. David had wispy hair and watery eyes, and he liked to say the unpopular opinion, but was always surprised when we beat him up for it, or locked him out of meetings. Suzanne gave him a withering look.
“You’re stupider than the baby if you haven’t noticed a change. Haven’t you seen her, walking out to the car at night and just sitting, locked in there for hours? Or that she comes home later and later each evening, smelling like beer?”
If any of us had failed to notice those things, we weren’t about to admit it. We nodded along. Suzanne seemed to grow taller.
“And haven’t you seen her going down to the basement with tape-measures and IKEA magazines? Do any of you realize what she’s up to?”
“Maybe she’s finally building us a play-room?”
“She’s putting the baby’s room down there?”
“She’s buying more bookshelves?”
Suzanne held up a hand, and we all stopped talking.
“I heard her talking on the phone to Marissa Claire.”
We groaned. Marissa Claire watched us all from under her pencil-thin pointy eyebrows whenever she came to visit. She was always making jokes about how nobody could’ve convinced her to have so many kids.
Suzanne continued, “Mom is creating a Mom-Cave downstairs. We won’t be allowed down there anymore. It’s going to be a space just for Moms or Marissa Claires.”
We all stared at her. This was news. Mom wanted a cave? Why?
“I have a theory,” she said, “I’ve been reading and I think Marissa Claire is a vampire.”
Under the dangling flashlight, with the sun already set and the wind gently tugging the October branches, Suzanne looked deadly serious. I felt myself shiver; someone coughed. Arthur sprang out from behind the curtain and leapt straight into the eldest’s lap, almost knocking him over.
“There’s no such thing as vampires, is there?” he asked in his warbling four-year-old voice.
But the eldest simply looked to Suzanne for the answer.
“I know you’re afraid of me, Arthur,” she said, “but you’re old enough to know now. I’m not what you should be afraid of.”
We all watched her with wide eyes.
“Marissa Claire isn’t our biggest problem either. The reason Mom is acting so strange, is because she’s slowly becoming a vampire too.”
Now that was harder to believe. Mom, our Mom? The same Mom who taught us to ride bikes and tie our shoes? Who went to our parent-teacher nights and coached our soccer games?
Suzanne continued,“Think about it. What else needs a cave but a bat? What else goes out at night, and hangs out in dingy places looking for prey? Mom is under a curse, and once she builds the Mom-cave, the transformation will be complete.”
“What should we do?” I whispered.
“We have to reverse the curse. And banish Marissa Claire from the house forever. And most of all, we can’t let the Mom-Cave be built.”
The next day, Marissa Claire came over, and she and Mom sat in the living room with stacks of paint swatches and home decorating magazines. Us kids were supposed to be watching TV, but we took turns spying on them instead.
“It’s going to be so great to get away from the old nag once your basement is finished. You know I’m going to be hiding out here all the time,” Marissa Claire said.
“Yeah, I mean, I think I deserve a little recognition. It’ll be nice.”
“Women need to be able to be women, even in a family.”
Marissa Claire handed Mom a rolled-up poster. She unrolled it halfway, and I saw the naked torso of a very muscular man in a firefighter uniform over her shoulder. My mouth dropped open.
Mom gasped, “Missy! You’re terrible. You know my husband would throw a fit.”
Mom tried to push the poster back into the woman’s hands.
“Well, who says he’s allowed down there? It’s supposed to be your space.”
I raced upstairs to report back to my siblings.
“It’s time for phase one,” Suzanne said.
We asked Mom if we could go to the playground, and trooped out of the house soon after. Mom didn’t make sure we wore scarves, even though it was a chilly day, so the feeling in our little group was morose. The eldest zipped our jackets up to our chins, and insisted that David wore a hat, but it wasn’t the same. Luckily, Mom didn’t ask us to bring the baby.
We arrived at the church, and Suzanne passed us each a Tupperware before she walked up to the front and tugged on the door. It was locked. We split up, each looking for a door or window that would allow us inside. David found it and we all raced over to a stained-glass window that was slightly ajar. Suzanne pushed it all the way open, and we tumbled inside one-by-one. We hadn’t been to church since last Easter, and I was immediately hit by the familiar heavy-perfume-and-dust smell that seeped up from the carpets.
“Find the Holy Water and the free rosaries!” Suzanne ordered.
