my family likes to joke that i’m only “civilized” on account of my grandparents. they got me every summer when i was a child and every summer the first thing they’d do is cut the matts out of my hair. snip, snip. they’d leave the rest cause i’d wail and wail and wouldn’t let them cut it all off. my grandma wanted to buzz it all off, all off.
when i was a kid and i had to sit in school i would gnaw my fingers raw. i had this buzzing feeling that started in my toes and spread up to my fingers and the only way i could get it out was if i had my hands in some dirt or fur, but there is no dirt and no fur in a classroom. so i’d chew and chew and chew, except when my mom’s husband put dog **** on them to make me stop. he tried hitting me too but that didn’t work most times on account of i was used to it.
i knew hunger when i was a kid. we were friends. a doctor at age ten told my mom i was malnourished but he looked at me when he asked her if she knew what it meant. i wanted to say “it means i’m not smart, i’m not smart, i don’t know my multiplication tables” but she said yes sir i know. and when we got home her husband gave me a bag of potato chips and i ate them out in the ditch and that was all i ate that day. my friends say i eat fast.
inside meant bad things. inside meant there’s only four doors to go out of and one of them is in his bedroom and we don’t go there unless he tells us to go there, sit there, stay there. so there’s three doors and one is broken so that’s two doors. and two doors may as well be no doors, because when he tells me “get out” i go and when the locks hit behind me i’m off, like a rocket, like a dog. in the dirt and when i’m hungry i eat pinon nuts and sometimes if i’m brave i ask the neighbors. do you have a glass of milk?
he could read my mind but i couldn’t read his. so when he wanted me back inside he yelled and yelled and sometimes, when i’m alone, i admit to myself that i pretended i couldn’t hear him. when he walks he makes noise, the sand moves away from him and the grasses don’t like to touch him. so i see him and i hear him and i know he’s coming. i press myself into the dirt and the rocks but he can read my mind, he knows where i am. he is angry when he can’t find me right away and oh what a figure he makes, down there, in the valley, so angry. so angry.
i didn’t learn table manners because they were too hard. he said, elbows off the table. and if i wasn’t fast enough he’d move fast, like lightning, to put a fork in my skin. i stopped getting hit by that one when i was eight, quick to his tricks, but he was more clever than me and he had more tricks. like: chew with your mouth closed. if you don’t, i will come over there and i will take your hair in my hands and i will pull your head back and i will spit in your mouth. and you can spit it out but i won’t like that very much. so i chew with my mouth closed but sometimes i forget and i look up and back like i expect to see his hands there but they aren’t there. they won’t ever be there.
i liked to touch things with my hands, excepting a few things, but shiny things and smooth things and wet things like mud and sand and bricks. and cars, cause i didn’t see very many of them aside from the school bus and the old red car up on the hill. so when the dust settles and there’s a layer on his Honda CRV i put my hands on it and i feel it and i know it and it knows me. and it watches when he finds the handprints and he calls me, and he says, now put your hands here. and i put my hands on his thighs, and he takes out the fly swatter, and it watches when i cry even though i try hard not to.
i liked the wood. wood in the desert is different than wood anywhere else, and my favorite was the branches that made the fireplace in my secret hidden wooden house. trees made the roof and trees made the wall and trees made the fireplace. and two steps over the stone wall and there was my living room. and in my living room he would take his belt off and he would say, you know. you know. and i knew. and even though i knew i loved the wood on my fireplace because it was mine, and he had no idea. he had no idea that it was mine and not his and that it knew what he did and saw it and one day it was going to come to life and fire would spread and take me into a hug but him it would hate, like i hated him, with an animal sort of hate.
i was a cat, an animal, a wolf, a bear, a horse. i was all sorts of things. i was feral. and i knew this, knew what it meant and what it was, and it was finding a stray kitten under the hood of the car. and it forgave me for the handprints so it gave me a cat. a little black cat, and i loved her, and i said, mama can we keep her? and she said, i don’t know. let’s ask papa. and papa said: no. and so he took out the rifle and he shot it and he said, i’ll bury it by your hamster. and i said okay. okay. this is what happens to feral things.