Understanding Causal Relationships In Animal Groups

by Kiel Stuart

 

Thunder made an ominous growl. Declan Moore sat in the cramped living room of his brother’s apartment, the party in full swing around him.

He had done it. Bought a house. Couldn’t wait to make the announcement.

But things weren’t going as he planned.

The party got noisier. Uneasy, Declan glanced around. No one else noticed the coming storm. They nestled close to each other, a pack of laughing, chattering, eating creatures.

“Ma!” Kate waded through the crowd. “More cole slaw?”

Ma shook her head, spraying a muffled sentence part cole slaw, part refusal. Two-year-old Francie, whose birthday they were celebrating, bumbled over and Ma grabbed the child’s pink cheeks. It was Ma whom Declan resembled, small and dark, not his big, loose-limbed father. Brother John had gotten all the size.

“So.” John lumbered up, beer in hand. “Got yourself a new house?” He made it an accusation.

And Declan found himself explaining how the recent construction boom on Long Island meant lots of work for everyone, house painters included, so Declan could finally buy a home of his own, a two-bedroom handyman special. It needed fixing up.

John, nodding and smiling, had already tuned Declan out. The doorbell rang and John went to answer, leaving Declan in Kate’s line of sight.

For an instant, Kate’s eyes flashed yellow.

John’s wife was a big girl, rosy-cheeked like baby Francie. Declan managed her a quivery smile, but Kate turned away.

John brought the new arrival to greet Declan. “Tina,” said John, his voice already slurring at the edges, “allow me to introduce my brother, the house painter, who bought himself a brand new home all on his little ol’ house-painter salary.”

Tina looked as if she’d like to sink into the orange shag carpeting.

Declan lowered his head, felt his mouth stretch in appeasement. If big John wanted a fight, there was nothing Dec could do to stop it.

“I think Kate’s calling you,” said Tina.

John grunted, shouldering through the crowd.

“Dec, why ain’t you eatin’?” Kate shouted. “Everyone else is eatin’.”

Declan sank into a chair. “Not hungry, thanks.” Besides, he was so tense he might upchuck right in front of all his brother’s friends. Now wouldn’t that just be a sight. Wouldn’t that be something for Johnny Moore to laugh about.

“Why’n’cha eat?” wondered Ma. “Boy your age should eat.”

Boy your age, mused Declan, I’m 33.

“And a boy your age should be married, shouldn’t he?” Ma glanced around the room, seeking an audience.

“Dec don’t need a wife,” laughed John. “Dec has himself a cat.”

“Look at your brother,” continued Ma. “Is that too much to ask, Dec? So when you gonna gimme some grandchildren?” Ma pinched Francie’s cheek too hard; the baby began to bawl, and John dove in to the rescue, picking her up, rocking her into quiet. Unfazed, Ma continued. “How ‘bout it, Dec?”

“I’ll run out to K-Mart tomorrow and buy a couple.”

The older kids sniggered. Declan, glad to share a moment with someone, anyone, winked at them.

“Dec’s too busy to get married, Ma,” said Kate, taking Francie and setting her down. “He’s too busy out there in the Hamptons with all his hoity-toity cocktail party friends.”

Declan’s breath caught. Hampton Bays was a working man’s town and Declan’s “car” was his business truck, an ancient Nissan beater with a patchwork paint job.

Tears forgotten, Francie toddled around the room, bumping into legs like a friendly little animal.

“Lay offa Dec,” John said, and clapped a hand on Declan’s shoulder. That same big hand had snatched food from Declan’s plate when they were kids, held toys at arm’s length. “Lay offa my little brother. He’s okay. He can’t help it if he’s too busy. He can’t help it if he lives all the way out on Long Island. Can’t help it if he’s too tired to ride from the Hamptons into Jersey.”

“Road goes both ways,” Declan muttered.

“Well now,” said John, looking down at Francie. “Well, now. Kind of a rough trip to take with the kids and all.”

“Francie’s too young to drag out all that way,” said Kate.

“When she’s older, then.” But Johnny was 10, Quint 8. The kids would be in retirement communities before Kate deemed them ‘old enough.’

“And you think money grows on trees?”

“Tolls aren’t that high.” Ah, I walked straight into that.

“No, I guess they wouldn’t be, not to someone who lives in the Hamptons with no kids, no expenses. Well, we’re working folks. You think we’re all just sitting here, waiting for Mr. Hamptons to crook his finger so we can come running—”

“Kate,” John said, taking her arm.

A growl of thunder split the silence. Kate was red-faced; John grave; Ma was shaking her head; the kids were wide-eyed, hoping for further entertainment.