We knew that the church gave out white plastic rosaries sometimes, and assumed they would be up for grabs somewhere. The Holy Water was easy to find, it was in a big bowl at the front of the church, for dipping your hand into. We each filled our Tupperware until the bowl was empty. The rosaries were a challenge though.
“We need them, to tie Mom up and reverse the curse,” Suzanne insisted.
We split up and looked everywhere, on each pew, in the supply closets and under the kneelers. I decided to check the altar. I climbed the steps and checked beside the mic stand, and then under the white cloth. Then I saw the gold box where they kept the communion. There probably weren’t any rosaries in there, but I decided to open it, it couldn’t hurt to check.
“Stop! Thief!” a voice boomed through the church.
We all tried to scatter. David dove under a pew, Arthur shimmied behind the statue of Mother Mary, the eldest shut himself in a supply closet and I sprinted for the open window. Only Suzanne stayed calm.
“We’re not stealing. We’re looking for the free rosaries.”
So, the priest sat us down, and we told him all about the Mom Cave and our vampire theory.
“This sounds very serious. You kids were right to come to the church, you’re not safe.”
My heart sank. So, it was true.
“We’re planning on tying her up with rosaries and sprinkling her with Holy Water,” Suzanne said.
The priest nodded his approval, “I can see you’ve done your research.”
Suzanne was right. Mom was turning into a monster.
The priest gave each of us a rosary and sent us home with the reminder to pray more often.
A few nights later, Suzanne woke me up and we slipped away from the others to watch Mom through the front window. She had a suitcase with her, even though there was no trip planned that we knew about. We watched her load the suitcase into the back of the car, turn it on, and sit inside without driving.
For some reason, my eyes were filling up with tears, “Why doesn’t she just go?”
“That suitcase is full of Marissa Claire’s mind-controlling tokens. Mom is just trying to get rid of them,” Suzanne assured me in a whisper.
Another voice spoke before I could, “Or maybe it’s full of empty vials of blood, because she’s already a vampire.”
David was standing behind us in his rumpled pyjamas. Something about his pouty mouth and stupid slippers made me angry. I lunged for him, but Suzanne held me back.
“We have to be strong,” she said.
“We should have done the ritual sooner. What are we waiting for?” I snapped.
“Tomorrow, it’s a harvest moon,” Suzanne said.
Phase two of the plan was capturing and overpowering Mom, tying her down with rosaries and sprinkling her with Holy Water. But things did not go according to plan. That morning, Dad went off to work as usual while Mom made breakfast. We were all supposed to go to school, so we walked to the bus stop with our backpacks, but as soon as Mom drove off with the baby we snuck back inside the house. It was time to create the trap.
I can’t tell you exactly how the trap was supposed to work, it came right out of Suzanne’s imagination, but it involved laundry baskets, Christmas lights and white sheets. She ordered us around for an hour, assembling it, and then we heard footsteps approaching. Someone rang the doorbell. Did Mom forget her keys? Did she know we were at home? Arthur wandered over to the door, despite our collective “Noooo,” and opened it.
A man in a bright yellow polo shirt was standing at the door. He glanced into the chaos inside our house, and smiled brightly at Arthur.
“Is your Mommy or Daddy home?”
Arthur quaked with terror at his mistake. We could all hear Suzanne’s mind whirring with fury.
“I’m here to deliver some furniture. Hello? Is there an adult home?”
One wrong step from the IKEA man could spring the whole trap. Suzanne popped out from her hiding spot, causing the man to jump.
“She wants it all on the front lawn.”
“You heard me.”
The man must have recognized the same dangerous power in her that we had, because he unloaded everything onto the front lawn, and had her sign for it even though she barely reached his elbow in height.
“This stuff must all be for the Mom Cave,” the eldest said.
“We’ve got to get rid of it!” Suzanne raced onto the lawn, beckoning to the rest of us “quickly, we have to take it to the pond and sink it.”
We dragged the red wagon out from the garage and got to work stacking the boxes on top. It was heavy work, but if Mom came home and IKEA was on the front lawn she would know something was wrong. Once we had stacked it all, we wheeled it carefully down the driveway.
Mom was standing on the sidewalk, holding the baby. Her car was parked a little bit away. For a moment, we stared at her, and she stared back at us.
“What are you all doing? Why aren’t you at school?”
We were caught. It was over.
“What is all of that stuff? Is that… is that my IKEA order? What on earth?”
