Labors of Love

Recently I visited my sister Jill in coastal Alabama. I had not seen her well-ordered home in several years, and on that first morning, while everyone else was still sleeping, I padded through the kitchen, living area, office and screen room, studying the furniture and artwork, smiling over my sister’s choices. I was struck by the quiet beauty of her home, how perfectly it reflects her personality.

The same can be said about my other sisters. Joan lives in rural Georgia. Her yard is filled with flowers, fruit trees and vines, and an endless procession of herbs and vegetables, the bounty of which she brings into her house. Her counters, lavish with gifts from the garden, demonstrate her reverence for Mother Earth and the respect she gives all living things regardless of their performance. Jane wound up in a small Texas town. She also grows food in abundance, which she cans or freezes or gives away, but even larger than her garden is her wide-open heart. Her home is a refuge for strays cats, abandoned dogs and people who drop by for her wit and warmth. If it’s acceptance you want, you will find it at Jane’s.

I suppose my own property furnishes clues about me. I live in a tri-level home in the suburbs, a relatively stable environment with a tidy yard. I too have a vegetable garden—well, two raised beds—and shrubs and flowers that please me. Less forgiving than Joan, I cannot abide ruin and will readily replace the underachievers. As for my furnishings, they are on the spare side, a preference echoed in the sort of writing I favor: lean, direct, distilled.

While our habitats may differ, they all require one common element: care. We put effort into the spaces we live in.

Many animals take pains in this regard, and on a far grander scale, though what their homes say about them is anyone’s guess. Why, for instance, would a ten-inch wood rat build a stick nest more than three meters high? Even more perplexing is the décor. Again and again this creature will venture into attics or sheds or car engines, seizing whatever shiny treasures catch its eye. Also called a pack rat or trade rat, it will frequently drop the first item in favor of another. These objects offer no discernible benefit, and who can say why the rat insists on them, or why it needs such a massive home.

Male bowerbirds spend up to ten months a year constructing their elaborate nests. The type of bower depends on the species, but all are impressive, involving hundreds of carefully placed sticks. Following the construction phase, some of the males will use their beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. After this, the birds begin to decorate, gathering whatever strikes their fancy: moss, berries, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Manmade items are also employed: batteries, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their riches and adding more. These sylvan palaces are designed to attract mates, but many never do, and you have to marvel at the undaunted losers whose labor and artistry go unappreciated, year after year.

And then there’s the octopus, one of earth’s most elusive and mysterious creatures. The octopus is a nocturnal animal and spends much of its life tucked inside a den. The den itself is small and not occupied for long, but for reasons no one can fathom the octopus is compelled to adorn its temporary front yard with a bewildering assortment of items, everything from lustrous shells to old boots—basically whatever has fallen to the sea floor. When a diver spots these odd collections, he knows there’s an octopus nearby. Considering how secretive these creatures are, their penchant for embellishment makes no sense.

Depending on your circumstances, you can live your whole life without much effort. Effort, like knowledge, is an option. If you have special skills or talents, no one will force you to use them. You can consider your home little more than a shelter and forgo any enhancements. We all die empty-handed anyway.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I think labor is always rewarded. Effort is a gift we offer ourselves. Every picture we hang, every seed we plant, every shelf we dust, is an expression of love, and the more we attend to, the richer our lives become. You can live without love of course, many people do. That’s the biggest mystery of all.
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Photo credit: 0ystercatcher / Source / CC BY-NC-SA

“Manatee Gardens” on LgbtSr.org

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OUTER VOICES INNER LIVES, edited my Mark McNease and Stephen Dolainski, is a captivating anthology of short stories by LGBT writers over fifty. My story “Manatee Gardens” is included in this collection and appears today in lgbtSr.org.

Many thanks to Mark for the good work he does for our community as well as his continuing support of my work. For those interested in first-rate mysteries and short fiction, please check out Mark’s Amazon page.

“Greyhound” in The Bosque Beast

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My deep thanks to editor Keiko Ohnuma for publishing this excerpt of my story “Greyhound” in the latest edition of The Bosque Beast, a journal dedicated to bringing awareness to the plight of animals. “Greyhound” is included in the story collection SURVIVAL SKILLS, published by Ashland Creek Press. I am proud to have my work recognized by people who care so deeply about animals and the beautiful, fragile world we live in.

 

Little Lost Dog

A few days ago my partner, who is a crane operator, spotted a scrawny brown Chihuahua in a remote stretch of swampland. There were no houses in the area, just a handful of rickety fishing shacks and rotting piers. The dog was hunkered on the edge of the dirt road, and my partner, who was on her way to a lift, backed up her rig and stopped. She got out of the cab and began to approach the dog, who had flattened its body to the ground. The truck engine was still running as my partner, getting closer, offered soft words of reassurance. Caught between terror and hope, the dog shivered violently but stayed in place. Allowing it to sniff her hand, my partner then scooped the stricken animal into her arms and carried it back to the truck.

Because we have two cats and no dogs, our friends think of us as “cat people.” The truth is, I like dogs as well as cats, and I have the same admiration for hedgehogs, blackbirds and blue whales. The main advantage of cats is their autonomy. While both our cats are fairly affectionate, they do not require a constant stream of attention and approval, and my heart doesn’t break when I look at them—well maybe sometimes, when they were kittens, for instance, and vulnerable to everything, or when I take them to the vet and they try to hide in my arms. Thank god, by the way, for veterinarians and their assistants, for all those who are strong enough and good enough to spend their days in the service of animals. My respect is boundless.

When you look at this dog, even the briefest glance, her tail wags hard and her ears lift; if you speak to her, her body shudders in a paroxysm of joy and she dashes over, head lowered. Each time you lift your arm to pet her she flinches and drops her pelvis to the floor. Her hips splay so easily that I’m not sure if it’s a genetic trait or if chronic dread has reshaped her. When your palm settles on the small dome of her head, her body stills and her eyes glaze with gratitude. Running your hand down her back and sides, you can feel every vertebra and rib.

I had her scanned at a pet shelter and was not surprised to learn that she is not chipped. I also spoke with a clerk at the Solano Animal Shelter who informed me that no one has filed a report on her. I provided a description of the dog and my contact information, then regretted it soon after. I assume she was dumped in that swamp or ran away on her own.

Between the cats and my partner’s allergy to dog saliva, keeping this dog was not feasible. We put her photo on Facebook, and just like that she was adopted by a friend. Despite the fact that we refrained from naming her and tried to keep a barrier of resistance around our hearts, her departure is wrenching. The house feels cavernous, useless.

There were the cats, the allergies, but something else too: the agony of looking at an animal who is locked in fear, who wants nothing more than your mercy. Our friend is smart and kind and I know she will try her best to make up for whatever happened to the dog before my partner found her. This little brown Chihuahua will get all the love our friend can give, which might, over time, be enough. I’m looking forward to finding out.

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