An Essay by Molly Miller
AS A FARM kid, you are acutely aware of smells. And why wouldn’t you be? There is something psychologically affecting about the fact that every time someone is invited over to your house, they get out of their car and proclaim, “Smells like pigs!” And you know they really mean that it smells like shit. To them, the place where you learned to ride a bike, the place where your mom took care of you when you had pneumonia, the place where you had your first nightmare, smells like shit. And, yes, it does, but it is more nuanced than that. There is a sweet earthiness to the odor from feed that spilled out onto the gravel driveway, got rained on, and grew moldy. There is a freshness from pine shavings in the hen house. There is the stench of early decay from pigs that got sick and died and now lie by the doors of the barns, where your father dragged them. There is an eggy stink of sulfur from the well water. Maybe it’s all in your head, but sometimes you feel like you can even smell the dander that collects on your hands as you pet the barn cats.
Your mom tries to choke out the smell in the house with persistent laundering, candles that smell like baked goods, and grotesquely floral air fresheners. You are only eight so you can’t yet articulate the distinctions of the smells, but you wonder why she does this, because you don’t mind the smell. It’s the same one your dad has coming in the house after chores, sometimes carrying a baby pig for you to play with, a kitten that he found, or, once, a garter snake from the yard.
Today, it’s a blue plastic pitcher with a mouse inside.
“He fell into a feed bin and got stuck,” he tells you. “Do you want him?”
You have aspirations of becoming a veterinarian, or at least a person with lots of cats, so you nod delightedly.
Your mouse’s name is Cinnamon, and he lives in a glass jug with a yellow lid previously used to make sun tea. He eats pig feed from a ring box and gets water by licking a cotton ball that you soak in water twice a day. He usually sits inside the toilet paper tube that you supplied for him to hide in. He is getting used to your presence, and likes to come take Quaker oats out of your hand. You like listening to him nibble on feed and dig in the pine shavings when you lie in bed at night. After just a week, his fur becomes slick and shiny, and he thickens considerably, but you feel a little guilty. Cinnamon used to be free.
The bottom of the jug is lined with tiny droppings with pointed ends and the tube has been reduced to shreds, so you know it is time to clean Cinnamon’s home for the first time. You put him under an overturned laundry basket with slats smaller than his chubby brown body. You dump out the jug into the garbage and rinse it with hot water. You put in a new toilet paper roll, rewet the cotton ball, and refill the ring box. You notice that Cinnamon’s home is pretty tiny and make a mental note to ask your dad if you can get a better cage for him.
You peek under the laundry basket, a few oats in hand, ready to lure the mouse towards you. But he is not there. You look around your bedroom, under the bed, behind the dresser, in the closet, but Cinnamon has probably already made his way into the walls. By the time you stop looking, tears are streaming down your face. He is free now. But who will feed him? Who will give him wet cotton balls? Who will hand him peanuts? You run to your father out in the pig barns. Even though he is dusty and sweaty, he squats down and tightly squeezes you in his arms. You share with him your fears.
“Who’s gonna take care of him?”
“He took care of himself before,” your dad replies. “He can do it again.”
“What if he gets sad?”
“Why would he be sad?”
“He doesn’t have any friends now.”
“You’re still his friend.”
“But he doesn’t want to be my friend.”
“Molly,” your dad says with a sad smile. “Sometimes things want to be free so much, they don’t think about who they’re leaving behind.”
“Molly, how long have you and your mom been living in a shelter?” Your fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Madison asks you when everyone else has gone to recess.
You flinch, because your mom insists on calling it a “community.” You have heard the therapist you and your mom go to refer to it as a “battered women’s shelter,” which is particularly aggravating, because you and your mom are not battered. Your father has not attempted to batter anyone. But your mom insists that this is the only place they can stay for now, until she can afford a more permanent place. You could have stayed on the farm. The court case has not been finalized, but it’s looking like they’ll share custody of you. At least at the moment, you can live with whomever you want. But living somewhere that’s not the farm is exciting, so when your mom asked you to pack a suitcase, you did. And when she told you you could stay if you wanted to, you’d found yourself insisting. You don’t recall ever spending so much time with her before you became roommates in the shelter. You still feel guilty about leaving your dad behind, though. Sometimes you wish you hadn’t had a choice in where to stay. Being told what to do is so much easier, but you are considered less of a child and more capable of making decisions all the time.
“How did you know that?” you ask, feeling a bit relieved.
