THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


(Some) Figures of the Animal at Home

by by Maggie Milner

 

 

 

Their names were the names of heroines from the stories my mother told me in bed. She read to me every night until I was thirteen—the year, not incidentally, of my first tongue kiss. Robert Louis Stevenson, Mother Goose, L.M. Montgom- ery, then Louisa May Alcott, Conan Doyle, Austen. The women were all Emilys or Roses or Elizabeths or Marys. Those became the names of my sisters.

My half-brother was en route to Northwestern the day they were christened. My dad drove with his first wife across the country in an old green van and left their son in Evanston. My mom’s son had already been in college three years, and I was an only child for the first time, alone with my mother and father in a five-room house in the middle of the woods, which is still the only home I have to return to. I don’t know what makes you feign a family for yourself: desperation or unspent love or just generative solitude. Whatever it is, I woke one day with sisters.

They were all different. Emily was my foil: bossy and demanding, we argued over stuffed bears and bowls of pastina. Sarah was shy and deferent. Mary mostly stayed down by the stream hunting fossil rocks and red efts and didn’t come to dinner much. Rosie was pretty and conniving. They were my disciples, my flock, a bunch of girls about my age with no authority over what I ate for breakfast or how gently I scratched on the ears of my cat. They were lost boys and I was Wendy, standing in for their mother in a fort made of treebark and pine boughs. They loved me.

It’s hard to remember, by now, the games we played by the beaver pond and in the closet that was my first bedroom. I have vivid memories of their deaths, though: Mary’s dive off an overpass, Sarah’s drowning in the swimming hole, Emily’s side impact collision with a horse trailer. In bed after a story, my mother asked me where they’d gone. “Rosie was murdered,” I said. “I don’t know who did it.”

*

Mickey showed up one day when i was three, looking through the window at us from a church pew my parents kept on the front porch. He was bright orange with tabby stripes that made an M-shape on his forehead, which my mother used to say stood for “Maggie,” and which meant he was mine. We let him in and put a plate of tuna on the floor. He stayed with us nine years.

It wasn’t the first time a cat had adopted us. Roy was a brown shorthair who appeared in the garage, which was so crowded with old bikes and bed-frames that a car couldn’t fit in it. He wove like smoke through the stepladders and sheets of drywall until we finally caught him and brought him in the house. He died a few days later by the couch.

There was Wendell who arrived in the backyard, and Mavis who my mother carried home from down the road. Wendell disappeared after a while, and Mavis was diagnosed with feline AIDS and put to sleep. But Mickey stayed happily on, with the sagging paunch that neuters get, the flattish face, the tendency to curl up

 

 

 

In the closet on the shoes. We still say he was the sweetest animal we ever knew. Days after he’d gone missing, when Bonnie Craig called to say she’d smelled something rot- ten on her morning walk, my parents wouldn’t let me go with them to see. My mother came back to the house alone to get me, and we walked back together to the place my father buried him. He’d been run over near an apple tree half a mile away.

Since then, my father’s parents have both died; my brothers have gotten married; one has a baby on the way. Still, I haven’t seen my father cry like that since, on his knees on the fresh earth, the shovel beside him, apple tree moving overhead.

*

This is nonfiction, meaning true, meaning not a dream. Though I guess dreams of flying change your sense of the sky when you wake. I’ve never dreamt of flying, only driving.

The month Grandpa David first moved into the nursing home, Jamie Lundecker knocked on our door. I was building a stable for my plastic ani- mals out of blocks on the living room rug. Young enough to still hide behind my mother’s legs when speaking to grownups, I was scared to follow Jamie alone across the road.

The Lundeckers had lived across the road since my parents bought the property in the ‘80s, and always interacted with my family purely perfuncto- rily. Madge and Jamie were the kind of fences-make-good-neighbors neigh- bors, formal and distant, whose old age had made them craggier, recalcitrant. When Jamie died, Madge sold the house, its orchards, footbridge, cemetery full of dead Waldorfs and Sissums. When new neighbors moved into the house, they found the lawn littered with empty cartridges, the barn cluttered with pails of lead paint and ammo, a family of polystyrene deer riddled by gunfire that Jamie had used for target practice. A picture of Kennedy with bullet-holes through his chest and face. A sooty circle where his forehead had been.

It must take something extraordinary to forge a memory at that age, a kind of novel knowledge that the mind takes hold of as a lesson. I remember it though: how he led me down the long driveway to his house, veering off before the barn into a field. The grass was high and sun-singed by late sum- mer, and I waded through it in the wake he left. Halfway in, he put his finger to his lips and pointed to a patch of flattened grass. The fawn was still wet, tremulous and fearful of wind. Fresh from its mother, it was folded the way it had been in the womb, legs buckled bonelessly beneath it, eyes still sealed. The doe, sensing us, was off in the woods. We watched it breathe for a while, then he took me home.