Like almost everyone I’ve come to love, she turned up as if from nowhere. A door in the maze of fate flapped open and through it Martha materialized. 105 pounds of silver-haired, cheese-eating, grumpy perfection—a Weimaraner, mostly, but probably part pit bull too. She looked like a museum gargoyle or a ghost on the lam. Her past was a swirling pot of Dickensian vapors. Someone left her in the rain. A warring couple came to blows, and she escaped. She’d been starved. Cruel men trained their dogs on her to fight. None of this was apparent upon meeting her. Martha simply showed up on my mother-in-law’s couch, a new adoptee in a home fond of hard-luck cases, sporting that ducking self-consciousness all dogs wear when they’ve been hit before and are unsure whether this new life is real or a dream.
She adapted quickly. Soon enough the couch was hers, and the spot next to it, where she’d curl up when she wanted to be close, but not bothered. Within months, she tithed all meals, especially toast, and a failure to acknowledge her rights was often remarked upon. I’ve known many dogs and all of them have communicated, but Martha came closest to speaking. I don’t mean her barking sounded like words, but she could pattern out a very clear message, as if her foot-tap (hello) and blink rate (excuse me, excuse me, ready for toast now) and eye contact and eyebrow movement (seriously? you’re not going to share that with me?) and bark (I’m standing right here!) was the clearest iteration of messaging I’ve ever received from an animal. Give that to me, now, please, put it where toast belongs in my face, thank you Jesus, faster next time is there more?
She was impatient, tetchy, like the house was a train station and she was both its clock and its conductor, trying to keep everything running on time. For almost five years, most of my mornings started around 7:30 or 8. We’d bang into my mother-in-law’s tall London house. At the sound of the door, a drumbeat of dog-feet would begin at the top of the house and cascade downward. Have I said she was a bit chunky? Down the thumping rolled, growing louder and more raucous, until it was like a rock and roll drummer on an overlong solo. Just when you began to expect not one dog but ten, she’d hustle round the corner at the foot of the stairs, just her, grey ears flapping, flashing her tiny, lethally sharp teeth, head turning left, right, left.
She actually smiled. She began each day with a big, frankly very odd cockeyed grin. I think she was mimicking what she saw us do when we were happy, flashing her teeth, saying hello, hello. If you didn’t know her you’d think she was snarling. Then she’d hustle us into the car, circling our legs to herd us, observing our route to the common as we drove off, barking if we stopped in traffic or took a wrong turn, positively squealing if the ride took more than five minutes. Upon arrival she’d explode out the back gate of our wagon, and I’d load up the thrower and she’d sprint after the flung ball like a racehorse, actually chewing up bits of turf with the force of her propulsion, a softer drum-beat now as her feet traveled across grass. Her face upon return an expression of unmitigated triumph.
Like so many of us, I spent the past three years in the pandemic with an animal. With several, in fact, but in Martha’s case, developing a relationship I think it’s absurd to call by any name but love. What do you call a being whose body gives you comfort? Who doesn’t need words to communicate? Who delivers and receives with acute awareness of these acts? Who has a personality? Who counts? Who makes judgments about people? Who wears coats? Who has moments of vanity? Who dreams? Who is frightened? Who comforts others when they’re frightened? Who mourns? Who feels jealousy? Who feels pain? Who worries about the future? Who enjoys pasta? Who likes the rain? Who tries to get you to look at beautiful things? Yes, Martha often did this: she’d come get me and take me outside to smell something. Or, given my imperfect understanding of her mind and heart, that’s what I think was happening.
As with any compact, be it with a friend or a lover or with God, not knowing made the relationship more powerful. You know nothing really important, if there’s no risk to the heart. If you glean without risk, what you’ve gained is merely information. Maybe this is why, as a species, humans have done so little to stop destroying the planet we share with millions of other living beings, only a small portion of whom are dogs or cats or other domesticated animals. Perhaps it’s simply information to us—the absolutely clear, undeniable lesson that we’ve pumped far too much carbon into the atmosphere and have jeopardized not just our own future on earth, but that of millions of others species too—because we have lost the ability to conceive of our not knowing as crucial a form of intra-species knowledge. It’s as if we need animals to go on strike, to send letters to the editor, to turn up on CNN. Meanwhile, watch the world leaders at global climate crisis conferences. They don’t know when, or exactly how, the models can’t be trusted, proof there’s more time. As if our bodies aren’t also all vibrating with an epidemic of anxiety.
