My husband and I have made a quiet and comfortable life together in Brooklyn. I teach at a university and he has his own business down the street from our apartment building. Most evenings, we arrive home from work around 8:00 or so, and order Mexican food, sushi, pizza, or deli sandwiches. If there are any episodes available of the four shows we both like—Project Runway, Lost, So You Think You Can Dance, and True Blood—we’ll watch one as we eat, and then another, and end the night there on the couches, resting. Or we’ll take in a Simpsons or Southpark while we eat, and then Alex will watch a movie and I’ll lie in our pillow-top bed and read the New Yorker or a novel. On weekends, if neither of us has to work, we take walks in the neighborhood and have a few drinks with friends. We are both in good health, we have no children, we rent, and we have a cleaning person who comes every other week, so our shared responsibilities consist entirely of doing the laundry and paying the bills on time. There are, of course, the work stresses. Sometimes one or the other of us gets too overwhelmed or too busy. But for the most part, it is a good and easy life, without many surprises.
A few days ago, however, we came home to a strange smell. It was like the smell of a zoo, that musty mix of straw and shit and the bodies of unknown animals. But it was not exactly that smell—it was one I knew better than that, but I couldn’t quite place it. We tried to ignore it, and figured that when Louis came to clean that weekend, he would freshen the place up. The next evening, we sat down to watch the news while we waited for Project Runway to begin, and there was a report of a pig that had wings or the stumps of wings found lodged in the suspension wires of the Williamsburg Bridge. Tonight, we decided to make dinner instead of ordering in, and I opened the oven to find it caked in ice, and this on a warm September day. And then, when Alex opened the refrigerator to take out the chicken he intended to bake, what he found was not a pale-skinned body wrapped in plastic, but a live hen, feathered and clucking, who jumped out of the refrigerator, shook herself, and then ran around in circles on the kitchen floor, bobbing her head. When I heard, from the coat closet, a distinct “baaa,” I remembered what the smell was.
Alex froze against the kitchen wall and started shouting “What the fuck is going on?” and “Why is there a fucking—what did you do?”
I should have known, all these quiet years, that some day this might happen. I opened the closet door to let the goat out, and then I spoke to Alex in my most soothing voice.
“I didn’t do anything, honey,” I said, and “You’re losing it. Please. Try and pull yourself together.”
On the rare occasions when impossible events crash into an everyday day, I find I have one of two opposite reactions, usually whichever one the other person doesn’t. I don’t think I am alone in this. For example, when I was eight my mother and six year-old brother and I were on a train home to North Philly from downtown and there was a thunderstorm and a tree fell on an electric wire and then they both fell on the train, which derailed, and the lights went off. It was an hour before the conductor let us off the train and we walked between the rails a mile or so in a downpour to the station, where our car was parked, and got home very late to find my father calmly reading John LeCarré in the living room and smoking a pipe. My mother froze in the threshold between the dining room and the living room, so my brother and I froze too, in a rainy trauma tableau. Then my mother started shaking like a washing machine and saying in her highest most-pained-possible voice “We might have been dead, weren’t you worried, how can you just sit there, don’t you have feelings” and my father said “What could I do, I couldn’t do anything about it, what good is worrying if I can’t do anything about it, and you know, worse things could happen.”
I am quite sure that worse things can always happen. You see, I know whose animals these are, and they’re not Alex’s. Alex grew up on the Upper West Side, wearing, or so I imagine, an adorable little sportscoat. Reportedly, when he was seven, his nanny let him collect as many frogs from Central Park as he could fit into a gallon jug and later his mother came home to find him naked in the bathtub covered in amphibians. For a while, he had a dalmatian named Dillon, but the rest of the animals were on television. When I realized, nine years ago, that we were falling in love, I thought I must have tricked him somehow, and so I said, “You don’t understand. The house I grew up in was dirty, and it smelled.” “Okay.” he said. “Okay.” I told him that, but I didn’t tell him about the animals.
