Conjunctions: 61, A Menagerie gathers essays, fiction, and poetry that imagine the world of our fellow beings, animals. Cultural mythologies and pantheons are populated with snakes, monkeys, cats, jackals, whales: a cast of characters whose stories reveal how complex and wildly contradictory our species’ relationship with other animals is. They’re friends, enemies, tools, food. Descartes deliberated about whether animals have souls, deciding they didn’t. Linnaeus cataloged them. Darwin connected us to them. Wild or tame, sinless or soulless, the animal is a chimera of shifting identities, both mundane and mysterious. Featuring interviews with William S. Burroughs and Temple Grandin, essays by animal experimenters Vint Virga and Dale Peterson, fiction by Russell Banks and Joyce Carol Oates, and work by many others, this collection of imaginative new writing offers uncaged access to the lives of the nonhuman creatures that surround us.
About the Author
Bradford Morrow is the editor of Conjunctions and the recipient of the PEN/Nora Magid Award for excellence in literary editing. The author of six novels, his most recent books include the novel The Diviner’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and the fiction collection The Uninnocent (Pegasus Books). He is currently at work on a collaboration with virtuoso guitarist Alex Skolnick, A Bestiary. A Bard Center fellow and professor of literature at Bard College, he lives in New York City.
Benjamin Hale is the author of the novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve) and the recipient of the Bard Fiction Prize and a Michener-Copernicus award. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Conjunctions, Harper’s, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He teaches at Bard College.
Bradford Morrow (b. 1951) is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, editor, and author of children’s books. He grew up in Colorado and traveled extensively before settling in New York and launching the renowned literary journal Conjunctions. His novel The Almanac Branch was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and for Trinity Fields, Morrow was the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Academy Award in Literature. He has garnered numerous other accolades for his fiction, including O. Henry and Pushcart prizes, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. Morrow is a professor of literature and Bard Center Fellow at Bard College.
Born in 1947, James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since he, as a seven-year-old living in the Philadelphia suburbs, dictated “The Story of the Dog Family” to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. This three-page, six-chapter fantasy is still in the author’s private archives. Upon reaching adulthood, Jim produced nine novels of speculative fiction, including the critically acclaimed Godhead Trilogy. He has won the World Fantasy Award (for Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah), the Nebula Award (for “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge” and the novella City of Truth), and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award (for the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima). A fulltime fiction writer, Jim makes his home in State College, Pennsylvania, with his wife, his son, an enigmatic sheepdog, and a loopy beagle. He is hard at work on a novel about Darwinism and its discontents.
Joyce Carol Oates is the author of over seventy books encompassing novels, poetry, criticism, story collections, plays, and essays. Her novel Them won the National Book Award in Fiction in 1970. Oates has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for more than three decades and currently holds the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professorship at Princeton University.
Read an Excerpt
Conjunctions, Vol. 61
By Bradford Morrow, Benjamin Hale
ConjunctionsCopyright © 2013 Conjunctions
All rights reserved.
A Permanent Member of the Family
I'm not sure I want to tell this story on myself, not now, some thirty-five years after it happened. But it has more or less become a family legend and consequently has been much revised and, if I may say, since I'm not merely a witness to the crime but its presumed perpetrator, much distorted as well. It has been told around by people who are virtual strangers, people who heard it from one of my daughters, my son-in-law, or my granddaughter, all of whom enjoy telling it because it paints the old man, that's me, in a somewhat humiliating light, or maybe humbling light is a better way to put it. Apparently, humbling the old man still gives pleasure, even to people who don't know him personally. I half expect to see a version of the story appear, drained of all sadness and significance, in a situation comedy on TV written by some kid who was in a college writing workshop with my granddaughter.
My main impulse here is merely to set the record straight, get the story told truthfully once and for all, even if it does in a vague way reflect badly on me. Not on my character so much as on my inability to anticipate bad things and thus on my inability to protect my children when they were very young from those bad things. I'm also trying to reclaim the story, to take it back and make it mine again. If that sounds selfish of me, remember that for thirty-five years it has belonged to everyone else.
It was the winter following the summer I separated from Louise, the mother of my three younger daughters, the woman who for fourteen turbulent years had been my wife. It took place in a shabbily quaint village in southern New Hampshire where I was teaching literature at a small liberal arts college. The divorce had not yet kicked in, but the separation was complete, an irreversible fact of life, my life and Louise's and the lives of our three girls, Anthea, Caitlin, and Sasha, who were six, nine, and thirteen years old. A fourth daughter, Vickie, from my first marriage, was then eighteen and living with me, having run away from her mother and stepfather's home in North Carolina. She was enrolled as a freshman at the college where I taught and was temporarily housed in a studio I built for her above the garage. All of us were fissioned atoms spun off at least three different nuclear families, seeking new, recombinant nuclei.
