Her entire life there had never been another way.
A house alit with living creatures—noise and feathers and fur fused together in the air, and at night she slept with the weights of tiny snoring bodies on her own. Her head and knees, chest rising like docked ships on a bed of waves, all in eventual sync with the heartbeats of wilder beasts. Mornings she would wake and slough them off like shedding, their skin her own, a second sheath, the cold air when shifting from them a shock so bright she yearned to crawl back under.
On tired days she would rummage through the rooms and count. Twelve cats, perhaps. Maybe eight dogs, most small. Birds, too, two of them pearl white doves in love since the gate first opened on their lined cage home. Turtles in the second bathtub. Crates stacked in the halls like brick and mortar, filled in the darkness if no other place to rest could be found. Fish tanks, heat lamps, bags of kibble spilling from holes in their brown-paper sides: she lived with all of this and her mother taught her reading and arithmetic and manners and she knew no other life.
But as breathing things will do, each pet let go some day or another of the living-wisp within its frame, and they mounted every funeral in the anguish of interminable loss, amplified by the intimacy immense adoration brings. No small deaths here.
No waste, either, in that house, as lifeless form became repurposed. As they prepped the kitchen counters, cleaned the gas burners’ coils, for cooking.
But dining on the lost was never primal, no mindless feast or vicious teeth wrestling for flesh. Simply simple, sacrificial taking in, each beloved still that until the final bite. They ate amid prayers, the animal aglow in maple gravy or, in the summer, dry with the sideyard garden’s greens on the side. How important it was, always, that it tasted as good as it could.
Her parents treated the preparation as a holiday for grieving, morning through afternoon spent readying the animal’s inert anatomy with careful deliberation. Homegrown incense burned flavored smoke through the house as they removed the first layer—feathers, pelt, scales, shell—lidding their eyes shut in reverence, heads bent toward each other. Their mouths making soundless psalms. This initial thickness was set to burn in the copper bowl hanging waiting hungrily in the small den’s stone fireplace. They turned next to the skin, sheathing the sleeping soul, rubbing oil and rosemary across and beneath it, blood from its muscles seeping through the pores like sweat. Like the beloved still breathed, secreting in impatience.
Cooking went slow at low heats, each degree chosen as if by something higher. Time passed with hymns her father had written, her mother’s soft fingers arced over the chipped piano’s keys.
And when they ate they knelt on satin rugs, giving thanks. Listed the many reasons for love. Wet nose. Welcoming call. Warm paw or claw or tongue. Understanding loneliness, how important that living, every day, is mutual. No loved body made for frittering, to be forgotten, discarded by those who loved it.
She swore she could feel the soul in every swallow. The juice of tendons trickled in rivulets down the hillock of her bottom lip; wanting to lavish nothing, she swabbed her tongue as far as it could go.
By the time she had turned, without ceremony, eighteen, four cats had gone this way. The same for two small dogs, one large, five birds bursting with pygmy bones. Too many slow or slithering small things to deeply know—though in a journal bound in animal hair she noted each one, every i dotted with a single perfect heart.
This was the year her father took ill, his brain divided by zealous cells. They spoke, it seemed, through radio waves, calling for back-up, spreading the word with a speed too swift to terrify. Splitting and tumbling cancer onto cancer like a million unwanted gymnasts.
Living as they always had, they fell easily into acceptance. Kept him in the bedroom under sheets of creature mass, trusted in their shallow dozing breaths to heal, believing in the good fortunes of his gut’s ghosted beasts, the animals in his center. All became karma and holy invocation. She and her mother took the wetted washcloth in shifts, willing her father to reanimation through prayer and broth and song.
And yet, still, without ostentation, he went. The sun through the half-shuttered window warmed the nestled pets to moving, uncovering the motionless man sunken into the bed beneath. One eye open like winking, his hands like chalk, stiff over the wooly blanket.
She had only known one way—her entire life a studied practice in reclamation, observance, and honor. Nothing passed left to waste.
Her mother prepared the kitchen late in the morning, wrapping the walls with dark cloth and jewelry, the floor spread with massive sheets of plastic, thick. Together they carried him down the bright hall, resting every few feet to pray and gag on their weeping. Time seemed in limbo, to be waiting, allowing them space for patience and ritual—for softly grieving love.
Finally there, they sheared the cotton pajamas from him with a paring knife, its blade Death’s scythe in miniature. For his hair they took scissors to every patch across his form, resorting to straight razors when the tufts became stiff stubble, tiny swellings of crimson responding to each careful swipe. They fed the fire with it, its flames belching with violence on the fleeced clumps they tossed in.
His skull the last to be lathered and planed, they turned to the hard outer bones. They extracted the teeth, wisdom to molar to canine, with heavy exertion, wrapped them one by one in small woven shawls and laid each in a clay bowl to be buried. Following this, the fingernails slipped from his skin easier than a dog’s—the body already failing, the life gone so long only a few hours after.
And on her mother’s request, she made the first cut. Started at the right wrist with the serrated edge, moving swiftly as through a turtle’s shell.
Hit bone, kept going, through to the release of open air again.
Stopped, gave thanks, wiped the blade. Moved to the wooden table’s other side and did the same.
The rite becoming reality—hand to hand to feet to soup of the body’s shrunken middle. The animal blue from loss of blood. Her mother watchful, silently sobbing, removing the oven’s racks to make more room, its belly barely lit by a single dying lightbulb.