The Small Animals
Inside my body is another tiny me, smaller than a fingernail. But this person lives a few miles outside town, in a cottage in a field of tall grass with a small stream he can wade and even sit down in to cool off in when the day grows hot. The water is cold there as it runs over gravel from the wall of pines just a stone's throw away. Sometimes deer step from those trees at dusk when this other me is sitting on the back porch reading in the fading light, with a cup of tea. He wanders out sometimes in the near-dark and sits by the stream to look for the first stars. His wife stays inside, working at her loom, making tapestries and baby clothes, singing softly. Sometimes she works through the night and sleeps all the next day in their wood-paneled bedroom whose window looks out on the empty road. And no one plows that road in winter, so the other me inside me must walk all the way to town for supplies.
The food he brings back is delicious, and she is always waiting when he gets home—as though she'd forgotten who he is, what he looks like, and is pleased to meet him. Down in the basement the potatoes have started to grow with ever-greater urgency, aching for this other me to come down there and gather them. Up in the attic spider webs grow thick. Everyone thinks of these people with the names of trees, thinks of them turning vivid colors in the fall. We'll go out for a drive, someone says to his family, and visit the hills that are red and yellow-orange, and then we'll stop in town for cider and pie. The man and his wife wait for these visitors, though they live in that field of tall grass beside pine trees, whose colors never change much, only turning slightly darker.
Every morning before the neighborhood swimming pool opened, I helped the lifeguard collect the water rats he'd caught in the mousetraps that often only stunned them. He'd grab the rat's tail and drop the rat into a brown paper lunch bag, scrunch the bag closed, and chuck the bagged rat as far out into the harbor as he could. Proud of his arm, he claimed he could throw a rat as far as the low-tide islands. But I never watched. He had slicked-back black hair and a cigarette behind the ear, and he thought he sang falsetto like a do-whop star. So he screeched all afternoon up in his lifeguard chair, combing and petting his glistening hair, working on his suntan. He never swam: it messed up his pompadour. Years later I heard he'd gone off to Viet Nam, that he cried now uncontrollably and punched the empty air. He was probably just a few years older than I was, but I flushed with pride when he called out my name or gave me the thumbs up when I did jackknives off the diving board. And the girls I had secret crushes on stood at the foot of his lifeguard chair, faces turned up to him like sunflowers, giggling and snapping their fingers to the radio tunes they all sang along with, the songs I practiced at night that summer, in my basement bedroom, while my parents lumbered and mumbled upstairs, turning off the lights and locking the doors. Then they called down goodnight to me, one after the other. My brother and sister were already sleeping. I could hear small animals moving through the dark, just outside my window, and I wondered what their lives were like. So I turned off my light and just lay there, listening.