Animals have never been so meaningful—so freighted with meaning—as they are now, as humans face but don’t face our extinction. And yet, because they are so often glimpsed through the keyhole of our greed, our guilt, our passive-aggressive morbid doom-scrolling curiosity, animals remain simultaneously unseen. Show me yourself suffering, now appease my guilt with your cuteness. What is adorableness in the animal kingdom when it is the thing standing between us and the apocalypse? We can marvel at the long songs of deep sea whales, at feather-light octopi and their seemingly intimate behavior, at birds and their patterns of migration, adapting to dried-up water sources and greater predator threats, but unless you have the luxury of being an extremely well-informed consumer, the very next day, due to the structures of the world’s food supply, it’s quite possible to eat the meat of an animal which has been tortured and either not care, or, just as likely, be too exhausted to do anything about it.
The stakes of this moment in time, our contradictory attitudes about its moral dilemmas, and our always-intense curiosity about the lives of animals have made it an important period to re-narrate our relationship to the animal world. To strip this interaction from the fantasy of purity—as if it’s ever possible to truly know a wild living thing, or to observe it without altering its life—and to accept the messy, imperfect not-knowledge of at least some form of creative regard. Of acknowledgment by virtue of symbolic or actual engagement of shared stakes.
This issue of Freeman’s is dedicated to opening the rich space that exists between us and the earth itself, the place that animals inhabit, where they are at once symbolic and actual, part of culture and part of the food supply, a world in which they inform our everyday lexicons, but remain as far away as a howl in the night. This is not a zoo, but a highly subjective and accidental bestiary filled with animals who come from the imagination and the world itself—passenger pigeons, jaguars, ultra-black Dobermans, just-born lambs, rabbits. Bears. Stray dogs. Giraffes. Reindeer. Sloth. Boars who rustle in the wilderness behind a Roman couple’s disquieted home.
We learn to read by imagining the lives of animals. At some point, around ages ten or eleven, they retreat from the center of our reading life, especially in fiction. What would life feel like if that weren’t the case? Would we have more stories like Cynan Jones’s riveting account of four Welsh farmers struggling to survive a brutal lambing season while one of their cows gives birth? Or maybe animals would feel more like trusted guides or protectors, as in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s short story about a young woman on the precarious edge of ruin in the pandemic, who needs the strength to make a hard decision. She finds it in the form of a radically unashamed stripper and her Doberman. Or maybe there’d be more exquisitely ironic stories about mascots with racialized characters, like Shanteka Sigers’s “Lucky Land,” in which a man has a shocking face-to-face encounter with a human-sized lemur behind the scenes at a popular amusement park.
Where do the animals we meet go, the ones of our childhood, in the afterlife of memory or culture? In Lily Tuck’s story, a girl’s encounter with a bear spins inside her like a top, a dynamo of portent which is forever turning as her life itself evolves and she ages. Elsewhere, in a moving essay, “First Salmon Ceremony,” Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe describes her decades-long arc away from the fish she ate heartily in her youth, into veganism, and then back toward salmon in adulthood: a journey which charts her own feelings of shame, curiosity, and finally pride about her native identity.
It takes a force as strong as hate to prize such bonds apart, those between us and animals. A violence of policy, of laws. Linnea Axelsson’s breathtaking novel-in-verse is set in Lapland in the early years of the twentieth century and revolves around a world on the cusp of that rupture, wherein a Sami family migrates its reindeer across tundra, up against barriers only nations could erect. In a world now run by these failing but enshrined idealized identities, what nation do animals belong to, what rights do they have, Olga Tokarczuk asks in her stunning essay. What role do our stories play in adjudicating this complex zone? What other function do these stories serve?
Maybe to help us remember, maybe to not forget? They’re different things. Several pieces in this issue function like eulogies to past times—except, as always, humans are there too, behaving in familiar ways. Matthew Gavin Frank recreates an era when passenger pigeons covered the skies thick as storm clouds, inspiring a frenzy of anxiety and then a mass killing. A. Kendra Greene’s tale sardonically invites us to imagine the life of a sloth frozen still as taxidermy. Wherever animals are held in captivity there’s disquiet, like in Mieko Kawakami’s tale of a girl and a boy meeting in a zoo, the speaker quietly, effectively negged by the boy before the gaze of a lugubrious giraffe.
