Mammals, I Think We Are Called, by Giselle Leeb

 

I have been sitting at this table forever, staring through the front window at the hare, its eyes two holes in the mask of its face: concentrated circles, deep wishes crowding behind them. The twilight perseveres, a pale blue coating. All I can do is shift my gaze towards the hill, but it feels as if it too is staring back—small animals live in those rocks, small animals arranged in neat compartments in a box, waiting for a breath of words to wake them up. That’s what the tutor said.

There were twelve of us sitting round the big table that first evening. It seems smaller now, filled as it is with imaginary fur and fuzz, hide and scales.

“Loose yourself from your moorings, forget who you are,” said the tutor.

Cliché! I rolled my eyes and looked out at the lawn, already feeling oppressed. The hare sat outside, its silhouette distorted, massive against the endless blue.

The tutor saw it too. “Hares, animals, let’s use them,” he said.

It seemed a safe enough writing topic; thank God, he wasn’t about to launch into metaphysics. Now I wish so much that he’d suggested something else: newspaper headlines, weather, even my parents. Anything else.

The tutor told us he’d found a box on the hill. He’d opened the lid and it was full of miniature, squashed animals—a lion, a bee, a mandrill, lizards. Some were dead.

“You must feed the animals,” he said. “The animals are starving.” He walked round the table and waved his hand in front of our eyes, each in turn, as if checking our aliveness. “The animals. Feed them! Help them to grow,” he said.

I raised my eyebrows at Ben, the only one I’d had a chance to chat to so far. He pulled a face and I tried not to laugh. Whatever the tutor’s methods, he could write.

The tutor arranged us round the fire. He explained that he preferred to hold half the workshops after dinner, in the long light, as he called it. It only got dark after eleven this far north and he wanted us to take advantage of the atmosphere.

‘Animal Tales’, that’s what the tutor called them as he leant a stack of white cards, neatly trimmed, on the mantelpiece. The topic had seemed spontaneous, but he’d obviously planned it all along. He stood there, half grinning, flashing the bee, the lion, the mandrill, each with a neat title, like that Bob Dylan video where he discards the lyrics once he’s sung them. Where do the words go after, I thought. I imagined them swirling out into the blue night towards the animals who lived in their box on the hill.

He paced back and forth, pointing at us. “Frog, bat, lion, cat,” he barked, throwing the cards into our laps.

We are English and it was embarrassing. We watched, mute animals waiting for a command, our black eyes reflecting the fire. By the time he added the grunts and paw movements, a sort of bestial charades, it became excruciating.

“Mandrill,” he shouted at me. “Write!”

I pictured the hare staring silently at me through the window. The hare was missing from his stupid cards. Damn his mandrill. I wanted to be the hare. I ended up writing two short pieces and hiding one.

“Read!” he said, picking on me first.

The Mandrill
The mandrill crept into the village at night. The mandrill was clever, a clever, clever monkey. The villagers wanted to kill it, of course. It broke into buildings: stores of grain, electrical outlets, the pub, where it pulled itself a pint, its enormous teeth sticking out of one side of its lopsided grin. It helped itself to goods, it enjoyed itself in the moment. It defecated on a flatscreen TV and left its pint glass on top of a digital radio in for repair. Then it flew into the night on its disgraceful way, a stolen balaclava hiding its bright features from the pursuing police as it belted under a streetlamp. On the edge of the village, it let out a high-pitched screech. Then it loped across the golf course and into the forest, deliberately pointing its blue bum in the direction of the villagers.

#
The tutor said nothing. He looked out of the window, as if searching for something better.

I glanced down at my lap. “I’ve got another,” I said, in a ridiculously small voice.

He just stared at me, so I read.

The Hare
The hare is different to the other animals. It dares to know itself, it goes deeper: it revels in the feel of its coat of fur, its sense of smell, its leaping, its hareness. It watches us from the darkness outside the window. It looks at us through its big liquid eyes. It is, above all, weary, as if it has waited a long time for something it can’t quite get to.
#

“Did you know that Scottish hares fight each other?” said Ben, interrupting me.

“Box,” said the tutor. “The females box the males. To weed out inferior mates.” He looked bored. “You,” he shouted at Emily, the quiet young woman sitting next to me.

Please don’t make me, Emily may as well have been pleading as she started to read in her soft voice.

