Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Creature Nights by Matt Kamm- An Original Short Story

Creature Nights by Matt Kamm

        Our yard was filled with magnificent trees. Half a dozen thick black walnuts and ancient oaks.  In the summer I would struggle up the trunks and peek into the birds’ nests that were woven among the branches. Mainly spit and sticks with the occasional cigarette cellophane or candy wrapper. I was not supposed to climb the trees because it wasn’t proper for a girl, Mother said. Our lawn was flawless and polite. There was not a single pebble or prick throughout. It was cut and raked weekly by a gardener who also cared for the vegetables and fruit trees. My mother would have appreciated if I was more like the lawn: flat and well kept. Instead I was round and usually in need of a bath.  I would occasionally be sent out to fill baskets with pears and apricots, but they were never eaten.  They would sit decoratively on the kitchen counter when Mother had guests over for cocktails and they were promptly tossed out in the morning. “They’ll attract gnats,” she explained.

      On the evenings when she was drinking with friends I was entirely liberated from my mother’s awareness. I could finally climb trees and run back and forth across the street without consequence.  Mother was Cerberus in a pantsuit, and the sidewalk was my Styx; Oh, I played the most elaborate version of the-floor-is-lava!  If there was not a drink in her hand I was under constant scrutiny. My legs were too fat, my knees always scraped. This, I was told, was the reason men would never visit me when I grew up.
      When men would visit the house for supper I ritualistically cleared my place when I was finished and retreated to my bedroom.  From there, I would hear laughing that sounded nothing like my mother’s.  It was mechanical and it repulsed me.  During meals I secretly inspected whichever strange face occupied the head of the table. 
 I then decided what animal he most closely resembled. In my bed, I would draw him as the appropriate animal and then tape him to my wall. Only then could I understand my mother’s hysteria. Tortoise, frog, zebra, rat, caterpillar, goat. I laughed too.

      Summer storms sporadically visited, but the evening of Tortoise was remarkably violent. As I sharpened crayons at the kitchen table he walked through the front door. Rainwater spilled from the brim of his cap as he stood in the dark vestibule. He hung his cap and overcoat before hugging Mother. He stayed two steps behind as she showed him around.  Their murmurs shifted around me as they probed each room. Finally they arrived at the kitchen. His eyes moved across the arched ceiling to the crystal chandelier which hung centered above the table; the kitchen and my bedroom were the only rooms lighted by more than candles on creature nights.     

 Cerberus introduced me to Tortoise. Names and how-do-you-dos.
 “You two talk a minute while I finish setting up”
She began to hack apart store-bought eggplant and shrimp. She was clumsy with a knife – the gardener would have done a better job with his hedge trimmer. Stuffed eggplant was my least favorite item in the creature-feed menu rotation.
He settled into the chair across from mine.
 Tortoise’s skin was as worn and scarred as mother’s retired riding boots. His fingers were thick and made heavy thump-thumps on the table as he shifted in his chair, dumbly feeling for words.
 He asked if I enjoyed coloring. I wanted to tell him that we eat with sharp crayons in this house and that I was preparing for supper.
I heard the chopping stop and looked to Mother. She held a nod and sucked her upper lip at me.
 “I draw animals”
  Chopping resumed.
 He said he didn’t know about coloring or animals. 
 He knew about furniture because he made furniture and he’d be making furniture for a long time. He guaranteed that my bed was furniture, and that the chair I was    sitting in was furniture.
        We sat quietly for a moment before he asked what kind of careers might interest me. 
 I wasn’t to worry about it “I’ll find out when I’m in college.” That’s what mother had told me.
As he opened his mouth to say something I looked very closely at his face.  It was curious that he kept such young eyes; the rest of his body was petrified wood. Mother interrupted before he spoke.
“Come get your plates you two! There’s extra shrimp in the pan.”
She poured two big glasses of yellow wine and a single mug of milk as we took our plates and sat.  Tortoise’s plate had a full eggplant half, stuffed with shrimp and basil. Mother and I shared the other half.  The basil was from our garden and very strong. I breathed out of my nose and pretended that the sweet pungent taste came out of my nostrils as green smoke.
        They talked about horseback riding and cabinets. Mother was a champion show jumper before she had me. If I had the right body type she would have taught me, but some things she couldn’t help, she told me. Tortoise had once built a bookcase that was later sold to an important politician.  He said there was even a photograph, published in a newspaper, with the politician sitting at a desk in front of that bookcase. 

