Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"But why don't you write about animals..?"

Because of my primary occupation many friends and acquaintances quite understandably assume that my fiction is about animals, and I probably disappoint many of them when I say that it's not. Who doesn't love to read about adorable critters, even if said critter is a grizzly bear or a hippopotamus? In this sense I am a consumer but not a creator, at least not in any direct sense. One might say I have a duty to transform my knowledge of animals into words and share it with the world. Only, here's the rub: I know just enough about them to realize I have no business speaking in their voices, not in a work of fiction. I know just enough to maintain a healthy respect for an alien inner world I cannot begin to glimpse.

Yet in another sense I do write about animals, at least about what we can and should learn from them even if we can never fully understand their inner workings. The cliché of comparing a cruel or uncouth person to an animal is fortunately dying a death of old age, and so are the more flattering but just as desperately anthropomorphic expressions like "brave as a lion" (not that I question the bravery of lions). There are very few things I can say with certainty about wild or feral animals, but here is one that strikes me as particularly important: they do not complain. And this particular feature is responsible for an idea that led to saving a life in my novella "Killer of a Mind." I think that crow just might fly. Here is an excerpt from the story, modified to remove spoilers. 

       Now what? Go to the policia and explain in broken Spanish how one drunken gringo had tried to kill another? The whole thing was surreal, a Kafka story set in the paradise of the Mayan Riviera. A story that just might earn Ryan a cell in a Mexican madhouse if not a prison. Besides. There wasn’t a shred of evidence to support what had happened last night, and no witnesses who saw the two of them after they’d left the town. The crime was so perfect it was almost a shame it hadn’t happened. No, going to the authorities was out of the question. Yet Ryan knew he needed to do something. At the very least he needed to worry. The man who almost became his friend had wanted him dead, and this was the kind of man who followed through on what he wanted.
     Ryan locked his room and ran through the courtyard to hop on the raggedy-ass rental bike before anyone could see it there. This was of course a silly fear seeing as dozens of raggedy-ass rental bikes waited on the streets of Tulum as their riders shopped or sat in cafes. But as a fugitive Ryan expected the world to set its searchlights on him. He mounted the bike and screeched off toward the intersection, planning to cross the main street and ride toward the ocean; there was a patch of jungle just outside Tulum where he meant to hide the bike before making a dash for Cancun and the airport. He needed to be careful even on this short ride because his new almost-friend could come walking into him any second. 
      Suddenly Ryan became furious with himself. He’d done nothing wrong, so why was he the one hiding like a rat in a hole? Because the catcher would come no matter where he chose to hide. This would never end with Tulum; he’d been a damn fool to think it could. Tulum would follow him to Vancouver, and his dear almost-friend would track him down and come after him. No matter how big your world was, here in Mexico it became a very small one, just big enough to hold what you needed to survive. And once it became small, it stayed that way no matter where you went.  
       Ryan pedalled backwards and came to a screeching stop. Two Mayan women looked at him in surprise that turned into shy mirth. The little Mayans laughed easily, bless their hearts. And well they could. Ryan smiled sheepishly at the women and turned the bike around. He was in no state to ride anywhere or make decisions about anything more important than taking a piss. Go back to the hotel? What if his almost-friend decided to pay him a visit, if only to establish himself as the concerned friend before raising the alarm? No, he couldn’t go there until he had a better idea of what to do. But first, food. Now that the flight response had been replaced with a fight plan, or at least a plan to make a plan, he realized he was weak and stupid with hunger.   
       At first he had to force himself to chew and swallow the food, but after a few mouthfuls his body admitted its need and rejoiced at the help it was getting. He’d chosen a little eatery for locals on a quiet street unfrequented by tourists. The proletarian-grade tacos were the most delectable food he’d eaten in his life. A tomcat observed Ryan from its throne on a pile of rubble across the street. It was a small and lean animal with crusts around its eyes, but it made like a lion to whom the world could do no wrong. Ryan threw the cat a piece of tortilla smeared in sour cream and watched it pick up its prize and walk off to hide from the bother and envy of other animals. He recalled how years ago his college roommate’s cat had stared at him in profound indignation as he unsnagged its claw from the bug screen. The cat had been swatting flies, banging the screen with its hands until it got hooked. “I meant to do that,” it seemed to say when Ryan freed it from its mute embarrassment. Back then he almost peed himself laughing at the cat’s helpless valiance. And yet, millions of years of evolution couldn’t be wrong. Animals did the opposite of complaining because that was how they survived. By the way, what was the opposite of complaining? People didn’t have a word for that; it wasn’t a people thing to do. People carried on about whatever ailed or bothered them because that was how they reminded the world that they counted for something. Animals protected themselves by keeping quiet, downplaying their injuries and weaknesses, denying them altogether. Denying them..?
     Something in the storage room of Ryan’s memory shifted and fell off its shelf. He couldn’t see what it was, but he knew where to find it. It was in the book he’d been reading, the play Gaslight. Something written on the margins was going to save his life. Back at his hotel twenty minutes later Ryan was witnessing the birth of an idea. The idea was all his, but its birth was helped along by a stray cat and two dead people. One of them had written the play in his hands, the other—the pencil notes on the margins. They say that behind every crime there’s a woman. This woman, the nameless writer of the marginalia, had inspired something more interesting than even the perfect crime: the victim’s comeback.
      The perfect denial that a crime had happened.

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