Animal hoarder Aunt Cleo’s house is a blast, now that she’s dead. Sandra and I lace our fingers together and stroll from room to room. Free zoo! Nobody hassles us to move along, to leave the premises for picking up the orange snake, to pay a dollar to feed the ducks. Of course, it isn’t really a zoo, the animals all cohabitate inappropriately, piled in plastic tubs, clamoring for food and attention…
Dear Ant Cleo, Im gonna Feed You to Your Crockodile [1/79, Post-It Note]
Sandra starts kissing me by the freezer full of frozen rats. She’s frightened by animals—she doesn’t even want fish in our backyard pond—but came along anyway for support. I’ve never told her exactly why I hated Aunt Cleo. The police have no idea how so many animals survived, since Cleo passed weeks before they found her body. Sure, the reptiles and invertebrates don’t need much, but a whole month without water? Only two cats and a few parakeets perished; all two hundred odd other critters clung to life in the absence of their caretaker…
If I made the rules, I would put YOU in a cage. But nobody would want to see you so you would starve there [22/79, voice memo]
“The shower,” Sandra says, breathless, after a few minutes. It’s the only room without enclosures. Sandra and I have been on a roll of trying new things, of exciting intimacy, of meeting one another in strange places as if to fill in the clefts and crevices we still hide from one another. It was her idea; I’m not opening up enough. As Cleo’s only living relative, it’s now my job to care for, adopt, or rehome her living collection. Tiny eyes and smooth brains surround us, testing the walls, slithering in circles.
I lead her to Aunt Cleo’s bathroom and find its wall gouged away as if a monster had clawed through. Aunt Cleo, it seems, wanted to view her collection even while bathing. Steam from the shower hangs in the air as Sandra and I make love, trickling in beams cast by a single smeary window caulked shut. Wind swirls from a crack in the glass shaped like a frown. I clutch Sandra to my chest, arms tight as violin strings…
Afterwards, I see thousands of spider eyes hanging on the walls—condensation from the open shower, glinting by the light of the solitary window. Vapor collects in rivulets above the tortoises and raccoons. Moving with grave intentness I follow this ghostly fog into the room of enclosures. I can’t help but wonder how many times these neglected little individuals wished death on my aunt…
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[54/79 – 56/79, digital photos]
I want to tell Sandra everything, as we sit together beside a pacing fox, eating lunch. It’s rare to find someone so dedicated to helping you. We discuss our experience in the shower, how we both noticed that frown-shaped crack in the window as it pushed chilly air onto her back, how small clouds formed and sunk onto the tanks and cages, saturating them like a garden watered. I think she’s waiting for me to speak about my aunt, but I don’t, not here…
Dear Aunt Cleo, I’ve just received news of your passing. I haven’t thought about you in years. When I got the call, it reminded me of all the death threats I wrote but never sent—I still have some around, and in the last few hours I’ve been collecting them. It’s almost like reading that chapter book I jotted up in first grade. I was so young – six years old—and I don’t think I understood why I hated you. Now, though…I still have that image in my head.
Also, I’m freeing your captives to real pet owners and nature preserves, which means I’ll need to return to your house one last time. I still remember the good reek of all those critters, that oily rankness from so many dunes of substrate. I’m glad they outlived you, however they managed to. I don’t know how you died, but I bet it would have made child me happy. Now it doesn’t make me feel anything but kind of old. [79/79, personal journal]
The cops come again one week later to explain how they found Aunt Cleo because of her water bill. She slipped in the shower, the coroner’s report confirms. Her forehead was split against the window, skull dented in the shape of a small frown. It’s Sandra who realizes— Cleo’s animals survived by lapping water cast by the shower mist. Insects even scoured mold from the walls, feeding the possums and birds and desperate dogs over the weeks. It’s almost a miracle.
So I finally tell Sandra how for years I wrote Aunt Cleo death threats because she flashed me as a kid. How I didn’t get it. How I still have a memory of her standing there by the door with her robe wide just glaring at me, aggressive, tall and leering. Sandra has a surprising reply—she snuck out a little yellow frog for me. After all, she says, he fought to keep living through all that bullshit, he sucked water off her walls to stay alive, the mountain supports life on its sides, but not its peak, as they say. We go and watch him. He’s skimming and stretching in his own personal pond, practically dancing. I thank her. I thank her. I thank her!