Declan’s throat rasped. “I wonder how it is,” he said, “that I can be two people. The nothing of a house painter and the cocktail party Hamptonite all at the same time.”

“Don’t smart off to your brother.” Ma eyed them both.

“But I thought that’s what brothers do. Give and take.”

Ma blinked. “You’re drunk,” she opined.

“I don’t drink. I’m not my father. I’m not even Johnny.”

“Oh, I get it.” Kate shook free of John’s arm. “Mr. Perfect. Too good for the rest of us now.”

“What do you mean, you don’t drink?” Ma peered up at Declan. “You’re always yacking about that bar you hang out in, that fancy Casa Whatsitsname, that—”

“They do serve ginger ale in bars.”

They stood in a line, ranged against him. He edged toward the door.

“It’s a long drive back,” Declan said to no one in particular. “I want to beat the rain.” He went out and headed for his old truck.

He didn’t beat the rain. It started up as a steady gray stream as he sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Verrazzano Bridge. He hated being stuck on a bridge; he could feel the narrow surface sway beneath his pickup. The bridge would collapse and plunge him into the water.

When he was little, very little, and his father still around, the family had rented a car for a “drive in the country”. They had to go over the Throgg’s Neck Bridge, Declan’s first encounter with such a structure. As the car drew closer, Declan stared in horror up at the wild swoop of suspension wires, certain the car would be forced to ride up there, that the winds would push them off, that they’d all be killed. John had laughed at his terror.

Now a solid line of cars snaked across the Belt Parkway, as far as the road was visible. The sky darkened to night.

What was the alternate route, he wondered, The Brooklyn Queens Expressway? He wasn’t familiar with that road, but anything was better than standing still in a curtain of rain.

A glance at his Atlas showed a linkup with the Long Island Expressway at exit 35. It seemed a lifeline.

Home! Rain hammered the car, but at least traffic was moving. He looked at the dashboard clock. He had left at seven; it was now close to nine.

He made the turn. The rain stopped. A dense fog replaced it, cutting off the long view.

There were no other cars with him now. His headlights stabbed down a long twisty ribbon of blacktop. Come on, come on! he pleaded silently, but the truck bumbled along at a maddening slow pace, as if something was clogging the fuel filter.

The fog thinned. He was not on a road, but a slender grass bordered pathway into a park. Did I ever take a wrong turn.

The truck rolled onto the grass and stopped. The motor shut itself off. The headlights died.

His nerves were so taut he felt like crying. He tried the ignition again. Nothing. He tapped the dashboard clock; it, too, had stopped.

Sighing, he got out to pop the hood.

A metal pole lamp cast a circle of light. Grass and trees for about a twenty-foot radius, the rest curtained by night and fog.

Declan stood on the wet grass, leaning over the hood of the pickup. The world was holding its breath.

Sausages of fog floated past. He put a hand on his truck. The metal felt cold. As if the engine had been off for hours, not minutes.

The hairs on the back of his neck lifted.

Someone’s watching.

For several heartbeats he stood alone in the circle of light. Then, he heard a sound, and his heart took a painful leap. Like a horn blasting in his ear, wavering up and down in a full-throated aria: the howling of wolves.

Adrenaline slashed through him. He had no weapon; even his tire iron layout of reach. Turning inch by inch, Declan brought his body around so the truck’s hood was at his back.

Eyes shining in the dark.

Eyes like penlights, in pairs, glinting neon green, arrayed in a semi-circle a little over twenty feet from where he pressed against the cold comfort of his truck.

One pair of eyes detached from the group, and wavered toward him. Bobbing closer, two lambent ovals approached the circle of lamplight, until the pale glow revealed its form entirely.

His mind tried to tell him it was a dog. His blood knew it was not.

The wolf—a long-muzzled creature brindled gray and white—panted out its tongue between daggerlike fangs and shifted its paws. It was close enough to touch. He could surely smell it, that wet-dog aroma layered with something musky, wild, violent. Yet its yellow eyes regarded him with calm.

It began to make sounds, yodels and whines, tossing its head with little emphatic movements like nods. Declan was astounded to find that he could understand the wolf as clearly as if it spoke English.

—We are mourning our dead. Will you join us?

Other wolves padded forward into the circle of light; brindled ones, gray ones, one nearly white, one nearly black. There must have been fifteen of them, an entire pack.

And it was the least of them they were mourning, the Chief of the Wolves explained, the wolf who was last to eat, last to mate, last to claim anything.

Now that Declan understood the wolves did not mean him harm, he could think.

—The least of you, said Declan, still you mourn?

—He fulfilled his function. That was his place. And now he is gone. Brother, will you join with us?