“Natasha told me.” Natasha is a quiet girl who loves SpongeBob more than anyone you’ve ever met. She’s your best friend this year because she doesn’t make fun of how uncoordinated you are in gym class, your status as teacher’s pet, or how all of your pants show your ankles.
“We’ve been there a couple of weeks. It’s okay,” you say honestly. It’s right across the street from the Y, so you get to swim with the other kids almost every day. You wear flip-flops in the shower, which makes you feel like you’re at summer camp. You even share a bunk-bed with your mom. She lets you sleep on top. It’s not great or anything. People are always shouting and crying in adjacent rooms. It has the warm, sour smell of lots of people living in the same place. And Pepper, the hamster you and your dad picked out not quite a year ago, has to stay at the YWCA main office next door. You visit him every day, but you miss hearing his wheel squeak at night. But you are eleven and already a committed people-pleaser, so you don’t want Mrs. Mathias to worry. “I’m just glad my parents aren’t fighting anymore.”
“I can imagine,” Mrs. Mathias says. She hands you a piece of paper, folded in half. “This is my home phone number. I want you to give it to your mom—her name’s Ingrid, right?—and tell her if she ever needs anything at all, she can let me know.” You thank her, unsurprised. People are so sympathetic towards your mom, but no one ever asks about your dad. Your therapist never wants to know about how much you miss him. She just wants to know about times where you sat on his lap, times he let you sleep in his bed after a nightmare. It’s humiliating because you know what she’s implying. You have been through the stranger danger classes, and you know that has never happened to you. And yet, your therapist continues to call your mom in “for a word” once she’s done with you, and you sit in the waiting room, glowing red, wondering what they could possibly be saying.
The thing you hate most about the women’s shelter—or community—is the chaos. There are always people arguing over what channel the TV should be on, volunteers bustling in with bags of donated clothes, and sometimes there are little girls in your bed playing with your stuffed animals. Your siblings are considerably older than you and are both in college, so you’re used to quiet, and having the big farm house mostly to yourself. Even when your parents would fight, you could retreat outside and enjoy the silence. But at the shelter, there is no such thing. After you give your mom Mrs. Madison’s note, she drives you back to the shelter in her red minivan. You don’t want to deal with the chaos today, so once you arrive you head straight to the main office, your mom hurrying behind you, still in her nurse’s scrubs. Your mom was never too fond of Pepper, or any rodent, really, but she’s been getting to know him better.
Your mom reads a Reader’s Digest as you watch Pepper roll around the office in his exercise ball. It is dark purple and you often wonder how much Pepper can actually see out of the thing. You imagine being in the ball yourself, trying not to lose your balance, going and going and going, finally able to just run in a straight line for a distance not allowed by your much-too-small Critter-Trail cage. You wonder if it hurts when he collides, hard, with walls and chair legs. But he never slows down. He turns to the side and runs blindly in another direction, trusting, for whatever reason, that he won’t get hurt again.
After Pepper died, you wanted a hamster to name Salt. You ended up choosing a cute little guy, white with a beige head and lower back. He lives in in a new, huge cage, because you begged your mother and she obliged. You spend a lot of time with Salt, even though you just turned thirteen, so you should be spending time with other girls, shopping at Hollister and watching MTV. But the truth is you would rather be by yourself, or with your dad. Well, maybe. It’s awkward sometimes, when he visits. You don’t always know what to talk about, and he doesn’t even know your friends, really. You spend a lot of time with Aimee, a beautiful girl with a mother who has let her get blonde highlights since she was twelve. You have fun with Aimee, acting out sexual fantasies with your Bratz dolls and getting in trouble for throwing pineapple at each other in your mother’s clean kitchen in the duplex you share. But you are starting to realize that things between you and Aimee are changing. She doesn’t sit with you at lunch anymore because she wants to sit with her boyfriend at the football players’ table. When other girls are around, she doesn’t laugh at your jokes. She won’t even share her lip gloss with you, even though she does with her new friends. Obviously, something is wrong.
You feel embarrassed around Aimee’s friends. They are very physical and punch each other’s boobs all the time. They have a strange, rough confidence you can’t relate to. You have started wearing makeup to compete with their beauty, but you are tall, bony, and awkward. It’s not the kind of thing that can be rectified by mascara. And Aimee knows you don’t quite fit. She is the prettiest of all of them, and she knows it. You can hear it in the way she laughs, aggressively loud, mouth open wide enough to see what you learned recently is the uvula.
