the short story project


Amy Hempel | from:English

At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom

Image: Nicolas Castell via Inspirationhut

Introduction by Shlomzion Kenan

Mrs. Carlin festively celebrates each of her pets’ birthdays. Slowly but surely, cracks start to show through the flimsy film of an American life; a film that only barely conceals the horrors that enable it, and at edge of which Mrs. Carlin only barely subsists. Through these cracks, voices start speaking out to Mrs. Carlin, eloquently reporting of horrors committed by men against animals. Through the Gates of the Animal Kingdom is a story about unbearable subjugation and cruelty, about animal-rights being the last frontier of identity politics. But it is also a religious fable about a weak divinity and an absolute sacrifice. For who will help this new feeble-divinity that is, or could be Mrs. Carlin, if not a Dog-God? Only his self-sacrifice can stop awkward, lonely women from ever having to fend off all the evil of the world by themselves. Like all good fiction, the form and contents here are made of the same cloth. Each of Hempel's sentences is of the substance of tightrope - simple and unwinding - yet only when you’re halfway through, are you compelled to look down and see that abyss is all around you. Hempel herself, to eliminate doubt, volunteers regularly at a dog shelter.

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Ten candles in a fish stick tell you it’s Gully’s birthday. The birthday girl is the center of attention; she squints into the popping flash cubes. The black cat seems to know every smooth cat pose there is. She is burning for discovery in front of the camera.

Gully belongs to Mrs. Carlin. Mrs. Carlin has had her since the cat was six weeks old and slept on the stove, curled inside a saucepan warmed by the pilot light. Mrs. Carlin has observed every one of Gully’s birthdays, wrapping the blue felt mice filled with catnip, wrapping the selection of frozen entrees from Mrs. Paul’s, and photographing the birthday girl with her guests.

This year, Gully’s guests include the Patterson boys, Pierson and Bret, fourteen and ten, and their cat, Bert. Though it would be more accurate to say that Mrs. Carlin and Gully are the boys’ guests, as the party is being held in the Patterson home.

Mrs. Carlin is staying with the boys for the week that their parents are in an eastern city for Mr. Patterson’s annual business conference. It is a condition of Mrs. Carlin’s employment that Gully come with her. She had explained to Mrs. Patterson that one time a catsitter came to feed Gully, “and Gully—there is no other word for it—screamed.”

After she serves Gully’s birthday cake, Mrs. Carlin brings the boys their dinner. The boys examine their plates with suspicion, and then with disbelief.

Between the two halves of the sesame seed bun, where there should have been catsup on a hamburger, rare, the boys see what looks like catsup on a cassette tape. It is actually tomato sauce on a slice of sautéed eggplant.

“Didn’t our mother tell you what we eat?” says Pierson, the older boy.

“We eat hamburgers,” says Bret. “We like hamburgers and smashed potatoes.”

Mrs. Carlin tells them that she is making the rules now. She says, “Meat’s no treat for those you eat.”

She waits to let this sink in. “While I am looking after you,” she tells the boys, “we will eat nothing with parents.”

The boys look at each other so that Mrs. Carlin will see the look. They wish that Scooter were still alive to eat from their plates beneath the table.

In Alaska, begins the voice, wild gray wolves are flushed from hiding and shot with rifles from low-flying planes.

Mrs. Carlin loses her thought. She excuses herself from the table and returns a moment later with a photograph album from her suitcase.

“Duncan’s parties were always more lively,” Mrs. Carlin tells the boys.

Duncan, asleep in another room, is her elderly long-haired dachshund, his muzzle gone white, a perfect widow’s peak in the center of his narrow forehead. Duncan was another condition of Mrs. Carlin’s employment.

Through the years, the photos show the dachshund born of a Christmas litter poised on a silver platter, an apple held slack in his mouth; Duncan, a hand-knit sweater covering his rump, heading down a snow-covered hill on a toboggan; Duncan grinning at his “cake” of steak tartare, his guests straining their leads to reach their party favor chew-toys.

Mrs. Carlin thinks that reminiscing may be why the voice starts up again. This time what she hears is: A veal calf cramped in a pen in Montana is forced to sleep on its feet.

Mrs. Carlin asks the boys if they would mind eating alone. She goes to her room and takes two aspirin.

The boys look at Gully, still bent over her fish. Pierson spanks her lightly on the back; her body twitches, but the cat does not leave her dish.

“Takes a smacking and keeps on snacking,” Pierson says.

Mrs. Carlin doesn’t come out of her room until it’s bedtime for the boys.