I had left Louise in August and bought a small abandoned house with an attached garage a quarter of a mile away that felt and looked like the gatehouse to Louise's much larger, elaborately groomed Victorian manse on the hill just beyond. Following my departure, her social life, always more intense and open-ended than mine, continued unabated and even intensified, as if for years my presence had acted as a party killer. On weekends especially, cars rumbled back and forth along the unpaved lane between my cottage and her house at all hours of the day and night. Some of the cars I recognized as belonging to our formerly shared friends; some of them were new to me and bore out-of-state plates.
We were each financially independent of the other, she through a trust set up by her grandparents, I by virtue of my teaching position. There was, therefore, no alimony for our lawyers to fight for or against. Since our one jointly owned asset of consequence, that rather grandiose Victorian manse, had been purchased with her family's money, I signed my half of it over to her without argument. It had always seemed pretentiously bourgeois to me, a bit of an embarrassment, frankly, and I was glad to be rid of it.
Regarding the children, the plan was that my ex-wife, as I was already thinking of her, and I would practice "joint custody," a Solomonic solution to the rending of family fabric. At the time, the late 1970s, this was seen as a progressive, although mostly untried, way of doling out parental responsibilities in a divorce. Three and a half days a week the girls would reside with me and their half sister, Vickie, and three and a half days a week with their mother. They would alternate three nights at my house one week with four nights the next, so that for every fourteen nights they would have slept seven at the home of each parent. Half their clothing and personal possessions would be at my place, where I had carved two tiny, low-ceilinged bedrooms out of the attic, and half would be at their mother's, where each child had her own large, high-windowed bedroom and walk-in closet. It was an easy, safe stroll between the two houses, and on transitional days, the school bus could pick them up in the morning at one parent's house and drop them off that afternoon at the other. We agreed to handle the holidays and vacations on an ad hoc basis—postponing the problem, in other words.
That left only the cat, a large black Maine Coon cat named Scooter, and the family dog, a white part-poodle mutt we'd rescued from a pound twelve years earlier when I was in graduate school. A neutered female unaccountably named Sarge, she was an adult dog of indeterminate age when we got her but was now very old. She was arthritic, half blind, and partially deaf. And devoted to everyone in the family. We were her pack.
Louise and I agreed that Scooter and Sarge, unlike our daughters, could not adapt to joint custody and therefore would have to live full-time in one place or the other. I made a preemptive bid for Sarge, who was viewed as belonging not to either parent alone, but to the three girls, who were very protective of her, as if she were a mentally and physically challenged sibling. Despite her frailty, she was the perfect family dog: sweetly placid, utterly dependent, and demonstrably grateful for any form of human kindness.
Scooter, on the other hand, was a loner and often out all night prowling the neighborhood for sex. We had neglected to castrate him until he was nearly three, and evidently he still thought he was obliged to endure mortal combat with other male cats for the sexual favors of females, even though he was no longer capable of enjoying those favors. He had long been regarded by Louise and the girls and by himself as my cat, probably because I was an early riser and fed him when he showed up at the back door at dawn looking like a boxer who needed a good cutman. And though neither of us overtly acknowledged it, he and I were the only males in the family. He ended up at my gatehouse down the lane not because I particularly wanted him there, but more or less by default.
In keeping with the principle of dividing custodial responsibilities equally between ex-husband and ex-wife, since the ex-husband had been claimed by the cat, it was decided that the dog would stay at the home of the ex-wife. She insisted on it. There was no discussion or negotiation. I balked at first, but then backed off. Keeping Sarge at her house was an important point of pride for Louise, I saw, the one small tilt in her favor in an otherwise equitable division of property, personal possessions, and domestic responsibility. It was a small victory over me in a potentially much more destructive contest that we were both determined to avoid, and I didn't mind handing it to her. Choose your battles, I reminded myself. Also, claiming Sarge as her own and not mine was a not-so-subtle though probably unconscious way for Louise to claim our daughters as more hers than mine. I didn't mind giving that to her either, as long as I knew it was an illusion. It made me feel more magnanimous and wise than I really was.
Back then there were many differences between me and Louise as to reality and illusion, truth and falsity, and a frequent confusion of the causes of the breakdown of the marriage with the symptoms of an already broken marriage. But I'd rather not go into them here, because this story is not concerned with those differences and that confusion, which now these many years later have dwindled to irrelevance. Besides, both Louise and I have been happily remarried to new spouses for decades, and our children are practically middle-aged and have children of their own. One daughter is herself twice divorced. Like her dad.
