by Julie Shavin
This story appeared in its original form in Circatrix
I DON’T KNOW why I call it or called it a rhino when obviously it was a hog. It was brown and thick and huge, a fleshy rectangle, or more of a box. But actually it was not that huge, only hog-sized. I had never touched it, fed or bathed it, but it was mine. And for some reason, it was near the ceiling, held in place by beams. I didn’t realize I lived in a house with beams until then, had simply not looked up. The ceiling may have been wood, like the wood-paneled ceiling I once had, in a house with lower ceilings generally, but this particular ceiling was very high, maybe 16 feet, and, on a beam, or probably two, how else would it balance, was the rhino or hog, suspended helpless, though there was no struggle, no movement at all.
I can’t say I loved it, though it would have to have been a pet, but it was precious to me in some unnamable way, and I knew it had to come down. Of course it had to come down. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how it got up, and whether that might be a clue in getting it down. In the end, I didn’t need to expend any effort. Shortly after seeing it caught, or rather, fraught, though again, there was no struggle, only a strange and silent kind of acceptance, it fell. It fell with a large crash, right on its back, and I knew the back was broken. I don’t remember sobbing or anything even close to it.
I remember wondering what to do, but before I could do anything, I saw something unbelievable, something incredible. It started to dissolve. I knew this meant it was dying, and I felt helpless. This is not the way death goes or comes, but there the rhino—my rhino—was dissolving into discreet masses, masses that were jelly-like, and then the masses began vanishing, as though evaporating, and the rhino-hog was no more. I remember no emotion but a kind of sadness and shock. There had been nothing I could have done to save the poor ugly thing.
And then something else happened. I saw a tiny movement and then more movement. It was—was it possible? Yes, it was—regenerating, and before very long, I don’t know how long, it was back. It was itself again and I was glad, if flummoxed.
And then, before I could think too much about what had happened, it started dissolving again, getting smaller and smaller as a whole, until finally it was a token—an actual token, a shiny silver thing with some turquoise as one would see on the neck of a guitar—the “arms” were the leaves of a clover, so it was like a two-leafed clover.
And then that disappeared and the animal, which didn’t have a name, and which was obviously a brown hog but with a rhinoceros horn, or maybe boar would be a better term, was again before me. It was not silent, as before, but in some kind of agony, yelping and yowling. And I heard a sloshing sound. I guess I didn’t think too much what that might be; I only thought of saving it, and suddenly realized that I could call the animal hospital, Compassion Animal Hospital was its name, and I dialed. But Compassion is not the one I really wanted. I couldn’t think of the name of the other one, which for undetermined reasons (perhaps they traveled and Compassion did not) I preferred. What came to me was Utopia or Ulysses, but neither was right. Perhaps it was some combination I couldn’t recall, and since I couldn’t recall, I couldn’t call. So I was waiting on Compassion while it continued to yelp and yowl and the sloshing sound continued. No one came. We were alone and remained alone, and then it was over. It had died of hunger. I knew this. The sloshing was the stomach crying for food. It had not died of a broken back after all, of some freak accident amidst a freak circumstance, but of something as ordinary as starvation, and I felt really bad about that, because that I could have attended to.
THE THOUGHTS NEVER went completely away. They came and went, they were before and after, and sometimes during. Basically, when he reached up and around with his left arm in the hospice bed, I had thought it was for me. I had found out on day 6, quite by accident. Well, not really accident. We didn’t speak on the phone much; were not phone people; in fact, he was not good with any kind of conversation. No, our relationship was something other, something, I thought, as did everyone else, smaller, less consequential, less meaningful, superficial, silly, and so forth. When we met, he was done in and so was I. We were both fleeing. That our bodies were in love and that he was in love, in general, did seem, at least the former, absurd, and I had never phrased it as “in love,” but there it was. We were not together often, only a few days here and there. I was, after all, married, if unhappily.