Runt of the litter, Declan thought, that’s me.

Fog nuzzled up against him:

—Time does not exist here, said the fog, Stay.

Declan hesitated. The wolves would make room. But too many things lay as obstacles, calling him back to the world. He lowered his head.

—I can’t, he replied.

The wolves conducted a brief, snuffling conference. Then they stilled, eyes fixed on their Chief.

—We understand, said the Chief of the Wolves. Sing with us, then.

The wolves pointed their muzzles to the sky. Sound poured from them, grief and mourning and loss. The song pounded Declan’s body, raced up his spine, blasted from his throat, and flung itself toward the moon.

For a time there was only the song of the wolves.

Then it stilled. One by one the wolves melted back into the darkness. It was over. Declan stood gasping for breath.

Behind him, the engine roared to life. Headlights blazed. He climbed back into the truck and retraced his route. He got back somehow on the main road; back into driving, thundering rain, and snarling traffic. He was dazed with loss.

It took five and a half hours. Declan had no feeling left in his arms. His legs were pins and needles. It didn’t matter.

When he stumbled into the house, Fizzy rushed up to greet him. He knew exactly what his cat was saying.

Yeowh: You forgot me! Aowh: I’m starving to death!

The big marmalade tom did his best to trip Declan up on their way to the kitchen. He fed the cat, downed a can of tomato juice and collapsed onto the bed, his mind filled with the sight and scent and sound of wolves.

Fizzy managed to stuff himself upside-down into Declan’s lap. He began kneading empty air. A dopey look of bliss transformed his face into something funny and comforting.

Declan switched on the TV and rolled around the dial until he found a show about animals. “How ‘bout that, Fizzyboy, you like animal shows?”

The cat burst into a motorboat purr and settled at his side. The show examined the relationships of animals that lived in groups, wolves in particular. From Alpha to Omega, each wolf had its niche.

Declan found himself laughing. I broke the rules. That’s why Johnny’s so mad. The Omega Wolf could afford a house, and he couldn’t.

He watched for a few minutes. Then he switched it off. Fizzy muttered protests.

“Sorry. Already seen it,” explained Declan.

He sat rubbing his cat’s head, the texture of fur a map of memory. Someday he would go to the wolves again. Or maybe the wolves would come to him.

In the distance, thunder made a companionable growl.

 

Walking the Demon Tunnel

by Kiel Stuart

 

She had been walking the demon tunnel for years.

The tunnel was narrow, claustrophobic. If she stood in the middle, she could almost touch the sides.

Demons hovered and flew and lumbered around her. Some of the smaller winged ones looked almost human, a bit like garden-variety fairies, until you saw the malevolence on their little faces. Others resembled glittery insects mad with their own poisons. The bigger ones reminded her of alligators, long-snouted, slow-moving reptiles with mud-colored scales. Everything smelled of cool damp earth and smoking torchlight. There was a maddening familiarity about the demons and the tunnel and her endless walking.

* * * * *

“I can’t believe the fury of inanimate objects,” said Jessie, inviting Lynne inside, but Lynne remained with her back to the door, keys jingling in one hand.

Jessie bubbled on. “I swear they’re out to get me! First that weird knife, the one my mother liked, well, it cut me while it was still in the drainer, just leaped right out!”

Jessie hooted. “And just now I smashed my hand! On Mother’s In/Out box, the metal one like a cheese grater!”

Lynne glanced at her watch. “What was it you wanted?”

“Oh!” cried Jessie. “I forgot. Silly of me, isn’t it, to call you and then—wait a sec, I have something for you—”

She whirled and ran to the table, cracking her knee against a corner of her mother’s old knickknack shelf. A clay figurine
that Jessie had made in school fell off the shelf.

She stopped, took a deep breath. She could still feel her hands, wedging cool slippery clay, arm muscles burning, slamming the musky gray mass onto the board until it was malleable.

“Oh, Lynne! Don’t go,” she called. “It’s here somewhere, I just put it here last night…” She dug through breakfast dishes, bills, receipts, flinging aside empty sugar packets. “Ah, there, see, I knew it!” She pounced on a small cardboard box, snatched it up, ran to the door.

Lynne stared at the package. “What is it?”

“Why, it’s a salt-and-pepper set. Or maybe sugar and flour, I’m not exactly sure. It’s got those big holes in the metal screw tops, you know, and that nice swirly glass…”

“Why don’t you just throw all this crap out?”

Jessie blinked. It would be like throwing out her mother.

“Is this why you called me? I can’t use it.” Lynne slipped out the door.

Closing the door softly, Jessie realized she would not see Lynne again. Most of her friends had drifted away in the month since her mother’s death.

