E came up with the brilliant idea of focusing our posts around our pets for the month of August. I love this not only because I love pets, but also I’ve been immersed in animism. Don’t know what that is? Animism (from Latin anima, “breath, spirit, life”) is the worldview that non-human entities—such as animals, plants, and inanimate objects—possess a spiritual essence.
And the reason I’m neck deep into it is I’m a hair-breath away from finishing my latest book, Menagerie. It’s the story of seventeen-year old Lizbet Woods who has spent her life cloistered on an island in the Puget Sound with her mom and a menagerie of animals–some domesticated and some not. She talks to them, and they talk back. Sometimes this helps, but sometimes it hurts, too.
I hope to have it published sometime in September.
Animism (from Latin anima, “breath, spirit, life”) is the worldview that non-human entities—such as animals, plants, and inanimate objects—possess a spiritual essence.
From Declan’s Research
The birds heralded the storm, as they always did. They liked to be the bearers of scuttlebutt although, as Lizbet had learned long ago, not all birds were created equal, and some species were much more reliable than others. Not that they lied, very few creatures had the ability or cunning, but rather in their haste to be the first in the know, some blurted out misconceptions and half-truths.
Not that Lizbet had much familiarity with liars—or people, in general—but she’d read of several, as Rose, her mother, had accumulated an impressive library over the years. Not that Lizbet was in any position to know what was and was not impressive library-wise, or any otherwise, since Lizbet herself had never been off the island she and Rose called home.
The howling wind drowned out the calls of birds, and the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks. Opossum, skunks, and fox sought shelter in the forest’s thickets. Rats and mice scurried to find hidey-holes. Lizbet fetched an armful of wood from the shed to stoke the fire while her mother gathered candles.
Wind rustled the tarp protecting the woodpile. The pine trees, used to standing straight and tall, moaned as the wind whipped through their canopy, and bent them in directions they didn’t wish to go.
“A man approaches,” Wordsworth whined, terror tainting his words.
Lizbet looked over the German Shepherd’s furry head to the storm-tossed sea. The Sound, normally a tranquil gray-blue slate, roiled as if shaken by an invisible hand. Lizbet couldn’t see anyone, but her heart quickened. “Are you sure?” She saw nothing but a curtain of rain, an angry sky, and churning tide. The gulls, who generally swooped above the bay, had wisely found shelter. The otters, too, had disappeared, and for once the noisy, boisterous sea lions, were silent.
The dog nodded. “He’s lost, but hopeful.”
“Hopeful? Of what?”
Wordsworth shook his head. His ears flattened and his tail drooped when another flash of lightening lit the sky. He cowered as the thunder boomed.
“Come,” Lizbet said, “let’s go inside. Only an idiot would be out on the water today.”
“He’s no longer on the water,” Wordsworth whined. “His boat has landed.”
Lizbet peered into the storm, saw nothing more than before, added another log to her collection. Their cottage was made of stone, but the adjacent shed which housed the woodpile, gardening tools, and bird seed, was constructed of recycled wood. Wind blew through the slats and rattled the shake roof. The cottage would be warm and dry in a way that the shed never could.
Wordsworth whimpered again. Lizbet knew he longed for the comforts of the house as much as she did, but she also understood Wordsworth had an important job to do, and he would never back away from protecting her from strangers.
“There’s no one there,” Lizbet said, stomping toward the cottage. She climbed the steps and pulled open the Dutch door. The warm comforting scent of the crackling fire mingled with the aroma of ginger cookies.
Rose stood at a large pine table, stacking the cookies onto a plate. Lizbet stared at the amount, knowing that she and her mother would never be able to eat so many. Her mother was waif-thin with flyaway blond hair as insubstantial as her slender frame.
“There’s a man in the cove,” Lizbet said, wondering if her mother already knew, and if so, why she hadn’t warned her.
Rose kept her gaze focused on the cookies and blushed the color of her namesake. Rose was as fair as Lizbet was dark. We are as night and day, her mother would say, together, we are all we need.
“Are you expecting someone?” Lizbet demanded.
“No, not really, but I…” Rose’s voice trailed away.
Lizbet clomped through the kitchen to the living room, weaving through the stacks of books to the fireplace. She dropped her logs onto the hearth, placed her hands on her hips, and marched back into the kitchen. She hated surprises, but she was also curious.