A few months after the train wreck, my father got permanently sick, so my mother got calm, and moved us to Indiana to live on the family farm near our grandmothers. My brother and I were city children, and knew only the animals of the Philadelphia zoo, so on our first day on the farm, we saw thirteen snakes, not only garter snakes in the grass but black mambos in the bushes and anacondas winding through the stream and even pythons, thick as branches, wrapped high in the trees that lined our farm’s dirt lane. We thought there were giant sloths and lemurs in the back woods, and brown bears napping in deep and hidden caves and that when we weren’t looking, panthers chased gazelles and wildabeasts across the wild fields. We stayed in the yard.
Our parents decided to homeschool us, though, so gradually, since we had nowhere else to go, we became brave. With our first dog, Sasha, my brother and I followed the tracks of foxes, and searched for the latest litter of kittens hidden in the hayloft by their new mothers. I made friends with Tom, the patriarchal tabby, and he and I shared countless intense feelings as we ventured through the fields and hedgerows to the woods, where we would wait for deer to come to the salt lick, and try to understand what the birds were saying. And when the first crate of baby chicks came by UPS, I slept in the brooder house with them, enchanted, stroking their buttery down and wondering with them about their future lives as grown chickens.
But as my father became more and more sick, the animals changed. By the time I started leaving the farm to go to highschool, and my father started staying in bed much of the time, we were living with not only about twenty cats and a dog but a half-dozen roving demented geese and two ornery pebble-shit-spewing goats and a couple dozen hysterical hens and a tyrannical rooster named Sam, and they all needed some combination of feeding, tethering, egg-gathering, stall-mucking, herding, shit-scooping, and/or killing. The goats were always running away, the cats were always trying to sneak new friends into the barn, and the chickens were getting more and more stupid. And one day, Sam lost it completely.
I have loved, since I moved to New York, the feeling of living in an apartment; an enclosure inside another enclosure, walls within walls, our lives invisible and impersonal and yet surrounded by other human bodies, always nearby. From inside a New York apartment, the city can have the broad quiet feeling of a library. So this should not be happening, but it is happening: our apartment has become permeable in the strangest way. My bookshelves are alive with a soundless flutter of orange and yellow butterflies, and cardinals flash red from perch to perch, while a groundhog waddles secretively from under one couch to the other. I call 311, but when I try to explain our problem, the operator hangs up. There is a muffled knock at the door and when Alex opens it, a faun is shaking our welcome mat in his mouth. What else is there to do? He lets him in.
Our lives must stretch out not just in time but space; we can fall through any moment to another we thought was over forever. On the farm, Sam ruled us all with a frightening precision. Every morning he began crowing exactly an hour before the sun rose, after which the geese would attack the air with their wings and scream, and then the goats would begin to bleat in their stall in the barn, and then the hens would cluck their way out of the brooder house into the barnyard.
But one morning, the August before I left for college, Sam perched on a fencepost outside the brooder house at 4:00 a.m., began crowing, and did not stop. A couple hours later, he climbed into a lilac bush outside of my parents’ bedroom and started doing a little dance inside it, a nonstop cockadiddledoo bush-shaking jig. After a while, my mother went outside in her nightgown and beat the bush for a while with a broom, but Sam wouldn’t budge. When she went back inside, she saw that my father was in a coma.
Up too early because of Sam’s mind-lacerating screams, I stumbled out to the barn to water the goats and pour dry catfood into tin pans. When I arrived in the kitchen cradling the morning eggs in my t-shirt, my mother was absent-mindedly scraping crumbling bacon around in a saucepan.
“There’s something wrong with that rooster,” she said. “And your father is in a coma.”
“You’re burning that bacon,” I said.
I walked to the window to watch my brother shoot his fifty free-throws before breakfast. Despite the noise, he didn’t miss a single one of his last eight shots. On his way back to the house, without looking, he hurled the ball at the lilac bush, but he picked it up again, brushed it off, and brought it inside.