“We can have Ovaltine,” says Bret. But Mrs. Carlin pours them glasses of plain milk and gives them each a tablespoon of peanut butter to go with it.

“It stimulates your dreams,” is what she tells them and promises a trip to the aquarium if they are good.

In their own comfortable room, in the Pattersons’ soft bed, Gully and Duncan take their cat and dog places — Gully at the head, and Duncan at the foot of the bed. During the night, when Duncan stretches and moves to the other side, Mrs. Carlin’s feet seek the warm place where he had lain.

She angles her face on a plane with the cat’s and breathes in the air that Gully breathes out — air that she thought would be warm but which is cool.

In a research lab in eastern Pennsylvania, a hole is drilled in the head of a young macaque...

Mrs. Carlin draws Gully closer. She scratches the cat’s stomach, then strokes the sleek flank that shines like a seal. She strokes the cat’s fur for the cat’s pleasure, then for her own, and back, and forth, until the pleasures run together and the two of them sleep through the night.

“The other sitters never took us on a field trip,” says Bret. Mrs. Carlin has taken the boys to the aquarium. The boys are warming up to her — she keeps them entertained. She tells them what she knows about the animal kingdom — that twenty newborn possums will fit in a teaspoon, that the female lynx automatically becomes infertile when the number of snowshoe hares decreases. From Mrs. Carlin the boys have learned that emperor penguins sometimes ride an ice floe as far north as Rio!

That morning, Pierson complained of a stuffy head. Mrs. Carlin had told him it was sleeping with a pillow over his face that had done it. She told him what he had was called a “turtle headache,” and Pierson had asked her if everything had to be animals.

Mrs. Carlin leads the boys to her favorite part of the aquarium. It is a darkened hall with a green-lit tank that circles the room. You stand in the center, in the hole of the doughnut, and turn to watch the hundreds of ocean fish swim around you. It is called the Roundabout, and it leaves you dizzy and reaching for the glass if you turn around too many times.

The boys study the reference cards with pictures of the fish. They claim to be able to match the following in the tank: the stingray, of course, plus yellowtail, striped bass, red snapper, tarpon, and the seven-gill shark.

Always there are those few fish who swim against the tide. These are the ones that Mrs. Carlin follows. For her, the darkness and water and steady current of silent fins is immeasurably soothing. She gives herself over to the whirling sensation which, she believes, leaves her open to what she cannot control when it suddenly comes to her what day it is.

In North Atlantic waters off the Faroe Islands, it is the day of “Grindabod,” the return of the pilot whales, when fishing boats herd the whales by hundreds toward the shore. There, fishermen swing grappling hooks into the whales’ flesh to ensure that the others will ignore their own safety; a whale will not abandon an injured mate.

Knives are drawn, and cleave through to the spinal cord. The whales thrash once more; in a sea of blood, they snap their own necks. A handkerchief held to her mouth, Mrs. Carlin urges the boys out of the Roundabout.

During the ride home, the boys poke each other and make fun of their teachers. They whine at Mrs. Carlin till she stops the car for ice cream. They eat it in the car, being quiet long enough to look out the windows and see lightning bugs spark the blue dusk.

“In South America,” says Mrs. Carlin, a tremor in her voice, “the women weave fireflies in their hair.”

And then one of the lightning bugs flies into the windshield. Mrs. Carlin has to sit up straight and lift her chin to see above the glowing smear that streaks her line of vision like a comet.

“Come here, Bert,” says Bret. “Little Bert-Bert, little trout, little salmon.”

Mrs. Carlin stands listening in the open doorway of Bret’s bedroom, where he is supposed to be dressing for school. He has lifted one side of his quilt and is calling for the cat under the bed.

“Where’s that little naughty-pants? That furry soft furry darn thing?”

Bert stays under the bed.

Bret gives up, then sees Mrs. Carlin and knows that she has heard his string of endearments.

He tries to recover, says, “Dad calls him ‘the cockroach.’”

His look suggests that someone else has overheard him like this and will not let him forget it — his brother, Mrs. Carlin feels sure.

The night before, while the three of them watched television, Pierson had made fun of her when her eyes filled with tears during a cat food commercial. The folks at Purina see me coming, was all that she could say as, privately, she was made aware that at an animal shelter in Oklahoma, an attendant did not clean the feces off the bowl that he used to scoop dog food from a sack.

Mrs. Carlin is not ashamed of what she has come to call “the Tender Vittles emotion.” And she does not want Bret to be ashamed of showing affection. So she asks if he will help her groom Duncan.