“Who is this man?” Not Leonard, the postman—her mother would never blush for the potato-shaped letter carrier. Besides, Leonard would never venture to the island in a storm. He only came every other Tuesday. Today was Saturday.
“You don’t need to worry about him,” Rose said without meeting Lizbet’s eye.
“Why is he coming? Will he bring books?”
Rose laughed, but it sounded strange—strained and nervous. Lizbet decided that she already disliked this man. She plucked a cookie off the plate.
Rose looked up sharply, an expectant look on her face.
Lizbet studied her cookie, suddenly suspicious. Her mother studied and experimented with herbs and she’d taught Lizbet a variety of recipes. Lilies to lighten the mood, lavender to soothe worries, chamomile to bring sleep, basil to stimulate energy, and gingerroot to make one forget. Lizbet sniffed the cookie and touched it with her tongue.
Her mother watched.
Lizbet smiled, took a big bite and left the kitchen. In the privacy of her own room, she went to the window and pulled it open. A cold breeze flew in, ruffling the drapes, and blowing about the papers on her desk. Ignoring the wind, Lizbet stuck her head outside and spat the cookie out into the storm. She slammed the window closed.
“What are you doing?” Rose asked.
Lizbet started. She hadn’t heard her mother come in. Wrapping her arms around herself, Lizbet said, “I was looking for the man.”
Rose’s lips lifted into a smile. “Please, don’t worry about him. Here, I’ve brought you some tea.” She set down a steaming mug on Lizbet’s bedside table. “Gingerroot, your favorite.”
“Want to come and read by the fire?” Rose asked.
Lizbet glanced back at the storm on the other side of the window. An idea tickled in the back of her mind. “In a second,” she said. After plopping down on her bed, Lizbet sipped from the teacup, but she didn’t swallow. Instead, she let the tea warm her tongue.
Rose lifted her own mug to her lips and watched Lizbet.
Lizbet set the mug back down and met her mother’s gaze. After an awkward moment, Rose lifted her shoulder in a half-hearted shrug and headed down the hall.
Lizbet bounced from the bed, closed the door, and spat the tea back into the mug. She poured the entire cup down the toilet in the adjacent restroom, flushed, and climbed back onto her bed. She lay perfectly still, waiting for her mom to re-enter the room. She didn’t have to wait long.
A few moments later, her bedroom door creaked open. With her eyes firmly closed, Lizbet practiced her corpse pose and didn’t even flinch as she heard her mother steal into the room. Rose tucked a quilt around Lizbet’s shoulders before creeping back out and closing the door with a whisper click.
Lizbet peeked open an eye and met Wordsworth’s steady, brown-eyed gaze. “Who is he?”
“I don’t know,” the dog whimpered, “but he isn’t scared.”
“How can you tell?” Lizbet asked.
“The smell. All emotions have a smell.”
“My mom—what’s her smell?”
Wordsworth jumped up on the bed beside Lizbet and nestled against her. “She loves you.”
“I know. But I don’t know what that has to do with anything.”
Wordsworth whimpered again and snuggled closer. “You have to let me out so I can meet this man.”
“I can’t. If I do, she’ll know I’m awake. You’re on your own.”
Wordsworth blew out a breath, stood, shook himself, and jumped down. He went to the door to bark and whine. It didn’t do any good. Her mother ignored him, which told Lizbet two things. One: the potion Rose had given Lizbet must have been so strong that Rose didn’t worry about Wordsworth waking her. Two: Rose didn’t want to be interrupted.
Lizbet sat up as a thought assaulted her.
Wordsworth, as if reading her mind, jumped back up beside her and gazed into her eyes.
“This man is my father!” Lizbet blurted out.
“You cannot know this,” Wordsworth whimpered.
“She loves him enough to drug me just to spend time with him! Of course, he’s my father!”
Wordsworth moaned a disagreement.
Lizbet had a lot of questions—mostly because she was only twelve, but also because she lived a solitary life with her mother on an uninhabited island in the Puget Sound. She had faith that all of her questions would eventually be answered, but the biggest questions in her heart and mind all centered around her father.
Lizbet kicked off the quilt and crawled off the bed.
Wordsworth placed his nose against her thigh, stopping her. “There must be a good reason why your mother doesn’t want you to meet this man.”
