A Family Menagerie
(first published in Cadenza 4, 2001)
My Dad’s a bull. You only have to look at him to know that. He stands in the doorway, watching, not saying a word, and his shoulders fill the space between the door and the jamb. His left hand adjusts the weight of his testicles, thick muscles in his arms flexing. The right is still on the door handle, but as he glares round the kitchen, those fingers begin to curl into a fist. My Dad doesn’t need a red rag. A flicker of an eyelid will do.
“Daddy!” Cindy cries, and not waiting for permission to get down, rushes up to him, rubbing herself against his legs, purring like a cat. Apparently the vision of a bull pawing at the ground fills her with delight.
It works though. His thick fingers uncoil, and stroke her hair, then he lifts her high, plants a sloppy kiss on her cheek while she purrs some more, and plonks her back on her chair. She peeks at me sideways and raises an eyebrow, then returns to her spaghetti.
“Hi, Dad,” I say cautiously. His left hand lands on my head and fingers knead my skull as he leans across to nuzzle Mum. She likes this, so he lets me go, and I can finish up before he yells at me for wasting food.
When I told Mum I saw Dad as a bull, she laughed: “Not sure I like the implication I’m a cow.” That would definitely give the wrong impression of my mother. Cows are stupid creatures that lie around among the buttercups and chew regurgitated grass. Mum says she could quite take to lying around all day, but she’d prefer to eat chocolates. I suggest blueberries and honey. She says they’re better than grass and wild flowers, but she’ll stick to a human diet, if it’s all the same with me. So I don’t tell her that I can see she is really a bear. A big brown bear. On the outside, she looks gently and cuddly, but inside she’s tough, and it doesn’t do to cross her.
Real wild bears can be dangerous, especially to protect their young. Did you know that the first stone carving of mother love ever created was of a female bear with its cub? It was made 4,500 BC. My Grandad showed me in a book.
It was Grandad started me on this menagerie idea. On his desk, he had an owl Grandma had given to him as his totem, and she was right: he was a wise old bird with spectacles, sitting on a branch, watching and listening and saying nothing. He had so many books, he probably knew everything. I was sad when he died.
Anyway, he got me thinking. What animal was I? Grandma said she was a tortoise: slow and steady, carries her house on her back, gets where she wants in the end. I couldn’t see that, but she said it was true for her. It was up to me to find what was true for me.
Cindy is only six. She says she’s a rabbit, because she gets so scared, and she is soft and furry. But I don’t think she’s old enough to tell yet. She’s too clever to be a rabbit, and she’s not timid, just cautious. If she were older, she might be wily like a fox. Anyway, I see her as a small dark cat, with nine lives and lots of curiosity. I just hope she’s lucky too, as black cats are supposed to be.
I haven’t said what I am yet. Much more difficult. Sometimes I just want to be a grown-up human, a Spanish man, so that I can stab the bull in a fair fight and cut off his tail. It’s no good saying that a boy shouldn’t be harbouring dreams of killing his father. You don’t know my Dad. If my Mum really is that fierce brown bear, I wish she would get on with protecting her young, before it is too late.
I keep wondering what a bull is afraid of. Elephants are afraid of mice, so it doesn’t have to be another huge lumbering creature. This is just as well, as I’m shorter than most of the class, and puny, if my Dad is to be believed. I could be something quick and lithe with sharp teeth, like a weasel maybe. Except they have a really bad reputation. Or a ferret. I’d rather be a bird, though.
There are blue tits nesting in a hole under our eaves, and I’ve been watching the parents flying to and fro with worms and insects in their beaks. It’s hard work. They swoop gracefully, swirling the air into waves, and whistle to each other from the corner of the roof, keeping a watch for predators. I hope I manage to see the chicks as they learn to fly.
Cindy’s curiosity gets her into trouble again after supper. She wants to see one of the photo albums of when she was a baby, and climbs on the back of an armchair to get at the shelf.
Dad can smell a misdemeanour two rooms away. In he roars, lifts her in the air by the leg not yet up on the back of the chair, tosses her on his horns and storms upstairs. She’s still dangling upside down, her mouth open in a scream but no noise coming out.
A bull never stops to ask. We both know you’re not supposed to climb on the back of an armchair. But how else can we get at the books?
Mum emerges from the kitchen just in time to see Cindy’s head bounce off the banisters, and I can see her hackles rise. She appears to grow taller and broader as I watch, her hair seems to balloon, her shoulders take on power. Slowly, but with firm, solid steps, she climbs the stairs. At last.