Duncan lies across a pillow on Mrs. Carlin’s bed; he doesn’t move when Bret drags the brush across his back. When Bret brushes harder, Duncan closes his eyes.

“Takes a bruising and keeps on snoozing,” says Bret, proud of the rhyme.

Mrs. Carlin laughs and smooths the dog’s fur. “Takes an adoring and keeps on snoring,” she says, and props Duncan up. She shows Bret how to draw the wire bristles gently down the dog’s hind legs. Then she asks Bret to get Duncan’s pills from the inside pocket of her suitcase.

Duncan takes lanoxin for his rackety old heart. Mrs. Carlin examines the small plastic bottle and — the Tender Vittles emotion — thinks how unbearably dear it is that her pet’s medication is labeled “Duncan Carlin.”

Bret watches Mrs. Carlin stroke the dog’s white throat to help get the pill down. He says, “I wish Scooter could have lived forever.”

Mrs. Carlin looks up quickly. She pictures a plastic bottle labeled “Scooter Patterson.”

She says something that is meant to be of comfort. She says, “Try to remember that God is rubbing Scooter’s tummy.”

She is surprised when Bret starts to laugh.

In her mind, Mrs. Carlin says to Duncan and Gully: You have made my happiness for thirteen years. Gully and the three cats before her, Duncan and the two pups before him — she owes them her life. It is for them she writes checks and congressmen to try to protect the ones she will never know.

Mrs. Carlin gets the boys off to school, then stands distracted on the Pattersons’ front lawn. She walks slowly to the mailbox that is empty of mail. Then she follows the gravel drive lined with ice plants back to the house, just missing the spot where a neighborhood dog has done his business.

Mrs. Carlin slips a section from the morning paper and moves to clean up the mess. But it proves, up close, to be a cluster of whorled bronze snails, glistening with secretion, stuck to curled dead leaves.

Mrs. Carlin carries the newspaper into the house and trades it for the car keys.

She drives with one finger on the wheel at six o’clock — what the Patterson boys call “the accident-prone grip.” She is tired, and tired of the voices that are sometimes visions — marmosets whose eyelids are sewn shut with thick waxed thread. Mrs. Carlin is tired of knowing when a rabbit is blinded to improve the scouring power of a popular oven cleaner.

The aquarium hasn’t opened by the time Mrs. Carlin gets there, so she waits in the car.

She is tired of the voices. She says no to the voices. It occurs to Mrs. Carlin that the voices take a noing and keep on going.

She is the first visitor of the day. When the aquarium is open, Mrs. Carlin has the Roundabout to herself.

The fish — do they never rest? — are streaming behind the glass. First, Mrs. Carlin spots the single hump-backed bluefish. From the shadow of a stingray swims a pair of sand tiger sharks.

She pivots just fast enough to track a school of amberjack the circumference of the tank. Then she plays a game with herself. She makes herself see the fish frozen in resin as in a diorama, feels herself the moving figure, the way, when a slow train starts, there is that disconcerting moment when it could be the landscape moving and not the train.

Then she lets the resin dissolve, freeing the fish to sluice through kelp and waves of their own kind.

Suddenly there is sound in the room. But not in the room — in Mrs. Carlin’s head. She stands still and concentrates on what she seems to hear: An infant gorilla, orphaned in Zimbabwe, makes a sound in the night like “Woooo, Woooo.”

Mrs. Carlin leans against the glass tank for balance. They should limit your time in the Roundabout, she thinks. They should pull you out after so many minutes the way they do in a sauna.

And then she has a vision, clear as if she were there — a Korean family looking for a picnic site. At a shaded clearing in a bamboo forest a mat is spread, a fire built up. The family’s dog, a handsome blond shepherd, is called by his master and gleefully runs to the call.

Mrs. Carlin sees the owner slip a noose around its neck. It is “Bok Day” in South Korea, “Land of the Morning Calm.”

It is the picnic of death that Mrs. Carlin attends.

It takes two of this family to tug the dog to a height above the flames. The dog will be hung from a tree to strangle slowly as its fur singes over the fire. The point of slow death is to tenderize the meat.

There is an indescribable sound from the choking dog, and like a person who suffers the pain of an injured twin, Mrs. Carlin gasps and drops to the floor.

That is where the couple who come in from the Fossil Hall find her. The man touches two fingers to Mrs. Carlin’s wrist, then touches the side of her neck. The woman calls for a guard, and stands back.

In Belize, the eyes of a fallen jaguar reflect the green of leaves.

*This story is taken from: At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, copyright © 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990 by Amy Hempel.


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