“Got dead animals in strange places? Call the animal removal experts at Critter Control now!”
Dead animals regularly appeared in your childhood home: the mice that father trapped and poisoned in the kitchen, the upturned goldfish in the bowl, the hamster that ran itself sick on the wheel and collapsed in the cage, the turtle that withdrew and shriveled, the scrofulous cat that crawled in your crib to expire, the bats that entered the attic’s broken pane and flapped themselves senseless. Your analyst seems eager to establish a connection between these manifestations and your current mental crisis.
That one lonely year at boarding school dead animals turned up all the time. In September three boys in the fourth form happened upon the remains of a skunk and were paddled for bearing the stench. In October Brother Xavier discovered the skeleton of a cat in the sacristy. In November the deaf-mute cleaning lady fainted upon finding a pentangle of strangled mourning doves. In December the crèche overnight transformed into a scene of slaughter, ox and ass mutilated. January: a disemboweled shrew appeared in the east end zone. February: a wayward swan crashed through the chapel’s stained glass. March: a stallion broke its leg and writhed until the groundskeeper shot it. April: the school mascot, an elderly goat, lay in the courtyard drained of blood. At wit’s end, the headmaster suspended school and called for an exorcist.
On a Trailways in Texas, the carcass of a lamb, hooves bound with baling wire, occupied the seat across the aisle. § In Tennessee you hitched a ride and held the head of a deer for a hundred miles. § In the Stardust Motel, the Punjabi manager apologized for the mongoose laid out in the lobby, a prized family pet, their last link to home. “You can understand our grief,” he said, and invited you to view the silken shroud, a gold and indigo fabric, richly lit in candlelight, draped loosely over banded fur. § Short on cash you took a job with a traveling carnival and sideshow zoo. First night out the ringmaster detailed you to dispose of a monkey that had suffered badly. “Watch you don’t touch them sores,” he said then threw open the door to the travel trailer. You found the carcass in the shower stall wrapped in a pink vinyl curtain. The bearded lady moaned from the bed. “He was a good little guy,” she sobbed while the Lobster Boy stroked her head. § One night in a cantina built on stilts out over a tropical river, you drank down shots of mescal with dead nature all around, principally a stuffed ocelot propped in a chair. The locals had stuck a cigar in its mouth and a rum bottle rested against its belly, one paw crooked to hold the bottle in place. A capuchin head rolled around the tabletop. On the wall: the skins of jaguar, python, and peccary. You stared at the worm in the bottle, and on the warped wood of the dance floor a growing pile of iguanas, brought in all night long by wet boys in gym shorts—twenty, forty, a hundred, the pile mounting and Mick the Aussie mercenary shouting, “Jesus God, do you know what they’re worth on the bloody black market?”
It all comes out in hypnosis: the avocet curled in a pool of oil, the sow wrapped in a shroud to its snout, the goose splayed in the library stacks, the badger fallen from the courthouse roof, the tegu propped on the headmaster’s desk, the shrew afloat in the baptismal font, the axolotl blanched in a barrel of flour, the owl’s corpse bloated in the summer heat, the hare folded neatly in a bureau drawer, the kinkajou bobbing in the brewmaster’s vat, the leering bonobo with the broken neck, the muskrat twisted up in a wedding veil, the limpkin slumped against Mother Superior’s maypole, the ghost of a possum embedded in ice. The analyst snapping you awake says yes, yes, now we are getting somewhere. You can’t leave these memories buried. You have to own up to your faults. And handing you a spade, he points to where you must start. Unearth the carcasses, he says. Dig deep.
After kicking around the West for a while (with stops in Spokane, Flagstaff, and Sedona), Stephen Cloud has settled in Albuquerque, where he’s fixing up an old adobe, working on poems, and pondering the official New Mexico state question: “Red or green?” Recent publications include work in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Portland Review, New Madrid, Shenandoah, and Tar River Poetry.