By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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From drawings we have seen, we guess it may look something like a tiny alligator, ribs of soft vertebrae scale-like along an emerging spinal column. I can also imagine other animals: a bird, for instance, its wings gently enfolding its body, its softly beating heart. But so far it has been a little abstract; it is still “other” to us, an animal in utero, hidden from our inquiring eyes.
All of a sudden we have begun noticing more acutely all the other small animals in the world, creatures wondrously varied in size, shape, and aspect. In anticipation, we study their behavior and sounds — their sqawkings and coos, their shrill cries and subdued mutterings. We duly note their interactions with their parents, and we wonder how we will perform our adult roles in similar situations.
We are beginning to focus on the process of creation. Lee is forty. The medical establishment wants us to believe that she is “at risk” for giving birth to a little animal, and the statistics and current medical literature conspire to coax us toward amniocentesis so that we will know just what is happening in the womb. The test can give us information about sex, age, chromosomal peculiarities. We weigh attendant risks of the test, and ask: do we really want to know all this, or would such hard, fast knowledge destroy our wistful visualizations, dampen our hopes or compromise our anticipation? I think that the traditional term “expecting” applied to parents-to-be contains the seed of as-yet-unseen joys and surprises, and I rather like that unspelled-out manner of proceeding.
This is a turnaround for us. Our pre-pregnancy plan had been to have the test done, primarily to determine whether we had a Down’s syndrome fetus. Our liberal principles led us to conclude that we would elect a second trimester abortion if such was the case, rather than bring into the world another animal which would forever be at the mercy of others for its survival. So much of our thinking on this only indicates our own prejudice about what life is, what constitutes health, what animals “deserve” a chance to live (aren’t we all at one another’s mercy?).
But now this “other” animal is beginning to become our animal, and the proverbial rug has been pulled from beneath my heretofore steady philosophical platform. The concept of pro-choice for pregnant women has always seemed, and remains to seem, the only reasonable and moral position, in theory. But while the opposing anti-abortion stance had only been a straw dog, in my previous estimation, now I see it more as a very real argument arising not from evil or misogyny — although as an abstract ideology it can evolve into that, complete with abortion clinic bombings — but from a basic urge to preserve life because life embodies what one loves. I am no longer so sure just what I believe, but I know I want to preserve this particular life; what the next couple or woman does is their decision. We have decided not to have the amniocentesis test, which has built into it the idea of abortion as an alternative.
It is the ninth week. We have read that the fetus is totally formed now, has all its parts which wait only for embellishment and definition, the marks of individuality. In fact, it now has fingerprints, our culture’s strangely penal symbol indicating that one has an identity. Two or three weeks ago, the nascent hands still looked like patty-pan squash, fingers mere nubs inching outward. Pictures and comparisons help us to imagine the process occurring in Lee’s womb. We lie on the bed one morning petting Goofy, a three-year-old cat with a black head and white muzzle, like a Walt Disney cartoon character. “When the baby comes,” Lee says, “it won’t even be that big.” We stare in disbelief at Goofy. I imagine his head appearing from Lee’s vagina, his whole body slipping out between her legs. Another of Lee’s cats once gave birth without even knowing it, I recall. Ophelia had to be shown the wet kitten squirming under her tail.
Some friends told me that when they became parents, their cats — until then of paramount importance in their lives — suddenly became mere understudies to the new leading character: the human baby. I wonder if this will happen to us, since we dearly love our cats and dogs. They are other animals, too.
I called the exterminator because we had angry wasps in our house. They were all over the place. In the bedroom, they buzzed and banged their hard, heavy, yellow-striped bodies against the walls and windows. Downstairs, in my office, I heard them over the low hum of the typewriter. One or two would flash past my eyes, then circle over me.
I am a city girl. I’m scared to death of any kind of insect that bites, stings, or in any way has anything to do with me. I have always been especially afraid of bees, hornets, and wasps.
I had been fending off these angry wasps for two and a half days. I’d hear a slight bzzz, or a thump-thump against the wall, and I’d grab a fly swatter in one hand and a can of Raid in the other. Quietly, stealthily, I’d stalk them. I became paranoid. I heard them and saw them even when they weren’t there. My vigil was constant, and with each passing hour, I became more convinced that I would be stung over and over again and would die a terrible, painful death while every wasp from the nest would buzz and swarm over me in delicious victory.
