Takes Dying Animals
Ellie wakes me up in the pitch black to search for the missing ferret. Most evenings, she closes the cages after me, but tonight she fell asleep tending to the other ferret’s cancer. There are two ferrets with cancer. One has it in the pancreas, the other the blood.
We stand in the kitchen pondering the ferret’s viable escape routes. Ellie narrows them down to garage (immediate street access), or backdoor (straight shot to the river). I can’t imagine the ferret practiced this level of execution, but Ellie is convinced, and since she has a way with animals, there’s no arguing it. When she was nine-years old, she climbed up to the roof of our foster home and all the sparrows in the city came and perched on her head and arms until she transformed into a giant sparrow crucifix.
It even made the newspapers—“GIANT SPARROW CRUCIFIX!”—but these things have a way of dying down.
The ferret we’re searching for is pretty recognizable. Most of his hair has fallen out from the pills. Balding is a side effect, and it started two weeks ago around the ferret’s tail. It traveled across his belly, then whittled a weaving barbed wire shape down the length of his back. The other day I teased him, “Cheer up, people pay big money for those tattoos,” but he just stared at me with his red, pointy eyes, his paws dangling lifeless out the bars of the cage. He sniffed, shifting the two remaining whiskers near his nose.
There’s no talking to a ferret is what I’ve always said.
We search all the bushes in the front yard to discover just a frog with a bloodied leg. Belly-up in Ellie’s palm, its broken limb slings from the side like an inoperable oar. She looks upon it, tearful.
Judging from the frog’s bulged eyes, his last sight was not a pleasant one.
“The cruelty of nature,” I say. I’m not sure what I mean, but I like how philosophical it sounds and it seems to relate.
Ellie thinks I’m joking and gets upset. “This is your fault,” she says.
“Now, now,” I say, then repeat, “Now, now,”—stalling.
The truth is, I love to open. Jars. Doors. Windows. The closing, however, I have trouble with, and I left the front, back, garage, and the cage doors open while Ellie focused on the careful work of administering the medications. Usually, the creatures are too weak or sick and just glance at their newly gifted getaways with half-hearted longing, resigned to their fate, but that bald ferret dragged his body across the entire cage floor until his nose was pressed to my face, begging, and when I unhooked the clasp, he burst from the cage, then the room, at full speed.
I picture his weepy eyes just moments before, and all I can say is, what an act.
Ellie drops the frog in her coat pocket like a valuable clue: the ferret, in the front yard, with the candlestick!
At the top of the hill, our town is a constellation of golden flecks, and some of the house-stars flicker, as if they too are opening their eyes to missing things. I long for something to open, to peel back the night sky and find the ferret curled beneath it, nibbling at the moon like a giant ferret food pellet. Behind me, Ellie straddles the gravel strip alongside the road with a flashlight and examines a half-dead raccoon. Fresh scrapes are carved into the creature’s stomach by what I assume is an animal much larger than a ferret.
“What’s the verdict?” I ask.
“Female. Unnatural causes.”
A black band of dark fur frames the raccoon’s eyes like a midnight bandit, and it’s matted with thick, yellow goo seeping from her tear ducts. Her night vision eye beams transit the empty road when Ellie drags her to a more peaceful location in the nearby alfalfa.
“That’s what happens,” Ellie explains later. “Everything swells up in there, looking for holes.”
Ellie only takes dying animals. A year ago, she posted an ad on Craig’s List advertising the grand opening of her animal hospice. Her theory: people spend money to put down cats and dogs, but might be more hesitant with the less privileged pets, like rodents. For weeks it went unanswered, mistaken for a scam, so out of pity, I drove for three hours in search of a squirrel struck along the highway. I opened my jacket and nestled it against my chest like a kangaroo pouch. When I got home, I showed it to my sister.
“Look what I found.”
“This isn’t a zoo,” Ellie said.
The squirrel claws poked out like pencil tips from my inside pocket. When I lay it down on the carpet, it stared blankly at our feet, stunned. All it took was the smallest nudge of my sister’s toe to wake that squirrel right up. Luckily, I’d left the front door open, and the squirrel returned miraculously back to the wild. It appeared to be perfectly healthy.
“We saved a life here today,” I said, but Ellie didn’t agree.
