When they told me they were getting a divorce, my parents
took me to the pet store. I was thirteen by then, and had been waiting for them
to figure out how to break the news for two years before they mustered up the
nerve. I didn’t need a consolation. Practically none of my friends had married
parents, so I knew what divorce really meant—two Christmases and fewer fights.
I’d easily trade the mortgage for that. But if they were going to buy me a pet
to make themselves feel better, I wasn’t going to stop them.
Dad was pushing the glow-in-the-dark fishes pretty heavily,
because he didn’t want any animal that required him to scoop up shit. Mom
wanted something cute and conventional that she could show off to her book club
friends. I left them arguing by the poodles and went over to the cages where
the hamsters and rats were kept.
I didn’t like the way they moved, the rodents, all jittery
and anxious like they had coffee in their weird little straw-bottles instead of
water. I wondered for a moment if that was something I could do, if I bought
one. Get a rat hooked on caffeine and set it loose in the city.
Mom and Dad found me pretty quick, and Dad took one look at
the rat and shot his eyebrows into his receding hairline. “What are you doing
over here?” he asked, like he was begging me not to say I wanted a rat.
I didn’t, not really, so I made something up quick and
pointed across the aisle at the chinchilla. “I think I might like one of
Mom laughed. “That’s not a pet. That’s something you make coats out of.”
That stung a little, but I didn’t actually want a chinchilla so we moved on to the next aisle before
they could start bickering again. We were surrounded now by birds, chirping and
singing and cooing at one another, pecking at the bars. One was even hanging
upside down from the top of its cage like a bat.
They all went quiet out of nowhere, except one. It was
yellow, bright, singing at the top of its lungs. I looked at my parents. They
looked at each other. We bought the canary.
I called her Calliope because I was deep in that Greek
mythology phase you go through in middle school when everything you feel takes
place in epic proportions that only old legends have the scope to encapsulate.
I carried her cage back and forth every other weekend and cleaned it out
myself. Her song sounded a little like a car alarm. Mary Yang told me that only
boy birds sing, but I figured it was a bird and as long as it was caged up and
alone it didn’t really care one way or another what I called it.
Sometimes I would talk to Calliope in my room at night
because I couldn’t really tell Mom or Dad the things I was thinking. I had
friends, but the one-layered middle school variety of friends who you knew from
algebra or jazz band and you only ever talked to in algebra or jazz band. They
didn’t know one another, and they didn’t know about the other facets of my
life. I didn’t like my foods to touch.
With Calliope it was different. For one thing, I kept her in
a cage so she couldn’t go anywhere. She was a bird, so she couldn’t tell
anyone. And when she cocked her head and went quiet it felt like she was
listening for real, like she was sympathizing and understanding.
I told her about how embarrassing it was when the teacher
paired me and my crush Johnny Cochrane together for a science lab when I had a
bad breakout, or how I got my first period in second period and I had to be
sent home because I bled through my pants, or how Madison and Kayla were in a
huge fight and I couldn’t even say anything about it because they’d accuse me
of taking sides and then I’d be the bad guy to both of them somehow. I even
told Calliope about how Mom got a new boyfriend she thought I didn’t know
about, but how sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear
her with him doing it in her room. I
wondered if Dad knew she had moved on so fast. I wondered if he would, too.
It was pretty easy to talk to Calliope, and after a while
she started kind of cheeping back at me when I spoke like she was
commiserating. I tried to show Dad, once, and dragged him to my bedroom to show
that Calliope would talk to me, but she didn’t do it with him around. He said
something like, “If you wanted a bird that could talk, you should’ve bought a
When he left I turned to Calliope and gave her my meanest
I flopped onto my bed—less comfortable than the one at Mom’s but with a prettier comforter—and shut my eyes for a few minutes, breathing slow and deep to control myself. I felt like crying suddenly, even though there was no reason to. I didn’t want to cry, and that made it even harder not to.
Suddenly Calliope spoke, but this time it wasn’t just
“Don’t cry,” she said, and she said it with my voice.