David started to cry. The eldest picked up Arthur, who buried his face in his jacket sleeve. I could’ve sworn Mom’s teeth were so long that they were poking the top of her lip. Mom wiped her cheek with her sleeve. Had she been drinking blood, and she was trying to wipe it away? Only Suzanne remained calm.
“We thought they probably delivered to the wrong house, you know how sometimes the neighbour gets our mail,” she said.
Mom’s face became a mask of fury.
“That doesn’t explain why you aren’t in school.”
None of us could explain that, and none of us could explain the mess we’d made inside. Mom identified Suzanne as our ringleader, probably because we kept glancing at her for instructions.
“Suzanne, I should’ve known. Go upstairs and wait for me on my bed. The rest of you had better help me clean all of this up.” Mom said.
Without Suzanne, we didn’t know how to use the trap. Mom made us bring the IKEA boxes downstairs, and put everything back where we’d found it. Worst of all, she found the Tupperware’s full of Holy Water under our beds, and rosaries stashed in the bathroom cabinet. When we didn’t answer what they were for, she dumped the water down the sink and tossed the rosaries into the trash, then locked us in our rooms. That evening, Mom didn’t make us dinner and we could hear her and Marissa Claire playing loud music in the basement while they assembled the Mom Cave. I looked out my window at the harvest moon, which glowed orange while my stomach growled. Someone unlocked my door. It was Suzanne. Everyone else was standing behind her, and she was even holding the baby.
“It’s time to go. We tried our best,” she said.
We were about to reach the front door when we heard Dad’s heavy footsteps behind us.
“What are you kids up to?”
We looked at him over our shoulders and said, “Nothing!”
He shrugged and wandered into the kitchen, probably looking for a snack, wondering when it was time for dinner.
Photograph by Edward Steichen
Tonight, the TV reports, herds of cattle throw themselves into the flames of the Amazon and roll out in batches from an oven at click to deliver. Mother is still scrubbing the dishes at the sink, her hand rotating slowly as I eat my burger. My friend calls to say she got the job at the big oil and gas company. She asks if I want to celebrate with her at the new vegan restaurant in town. I take the train to meet her on the 14th. My god, you’re big, she gasps. It’s the new hormonal birth control, now where is that damn restaurant. She orders a broccoli and I order a leg. After my fifth vegan I realize that my friend is gone. In fact, the whole restaurant and the streets surrounding it had disappeared, and I could touch the tip of the empire state building when I stretched my am. I keep eating until I break off from the East Coast and float away. Soon anarchists and queers come and build houses on me. They grow tomatoes and chase chickens for fun. I miss mother. I hope my sister helps her with the dishes sometimes.
Artwork by Marcel Dzama Untitled, 1999.
By Mary Collins
The waves rolled me back and forth, gripping my little boat in a relentless catch and release. Salt water drenched the wooden bow and drifted towards the palm trees. There was no definite rhythm to this ebb and flow, which made it more difficult to navigate. The only way forward was to pull the oars. I paddled parallel to the shore, past the long rows of abandoned beach houses on the outskirts of town, and regularly glanced back at the wooden crates tied behind me. In the distance, seagulls flocked to the garbage-coated beach, a hurricane of white-and-black feathers, fighting over what remained of the area’s sea life. Their crowded chorus rang in my ears long after I passed them by.
Something felt wrong today. It wasn’t the clamor of the birds, or the loneliness of the buildings, or even the guilt surrounding the stolen contents of the crates behind me. I had long since convinced myself to stop worrying about these things. It was something in the air—a heavy, sticky feeling. A sense of dread. I moved more quickly than usual, frequently looking over my shoulder even though nothing was behind me but open water. I had to get back to Elodie.
I rounded the corner of the isthmus and could finally see our house, dwarfed by trees and overgrown bushes. The house stood on stilts intended to protect it from the dangers of floods and hurricanes. It had once seemed laughably high above the ground, but today the waves lapped all the way up to the base of the stilts. The stretch of beach out front had entirely disappeared. It looked rather claustrophobic, like it might be having difficulty breathing. I paddled up beside it, hopped out into the tepid, ankle-deep water, and dragged my canoe to the shore.