Even Ryan. Jessie’s fiancee had put up with her until last week, and joined the exodus.

Jessie had other companions now, but they were not human.

* * * * *

Port Hollister. Come summer the tourists would be out in force, crowding the little waterfront town, but in October it was too raw for any but the hardiest locals. Low tide; the air smelled of rotten eggs.

Jessie walked. She had walked when she had trouble with Ryan. She walked when Mother had gone into the hospital. She walked when she’d lost her job.

I must get back on track, she told herself, repeating it like a mantra, moving to its rhythm: I must get back on track.

The weather played her like a symphony, little airborne electrocutions everywhere. She pulled gloves onto her shaking hands and then her legs were shaking too.

A young woman came toward her. Shoulder-length dark hair, shiny skin, green sweater.

What an interesting sweater, Jessie thought. Such a shade of green, almost moss, with all those embroideries, like a garden.

Jessie opened her mouth to say, Pardon me, where did you get that? And saw the girl’s eyes.

The were large eyes, brown eyes, rolling wide and frightened, not connecting with anything on the street.

As if the girl was walking through a gauntlet of demons.

Jessie had seen those eyes before. Mother, at the hospital, on that last day, eyes wild above the breathing tube.

Jessie froze. The girl loomed over her, the strange face rippling, changing to that of Mother’s, narrow and pinched, to Jessie’s, round and astonished, then back to the stranger’s. Features boiled in and out of hiding.

Jessie collapsed onto a park bench, shutting her eyes. Go away, crazy girl, she thought, please go away.

When Jessie looked up, Mother sat next to her. But now her eyes were calm.

The wind stilled.

Mother shook her head. “I’m so disappointed in you.”

“I know,” Jessie said, in a child’s voice.

“Why couldn’t you have turned out the way I wanted?”

Jessie felt her eyes prickle.

“Why did you let me die? Why didn’t you save me?”

“Save you?”

“I’m your mother. I gave you life. You should have saved my life in turn.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Lady? Lady? You okay?”

Jessie jerked her head up. A town cop stood over her. She knew her own demon-spitting eyes glared back at him and she quickly looked away.

“I’m fine. Perfectly fine.” She lurched to her feet and ran home.

* * * * *

There was a message from Ryan on the machine. He would come over tomorrow to take back the rest of his things. He suggested she get them ready.

Jessie played the message over and over until his words broke down to a disorder of noise.

She bumbled through the house, trying to gather Ryan’s belongings, bumping into furniture, smashing a knee, an elbow, fear driving her on. Then she collided with a chair, twisted, fell, and landed, thump, the breath knocked from her, Ryan’s clothes and books flying from her grasp.

That’s it, she thought. I have to calm down. This isn’t helping. I must get back on track.

She would go to her bedroom and try to relax with a book. She opened the bedroom door.

There was the tunnel.

Dark, cramped, looking like rough-hewn obsidian, the tunnel beckoned. As she groped forward, wondering where her bedroom had gone, Jessie found the tunnel was mud, black and cool and sticky.

The tunnel curved up to a low roof. Smoking torches were planted at irregular intervals. They gave off a stink of sulfur and an orange light.

Is this Hell? she wondered.

It felt surprisingly cool. She had thought Hell would be leaping with fires, but the air nuzzled pearly-soft against her skin. She could not see the tunnel’s beginning or end.

The sticky roof almost scraped her head as she edged forward. Bits of mud detached, falling with soft squelches.

The fallen mud was moving, animating, taking shape, growing arms and legs and wings.

Demons, she told herself, and thought of the young woman in the park. Her courage failed her, and she turned, searching for the bedroom door.

Nothing but black tunnel. Nowhere to go but forward.

The large demons were like dogs sniffing at her heels. Others, tiny as butterflies, attached themselves to her eyelashes and hung chittering. They spoke in heated little voices.

“How do I get out?” Jessie wondered.

“You are ugly,” said one like a fairy, with Monarch butterfly stained-glass wings.

“Where is the exit?”

“No one likes you,” said a big one snapping at her heels.

“Who asked you?” Jessie snapped back.

“You did not pay enough attention to Mother,” she heard. “You are filled with poison,” another growled.

She winced. “No. It’s not true…” But she saw Lynne edging away, Ryan packing his bags, Mother sighing.

Some of the small flying demons wore her mother’s face. Others, Ryan’s mouth or Lynne’s eyes. Some had no faces at all, but every one of them had teeth.