At first the arrangement went as smoothly as Louise and I had hoped. The girls, bless their hearts, once the initial shock of the separation wore off, seemed to embrace the metronomic movement back and forth between their old familiar family home, now owned and operated solely by their mother, and the new, rough-hewn home operated by their father a few hundred yards down the lane. With a swing set and slide from Sears, I turned the backyard into a suburban playground. It was a mild autumn with a long Indian summer, I recall, and I pitched a surplus army tent among the maples by the brook and let the girls grill hot dogs and toast marshmallows and sleep out there in sleeping bags on warm nights when there was no school the next day. Back in June, when I knew I'd soon be parenting and housekeeping on my own, I had scheduled my fall term classes and conferences for early in the day so that I could be home waiting for the girls when they stepped down from the bus and came into the house. With Vickie living over the garage—although only sleeping there irregularly, as she now had a boyfriend at school who had his own apartment in town—my place that fall was like an after-school summer camp for girls.
The one unanticipated complication arose when Sarge, the beloved old family dog, trotted arthritically along behind the girls as best she could whenever they came from their mother's house to mine. This in itself was not a problem, except that, when the girls returned to their mother's at the end of their three or four scheduled nights with me, Sarge refused to follow. She stayed with me and Scooter. Her preference was clear, although her reasons were not. She even resisted being leashed and went limp like an antiwar demonstrator arrested for trespass and could not be made to stand and walk. Within an hour of the girls' departure, Louise would telephone and insist that I drive the dog "home," as she put it. "Sarge lives with me," she said. "Me and the girls."
Custody of Sarge was a victory over Louise that I had not sought. I had never thought of her as "my" dog, but as the family dog, by which I meant belonging to the children. I tried explaining that it appeared to be Sarge's decision to stay with me and assured her that I had done nothing to coerce the dog into staying and nothing to hinder her in any way from following the girls up the lane when they left. Quite the opposite.
But Louise would have none of it. "Just bring the damn dog back. Now," she said and hung up. Her voice and her distinctive Virginia Tidewater accent echo in my ears these many years later.
I was driving a Ford station wagon then, and because of her arthritis poor old Sarge couldn't get into the back on her own, so I had to lift her up carefully and lay her in, and when I arrived at Louise's house, I had to open the tailgate and scoop the dog up in my arms and set her down on the driveway like an offering—a peace offering, I suppose, though it felt more like a propitiation.
This happened every week. Despite all Louise's efforts to keep Sarge a permanent resident of her house, the dog always managed to slip out, arriving at my door just behind the girls, or else she came down the lane, increasingly, on her own, even when the girls were in their mother's custody. So it wasn't Anthea, Caitlin, and Sasha that the dog was following, it was me. I began to see that in her canine mind I was her pack leader, and since I had moved to a new den, so had she. If she didn't follow me there, she'd be without a pack and a proper den.
There was nothing that Louise and I could do to show Sarge how wrong she was. She wasn't wrong, of course; she was a dog. After about a month, Louise gave up, although she never announced her capitulation. Simply, there came a time when my ex-wife no longer called me with orders to deliver our family dog to her doorstep.
Everyone—me, Sarge, the girls, I think even Louise—was relieved. We all knew on some level that a major battle, one with a likelihood of causing considerable collateral damage, had been narrowly avoided. Yet, despite my relief, I felt a buzzing, low-grade anxiety about having gained sole custody of Sarge. I wasn't aware of it then, but looking back now I see that Sarge, as long as she was neither exclusively mine nor Louise's, functioned in our newly disassembled family as the last remaining link to our preseparation, prelapsarian past, to a time of relative innocence, when all of us, but especially the girls, still believed in the permanence of our family unit, our pack.
If Sarge had only agreed to traipse up and down the lane behind the girls, if she had agreed to accept joint custody, then my having left my wife that summer and fall could have been seen by all of us as an eccentric, impulsive, possibly even temporary, sleeping arrangement, and for the girls it could have been a bit like going on a continuous series of neighborhood camping trips with Dad. I would not have felt quite so guilty, and Louise would not have been so hurt and angry. The whole abandonment issue would have been ameliorated somewhat. The children would not have been so traumatized, their lives, as they see them today, would not have been permanently disfigured, and neither Louise nor I might have gone looking so quickly for replacement spouses.
That's a lot of weight to put on a family dog, I know. We all lose our innocence soon enough; it's inescapable. Most of us aren't emotionally or intellectually ready for it until our thirties or even later, however. So when one loses it prematurely, in childhood and adolescence, through divorce or the sudden early death of a parent or, more usually, war, it can leave one fixated on that loss for a lifetime. Because it's premature, it feels unnatural, violent, and unnecessary, a permanent, gratuitous wounding, and it leaves one angry at the world, and to provide one's unfocused anger with a proper target, one looks for someone to blame.
