You’ve probably read about how, since the onset of the pandemic, pet adoptions have soared. The companionship of animals is a mysterious and powerful thing; clearly, they give us so much, in times ordinary and not, so what do we owe to them? And what is the distinction, exactly, between us and them? This is a question photographer Ed Panar explores in his book Animals That Saw Me (see one of his photos below), which also asks, “What does it mean to make ‘eye contact’ with another species?”
Today’s poem and story both include moments of contact with other species—specifically, moments of showing what we might call “mercy” to animals, which in turn rouses the narrators to consider how humans show mercy to one another, and what the differences might be, and why.
Also, a milestone for today’s newsletter: This is the first to feature work by a former student of mine, Nikki Ervice, who wrote the flash fiction piece excerpted here. I know we’ll be reading a lot more of her work soon.
Animals That Saw Me, Ed Panar
At the end we prayed for death,
even phoned funeral homes
from his room for the best
cremation deal. But back
when he was tall, he once put
my ailing cat to sleep,
or helped the vet and me
hold it flat to the table
while we felt all muscles
tighten for escape
then freeze that way. Later
in my father’s truck,
I held the heavy shoebox on my lap.
He said, I ever git like that
you do the same. I remember the slight
weight of my ten-year-old head
nodding without a pause. We peeled
from the gravel lot onto the rain-
blurred road. What did I know
of patience then? Or my dad
for that matter, shifting gears.
Each white second was knit
into a sheet that settled over his features
like a snowfield. Forgive me,
Father, this terrible face.
I was the patient one.
I got what I wanted.
Who is this person?
Poet and writer Mary Karr was born and raised in East Texas, and is perhaps best known for her 1995 memoir The Liar’s Club, in which she recalls a period of her childhood with astonishing clarity. She’s written two other memoirs, as well as several volumes of poetry, including Viper Rum, in which today’s poem appears. In the poems of that book, Leslie Ullman wrote, “Karr peers beyond illusions of safety and is energized by the shadows out there, the persistent and unanswerable questions.”
The way my mom told it, Mira and her horse slid apart from each other like an egg yolk from its white. My sister, the yolk, bobbing and intact. Theo, the white, breaking around rocks, falling apart in the churn of the river, coming together again where it spread out into gentle fingers that reached for the bay. It was too late when they reached him, my mother said. She had swooped Mira onto the back of her mare behind her, balanced on the great swell of her rump, and they had chanted “come on, come on” together while they traced the bank. But their prayer did nothing and crows were already gathering hopefully around the black mass of the horse in the sand. Mom jumped on his stomach to expel the water from his lungs while my sister watched and shivered but he didn’t move, except for his tail which snaked lazily in the stream.
“I have some bad news, Sweetie.” This is how she prefaced the telling, after they rode home that night, defeated in the dark. This is what she said before she relayed anything painful. She was the veil between worlds. The vestiges of death passed through her first. She made sure of this because I was the youngest girl, dressed in the softest linens. She fashioned braided rugs and decorative pillows of death: He was a beautiful horse. He was not old, but he was getting old. He would have been old sooner than we thought, and age is more cruel than a swift river. There was nothing we could have done. He must have died quickly, without fear. His eyes were quiet. There was a gumminess to her words, so thick and sludgy with sugar that they stuck in her throat. But all the sweetness made the idea of Theo, sprawled out on the flats alone as night descended, that much worse. I pressed the meat of my palms into my eye sockets as dams.
That night after the fat-bellied wood stove began to cool and we had eaten all the corn cakes with honey, my sister rolled over in her twin bed, and into the two-foot gap between us said that there was something they could have done. They could have crossed the river further down, where the current was weaker, where he wouldn’t have faltered on the hidden boulders. She said that as they were riding away from him, she had seen the bellow of Theo’s ribs moving up and down. As the sun split the clouds and great piles of steam rose up all around his body, she could have sworn she saw his ear twitch.
—Nikki Ervice (Read the rest here)
Who is this person?
Nikki Ervice is a writer and professional dancer from Homer, Alaska. Her work has appeared in Salon, PANK, and New Limestone Review, among others, and is forthcoming in Nashville Review. She lives in Brooklyn.
Write a poem or story that includes an encounter with an animal.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org