Forget About The Animals
Constance Weatherbotham woke up wrapped in unfamiliar linens and screaming but thought little of it. Alone on her first night in the woods, it was only natural to be frightened.
And her husband Richard was dead. Drilling equipment through the temple. Mistakes happen.
And the baby curled up and expired in her stomach. Unfortunate, but not at all uncommon. A miscarriage hurts like a bad period. That it left her doubled over in the church pews during Richard’s funeral service seemed to Constance a mawkish detail, so she never mentions it. Her mother offered pain pills — she was always handing out pills and drinks and whatever else to make the pain go away — but Constance and her husband had made a vow of sobriety eight months earlier in anticipation of the pregnancy, and she wasn’t going to break it just because everyone around and inside of her was dying.
When the large white envelope from the artist’s colony came saying that they’d be delighted to have her stay for the coldest months of the year to work on her children’s illustrations in frigid isolation, she of course accepted, and that was that.
Constance stared at the white blank page and struggled to remember the shape of animals. Kids like animals, right? Something about their tails or the way they love unconditionally? It was normal for an artist to feel paralyzed with fear on their first day.
The colony sat on hundreds of acres in the forest, with twelve little houses besides her own, occupied by writers, musicians, painters and sculptors, all invited thanks to a generous grant by a charitable foundation for the arts. The other artists were loud and Constance was shy. On her third night in the dining hall a great composer was celebrating his 30th birthday, making him and Constance the same age. The staff brought out a cake, apologizing that they could only rustle together six or seven candles, and the composer blew them out with a lot of enthusiasm. The artists clanked glasses full of hot rum and bourbon. A few of them blew on instruments while the rest danced or teetered. Constance sat on the edge of a cold fireplace with her hands in her lap, waiting until she could leave. The people came up to her two at a time to say things like, “Live a little,” and, “One drink isn’t going to hurt you.”
“Are you kidding me?” Constance thought. She’d spread her legs on an operating table while the family doctor scraped the last of her child out of her uterus — a procedure usually done in hospital under full anesthesia — and Constance hadn’t taken so much as an aspirin. Now these silly artists thought she was going to drink whiskey in honor of some composer she hardly knew, it was absurd.
In the beginning, she saw deer everywhere and it was fine. On long walks through the woods or just standing around outside of her house, they were happy until they noticed her, and then they’d look up suddenly and terrified. She looked down or moved slowly, cooing that it was okay, trying to remind them that they were happy, well-fed deer in the woods and it was probably even more than okay for them. Nobody expected them to illustrate children’s books. In her dreams, she held their heads against paper to try and trace them. In real life they just stood there staring shell-shocked and terrified: full families of father, mother, and child.
Lunch came in a picnic basket delivered by a nice old man in a red parka. Constance had resolved to live healthily in the woods by exercising and eating little. She saw herself as a bird, pecking at the tips of bread and then quickly setting it down. To no one, she would say, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly take another bite.” She rolled up her sandwiches into softballs and hurled them off her back porch towards the frozen river. She put the bruised apples on the windowsill, day after day, where they marked time and judged her like little shrunken heads. They said, “Why aren’t you drawing any animals, Constance?” Constance felt herself growing thin and weak, but she never felt hungry or bad about it.
And it seemed like the kitchen staff weren’t wound up right. On her first night they’d had a salad, baked casserole and minted peas. It was nice. It reminded Constance of her grandmother. But things changed. The cooks started coming out of the kitchen singing, with colorful food piled high on silver trays. The artists laughed and cheered and pounded on the table. One night a roasted pig came out surrounded by figs and grapes, with the big red apple shoved in his mouth and everything. Where was the money coming from for all of this, Constance wondered. About the perilous situation regarding funding for the arts, she realized she must have been mistaken.
Sullen in the corner, Constance waited too long to get in line for the pig and the cook gave her the back-end piece with the curly tail still attached. “You don’t mind, Constance, do you?”
And she didn’t, actually. She just stared down at the tail without eating it, while the esteemed journalist to her right ate a swan shaped dessert; it was either white chocolate or butter. She washed the swan down with buckets of red wine. Constance thought she should at least pretend to eat something. She asked the journalist, “Can you pass the salt?”
“Constance Weatherbotham,” the journalist said. “That’s not a real name. That name is made up.”
With pork filled mouths and wine-stained teeth, the other artists laughed and laughed.
