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Lauren du Plessis

Same Instincts

I tightrope along the kerb stones and finger the chestnuts in my pocket. No bones today. The sun hangs low in the cleft of the street, an angry peach, and burns my shoulders through my shirt. If I make it to the front door in three hundred steps, I’ll be pleased.

As I pass the gated house, which is six houses down from our terrace, a guttural sound interrupts count forty-eight. I glance over my shoulder but find nothing. There is another, a yowl. It must be Baby Green, the street’s latest arrival and all the adults can talk about. I don’t blame them: Baby Green is evolutionarily cute. Thousands of years of optimisation have seen to it. If babies weren’t cute, our species would be doomed. Humans are very preoccupied with their own survival. I keep walking.

Again. I decide it’s not Baby Green. Perhaps it’s a rabbit, wedged in the coils of a wire fence. Rabbits don’t normally venture this far into town, but I did catch one on Broadmoor Lane in June. Once all its body was gone, its jaw resembled a beak. I almost confused its skull with the crow’s.

The air blisters with sunset. I want to get home now, because Mum clingfilmed pizza in the fridge. But the thought of the rabbit, and how it’s going to suffer needlessly if it’s skewered with metal, draws me back on myself. It’s lucky that Mum and Dad do long hours even in summer. An empty house won’t know I’m late.

I turn and draw in a feeling of gratitude. None of my friends go out past dinnertime. I think it’s how I came to consider bigger things in life than homework or Pokémon. No offence to Pokémon, of course. It’s my favourite fictional taxonomy of creatures.

The cries peel like an alarm, urging me back to where the pavement opens wide as an adder’s mouth on thirteen winding stone steps, leading up to the next row in an endless growth of houses. Someone has chalked pink butterflies around them. I think of my butterflies, pierced gently in their cases.

It was two years ago that I began with them — butterflies, and other arthropods. Last year was birds. This year I finally felt ready for mammals. I’ve learned in my studies that mammals are all very alike. One squirrel, one rabbit, one rat and one dormouse all hold similar secrets, whether I trap them myself or scavenge for one of nature’s own sacrifices. Not much to distinguish animals from humans. That comforts me, makes me feel inevitable. My instincts belong to the same world they do.

The steps are framed on both sides by tall wooden slats. The sound is sharp and raw now, but moving. The creature isn’t trapped, only afraid. I creep up the steps, along the base of the left-hand fence, a suture between wood and stone, searching for a hole. When I find one haemorrhaging dandelions, I crouch and part the stalks to look through.

“Who’s there?” I ask in my softest inside voice. My acquaintance whimpers, then squeaks with curiosity. I call it again. We enter a conversation this way. As the grass rustles louder, I wonder what it will be and where it will fit.

Adding a new friend will take time. I rearranged my collection this morning. I’ve always done it by date of discovery, marked in sharpie on the mandible. But today, based on my growing awareness that everything is everything else, I made a bold decision. I fragmented the skeletons and rearranged them by bone size. From the bulkiest cranium to each humerus, scapula, tooth, all the way to the tiniest tail vertebrae (those I was able to dig out of the soil). It took hours, but now the flat, square box I keep under my wardrobe contains a Fibonacci spiral of precious remains. I sat with it for an hour, grinning, chest bursting. I felt like nature had brought us all together.

A finger touches my face. I gasp and scramble from the hole. My mind reframes the touch immediately: not a finger, a tiny paw. I recover my position quickly enough to see a long, black tail flash into the grass on the other side. Kitten. I push my face closer to the wood slats and coo apologies. Several minutes pass before a gaunt face emerges through the foliage.

“Hello little guy,” I say, closing my hand around the scruff of its neck and pulling it through the hole. I sit back on the warm concrete, and maneuver the kitten onto my lap. Legs splayed out, it wobbles from side to side, taking in my scent, before curling up. Bulbous topaz eyes and ridiculous ears that tell me it’s young (same tactics as Baby Green). There’s pollen in its whiskers. It’s quite thin. Maybe lost for a while.

Even so, this is a specific cat. I can feel the tag near the top of its shoulder. It’s not like when I take a crow or squirrel, because any crow could be any crow, and any squirrel could be any squirrel. This cat probably has a name. I lift it up so our eyes are level.

“I don’t know if you’re a good fit for what I do,” I tell it, standing slowly. I’ll take it home and figure out a plan. If it’s been missing a while, maybe its owner has given up. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they weren’t good owners. The kitten shuffles in my arms and throws back its head, restless.

“Shh,” I say, “You’re coming home with me.”

“Is she now?”

