The Softest Fur
I didn’t think there would be tears at the petting zoo, but I guess I wasn’t really thinking. I mean, Jesse isn’t just a cat and dog person. She is a bug and flower and tree person—she is, like, just a life person. I found this out early on, when I’d just met her and we were walking and I was trying to make her think I was funny and smart but instead I’d absent-mindedly swung my foot, kicking through a clump of tall dandelions because I learned, when I was young, to like the thick pop of snapping stems that I felt through my shoe and in my foot. She had frozen, staring at me: “Why would you do that? You just killed those dandelions.”
And I realized I couldn’t really say why I liked the feeling, or that it was just a weed, and I made sure to stop doing that and also to stop running my fingers along each tree that I walked past, picking little chunks of bark off, crumbling them into dust in my fingers. Bad habits. So, obviously you can’t eat meat. And you don’t squash spiders. You relocate them.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of this stuff when I’d told her about the petting zoo where my class went in elementary school to see the peacocks and parrots and badgers, thinking this would just be fun, she will love it, how could you not?
I was still excited when we pulled up to the place--this kind of interconnected compound of tall, paint-flaking barns--but when we got inside, I started getting nervous, because this wasn’t exactly how I’d remembered it. And the stuff I hadn’t remembered about this place was starting to feel like really important stuff: the grease-smeared glass, the mouse holes between the cages. The emptiness. The weird quiet, punctuated by these short, high animal squeals.
I guess they got away with calling it a petting zoo because they had two loose goats. But I don’t know why you’d wanna pet them, really, even when they trotted up to you, which they did. One was huge and pregnant, its stomach thick and unevenly swollen, and the other one had this raw spot on the crown of its head that looked like some kind of dry sore. Jesse and I got pretty quiet after we saw them.
They were asking us for food, but when I went over to the coin-operated pellet dispenser it was empty. We should have left right then.
But we kept walking. We walked through the narrow corridors with thick-glass cages on either side, the first room filled with shining reptiles, coiled into brown bundles in corners, half-covered with sawdust, crickets floating in their water dishes.
“Holy cow, Jess. Look at these big dudes.” I pointed at the tarantulas in their cages, where they weren’t quite digging, but were flexing their front legs, real slow.
Jesse just chewed her nails, so we kept walking.
Next room was the parrots, these neon blues and yellows, hopping across their dead branches on sharp white claws and clicking their dark beaks. You could look into their yellow eyes and see them watching you back, which Jesse did for a long time.
It was easy to look at them when I was a kid. But it was hard now, and I wanted to walk fast and make it through this, just get on with mini-golfing and something we could laugh during.
Then, as soon as I saw the groundhog, I wanted to turn around, wanted to steer away, but I couldn’t think of anything fast enough, and then she saw him and walked slowly up to the glass.
It was just another cage, almost empty, the floor covered with straw except for the bare spots where you could see the concrete underneath. It was a big cage, all brown and gray, one stump near the glass, and in the middle of the stump this groundhog was sitting back on its haunches, staring out, his arms resting on his thick stomach, his swollen testicles dangling. He just sat, barely moving except for little lung-puffing breaths. It wasn’t like he was obviously sick, his fur wasn’t patchy or missing, no dark red glistening where he’d scratched himself raw, he wasn’t oozing anything, no wheezing or twitching.
He just looked so small. These wet, black eyes looking out at us, his claws slowly scratching his stomach.
I heard Jesse’s breathing change so I stepped up behind her, put my hand on the small of her back, ready to tell her how this animal wasn’t sad even though it looked like it and this was a good place for him. Ready to lie.
But she stopped me, saying, “I already know the arguments you have. Okay? About the trade-off, how he’s safe in here, there are no predators, and they take care of him, all of that.”
So we just looked.
Then she rubbed her cheek, turned away, “They could have at least given him someone else in there.”