I sat up straight, my eyes suddenly dry, and I opened my
mouth to respond, but all that came out was a meek little peep.
“It’s going to be alright,” Calliope said.
I tried to cry out and found myself singing her usual
“Open up my cage.”
And I did.
“Now open up your window.”
It was unnerving to watch her talk. She just slightly opened
her beak, and didn’t move it at all when the sounds of her speech changed. The
words flew out like they’d been recorded, and as I opened my window I cheeped
something to that effect.
“It won’t be for long, love,” she said, and suddenly I felt
my arms go cold and goose-pimpled.
“I’m going to fly away now,” she said. “And you’ll never see
me again. But you’ll have your voice back, and you should really use it to talk
to someone other than a bird.”
I twittered indignantly, and she cocked her head to the side
a little. “Really. You’re thirteen years old. Have some agency.”
And with that she took flight.
I twittered and cheeped and sang and called until my voice
became my own again, yelling, “Wait!”
But she was already out of my sight by then and there was
nothing else to do.
My father burst in
after a moment and took in the scene—the open window, the empty birdcage, the
wild, raw look in my eyes—and said, “Oh, honey,” and I ran into his arms and
We had a cat. She was oil-gushing, midnight-piercing,
charcoal-crumbling black, so we called her Black Cat. It was simple, really—no
debate or anything.
Sometimes we’d set fires in the backyard. We’d gather up all
the twigs in a pile, away from the uncut grass. Black Cat would sit and stare
at the fire all glassy-eyed, like she was waiting. Even when the ashes stopped
glowing, she’d stay there, watching.
That was how we found her in the first place. It was summer and the sky was stark and starless, and the grass was brown from weeks without a storm. They told us there was a wildfire advisory, so of course we had to set something ablaze. Everything caught just like we’d hoped, and after the smoke and the flare and the fizzle, we saw Black Cat just out of the reach of the light, with her eyes gleaming steady.
We watched her back, playing chicken to see who could go
longest without blinking. She won by mere seconds—once we both cracked, she
shut her eyes all slow and opened them back up real lazy-like. She followed us
into the house when our yawns told us it was curfew, and that was that.
We never saw her eat, but we knew she did. She was lithe,
all fur and bones, but when we’d leave out saucers of milk and little dishes of
chopped up meat, they’d be empty by morning—licked clean, even. She didn’t seem
to like to do a whole lot while we were watching, really. Anytime we were in
the room she’d just sort of stop whatever she was doing and curl up. She didn’t
even really meow.
She could purr something mighty, though, like a motorcycle
engine rumbling in her chest. Sometimes she’d sit in a little patch of sun on
the carpet and kind of buzz. Her eyes would always be open, looking right into
the light even though we told her it was bad for her vision. She wasn’t much of
a listener, that Black Cat.
She definitely didn’t like strangers. One time about a month
after she showed up, Mrs. Davenport from next door came over to check on us and
was asking all about where our parents had gone. We didn’t really want to tell
her the whole thing because we didn’t want her to call Child Services, but
lucky for us Black Cat was there and she jumped up and bit Mrs. Davenport right
on that wrinkly, flappy skin beneath her arms. We had to say all kinds of sorry
and pretend we were mad at Black Cat for show, but it got Mrs. Davenport to
leave and stop asking all her nosy questions pretty quick.
The fire we set that night was extra big. We even went out
in the woods behind Kevin Rothschild’s house and got some sassafras twigs
because he told us sassafras makes real nice-smelling smoke. We made a kind of
monster pile of twigs and grass and a few bigger sticks that had fallen down
the last time it had stormed—we weren’t so sure about cutting down trees
ourselves and anyway our axe was all busted off the handle so it wasn’t much
good for anything. We stacked it real tall until it kind of looked like it was
gonna fall over, and then we lit a match and threw it in. We didn’t realize
Black Cat was outside with us until she bounded over and hunched down real
close to the fire like she was gonna pounce on it. The flames were dancing in
her eyes, and she looked a little scary right then, real powerful, like a piece
of the night sky torn down and brought here to the earth.
