Authors: Alissa York
Tags: #General Fiction
Lily and Billy have made their way north past the library, past the high, blind wall of the Don Jail, the decrepit face of
Bridgepoint Health. East Riverdale Park. You can see out over the valley from here: the vast platter of the playing field, then the parkway, then the wild and wandering Don. She’s chosen one of the benches by the statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. He’s pretty white-looking for a guy that has to be Chinese, but she likes the bronze swell of his dress.
It’s a good spot—quiet enough to concentrate, with sufficient foot traffic to keep the pervs away. Billy takes up the other three-quarters of the bench, so she doesn’t have to worry about anyone sitting down. Most people know not to talk to you when you’re reading, but not all. Persistent types get to view Billy’s sunlit canines, his dark lips curling to show glimpses of gum.
Since he got chopped, Billy shows little interest in his own kind. His chin, stretched across her thighs, lifts only slightly to acknowledge a passing boxer, a pair of grubby-faced Westies on matching leads. For her part, Lily glances up whenever there’s movement, then returns to the novel in her hand.
Hard to imagine how she would have lasted this long without anything to read. She fretted for days before taking Guy up on his offer, made several aborted approaches to the wrecking yard gate before finally laying her finger to the bell. From the first he left her alone to make up her own mind. It wasn’t easy. At the school library she could take her time, maybe test-drive a page or two. Standing on her own before Guy’s bedroom bookcase, she chose quickly, going by title alone.
The first one jumped out at her from eye level:
Wild Animals I Have Known
. When Guy saw what she’d picked, he made a face she couldn’t quite read.
“What?” She crossed her arms.
“Nothing.” He smiled. “You’ll see.”
It wasn’t until the second chapter—“Silverspot: The Story of a Crow”—that Lily understood the meaning of his look. “Get this,” she said to Billy. “‘Old Silverspot was the leader of a large band of crows that made their headquarters near Toronto, Canada, in Castle Frank, which is a pine-clad hill on the northeast edge of the city.’”
Castle Frank was the name of the subway station at the western end of the viaduct. Silverspot had lived in the Don Valley, just like her.
And he wasn’t the only one. Redruff the partridge had lived there too. He’d hatched out of his egg and drummed on his log and met Brownie, his mate—only to wind up dangling from a snare, dying for days until an owl finally came and finished him off. Probably the same owl that had left Silverspot in a bloody heap. Cheery tales. The animals almost always croaked in some brutal way—one dog because he ate poisoned horseflesh, another because he killed sheep and bit the girl who fed him. Lily didn’t buy that one, just as she didn’t buy the one about two wolves taking down 250 sheep in a single night. There was one chapter she couldn’t help swallowing whole, though, even if it was the least likely of them all.
The title made it sound like a story for babies. She thought about skimming “Raggylug: The Story of a Cottontail Rabbit” or even giving it a miss, but the first illustration changed her mind: Raggylug’s eye huge in terror, the snake drawn up above him, showing its ribbon of tongue. Lily took a breath and turned back to the opening line. The scene was mushy as hell—the fluffy baby bunny screaming
, as the snake tightened its grip—but when the mother rabbit came bounding to save the day, Lily found she
had to stop reading and wait for the blur in her eyes to clear.
Raggylug became Rag when he got older, which made the whole thing easier to take. He learned everything he needed to know from his mother; he could outwit dogs and foxes, hawks and human snares.
No wild animal dies of old age
, the author was kind enough to point out
—its life has soon or late a tragic end
—yet Rag somehow managed to beat the odds. His mother drowned, but Rag lived on to rule the swamp, overpopulating it with his bucktoothed seed.
Reading that rare happy ending by the light of her camp lantern, Lily couldn’t help but remember the broken-backed rabbit in Billy’s mouth. “Hopefully not Raggy Junior, huh, boy?” she said, but Billy snored on.
“What did you think?” Guy asked her when she came to trade the book for another. He was bent over an open car hood, his hands black with grease.
“It was okay.”
“Yeah, well, he’s kind of a sick fuck.”
Guy straightened up. “Who is?”
“The writer.” She stared at a spot between Billy’s shoulders. “I mean, he gets you feeling all sorry for the animal in one story, but then the next minute he’s chaining up a baby fox or torturing some poor wolf.”
“And it’s supposed to be some kind of freedom when the mustang gets run off a cliff—what the fuck kind of logic is that?”
“I never thought about it like that.”
She glanced up to see if he was messing with her. He looked
thoughtful, though, almost concerned. “Yeah, well,” she said, “it was cool, though, those parts about the Don Valley.”
“You mind if I pick another one?”
“Go ahead. There’s a bag of dog food just inside the door.”
Billy perked up as though his name had been mentioned, though Lily had yet to give even that much away. She wasn’t sure what the dog food meant. “Thanks,” she said finally, making for the screen door.
“Hey,” Guy called after her, “leave that one on the table, will you? I want to read it again.”
It was a lame thing to feel happy over, but when had anyone ever given a shit what she thought about a book? She poured a generous helping of kibble into the chipped brown bowl beside the bag. The white enamel basin beside it held water that looked to be fresh, though there was no sign of any pet on the premises besides her own. The little corner was for visitors. For Billy. When he stuck his face in deep and started gobbling, she left him to it and went to stand in front of the bookcase again.
She must’ve picked out a dozen books in the weeks since. The one in her hand is different, though. It’s the first one chosen for her by Guy.
Wild Animals I Have Known?”
he asked her this morning, when she came back into the kitchen after burying her birds.
“What am I, eighty? Of course I remember it.”
He laughed. “You were right, it’s pretty weird.”
“I like that one about the rabbit, though.”
She said nothing, her hand seeking Billy’s head, taking hold of the nearest ear.
“You too, I bet.”
