We are not friends, me and the girl. At our work, you have no friends. On a rain-black morning she inches up and asks me to do some groundwork. Cut through the glass mask the new boy wears. Drop her name at his feet, please, and see what he picks up. Struck speechless herself whenever he’s near, she wants me to be the talker. I am so much older, she thinks, I won’t be after him myself. I have no desires left, she probably thinks. “All you need to do,” this girl explains, “is the groundwork. Once that’s laid, I step in.”
The supervisor stops pacing, lets his crotch hover at my shoulder, and waits. I give him my heart and he pinches it between thumb and pinky, testing. We are told to make hearts firm and flesh them strong, stitch them tight in the glare of our room, tall and white, with long wood tables and plates of silver instruments.
“Garbage!” says the supervisor.
“But the stitches are good,” I say.
“No keeping,” he says, “it’s shit.” He turns and brays to the room: “We are not in the jack o’ lantern business here!”—skull shining globy in the white, chilly light. “Tidy stitches!” he howls. “I can’t sing it strong enough.”
With his barks and warbles, he ruins the room. I, cowering, tell my ears don’t listen. My stitches stagger, wrung clumsy. There are so many hours before the day can end.
The animals wait at home, splinted and bandaged. Codling, elver, owlet, smolt. Human milk works on these wild babies. Even the eel? Especially the eel. It finds the breast quickly. My nipple is bigger than its head but it licks drops. The young owl’s beak is nimble; the codling’s lips are a wet pleasure. The infant salmon sucks longer than a human child can. Hurt young animals heal quicker than you think. Some rest, some milky drink, some affection is a marvelous cure. Behind my house are shelves for them, tin-roofed, padded with straw. Clean troughs for the fish. Old soft shreds of clothes that don’t fit me anymore, which the babies nose and trod to make little beds.
Across the gravel lawn from the sewing room is a shackish building they say once was used as a buttery. What happens in a buttery other than butter? A milkmaid with skirts foaming at her plump neck getting pounded by the assistant gamekeeper? The company uses it for coffee and small food you can buy on your break. From tucked against the window I watch the new boy watch his own feet dig in the gravel. He doesn’t come inside. He stands scratching the ground with a toe, walks from one fence to the other, runs waving through a grist of bees outside the buttery door. I pray they won’t sting but his skin looks easy to bite. His skin looks like a newborn cougar’s pelt. He is dash, with damp curls, a pinstriped suit, a sharkskin belt. I don’t know him more than a face through fogged windows when I sit with my cup waiting to work again but I have noticed he wears the same pinstripes every day. His face blown perfect like blue glass animals that cost a thousand dollars make my fingers throb to build a new and better than anything heart. His face looks like good work.
I watch the dash boy dance for minutes on end. He stops when he sees nobody is watching. (He can’t know I am, from the brown window.) Done dancing, he takes off one shoe and hurls and the shoe flies where I can’t see it. Break is done and time to work but I take the long way around the back of the buttery. In the lowgrown bride’s-breath hemming the wall lies his shoe. The shoe is, I notice, a creeper. It is purple and furry and, like any creeper, arrow-toed; it’s a fashion you don’t see much anymore. I see it and am glad. It means first I have an excuse for talk, a question to ask him—why did you throw a shoe into flowers?—and second that the boy knows old, good styles. Third it means he is a little trickster maybe. Nobody else in this no-talking place would raise an eyebrow long enough to play a game with shoes. The other workers are dead with their eyes open.
Last night the wolf pup coughed up his own swallowed teeth. Kept brushing the floor with his snout, as if nervous or hunting, then coughed and coughed and spat the teeth into a little pile shiny with stomach-juice. I washed the teeth and dried them. Now they sit, a row of yellow three, on the sill above the kitchen sink.
The creeper sits under my jacket all afternoon. It stinks bright and I hope nobody thinks it is my body. The new boy, one-shoed, is at a table by the wall. He is making I notice scanty progress on his red handful of silk and stuffing—keeps lifting his head to look around, opening his mouth to talk. They won’t talk back! But, like me, he tries. He starts to sing. He whispers, chirrs, and hums. He recounts the plot of a sad movie that came out before he was born.
“Necessary?” hollers the supervisor. “Your loud voice? Is it?”
“It’s too quiet in here,” says the boy.
“And it might get even quieter,” the supervisor says, “once I run my thickest strung needle through your little lips and pull.”
Here are my questions:
Why do your eyes remind me of canoes?
Who bought you that pretty suit that fits you pretty badly?
What last thing did you think of last night before sleep? Mine was little black stars lashed to the bottoms of canoes.
Have you ever stayed alone in your room for more than one day at a time with the record player playing Nurse With Wound?
In the gravel, after our shift, I hand over the creeper. The boy smiles and tucks it toe-first into his back pocket. “I hate it,” he says—meaning “here,” I know, because so do I.
“I miss it bad,” he confesses.
“What?” I say.
“The stem. The grit. The white.”
“Pardon?” I say.
“Those mean road. Old terms.”