The fire started to pop and hiss when the sassafras caught,
and Black Cat started her little buzz-purr-rumble so it was competing with the
fire. The wind started howling too and it was a kind of eerie little orchestra.
We both got goosebumps even with the fire crackling right there in front of us.
We remembered that one time before Mom left when she told us
that the night was not a thing to be trifled with. She always liked big words
like that, trifled. We knew she was
dead serious because her breath smelled like tequila. She only told the truth
when she was wasted.
Black Cat kept rumbling something awful, and we didn’t
realize it but we’d started shrinking together until our arms were wrapped
around each other tight. Black Cat was a feral creature and we couldn’t really
own her, we knew that now. She opened her mouth all wide and we could see the
little red stains on her teeth where they’d sunk into Mrs. Davenport’s arm
earlier. The fire made her tongue look orange.
The wind picked up some more and the fire got real tall all
of a sudden, and we wanted to move but were too scared to try it. Next door
Mrs. Davenport’s porch light flickered on.
The fire got bigger and bigger and Black Cat got louder and
louder and then there was a knock at the gate and everything all stopped. The
fire was just embers, and Black Cat was sitting there purring all quiet-like
and normal, with her mouth closed and her eyes just yellow-gold again.
We got up after a moment and went to the gate. It was Mrs.
Davenport and she insisted on coming into the yard because of course she did.
She was always kind of pesky, used to gossip to all the neighbors until they
realized she was talking about them behind their backs. Now she was kind of
lonely and sad, but still a real busybody with no sense of what was her
business and what wasn’t. She came right over to our fire pit and looked right
at it with a strange sort of grown-up contempt, the look they get when they
think they’re too good for fun things, and we felt something kind of like pity
until she opened up her thin little mouth.
“You kids have got to
get yourselves under control. Where are your parents? Where’s that deadbeat
mother of yours, that trucker father? What kind of people leave two rowdy boys
alone in a house like that?”
Those were exactly the kinds of questions we’d been asking
ourselves lately but it hit differently to hear her say them out loud. One of
us started crying. The other got all jumpy-nerved and tense.
We didn’t have anything to say and she wouldn’t soften just
looking at us. Kept muttering to herself as she started to stamp out our fire
with her big pink slippers.
“Stupid kids, bastard parents, what do you expect? You can’t
have a neighborhood with this kind of riff-raff running around all the time
setting fires, of all things.”
She was going and going and we were stuck still in place and Black Cat started rumbling again, loud like before. The wind joined her like they were duet partners and suddenly the fire caught up again. The tops of Mrs. Davenport’s slippers caught, and instead of kicking them off she just sort of yelped and bent down to beat at the flames with her hands. Black Cat leapt up and bit her again, right there in the face, purring all the while, and the fire grew and grew. Now we were both wide-eyed and open-mouthed, but we didn’t say a word as her blood dripped onto the twigs and the orange flames climbed her stupid bathrobe, her ridiculous papery skin. She might have been screaming but the wind carried it away.
The moon emerged from behind a cloud and the trees looked like they were dancing in the gale. We could hear the cicada hum now, and when the fire dipped down again Mrs. Davenport was nowhere to be seen, not even her bones. Black Cat sat licking her bloodied claws and an owl hooted somewhere close by. We pulled apart, looked at one another, looked at Mrs. Davenport’s flickering porch light, gaped at the sky full of stars. When we looked back down, Black Cat was gone, and she had taken the smell of the sassafras with her, leaving only green grass scent and the pines on the breeze.
I kept all your milk teeth in an old jam jar, you know, after taking them from underneath your pillow. Over the years I paid you twenty dollars in singles and collected an ever-increasing rattle, holding you while you cried and bled and healed and teethed again. You never lost your faith in the Tooth Fairy or Santa or the Easter Bunny, even when you were ostensibly too old not to wonder, and I had to fill you in over steaming bowls of pho at the corner store on Second and Main and you did your best to fight the tears but they came strong as ever.