At first it was all reptiles—iguanas, snakes—but those things live for years. Duke the turtle has been “dying” in our fruit bowl for over a year. People try to pawn off animals on Ellie all the time, like the woman with the forty-five pound cat with three legs you couldn’t see unless you rolled the calico on his back and dug around his ballooned stomach to wedge them out.
Now Ellie only takes animals with terminal, not chronic, diseases.
The first hopeful sign is a pair of headlights that rise like twin suns from the horizon. They expand as they burst forward, eclipsed occasionally with the road’s sharp turns. We recognize they belong to a taxi, all the way out here by our place, and I want to declare it a miracle, but Ellie seems skeptical.
We wave it down, and the driver decelerates just enough that we have to maintain a brisk jog to explain the situation with the ferret.
“It’s a what?” the driver asks.
“A ferret,” Ellie repeats.
“It’s like a rat combined with a small dog,” I offer.
“Oh, yeah,” the driver says. “I think I saw that thing.”
“A few miles back. Scary looking fucker.”
We ask the driver to retrace his path to the location of the sighting. Ellie sits in the front seat for a better vantage point with one hand bracing the dashboard, the other the door handle, her whole body tensed and ready to dislodge from the moving vehicle at the slightest grass blade’s rustle. Outside my open window, the passing desert blends, indistinguishable, into itself, and the cold air submerges me with an uncomfortable sting.
If the ferret is out there amongst the Juniper trees, it will see us shoot by like a hot yellow meteor, just two passing recluses in the anonymity of interstellar space.
“Can you close that?” the driver asks.
I’m not quick enough and Ellie answers for me, “She can’t.”
He doesn’t ask her to elaborate, and I’m thankful, although my obsession isn’t difficult to explain: there was a bang, the universe exploded into being, and now it permanently unfolds without ever closing a thing.
“What were you doing out here?” I ask the driver, curious.
“Wherever. With a sky this big, the roads are elastic.”
Ellie is unimpressed with the poetry and asks him to step on it.
“This isn’t charity,” the driver says. He taps the meter several times for emphasis.
By chance, Ellie ended up with the two ferrets. At first, she attempted to get them to play together, to form a species-sickness camaraderie, but whenever she aligned them on the carpet with a pile of plush toys between them, the other ferret just looked at the balding one with Darwinian disgust then curled into himself, clearly depressed.
“It’s the worst way to go,” Ellie says, referring to the cancer, its evolutionary slowness, unnoticed at first, until it erases genera entirely.
The driver offers a confirming nod. “My parakeet had a brain tumor. Inoperable.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Paralyzed her left wing for a bit. But she stayed chirpy throughout.”
Ellie’s eyes, rimed red from little sleep, lack hope, yet she continues to search prayerfully across the horizon. She has always been the spiritual one in the family. When Lo was still alive, Ellie used to take her to the neglected church down the street where she fed her leftover communion wafers. One afternoon a priest showed up and explained to Ellie that animals have no souls then strongly discouraged her from administering the Eucharist to gerbils.
“She’s a Slow Loris,” Ellie corrected.
They stared at Lo, who sat upright on the wooden pew with a wafer between her opposable thumbs. Her porcelain eyes tracked the birds in the rafters, and she continued to lick at her palms even after the priest emptied them. She had liver disease, and the owner couldn’t take her to the vet because she was imported illegally. There are laws about treating exotic, potentially contaminated animals.
For the six weeks that Ellie cared for her, Ellie grew attached to Lo’s human-like personality, her adorable sluggishness, the way every morning they sat side-by-side at the kitchen table while Ellie reviewed the medication chart for the animals, and like a long married couple, Lo unfolded her five-fingered hand to anticipate the two pills Ellie routinely had her take. Occasionally, I still catch Ellie examining Lo’s empty chair. Of all the critters that have passed under our roof, she took Lo’s death the hardest.
Whenever I try to ask her about it, Ellie cites Doctor-Patient confidentiality.
The meter reaches twenty-six dollars before we turn on a narrow road cut cleanly through an alfalfa field. It eventually convenes with an oasis of wet grass and reeds. Encircling the space, clusters of cattails sway heavily at their tops, the skyscrapers of the marsh, and a mound surges at the center of the damp, concealed cosmos.
The driver turns on his high beams to illuminate it.
