The Animals in the Tank

The house I grew up in was a blue aquarium, my mother and father, the tanked up animals, and I was a child of the hinterlands where winter was always howling like a pack of hungry wolves. A baby veteran, I was always under siege, the attacks brutal and my screams from being beaten or preyed upon were my only arias.

All I wanted were animals, my own little Children’s Zoo. I dragged them home—the injured, abandoned, skittish strays—I who was perpetually running away, getting lost in the forest on purpose, a fairytale child in a living nightmare. Half-starved, I sucked down the yolks in fallen eggshells, wanted to stuff my mouth with fireflies, even drink up bugs like the bats swooping through dark summer skies. Terrified, nocturnal with red, red eyes from crying so hard, I wanted to suckle baby squirrels or raccoons, even salamanders, soft as my pinky, but Father had turned my nipples into nail heads and pain was pounded, driven into and through me.

Abuse is crucifixion, but the animals I adored were my little Christs. Some were savage—I would pull apart the bloody guts of murdered creatures like taffy, watched my guppies be devoured by bigger fish and believe me, in this world there are always bigger fish, circling, forever circling. I stared at my fish tank for hours through the slime of algae on the glass, longed to be a mermaid, have shimmering scales glitter my battered flesh. The underwater world was the one I wanted, me a girl Ophelia buried in her bed of water, water everywhere.

Always the little mother, I knew the animals would come to me in the dark, be my only suitors.  Clouds were infant elephants, an army of ants a parade of tiny pilgrims and I was not the only orphan in my Dantesque orphanage. There were the turtles I won at Turtlle Races, their hard shells like lacquered green roses that I would press to my chest during nights so long the walls turned into scrims behind which was a shadow dance of monsters.

I sat on the cement stoop for hours, hands cupped, thoroughly believing if I sat still long enough a bird would build its nest there. This, too—I hung peanuts on string from the clothesline for chipmunks, planted watermelon seeds in dirt, waited for the magic stalk to plunge up, burst into blossom for the honey bees to feed upon. I wore skulls on my fingertips, my own cracked up with fault lines from Mother’s pummeling with rocks, pots or my brothers’ baseball bat and my stinging anus, burning from what Father jammed in there, crawled with snakes.

I watched flies turn into maggots, studied spiders weaving webs on rotten garbage and the sticky sweetness inside honey hives was the cloying saliva of the vampire who sunk his teeth into my juicy fruit neck. I could not lick myself clean, wanted a hummingbird to thrust her beak down my throat, pump me with the red sweetness she stole from sun-stunned flowers, I who forever flung myself against the windowpanes that held me in, ready to fly, far, far away even in the wildest storm-stricken skies.

Instead, I lapped up the sour milk I left out for the critters, knew my cells were rotten fish eggs stinking to the high heavens. Surely I was not one of God’s little creatures—rather I was Melville’s little bitch of a child, echoed the cries of whales, which one by one, were slaughtered and their blubber was my animal hide, I who longed to live in one of their bellies, scribble by candlelight the initiations of the damned. I was runt, cunt, had hooded eyelids, pretended that I could sink poisoned fangs into the ungodly ones who had begotten me.

Bestial in the worst sense, I made rubbery creepy crawlers from a plastic kit, was bait, carcass, a hairball caught in a kitten’s gut. Once I snuck a lost one home, hid her in the milk box in the cellar, fed her milk from an eye dropper, gave her crusts of stale bread. When Mother heard her squeak a piglet squeak, her rage was outrageous. She snatched the kitty from my hidey-hole, broke her neck, then plunged her into a dirty toilet bowl, flushed again and again.

It is Mother’s Day and I can still hear the snap of that cat’s neck. Mother long dead, I try to mother myself, fail far too often, fall into myriad forms of self-abuse. To the left of my writing desk, is my brand new kitty, a creature who has attempted to nurse on me more than once by latching onto my nipple in the middle of the night. On the other side of me is my dog nestled in the Portuguese shawl my once-upon-a-time husband bestowed upon me as a courtship gift. My only son is probably still asleep in his bed miles upon miles away, each one tiny heartbreak, and of how I long to bestow the waking kiss upon his cheekbone as I did on so many years of school day mornings.

How I learned to mother both animals and my beloved boy is a mystery I will not solve in this lifetime. It has meant being Super Woman when all I wanted as child was to be Super Girl so I could rescue myself, get to the homeless shelter I imagined Limbo to be. There I would be in a family of other battered children, be mothered by Mary, fathered by God.

Instead I was a butterflied angel, pink as a cold shrimp, its entrails gutted.

Now my dog is learning to be a little mother and I am a childless Mother remembering the half-strangled wildflowers my once young son gathered for me on Mother’s Days past, his crayoned cards, his gleeful cries at my delight. No such flowers or cards today, no call, no sound of his voice. Although it’s May, the Ice Man Cometh to sink his pick into my heart and gut me once again.


Filed under: Elizabeth Kirschner, Prose