Animal: A Short Story


When he was, but a small ball of potential, she had imagined him to be be bright eyed, with green printed knees, muddy feet and a penchant for climbing trees. He had arrived, eyes seemingly too glassy and spherical to be human. He would sit in his high chair and watch her with an awareness and directness that unnerved her. His eyes always seemed too old. Sometimes she would forget he was in the room and be caught by his gaze, and would laugh off her unease.

She was elbow deep in misty dishwater, the bubbles long gone. She had never replaced the old washing up gloves after she had sliced the top of the index finger clean off. Her fingertips were crinkled, damp paper-mache swirls. Outside, she knew Hamish would be kneeling in the sodden path of grass, hidden from her sight by the yew hedge. She could see it from the window that the sink stood in front of. The dripping branches of the willow tree overshadowed the lower half of the garden. Having lost its leaves, its branches unnerved her, for they seemed to her more like yearning fingers than branches. Perhaps, she contemplated, she could suggest to her landlord that they have it chopped, so that the house could have more light in the afternoon. Hamish loved that yew tree. Before its leaves had fallen, he had hidden under its canopy, cocooning himself in the dim light and earthy scent.

Julie was a single mother, “which must be difficult”, everyone would say. She held herself with a tightness that conveyed to all who passed her, her unease with the world. A rigid back coupled with stiff arms that would press tight against her side. Julie, while pretty in her youth, was faded in middle age. Her hair, once a rich strawberry blonde, had been dyed to a crass copper which seemed at odds with her completion. Her lips permanently stained a dry mauve. She was proud of the fact that she was perfectly normal, thank you very much, and therefore, perfectly boring. She held a strict routine: wake up in time to make breakfast (own brand muesli with banana) for her and son, Hamish; drop him off at school and arrive at work at 7:45 sharp;  pick Hamish up at 4:30; to finally sink into the welcoming embrace of the sofa with a ready meal, bland and comforting.

Hamish’s father had died two years previous, and while she had never considered her son and her husband close, Hamish had progressed further and further away from the child she recognised since her husbands death. He was eight years old, and believed with the will of a religious fanatic, that he was part dog. It had begun with a love of animals at a very small age, which is nothing unusual. He had amassed a huge collection of plush toys by the age of five and used to line them up in neat rows in his bed, so that he was swaddled in fake dogs, cats and foxes as he slept. It reached the point where he had so many in his bed that he was pushed to the outer periphery. For years he had begged his parents for a dog, and would yearningly gaze at those he passed in the street.

Julie hated dogs, with their wet, dank breath and frantic eagerness to please. She had never quite understood the desire to have a dog in the house, or worst of all, in her bed. They were animals, meant to be out in the wild amongst other creatures, not in civilised homes.

She couldn’t even quite remember when his obsession had begun. How had she failed to notice her sons gradual change into a mute, who identified himself as a dog rather than human? What kind of mother was she?

Hamish had never been popular, true, but she had firmly believed that that was due to her own introverted influence. At school, his teachers would write in their clinical prose that “Hamish could work on his communication skills” and note that he was “very shy with the other children and staff.” She had taken it with a reluctant sense of pride, for in most other ways he resembled her little. He was a product of his father, despite his primary contribution being genetics. At times Hamish would look at her, and his expression was so repugnant,  she would feel nauseous at its striking similarity to her late husband’s.  It was a look of distain, thinly veiled. The slight curl to the lips, turned down, and eyes which flitted to the side. She had interrupted him once in the garden, doing god knows what, and he had looked up at her with this exact expression, so purely expressed, accompanied by a dark guttural growl in the back of his throat. She had gasped, pressing her fingers against her lips, and stumbled back into the house, so taken aback at this outburst of unabashed loathing. His father, when she pictured him in her minds eye, was wearing this expression. An almost comic grimace.

After his fathers death, Hamish had ben noticeably quiet, however, that was to be understood. He spent a most of his time alone in his room, and it became a place that she was strictly forbidden to enter.

She gave him space.

Thats what all the books said to do. At night she would hear voices she had presumed were cries – a strange choked howl. When he returned to school, she snuck into his room and was confronted by its transformation. He had removed his mattress from his bed frame and placed it on the floor. His room almost seemed like a nest, a warren he had constructed out of furniture and sticks. Taking more time to watch Hamish with more attention, she was struck by the frantic, manic quality of his eyes which seem to be more alert than usual. Once, when she thought he was asleep, she dared to set foot into his lair.  He had bitten her on the finger with his small crooked teeth so hard it had bled.

“Apologies for the noise”, she would write in her slanted hand, and post them through the narrow letter boxes of her neighbours. What had they thought, listening to Hamish’s howls? She pondered how long it would take until they received a complaint. When she and her late husband would have arguments so loud, it woke the neighbours up, and it would take always exactly one month until they complained. She imagined that they sat and counted down the days until they felt it was a legitimate complaint, discussing it in hushed voices in the street.

