A lion that has dined on a saint

“What kind of a place would Heaven be if a man had to ride up to the gate and leave his horse outside?…If there’s any other world after this one, it stands to reason it’ll be big enough to house all the animals this earth has known since time began to tick. They’ll all be there…the good ones and the bad…maybe even some of the other lions that ate the Christians in old Nero’s day. A lion that has dined on a saint must take on a bit of saintliness himself, wouldn’t you say, Amelia?”

—THE BEGUILED, Thomas P. Cullinan (A good book).

I. Sometimes, when I get to worrying about the darkness of future past and all that, I remember the time I passed up an interview for a job improving erotica for a gentleman who was his own author, publisher, and severest critic, but not his own editor, for that was one job too many. If I knew how to save voicemails I would still have his voicemail asking to meet me to discuss the position “at the Red Lobster, the one by the airport.” I ditched the interview and the opportunity because through my Researches I discovered a fact he had not disclosed in the original ad, which was: I would have had to copy edit erotic POETRY. This was only ten years ago but I was still a hot-blooded young Puritan then and I could not be decent to poems without feeling morally compromised. Now of course I am more broad-minded and I even know some poets socially.

and even at the time I was not without regrets and mixed emotions, as you see from this preserved contemporary email in which I shouted,

I am not going to FLY TO ST LOUIS THIS WEEKEND TO MEET A PORNOGRAPHER IN A RED LOBSTER.

although I have still never been to Red Lobster.

now here comes the shocking part: Ten years have passed, eleven maybe, and I have still never been to a Red Lobster! This was my one chance and I didn’t know it. The moral is grab your chances when you see them.

II. There isn’t much I envy my dead mother from her childhood except her short supply of good stories and her many animal friends, who came all to tragic farm ends. Marge was her cat, a barn cat and a boy. He was a good cat and worked hard. He was not short for Marjorie, he was just Marge: a good solid country name. One day he was hit by the milk truck and that was the end of him. My mother raised rabbits out in some hutch situation and what happened to them was not even an accident. And there was a cow! Here, I don’t know if there are any city children listening who are afraid to ask questions, so just in case, let me show you what are Cows. This is a photograph I took in 2014, just in the suburb near where I grew up, itself far from the rural expanses of my mother’s legendary childhood farming lifestyle. It happened I was out for a walk and someone had left a flock of cows on their front lawn for just anybody to see and take pictures of:

So those are cows. [1] My mother had one.

And my mother’s mother raised pigs and her father killed them. That is division of labor, which is what marriage means. They had some spaniels, I’ve seen them in pictures, and they must have been working dogs but I don’t know what their jobs were. Tractor driving or accounting maybe. And they had some number of sheep between eighty and one hundred, which they sheared and sent the wool away in bales for processing. Were the sheep let to live, once sheared? I never asked. Let’s say yes.

This number of sheep — eighty to one hundred — I wrote down years and years ago when on the phone trying to get some kind of harrowing Canandaigua Gothic story out of her, so it is a positive fact and I know it is right. The problem with most of what I know and like to repeat is that part of the game of being my mother’s daughter was never letting her know I was interested in hearing her stories or anything else she had to say. By the time she was dying I wouldn’t have minded anymore her knowing, but I also couldn’t ask her anything because she would have clearly seen me storing up knowledge for when she was dead: as I were a sneak-thief tip-toeing through the kitchen at night to steal out the good copper pots and the Dansk Variation IV flatware early, instead of waiting decently until such time as she needed them no more. So for a full year I discussed what she wanted to discuss and asked nothing ever, to keep clear of the dreadful crime of Anticipation. This was a catastrophic waste, as well as a real-life play of the Ant and the Grasshopper fable in which the wastrel is the virtuous one. But it was all done knowingly and on purpose. It wasn’t like I didn’t know it was my last chance to find things out, I didn’t forget it as the Grasshopper forgets to care that winter is coming, but I felt morally obliged to throw it away.

My mother projected such a powerful persona that most all of her friends and relations seemed to believe she was some kind of prehistoric matriarchal oölite carving with very few pain receptors and no fear of death. A staunch character. They weren’t all the way wrong; halfway through the death year I came in and found her sitting in bed reading Mary Roach’s STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers with her standard scientific interest in well-researched popular nonfiction, and her mood as much in order as it ever was. I could never do this and I’m not even ill. Her slightly more perceptive friends thought she was putting on a brave front for her children, pretending for us she didn’t know things were as bad as we all knew they were.

But I, who know all, and know that she was very much afraid to die, believe she was putting on a front for her children as a front for putting on a front for herself, and I believed it was my duty to help her in this just a little. She always knew what was going to happen, but I tried to provide her with just enough ambiguity to believe, if she wanted to, that although we also knew, we didn’t know she knew, and that she was allowing us to keep a final illusion: it made her feel wise, and like the protector still and not the protected. And you can’t tell me I was wrong and the whole double-reverse bluffing labyrinth was only in my own mind, because you weren’t there. And this is why all my stories about her past have strange lacunae in them that could have been filled in by one or two quick clarifying questions, but never were.

Back to the animals: They had goats, but only one or two. She once told me a popular game was to have one kid — human child I mean — get in a barrel, another kid rolls the barrel at the goat, and the goat butts the barrel with its horns and rolls it back, and you continue this game as long as the goat is willing. This was one of a number of episodes I used to worry I might be remembering from Laura Ingalls Wilder and not from my own mother, but no, it was hers. In the wintertime when the snow was packed down, she would get in a barrel and roll down the steepish barn ramp straight down the snowy hill. Better than a sled, she said.

At this point, these many years ago, I confronted her about my own childhood and asked why it had had sleds in it but no barrels, if barrels were so great? And she said it was because barrels are no good if you don’t have goats to roll them for you. I believed her about this, but why then, I thought, could she not have gotten us a goat as well? This is one of those questions you always regret not asking, and the moral is as I said before. If you have a mother you speak to, you had better ask her now why you never got a goat and a barrel for your sixth birthday. that’s of course unless you want to spend the rest of your life wondering.

[1] I have never touched a cow, but I long to. If you’re ever running for your life away from me, what you want to do is steer right into a field of cows, it’ll be like scattering a handful of barley in front of a Vampire who must stop and count the kernels. I will have to give each every cow a hug and ask its name, and by the time I accomplish that you’ll be far away, I’ll never catch you.

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