I ’m just drifting off to sleep when a creature in the bushes outside my window screams like a human baby. I run to the kitchen. What is that? I ask my mother. Mother says, That is a fisher. I’m eight and have never heard of such an animal. A fisher, says Mother, is a kind of weasel that lives in the woods. It eats cats. It could even, she says, eat a very small dog.
In the morning Mother goes to warn the neighbors. She crosses the lawn of tall weeds, sad grass, and patches of dirt. I watch her progress from an open window. She passes through the hole in the rotting fence she has been meaning to mend. The neighbors’ lawn is a cushion of tropical green. Mother stomps up to the neighbors’ stoop in her housecoat and old plastic boots. She rings the bell. The neighbor lady comes to the door in a soft pink sweater and pearls. Later Mother tells me she warned the woman to keep her cat indoors, because a fisher will kill and eat your house cat. The neighbor lady didn’t want to hear it.
The neighbor lady’s cat dozes in our driveway all day. I stand guard beside it with a stick.
Mother loves films in which boorish men are injured by children. The mischievous child burns the burglar’s head with a flamethrower. Mother cackles. My father notes the pattern. You just like to see men get hurt, he says. Yeah, says Mother. And?
My father slips on ice in the driveway and plants his face in dirty snow. He hobbles in. Mother has seen from the window. What’s the matter? she asks, laughing. Did you eat shit?
Yeah, Dad, I ask him, did you eat shit?
The neighbor boy plays tyrant in my backyard. He throws my jump-rope high into a pine tree. I take a shovel from the shed and hold it above my head like a battle-ax and bellow, chasing the neighbor boy from the yard. Frightened, he falls and cracks his tooth on a stone. The neighbor lady is outraged. Mother makes a new rule: no more weapons.
In the public library I use the computers. Homeless men also use the computers. Wash your hands, says Mother. Why? I ask. Because those men at the library are dirty, says Mother. Because they’re homeless? I ask. Because they’re men, says Mother, and, as such, they’re constantly touching themselves.
Mother provides me with selected reading material in which a girl or woman, real or imagined, is oppressed by a man or men: A Saudi princess reveals the cruelty of life behind the veil. A Guatemalan woman details the murder of her family by a corrupt military. Jane Eyre falls to the ground bleeding after her male cousin throws a book at her head.
I ask Mother, Do you think they’re all like that? Men?
Mother says, Your father is a good man. I love your father. But, yes, they’re all like that.
We find out that the mailman is an adulterer. He is nothing, says Mother, but a peckerhead. I ask, What is a peckerhead? My father says, Never you mind. Mother keeps chopping onions. On her way to the sink she whispers in my ear, A peckerhead . . . She turns and catches my father’s eye. She holds the butcher knife aloft and dripping. A peckerhead, she says, is nothing but a dick-for-brains. She gestures at me with the blade. If anyone ever touches you, she says, I’ll take his nuts off with this knife.
Mother talks to me about sex. Abortion, says Mother, is not a form of birth control. You want birth control, she says, you get a condom.
A family down the street adopts a little girl from Guatemala. That girl, says Mother, was stolen from her parents. Those people, she says, are kidnappers.
I show Mother some videos I found online of slaughterhouses and fur farms and kill shelters. The video in which a fur manufacturer skins a dog-like rodent alive proves most effective. The creature continues to breathe and blink at the camera in hideous pain long after its skin has been pulled away from the wet red meat of its body. Mother watches intently. Things change around the house after that. Animal products vanish from the shelves. I find faux-leather shoes in the mudroom and kitten calendars on the walls. Mother adopts a spotted dog with failing kidneys and an orange cat with mange. She develops a new hierarchy: human bad, animal good.
Mother buys a humane insect catcher: a clear plastic box on a pole. She follows a spider up and down the walls with it. When the spider is trapped by the plastic box, she pulls a lever, and a door snaps shut. It severs all eight of the spider’s legs at the joint. The spider flails its thread-thin stubs in the air. Oh, no, says Mother. Oh, no.