She had read all the books and online articles that seemed helpful for mothers whose children were behaving oddly. She took him to the doctors, and was told that he was a perfectly healthy boy, and that this was a phase that was unlikely to last more than a couple of months. It was now encroaching close to a year since she had first noticed  the signs, and more and more she had the sense that it was developing further rather than dwindling. It appeared, as the days progressed that Hamish was becoming more and more animal. She had taken him out of school two months prior, with approval by his school board and teacher, because of more than one incident where he had bitten another child. This was, naturally not sided by his other strange habits, and his silence.

It was the silence, she thought, that was the really unnerving thing about his change. Had he still spoken, he would appear a whole lot more human than he did now, a strange boy, wolf hybrid. It appeared that he had given up his human side with no hesitation, which she felt as a blow against herself. She watched him, in the corner of her eye as he played, and could tell that he was happy, more content than ever, in this new life. Without her, or the rest of humanity.

They had moved so many times, that their house always reeked of that un-lived in stench. She didn’t believe in clutter and so their walls were permanently bare, or embellished with generic prints that came with the house. On the mantlepiece, she would place the same two framed photographs. Sandwiched between the two, she would place a small figurine Hamish surprised her with the christmas his father had died. It was an angel, plain grey. It was misshapen but otherwise recognisable. She had no idea where he had managed to get it from.

One photograph was of Hamish as a young child, the second a group photograph of all three of them: mother, father, son. Their faces were fixed with bared teeth. It was taken in a forest she used to visit as a child. She had often thought about returning, and thinking about the last time she had visited, she was inspired to leave this prison of house she had built around herself. Calling Hamish from the garden, they piled into the car, and made their way through the sprawling red brick houses of the city to the pillowy fields of snow. Hamish stared out at the passing scenery, his fingers pressed agains the frosty window panes, hallows of condensation forming around his fingertips. The car was silent.

Winter had attributed both a beauty and a startling isolation to the forest. She had not visited it since that photograph had been taken. It was dense and labyrinthine, a hundred small paths that wove in and out of the trees. She had known the paths well, as a child, familiar with the best and most hidden nooks where she would hide out in. She remembered clearly the feeling of never wanting to leave this place, and once conjured a plan in which she would hide from her parents and live in a den up in the trees that fringed the lake. The lake was, she recollected, vast, smooth and almost perfectly oval. Would it have frozen over in the depths of winter? Would it be thick enough to walk on?

Almost as soon as they had entered the edge of the forest, Hamish set off into the brush. She could see the red knit wool of his hat darting between the ferns and trunks. The snow and ice that drenched and weighed down the foliage and undergrowth provided an almost placeless quality to the forest. Turning around of following the path led to the same backdrop. It was ridiculously easy to get lost in these woods she thought. Hamish at this point was completely out of sight, undoubtedly deep into the woods. It would be so easy, she thought, to leave. To follow her footsteps to the car and drive. She could see him, living in these woods, his hair matted, eyes frantic. 

When he was younger, she had taken him to the park near their home daily. They would sit and gaze out at the lake, feeding the ducks with strips of bread. She longed for the boy she had raised. Who was sure, quiet and introverted, but also insightful and warm. He had always been one of those children who never seemed to be childlike in his manner. She felt at times, a peeping tom, as she watched him while he slept. Looking into a world she wasn’t a part of, or given permission to observe. A yearning she felt in her bones. When he slept, she would sneak into his burrow and felt trace his face with her eyes. His expression no longer animalistic, but peaceful and familiar.

She had reached the point where she wasn’t quite sure what to do. She was not a woman who shared private details of her home life with others, let alone strangers. Her parents long passed before even Hamish’s birth. And she enjoyed solitude. Well, she had, but it had become maddening of late. She felt she hadn’t uttered a word in weeks.

Ignoring the tight restriction she felt in her chest, Julie tracked through the forest. After twenty minutes, she couldn’t tell you where on earth she was situated in regards to the road. She thought of Hamish, who hadn’t even taken a path but had meandered straight into the brush. 

The lake hadn’t changed since their last visit, the water a permanent dip in the land. Creeping closer to is banks she noticed a russet shape suspended on the other side of the lake. Other than the colour, she couldn’t make out what the shape might be. Thinking back to what Hamish had worn that afternoon, a balloon of fear expanded in her chest and dropped to her stomach. Her legs suddenly seemingly unable to move. The trees loomed close around the lake, and she felt, suddenly that they encroached closer upon her. The lake had partially frozen, but the ice was clearly no more than a few centimetres thick. She could see the bottom of the lake clearly, reeds and plants reaching up with yearning fingers. She stumbled around the lake’s circumference, towards the  crimson spill amongst the icy white. The sun had dipped below the tops of the trees and the snow had become a bruised blue in the shadow.

It was the corpse of a fox which was suspended in the ice. Its back, the only thing exposed, had been eaten away to reveal the spine, bare and white. What was underneath the ice was perfectly preserved. Each strand of fur frozen in motion, its russet tone blood bright beneath the ice.

Kneeling, she bent to touch the smooth bone of the spine, and recoiled at its slickness. 

She looked up to find Hamish at her shoulder, his eyes as alert as always, but they had lost that animal detachment. She became aware, suddenly that she was crying, her face wet with half frozen tears. And it was in that snowy plane that they clung to one another, mother and son.

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