I felt full. I cleared my place and said goodnight. Before leaving the kitchen, Tortoise handed me his business card.  
“What do you say?” pushed mother.
It read Pete Ruch’s Woodworking and Restoration in bold type.  It had an address and a sketch of an old old-fashioned stool.  Rat gave me five dollars, dim land-turtle! I politely smiled and escaped to my room.
I colored before turning out the light to sleep.  I drew a tortoise shell with a man head and limbs.  The hands and feet had claws and were covered in gray scales. I left the eyes out completely because the body was ominous and funny. His eyes would have ruined the drawing. I couldn’t have laughed at those eyes.
        Creatures rarely spent the night so I was startled when Tortoise’s coat and hat still hung in the morning. I stared through my half-asleep eyes. His coat smelled like firewood and his boots were wet.  Mother’s explanation was that the storm was too violent for him to return home safely.
I laughed.  No tortoise ever leaves his home.
Tortoise sat at the kitchen table with a coffee.
“Morning. Did you see outside?”
I hadn’t. He said to look.  I opened the front door and placed both hands over my ears – my insides turned to smoke and I wanted to fold over but my skin was a goose bumped carapace. A walnut tree split down the middle and charred as if a giant lumberjack had struck it with a fiery splitter. Horse sized branches had turned the ground and destroyed the lawn.  I was near tears when I felt a mitt on my head.
“That tree was older than me. There’s good wood left there though. I’m going to take it away for your ma. I can use it at the shop - there’s still good wood there ya know.”
I left the house to investigate, barefoot and still in a nightgown.  The split was black and deep. I touched my nose to the charcoal and tasted lightning’s metallic vestige. My hands were covered in soot.
“Stay away from there!” Mother shouted from the house behind me.
I took a step back for a final look. My insides were recoagulating.
As I turned to leave I heard a pitiful voice, a bird call resembling stone scraped across a blackboard. I looked about and saw nothing. Again I heard it and I looked back to the split tree. A small crow had been sitting before me, disguised in the ash because he too was completely black.  His call was ugly and sad and came from a beak too large for his head.
“Where is your home?”
I looked up where the tree used to block out the sun and it was bright. I felt bad for asking. He needed a new home.
The bird made a gurgling sound.
“Please, stay put!”
I ran through the yard and back into the house.
Mother and Tortoise were murmuring with serious tones inside the vestibule. I took a dishtowel and the empty fruit basket off the kitchen’s granite counter and returned to the tree.
“Hop in. Please hop in!”  He turned his head and looked at me with one eye. I evenly lined the basket with the towel.
“It’s nice, you see, hop in!” He made no sign of moving.
I felt the mitt on my head again. Tortoise moved very quietly for somebody made of stone. I looked up at his face and his eyes were sad and droopy. He looked older than before. I was impressed that mother managed a frown out of a creature that had a smile shaped beak.
“ Well, it wouldn’t sit okay to leave it alone. It wouldn’t be right, it’s just a chick. The whole family was cooked up I’ll bet.”
“Please, don’t tell my mother!”
“No – you don’t worry about that. We’ll have to find a place for it. Not in the house for now.”
 I struggled to trust Tortoise but I had no options. I had never spoken to one of Mother’s creatures outside of a dinner.
“The gardener’s shed. Nobody goes in there.”
Tortoise used the towel to wrap the fledgling and placed it in the basket.  The bird gargled at him.  We brought the basket to the shed and set it on the work bench. The shed was maintained beautifully by the gardener: tools were lined up neatly and even the floor was swept. Light came through a single window above the work bench.
“We need a box. Mother will miss this basket.”
There was an old wooden crate in the corner of the shed. Tortoise picked it up and removed the contents - a few empty seed packets.
“That will work!”
Tortoise picked up the crate and set it gently on the bench.  I dumped the bird from the basket into the crate.
“Be careful. We don’t want to hurt it.”
I was still skeptical of Tortoise’s care. He said goodbye and left.  I sat with the bird for a while; I had never had a pet before.
        The next morning Tortoise returned with a herd of axe wielding brutes. I cracked the back door and watched as they methodically removed the helpless tree. They worked without rest as if there were whips to their backs:  muscles straining, sweating, panting like driven bison. They finished around noon, leaving sawdust mounds and a stump, cut level with the ground.
The brutes left and Tortoise came inside. He patted my head and asked how the bird was.  I hadn’t checked so we went to the shed and looked together.  The bird was awake and hopped about when I knocked on the crate.
“He’ll need to eat ya know.” I didn’t know what to feed him.
“I’ll go to the library tomorrow. Don’t birds eat worms?”
Tortoise shrugged.
        Mother had planned a lunch for that day.  It seemed too early to have a guest, and peculiar to have the same guest twice.
“I’ll just get cleaned up in the washroom. If I’m too long don’t wait to eat,” he said.  I folded napkins and set up the places while mother prepared the meal.  There was rice boiling on the stove and lemons on the counter. She pulled a knife through a fresh rainbow trout, spilling its fat belly.
“My, I’d be surprised if a fish this fat could swim. It will be happier in our stomachs.”
I laughed.
Tortoise returned from his shower and smelled like Mother. I pictured a tortoise with three heads and thought I would draw it later. My crayons needed sharpening.
“Come on, sit down.”
Mother finished the plates and brought them to the table. The fillets were a subtle pink and lay nestled next to a mound of rice.
Tortoise cut a piece of fish with his fork, brought it to his mouth then froze.
 “Do you think this trout is wild or farmed?”
Mother paused a moment and said,
“Fish are all the same to me. They sizzle in the pan.”
“I think it was pregnant!” I said laughingly.
Tortoise looked at me curiously.
“It was a really fat one.” I explained.
Mother asked Tortoise if he wanted beer or wine.
“I’ll pour us some waters. Do you want a lemon?” Tortoise countered.