“I saw your dog,” he says. “Right there.”
Ellie draws an imaginary axis across the marsh from which she coordinates our search. I revolve along the outside circumference as she works the endless diameters. The driver keeps both meter and radio running as he lounges upside down on the hood of the taxi. With his ankles crossed over the windshield, his head capped by the license plate, he examines the milky sky while I listen to his unintelligible hums, pretending they are incantations offering Ellie and I good luck.
Ellie digs violently through the marsh, even as the clumps of grass dampen her pant legs to the knees. No other sounds surface from the muddy water except our condensed breathes, the dull thump of soaked reeds flattening beneath our feet, and the driver’s muddled singing.
Thirty minutes in, Ellie grabs my elbow at the sound of a splash.
“That was me,” I realize.
“No,” she argues. “The water rose. Over there.”
My sister removes the frog, still dead, from her pocket and maneuvers toward the splash I am certain I made. She holds the carcass out like bait, reaches into the billions of invisible particles that surround and create us, as if she has sifted through the infinity and fixed her eyes on only one.
“Anything?” the driver asks when we return. His face bares the shade of tart fruit.
“Nope,” I say.
He sighs. “One must get lost in order to be found.”
I shake my head to signal that this is not encouraging.
The dimming headlights cast a cadaverous glow over Ellie’s skin. She looks across the marsh again, defeated. She has never left a patient unburied, and I know the thought of it haunts her.
“Where next?” the driver asks.
We look to Ellie. She grips the side of the taxi as if bracing herself against the current of the earth’s spin, which by law, must propel us forward. Her other hand, submerged in her pocket, returns the frog to its fabric tomb.
“To the shelter.”
Ellie knocks on the receiving area’s door for several minutes before a shelter volunteer arrives, exasperated, with syringes between her knuckles that could substitute as knives. When she sees two young women, unarmed, she relaxes.
“We’re not open,” she says.
“This is an emergency,” Ellie clarifies. Ellie explains that she is also a caregiver, that one of her sick animals has gone missing and is due for medication within the hour.
“Cat or dog?”
Ellie hesitates, but then is honest: “Ferret.”
The woman sighs. “There are no rodents here.”
Ellie clarifies that ferrets are technically considered weasels. The volunteer scratches her head with one of the needles and says, “Whatever.”
“We’re also missing a dog,” I lie. “A Pomeranian.”
The woman concedes and guides us into the small waiting area. A percussion of meows, barks, and metal crates rattle behind the walls, while the volunteer unlocks another door via electronic keypad.
Ellie rolls her eyes and whispers, “So corporate.”
Although cages line the walls like bookshelves, Ellie looks past the animals, examines their rumpled blankets instead. Ferrets tend to hoard small objects, so Ellie veers toward the desk and a room full of office supplies. When she starts opening drawers and filing cabinets, the volunteer grows suspicious and reconfigures a syringe between her forefinger and thumb.
To distract her, I run toward the nearest pen and yell, without thinking, “Lo!”
The volunteer comes alongside. “That’s a Pit,” she says.
I recover with, “She’s a mix.”
With an automatic twist of my wrist, I open the cage to free the dog. Immediately, it saunters past me. The volunteer’s mouth tightens when she realizes that the canine has no familiarity with me, is clearly not my animal, but the sniffing pup, snout down, walks toward my sister until its wet nose reaches the empty space between her knees.
Then, as if in obedience, the animal bows at Ellie’s feet.
My sister’s expression is the same one she wore at the kitchen table all those mornings with the actual Lo between us, where she delivered her lecture to me countless times: We build galaxies for cats and dogs—to foster them, to save them—but as the rest of the creatures perish, we chalk it all up to survival of the fittest.
My sister, who has never rejected a living being, scratches behind the dog’s ears.
“There she is,” Ellie says. “My Lo.”
When the sun finds us, we are still in the taxi, miles outside of our small town, fused between the mountains and desert, with every window open, all of us—the driver, the frog, the Pit Bull and me—waiting on Ellie, on her miraculous belief, to admit that we will not find the ferret, that there are no mysterious things that come after, that all we can do is close our eyes tight and think of the empty open road, of all four paws sinking into the wettest, deepest marsh, knowing none of us are the animals that will keep on living.
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