There was no telling when in the night my father had slipped into the space between sleep and death. It was too dangerous to move him, said the doctor when my mother called, so we should just wait it out. Inside the lilac bush, Sam crowed and danced through every morning hour, and when my grandmother came at noon with frozen chicken patties, cole slaw, potato salad, and sweet pickles in plastic containers from Kroger’s Market, the three of us ate lunch to the sound of a crazed screaming rooster flamenco. Sam crowed through the dishwashing and my furious early afternoon trip to move the goats to fresh pasture, and although my brother was in his room practicing his electric guitar all afternoon, I am sure he could hear the crowing after every chord.
My mother, grandmother and I were in the garden picking beans when, as the afternoon light turned suppertime golden, my brother went to the cellar stairway and took down our grandfather’s old .22 caliber rifle from a rack on the wall. In the garden, my mother saw him first, walking out of the house carrying the gun.
“Would you look at that,” she said.
“Where’s he going with that thing?” asked my grandmother.
“I don’t know,” said my mother. “I don’t think he’s touched a gun in his life.”
While we watched, my brother walked straight out the back door twenty feet, turned, took aim at some invisible point deep inside the dancing lilac bush, and shot Sam through the right eye.
Sam was an old rooster, too stringy to eat but good enough for broth. Giggling, my mother broke Sam’s neck, and my grandmother plucked his feathers while he was till warm. I pulled out his insides, and then we set him to simmer in a big pot on the stove. When my brother stalked through the kitchen with his basketball to shoot his fifty free-throws before dinner, my mother asked, in the raised voice one uses with people who are always on their way out of the room, “How did you manage to shoot that rooster right through the eye like that? Was it luck?”
“No,” my brother said, and walked out to the barn.
“What happened?” asked my father, from the bedroom.
“Oh honey,” said my mother. “You’re awake, you’re awake, you’re awake.”
Some part of me is waiting for Alex to fall ill. I’ve been getting ready to wait by his bedside, bring him grilled cheese sandwiches and pills and give him his shot. I have not been getting ready for what seems to be actually happening, our particular catastrophe. Yet most of these animals are familiar to me. I know the chickens, and the goat; I’ve seen the deer before.
But there are some I don’t recognize, wilder and fuzzier around the edges. The frogs in the bathtub are not Indiana frogs. There’s what sounds like a miniature animatronic great white shark thumping around in the kitchen sink. Alex and I are trying to watch Lost, volume cranked to drown out the noise. He seems less surprised than I am that there are meerkats tunneling through the stacks of magazines in his study, and a dalmation curled familiarly at his feet. Then Alex yelps and, a few seconds later, a tiny monkey, furry and chirping, is pogoing on the coffee table.
In minutes, there are dozens of them, some of them flying in stupid invented formations from kitchen to bedroom to study and back again through the living room, some of them banking and diving like crazed hornets. Alex is looking redfaced and ashamed. The other animals don’t seem happy about his monkeys at all—they’re ducking and chirping and bleating and clucking, and I’ve had it. I fill our largest pot with water and set it on the stove to boil. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, exactly, but I know I’m the one who should know how to deal with insane magical animals.
I take the elevator to the roof to clear my head, look along the long lit arc of the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan, Brooklyn’s horizon, which curves to hold us. Everything that stands still is in its place, and everything moves at an appropriate pace. Coming toward me on the bridge, the J train passes a bicycle, a car passes the J train. I am tempted to hope that I still belong to these solid structures and these regular motions, that they will keep me moving in place, safe from the world to the west, from the Indiana where my mother lives, still, with the animals.
But they are here already. I should warn my brother, who has made his own home in Michigan, in the cleanest of suburbs, empty and safe, or so he thinks. I go downstairs to take care of business. But when I open the apartment door Alex is in overalls, chewing on a piece of straw, trying to cut chickenwire with my sewing scissors.
“There are six so far,” he says. “I was thinking they could live in my dresser. I’m going to cut some holes in it.”
“A brooder house,” I say. “So you’re a farmer now.”
I can feel the gaze of dozens of animal eyes, not human but not empty, not threatening or friendly, just here. I turn off the stove and consider. I’ll start with the monkeys, I guess; I’m thinking I can move the plants into my study to build a kind of jungle, get banana deliveries from Fresh and Direct so it’s easy. It will not be as quiet a life any more. But worse things could happen.