The stillness of the house frightened me. There was little to distinguish it from any of the other abandoned houses I’d passed along the way, except that the wood wasn’t rotting and a light was on in the upper window. Elodie did her best to make things homey, but I missed the signs of life that used to populate the beach and the lawn in the old days, now swallowed up by the tide. This wasn’t what we’d wanted. I was supposed to see Miko building sandcastles on the shore and knocking them down with a red bucket. Or Elodie and I wearing those tacky matching swimsuits that her parents bought us. Our friends would be there, too, with their children, and the kids would play in the water while we sat in hand-me-down beach chairs sipping at sangria from plastic wine glasses. Elodie would arch her head back and laugh that almost hysterical laugh that only her friends could bring out of her. I missed that most of all. Try as I might, she didn’t laugh that way alone with me—never quite that laugh. But still, she wouldn’t dream of leaving.
I carried the crate in through the back door, grunting slightly as I staggered up the carpeted stairs to the main floor. The anxiety I had felt out on the water began to loosen. The house smelled like Pine-Sol and bread, and upstairs the radio was buzzing with the soft cadences of Billie Holiday. Everything was going to be fine.
“Daniel? Is that you?”
Elodie threw open the door at the top of the stairs, and for a moment it framed a flash of concern on her face before she registered my presence. She relaxed and dropped something onto the counter next to her. It fell with a metallic clatter. A knife? Was she really so worried about intruders? We were miles from the nearest sign of civilization. But then again, Elodie always preferred not to take any chances. She came running down to meet me, immediately grabbing the other end of the crate and relieving me of half the weight.
“I told you to tell me when you were coming in,” she said reproachfully. “You shouldn’t have to carry this all by yourself.”
She kissed me, warm, and pulled away again as we climbed the stairs, then crouched to open the crate.
“I will next time,” I promised. It was important to her, although I hated asking for help.
“Seriously, Daniel. It doesn’t make you any less of a man to let your wife help you with a box now and then.”
I wanted to tell her what I had seen in town, but I knew it would only upset her more. The boarded up buildings and waterlogged streets were in worse shape every time I went for supplies. Mold thrived on the damp walls of empty businesses, and abandoned dogs and cats had begun to roam the streets, forming formidable gangs of tattered fur and wandering teeth. Everyday more and more people heeded the government advisory, packed up their things, and paid the exorbitant price for gas to drive inland, north of the coast.
“There are hardly any shops open anymore,” I told Elodie. “Even if we had money, we wouldn’t be able to buy anything.”
We were sitting now on opposite sides of the box, taking out containers of rice and crates of dried fruit. Elodie’s forehead puckered and she searched my face, worrying.
“What are you saying?” she asked.
“Just that things are going to be a little harder now.”
“But we’re gonna stick it out. Right?”
I hesitated. There was still plenty of food left in town that we could continue stealing, and I wanted so badly to reassure her and see the worry wash away from her dark eyes.
“Right,” I said, trying to sound confident. “It’s your home. It’s our home.”
The house was Elodie’s, a family property originally owned by her grandparents. She inherited it before we got married. It was located ten minutes away from her childhood home, in the same quiet corner of Florida’s pan handle that she’d lived in her entire life. When I met her in Miami, I was a college student, fresh out of an adolescence that was spent constantly moving. Elodie gave me something to hold onto. This was before the fuel crisis and long before the mass displacement of recent years, long enough ago that my family could travel the country in the full peace of our privilege. Florida was just another state at first, no more my own than any other place I’d lived. Until Elodie. The stability of her life intrigued me. I thought I was lucky to be a part of it. But as the sea rose, our luck was running out. “Sticking it out” implied that at some point “it” would be over and the town would return to normalcy, pick up the pieces and carry on—as if the very forces of nature were not against us.
“Why all the towels?” Elodie asked, removing cloth after cloth from the bottom of the crate.
“Oh. Well, it seems like a waste to keep picking up paper towels and toilet paper. They run out so quick.”
Elodie made a face, but nodded.
“It’s more environmentally friendly, too,” I added, grinning.
“A lot of good that does us now,” said Elodie.
Miko’s bedroom was in the attic, the highest point of the house, as an extra security measure. This was not really necessary. The sea did not rise overnight. But it was a strange comfort to me. It was easier to relax knowing that my son was sleeping above me, somehow a little farther removed from our worries.
He was the reason that we stayed, at first. The day he was born, the hospital media screens were all streaming the same news story: the newly-formed emergency Climate Impact Bureau had decided that the Florida coast was no longer a safe place to live. But that was a warning, not a command, and with a newborn baby, it was clear that we weren’t in a position to just leave. And we were so happy, in spite of it all. So we tried to keep things as normal as possible while our town moved out from under us.
