by Lance Larsen
After learning the word mammal in first grade,
I threw it at whatever moved. Sometimes it stuck.
Mooing cow: mammal. Neighbor’s dog
named Trapeze, with one blue eye: mammal.
Bats hanging in barns like scrunched-up Buddhas:
mammals. Mammal didn’t stick to birds
(they had feathers). Not to fish (they had scales).
Not to snakes or dinosaurs whose blood ran cold.
Especially not to lobsters, with their creepy
exoskeletons, snapping their claws Like castanets.
My mom had a picture of me nursing away:
oh good, I was definitely a mammal. When I tried
to break up a cat fight, my scrawny Siamese
bit me on the face. I needed five stitches
and a tetanus shot. My dad didn’t drag
her out back with his .22. Didn’t drown her
in the lake. What a beautiful mammal he was.
And what a beautiful mammal I was to forgive.
Could a scorpion let go as I did, could a hive
of stinging bees? Mom was a believing mammal,
Dad was not. For him it was easier to snuggle
a hunting dog than wait for the Holy Ghost.
Only a stinky old dog has the breath of life,
he said, every second of every day. It would help,
Mom said, if you’d keep your doors open
And humble. My doors? my dad said, I don’t
want to be some shack for the Holy Ghost.
I want to be a giant cloud floating to the sea.
That’s when he gave up on church and started
saving mammals. As a doctor, he already
fixed people-mammals with their heart attacks
and overdoses. Now he sent money to save
whale mammals in Puget Sound. Some
mornings I was happy to be a mammal.
Some mornings I wanted to be something
easier, like a snake or dragonfly, or something
not even alive, like a bursting bottle rocket,
or an old sweater in a field soaking up sun,
hundreds of cricketing crickets underneath me.
Sometimes it worked best to walk to the widow’s
field, climb up on the fence and hug the biggest
mammal in the neighborhood. When you hug
a horse, its sweat and dirt and bad breath
and giant rolling eyes and fidgety ears rub off
on you and the glorious smell stays. You carry it
to school, carry it home, and you can make a little
church out of your hands and put your whole
nose inside that church and drink horse into your
starving body like a cat sipping rain from a leaf.