The Cat
The poor cat was in terrible trouble. She couldn’t pay her bills. She wanted to stop. She did. But she couldn’t!

Her mother took the saucer of white powder away. “Tough love,” she said. But it didn’t help at all. “I’m sending you to stay in the countryside for a while,” she said.

#
“For God’s sake, throw it into the loch. In a sack. With a rock,” said the tutor, practically screaming.

Ha ha! Cliché, I thought, to calm my nerves, cliché, cliché, cliché.

Emily started to cry.

The tutor ignored her. “More hare!” he said.

I looked up at him as I read, daring him to say something.

The Hare
The hare’s eyes have such depths that you could sink a stone and you would not hear it reach the bottom. The hare would like to be bigger, it would like to be very big. Even though it is bigger than rabbits, it is still too small. For the hare, life is much like it was for people who lived in caves before they discovered weapons: the hare has no choice but to avoid, the hare has no hands. For now, it stares through the window at the humans. The sun is almost gone and its shadow lies long across the lawn. At least, it thinks, looking at the row of pretend animals seated at the long table, at least there are no guns.

#
“Cook me, eat me, I’m only small,” said the tutor, laughing at me, mocking me.

Bastard.

Ben sputtered and then everybody laughed.

I supposed it was just about possible that the tutor had meant it as a joke. And even if it was at my expense, at least it broke the tension.

“Drink, anyone?” asked Ben.

Thankfully, the tutor went to sit at the table, staring silently through the window. We stayed in front of the fire, glugging wine and chatting about where we lived, how long we’d been writing for, that sort of thing.

Needless to say, we ignored the tutor. Eventually, his head sank onto his arms and his eyes closed. He let out a little snore now and then. He’s a flake, a phony, I thought, not scary at all.

The tutor sat up, startled, and looked out of the window again.

There was nothing there.

Nice try. It was obvious to me that he had not been asleep. Watching us through the skin of his eyes, I thought, from behind his animal teeth.

He went to bed shortly after, grunting in our direction, his footsteps going reassuringly upstairs.

Ben laughed. “Weird old sod,” he said, though the tutor was a lot younger than him, and he refilled our glasses.

I smiled in relief at Emily and she smiled shyly back.

“Oh, I know, let’s be the animals in the hill,” said Ben. We went round the circle, grunting and squeaking, getting up and imitating the tutor’s animal charades. We did Hitler as a bat—we agreed the tutor was the bat—and the bee pretended to fly out the window and upstairs to sting him. The bee farted and we collapsed. Above our laughter came a scraping noise from upstairs.

“Bloody hell,” slurred Ben, and we crept exaggeratedly to bed, still giggling.

I was grateful that I’d been assigned to the cottage outside of the main house. I held onto Emily’s arm as we stumbled along the path.

“Only two more days,” she said. She sighed and looked up at the stars as if in silent prayer.

The next morning, breakfast was a quiet affair. No one referred to the evening before; we couldn’t quite believe it, so we chose to ignore it. Being hungover didn’t help. Even the tutor seemed subdued. This worried me more than if he’d been his usual animal self: I suspected him of plotting some odd exercise for later. I noticed how thin he was, ribs stretching through his T-shirt. I could easily overpower him if we had to fight. Don’t be stupid, I told myself.

The tutor was a little on the boring side in his choice of morning exercises. From the savage bear to the gentle deer, I thought. But I sat and brooded, waiting for him to start flapping or crowing or hooting. His hair was thick and dark, his hazel eyes flecked with yellow, his lips plump and girly. Almost handsome. But something was slightly off with the angles of his cheekbones. Still, good-looking enough, if he’d acted more sanely.

I sat and waited for fur and feathers to fly, but all he said at the end of the session was, “More writing, this evening.”

After lunch, Ben suggested that we walk to the hill. We felt obliged to invite the tutor, but he frowned and declined, saying he had to prepare for the workshop. Perhaps he regretted the night before. We all rushed for our coats.

When we got to the crest of the hill, there was, of course, no box of animals or any sign of the earth having been dug up—the grass was long and smooth. We sniggered, making pretend grunts and flicks of the tail. And yet we still did not talk overtly about the tutor. So much easier to think he had just been having a bad day.

“I fart like a bee,” said Ben, making a buzzing noise, and we pissed ourselves laughing like schoolkids.