The changes came gradually at first. When I was laid off at the construction company, I took up odd jobs around the house, building my canoe and waterproofing the bottom story of the house to keep myself busy. Elodie kept things cheerful in her own special way, making preserves and singing lullabies in the evenings. We danced on the balcony. The months slipped by. When Miko turned two, we gathered the few of our friends who were still in the area and threw a party with a boxed chocolate cake and some ancient yellow-and-green streamers that we had stashed away. Soon afterwards I started scavenging in the city. Now those last friends had left, too, but we still set the table for dinner every night.
When Miko woke up, Elodie brought him down and I took out the last items from the box—two glass coke bottles, the old-fashioned kind which Elodie loved so much, and a small plastic soccer ball. Treasures from the abandoned gas station. We sat on the carpet and took turns rolling the ball back and forth. Miko giggled everytime he caught it. Elodie and I drank the coke and listened to the jazz drifting from the radio. It was some upbeat song with a walking bass line, and I started tapping my fingers to the rhythm. I wrapped an arm around Elodie’s shoulders and tried to feel the fullness of the moment, let the richness of our little family wash over me. All I wanted was to take care of them. But just as I was beginning to relax, the song faded out and a siren cut in. Elodie dropped the soccer ball and Miko watched it roll away to the corner of the room with no attempt to stop it.
The siren blared five times and a man began to speak.
The National Hurricane Advisory is issuing a severe hurricane warning as a Category 4 storm approaches the Florida coast. The National Bureau of Climate Impact is mandating an evacuation of the panhandle in advance of the storm. Residents are advised to turn off gas, electricity, and water utilities prior to evacuation. Contact your local….
I was already on my feet, looking from the old radio to the crate still sitting in the middle of the room, calculating what to take with us, what to leave behind. Would we all fit in the canoe, make it to town that way? Or would it be better for me to go first and send for help?
Elodie’s eyes were wide and wild and she was clutching Miko to her with unwarranted ferocity. Her hair, rife with humidity, surrounded her like a mane. The radio crackled and fear prickled in my chest.
“Elodie, it’s a hurricane,” I said. “We’ll have to evacuate.”
“I know what a hurricane is.” She set her jaw. “Once we leave, they’ll never let us come back. The government, I mean. They’ll say it’s too dangerous.”
“And for good reason!”
I was tired of sugarcoating things for her.
“Listen, Elodie. You don’t go into town, you never take the boat out, you don’t know what it’s like out there. We can’t stay here with a hurricane on the way. We’re not going to stay here with our kid.”
I reached for Miko, wanting to smooth his baby curls and soothe his anxiety, but she pulled him away, jerking backwards and throwing me off balance. She was stronger than I thought.
“No,” she spat at me. “You promised me we would stay. It’s safer here—you said so yourself.”
I tried to explain, heat rising to my forehead, that all that was before the hurricane, that this changed things, and that if she didn’t come with me now, I would go on my own and alert the authorities, who would surely take her away from the house. But through everything I said, Elodie just rocked Miko back and forth, saying, my baby, my baby. Her baby. It was beginning to rain outside, a warning from the heavens, and I slammed my fist on the coffee table with frustration. The half-empty coke bottles teetered on the edge, then toppled to the ground and shattered. Elodie shrieked.
“I’m your husband!” I said, a strangled feeling in my throat. “I know what’s best for us! How the hell do you think you’d survive here without me bringing you food—and water, and medicine, and god knows whatever else you decide that you need?”
Elodie said nothing. Her eyes flashed wordless fury and she turned away so I could only see the tightening of her jaw. Miko started crying, too young to comprehend our argument. Elodie remained silent as she hunched over him. She had never looked so small or so scared. I wanted to say something else, to soften the space between us, but the anger was still boiling behind my eyes and I couldn’t find the words. The rain picked up outside, creating a furious rhythm on the windowpane.
“If that’s how you feel, you should leave,” Elodie said finally.
She sat up straight, calmly now, her baby quietly resting in her lap.
The inside of the storm was all wind. Daniel had not expected that. The rain became an afterthought, or perhaps more accurately a precondition, completely unimportant compared to the instability of the howling air. Windows shattered and roofs fell. One man’s canoe stood little chance of reaching any kind of help.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. Elodie knew that. Usually there were grace periods after the warning signs and enough time to outrun the clouds. And it wasn’t clear who was to blame—the storm itself for its unpredictability or the humans monitoring it for their incompetence. But somewhere along the line, something had snapped.