“She never said she didn’t want me to meet him.”
Wordsworth snorted. “If she had wanted you to meet him, she wouldn’t have drugged you.”
Suddenly Lizbet hated her mother. “She can’t keep me from my own father.”
Wordsworth parked his butt against the door like a giant hairy roadblock. “You do not know he is your father.”
“Of course, he’s my father. Now move.” She grabbed Wordsworth’s collar to pull him away. His fur bunched up around his collar, but he wouldn’t budge.
Lizbet tried the doorknob, but since Wordsworth outweighed her by nearly fifty pounds the door wouldn’t open. Lizbet flounced to the window.
“Where are you going?” Wordsworth asked, his ears poking toward the ceiling.
“To meet my dad.” Lizbet threw open the window. The wind spat rain in her face and carried a breath of bone-chilling cold into the room.
Wordsworth stood, shook himself, but didn’t move away from the door.
Lizbet had one leg thrown over the sill, and her exposed foot was already soaking from the storm.
“You’ll look like a drowned cat if you go outside,” Wordsworth said.
She sent him a dirty look. He gazed back at her. She clambered out the window. The rain hit her like hundreds shards of ice. The cold stung her face and pierced her clothes. She ran around to the side of the house so she could look in the windows.
Inside, sitting side by side on the sofa amongst the towers of books, snuggled together in front of the fire was her mom and a man. Lizbet knew she’d never seen him before—not that she could remember, at least—but there was something in her that recognized him. She felt as drawn to him as a bird to a worm.
But as she watched him laughing with her mother, Lizbet had another realization. She knew that even if she introduced herself to this man, because of the cookies on the platter, in time, he would never remember her. She’d only be a vague recollection—a face he couldn’t place.
Lizbet never drank gingerroot tea again.
And the man returned, year after year.
“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
― Francis of Assisi
From Declan’s Research
FIVE YEARS LATER
In mid-April when the crocus began to lift their heads from the ground and the daffodils unfurled toward the bleak but not yet warm sun, a pod of gray whales splashed past the western side of the island. Lizbet loved this time of year when the plants and animals roused themselves from winter’s frozen grasp. The garden, still crusty with ice, yielded beneath Lizbet’s hoe as she worked the compost into the soil. Lizbet longed to be out in the dingy to hear of the whales’ southern adventures, but Rose kept her in the garden.
Lizbet slid her mother a glance. Beneath the enormous straw hat Rose always wore, a worry line etched between Rose’s eyebrows, and her lips pulled into a thin, straight line. Tension radiated from her, and Lizbet felt powerless against it.
Wordsworth sat at the garden’s edge, his ears pricked, his eyes vigilant, despite the cataracts clouding his vision. Tennyson perched in the branches of the maple tree, flicking his tail and complaining about the birds swooping around him.
“A man comes,” Wordsworth whimpered.
Lizbet braced against her hoe and glanced out at the tranquil bay. Wispy clouds trailed across the robin’s egg blue sky. She couldn’t see an approaching boat. “Is it him?” she asked, referring to her mother’s secret lover, the man she suspected of being her father. He had come many times over the years, always following an offering of her mother’s ginger root tea.
“John? No. Someone else.”
Lizbet resumed hoeing when she caught her mother’s gaze. She’d learned long ago that her mother couldn’t hear or understand the animals the way she did. At first, this bothered her. For years, she had believed her mother to be all knowing and all-powerful, but in time, Lizbet grew to love that she had an ability her mother not only didn’t share but also discounted as a childish whim akin to make-believe friends and monsters beneath the bed.
“The whales dislike him. His boat is loud and he’s disrupting their path.”
Lizbet frowned against the sun.
“Tired already?” Rose asked without looking up from her work.
“No, I thought I heard an engine.”
Rose’s head jerked over her shoulder and her spine stiffened. She cocked her head, listening.
Gulls cried out as they wheeled overhead. “A man, a man, a man.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Rose said slowly, resuming her hoeing.
It had been months since John had been to visit, and Lizbet had yet to understand why he came and went as infrequently as a summer storm.
“A large boat, yet manned alone,” Wordsworth said.
“Not quite,” Tennyson said, twitching his whiskers as he lounged in a nearby apple tree. The tree’s pinky blossoms offset his orange fur and Lizbet wondered if the cat knew this. He was so vain she thought he might. “He brings a creature.”