So he’d had a stroke, the worst kind—a brain-bleed, languished six days without sustenance, to include water. In hospice, they explained, you make the person comfortable, but you do not extend life, and I asked and asked how this could be comfort, with only a sponge dipped in Sprite to suck on. They thought it rhetorical, especially since I was not family. He sucked desperately, like a neglected newborn. He had most likely been reaching for the sponge, but that didn’t occur to me then. Over and over, and then I stopped and began rubbing something on his chest to aid breathing — but I don’t know why this was allowed when water was not. One thing they said was that he was unable to swallow. Yet occasionally he coughed, a big, loud, racking smoker’s cough (though I heard later they found no cancer), and when he coughed he reached up to cover his mouth and smooth his mustache. Neither of those would be instinct, and struck me as strange, if he was virtually gone. They explained he was not completely gone, and I was mortified to hear it. Yes, his eyes were open. One was bloodshot, on the side that couldn’t move. The other stared, bluer than I’d ever seen. I didn’t realize until later that all the bleariness from the chronic insomnia was gone, and, of course, there was no moisture in the body whatsoever. His tongue lolled; his breathing was ragged and hard. But when he coughed like that, he swallowed —I saw and heard him. Still, they threw me out “for asking too many questions.” “We’ll see you at the service,” they said. And it wasn’t until weeks later that I realized he had died, not of the stroke directly, and not from kidneys and other organs’ shutting down, but from thirst, though of course, if he could have moved, he could have gotten water.
IN A COMMON and gross way, it makes sense the hog had a horn and thus seemed like a rhino. He, the dead, and I—our bodies—were insatiable, which would include just being by one another’s side. We had to be this way, or head on a lap, or one behind the other pushing a cart in the grocery. But to this day, friends say, it would not have worked out. He loved you, but that’s all. That you felt alive and comforted in a cold and frightening world when you were next to his warmth meant nothing. That’ is animal stuff. That’s what they say and what I thus say. It’s true I did not love him. If asked, I always said, “he made me feel safe.”
Oh, but that’s too easy, it would seem, which I hate to say and ask, not because it’s not obviously true, but because it is an intrusion: here I am, outside, stepping in, forcing a step from in to out. But, forgetting that for now, it is too easy. Life is not always like that and a good story never is, and anyway, who said anything about a story? I am telling you about real things and which included the pig, hog, rhino, or boar, whatever it was. It doesn’t matter. Things are not always so neat, fluid, so easily symbolic. It is true it could be just that, that I was thinking of him, and how he appeared then disappeared. Or how I appeared and disappeared, but no, the former makes more sense; it was he who was left hanging. Then again, also I. Things, including a good story, are more like a good crossword puzzle. One has four of five letters in an answer and the answer makes perfect sense, and still it is wrong. The last letter determines it. He wasn’t reaching for me. He was pointing. To the sponge. But after I pulled his arm fully around to hug me, he didn’t point again, so who knows? We don’t know. We don’t have that telling letter.
NOW IT IS TODAY, as now always is, even though it is always yesterday too and maybe tomorrow, yes, of course tomorrow, though we don’t know it. As a convenience I’ll say that early afternoon, I took my depression for a walk with the dog. All around me it was dark, although the sun shone brightly. It was a dark brightness, as though the sun were false, a manmade shiny thing, as though there were some master behind it dangling it. It was not about the sunglasses, although it is true I couldn’t get the music in my pocket to play, a small device I’d purchased to help defend me against the exposure, by which I mean, not just bright light in the eyes, something that had bothered me even as a child, but exposure in general. I saw a phrase after this bad feeling had gone on for about a month: exposure anxiety, and thought, I have this, though it was associated with autism, yet I was not autistic. But the world, at least during this depression, had come to revulse me. Revulsion is the only word I can think for it, though repulsion would do as well. But revulsion, to me, seems to incorporate the physical aspect better.
The houses are revolting, the leaves, the trees, sticks, rocks, even green, my favorite color: the yards. I can no longer look at or stand the quotidian. This isn’t really new, but was always masked. There were always distractions. It seems as though the distractions are gone.
It was the quietest it has ever been in the neighborhood, this day after the holiday, and it sickened me, who loved quiet. I knew it was a luxury to fall into this sickness or to maintain it, but I was sleeping strangely well, and had spent three decades sleeping horribly and losing every other day. My life had become all about sleep, sweet and sacred sleep. So I wouldn’t change drugs, even with a depression so severe the ideations were constant. I knew I wouldn’t act on them, though, so what was the point of moving to yet another drug? I had already changed them, weaning off one and onto another, and then cutting back when I was too jittery, too uncoordinated; I was now at only a 1/3 the smallest dose. The remnants of agitation were still with me but without that third, I didn’t sleep at all.