It made little difference in the end, and would receive little attention because of the scarcity of people in the area. The storm had been coming anyway. It had always been coming.
When the clouds cleared, Elodie searched the beach for hours. She held Miko tightly by the hand, guiding him through the destruction. Tangles of trees and bushes that once characterized her childhood lay uprooted on the sand, intermingled with variant debris. She looked into each pile, fearful of seeing Daniel’s lifeless hand or leg or, perhaps worse, the sweater he had been wearing, her favorite, the blue one that brought out his eyes. Miko would not stop asking where Daddy was, and Elodie could not think how to answer. He was in every palm branch, every piece of driftwood, around every corner. She quickened her pace. The waves washed in and out on the shore. She began to look at them, too, but she could not bear the idea of seeing him there under the water. He had left in his canoe right before the storm picked up. She’d called him back, called until her throat grew hoarse, but the winds were too loud and the boat was too far and he was gone before he could hear a word.
She walked until she reached town, and sank to her knees in the rubble of the buildings. After a time, someone found her, a rescue worker who directed her to an aid station with a shock blanket and a truck to take her and Miko away. The palm leaves sighed in the wind and they joined the thousands before them moving north
Maya was just six years old when a woman with red fingernails pushed her into a lion enclosure. The woman’s name was Antonia Shepherd, she had shoes that clacked, and long fingernails that could, and often did, cause Maya to wince with pain. Maya’s father was in love with this woman: maybe because she smelled like a department store, or maybe because she had an adorable freckle on the end of her nose. Maya often longed to peel that freckle off, but she never got the chance, and she didn’t have any freckles of her own to practice with.
“Honey, Maya and I haven’t had nearly enough bonding time. What if I took her out somewhere, just the two of us?”
Maya listened from the living room, her heart beating loud against her t-shirt. She scooted closer to the door, further away from the TV that was always on, singing gibberish cartoons at her. Antonia said the TV kept her quiet, but the TV was so much louder than Maya could be. Sometimes she wrapped a blanket around her head and pretended she was being kidnapped to get away from the noise. Today, she eavesdropped instead.
“I know that little girl of yours is a handful, and most women wouldn’t want to take their boyfriend’s daughter out like I do, but well, you know I adore her. I just want her to know it.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Dad sounded much less concerned than he should have.
“Oh, I don’t know, ice-cream, the zoo, the hairdresser?”
Maya clutched her long braid with fear. No. She loved to swing her braid and feel it slap against her face, and she hated the sound of the hair-dryer, which Antonia used every morning. She especially hated the hairdressing cape. Wearing it felt like being in the belly of a big black fish with her head poking out of its lips. No! She would not go get a haircut, especially not with that woman.
Antonia walked in, scratched her long fingernails against Maya’s scalp, and invited her out, just the two of them. Her fingers stopped Maya from turning her head to look at Dad. She could sense him though, lingering in the doorway. Her only choice was to say yes.
“Only, I don’t want a haircut.”
Antonia’s nails tightened a fraction. “Someone’s been eavesdropping,” she giggled.
Maybe, if Antonia had taken Maya to the hairdresser, things would have been different, but she didn’t. She took her to the zoo instead.
Outside, the sun was pale yellow and sweat-inducing. Maya lived in a small city in the middle of the desert, and though it was winter, it was still hot. Maya and Dad used to live in another country, but she could barely remember it. When she and Antonia got into the car, the woman blasted the A.C. until Maya was blue-lipped and shivering. Antonia saw the goose-bumps, but she didn’t turn the A.C. down and Maya refused to ask for relief. Instead, she wrapped her hand around her braid like it was a snake she could throw into the driver’s seat. They arrived at the zoo.
“Where would you like to go?” Antonia asked without looking at her.
But the entire reptile house was closed. From the sounds of it, a small boy had climbed into the iguana enclosure and was refusing to come down from a very high box in the top corner. The iguanas were whipping their tails at any keeper who tried to come in and get him down. This zoo was not like most others.
Maya liked the big, ferocious animals. She had no interest in the timid gazelles or the tortoises chewing leaves of lettuce with their big grandpa lips. She liked animals with teeth much sharper than her own, and claws much sharper than Antonia’s. If she couldn’t see crocodiles, lions were the next best thing.
Maya and Antonia walked over to the enclosure, and Maya felt a shiver of joy when she looked down and saw their hulking shoulders and thick paws. She wished she was a lion. She roared quietly. They were separated from the lions by a glass barrier that reached Antonia’s chest, and a gorge that made it impossible for the lions to leap up to them.