You were a late bloomer, a real shrinking violet when it
came to speaking up, and the other moms would always tell me how to fix you
with honey in their voices and arsenic in their eyes. Don’t you think he’s a little strange, they’d always ask, and haven’t you tried music therapy or tae kwon do or did you give him the MMR vaccine before he started to talk? It was
that sticky smile in the asking, the way their questions sounded like
accusations, the pseudoscientific bullshit they’d shoot me with until I stopped
showing up to parent functions.
So bright, you always were, though, and curious, but your
fear grew in lopsided like your upper left canine. You gave no thought to
reckless things, stepped into traffic to see how headlights look up close, but
shrank at little things like raising your hand or talking to the boy next door.
I always told you life was a fragile thing like the little glass doll you used
to love that fell and lost her head. You never listened.
Rough and tumble, you racked up scrapes and bruises faster
than I could count, but as you aged the nature of them changed. Your eyes grew
purple underneath from late nights studying, your wrists callused from resting
against the keyboard. Your teeth straightened out on their own, almost like
you’d willed them to when you found out how damn much braces would cost. You
were always stubborn like that.
Anyway, all this is just to say that I still had your teeth
rattling around in my bedside table when you graduated, and I still had your
teeth when you moved away to college on the opposite coast, and they sat in the
jar still rimmed with residue of age-old peach preserves when they became all
that was left of you.
They kept you in cold storage for almost a month while I
made up my mind because I knew you couldn’t bear the thought of being chewed by
worms, but I couldn’t let them turn you to dust. Those are your options, they told me, take your time (but not too much). I could hear the parentheticals,
and I could hear the tick-tick-ticking as the clock wound down. I didn’t know
what they’d do to you if I couldn’t decide. But I couldn’t decide.
You’d never believe it if I—no, you would. Only you would,
because when I was talking to you with my mouth half-full of noodles you
stopped me with watery eyes and made me promise never to lie to you again. I
held fast to that promise just as soon as I gulped down the broth and we were
always straight with each other. You used to tell me things, but you stopped.
Sometimes I wonder if…
But you were cold and hard and smooth, like a diamond in one
of those fancy steel drawers, and I was hours away because I couldn’t afford
the plane ticket out with all the cost of the funeral I was delaying. I slept
with the windows open like always, letting the sound of rain on rustling leaves
try to steady my breathing. I was curled into myself beneath the blankets and I
remembered the way your hair used to smell when you were little, sweet and
clean like day-old shampoo and a hint of sweat and fabric softener and vanilla.
I couldn’t cry.
But something scuttled at the windowsill and when it
wouldn’t stop I looked up. In the dim illumination of the city’s light-polluted
glow, there was just the fuzzy outline of a squirrel, slick aerodynamic body
belied by a bloated silk-spun tail, perched and staring with glassy eyes. I
froze, a shiver sliding up my spine, and could only watch as the squirrel leapt
down to the nightstand and bent over, its small busy hands tugging at the
Everything that followed was sounds. A whoosh as the drawer
opened, a thud as the squirrel leapt in, and the sound of rustling as it
burrowed, searching, searching. The rattle of teeth as it found its mark.
It lifted the jar and leapt out of the drawer holding it,
though by all odds it shouldn’t have been strong enough to do so. And it shook
the jar some more, scampering back to the windowsill on two stubby legs, and in
a last brief flash of lightning before it jumped away, it smiled, and that
squirrel had your teeth.
I called up that minute when a gunshot thunderbolt swept the
squirrel away and no one answered, of course, because it was the middle of the
night, even in your time zone. But the next morning I looked out at the little
mound of overturned dirt beneath the roots of that oak you used to play by, and
I called them and told them to bury you in the ground before winter because
that wasn’t you anymore, not really. You were a beautiful boy, you were, and
now you are only a smile.