Finally, the exterminator arrived at my front door. He was in uniform and was a young, nice looking, boy-next-door type. He had come to fight the wasps. He had come to save my life. As he marched around to the side of the house to attack the nest, I wanted to strew flowers in his path.
A few minutes later, he was back. “There,” he said, “that should take care of them, ma’am.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said.
“You see, you gotta kill the queen. Otherwise, she’ll just keep producing more and more wasps. Trouble is, she’s protected way inside the nest, in the royal chamber. But bees and wasps are very social. The workers are going to be going in and out of the nest now. They’ll get that poison on them. Then, when they do all their rituals for the queen, the poison on their bodies will kill her.”
“Yeah. They clean the queen, and feed her, and do a dance for her. It’s a whole ceremony. That’s when they’ll be poisoning her.”
The wasps are gone. We must have gotten the queen. It’s silly, I guess, but I can’t shake her. I see her enthroned within her royal chamber, her dying subjects performing their instinctive and marvelous ceremonies, and, in their devotion to her, unknowingly covering her with poison. Never mind that she has killed her rival would-be queens or that she murdered her mate as soon as he impregnated her. That’s their business. It’s just that, somehow, I don’t feel that dispatching her worshipping slaves to be her assassins was any of my business.
Park Forest, Illinois
Today I woke at a quarter to five, meditated an hour, did asanas, and began typing an article for The Uptown Dispatch. My mother came in and asked, “Who opened the window?”
“You can’t do that,” she said, closing it.
“There’s a squirrel out there. A fat squirrel,” she said, looking out. “On the fire escape.”
“He won’t come in.”
“You don’t know,” she said, turning to me, laughing. “A squirrel in my house!”
On the rush hour subway I looked for animals. There was a bull in a Yago Sant’gria ad (with a bullfighter). A porcelain cat in The New York Times. A duck handle on an umbrella.
All morning, doing marketing research, I met no animals.
I was eating lunch in Greeley Square when a pigeon flew up on the bench next to me and stared at my meal. I threw him a sesame rice spiral, hoping he’d go away. Instead, all the other pigeons came too — one even descended from the head of Horace Greeley.
I threw them pieces of pasta and beans. They fought over the scraps. The first one came closer and closer — inches from my hand — with his horrible smudged feathers. One peck and my lunch would be polluted.
Finally I finished the meal.
I worked till twilight.
This evening I saw an ad for the Bare Facts Dancers, “New York’s Hottest Male Stripper Review.” One of the dancers was named Animal.
Brooklyn, New York
The morning of my departure, I rose, as usual, quite early, and was drawn immediately out of doors. The sand was still in shadow though the sun had topped the hills behind me, lighting up the bay islands and most of the sea between. In a week I had learned to tell approximate time on the sun’s arc: no chance of a cafe-au-lait for, I guessed, nearly one hour. I set out to defile the tide-smoothed sand at water’s edge with the deep heel thrusts of my exuberant striding. (How my calves ached the first days!) Down to the promontory and back, no flotsam of interest, the sea chopping up a bit as if also excited by the sun. I hauled a chair off the stack, for the sand was too clammy with dew, and sat.
A movement in the sand caught my eye. I went over and found what appeared to be a half-buried crab. As the sand around was pocked with crab burrows, I thought I was about to learn the way they had been dug. But the crab merely moved sideways and as it did I could see (with a jolt) that it was not half-buried, it was only half a crab. The three right legs and the pincer were gone, four little stubs against the side of its body all that remained. The one hindmost leg like a tiny, articulated walking stick was the only appendage left, but with it the crab lifted its body so the left legs could propel it in a lurching, flopping motion not unlike what one would imagine to be the horrific progress of a disembodied hand.
I was instantly flooded with pity and within seconds was plotting what I should do to “save” this maimed creature. Almost as quickly, I realized the absurdity as well as the presumption of my thoughts: save it from what, for what? This is its domain.