No one blamed Sarge, of course, for rejecting joint custody and thereby breaking up our family. Not consciously, anyhow. In fact, back then, at the beginning of the breakup of the family, none of us knew how much we depended on Sarge to preserve our ignorance of the fragility, the very impermanence, of the family. None of us knew that she was helping us postpone our anger and need for blame— blame for the separation and divorce, for the destruction of the family unit, for our lost innocence.
Whenever the girls stepped down from the school bus for their three or four nights' stay at my house, they were clearly, profoundly comforted to see Sarge—her wide grin; her wet, black eyes glazed by cataracts; her floppy tail and slipshod, slanted, arthritic gait as she trailed them from the bus stop to the house. Wherever the girls settled in the yard or the house, as long as she didn't have to climb the narrow attic stairs to be with them, Sarge lay watchfully beside them, as if guarding them from a danger whose existence Louise and I had not yet acknowledged.
Vickie wasn't around all that much, but Sarge was not attached to her in the same intense way as to the three younger girls. Sarge pretty much ignored Vickie. From the dog's perspective, I think she was a late-arriving, auxiliary member of the pack, which I hate to admit is how the three younger girls saw her too, despite my best efforts to integrate all four daughters into a single family unit. No one admitted this, of course, but even then, that early in the game, I saw that I was failing to build a recombinant nuclear family. Vickie was a free radical and, sadly, would remain one.
Mostly, when the children were at school or up at their mother's, Sarge slept through her days. Her only waking diversion, in the absence of the girls, was going for rides in my car, and I took her everywhere I went, even to my office at the college, where she slept under my desk while I met my classes. From dawn to dusk, when the weather turned wintry and snow was falling, if I was at home and my car parked in the driveway, Sarge's habit, so as not to miss an opportunity for a ride, was to crawl under the vehicle and sleep there until I came out. When I got into the car I'd start the engine and, if the girls were with me, count off the seconds aloud until, fifteen or twenty seconds into my count, Sarge appeared at the driver's side window. Then I'd step out, flip open the tailgate, and lift her into the back. If the girls weren't there I still counted, but silently. I never got as high as thirty before Sarge was waiting by the car door.
I don't remember now where we were headed, but this time all four daughters were in the car together, Vickie in the front passenger's seat, Anthea, Caitlin, and Sasha in back. I remember it as a daytime drive, even though, because of Vickie's classes and the younger girls' school hours, it was unusual for all four to be in the car at the same time during the day. Maybe it was a Saturday or Sunday; maybe we were going ice-skating at one of the local ponds. It was a bright, cloudless, cold afternoon, I remember that, and there was no snow on the ground just then, which suggests a deep freeze following the usual January thaw. We must have been five or six months into the separation and divorce, which would not be final until the following August.
Excerpted from A Menagerie by Bradford Morrow, Benjamin Hale. Copyright © 2013 Conjunctions. Excerpted by permission of Conjunctions.
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Table of Contents
- EDITORS' NOTE
- Russell Banks, A Permanent Member of the Family
- Sarah Minor, Handling the Beast
- James Morrow, Some Early Exxxperiments in Behavioral Science: A Bird's-Eye View
- Sallie Tisdale, Here Be Monsters
- Cole Swensen, Night Walks
- Bennett Sims, Fables
- Dale Peterson, Where Have All the Animals Gone?
- Susan Daitch, Unnatural Habitats
- Henri Michaux, Impersonal Affairs (translated from French by Gillian Conoley)
- Wil Weitzel, Leviathan
- Temple Grandin, An Interview (conducted by Benjamin Hale)
- Andrew Mossin, Two Poems
- Gwyneth Merner, Wolf Interval
- Lynne Tillman, Circumstantial Evidence
- Rick Moody, Conversion Testimony
- Sandra Meek, Three Poems
- Edward Carey, A Semi-Prehensile Lip
- Joyce Carol Oates, Happy Chicken 1942-1944: A Memoir
- Paul Lisicky, Animal Care and Control
- Vint Virga, The Snow Leopard's Realm
- Terese Svoboda, Loose Lion
- William S. Burroughs, An Interview (conducted by Bradford Morrow)
- H. G. Carrillo, Gavage
- Kevin Holden, Three Poems
- Monica Datta, The C----------s
- Michael Parrish Lee, Greta and Her Creatures
- Martine Bellen, Pond Animals
- Emily Anderson, Aerie
- Frederic Tuten, The Snow on Tompkins Square Park
- Rebecca Bridge, Four Poems
- Janis E. Rodgers, Becoming Human
- Dan Rosenberg, Three Poems
- Kyoko Mori, Cat and Bird
- Adam McOmber, The Re'em
- Nora Khan, Cardinal
- Craig Eklund, The Taxidermist
- NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS