Joyland

Toronto |

Animals in the Garden

by Rebecca Fisseha

edited by Kathryn Mockler

The house where I live is the last one on our street. There is a front garden of flowering plants surrounding the lawn, the house with the rooms on one floor and long living room windows that open to the veranda, and a back garden with a clothesline, coffee trees, and a ditch. On one side of the house, a passageway joins the front and back gardens. On the other side, a driveway connects the gates and the car shed. The gates are between a red hibiscus bush and a cinderblock wall that separates us from the main road. All animals that pass through our gates are slaughtered and eaten. They live one night, two at most.

My mother buys the chickens. She brings them in the trunk of our white car. She leaves it open for the cook, who lifts them upside down by their feet. They are quiet and easy from the long dark ride. 

In the back garden, I watch as my father presses the chicken’s head back with his thumb, holds its body tight, and touches a blade to its throat so gently that it gets angry too late, barely spraying before the cook traps it under a plastic tub. It thumps headless against the slick red. A scalding bath waits in another tub, where the chicken will lose its feathers. Sometimes, it escapes and chases its head all over the yard, founting blood. Some of it, brown now, still sticks in the grooves of the cinderblock.

But the sheep fight. Once a month, my father phones the sheep trader. Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, the trader and his butcher lead the whole clattering blue-marked pack to our house. My father opens the small door in the gate and meets them outside. I stand beside him, picking at the cloth of his trousers. After a respectable haggle, and slapping and squeezing of the animals to check how much is hair or fat, my father permits a price. Then, I am told to go inside. I wait for the butcher to pick up one of the front legs of the chosen sheep to escort it past the gate. The trader and my father walk in the direction of the main road, talking quietly, bursting into men’s laughter. I have to wait behind the sheep while it fights the butcher, who tries to pull it past the gate. It scrapes its hooves on the gravel, bangs its shins against the raised iron ledge. It takes so long that the butcher picks up both of its front legs and dances it in the direction of the back garden. Or, I press my hands into the animal’s back, hard, until I can feel the fatty muscles under the hair, and force it. It shits little balls like burned coffee beans. 

At the edge of a ditch in the back garden, the butcher kneels on the sheep, cups its mouth shut, and zigzags a smile-shaped knife close under its jaw. He then rests back on his ankles, knife-hand at rest, as the sheep’s liquid life, its bug eyes looking everywhere for it, flows out. The butcher hangs the body by its back legs on the clothesline pole to peel its skin and cut it to pieces that he collects on a tray for the cook. When he is finished, he takes its big balloon stomach to the base of the coffee trees and tears it open with the tip of his blade, letting fall on the soil a heap of mashed grass.

With the bloody, baggy skin tossed over his shoulder, holding the hooves bunched like sticks, the butcher walks through the passageway. He leaves behind a smell like cut grass, but wet and metallic, in the front garden. If the sky is gray and it is crying season, my eaters will be in the front garden. They hate the butcher’s smell. But they still stay to eat the food I will make for them from the petals that float down from my mother’s flowering plants. I never eat any myself. My mother and father don’t either. But they know my restaurant is so busy in the crying season. I have so many eaters.

Flowers also grow on the creeping vine that is tangled in the railing of the veranda. They are small and white. Each morning, on her way to the car, my mother cuts one and crushes it under her ears. Even at the end of the day, she still smells like warm honey as if the flower is there. She has never had perfume in a bottle because she hates that. But this morning at breakfast, she suddenly brought one out from her bag, a full one, and threw it across the table at my father. He put up his hand so it bounced, fell to the table, rolled, and fell to the floor. The top came off and I remembered the smell because that was what I had been asking my father about a short time ago, when I said to him, “What’s that?”

He answered, “It’s my collar.” Because that is what it looked like I was pointing at.

“No. That,” I asked again, pointing there again. My father only ever smelled like fresh clothes or sweat, but never that. It was new and strange, like flowers but sharper.

My mother must have been listening to us that day, because at breakfast today, after she threw the bottle at my father, while he was staring at her thinking how to respond, she turned to me and said, “That, my sweet, is called Paris.”

My father pushed off from the table so hard that the chair fell back. He walked out through the nearest opening, which was not the door but the tall windows that had been left open to let in the warm morning yellow. Beyond the veranda, they showed the wind combing the too-tall grass same as my mother parting a way through my hair, leaning in to read my thoughts.

She went and stood at the open windows, and stayed there long after my father had passed through that small door in the gates, slamming it behind him.

“The grass is too tall,” she said, finally. “Yes. It’s too tall. Who likes grass?” She turned around. “Who likes grass, my sweet?”

I thought of that sheep stomach grass. “Sheep!” I squeaked, proud of myself. She got on all fours and crawled, baa-ing like a sheep. I laughed. Like that, she reached the phone. She called a number, then started talking to my father’s trader. He was surprised it was her, I could tell by the tightness of her voice and how much she had to repeat that the grass is too tall and his help is needed. From him, she wrote down more numbers, and picked up the phone more times, telling all the traders to come to our house, they will know it by the carpet of gravel outside the gates.

They brought with them many animals, not just sheep. Cows, bulls, goats, mules, donkeys. All were led through the gates, which my mother ordered wide open, and into her garden, just to eat the too-tall grass. They scattered out all over the lawn, never knowing that death should have been their normal end. Or, if they knew, smug about leaving alive.

All the traders left, except one, who stayed to stop the animals from eating the flowers. It was not crying season yet, so my mother’s flowers were still strong on the stems of the plants. She got in the car and drove backwards on the driveway, forward on the chatty gravel, and out of sight to the main road.

If any of her plants turned up headless outside crying season, it was I who would have to answer. The trader thwacked his whip in the air whenever the animals got too close to the flowers, and that would make them change direction. But still I decided I needed to make myself his helper.

I stood on the veranda, leaning on the railing, partly hidden by the creeping vine heavy with my mother’s white flowers. I scanned the animals chomping the lawn. Left to right, right to left, left to—a donkey.

It was not with the others. It was hiding between the side of the open gate and the hibiscus bush. It had a big middle, like it had swallowed two balloons, one for each side. It was Pinocchio gray. Watching me with both eyes, it stretched its wet lips sideways, parted them, and bit off a whole red hibiscus flower. I saw it. It saw. It saw I saw it. My jaw fell open in a dumb gasp, taking in the syrupy fume of the white flowers on the vine. I backed up against the tall, cool windows.

We stared—me, donkey—from below our long, black lashes. Still. Knees locked. Bellies pumping. Pigtails, pointy ears, flicking like antennae. Under, its four hooves pressed the gravel hard. It scraped one back, then the other, as it ate, one by one, all the red from that bush. 

The grass of the front garden became shorter, but not trim like when the cutter-man spends the day on it. He would squat and scoop it away with his sickle one fistful at a time, starting at one corner and backtracking from one side to the other like a spider. Day’s end would find him at the farthest corner, turning his back on all that he had done, to shorten the last corner. When he finished, the lawn would look bigger, a deeper green, and the air would be lovely with a stern freshness.

The air just smelled trampled. The animals stood bobbing their heads and blinking at their noses, nibbling at grass now too short for their teeth, their lips just grazing the blooms that clung fearfully to their stems. Moments before the traders came back, the donkey turned toward the street, showing me its behind, as if it had stood there waiting for them all this time. I stayed stuck in place, my back cold, my front hot, my mind swirling with how there is no one to tell. 

When alone, I moved away from the tall windows and slid off the veranda. If I tell the story that only one animal ate the hibiscus from that one bush, I would not be believed, so I had to make all the flowers disappear. I held up the bottom of my dress and made a bowl to collect the flowers. I didn’t mouth them like a donkey, I plucked all the petals by hand until there were none left.

My dress bowl filled. I sprinkled a few on the ground, softly like I had seen them do themselves at the start of crying season. I waited. I moved a little bit and sprinkled more. But my eaters were not fooled. They did not come. I stuffed a fistful of petals in my mouth, my only other hiding place. Without meaning to, I chewed a little. Their taste shocked my tongue. It shied back against the back of my throat. But I chewed more and forced it to taste more of what made no sense. I filled myself with petals until they were all past my tongue and down my throat and slipping into my stomach. They were all the same. Each sweet smelling flower tasted horribly bitter.

Breathing through my nose, trying not to swallow any more than I already had, I walked back to the house. I passed the white flowers, not daring to try them. I couldn’t bear to find out if they also lied.

In the bathroom, I lifted the toilet cover, then the seat ring. I opened my mouth and released the petals. They dragged out in a floral curtain of liquid. It spread on the clear water as the rest continued to slide out of me. Only the questions stayed in, and with them came pains in my stomach that made me sit on the toilet so long that when my mother returned with my father, she found me there in the stink.