I wish I had wings. I could perch on a lampshade. I want to watch a bull and a bear confront each other.
So what do I expect? I suppose I want her to gouge his eyes out, or claw him till he’s a screaming mess of gore. What happens? Stand-off. That’s all.
She tells him he shouldn’t be so violent with a child, he says he’s sorry, but children must learn to do what they are told, then they both come downstairs again as though nothing has happened.
The eerie thing is that Cindy makes no sound.
I go into her room. She’s curled up in a ball, staring at the wall. I can see she is wild with fury, and I tell her so.
“Daddy only gets angry when I’m naughty,” she says, and her voice sounds like a messed-up painting, all the colours gone to sludge. “I do try to be good.”
“You don’t fool me,” I tell her. She’s a small, wild creature caught in a trap. She says, “Don’t do anything. You’ll only make it worse.” So I creep downstairs and slip outside again. The blue tits are still nurturing their chicks.
I climb into the apple tree, and try to think. The only useful thing I know about bulls is that they have one vulnerable spot – their nose. You can lead a bull anywhere if he has a ring in his nose. Which is exactly what my Mum should be doing. She gave him a wedding ring. And she is the only person he really cares about. But she doesn’t see it. I just can’t imagine how I could get a ring through my Dad’s nose.
The stray cat is back, looking more wretched than ever. Its long black and white coat is matted and filthy, and as it climbs on my knee, I realize it is sodden with water. Pond water. I pull a piece of waterweed from between its legs. Some cruel joker must have thrown her in. I cuddle the poor little creature, and realize it is frighteningly thin. It needs food. Urgently.
I’m not such a fool I would introduce a stray to my Dad. I peep through the kitchen window to make sure there are no beasts about, then fetch a tin of sardines and a saucer. Fortunately sardine tins are easy to open. The cat goes frantic, weaving round and round my legs as the smell wafts towards her. We hide behind the dustbins. When she’s scoffed the lot, I give her water from the outside tap, and then I dry her with my swimming towel which luckily I’ve left in my saddlebag. Her fur is long and silky where it’s not muddy. She starts to clean herself. I call her Puss. She purrs.
When I have to go in, Puss wants to come with me. Not a good idea. She’s waiting by the back door next day, which is Saturday. When Mum carries a load of washing out to the line, she curls round Mum’s legs, purring loudly as a motor mower. Mum smiles. I tell her how someone must have thrown Puss in the pond, and she frowns, agrees that the poor animal needs a home. She doesn’t even mind about the sardines. She sends me to buy a bag of cat crunchies so that we can feed Puss properly, as she puts it, “while we consider what’s best to do”. But I don’t allow myself to hope.
Which is just as well. Dad swaggers in after his squash game, and the sight of a small bedraggled stray sitting on the floor in his kitchen is clearly the equivalent of six men on horseback goading him with picks. He paws the ground, and roars as though one of the goads got him in the vitals, “What is that filthy animal doing in this house?”
Mum turns round from the stove and raises her eyebrows. “No need to shout. I said the cat could stay. Joe rescued it from being drowned in the pond.”
Unfortunately, that directs Dad’s attention to me. As I’m standing closest to Puss, it also means him coming near enough to grab her, and I’d never trust a bull not to gore a stray.
“What do you mean by..?” he starts as he charges over. Then he stops. His eyes are streaming. His face seems to puff up as I watch and the colour drains away until his skin is like a blank newspaper with only his eyebrows for print. He starts to choke. Mum screams, “Get that cat out of here. Fast.” So I scoop her up and run.
So that’s why Dad doesn’t let us have pets. It must be pretty bad as he’s only just walked in the house. I peep through the window. I hope he’s not dead.
He’s lying on the kitchen floor, his feet up on a chair. Mum is tucking a blanket round him. Not over his face. She moves and I can see his face is a nicer colour than it was. He’s talking, so he must be breathing. Cindy curls up on the floor with him. Then they both laugh. It’s going to be all right.
Holding Puss tight, I think things over carefully. A cat is a bit dangerous, but maybe I could try other furry animals, like a hamster or a rabbit. School always wants someone to take class pets home over the weekend. It might take a bit of experimenting.
I hug Puss, singing silent songs to myself in tune with her purring. Now I know how to make my Dad behave. Training an animal is very simple. Grandpa showed me the recipe in one of his books. All you have to do is reward the animal for good behaviour and punish him for bad.
When he’s nice, like a Dad ought to be, I’ll try to please him. And every time he turns into a mad bull, he’ll find his allergy kicks in. He won’t like that at all.