A year nine marine biology class is dissecting Northern Pacific Sea Stars, cloudy fish tanks windowing the classroom, that sour pickly smell. One girl whose hair is wet on the shoulders of her school dress is telling another about her thirty-year-old boyfriend. The second girl thinks: I am slicing my starfish wrong. The first girl met her boyfriend working at Dominos. Salty mess oozing flat and foamy onto the white chopping board, won’t open out stiff and suckery like everyone else’s. The second girl asks What do you talk about, and the first says, Well, he is having a really rough time right now, mentally, and, with drugs, sometimes we talk about my mum, what I’m doing at school—but seriously, what the fuck did you do to your sea star?
Age ten, tangled in a hammock playing Aslan caught in a net, a girl feels a sharp throbbing beneath her bladder. Afterwards, stretched out on the trellis table with her eyes closed and her hands tied above her head, (Aslan getting sacrificed) she wonders if she has a fever or if she needs to pee.
The night the baby is born, the parents drive to the hospital and their friend Mary stays with their two young children. Mary has curly brown hair, a big dimply smile and a huge tropical fish tank in her small, polished wood floor apartment. The children drink warm soy milk before bed. In the morning Mary’s face is drawn and puffy. She says, I’m so sorry. In the lower backyard she has found the two guinea pigs, Patch and Honey, unmarked, intact, still warm, dead. The baby comes home a scrunched up pink person and smelling like cleaning products. Everyone is very happy. Mary says that she didn’t hear anything overnight and someone says, maybe a dog got in and nosed open the latch, and someone else says, maybe we forgot to close it, and the eldest daughter says, but how did they die? Because there are no bite marks. Her mother says, guinea pigs die of fear all the time. And anyway, sometimes the universe takes a life in order to give a life. The daughter says, but it took two. The next day they perform the first of many Buddhist burial ceremonies as a family, which is just the Heart Sutra repeated three times with a little speech at the end about what a good guinea pig, rabbit, chicken, mouse, rat, pigeon or lorikeet the little body lying by their feet had been.
During sex, she often closes her eyes and imagines the same scenario: she is running through sharp, silver-green grass, holding a warm body in her mouth. Finishing, she hears a high-pitched whistle, looks down and finds whirring wheels where her paws should have been.
She is nine years old and goes out to the back yard to fetch her school hat off the line, maroon, limp-rimmed, the cord salty and worn from when she used to suck on it. On the ground by the rabbit enclosure is what she mistakes for a piece of raw meat but on closer inspection is a baby rabbit moving blindly away from its mother and brothers and sisters. Nobody knows how the rabbit got pregnant.
Two young women on a road trip around Tasmania on their winter break arrive at an Airbnb in Ellendale. Ellendale is famous for its icy roads and for housing sexual predators. They stay with a woman named Mandy who has a log fire, a dying, decadent garden and three goats in a little shed in the high paddock. Mandy is very excited to show the women her goats. They have only been on the property a few days, she explains. She got them for guests to enjoy. There is a mother and two children. They are meat-eating goats. The goats stand back in the corner of the shed, side-eye the door with orange slitted eyes. Carnivorous goats? asks one of the women, and Mandy laughs too loudly and for too long. That night the two women lie very close to each other beneath the stiff crocheted quilt and feel each other’s muscles go loose, tense, loose as Mandy watches late night re-runs of Home and Away and drinks white wine in the kitchen.
Her son comes into the living room for a glass of water late one night. He sees his mother lying on the couch asleep, still wearing her reading glasses, twitching in unison with the family dog dreaming splayed out on the carpet by her feet.
More and more, the chickens are beginning to remind her of people she knows. At first they were nice, these familiar encounters on blue frosty mornings. Lately they have become inconvenient. This morning Lucy, the brooding and mite-riddled bantam hen, reminds her of her Year Four class teacher. Claire, an old, weeping water-colour of a woman in her early thirties. Picking up wrappers from the AstroTurf on yard duty, readjusting a crocheted kidney warmer. A cup of chamomile goes cold on the counter as Lucy itches in her lap in the sun on the back step.
For show-and-tell the girl brings in a framed, yellowing photo of a chimpanzee in a white tulle dress, drinking tea at an outdoor dining table set for three. This is my great aunt, she tells the class. She was adopted, but she’s my real great aunt. People laugh. The teacher smiles. Others look down sitting silently with their legs tucked under them on the scratchy grey carpet. Careful, says the teacher, as they pass the photo around. At recess they play piggy in the middle and the girl with a chimpanzee for an aunt is in the middle until her face goes pink and she can’t breathe and she cries.
On the morning after their third date he tells her about his grandmother’s dog whose eye was removed, only to be replaced by a sunken valley of very soft fur. I used to spend hours just stroking it with my finger, he says. It is neither the first nor the last time that he tells this story to someone whose feet are growing cold on the tiled kitchen floor.
There is a story that everyone in the school has heard but no one remembers telling. Muck-up day a few years ago, there were four pigs set loose in the main school building labelled 1, 2, 3 and 5. Walking the science wing at dusk, a girl sees the fourth pig hunched in the shadowy computer lab. Oh, she thinks, I get it now.
A woman combs her daughter’s hair for head lice. The daughter sits in lukewarm, toxic tea-tree bath water, and the mother sits on a grimy yellow stool. This stool has lived in the toilet since she read an article in a wellbeing and lifestyle magazine about the benefits of having your legs elevated during bowel movements. She is trying to show her daughter how to place the lice between the flat of two fingernails and press until you hear a little click. Ouch, says the daughter. She turns back to counting the floating bodies settling around her stomach and arms.
Abigail Fisher works, writes and gets her nose sunburned on the unceded land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. She edits nonfiction for Voiceworks and has previously been published in Voiceworks, Farrago and Kill Your Darlings.