As we neared the house, I ran ahead and hid behind a tree, then lumbered out, screeching. We were rolling about when we noticed the tutor standing at the back door, watching us.

He was wearing a cap. “Hello,” he hollered into our sudden silence, like a local farmer meeting us for the first time. “Nice weather we’re having.”

We began drinking in the late afternoon and continued through dinner. The tutor drank and chatted with us, and it felt as if the night before hadn’t happened at all. He was almost friendly as we moved to the fire, still sipping wine. After a few glasses, he slumped down in his chair, beaming at us like a contented farmer with his dogs.

To be fair, the tutor didn’t start it, he didn’t mention animals at all. The topic was ‘early experiences’, but it may as well have been ‘Animal Tales, Part Two’. The tutor sat quietly. “Can you read first, please, Ben,” he said.

The Lion
The lion roared from his metal cage in the shopping centre. He had been ‘engaged’ to perform to the Saturday morning crowds. In ’94 such things were still legal, just about. He refused to call it ‘the mall’. He abhorred Americanization—no capital A for him! Only one animal wins in the end: man.

#
“Make it escape, make it eat something, fuck something,” said the tutor, his cheeks reddening.

Ben glared at him, but he took no notice.

Round the table we went—fur, scales, bristles and teeth.

The bee buzzed furiously. It too was unsettled, angry that death was the price of its sting. Someone had swiped it and it stung their palm, a tragic consequence of its uncontrolled anger. Now it was going to die. “Why the fuck wasn’t I born a wasp?” it cried.

“Make it beg,” suggested the tutor, with an odd leer. “Make it do something an ordinary bee would not.”

It was shy Emily, voice trembling, who brought up the hare.

The Cat
The cat sat outside with the hare. She licked the last of the powder off her paws. She longed to be inside the house, drinking with the humans. The cat had no memory. Not even for chasing hares.

The hare knew this. Besides, he was much bigger than this particular cat. The hare sniggered.
#

Jesus, I thought, can’t we have just one peaceful bloody animal?

The tutor didn’t even look at Emily. He turned to me, as if he knew I’d write about it, as if he’d been saving it for last, a treat. “You read,” he said, in a suspiciously soft voice.

By this time, Emily was weeping quietly and I felt like it was my duty to take the mood up a notch or two.

The Hare
For now it is enough to feel the blue and long twilight brush upon its back. That is all it needs for now. Funny, who knew peace was so easy.
#

The tutor’s face bunched into a sneer of disbelief and I felt a stab of genuine fear. Fuck that. I continued with the real text, I couldn’t help myself.

The Hare
The hare has gleaming dark eyes that suck you in, shiny pools with bottomless depths. It has strong back legs and it is silent, except for its odd little scream when it ruts. It is big sometimes, huge. The hare is an animal, a mammal. Its life seems random, but it likes to choreograph things: it has its little patch, its habits, it does not hop spontaneously. It is not happy with its lot and it is angry with people, with their fur coats and capes. The hare has no hands and this restricts it; it cannot fight back. The hare would like to know a lot of things, the things that hands and travel would allow.
#

I swallowed a large mouthful of wine and stared at the deliberately impassive faces of the group, animals sending me back my own reflection.

“Breeding like rabbits! The rabbits will take over the world,” said Ben.

“Hares,” I said.

“Not much difference,” he said, laughing.

“Let’s play ‘hunt the hare’!” said the tutor.

Panic flashed across our faces.

“Don’t worry, we’ll just pretend,” he said.

It was Ben who persuaded us. “It’s only a game,” he said. “Anyway, a hare can outrun any of you.”

Anything was better than sitting with the tutor. We held ridiculous torches in our hands, kindling from the fire, and we went into the night to flush out the hare, Ben and the tutor small silhouettes ahead of us. I remembered how big the hare had looked in the twilight. I remembered I’d wanted to be the hare.

It would escape.

I almost threw my stick into the bushes—it was a silly game. Silly, silly, I chanted in my head. And embarrassing! I was glad it was too dark to see the others’ expressions.

“Look! Look!” someone screamed.

A fully-grown lion raced past us, chasing the hare across the lawn.

I wouldn’t have believed it, except that after we got inside and bolted the door, we ran to the window and there it was, distinct against the navy blue sky, the hare watching it from some distance away on the path to the hill. It moved closer to the glass and stared through at us, threw back its head—whether in pain or rage, I couldn’t tell—and then sped off after the hare.