It was only a simple question. More of a comment, even. So why did it make her feel like running? Guy moved past her to his room. He returned with a book and laid it on the table, alongside the three surviving birds tucked up in their little bags. She’d noticed the odd title more than once, but never so much as laid a finger to its spine.
The cover illustration was of a rabbit, soft and brown, with a quick, intelligent eye. She picked it up, slid it into her cargo pocket and patted the Velcro flap down. One of the bags gave a rustle. “Guess I better be going,” she said. “Set these little fuckers free.”
She’s thirty-five pages in, and already she knows the book will change her. Fiver, the twitchy little rabbit, has persuaded Hazel and the others to escape the doomed home warren and make their way into the terrifying woods. In the past, Lily wouldn’t have known what to do with words like these. Now, she draws the dragon book from her pocket and turns to the first blank page. Holding the novel open against her thigh, she digs for her ballpoint and pulls the cap off with her teeth.
Since entering the wood they had been in severe anxiety. Several were almost
—that is, in that state of staring, glazed paralysis that comes over terrified or exhausted rabbits, so that they sit and watch their enemies—weasels or humans—approach to take their lives.
It helps having copied it out. She lets the dragon book flutter closed and feeds the pen back into its cap.
she says softly, and Billy cracks his black muzzle to yawn.
Edal’s managed to keep herself busy for most of the day—cleaning up the spray of garbage on the front walk, doing the vacuuming, taking two unread novels back to the library and checking out three more. She might have kept on along the same sensible lines if it hadn’t been for a certain sound. It comes to her upon waking from her second nap of the day: a mental echo of the rusty wrecking-yard screech. Only now, with her temple warm and slightly damp against the pillow, she recognizes it as the cry of something alive.
She doesn’t exactly think it’s a good idea, going back there. It’s downhill most of the way, though, so in effect the bike does the thinking for her.
She coasts past the wrecking yard gate to where the asphalt ends, hides her bike in the grass and picks a path along the bottom fence. Virginia creeper has already come in thick over the winter dieback. At the southwest corner of the lot, she pushes her hands into the mess of vines, parting greenery gone dull with exhaust. Her fingers find chain-link. With the on-ramp rumbling at her back, she leans in close and puts her eye to the leafy hole.
She sees the droppings first, chalky splashes down the trunk of the lifeless tree. Then, drawing her eye upward, leg feathers so white they look bleached. Golden feet. A coppery tail.
The hawk has heard her. Its head orients back and down, finding her eye among the spring growth. It’s an adult red-tail,
maybe half a metre in length, though it looks a little thin. She’s guessing male, but it’s difficult to say. Its cage is substantial—only a few metres wide but at least a dozen long. Still, it’s a cage.
Laying her cheek to the leaves, Edal angles her gaze along the back of the building. Only the nearest window reveals any depth of scene: a single bed, the far wall lined with books.
A strip of untended yard lies between the building and the back fence—mostly weeds and grass, but she spots the splayed reach of a squash plant, a rampant burst of mint. Here and there the growth is thinner, the earth dug over recently, as though someone has attempted a flower patch and given up. Nothing so unusual about a garden let go, but what’s with all the hubcaps? Embedded on edge at regular intervals, they rise up out of the grass like the bright, cresting combs of waves.
A small disturbance draws her attention back to the cage. The red-haired man is standing at the far end, busy with the lock. His Mack is gone, replaced by another relic, a rawhide jacket dyed the same shade as his hair. There’s something theatrical about the way he enters the cage—the star of a hippie musical preparing to belt out the theme. Slowly, dramatically, he lifts his arms out at his sides, revealing banks of dangling fringe. Edal has to remind herself to inhale. When he lunges forward, it’s all she can do not to let out a cry.
He runs toward her, arms flapping, face set—a madman attacking a caged bird. The penny drops only when the bird leaves its branch. Not attacking it, Edal realizes. Forcing it to fly.
She can make out every splayed-feather finger at the tips of the hawk’s retreating wings, every strip of fringe along the
man’s open arms. When he pivots and runs back the way he came, the hawk drops from its far branch and comes swooping. It’s a narrow miss—the thrust of its wings showing in the lift of the man’s hair—yet he doesn’t flinch, only turns in a whirl of suede and, before the bird can settle, comes pounding again.
His face is changing, beginning to reflect the chase—lips parted, eyes shining, wild.
This time he touches the bark of the dead oak like a boy touching home-free. Gaining speed on the turn, he drives the hawk harder, so it scarcely lands before it’s away again. When he wheels beneath the branches to follow it, he wears a wide, unthinking smile. Edal can’t help but mirror him. For a moment she imagines shinning up the creepers, showing her friendly face above the leaves.
This time greenery saves her nose. The muscular young man with the pretty face has her bike by its handlebars.
“Come on.” He turns. “You’d better come with me.” His tone is one of invitation rather than coercion. A note of resignation, perhaps, an older brother giving in to a tagalong little sibling. Still, he keeps a firm hold on her bike.
At the gate, he leans his forehead against the painted sign, reaches down the front of his T-shirt and draws out a key on a loop of kitchen string. He has to stoop to fit it into the padlock. Pushing the gate open, he motions Edal into the yard.
She stands to the side, hands balled up in the pocket of her sweatshirt, while he secures the gate. “Think I could have my bike back?”
“It’s okay.” He walks on. “I’ve got it.”
He leads her past the old trucks, past the cinder-block office, to where the clapboard extension begins.
“Wait here.” He pushes her bike to the end of the building and rounds the corner out of sight. “Hey, Guy,” she hears him call out, “can you come here a sec?”
“Now? I’m flying him.”
—the name suits him somehow, as does the voice. Edal imagines the younger man gesturing, attempting to mime
crazy lady at the back fence