Four Short Pieces
The Canyon Where the Coyotes Live
She lives near a canyon with four cats. The Post-It notes on the bulletin board keep track of the cats–their special needs, the diets, the vet appointments, little notes about their charming pranks and romps.
Yesterday she recorded Annie chirping at a snail. Normally Annie chirps at the sparrows who bathe in a bowl outside the large window.
Billy chirped at an invisible fly. He was leaping high into the air, reaching and chattering. Carrie and Davy have other hobbies–spiders and tiny furry fake mice, respectively.
The cats do not go outside because of the canyon where the coyotes live.
There is a husband around the house too.
“That sounds like a children’s book,” he says. “The Canyon Where the Coyotes Live, something written to scare children.”
“But stories like that make them laugh,” she says.
If there were children, she thinks.
She would love to see the cats play outside, but the coyotes from the canyon come forth at night. Even in the daytime coyotes have been sighted. It would be delightful to see the cats on the patio stalking the sparrows, where the coyotes come to stalk the cats. It would be even more delightful to see a toddler pulling a cat’s tail.
“Everything’s gotta eat,” he says, closing the refrigerator door. “Including me,” he says.
“Have a Pop Tart,” she says.
“Pop Tarts are for kids. Why do we have pop tarts?”
He works late shifts in the bottling industry. Often when he comes in late in the night he tells of a coyote crossing the road or an animal he can’t identify that always must be a bear or a cougar.
In the night while he is gone the sounds are magnified, and the howling coyotes seem to be at the back door but may be across the canyon. She hears the cat at the scratching post, the click click click of the door lock when he returns–if it is him and not some mugger who has commandeered his car and made him drive home at gunpoint.
Yesterday he said to her, “Don’t you see how nuts you’re becoming? Everything is fraught with terror and apocalypse with you!”
“Fraught? I’m fraught with nothing.” Empty. Flat-bellied.
“You’re afraid to let the cats outside because of the coyotes. If there weren’t any coyotes you’d find something else to be afraid of.”
“They would get killed on the road.”
“Right. See what I mean?”
“It’s better for cats to stay indoors. They live longer.”
The Pop Tart is like limp pasteboard. He eyes it ruefully, then her.
“Furthermore,” he says. “We are lucky we don’t have any kids. I see how you would be with them.”
She snatches the Pop Tart from his hand. “I’ll make lunch,” she says.
She makes a salad with artichoke hearts and palm hearts. Her own heart could be the centerpiece, ripped out and posed on a platter like the head of John the Baptist. There is nothing to do but dance.
Here he is–unmarried, fat, with few cravings, stuck in a stucco house waiting for parcels to arrive by UPS, waiting for anything to come out of the blue. Anything would be welcome–bill collectors, laryngitis, UFOs. But a letter from Laura would be nice. He really wants nothing else. On the sidewalk a neighbor walks her mutt, which resembles a carnival corn-dog. He saw a dog like that on Animal Planet. The necks of the neighbor and her corn-dog stretch similarly toward their mutual goal, the curb. She wears creased shorts that end just above her less than thrilling knees. Her hair is wispy, frothy, like something from a French bakery.
The disgruntled old guy with asthma struts by with his fuzzy Standard Poodle. He imagines this old guy with a whiny wife who tries to make him eat goat cheese and arugula. The old guy must sing “Hallelujah” when he is out the door with the Standard Poodle. They march down the sidewalk, ready to spank any corn-dog that crosses their path.
A wasp has sneaked into the stucco house. Trying to shoo it away, he is stung between two digits, and a welt arises. He doesn’t flinch. He stares at the sting stoically. He is stoic in his stucco house. Since Laura left he feels nothing but her absence. Yet now he searches for some sticky gunk to soothe his finger, for the wasp sting is not fake. It is a true wasp sting, and he feels it. The salve on his finger is like mustard spreading on a light crispy crust.
“The Giant Pacific Octopus starts out as plankton, microscopic at first. Then it is the size of a grain of rice.” The schoolchildren sitting at my feet are disbelieving. Shrugs, but no astonishment.
“This octopus is named Cumberbatch. He weighs thirty-two pounds and is not full grown. The Giant Octopus often weighs up to a hundred pounds. Right now you see him tucked into a slit in this rock. He can squeeze his body into tiny openings, like this soup can.” The soup can I am holding is open on both ends–a virtual vagina. I feel a little spin down there.
“Listen carefully, kids. Be quiet. The octopus has three hearts. The extras are for oxygenating blood.” My blood rushes when I think of my ex-lover. If I had three hearts, perhaps I would have a spare, one that is not broken.