When weaning, first the depression lifted, and I couldn’t believe it. One morning in the hot bath, a ritual involving epsom salts for pain, I was listening to a rousing song on the tablet someone had given me, and thought to share, adding, let’s dance! I noticed it was 8:45 in the morning. I had not seen morning without being hideously sick in all those years, those thirty. And then this. And then that: within a month, the crash. And the jitters, the muscles in knots. This very day, it was still like walking through blood, the blood of the sun. Every step said No. It was an effort to keep going. It’s like the body was locked.
My friend had encouraged me to buy a warm coat, because I had said I needed one, that I couldn’t fight the muscles and the depression and the cold. She said, do it, and I said maybe, as though wanting to be cantankerous, needing attention, needing to shoot myself in the foot. What do you mean, maybe? If you get out and walk and it raises serotonin, then depression will lift some and you can do something for another person. Only then will you feel better. That’s what she said – but she doesn’t get depressed, she said, and doesn’t understand it. What I mean is, depression doesn’t care about other people; it is selfish. It chooses you and takes you for a walk with the dog. But I understood what she was saying, because I was empty. I didn’t care about anyone or anything. No amount of shopping or book-buying or any other satisfying of needs, like movie watching, could budge it. I was bereft. There was no warmth anywhere and now I said maybe and only maybe would I buy a coat, because I knew the coat was only about the body.
Anyway, the walk was an insularity, as though the world were a nut-funhouse mirror. The mind says go and the muscles say stop. At one point, I couldn’t see at all, for the glare, and the dog led. He found the path for home, and I followed. And though I wanted to speak to no one, had looked only at sidewalks or the ground, safe places, for some reason, when he found the path and I exclaimed that he had, a woman saw me. And I joked. I said, hm, time to get him certified with a vest and all, a service animal. Indeed, or something like it, she responded. I had always talked with people easily, to the amazement of my daughters, who did not, one moreso than the other. I explained to daughter 2, though, that this talent of mine was just the flip side of anxiety. One side is avoidance, the other is outgoingness, running of the mouth. Too, I had liked people while talking with them, like the old joke, I like humanity; it’s people I can’t stand. But with me, it was liking people, though I detested humanity. That’s a big subject, since I’m not sure how I can hate humanity when I see it as just a bunch of robots prey to chemistry, upbringing, even climate. At any rate, I would bond in an instant, or so it felt. Now it didn’t feel that way at all. I had no desire to speak or to listen, certainly not to joke. Everything was just too dark, but it happened. Mercifully, the walk ended.
I WAS THINKING about how when the pig or hog or rhino or boar died, I felt nothing, nothing but “alas, hunger,” and feels nothing now. I did not feel suddenly alone, though I feel the most alone in my life. I did not feel unalone either, as in, well, that is that. It had been there for me to save. My friend, the one without the depression, says, as a species, we are far from responsibility. It is all about being happy, these days. Am I? Am I happy, happy happy? It used to be about responsibility. I did try to save it, did I not? But I didn’t love it, which means couldn’t, the way one doesn’t love or not love a black cloud, unless the land is parched, I suppose.
And now, with the dog on the bed, I am thinking about how, yesterday, he jumped but couldn’t quite make it up, so I had lifted him, with great difficulty. He was getting older, like me, and when the other dog attacked, he jumped down, fell, rolled, twisted and righted, and I worried about his spine. He had short legs and a long body. I was sure I loved him; there were all kinds of signs. But everything was vanishing, it seemed, and I didn’t know when it would all come together, how long it would last, or if it would matter – if anything did, at all, because it is dark in here with the one small lamp, the ceiling is low, and no one needs rescue. I live for dreams, but am not speaking of them here, no. There is a rustling of leaves and branches over the deck roof, which is rife with holes. I have wondered what might fall through, what the next thing will be. I have wondered whether the weight of any animal or of being animal is not too much to bear.