I hardly remember how I got to bed that night. In my dreams, the bee, the lion, and the cat joined a long line of animals filing from the lawn, back towards their little box on the hill; until the twilight finally lifted and the front window filled with bright sun.

#

The morning workshop passes mostly in silence, no mention of the night before. The tutor tells us to write a bio. Nobody has to read.

The tutor breaks the silence at the very end. He lifts up his head and says, “I used to have wings. I used to have berries and feed squirrels.”

Nobody even glances up.

“Just getting you in the mood for this evening’s session,” he says, deadpan.

The silence continues at dinner. I’d vowed not to drink, but I need two thirds of a bottle just to get through the meal.

As soon as we sit down in front of the fire, the tutor says, “Over to you, hare,” and he gives me a challenging, strangely jealous look.

I take a slug and meet his gaze.

The Hare
My eyes will engulf you. My teeth, yes my teeth eat grass, but my eyes make up for it. You think I am scared sitting out here. And it’s true, I have no hands. Sure, if I knew you had a gun. But you don’t, and I’m far too fast for your knife.
#

“Yeah, right,” says the tutor, smiling as if he knows something we don’t.

I feel so angry, so openly hostile, I can’t look at him. “All I have to do is run,” I continue, “run to the very top of that far hill, then sit and watch you approaching up the steep path, and when you are very near, when you cannot help yourself and you look up, then I will turn my eyes on you, then you will see me. My eyes will be enormous. They will suck you in.”

I finally look up at the tutor. He is staring out the window, his expression inscrutable. The hare’s eyes stare back at him—as if burning through from behind their mask of skin: concentrated circles, their secrets crowding behind, their deepest wishes.

The tutor stares at the hare for a long time. Then he loses it and runs outside onto the lawn.

This can’t be real, a trick of the light. Except the tutor is out on the lawn, boxing the hare with his bare hands.

We line up at the window. We stand silent. All words have been wrung from us. Somehow, the hare is as big as the tutor. It has strong back legs. It is kicking him towards the hill, towards oblivion.

We stand, pleased and guilty, until it gets so dark that we can’t see a thing.

But in the end, it’s not real. The tutor comes in through the back door. “First catch your hare,” he says merrily, holding up a normal-sized dead hare by its ears.

For a moment, I feel pure hate towards him.

He tells us he killed it before we got there, three days ago, and hung it up in the shed to drain its blood. We don’t quite believe him.

The tutor is in the kitchen all of the next morning. “A fur dinner, a flesh dinner,” he sings as he joints the hare, prepares the enormous jug. His uncharacteristic heartiness is more unsettling than his bizarre moods and I look forward to leaving after an early lunch.

When he brings the hare through, I avoid his gaze. But I sit down in my place. To some, I’m sure it must smell delicious.

“The body of dear small hare,” says the tutor, dishing up.

He is elated, like someone whose wishes have all come true. He places a steaming plate in front of each of us. “Let us pray,” he says. He bows his head and he kneads the edge of the table for a long time, as if only now discovering the joy of hands. Then he intones, without a hint of his usual sarcasm:

“Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.”

A tear runs down the tutor’s face as he slowly lifts the spoon to his mouth.

Hypocrite.

The tough meat sticks in my mouth like a betrayal.

The tutor talks enthusiastically throughout the meal, his speech odd, halting, phrases articulate but roughly joined together.

I look into the concentrated circles of his big liquid eyes and I have the feeling he is somebody completely new. He stares back. He smiles. To my surprise, I feel a genuine warmth between us.

He points at himself, then at me. “Mammals, I think we are called,” he says in wonder, enunciating each word as if it is a jewel plucked from a rich store of newly discovered memory.

I still dream of the long line of animals. I am sitting at the table and they stop, one by one, and gaze at me through the front window, their eyes deep holes, wishing for something more, before they turn and file back to the hill.


Giselle Leeb’s stories have appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Mslexia, Litro, Ambit, Bare Fiction, and other publications. She recently won the third prize for short fiction in the inaugural Aurora competition and has been placed in several other competitions.  She grew up in South Africa and lives in Nottingham,
UK, where she works as a web developer when she is not writing.
http://giselleleeb.cielo.net, @gisellekleeb

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