An unsettling story about a woman and various animals inside and outside her house.
Looking out the Kitchen Window
A white mouse has died on me. She was the last of the four we had, all deaths occurring within six months after we had bought them, each of the deaths separated by mere weeks. Three days later Moby, the black fantail with the bulgy eyes, died. She was one of six fantails we'd bought when they were tiny baby fish. Weve had Moby for little over three years. Fantails can do twelve (or so we were told at the pet shop). I am in a state and doubtful of my continued ability to provide for the living in my care. My affection and my daily attendance to their needs have neither saved the mice nor Moby from premature death. Is there something else?
The mice came from one litter, which, looking through the pet shop's window, we had been staking out for a week before we went in and had four females picked out for us. We had never named them. Unlike the fantails they were too much alike. To name them wouldn't make sense. Each of the names (we had in fact thought up four) would soon be applied to any of the mice. We had considered dyeing the tips of their tails in different colors to keep them apart, but we never did. We didn't know of a paint that would be both harmless and lasting. The names we picked died before they did. I can't recall a single one of them. I know that Mickey was not among them, as neither was Jerry, or Speedy.
Moby had succumbed. There wasn't room for doubt. She (we never considered the possibility that some if not all of the fantails were male) drifted forlornly midlevel in an obliquely vertical position and its hue had turned from black into something indescribable, as if a layer of paint had been peeling in patches, revealing blotches of a hastily applied primer. When I had scooped the body out of the water with the little net that we had bought together with the tank (other accessories included an air pump, a filter, a variety of figurines, and 5 kilos of gravel; plants we would put in later) I found it to be not just stiff, but hard as stone.
In the center of the provincial capital bordering on the village where we live in the country of my exile squats the dead mass of a church building, once of Catholic denomination, a basilica, but taken and left bare and hollow by the Protestants. Its a gothic monstrosity of arbitrary architecture, its scurvy plaster a dirty gray, which should have been pulled down a long time ago. That is what the lifeless hull of Moby reminded me of - rather, in fact, it's the other way round, the former basilica reminding me, as I recently passed it on my way to a restaurant nearby, a single thin-toned bell tolling as if to warn passers-by of its leprosy, of dead Moby - except that Moby had once been alive, and beloved - which is why I will not liken dead Moby to the church building, but the building to what death had turned Moby into.
Death was less blatant in the mice. Each time one had passed away I only discovered the body after it had returned to its pre-rigor condition; it was warm and soft, as if to dissimulate its state, as if there wasn't death, but something that could be repaired. I had googled "How can one ..." and "How to" adding "white mouse" and words like "dead", "tell", "be sure" etc., but, the query possibly too outlandish even for Google to turn up results, I finally resorted to prodding, kneading and pinching the body, and touching the eyelids, to establish the absence of any response and thus certify death. Even so, each time a mouse had died I have kept looking out the kitchen window for weeks, alert to traces of loose earth which would be indicative of a mouse having burrowed its way back to the surface, in the plot of garden along the kitchen where I have buried each of the bodies.
Meanwhile our dog, Smith, a small black-and-tan crossbred, has developed a skin disease. Setbacks have turned me into a scared and darkly brooding person, and I'm convinced that Smith's rash is an empathic reaction to my gloom and tenseness which creates an ionized atmosphere that I carry with me like a bad perfume and spread wherever I go within the house, electrifying rooms. Perhaps the tanks affected, too. A friend recently expressed pessimism about the surviving fantails, the way they look she said, and hardly move about at all, and lie pressed against the bottom of the tank most of the time. In fact, Minny, with the split dorsal fin, has died, too. Looking up just briefly as I sat nervously working on my online tax return, the tank high on a cabinet pedestal about ten yards to my left, I caught unmistakable death in the corner of my eye immediately. Minny was still fresh, brightly orange, and the body had not yet started its ascent towards the surface. I have not been able to save Minny.