“Why don’t we take a picture to send to your Daddy?”
Antonia took out her phone and began fixing her hair in the camera. Maya looked up at her, watching with amusement as one curl stuck down stubbornly, creating a swirl on the woman’s forehead. She started to giggle until Antonia’s murderous eyes flashed down at her and swept the smile off her face. When the curl was finally smoothed back, Antonia knelt down and pulled Maya towards her so they were cheek to cheek. Maya didn’t smile.
“Why aren’t you smiling?” Antonia said, straining to keep her voice light.
“Well, I took you here to be nice to you. The least you can do is smile.”
Maya smiled. Until Antonia pressed the button, then she quickly frowned. Antonia huffed.
“Look. Look how nice I look there, smiling. Why can’t you be a good girl and smile?”
Maya puffed her cheeks out like a blowfish in the next picture. Then crossed her eyes. Right before Antonia pressed the button, so that she wouldn’t see what she was about to do. Maya was very quick. The curl returned to Antonia’s forehead and stuck there. She dug her nails into Maya’s arm, clutching her ever closer.
“You—will—take—this—picture—nicely!” she shook the girl with every word.
“Sorry, I just don’t want to look like you,” Maya giggled.
“What?” Antonia snapped, dropping her arm, “What did you say?”
Maya wanted to take it back, Antonia’s eyes were bulging slightly.
“I just… I don’t want to look like you.”
“Why?” Antonia burst, “What’s wrong with how I look?”
A woman wearing a tennis visor and yoga pants pulled a wagon full of kids past them, and paused to give Antonia a raised eyebrow. Antonia tried to smile at her; her cheek twitched. When the woman was gone, Maya built up the courage to ask something she’d always wanted to. For once, she was having fun with Antonia.
“Can I peel your freckle off?”
Maya had been staring at it, and the urge was burning in her finger. She couldn’t hold it in any longer, her finger inched towards the woman’s face. Antonia swiped it away with a furious hiss. A stream of words came out. Maya didn’t understand much except for the end.
“—and everyone. I mean everyone. Tells me how ADORABLE. My freckle is. So, so.”
Antonia took a deep breath. She smiled like a crocodile.
“Let’s take the picture, Maya.”
Antonia lifted Maya so that she was standing on the barrier in front of the enclosure. It was sloped, not a good place to stand, not enough room for her feet. Maya tried to say so, but Antonia was lifting the phone to get both of them in the picture.
I’m not sure if Antonia intended to feed Maya to the lions from the beginning, or if it was an idea that dawned on her when she saw their yellow teeth. She loved her boyfriend, but something about his child unsettled her. Maya was always alone in her room, and Antonia could hear her, talking with different voices, thudding, shouting war-cries. Plus, who doesn’t like TV?
Maybe she didn’t mean to push her into the enclosure, or maybe she did. Either way, Maya felt a sharp elbow smack her knee, and then the ground was out from under her. She saw the sky, the glass barrier trembling, her own arms reaching out for something to grab onto. Her scream rang through the big cat section of the zoo. When she landed, the wind was knocked right out of her. Her head smacked the grass painfully, and for a moment, everything went black. She opened her eyes and squinted up at Antonia, who was peering down at her, safely behind the glass. Maya couldn’t get up, everything hurt. Then she felt the hot huff of lion breath.
When Antonia saw Maya stirring, she glanced around to see if anyone had seen the girl fall. The zoo was not busy, since it was a weekday afternoon. Nobody was around. Antonia clacked over to the pizza stand, ordered a slice, and chewed while she contemplated her next move. She rubbed her lower belly and tried to glow, the way women in her condition were supposed to. The pizza server asked if everything was okay, watching her demented smile with trepidation.
“Is the pizza not agreeing with you?”
Antonia started to retort, then simpered, “Maybe the little one doesn’t like beef-pepperoni.”
She rubbed her belly more conspicuously. The server backed away.
Antonia nodded to herself, this was as good a time as any to tell him. She clacked over to the zoo entrance, smiled at the attendant, got in her car and drove home.
Meanwhile Maya had started to regain feeling in her arms and legs. She could sense the lion nearby, but didn’t dare to look at it. Should she move? Play dead? Try to run? Before she could do anything, she felt jaws closing around her ankle. She froze. She was certain that if she screamed the lion would start to eat her right then. Her braid dragged behind her as the lion pulled her into the fake den, and down into the concrete pit underneath the enclosure.
