“What do you mean, you ate Melvin?”
Mrs. Wallace asked. It was the first day
of first grade, and we were
supposed to raise our hands and say
what we did over summer vacation.
I said I came home from Grandma’s
and found Melvin, my pet bull, wrapped up
in butcher paper in the deep freeze.
This was 1966, at “a nice little
parochial school,” as Daddy called it,
started in ’58 when private schools
popped up like mushrooms all over Virginia.
Tuition was subsidized if you were
white, so there should have been
all sorts there—at least all sorts
of white children. But no one I knew
ate their own livestock. Or smelled bad.
Or talked so much, Mrs. Wallace said
she never could hear her pins drop.
Every day she made me wash up
in the girl’s room and remove my red
tennis shoes before entering her classroom.
I tried to explain I only had one pair
of shoes, and I had to feed Minty, my calf,
from a nipple bucket before the sun rose.
Minty liked to play tag and suck my thumbs
and Minty was related to Melvin,
and Melvin and Minty both came from Merwin—
that was the name Mama called the semen
we kept in plastic straws in cold storage.
Mrs. Wallace wanted me to hush up,
but I had to tell her all the names
of Merwin’s calves: Minty, Malthusula,
Mickey, Mister, Midas, and Maude.
I spent days thinking up names with M—
that’s how we kept track of the bloodlines.
But I didn’t want her to think
all our cows were M-cows. We had
S-cows too, they were from Samson—
he was another canister of frozen sperm.
And his calves were Santa, Sassy and Sisyphus.
Mrs. Wallace said I needed to stop chattering on
about cows ‘cause she really did want to hear
a pin drop. And I should pay attention
to my alphabet and numbers. But I said
I already knew how to read and count. I told
her how I weighed 43 pounds but only after
I ate lunch, and I ate so much of Melvin,
my jaws ached. That’s how chewy he was.
Melvin wasn’t corn-fed like the steaks
at the A&P. Sometimes you just had to
spit him out and leave him on your plate.
Mrs. Wallace stood over my desk, one finger
pressed to her lips, “Are you ever going to stop?”
she asked. Before I could say, “Yes Ma’am,”
(you never could just say “yes” back then)
she sent me out into the hallway
“to practice being quiet again.”
I lay back on the cool linoleum
and waved my sock feet in the air
and wondered why it was Mrs. Wallace
wanted so badly to hear a pin drop.
The Last Sleep Artist
In the city of Laseille,* a girl was held captive in a large brown box.* No one knew her name, but her owner gave her birds for playmates—starlings who called her mon petit chou and filled her days with their murmurations. And a single Peacock who strutted around and around her feet, stopping only to preen itself in the floor length mirror.
No, this isn’t a story of an abused child. Or an angel who fell from the sky.* Like many girls who live in boxes, this one was a sleep artist.* There are whole symphonies of sleep, she discovered, and dreams can fill years—sometimes an entire childhood goes by before one opens her eyes. Her starlings dreamt with her, fluttering into the horizon like black stars, while the peacock guarded their sleep, squawking if a stranger came near.
One day, when the girl woke up, it was spring outside. And so quiet, her heart ached. Sunlight poured in a dust-lit stream through a hole in her box. She folded her dreams like handkerchiefs and tucked them in the drawer along with her nightgown that had come unraveled at the seams. The birds, she realized, had already flown away. Had her owner made them go? Was she next? Should she slip out unnoticed? She picked up the feathers left by her friends. This is loneliness, she thought, these feathers in my hands. She pressed them to her face like a mask so no one would know who she really was, before stepping out into the world.
- Laseille was once a hidden city off the southern coast of France, but it was blown away by a vicious Mistral on July 13th, 1993.
- The brown box, the girl explained years later, is a mere metaphor. “Don’t we all grow up in one kind of box or another?” she asked. It is unclear whether she was hiding or telling the truth.
- This might be a story of an abused angel after all. The girl, it turns out, like dreams, is an unreliable narrator.
- According to the DSM, sleep artists and dream interpreters became largely extinct when Edison invented the light bulb. The girl might be the last of her kind. Sleep artists are referred to in ancient Sanskrit and Biblical texts. Joseph of the Many Colored Coat in the Bible was the most renowned sleep artist in the land of Canaan in the second century B.C.
- According to the RSM, the Encyclopedia of Spiritual Reality, a text with unanimous acceptance among spiritual visionaries, the DSM is a tome of lies and misinformation.
- All sleep artists wear masks because the sun hurts their eyes, and of course, blinds them to the truth. And it is best for them to travel incognito. To have such a skill is to put one’s life at risk.