She asked me what was the matter. 

“Why can flowers that smell so sweet taste so bitter?” I said.

She crouched on the tile beside me and rubbed small circles into my back. “It’s those dirty men brought their country sickness,” she said, meaning the traders, who she had told to come with their animals.

Kneeling behind me, she rolled up her silk blouse sleeve, pushed her gold bracelets against the fleshy part of her arm, and swam her fingers through my diarrhea, looking for another reason maybe. Out of the soupy brown, she strained out dripping pieces of petals that looked like colorful bits of skin. 

With her other hand, my mother pushed up to her feet and left the bathroom, calling for my father. After some time, when they didn’t come in together, I bunched up my dress at my waist and, panties dragging at my ankles, hobbled to the door of the bathroom. They weren’t in the bedroom. I went to the door of the bedroom. They weren’t in the hallway. I went to the end of the hallway, where the phone sits. They weren’t in the guest room or the kitchen opposite. I went to the living room. They were in the front garden. I climbed on a sofa to look out of the tall windows. 

My mother was yelling, though I couldn’t hear her voice. She zig-zagged from plant to plant, lifting each headless stem with her clean hand, until she was at the far end of the lawn. My father’s face had relaxed as the space between them increased. Then she walked back at him. He began to glance with worry at my mother’s hand, plastered with dead petals, which she was waving about. The way she was an agitated dog, and he a mellow tortoise, reminded me of how they got out of the car coming home most days.

I put myself back in the bathroom exactly as my mother had left me. In the bedroom, my father unbuttoned his shirt. My mother lifted me off the toilet by my armpits and reached over my back to wipe me, crushing my face into her doughy belly.

I whispered into the warm darkness. “And if flowers can smell so sweet, but taste so bitter, why do my eaters always come back every crying season?”

“She did it on purpose.”

“To what purpose?” my father said. 

She used the same sheet of toilet paper without folding it to a clean side. I felt some of the cool dry smear go back in me. She pulled up my panties butt side first, pulled my dress down over it, and led me to the sink. 

I saw my father shirtless, checking the soles of his shoes and the hem of his slacks for dirt. “It is quite clear that those animals ate them. That’s what you yourself thought and said at first,” he said. 

My mother pinned me between her and the sink. She turned the hot water tap as far as it would go, and put our hands under the flow and held us there. The water began to burn. Though her hands covered mine completely, I could still feel the heat. She did nothing.

I tried to wriggle my hands out or back away from the sink. My eyes blurred. “Mama,” I pleaded. I looked up at her. But she was staring at the mirror with the steam creeping up on it from the sides, at my father in the bedroom. “Mama,” I said, louder. I started to cry.

Calmly, my father walked in and turned the cold water all the way. My mother opened her hands. The new flow felt soft and smooth, like a kiss. When my father reached into the water, she gave him my right hand and started soaping just my left hand. 

“Since when do you have such interest in flowers?” my father said. He pressed from my palm out to the tip of each finger, like he was forcing toothpaste from an old tube. My mother bunched my hand and scrubbed it, like her dusty stockings. I felt strange to be pulled like that.

“I’ve always cared.”

“I never saw any in a vase.”

“Nor I any in your hands.”

“Aren’t there plenty in the garden‑

“Weren’t.”

“For as long as we have lived here?” 

“Those, I liked where they were. Even this little one knew.”

“Must be why you welcomed so many creatures in there.”

At last, with real struggle, I put my hands and theirs together. We were so tangled that if I closed my eyes I wouldn’t have been able to tell us apart.

“They always come back…” I said, and stopped, even though they were listening for me to finish.

“Who?” my father said, after they had waited a bit.

“My eaters.”

“Not this time of year,” my mother said. “So don’t even try to blame it on them.” She took her hands out of the water and began to dry them with a white towel dotted with tiny blue roses.

“No. For me,” I said, and the next part came to me suddenly like an unexpected taste, the way those flowers had. “They don’t like what I give them but they always come back, for me.”

“One day they’ll know better,” my mother said. Still looking only at my father, who kept his eyes on the water and our hands, she put the towel on my arm, as if I was just another thing in the house, and left us. 

My father took our hands out of the water and dried them. Then he unbuckled his belt and yanked it from his waist in a single pull. It cracked the air like the herder’s whip.