Reaching into the cupboard for a plate, I discover a lone, cold sausage made of soy. I question Mother. Did you put this in there? I ask, indicating the sausage. Ha, says Mother. Ha! But not like a funny joke. More as if she had been looking for that sausage.
The neighbors go out on a hot day and leave one of their dogs tied up in their yard. The dog whimpers and cries. It makes such human noises. Mother climbs through the hole in the fence and slips past the lilac bush. I worry she may liberate the animal. I imagine the headline on the local news. Mother sits down in the grass in her housecoat and slippers and takes the dog’s face in her two hands and stares at it. They whimper together. She refills the dog’s dry water bowl with a hose. She stays there in the grass with the dog until the neighbors’ car approaches. Then she slinks back behind the fence, my mother does, and watches as the neighbors take the dog inside. That dog, she says, is a gentle animal.
Driving down the highway, Mother has a hot flash. She sticks her arm in front of my face and says, Pull! Pull! I pull obediently on the coat sleeve. Mother struggles out of layers, frantic, knees holding the steering wheel steady. The flush advances toward her hairline like a tide.
Mother taunts her rescue cat. She dangles a fake mouse under its nose. The cat slices Mother’s skin with an indifferent claw. Blood stains her sleeve. The cat yawns. Mother pets the cat. I love her, she says, even though she has such disdain for us.
Mother stops buying chunky peanut butter and apples because her crowns are coming loose. Father’s crowns are also coming loose, and several of his teeth are coming loose, and his gums are receding. I have a vague and shameful knowledge of the price of dentists. For my own cavities Mother insists on porcelain fillings. But, Mother, I say, this one’s in back. You can’t even see it. You won’t have a mouth full of metal, she says. It makes you look poor.
When her rescue dog starts to limp, Mother checks the bank statement with a grim face and buys the dog a brand-new knee. That dog, she says, never asked to be here.
The neighbor puts down one of his dogs because it bit him. That fucker, says Mother. She was fond of the neighbor’s dog. She was sure the neighbor must have abused or neglected the dog, and that was why the dog was so aggressive. The neighbor did not take his dogs for walks every day. On days when the neighbor did take his dogs for walks, he did not use the proper type of harness on the dogs, the humane kind that takes the pressure off the dog’s throat. Those dogs, says Mother, were being choked.
Dogs don’t bite you, she says, unless you deserve it.
Driving down a dark road at night, Mother hits a rabbit. She pulls onto the shoulder and gets out to investigate. The rabbit is a skid of blood and fur. It’s dead, I say. Mother takes some scraps of cardboard from the trunk and squats down in the middle of the dark road, oblivious to oncoming cars. You can’t squat, I say, in this dark road! You can’t die, I say, for that rabbit! Mother scoops up the remains of the rabbit with the cardboard and takes them to the shoulder. She makes several trips. The taillights show blood on the asphalt. Mother bends low over the body on the roadside and mumbles. When she gets back in the car, her hands are wet with gore.
The neighbors begin to raise chickens. They spend two Sundays putting up the coop. Three hens strut and cluck inside a ring of wire. That’s nice, I say. They look happy, I say, don’t they, Mother? For now, says Mother. Just wait till they stop laying eggs, she says. See how long those fuckers wait to turn them into soup.
I find out Mother was right about the Guatemalan adoptions. Several cases make the news. Those little girls, the papers say, were stolen from their parents. See? says Mother. I told you. Kidnappers.
At eighteen I have sex without condoms and wear leather shoes. I say to Mother, The preservative in that soy milk you drink will give you cancer. I say to Mother, If I get pregnant, I won’t even tell you. I’ll just take care of it, and you’ll never even know.
Mother reaches down to stroke the newborn kitten in her lap. Two more bite and scratch at the ruined upholstery. She’s up to four cats and three dogs from the shelter, all anxious, some chronically ill. The dogs duck through the hole in the fence to terrorize the neighbors’ chickens. Vet bills clutter the countertops and cover up the electric bills and mortgage statements.
Mother says, I didn’t have you so you could be like me. God knows I’d never want you living my life.
But let’s say you do get pregnant, Mother says. I want you to know you could always give it to me.