Creature was Tennyson’s word for dog.
Wordsworth’s ears pricked up. “I cannot smell him.”
“Nor I, but the Albatross spotted him,” Tennyson said. “He’s wolfish.”
Wordsworth began to pace along the garden’s edge.
Rose lifted her face to the sun. Lizbet saw the questions in her mother’s sapphire eyes, but she didn’t know the answers. She wasn’t even sure of the questions.
“There’s something I need to tell you, Pet,” Rose began. “Not just one thing, actually…” She paused and twisted lips. “Things I should have told you a long time ago.”
Lizbet, of course, knew that her mother had secrets. The many books she read told her that very few lived in isolation the way that she and her mother did. There had to be a world beyond the island, a place peopled with more than friendly postmen and the occasional visitor.
An engine roared. A big beautiful boat slid into the cove. Sunlight sparkled off its shiny chrome and glass. This boat was bigger than anything Lizbet had ever seen.
“How?” Rose whispered, dropping her hoe. “He’s found me.”
“Who is it, Mama?” Lizbet asked.
Rose quickly bent and retrieved her hoe, but this time she carried it like a weapon. “No questions, love. I need you to run and hide.”
“Hide? Where? Why?”
Rose shook her hoe at Lizbet. “I said no questions! Go to the woods. There’s the old shack where Daugherty brewed her ale, go there.” Rose sucked in a deep breath. “No one can trespass the woods,” she muttered beneath her breath.
Lizbet’s memories of Daugherty were vague, but she knew the shack. “But what about you?”
Rose gripped her hoe like a weapon. “I’ll join you soon. Now go.”
Lizbet picked up her shovel for no other reason than her mom had a hoe and ran into the woods. Wordsworth loped beside her.
“Who is he?” Lizbet asked the birds flying above her.
“A big man,” a swallow answered.
“A wolf creature,” a robin put in.
“Hide in my tree,” a squirrel called out as Lizbet ran past. “It’s hollow inside. He’ll never find you.”
“Thank you, but no,” Lizbet said, her pace slowing. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hide from this man and his large boat. A wicked part of her wanted him to find her and take her to the cities where people and buildings resided. She had only read of cars, trucks, and helicopters. Occasionally, an airplane would fly overhead, so she knew—sort of—what a plane looked like from a great distance. But all other vehicles were nothing more than figments of her imagination. She had a bicycle, a rusted contraption, but had never seen a motorcycle. There was so very much that she’d never seen, and this man, this stranger, may have seen everything. Maybe he could show her—introduce her to this word beyond the island. Her thoughts ticked over cities she’d like to visit: London, Paris, Rome, New York, and Sherwood Forest.
“This man is not your friend,” Wordsworth warned her.
A friend. Lizbet ached for a friend, but even as she did so, a wave of guilt washed over her because she knew her mother should be enough. Her mother worked hard to keep them safe, to provide food and warmth, to supply the books for Lizbet’s entertainment and education. Lizbet knew her mother had sacrificed her own life—a life with John —to keep Lizbet sheltered from the world and its evil men and cunning women.
But what if I don’t want to be sheltered? The thought was so astounding it halted her. Lizbet froze on the path to Daugherty’s shack.
Wordsworth pressed his nose to the back of her leg, urging her to go on.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” Liz thought.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” a friendly squirrel chattered.
“No!” Lizbet found her voice.
“Go! Go! Go!” The crows swooped around her.
“No! I don’t think so.”
“Not safe! Not safe! Not safe!” The crows contended.
Slowly, Lizbet began picking her way toward the shack because she knew and trusted the crows. They were much more clever than most of the animals and were almost never wrong. Although, unlike Wordsworth, they were self-serving.
“Why don’t you think it’s safe?” Lizbet asked the crows.
“A gun! A gun! A gun!” the birds responded.
“He has a gun?” Lizbet halted. She’d read about guns. They were mostly used and possessed by villains and soldiers, and as far as she knew, there weren’t any wars being waged on the island… which could only mean that this man meant them harm. “I have to warn my mom!”
“Go to Daugherty’s shack as your mom asked,” Wordsworth said. “I will protect your mom.”
Lizbet brushed past him, heading for her mother. Moments later, her knees buckled as a blinding pain slammed onto the top of her head.