The crab was evidently watching me as well and began making haste to escape. I followed its tortuous but surprisingly efficient progress to the edge of the waves and, thinking the water to be its goal, I left to check on the coffee situation. Still no life at the pavilion, but hope was nurtured by the presence of tall columns of plates and cups as well as by a mountain of neatly piled fruit which had appeared on the long, white-draped buffet.
I returned to the chair, and looked to where I last saw the crab and, now that the sun was streaking the sand between palm fronds, I could see a shining thing which was the crab’s smooth carapace. Some joggers were thudding their heedless way toward it and I felt obligated to position a blockade. This time the crab’s attempts to scuttle away were frustrated by repeated tumbles into the footprints I had earlier gouged in the sand. I regretted menacing it and tried to stand back, but it suddenly chose to confront me and all my hugeness. It faced me and raised itself as high as it could on its crutch and thrust forward the little stalks on which its bead-black eyes were perched. Keep in mind that it was no more than three inches across. Tiny droplets of clear fluid came bubbling fiercely out of its mouth. In short, it was determined to stand and fight.
I felt like laughing for joy. The marvel of it! Well, I would honor its proud challenge. I crouched down and poked the corner of my towel at it. Again and again it seized the cloth with its one pincer, sometimes falling off balance, righting itself and cleaning off its eyes with the little feelers tucked away on either side of its mouth which seemed to exist for just this purpose. Swipe, swipe, they would go over the stalks and the shiny eyes would pop back up. I felt myself growing tremendously attached to this tiny piece of life.
Finally, I wrapped my towel in a sort of corral around the crab. It instantly scurried into a fold and crouched there. I picked up the whole thing and carried it to near an abandoned burrow and set it down. The crab took off like a shot and disappeared down the hole. That’s that, I thought. But no, in just a moment it reappeared at the burrow entrance, its eyestalks fixed in my direction. I reached out my hand to overshadow the hole and the crab backed down an inch or two. I drew back my hand and it reapproached the entrance. We did this (we!) several times until I was assured that the action was deliberate. Still I kept asking myself how can any of this action be deliberate on the part of the crab? There is no brain, no assessment, no choice. A bundle of ganglia is running the show. I must not attribute intention to any of its actions. But why then, why did it appear so brave and then playful? How could I be admiring what had to be a mere computer-like response to some slightly differentiated stimuli, responses ingrained in its neural mechanisms over thousands of generations? Feeling so smart and so dumb at the same time was literally rocking me back on my heels.
No answer yet today to that rational denial that strained to override my spontaneous sense of interaction with the crab. I think of Lawrence Durrell’s remark: “How we cherish the festering intelligence.” Festering, indeed! What do I need to know about crustacea — surely not even their name — in order to experience a moment of love for our shared Being? But, far more important, what do I need to know in order that the “moment” becomes the constant state of my awareness . . . of other animals?
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I know a counselor who worked with the Navajo many years ago. He tells me they call themselves “The People” and believe that they are the only real people on Earth. Everyone else is an animal — other Indians, white men, all those we view as human; we are all animals except for The People. It is through their magic that they understand us, even as they speak with the eagle, fox, and bear. It’s OK for them to kill their neighbors, the Apache, because they are, after all, only animals. They have no explanation for non-Navajo who speak the language. Every faith has its “mysteries.”
I, too, was taught that my people were the only true people. Those not of my faith must eventually choose to stand with us or against us; if against us, they’d be (eventually) cannon-fodder for God.
I do not see many squirrels overcome by guilt at the side of the road. My hamster never bore witness to me or discounted my ideas because they were not his own. I suspect my Siamese believes God is a cat, but he’s never pressed the point, and doesn’t seem much interested in self-sacrifice or castigation. Maybe they are selfish beasts but I’ve never known them to kill one another in the name of God, and they are too busy living to stop and denounce each other.
Let someone else be The True People for awhile. It is comforting to think of myself as just another animal.
Last week I found a dead bird on my porch. I did not see any Bird God come to collect its soul for punishment. I saw the wind breathing under its feathers, trying to lift it back to the sky. Ask me what I believe. I believe in the wind.