The vet has rejected my analysis, but she isnt part of our lives and has not witnessed the disasters that have befallen me and how thoroughly theyve wrecked me, or experienced the atmosphere becoming almost palpably charged each time I sit down to write a story, or tend to my financial affairs, or dispatch email in some disputatious exchange, with Smith scratching and biting herself at my feet, so bad that she will injure herself and yelp.
Unnerved by the recent deaths I have assured myself of the strictest adherence to the regime of atopic Smith has been put on, and minutes after I had disposed of Mobys remains I took her up to the bathroom to wash her with an anti-allergic shampoo that the vet had prescribed in addition to the drug. But Smith keeps biting and scratching herself, even inside her ears, which, as a result, have become infected to boot. Im mentally bracing myself for the day that will see me take her to the vet's office and have her put to sleep.
We once had a cat, by the name of Pooz, whose head had been bitten off. My husband was still alive. He died two years later. Other disasters ensued. His demise and what followed, my debilitating madness, which I observe even as it ravages me, may seem to have been betokened by Poozs gruesome death, but, if that were an omen, my husband's secretively poisoning his liver, which took him a lot longer than the two years that separated his death from Poozs, more likely qualifies as a cause. Police had said the decapitation of Pooz was a foxs doing. A doe, small and gracious, that we had so often seen descending into the stretch of uncultivated garden back of our house, bordering on nature reserve, my husband suddenly found lying dead near the chainlink fence separating our grounds from the reserve. My son has gone to college since. My daughter and I kept looking out for another deer to descend into our garden; none did. But we haven't seen a fox; we hadn't seen a fox when my husband was still alive, steadily drinking, but never drunk, yet drinking enough to kill himself, but slowly, step by step. We've never seen the goddamn fox that the police had been so authoritatively certain about.
Now we have Cheat and Lucia, siblings. They are out on the grounds night and day. They cannot be kept inside. They were born on a farm, in a barn, we were told, that had been left to rot by itself, which is how I imagined it. A daughter from my husband's first marriage had brought them in a cat carrier when they were kittens, shortly after Pooz had died. When we opened the carrier they screamed, bolted, scratched me badly, and, slipping through an opening in the toe kick, hid underneath a kitchen cabinet. After two days of vain attempts to lure them out we decided to call in an animal rescue squad to trap them, which they managed to do at the end the third day since they had disappeared. If during all this time we didn't see them, we werent spared their meowing which grew in intensity and waned in intermittency as their want of food and water gnawed deeper. The next morning we took them to the vet for Cheat to be castrated and Lucia to be sterilized. When we came to fetch them they had been securely locked up in the trapping cage again. We took them to the kitchen were we had sealed the hole in the toe kick, shut all doors, except the one that led to the basement and opened the cage. The cats forthwith skedaddled down the stairs into the basement where they didn't take five seconds to discover and operate the cat flap, which, when Pooz was still alive, we had had fitted in a door that gives to an outdoor stonemasonry flight of stairs along the northwest wall of our monumental brownstone.
We had got off to a bad start with those two. But they stayed around. For a long time they refused to come in when I called out for them to have their food, but in the end they folded. I've become the best of friends with Cheat and Lucia. But Cheat has not been within sight for three days. Lucia homed three days ago and has not been outside since. She stays in the basement. Her food is sitting untouched on the concrete floor. There is a foul smell. How could Ive been so unthoughtful as not to set up Pooz's litter box?
I saw a fox scouring our gardens for food, a close up view, as I looked out the kitchen window. Its an ungainly creature with a square head, high on its legs, and the rugged fur of a wolf, but a grayish brown, the color of sludge. The creature is unlike any fox I've seen before. It is unlike fabled foxes - not sly, not cunning, rakish or impish, but evil; yet, no doubt, a fox, a feral creature, a beast, baneful, not a dog, and we don't have wolves here. We had never seen the animal that I saw just now, as I looked out the kitchen window, very early in the morning, so early it was almost still night.