He is young, so he heard them on the radio. He read them in a book. I say, “You miss the road?”
“When were you on it?”
“In childhood,” he says.
He is just like the babies on shelves behind my house, except his limbs and fins aren’t broken and he can feed himself. But the youngness—the wetness—the way he’s eager. Next to him, we’re all just about dead from dryness. His mouth I wouldn’t dive a needle into; I would gently guide it to my milk. He would suck until he didn’t want more. His lips would be softer than a codling’s.
“You’re that person,” he says, “that lives in the scary zoo?”
“I live in a house,” I say, “not far from town.”
“But it’s a scary one, right, it’s a spook den, it’s the kind of place nobody goes alone?”
“I go there alone,” I correct him. “And my animals are there. I rescue hurt ones.”
“But you yourself,” the boy insists, “must be a little off the beaten brain-path.”
He has heard people talking about my cages and troughs, my babies barking the whole day and crying the whole night. He thinks something’s not firing all the way upstairs in me.
“This is a job,” he declares, “only vegetables or work-release people take.” He gets the shoe from his pocket, steers his foot in.
I ask what, if so, brings him here.
“Investigative journalism,” he clucks. “I’m deep undercover. Does the supervisor whip or burn you?”
“No, he’s just cranky,” I say, to play along with this fatigued joke. I am humoring him. I am dry and old and hot for him. Under my jacket the nipples stand stiff, want sucking. “What are you here for?” I ask again.
“I’m a vegetable too!” he says.
You are a newborn, slick with birth canal.
“Just kidding,” he says. “I’m a hitchhiker.”
You crack yourself up, you faker imp, you are nothing but a little wet thing, velvet mouth!
“I’m actually a tailor’s apprentice,” he says, “who’s learning to sew.”
You’re a mouth where I fit.
I am jealous of whatever bodies have fallen under him before today, opened for his slick skin, whatever other bodies wetter than my old hot hurting one. It’s like seeing from the street a Saturday night family in its window, bent at table, the mother and father and child—that same envy. I have a talented mind for matching one feeling to another. A caught scarf on the bus seatback, for instance, is the hand on your neck of someone who knows you but when you turn around, nobody’s there.
“It was the only job I could find this summer,” says the boy, and this answer sounds truer, but I don’t trust him whole. He is barely out of his mother’s clutch. Some of us here are old, even if we’re not. We get old from keeping out of the way of things.
Elephant seal milk is fat-clogged so rich that a pup gains nine pounds a day. Because she doesn’t eat while nursing, a mother seal sheds five hundred pounds in a month of milk.
The forgotten assignment burns back into my mouth. Mention the girl. But what is her damn name? I can barely remember her face but oh, I know it’s smooth, it matches the boy’s, soft as a furred fruit skin. Their cheeks pressed together would be too much soft to bear. The girl has been at the job only a month or two. She drifted in just as she’ll drift, not long from now, back out. While she’s here, she wants distraction. She wants love gathered on her behalf, the boy drawn by sly strokes into her nearness where, stunned by her charms, he will gape and kneel down. She hasn’t yet asked me to write a poem for her to memorize, but I won’t be shocked if she does. Her name? It might as well be Calf, since Calf is more fitting than any Jen or Stephanie, really far more accurate.
Here are my questions:
If you saw a hundred-legger run down your wallpaper at night, churning every leg, scratching and whispering, would you kill it with the sole of your creeper? Or would you even be afraid?
Do your lungs ever clot with worry on the weekends?
Does your brain bleed nails of ideas you think are so good until you say them to someone else and the person’s face shows you how bad the ideas are?
Does the skin on your feet shiver the second before you step into a bath? Does the hair stand up on your belly?
Calf plows into me on my way up the steps. Drool flecks the splits in her lips, a little girl’s drool, saliva of a sparkle and clarity that mean she’s not yet acquainted with the cloudier waters of wanting. She whispers: “Saw you talking yesterday after work. What did he say? What were the exact words?”
“We didn’t get far,” I tell her.
“But you were talking for at least five minutes,” she accuses.
“Did you get information? A girlfriend? A wife?”
“He’s a bit short in the tooth for marriage,” I remind her.
At break, the boy catches up to me on the gravel, says, “Your house is a dead hard mark.”
“First what does that mean, and second how would you know?”
“A place,” he says, “only approachable by an expert tramp. I saw it last night from the road.”
I say, “That must have been a very informative hobo textbook.”
“Book?” he says. “What?”
“Why were you watching my house from the road?”
“I just wanted to see what it would look like.”
“I am old enough to be your much older sister,” I decide to tell him.
“So?” he says.
“So,” I say.
“So it’s not like I’m affected by that information,” and he makes an angry coil of his moist mouth. “Old vegetable person,” he adds.
“Slippy eel runt!” I hiss. “Colt’s forelock!”
“Maker,” he shouts, “of no sense!”
But his blue glass animal face makes me want to build a heart so much better than the crap we throw together at work, those red synthetic pillows to decorate the beds of hospital children, for pets to ruin with chewing, for dull men to present to disappointed women on anniversaries.
