by Emily Livingstone
The hand has to be quick, forceful, reaching under the broody hen to clutch the eggs she guards. The rats would love to get in. There are traps for them under the indoor part of the coop, far under where the dog can’t reach. The eggs are warm in my pockets.
I stop by the rabbit hutch and reach a hand in to stroke Midnight, my fat black rabbit, while my brother’s wild Ranger skitters into the hidden part. The fur is soft and the bones, even of plump Midnight, are close to the surface and easy to feel. Her muscle, heartbeat, joints. If I were the coyotes in the woods, I would dream of her, of kneading my teeth into her delicate body and eating the warm, human-fed flesh. But instead she is my darling, and I set up the chicken wire cage for her in the grass and take her ready-to-spring shadow body in my arms, careful of the eggs lower down in my pockets. I plop her in, so she can graze on green.
Robin walks up the rise of the hill, blonde hair shining. He lives up the street when his family comes for the summer, and then we play pretty much every day. Sometimes we play manhunt or board games. Sometimes we slide down the carpeted stairs at his house until we get rug burn. Mostly, we play Animals.
We are different animals all the time. I was a fox yesterday, and ate mice, and made a den, and licked at my delicate paw. Robin was a fat squirrel, and I almost caught him, but could not.
Robin stays put while I run the eggs to the house. Returning, I scoop Midnight up, and carry her back to the hutch. Robin opens the door for me and I set her inside.
As I put the chicken wire away, I turn into a wolf. Robin is a wolf too, and we sniff hungrily at the rabbits and chickens and pace near them, but we can’t get at them — they smell like humans and there are human cages around them. We run through the yard, not sticking to the trails, but sometimes letting the thorns scrape our legs. We bring down a deer, a weak one, lagging behind the others, and feast. We curl up in the leaves and growl sleepily.
Robin stretches awake and I watch to see if he is still a wolf. I still am, and if he changes into something small while I’m a wolf, he’s in trouble.
“Maura, we’re moving away,” he says.
I growl in confusion.
“My parents sold the house. We’re not going to come here anymore.”
Robin nods and we are a boy and a girl, just like that.
At twenty-two, I’m out with my friends, living it up. I lean on the wooden bar, exposing my white arm, leaning forward, catching the eye of the bartender with the hawk nose. I get the beers for everyone.
I’m sipping my cheap beer, holding the bottle carelessly, surveying the room while Stacey tells a story about a creepy guy on the subway. There is a guy standing near the back, with a black tee shirt and blonde hair shaved closed to the scalp. I don’t know why I’m looking, but I think it has to do with how he moved a second ago. Something woke up inside me.
“Hold on a sec,” I say, and Stacey rolls her eyes because she knows I’m crazy. God knows what I’ll do.
I sidle up to him, touch his upper arm and he turns, looking at me: mild interest, ready to see what happens.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “You look like someone I knew when I was little.” Not a pickup line. He is starting to lose interest. “Robin?” I ask. His face sharpens; the eyes focus.
“Yes,” he says.
Now, I smile, a little slow, the one I do to win the guys.
“Maura?” he asks, and his hand is on my bicep.
I nod. He pulls me into a tight hug, and it is probably our first. We weren’t the kind of childhood friends who hugged or did watercolor paintings.
We decide to catch everyone else later, and we leave the bar and walk down the street together talking. I give Robin my number, and that’s the first night.
When he calls, we meet up for dinner, dressed up a little finer, moving closer to each other all the time.
“Remember when we used to play Animals in your yard?” Robin asks, because one of us needs to say this.
“You were a beautiful antelope once,” Robin says.
“Antelope? I don’t really remember that one.”
“It was after you saw The Lion King — you know.”
He kisses me, there in the restaurant. I feel a little like an antelope. He must be a lion then. It feels good, to be preyed on. I can feel him desiring my long, delicate limbs and the curves of my black horns.
When we make love, I lose track of what we are as we’re pushing and pulling in our world. We made it when we were little, and it’s still here for us, ready for us to jump in and make it breathe.
We can’t get enough of each other. After work, I let myself into Robin’s apartment and do human things like prepare dinner. After that, I wrap my legs around him, devouring, and one time he says, “You’re a tiger.” It doesn’t feel cliché.
He has developed a habit of running his finger and thumb over the lines of my face as though I am something very small and young. That is the only thing I don’t like.
I have learned all the new lines of his body, and I would recognize him anywhere. I know how his skin feels under my hands, and how taught and dense the muscle beneath. I know how he will hold me when my kiss descends on his mouth. I begin to imagine us as bald eagles, which mate for life, our talons locked together as we hurtle toward the earth and break apart at the last moment to circle in the free air.
We have done many of the human mating rituals. I’ve embraced his mother and forgiven her for taking Robin away when we were young. Robin and I had chosen each other, even then. It was instinct: we sensed the sameness in one another and the difference in everyone else.
We have also met one another’s friends and gone in and out of many romantic locations and several bars. Maybe we will have a little beast, one day, to raise together. We will be fiercely protective, talons ready.
It’s six-thirty p.m. on a Friday and usually he has texted me, or we have made plans by now, but when I text him, there is no response. I pace in my apartment. I microwave a dinner and nest in my bed with it, letting the TV flash on me. Robin comes in after I’ve fallen asleep. He crawls over me, kisses me on my cheekbone, then sleeps, arm over my side. The glowing green lights of the alarm clock say two a.m.
“What was up last night?” I ask in the morning, making pancakes.
Robin shrugs and there is something about the way he turns his head. “Went out with Nick and the guys.”
“Nick and the guys?”
“Yeah.” There is an edge in his voice, almost a growl. He is defensive. And there was something about the way he turned his head before.
“I just wish you’d let me know. I thought we were going to do something.”
“Sorry,” he says.
“I texted you,” I say. “I don’t care if you want to go out. Just let me know.”
He gets up and presses me against the countertop. He kisses me. “I’m sorry, Maura. I should’ve let you know.”
Everything seems back to normal, but it is not. My eyes have sharpened. Robin texts me a few nights a week to say, “Sleeping at my place tonight, talk to you tomorrow,” or “Going out with the guys, might stop by later.” I’m not going to come at this directly. I will fall back on my instincts. I will stalk my prey.
At ten p.m., I am in the shadow of the liquor store across the street from Robin’s apartment. I have been here for two hours. Then, I see them. There is the golden head of my lion, and the sinews of his back as he moves in his tee shirt, and his hand is on a college girl, plump, with red hair, wearing her sorority tee shirt. She is laughing, loud in the street, and he moves his hand down to her butt, and they enter the building. I breathe low in the dark, undetectable.
My father still has the chicken coop and the garden, even though he is retired. The rabbit hutch is there too, empty now. Midnight and Ranger died unnatural deaths of old age complaints rabbits aren’t meant to know. I show Robin the way to get the eggs from the broody hen: confident, decisive, but not harmful. I have the warm eggs in my hands. I am my best self. I’m a daughter, filled with animal knowledge, performing a natural function of survival.
Robin holds me close and kisses me. At the heart of our connection, he’s come back to me. We are ferrets, twisted around each other in the warm burrow of our love.
“Maybe we can have a place like this someday,” Robin says.
I put down the eggs so that I can hold him, fiercely.
Robin is unreformed. In our love, I have been many things, but I won’t be weak anymore. Robin changed into a snake, but I’ve been watching, and it’s dangerous to change while I’m watching. He basks in our love still, but he’s defensive at the slightest hint that I am dissatisfied. He slithers off through a hole in the wall and sheds his skin with some other girl.
I’m something new when I go into his apartment. Inside, I have a human heart. I know that’s true. It’s wounded, and wounds are fatal in the wild, but I have grown a protective layer around it. I have claws for rending and strong jaws capable of snapping bones. My fur stands up straight from a thick pelt, and I am hot in my rage. The drawers are pulled from the dresser. The cereal is all over the counter. I squeeze a shampoo heart onto his bath mat and then scratch it out. I remove all the pictures of us, but one. That one, I put on the refrigerator with a magnet, leaving my mark, so that Robin will know.
As I leave, I feel my heart expanding, my claws retracting, my fur lying flat on my body. I’m tempted to clean up. I’m tempted to call him to explain. That would be bad. I go home to my den, turn off my cell phone and hibernate.
At three a.m., I hear him at my door. He has it open, but the chain is in the latch and he can’t get in without forcing the door. I watch him, crouched and silent. I don’t answer him when he yells. The woman across the hall shouts through her door that she is calling the police, and then Robin is gone.
He comes back two more times.
When I check my phone messages, I see many missed calls and messages.
“You’re not who I thought you were,” I text.
It doesn’t take that long, really, for Robin to give up and fade out of my life again. Maybe it wasn’t really him. I thought he was the same boy from before, but it’s possible that he wasn’t. He might’ve sensed my vulnerability and changed into that boy for a while. I’ve let that go now.
Down at the pet shelter, I meet the cats. There is one with dark stripes and long fur, and she stalks up and down the stained white floor proudly. When I approach her, though, she is gentle. I take her in my arms and she settles there. She is small, and I can feel her fragile weight and her heartbeat. On the ride home in the taxi, I take her out of the carrier and just hold her.