The Monarch-butterfly demon, and a grim lumbering one covered with warts, and one long and glittering like a dragonfly, spoke louder than the others. Each demon, as it told her a thing, bit off a piece of her clothing. You are selfish, said Monarch. Stupid, shrilled Needle, the dragonfly. Unlovable, grunted wart-covered Grim.

They attacked, voracious for the sustenance of her clothing, shredding it from her body. The air that had been so pearly-warm turned cold as iron. She ran, she struggled, she dodged, but demons flew at her like strafing jets. They snatched scrap after scrap of clothing. They kept at it, for hours, until she was down to shrinking, shivering skin.

They will leave me alone now, she thought.

But one demon, the dragonfly-like Needle, landed on her shoulder. It sank its minute teeth into her.

“Ow!” She swatted it away, and felt another hot sting when a piece of her skin came off in the demon’s teeth.

Other demons continued pulling skin away. She batted at them, rolled against the tunnel walls, ran, dodged. To no avail. Bites from Monarch and Needle were tiny. The big demons like Grim ripped away enormous patches.

But she stumbled on, further into the tunnel, trying to leave the demons behind.

She traveled for days in the company of demons. Weeks. Months. Years. Their words dripped in her ears.

You were not sad enough when your mother was in the hospital, said Needle; You’ll never find your way out, said Grim.

She walked until she was one open wound, and all she could smell was the copper tang of her own blood. She retained one secret, hidden piece of skin, and clung to the thought that she still had something.

One day she saw a shape up ahead, huddled against the wall of the tunnel. At first she thought it was one of the big demons. But as she drew closer she saw it was human.

She had almost forgotten how humans looked. And this one seemed familiar. She searched her memory: Lavender scent. Reddish hair. Hands that slapped.

She stopped, Monarch and Needle flying around her head, Grim nudging up against her knees. As she leaned closer she could see the woman had grown very old, so ancient that she too was laid bare, like an anatomy chart.

“You have some skin left,” said the stranger.

Jessie remembered the skin on the bottom of her right foot.

“I want it. You owe it to me.”

Almost by reflex Jessie reached down and detached the last of her skin, holding it like a leaf. The stranger snatched it and pressed it to the middle of her forehead. The skin grew, covering her head to toe. “Is that all you have?”

Jessie nodded.

“You’ve always disappointed me.” she said.

It had a familiar ring. The demons were in her. When she died they went free. First into the knife and the letter holder.

“Go away,” she whispered. “Leave me alone!”

Mother shrugged. “If that’s what you want.” She turned, and was soon lost around the slight curve of the tunnel.

That, too, was familiar. Mother, leaving Jessie to care for her collected junk, junk that bit and scratched, leaving Jessie to look after the demons, in their company forever.

A hot coal of rage grew in her throat.

“I hate you! I’m glad you’re dead! I hope it hurt!” Jessie screamed herself hoarse. Then she screamed grief and sorrow. She screamed until her voice gave up.

But Mother was really gone now.

She walked, driven by a need to escape. There had been a door. Doors were hard rectangles with round knobs that made them open. She limped on.

The demons seemed to want to help now; big reptilian Grim nudged her forward, and little Monarch and Needle led the way.

As she traveled, the mud lining the walls detached itself in bits, and where she brushed up against it, clung to her, forming a new skin, cooling the fire of her raw flesh.

She walked for a few years this way, equalized, neither hot nor cold.

She began to laugh one day, soundless. What was it people possessed, that she kept bumping up blindly against them, asking, begging? She wondered if it had been similar to pieces of skin.

She must be very old. Maybe as old as the mother. She wished that she had a voice, even to exchange inanities with Monarch or Grim: Isn’t the mud so much blacker today?

It was many years later when she saw the patch of light at the end of the tunnel.

The demons began to fall back, Grim and the other big ones curling into the darkness of the tunnel floor, the little ones, Monarch and Needle, hovering in front of her face, finally settling into the walls.

The patch of light grew brighter. She put out a hand to touch it and almost fell over. Stumbled, caught herself, and looked around, not recognizing her own home.

Black and swampy, she sat on the floor, blinking against the brightness. Then she scraped off the mud, leaving it in a heap amid empty trash bags and overflowing boxes.

She was astounded to see that fresh new skin had grown underneath. She was astounded to see that it was still October.

She felt tough and cool and elastic in her whole being.

She remembered the message on the answering machine: Ryan would be coming by later to retrieve his things. She got up to tidy the room.

And stopped.

What was the use of seeing Ryan now? She had no name. She had no voice.

She pushed the black mud into a plastic bag and closed it tight to keep it malleable. Clay came from mud. Her hands remembered what to do with clay. She put it in her car. Drove toward Taos, New Mexico. She had always wanted to be a sculptor.