So you mostly stay home with Salt. You have a tiny TV in your room, and you have to get up close to it to watch South Park at a low volume so your mom is none the wiser. You are there most of the time, doing exercises you hope will add bulk to your tiny frame, like squats and pushups.
One day, Aimee and two of her friends, Hailey and Leah, come over because your mom isn’t home. You tell yourself that you can be more likeable this time, and maybe they won’t tease you so much. Maybe you could be one of them. Salt is asleep and hates loud noises, so you encourage them to stay out your room. Aimee barges in anyway, and goes immediately to his cage. She shakes his food bowl so the food rattles, like she has seen you do, and Salt comes out of his wooden sleeping house and walks towards her hand. Aimee scoops him up.
“He is so cute!” Hailey exclaims. “My mom thinks they’re like rats, so she won’t let me get one.”
“Yeah, because they are,” says Leah. “Look at its balls. They’re the size of its face.” Aimee thrusts Salt towards Leah, and Leah backs away in disgust. Aimee laughs and shoves Salt in Leah’s face. Leah screams right when Salt is next to her, so he panics and bites Aimee to get free. She drops him, and Salt hits the carpeted floor with a soft thud. He seems okay, and begins to run under the bed until you catch his struggling body and place him gently back in his cage. Aimee, Hailey, and Leah stare at you, expecting you to do something. Like what? You don’t know. What do you do in this situation? You feel angry at them, but you mostly feel angry at yourself for letting these bitches—that’s the word you use in your head, bitches—handle your delicate, sweet little hamster. So you say meekly, “I think my mom’s gonna be home soon.” The girls take the hint and head out. You hear the door slam and wonder what it’s like to be like that, to care so little. Everything you feel is electric, a wave that passes through you and leaves you buzzing, and you can’t imagine anyone feeling differently. But they must. They might feel bad now but suspect their guilt will be forgotten when you see them in school tomorrow. But it was your fault. You could have said something. You would have stopped them if you cared just a little bit less about what they thought of you. Now, you watch Salt, sitting in the corner of his cage, frantically cleaning his fur. You offer him a yogurt chip but he doesn’t take it. You feel you have betrayed him.
You don’t see Salt for three days. At night you hear him drinking water, but he hardly touches his food. You hope he is just scared, but something tells you something is wrong with him. You let him be, feeling ashamed. When you finally see him emerge from his house, you shudder. His abdomen has swollen so much he looks like a furry white tennis ball. He has to waddle to climb the ramps in his cage to get to his water bottle. He moves slowly and gingerly. You yell for your mom, and she comes running.
“What happened to him?” she says.
“I… I dropped him,” you whimper.
“You did?” Your mom is skeptical already.
“I don’t know what to do,” you say.
Your mom searches through the phone book for a small animal vet. There is one in the next town over, so she calls them. They will see Salt as soon as you and your mom can get there. You put bedding from his cage in a shoe box and you climb in the van. You drive for thirty minutes until you pull into a strip mall with a tiny veterinary office next to a Mexican grocery store.
“Looks like he has some internal bleeding and some fluid buildup,” the vet says, a woman with the tips of her hair dyed purple. “I’d say the best thing you can do is euthanize him.” You feel undeserving of her sympathetic smile, so you look away, towards Salt.
“Yeah, let’s do that,” you say, no longer crying. Salt is in pain because of you. It won’t be because of you that he suffers any longer.
The vet first gives Salt anesthesia by attaching a cone used for the muzzles of large dogs to the end of the gas hose. She places the cone over Salt’s whole body. He walks around under the cone and places his paws on the plastic. He doesn’t seem scared, just confused. But soon he is asleep, and the vet uses the smallest syringe she has to euthanize him. When it is done you place his body back in the shoe box, the fleshy balloon of fluid in his stomach hanging loosely.
On the drive home, you are quiet. Your mom holds your hand. Finally, you say what is on your mind.
“Mom,” you say. “I don’t have any friends.” Your mom looks at you and smiles sadly. She strokes your arm.
“I don’t think this town is right for us,” she says.
The next day, your mom lets you stay home from school, even though you know you’re too old to be this sad about a hamster. But you don’t want to see anyone. You want to be alone. You wish you could hug your dad. You miss being on the farm and having animals to keep you company. Now you don’t even have Salt. You lie on the couch when your mom goes to work and wonder what makes you different from Aimee, Hailey, and Leah. Because they have something you don’t have. Or maybe you have something they don’t have. Either way, you are suddenly aware that no matter how hard you try, you could never be like them. You stare at the ceiling and realize that you’re okay with that.