It was the dead of winter, now. Like Alaska almost, it seemed as though it never fully turned to day anymore, but the snow helped to keep things lit up and really what was there to see. The toilet in her little house made a gurgling sound, like a gaping mouth, alive and gasping for breath. Constance stared down into it and watched bubbles flitting to the surface. It was just a problem with the plumbing. She meant to tell the man who brought the picnic basket about it, but she could never catch him, and anyway it wasn’t in her nature to complain about something like the plumbing unless it really got out of hand.
Constance stared out the window at the frozen river and thought about Richard and the baby. The kid grew older, and Richard would hold their son on his lap — it had been a boy, she thought — and he would read her books aloud to him. Richard looked up at her from the rocking chair in her little house and winked. It sounds pleasant but his eyes were yellow like a wolf’s. They were all wrong. She was dehydrated maybe, not eating enough. Birds actually eat a lot, don’t they? She would be sure to eat everything in her picnic basket that day, but then it came, and whatever, she didn’t.
Next, a moth infestation. She’d come in from a walk and there were dozens of them, waiting patiently on the wall near the lamp for her. Her dentist used to keep moths and butterflies mounted in frames on the wall of his office, when she was young. All it takes is a needle through the wing to kill a moth, the dentist had told her. She’d been fascinated but thinking back it seemed like a pretty dark story. The Murdering Dentist, and Other Tales.
“Butterflies taste with their feet,” her Dentist said. “Isn’t that terrifying?”
As it got later, though, the heating vents hissed, the toilet’s belching grew worse and worse, the moths multiplied and now there was some new thing scurrying around in the chimney. Constance felt woozy and not quite hungry but maybe something like it. Had she read the bulletin right? She thought she remembered that next on the menu was roasted dolphin with shark fins, and here they all were, land-locked; it was absurd. Still, she decided to see if she couldn’t rifle through the dining hall for leftovers.
She found the place lit up and overflowing with party chatter. Constance peered into the hall through a window, where she saw the twelve other artists, plus the maintenance people and kitchen staff draped across the furniture and each other. A few of them were stacked naked in a pile on the table, unabashedly licking and sucking like a stack of pancakes feeding on itself. The composer played his violin in the corner while a woman who was there to write a novel about a plot to control the weather crouched in front of him on her knees. The rest of them danced around laughing, feeding each other fruit, gnawing on drumsticks and blowholes.
What was there to do? Constance went back to her stone hut. Deer froze like statues in their tracks as she passed them. The green moss growing up the side of her house had reached up to the roof somehow, even in the winter when plants are supposed to die off or at least go to fucking sleep for a second. Christ.
Inside, the moths fluttered and the room smelled like rotting fruit. How much time did she have left in these godforsaken woods, anyway? A sentence that looked something like “Think positive” popped into her brain, but she had no idea who wrote it or what it meant. Constance curled up in the corner of her bed with her back against the wall, so nothing could sneak up behind her. She sat with her eyes and ears open, as a sentinel, and waited.
And then it was all different. Constance heard the rhythmic beeping of a machine and looked over to find herself connected to it with wires, everything a mismatched shade of white. She wore a paper dress. She saw her mother sitting beside the bed like someone waiting for something to happen. “Oh, this,” Constance thought.
“Honey,” her mother said. “Oh my god, honey, my baby, we thought you would never wake up.”
Funny, because she didn’t remember going to sleep. Her mind started uncovering everything that had come before. She saw herself brushing dirt off of a tombstone and finding with horror the words WEATHERBOTHAM etched into the granite. What an arresting image she’d just invented. Illustrating children’s books, whose idea was that? She was in the wrong business. Constance felt good, in fact. It felt good to be out of the woods.
“They found you delirious and nearly dead in your room,” Her mother said.
“I want to start a new life,” Constance said. “I want to try again.”
Her mother started crying, and this seemed to Constance a little over the top.
“So the children’s book thing didn’t work out,” Constance said. “I still have the money from Richard’s accident. I’ll start over. Nursing, maybe. Forget about the animals, I want to help people. I was thinking I might want to take the money and go to nursing school.”
Her mother really started wailing now. It took her about an hour of carrying on before she was able to get it all out. The insurance wasn’t going to give up any money. Richard had been stark-raving drunk on the job and the company was absolved of any financial responsibility. A hurricane had swept through their apartment. The banks had failed again. Her father’s cancer had come back.
Constance tried to feel bad about what she was hearing, but the grief felt far away, like it was waiting in the lobby for her to get out of bed and walk over to meet it. She looked down at the tubes sticking neatly into her veins. There was her mother weeping and the soft, constant tick of the clock on the wall. “If I just lay still for a while,” Constance thought. “If I just wait here without moving forever.”