I turn, frowning, bothered from my thoughts. An old woman stands on the top step framed by ivy and drying wisteria. She is short and her hips sit out of alignment, making her lean. A faded pink dress hangs off her and she holds a walking stick, carved with shapes and headed with a crow’s face. Witch, my subconscious says, fed by a month of gaming after lights out. I square my shoulders.

“Is this your cat?” I hold the wriggling creature up so she can see. I’m happy to give it back. It would save me the stress, and I’d quite like to eat my pizza and watch The Simpsons at six.

“Yes! That’s my Nyx!”

She extends her cane to the next step. As if each bone is independent, she inches forwards then down, easing her body through the motion. I suppose I can’t just stand here, make an old woman walk all the way. I stride two steps at a time, relishing the burn in my thighs. It reminds me I am strong.

“Here,” I say.

Tucking the cane under her elbow, she places one hand under the kitten’s bottom, and the other underneath its front legs. It purrs with recognition.

“How long was it missing?”

“Three days,” she sighs, “I thought maybe — well, never mind.” Her nose wrinkles. “How did you find her?”

“I was playing outside and I heard her.”

“Well she’s very shy, so she must like you, to let you pick her up,” the woman says, holding the kitten up to her face, “Have you made a new friend, Nyxie?”

I sense that my part in this story is over and edge away, eager to resume my step count (five hundred should do it from here), when the old woman speaks again.

“You like animals. Let me give you something to say thank you.”

These are statements, not questions. She eyes me, impatient with my silence as if I were her misbehaving grandson. Then she hobbles up the steps, cawing for me to follow. I suddenly feel like a finch, about to stumble into the sort of trap I’d set. I wrench a branch from one of the overhanging bushes and hold it at my waist.

We cross the road, and walk through the rusted gate of number thirty-six, a crumbling bungalow painted lilac and overgrown with wildflowers. Dad complains about this house when we drive past. The bins in the driveway are full. The car has no wheels. I always assumed it was abandoned. On the peeling blue door, the knocker is a large, carved wasp head that makes me shiver. The old woman pushes the door open and tells me to wait in the hallway and put my stick down somewhere.

It is dark and acrid. I lean the branch against the doorframe, and look around. Elaborate burgundy wallpaper on the walls. Long corridors off to rooms I can’t see. And a dresser in one corner. An ancient thing on swirling feet with tall shelves. A large, mottled-grey cat sits on the largest shelf, surrounded by dried flowers in vases and weird trinkets. Puzzle boxes, agate, a chipped whisky glass, chess pieces, tiny porcelain animals. A collection, thoughtfully arranged, like my bones. I move closer, careful not to spook the cat. Its fur is wispy and I imagine it feels like clouds.

“Oh, he won’t hear you now.”

I spin and almost stumble against the wall. “You have another cat.”

“I did have another cat,” she nods from a doorway, “That’s Mister Smokes. I was a taxidermist before retirement, you see.”

I turn to look closer at the unblinking eyes and gold plaque at his feet, the eerie symmetry of his legs and stillness of his tail.

“Do you have other animals?” I ask, and I’m not sure if I mean alive or dead.

“No, no. I worked with museums, on rare species. They’d never let me keep a lion, more’s the pity!” she chuckles.

“Will you taxidermy Nyx when she dies?”

She looks down at the kitten, now slaloming round her legs.

“That’s a long way off, so I’m not sure. You have to find the balance for each creature I think: between respect and keeping their spirit alive. But oh my, what gloomy things to think about on a Monday evening. Take this and you’d better be off.”

She walks over, hiding something behind her back, and without thinking I extend my hands in a cup, where she places a ten pound note and a pair of binoculars. As I look from my gifts to her face, something snaps. Her voice turns caustic.

“I’ve seen you. And I’ve seen your traps. I think it’d do you well to watch, rather than butting in all the time.”

I go hot. My brutality has always been personal; I never intended to share it with anyone.

“What are you—”

“Your animals. I don’t mean to presume, but something tells me you don’t always let them go.”

I want to scream. I want to throw the binoculars back at her. Nobody ever put two and two together: to my parents, the smell of soil-bones was old football kit and the acid was lacquer for my model tanks.

“I didn’t know anyone saw me,” I say, because her eyes are narrowed, not angry but fierce with disappointment. I blink when she taps the binoculars and cackles, darkness breaking.

“People like us make good taxidermists. Or morticians. At least you’d be contributing to something, aye? For now I suggest you stick to watching Mother Nature do her best, and her worst, and stop getting in the middle of it.”

I clutch my rewards to my chest and walk away from her and Nyx’s smug face peeking from behind her shin. The street is empty, sun a sliver, everything cut in scarlet and orange. I count the steps all the way home as dusk crawls in, with my hands sweating around the binoculars. Six hundred and eighteen. My shoulders cramp and my back arches over, making myself small.

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