As always, Kawakami finds a way to turn this passive interaction inside out, the speaker’s stoppered tongue turning giraffe-like in the story’s second half. Ultimately, it sets her free. Perhaps Darwin had it wrong, Rick Bass reminds in his essay, it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s the lucky who adapt and survive. What does luck mean though if it’s not chance, but sometimes a bit stranger? Maybe luck is a question of conception, not simply a happening: as in, if you can imagine the impossible, you can speak your way out of silence. If you can add functions to your very body, you can swim out of danger.
If this is the case, and we as a species are even going to try to fathom a way out of the current catastrophe, we’ll have to embrace better models of survival, Samiya Bashir suggests in her exquisitely burning poem “Here’s the Thing:”, which draws the speaker close to the rat. We’re also going to have to envision deeper ways to conceive what is happening, Debra Gwartney writes in “Blue Dot,” because the fires that have come to our very doorstep once were impossible and now they’re here. She knows this because she’s standing in the cindery rubble of a plot of Oregon woods she shared with her late husband Barry Lopez, contemplating how little the forestry service knows of the world around their destroyed cabin. The birds and beasts which called that parcel of forest their home are equally bereft.
Perhaps in a thousand years, as Camonghne Felix writes in her peacefully bleak poem, the world will recover, and we will be the slip of memory. The scar in the earth of a time weathered, and born. In this sense, to deal with life in a time of terror one needs to practice picturing a world without us, something extremely possible during the pandemic, as Anuradha Roy points out in the opening essay. It’s an essay that tests the morality of this exercise, however, for a world without us is not a fate that affects only humans. One of the first casualties of the pandemic in her part of the Himalayas were stray dogs, no longer fed by humans in parks because the residents of her town couldn’t go out.
Animals, in spite of the stories we are told as children, are not here to rescue us or be rescued by us. That is simply one narrative about them. Perhaps one reason we don’t see animals so much in adult life is because the reality of our dominion is simply too bleak. Animals are stolen like objects, as in Son Bo-mi’s story about a cat, or they’re treated casually like trophies, as in Tess Gunty’s dazzling story set in a twenty-first-century house party that overflows with luxury, and rabbits. Or they’re brutally killed in surrogate ways, as in Chiara Barzini’s terrifying tale about two Roman couples and the sexual games they play to rejuvenate their marriages during midlife doldrums.
What’s scary about these stories is not so much what animals may do to us, but what we do to them. Maybe we’d be kinder were we more in touch with the bird inside us, as Martín Espada is in his poem, or if we listened more acutely, as Arthur Sze does in his, stepping outside into a multitude of song, of living-ness, or if we could imagine what abilities can still be activated within us, as Stuart Dybek does in his searching, watery poem-fable that begins: “A theory on the descent of Man has it / that humankind evolved not from bands of monkeys / in the trees, but from a lost race of aquatic apes.”
Humans have got so much wrong over the years about our fellow travelers on this planet, even on the level of language. Diego Báez writes in a poem that while his family comes from Paraguay, there are no longer jaguars there, as popular myth has it, so life, for him, involves daily sapping of such undetonated falsehoods. In the occupied territories of Palestine, Ameer Hamad sets a tale about what happens when such fantasies of otherness come home to roost. A young boy makes his visiting cousin from America an unwitting accomplice in his mission to bring home a rabbit from the pet store.
An animal is not a toy any more than you and I are, something Martha so often made clear to me when I spoke to her like one. She simply refused to listen. She walked away. And I’d be ashamed that some atavistic part of me had reared up and addressed her in the manner I may have once spoken to a Lego, a stuffed animal, a part of the world that seemed animate to me as a child, but wasn’t. Martha may not have spoken English, but she had the dignity of all living beings, from trees to bees to bears and yes, twelve-year-old Weimaraners. She had her own sense of the world, a powerful juxtaposition, a series of instincts as deep in her as mine were in me.
I wish I had known what she wanted us to do when she got sick. Did she want our medicine? Did she want to die? On this question she was mute, or we couldn’t read the signals. We did in the end what we would have wanted, which was to secure more time, and thanks to a very good vet, she got it. Two months. In a dog’s life, it was a year. A whole cycle of the inner planet, falling in the dark through dreams, night storms, toast crusts. I had never seen her run so fast the day she returned home from the vet and we removed the cone around her neck. She bounded back onto the common and beat lurchers, vizslas, even a fleet-footed dalmatian to her ball. She sniffed the flowers, she visited her two favorite trees, which she seemed to greet by running up to them and stopping abruptly, then standing at attention as all hunting dogs do when they’ve found something important. She stood there those last few days, beneath the trees, like there was a field of impossible beauty all around her. And she was right, there was. There still is.