THE ANIMAL AND THE RIVER | Danielle Jorgenson-Murray’s short story deals with a shadowy creature.
by Danielle Jorgenson-Murray
I can’t remember the day I inherited the animal. They usually announce bequests and legacies, don’t they? There must be paperwork. But I don’t think anyone had even died when I noticed her curled up sleeping on the end of my bed, round and matte like a black hole.
She followed me soundlessly – must have, because there she was sleeping wherever I went, occasionally cracking open one green eye when I was behaving particularly badly. When I sulked, when argument burst out of me in sudden heat, when I nursed hot mute tears bereft of the words to explain. She fended for herself, mostly, except for once or twice a year when she’d move, stretch up suddenly with her sharp claws on my collarbone to lick the tears from my cheeks.
I convinced myself she was somebody else’s, that she was a trick of the light, that she wasn’t there at all, an imaginary friend.
At university she took to prowling, sniffing around me for food where she’d never seemed to want anything before. I told her no; she’d looked after herself for this long. My housemate had a cockatiel and we were probably pushing our luck with pets in the accommodation as it was. Her light-swallowing fur prickled. No, I said again.
She opened her mouth for the first time, showing carnivore teeth, the kind where each one is tailored to a specific bone, each designed to take apart something alive. ‘Everyone hates you,’ she said. ‘Everyone knows what you are, that you fantasise about attention, that you have no empathy, that you wish there was something wrong with you.’
That was the beginning of the slow-motion battle we fought over the years. When I turned away from striking at her directly and went to ask other people for help in dealing with her she climbed into my throat. The words changed around her, made her into something harmless and well-behaved, funny even, until I’d spent every chance with every person I trusted, lost forever the opportunity to tell them what she really was.
She bit with her specialised teeth and jerked me into puppet normality in public, raised my arms to wave hello, pulled my face into appropriate smiles until I was alone again.
“I convinced myself she was somebody else’s, that she was a trick of the light, that she wasn’t there at all, an imaginary friend.”
When she slept I’d ask sideways for tips on training her, but I never looked like much of an animal wrangler and nobody seemed able to grasp her slippery nature. They told me how to look after puppies, hamsters, housecats, and I nodded, heartsunk, along, while every time she woke she’d eat my furniture and smash all my windows.
I took to waiting her out. I told myself she couldn’t stay awake forever. She’d have to sleep sometime, and whatever damage she did while she was awake wasn’t infinite.
‘Everyone else can do it without being so dramatic,’ she said, and it was true. All through my life there were flashes of her visible on other people’s backs, all through my family, and not a word had been spoken. ‘It’s really only you,’ she said. ‘Pathetic, really. Some people have real problems.’
I dutifully gathered her up as best I could (she was careful to pull in her claws so as not to leave visible marks) and gave her what she wanted. I stopped asking people about her. I started to find myself gazing longingly at her teeth in the dark, and noticed how the shape of them fitted exactly the holes in me. She might fill me, or perhaps her teeth were mirror images, and she’d only open me up more. It was impossible to tell just from looking, like imagining a four-dimensional shape. She watched me look, and waited for me to ask her. I never would, and she knew it, and relished it. I could see her waiting to use it against me.
She wanted me alone so I shut myself off. I slunk around side doors and back staircases, my shoes and her claws echoing in the quiet. I took her outside and crossed roads without looking, leaving all the places I knew behind. I wished for disasters, meteors, earthquakes, traffic smashes. I wished to disappear, or if I couldn’t, then for everyone else to disappear.
Woodpigeons dropped like stones from the water treatment plant, and bushes drooped under the weight of their white flowers, and I knew I had to take responsibility for her because no one else would. I led her further. There was a graveyard I’d never seen before, and a party in black getting out of their cars. There was a footbridge covered in flies, with rainwater pooled around its blocked drain, and on the other side of it were trees and shade. I took my hissing animal further in, cut off from the busy road and the cycle path, through the nettles and bushes where a track was worn. I took her right to the stones at the river’s edge.
If you want to talk, I said, then talk. If you want me to listen, I’ll listen.
What can you do to the river, which is just a river, and what can the river do to you?
We looked out across the water at the fishing cormorants, and for the first time she had nothing to say.
Danielle Jorgenson-Murray | @ukenagashi | www.sparrowdove.com
Danielle was born and bred in Teesside in the North East of England, and is currently based in Frankfurt, Germany, where she can usually be found wandering urban wildernesses.