Here are my questions:
What do you eat for breakfast? Do you eat breakfast at all or do you play the game of lurker on the grit-stem-white and go hungry for whole hours after waking? Coffee only and black because no cream is tougher but some sugar please because my mouth wants it.
What is in your pinstriped pocket? I will guess a small mirror, a dollar, a matchbook from the one fine restaurant you’ve ever been to, a map of the road that runs past my house.
If you found me in the woods, strewn flat across a pinecone path, would you hold the mirror at my mouth to see if my breath whitened the glass?
Calf corners me at day’s end, as we file out, time for home. Takes my balled hand, pries it open for a small book wrapped in blue sugar paper. “Give him this,” she says.
“You give it,” I say, pushing the book back to her.
“You!” she says, shriek-soft, through shut teeth.
“It’s anonymous,” Calf explains.
“What if he thinks it’s from me?”
She honks a sun-drenched laugh. “I’m not worried.”
“Is it poetry?” I ask.
Her shoulders scrunch at her unroped golden neck. “It’s amorous reflections,” she says.
It takes me twelve seconds to read the book. Only four of its pages have been written on. Do you ever feel, says the first in black flowered script, like a house with no walls? The next page says, I do! On the third page: Lovers are walls for one another. Do you ever feel like you want some shelter? I will be it for you. On the last page: Who do you think is the prettiest girl at our work? Figure out who, and that will be the person who wrote this.
I doubt Calf meant for this cheap-bound love letter to be philosophical, but innocently she has made it so. She is a confident little cow. I put the book in the bucket I use for scrapings from the animals’ shelves. As I go about my evening chores, feeding and cleaning, the blue sinks deeper under the brown.
Day after day of no reaction from the boy—he’s his usual moping, pinstriped self—and the girl gets a little weepy. Has he picked another? she is wondering under her sniffles. The supervisor chastises her twice in one morning for sloppy seams. “These guys face a life of wear and tear!” he shouts to the room, lifting Calf’s heart in the air as a lesson. “If a joint splits, they’re done for! Your job is to make sure the motherfucking seams are tough as nails.”
The polliwog has a cut foot. A smashed bottle half-sunk in the river mud made a slice in the webbed flesh. When it’s a grown frog, its hop will be shaky, but it will hop.
Day after day and Calf gets fed up, as I knew she would. Boredom has killed her shyness and she’s ready, though shuddering, to seek him out. It happens in the yard. The boy has been standing alone, as is his custom, when she walks up and crosses her arms and frowns at the gravel. He takes up her downcast, tongue-tied slack (I see through the buttery window) and makes what must be a joke, from how she laughs and lets her lashes do their work.
They make a soft-skinned pair. I hear them gurgling and chortling. Their laughs run through the open buttery door, falling to rest at our old feet while the cups of coffee cool, as we wait to go back to our needles.
When you cuddle an owlet in your palm, it sobs so quietly you think the sound is feathers rustling. Bend close, and you can tell it’s noise from a tiny throat.
When you nurse a baby eel, don’t leave its mouth at your nipple too long. It won’t know when to stop licking. Elvers can drink so much milk it floods their finger bodies, drowns the organs, bloats and swells them to death. I don’t let that happen anymore. I am strict with milk time.
I would like to forget those two faces getting close to each other, closer now and closest, which is kissing, which I didn’t see them do but know they’re doing away from our work, hidden stripped to skin in the carpet-walled basement of his parents’ house. Or her parents’ house. They both have parents still, parents to cuddle them, to feed them in the morning and before bed.
A forgetter’s heart is better built here, in my own yard, than in the dread stillness of the stalled white room whose windows give onto a gravel sea. I assemble my materials. Molted snake skin for the muscle-bag, gosling feathers to stuff it, shed smolt scales to protect it from puncture. For thread, the blood-stiff twine I used to suture the polliwog’s foot. For mast, a shard of wood from the splint on the hedgehog’s cracked leg. For crowning touch, fastened with glue, the wolf pup’s fangs from the windowsill.
I’ll make it in my yard, under the sun, against the boy who’s run off into the white with a pack slung across his flimsy shoulders. The straps will chafe that cougar pelt. And does Calf lumber feckless behind, her own pack hung jangly around her neck? “Look,” he tells her, skidding his grimy thumb down a page of the train-hopper’s manual, “it says devil-may-care. I think we’re supposed to look more devil-may-care.”
My handiwork is finished by evening. The baby salmon blink up from the troughs and the turtles venture tiny wrinkled heads to see my face smiling down—“Look what I did today,” as I dangle the heart in a flashlight beam, “the best one ever stitched.”
I am leaking heavy onto my shirt, two sopping moons, the mild night a cold sleeve between wet skin and milk-drenched cotton. And the turtles, the fish, the gosling, the owlet whose torn wing is near healed and soon to be flown on again hear my voice and understand that I am a little happier tonight. They drink the gist from how my voice runs wet with silver—hearts made here, I am saying, are the supplest of organs.