We skipped the rest of the exhibits, skipped the fresh doughnuts, skipped mini-golf, as I tried in vain to think of a story that would make her laugh but I couldn’t, so, okay, we can just leave. We walked back through the barns in silence, crunching hay, ready for some fresh air, some cool wind, and a car ride away from here.
As we were making our way back to the entrance I heard a muffled bleating from the back corner of the first barn. At first I thought, okay. That’s just more animal sounds, no big deal. A few seconds later it was sharper, high cries, the sound of pain, and I told Jesse, “I think I need to just check this out or I am not going to feel good.”
She was chewing her lip again. “Yeah, this doesn’t sound right,” she said.
So we walked back through the corridors one more time, toward this sharp crying, past the glass cages one more time, and maybe it was just my agitation but it seemed like the other animals were getting worked up, too--the glistening snakes coiled and squirming, writhing deeper into their sawdust, the parrots snapping their heads up and down, digging sharp beaks into their wings, flashes of blue streaked feathers fluttering to the ground, and above it all this sharp animal crying. It sounded like the goats. I walked faster.
We made it back to the room with the big cage--the groundhog had moved up almost nose to the glass looking out with dark wet eyes, and I could see across the room in the dim corner there were two boys with their backs to us. They had cornered one of the goats. One of the kids was holding something sharp and metallic, and he was poking the goat with it, sharp jabs into the dark red sore on the top of its head as it flinched, cowered further into the corner, squealed, then sneezed as the kids laughed and poked again. I kicked dry hay walking quick.
“Hey, hey knock it off.” I stepped forward and the kid with the glinting hands turned toward me, sneered “fuck off” and laughed, but the other kid got quiet.
“Look, kid. Leave it alone. I’m serious.”
The goat was shivering, sneezing, and I was breathing fast as the kid sneered, twisted the metal in his hands, mimicked me: “Dude, I’m serious. Fuck. Off.” And then he turned back to the goat, his sharp metal twisting, reaching out again with hands to make this animal hurt and make this animal cry, and I moved in, my hands heavy on his shoulders, the weight of me on his thin t-shirt and the hardness of his skinny arms and cotton bones under my heaviness before he twisted hard, all tendons, his glinting metal slicing air--
I grabbed my hand, red with a new warm liquid ooze and hot with the sting of metal in the meat of my palm.
Eyes wide, the other kid sprinted for the door as this kid choked, backing away from me and my dripping palm, stuttering, “Fuck. You don’t fucking touch me man. Don’t fucking touch me.” He turned, ran as I bent over my hand and felt Jesse at my back breathing fast and asking,
“Oh God, are you okay?”
The kids were gone.
“Yeah, I think. It’s not that deep. I just gotta sit.”
The goat was quiet again, huddled and leaning soft against the other.
Jesse was still chewing her lip, “Oh, it’s bleeding bad. I’m going to find someone. They have to have someone here. Some kind of first aid.”
“Good. Thank you. Please.”
“I’ll be right back.”
She turned quick and was gone. I backed up to the glass wall and leaned heavy, my palm folded, the dark liquid oozing up between my fingers as I slid to the floor, rested my hand on my thigh, looking at the wetness pooling and dripping, feeling my hand’s heat floating out into the air and feeling a soft tug on my shirt at my waist. I turned to see.
It was the groundhog, nosing into me--he had somehow gotten out of his cage, was sniffing me, his dark nose twitching as he pawed against my waist, sniffing and nudging his head further into the folds of my shirt before he climbed up onto my lap, a thick warmth of heavy softness, his sharp claws in my jeans, circling, sniffing, and then he coiled, and lay down, curled in the smooth divot between my thighs.
I set my good hand down soft on him, his dark fur. He breathed heavy once, then closed his eyes. The goats sank into the hay with soft sighs, a few feet away from us, and I sat and bled lightly in the quiet warmth of these other broken animals, my hand resting on the groundhog, scratching gentle circles in fur that was so much softer than I’d thought it would be.
Travis Landhuis lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa where he teaches writing at the University of Northern Iowa and spends the rest of his time devouring good fiction and attempting to produce some. This is his first publication.