“Cumberbatch can open child-proof medicine bottles and screw-top jars. He is smart as a cat. An octopus has a superior sense of taste, with taste sensors all over the body. Imagine that you could taste everything you touched. The bathroom floor. The driveway.” I tasted his liquid but I sneezed and it went up my nose and that gave me the giggles. What I would give to have that moment again! My worldly possessions? My precious cat?
“Sometimes we put his food inside a Mr Potato Head or other toy for stimulation and to keep him from being bored.” I was never bored. We had toys. He brought me lovely, velvety, rubbery toys, wiggly toys. I like this texture. I really do!
“Children, do octopuses have tentacles or arms?”
“Octopi,” says a kid, who is maybe fourteen.
“Smarty,” says another kid.
“No, they are octopuses, not octopi. That ending is Latin. Pus is from pod, the Greek, meaning foot, but are they called tentacles or feet or arms?”
The kid who said “smarty” is smirking. “Arms,” he says.
“The octopus can change color to blend in with his surroundings.” When I was with him I turned color, blushing all over. He painted me with kisses and licks. Red dribbles of his red-zinger drink.
“Octopuses don’t live long. The octopus is a terminal breeder. When he nears the end of his life he is ready to mate. The female eats a lot while she is preparing to mate. The male inserts one of his arms into the hole on the side of her head. The arm has grown round and hard. It has changed shape, the suckers have stretched out and blended in. It is rigid and purposeful.”
He thought I had an abortion. He thought he would never have to see me again. I bought a car with the money.
“After inserting his spermatophore packet into her oviduct–it can be up to a meter long–the man octopus is spent and he dies.”
A meter. A metaphor. A broken heart.
“The mother accepts the spermatophore packet and she hides in her den, overloading on carbs. She waits a week before she punctures the packet and lets the sperm fertilize her eggs. She hangs her eggs on the ceiling of her den and cares for them. She sweeps them and aerates them for seven months. She stops eating during this brooding. After her eggs hatch, she has used so much energy that her body breaks down and she dies. She dies more quickly than the guy.” I am dying like the mama octopus brooding, fussing with her broom, sick with brooding, sick with thinking and wishing. Dying. A terminal breeder.
A small pigtailed girl is asking, “About the thing going into the hole in the head. Where does it go–into the ear?”
No. Into the heart.
The Missing Plane
The plane was missing when we went to bed and it was still missing in the morning. It was missing all day and then again in the evening. In the morning it was still missing, and then we became bored, just wondering when the pieces would turn up. And then we heard that the plane had veered north toward the Arctic ice. We heard that the melting polar cap could have swallowed up the hapless air ship. We heard the hijack message, the sinister voice singing “Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go.” Hey-ho or Heigh-ho? Or HiHo, as in the crackers? A joyful blabber of semantical niceties tumbled over the airwaves.
And there were theories. Oh, my. And then what if, and what if this and what if that? How thrilling, exhilarating. We do love a mystery. Amelia Earhart, Lindbergh baby, Patty Hearst, D.B. Cooper, O.J.Simpson, Hale Boggs.
And the what ifs rolled on and on.
And the ships at sea and the metadata searches.
All the reenactments and the simulations and the cute arcane terms.
And the waiting.
We were tired. And the poor screaming loved ones, cast aside, bunched, howling. We don’t know them. We have our own problems. We want the dopamine hits, the little scoots down the snowy hill of childhood, the promise of all together now, one-two-three. Anything to bring us together, all one, just us chickens.
And then one day the plane was found. It was at Hermit Bob’s.
Hermit Bob lived on a mountain with a long grassy ridge that he used for flying kites and experimenting with saved string during electrical storms.
When the plane landed there, everyone on board was so relieved, so happy to see a friendly face, they were shocked speechless. And with so many languages and the flight attendants knowing only things like “Be sure your seat backs and tray tables are upright and in a locked position” in more than one language, there was little chit-chat. Hermit Bob offered the passengers and crew everything he had. He had stockpiled food, shopping only once a year. And everyone was so hungry. They did not know where they were and did not ask. In truth, Hermit Bob could not have quoted his coordinates.
Some time passed, and the group, Hermit Bob’s new family, seemed very happy, contented on the mountain with their benefactor’s charm and skill. Some learned to make planks, some to whittle, some to make screws. They all learned to fly kites. The grassy landing strip was very green. It was placid. The sky was blue, and no one saw any contrails anywhere.
And then one day word got out, and the oohs and ahs of discovery streaked around the globe, and though we all rushed to hear the tales of the far-flung adventurers, we listened only half-heartedly, while the jawboning theorists and the jigsaw experts tried to force the pieces together again. The jawing became faint and droned off course until we lost track of it altogether.
Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of the widely anthologized story, “Shiloh” and the novel In Country. Her latest novel is The Girl in the Blue Beret.