Dinner was quieter than usual. We ate for a while before anybody spoke.  I thought Tortoise must have been too tired to talk but he eventually broke the silence:
“I’m using your tree in two new projects”
“What are they?” I asked quickly.
 “Gifts for you and your mother. You’ll see before long. When I stop by next - for now it’s a secret” Tortoise winked at me and I smiled back.

                That night I carefully drew the three-headed tortoise. When it was done it was wonderful and I marveled as it was the best creature ever hung on my wall! I fell asleep thinking about the crow, and the three headed tortoise and what surprises Tortoise may have.

When I awoke, I sat up immediately.  I was excited to visit the library and find food for the crow.  I went to the kitchen and there was a pot of hot cereal on the stove.  Mother was usually in the kitchen at this time of day.  She lay in bed with an upset stomach.  I ate alone then capered out the door in my pajamas to visit the crow. I pulled open the shed gate and stood on my tiptoes to look in at the bird.
My downy pet lay face up with wings extended, staring at the ceiling, his mouth agape. I thought this was a funny way to sleep – then I knocked on the crate.  The bird did not move. I picked him up and he maintained his position. Horror gripped me all at once and I crumpled.  I silently sobbed into his downy breast. I needed Tortoise to help.
I returned to the house and changed into day clothes. I gathered my crayons and sat at the table. I twisted them in their plastic sharpener. I sharpened them all. I had at least a hundred.  By the time I regained control of my tears, my crayons were all sharp and half their original length. I sat and stared at the front door through the vestibule. I had nothing to draw.
        About a week went by and I didn’t color.  I hoped that when Mother began to feel better Tortoise might come back.   She wasn’t getting better. A doctor came to visit but did not stay long.  I sat in the kitchen, gripping the sides of my chair until he came out of her room.
“She’ll be better soon, we fixed her right up with some pills!” He told me.
I sighed heavily and relaxed.
By the next weekend Mother was feeling better and  said that we were having a guest for supper. I sat at the tabled and sharpened the other ends of my crayons. It was around supper time when Tortoise came through the front door.  Mother went to greet him and I stood on my chair. I opened my arms and waited for a hug.
“Get down before you fall,” Mother said.
Tortoise opened he arms and I jumped into his arms.  He laughed and set me on the floor.
“I brought you something,” he said.
Mother turned her head like a puzzled dog.
It sat in the vestibule. I switched on the light.
It was magnificent. It was our house, the size of a picnic basket.  The details were perfect, there was even a tiny doorknob.  There was, however, no inside and the back of the house was wooden bars. It was an empty shell of a house, perfect only for small animals. I thought it must have been the most elaborate cage ever built.
I was shaking with excitement. My eyes were as wide as apples. Then I remembered:
“Our bird is dead.”
Tortoise knelt down and patted my head. His eyes looked even older now.
“I would have liked to have it” He said. “It would have been fun.”
I balanced the cage on my head and hurried into my room. I tore the creature drawings from my wall and replaced them by pushing the house across the hardwood floor to where they used to hang.

Tortoise came in and said he wasn’t going to stay for supper. He only wanted to bring the cage. He said he was sorry about the bird.
“The bars on this cage are too big anyhow.  He would have needed to grow into them.”
He said the bars were left over from another project.
“The one for Mother?”
“That’s right.”
 “She doesn’t get her surprise?”
“She didn’t want it.”
I laughed.


Post a Comment