“Hello sweetheart, I’m back!” Antonia sang at her boyfriend.
“Hey, you’re back soon, how was it?”
How that man loved that woman we’ll never know, but he did, truly.
Antonia smiled sweetly, “I have something to tell you!”
“Well, she didn’t want to leave the zoo, see. But I had to tell you something and it couldn’t wait,” Antonia rubbed her belly in anticipation.
“You left my six year old daughter at the zoo, alone?”
He was getting hung up on the wrong detail. He wasn’t noticing her glow.
“Well yes, but–”
“I cannot believe this,” his face looked like thunder, “my daughter. My only daughter, who do you think you ARE?”
Maya was scratched all over from where she’d been dragged against the concrete. The light was dim and her heart was pounding. If they were going to eat her, she hoped it would be quick. The lioness had dropped her like a rag-doll and was greeting an old lion that was lazing in the corner. The lion stood up, and both of them loomed over her with drooling jaws.
“What are you doing in our enclosure, human?”
The lion. It was speaking.
“Y-you can talk!”
The lion huffed, “Yes, and they never drop live meat into our enclosure, so I have to be sure. Have you been laced with poison? Is this how they finally get rid of me?”
“I hope I haven’t been poisoned. I fell in accidentally. Or, I guess, I was pushed.”
Maya told the old lion about Antonia, her clacking heels and her department store smell.
“I hate when humans wear perfume,” the lion growled.
Maya nodded, “Me too.”
There was a long, almost awkward pause. Maya felt the need to break it, the lions still looked angry.
“Wow, it’s pretty dark down here.”
“Dark, really? Do you see that light in the corner? It’s always on, always flickering and irritating my eyes. We’re mostly nocturnal you know,” the old lion said.
“Can’t you tell the zookeepers that it bothers you?”
The old lion snorted, “All they hear when I talk is growling. I learned to talk from my first owner. A girl who was a little older than you.”
“What happened to her?”
So the old lion told Maya the story of how he ended up in a zoo in the desert. Poachers came for his pride, in a place far away, with long grasses and wide open space. He heard gunshots and he tried to run. He got left behind. The poachers put him in a cage, and the cage went on a plane, and the plane landed here, where a man kept him in an apartment and fed him cat food, which made him feel very sick. Finally, the man put the lion in a cardboard box with holes, and when it was opened, the lion saw the smiling face of a girl in a party hat.
“You got me a lion cub?” she squealed.
The girl had never been so happy, and neither had the lion, except for during his days in the wild. But he was growing too fast, and one day the girl’s Dad put him in the back of their car, and walked him on a leash into the zoo.
“I’m not the only one. All the lions here have a story like me. And the cheetahs too.”
Maya felt anger bubbling in her stomach. She was so angry that she forgot the scrapes on her skin and the aches from where she’d fallen. She sat up and felt her head spin.
“This isn’t fair! We’ve got to do something.”
The lion roared his agreement, and Maya heard the echoes of other lions roaring back. There were at least thirty lions down there in cages, hidden from the public.
Maya’s father sprinted through the zoo, calling her name. The girl was nowhere to be found. Antonia trotted reluctantly behind him. She didn’t see why he would miss Maya when she was providing a brand new kid for him.
“Where did you leave her?” he growled.
“By the lions,” Antonia said.
They arrived in the big cats section, and Maya’s father skidded to a stop, unsure of where to look. Then, both of them heard a squealing child who was standing in front of the lion enclosure, looking in.
“Look Mummy! Look!”
“Look, look, there’s a girl!”
The child’s mother let out a soul-tearing scream when she saw Maya cartwheeling for the lions. The scream was so loud that Antonia was sure Maya was done for, and hurried over, doing her best to look concerned.
When she saw Maya riding on the back of a lion, she knew she was toast. She let out a shrill little scream of her own. Maya’s father was pale, and swayed like he might fall over. Maya looked up at them, smiled and waved.
“Don’t worry Daddy, I’m okay!”
Maya returned to the lions as she grew older, and told the zookeepers their grievances with the food and the lack of space. In exchange, the keepers let her play in the enclosure after visiting hours. They called her Maya The Lion Tamer, and though she hated Antonia, Maya loved her new baby brother when he arrived.
Maya also befriended the boy who lived in the iguana enclosure… but that’s another story for another time.
Artwork by Icinori