“People don’t want selectively bred cabbage, but they’ll buy designer dogs.”
This story was originally published on 6 October 2015 on Needle in the Hay: http://needleinthehay.net/short-story-flash-fiction-lydia-trethewey-jaws-of-life/
A tiny gleam of light seems to emanate from the bars of my cage. I squint against the darkness, pen tracing invisible arcs across the fragile paper. The concrete floor chills my body, and an empty space stretches behind me into untouchable blackness. Somewhere within it Bathsheba stirs, her powerful flanks pacing a steady circle. I smell the dampness of her breath and the phrase “jaws of life” rises from my tired brain. For me the words have always conjured images of mighty beasts, tearing strips of flesh from their prey as fuel for the overwhelming force of their life.
But I’ve not yet introduced myself, dear reader. You’ve doubtless heard my name, tossed carelessly about on the lips of the righteously indignant. The pasty face and watery eyes I inherited from my father, now newsroom fodder to fill in the gaps between the nightly fear-mongering. I can almost hear the reporter asking is this Australia’s sickest man? And with the acrid smell of dead animals stroking the insides of my nostrils, I wonder that I am.
I am Wendell Lambert, and if you’ve somehow missed my fifteen seconds of infamy put down this memoir and spare my memory. For as I scratch these word laboriously on the tender skin of toilet paper, I do not seek to defend myself, only to apportion my shame so that you might pause on your way to condemn me.
The name Wendell was my mother’s choice. It means wanderer, adventurer, and proved an ill-fitting title for a boy with a persistently sickly countenance, not entirely borne of hypochondria. My mother wanted to give me the world to explore, and as I grew I watched mutely as her hopes fell away from her aging eyes and bunched sadly beneath them. I do not want your pity, dear reader, only to divulge the substance of the man you despise so you might see that what I made of my life was not carried by intention but awash with meek acceptance.
Huddled on the floor of my cage the stale stench of urine clogs up my mouth, and the mournful whimper of a surviving dog lifts occasionally through the quiet. I feel the rumble of Bathsheba as she rolls the idea of me backwards and forwards across her tongue.
When the journalistic vultures descended I was taken unawares. The tip-off came from a client who had purchased from me before, a woman named Bebe Klein. She’d had jewels clasped to her throat and a kale juice in one hand, and as she’d sniffed between cages of pure-breds she’d told me without hint of irony that she was avoiding all GM foods. That’s the way it is; people don’t want selectively bred cabbage but they’ll buy designed dogs. Distracted by the shiny coat, nobody notices that the skeleton is bent out of shape.
Dear reader, don’t suspect me of trying to shake off my guilt. I led them around, the waif-like women and stallion men, down the basement stairs and along the gleaming cages. Beautiful people wanting beautiful animals, and I smiled and offered my wares. They were usually people like Bebe, protected by a veneer of ignorance from which all accusations slide off.
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the media vilified me because of the dogs. No, no, it was the cats that caught their interest. My first import was a savannah cat, a striking, limber creature. Illegal in this country, of course. She sparked in the imaginations of some of my buyers a lust for the exotic, and soon followed a booming trade in servals, ocelots and caracals. Then came my prize, my love, Bathsheba. It pains me to think she will likely be discovered soon, and pass into uncaring hands. The thought scratches its way into my brain like a fever.
Through the bars I see the key, fallen from my pocket.
The back of this cage runs deeply like a tunnel through a mountain. Blind in the dark basement, I hear the whisper of an alpine wind beckoning the powerful legs of a great beast. Water trickles slowly down the rounded walls of my imagination, divulging an earthy scent. A fathomless, salivating hole is opening, one that leads inwards and outwards towards freedom.
Now I’m crawling on all fours, the memoir forgotten, thoughts panting and rasping towards the cave. The concrete floor becomes grittier, littered with small stones, cold to the touch. I hear the sway of faraway trees and taste boundless clouds. A deep indulgent purr greats me at the threshold. In the gloom a flicker of stripes, white peaks opening around bottomless night.
I open my arms wide and welcome the jaws of life.
This story won the “Rat in a Cage” award on Needle in the Hay. Follow the link to read the rest of the short-list: http://needleinthehay.net/tag/the-rat-in-a-cage-award/
This version has been slightly altered from the original.