From the time you got Daisy from a breeder in the next state over, there was something not quite right about her. Daisy is a degu, a social animal related to the chinchilla. Degus are supposed to be kept in pairs, but Daisy didn’t get along with any of the other degus. She sat in a cage in the pet store by herself so she wouldn’t fight. You admired her spunk and felt you could relate, so you bought her. It took her a long time to let you pet her, and she refused to be picked up. Now, you can finally hold your arm out to her and she’ll climb on you that way, but she hates being carried.
Meanwhile, you’ve started at a new school about fifteen miles away. It feels strange to think how close your old school is. You feel so far away. Your growth had slowed while it continued for other girls, so you were no longer quite so tall and gawky. This school is larger so there is more selection for friends, and you are surprised by how easy it has become to collect them. You don’t have a defined group of friends; rather you hover on the peripheries of several, and you gravitate towards a specific few people within these groups.
One of these friends is a girl two years older than you, whose name is Sheridan. Sheridan is lively and opinionated, and she encourages you to speak your mind. One day, you and Sheridan stand beside her locker during FFA week. The smell of the temporary mini-farm that’s been set up in the shop room has permeated every hallway. One of the farm kids, one who makes it a point to wear their work boots to school like shit-covered badges of honor, stops in the hallway near the three of you, breathes in deeply, and proclaims to no one in particular, “Smells like home!” to which Sheridan promptly replies, “Don’t you live on a tree farm?” He glares at her and walks away as you almost choke with laughter.
You get home that day before your mom does, as usual. You go to Daisy’s cage to take her out, but she won’t come near you. You scratch beneath her chin and she leans into it as usual, but the rest of her body doesn’t budge. You try to pick her up but she squeaks loudly. She pulls herself away with one side of her body. The other side is limp. You sit beside her cage and sob, horrified, and wait for your mom to get home, stroking Daisy’s fur, feeding her hay, and holding her water bottle close so she can drink from it. You get up to use the restroom, and when you come back, Daisy is sitting up, resting on her haunches clumsily, leaning to the right. She is cleaning her face with her right paw while the left one hangs loosely. You can’t take waiting for your mom anymore, so you call your dad. He tells your Daisy has probably had a stroke, and he asks if you want to take her to the vet. You reply that you do. When your dad arrives, he wraps you in a hug and you cry, hard.
“I just don’t want her to be in pain,” you say.
“I know,” he says. “But all you can do is be there for her.”
You are eighteen when Daisy dies. She was less active after her stroke, which actually made you and the rodent grow closer. On Saturday mornings you would lie on the couch and she would sleep in your cleavage while you avoided doing the chores your mother assigned you. She still never let you pick her up—she would squeak in panic every time you tried, and sometimes she would nip—but you could hold up her old plastic exercise ball to her in her cage and she would drag herself inside. Then you’d place the ball on your stomach and she’d drag herself back out. You hated seeing her struggle with mobility, but the vet had assured you the pain was minimal, so you decided to just accommodate your tiny creature the best you could.
Your mom is out in the garden, and you don’t tell her at first. She will be sad, too, but you just want a moment with Daisy alone. You flex the fingers on her left side, the ones that gave her trouble. When you had brought home Daisy, animals had been your closest friends. There is something different about the town you and your mom had moved to, and the new school. It’s something intangible: people laugh at your jokes and smile at you in the hallways. But there has also been a change in you: while you have kept close friends, you feel comfortable by yourself. Sometimes it’s to a fault: you flake on plans to read in bed, you fake being sick because interaction seems exhausting. But you are the person you like to be around best, and you don’t see much wrong with that.
You stroke her fur for a long time, and scratch beneath her chin. You close your eyes and pick up Daisy’s lifeless body. You feel the soft slickness of her fur, press gently to feel the delicate skeleton beneath. You set her back down in the cage and find a shoe box, and place in it a folded up t-shirt you don’t wear anymore. You pick her up again. Before you place her in the box, you bring her up to your face and inhale deeply. She smells the same way she has always smelled, but there’s something else there, too. It’s a familiar scent you can’t quite put your finger on.
Molly Miller is a rural Indiana transplant living in New Haven, CT, where she is an MFA candidate at Southern Connecticut State University. She enjoys writing about animals and, for some reason, their untimely deaths. She hopes to use her BA in English Education from Purdue University and her MFA to teach people to write real good.